Saturday, January 05, 2008
St. Peter's Basilica
Angel - Pedestrian Bridge, Castel Sant'Angelo
Constantine - Capitoline Museum
Marcus Aurelius - Capitoline Museum
Mamartine Prison - Jail Cell of SS Peter and Paul
Crucifixion - Gesu Church
Door - Santa Maria degli Angeli
Belvedere Torso - Vatican Museum
St. Francis of Assissi - near St. John Lateran
Castel Sant'Angelo, Tiber River
Fontana delle Naiadi - Piazza della Repubblica
Rome - from Janiculum Hill
Creche - St. Peter's Square
Michael the Archangel - Castel Sant'Angelo
Rome - from the top of Castel Sant'Angelo
Laocoon - Vatican Museum
Bernini's Fontana del Tritone
Santa Maria degli Angeli
Santa Maria degli Angeli
Crucifixion - Santa Maria di Loreto
Near Trajan's Forum
Virgin and Child atop Column - Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore
Tiber - Le Quattro Fontane
Egyptian Obelisk - Piazza del Popolo
Bernini's Fontana della Barcaccia - Piazza di Spagna
December 27, 2007
This is Jim Rice's 14th appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot. He only gets one more audition before he's turned over to the Veterans Committee. But he won't need year No. 15, or the smoke-filled room of the old-timers' group. Ballots are due to be mailed before Tuesday and when the announcement is made next month, I'm betting that Rice is going to Cooperstown.
Rich Gossage and Rice should top this year's ballot, gathering the necessary 75 percent of the vote. There would be nice symmetry in the sight of this duo walking through the gates of the Hall together. Rice and Gossage were two of the central figures of the 1978 pennant race and it would be appropriate to see them enshrined on the 30th anniversary of the great race.
Adding to the 1978 Boston-New York theme, the late Larry Whiteside, pioneer of African-American baseball writers and a man who wrote thousands of words about Rice and Gossage, will be awarded the J.G. Taylor Spink Award posthumously when the hardball world gathers in Cooperstown, N.Y., next summer.
Not everyone agrees with me on Rice's chances. It's a risky prediction, given that Rice as recently as 1999 received only 29.4 percent of the vote and actually went backward last year.
Rice was an eight-time All-Star and a one-time American League MVP (1978). He had eight seasons with 100 or more RBIs, seven seasons with a batting average of .300 or better, six seasons in which he finished in the top five of the AL MVP voting, four 200-hit seasons, and he led the AL in home runs three times. He played in more than 2,000 games with the Red Sox. His lifetime average was .298 and he had 1,451 career RBIs.
But Rice has three things going for him: 1) His vote total has been north of 60 percent in recent years and Sox historian Dick Bresciani has boosted Rice's candidacy with a convincing public relations campaign; 2) The more we talk about steroids, the better Rice's numbers look; 3) There are no new candidates to overwhelm the voters.
Two years ago, Rice received more votes than any player who didn't earn enshrinement, but last year his chances diminished because of the introduction of new candidates Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn. The best new names on this year's ballot are Tim Raines and David Justice. Rice beats both.
It shouldn't play out this way, of course. A candidate's résumé does not change from year to year. Rice's numbers are no better today than they were 10 years ago, so why is he suddenly Hall worthy? It's because writers can vote for only 10 players and many scribes vote only for the top two or three candidates. Rice was buried last year by Ripken and Gwynn. Not this time.
Writers looking at the new ballot want to vote for somebody and it's clear Gossage and Rice - so close in recent years - have better résumés than any of the new names.
The presence of second-year candidate Mark McGwire helps Rice, too. With 583 career home runs, Big Mac would have been a slam dunk for Cooperstown if not for the steroid scandal. His name came up for the first time last year and voters categorically rejected him. With memories of his de facto congressional confession still fresh, only 23.5 percent of the electorate went for McGwire.
Jim Rice was tagged out at the plate by Mets catcher Gary Carter in the 1986 World Series. Rice batted .333 in that series with a .455 on-base percentage.
It can only help Rice. He was a dominant power hitter before steroids polluted the game and skewed the numbers. Rice hit 46 homers in a season back when it meant something - before 50 became the province of guys like Brady Anderson and Luis Gonzalez. People who played and watched major league baseball from 1975-86 know that Rice was the most feared hitter of his day. Managers thought about intentionally walking him when he came to the plate with the bases loaded. He played hard and he played hurt. His managers loved him. Opponents feared him.
On the flip side, Rice is a power hitter who failed to reach 400 homers and broke down physically while in his mid-30s. Defense was not part of his game and his postseason numbers are weak. It's not fair to claim he's been kept out of the Hall because he was uncooperative (downright rude, usually) with the media. Eddie Murray was far more difficult with the press and he cruised into Cooperstown, as did silent Steve Carlton.
Rice has been forced to wait because he is a marginal candidate - which is no disgrace when we're talking about the Hall of Fame. A lot of great players don't get a sniff of the Hall. Take a look at the careers of Andre Dawson (438 homers), Harold Baines, and Dale Murphy. None of them has gotten as close as Rice.
I voted for Rice, Gossage, and Bert Blyleven this year. I try to vote for the same players every year and stuck with Luis Tiant and Ron Santo until they were bounced from the ballot. Commissioner Bob Ryan still votes for Dave Concepcion every year. We know that Lee Smith was a save machine, but it's hard to vote for a selfish lug who put up numbers in an era when artificial saves were invented. Jack Morris is certainly worth a long look, but the 3.90 ERA is high.
Voting for the Hall is a heady responsibility, without a doubt the most important annual task for members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. It's also a lot less fun than it once was, largely because of steroids and Rule 5, which states, "Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played."
There you have it. Baseball asks baseball writers to judge Hall of Fame worthiness based (in part) on a player's integrity and character. With all due respect to my estimable colleagues, what makes baseball scribes fit to pass judgment on ballplayers' integrity and character? Why should any group be assigned this charge? It's unfair to both voters and players.
Nothing - not even fantasy leagues - kindles the fire of the fans like a good Hall of Fame argument. So, I say Jim Ed Rice gets in this year. Let the arguments begin.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
January 4, 2008
Inside The Ring
Stephen Coughlin, the Pentagon specialist on Islamic law and Islamist extremism, has been fired from his position on the military's Joint Staff. The action followed a report in this space last week revealing opposition to his work for the military by pro-Muslim officials within the office of Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England.
Mr. Coughlin was notified this week that his contract with the Joint Staff will end in March, effectively halting the career of one of the U.S. government's most important figures in analyzing the nature of extremism and ultimately preparing to wage ideological war against it.
He had run afoul of a key aide to Mr. England, Hasham Islam, who confronted Mr. Coughlin during a meeting several weeks ago when Mr. Islam sought to have Mr. Coughlin soften his views on Islamist extremism.
Mr. Coughlin was accused directly by Mr. Islam of being a Christian zealot or extremist "with a pen," according to defense officials. Mr. Coughlin appears to have become one of the first casualties in the war of ideas with Islamism.
The officials said Mr. Coughlin was let go because he had become "too hot" or controversial within the Pentagon.
Misguided Pentagon officials, including Mr. Islam and Mr. England, have initiated an aggressive "outreach" program to U.S. Muslim groups that critics say is lending credibility to what has been identified as a budding support network for Islamist extremists, including front groups for the radical Muslim Brotherhood.
Mr. Coughlin wrote a memorandum several months ago based on documents made public in a federal trial in Dallas that revealed a covert plan by the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian-origin Islamist extremist group, to subvert the United States using front groups. Members of one of the identified front groups, the Islamic Society of North America, has been hosted by Mr. England at the Pentagon.
After word of the confrontation between Mr. Coughlin and Mr. Islam was made public, support for Mr. Coughlin skyrocketed among those in and out of government who feared the worst, namely that pro-Muslim officials in the Pentagon were after Mr. Coughlin's scalp, and that his departure would be a major setback for the Pentagon's struggling efforts to develop a war of ideas against extremism. Blogs lit up with hundreds of postings, some suggesting that Mr. England's office is "penetrated" by the enemy in the war on terrorism.
Kevin Wensing, a spokesman for Mr. England, said "no one in the deputy's office had any input into this decision" by the Joint Staff to end Mr. Coughlin's contract. A Joint Staff spokesman had no immediate comment.
Orange County Register
U.S. presidential candidates Democratic Senator Barack Obama (L) and Republican and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee won in Iowa caucuses January 3, 2008.
