Sunday, February 26, 2006

Movie Report: Match Point

Woody Allen's new movie, Match Point, was playing here last weekend and it had been highly recommended by one of my anonymous readers, Becky, so I went to see it. I liked it better than any Allen movie since Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Match Point, has some common themes with Crimes and Misdemeanors. Both books have anti-heroes who appear to literally get away with murder. The parallel between both books and Dostoevsky's famous novel, Crime and Punishment are obvious. Just to make sure we get the point, Allen starts Match Point with the anti-hero, Chris, played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, reading the Dostoevsky book.

It has been a few years since I saw Crimes and Misdemeanors, but my recollection is that the bad guy in that movie gets away completely with his murder, not even suffering any regrets, while the good guy gradually loses his sight. The message in that movie seems to be the same as the Biblical phrase, "The rain falls on the just and the unjust," i.e. that evil is not punished, at least in this world. In Dostoevsky, the murderer does suffer from his crime, eventually going mad, if I remember the story correctly. In Allen's latest effort, there is at least a hint of a Dostoevsky outcome, with Chris starting to see ghosts at the end of the movie, although it is not clear (to me at least) what happens after the movie ends.

In Match Point, Allen has fun with the role of luck in the lives of his protagonists, starting the film with a voice over narrator talking about the effect of a tennis ball hitting the top of the net and then, depending on chance going over the net or falling back, with vastly different outcomes to the game. Likewise, near the end of the movie, Chris throws a ring which hits the top of a guard rail and depending on whether it goes over into the river, or bounces back has vastly different consequences.

This is not a typical Allen movie in that it is not set in New York City and none of the characters are Jewish. It is typical Allen in that his penchant for picking attractive little-known actresses to star in his movies comes up with another winner, the lovely Scarlett Johansson.

Despite the serious themes, this is a thoroughly enjoyable movie to which I gave five out of five stars.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

What's Going On in Iraq?

Not that I'm a big fan of William F. Buckley, the founder of the National Review, but it's interesting that Mr. Conservative has now concluded that the Bush Administration cannot win in Iraq; should admit defeat and withdraw the troops. See article.

In a not unrelated note, the Pentagon announced yesterday that the only Iraqi battalion that had been able to fight on its own has been downgraded and can now only fight with U.S. support. See article here.

I know the supporters of the war are not deterred by bad news. They think it is just the bad media ignoring the successes. I wonder how many more "successes" we and the Iraqis can stand.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Valentine Schtick

Here follows, slightly revised, my opening remarks as the emcee at our church's annual Valentine Dinner and Talent Show:

"February 14th was originally a pagan celebration, started by the Romans in the pre-Christian era. It involved a lot of pagan rituals, which we won't get into right now in deference to the wonderful dinner we just ate, but where do you think hearts and the color red came from? Of course it wasn't called February then, the Romans called it Februarius and the 14 was written in Roman numerals, which were hard for even the Romans to keep track of, what with all the capital letters. So there was a lot of strife between husbands and wives and boyfriends and girlfriends back then on Valentinius. (The Day was added until later.)

"The wife or girlfriend, not noticing any hyssop (they didn't have roses back then)or any scrolls from Hallmarkius, would say, 'Maximilius, do you know what day this?' and Maximilius would reply, 'Sure, Honeyius, it's X-I-V.' Then poor Maximilius would have to try to figure out what X-I-V stood for.

"'Let's see, the X is ten and the V is five and the I is one, so it must be Februarius 16th,' but then his wife or girlfriend would have to correct him, 'No, Maximilius, remember when the I is in front of a letter, you take away a number,' so then they would get in an argument whether the I was behind the X, in which case, the I combined with the X to make 11 plus five for the V to make 16, or in front of the V, in which case,the X made 10 and the I and the V combined to make 4,for a total of 14. By the time Honeyius had Maximilius convinced it was Valentine's it was too late to send the slave to the market to pick up some chocolate, and they only had bitter sweet chocolate back then anyway, so why bother. Besides which they were too irritated with each other for romance in any event. So, there were a lot of fights and breakups and society generally just wasn't as happy as it is today.

"When the Catholics took over the Western world in about 500 A.D., they decided to make some changes, some of which were good and some not so good. First of all, they dropped the "ius" endings from all the names, so Februarius became February, Maximimilius became just plain old Max and Valentinius became Valentine's. And to make it easier to remember all the Hallmark holidays, they decided to drop the antiquated Roman numeral system and just go with the plain numbers without the letters.

