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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Discussing Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials / "The Golden Compass")

In light of the cinematic release of The Golden Compass and the discussion among Catholics over the film's content, it seems fit to re-post (howbeit updated) something I had blogged back in 2004:

For all the frequent discussion of The DaVinci Code or Left Behind by Catholics on the net, there is apparently another work of fantasy fiction enjoying great popularity and which some Christian readers maintain constitutes an even greater threat to the faith in its capacity to confuse and decieve its audience.

Stephen Riddle of Flos Carmeli believes that Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy "is more potentially damaging than Harry Potter or the much maligned (and not really worth it) DaVinci Code"; so do, for that matter, Amy Welborn and Mark Shea. And there is justifiable cause for concern because, as with The DaVinci Code, Hollywood has decided to cash in on the hype by turning The Dark Materials into a movie.

I confess that I have not read Pullman's work, and honestly when it comes down to it, in spite of all the praises for his literary skill, I'd rather fulfill my ambition to read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Simarillion or re-read Lewis' entire Chronicles of Narnia than attempt to digest an atheist whose works Peter Hitchens has described as "a labor of loathing" directed at a member of The Inklings:

Philip Pullman is the man who may succeed in destroying a country that the liberal intelligentsia loathe even more than they despise Britain. That country is Narnia . . .

Pullman puts forward a complex theory of man's true destiny, and his stories are a powerful epic that everyone should read. But many who buy these books for children and grandchildren would be surprised, and even shocked, if they knew just how vehemently Pullman despises the Christian Church, and how much he loathes his dead rival, Lewis. He is, in fact, the Anti-Lewis.

However, what follows are some articles by "reliable sources" (IMHO) which may well acquaint our readers with Pullman's work:

  • "The Anti-Narnia", by Meredith ("Basia Me Catholic Sum"), begins with a brief but good defense of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and moves on to explain why she found Pullman's universe to be a literary letdown:
    Beautiful writing can cover a multitude of sins, but not for long. Pullman attempts a massive transvaluation of values: God is evil, Satan is good, Original Sin is Heavenly Grace. I'm not sure that any writer could pull off such an audacious sleight-of-hand, and Pullman certainly doesn't. The inversions remain too disturbing. The whole thing crumbles under the weight of the centuries-old archetypes he attempts to subvert: Pullman's life-giving Dust can never really supress the memory of TS Eliot's handful of dust, or the ashes and dust of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. His good, wise serpent can't drive out the serpent that is a primal symbol of evil.
  • Amy Welborn writes of the difference between Tolkien and Pullman:
    J.R.R. Tolkien, to whom Pullman is often compared, but for whom he has little regard (for the record, Pullman despises C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, calling it "anti-life"), was a man of deep convictions as well. The difference between the two writers’ work, though, is that Tolkien, as devout a Catholic as he was, took special care in his voluminous fantasy works – which extend far beyond The Lord of the Rings, by the way – to offer what he calls a "sub-creation" embodying his vision of reality and truth, but in which there is never an explicit reference to the notions "our world" has of God, nor of religion at all, creating on the way, a work of art, not polemics.

    So there lies the essential difference, which extends beyond ideology. Phillip Pullman ultimately fails as a writer in His Dark Materials, not because of his views on religion, but because he simply can’t resist the temptation to preach about them, putting art to the service of manipulating his young readers’ opinions, ironically enough, with even more force and skill than any of his imagined Magisterial Courts could ever muster on their own.

  • Paradise Denied: Philip Pullman & the Uses & Abuses of Enchantment. (Touchstone Magazine October 2003). Leonie Caldecott, editor of the commendable Second Spring magazine, on the axe-grinding anti-Christian agenda of the "anti-Inkling":
    On April 1, 2001, I attended a Pullman talk and signing-session at the Oxford Union with my daughter and some of her friends. . . . The microphone was passed around the audience for questions. "Why are you so nasty about the Church?" asked a child sitting several rows down from us.

    Pullman then launched into a diatribe against the Church as being responsible for all the horrors of history: wars, heresy hunts, burning of witches, etc. When he finished, a fairly large proportion of the audience burst into applause. Later we were told that the girl who had asked the question was devastated. Several in our party were preparing to receive the sacrament of confirmation. The point of receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit, notably fortitude and right judgment, was demonstrated graphically to them on that day. I meanwhile began to wonder whether I should start popping out of wardrobes in a set of cardinal’s robes, as in the famous Monty Python “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” sketch.

  • In "An Almost Christian Fantasy" (First Things 113 (May 2001): 45-49), editor Daniel P. Moloney takes a different turn, agreeing with fellow critics on the defects of Pullman's writing brought about by his atheistic motivations,
    Atheists can write perfectly good and realistic fiction, because there is nothing about being an atheist that prohibits a person from understanding human motivation and the physical world. But being nonreligious does deprive you of the one thing an ambitious fantasy author needs: a plausible cosmology, a myth that tells us how things got to be the way they are. The great religions all provide this. One could even hold, as did Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, that a religion is just a story of the world, which in the case of Christianity (they held) happens to be true. A Christian fantasist in his act of subcreation can borrow heavily from the true mythic world created by the Christian God; the fantasist might change some of the names and other details, but the basic infinitely rich story has already been told.

    The nonreligious fantasy author is forced to play the mythmaker twice, as it were. He has to develop a cosmology of the way the world really is, the nonreligious account that re­ places the account given by the religions he rejects. And he has to write the fantasy story, obeying all the rules of the larger account and then creating his own world within it. In the first two books of the trilogy, Pullman merely alluded to the larger account while telling an imaginative and exciting adventure, which promised to be one of the best ever. In the third book, however, he needed to explain his theory of innocence and adulthood, which he thought required him to tell a different story of the Fall, which in turn tempted him to explain how everything we think and feel can be explained simply by scientific materialism.

    But at the same time concluding with a rather different and unexpected take:
    . . . imagine if at the beginning of the world Satan’s rebellion had been successful, that he had reigned for two thousand years, and that a messiah was necessary to conquer lust and the spirit of domination with innocence, humility, and generous love at great personal cost. Such a story is not subversive of Christianity, it is almost Christian, even if only implicitly and imperfectly. But implicit and imperfect Christianity is often our lot in life, and Pullman has unintentionally created a marvelous depiction of many of the human ideals Christians hold dear.
    I imagine that many Christians (and not a few members of St. Blog's) may disagree with his review, but I rather enjoyed Malonely's unconventional reading -- and Pullman himself would probably find the suggestion that a Christian might even derive valuable moral lessons from his work positively infuriating. ;-)

  • The author of the blog "Confessing (Ex-) Anglican" [now evangelical] offers a prayer for Pullman in which we can all join:
    . . . one essential plank of Pullman’s "evangelistic" strategy is to make God appear, not terrible or evil, but simply weak and pathetic. It’s clear that Pullman’s worldview has no room for a God who is weak, pathetic - or who dies. He seems to believe that putting such an image of God in people’s minds will help inoculate them against Christianity (it’s clear that one of his aims is to create the right sort of "mythic structures" in his readers’ minds).

    But of course, the whole message of Christianity centres on the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ: when God himself, in his Son, made himself weak, pathetic and helpless. God in the manger; God on the Cross.

    If Pullman cannot see this, then this explains the total absence of Christ from his books - there is simply no way of fitting Christ into Pullman’s worldview. That is where the worldview falls apart.

    That also gives me some small, faint hope for Philip Pullman - the fact that he cannot fit Christ into his worldview opens the possibility that one day Christ will force his way into Pullman’s worldview and shatter it; that Pullman will see that a weak and helpless God - one who needs to be carried around (as a baby), one who can be held in contempt by men and killed (as a man) - far from being the ultimate nail in Christianity’s coffin, is in fact the God who loves him and has, in his Son, laid down his life for him.

On March 17, 2004, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, met with Mr. Pullman at England's National Theatre, where they discussed a variety of topics (the resurgence of gnosticism; Mel Gibson's The Passion; the ethics of teaching religion in school, among other things). During the 'Q&A' period the following question was posed to Pullman:
Q: Is one [religious] truth someone else's lie, and does that inevitably lead to warfare?

