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Of Blade Runner, Barchester, and Father Brown

22 Jan

“He’s simply a good man, without guile, believing humbly in the religion he has striven to teach, and guided by the precepts he has striven to learn.”
~ Dr. Theophilus Grantly

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Jonesing for a Belly Laugh: Of Rimshots and Resets

31 Dec

What the people need is a way to make ‘em smile.
 ~ The Doobie Brothers

Oh my gosh, it’s been a harrowing year – you, too? How about a little levity to round it out.

So, René Descartes is sitting in a café. A waiter approaches and asks, “More coffee, Mr. Descartes?”

After a moment, the philosopher replies, “I think not.”

*Poof!* (Insert rimshot and cymbal splash here.)

Yeah, it’s a groaner, but it’s a good one – one of my favorites. It’s short, it’s clever, and it pokes fun at philosophy – who wouldn’t love a joke like that? My kids have heard it a million times. In fact, around my house, you can simply say, “I think not – poof” and you’ll probably get at least a snort if not an actual pity-laugh.

Regardless, shared laughter is almost always a good thing. It elevates the spirit, distracts us from our travails, and lightens our mutual loads. It buoys courage and restores hope – and it’s contagious, thank God. Someone giving way to a serious fit of giggles will inevitably create ripples of mirth among those nearby, even if they have no idea what got it started. Like that Descartes joke. My littler kids, who know nothing of philosophy, grew up laughing at it along with the older kids just because they were laughing (the first dozen times at least).

Sure, there are times when laughs are inappropriate, but humorous resets are frequently desired and desirable. St. Francis de Sales alludes to this idea in his Introduction to the Devout Life. He writes of eutrapelia, the Greek virtue of jesting and taking “friendly, virtuous enjoyment in the amusing situations human imperfections provide us.” While warning us off anything that approaches scorn or contempt, De Sales makes it clear that goofiness is not only a good thing, but often preferred to its alternative.

To illustrate, he tells a brief anecdote about King St. Louis of France: “When a religious wanted to speak to St. Louis after dinner about certain lofty subjects, the king told those present: ‘This is not the time to quote texts, but to regale ourselves with jokes and puns.’” Even kings need a break now and then – tell him the one about René Descartes (ba-bum, splash!).

And what’s true for kings is true for the rest of us, a perspective brought to life on the screen by director Preston Sturges in Sullivan’s Travels (1941). It’s a movie about moviemaking, but much more than that. It’s also a movie about why people generally go to movies in the first place: To forget their troubles, to escape and retreat, and, more often than not, to laugh.

I discovered Travels by accident. It’s mentioned in another film, Grand Canyon (1991), which I’ve actually never seen all the way through. But some glorious serendipity brought me in touch with a particular Canyon clip in which Steve Martin’s character, a movie producer, lectures Mack (Kevin Kline) about filmmaking:

Mack, did you ever see a movie called Sullivan’s Travels? That’s part of your problem, you know, you haven’t seen enough movies. All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies. It’s a story about a man who loses his way – he’s a filmmaker like me – and he forgets for a moment just what he was set on earth to do. Fortunately, he finds his way back. It can happen, Mack. Check it out.

All life’s riddles being answered in the movies was a huge stretch, I admit, but I was intrigued by the “finding his way back” theme of Travels. I tracked it down.

What a find.

John L. Sullivan is a successful director of screwball comedies who decides he wants to make a serious film about serious stuff (over the objections of his studio bosses). Accordingly, he chooses a serious book, O Brother Where Art Thou (yes, there’s a Coen brothers connection here) about social justice and the “common man,” and he hits the road as a hobo to get some firsthand experience of the common man’s lot.

The director discovers more than he bargains for, and when his plans to alleviate the misery of the poor by personalist wealth redistribution goes awry, he finds himself among their number – not as an observer, but as a fully vested participant. Injured, jailed, and isolated, Sullivan is indignant, but his dire circumstances lead to a revelation: Yes, suffering demands alleviation and injustice demands redress, but in the meantime, a bit of humor goes a long way. “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh,” Sullivan says in the end, as he puts aside his plans for a serious movie. “Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”

The killer is that our cockeyed caravan is chock full of laugh-bait these days, but so much of it is dead center in the scorn and contempt arena that De Sales cautioned us about. The stuff we gravitate to – in the movies, on the internet and TV – tends to galvanize ill will rather than dissipating it. It accentuates division instead of drawing us together.

No thanks.

