Mailbag #12

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, WALL-E, The Bishop’s Wife, the Little House books, the Chronicles of Prydain books, Twilight and more.

Re. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

I am pro-life, have always been and will always be pro-life. At age 17, I went to Romania as a Friendship Ambassador with our youth orchestra in 1979 (I was very poor; this trip cost me $35.00 as part of a government-sponsored program). So … I could not wait to see 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days when I heard about it on Al Kresta’s program.

This movie certainly captures the struggles of poor women in a country behind the Iron Curtain under the Nicolae Ceauşescu regime. However, I do not understand how this was a great film and more importantly, it seems to promote the idea pro abortion advocates champion in their on-going litany and rhetoric to “keep abortion safe and legal.” I believe this film helps the other side and should not be promoted by Catholics.

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, from a particularly informed perspective.

I don’t think 4 Months means to be either “pro-life” or “pro-choice.” Like other films of the Romanian new wave in cinema, “4 Months” brings great compassion but also great objectivity to a personal story with public implications. The value of telling the story is implicit in the story itself, and the filmmakers trust the audience to evaluate what has happened and to draw their own conclusions.

It is certainly possible to draw a pro-choice moral from 4 Months. Undeniably, if a legal abortion had been an option, the girls would not have faced the nightmare they did that day. That is simply a fact, and as pro-lifers I think we can and indeed have to face and acknowledge that.

On a deeper level, though, I think that the dreadful circumstances of the abortion in 4 Months allow the film to lay bare a human tragedy that would have been masked and hidden by a “safe and legal” abortion.

Only because this abortion happened the way it did were Gabita and Otilia confronted with the naked horror of what they had done. Gabita’s wish that the fetus be buried expresses an awareness of its dignity and claim on her compassion. That it was in fact tossed down a garbage chute is a dreadful thing they must live with, but a “safe and legal” abortion would have treated the fetus with the same ignominy while cloaking the reality behind a facade of clinical professionalism.

The very title of the film indicates a refusal to focus solely on the crisis of the girls: There is another victim here, and the movie knows it. The lingering shot of the dead fetus lying on the tiles of the bathroom floor speaks for itself. 4 Months acknowledges the human tragedy that has occurred, and gives that tragedy a face. While it is not deliberately “pro-life,” it is truthful, and if the truth is on our side, that’s enough.

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I will admit that Pixar’s WALL-E is brilliant in a lot of ways. I still wouldn’t allow any child of mine to see it, though, because of the insidious and ridiculous anti-capitalist mentality it espouses. Of course, that’s exactly what will make the Academy vote for it. Which proves once again that Hollywood is the enemy of mankind.

This year, alas, the Academy’s top honors went to films that New York Times critic A. O. Scott perceptively described as “hermetically sealed melodrama[s] of received thinking, feverishly advancing a set of themes that are the very opposite of provocative.” Meanwhile, the Academy snubbed both WALL-E and The Dark Knight, which Scott describes as “contrasting allegories pitched at the anxieties of the moment,” “populist entertainments of summertime” that incited the “interesting movie debates of 2008.”

This was not a proud year for the Academy in my book. I’m with my friend Jeffrey Overstreet, who wants to host a “Boycotting the Oscars” party this year.

Anyway. Not only do I not agree that WALL-E is anti-capitalist — or anti-technological, as the article you cite claims — I don’t agree that criticizing capitalism qualifies one as “the enemy of mankind.” (See the Church’s critique of “unbridled capitalism” in, e.g., Centesimus Annus.)

How could a movie with such nostalgia for Rubik’s Cube and big-studio musicals be anti-capitalist? How could a movie with such a sympathetic and humanized robotic hero be anti-technological?

The economic critique of WALL-E’s one-corporation world (all consumers, no producers) in the article you link to is of course perfectly cogent. It is also almost entirely beside the point. You might as well mount a critique of the economics of Narnia, where the Witch’s hundred-year winter hasn’t suppressed the supply of sardines, boiled eggs, buttered toast, tobacco, potatoes, beer, marmalade rolls and the like.

More to the point, you might as well critique the biology and sociology of Gulliver’s Travels. WALL-E is a scathing satire, not of capitalism or technology, but of passive mass-media consumer culture and not living thoughtfully. As Swiftian satire, it offers a bold and striking image of mankind enslaved to passivity, consumption and isolation from real contact. No, it’s not a plausible construction of a possible future — not at all. But I’m reminded of the theme lyrics to “Mystery Science Theater 3000”: “If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes and other science facts / Just repeat to yourself ‘It’s just a show, I should really just relax’…

I can’t say I see any danger of young minds exposed to WALL-E developing anti-capitalist or anti-technology biases. The real danger, in my book, is that they may start clamoring for WALL-E paraphernalia: video games, action figures, lunch boxes, bedsheets, who knows what all. That’s the point where parents may want to begin practicing the spirit of the movie, rather than the spirit of the merchandisers.