PP: This raises the question of relativism and so on. It's a terribly difficult one. If my religion is true, does that mean your religion is false, or are we worshipping the same god by different names? I'm temperamentally ‘agin' the post modernist position that there is no truth and it depends on where you are and it's all a result of the capitalist, imperialist hegemony of the bourgeois… all this sort of stuff. I'm agin that but I couldn't tell you why. I'm rather like the old preacher who was agin sin. That was the message that came from his sermon. It's a temperamental, visceral thing.

It seems to me that Philip Pullman wants very dearly to be an atheist -- but as he admits with some embarassment, there is something in him that reacts, strongly, against the metaphysical conclusions implicit within atheism: the relativistic ["post modernist"] assertion that there is no truth, no meaning.

Indeed, as Daniel P. Moloney reveals in his review of the trilogy in First Things, Pullman himself simply cannot help but be motivated by implicitly Christian values:

In Pullman’s telling, the fate of all creation hinges, not on some difficult choice between good and evil, but merely on the moment when Will and Lyra first kiss. Somehow (and in the 1,100 pages of the trilogy there is nothing that suggests why this is of literally cosmic significance), after this kiss—and that’s as far as they go—the Dust that had been flowing out of the universe flows back in, and an age of peace and love is suddenly possible. Because these two young teenagers are basically innocent, as the shifting of their daemons reveals, their innocent love is supposed to show that sex and things of the flesh are very good, when properly ordered. Pullman mistakenly attacks Christian asceticism when he really is rejecting only heretical Manicheism. . . .

Soon after The Kiss, Will and Lyra are forced to make a very painful choice between their own happiness and keeping their promises to others—and they choose loyalty and the common good. The possibility of great happiness is presented to them, and they give it up at great cost to themselves. This melancholy ending redeems the earlier banality, both morally and narratively -- but only by appealing to the very Christian notion that we should put aside even good things like kissing in the name of the last things. The choice that Lyra and Will make is analogous to the choice a young man or woman considering religious celibacy makes: though I can reject my destiny, and it will require great strength to carry out, I am clearly called to forgo the great good of marriage in order that others may enjoy life and go to heaven.

As any reader of Mere Christianity knows, it is the subtle and gradual recognition of 'The Law of Nature', 'The Moral Law', 'The Law of Decent Behavior'; the gnawing feeling that there must be a Meaning to it all, some kind of Truth, that spells the end of atheism and the impending consideration of the divine.

If Moloney is right -- and I believe he is -- then Pullman had best look out, for the Hound of Heaven may be after him yet.

* * *

Pied  Piper of AtheismDiscussion of Pullman's works has increased dramatically in the Catholic/Christian blogging world. Pete Vere and Sandra Meisel have published their joint study of the book: Atheism for Children: Philip Pullman and Children's Fantasy (Ignatius Press, 20007). Likewise, Thomas Peters (American Papist) and Carl Olson (Insight Scoop) have been blogging extensively on the book's transition to film.

As has been reported, the film version has been heavily "sanitized" and purged of Pullman's original anti-Christian / anti-religious bias, presumably to make it more marketable to children and American audiences. Judging by the trailer and its release during the Christmas season, New Line Cinema's hope is that it will be received with the same enthusiasm as Disney's version of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or Peter Jackson's brilliant rendition of the Lord of the Rings (Pullman would love as much).

Pullman's books, of course, are far more disturbing than the watered-down film adaptation -- but the legitimate concern regarding the latter is that it will provide sufficient motivation for children to read the books. And (unlike the writings of C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien), these really aren’t the kind of books I’d want my children reading, at least until they were able to do so critically.

Worth Reading (Additional Posts)

  • "Happy?" - Amy Welborn has penned an excellent post regarding the cinematic release of The Golden Compass (and those Christians endorsing it):
    But you know what? These are issues that come up very naturally in the lives of adolescents. They are pretty much always present. You don’t need to give Philip Pullman and the makers of this film more money in order to make the discussion happen, just as you didn’t need to add to Dan Brown’s pile of money he’s sitting on up there in New Hampshire to have interesting discussions on Christian origins and Mary Magdalene.

    Having good discussions about the nature of religious authority, particularly in the context of one’s own religious tradition is harder when you’ve got the bigotry and unthinking caricatures to slog through.

  • "The Devil's Party", by Alan Jacobs. First Things' "On The Square" Dec. 3, 2007. (Repost of a review from the Weekly Standard): "Pullman’s anti-theistic scolding consorts poorly with his prodigious skills as a storyteller. In imagination and narrative drive, he has few peers among current novelists. For such gifts to be thrust into the service of a reductive and contemptuous ideology is very nearly a tragedy."

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Much Ado about "Bella"

Barbara Nicolosi wonders what the fuss is all about with Bella:
I have been getting loads of email asking (and sometimes demanding!) my opinion of the indie project Bella that opens (frantically) this weekend in several cities. I have thus refrained from making an official comment about the project because it seemed to me there was no upside. There has been an aggressive and, frankly, stupefying marketing blitz in the Catholic, pro-life universe for the film, and the folks behind the film have recruited an impressive number of good-willed, Catholic and pro-life notables to give the film a thumbs-up. I can't figure out where the momentum is coming from - as the film itself is not that good - except that everybody in Christendom is eager to support something in the culture instead of always saying "Bleck." (Which Christians really wouldn't have to always be saying if we paid attention better to the good work that is out there to be seen...but that's another post.)

So, we have ourselves a real-live, mind-numbing bandwagon going here to get behind Bella if you love Jesus and care about the babies! I have been contacted three separate times in the last two months trying to get me to say something in support of the film, and my response was, "Why do you need me? You have nearly the entire orthodox Catholic world telling you it's the greatest Catholic, pro-life film ever made?" A producer on the film subsequently left a message on my voicemail noting that my refusal to support the film had its source "in the demonic." Really? "Demonic"? It couldn't just be that I found the film plodding, easy, sloppy and uneven? In short, I don't think Bella is great. It's not really "Catholic" (in the sense of overt spirituality). And it really isn't pro-life (in the usual sense of that term).

I can sympathize with her discomfort. I haven't seen the film, but when something is hyped to this degree it tends to put me off as well.

Circumstances being what they are I don't get to see movies in the theater that often, and in the offchance I do make it I'd probably take Barb's recommendation and see The Assassination of Jesse James.

(Thomas Peters and Stephen Greydanus beg to differ).

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Monday, January 01, 2007

DeNiro's "The Good Shepherd" / Evan Thomas' "The Very Best Men"

Not the usual fair for this blog, but nonetheless a brief review of a movie and a book I had the opportunity to read over the holiday weekend . . .

I saw The Good Shepherd over the holiday weekend. Directed by Robert DeNiro, starring Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie, it purports to be "the untold story of the birth of the CIA." Regretfully, it fails to deliver.

The plot is laid out across some notable events in the history of the Central Intelligence Agency -- it's origins in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) struggling to roll back the Soviet tide in World War II, in anticipation of Stalin's bid for power, it's later operations in Central America and the Bay of Pigs fiasco, tied together from the perspective of a fictional character named Edwin Wilson (an amalgam of James Jesus Angleton and Richard Bissell). Failing to heed the advice of his mentor ("Get out while you still can, while you still have a soul"), Wilson's gradual moral corruption in the in the clandestine world of espionage and U.S. foreign policy is a window into the soul of our nation. "The Godfather Part II set in Langley, Virginia" as one reviewer put it.

While I am generally unapposed to the use of fictional characters when making a historical film, I wonder if, in this particular case, DeNiro couldn't have done better to forego the soap-opera and emphasize the history -- and even confine his gaze on a small part of that history for that matter. Covering three decades of U.S. covert operations and espionage would have been better accomplished in the form of a documentary series on PBS television. As a sprawling two hour and 46 minute Hollywood epic, one gets the sense that the scriptwriter (Eric Roch - Munich 2005) bit off a little more than he could chew. As Wesley Morris notes:

Indeed, "The Good Shepherd" is chock full of everything -- assassinations, betrayal, comeuppance, marital discord, the rise of Castro, an intense torture sequence, defenestration, John Turturro as a sociopath agent, De Niro "Strangelove"-ing it up in that wheelchair, the brief return of Joe Pesci as an informant, and a manmade plague of locusts.