For me, I prefer the tried and true when it comes to lighthearted fare – stuff I can count on to make me laugh out loud, over and over again, and without a lot of political or ideological overhead. When I’m overwhelmed or down, I turn to Dave Barry’s writings, like his annual “Year in Review” in the Miami Herald, and archived NPR “Car Talk” gold from Ray and Tom Magliozzi. Plus, there are plenty vintage screwball comedies out there to be enjoyed – the kind that John L. Sullivan would’ve made. Classics like Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You and It Happened One Night, for example, plus anything from the Marx Brothers and the entire Thin Man collection starring Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles – wise-cracking sleuths who mix mayhem with their murder mysteries.

But, let’s face it, the undisputed master when it comes to evoking hilarity is P.G. Wodehouse, and it seems like I end up back on his doorstep round about this time every year. Winter has settled in for a couple months, a new semester of teaching looms, and I’m getting regular email reminders from TurboTax about my annual financial slog. Bleah. That’s the cue to go hunting for a Jeeves and Wooster volume or two to carry  me through to the other side.

Now here’s the beauty of being acclimated to Wodehouse’s whimsical genius is that it simply doesn’t matter where you dip in. You’re practically guaranteed to hit a jackpot of jollity every single time. Here, let’s try an experiment. I just went into our home library and plucked down the first Wodehouse volume I laid eyes on: A tattered paperback of Thank You, Jeeves (1933). Open it up in the middle (p. 81), and here we go:

“Will you keep quiet!”

“Of course, of course.”

“You keep shoving your oar in….”

“Sorry, sorry. Shan’t occur again.”

And so on – already hooks me in, I tell you. Clearly, some kind of ruckus is underway and Bertie Wooster is in the thick of it. It’s like I’m already present in the scene and I can hear the voices and I start to relax. It’s a tonic, almost magic.

It was also a magical tonic to those who read it the first time back in 1933 – right when the Great Depression was in full swing. The world needed lots of laughs back then, and Wodehouse supplied them. It’s noteworthy that the Great Depression was also the incubator for many of those Sullivanesque comedies we keep mentioning. The more challenging the times, it appears, the greater market there is for sweet release in gales of glee.

So happy new yearhopefully a better one than the last. May your troubles be few, but when they come (and they will), brace yourself, have courage, and arm yourself with Wodehouse and companions. No need to go it alone.
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Of Casablanca, Cinema, and Coming of Age

29 Nov

casablanca-french-movie-poster-herve-morvan

“But now we have a new art, luminous, vivid, simple, stirring, persuasive, direct, universal, illimitable – the animated picture.”
~ Myles Connolly

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Of Memory, Metanoia, and Manslaughter

15 Oct

Oh, of thine only worthy blood
And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drown in it my sins’ black memory.
~
John Donne

An essay by historian Andrew Bacevich scrolled up in my Facebook feed, and I saw that it had been posted by my friend Shawn Storer of Catholic Peace Fellowship. That was enough to make it a must-read sooner rather than later, so I opened it up.

It was entitled “Autopilot Wars,” and it was Bacevich’s take on our nation’s numb embrace of perpetual armed conflict as a norm. “Like traffic jams or robocalls, war has fallen into the category of things that Americans may not welcome, but have learned to live with,” Bacevich writes. “In twenty-first-century America, war is not that big a deal.”

It was a depressing read, yet hardly a surprising one, for our country long ago inured itself to killing as a way of solving problems. A people who’ve come to tolerate abortion through all nine months of pregnancy is a people primed to mow down entire populations without a second thought. Death has become a way of life, and, in the name of patriotism, we don’t even question the motives or objectives. Heck, we can’t even keep count of how many wars we’re in, let alone why we’re in them.

Bacevich’s article was rattling in mind as I drove to morning Mass. NPR buzzed in the background – it was the TED Radio Hour. I could hear a researcher murmuring about manipulating the memories of lab rats.

I turned up the volume.

The researcher’s name was Steve Ramirez, a professor of neuroscience at Boston University. He and his colleagues developed a technique they call optogenetics that allows them to turn memories on and off by aiming lasers at particular regions of rodent brains. The effects are temporary, but Ramirez indicated that he anticipated further research that will lead to more enduring effects.

It creeped me out. I’d just recently seen the new Blade Runner 2049 which prominently features memory manipulation in cyborg replicants, and here was an actual process for doing the same thing in miniature mammals. However, my creepy feelings turned into alarm when Ramirez and his interviewer, Guy Raz, discussed possible future applications of optogenetics – like altering the memories of those suffering from PTSD; to erase, in effect, the crippling memories of the battlefield. Despite the possibility that such memory manipulation might be abused, Ramirez indicated that the potential for good is much too great to avoid continued research in this area.