Confronted by Preacher Huckabee standing astride the Iowa caucuses, smirking, "Are you feelin' Hucky, punk?", many of my conservative pals are inclined to respond, "Shoot me now."
But, if that seems a little dramatic, let's try and rustle up an alternative.
In response to the evangelical tide from the west, New Hampshire primary voters have figured, "Any old crusty, cranky, craggy coot in a storm," and re-embraced John McCain. After all, Granite State conservatism is not known for its religious fervor: it prefers small government, low taxes, minimal regulation, the freedom to be left alone by the state. So they're voting for a guy who opposed the Bush tax cuts, and imposed on the nation the most explicit restriction in political speech in years. Better yet, after a freezing first week of January and the snowiest December in a century, New Hampshire conservatives are goo-goo for a fellow who also believes the scariest of global-warming scenarios and all the big-government solutions necessary to avert them.
Well, OK, maybe we can rustle up an alternative to the alternative.
Rudy Giuliani's team is betting that, after a Huck/McCain seesaw through the early states, Florida voters by Jan. 29 will be ready to unite their party behind a less-divisive figure, if by "less divisive figure" you mean a pro-abortion gun-grabbing cross-dresser.
I can't see things playing out quite like that. The principal rationale for Rudy's candidacy is that he's the national-security toughie who can beat Hillary. But it's hard to conclude after Iowa that this is shaping up as a Code Orange election. And, as for Sen. Clinton, her Thursday night third-place was the nearest Bill and Hill have come to a Ceausescu balcony moment. In a world where even John Edwards can beat Hillary, who needs Rudy?
Way back a gazillion years ago, when Mrs. Clinton was first exploring the exploration of exploring the possibility of an exploratory committee, some wily Gompers were suggesting the Republicans trump her history-making first-woman-president card by drafting Condi Rice. It turns out we dead white males on the right wing were worrying unnecessarily: The Democrats trumped themselves. Liberal voters want desperately to cast a history-making vote and, if that's your priority, Barack Obama is a much more appealing way to cast it than Hillary. Don't worry about this "Change You Can Believe In" shtick. Obama doesn't believe in it, and neither should you. He's a fresh face on the same-old-same-old – which is the only change Democrats are looking for.
As for Huckabee, the thinking on the right is that the mainstream media are boosting him up because he's the Republican who'll be easiest to beat. It's undoubtedly true that they see him as the designated pushover, but in that they're wrong. If Iowa's choice becomes the nation's, and it's Huckabee vs. Obama this November, I'd bet on Huck.
As governor, as preacher and even as disc jockey, he's spent his life in professions that depend on connecting with an audience, and he's very good at it. His gag on "The Tonight Show" – "People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them more of the guy they work with rather than the guy that laid them off" – had a kind of brilliance: True, it is cornball at one level (imagine John Edwards doing it with all his smarmy sanctimoniousness) but it also devastatingly cuts to the core of the difference between him and Mitt Romney. It's a disc-jockey line: the morning man on the radio is a guy doing a tricky job – he's a celebrity trying to pass himself off as a regular joe – which is pretty much what the presidential candidate has to do, too. Huckabee's good at that.
I don't know whether the Jay Leno shtick was written for him by a professional, but, if so, by the time it came out of his mouth it sounded like him. When Huck's campaign honcho, Ed Rollins, revealed the other day that he wanted to punch Romney in the teeth, Mitt had a good comeback: "I have just one thing to say to Mr. Rollins," he began. "Please, don't touch the hair." Funny line – but it sounds like a line, like something written by a professional and then put in his mouth.
This is the Huckabee advantage. On stage, he's quick-witted and thinks on his feet. He's not paralyzed by consultants and trimmers and triangulators. Put him in a presidential debate, and he'll have sharper ripostes and funnier throwaways and more plausible self-deprecating quips than anyone on the other side. He'll be a great campaigner. The problems begin when he stops campaigning and starts governing.
In The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan observed of Huck that "his great power, the thing really pushing his supporters, is that they believe that what ails America and threatens its continued existence is not economic collapse or jihad, it is our culture."
She's right. It's not the economy, stupid. The economy's fine. It's gangbusters. Indeed, despite John Edwards' dinner-theater Dickens routine about coatless girls shivering through the night because daddy's been laid off at the mill, the subtext of both Democrat and Republican messages is essentially that this country is so rich it can afford to be stupid – it can afford to pork up the federal budget; it can afford to put middle-class families on government health care; it can afford to surrender its borders.
There is a potentially huge segment of the population that thinks homo economicusis missing the point. They're tired of the artificial and, indeed, creepily coercive secular multiculti pseudo-religion imposed on American grade schools. I'm sympathetic to this pitch myself. Unlike Miss Noonan, I think it's actually connected to the jihad, in the sense that radical Islamism is an opportunist enemy that has arisen in the wake of the Western world's one-way multiculturalism.
In the long run, the relativist mush peddled in our grade schools is a national security threat. But, even in the short term, it's a form of child abuse that cuts off America's next generation from the glories of their inheritance.
Where I part company with Huck's supporters is in believing he's any kind of solution. He's friendlier to the teachers' unions than any other so-called "cultural conservative" – which is why in New Hampshire he's the first Republican to be endorsed by the NEA. His health care pitch is Attack Of The Fifty Foot Nanny, beginning with his nationwide smoking ban. This is, as Jonah Goldberg put it, compassionate conservatism on steroids – big paternalistic government that can only enervate even further "our culture."
So, Iowa chose to reward, on the Democrat side, a proponent of the conventional secular left, and, on the Republican side, a proponent of a new Christian left. If that's the choice, this is going to be a long election year.
Friday, January 04, 2008
Ellen Page and Olivia Thirlby in "Juno."
Seeking Mr. and Mrs. Right for a Baby on the Way
By A. O. SCOTT
The New York Times
Published: December 5, 2007
Juno MacGuff, the title character of Jason Reitman’s new film, is 16 and pregnant, but “Juno” could not be further from the kind of hand-wringing, moralizing melodrama that such a condition might suggest. Juno, played by the poised, frighteningly talented Ellen Page, is too odd and too smart to be either a case study or the object of leering disapproval. She assesses her problem, and weighs her response to it, with disconcerting sang-froid.
It’s not that Juno treats her pregnancy as a joke, but rather that in the sardonic spirit of the screenwriter, Diablo Cody, she can’t help finding humor in it. Tiny of frame and huge of belly, Juno utters wisecracks as if they were breathing exercises, referring to herself as “the cautionary whale.”
At first her sarcasm is bracing and also a bit jarring — “Hello, I’d like to procure a hasty abortion,” she says when she calls a women’s health clinic — but as “Juno” follows her from pregnancy test to delivery room (and hastily retreats from the prospect of abortion), it takes on surprising delicacy and emotional depth. The snappy one-liners are a brilliant distraction, Ms. Cody’s way of clearing your throat for the lump you’re likely to find there in the movie’s last scenes.
The first time I saw “Juno,” I was shocked to find myself tearing up at the end, since I’d spent the first 15 minutes or so gnashing my teeth and checking my watch. The passive-aggressive pseudo-folk songs, the self-consciously clever dialogue, the generic, instantly mockable suburban setting — if you can find Sundance on a map, you’ll swear you’ve been here before.
But “Juno” (which played at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, not the one in Park City, Utah) respects the idiosyncrasies of its characters rather than exaggerating them or holding them up for ridicule. And like Juno herself, the film outgrows its own mannerisms and defenses, evolving from a coy, knowing farce into a heartfelt, serious comedy.
A good deal of the credit for this goes to Ms. Page, a 20-year-old Canadian who is able to seem, in the space of a single scene, mature beyond her years and disarmingly childlike. The naïveté that peeks through her flippant, wised-up facade is essential, since part of the movie’s point is that Juno is not quite as smart or as capable as she thinks she is.
It’s not simply that she has impulsive, unprotected sex with her friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), or that she decides, against the advice of parents and friends, to have the baby and give it up for adoption. These, indeed, are choices she is prepared to defend and to live with. Rather, Juno’s immaturity resides in her familiar adolescent assumption that she understands the world better than her elders do, and that she can finesse the unintended consequences of her decisions.
The grown-ups, at first, seem like familiar caricatures of adolescent-centered cinema: square, sad and clueless. But Juno’s father (J. K. Simmons) and step-mother (Allison Janney) turn out to be complicated, intelligent people, too, and not just because they are played by two of the best character actors around. Ms. Cody’s script and Mr. Reitman’s understated, observant direction allow the personalities of the characters to emerge slowly, and to change in credible and unpredictable ways.