But that also leaves it a 2 1/2-hour farrago: a character study, a soap opera, a psychological profile, and a docudrama full of Roth's obvious affinity for cool spy jargon ("The doctor has no more patients," says Hurt to Damon about a CIA-backed coup in Cuba).

In short, the film fails in its effort to be "all things to all people". Buried within are the makings of what would have been a truly great "cloak and dagger" film (Wilson's sparring with his KGB nemesis Ulysses), or even a decent chronicle of U.S. covert operations, but in the end, I found myself more annoyed than anything else -- suffering through the dreary soap-opera of the protagonist's life and anxiously awaiting the occasional snatches of historical reference that filtered through. And the fact that the main characters in the the film are works of fiction, for the most part ambiguous in their relation to the major players in the formative years of U.S. intelligence, was for me the greatest aggravation of all. To concur with reviewer William Arnold (The Seattle Post-Intelligencer):
[DeNiro] can't begin to tie the movie's sprawling events into a satisfying narrative package. It seems not only aimless, but redundant, choppy and unnecessarily confusing. . . . his characterizations are clumsy, and his members of the Power Elite always seem less real people than stick figures in a propaganda movie.
DeNiro's interpretation of the CIA's history is tainted with a strong dose of liberal spin which I imagine will appeal to the Howard Zinn school of history. If readers desire something a little more substantial, they would be better served putting their $10 towards purchasing Evan Thomas' engrossing The Very Best Men: The Daring Early Years of the CIA Simon & Schuster (October 17, 2006: 2nd Edition), which asks the same moral questions and covers much of the same historical ground as The Good Shepherd.

Whereas DeNiro attempts to blend history and Hollywood fiction, a drama spanning three decades interspersed with allusions to historical events, Thomas covers the actual lives of four pioneers of the CIA: Frank Wisner, Richard Bissel, Tracy Barnes and Desmond Fitzgerald: principled men with strong convictions and laudable goals (stemming the Communist tide), yet deeply flawed in its execution.

Benefiting from extensive interviews, Thomas' book portrays the CIA "as it saw itself". One can appreciated the fact that Thomas is both respectful of the general intent of these figures (never dismissing or minimizing the very real concern over the Communist threat), and yet approaching his subject with a critical eye towards the moral quandaries of their profession.

As Thomas concludes: "In the end, they were too idealistic and too honorable, and were unsuited for the dark and duplicitious life of spying. Their hubris and naivete led them astray, producing both sensational coups and spectacular blunders").

Related Links

  • Review: "The Good Shepherd" by Harry Forbes. Catholic News Service Dec. 22, 2006.
  • The "Traditionalist" Catholic blog TradReviews has seen The Good Shepherd as well. Apparently the blogger appreciated the character development much more than I. Perhaps if I didn't see the film with the expection of a history lesson I would have had a better appreciation for the drama.
  • Readers interested in this subject may benefit from J. Ransom Clark's The Literature of Intelligence: A Bibliography of Materials. You can find reviews of the aformentioned book by Thomas here.
  • "The Need for Integrity: Thoughts Provoked by The Very Best Men, by Michael Thompson. A "moment of reflection" from the CIA periodical Studies in Intelligence Vol. 39, Number 5, 1996:
    [Thomas'] empathy for his subjects--even though an air of amused condescension filters through to an audience when he speaks of his book--points up issues that would otherwise be obscure, as does his vivid evocation of a period when, contrary to the underlying realities of American politics (as we have since learned, sometimes painfully), a dominant Executive, a compliant Congress, a complicit press, a largely unquestioning public, and almost unlimited funds allowed the DDP to function virtually without oversight or accountability.
  • "Expert's Picks: Books on Espionage, Selected by Evan Thomas" Washington Post, 31 Jan. 1999

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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Reflections on Steven Spielberg's Munich

Note: I saw Munich the movie last (Tuesday) night, and had been working on the following post over the course of this week, reflecting on the film and the various issues it raised. Of course the leading story this week is the release of Pope Benedict's long-awaited and timely encyclical Deus Caritas Est, which will likely be the subject of my next post, either this weekend or early next week. Pax. -- Christopher

At 5:00 AM, September 5th, 1972, a seminal event in the development of modern terrorism took place. Eight Palestinian terrorists invaded the site of the Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. They killed and took hostage eleven Israeli athletes competing in the Games, demanding the release of over 200 imprisoned Arabs and 2 German terrorists. Over the next few tension-filled days, all the hostages and some of the terrorists were killed, and the remaining terrorists escaped, mostly due to incompetence and perfidy of the German government. The Olympic Committee made a controversial decision to continue the Games, and has never held any memorial for the slain athletes. Eventually almost all of the remaining terrorists were hunted down and killed by Israeli agents, directed by then Prime Minister Golda Meir.

-- Munich Remembered, by Judith @ Kesher Talk.

The authoritative documentary of the Munich Massacre is One Day in September.

The new Steven Spielberg film Munich, loosely based on George Jonas' book Vengeance, purports to be "the story of what happens next," following the 1972 Munich Massacre. Many critics and pundits (predominantly those on the left) have praised it as a stirring commentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its "cycle of violence", as well as a cinematic protest against the Bush administration's "war on terrorism."

Munich: Praise

Discussing The Morality of 'Munich' Alternet Dec. 24, 2005), Jordan Elgrably heralds Munich as "the work of a mature filmmaker--one who does not appear beholden to popular American Jewish opinion that Israel is always the underdog," with a timely moral lesson for today's conflict:

The military occupation of Palestinian territories is in its 38th year; the settlement movement continues apace; and all the international peace initiatives have failed. The one dependable reality of the conflict -- Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli targeted assassinations -- is utterly bankrupt. Nothing remains but for the Palestinians to seek justice with a nonviolent revolution for peace, in the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi, and for the Israeli people to follow new leaders who can devise political rather than military solutions.

Andrew Gumbel applauds Munich's implicit criticism of President Bush: (The Independent January 5, 2006):

The material not only takes a sideswipe at Israel and its long-standing policy of doing whatever it takes to guarantee its own survival. The parallels with George Bush's America are also unmistakable, at a time when the moral standing of the United States around the world has been severely undermined by reports of torture, targeted killings and war justified by intelligence that was either incorrect or deliberately skewed to suit a pre-determined political agenda. To ensure that the point is not missed, the film concludes with a shot of the lower Manhattan skyline including the now-fallen twin towers of the World Trade Center.
David DiCerto of the USCCB's (Conference of Catholic Bishops) Office for Film & Broadcasting praises Munich as "a clear statement by the filmmaker that violence comes at a cost of one's soul," a continuation of "a cinematic conversation about the value of human life begun with Schindler's List. The message of that film was that 'whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.' The grim counterpoint here suggests that in taking lives the light of our humanity is collectively dimmed."

And JB (aka Dawnwatchman explicates Munich's gospel of nonviolence:

Munich speaks extensively about home, brotherhood, morals, and achieving peace on earth. However, these themes are secondary to the point Spielberg is trying to make through a powerful meditation. The dogma of an eye for an eye does not work. Here is where the irony comes into play, for the solution is most likely beyond what Spielberg intended. For we know that only the New Law is capable of justifying a man in the sight of God. Therefore, the problems and conflicts in the Middle East can’t be arbitrated using a precept of the Old Law. The New Law alone is sufficient. What this means is something which neither side is willing to accept. Israelis and Palestinians need to learn to live together. To break bread together, so to speak. It’s either that or somebody has to relocate to another part of the world, either of this life or the next. In better words, the Old Law must pass away:

“You have heard that it hath been said: An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you not to resist evil: but if one strike thee on thy right cheek, turn to him also the other.” – Matt., 5:38-39

Munich: Criticism

On the other hand, other critics have charged that the very zealousness with which Spielberg condemns the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has led him to entertain the notion of "moral equivalence" -- namely, that there is, with a view to the consequences, no ultimate difference between the Palestinian terrorist and the Israeli soldier.

Captain's Quaters, for instance, gave a disappointing review of the film:

On its most facile level, Munich is a gripping film. Had it been based on complete fiction -- if Spielberg had had the sense to manufacture a hypothetical instead of hijacking history and twisting it -- then it might have even had a valid point to make. Spielberg has lost nothing as a film director in a technical sense, . . . The cinematography, music, mood, and all of the technical efforts put into the film are first rate, without a doubt.

