4 Agonizing Movie Scenes and What I’m Still Learning From Them

There’s so many good things.
 ~ Peter Falk

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The Childlike Appeal of Murder Mysteries

There is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.
~ G.K. Chesterton

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The Summery Gift of ‘The Snowman’

The whole world seemed to be held in a dream-like stillness. It was a magical day, and it was on that day I made the Snowman.
~ Raymond Briggs

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Our Universal Recipient: The Divine Blood Type

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

But if it is by the finger of God that I drive out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you (Lk 11.20).

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Coming to a Theater Near You! (or not…hopefully)

After Ted Turner bought the rights to the MGM library in 1986, he started digitally colorizing old black-and-white classics – much to the dismay of cinephiles, critics, and filmmakers alike. When Orson Welles’s masterful Citizen Kane was due for the same treatment, however, the outcry really spiked. “Don’t let Ted Turner deface my movie with his crayons,” Welles pleaded before his death, but Turner started color-tinting Kane anyway.

Although the project was never completed, colorization itself has become standard fare – we’re totally used to it now, and entire generations will grow up and grow old without ever seeing the B&W originals. That’s too bad, for the color tinting represents an additional layer of interpretation and artistry that the filmmakers themselves did not intend. “Black-and-white films aren’t automatically better or worse than color films,” Vincent Canby wrote of the controversial process. “They are different.”

The same goes for books and the films they’re based on – which seems obvious, but maybe not in Hollywood. I got to thinking about this the other day after Meg arrived home from college for spring break. As soon as she walked in the door, we started peppering her with invitations and tentative plans – including movies. “We haven’t seen Black Panther yet – you want to go?” I asked.

Meg made a non-committal shrug, and then her sister Kath jumped in. “We haven’t seen A Wrinkle in Time either,” she suggested, referring to the newly released film version of Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved 1962 novel. “How about that one?”

“Maybe,” Meg replied cautiously. “I don’t know. It’s such an important book to me. I’m worried that I won’t like how they did it.”

Got that – totally. Books change lives, and we revere the ones that change our own lives, so it’s always tough to see Hollywood treat them as hit-fodder. There are exceptions, but it seems like filmmakers and producers are generally less interested in faithful, inspired screen adaptations than in filling theater seats, earning accolades, and auctioning off streaming rights.

That’s why I dreaded what director Peter Jackson was going to do to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, for example. The Middle Earth cycle is among a select set of books that I have re-read on a regular basis for decades. It helped form my sacramental imagination after I converted to Catholicism; it buttressed my courage as I launched into the unknown (namely marriage and fatherhood); it provided me literary respite from the stresses of nursing school and my first nursing jobs. Tolkien’s books have been a lifeline and a comfort for me, and I was nervous about seeing them translated into film. In fact, I seriously considered skipping the movies altogether – just in case.

But I succumbed in the end, and I have to confess (begrudgingly) I was pleasantly surprised. Although overlong, the three Rings films were largely successful in telling Tolkien’s epic tale and capturing its spirit. Plus, I was pleased that the movies spurred my own kids to pick up the books to actually read – score one for Hollywood! Too bad the magic didn’t last when Jackson tackled The Hobbit though. Why he dragged out the comparatively brief narrative to fill another three overlong films, let alone adding all manner of invented characters and confusing sub-plots along the way, is beyond me. Was it just money – more theater seats and DVDs? I hope not.

Anyway, Meg’s hesitation about Wrinkle got me thinking about other books from my re-reading canon that I’d be anxious about seeing theatrically updated and “cinemized.” I just think some stories just weren’t meant to be made into movies. Here’s three of them – see if you agree:

