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Compression of Character: The Two-Hour Test

2 Dec

“Two hours of life are always two hours. A great many things may turn up in even as little a while as that.”
 ~ Robert Louis Stevenson

“Did you hear that Stan Lee died?”

“Stanley who?”

I wasn’t present for that exchange, but I have it on good authority that it happened. The uninformed respondent was my wife, Nancy, who clearly isn’t tapped into the Marvel Comics Universe the way the rest of the country (the world?) has.

Which is why she rarely joins me and our kids in taking in the latest installments of the MCU canon at the theaters, and she’s even less inclined to sit down to watch our favorites with us at home. She can tolerate Captain America and Tom Holland’s adolescent Spider-Man, but Iron Man? X-Men? All the Avengers drama, especially at the end of “Infinity War” (2018)? Marvel just hasn’t been Nancy’s cup of tea. Her tastes run more along the Jane line – Jane Eyre, Jane Austen, you get what I mean.

Enter Ant-Man. “C’mon, honey,” I told her as we were popping the “Ant-Man and the Wasp” (2018) DVD into the machine, “I really think you’ll like it.” Nick and Kath, our youngest, added their voices to the chorus, and she relented.

And you know what? She kinda liked it! A couple nights later we convinced her to watch the “Ant-Man” (2015) origin story, and she liked that even more. The clumsy goofiness of Ant-Man’s Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) appealed to her, and his obvious commitment to be a good dad – despite his divorce, despite his shortcomings and failings – won her over.

Dare I say that she’s a fan now? Well, that might be a stretch, but she’s definitely come around to the MCU camp – at least the Ant-Man corner of it.

But how’d that happen? What transpired to bump Nancy over the speed bump of her comic-book misgivings to give Ant-Man a chance – especially after such a relatively diminutive (pun intended) cinematic exposure?

Chalk it up to the magic of filmmaking. In a couple hours on average, filmmakers patch together images, dialogue, and music in such a way – such an artful, subtle way (yes, even MCU filmmakers) – that audiences connect with the characters on the screen, come to care about them and their stories, and leave theaters changed by the encounter. At least that’s what’s supposed to happen. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s marvelous (pun intended again).

Nancy’s two-hour Ant-Man conversion was fresh in my consciousness when I chanced upon Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story, “The Sire de Malétroit’s Door” (1877). The narrative takes place during the Hundred Years War in a town dually occupied by English and Burgundian forces. Denis de Beaulieu, a dashing and cocky young cavalier is returning home late at night and gets lost. When his movements are detected by hostile sentries, he retreats to the dark portico of an imposing mansion and draws his sword to defend his life.

As he leans back on a door to steady himself for the fight, he finds that it gives way to a pitch-black interior. Denis, grateful for this seemingly providential boon, slips inside and the door slams shut – almost as if by design.

Although safe now from his enemies without, Denis finds himself trapped within, and so he turns into the strange room and spots a sliver of light at the top of some stairs. When he reaches the light, he enters a room and comes face to face with the mansion’s owner, Alain, Sire de Malétroit. “Pray step in,” he tells Denis. “I have been expecting you all the evening.”

It quickly becomes evident, at least to Monsieur de Beaulieu (and the reader), that there’s been a mistake. The Sire had set the door-trap for an unknown suitor who’d been sending love letters to Blanche, de Malétroit’s niece and ward. De Beaulieu denies any knowledge of the affair, and he is backed up by Blanche when they finally meet. “That is not the man!” she cries out. “My uncle, that is not the man!”

The cruel, exacting de Malétroit, determined to undo the purported dishonor Blanche’s romance has brought to the family name, dismisses the couple’s entreaties and offers them a choice: Marry, on the spot, or Denis will be hanged. The distressed Blanche, of course, is horrified. It was bad enough that she was to be forced to marry a man she was in love with; now she was to be compelled to marry a stranger.

And Denis? He nobly demurs, and, while paying Blanche every courtesy and compliment, suggests an alternative avenue of resolution. “I believe there are other ways of settling such imbroglios among gentlemen,” he nobly tells the Sire. “You wear a sword, and I hear you have used it with distinction.”

Alas, the Sire had anticipated such a reaction, and he reveals to Denis that a large party of armed men are ready to impose their master’s will. Nonetheless, de Malétroit is not totally unreasonable in his demands. “As the bridegroom is to have a voice in the matter, I will give him two hours to make up for lost time before we proceed with the ceremony.”

Two hours – two measly hours to find out about another’s character and worldview, virtues and weaknesses, history and aspirations. Not only that, but to do so with an eye toward making a lifelong commitment, or forfeiting life itself. Now, I’m not about to spoil this excellent story for anybody by divulging its conclusion – although you might have some idea of where it’s headed. Regardless, if you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so – here’s a link to the text if you don’t have a copy ready at hand.