This is especially true of Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), the baby’s potential adoptive parents. The audience’s initial impression of them, like Juno’s, is of stereotypically smug yuppies trapped in rickety conventions of heterosexual domesticity. Vanessa is uptight and materialistic, while Mark tends the guttering flame of his youthful hipness, watching cult horror movies and trading alternative-rock mix CDs with Juno.
Juno is, on the surface at least, a familiar type, surrounding herself with and expressing herself by means of kitschy consumer detritus (she calls the clinic on a hamburger phone) and pop cultural ephemera. She could be the hero of a Judd Apatow comedy (like, say, Mr. Cera, the boneless wonder of “Superbad” and a purely delightful presence here). Except, of course, that she’s female. Ms. Cody, Mr. Reitman and Ms. Page have conspired, intentionally or not, to produce a feminist, girl-powered rejoinder and complement to “Knocked Up.” Despite what most products of the Hollywood comedy boys’ club would have you believe, it is possible to possess both a uterus and a sense of humor.
“Juno” also shares with “Knocked Up” an underlying theme, a message that is not anti-abortion but rather pro-adulthood. It follows its heroine — and by the end she has earned that title — on a twisty path toward responsibility and greater self-understanding.
This is the course followed by most coming-of-age stories, though not many are so daring in their treatment of teenage pregnancy, which this film flirts with presenting not just as bearable but attractive. Kids, please! Heed the cautionary whale. But in the meantime, have a good time at “Juno.” Bring your parents, too.
“Juno” is, somewhat remarkably, rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has sexual situations, obviously, but no nudity or violence and not much swearing.
Directed by Jason Reitman; written by Diablo Cody; director of photography, Eric Steelberg; edited by Dana E. Glauberman; music by Mateo Messina; production designer, Steve Saklad; produced by Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich, Mason Novick and Russell Smith; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes.
WITH: Ellen Page (Juno MacGuff), Michael Cera (Paulie Bleeker), Jennifer Garner (Vanessa Loring), Jason Bateman (Mark Loring), Allison Janney (Bren MacGuff), J. K. Simmons (Mac MacGuff) and Olivia Thirlby (Leah).
Interview with Dr. Alison Milbank author of Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians (22.10.07)
Alison Milbank read Theology and English Literature at Cambridge and took her PhD at Lancaster. She was John Rylands Research Fellow at Manchester and has taught at the universities of Cambridge, Middlesex and Virginia. She is currently Lecturer in Literature and Theology at the University of Nottingham. Her publications include editions of Ann Radcliffe's fiction A Sicilian Romance (Oxford World's Classics)(1998), Daughters of the House: Modes of the Gothic in Victorian Fiction (1992) and Dante and the Victorians (1998).
Now Alison Milbank has published a new book on Tolkien and Chesterton, a topic that has been touched before by several authors; Tolkien, Lewis and Chesterton are often put on one line. Yet here is a book that goes much deeper and adds a lot of new perspective into the subject. It will for sure proof to become a very valuable source on Tolkien and Chesterton. Alison Milbank examines the theology of G.K. Chesterton's fantastical poetry looking at the concept of Chesterton's 'theology of gift' as the means by which magic can become 'real' and enable characters to connect with the divine. Milbank sees a flourishing theology of creation and incarnation in both. Tolkien refers several times to Chesterton’s essays in On Fairy-stories, and Milbank argues that these references show he knew a posthumous compilation of Chesterton’s writings, The Coloured Lands, edited by Maisie Ward in 1938, just before Tolkien’s lecture on which the fairy-story essay was based. This is just one of the interesting topics in this book, for sure it will be very interesting to many readers! Here follows an interview with the author.
Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I am a literary scholar of the Victorian period and the Gothic novel, with interests in all manner of non realist fiction: fantasy, horror, and mystery. I am also an Anglican priest and lecturer in literature and theology at the University of Nottingham. My theological interests are to the fore in my study of the influence of the poet Dante on British culture in the nineteenth century, Dante and the Victorians.
Q: How did you first get interested in Professor Tolkien's works?
It was my children, Arabella and Sebastian, who encouraged me to read Tolkien properly. As a child I liked The Hobbit but thought The Lord of the Rings was just for boys. Now I know that he has powerful heroines too and I really value the way he offers a rite of passage for male maturation. We read the trilogy aloud as a family and I was overwhelmed by its beauty and sadness. Then I was asked to give a series of public lectures on Tolkien and Christianity in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I used to live, and I also began to teach The Lord of the Rings in my Fantasy and Religion Course at the University of Virginia. This course attracted wonderfully enthusiastic and often brilliant students, from whom I learnt a good deal about Tolkien. I still teach a variant of this course at Nottingham.
Q: I'd like to talk about your book, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians. What prompted you to write this book?
What prompted me to write my book, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real, was first, the lack of any real literary analysis of Tolkien, showing how he gains his particular effects. I wanted to argue against those critics who say he writes badly, and show him to be a serious craftsman of language. Secondly, I wanted to show how the way he writes conveys a religious attitude to life, and a sense of the holy and transcendent.
Q: What is the link between Chesterton and Tolkien?
Teaching Tolkien in a course along with the writer G. K. Chesterton’s fantasy novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, made me aware of how similar their view of reality is. Chesterton gives a very courageous positive view of being and life itself as a good thing, and his stories are fantastic but always bring you back to the ordinary seen freshly as wonderful and exciting. Anyone who knows Tolkien’s essay, On Fairy-stories, will recognise the similarity to Tolkien’s second function of fantasy as escape from the world we know to a world of golden and silver trees, so that we may return and see ordinary apple trees as having a depth of being we never before perceived. We recover a clear view of things as we were meant (by God) to see them.
Q: Tolkien references to Chesterton on many occasions, can you tell us about this a little more?
Tolkien refers several times to Chesterton’s essays in On Fairy-stories, and I argue that these references show he knew a posthumous compilation of Chesterton’s writings, The Coloured Lands, edited by Maisie Ward in 1938, just before Tolkien’s lecture on which the fairy-story essay was based. Maisie Ward actually introduces the idea of sub-creation that is so important an aspect of Tolkien’s understanding of his literary project. It’s interesting that Tolkien is anxious to state that his view of the role of fantasy goes beyond that of Chesterton – this shows to me how closely influenced he feels himself to be. So Tolkien says that Chestertonian fantasy shows you the actual world from a new angle but thoroughgoing fantasy is like opening a box that allows out new things and releases them from our ownership of them. This is a really philosophical statement. The Enlightenment philosopher Kant said we have no access to things in themselves, and all we have is our own perception of the world. This leads to an alienated form of knowledge. Tolkien, following Chesterton, is a realist in a philosophical sense, because he thinks that we can be aware of a world beyond our own perceptions. Paradoxically, fiction – creating your own fantasy world – is not a way of owning your own private reality but setting the things in that world free – like Tom Bombadil putting the contents of the barrow-wights’ hoard out on the hillside.
Q: What are the similarities between Tolkien and Chesterton?
Similarities then between Chesterton and Tolkien are numerous but here are a few crucial parallels:
1. Both were Catholics by faith.
2. Both had an intense love of England, and love of the local and specific landscape.
3. They grew up to read William Morris, George MacDonald and the Andrew Lang fairy books.
4. They both enjoyed making worlds, Tolkien through writing and drawing, Chesterton especially through puppet theatres.
5. They sought a politics and ecology that restored non-alienated modes of production.
6. For both men, fiction and make-believe were modes of truth-telling.
7. As I mentioned above, both men were moderate philosophical realists, influenced by Thomas Aquinas.
Q: Can we explore Tolkien through Chesterton?
The way my book works is to take a series of literary ideas – the fantastic, the grotesque and paradox/riddle – and show how Chesterton’s use of them and writing about them helps us to look afresh at Tolkien. For example, in the chapter, ‘Making-Strange’ I talk about Chesterton’s early memory of a man with a golden key crossing a bridge to a castle, which proves to be a recollection not of a real scene but of a cardboard figure in his father’s puppet theatre. The point is that the young Chesterton was not deceived but loved the theatre because of its fictionality. It opened up the whole world as one vast toy theatre put there for his delectation by its maker, God. This helps us to make sense of Tolkien’s vast fictional universe. When we read it we are immersed in its detail and depth of realism but that same detail makes us aware of it as a fictional construction. Tolkien makes Sam meditate on being a character in a story or song when encouraging the wounded Frodo at the Crack of Doom, which is doubly ironic for the reader who knows that Sam and Frodo will be in a song within the story and also characters in the story about their story. Tolkien also gives us the hobbits, who are believably small town English people with their love of gardening, pipes and beer but utterly fictional in their huge and hairy feet. Chesterton describes for me effects that one can find in Tolkien. It is this double effect of realism and craft that gives Tolkien’s world its power and energy. I have a whole chapter on Father Christmas in both writers as the prime example of a figure who is both a collaborative make-believe between parents and children, and yet utterly real at some level.