  1. A Confederacy of Dunces (1980): This New Orleans Pulitzer-winning revel by John Kennedy Toole has my vote for America’s premiere sui generis novel. Truly, there’s nothing quite like it. Starring Ignatius J. Reilly, an anachronistic anti-hero, Confederacy grabs the reader from page one and sends him packing on a wild frolic that would be near impossible to replicate onscreen. In fact, there have been several attempts that have all fizzled, leading director Steven Soderbergh to remark that the endeavor is “cursed.” Besides, Toole packed Confederacy with so many memorable characters that finding somebody to fill the lead role of the idiosyncratic Ignatius would only be the first of innumerable casting hurdles. Best skip it.
  2. A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959): Part sci-fi thriller, part monastic tragi-comedy, Walter M. Miller Jr.’s Canticle is a post-apocalyptic epiphany. The world is recovering from nuclear devastation, and its tenuous hold on the remnants of civilization is guarded – or, rather, shielded – by the cowled sons of St. Leibowitz. The novel captures the cyclical character of human folly – both on a personal and societal scale – and dramatizes its consequences in a mysteriously inaccessible way. “I had read the book with the first of the pricklings of excitement I was to feel on successive readings,” Walker Percy once wrote of the novel. “When I tried to track down the source of the neck-pricklings, my neck stopped prickling.” Percy goes on to write that “the book has a secret, (but) the secret can’t be told. Telling it ruins it.” I’m afraid any effort to turn it into a film would do the same.
  3. Mr. Blue (1928): My conversion to Catholicism was spurred by reading Dorothy Day’s powerful biography, The Long Loneliness, and I used to give away copies of that book by the boxful to help friends and family – even strangers – understand my enthusiasm for the Church. In short order I discovered that Dorothy Day’s gritty Christian vision isn’t for everybody, and so I started handing out Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue instead. It’s the story of a saint-in-the-making, but it’s narrated by a reluctant fellow traveler whose reservations about Blue’s eccentricities and extravagances make him the ideal companion for the wary reader. At the novel’s outset, the narrator writes Blue and urges him “to get a good job with a reliable firm or he would end up in the poorhouse” – sensible enough, right? Here’s Blue’s response: “That will be glorious…. I will become the troubadour of the poorhouse.” Voiced on the screen, lines such as these would sound trite and tawdry; on the page, they’re gripping and dangerously inviting.

Ironically, given my thesis here, Myles Connolly himself worked in the film industry and contributed to the creation of over 40 films. Could Connolly have nudged Mr. Blue in the direction of cinemization? Did he try and fail? Maybe, but it’s noteworthy that he embedded a Hollywood-style pitch – a “story for a motion picture” – smack dab in the middle of his novel. Blue lays out a vision for an end-times thriller akin to Orwell’s 1984 – or, better yet, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Freedom has been superseded by servility. There’s no joy, no hope, no God in the new world-state; only grim compliance and soulless subsistence. But hiding out in the midst of this horrific future is a lone priest armed with wine and wheat. In a desperate, almost suicidal act of defiance, he isolates himself on a tower’s pinnacle and begins the liturgy. “He was keeping his promise to bring God back to earth,” relates Blue with passion. “Can you see that heroic figure in the twilight of the world saying Mass in the citadel of the Antichrist?”

Yes, I can. And I can close my eyes and see it on the screen – hear it in a theater. I think Connolly’s movie within a novel hints at a way the book-to-film challenge can be handled – to wit, instead of tackling entire books, filmmakers could shave off select portions for film treatment. That’s what screenwriters Frank Davis and Tess Slesinger did with their Oscar-nominated adaptation of Betty Smith’s glorious A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – another book I would’ve thought incapable of celluloid transmutation. By zeroing in on a mere fraction of the novel’s narrative arc, the screenplay – and thus Elia Kazan’s 1945 film – succeeds abundantly.

What’s more, it entices viewers to pick up the actual novel to get the rest of the story. And that, in my book, is worth all the cinemization in the world.
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Keeping the Showman Great: Of P.T. Barnum, Vows, and Fatherhood

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The father-son paradigm is ageless….
This is truly the key for interpreting reality.
~ St. John Paul II

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Three Quick Media Takes: Blade Runner, Barchester, and Father Brown

Other than the alliteration, these brief glances at three video departures from earlier works – one a movie sequel, the other two literary TV adaptations – may not seem to have much in common: sci-fi pscyhothriller, drawing-room character study, and Agatha Christie in a Roman collar. Perhaps – let’s see.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

This worthy sequel is now out on DVD, and it prompts me to record some thoughts I had when I saw it in the theater last summer.