And every last bit of it gets wasted by a silly sense of moral equivalency that comes from a fundamental misrepresentation of the threat Israel faces, and in the strongly suggested allegorical sense, the threat that faces the US and the West now.

The problem with Munich, says the author, is that "by equating the two sides, Spielberg and the world gave the perpetrators of terrorism the same moral standing as its victims, especially when the victims sought to ensure that their enemies could not live long enough to plan more such attacks."

Cliff Kincaid and Roger Aronoff of Accuracy in the Media describe the film in terms of a Hollywood Surrender to Terrorists:

It is apparent that the movie is not only supposed to be historical but meant to send a message to Israel, the U.S. and the Bush Administration. The film's website even says that "the film takes audiences into a hidden moment in history that resonates with many of the same emotions in our lives today." Spielberg intends to convince us that responding to terrorism with military force is hopeless. . . .

The real problem with the film is the moral equivalence, as Spielberg talks about "intransigence" and complains about "response to a response," as if Israel is at fault for trying to defend itself. What he seems to forget is that Israel is fighting for its very existence against an Arab/Muslim bloc of nations that still preaches hatred and destruction of Jews and Israelis.

Roger Ebert, who gave the film a big thumbs up, says about Spielberg's approach: "By not taking sides, he has taken both sides." But how can that be morally correct or defensible?

FrontPageMag also hosted a (sometimes heated) Symposium on Munich, inviting several authors and commentators -- pro and con -- to discuss the meaning of the film. Carl Horowitz points out that Munich mastermind Mohammed Daoud has voiced his disagreement with the film's depiction of his team, charging: "We did not target Israeli civilians. Some of the athletes had taken part in wars and killed many Palestinians. Whether a pianist or an athlete, any Israeli is a soldier." According to Horowitz, Doud's "factually-challenged rant performs a useful function. For it indicates that Spielberg would have had to have gone a lot further to appease his Arab critics – that is, to make a film that truly was morally equivalent."

Arnold Steinberg disagrees:

This movie is an assault on the war on terrorism. That's why the movie ends with the twin towers in the background. It's supposed to bring you full circle, on the cycle of violence b.s. which is the corollary of moral equivalence, alongside the Arabist belief that the U.S. provoked 9-11.

This movie clearly implies the Israeli response to Munich escalated, if not unleashed, a new generation of terrorism that culminated in 9-11. Kushner cleverly projected plausible even-handedness, but on the points that mattered, he gutted Israel. Remember, the Palestinian wins the homeland debate by default. I talk mainly about Kushner, because he used Spielberg, who has much more clout. . . . Munich was dishonest, overwhelmingly so, factually. Moreover, the mission, to the extent it existed, was not revenge, but to disrupt the terrorist hierarchy, which it did. And to quote Daoud attacking Spielberg? Bottom line -- this movie depicts the straight Arabist line -- this is a real estate conflict and ignores the reality that key Arab constituencies, from religious zealous to secular extremists, hate Jews and want them dead.

In Spielberg’s Moral Confusion (NRO, Jan. 6, 2006), Monica Charen criticizes Spielberg's inattention to history and the impact it will likely have on its audience, some of whom weren't even alive in 1972 (like myself, I admit) and probably won't bother investigating the actual facts of the incident:

Munich is a well-crafted movie, but it is a deeply and disturbingly dishonest one. Many moviegoers were not even born in 1972, and many who were alive will scarcely remember the details. Do moviemakers owe nothing to them? Do they owe nothing to the truth? This is not Oliver Stone’s JFK, but for that reason its effect may be more insidious. The film looks like history but it is a morality play of the artist’s imagination. Spielberg uses real historical figures like Golda Meir as props, putting words in their mouths that they not only did not say, but would never have said. During the opening credits, the audience is informed that the film is “inspired by real events.” That could mean anything — but movie audiences probably will not parse the words with lawyerly care. They will read it in the context of a film that offers generous servings of verisimilitude. There are clips of sportscaster Jim McKay reporting from the Munich Olympics in 1972, as well as the voice of Peter Jennings narrating the harrowing events. Some of the details of the kidnapping and murder of the eleven Israeli athletes are well-researched. But as CC Colton warned, “Falsehood is never so successful as when she baits her hook with truth.”

Credible Witness? -- Rinker Buck, George Jonas and Yuval Aviv

To compound the problem, Monica Charen notes that the very book Tony Kushner allegedly based his script on -- George Jonas' Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team -- is itself highly questionable:

Jonas based his tale on the word of one Israeli who claimed to have headed a clandestine assassination squad for the Mossad. But Jonas was the second, not the first author to whom this particular Israeli had peddled this tale of “Avner,” the Israeli hit man. The first, according to Time, was a writer named Rinker Buck who was offered an advance from Simon and Schuster. But the deal fizzled when Buck traveled to Europe to check his informant’s information and found that “he was changing his story daily.” Buck said he could not write the book in good conscience. Jonas apparently could. And while the book has been debunked for 20 years, Spielberg saw fit to build a movie upon it.
  • For background on Rinker Buck's conscientious refusal to peddle Avner's story, see "Believing What You Read", by Thomas Griffith Time June 25, 1984).

  • More on Jonas' book from Bret Stevens (Munich: What's wrong with Steven Spielberg's new movie Wall Street Journal Jan. 1, 2006): "Yuval Aviv, who claimed to be the model for Avner . . . was, according to Israeli sources, never in the Mossad and had no experience in intelligence beyond working as a screener for El Al, the Israeli airline."

  • For background on Yuval Aviv himself, see Spielberg could be on the wrong track, by Yosi Mellman Ha'aretz Jan. 8, 2006:
    The problem arose five years later, in 1989, when a third party claimed in a lawsuit that private investigator Yuval Aviv, an Israeli, was Canadian journalist George Jonas' source. In the lawsuit, Jonas identified Aviv as a key figure in the book and argued that Aviv had dishonored an agreement and prevented him from receiving royalties due to him from the profits of the film.

    After this identification, the international press began to publish articles about Aviv. Investigative reports about him revealed that he represented himself as a Mossad agent even though he had never worked in the Mossad and certainly had not participated in operations to kill those involved in the athletes' murder. Aviv, as he emerged from these investigative reports, had a special fondness for conspiracy theories, and it turned out that he was willing to hire out his services to anyone who was willing to pay, even to both sides of the same dispute.

Vengeance author George Jonas himself makes his case for telling "Avner's" story (and the eventual Hollywood cinematization/bastardization) in "the Spielberg massacre" (Macleans Jan. 7, 2006). Jonas stands by his man ("though he was not without a capacity for invention . . . "Avner" described a string of operations of which he had first-hand knowledge") and disavows any relationship with Aviv ("The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz floats the canard that my source was revealed to be one "Yuval Aviv" in the late 1980s when I sued him in a contract dispute in New York. The fact is, I've never sued anyone in my life, in New York or anyplace else").

At the same time, Jonas notes with clear disapproval Kushner's involvement with the Munich screenplay:

The confirmation that production will definitely be put over until 2005, pending a new script to be written by Tony Kushner, comes only in September. It doesn't come from Mendel. It comes from "Avner" who appears to be very much in the loop -- and thoroughly besotted. A spook in the grip of celebrity worship is a sight to behold.

"Avner" writes that with the new script Spielberg is planning "in some aspects to stay parallel with the book. But of course he [takes] the book where only Steven can take it." Considering Kushner's stance on Israel, it isn't hard to imagine where that will be. In addition to his magnum opus, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Spielberg's new screenwriter is co-author (with Alisa Solomon) of a 2003 book, Wrestling With Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. The title forecasts a film that will be a "progressive" Jewish-American response to the Munich massacre. No wonder there's a reluctance to let me see the script.

and expresses his disappointment with the finished project by the 'King of Hollywood' himself:
Spielberg's "Munich" follows the letter of my book closely enough. The spirit is almost the opposite. Vengeance holds there is a difference between terrorism and counterterrorism; "Munich" suggests there isn't. The book has no trouble telling an act of war from a war crime; the film finds it difficult. Spielberg's movie worries about the moral trap of resisting terror; my book worries about the moral trap of not resisting it.
Disputing Jonas' account of the operation is Time magazine Israeli correspondent Aaron Klein's newly-published Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel's Deadly Response:
A main disagreement between the two books is whether the Mossad's assassinations of the Black September leaders that followed the 1972 Olympic attacks was an emotional reaction against the attackers, as "Vengeance" and "Munich" both assert, or whether, as Klein argues, it was also a strategic response to break up a terrorist network.

