Category Archives: Culture

The Arrival of Love

arrival-posterI joked with Ellen that I wished Hollywood could learn to space out movies as I’ve gone a year with going to the theatre, but there are five that are tempting now. I enjoy movies, but films promising enough to get me to go to the theatre are few. There are a couple a year that I would see, but they don’t make the multiplex. I’d have to go to The Little (the local art film place) on the specific day they are shown. Easier to pre-order the DVD, and most of these don’t depend upon a huge screen anyway. There are the big budget spectaculars like Doctor Strange. The huge screen would be a plus, but going to those would have to be a family thing and dropping $50 plus snacks (if I actually want to watch it instead of listening to the whining about no snacks) on Doctor Strange just isn’t appealing. Again, wait for the DVD. Those are some of the economic reasons that “films for Mark” don’t get made. That, and the fact that “films for Mark”, once you screen out the completely mindless CGI extravaganzas which are just cool, tend to cause thinking. Thinking is an activity most people don’t enjoy, especially mixed in their entertainment. All of that is what makes Arrival such a unique film. It slips though all of those problems and still works on many levels.

The basic premise is all there in the title – Arrival. Aliens arrive on planet earth, and simplistically the plot is about how we collectively react. Close Encounters and Contact are closest to that simple plot, but Arrival, regardless of its containing aliens, isn’t really about the aliens. Although it does work at that level. I suppose because they would be afraid of giving something away, the love story isn’t part of the advertising. Calling it a love story might be a stretch, but love is at the core of the story. Love is also what makes Arrival a film you can’t stop thinking about.

I personally am not concerned with spoilers because if a movie is ruined by knowing about it, it wasn’t much of a movie to begin with, but this is your warning. Stop reading and go see it. What follows will be spoilers.

Arrival is about two questions. The military-state structures want to know “What is your purpose?” The question that over-rides that for the main character is “if you knew, would you live it anyway?” In the movie these are expressed as a contemplation of time. As a Christian what Arrival captures better than anything I’ve ever seen or read is the doctrine of election.

The main character, Louise, played by Amy Adams is a linguist. She is called in by the government to help in establishing communications. The trouble in this is that the Alien language is not phonetic like all human language, but it is ideograms. All of their ideograms are circular. This is never explained, but in the course of the film it should make sense. The aliens do not have a linear sense of the time. The past is not the past, and the future is not the future. Past and future are points on the circle. The circle could be shrunk down to a single point – everything at once, the eternal now, but it can also be expanded to be experienced intimately. No point on that circle is disconnected from any other, but it has its unique being. What that opens up to someone thinking in linear time is future causality. Events in the linear future can seem to cause events in the linear past. In the eternal now or on that circle there is no past or future, just a seamless thread. And if one understands time as such, and has the necessary technology, one can jump to any portion of that thread when needed.

This is the biggest spoiler. The movie starts with a montage of moments of Louise with her daughter Hannah. We see them at birth and at a few moments in life, but we are also introduced to Louise crying over the deceased 16 year old Hannah. You are lead to believe that this is backstory, in the linear past. Louise’s work with the Aliens and Physicist Ian played by Jeremy Renner as her contact partner comes after the daughter’s death. They are scrambling after the answer to “What is your purpose?” to prevent China and a few other states from attacking the aliens. But their work together, which does not include any gratuitous sex or even stray romance moments, grows into a work of love. Their strings are tied together. The big twist is that what we think is the past is actually the future. And it is a future that Louise is becoming cognizant of in the past. The question becomes, “knowing this, would you live it?”

That is the question of election. We are all part of God’s great tapestry. All of our circles are known to him and have been woven into his design. This includes Jesus who submitted to the cross. Knowing that creation includes the cross, would you do it? God answered yes. And he answered it for two reasons. Creation, even one including the cross, is an increase in love. It is a revelation of the God who calls himself love. It is also a revelation of his nature as gracious. Divine simplicity is not found in the point, but in the circle. It is found in how His grace sustains all the moments we are given to experience. The only question we are given is yes or no? Knowing that this is God’s design, knowing that is our circular thread, would we live it? The moments of pain and suffering as well as the moments of triumph. Yes is a submission, an acceptance of God’s election. No is the complete removal from the design.