The original Blade Runner (1982), starring a very young Harrison Ford, was one of those films that you see as a kid and keep coming back to (either in your mind or on the screen or both) for the rest of your life. At least that was true for meand is now, despite the fact that, once I became a Catholic, I shunned it as a film that the USCCB movie rating service deemed “morally objectionable.” I couldn’t help talking about it with my older children, and I urged them to see it someday – on their own, if they chose, and away from our home.

Anyway, the new BR, starring Ryan Gosling this time, is rated a relatively tame L (limited adult audience), so I gladly went to check it out. Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting to be wowed, but, like Star Wars fans who go see every new installment regardless of quality, I felt compelled to go out of a sense of loyalty to the original.

And you know what? I liked it more than I thought I would – maybe a 3.5 stars out of 5. The marketing hype would lead to believe that you don’t need to see its predecessor in order to enjoy it, but you really should. Just keep in mind that USCCB “O” rating if you do so – caveat emptor.

Even if you don’t, however, BR2049 is definitely worth a viewing. There’s a lot of violence and more than a few racy bits, but there’s plenty of visual and auditory spectacle that will keep you enthralled. Plus, Ford shows up reprising his role as blade runner Rick Deckard thirty years later – which was alone worth the price of the ticket.

But there’s also some substantial musing in this film, and much of it revolves around what it means to be human – just like in the first BR. To begin with, there’s an implicit critique of the reproductive technologies that have shifted our assumptions about what it means to beget. We used to associate baby-making with love-making, but now it’s often framed in manufacturing terms: product of conception, desired traits, sex selection. It makes you squirm a bit, much like Gattaca did back in 1997. Only now the squirming is considerably more pronounced because the Gattaca future of babies made-to-order has become a reality.

The film also raises questions about human identity beyond mere biological heritage. Is it wonder that separates us from beasts? Compassion? As I sat in the theater, I couldn’t help thinking about Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire (1987) and its powerful images of angels trying to become men. Why would an angel want to become one of us? The same question could be asked of a replicant – the BR equivalent of an android – and it’s worth asking of ourselves. If we had a choice, would we choose to be human? Would we accept the inevitable suffering and pain and death? Would we embrace lives of chaos and paradox that can’t ultimately be filtered and managed, despite modernity’s technological illusions that tell us otherwise?

Of course, because it’s real, and we all have an innate hunger for reality. It’s put there by God, and it can only be satisfied by God – like St. Augustine’s “our heart is restless until it rests in you” (CCC 30). This is in direct contradiction to the Supreme Court’s summing-up of the Zeitgeist in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) – to wit: we can all make up our own reality to order, just like we do with babies. Nonsense.

The Barchester Chronicles (BBC, 1982- )

Part of that reality that we have to embrace – and that modernity finds so distasteful – is that we’re all sinners in need of grace, and it’s a theme that’s explored in a profoundly subtle way in Anthony Trollope’s delectable Barchester novels. I only started reading Trollope recently, although a friend had long ago recommended him to me. What a shame that it took me so long to listen to her! Like a male counterpart to Jane Austen, Trollope closely examines – almost dissects – the intricate, intimate foibles and strivings, vices and virtues, of human experience in a tightly circumscribed frame of reference: nineteenth-century English society and the peculiar web of relations between established Church clergy (read: Anglican) and their families and social circles. Lots of politics and melodrama with a delicate overlay of religion – wonderful!

Rev. Septimus Harding, an aging, widowed, cello-playing cleric, is the hero and a fantastic, very human character – one who lives out on the page the tension at Christianity’s core: That it is simultaneously a set of religious assertions affirmed (creedal truths and dogma) and a way of life aspired to (always imperfectly, alas), Mr. Harding memorably embodies the undeniable fact, witnessed in history and borne out in personal experience, that divine grace and constant effort are required to align the two in our lives. At the end of the exquisite BBC Barchester mini-series, the otherwise abrasive Dr. Grantly, the husband of Harding’s elder daughter, has the good sense to toast his father-in-law’s example:

He is not a hero, not a man that is widely talked about, not a man who should be toasted at public dinners, not a man who should be spoken of with conventional absurdity as ‘the perfect divine.’ 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.

