Mailbag #19

Clash of the Titans, Alice in Wonderland, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Hayao Miyazaki, The 13th Day and more.

Re. Clash of the Titans

In your Clash of the Titans review you ask the parenthetical question, “Incidentally, is immortality ever considered a ‘curse’ in Greek mythology?”

In fact it is, at least once. The mortal man Tithonus (the son of King Laomedon of Troy, though his mother was a nymph, if I remember correctly), fell in love with Eos, the golden dawn, and she petitioned Zeus to grant him immortality so that they could be married and remain with each other for all time.

This Zeus did, but — in a fit of the sort of terrible pique for which he is known — he took her request more literally than it was intended and neglected to also grant Tithonus eternal youth. He became immortal, as requested, but didn’t stop aging. Eventually he was little better than a skeleton; some stories say he turned into an insect of some sort, though I don’t remember exactly what happened with that.

Tennyson’s “Tithonus” (1859) is a fine poem based (occasionally loosely) on these events. You might enjoy it.

— Nick Milne

There I have it. I would expect no less from the author of The Daily Kraken.

Of course, the exception in this case proves the rule, in a more colloquial sense than that phrase is meant to bear. Tithonus’s curse is not eternal life per se, but eternal aging and decrepitude. The myth of Tithonus bears out that Io’s condition of eternal babehood would be regarded as a blessing, not a curse, by the standards of Greek mythology. (This is not to say that eternal youth can’t be treated as a curse in other mythic contexts, only that it seems to correspond to nothing in the Greek mythic context.)

This is why I love film criticism: It’s an education in just about everything. What I don’t look up myself my readers often supply for me.

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Re. Alice in Wonderland

In a response to a reader, you wrote:

Alice is a quite ordinary little girl; this, indeed is integral to the narrative strategy of this kind of fantastic tale, in which extremely odd things happen to a very ordinary character. The whole point is that Alice could be anybody. The attempt to turn her into an interesting character with her own back story and issues is fundamentally un-Carolinian, I think.

Bingo. I was just explaining to someone yesterday that the problem plaguing all adaptations of Alice is the fact that she is not a character, she is the tool the author uses to thrust the reader into Wonderland. She herself is the most uninteresting part of the books, and her dialogue mainly consists of asking questions the reader might want answered from the odd people she meets. She does not make a good protagonist because she is the most paper thin part of the books. Not to mention that the books are not plot-based; the are merely a series of vignettes strung together by the one unifying device that is Alice. Trying to shape these stories into a single cohesive narrative does not simply does not work.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. This kind of story needs a filmmaker willing to work in a haphazard, nonlinear style — which Burton at his best is probably well suited for, given the right combination of material and screenwriter. Perhaps the fault is Woolverton’s.

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Re. Alice in Wonderland

You need to add an additional “r” and “l” to the word “un-Carolinian” in your response to the Alice in Wonderland where you said, “The attempt to turn her into an interesting character with her own back story and issues is fundamentally un-Carolinian, I think.” You misspelled Lewis Carroll’s last name: it should be un-Carrollinian.

Speaking of misspelled names, your review takes issue with the addition of the letter “y” to the creature called the Jabberwock. One of my favorite lines in the movie is when the Red Queen says, “Someone’s gonna slay my Jabber-baby-wocky?” Is it possible that the added “y” is a way to make the name a diminutive? Does anyone call you Stevie or even Steve?

Unlike you, I think the filmmakers did read the poem. After all, the Mad Hatter recites the poem exactly as it is written. Do you have an explanation for the poem being entitled “Jabberwocky,” anyway?

I’m a Catholic homeschooling mom. My husband, 13½ year old daughter, and I all thoroughly enjoyed the movie.

In C. S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, we find this sentence: “Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Caroline joke.” Why does Lewis use “Caroline” rather than “Charlian” or something of the sort? Likewise, why is the period of the reign of St. Charles I referred to as the “Caroline era”? Charles, Carl, Karl, Carlo, Caroll, Karol (Pope John Paul II’s baptismal name), among others are all variant forms of the same root, for which the original form may have been the Greek Cyril, but which is rendered in Latin Carolus, making “Carol-” an appropriate base for a generic adjectival reference.

