Les Miserables

I saw the latest film a few nights ago. I am ashamed to say that, while I had previously understood the story on a narrative level, I had never grokked the moral story underpinning the proceedings. (I had only seen the non-musical Neeson-Rush version and some PBS version.)

This is a story, at bottom, about mercy. It is about second chances – from God, and from others—and the human capacity for reinvention. Jean Valjean becomes a new man, but it is only through the tender mercies of another—the bishop who (to paraphrase) “bought his soul for God.” Valjean seeks to extend that grace to others, and therein lies the rest of the story and the driving force of his life.

Finally, there is one more theme that pulses through the film: the shared struggles of the human family. In sum, we need one another. The movie reminds us of the transforming power of love – “to love another person is to see the face of God,” as the musical’s most famous lyric puts it – and how that love is shared, passed on, woven into our lives through acts of tenderness, courage, sacrifice and mercy. “Will you join in our crusade?,” the revolutionaries sing at the barricades. They aren’t just asking us to take up arms against injustice; they are crying out for a revolution of another kind, one that takes a stand against indifference and cruelty and hate. The show has a message that is not far removed from the gospel — a message of abiding love, sacrifice, redemption, even resurrection. (The show’s producer Cameron Macintosh was raised Catholic; whether he realizes it or not, I suspect the story’s message connected with him in a profound and visceral way.)

6 things that struck me about “Les Miserables”, The Deacon’s Bench

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Wisdom from the Hogwarts Professor

Human beings know things in four ways — sense, opinion, science (deduction), and wisdom — hence every text of value, especially works of intentional artistry or divine inspiration, has traditionally been read at four levels rather than cricized eclusively at the surface narrative or moral layers. Rowling and Meyer are dismissed by deconstructive-happy and nominalist critics that don’t know how to read the way people have understood scripture and fiction from Homer and the rabbinic culture through Dante, Aquinas, and Spencer, through John Ruskin and Northrup Frye. Potter-mania and the Twi-hards are responses to texts that works as spiritual allegories and anagogical translucencies.

The Seven Keys to — the Hogwarts Professor?

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and you thought I read a lot into Twilight!

This analysis is completely delicious!

If we stop looking for meaning when we acknowledge the superficial Mary Sue story contained in Twilight, we will miss the particular twist that Meyer gives her version: the deeper spiritual transformation and apotheosis aspects, the God-Man Everyman Drama. It is not enough for Bella to be transformed into a god-like vampire with superpowers that enable her to stop a vampire war before it starts. That was merely a pit stop on the way to Bella’s true moment of glory: when she achieves complete unity with her mate for the first time.

Earlier in the book we read of Bella enjoying the delights of sexual intimacy with her husband, but this was not the union that the books moved towards, either. The climactic unity is essentially cerebral rather than sexual, a blending of minds between wife and husband. Breaking Dawn is not only a Hero’s Journey to god-like Mormon-ish Vampire, but also an apotheosis to exemplary Mormon Wife. If we are to interpret Meyer’s novel as a Mary Sue composition, it must be recognized that Meyer’s heroine has found only partial fulfillment firstly as inaugural vampire mother and secondly as supreme vampire shield-protector; but she finds complete fulfillment as a wife who is fully united, of one mind, with her husband.

Sharon Slade Jackson: The Final Meadow Scene of ‘Breaking Dawn 2? Departs From and Resonates With Last Book’s Ending

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The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 2: Breaking the Book

“The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 2″ is, unfortunately, the worst of the five films. Unfortunately primarily because its source material is the best of the four books. Overall, it suffers from the same faults as the previous four films, only more-so: namely that the filmmakers have, each time, taken a story onto which clear themes can be read, a story onto which a clear narrative structure can be imposed, entwined with that theme, and instead simply portrayed a series of events without any narrative or thematic arc.

I wish that the screenwriters and directors had taken a step back each time, decided what the theme of each story was, and built a movie around that. I think that you could make some really interesting — and meaningful — movies using the Twilight Saga as source material. Just off the top of my head: all-consuming love (“Twilight”), heartbreak and friendship and self-sacrifice in the context of both (“New Moon”), families of intent and intra-familial conflict (“Eclipse”), marriage and pregnancy (“Breaking Dawn: Part 1″), and self-sacrifice in the context of the family (“Breaking Dawn: Part 2″).