The exquisite BBC production covers the first two Barchester novels, The Warden (1855) and Barchester Towers (1857), and it captures well the wide moral range of Trollope’s characters on a scale of mostly bad to good. Harding is definitely at the latter end, and the oily Obadiah Slope anchors the other. Played by Alan Rickman – Harry Potter’s Snape – Slope is underhanded, selfish, and altogether repulsive – breathtakingly so. Barchester’s bishop, Dr. Proudie, on the other hand, is a moral cipher, and his wife (remember, these are Anglicans) rules the ecclesiastical and domestic roost – two more odious characters.

But for my money, the most conniving and hateful character in the Barchester universe that I’ve encountered so far (I haven’t read through the whole series yet) is the unforgettable Senora Neroni, daughter of a worldly clergyman and the estranged wife of an Italian dandy. She is crippled due to past domestic abuse, and yet manages to implement her nefarious schemes from her permanently supine position. She flirts and seduces for sport, exposing hypocrisy and causing mayhem in Barchester’s circles for no other purpose than her own amusement – to see what lengths fools will go to, especially men.

Still, she redeems herself by trying to bring together a pair of star-crossed lovers – Mr. Harding’s daughter, Eleanor, a widowed mother, and the Rev. Arabin, a bachelor Oxford don. Neroni simultaneously crushes Mr. Slope, who sought Eleanor’s hand only for her fortune, and brings about the pairing of Eleanor and Arabin through her artful interventions. It’s a singularly meritorious and selfless act of goodness – enough perhaps to save her soul. As staged in the BBC production, it’s a brilliant snapshot of an onion being extended from heaven, in the imagery of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, and a recalcitrant sinner laying hold of it. It brought tears to my eyes, and thinking of it now gives me resurgent hope for my own salvation.

Father Brown (BBC, 2013- )

Another recent BBC discovery for us is their excellent adaptation of Chesterton’s Father Brown mystery stories. I’d purchased Season One long ago at a library sale, but we never really got around to watching them. A week or so ago, I happened upon Season Five on the library’s “New” shelf, and brought it home on a lark.

Superb! We dived into it, and (with some reservations) we found it to be engaging entertainment for the whole family, as well as eminently thoughtful and even challenging.

If you’re familiar with GKC’s Fr. Brown, you know that he based the character on an actual Yorkshire priest that shepherded him into the Church in 1922. The literary version of that wise cleric is the soul of pastoral patience and priestly wisdom, which he extends to the frequent opportunities providence sends his way to solve criminal conundrums.

A friend recently posted something about Fr. Mulcahy (William Christopher), a regular character in the long-running series, M*A*S*H, and another edifying television depiction of the priesthood. I’d say the BBC’s updated (in character and time period) Fr. Brown goes Fr. Mulcahy one better. He’s not a saint yet, and his demonstrable pre-conciliar aggiornamento is a bit anachronistic, but he nonetheless captures so much of what we all so greatly treasure in our favorite priests. Like Mulcahy, the BBC Brown (played by Mark Williams, another Harry Potter standout) exhibits a healthy ecumenism, and even some interfaith amiability. Yet, while he studiously avoids bombast and rigid moralism, constantly hedging his many assertions and opinions, he is crystal clear with regards to dogma and faith. That’s where he seems to surpass the M*A*S*H chaplain, for the BBC’s Fr. Brown routinely references his first priority of saving souls – yes, he uses the words “souls” and “saving souls” right there on British TV! – and yet he never carries it out in a highhanded way. He invites; sometimes he cajoles, but never pressures; he waits; he prays.

Following an episode in which Brown has dealings with an atheist, my daughter Cecilia commented on Brown’s generosity of spirit. “Come talk to me,” Father Brown had told the man. “I won’t try to convert you.” This reminded Cece of something she really appreciates about our Faith. “Catholics don’t pressure people,” she said. “They just live it as best they can.”

Just so. As they used to say during World War II, carry on. Yes, indeed, with God’s grace and best you can, carry on.
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Jonesing for a Belly Laugh: Of Rimshots, Resets, and Wodehouse – Again

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

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Of Casablanca, Cinema, and Coming of Age

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

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