Q: Why do you think Tolkien's books are so successful?
For me, Tolkien’s books are so successful precisely because they play between the real and the fictive, and because they are religious in giving the reader a hunger for transcendence – for a world beyond this world. Middle-earth points beyond itself to the West, and leaves the reader torn between wanting to stay with Sam at Bag-End here on earth and also wanting to reunite him with Frodo, now in the Blessed Realm. Another tension that makes the story so powerful is its treatment of nostalgia. It is not a nostalgic text but one that shows the elves as preservers of the past, with all the beauty and yet stasis that this represents. Again the reader is caught between the desire to defeat Sauron and the new reign of Aragorn that this will usher in, and the consequent loss of elvish presence on earth that will ensue as the Rings lose their authority and the elves diminish. When we finish reading the novel we see a certain closure in the separation of elves and humans, but we carry on bearing the ache of that separation. As someone who thinks it arrogant to believe that we humans are the only form of conscious existence in the universe, I really value that quality in the novel. I think we are all in exile from our enchanted past, an imagined past when we communed with the creatures as Carroll’s Alice does with the faun, and walked with elves. In fact we need to re-enchant our world if we are to save it from our own ravaging of its resources.
Q: Did you have any resources you used that we should know about?
I wrote this book far from copyright libraries, and the main resources were the writings of the two authors themselves. I commend to all Tolkien lovers, Chesterton’s spiritual autobiography, Orthodoxy, and especially, the chapter, ‘The Ethics of Elfland’. It is available easily on the web. It is a defence of fantasy as more scientific than science – or Victorian positivist conceptions of science - and it really blows one’s mind. I also kept finding Dante creeping in, especially in the chapter on the grotesque. I also used a lot of Jacques Maritain, a populariser of Thomas Aquinas in the early twentieth century, who was translated by Chesterton’s model for the priest detective Father Brown, Monsignor John O’Connor, whose ideas about faith and art I argue were a resource not only for Chesterton but also Tolkien. Another resource for me was Tom Bombadil, who became the key to understanding Tolkien’s vision of reality and who pops up all over the place. I found an ancestor for him in the poet Edward Thomas’s Lob, and I used Georgian and modernist poetry as a background against which to understand Tolkien’s development. And I was generously allowed access to the copy of the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas owned by Tolkien, which is for sale at St Philip’s Bookshop in Oxford. It has marginal notes which I believe might be those of Father Morgan but also pencil marks on sections that might easily be by Tolkien – book marks are made of Anglo-Saxon booklists! They also mark sections on marriage and obedience, which fit with Tolkien’s early marriage against Fr Morgan’s advice. Someone needs to look at these volumes properly.
Q: How do you feel about the result of your book? What is your hope for your readers?
My book has only just been published so I don’t quite know what its result will be. I hope it will help people read Tolkien with renewed understanding and excitement, and read the world as a creation – a fiction if you like. We treat the objects of our own world as dead things, and I hope that as a result of my book we can use Tolkien’s vision of a vibrant, active universe of beings to renew our vision of plants, animals and lampposts alike. I have a whole chapter on gift-exchange, and I hope that readers will learn to see how Tolkien’s novel teaches us to receive the world itself as a gift.
Q: Did you learn something new about Tolkien?
It is difficult to say what new things I have learnt about Tolkien because he is so consistent that to read one short story, such as ‘Leaf by Niggle’ or ‘Smith of Wotton Major’ is to hold a thread that is woven from end to end of his vast oeuvre. So everything new one comes across is always accompanied with a sense of déjà-vu.
Q: Where do you write?
I live in the tiny cathedral town of Southwell in Sherwood Forest, looking out of my study window on vast trees. And I am a curate in the village of Lambley, which adjoins Phoenix Farm, where Tolkien stayed with his aunt when she was a tenant farmer in Nottinghamshire. It is a pretty hobbitish area, with a very tucked-away feel to it, despite the proximity of the A1.
Q: What are you currently working on? Any more Tolkien related books?
I have written several other articles on Tolkien, including one on fetishism for The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy. This summer I was privileged to deliver a talk on Tolkien and ways of knowing to several thousand mainly young Catholics at the Rimini Meeting of Communion and Liberation, which was a great privilege. It was wonderful to hear them all cry out ‘Viva Tolkien!’ My next project is a theological history of the Gothic novel but I also hope to disinter Tolkien’s lecture to the Oxford Dante Society and write an article about Dante and Tolkien.
Q: When you're not working, what are your favourite ways to relax and have fun?
As a full-time academic and also assistant priest, my spare time is spent making rather amateurish models for Junior Church or leading services. But I love cinema, and going to the theatre. And I read old-fashioned detective stories, intending to write one myself one day. I am a walker like Tolkien, and love meandering about picking up conkers, rather than striding for miles like C. S. Lewis.
Q: One final question: what did you think of The Children of Húrin?
The Children of Húrin is really powerful, I think. It did not come out in its recent form when I was writing my book, but I would have found the whole emphasis on doom and the limits of human freedom interesting. And the power of the dragon Glaurung is fascinating and psychologically consistent. The style is a bit like the King James Bible but none the worse for that. Tolkien was capable of a mythic reach in his writing and this story comes across like a true myth.
Wednesday, January 2, 2008, 7:05 AM
It is often assumed that G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien were reactionary, antimodern writers. In a certain sense they were. Tolkien regarded nearly everything worthy of praise in English culture to have ended in 1066. He scorned the imposition of Norman culture on a vibrant English tradition that had flourished for more than five hundred years, and he looked on the Arthurian legends as an alien French import that offered no fit basis for a national mythology such as he sought to construct in his Silmarillion. Tolkien also thought the Protestant Reformation to be a terrible error, insisting that the cathedrals of England were stolen Catholic property. Neither was he happy that his friend and companion, C.S. Lewis, remained what Tolkien derisively called “an Ulster Protestant.” Tolkien also lamented the Triumph of the Machine, as he described the Industrial Revolution and all its pomps. He refused, moreover, to drive a motorcar once he saw the damage that paved roads and automobiles had done to the English countryside. Tolkien was an unapologetic monarchist as well, believing that hierarchical distinctions are necessary for the flourishing of any polity, whether academic or ecclesial or governmental. He longed, in fact, for the return of Roman Catholicism as the established state religion of England.
As the older man—he died in 1936, just as Tolkien’s popularity would begin to burgeon with the publication of The Hobbit in 1937—Chesterton seems even more of an antediluvian. He was the avowed advocate of all things ancestral, describing tradition as “the democracy of the dead,” granting the franchise to the greatest of all majorities, the deceased. He opposed women’s suffrage, divorce on all grounds, contraception in all forms, and machinery of most kinds. His chief opposition to dueling was not that it left someone dead but that it settled no arguments. His view of the Protestant Reformation was even less charitable than Tolkien’s. Calvinism and Puritanism are among the dirtiest words in Chesterton’s vocabulary. For him, the doctrine of double predestination was a monstrously deterministic and freedom-denying dogma. He also held the Reformation responsible for the rise of modern individualism and capitalism, when in fact Calvin (like Luther) looked backward to Augustine far more than forward to the Renaissance and Enlightenment.
Alison Milbank’s Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real is a remarkable accomplishment, chiefly because it forestalls any easy dismissal of Chesterton and Tolkien as troglodytes. With adept recourse to an impressive (but never name-dropping) array of anthropologists and literary theorists, folklorists and linguists, philosophers and theologians, she shows that these Catholic writers engage modern and even postmodern culture by way of a revolutionary understanding of the imagination. Both writers resorted to fantasy as an escape into reality, as Tolkien liked to say. They were fascinated with fairies because Elfland, as Chesterton called it, enabled them to envision the world as wondrously magical no less than terribly contingent: as “utterly real and enchanted at one and the same time.” Whereas conventional Christian apologists often cast theological stones at the obduracy of atheists and materialists, Tolkien and Chesterton answer them with dwarves and ents, with Innocent Smith and Father Brown. Smith fires bullets at his own best friend, robs his own house, and commits polygamy with the cooperation of his own wife—all in order to make himself and others more fully alive. Chesterton’s childlike priest is so unsullied by self-interest, in turn, that he alone can decipher the cynical deceptions of criminals.