In the film the two aliens that Louise and Ian interact with they call Abbot and Costello. Their names are ideograms without phonetic content, so the assigning of sounds is a moment of levity. But that moment of levity has a turn. Some of the military personnel they are working with decide that attacking the aliens is a necessity and smuggle a bomb onto the ship with the equipment Louise and Ian are using. The aliens are able to partially stop it, but a touching scene is Louise expressing sorrow when Abbot tells her Costello is dying. By this time, you should know enough to realize “it’s about time”. When you know that, you must realize that Costello took this trip knowing he would die in that blast. The purpose of the trip which the aliens had also revealed is that the aliens would need humanity’s help in 3000 years, so they are providing assistance to humanity now. Costello’s sacrifice was for aliens and people 3000 years hence. Knowing this, would you live it?

Which becomes the personal question to Louise. Ian is her future husband and father of Hannah. All the moments, including the child’s death, are in the future. Knowing this, would she live it? Is the increase in love correct? Is the grace enough to sustain it? Arrival is a love story, just not a decadent one, but one full of grace.

A Pastoral Letter on Political Decisions

IMG_20160721_160825 (2)
One of Martin Luther’s most famous phrases is the odd one “Sin Boldly”. Of course it is usually used prior to doing something really stupid or clearly sinful. As college kids we often used it on Friday around 4 PM just before heading out for the night. That is one of the more harmless places, but what it is often used for is to justify some action you want to do but know is wrong. One could imagine saying “sin boldly” before lighting a Molotov Cocktail as part of a “protest”. After all, nothing is going to change if we don’t do something in the fierce urgency of now. One could also imagine saying “sin boldly” before starting a rumor about one’s opponent. The problem is that is not really what Luther was talking about. What that phrase captures is our bound and fallen nature. In this world we really don’t make choices between good and evil. If we did, ethics would be easy. Rather most of the time our choices are given to us with little ability to influence them. And, most of the time those choices are both compromised. Ethics is not about good and evil but about bad and less bad. And the reason we argue over it is we often come to different conclusions what is less bad. Sin Boldly as a phrase meant choose less bad to the best of your ability, and more importantly rely ever more on the sufficient grace of Christ. He is the one who in this world turns less bad into good for his people. He is the one who one day will make less bad untrue.

There are multiple biblical stories that I ponder in these regards, but I keep returning to one specific place, Genesis 21:8-21. I’d suggest going and reading the story. It is Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Ishmael and Hagar. Sarah, impatient and untrusting of God’s plan, had given Abraham her slave, Hagar, to have a child with. She would fulfill by her efforts what God so clearly wasn’t. That child was Ishmael. And as these things go, you can imagine that Abraham would become attached to the child and to the mother. Sarah, perceiving this had immediately sought to have mother and child banished, and Abraham gives in. But The Angel of the Lord finds Hagar and the baby and restores them to Abraham and Sarah. In another of its great ellipses, the bible doesn’t explain how. Fast forward a few years and Sarah has Isaac. And this time, more insistent, she tells Abraham “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.”

The entire scene is caused by the failure, the sin, of not trusting the promise of God – “I will give you an heir”. The entire scene is the full born fruit of that sin. There is no good choice. The choices are cast Hagar and young Ishmael out into the wilderness alone most likely to starve or to die of thirst, hunger and exposure, or keep her and the son and deal with the daily problems of the heir and his mother, and the first born and his mother. The vast majority of our choices are like this one – the fruits of past sin. We might be forgiven for that sin, but in this world we live with its results. And in Abraham’s case it really is binary – choose, you first born or your heir. The bible in its typical understatement says, “the thing was very displeasing to Abraham.” No kidding.

What do we do in such a situation? Such situations often lead to paralysis and breakdown. In attempts to find third ways, we compound sin by avoidance or grumbling. I bet Abraham decided to spend some time with the herds for a couple of days. The camp was probably walking on eggshells. But in this case God comes down to Abraham and tells him, “Whatever Sarah says, do it. And don’t be worried about Ishmael, I will prosper him.” This prospering of Ishmael will be a thorn in the side of Israel forever. Today’s Arabs claim biblical descent as the first born of Abraham. Some of the consequences of sin are long lasting. But God tells Abraham make the choice. Sin boldly, and trust on the grace of God to bring out good. In this case, Joseph’s brothers would sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites who would take Joseph to Egypt where he would eventually save Israel from the famine. A further good would be Ruth, the Moabite, part of Ishmael, who would become a grand-mother of Jesus.