That may not fully excuse my idiosyncratic “Carolinian,” but I suspect that many readers, influenced by the common girl’s name, would incorrectly read “Caroline” as “Caro-line” rather than “Caro-lean,” masking the adjectival usage. Incidentally, in the case of Lewis Carroll, the generic “Carol” is doubly appropriate, since Lewis Carroll is the nom de plume of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who surely chose the surname “Carroll” knowing its connection to his own first name.

Had the Red Queen called her pet “Jabberwocky” and everyone else used “the Jabberwock,” I would have no objection. Since “the Jabberwocky” is used throughout — and since Christopher Lee is actually credited as “Jabberwocky” (and the same form is used in the production notes) — I see no reason to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt. (“Jabberwocky” as Carroll’s title I take to be an abstract form of the creature’s name, connoting something like “of Jabberwocks” or “in the realm / condition / spirit of the Jabberwock.”)

In fact, I believe Depp’s Hatter does not quote Carroll’s poem correctly; his partial reading incorrectly transposes lines.

I’m glad your family enjoyed the film.

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Re. Alice in Wonderland

How did you not pick up on the occult nature of the White Queen? She says, disparagingly, that her sister wants to control nature, as somehow opposite of her, who makes magic spells? She says she won’t hurt anything, but she wants Alice to kill. In her belief system about caring for nature, though she doesn’t want to believe it, she is an accessory to murder. It seems many in nature worship seem not to see the natural law-breaking nature of abortion. I wonder, though, do they go about their merry, fertile ways and let the abortionists do the dirty work?


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Re. Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

I just had a little bit of criticism about your review of Percy Jackson. You said that it was stupid that Percy didn’t just use his iPhone camera to see Medusa and instead just used the reflection on the back. This is unfair because it was not an iPhone he was using, it was an iPod.

Ah, but it should have been an iPhone.

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Re. The worlds of Hayao Miyazaki

I just don’t get Ponyo or any of Miyazaki’s stuff, and I’m as big a traditional animation (and family film) fan as I know. I’m sure that there’s a cultural divide (or a near impassable gulf) between the western version of fantasy or fairy tale and the eastern vision, but the flighty, almost haphazard nature of these stories leads my children to wander out of the room whenever we play his films for family movie night.

Forgive my apparent ignorance, but I wonder whether the famous director is given a pass based on reputation alone, because I feel confident that a film like Ponyo, if released by an American director, would be absolutely panned as pointless, plotless, and completely slapdash. What am I missing?

You say “plotless and slapdash” like it’s a bad thing.

Seriously, I don’t know what I can add to my Miyazaki essay and my reviews so far, which I think express the reasons for my Miyazaki enthusiasm about as well as I can express them. If my inbox is any indication, I’m not alone; many of my readers appear to share the love, and some of them have discovered Miyazaki through my reviews, which delights me to no end.

Perhaps I will simply say this. I enjoy Miyazaki’s films because I enjoy sharing the filmmaker’s own delight in his characters and his worlds. Since you cite Ponyo, perhaps the most slapdash of all his films, I care about Sosuke and Lisa, the old ladies at the nursing home, and the nursing mother in the boat, because I sense that Miyazaki cares about them. I enjoy Lisa and Koichi’s house on the cliff, with the path down to the sea and the signal light on the deck. I am enchanted by Ponyo and Sosuke’s idyllic voyage through the flood waters, with the riot of extinct fish wending beneath them. What is better than that?

I assure you that if an American director were to attempt anything like what Miyazaki does, critics would be falling over themselves and each other to hail and praise his work. And I would be right in the middle of the pile, like Max buried in the pile of Wild Things in Spike Jonze’s film.

