Mailbag #15

Watchmen, international film, Up, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Exorcist, The Shoes of the Fisherman, Corpus Christi, The Wizard of Oz and more.

Re. Watchmen

While fully aware that this is a Christian website with a Christian world view, I wish you wouldn’t use either “atheist” or “anarchist” as immediate synonyms for “nihilistic”, as you seem to do in your review of Watchmen:

On another level, although he made some effort to imbue his characters with varying outlooks, Moore’s anarchic, atheistic worldview clearly informs the narrative as a whole.

Neither anarchism nor atheism imply nihilism, despite how the labels have been abused in the media. One can be both and still find meaning and value in things beyond government or God. I’d guess you would dispute that they are right in doing so, of course, but that’s beside the point.

Your point is well taken. It wasn’t my intention to imply — what I certainly do not believe — that an atheistic and/or anarchic outlook is ipso facto nihilistic. I do see, on rereading in context the sentence you cite, that I wasn’t as clear as I could have been, and the sentence could suggest the reading you indicate, and object to.

What I think I was trying to do in that sentence is this. I characterized the overarching authorial outlook of Watchmen as “anarchic” and “atheistic” because I understand that Moore self-identifies as an anarchist and an atheist, and I think that comes through in Watchmen. On the other hand, I refrained from specifying “nihilistic” in that particular connection, not because I thought it was implicit in the two adjectives I did use, but because even though I think that Watchmen as a work is nihilistic, I have no reason to think that Moore is or considers himself to be a nihilist.

So, far from intending to equate either anarchy or atheism with nihilism, I actually meant to bracket nihilism as a distinct issue that arises in the work in ways that do not necessarily directly reflect Moore’s personal outlook. I could have been clearer on that point, though, and can see why you felt it worth clarifying.

It does get a bit more complex than that, because while I agree that in practice anarchy and atheism don’t entail nihilism, I do think that in Watchmen the story’s nihilistic tendencies are not unrelated to the atheistic and anarchic outlook.

Going beyond the critical question, converging with your guess, I would at least say that I can’t begin to see what sense the categories of meaning and value would hold for me if I ceased to believe in some sort of transcendent reality and saw the deterministic/random cosmos as all that is. In other words, if I were an atheist, I think I would be forced to be a moral nihilist. I do understand that many atheists reject that conclusion — and blessings on them, they are the better for it — but to me the nihilists’ critique of morality seems compelling, absent something we can call “divinity” or “heaven” or something of the sort.

Such considerations, though, would be of very tertiary significance in responding to a work like Watchmen where my primary aim is to understand the work as it is, and to offer a critical response that reflects my worldview (in the values I presuppose), rather than imposing my worldview (by spinning the author’s world to conform to reality as I see it). So while I might argue philosophically that atheism in fact undermines meaning, I wouldn’t argue that an artist’s imaginative vision is nihilistic just because it is atheistic. Quite the contrary.

Hope that helps. Thanks again for writing.

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Re. International Film

Where to find information about theatre and playing time for prize winning foreign films? Even our cable stations seem to be sooo parochial. For example, where could I see the Cannes prize winning films Un Prophete and Das Weisse Band in the New York metropolitan area. Alternately, where could I buy them when released on DVD?

And who informs us on the international film scene? There are many excellent films and TV series in other countries which into which we have not much tapped and to which we have very little access, even with all of our technology.

There’s a lot of good writing out there on the international film scene. Here are some blogs worth checking out (and with blogrolls worth checking out):

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Re. Up

Up was a joy. Your review not only encouraged us to go see it, it magnified our pleasure with the qualities and values it presented. Thanks for your site. You’re a gifted educator.

I’m gratified that you find my work helpful, and to hear that a review enhanced your appreciation of a film is about the highest praise I could hope for.

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Re. Up

Thank you for your interesting review of Up. I thought the film was “cute”, but I was personally disappointed after all the hype. Something bothered me (besides the repetitive soundtrack): there were a lot of violent elements in the film (life-threatening situations for the heroes). I understand this is a cartoon, but at the same time, this is not a film with talking cars, superheroes, animated toys, or talking animals (well … okay). We have a character who tries to kill the young Wilderness Explorer not once, not twice but three times (the last time with a shotgun!). When the crazy guy falls to his death, there is no reaction from our “heroes” (not even shock or horror) — their only concern is for the house (and for the weird bird). This situation kinda felt odd in a film geared to young kids.

I’ve just returned from taking my whole family (wife and six kids from 14 to infant) to see Up for my second time and everyone else’s first time. I loved it even more the second time around.

It is very difficult to classify Up generically with respect to expectations about realism. The movie is such a wonky pastiche of genres and moods, from heart-rending poignancy to surreal silliness, that I think it has to be taken on its own terms or not at all.