"That worked a lot better, but the Catholics also decided it wouldn't do to observe a pagan holiday, so they Christianized Valentine's by naming it after a Catholic saint, who, coincidentally, was named St. Valentine and his last name, coincidentally, was Day. Hence "St. Valentine Day." The problem with naming a holiday that for thousands of years had been associated with love and romance after a Catholic saint was that the saint was celibate, as were all Catholic saints. And really, the important thing about St. Valentine Day was that he had tried to convert the Emperor Claudius, and having failed that, Claudius had imprisoned him and eventually beheaded him.

"For about a thousand years, St. Valentine Day, was a rather somber affair, with the church reminding everyone of the virtues of chastity, and just to keep anyone from getting any romantic ideas in their heads, remembering the decapitation of St. Valentine Day by having symbolic, and occasionally, if a heretic was spotted among the peasants, not-so-symbolic, beheadings. Cards were rather expensive before Guttenberg invented the printing press, because sending a card involved hiring a couple of monks to hand draw the thing, and by the time they got it done, it was the Fourth of July and kind of beside the point.

"Hallmark was on the verge of bankruptcy because people had gotten out of the habit of celebrating St. Valentine Day, and then, luckily the Reformation came along. There were two things that had Menno Simons really upset about the Catholic church. One was the baptism of babies, but the second thing was the celebration of St. Valentine Day (you won't find this in many of the theologies and church histories, but if you look hard, I'm sure there is a footnote somewhere that will confirm this.) Menno Simons had been a Catholic priest who had been celibate all of his life, and then had gotten married and discovered the joys of love (this was just before he invented car wax.)

"So, an early tenet of the church that Menno started was that February 14th would be called just 'Valentine's Day,' no more references to any martyred saint, no more symbolic beheadings and no more actual eating of Christ's flesh or drinking of his blood. Instead, all the blood would be replaced with candy, chocolate usually, and flowers and people would send cards to each other proclaiming their love. This was actually part of the original Schleitheim Confession, but through a transcription error was left off. You can look it up. Someplace. So enjoy the evening, but for the sake of your significant other, try to forget about the origins of the day."

Monday, February 13, 2006

Shooting Your Friend

This business of Vice President Cheney shooting his 78-year-old hunting companion seems really strange to me. I have to confess up front that I am not much of a hunter. I went hunting once, when I was 15 years old, with a little .22 caliber rifle that I inherited from my great-grandfather. After tramping around the farm for several hours and not seeing any rabbits to shoot at, I shot the rifle into a woodpile, then put it away and never had any hankering to go hunting again. Somehow in our moves, which were coming about every three years 35 years ago, I lost the rifle. I have had some pangs of regret for losing a family heirloom, but not because I wanted to hunt with it.

Non-hunter that I am, I don't understand how you can shoot someone behind you and have it be the victim's fault. I know the story coming out of Texas is that Harry Whittington, the victim, should have yelled out that he was coming up from behind the other three hunters but that does not have the ring of truth to me. There were only four hunters in the party, so it's not like there were so many people that it was hard to keep track of who was where. Everyone in the party was carrying loaded guns so I would think that no one pulls the trigger until he or she knows where everyone else is located.

Then there's the business of keeping it secret from the American public until after the Sunday talk shows were over, almost 24 hours after the incident. I heard Scott McClellan saying that the reason was that the Vice President was concerned with getting medical treatment for Whittington, but that didn't take 24 hours. And was he personally, giving him treatment? I think not since an ambulance crew was standing by. And what's this with the Vice President going hunting accompanied by an ambulance crew? What kind of sport is that?

I'm sure the late night comics will have a field day with this incident. I would feel more like laughing if I wasn't so worried that this is only the latest instance of our leaders acting before they think.

Now for a prediction. I don't think Dick Cheney will serve out his term. I think the controversy around him is so distracting that he will be jettisoned for a new vice president who can then run for office in 2008 with the advantage of incumbency.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Movie Report: Brokeback Mountain

I first read the short story, "Brokeback Mountain" by Annie Proulx when it appeared in The New Yorker in 1999 and thought it was a good story. Today, I went to see what all the hullabaloo about the movie was about and think it is a good movie. It is not a great movie that will live as a classic, in my opinion, because it depends too heavily on the novelty of a mainstream movie about two gay men whose love is doomed. In 40 years, the idea that a love story between two gay cowboys is a great movie because of its subject matter will seem as dated as the idea 40 years ago that "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," was a great movie because of its interracial subject matter.