Adding to these failures, in TTS:BD:P2, is the fact that the filmmakers have changed nearly everything that I like about the source material, and only one of those changes was enjoyable, and even that one was ultimately a change for the worse. (Though it was completely surprising, so I will not spoil it beyond saying that the two young women sitting next to me spent the entire rest of the movie bawling loudly.)

To return to the purpose of this site, these changes were all for the worse because they undermined meaningful character developments and themes. Specifically:

  • Bella “wakes up” with only Edward in the room, rather than all of the Cullens. You would think that the Cullens would all be waiting to see if she woke up and wanting to immediately see her when she did; instead, they are all sitting around, playing with her baby, and while happy to see her do not seem all that relieved or excited. This undermines the familial love that the Cullens show for Bella in the book.
  • In the book, Carlisle had doped Bella up in hopes of preventing her from experiencing the excruciating pain of the transformation. It does not work, but Bella keeps this fact from Edward in order to keep him from feeling guilty for turning her. This is not present in the movie, which undermines Bella’s self-sactifice.
  • The Cullens do not seem particularly nervous the first time Bella holds her daughter. In the book they are scared that newborn Bella will not be able to resist feeding on her. Some lip-service is paid to this, but on the whole the Cullens do not look remotely on edge.
  • Edward does not calm their fears by telling them that Bella stopped herself from hunting the hiker (who, in the movie, is a climber — an excuse for Bella to rapidly climb a mountain by punching her finger-tips into the rock face, which does look cool, and with which I am fine). This undermines the theme, throughout all the books, of self-control and turning away from our innate, animalistic desires.
  • As a result of the above two changes, Jasper does not descend into a funk of self-doubt and depression. In the book, Jasper is shocked at Bella’s self-control and wonders if newborns are not, in fact, ravenous creatures lacking self-control, leading him to wonder if his own blood-thirsty rampages as a newborn were avoidable, and therefore if he is more culpable than he realized for his actions at the time. This undermines the theme of self-control and robs Jasper of some humanizing self-doubt.
  • We don’t really get a good idea of who each of the new vampires are. I mean, I know there are 20 of them, but they could have at least given us a little more character development for Lee Pace’s character, or the guy who lurks in the attic, or any of the nomads.
  • Rather than Bella hatching the plan to keep Renesme and Jacob safe with J. Jenkins’ help, Alice and Jasper have come up with the plan and left Bella simply to pick up the documents. While I like that this causes Bella even more self-doubt, because now she thinks that Alice has foreseen that neither she nor Edward will survive the coming confrontation, this is ultimately a net loss because it robs Bella of her agency. In the book, Bella took an assertive role, deciding to save her daughter. She kept her plan secret from everyone, sneaking about, and used Jasper’s criminal contact to create fake documents for her daughter and Jacob. Bella shows her motherly love by accepting that she and Edward may have to die in order to buy time to keep her daughter safe.
  • Edward expresses doubt, wondering if the cost is too high. On the eve of the battle, Edward wonders aloud if it is all worth it, if it is right that everyone may die simply because he fell in love with a human. This addition, not present in the book, could have been handled well, I think, but it was not. Instead it was short and perfunctory, and undermined the theme that family is worth fighting and dying for.
  • The battle. I have to be careful about discussing this one, because there are some major spoilers. I liked the way it deviates from the book; I do not like all of the things from the book that were left out. In the book, the final battle is the most exciting scene in the whole series. Bella comes into her own, using her power to protect her adopted family and to vex the Volturi. Bella has some delicious exchanges with Jane and others as they slowly realize that she has rendered the Volturi’s usual advantage moot. In the movie, Bella manages to protect people for a few seconds here and there, but is largely ineffective. She does not verbally smack Jane. Edward has no dawning awareness of how powerful she has become (because, in the movie, she has not). This severaly diminishes the character of Bella in that it robs her of her outward power.

There were probably other changes for the worse, but those are the ones that stick out for me, nine hours later.

Oh, and the CGI baby (and, later, CGI face on the daughter) was really creepy and unnecessary.