The point at issue is that two hours. Apparently, it’s enough time for filmmakers to help us get to know and like (or dislike) their characters. Is it enough time for real people to get to know each other? Put another way, if I really did only have two hours to sum up who I am, how would I do it? What would I say? Better yet, what would I do? And if I only had that much time to get to know someone else, what would I ask? What would I look for?

Take it further: What if I had even less time – say, a half hour instead of two, or maybe even just two minutes flat (like a movie trailer). The stakes are rarely so high as they were for Blanche and Denis, but aren’t most of our encounters with strangers more along such briefer lines? What impressions do I make? Do I look into people’s eyes with curiosity and compassion? Do I listen to them? Am I present to them?

That is, how do I conduct myself when I only have two minutes with another? Is the me I reveal who I want it to be?

Thomas Merton once commented that “the saint preaches sermons by the way he walks, and the way he stands and the way he sits down and the way he picks things up and holds them in his hand.” It stands to reason that sinners preach in a similar way. What kinds of sermons am I preaching in my chance encounters? I want my life to preach holiness – I want to be a saint.

“It is never too late to begin,” says de Malétroit in Stevenson’s story. He meant it as a challenge to the cornered Monsieur de Beaulieu. I’ll take it as a word of Advent hope.
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Four Agonizing Movie Scenes

26 Jul

“There’s so many good things.”
~ Peter Falk

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The Childlike Appeal of Murder Mysteries

15 Jul

The romance of the police force is thus the whole romance of man. It is based on the fact that morality is the most dark and daring of conspiracies.
~ G.K. Chesterton

“Just what kind of movies do you like?”

We were sitting around the dinner table discussing cinematic tastes. Katharine, my youngest, was being a bit evasive; Benedict, my oldest, was drawing her out.

Kath paused, looked straight at Ben, and then blurted, “I like murders.”

Maybe not the answer you’d expect from a 12-year-old, but I wasn’t surprised. I’d been treating my kids to a steady summer diet of sleuthing and homicide. First it was a DVD season of “Murder She Wrote” from the library, and then on to Agatha Christie – Miss Marple, yes, but especially the ITV version of her Belgian eccentric, Hercule Poirot (David Suchet). His accent and fastidiousness have grown on us, along with the wide-eyed, perpetual bewilderment of his sidekick, Captain Hastings.

Our routine involves popping in the disc, getting settled with our snacks, and then launching into speculation as soon as the principals start showing up on the screen. Often, I’m trying to finish up the dinner dishes as the proceedings commence. “Is there a corpse yet?” I’ll call out from the kitchen.

“Nope, not yet,” Kath or somebody calls back. “But hurry – there’ll be one soon!”

By definition, murder mysteries will have a victim – at least one, sometimes more. The murder method also varies: a stabbing here, an electrocution there, gunshots, poisons, blunt trauma – who knows? Regardless of how or how many, death sets the stage – it’s the unquestioned given, the backdrop before which the narrative unfolds.

Yet, the TV murder mysteries we enjoy don’t involve anything grisly or shocking. These aren’t slasher flicks, so the deed itself is a muted part of the drama. When it’s over and done with, we get to the real fun: joining up with the sleuths to solve the crime. We gasp and laugh, talk to the screen and each other, and amend our conjectures along the way – sometimes twice, sometimes more. By tale’s end, the family score is tallied – who was right, who was wrong – and we head off to bed.

Sweet dreams!

That might sound a bit weird, but my follow-up with Kath after dinner confirmed my intuition that our familial enjoyment of the genre was pretty healthy. “Why do you like murder?” I asked.

“I like guessing who’s going to be killed – and who’s the killer,” Kath explained. “I don’t like killing, but I like figuring it out – it’s a puzzle, and the obvious ones are never right.”

In this, Kath instinctively paid tribute to Chesterton’s observation that “mysterious murders belong to the grand and joyful company of the things called jokes,” and kids love jokes. A good joke, like a good mystery, fools us. We fall for an unseen juxtaposition or association that both surprises and satisfies.

Chesterton further argues that a mystery is like

a toy, a thing that children ‘pretend’ with…. From this it follows that the reader, who is a simple child and therefore very wide awake, is conscious not only of the toy but of the invisible playmate who is the maker of the toy, and the author of the trick.

And since the “innocent child is very sharp and not a little suspicious,” a good mystery creator will gift his audience an experience that simultaneously confounds and confirms. It’ll make sense in the end, no matter how bewildering the preceding series of events. “The climax must not be only the bursting of a bubble,” Chesterton insists, “but rather the breaking of a dawn.”