I’m talking these things because I think we have found ourselves with such a choice in November. Whatever the merits of Trumpism, Mr. Trump himself does not appear to be fit for such high office. But likewise the other major party has nominated someone who if her last name wasn’t Clinton and she were not running for President would be in an orange jump suit right now. FBI director Comey found fit to put Martha Stewart in one for much less than exposing the nations secrets for personal whim. None of which gets into the international grift of the Clinton Global Initiative. Due to the sins of the primaries, and the sins of past years, we find ourselves with such a choice – a felon and a man who describes his personal Vietnam as dodging venereal disease in the 1970’s and who has never asked God for forgiveness while proclaiming himself a Christian.

What does a citizen do in such a case? And what can we expect? Ted Cruz said “vote your conscience”. It’s a cute line and he earned it. When someone unleashes conspiracy theories against your dad, I would imagine your conscience would say words I can’t write here. But it begs the question, what is a properly formed conscience in such a case for a citizen, especially for one not directly slandered? One option, which the Amish normally take, is simply not to vote. The citizen does not have to take part. But, if you are like me, this feels like a cop out because I am not Amish. The Amish see politics as necessarily defiling oneself with the world. That has never been the majority report of Christianity which has normally held that God is sovereign in the political kingdom (the kingdom of left) just as much as in the gospel kingdom (the kingdom of the right). When he sits at the right hand of God it is not over some truncated Kingdom. The biggest difference being that the kingdom of the left is exercised through crooked us, while the right is simply the declaration “your sins are forgiven” in the many ways that Christ has instituted that to be said. There are many voices – both former Sander’s supporters and supporters of people like Ted Cruz – that sound very Amish. Voting for either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump would sully their morals. Such a conscience to me seems malformed in a hyper-moral way applied to the wrong place. If you want to see saints, you go out to the desert, you don’t go to where people wear the soft clothes and $5000 suits.

So, what does a citizen do? Sin boldly. Choose which ever candidate seems least bad. And trust in the grace of God to work for his people. That doesn’t mean I don’t think either choice is going to lead to good things immediately. Abraham’s choice lead to 400 years of slavery in Egypt. It was roughly a millennium until Ruth met Boaz. I have a sense of foreboding that long after I am gone, my grand-children will be living with the results of this election, the results of picking two such uniquely unqualified people for such an office. But then the Christian’s call is not to think about preserving one’s holiness because we have none. The Christian’s call is to consecrate the fast and call the solemn assembly. Cry out to the Lord. Who knows, after it is past, he might relent and leave a blessing behind. Our salvation comes not from the Princes we elect for a mere four years, but from Christ who reigns forever, and ever. Amen.

Thoughts on a Papal Visit

And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say. – Luke. 12:11-12

But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words. For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me – Acts 26:25-29

It might be slightly odd for a Lutheran pledged to the Lutheran Confessions, which call the Papacy the antichrist, to be interested in what a Pope says or does. Well, there is always a fascination with the anti-anything, but that is not all the confessions have to say. The same confessions that would call the Pope the antichrist are clear that it isn’t the office as Bishop of Rome that is the problem, but its claims. Bishops are fine human offices, it is when they claim authority beyond what is common to all pastoral offices and do so by claiming the divine name that they function as anti-Christ. (Catechism note 2nd commandment: “we should fear and love God such that we do not…lie or deceive by His name.” The claims of divine authority are a deception through the use of God’s name.) Specifically the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope had three objections: 1) The Pope’s claim by divine right to be above all other bishops and pastors in the church, 2) The Pope’s claim to possess authority in the realms of both Church and state and 3) The Pope’s demands that people acknowledge this authority as a requirement for salvation. The years since Luther have not been humanly kind to that office. Kings and Presidents no longer seek the confirmation of the Pope for their position upon coronation or inauguration, and the Papal States are a single hill in Rome. And the Roman Catechism itself acknowledges that while Luther might be damned as a schismatic, “one cannot charge with the sin of separation those who are born into these communities…the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers. (p818)” But the papal claim of being the Vicar of Christ, holding the Keys by divine right, is still front and center. Melanchthon’s short treatise – The Power and Primacy of the Pope – still has some amazing relevance as do many of the Confessional documents with a little thought.