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Re. The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

I have a Christmas movie in my collection called The Bishop’s Wife with David Niven, Loretta Young and Gary Grant as an angel. Of course this is about a Episcopalian bishop. It is a very moral movie. But I am concerned about the fact the angel (Dudley) falls for the bishop’s wife Loretta Young at the end he banishes himself to the other end of the universe and he helps the bishop and his wife find out what’s most important. Do you think this trivializes or mocks angels? I haven’t watched in a while.

I caught The Bishop’s Wife on a network television broadcast some years ago. Although I’m probably almost completely alone in scrupling about this film, the idea of an angel falling in love with any human being, let alone a married woman, rubs me the wrong way.

This premise has yielded great art (Wings of Desire) as well as less-than-great (City of Angels), but it always bugs me in any form. The picture of angels forlornly on the outside looking in at human life and love seems to me to suffer from a deplorable lack of imagination — a kind of anthropomorphic imperialism in which angelic existence is reduced to privations of the goods of human existence.

Whether or not one believes in angels, one ought to imagine them having a rich, positive existence of their own, no more suffering by comparison with human life than dolphins suffer for not being groundhogs. Angelic freedom is different from human freedom; it is absolute and single-minded. Angels can’t be conflicted, distracted or regretful; those who rebelled against God never looked back, and those who chose to serve God had no second thoughts — their sole end and goal is serving and glorifying God.

At best, the anthropomorphic angels of such movies could serve as a sort of imaginative mirror of human concerns and struggles. This is precisely what The Last Temptation of Christ does with the Incarnation: reduces it to a metaphor for the duality of human experience. To make Jesus a mirror for ourselves is flat-out blasphemous; to do so with angels isn’t as bad, but it’s still problematic.

The Bishop’s Wife is widely regarded as a charming classic of Golden Age Hollywood, but I can’t share the love. Not only does Cary Grant’s angel fall in love with Loretta Young, who is married to David Niven, Grant actually makes a sort of overture toward Young, and uses the chemistry between them to spur Niven to jealousy and thus ultimately to salutary action. But it’s supposed to be all right, because he’s an angel.

A human hero who struggles with romantic attraction to another man’s wife, like the eponymous hero of Shane or Lancelot in Knights of the Round Table, is one thing. An angelic hero who seemingly encourages the wife’s attachment to him, and enjoys his own attachment to her while making the husband jealous supposedly for his own good, is another. Wings or not, it doesn’t fly with me.

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Re. The <i>Little House</i> books

I saw that you listed “Little House on the Prairie” among the items whose release on DVD you greeted positively. Here’s another perspective on the Little House books.

Although the 2008 DVD article reference was to the TV series, I’m a bigger fan of the books than I am of the series, and have read them aloud to my children more than once. In any case, the essay you link to is less a critical assessment of the Little House books than an Osage Indian lament of the injustices suffered by the author’s ancestors.

Almost Mr. McAuliffe’s first statement about the actual books — that Mrs. Wilder “left out the detail” that she and her family were “illegal squatters on Osage land” — is wrong. The book does make it clear that Laura’s family were not legally permitted to be in Indian territory, but Pa believed he had it on good authority that the government was poised to permit settlement of the land. Evidently he was wrong. Later, believing that soldiers were coming to evict them from Indian territory, the Ingallses left. (This incident is also misreported in McAuliffe’s essay, which could explain the discrepancy McAuliffe alleges on this point.)

McAuliffe criticizes the book for including “General Sheridan’s racist remark” that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” but fails to report that the book also depicts Pa rejecting this racist attitude, in part based on his experience of the nobility and moral courage of the French-speaking Osage chief Mrs. Wilder calls Soldat du Chêne, who saved her family. The book depicts Ma as frankly racist but Pa as open-minded and respectful toward the Indians. Would McAuliffe prefer happy-faced historical revisionism in which racism was nonexistent?

McAuliffe brings somewhat understandable but excessive jaundice to his characterization of how the Osage are depicted in the book. It is true that some are seen as beggars and thieves, although it always seemed to me that since the Ingallses are on their land illegally anyway they were in no position to complain. But others are noble and beautiful, and I find nothing to justify McAuliffe’s charge that Laura “mocks” the plight of the skeletal Osage figures stooping to eat specks of food on the floor.

McAuliffe’s ill will is evident in other passages, particularly his willingness to “assume” that Charles Ingalls must have been “sleazy” enough to take part in such crimes as burning Indian fields, forcing them at gunpoint from their homes, threatening them with death if they returned and even robbing their graves. A person willing to “assume” all that isn’t trying to arrive at a critically responsible and balanced assessment.