This enlightenment was referenced by Katharine in a further reflection on her murder mystery enthusiasm. “And I like seeing the bad guy get caught,” she said, adding this astute assessment: “It’s always money – always greed. I want money, too, but I’m not going to kill for it.” Although her nuanced insight regarding mammon and avarice made me beam with paternal pride, I was especially alert to her appreciation of justice served. Unlike some modern thrillers and horror films, we expect – no, we demand – that traditional murder mysteries have a happy ending: the good guys get the bad guys, and the bad guys are held accountable.

Here, too, Kath’s comments made me think of Chesterton, but this time it was his splendid defense of fairy tales. “The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination,” he writes. “What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” There’s a big difference between fairy tales and mysteries, I know, but I think there’s an edifying overlap between St. George and Hercule Poirot. Whether it’s a monster or a murderer, the graphic depiction of its sure defeat reinforces the idea, in Chesterton’s words, “that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”

By accompanying our teens and pre-teens into the moral universe of murder mysteries, whether on the screen or on the page, we foster their grasp of important catechetical truths: that God brings order out of chaos, that good triumphs over evil, and that death is never, ever the end of the story.
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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

The Summery Gift of ‘The Snowman’

10 Jun

“I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.”
~ Dylan Thomas

Now that the thermometer has popped into the nineties a couple times, it’s summer. Forget the calendar. There’s sunshine and languid afternoons and a blessed freedom to do nothing, to expect nothing. It’s an ideal moment for a tribute to Raymond Briggs’s exquisite picture book, The Snowman (1978).

And when I say picture book, I mean picture book, for Briggs tells an emotionally rich tale without a single word. It’s the tale of a boy and his snowman – their friendship and adventures – and it’s related through a series of deceptively simple drawings. Despite their plainness and subdued colors, those drawings convey a narrative depth that is profoundly moving, and they subtly induce the reader to concoct and supply the missing dialogue – either silently in our heads or, as you’d find with your youngest readers, out loud. It’s a turnabout from what usually happens with storytelling, where words come first and mental images follow. To enter the world of The Snowman is to enter a world in which words are blessedly optional – a rare treat in our noisy age.

In 1982, Briggs’s genius on the page was more or less faithfully translated to the screen in an Oscar-nominated Christmas classic. Ironically, it’s the film’s yuletide theme that constitutes the “less” part of that translation, for there’s no Santa or Christmas tree in The Snowman book. In fact, the author has complained that the holiday special completely obscures his book’s themes of life and loss, death and grief. “The snowman melts, my parents died, animals die, flowers die,” Briggs has said. “There’s nothing particularly gloomy about it. It’s a fact of life.”

Even so, the animated feature does fundamentally follow the book’s tacit storytelling approach. The wintry escapade is marvelously related by means of a gentle quickening of Briggs’s artwork, and then his art is seamlessly integrated with a similarly gentle score by Howard Blake. There are only two verbal exceptions. The first is the author’s placid introductory voiceover. “The whole world seemed to be held in a dream-like stillness,” Briggs murmurs as he tramps across a frozen landscape. “It was a magical day, and it was on that day I made the Snowman.” (Later editions of the film replace Briggs with David Bowie doing a riff on the author’s preamble. Stick with the original.)

The second exception is “Walking in the Air,” a lilting, lyrical song – almost a hymn – that attends a spectacular flight sequence. Performed by a St. Paul’s Cathedral choir boy, Peter Auty, the song is lovely and unobtrusive – a delicate and welcome departure from the mute narrative. Auty’s voice is pure and ethereal, and he trills his Rs as he would for a Cambridge Lessons and Carols service. It’s a numinous performance, and it has been looping in the back of my thoughts of late, prompting this tribute.

But why now? Why snow and snowmen in this season of swimsuits and sunscreen? It can’t be a latent winter-envy, because I love summer’s heat and humidity, and I start eagerly looking forward to it as soon as January rears its ugly wind-chill head.

Wisely, I turned to Katharine, my twelve-year-old, for insight. “Do you know that Christmas video, The Snowman?”

“Of course,” she replied.

“What do you remember about it?” I asked. “What do you remember liking about it?”

Kath didn’t hesitate. “I like the monologue at the beginning,” she said (I nodded in agreement), “and the music. It’s so peaceful, and the music and pictures go together.” She elaborated further. “It’s like that scene in Ernest and Celestine, where Ernest plays the violin and Celestine draws the seasons.”

