Decent Films Blog

Can’t Win Department: Cross-examination on The Magdalene Sisters

Posted Jun 14th 2010, 01:48 PM

I don’t use Google alerts or otherwise troll for people talking about me online, so it was only happenstance that I happened upon a self-labeled “rant” about my Magdalene Sisters essay from a Bill Van Dyk, whose website is called Chromehorse.net.

Van Dyk himself might be as surprised as anyone that I happened across his site. “Let’s face it,” he admits frankly, “I don’t get a lot of readers.” This is not because Van Dyk can’t write. He can (see, e.g., his delightful essay on evil, evil Komodo dragons).

One problem is that his site is difficult to read. Chromehorse.net resembles a drawer stuffed full of scraps of paper with notes, essays or thoughts written on them, all shoved rather haphazardly in together. You can see that some attempt at piles and sheafs has been made, but it’s pretty much a mess. Even the individual pages seem oddly random. There’s a general three-column approach, but why are some things written in the main body and others in the margins? It probably makes sense to the author. He has been writing since 1998, and the site design may well be untouched from that day.

From his last name I know that Van Dyk and I share a common Dutch heritage (it may not look it, but Greydanus is as Dutch as De Vries or Van der Berg), and I’m not surprised to learn that he once taught in a Christian school (Dutch Reformed by any chance?). From his essays I learn that Van Dyk is politically liberal, and takes a withering view of things conservative. He inveighs against the death penalty and torture, which makes at least one issue we agree on. He has much contempt for Clarence Thomas, Pat Robertson, Anne Coulter, George W. Bush, and he’s starting to get a sinking feeling about President Obama. He doesn’t talk so much about things he likes, although I gather he likes Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Buster Keaton, which, again, makes at least one more thing we agree on. (The agreements may be easy to guess; inferences about disagreement are made at the inferrer’s peril.) Mostly he seems to be a curmudgeon, or at least his impetus to write seems largely rooted in outrage, contempt or critical opposition — for which, certainly, there’s a lot of fodder out in the world.

I’m not surprised that Van Dyk doesn’t like my Magdalene Sisters essay. As I noted in my Spotlight blurb on the essay, I’ve come to consider that essay a failure of sorts. That doesn’t mean that I think Van Dyk’s critique has merit, though he opens on a note with which I would generally agree.

My biggest gripe with Hollywood movies, like “Shawshank Redemption”, “Freedom Writers”, “The Blind Side”, “The Fisher King”, and, most egregiously, “The Dead Poets Society” — and many others — is the way they simplify life into villains who practically announce their nefariousness, and angels who practically wear halos. The audience is clued in on who to cheer for and who to hiss at. The villain’s conveniently stand and listen as the hero makes his or her grand speech. Then they crawl away in humiliation as virtue triumphs and goodness prevails.

So far, so good. Having noted this, Van Dyk proceeds to note, not implausibly, that The Magdalene Sisters avoids the second half of this trap by allowing a moment of shocking harshness to one of its victim heroines, Bernadette, who fiercely tells a dying nun begging for company, “Why don’t you do us all a favor and hurry up and die.”

Van Dyk finds this powerfully realistic in its defiance of convention, according to which Bernadette should only be admirable and virtuous so that we can cheer for her wholeheartedly. I’m not sure that writer-director Peter Mullan would see the scene quite that way. Lacking Van Dyk’s ethos of Christian forgiveness, writing by his own admission in white-hot rage, Mullan may well believe that Bernadette is acting heroically in that moment, and does mean for viewers to cheer as Bernadette leaves the nun to face death alone, and serve the bitch right. I mention this in passing; Van Dyk’s reading is at least credible if not necessarily compelling.

Having argued against “angels who practically wear halos,” Van Dyk might have been expected to turn to the other half, “villains who practically announce their nefariousness,” perhaps citing some scene not announcing the nefariousness of the nuns. Instead, he turns at this point to my critique, which is more or less that the nuns are villains who practically announce their nefariousness.

Van Dyk professes himself “puzzled” (a useful word for this style of polemic) by my objection (“distress,” he calls it, emotionalizing an argument as a patronizing prelude to dismissing it) that (in my words)

the film simply presents its nuns, priests, and parents as cruel, judgmental, and evil — end of story. Its sole interest in them is insofar as they are responsible for the unjust suffering of the girls.

