Friday, July 31, 2015

Go and Watch Inside Out

This is not so much a post as a public service announcement (of sorts).

There are plenty of people who’ve written reviews of the movie, so there’s no need to repeat here what has already been said well.  I will not review the movie, in the sense of talking about what it is about, but simply observe that it is funny, suspenseful, and even tear-jerking.  It is largely non-offensive—it would have been completely so in another era, when one could have been sure that certain jokes were just that—just jokes, and not reflections of a corroded culture.  As matters stand, it was still quite funny, and sufficiently innocent that I didn't feel scandalized.

Inside Out also has the virtue of quotability.  This was driven home to me with particular force since I saw it back-to-back (i.e., in the same week) with Jurassic Park (the original, of course).  While both movies have their strengths, it was Inside Out that kept leaping to my tongue over the days that followed, providing opportunities for the exercise of garden variety wit, and even prompting little moments of recognition.  Oh, that’s what I’m doing now, I would think, recalling the antics of the little people.  This did not happen with the dinosaurs.

In contrast to Brave, the last Pixar movie I saw in theater, Inside Out played particularly well.  The most striking improvement (one which also puts Inside Out leagues ahead of that icy debacle recently concocted by Disney) is in the crafting of the plot.  Plots are, allegedly, one of the things Pixar does best; and part of my dissatisfaction with Brave (as I remember it now) came from a sense of frustration with the storyline and its pacing.  Things happened to keep the movie going—there were twists and such, and they worked plausibly well given the characters and setting established—but the whole didn’t feel organic.  It seemed as if the scriptwriters had taken fairy tale tropes and grafted them onto the sort of story that they wanted to tell, or as if they had captured a fairy tale in the wild, and then released their own story into the cage to fight with it.  Anyway, good things got eaten, leaving us with a distressing microchimera of a movie.

It may be that this is inevitable when modern scriptwriters aim to do “a fairy tale in the tradition of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm.”  (The quote is attributed to director Brenda Chapman in a variety of web articles.)  A good story can only handle so many themes at once—probably, a truly good story can only have one real theme, with others perhaps aligning with in it subsidiary fashion.  (Paging Dorothy Sayers to read us The Mind of the Maker here.)  Since the kind of things with which fairy tales concern themselves are not usually the things on the mind of the modern movie director mother, the resultant mix of traditional imagery and modern messaging can produce thwarted expectations on the part of the audience.

In contrast, Inside Out plants itself squarely in the midst of a very modern kind of fantasy world, populated by imaginary characters who read newspapers; wear glasses bow-ties, and mascara; and operate consoles.  The modern conception of how the mind and its emotions function is embodied in distinctly modern tropes, types, and tones, from the Valley girl resonances of Disgust to the nervous nerdiness of Fear.  By attempting to ground these characters, their activities, and their environment in modern brain science, the writers committed themselves to something that most of them probably believed in and felt was worth adhering to as a system—a respectful approach, one which most would probably not consider to be necessary or even appropriate when working with fairy tales.  (I might beg to differ, but that would be another post.)  The effect, once again, is to create a pleasing degree of cohesion throughout the film.  As I said before:

That is all.

P.S. Don’t judge the whole movie based on the short at the beginning.  It is … special.  Special, as in Jack-Jack’s “special needs”.

 As in, you know, fire extinguishers.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Religious Comforts

Having grown up with Protestant relatives, I was never greatly troubled by the concept of communion services involving bread and grape juice.  It simply seemed to me (if my Protestant readers will forgive the childish pride) to illustrate one of the many minor ways in which Catholicism had taken the high road.  They drank Welches, while our priests confected the Sacrament with strong drink.  The fact that the priests were usually the only ones to partake of that Species, at least at the parishes my family tended to attend, was irrelevant to the larger point: Catholics were not afraid of wine.

Obligatory Chesterton picture.

There are, of course, solid reasons for this Catholic habit (proper matter being a necessity for any sacrament); but here I am interested in the unsolid reasons.  To be more precise, I am interested in what the choice of grape juice or wine, when it is a choice, suggests about the religion in question.  Certainly some Protestants adapted the drinking of non-alcoholic beverages during service for the sake of Temperance with a capital T.  Observing the damage that drink did to society, they chose to eradicate it not merely from their shops and their homes, but also, symbolically, from the small and not possibly inebriatory cup which they shared some few Sundays out of the year.  (Another source of childish joy: the Douay translation of Psalm 22: “my chalice that inebriateth me.”  Take that, Aquarii.)

But what began in many cases as a matter of principal has become today simply a tradition, and a comfortable one.  Grapefruit juice is sweeter than wine, especially our not very potable Communion wine; children making their first communions are less inclined to wrinkle up their noses at it—indeed, the whole family from mother down to Jimmy in diapers can partake.  Juice is simply a more welcoming drink.