"Striking Back" was actually in the works at Random House several years ago, before Spielberg revealed he was working on the film, and wasn't set to come out until next year. Random House rushed publication when it learned of the film's release.

("Rival Tome Snipes at Munich Variety Award Central, Dec. 12, 2005).

Setting the Record Straight

The Jewish blog KesherTalk provides a good roundup of pundit reactions, reviews and blogger commentary on Munich.

Likewise, they do the world a favor by drawing our attention to the historical account of Munich -- the massacre, with a series of reflections on the senseless slaughter of the Israeli athletes:

Parting Thoughts

As one who appreciates Steven Spielberg's previous films (Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan especially) and his undeniable prowess in moviemaking, I'd certainly like to believe him when he repudiates "blind pacifism," proclaims his fidelity to Israel and defends the making of the film as an exercise in Talmudic questioning (A telephone call with Spielberg, by Roger Ebert. Dec. 25, 2005).

At the same time, having seen the movie myself, I've come to some judgements of my own about the film:

"Humanizing" Terrorism and drawing "Moral Equivalence"

Yes, a certain degree of "humanizing" of the terrorists does occur in the film -- the selected targets are shown in a positive light: a poet reading his translation of 'Arabian Nights' in Italian to a sidewalk audience; a good father with his loving wife and adoring daughter; a good-natured gentleman who offers a cigarette and sleeping pills to Avner before he goes off to bed (and to his death). In reminding us of their humanity, their crimes are practically hidden, their complicity in the deaths of innocents obscured by the veneer of gentleness and charm.

Yet, even in a stairwell encounter between Avner and a Palestinian named Ali, in which the latter is given the opportunity to present his grievances against Israel, I did not feel that Spielberg was putting forth "moral equivalence" in the sense that the direct actions of the terrorists and those of the Israeli strike team were of a piece. Whereas the Palestinians are shown mercilessly slaughtering the Olympic athletes, Avner and his men take scrupulous care not to harm innocent civilians, nearly-aborting one mission where the target's daughter was endangered. Some critics berated Avner's questioning and moral deliberation as a sign of weakness; I'm inclined to agree with Sonny Bunch (Munich Syndrom Weekly Standard Jan. 6, 2006):

. . . Compare this to the Palestinian terrorists who have no problem with turning AK-47s on hogtied hostages. And then there is the deeper question of humanity: Avner understand the justness of his mission, but still struggles with the taking of life. The terrorists show no such qualms.
And yet, I must say there was a great deal in the movie that could -- and did -- lead audiences to conclude a "moral equivalence" with respect to ends: in suggesting that the Israeli's counter-terrorism tactics were themselves a propogator of more terror, and that resorting to armed force for whatever reason inevitably perpetuates a "cycle of violence."

James Bowman, resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, lists "a few of the conventional ideas served up by [Spielberg and Kushner]" (Munich: A Review The American Spectator Dec. 30, 2005):

* Revenge is an uncivilized, savage act that lowers the revenger to the level of his victim. As a result, there is always a certain moral equivalence between killer and victim.

* Engaging in revenge perpetuates a cycle of violence.

* Those who are caught up in this cycle and who kill in cold blood often suffer terrible agonies of conscience: nightmares, paranoia, substance abuse, and other manifestations of what we have learned to call post-traumatic stress disorder.

* From governments of all kinds, corruption, violence, and lack of human compassion is to be expected.

* Therefore, one should put loyalty to one's family and friends ahead of loyalty to one's country.

Despite Spielberg's intentions, it seems to me that Munich renders itself easily exploitable by those who are anti-Israel, anti-Bush and anti-war, resisting the very idea that armed force can be used in a morally legitimate manner, in service to the good.

In his reflections on the film -- Art Needs Moral Vision (VictorHansen.com Dec. 27, 2005) -- Bruce Thornton describes the phrase "cycle of violence" as indicative of a modern moral pathology: the inclination to see force "not in moral terms — that is, as the instrument of a righteous or unrighteous choice and aim — but as a reflexive reaction to grievances and wounds to self-esteem." According to Thorton, it is a pathology that has been soundly exploited by Arab terrorists in the defense of their cause:

Jews traumatized by anti-Semitism and the Holocaust drove from their homes Arabs who, in turn traumatized by their suffering and the thwarting of their “nationalist aspirations,” turn to violence, which provokes a response from the Israelis, which creates more suffering, which provokes more violence, and on and on. All we need to do is break the cycle — which usually means getting Israel to stop reacting to Palestinian violence — create a Palestinian state, and the lion will lie down with the lamb.
Thorton himself sees this as the underlying viewpoint of Spielberg's Munich:
In Munich . . . force is viewed with the suspicion typical of the quasi-pacifist liberal. Using force against murderers is futile, the movie keeps telling us, for each dead terrorist is replaced by another one, each killing of a terrorist inspires another act of terrorist retribution. I wonder what would have happened if the same attitude had been taken regarding Nazis or kamikaze pilots. Thank goodness our fathers and grandfathers had more sense. They knew that evil men have to be destroyed, and you stick with the job until the evil men give up or are no more. They knew that evil men choose their evil to advance some aim, and will try to kill you no matter what you do, and are more likely to take heart from a failure to resist than to reconsider their evil aims or to abandon violence. They knew that the sorts of reservations Munich indulges are not signs of a sophisticated sensibility but rather the evasions borne of moral uncertainty, Hamlet-like doubts whose purpose is to avoid action and moral responsibility.

The moral evasions at the heart of Munich evoke another Munich, the Munich of Neville Chamberlain and appeasement, that moment in 1938 when moral exhaustion confronted evil and blinked, unleashing a force of destruction that cost 50 million dead and that was stopped not by understanding of context or empathy with the enemy’s humanity but by righteous force wielded by men who weren’t afraid to call evil by its proper name.

* * *

Munich and the Greater Question of 'Justified Use of Armed Force

I am presently reading The War to Oust Saddam Hussein: The Context, The Debate, The War and the Future (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), by James Turner Johnson, a notable scholar of military ethics and the just war tradition. Professor Johnson is severely critical of Bishop Wilton Gregory's stance during the Iraq war (and the subsequent position of the USCCB), because its argument against the war began with the prejudice that, in the words of Bishop Gregory, "a moral presumption against the use of armed force." According to Johnson, such reasoning is at a marked variance with the classical just war tradition:

Just war thinking in its classic form is based on something quite different -- a conception of life in political community oriented to a just and peaceful order, in which the use of armed force is a necessary tool to be used by responsibile political authority to protect that just and peaceful order in a world in which serious threats are not only possible but actual. In the presumption against war model, force itself is the moral problem, and peace is defined as the absence of the use of such force. In the just war model rightly understood, injustice and the threat of injustice are the fundamental moral problems, for in the absence of justice, the political community is not rightly ordered, and there is no real peace either in that community or in its relation to other political communities. Force here is not evil in itself; it takes its moral character from who uses it, from the reasons that are used to justify it, and from the intention with which it is used. These are, of course, the classic just war requirements of sovereign authority, just cause, and right intention, and they correspond directly to right order, justice, and peace, the goods at which political community should aim as defined in the Augustinian conception of politics within which just war tradition is soundly rooted. To be sure, force is evil when it is employed to attack the justice and peace of a political order oriented toward these goods, but it is precisely to defend against such evil that the use of force may be good. Just war tradition had to do with defining the possible good use of force, not finding exceptional cases when it is possible to use something inherently evil (force) for the purposes of good.
This post is long enough, so in the interest of time I will refer the reader to James Turner Johnson's excellent essay Just War, As It Was and Is (First Things 149 (January 2005): 14-24); George Weigel also touches upon this briefly in Force of law, law of force (The Catholic Difference April 30, 2003), and at length in his study Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace Oxford UP, 1987.