He continues:

Well, we know that the Magdalene laundries existed, and we know that up to 30,000 girls were imprisoned in them, and we know that many of them treated the girls abusively, like slave labour. There’s not much dispute about that.

So whatever does he mean? Does he believe that the girls’ memories are wrong — that actually, it was all more like “Bells of St. Mary’s”?

You can see why he would say that, right? Obviously, if I find it untenable that, morally speaking, the nuns were all evil all the time, and only ever abused the girls without once engaging in anything like real kindness toward them, then logically I must be saying that it was more like The Bells of St. Mary’s. Right? Since I object to black-on-black, obviously I must want something closer to white-on-white. Perhaps that’s how a “liberal” trying to fathom “conservative” thought reasons: Someone like Greydanus couldn’t be looking for anything like moral complexity. (Not that there’s anything morally complex about abuse, but people, even abusers, are morally complex.)

Van Dyk’s “puzzlement” is, I think, quite gratuitous. He can think of it this way. He himself praised the one scene (he doesn’t mention any others) in which Bernadette exhibited something like cruelty (or what he considers cruelty) to a nun. It shouldn’t be hard for him to grasp that in just the same way, I’m looking for one scene — just one — in which a nun exhibits anything like kindness to one of the girls. Had the film offered even one such scene (the nun wouldn’t even have to come off as sympathetic even in that scene; she could be cruel too, as long as there was something like real kindness mixed up in it), I might have written a completely different essay. In fact, one such scene might have persuaded me to recommend the film instead of disrecommending it. (In my essay I went even further, suggesting that merely depicting something like a real struggle of conscience or moral conflict on the part of one of the nuns could have made a big difference.)

Van Dyk continues:

I found the portraits of the nuns convincing and very believable. No, the film wasn’t about the nuns, so it didn’t spend a lot of time looking into their background or their personal lives outside of the convent — but, seriously, does Mr. Greydanus believe they might actually have been nice?

What I believe is simply what the Ryan report documented in 2009: that the girls themselves, decades later, often wanted it noted that as unconscionable, horrific and dehumanizing as their experiences often were, there lingered also in their minds moments of kindness and positive treatment. Even Sinéad O’Connor reports that a nun from the Magdalene laundries was kind to her and even gave her her first guitar. (See my follow-up essay for more.) Yes: A nun in a Magdalene laundry was kind to Sinéad O’Connor. Red alert! The shadow of The Bells of St. Mary’s looms around the corner!

But no. Puzzling as Van Dyk may find it, this instance of kindness somehow does not usher in Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman. O’Connor’s story seems grim — not necessarily as grim as the stories in The Magdalene Sisters, or as grim as many of the stories in the Ryan report, but grim enough. At the same time, like the Ryan report stories, O’Connor’s story is a real story about real, morally complex human beings. Even one such moment of grace with one such nun in The Magdalene Sisters could have made an enormous difference to the credibility of the film.

Commenting on the scene in which Sr. Bridget confesses a lifelong love of, yes, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Van Dyk offers some insightful remarks about how the scene, far from putting Sr. Bridget in any sort of sympathetic light, actually illustrates how twisted her ethos is. I don’t disagree with his comments here, but he considers it telling (about me personally, not just the argument; “It tells you a lot about Greydanus,” he writes) that I mention the scene while searching for any effort in the film to humanize the nuns (apparently in Van Dyk’s mind these two things are incompatible).

And that’s where Van Dyk goes completely off the rails. Apparently figuring that by this time that he knows all he need to know about me, he opens his concluding (?) paragraph with this howler:

And that’s when I realized that his criticism that the film was not realistic was actually criticism that the film was not Hollywood enough — it didn’t give you a single evil character who was responsible for the evil that happened to Bernadette and Margaret and Crispina and who could then be vanquished by the forces of goodness in the end.

Which, whatever the weaknesses of my essay, is so catastrophically and fatally wide of the mark that Van Dyk and I might as well be speaking different languages for all the success that my attempt to communicate and his attempt to understand have had. (That’s why I loved Green Zone so much, don’t’cha know!) But perhaps my disclaimers won’t impress Van Dyk, since he believes he knows even what I won’t admit. He contends:

The problem with the film, though Greydanus doesn’t admit it, is that it places blame squarely within the institution of the church.