I am a fan of many of the people involved in making this movie. Annie Proulx, who won the Pulitizer Prize and the National Book Award in 1993 for "The Shipping News" is one of my favorite authors. Her personal story would make a movie more interesting to me personally than "Brokeback Mountain." According to the bio on her web site she went through three marriages before giving up and deciding that she was not well-suited for marriage. In 1975 (at age 40) she started freelance journalism and lived in "considerable poverty" in a shack in Vermont, for several years. Although she had several short stories published in Esquire, her first book didn't appear until 1988 (when she was 53.) Of course her career took off with "The Shipping News," which was also made into a movie, and "Accordian Crimes." She must be rich now with two successful books that have been made into movies. So, maybe there is hope yet for us aging wannebe writers but I really don't want to go live in "considerable poverty" to get my writing ticket.

Larry McMurtry, who shares screenplay writing credits for the movie, is another one of my favorite authors. Although probably best known for "The Lonesome Dove" book and television series, the McMurtry book that I liked the best was his 1999 novel, "Duane's Depressed." Finally, Ang Lee, director of "Brokeback Mountain" is a well respected director for movies like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "The Ice Storm," and "The Hulk." I was not a big fan of "Crouching Tiger" and "The Ice Storm" and didn't see "The Hulk." Lee has a local connection, being a graduate of our local university.

The scenery in "Brokeback Mountain" is beautiful; the music (other than Willie Nelson's song at the end) is annoying in its repetitive little tune and the acting is average. The main problem is the plot can't stand up to the weight of all the publicity and expectations that has been placed upon it. Again, I am not knocking the story, it was a good short story, but no one was touting the short story as Pulitizer Prize winning. I reread the short story again (my best Christmas present this year was a DVD collection of every New Yorker magazine from its beginning to 2005) before going to see the movie. Surprisingly, the movie stays very true to the original Proulx story. In the website I cited earlier, Proulx says this may be the closest any movie has ever come to being like the story upon which it was based. I wouldn't argue against that point, although several small scenes were added.

I thought the gay sex scenes might bother me more than they did. I was prepared to be grossed out but the short story's sex scenes were more explicit than the movie's. Like some of my friends who saw the movie, I did not think the sex scenes were a major part of the movie, and they were "tastefully" done, or at least as "tasteful" as such scenes can be done.

I would recommend seeing the movie because it is better than average, and one needs to be aware of what the hoopla in our culture is about. I gave it four stars, which is what I have given all of the movies I have seen so far this year. Under my rating system three stars is average, so either I have hit an above-average run of movies or my standards are slipping.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

A Thought About Time

I don't know why it has taken me nearly 60 years to get to John Steinbeck's "East of Eden." I think I was probably, subconsciously at least, scared away by the bleakness of "Grapes of Wrath," which I read in high school, although several years ago, I read "Travels With Charley," which is a marvelously funny and interesting book. Anyway, my reading group decided to read "East of Eden," and it is a wonderful book. This morning I read the following passage, which struck me as a perfect insight:

"Time interval is a strange and contradictory matter in my mind. It would be reasonable to suppose that a routine time or an eventless time would seem interminable. It should be so, but it is not. It is the dull eventless times that have no duration whatever. A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy -- that's the time that seems long in memory. And this is right when you think about it. Eventlessness has no posts to drape duration on. From nothing to nothing is no time at all."

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Laughing at Mohammed

My walking buddy yesterday morning was ranting about the reaction in the Muslim world to the publication in Danish newspapers of cartoons depicting and making fun of Mohammed. To Christian sensibilities, it is a brouhaha about nothing. As my friend pointed out, in the United States, we put up with Serrano's "Piss Christ," a picture of a cross in a container of human urine or with making an image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, out of elephant dung and hanging it in the Brooklyn Museum of Art (not without our own controversy and inflammatory remarks by political and religious leaders.)