Yet estrangement and alienation are never the final outcome of Chesterton’s and Tolkien’s work. For they share the conviction that we human creatures are most like God in our positive creativity. “We make,” said Tolkien, “by the law in which we’re made.” Virtually every human act—from dressing in the morning to making vast literary epics and philosophical systems—is an act of creation. Unlike Coleridge and the Romantics, however, Tolkien and Chesterton never grant godlike status to artists and thinkers as having the power to invent their own self-enclosed universe. On the contrary, they share a deep Thomistic regard for the primacy of being: for things as they are perceived by the senses. Like Kant, they confess the difficulty of moving from the phenomenal to the noumenal realm of things-in-themselves. Yet, unlike him, they do not despair over the seemingly impassable gap between the inner and the outer, the mental and the natural; instead, they reveal that the world is not dreadfully dead (as we have believed since Descartes and Newton) but utterly alive and awaiting our free transformation of it. The universe that has been made dissonant also requires reenchantment, therefore, in order for us to participate in an otherness that is not finally cacophony but symphony, a complex interlocking of likenesses and differences that form an immensely complex but finally redemptive Whole. The doubleness of all things is cause for rejoicing, it follows, rather than lamentation.
Our problem, Milbank makes clear, is not that we perceive too much but too little. Our perceptions (and thus our creations) are limited because our fallen and finite imaginations cannot grasp the surplus of light that pervades all created being—hence Tolkien’s and Chesterton’s literally fantastic attempts to hint and gesture at agencies so unknowable that they reveal God’s own inaccessibility. “Similitudes drawn from things farthest away from God,” Milbank quotes Dionysus the Pseudo-Areopagite as saying, “form within us a truer estimate that God is above whatsoever we may say or think of Him.” Thus do we encounter Treebeard, the huge dendroidal Ent who has a face that belongs (in Tolkien’s words) “to a large Man-like, almost Troll-like figure, at least fourteen [feet] high, very sturdy, with a tall head, and hardly any neck.” He also has seven toes on his gargantuan feet, and his “sweeping grey beard [is] bushy, almost twiggy at the roots, thin and mossy at the ends.” He seems alien in the extreme. Yet Treebeard not only rescues Merry and Pippin from the orcs, but also engages them with his penetrating eyes. Like trees in many folktales, he also speaks to them as well, albeit with the arboreal sluggishness of a slow-growing, slow-moving creature.
As readers we are able to experience Treebeard at two levels: On the one hand, he is patently an aesthetic invention, a fictional creature. Both Chesterton and Tolkien constantly draw attention to the created character of their work, reminding us that it belongs to secondary and not primarily reality: it is a constructed thing to be enjoyed as such. Yet having encountered this fantastic tree with human features, readers can no longer look upon real trees as mere objects meant only for our manipulation. On the contrary, we can now envision all trees as analogical actualities, as transcendent symbols that participate in the reality that they signify, as having likenesses to us despite their differences from us, and thus as linking natural things with both human and divine things—and perhaps also with things demonic. It is not a long leap, for instance, from Treebeard to the trees in the Garden of Eden.
The Catholic and analogical quality of Tolkien’s and Chesterton’s work is what Milbank most convincingly demonstrates. Unlike much modern art that revels in the macabre and the bizarre—self-referential, solipsistic, nihilistic—the fantastical work of these two Catholics is not such a sorry project. Chesterton and Tolkien have not autonomously invented their own imaginative worlds so much as they have reordered the existing world in accordance with their fundamentally Aristotelian/Thomistic perception of it. Their common conviction is that everything has its own entelechy, its own end within itself that pushes it toward completion and fulfillment within a larger, indeed a final telos. This classic Catholic outlook is clearly voiced by Chesterton in his splendid little book on Thomas Aquinas, wittily entitled The Dumb Ox. Because all “things [tend] to a greater end,” Milbank quotes Chesterton, “they are more real than we think them. If they seem to have a relative unreality (so to speak) it is because they are potential, not actual; they are unfulfilled, like packets of seeds or boxes of fireworks. They have it in them to be more real than they are. And there is an upper world of what the Schoolman called Fruition or Fulfillment, in which all this relative relativity becomes actuality; in which the trees burst into flower or the rockets into flame.”
This Catholic theology of the imagination is perhaps realized most clearly in Tolkien’s story “Leaf by Niggle.” The artist Niggle has spent his entire life seeking to create the perfect tree—just as Tolkien worked from 1917 until his death in 1973 on his twelve-volume but still uncompleted legendarium of Middle-earth. Not only is Niggle a deficient painter; his needy and practical-minded neighbor named Parish also frequently interrupts him. In the end, alas, Niggle’s canvas is used to patch the leaking roof on Parish’s house so that only a single tiny leaf is preserved from the original painting. Yet Niggle discovers, once he has died and entered a purgatorial realm, that the artistic life and the utilitarian world are necessary and complementary to each other. Having finally been purged of his false artistic self-sufficiency, Niggle is able at last to behold his perfect and finished Tree. “If you could say that of a Tree that was alive,” the narrator adds, “its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide. ‘It’s a gift!’ he said.”
This final acclamation lies at the heart of Alison Milbank’s fine book. With clarity and wit and verve, she shows that the gift-quality of Tolkien’s and Chesterton’s art is premised on the gift-character of the universe itself. Their work, as she splendidly verifies, has profound moral implications. For in a gift-giving and gift-receiving world, we are not meant to seek our own advantage at the expense of others. Rather we are meant to create gifts—like those presents into which Galadriel has woven her own character before she gives them to the Company—that serve to free their recipients rather than putting them into our debt. Milbank has gifted us with what may well become our finest study of these Catholic artists in their unique relation not only to each other but also to our imagination-starved churches and culture.
Ralph C. Wood is the Mary Ann Remick Visiting Fellow at the Center for Ethics and Culture, Notre Dame University.
January 3, 2007
A Pakistan People's Party (PPP) worker arranges flowers beside a poster of slain former premier Benazir Bhutto in Islamabad.
“Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.”
Emerson’s couplet comes to mind as the New Year opens with Pakistan, the second largest Muslim country on Earth, in social and political chaos, trending toward a failed state with nuclear weapons.
Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, whom the White House pressed to return home from exile to form an anti-Islamist alliance with President Pervez Musharraf, is dead, assassinated on the second try in two months.
Her 19-year-old son, who has spent most of his life outside the country, is now the declared leader of her Pakistan Peoples Party but is remaining at Oxford. Her husband, widely regarded as the bag man of the Bhutto family, is playing regent, denouncing the Pakistan Muslim League with which Musharraf is affiliated as a “murderers’ league.”
As riots ravage the country, the PPP is demanding that the Jan. 8 elections go forward and calling on the nation to repudiate Musharraf and bring the PPP to power—in her memory.
Nawaz Sharif, a two-time prime minister like Bhutto who presided over Pakistan’s test of an atom bomb, who is close to the Islamists, who was also ousted for corruption, and who is detested by Musharraf, had declared an election boycott. Now his party, too, is urging that the elections go forward. Sharif wants Musharraf out and himself in.
If Musharraf postpones the elections, or they are not regarded as free and fair, the whole nation could erupt. If he does not postpone the elections, he will almost surely be repudiated.
Revealed by all this is the inability, if not the impotence, of America to assure a desired outcome in a nation whose support is indispensable if we are not to lose the war in Afghanistan, now in its seventh year.
Moreover, the reactions of some U.S. presidential candidates suggest they are not ready to run this country, let alone Pakistan. After Bhutto’s assassination, Bill Richardson called on Musharraf to resign. Hillary Clinton has suggested that Musharraf could be toppled and demanded that he submit to an outside investigation of the murder of Benazir Bhutto.
Nancy Pelosi is suggesting a cutoff in U.S. aid if there is no outside investigation and demanding the White House ensure that Pakistan’s elections are “free and fair.” Perhaps the Pakistanis will demand observers this year in Florida and Ohio.
But if Musharraf stands down, who steps in? Do we know? And if elections go forward, are we ready to accept any outcome?