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apropos of my rap post the other day

Both sets of artists showed lower activity in part of their frontal lobes called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex during improvisation, and increased activity in another area, called the medial prefrontal cortex. The areas that were found to be ‘deactivated’ are associated with regulating other brain functions.

“We think what we see is a relaxation of ‘executive functions’ to allow more natural de-focused attention and uncensored processes to occur that might be the hallmark of creativity,” says Braun.

Brain Scans of Rappers Shed Light on Creativity

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contrasting view on Katniss Everdeen

Some are frustrated with how Katniss seems to remain a pawn of others throughout, never making any true decisions of her own, not even the decision of whom to love. Moreover, some would argue, she never really rises above the selfishness of a survival mentality. While I would agree that Katniss largely responds to the circumstances around her, I don’t see a problem with that: there’s no way in this life to completely escape complicity with the games of others. The best Katniss can do is to choose what kind of game to play, and who to play it with.

– from “Mockingjay’s Hermeneutics of Suffering“, Christ and Pop Culture

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In Praise of T.I.

I’m going to assume that I don’t need to first convince you of the value and artistry of rap music. Not every example of it, obviously, but of the genre itself. It prizes verbal wordplay, which rewards a quick wit, an elastic mind that can transition between disparate things, and a large vocabulary.

I am by no means a connoisseur of rap. I like to contemplate the lyrics and appreciate the cleverness when it comes on the radio, though. For a while now I have been impressed with the maturity and wisdom demonstrated by several of the hits off of T.I.’s sixth studio album, Paper Trail.

This post is a stub. Short notes for a more complete, more detailed post I hope to one day write.

In “Live Your Life”, T.I. opens by talking about how the haters show him less respect that he feels that he deserves, saying:

Never mind what haters say, ignore them ’til they fade away.

I never been a hater still I love them, In a crazy way.

I brought back to the hood and all you ever did was take away.
I pray for patience but they make me wanna melt their face away.

How many rappers talk about praying for patience while admitting that the haters get to them? How many rappers admit to loving the haters, albeit in “a crazy way”?

T.I’s next, and final, verse is:

I got love for the game but -hey- I’m not in love with all of it.
I do without the fame and the rappers nowadays are comedy.
The hootin’ and the hollerin’, back and forth with the arguing.
Where you from, who you know, what you make and what kind of car you in.
Seems as though you lost sight of what’s important with the positive.
And checks into your bank account and you up out of poverty.
Your values are in disarray, prioritizing horribly.
Unhappy with the riches cause you’re piss poor morally.
Ignoring all prior advice and forewarning.
And we mighty full of ourselves all of a sudden aren’t we?

It’s one thing to reject the stereotypical rap life of arguing over whether you’re from or your friends, or bragging about how much money you have and what kind of car you drive — not enough rappers show that sort of self-examination, but several do. What is more unique is that T.I. chastises other rappers for forgetting about how good they have it to have escaped poverty, for concentrating on “beefs” rather than all of the positive things in their lives. And what is, as far as I know, entirely unique to T.I., is his pinpointing of the problem: that their values are in disarray and their unhappiness, despite their success, is not due to their failure to appreciate those positives so much as due to their poor morals. When he talks about “the positive” and “prioritizing”, he’s not calling them to have more appreciation for their money and their cars, but to prioritize the moral above the material.

What is peculiar is that the song features Rihanna, and that her chorus is completely at odds with T.I.’s versus. Rihanna opens the song, singing:

You’re gonna be a shining star, with fancy clothes, fancy car-ars.

You steady chasing that paper.
Just live your life (Oh!), ay ay ay.
Ain’t got no time for no haters.

Cause I’m a paper chaser.

So Rihanna sings about having fancy clothes and fancy cars and making money, while T.I. sings that those things are not important. T.I. sings about loving his haters and being affected by them, while Rihanna has “no time for no haters”.

Rihanna continues in this vein to close out the song:

I got my mind on my money and I not goin’ away, ay.
So keep on gettin’ your paper keep on climbin’.
Lookin in the mirror and keep on shinin’.
Til’ the game ends, til’ the clock stops.
We gonna post up on the top spot.

So live your life.

I don’t understand what this chorus is doing in T.I.’s song. Is it ironic? Is it an intentional contrast? Is T.I. trying to have it both way?