I know wine makes you more welcoming, but that’s another story.

Juice, in a word, is comfortable; and comfort often seems to be the raison d’√™tre of modern low church Protestantism, both mainstream and Evangelical alike.  The emphasis on the happiness religion can bring is not wholly bad: “His yoke is easy, and His burden light”; and Isaias (or at any rate, Charles Jennens’s Isaias) does say “Comfort ye, my people.”

At the same time, however, reducing the elements of a religious ceremony to the point where none of them gives us pause—where Jesus becomes the friend who teaches "how to praise my God and still play rock and roll"—can be deceptive.  One cannot imagine those Jews who still practice their religion making that mistake.  Much may be said of the blood sacrifices of the Old Testament, but few first time witnesses could have found them comfortable.  Awesome, perhaps, or awful (in the etymological senses); but not comfortable.  Nor should they have been.  After all, the liturgy takes us in one hour from earth to heaven, covering infinities of distance in mere minutes.  Why wouldn’t the trip shake you up like a journey through warp drive?

So it happens that even to this day, Catholic parishes that know what they are about are not terribly concerned with promoting the comfort of their parishioners.  The kneelers are rock hard; crucifixes hang in full view; pop and Broadway are eschewed in favor of more challenging things; and there is, needless to say, not a grape in sight, unless it be in the chubby hands of the writhing, bawling, teething one-year-old, whose seven older siblings, comporting themselves with the utmost decorum in their uncomfortable Sunday best, wonder when he will be old enough to stop embarrassing them.

The point of all this discomfort is not, of course, to make us uncomfortable—though as often as not that is the immediate effect.  The point of everything difficult about the liturgy is to take us somewhere.  It can feel alienating because it is in fact meant to alienate us: to make us other than what we are in our miserably mundane lives, and repatriate us towards a better place.  Then, and only then, can we be truly comforted.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

When Feelings Do(n't) Matter

It seems possible that Planned Parenthood hasn’t been doing anything illegal.  The word is that the costs quoted in the video expos√© (“thirty to a hundred dollars”) are not the cost for selling human tissue, but merely the cost required to handle, package, and transport livers, hearts, etc.  If so, the defenders of Planned Parenthood are correct to say that they’ve done nothing which is, strictly speaking, illegal.  The legality of their actions should be investigated, but the investigation may well show them to be legally blameless on that technicality.

To be sure, such splitting of hairs isn’t in itself objectionable.  We Catholics are, after all, in the habit of insisting that we don’t buy Masses or relics; rather, we give the priest who prays support, and we reimburse those passing the relics for the (oftentimes expensive) containers in which they ought to be housed.  The distinction between selling a thing and covering costs associated with the thing should be a familiar and acceptable one.

But some will insist that (if this distinction establishes the legality of the actions shown in the video), we should all ignore our disgust at what it depicts.  After all, they say, lots of medical procedures are disgusting, grisly, uncomfortable.  No one wants to watch brain surgery, they say.  And brain surgery is and should be legal.  Therefore, the mere existence of an ick factor shouldn’t make us feel upset about abortion.

Forget brain surgery.   
Have you ever watched in ingrown toenail removal? 

Or … on second thought, have a picture of some dead flowers.

This line of argument is absurd, ironically so.  There is a long-standing tendency on the part of, well, everyone, to contrast the left and the right in American politics in terms of heart and head.  The left has soft heads and hearts, and the right has hard heads and hearts; what Christ really wants of us is a soft heart and a hard head (to paraphrase the eminent Peter Kreeft).

The stereotype is perhaps not completely just, but it is real—real in the sense that many people seem to accept it.  Confirmation bias inclines most people to accept the complimentary parts of the stereotype as applying to themselves, and the negative parts as applying to the opposition.

It’s like the shortest personality test ever.   
Lemons are golden, tangy, cheap, and well-loved?   
 That’s 75% me!

In particular, the identification of the American left with feelings is strong.  Safe spaces exist for the sake of protecting feelings.  Caitlyn Jenner et al. purportedly demonstrate the power of feeling (not biology or anatomy) to determine who you are.  And of course, the Supreme Court’s recent decision on gay marriage is less about legal benefits than about making sure that people living in gay households feel comfortable and accepted by the outside world.

Under the circumstances, it’s highly ironic that it is people on the left who are now telling us to ignore the way the video makes us feel.  Ironic, and disingenuous.

Feelings are important, but they are not answers, arguments, or proofs.  Aristotle often will open a discussion of a question by pointing out what “the many” say: how they gloss a question, what they feel about a problem, how their instincts incline them to talk about a given subject.  Aristotle never stops at what “the many” say, but proceeds to attempt a logical argument, which may or may not come to the same conclusion that “the many” have reached, but which always takes their insight into account.  You might say (adopting for a moment our stereotype) that Aristotle listens to feelings like the left, but rigorously investigates truth like the right.  