I can't help but notice some affinities between those who praise Munich as a cinematic protest against violence (the use of force per se) and those who advocate "a moral presumption against the use of armed force" as the starting point for deliberation in matters of war. I think that a film like Munich might compel Catholics and Christians to evaluate where they stand with respect to this issue:

Is the only response to terrorism the eschewing of violence, the adoption of absolute pacifism?

Is there such a thing as a justifiable and legitimate use of armed force?

Is the 'just war tradition' as it has been developed in Catholic tradition rendered absolete, the opinion put forth by a few voices within the Vatican Curia?

With respect to the last question, I am well aware that then-Cardinal Ratzinger, in a May 2, 2003 interview with Zenit, expressed the opinion that "given the new weapons that make possible destructions that go beyond the combatant groups, today we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a 'just war.'" Some have (incorrectly, I think) imbued this specific line with the full weight of magisterial authority, while others -- like James Turner Johnson -- have questioned its implications, as well as its reasoning.

* * *

Likewise, the question is also raised: in responding to terrorism, what is the appropriate, reasonable and morally justifiable course of action?

Are "targeted assassinations" in the prevention of terrorism acceptable? The Logic of Israel's Targeted Killing, by Gal Luft (Middle East Quarterly Volume X, No. 1, Winter 2003) describes the procedure:

Israelis dislike the term "assassination policy." They would rather use another term—"extrajudicial punishment," "selective targeting," or "long-range hot pursuit"—to describe the pillar of their counterterrorism doctrine. But semantics do not change the fact that since the 1970s, dozens of terrorists have been assassinated by Israel's security forces, and in the two years of the Aqsa intifada, there have been at least eighty additional cases of Israel gunning down or blowing up Palestinian militants involved in the planning and execution of terror attacks.
The legality of Israel's policy is presently being debated in Israeli courts. In a July 2001 State Dept. briefing, the Bush Administration stated that "Israel needs to understand that targeted killings of Palestinians don't end the violence, but are only inflaming an already volatile situation and making it much harder to restore calm." Yet, in a Fox News interview August 2, 2001, Vice President Cheney has also suggested that
"If you've got an organization that has plotted or is plotting some kind of suicide bomber attack, for example, and they have evidence of who it is and where they're located, I think there's some justification in their trying to protect themselves by preempting."
The formal position of the U.S. Government is conveyed in Executive Order 12333, signed by President Ronald Reagan, directing that "no person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination." According to the Washington Post, "the original version was signed in 1976 by President Gerald R. Ford in the wake of public disclosure in 1975 that the CIA, with White House support, had attempted assassinations in the 1950s and 1960s of Cuban President Fidel Castro and leaders in the Congo and the Dominican Republic" (Source: Walter Pincus, Washington Post 1998).

However, one can't help but note the "selective targeting" of Al Qaeda members in counter-terrorist operations (the most recent being a Pakistani air-strike which killed two senior members of Al Qaeda and the son-in-law of its No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri (New York Times Jan. 19, 2006). How does this differ from the present strategy of Israel?

At this time, Israel is faced with the threat of Iran, a nation that has barely concealed its active seeking nuclear arms, and whose president has stated that Israel should be "wiped off the map," and "God willing, with the force of God behind it, we shall soon experience a world without the United States and Zionism."

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Sunday, January 23, 2005

Narnia & Lord of the Rings - Staying True to the Word

(Via Bill Cork): Peter Jackson In Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema's the Lord of the Rings, a book by Greg Wright, contributing editor for HollywoodJesus.com (and manager of their Lord of the Rings section). For a preview, see "Looking at Tolkien trilogy in a new way" (Naples Daily News January 22, 2005), about a roundtable discussion between Peter Jackson & company with "religion news specialists" and film critics.

Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens knew that Tolkien's traditional Catholic faith had deeply influenced "The Lord of the Rings." Their goal was to keep the "spirit of Tolkien" intact while producing films for modern audiences. They said they had vowed not to introduce new elements into the tale that would clash with Tolkien's vision.

"You would have to say that these are extremely gifted people and that they showed incredible dedication and integrity," said Wright. "But the questions remain: What is the spirit of Tolkien? How well do Jackson, Walsh and Boyens understand the spirit of Tolkien?"

Read the article and judge for yourself. It's rather amazing how Tolkien's distinctly Catholic spirituality managed to survive (to some extent) on screen -- despite the fact that the director, screenwriters (and ja good portion of the cast) did not share Tolkien's religous worldview. In fact, judging from their comments below, Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens can at best be described as espousing a rather lukewarm humanism:

Jackson was blunt: "I don't know whether evil exists. You see stuff happening around the world and you believe it probably does. . . . I think that evil exists within people. I don't know whether it exists as a force outside of humanity."

Walsh and Boyens emphasized that the books are about faith, hope, charity and some kind of life after death. What about sin? "You don't fall if you have faith," said Boyens, and true faith is about "holding true to yourself" and "fellowship with your fellow man."

"Lord of the Rings," she said, is about the "enduring power of goodness, that we feel it in ourselves when we perceive it in others in small acts every day. ... That gives you reason to hope that it has significance for all of us as a race, as mankind, that we're evolving and getting better rather than becoming less, diminishing ourselves through hatred and cruelty. We need to believe that."

I agree with Wright's assessment: "I think that you can find Tolkien's vision in these movies if you already know where to look. But if you don't understand Tolkien's vision on your own, you may or may not get it." I imagine a lot of kids who will see the films as pure and simple fantasy, a glorified Dungeons & Dragons adventure on the big screen, and nothing more -- certainly impressive, but quickly forgotten as they move on next summer's blockbuster. Of course one would hope they would be sufficiently enticed to read the books.

* * *

The issue of faithful translation are raised by Walt Disney Studios' production of C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe -- part of what may become a film adaption of the entire Chronicles of Narnia.

C.S. Lewis' Christianity seems to me even more explicit in his writing than Tolkien's. Even as a first grader, it wasn't hard to discern the allegorical sense of the passion, "crucifixion" and resurrection of Aslan the Lion. So when I heard it was being produced by Disney Studios (in its latter days hardly a haven for Christian morality), and by the director of Shrek, who is reported to have said: "I don't want to make a movie based on the book. I want to make a movie based on my recollection of the book" (MoviesOnline.ca). Granted, the directors must be granted a certain amount of creative liberty filling in the details. But my initial thought was that the cinematic version of Narnia -- in the hands of Disney -- would only appear on screen after having undergone a drastic de-Christianization under the scrutiny of the Grand Enforcers of Political Correctnesstm.

However, my confidence is boosted by the discovery that C.S. Lewis' stepson Douglas Gresham is serving as co-producer, with the specific intent on seeing that the movies stay true to the stories of his father, as well as by this report from NarniaWeb.Com:

Is this going to be a secularized Hollywood version or will C.S. Lewis' Christian themes stay intact? - It's no secret that C.S. Lewis was an outspoken Christian and his faith was woven throughout everything he wrote. Narnia is no exception and much of the stories are allegorical in nature. Will Hollywood have its way and strip out Lewis' spiritual messages? Not so, promises Douglas Gresham, co-producer and stepson of Lewis himself. A committed Christian, Gresham has vowed not to “change the words of the master.” Indeed, Walden Media itself has a track record of family-friendly films so it seems that the film will be in good hands. Many are concerned that Disney's influence will water down the Christian themes which run through the Narnia stories, but it's important to remember that Walden Media is ultimately in charge of the film, not Disney.

Richard Taylor and WETA Workshop -- chief special-effects, weapons and armor architects of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings -- is developing the creatures and the world of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. An impressive featurette on their handwork bringing Lewis' world to life is now online. The film is scheduled to be released on December 9, 2005.