Without condoning mob violence, however, I think it is too facile to compare Muslim reaction to the depiction of Mohammed with Christian reaction to the depiction of Jesus. Among, apparently, fundamentalist Muslims, it is forbidden to have any images of humans or animals, because that is, or might lead to, idolatry. To depict the last and final prophet, Mohammed, and in a way that makes fun of him is the ultimate sacrilege. While Christians are against idolatry, icons of various sorts have been part of Christian culture for thousands of years. To say that Christians, for whom depictions of Jesus are no big deal, do not riot when confronted with negative depictions, therefore Muslims should accept the mocking cartoons of Mohammed is comparing things that are not equal. There is no rule (at least in mainline Christianity, my own background excepted) against images of Jesus. There is such a rule in Islam against images of Mohammed.

Perhaps I am more sympathetic to the Muslim position because of my own upbringing as an Amish boy. Amish, as most people know, believe it violates the commandment against graven images to have photographs taken of themselves, and do not like tourists snapping their pictures. Amish people do not riot when someone snaps their picture, but their religion does not have the same evangelicalism that Islam does.

Personally, I think the cartoons are funny. I particularly like the one with a flustered Mohammed facing a line of newly-arrived martyrs in heaven saying, "Stop, stop, we've run out of virgins." I believe in freedom of the press. I am not in favor of censorship of the media, even when the media publishes things that are offensive to a segment, or even a majority of the population. People who want the publication only of the "truth" want to be the bosses of what the "truth" is, and as citizens of many totalitarian countries have learned, when someone at the top is regulating the press, the end result is nothing but an accumulation of lies.

This is another one of those conundrums where there is no easy solution. How to balance respect for religious beliefs, sincerely and fervently held, with the need to permit publication of whatever people want to publish is very difficult. I would strike the balance with freedom of the press. We all need to be able to laugh at ourselves, and that includes those of us who are Muslims.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Movie Report: Looking for Comedy

A lot of reviewers think the problem with the new Albert Brooks movie, "Looking for Comedy in a Muslim World," is that it's not funny. I disagree. It is funny, but in a low-key, smiling sort of way, not in an uproarious guffawing kind of funny.

The premise of the movie is that the United States State Department, realizing that we understand very little about Muslims decides to send a comic, Albert Brooks, playing Albert Brooks, to India and Pakistan to research what makes Muslims laugh and then to write a 500-page report, which will earn him the Medal of Freedom. It doesn't matter that India is mostly Hindu, Brooks is told by Fred Thompson, playing himself, Muslim, Hindu, they're all alike. Granted, that's not the kind of humor that will make your sides ache from laughing, but it made me smile.

After Brooks gets to India, his first attempt, interviewing people on the street about what they think is funny, doesn't get him very far so he decides to put on a free show and have an assistant take notes on what makes the people attending it laugh. He puts on the kind of show that he apparently used to do as a young comic in the United States; a ventriloquist bit as an incompetent ventriloquist, an improvisation bit in which he changes all the audience suggestions to do what he was going to do anyway, stupid kindergarten jokes, "(Why is there no Halloween in India? Because there is no Gandhi,)" and predictably his act falls flat. It is so bad that it is funny. At one point, nobody in the audience having cracked a chuckle, he asks whether anyone speaks English. They all raise their hands. That was one of my laugh out loud moments.

After being unable to make any Indians laugh, who speak English perfectly, Brooks was smuggled through the barbed wire over the border into Pakistan where he spent several hours doing his act in a terrorist camp where no one, except his interpreter spoke English. They were an appreciative audience, laughing uproariously, although one got the feeling that perhaps the interpreter was juicing up the lines a little. Al-Jazeeri, the Arab television station, found out about Brooks's presence in the area and brought him in to offer him a role in a new sit-com, "That Darn Jew."

There werre only three other people in the showing I attended Sunday afternoon, one of whom I noticed was a Sikh. After the movie, I spotted him, his wife and his very-Americanized daughter in the lobby of the theater. Although Sikh's are not Muslims, the religion originated in north India, and I was curious what Indians thought about the movie. So I went up to the man and said, "Excuse me, I noticed you were in the theater for 'Looking for Comedy in a Muslim World,' I'm curious what you thought about the movie. Did you think it was funny?" "No," he replied emphatically. "It was not funny. That's why so few people were in the theater." His daughter said something about Brooks's comedy being very dry and low key, but I left them, grinning to myself. I think Brooks did find comedy in a "Muslim world." The problem is that the world, Muslim and otherwise, thinks it can't laugh at subtle humor. I thought the movie deserved four stars (out of five.)