Peter Kreeft meets Aristotle
Coming soon to a small Catholic liberal arts college bookstore near you.
Right after I get Photoshop.

In the case of this video, then, the appalled reaction of the many—of us all—signifies something.  When we are appalled to witness an ingrown toenail removed … 

Sorry, sorry—I meant brain surgery.

There.  Much cleaner.

… we tend to overcome our disgust with rationalization: this is gross, but it’s good for me.  The disgust here arises from our natural tendency to recoil from things which may harbor germs or lead to disease (blood, pus, etc.).

But the disgust from this video, I submit, arises from another part of us: from the part of us that sees something sentient being injured, degraded, or treated lightly, and recoils.  This is the same sort of disgust that makes us feel (rightly) upset by J.K. Rowlings’s mandrakes, or by certain of Picasso’s misogynistic portraits, or by F-fty Sh-des of Gr-y, or by seeing a dog abused.

Is that really a feeling we should smother?

Monday, July 13, 2015

Of Course Good People Die Young

Being a physical coward, my initial reaction to news of crimes is wanting to go hide my head in a hole and never come out again.  Well, perhaps never coming out of my apartment would be a reasonable compromise.  My husband can bring the groceries home, right?  But then there’s daily Mass, which entails either a three mile walk (for the WonderBread parish) or a ten minute drive (for the half perpetual adoration parish).  And once you’ve reconciled yourself to walking for an hour along the highway or driving anywhere, you might as well get ready to die anyway.  At least, that’s what I tell myself.

Part of my cowardice (and the concomitant nonchalance about what would, if they were allowed to grow, be paralyzing fears) is no doubt normal to being female.  Part of it doubtless has to do with my having always been a bookworm and a weenie since childhood.

If I had only swum more laps during practice, I would be a fearless harridan today.
Maybe even a feminist with big shoulders.

And there is probably some genetic predisposition towards being a scaredy cat which even the properest training or the purest motives could not fully eradicate.  Fortunately, one can do brave and even foolhardy things while in an intense state of fear.  And perhaps, sometimes, acting in this manner is (as Aristotle would suggest) the surest way to conquer those fears and develop a natural human habit of virtue with regard to danger.

“I am a coward, doctor.”

But setting gender, habits, and genetic predisposition aside, some degree of fear of sudden death—particularly sudden death at the hands of another human being—seems wholesome.  There is a reason we pray to St. Joseph for a provided death.  What we are asking for is not death at an old age, or death with all our loved ones around (though those petitions are desirable and the having of them seems laudable from a humane as well as a human perspective).  Rather, we are asking for a death in which we are sufficiently conscious and properly disposed to give up life, as Christ did.  Ideally and normatively this means death in the presence of the Sacraments; but obviously God may choose to bestow sufficient grace for a good death under any circumstances.

Still, while God tends to give grace to anyone who asks for it (cf. the parable of the workers who came late to the market), we do not often remember to ask for it unless we have a fixed habit of doing so.  Those of us whose first tendency, upon meeting with anything unexpected, is to utter a silent, wordless prayer are likely to do so when death suddenly stares them in the face, while those of us whose tendency is to habitually joke about or lash out at unwelcome surprises may find ourselves at a loss.  Of those two tendencies, of course, the joke is usually the more healthy; but I doubt whether it should be the habitual ideal—certainly, treating one’s own misfortunes merely as jokes without also offering them up seems like a missed opportunity.

I have no idea whether or not Kevin Sutherland or Kathryn Steinle were in the habit of uttering pious ejaculations—probably, given the rarity of the practice, they were not.  And certainly the kind things which family and friends have said about both of them in the wake of their sudden deaths may in part be attributed to the tendency which we all have to speak well of—indeed, to eulogize—the dead.

Nevertheless, I take some comfort in the fact that both Sutherland and Steinle seem to have been kind and perhaps even good people.  Steinle’s much-quoted Facebook post, “Whatever’s good for your soul … do that,” seems to epitomize not a wasted life, but the life of someone who was ready to die, maybe even someone who was disposed, in the face of sudden violent death, to react with internal grace rather than with anger.

That, I think, is really what I am really afraid of when I hear a story of the latest violent crime.  Not of dying, but of dying with anger towards the person who killed me.  Earthquakes, fires, floods, and martyrdom would be comparatively easy to deal with.  The former cases involve impersonal forces which by definition act without reason of their own; the latter case involves persons with strong reasons for what they are doing—and reasons which, by definition, turn the victims into victors.  But an accidental shooting, or one committed in the course of an attempted robbery?  What a waste.

Unless, you have learned to habitually understand the world as one in which nothing is wasted—i.e., unless you are ready to die.  I suppose, as a coward, I could find comfort in the fact that I am not.  But that would be the wrong takeaway, wouldn’t it?

St. Joseph, patron of a happy death, pray for us.