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Re. The 2010 Arts & Faith Top 100

I am curious about the “2010 Arts & Faith Top 100.” Specifically, I would like to see your ranking of the same list with the “Moral/Spiritual Value” ranking beside it. For example, I doubt you would rank Punch-Drunk Love ahead of The Song of Bernadette, or A Serious Man ahead of A Man for All Seasons.

I am especially curious about the many films on the list I have not yet seen. I note that your website lacks reviews for many of them. Luckily, as a film reviewer you have an excuse to see them all. Get to work and let me know what you think.

By the way, if you have not seen Ikiru you must. It would be in my top 5.

While I hope to add reviews for a number of 2010 Top 100 films over the next year, the excuse of being a film critic is not, alas, sufficient excuse to see them all any time soon. I am also a guy with a non-film 9 to 5, a family with six kids, and a limited writing career that keeps me pretty busy covering recent theatrical and DVD releases, so there’s not a lot of time for “just because” reviews.

I think many A&F voters would agree that Punch-Drunk Love was something of a ringer in this latest list (though obviously it has its fans). As for A Serious Man vs. A Man for All Seasons, while you’re right that I wouldn’t rank them in that order myself, A Serious Man has received some intense theological analysis over at Arts & Faith, and I respect the views of those who regard it highly.

I have seen Ikiru, but have not yet come to appreciate it as its most devoted fans do. Perhaps I’ll see it again someday and appreciate it more.

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Re. Decent Films

I was wondering if you could clear up something that has been weighing on my mind heavily for some time now. In an online discussion a while back, a woman stated that if we want to go to Heaven, we listen to the saints, and if we want to go to hell, we listen to anyone else. She went on to say that since saints didn’t watch movies, neither should we, because we will go to hell. This is the same woman who said no one under the age of thirty should be allowed to read the Song of Songs, but I can’t get her words out of my head.

Here is what to say when you hear her words in your head. First of all, the correct dictum is not “If we want to go to Heaven, we listen to the saints.” The saints themselves are the first to tell us that the correct dictum is: “If we want to go to Heaven, we listen to the Church.”

For nearly a century the Church has proclaimed that cinema, like all forms of art and communication, is a gift: one that can be used properly to great advantage, or improperly to great harm. Popes Pius XI and Pius XII, the Vatican II decree Inter Mirifica and the pastoral instruction Communio et Progressio have all addressed the relevant moral issues.

Pope Pius XII’s addresses on the Ideal Film begins with open admiration for the technical and artistic achievements of just a few decades, highlighting the cinema’s capacity to bring viewers to imaginary worlds and distant realities. “Most noble” in itself, the Holy Father declared, cinema is at once “so apt to uplift or degrade men, and so quick to produce good or spread evil.”

While there is certainly a clear element of caution in the Church’s teaching, absolutely nothing justifies the conclusion that the Church wishes Catholics to abstain entirely from movies, and that if we do not we will go to hell. Catholic moral theology absolutely will not sustain this thesis.

The idea that the saints did not attend movies is just silly. Of course cinema didn’t exist for the first 18-plus centuries of the Church’s life, but certainly saints have always been involved in the arts. Has this person gone through the lives of all 20th-century saints and verified that none of them patronized the cinema? Does she even have quotations from any of them condemning the cinema and all who patronize it?

What will she do if Pope John Paul II is canonized? He held and attended screenings at the Vatican, including Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, which he screened with the director. John Paul II also attended a private screening of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The Vatican has also screened a pair of movies about John Paul II as well as The Nativity Story.

The 1995 Vatican film list would certainly be an odd document if Catholics were to abstain from the cinema. Also inexplicable would be the Vatican’s co-sponsorship of the Tertio Millennio International Festival of Spiritual Cinema, which awards the annual Bresson Prize (named for French filmmaker Robert Bresson) for special achievement in spiritual filmmaking.

You might also find my essays “What Are the Decent Films?” and “Faith and Film Criticism: The Challenge of the Catholic Critic” helpful.

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Re. Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

I listen to you often on Morning Air with Sean Harriot and would like to hear your comments on the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. I’ve always loved this musical and realize there’s some controversy. Even my father who was a devout Catholic enjoyed it. Now my kids enjoy the musical. Could you please give your thoughts? Thank you!