But the real reason I’m thinking about the Pope is his recent trip to our shores. The Pope is probably the only Christian witness that would be invited to address a joint session of Congress after having an audience with the President. When Paul got his dime in front of Caesar, he didn’t waste time. He didn’t argue about Caesar’s tax plan or the Roman welfare system (bread and circuses!). Paul did two things. He proclaimed Christ risen, and he encouraged Caesar to respect his own laws and eyes. Whether it is Peter or Paul or later martyrs (witnesses!) this is a familiar pattern. Both Jesus is Lord and we Christians are your best citizens calling you to respect what is best among you.

The Pope’s recent address to Congress was interesting in that I believe it was effective at the second portion of that pattern. The Pope cited four Americans: Lincoln, MLK, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. He used well each of those examples well. And each you could say fit well within this current Pope’s frame of mind of social justice. He wished at the beginning, through Congress, to enter into dialog (which seems to be a favorite word) with all Americans. And through that dialog to spur us to live up to the best of us.

Then I searched through the entire speech. Not one mention of Jesus. The word Christ is never used. The Pope opened with Moses, flattering the assembled legislators that they too are engaged in Moses’ task. But I want to quote that section in full.

Yours is a work which makes me reflect in two ways on the figure of Moses. On the one hand, the patriarch and lawgiver of the people of Israel symbolizes the need of peoples to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation. On the other, the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.

In one sense it was very appropriate. In a speech to lawmakers, it was all law. The unity of the people depends upon just legislation. Moses leads directly to God which is merely a stand in for the transcendent dignity of the human being. Right there you have the religion of rational man which knows nothing of Christ and faith. If our hopes for unity are in the law, we have none. If our hope for dignity rests upon Congress protecting us by the law, we are already stripped and in bondage.

I longed for Paul’s plain witness to the gospel of Jesus. Moses does not point to God directly other than the hidden God who never answers. The law tells us our need for something beyond it, something truly transcendent. We always fail the law and it never stops accusing. But that failure tells us our need for Jesus. And Jesus has won. Our dignity is not based in being human. Our human dignity is because Jesus took our humanity into God. That humanity is transcendent not by itself but because of the work of Jesus confirmed in the resurrection. Our image of God is cracked by sin, but God restores it in Christ, in baptism and through the indwelling of the Spirit.

Can you imagine a Pope, speaking to the gathered legislators not about a general human spirit, but The Spirit of Christ? An address that called on them to fulfill their vocations as lawmakers in the best American tradition, but also to trust in the grace of Jesus and to empower the body of Christ, the church, to be that grace, instead of shrinking it to a freedom to worship? An address that would make Chuck Schumer run for the nearest camera and say “Did the Pope really think he could so easily convert a NY Jew?”

That is what we are here for. Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me. Whether dialog or road to Damascus, would that you would hear Christ and believe. You are my witnesses, in Jerusalem and Judea, in Samaria and the US Congress. Don’t worry, the Holy Spirit has a few good words, and they begin with the name Jesus.

Sentence to Ponder

“A people shaped by the practice of the works of mercy will be a people capable of seeing through those who claim to need power to do good, but in fact just need power” – Hauerwas, commentary on Matthew (p212)

Two Good Sentences

If you’re a parent, and you’re sending away to college kids who’ve never been asked to do a task that was too hard, or been given a responsibility they didn’t believe they could bear, or have never been asked to suffer a single moment for the sake of another—you haven’t succeeded. You’ve failed. – Michael Graham on Courage

Imitation can be as good as the real thing, when the real thing is itself bankrupt – Rita Koganzon on Honesty