I do agree at least partly with McAuliffe about one thing: The clean-shaven Michael Landon was nothing like the real Pa. In spite of this, I recommend the series as well as the books.

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Re. The <i>Chronicles of Prydain</i> books

Do you have an opinion on The Black Cauldron and other fantasy stories in The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander? I am a little disturbed by the concept of the human “un-dead” in the stories. I don’t know if these stories would be appropriate for my children, given that we are Catholic. Souls go either to heaven, hell, or purgatory, so is it okay to read about the “un-dead” in a fantasy story?

The Chronicles of Prydain are favorites in our household. I’ve read them aloud to my children at least three or four times, as each child becomes old enough to follow them. (We are not, however, fans of the dreadful Disney adaptation of The Black Cauldron.)

The books are very largely about Taran’s gradual, bumpy acquisition of wisdom and maturity; his slow, sometimes painful transition from foolishness to wisdom, irresponsibility to responsibility, pride to humility, self-sacrifice and service to others, love of glory to satisfaction in meaningful accomplishments.

I love that in each book in the series Taran is forced to advance to a new level of growth, and that in the next book he isn’t back to square one but has really grown, and now has some new challenge to face, some new area to grow in. Each book in the series is larger and grander than the one before, culminating in The High King, which really is a masterpiece of mythology for children.

I don’t think that Catholic parents need scruple at the Cauldron-Born. The Cauldron-Born are essentially automatons — mute, unthinking slaves who are said to have no memory of their earthly life and clearly have no free will. Eschatologically, it is not necessary to suppose that the souls of the dead have been somehow reunited to their bodies. Rather, the corpses are given a semblance of life by the malevolent use of magic.

One might posit, to bring the picture closer to a Catholic worldview, that the bodies are animated by evil spirits. But this isn’t necessary; it is enough to attribute it to magic. Of course the real world has not been invested by its Creator with magical forces per se, but in fiction it is possible to imagine worlds that God could have created differently. See my essay “Harry Potter vs. Gandalf” for more.

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Re. Decent Films

The Pope’s address which spoke of violence in movies — does this mean we are not now permitted to watch certain movies that have a certain kind of violence?

I’m not sure whether this is the address you mean, but in his 2007 message for World Communications Day Benedict XVI decried “programmes and products — including animated films and video games — which in the name of entertainment exalt violence and portray anti-social behaviour or the trivialization of human sexuality is a perversion, all the more repulsive when these programmes are directed at children and adolescents.” The pope went on to say, “I appeal to the leaders of the media industry to educate and encourage producers to safeguard the common good, to uphold the truth, to protect individual human dignity and promote respect for the needs of the family.”

The Holy Father does not criticize all media presentations that include violence — or sexuality — but those that exalt violence or trivialize human sexuality, especially when they are targeted at youth.

He also qualifies his comments with the important phrase “in the name of entertainment.” Where violence or sexuality is served up as entertainment, human dignity is demeaned. But entertainment is not the sole function of film. For example, films can also challenge, inspire and educate.

Appropriate depictions of violence which put it in its true moral light — which either highlight the evil of wrongful violence, or depict morally legitimate violence employed to resist evil — do not exalt violence in the way that the Holy Father has in mind, and may aim to do more than just entertain. (This is not to demean entertainment in itself.) Within moral limits, depictions of sexuality may also serve legitimate artistic purposes, though here as with violence restraint is needed to avoid appealing to base desires and offering occasions of sin, as per Inter Mirifica 7.

Pope Benedict’s mention of “animated films” might be confusing to some Americans because Hollywood doesn’t produce the kind of animated films the pope has in mind. However, the Holy Father is likely aware of the ultraviolent and sexual content not uncommon in Japanese anime. Unfortunately, Americans do have more familiarity with the sort of video games to which the Holy Father refers, e.g., in the Grand Theft Auto series.

Not all movies with violent or sexual content exalt or trivialize acts demeaning to human dignity. For example, the 1995 Vatican film list honors a number of films that include violent and/or sexual content, but do so in a way that does not exalt violence or trivialize sexuality. Schindler’s List is a well-known example; other relevant examples include Andrei Rublev, The Mission and The Decalogue.

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Re. Twilight (2008)

Why doesn’t Twilight have a rating by Decent Films Guide?

Because my Twilight article isn’t really a movie review. It’s an analysis of Twilight as a cultural phenomenon with attention given to more to the books than the film (although most of the issues discussed carry over from the books to the film.

The specific contributions of the filmmakers — the director, screenwriter, actors and so forth — are not discussed. Since a rating is intended as a quick index of the opinions set forth in the review, a non-review essay doesn’t get a rating.

For what it’s worth, if I were rating Twilight, I expect it would get something in the C-minus range.

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