She was referring to another family favorite, a 2012 French production about a kindly bear and an artistic mouse. It, too, was nominated for an Academy Award, and it, too, tells a story of friendship and adventure.

I hunted it down in our DVD collection and fast-forwarded it to the scene Kath mentioned. The snow is piled high outside, and Celestine is painting her vision of the scene on cloth. She holds up the completed work to Ernest and announces, “Now I present to you ‘winter.’” Ernest smiles, lifts the violin to his chin, and replies, “If it was a song, it would sound just like this.”

Ernest and Celestine is far from being wordless like The Snowman, but for the duration of this particular scene, it perfectly captures the same spirit – just as Katharine suggested. Celestine’s creative two-dimensional interpretation of winter, followed by additional painted images of spring and summer, are simultaneously expressed by Ernest’s impromptu accompaniment. No speech is necessary. The passage of time and the contentment of a close relationship are more than adequately communicated by the shared and integrated media. There’s grace and peace.

It’s the grace and peace that I associate with summer’s slowness and calm. Like Brigg’s snow story, and the wordless interlude of Ernest and Celestine, summer fosters leisurely quiet and reflection. It’s a lifegiving opportunity for wonder and basking in presence. When time and duty allow in the months ahead, shut out the streaming noise, and join me in giving in to the season. The adventure of rumination awaits.
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Our Universal Recipient: The Blood Type of Jesus

18 May

“He has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be His own Blood, from which He causes our blood to flow.”
~ St. Irenaeus

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God’s Digit

6 May

“This is the finger of God” (Ex 8.19). 

Last week, my teenage daughter and I went to see Avengers: Infinity War, and, lo and behold, there was Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), reprising the obscene gesture he featured in the first Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Then, just last night, my kids and I watched the old X-Men (2000) origins flick, and we saw Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) raise a metallic middle blade in defiance of Cyclops, his rival. Cyclops just laughed it off and turned away.

Increasingly, we’re all just laughing off the middle finger wherever it turns up (and it’s turning up plenty), which means that “giving the finger” doesn’t quite pack the same punch it once did. This was clearly evident when I brought my middle-schoolers to see Black Panther a month or so ago. On the way home, we were talking about our favorite characters, our favorite scenes. “My favorite was Shuri,” said Katharine from the back seat, referring to Wakanda’s young princess. “Especially when she was walking away from the king and she raised her finger up – funny.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but do you know what that means?”

“Well, I know it means something bad,” she replied. “Very bad.”

True enough, and it’s been bad a long time. The ancient Romans knew it well, and they even had a name for it: digitus impudicus. It’s always been considered an extremely rude gesture (look it up), and pretty much everybody knows that today – even if they don’t know exactly why it’s so rude (like my young ones, thank heavens). But, like so much else these days, what used to be universally shunned is now commonplace – and tame. “Because it’s so prevalent,” said sportsmanship educator John McCarthy of the middle finger, “the shock value has gone from it.” No longer can one count on a single digit to communicate absolute defiance. Rebels and radicals have to rely on other tokens of insubordination. Flipping people off is so ho-hum nowadays.

On the other hand (pun alert), we have God’s finger, which Scripture highlights as something particularly pointed (pun again) and powerful – and without any trace of lewd associations. This contrast between today’s ubiquitous indecent gesticulation and the comparable Biblical deific sign came to mind at daily Mass shortly after I saw Black Panther. “Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute,” Luke tells us, “and when the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke and the crowds were amazed.” However, some in those crowds were unwilling to attribute the miracle to benevolent forces, and they accused the Lord of partnering with Beelzebub, “the prince of demons,” in order to exorcise and heal.

Jesus countered that it could be just as easily be posited that anyone who drove out demons was in league with Beelzebub. What’s more, it didn’t make sense that the Prince of Demons would be driving out his own minions. “But if it is by the finger of God that I drive out demons,” Jesus finally challenged his detractors, “then the Kingdom of God has come upon you” (Lk 11.20).

The implication here is that Jesus has more power in his little finger than anything Satan could send his way – or ours for that matter. This is literally true, since Jesus, the incarnate Word, shares in his human fingers the very same potency in operation on Mt. Sinai during the Exodus, when Moses received “the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God” (Ex 31.18).

The Gospel reading from Luke concludes with Jesus’ admonition that “whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” This is the opposite of the modern single-finger sign, which is meant to scatter and drive away. The finger of the God-man, in contrast, bespeaks wholeness and restoration. And there’s no shame in that at all. In fact, it’s a sure sign of hope.
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Hopefully Not Coming to a Theater Near You

12 Mar

“The secret can’t be told. Telling it ruins it.”
~ Walker Percy

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