I found myself yelling back at the radio, “No! No! Don’t do it! Can’t you see?” Consider what the Pentagon would do such memory altering therapies. We already train our soldiers to suppress their innate resistance to exterminating human life, and we push them forward to the front lines to wipe out as many enemy lives as possible. Then, when they come back to us physically wounded, we patch them up and send them forward to kill some more. Is it really all that hard to imagine that the military would draw on optogenetics to do the same with the psychologically wounded? To take, that is, those suffering from PTSD and re-program their memories to enable them to return to the front?

Even if that appalling development could be avoided – and that’s a huge “if” – the underlying premise of Ramirez’s suggestion is itself flawed. The problem with PTSD isn’t the crippling memories. The problem is what caused the memories in the first place: the dehumanizing horror of war. Isn’t there good reason to remember that horror, painful as it is? It seems to me that such remembering could help undo what Bacevich details as our “collective indifference” to war as part of modernity’s landscape.

Ramirez and Raz were concluding their radio conversation as I arrived at church. I shut off the car, went inside, and settled in for the liturgy. Entrance antiphon, sign of the cross, greeting, and then this:  “My brothers and sisters, to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries, let us call to mind our sins” – and that’s when it hit me. Memory of agonizing reality is central to our faith and essential for real conversion – metanoia in the Greek of the New Testament.

In fact, we use a different Greek word that translates as “memory” (anamnesis) to describe how it is that Christ’s singular sacrifice on the Cross is made present for us at Mass. The Reformers of the past and our Fundamentalist detractors in the present accuse us of re-crucifying Jesus in the course of our “false” worship. Yet the Mass is not a repetition, but rather a re-presentation – a liturgical and sacramental remembering that connects what Christ suffered on Calvary with our recollected transgressions here and now.

I think of that scene in The Mission (1986) when Robert De Niro’s character, Rodrigo Mendoza, a former slave trader and mercenary, is lugging the tools of his inhuman trade up a muddy jungle slope. He repeatedly slips and falls until one of his Jesuit companions cuts the burden free. Mendoza subsequent silent descent back down the hill, his angry reattachment of the bundle to his back, and then his slow ascent back up the hill again is a powerful image of real repentance. Rather than forgetting the past – cutting it away and rolling it out of sight – authentic conversion requires remembering. It requires revisiting our painful histories and our damnable decisions. Mendoza was a murderer, and his redemption requires that he thoroughly avow his murderous past before he can experience the grace of forgiveness.

Our faith is dependent on remembering violence, for all sin is violence – a violent battering if not rending of our relationship with God. Similarly, our entire civilization also depends on such remembering, and the tragedy of our times is that we’re already re-programming our memories to avoid unspeakable realities, even without optogenetics. “Responding to the demands of the Information Age is not, it turns out, conducive to deep reflection,” Bacevich notes with reference to our war-making amnesia. “Our attention span shrinks and with our time horizon.”

This is the point that Nicholas Carr made in his recent WSJ essay on our contemporary smartphone dependencies. “Now that our phones have made it so easy to gather information online, our brains are likely offloading even more of the work of remembering to technology,” he wrote. “No matter how much information swirls around us, the less well-stocked our memory, the less we have to think with.” No wonder we don’t care about how many wars we’re in – or how many babies are being slaughtered in our abortuaries.

Granted, remembering more means suffering more, which is a tall order for a world bent on avoiding suffering – at least for ourselves. Remember more anyway, and then choose to suffer alongside those whose memories of killing cause them the deepest kind of distress – coming alongside them figuratively and prayerfully, at the very least, but in reality as well if given the opportunity. Such compassionate companionship might embolden them to speak out on behalf of peacemaking and nonviolent solutions to our problems. We’ll be wise to listen to what they have to say – and commit it to memory.
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Of Rash Vows, George Bailey, and Dad-Martyrdom

17 Jul

“Courage costs braver men less.”
~ Frank Sheed

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Of Down Syndrome, Anne of Green Gables, and Van

3 May

“‘Dear old world,’ she murmured, ‘you are very lovely, and I am glad to be alive in you.’”
~ L.M. Montgomery

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Of Emmaus, the Eucharist, and Emma Thompson

26 Apr

“The Eucharist is a mode of being,
which passes from Jesus into each Christian.”
~ Pope St. John Paul II

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