It’s probably been 15 years or more since my one viewing of Jesus Christ Superstar, and my memories are pretty fragmentary. A few impressions:

  1. King Herod’s song is hilarious.
  2. The crowd in the Temple overwhelms Jesus with their problems; he can do nothing to help them. Does he ever heal anyone or do any actual miracles at any point in the film? It’s a pretty serious problem if he doesn’t.
  3. Other lyrics like “For all you care, this could be my body” are also highly problematic.

Here is an interesting blog post. Sorry I’m not more help.

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Re. Small-screen Super Heroes

I have been a long time fan of your website and your occasional stints at Catholic Answers. Seeing your comments on the great “Spectacular Spider-Man” show, I was wondering, as a comic book fan (mainly of DC Comics), why don’t you review/comment on the slew of DC Direct to Video films, like Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (which in my opinion was the best Batman movie until Nolan’s films), Wonder Woman and Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. Thanks for what you do.

I’ve enjoyed the DC animated universe in series form, especially the original “Batman” series and “Justice League,” and I dimly recall enjoying Mask of the Phantasm more than 15 years ago. I caught the Wonder Woman animated film sometime last year and found it entertaining enough, although I was disappointed with the level of mature content (explicit violence, sexual references) in a movie I would have wanted to watch with my young daughter if it had been more kid-friendly (she likes Wonder Woman in the “Justice League” series).

Since most of the original movies seem to be going the same route, my interest level is significantly diminished. I’ll happily watch this stuff with my kids if I can, but my grown-up screen time is too limited to make room for super-hero cartoons I can’t watch with my kids. Likewise, my review time is sharply limited; if I’m going to recommend something for grown-up viewers, I’ll probably wind up looking elsewhere.

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Re. The 13th Day

I’ve never really felt compelled to write to someone about a review, but I just read your review of The 13th Day and it touched a nerve. Please understand that I am not personally attacking you, but having seen the movie last night in a packed theatre for a Catholic fundraiser and then having read your review this morning, my first thought was, “Did Steven D. Greydanus and I watch the same movie?”

My first concern is that you recommended the film for kids. My children would be terrified at many parts of this film. The scary dreams of hell, threats to the children and the overall unsettling and tense atmosphere would make it, in my opinion, frightening and uncomfortable for children. I would have to think this type of film would discourage a child from wanting to see spiritually based films.

Second, the chiaroscuro technique was promising at the beginning, but became tiresome and mind numbing over time. Good art is a combination of tension and release, contrast and uniformity, familiarity and unfamiliarity. The 13th Day inundates the senses with the chiaroscuro style, but never allows the viewer the chance to “come up for air.”

Third, the script was extremely weak. There needs to be an emotional hook that captures the attention. I tried really hard to care about The 13th Day as I watched it, and even went in with the attitude that this could be a really good spiritual experience for Lent, but nothing about the storytelling drew me in or encouraged me to want to care about it.

I felt embarrassed for the actors. Lucia was unconvincing. She seemed as if she was simply reciting words and the voice over kept the viewer from really becoming engaged in her story. My final critique is with the musical score. While the directors did have the good taste to use some legitimate classical music in the film, most of it was B-movie quality.

While I agree with you that it is a plus-4 on the moral/spiritual value, for these reasons I stated, I would not rate it an “A” for recommendability, give it 3½ stars for artistic/entertainment value, or recommend it for children.

While I don’t agree with your take on this particular film, I do ask you to please continue to provide your critiques to help us make good choices about worthwhile films for us and our children. I appreciate the good the work you do and please don’t take this as a personal attack. Rather please accept it as a compliment that your work is being read and analyzed.

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Rest assured, I don’t feel attacked when readers disagree with me, even strongly! On the contrary, I appreciate it.