Up takes place in a world in which death and tragedy are realities, in which expectant mothers miscarry and elderly couples are parted by illness and death. It is also a world in which the elusiveness of unfulfilled dreams can lead to very different destinations.

Both Carl Fredrickson and Charles Muntz spent the better part of their lives pursuing a dream that never materialized. The difference is that Fredrickson found something else to live for, and Muntz didn’t. Fredrickson dealt with disappointment and finally grief in basically healthy ways — though the possibility of descending into bitterness and morbidity is definitely there — where Muntz was increasingly devoured by fury, obsession and the all-consuming mania to vindicate himself to the world.

So, even though Russell is no part of either man’s immediate sphere of interest, Carl makes room in his world to care about and look after Russell, while for Muntz — whom the film implies may have killed before in his mad quest to be the one to catch the Lost World bird — Russell is either a threat, a liability or a bargaining chip.

The mood at the moment of his death is not shock or horror; it is, I think, exhausted relief that he is no longer a threat. That seems appropriate to me. I can see someone feeling that the character didn’t have to die, but I think he had become twisted enough that it was an appropriate ending, if not a necessary one.

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Re. Up

What are you opinions on the character of Kevin as a gay/transgendered character (colorful, rainbow-like character)? I’ve read that this was a subtle nod by Pixar to the Prop 8/GLBT crowd. I saw the movie and didn’t pick up on it, but others who have seen it had commented on this. I am interested to hear your opinion on this.

I think it’s stupid.

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Re. Up

I’ve read a lot of reviews of Up, but I don’t think I have heard anyone addressing this particular issue [spoiler warning]. When Carl lifts up his house for his trip to Central America, he severs his home’s plumbing and electricity. He makes it clear that he doesn’t have any more balloons or helium. He can’t go back. He only has the food he keeps in the house, and he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to find more edibles in the jungle (and he certainly isn’t prepared to hunt). If he has a medical emergency, there is no doctor or hospital for maybe hundreds of miles. That leads to one conclusion: Carl is going to South America to die.

Carl is clearly really healthy for his age (evidenced by all the physical activity he performs), but if he did succeed in moving his house to the cliffs, he would probably only have a few weeks before he died, probably of starvation. This journey is not just an adventure, it’s a suicide mission.

I think that the heart of the story lies in Russell (and also Doug’s) ability to make Carl come alive once more. Once Carl realizes that he has a responsibility to others besides himself, Carl realizes that he has to fight to stay alive.

I would like to make some comments on your final thoughts on the great metaphor that is Carl’s house. I think that in making the journey, Carl is trying to write the last chapter of his life, and the love story between himself and Ellie. By ripping it from the ground and disconnecting all pipes and wires, he has deliberately rendered it impossible to live in for very long. He has tried to draw the curtain on his life, but Russell and Doug draw it back again, and for the first time since Ellie’s death, Carl has someone to live for — thank goodness.

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Your logic regarding the survivability of Carl’s situation is of course impeccable. It reminds me of a virtual friend’s brilliant online analysis describing Carl’s mission as a “burial quest,” possibly akin to The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

I think it’s reasonable to say [spoiler warning] that Carl is ready to die in South America, however imminent or remote a passing that might be. I’m not sure I want to call Carl’s quest a “suicide mission,” though. To my mind, that seems to suggest either that Carl actually wants to die, or at least that he expects to die in the very act of carrying out his mission.

I don’t think Carl wants to die. It’s just that there is something he has to do before he dies. There is a way he does not want his life to end, and a way that he can (so to speak) live with it ending — a Nunc dimittis consummation after which he can die happy.

The main thing for Carl is that to allow the home that was his whole life with Ellie to be taken from him — from them — and destroyed, and to be escorted away in defeat to the Shady Oaks retirement home would be, in his mind, to fail Ellie one last time. It is more than he can bear. He will not surrender the home they loved, will not allow their life together to begin and end in that lonely spot.

I wouldn’t say that Carl has “deliberately” rendered his house unlivable. Knowingly done so, yes. But that was a side effect — it wasn’t the point. The point was to do what he had to do. If, per impossibile, there were some way to have the plumbing and wiring reconnected in Venezuela, I see no reason to think Carl wouldn’t have it done.

It does seem plausible to say that Carl has no particular thought for the future. And yes, having Russell (and Dug) come into his life does give him a new reason to live — which is part of the reason why Shady Oaks is no longer an unthinkable fate. Of course, the other reason is that he did what he had to do.