Which — and this goes to the catastrophic wrongness of the previous sentence — gets my real view exactly backwards. “Squarely within the institution(s) of the Church” is precisely where I do want to see blame affixed, as I hope would be clear to anyone who read my essay and the related content included at the bottom. It is precisely “social sin” or “structures of sin” that make comprehensible how flawed human beings who might be individually prone to more or less ordinary levels of virtue and vice can become jointly complicit in monstrous and horrific wickedness through the corrosive influence of cultural pathologies in some pernicious social context. It was precisely institutional pathologies in the Magdalene asylums, and in the larger Irish Church and Irish society as a whole, that enabled flawed human beings — who were still human beings and not monsters or demons — to commit monstrous and demonic acts.

Van Dyk pulls other unworthy moves. He says I “compare” The Magdalene Sisters to The Birth of a Nation, failing to distinguish between comparison and illustration of a principle (in which extreme examples are often the most helpful). In one of his strange sidebars, he bolsters his case for my general perversity by pouncing (that’s definitely the word: “Sure enough,” he crows) on my polite review of The Blind Side and on a blog post about the Lifetime TV movie Amish Grace. Even when when I say something he agrees with (that, in his words, “Michael Oher is merely a prop for the Tuohys’ amazing virtue”), the possibility of a positive word dies aborning: “he has to acknowledge” is how he expresses my lapse from perversity on this occasion.

He applies his stereotyping-preference template to my comments about Amish Grace, which he thinks reflect a preference for conservative stereotypes against the “liberal” media. In fact, my complaint is simply that I prefer to imagine that characters have a life and concerns outside of the screenwriter’s immediate interests; because the screenwriter is interested in the genuineness of Amish forgiveness doesn’t mean that the journalists should be. To the extent that my suggested alternative reflected any concept of the media, the liberal/conservative axis is the wrong axis for my point; rather, I was thinking more of the phenomenon Terry Mattingly and his fellow GetReligionistas have been documenting for years now, the modest dictum that “the press just doesn’t get religion.”)

Van Dyk considers it telling that I like Star Wars and even gave Return of the Jedi an A-minus — “perhaps because Darth Vader, as opposed to Sister Bridget, is such a richly developed, nuanced character,” he says. Can it be that Van Dyk has never considered that morally serious adult drama and escapist fantasy might invite different evaluative criteria? It seems unlikely. In general, that he seems to find nothing in my work to appreciate I’ve decided to chalk up to his general cranky writing strategy rather than any special beef with me.

If Van Dyk read far enough down the related content, he may have noticed that some of the objections I raise have been made by others perhaps closer to his end of the political spectrum. (In my follow-up essay I cited Scott Foundas of A.V. Club and Ed Gonzalez of Slant. Of course, they both seem to think that the Bells of St. Mary’s scene represents a stab in the direction of humanizing Sr. Bridget, which I guess tells Van Dyk a lot about them.) For whatever reason, Van Dyk has opted to frame the critical issues against a purely political grid, and to quarrel with someone he seems to regard as, politically, the enemy.

Perhaps it’s simpler for him that way? Perhaps it makes for a more dramatic essay? I don’t know. I have no more insight into Van Dyk’s condition than he has into mine. If I have any advantage in this regard, it may be that I don’t suppose I do.

Tags: Anti-Catholic, Magdalene Sisters

Related Content

Article: The Magdalene Sisters Controversy (2003)

That the Magdalene asylums represent a phenomenon as deserving of critical scrutiny as the trial of Joan of Arc or the ecclesiastical abandonment of the Guaraní missions, I don’t question. Mullan, however, betrays his subject with smug Catholic-bashing. It’s a tragedy that the enormity of what went wrong at the Magdalene asylums has been trivialized by cheap manipulation.

Continue reading this article >

Blog: Spotlight: The Magdalene Sisters Controversy Revisited

In my recent series of Spotlight posts, I’ve highlighted reviews and essays from earlier years of my work that I feel stand out in one way or another. This week I highlight a piece that I’ve come to regard as at least a partial failure: my essay on The Magdalene Sisters.

Continue reading this post >

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