Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The More Things Change...

Preparing for my talk tonight on Friendship and Creativity. I'm going to use Charles' journey as an artist from Brideshead Revisited to set up some ideas. So, I have been pouring through a volume of the leters of Evelyn Waugh for more insight. I came across the following passage in a letter he wrote in December 1944. It stuck me funny because I have had this same experience many times in these last ten years, and I realized that I have made the mistake of being sillily nostalgic about a time before my own. I thought people were smarter before and that somehow the Sexual Revolution deadened our brains. After all, they had better education back then. And the Church and family were in better shape.

Anyway, here is Waugh on the experience of getting wedged between the artistic sensibilities (which means actually their politics) of pious people. (I also thought it was interesting that the event he describes was going on during WWII. Funny how life goes on regardless.) It's all wrong to think of art this way - as something diverting in a completely manageable way. Again, I don't see "balance" as a holy virtue. It is something that professional religious people encourage to keep the soup kitchens and Mass schedules aright. Has nothing to do with holiness.

"I conducted a meeting for the Catholic Guild of Arts and Crafts where I won their confidence by abuse of Picasso, and then lost it with abuse of Catholic Arts and Crafts...

Then I had an excruciating week-end in a convent in Surrey conducting a "Catholic Booklovers Week-End." The nuns were very attentive with little packets of chocolate and glasses of milk covered with muslin veils and weighted with beads do you know what I mean....The sort of questions are, of course, 'Why does Mr. Greene have such a nasty mind?' and 'Is it not the duty of the artist to consider the average reader?' "
(from Letters of Evelyn Waugh, Letter to Nancy Mitford, Dec. 5, 1955)

P.S. here's a spicy bit about Brideshead from a letter of January 7, 1945:
"Lady Marchmain, no, I am not on her side; but God is, who suffers fools gladly and the book is about God. Does that answer it?"

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Oh yeah, I had an epiphany...

...the other day. About Gen X and the Millenials. I was up late watching a documentary on MSNBC about homeless teens in Portland, and I was marveling at their lack of interest in anything that might be a normal human life.

And then it popped into my head: they know it's all over and they are waiting for the call to battle. They are just killing time waiting for something to die for.

It's not that they don't understand modern society. It's that they do.

Pinky Surgery II

I have to have another operation on my pinky tomorrow. Sheesh. I feel silly even saying that. Some people have real stuff. I, have a pinky that has a problematic cyst that a second surgeon will try to fix tomorrow.

It's nothing compared to what other folks have. Although, I remember a nun saying once to me, "It's never the mountain that wears you down, but the pebble in your shoe."

Won't be blogging probably for a few days.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Hear Barb Say Something Different

Tonight, I will be giving a talk to the prayer group Holy Wood of the Cross called "Friendship and Spirituality". This is part one of two talks on friendship, the second part being next Tuesday night and will be on "Friendship and Creativity."

Those who know me well know that friendship is not a new topic for me. I did my undergraduate thesis on the topic, contrasting and comparing Cicero's De Amicitia with Aelred of Rievaulx's Spiritual Friendship. For people serious about their spiritual growth, that latter work is a must read.

We are going to talk tonight about what friendship adds to the spiritual life. And why the kind of friendship that Aristotle and Cicero and Augustine, Aelred and Aquinas wrote about is an almost lost art in the Church.

Next week, we'll talk about how holy friendships help create great art.

The talks will be at 7pm at Family Theater Productions on Sunset Blvd, just west of La Brea. Call Paula for more info: 323-464-0815.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Monster House Great Story

I don't have time to do a full review here as we are in the last weekend of the Writing Program. However, I do want to give a thumbs up to Columbia Pictures' Monster House. It's a very clever story. Really clever.

(I offer it as a beginner's textbook to those who thought that Lady in the Water was a good story. More on this later...)

My only question watching it was whether it is too creepy for the kids for whom animated films about Halloween should be the main audience. I think it would be fine for ten year olds and up. I would be wary of littler kids going - NOTE TO AL: I think it would be too much for Little John.

But it is a good piece of work. Again, a good story. Nothing extra. Great execution.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Little Miss Crass and Vulgar

Sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong century. I don't tend to think that things that lots of other people today laugh at are funny.

A case in point is the indie movie now in theatrical release called
Little Miss Sunshine. I just listened to fuzzy Gene Shalit give it a rave on Today as being an inspiring, delightful family romp (or words to that effect). This film was all the rage at Sundance this year. I didn't see it there because word was it had gotten picked up for distribution, and so I knew I could catch it later in theaters. But it was the same at Sundance. Folks there kept saying it was a charming, quirky, inspiring comedy.


Films like Little Miss Sunshine are inspiring in the way that Roseanne Barr once said her TV show Roseanne was fascinating for people: "Our family is so bad, that it makes people feel better about the hell holes that their families are."

Let's see. Inspiring moments from Little Miss Sunshine...