After all, this is a country whose provinces bordering on Afghanistan, the Northwest Frontier and Baluchistan, are ruled by a coalition of Muslim parties sympathetic to the Taliban. Tribal regions along the border play host to the Taliban and perhaps Osama himself. Elements of Pakistan’s military and intelligence services are Islamist. The nuclear proliferator A.Q. Khan and Osama are far more popular than Musharraf or Bush. Lose Pakistan in the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban and you lose the Afghan war.
In recent elections in the Near and Middle East, many of them called at the insistence of President Bush, the winners were Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, Moqtada al-Sadr and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
What are the primary U.S. interests today in Pakistan? That its nuclear weapons remain in secure and friendly hands and that Pakistan remains an ally in the war against al-Qaeda.
Whatever happens in the elections Jan. 8, or later, the United States should retain close ties to Pakistan’s military. As Rome’s emperor Septimus Severus counseled his sons on his deathbed, “Pay the soldiers. The rest do not matter.”
But the United States must begin now to look at the longer term.
It seems clear that we are so hated in that country that any leader like Bhutto, seen as a friend and ally to the United States, is ever at mortal risk. Musharraf has himself been a repeated target of assassins.
Second, our ability to influence events is severely limited. What does democracy mean in a country where 60 percent of the people are illiterate and parties are fiefdoms of families and political instruments of religious radicals?
As Burke reminded us, “It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
We need to ask ourselves hard questions. Has the blood we have shed in Afghanistan and Iraq, the hundreds of billions we have plunged into these wars, and into foreign aid, made us safer? Has it made us more friends than enemies? Perhaps, as is seen today in Anbar, locals are better at dealing with al-Qaeda than even our American soldiers.
Russia, China, India, and Japan are closer to Pakistan than we. Yet, none of them feels the need we apparently do to be so deeply enmeshed in her internal affairs.
COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE INC.
Dillon Freasier, left, and Daniel Day-Lewis
An American Primitive, Forged in a Crucible of Blood and Oil
By MANOHLA DARGIS
The New York Times
Published: December 26, 2007
“There Will Be Blood,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic American nightmare, arrives belching fire and brimstone and damnation to Hell. Set against the backdrop of the Southern California oil boom of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, it tells a story of greed and envy of biblical proportions — reverberating with Old Testament sound and fury and New Testament evangelicalism — which Mr. Anderson has mined from Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel “Oil!” There is no God but money in this oil-rich desert and his messenger is Daniel Plainview, a petroleum speculator played by a monstrous and shattering Daniel Day-Lewis.
Plainview is an American primitive. He’s more articulate and civilized than the crude, brutal title character in Frank Norris’s 1899 novel “McTeague,” and Erich von Stroheim’s masterly version of the same, “Greed.” But the two characters are brothers under the hide, coarse and animalistic, sentimental in matters of love and ruthless in matters of avarice. Mr. Anderson opens his story in 1898, closer to Norris’s novel than Sinclair’s, which begins in the years leading up to World War I. And the film’s opener is a stunner — spooky and strange, blanketed in shadows and nearly wordless. Inside a deep, dark hole, a man pickaxes the hard-packed soil like a bug gnawing through dirt. This is the earth mover, the ground shaker: Plainview.
Over the next two and a half mesmerizing hours Plainview will strike oil, then strike it rich and transform a bootstrapper’s dream into a terrifying prophecy about the coming American century. It’s a century he plunges into slicked in oil, dabbed with blood and accompanied by H. W. (eventually played by the newcomer Dillon Freasier), the child who enters his life in 1902 after he makes his first strike and seems to have burbled from the ground like the liquid itself. The brief scenes of Plainview’s first tender, awkward moments with H. W. will haunt the story. In one of the most quietly lovely images in a film of boisterous beauty, he gazes at the tiny, pale toddler, chucking him under the chin as they sit on a train very much alone.
“There Will Be Blood” involves a tangle of relationships, mainly intersecting sets of fathers and sons and pairs of brothers. (Like most of the finest American directors working now, Mr. Anderson makes little on-screen time for women.) But it is Plainview’s intense, needful bond with H. W. that raises the stakes and gives enormous emotional force to this expansively imagined period story with its pictorial and historical sweep, its raging fires, geysers of oil and inevitable blood. (Rarely has a film’s title seemed so ominous.) By the time H. W. is about 10, he has become a kind of partner to his father, at once a child and a sober little man with a jacket and neatly combed hair who dutifully stands by Plainview’s side as quiet as his conscience.
A large swath of the story takes place in 1911, by which point Plainview has become a successful oilman with his own fast-growing company. Flanked by the watchful H. W., he storms through California, sniffing out prospects and trying to persuade frenzied men and women to lease their land for drilling. (H. W. gives Plainview his human mask: “I’m a family man,” he proclaims to prospective leasers.) One day a gangling, unsmiling young man, Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), arrives with news that oil is seeping out of the ground at his family’s ranch. The stranger sells this information to Plainview, who promptly sets off with H. W. to a stretch of California desert where oil puddles the ground among the cactus, scrub and human misery.
Not long afterward oil is gushing out of that desert. The eruption rattles both the earth and the local population, whom Plainview soothes with promises. Poor, isolated, thirsting for water (they don’t have enough even to grow wheat), the dazed inhabitants gaze at the oilman like hungry baby birds. (Their barren town is oddly named Little Boston.) He promises schools, roads and water, delivering his sermon with a carefully enunciated, sepulchral voice that Mr. Day-Lewis seems to have largely borrowed from the director John Huston. Plainview is preaching a new gospel, though one soon challenged by another salesman, Paul Sunday’s Holy Roller brother, Eli (also Mr. Dano). A charismatic preacher looking to build a new church, Eli slithers into the story, one more snake in the desert.
Mr. Anderson has always worn his influences openly, cribbing from Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman among others (he helped the ailing Altman with his final film, “A Prairie Home Companion”), but rarely has his movie love been as organically integrated into his work as it is here. Movie history weighs on every filmmaker, informs every cut, camera angle and movement. “There Will Be Blood” is very much a personal endeavor for Mr. Anderson; it feels like an act of possession. Yet it is also directly engaged with our cinematically constructed history, specifically with films — “Greed” and “Chinatown,” but also “Citizen Kane” — that have dismantled the mythologies of American success and, in doing so, replaced one utopian ideal for another, namely that of the movies themselves.
This is Mr. Anderson’s fifth feature and it proves a breakthrough for him as a filmmaker. Although there are more differences than similarities between it and the Sinclair book, the novel has provided him with something he has lacked in the past, a great theme. It may also help explain the new film’s narrative coherence. His first feature, “Sydney” (also known as “Hard Eight”), showed Mr. Anderson to be an intuitively gifted filmmaker, someone who was born to make images with a camera. His subsequent features — “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia” and “Punch-Drunk Love” — have ambition and flair, though to increasingly diminished ends. Elliptical, self-conscious, at times multithreaded, they contain passages of clarity and brilliance. But in their escalating stylization you feel the burdens of virtuosity, originality, independence.
“There Will Be Blood” exhibits much the same qualities as Mr. Anderson’s previous work — every shot seems exactly right — but its narrative form is more classical and less weighted down by the pressures of self-aware auteurism. It flows smoothly, linearly, building momentum and unbearable tension. Mr. Day-Lewis’s outsize performance, with its footnote references to Huston and strange, contorted Kabuki-like grimaces, occasionally breaks the skin of the film’s surface like a dangerous undertow. The actor seems to have invaded Plainview’s every atom, filling an otherwise empty vessel with so much rage and purpose you wait for him to blow. It’s a thrilling performance, among the greatest I’ve seen, purposefully alienating and brilliantly located at the juncture between cinematic realism and theatrical spectacle.
This tension between realism and spectacle runs like a fissure through the film and invests it with tremendous unease. You are constantly being pulled away from and toward the charismatic Plainview, whose pursuit of oil reads like a chapter from this nation’s grand narrative of discovery and conquest. His 1911 strike puts the contradictions of this story into graphic, visual terms. Mr. Anderson initially thrusts you close to the awesome power of the geyser, which soon bursts into flames, then pulls back for a longer view, his sensuously fluid camera keeping pace with Plainview and his men as they race about trying to contain what they’ve unleashed. But the monster has been uncorked. The black billowing smoke pours into the sky, and there it will stay.