Both of those from a good read – The Seven Deadly Virtues

A Great Start to Prep for All Saints

“To those who know a little of christian history probably the most moving of all the reflections it brings is not the thought of the great events and the well-remembered saints, but of those innumerable millions of entirely obscure faithful men and women, every one with his or her own individual hopes and fears and joys and sorrows and loves — and sins and temptations and prayers — once every whit as vivid and alive as mine are now. They have left no slightest trace in this world, not even a name, but have passed to God utterly forgotten by men. Yet each one of them once believed and prayed as I believe and pray, and found it hard and grew slack and sinned and repented and fell again. Each of them worshipped at the eucharist, and found their thoughts wandering and tried again, and felt heavy and unresponsive and yet knew — just as really and pathetically as I do these things. There is a little ill-spelled ill-carved rustic epitaph of the fourth century from Asia Minor: — ‘Here sleeps the blessed Chione, who has found Jerusalem for she prayed much’. Not another word is known of Chione, some peasant woman who lived in that vanished world of christian Anatolia. But how lovely if all that should survive after sixteen centuries were that one had prayed much, so that the neighbours who saw all one’s life were sure one must have found Jerusalem! What did the Sunday eucharist in her village church every week for a life-time mean to the blessed Chione — and to the millions like her then, and every year since then? The sheer stupendous quantity of the love of God which this ever-repeated action has drawn from the obscure Christian multitudes through the centuries is in itself an overwhelming thought.”

— Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (1945)

Five things that caught the eye, six that tease the mind…

That title is reference to a form of biblical, specifically Hebrew poetry found in wisdom literature. Part of the fun is pondering how these things fit together if they do, or if they are just a laundry list. Proverbs 30:18ff is an example.

1. From Solon, the tale of the 26 year old virgin (who happens to be Lutheran)
2. From The Federalist, second verse from a male
3. Buffered Boundaries without love
4. Porous Boundaries with love
5. All is not material
6. Seeing the world as it really is

Two Poems

I sleep well. So, when I woke up in the middle of the night a week or so ago, it was somewhat odd, but it happens. Normally it presages one of two things. Either something large, at least to my small world, is about to happen, or it is a call to prayer I can’t refuse. Sometimes it is both. But that evening, I woke thinking about pair of poems. Actually I awoke thinking how simply unpoetic my name is – Mark Brown. Poetically it’s a spondee, a one footed projection of stress. And while I might be tempted to repent of pride and narcissism for thinking about the poetic nature of my own name, that really wasn’t it. One of the poets that I find constantly readable is Dana Gioia who early in his work was a leader in something called The New Formalism. All that really meant was that while the rest of the world was lost in formlessness, he went back and said something like “hey, these things called meter and verse and rhyme and formal images; they are actually very important things; we should stop forgetting them”. So, when you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about your name as a spondee, it’s not actually about me. I’m just scanning a verse poorly.

Enough about me, I’d like to actually give a deep read to the two poems running through my head that night. First is this one by Dana Gioia called Accomplice.

Accomplice

In dusty fields I harvested the vine
And sweated at the lever as the grapes were pressed.
My aching hands still clutched their vagrant wages,
Sleeping in the cold barracks of the dispossessed.

But now at dawn, beyond the reach of reason.
I wake in the chateau between your tangled sheets.
My sunburnt arm across your naked shoulder,
The mute accomplice of our mutual defeat.

Dana Gioia

My scansion or scanning of the meter is rough, and I think the poet is taking a few liberties, but the meter is iambic pentameter with several substituted feet and some compressions taking place. By compressions I mean things like reason in the first line of the second stanza normally has 2 syllables, but in the poem I think you read it like reas’n. Or like lever in the second line of the first stanza is probably lev’r. To me that sounds like my Midwestern tongue constantly running over second soft vowels and final sounds. The first line is the easiest setting the da-DUM pattern of iambic feet. And here is where my spondee enters. How my ear reads, wages is the only spondee (doubled stressed) part of the first stanza and defeat is the only spondee of the second stanza. While the poem might be called accomplice, the stressed words are wages and defeat. Any interpretation would need to wrestle with those words in the midst of the poem.

Why this poem captivated me is that I think it breaks all kinds of polite society rules. It is an incredibly subversive poem both within itself at a level 1 and level 2 (words and paragraphs) and I think at level 3 (bringing in other known facts from outside the formal work).