- the film spends a lot of time setting up the father of the family, played well by Greg Kinnear, as a total assh*le. He spends the whole film talking about the difference between winners and losers, and seems oblivious that he himself is a loser. This fact is obvious to his teenage son who describes living in the house as hell, and has dropped out from any interaction with the hypocritical jerk parents who feed and clothe him.

I don't find ridicule inspiring. I don't find it really humorous. I think it subverts what comedy should be. Comedy should make us feel humble. Ridicule leaves the audience feeling superior.

I don't think post-modernism is an excuse to break the Fourth Commandment. But, I know, lighten up, right?

- This same shaggy-haired teenage son wears a T-shirt that proclaims "Jesus Was Wrong", and makes the film's most profound philosophical speech declaring, "Going to college? F*ck that. Getting a job? F*ck that. Making a living? F*ck that. F*ck it all. F*ck everything."

Somewhere out there, I suppose Nietsche was very inspired. The audience I was with roared in approval. I didn't think it was funny. The moment was played as a profound epiphany. But it isn't really profound, is it? Don't tell the audience. They were ready to elect the character to Congress for speaking the truth. What truth is that?

I find this to be predicable of GenX and the Millenials: They say things alternately banal and profound, but they don't know the difference.

- a grandfather (played by the talented Alan Arkin, who must be really, really desperate for work) who is a cocaine addict and a sex addict. He buys porn and makes the film's most vulgar speech to his grandson, chastising the fifteen year old for not getting lots of sex, and then exhorting him to "have sex with lots of women. Lots of them. Not just one. Gets lots of sex."

Again, the audience was in stitches. Especially when the grandfather noted that in the rest home he used to live in, he got "third degree burns on my Johnson" from all the sex. The more the old man spoke filth, the funnier it got for the audience. But, I didn't think it was funny. I thought it was gross and shameful.

- a seven year old who does a protracted burlesque dance as sexualized as possible. Now, I get that the scene was meant to be satiric commentary on the whole little girl beauty pageant world. I get that. I just hated watching a seven year old do a strip tease. Or, using the film school jargon for which I paid thirty grand, I found the method of filmic satire, more problematic than the social ill it was critiquing.

Again, however, the audience was falling off its seat laughing at this scene. How funny for them to get to watch a seven year old actress mimic an exotic dancer? I didn't think it was funny. I thought it was perverse. I don't care what the filmmaker was trying to do. He doesn't get to use a seven year old to make his frickin' statement!

I would say those three moments are the vulgar lowlights of the film. The rest of it involves a family in which the father is an ambitious jerk. The mother is an impotent whiner. And, OF COURSE, the only really compassionate, intelligent and caring member of the family is the gay uncle Frank, who is recovering from having slit his wrists. (And he is the sane one.)

I found during the movie that the audience was laughing at moments in which the family's shame was particularly exposed. The humor was to point at the people in the family and sneer, "What an assh*le!" or "What a hypocrite!"

I feel absolutely sure that a legion of critics - and certainly Christians! - will passionately defend this film. They will relish its "fresh satiric critique " of post-modernity. They will say things about how wonderful it was for the family to end the film accepting each other in a stirring moment of loyalty and love. They will say that this movie is clearly just not my kind of taste, and that engaging culture means that we shouldn't get stuck on little things like vulgarity, profanity, crassness and the exaltation of meaninglessness.

They will be absurd. Swallowing camels of human degradation and straining out gnats of "niceness".

Pass on Little Miss Sunshine. It won't make you a better person. It won't make you love your neighbors more. It will fill your spirit with cynicism and sneering. Pass. Pass. Pass.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Hear Barb on Lino

Sometime early in the summer, I was interviewed for Lino at large, a radio show for Catholic Gen Xers. Spencer Lewerenz, the co-editor with me of Behind the Screen was also interviewed. Click here to hear the pieces.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Movies About Art?

This fall, I will be teaching a course called Theology for Hollywood at both the Los Angeles Film Study Center, and at Azusa Pacific University. If I think about it, I will post the syllabus as I think it is quite novel and maybe somebody else out there would like to spread the faith.

One of the elements of the course is to have the students watch a movie every week about art, beauty and artists. I need a few more suggestions of movies that would actually have something to say something profound about artists as opposed to saying things that are just raunchy - which most of the movies about artists tend to do.

Here are the ones I am thinking of using. Please let me know if you have any other suggestions. (Again, I need movies that have something to contribute to the discussion of the artist as prophet, or about the suffering of the artist, or about the power and nature of beauty.)

Babette's Feast

8 1/2

Andrei Rublev


Barton Fink


Finding Neverland

8 Mile


Yellow Submarine

Sunset Boulevard

Living in Oblivion

Lost in La Mancha


Buena Vista Social Club

Strictly Ballroom

Mad Hot Ballroom

Billy Elliot

Vincent and Theo