With a story of and for our times, “There Will Be Blood” can certainly be viewed through the smeary window that looks onto the larger world. It’s timeless and topical, general and specific, abstract and as plain as the name of its fiery oilman. It’s an origin story of sorts. The opening images of desert hills and a droning electronic chord allude to the beginning of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” whose murderous apes are part of a Darwinian continuum with Daniel Plainview. But the film is above all a consummate work of art, one that transcends the historically fraught context of its making, and its pleasures are unapologetically aesthetic. It reveals, excites, disturbs, provokes, but the window it opens is to human consciousness itself.
“There Will Be Blood” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). As the title warns, there will be blood.
THERE WILL BE BLOOD
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; written by Mr. Anderson, based on the novel “Oil!” by Upton Sinclair; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by Dylan Tichenor; music by Jonny Greenwood; production designer, Jack Fisk; produced by Mr. Anderson, JoAnne Sellar and Daniel Lupi; released by Paramount Vantage and Miramax Films. Running time: 2 hours 38 minutes.
WITH: Daniel Day-Lewis (Daniel Plainview), Paul Dano (Paul Sunday/Eli Sunday), Kevin J. O’Connor (Henry), Ciaran Hinds (Fletcher) and Dillon Freasier (H. W.).
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney in "The Savages."
Stuck on a Family Hamster Wheel, Mile After Mile, Year After Year
By MANOHLA DARGIS
The New York Times
Published: November 28, 2007
The hands that rock the cradle sometimes tip it over. Watching “The Savages,” Tamara Jenkins’s beautifully nuanced tragicomedy about two floundering souls, you have to wonder if those hands didn’t also knock that cradle clear across the nursery, sending both Savage children into perpetual free-fall.
Certainly Jon Savage, the angry lump played by a brilliant — oh, let’s just cut to it — the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman, looks like a man who’s taken as much abuse as he likes to deliver. One night, Jon, a college professor who lives and teaches in Buffalo, is awakened from a deep sleep (Ms. Jenkins has a nice way with metaphor) to discover that his father, Lenny (a fine Philip Bosco), has gone around the bend and has begun finger-painting with his feces. The bearer of these unfortunate tidings is Jon’s younger sister, Wendy (Laura Linney, sharp and vanity free), a self-professed playwright whose greatest, perhaps only creation is the closely nurtured story of wounded narcissism and family wrongs unwinding in her head.
They mess you up, your mum and dad, Philip Larkin more or less wrote, which, though it provides steadfast inspiration for poets of all disciplines, has emerged as one of the banes of American independent cinema. At first glance “The Savages,” which had its premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival, looks like another one of those dreaded indie encounter sessions in which everyone cracks wise and weary on the bumpy road to self-actualization. Ms. Jenkins, whose gifted first feature, “Slums of Beverly Hills,” fired up movie screens and critics nearly a decade ago, seems incapable of such falsity. I bet she knows the rest of Larkin’s poem, namely, “They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you.”
Ms. Jenkins never explains how or why or even if Lenny filled Jon and Wendy with his faults, and what caused his wife, their mother, to run away. She omits the talk-show psychology and instead lets the clues seep through the realistic-sounding snippets and strings of dialogue, through sentences (not speeches), questions (not confessions) and silences as lived in as the story’s recognizably real and revelatory spaces. In Wendy and Jon’s separate if similarly cluttered homes, you can almost see the layers of aspiration and disappointment that have accumulated alongside the dust and the books; in Lenny’s sterile house in Sun City, Ariz., you see a man who has not only wiped away his past, but has also erased part of his own self.
In their dyspeptic, quarrelsome fashion, the Savages are blissfully neurotic, often very funny variations on J. M. Barrie’s fictional offspring, John and Wendy Darling, those charmed, magical storybook children. (In their moments of terrifying mutual dependency they can also recall the brother and sister in Jean Cocteau and Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Enfants Terribles.”) If Ms. Jenkins’s middle-age characters have never grown up, in spirit and mind if not in body, it isn’t because they flew off to Neverland in a cloud of fairy dust, but because they did not and could not leave. Yet if Jon and Wendy have stayed locked inside, Ms. Jenkins also suggests — through an image of flight of surprising force and beauty — that some children find other means of escape, including their imaginations.
Ms. Jenkins doesn’t imply that all that pain is a worthwhile price to pay for imagination, but she acknowledges the paradoxical truth that suffering can also be a source of inspiration, a way out of the childhood room we sometimes call the past. For Jon, who is writing a book on Brecht, and his playwright sister, life has become something of a performance. Both were probably given a role to play a long time ago — superior brother, resentful sister — and now act out their parts to perfection. (Jon, who clings to Brecht as if to a baby blanket, is something of a walking alienation effect. ) Jean Renoir once asked, Where does theater end and life begin? Ms. Jenkins seems to answer that question reasonably by saying there is no separation.
It would give away too much to reveal what happens to these distinctly nondarling siblings, whose outbursts and moments of hilarious, often voluble cruelty border on the shrill and the unspeakable. Ms. Jenkins has a gift for family brutality, but she herself isn’t a savage talent. There isn’t a single moment of emotional guff or sentimentality in “The Savages,” a film that caused me to periodically wince, but also left me with a sense of acute pleasure, even joy. It’s the pleasure of a true-to-life tale told by a director and actors who’ve sunk so deep into their movie together you wonder how they ever surfaced. You live with Jon and Wendy Savage gratefully, even when they can’t always do the same.
“The Savages” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). The film has raw words and open wounds.
Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins; director of photography, Mott Hupfel; edited by Brian A. Kates; music by Stephen Trask; production designer, Jane Ann Stewart; produced by Ted Hope, Anne Carey and Erica Westheimer; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes.
WITH: Laura Linney (Wendy Savage), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Jon Savage), Philip Bosco (Lenny Savage), Peter Friedman (Larry), David Zayas (Eduardo), Gbenga Akinnagbe (Jimmy), Cara Seymour (Kasia), Guy Boyd (Bill Lachman), Debra Monk (Nancy Lachman), Kristine Nielsen (Nurse), Margo Martindale (Roz), Zoe Kazan (Student) and Marianne Weems (Director).
Friday, January 04, 2008
IAF chief Eliezer Shkedi. (Kobi Gideon/BauBau)
Sometimes what the international press does not cover reveals as much about its biases as what it does cover. When Israel was engaged in a campaign of targeted killings against Gaza terrorists during the height of the Palestinian Intifada, the press eagerly reported on every civilian casualty. Human rights organizations had a field day criticizing Israel for its failure to pinpoint legitimate military targets and the large number of collateral deaths its campaign of targeted killings was producing. In those days, especially in 2002-2003, approximately half of the people killed by Israeli missiles were civilians. The other half were terrorists who were engaged in trying to kill as many civilians as possible. Sometimes the civilian casualties exceeded the legitimate military killings. The most notorious such case was the targeted killing of Salah Shehadeh, a terrorist commander who was responsible for hundreds of Israeli deaths and who was actively involved in planning hundreds, perhaps thousands, more. After several failed attempts, a targeted rocket attack managed to kill him and few tears were shed over his well deserved demise. But in the process of killing him, his wife and daughter were also killed along with 13 other civilians. This caused an enormous outcry, not only in the international press, but among Israelis as well. Even though Shehadeh’s death may well have prevented the deaths of many more Israeli civilians, still the cost in Palestinian civilian casualties was too high for most Israelis to accept and for the international media to tolerate.
Since the Shehadeh tragedy, the Israeli air force has undertaken a major effort to reduce civilian casualties, while continuing to target enemy combatants who are planning terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens. By using smaller bombs, they kill fewer civilians, but they also miss many legitimate military targets, as they did when they used a small bomb and failed to kill several Hamas terrorist leaders who were assembled in one place.
Under the leadership of Eliezer Shkedi, the current head of the Israeli air force, Israel has dramatically reduced the number of civilian deaths, by developing greater technical proficiency and by forgoing attacks when the risk of civilian deaths is too high. This is the way this improvement was recently reported in Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper known for its criticism of targeted killings:
Lately, the thwartings have indeed become more worthy of the title "pinpointed." In all the attacks of recent weeks, only gunmen were hurt, as confirmed by Palestinians. The rate of civilians hurt in these attacks in 2007 was 2-3 percent. The IDF has come a long way since the dark days of 2002-2003, when half the casualties in air assaults on the Gaza Strip were innocent bystanders. The attacks fall into three main categories: targeting specific known terrorists; targeting Qassam rocket-launching cells en-route or in action; and punitive bombardments of Hamas outposts, in response to rocket or mortar fire into Israel.