In stanza one the woman is working, harvesting the vine. She is the definition of fruitful. She has a vocation. Yes, that vocation brings aching hands and cold sleeping quarters and a place with the dispossessed. But, that vocation also brought wages. This woman has nothing of what our society would say is the good life. She sleeps cold in the barracks. Her bedroom is not the boudoir; her bed is not the heat of passion. She does not have privacy as she is in a barracks. Her work is not about self-fulfillment. It is about work, sweat and levers and pressing and aches. She doesn’t even have a home or a place. Her aching hands clutch vagrant wages. This woman has nothing of value in our society, but she is the one with wages. She is fruitful with just a hint of hidden power as her hands hold the level that presses the grapes.

But now, like the evangelist Matthew’s Look! Behold! This same woman is given everything. But unlike Matthew, it is a much different dawn she awakes to. She wakes in the chateau. The caesura or mid-point of the line is just after that, giving a little pause. No longer in barracks, that rough word replaced with the rich French loan. The privacy affords tangled sheets, and how they get tangled. But now that hint of hidden power is gone. Her sunburnt arm lies across the naked shoulder. Her dark against the naked light. The effects of living in the sun and working placed against the skin of one who follows self-fulfillment. And instead of clutching wages, she has nakedness. Instead of pressing the grapes, the arm lies still.

No longer ensconced in a solidarity, even if it is one of dispossession, the world is silent. Everything that once testified to worth, now mutely speaks defeat. Interestingly it is described as mutual defeat and accomplice. The last line leaves me with the question why is this a mutual defeat? Would not the world normally view such a scene as a conquest? It should be said here that I’ve assumed a gender that is nowhere supplied. It might be just as likely that the sunburnt arm is male and the naked shoulder female (or male?). How is this scene, where everything our world values is given, called a defeat? How have hard wages become a conspiracy of loss even in the midst of a chateau? It is beyond the reach of reason.

I think you can see how the poem is deeply subversive of the controlling cultural values just looking at the poem itself. Level 3 type readings are usually highly suspicious. We have enough trouble reading ourselves let alone inferring about others off scant evidence. So, I only mention this because I think it is supplementary to the work itself. Everything in the high sanctums of literature is about gender and inequality. This poem playfully plays with both. The main character, who I have taken as a female, isn’t actually specified. My reading would probably be deemed misogynist in the academy. That gives the final scene an unresolved question: is it a pale rich male taking advantage of a poor brown female or is it a strapping brown male used as stud by a bored pale female? Who is taking advantage of whom? Or when we do such things are me mutual accomplices? Likewise the modern academy would think the dawn of sex is an unadultered good thing as long as it is consensual. Yet this poem finds it barren, a defeat, the loss of the lever. On top of this I would add the insult that a GOP era NEA chair appropriates to himself the voice of a brown person. A former executive at a fortune 500 company, as the poet is, presents himself as the voice and experience of the dispossessed. You can hear heads exploding over the gall of the oppressor doing such things. Yet, the poet is also the son of a Mexican-American, which would normally grant one racial privileges. Yet if you look at his photo that doesn’t seem just. We are straying into the weeds of level 3 now, but I think it helps us see the point.

And that point is that the wages of the world, sex, money, finding yourself, are actually spiritual loss. It is the dispossessed, the person who loses themselves in their vocation, who find fruitfulness and wages. It is a mutual defeat because oppressed and oppressor need each other. They do it to each other trapped by the surroundings of the chateau which itself will fall into the wine presses. The poem begs us, lost in the status of the world, to look with fresh eyes on what is of true value.

Leaving Accomplice behind I wanted to turn to a second poem that struck me as asking some similar questions. Face Down by Mary Karr is not the subversive poem that Accomplice is, but it desperately begs us to look with fresh eyes upon the world for true value. Instead of slyly making comparisons of our false pieties, it flames at how we abuse each other. It replaces the mute accomplice with a haunting presence and a silent picture. What is that need that we all so desperately need like smack? That need we try and fill with everything the world will give us?