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Re. Watching Movies

I appreciate your reviews and hear on Al Kresta and the EWTN programs. I receive a boycott list of companies who give money to Planned Parenthood. One of these is Disney. I understand in your position you have to review these movies and pay to see them. But what about the Catholic viewer? I don’t go to these movies because of this. I also understand we are given little choice. I boycott Chinese goods but have to sometimes buy them because I have no choice. I would like your opinion.

Actually, I generally don’t pay to see the movies I review. As a critic, I’m invited by the studios to advance screenings. I also receive DVD screeners of many of the movies I review for DVD release.

In the case of Up, however, I cheerfully paid full price to bring my entire family to see the film after it opened, and would gladly do so again. Disney’s corporate support for Planned Parenthood would not sway me.

This may mean that a tiny fraction of our ticket money may ultimately become a tiny bit of the money Disney contributes to Planned Parenthood. However, the much larger and more immediate effect of buying those tickets is to add to the success of a morally and culturally deserving family film, as well as the success of Pixar, far and away the most consistent force for morally and culturally deserving family entertainment in Hollywood. (For what it’s worth, Pete Docter, the director of Up, is a professing Christian. So, apparently, is Andrew Stanton, director of WALL-E.)

The more successful a wholesome movie like Up is, the more people it will reach both in theatrical release and on DVD, and the more people will benefit from its moral and artistic excellence. Beyond that, the more successful the filmmakers are with films like this, the more leverage and incentive they will have to keep on producing more deserving family entertainment. Not only that, their success also continues to challenge other studios, on the basis of self-interest if nothing else, to seek to win the same audiences with similarly deserving content.

Not incidentally, we also help to pay the salaries of many hard-working people, from the employees at the local cineplex to all the people who worked on the film. Most of all, we enrich our lives and the lives of our children.

On the whole then, society is much more benefited than harmed by people buying tickets to deserving movies like Up. As regards boycotting, I think that a boycott is most effective in the case of a corporation where consumers have the choice of patronizing competitors offering more or less comparable goods and services. Movies are all so different from each other that I think the best way to impact the culture is to support good movies and avoid bad movies, regardless who makes them.

All acts have some negative effects if you follow them far enough. You can boycott Disney if you want to, but consider that half the products in your house probably advertise on ABC, which means at least some of your money goes to Disney anyway! That’s a very remote effect, though, compared to the more immediate positive benefit your purchase represents both to you, the manufacturer and the retailer. Thus, sound moral theology permits such purchases.

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Re. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Your review questions why Harry went after the Death Eaters in the marshland after they set fire to the Weasleys’ house. In the book, this does not happen. However, Harry’s motivation is likely because it was Bellatrix Lestrange who killed his godfather Sirius in the last book. So he could have been after her in particular.

I can certainly understand Harry wanting to get Bellatrix Lestrange. On the other hand, I would also like to see Harry at this point in his development exhibit at least enough judgment and self-control to think twice about taking on (a) a foe like Bellatrix Lestrange (b) plus at least two other Death Eaters (c) at a time and place of their choosing (d) in a dark, low-visibility environment (e) without knowing whether he’ll have adequate backup himself.

All Harry’s actions accomplished was to leave the Burrow unprotected and vulnerable to Bellatrix’s arson. It would be nice to see Harry be a little less reactive and a little more strategic. That’s all.

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Re. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I saw Harry Potter today, and thought your review was accurate. But there is a moral problem with the movie (and the underlying book) that’s not evident until you’ve read the final book.

Dumbledore says to Snape, “Severus, please,” right before Snape kills him. It’s ambiguous at the time, but I’ll spoil the last book for you by telling you that [spoiler warning] Dumbledore is asking Snape to kill him so that Draco will survive. And I don’t see any way at all to justify that action on the part of either one. Any way I slice it, Dumbledore is asking Snape to kill him — an innocent party in the dispute. Even to save a third party, one may not choose the death of an innocent person as the means.

Perhaps I’m making too much of this, but the other lesser moral violations (telling of untruths, etc.) in the series don’t bother me nearly as much as this one.

A priest

Your analysis exactly coincides with my own, Father. I haven’t read the latter books, but I have read the plot summaries at Wikipedia.)

If I understand correctly [spoiler warning], Rowling tries to mitigate the moral issue by (a) revealing that Dumbledore was dying anyway and (b) having Snape’s act insinuate Snape further into Voldemort’s confidence. However, (a) from a Catholic perspective Dumbledore’s impending death doesn’t make Snape’s act other than murder, and (b) dramatically Snape’s moral self-sacrifice is wasted anyway since, I understand, he doesn’t accomplish anything and is eventually discovered and killed by Voldemort.

Because of this, I contemplated giving The Half-Blood Prince a minus-2 moral rating rather than a minus-1, but ultimately decided that the explanation belongs to the next film(s) and so the moral weight falls there rather than here.