Reducing the number of civilian casualties in the attacks on Gaza was one of the first tasks…IAF chief, Eliezer Shkedi, marked out for himself. The data improved commensurately. From a 1:1 ratio between killed terrorists and civilians in 2003 to a 1:28 ratio in late 2005. Several IAF mishaps in 2006 lowered the ratio to 1:10, but the current ratio is at its lowest ever -- more than 1:30.
In other words for every 30 legitimate combatants killed by the Israeli air force’s campaign of targeted killings, only one civilian is killed. Even this figure may be misleading because some of the civilians are anything but innocent bystanders, while others, such as young children, surely are. Every death of a civilian is a tragedy to be avoided whenever possible, but civilian deaths are an inevitable consequence of warfare. This is especially so when terrorists deliberately hide among civilians and fire rockets from civilian areas, as Hamas and Islamic Jihad frequently do.
No army in history has ever had a better ratio of combatants to civilians killed in a comparable setting. Israel’s ratio is far better than that of the United States, Great Britain, Russia or any other country combating terrorism. Yet this remarkable improvement has hardly been reported by the international press. Neither have human rights organizations taken appropriate note of it, especially considering the extraordinary and disproportionate criticism directed against Israel when the ratio was worse. Nor have these organizations noted that the selective employment of targeted killings in 2007, coupled with other defensive actions, have resulted in the lowest number of Israeli civilian deaths and the lowest number of Palestinian civilian deaths in recent times.
This is a story that should be widely reported and carefully analyzed. Silence in the face of this improvement is misleading, since it leads many to believe that there have been no improvements since the dark days of the Intifada. Misleading by silence is as grievous a journalistic sin as misleading by mistake. The time has come to correct this sin and set the record straight.
Thursday, January 03, 2008
General Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto
It’s tempting to rerun my column on Pakistan from a month ago. Not because I predicted the assassination of Benazir Bhutto or offered any other great insight, but rather for the opposite reason: “Everyone’s an expert on Pakistan, a faraway country of which we know everything: General Musharraf should do this, he shouldn’t have done that, the State Department should lean on him to do the other… Well, I dunno. It seems to me a certain humility is appropriate when offering advice to Islamabad.”
Oh, well. In the stampede of instant experts unveiling their Pakistani solutions-in-a-box, some contributions are worthy of special attention. Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who is apparently running for the Democratic presidential nomination, was in no doubt about what needs to happen in the next, oh, 48 hours:
“President Bush should press Musharraf to step aside, and a broad-based coalition government, consisting of all the democratic parties, should be formed immediately... It is in the interests of the U.S. that there be a democratic Pakistan that relentlessly hunts down terrorists.”
Wow. Who knew it was that easy?
Except maybe it isn’t. A “broad-based coalition” of “all the democratic parties” would be a ramshackle collection of socialists, kleptocrats, tribal gladhanders and Islamists. Whether this is the horse to back if you’re looking for a team that “relentlessly hunts down terrorists” is, to say the least, uncertain.
But, since Governor Bill Richardson brought it up, it’s worth considering what exactly “the interests of the U.S.” are in Pakistan. The most immediate interest is in preventing the country’s tribal lands from becoming this decade’s Afghanistan – a huge Camp Osama graduating jihadist alumni from all over the world. That ship, if it hasn’t already sailed, has certainly cast off and is chugging out the harbor. Something called “the Islamic Emirate of Waziristan” now operates a local franchise of Taliban rule in both north and south Waziristan, and is formally recognized by the Pakistan government in the Islamabad-Waziri treaty of just over a year ago. Officially, the treaty was intended to negotiate a truce, although to those unversed in the machinations of tribal politics it looked a lot more like a capitulation, an interpretation encouraged by the signing ceremony, which took place in a soccer stadium flying the flag of al-Qaeda.
Of course, the “Federally Administered Tribal Areas” have always been somewhat loosely governed Federal Administration-wise. In the new issue of The Claremont Review Of Books, Stanley Kurtz’s fascinating round-up of various tomes by Akbar Ahmed (recently Pakistan’s High Commissioner in London and before that Political Agent in Waziristan) mentions en passant a factoid I vaguely remember from my schooldays – that even at the height of imperial power, the laws of British India, by treaty and tradition, only governed 100 yards either side of Waziristan’s main roads. Once you were off the shoulder, you were subject to the rule of various “maliks” (tribal bigshots). The British prided themselves on an ability to run the joint at arm’s length through discreet subsidy of favored locals. As a young lieutenant with the Malakand Field Force, Winston Churchill found the wiles of Sir Harold Deane, chief commissioner of the North-West Frontier Province, a tad frustrating. “We had with us a very brilliant political officer, a Major Deane, who was most disliked because he always stopped military operations,” recalled Churchill. “Apparently all these savage chiefs were his old friends and almost his blood relations. Nothing disturbed their friendship. In between fights, they talked as man to man and as pal to pal.”
The benign interpretation of Musharraf’s recent moves is that he’s doing a Major Deane. The reality is somewhat bleaker: Today, even that 200-yard corridor of nominal sovereignty has gone and Islamabad’s Political Agent is a much shrunken figure compared to his predecessors from the Raj. That doesn’t mean “foreign” influence is impossible in Waziristan. Osama bin Laden is, after all, a foreigner, and so are many of the other al-Qaeda A-listers holed up in the tribal lands. Jihadists arrested recently in Britain, Germany and Scandinavia all spent time training in Waziristan, as do Chechen rebels. If another big hit on the US mainland is currently in the works, it’s safe to say it’s being plotted somewhere in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
It’s easy to tell Musharraf what he should do. Over one thousand Pakistani soldiers have been killed fighting Islamists in Waziristan and other tribal lands. That would be a lot even for an army solidly behind Musharraf. But in Pakistan every institution charged with “relentlessly hunting down terrorists” has, to one degree or another, been subverted by them: Pakistan’s military – the least corrupt agency in the country – and its intelligence service, the ISI, are both riddled with Islamist sympathizers. As Churchill noted, the British had a fondness for the more bloodcurdling Pushtun warriors: In 1939, for example, Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Sanders accepted an invitation to tikala (lunch) from the tribesman who’d blown him up. The Pushtun apologized for costing the Colonel his right arm, and the Colonel accepted the apology and raised his glass in a presumably left-handed toast, and they got on splendidly and had a whale of a time. But a mutual respect between combatants is very different from the ties that bind Taliban leaders in Waziristan with elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence service: Two groups, nominally at war with each other, nevertheless share indistinguishable views on the joys of hardline sharia and the wickedness of the United States.
One way to look at what’s happened over the last five years is simply that Afghanistan and Pakistan have swapped roles. In the Eighties, Washington used Pakistan to subvert Afghanistan. Since the fall of Mullah Omar, the Taliban, a monster incubated by Pakistan, has swarmed back across the border and begun subverting Pakistan. Today, it’s the tribal lands that have a 200-yard corridor through the rest of the country, exporting Islamist values through the network of madrassahs to the fierce young men in the cities. Just as the Taliban eventually seized control of Afghanistan, so they believe they’ll one day control Pakistan. Stan-wise, the principal difference is that control of the latter will bring them a big bunch of nukes. Meanwhile, life goes on. Just as the tribal lands seem to be swallowing Pakistan, so Pakistan is swallowing much of the world. It exports its manpower and its customs around the globe, and Pakistani communities in the heart of west have provided the London School of Economics student who masterminded the beheading of Daniel Pearl, the Torontonians who plotted to do the same to the Canadian Prime Minister, and the Yorkshiremen who pulled off the London Tube bombing. Saudi men pay lip service to Wahhabist ideology but it rouses very few of them from their customary torpor. In Pakistan, Islamism spurs a lot more action.
No people are immutable. It’s worth noting that Muslims next door in India are antipathetic to jihad. Yet they are ethnically and religiously indistinguishable from the fellows in Islamabad wiring up one-year old babies as unwitting suicide bombers. The only reason one’s an Indian and the other’s a Pakistani is because of where some British cartographer decided to draw the line in 1947. Since then, Indian Muslims have been functioning members of a modern pluralist democracy, while Pakistani Muslims have been mired in incompetence, backwardness and dictatorship, and embraced jihadism as the most viable escape route. Reversing that pathology would have been beyond Benazir Bhutto’s pretty face. Or even the best-laid five-minute plans of Bill Richardson.
Copyright 2007 Mark Steyn