(T.I.’s last official single on that album, “Dead and Gone”, has a great message too, but IMHO requires less exploration.)

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Barbara Nicolosi on “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”

Barbara Nicolosi, and her blog, Church of the Masses, is one of the reasons why I started the current iteration of this site. Her writings on pointing to God by creating art in pop culture are amazing, and her reviews of shows and movies often give me deeper insights and/or help me to better put into words nagging feelings that I already had.

Today, she reviewed “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”. The book on which the film is based was very popular among one circle of my friends a decade ago. I have read it several times, and liked it less each time. The choices of the main characters seem foolish. The namechecking of books, bands, and movies feels like a forced attempt to seem cool. And the ending is ultimately …ugly. Eventually I swore off re-reading it for fear that I might come to hate it.

The delightful Barb Nicolosi has similar feelings about the movie, which was written and directed by the book’s author. From her review:

Rated PG-13 for drug use, homosexuality, sexual abuse, bullying, suicide, and every other depressing thing you could throw in a movie about teenagers.

Somebody has to say – for the record – while certainly well-intentioned, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is fundamentally perverse in the premise of the main character’s arc of transformation.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower proposes that the way to find healing from one kind of childhood sexual abuse, is to experience another kind of childhood sexual abuse. There it is. A lie. Particularly twisted because the second act of sexual abuse is couched as a loving self-donation of the older, more sexually experienced character for a young boy.

As one of my students protested to me, “When Sam takes Charlie to bed, she is doing it as an act of love! It wasn’t rape!” To which I replied, “Charlie was just fifteen, still mostly inexperienced and a freshman. Sam was a sexually experienced Senior. And if there is anything we all have learned this past Fall it’s that ‘rape is rape.’ Right?” I went on to say that in the movie, that Sam was a victim herself doesn’t change the nature of her actions. She’s a young victim who, in failing to make a more heroic choice, victimizes another child.

The whole review is great, and the ending is great — I won’t spoil it. Read the rest of her review at her site!

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Wreck-It Ralph Overcomes Being Born That Way

I just got back from seeing Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph”. It was excellent; not just fun but moving and meaningful. I think that Disney buying Pixar and putting John Lasseter in charge of all animation may have been the best thing to happen to it in a long time; it has brought increased levels of heart and sincerity to Disney’s animated films, and none more so thus far than “Wreck-It Ralph”.

I’m sure that I’ll have more, and more specific, thoughts on “Wreck-It Ralph” as I continue to mull it over, and after re-watching it on DVD a few times, but even at this early stage I have a (spoiler-free!) observation that I would like to raise:

In addition to the film’s positive themes of self-sacrifice, forgiveness, warning against envy, and making the best of your lot in life, one of the best, and more subversive, messages of the film is that just because you were “born that way” does not mean that you have to embrace your innate nature, that instead you do have agency and the ability to master yourself.

Ralph is the “bad guy” of the game “Fix-It Felix Jr.” He smashes the building, Felix fixes it, Ralph gets thrown off of the building into the mud, and Felix gets a medal and pie. While Felix gets to live in the high-rise apartment with the other game characters, Ralph sleeps in a dump alone. Ralph watches the other game characters having fun together and feels lonely and envious. As he tells his Bad Guy Anonymous support group, he wishes that he could stop being a “bad guy”. They react in horror to this thought and explain to him that a “bad guy” is what he is, that he cannot change that, but that it does not make him a bad person.

The first two parts of this is repeated several times through the film; the last third is what Ralph will finally take to heart in the end. Ralph is told that he is a “bad guy”, that he has no choice but to be a “bad guy” because that is the way he is coded. In short, that he is and will always be a “bad guy” because he was born that way.

It is currently in vogue in our culture, as epitomized in Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”, to assert that we are each born a certain way and that we cannot change ourselves, but rather must embrace that innate nature in order to be fabulous and happy. While I am all for the message that we should love ourselves and embrace diversity, I think that it is very dangerous and damaging to preclude the possibility that we might try to improve ourselves or use our reason to master our baser instincts in order to turn away from disordered behaviors. After all, taken to its extremes, isn’t a narcissist “born that way”? Isn’t a psychopath “born that way”? If we exalt the way we were born, why should any of us strive for self-improvement?