Related Links:

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Monday, August 16, 2004

The Last Temptation of Christ

In the same article that published the "top 100 Pro-Catholic Films," the National Catholic Register also had a panel of movie critics select the top ten anti-Catholic movies -- here's the list, in their opinion:

1. The Order (2003)
2. The Magdalene Sisters (2002)
3. Sister Mary Explains it All (2001)
4. Chocolat (2000)
5. Stigmata (1999)
6. Dogma (1999)
7. Elizabeth (1998)
8. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
9. Priest (1994)
10. Agnes of God (1985)

I will say that Stigmata and The Order and were absolutely painful to watch, with dialogue and plotlines so utterly deplorable they were not only anti-Catholic but constituted an offense to the art of cinema in general, and Sister Mary Explains It All was maliciously anti-Catholic, no doubt about it.

However, I disagree with what Steven Greydanus, movie reviewer for Decent Films.com and the National Catholic Register, had to say about Martin Scorsese' The Last Temptation of Christ:

"The Last Temptation of Christ may be as profoundly offensive to Catholic sensibilities as it's possible for a film to be. Everything in it seems perfectly calibrated to trample on everything Catholics hold dear, from the depiction of Jesus as a fallible, fallen, virtually schizophrenic basket case, to its dismissive depiction of St. Peter and contrasting heroic portrait of Judas, to small touches like the deeply subversive image of the tempter (in the guise of a young girl) kissing the sacred wounds as she draws out the nails and takes Jesus down from the cross." 1

It is very interesting how two people can watch a movie and walk away with so utterly different impressions. For all of its flaws (theologically and cinematically), I found The Last Temptation to be an overall decent, profoundly moving and spiritually-enriching film. Unlike the others mentioned, it did not strike me as being in the least way intentionally or maliciously anti-Catholic. Nor does it make any claim to being an accurate representation of the Gospels (Scorcese in fact begins the film with a disclaimer to that effect).

For those who haven't seen it, "the last temptation" is the call of the Devil to Jesus to descend from the cross, abandon his Father's divine mandate, and live an ordinary life together with the joys of marriage, sex and family (the reenactment of which is depicted in a dream sequence in the latter half). It was a cinematic adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis' fictional meditation on the struggle between spirit and the flesh and the implications of Christ's assumption of humanity, about which he writes in his spiritual memoir, Report to Greco (1961):

My principal anguish, and the wellspring of all my joys and sorrows, has been the incessant merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh. . . . Every man partakes of the divine nature in both his spirit and his flesh. That is why the mystery of Christ is not simply a mystery for a particular creed; it is universal. . . . Struggle between the flesh and the spirit, rebellion and resistance, reconciliation and submission, and finally-the supreme purpose of the struggle-union with God: this was the ascent taken by Christ, the ascent which he invites us to take as well, following in his bloody tracks. . . .

If we are to be able to follow him, we must have a profound knowledge of His conflict, we must relive his anguish. . . . In order to mount to the Cross, the summit of sacrifice, and to God, the summit of immateriality, Christ passed through all the stages which the man who struggles passes through. All-and that is why his suffering is so familiar to us; that is why we pity him, and why his final victory seems to us so much our own future victory. That part of Christ's nature which was profoundly human helps us to understand him and love him and to pursue his Passion as though it were our own. If he had not within him this warm human element, he would never be able to touch our hearts with such assurance and tenderness; he would not be able to become a model for our lives. We struggle, we see him struggle also, and we find strength. We see that we are not all alone in the world; he is fighting at our side. . . . This book was written because I wanted to offer a supreme model to the man who struggles; I wanted to show him that he must not fear pain, temptation, or death-because all three can be conquered, all three have already been conquered. 2

One may justifiably criticize this film as being theologically and biblically inaccurate, and unorthodox. -- it is true that The Last Temptation's depiction of Jesus' humanity is excessive: as one suffering a perpetual identity crisis, subjected to voices and visions, questioning his divine calling.

But, if we accept the fact that Jesus, contra docetism, took on our humanity, and that he was "in every respect tested as we are, yet without sinning"" (Hebrews 4:15), then it seems to me entirely plausible that the Devil might, as Kazantzakis imagined, tempt him with the legitimate goods of an ordinary earthly life. And while such a film might be unorthodox, I would have to disagree with Mr. Greydanus that The Last Temptation was deliberately made to be "perfectly calibrated to trample on everything Catholics hold dear." Rather, I find myself inclined to agree with the conclusions of this article in First Things:

. . . And yet, many members of the opening day audiences who defied pickets and anathemas to see the film found it very moving. While opposition to the film is understandable, I believe it to have been in many ways wrongheaded. The fact that The Last Temptation of Christ has become shorthand for cultural degradation ought to disturb anyone who wants to preserve art's power to engage the moral imagination. If cultural conservatism is not to produce a backlash against itself, we must distinguish between seriously attempted efforts within the legitimate bounds of artistic creativity and ad hoc throwaways like Piss Christ . . .

. . . The film, like the book, seems to take as given that God exists, that Jesus is the Messiah, that he performs miracles, and that the culmination of his mission lies not in social gospel or liberation theology or societal revolution or even ethical teaching, but in the Cross and all the Cross entails. Medved's comparison to King David is inaccurate inasmuch as this Jesus, far from ending in bitterness and disillusionment, realizes that his "last temptation" has come from Satan, repudiates it, and in the film's final frames triumphantly declaims on the Cross, "It is accomplished. It is accomplished." 3


  1. "Anti-Catholic Films Meet Their Match", by Tim Drake. National Catholic Register August 8-14, 2004.
  2. "The Last Temptation Reconsidered", Carol Iannone. First Things (February 1996): 50-54.
  3. Ibid.

Related Links:

  • Nikos Kazantzakis (1983-1957) introduction to the author and his works.
  • Hollywood Jesus' discusssion of The Last Temptation.
  • I'll also add that Peter Gabriel's soundtrack to the film, simply titled Passion, is nothing short of brilliant. The soundtrack of The Passion of the Christ has been compared to Gabriel's original work, and composer John Debnney made use of the same violinist.
  • To be fair, here is the full review from Steven D. Greydanus of The Last Temptation. So who do you agree with? -- Carol Iannone or Mr. Greydanus?

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Sunday, June 27, 2004

The Passion over Fahrenheit 911

Liberals are fawning over Michael Moore's "mockumentary" Fahrenheit 911 with a religious furvor akin to Catholic zeal for Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ. Does anybody else find the sentiments expressed in this review by Stewart Klawans for The Nation oddly familar to those expressed by Christians exiting the theater after seeing Gibson's dramatization?:

You don't much monitor your own reactions. But then, as you leave the movie house, you might notice that the sidewalk chatter sounds oddly muffled, the traffic looks a little blurred, as you begin to realize that your attention has not come outside with you; it's still in the dark, struggling with the feelings that Fahrenheit 9/11 called up and didn't resolve. Are you outraged, heartbroken, vengeful, morose, gloating, thoughtful, electrified? Moore has elicited all of these emotions and then had the nerve--the filmmaker's nerve--to leave you to sort them out. . . . I think there are two bundles of messages in Fahrenheit 9/11, one political and one emotional--and while the first is about as ambiguous as a call to take up pitchforks and torches and storm the castle, the second is too complex to unsettle those in power. It works to unsettle you. It's what makes Fahrenheit 9/11 a real movie.

In lieu of the Stations of the Cross, watching Michael Moore reveal that the Bush administration engineered the war in Iraq with the sole motive of making profits off Arab oil and Halliburton labor contracts is something of a religious epiphany. ;-)

* * *

The reason I don't like Michael Moore is NOT because he's anti-Republican -- it's entirely possible to offer criticism of the Bush administration's handling of the war in a reasonable and civilized manner. The problem with Michael Moore is that he so effectively contributes to the dumbing down of the Left by his willing indulgence in radical conspiracy-theorizing and vulger anti-Americanism, as recently exposed by David Brooks ("All Hail Moore" New York Times June 26, 2004).

Here's Moore on how he really feels about Americans:

"They are possibly the dumbest people on the planet . . . in thrall to conniving, thieving smug [pieces of the human anatomy] . . . We Americans suffer from an enforced ignorance. We don't know about anything that's happening outside our country. Our stupidity is embarrassing. . . .

"That's why we're smiling all the time. You can see us coming down the street. You know, `Hey! Hi! How's it going?' We've got that big [expletive] grin on our face all the time because our brains aren't loaded down."