So, yes, it is a significant moral problem in the story.

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Re. The Exorcist (1973), The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968)

The Exorcist review needs “Satanic forces” upper-cased “S”, as do all name-based words. The Shoes of the Fisherman needs references to the Telemond character to delete “German” since this role was based on a French priest whose works were under suspicion.

  1. “Satan” is not a name, but a word, roughly meaning “adversary,” that sometimes functions as a kind of title for mankind’s chief Adversary. But not always. For instance, Jesus’ words to St. Peter in Matthew 16:23 can be rendered “Get behind me, you satan!” As I used it in my review of The Exorcist, the term “satanic forces” is a middle case, denoting the powers of darkness, i.e., “enemy forces.”
  2. The character in the original novel The Shoes of the Fisherman, Jean Telemond, is presumably French (like his inspiration, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin). However, the character in the movie, David Telemond, played by German-born actor Oskar Werner, is presumably German (felicitously resonating with Hans Küng).

So, what I have written, I have written.

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Re. Corpus Christi?

The movie Corpus Christi is due to be released this June to August. This disgusting film is set to appear in America later this year and it depicts Jesus and his disciples as homosexuals!

As a play, this has already been in theatres for a while. It’s a revolting mockery of our Lord. But we can make a difference. That’s why I am sending this email. Please let everyone know about this movie so we may be able to prevent this film from showing in America and South Africa.

Apparently, some regions in Europe have already banned the film. We need a lot of prayers and a lot of emails. As a Catholic Christian I want to take a stand in what I believe in and stop the mockery of Jesus Christ our Savior. Please help us prevent such offenses against our Lord.

This urban legend has been around for at least a quarter century, and has been circulating on the Internet for the better part of a decade or more.

The stage play is real, but to date there is no film version (although that doesn’t mean there never will be).

Christians should reflect that by continuing to circulate this urban legend, they simply continue to draw attention to the play, and possibly increase the chances that someday, someone will want to make this movie in order to thumb his nose at outraged Christians.

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Re. The Wizard of Oz

I often refer to your movie reviews and have a great deal of respect for your opinion. I recently read an article called “The Occultic Wizard of Oz” and was wondering what your thoughts were on The Wizard of Oz in light of this perspective. Could you please read the article and give me your opinion?

Among the scads of tortured and arbitrary interpretations of Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz out there, the one you cite seems as unconvincing as any.

The author relies on John Algeo, former president of the Theosophical Society, who naturally gives a Theosophical reading, just as economic, political and historical readings have been given by economic, political and historical theorists. (Would the author quote a Theosophist as an authoritative interpreter in any other connection?)

Algeo’s interpretation is a bit like some medieval Christian allegorical biblical interpretation in its lack of critical rigor. He simply takes generic symbols — a road, witches, home — and arbitrarily imposes specific associations with no argument for why these associations work better or explain more than other available options.

The triumvirate of brain/intellect, heart/emotion and courage/will represented by the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion are fundamental human categories that crop up throughout fiction (other examples include Gandalf, Frodo and Aragorn as well as Spock, Bones and Kirk). I see no critical basis to connect these characters to specific writings of Petrovna Blavatsky (or even any grounds for supposing that whatever Blavatsky wrote on the subject was necessarily wrong and harmful in toto).

Baum himself declared that his story “was written solely to pleasure children of today.” I see no reason not to take him at his word.

Incidentally, the author of this essay appears to be a conspiracy theorist loon. (Edit: I have to eat my words, though, about the doubtfulness of his doctorate coming from an accredited institution. It seems he earned his PhD in American History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Thanks to a friend who caught this.)

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Re. Harry Potter vs. Gandalf

I just read your (very long) article on Harry Potter that was written just before the first LOTR movie and the first Potter movie came out. I think it was called “Harry Potter vs. Gandalf.” I am a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings and I have also read The Silmarillion.

I want you to know that I think very highly of you and have heard you before on EWTN and Catholic Answers Live. I think you made some very good points on the issue, but I would like to say that I disagree that Harry Potter is far from the occult.

Pope Benedict XVI (when he was still a cardinal) wrote a letter to a German critic of Harry Potter (Ms. Kuby), “It is good, that you enlighten people about Harry Potter, because those are subtle seductions, which act unnoticed and by this deeply distort Christianity in the soul, before it can grow properly.” Also, the chief exorcist of Rome, Fr. Gabriele Amorth, said that, “Behind Harry Potter hides the signature of the king of the darkness, the devil.”

So obviously if the pope and the chief exorcist of Rome are against Harry Potter, who are we to say that it is okay to read?

This is too complex a question for the mail column. I’ll defer my reply to a separate essay.

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