Ralph was “born that way”, in that he was coded to be the villain. Ralph wishes to change himself and his lot and, ultimately, does so. Ralph comes to realize that he has a responsibility to his game, that he has a job to do, and that he can find joy in doing that job, but that his job (the role he was “born” to fill) does not define him, that who he is exists separately. He does not need to be a bad person in life; he can choose to control himself, to reign in his baser instincts, in order to be the better person he longs to be.

That we are all capable of mastering our base instincts should not be a subversive message, but in our current culture the idea that we have agency and can choose whether to embrace, or shun, our innate inclinations is radical. “Wreck-It Ralph” is wonderful, among other reasons, because it shows us that we can find joy and fulfillment through continuing to work within our lot in life while choosing to be the person we want to be in spite of the hand we were dealt.

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“30 Days of Night” and the Hopelessness of a Life Devoid of God

30 Days of Night teaser poster

30 Days of Night is a 2007 horror film. On one level it is the horrific story of an isolated Alaskan town besieged by vampires during a month-long darkness; on another level it is a sad story of a man, emotionally isolated from those around him, besieged by despair during a period of depression, and a testament to the hopelessness of life without God.

Vampire films are often ripe for religious interpretation. Vampirism is a twisted reflection, or cruel mockery, of salvation. Just as drinking the blood of Christ in the Eucharistic meal grants eternal life, so too does the vampire live immortal by consuming blood. Just as our eternal, heavenly bodies will be perfect, the vampire is often portrayed as stronger, faster, and more beautiful than mortals.

Vampirism is a flawed, deviant form, though, anti-salvation rather than salvation, a curse rather than a blessing. Its inferiority is evident in the vampires’ weaknesses. A vampire recoils at the sight of the crucifix, and may be burned by its touch. A vampire may be burned or killed by exposure to sunlight, sun symbolizing God’s love and sun rises symbolizing the resurrection. A vampire may be killed with a wooden stake to the heart which, and I acknowledge that this may seem a stretch, I have always thought called to mind the wood of the cross.

In “30 Days of Night”, Eben is a man who has lost hope and given up. He and his wife are splitting up, and, though he clearly still loves her, he is not making an attempt at winning her back. He cannot see a way through his despair. He has no faith and no hope for salvation.

The vampires who attack the town are likewise hopeless. The lead vampire is named Marlow, calling to mind famous English playwright Christopher Marlowe, atheist and author of “Doctor Faustus”, in which a man trades his soul to a devil in return for power and thereafter is oblivious to the possibility of salvation, offered him by the good angel. The vampires’ separation from God is plainly stated in an early scene, using in the trailer, in which Marlow attacks a young woman, Kirsten.

Kirsten Toomey: [crying] Please, God…
Marlow: [speaking in vampire language] God?
[Marlow looks around, and then after a long pause he stares into Kirsten's eyes]
Marlow: [coldly, in English] No god.

Kirsten appeals to God, and Marlow shakes his head, almost sadly in my reading, and says that there is no God. In this film, vampirism is a metaphor for atheism.

Belying the emptiness of life without God, Marlow also announces to his victims:

Marlow: [speaking in vampire language] There is no escape. No hope. Only hunger and pain.

For Marlow, and for all of the vampires, there is no escape. They cannot die naturally, they can only trudge along in empty lives of hunger and pain. Marlow has no belief in God, no hope for salvation. The vampires demonstrate the ultimate end to which Eben’s current path leads.

In the climactic scene, Eben searches for a way to save the remaining townspeople. Like Dr. Faustus, Eben is presented with a choice, and like Dr. Faustus his despair blinds him to any possibility but damnation. Rather than save himself and the townspeople, Eben sacrifices himself, in a twisted reflection Christ’s sacrifice, embracing vampirism and becoming a vampire in order to use the vampiric strength to defeat Marlow. And, once he has done so and saved what is left of the town, Eben, still lacking hope and seeing no alternative, watches the sun rise with his estranged wife, committing suicide.

“30 days of Night” is a horrific, gory, tragic story of the hopelessness of life without God, a life in which “There is no escape. No hope. Only hunger and pain.

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