Face Down by Mary Karr
What are you doing on this side of the dark?
You chose that side, and those you left
feel your image across their sleeping lids
as a blinding atomic blast.
Last we knew,
you were suspended midair
like an angel for a pageant off the room
where your wife slept. She had
to cut you down who’d been (I heard)
so long holding you up. We all tried to,
faced with your need, which we somehow
understood and felt for and took
into our veins like smack. And you
must be lured by that old pain smoldering
like woodsmoke across the death boundary.
Prowl here, I guess, if you have to bother somebody.
Or, better yet, go bother God, who shaped
that form you despised from common clay.
That light you swam so hard away from
still burns, like a star over a desert or atop
a tree in a living room where a son’s photos
have been laid face down for the holiday.

Here are some important references pages:
Accomplice by Dana Gioia
Face Down by Mary Karr, HT: Mockingbird
Short Gioia Biography
Short Karr Biography
For Further Reading: Gioia, Karr

A Quick DVD Review – Snowpiercer

snowpiercerposterI was initially intrigued about this film because of the highly unusual release it received. Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein wanted 20 mins cut and some other stuff inserted. The director, South Korean Bong Joon-ho, refused. So, Weinstein dumped the film in limited release and on Video on Demand the same day. That is the release pattern of very bad movies or high critical/low production value movies, i.e. art house. Snowpiercer has A-list talent, Chris Evans otherwise known as Captain America, and it has high production value, i.e. budget of $42M. For Mr. Weinstein to dump it this way would probably mean a loss. Say what you will about Hollywood, but money usually trumps ideology. When it doesn’t, hmmm. (Note, there are other answers that put forward other explanations, like this, but they all strike me as after the fact of the movie garnering attention.) So, I got myself a copy.

At a very basic level, Snowpiercer is an effective thriller. Someone looking for The Bourne Identity 10 could enjoy this film simply from an action standpoint. But to end it there doesn’t capture all the subtle differences. I say subtle because the differences are at the worldview level. This movie invites reflection that Jason Bourne just would never countenance. Even American “art house” flicks would not invite some of the contemplation of Snowpiercer. My guess is that it is exactly the type of interpretation I’m thinking of that caused the producer to first demand cuts and additions and then dump the film.

You can almost see the elevator pitch: global warming apocalypse creates Marxist class struggle in confined space – Hunger Games meets Aliens, hence the “Fight Your Way to the Front” tagline. The movie has that form, but it is actually quite subversive to it. First, the whole global warming part is a smoke screen. Fear of global warming leads to a human attempt to geo-engineer the climate. That double hubris leads to the planet freezing and the only survivors being the passengers on the super train. The trouble is what we think we know and what it causes us to do, not on an environmental screed. Likewise the Marxist class struggle is the form of the action, but the entire string of events is turned on its head by two revelations. The final meeting with the material “god” of the train and the immediately prior action spurred by the anti-hero form the basic choice – stay within the materialist universe or reach for transcendence. The final bit of subversiveness is the presence of an actual hero and a hero’s journey. The only heroes we get today are in Chris Evans’ Captain America spandex. Mr. Evans gets the chance to play a hero outside of the spandex. His journey even includes the rejection of comfort and the embrace of sacrifice.

Ultimately Snowpiercer is bound and limited by its genre, an apocalyptic thriller. It is a piece of pop-entertainment. But where the outcome of most such thrillers is how the anti-hero secures material comfort and security, how the world is made sane again. In this one the world, the entire rigged system, is rejected and transcendence in hope is chosen. It is not explicitly Christian, the transcendence is not even religious from the viewer’s perspective, but the themes are not ones allowed in pop entertainment. Snowpiercer is smart pop entertainment. Pop entertainment that instead of stoking materialist impulses asks questions of a new world and transcendence. No wonder Weinstein wanted to edit it. That is dangerous stuff for the American mind.

Paragraph to Ponder

For seeing that truth of itself has a bitter taste for most people, and that it is of itself a
subversive thing to uproot what has long been commonly accepted, it would have been
wiser to soften a naturally painful subject by the courtesy of one’s handling than to pile
one cause of hatred on another….A prudent steward will husband the truth–bring it out, I
mean, when the business requires it and bring it out so much as is requisite and bring out
for every man what is appropriate for him–[but] Luther in this torrent of pamphlets has
poured it all out at once, making everything public and giving even cobblers a share in
what is normally handled by scholars as mysteries reserved for the initiated.
– Desiderius Erasmus to Justus Jonas, May 10, 1521, in Correspondence, 8:203