Here's Moore on the complexities of the U.S. - Iraqi conflict (in an interview with the Japanese press):

"The motivation for war is simple. The U.S. government started the war with Iraq in order to make it easy for U.S. corporations to do business in other countries. They intend to use cheap labor in those countries, which will make Americans rich."

And here's Moore -- in his message posted on his website, April 14, 2004 -- on the Islamic fundamentalists who are ambushing our troops and beheading hostages:

"The Iraqis who have risen up against the occupation are not `insurgents' or `terrorists' or `The Enemy.' They are the REVOLUTION, the Minutemen, and their numbers will grow -- and they will win."

This coming from a self-proclaimed "filthy-rich multi-millionare" who portrays himself on screen as a scruffy blue-collar "man of the people" while living in a posh apartment in Manhattan and demanding up to $38,000 in "speaking fees" for a single engagement at Kansas University.

In related news, Ralph Nader accused Moore of selling out his friends for the Democratic Party Establishment in an open letter to his website.

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Monday, March 29, 2004

Thoughts On Seeing The Passion

I saw The Passion of The Christ today. Enough has been blogged about it that I don't think I can add anything new to the discussion (see a roundup of previous reviews here). However, I'll jot down some post-viewing reflections for those interested:

Subject to the readings of the gospel accounts every Easter, the repitition of the liturgy every Sunday, I think it is entirely possible to become de-sensitized, to hear but not listen, to lose our grasp of what happened on that day on Calvary and the meaning it has -- or it should have -- on every conscious moment of our life as Christians. Kierkegaard touched on this ever-present danger in his journal, when he stressed the necessity of appropriating the truth in one's own life:

What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not what I must know, except in the way knowledge must precede all action. It is a question of understanding my destiny, of seeing what the Deity really wants me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. And what use here would it be if I were to discover a so-called objective truth, or if I worked my way through the philosophers' systems and were able to call them all to account on request, point out inconsistencies in every single circle? . . . What use would it be to be able to propound the meaning of Christianity, to explain many separate facts, if it had no deeper meaning for myself and for my life? [ August 1, 1835]

This, I think, is precisely the power of Gibson's film, and the reason why it has been appreciated so greatly by so many Christians: it helps to make the passion true for us. It takes the gospel accounts -- Christ's agony in the garden, Peter's thrice-denial, the scourging, the 'Way of the Cross' -- and brings them to cinematic life, tangible, physical, and open to our experience in a way they had never quite been made before.

It was one thing to read about Peter's denial in the gospels; another for me to see it happen, to subjectively feel what Peter must have felt at that very moment, singled out and put on the spot, denying his Master not once but three times . . . to realize his betrayal when his Master glances at him from across the room (between blows); prompting myself in turn to acknowledge the countless times I myself have denied him, by my own fault, by my own sin.

It is one thing to read about Pilate "washing his hands"; another to see what might have compelled him to do so. A disgruntled politician in the backwoods of the Roman Empire, having mercilessly suppressed several Jewish revolts and now faced with the grave potential of another, passing Jesus off to Herod, and after his return attempting to reason with, then appease, an irrational mob, by scoffing "what is truth?" and proclaiming his innocence - just as guilty as the rest of us.

(Was it sympathy alone that motivated Pilate to wash his hands of the affair? -- I really have to wonder, given the circumstances: Procurator of Judaea, a legion of Roman soldiers under his command, with a scourged and bloody Jesus standing before him, his very life in his hands, expecting to hear a plea for mercy . . . and instead the unbelievable rebuke: "You have no power but what my Father in Heaven gives you"?!? -- perhaps wounded pride was a factor as well).

And what about Mary? -- I think Russell Hittinger and Elizabeth Lev put it best in First Things:

Ultimately, The Passion of the Christ is about witnessing and bearing witness. On one level, the film is calculated to make us want to turn away and go home. At the outset, Jesus tells his disciples in the garden that he doesn’t want them to see him in such a condition. He worries about what they are soon to see: a suffering servant who looks like anything but a king, and whose tortured body will seem quite beyond repair.

Thankfully, as the scenes become harder and harder to watch, the viewer is offered an example, a guide as to how we are supposed to react to the increasingly disturbing images. This comes in the form of Jesus’ mother, brilliantly played by the Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern. Though Mary is the person most affected by these shattering events, she also understands better than anyone the necessity of what her son must do, and she consents to his mission and her own role in it. She in turn shows the audience what they must do. During the scourging, we see Mary with her head lowered, barely able to support herself as she hears the incessant beating of her son. As we think to ourselves, “no mother should have to witness such a thing,” she gathers her strength, lifts her head, and continues to look. If she can, we can. Then, in the harrowing pietà scene at the end of the film, Mary looks directly out at the viewer as she holds the body of Christ, reminding us with her glance that we, too, have been witnessing these events, and that it is now we who are called to bear witness to what we have seen. Like Caravaggio’s Deposition, Gibson’s film places the bulk of responsibility on the viewer. 1

For all of this, for the opportunity to see and hear The Passion of Christ and a renewed desire to appropriate its truth for me, I thank Mel Gibson for making this film.

* * *

It does take some effort to emotionally-detach one's self from the film enough to offer some critical remarks, but for what it's worth:

  • The violence was morally offensive and assualting to the senses. Precisely as it should be. In this I am in complete agreement with S. T. Karnick (NRO, Feb. 27, 2004).

  • On the notion that the film will stir anti-semitic hatred in Christians: - once again, I concur with Russell Hittinger/Elizabeth Lev:
    Gibson denies the audience any shred of political or religious triumph, or, for that matter, defeat. Even a viewer who already knows and religiously believes in the final outcome of the story must struggle to keep watching, which is humiliating in its own right. . . . it is hard to imagine anyone coming out of Gibson’s movie with an appetite for a religiously politicized passion.

    If anything, Christians will come out of this movie not so much triumphant as humbled and chastened, having heard and seen rendered on screen our Savior's admonishment: "Forgive them, for they know not what they do"; "Love one another, as I have loved you"; "Greater love has no man than this, that he give up his life for his friends." To walk out of this film with a desire towards hatred would be an affront to the purpose and intent of this film and our religion.

    At the same time, I can understand how somebody so predisposed might find encouragement of their hatred by various depictions of the Jewish priests in the temple or, moreover, the bloodthirsty Jewish mob -- and so I am sympathetic to Jewish concerns such as those expressed in this review by Robert Horenstine (Jewish Review).

    Even so, I have noticed that notably absent from many critical reviews was mention of two overtly favorable depictions of Jewish figures: first in the temple, where several priests verbally protest the charges against Jesus and the legality of the tribunal, and who are in turn ridiculed and quickly hustled out of the room; and second on the Via Dolorosa, in the example of Simon of Cirene, claimed by Christian tradition as a believer but who is simply depicted on screen as a Jewish bystander, pulled from the crowd and made to carry the cross. At first Simon does so under protest, but later on walks together with Jesus, side by side, in solidarity and of his own accord -- a reminder for me that every Christian is called to carry the cross, and perhaps, for Jewish viewers, a premonition of the cross they would come to bear as well. 2

  • Finally, I have to say that many of those elements of the film that were extraneous to the gospel accounts did not strike me as being particulary impressive or integral to the film, and in fact served to foster needless speculation by the audience. These include Gibson's depiction of the demon under the bridge; the curse of Judas and his pursuit by demon children; the notorious "demon baby" which has contributed to so much confusion among non-Christian viewers ("where was that in the bible?") and the crow pecking out the eyes of the thief who mocks Jesus (since it happens after Jesus pleads with his Father to forgive them, this seeming act of divine vengeance couldn't come at a more inopportune time).

    The greatest moments in The Passion were by far those inspired by, or taken directly from, scripture itself (for example his depiction of Jesus' final moments with his disciples in flashbacks of The Last Supper). Those derived from Gibson's own imagination, however, could easily have been excised from the film without impeding in any way it's dramatic effect.


  1. "Gibson’s Passion", by Russell Hittinger and Elizabeth Lev. First Things 141 (March 2004): 7-10.
  2. For further explication of Chagall's painting "White Crucifixion", see "Mel Gibson Meets Marc Chagall: How Christians & Jews approach the Cross", by John A. Coleman, SJ. Commonweal Feb. 27, 2004.

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