You are not the only thoughtful Catholic to be dissatisfied with The 13th Day, and your response to the film is in the main quite legitimate. I stand by my review, though. A few thoughts:

Families and children are very different. What scares one 10-year-old may be entirely manageable for another five-year-old. My 15-year-old has trouble with things that my six-year-old takes in stride. My nine-year-old can easily handle exploding Nazi heads and decapitated orcs, but falls to pieces if anything bad happens involving parents. For this reason, age-based ratings can never offer more than the broadest and most general guidelines. At any rate, I watched The 13th Day with my entire family, and no one had any trouble.

I can appreciate your finding the film’s stylistic rigor stifling or monotonous, but to extrapolate some such generality as “good art is a combination of tension and release, contrast and uniformity, familiarity and unfamiliarity” is useful only as a generality, not as a hard and fast rule. The artist is under no obligation to provide release or familiarity; this would not be a helpful rule to bring to much of Tarkovsky, say. Or Matthias Grünewald.

Art is not obliged to provide an “emotional hook.” Such a hook may be a necessary apparatus for some types of narratives, but there are other types of narratives. My response here is the same as my response to those critics of The Passion of the Christ who objected to the dearth of character development and dramatic structure, and to critics of The Lord of the Rings who objected to the lack of psychological depth and moral ambiguity. These are narratives that are doing something else, and doing it effectively.

Acting, too, can mean very different things in different contexts. Have you ever seen a Bresson film? The actors don’t “act” at all. They recite their lines with an absolute minimum of affect, which is what Bresson wants. Conversely, consider the exuberance of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., which some might consider garish overacting, but which TV Guide perceptively describes this way: “His daringly, beautifully florid performance is grounded less in dramatics than in dance.” I can respect someone not appreciating either or both, but that’s not a criticism.

I know someone who hates The Wizard of Oz for reasons such as Dorothy’s age making no sense (is she supposed to be seven or seventeen?). If you give the film something of the liberty of a stage musical, though, it works.

Regarding score, unfortunately this is an area where I’m less sensitive than I’d like to be. I don’t know what a more musically attuned critic might say here; I would only say that there are things one can easily forgive in a micro-budgeted picture like this, and this may be one of them.

None of this is to try to change your mind on the film, only to suggest that it may be working on a different level than you’re critiquing it. For me, The 13th Day works as an expression of the quality of the events in question as fragmentary, jewel-like childhood memories crystalized and sharpened over two decades in the mind of Sister Lucia as she sits writing her memoirs. If it doesn’t work for you, or even if you think I’m just plain wrong, that’s okay. I’m not the pope of movies. Even the pope isn’t the pope of movies. Hope that helps.

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Re. The General

Thank you so much for the “Zorro” recommendation. My family loves them, and my kids want to share them with everyone. If they were a little more historically accurate I would push to show them in my kids California History classes.

Also, we are grateful for your recommendation of The General but how do you handle the ambiguity of rooting for the wrong side in this movie? Clearly, the South is protrayed as the good guys, and the North the bad side.

I’m delighted that you and your family are enjoying “Zorro.” I really hope Disney follows up with a popular DVD edition for those unable to get the limited Walt Disney Treasures edition.

Regarding The General, would you think I was joking if I said that the South were the good guys? Not on the issue of slavery, of course. But from a constitutional perspective it can certainly be argued that on secession the North was in the wrong, and the South (where they still speak of “the War of Northern Aggression”) in the right. (In one of the National Treasure movies, Nicolas Cage discusses how before the Civil War people said “The United States are,” and after the war people said “The United States is.” He says it like it’s a good thing that we have Lincoln to thank for, but for a lot of Southerners — and federalist types — it’s a sore tooth to this day, and I don’t say they’re wrong.)

The North may (or may not) have been wrong (or wrong-er) with respect to jus in bello (i.e., moral conduct during warfare) as well as jus ad bello (i.e., moral justification for going to war). But that’s a bigger discussion than I’m prepared to have here!

Be that as it may, the fundamental conflict in The General is not North vs. South, but protagonist vs. various obstacles. The movie asks us to root for its hero, to see his world from his perspective, which I think we can do whatever the merits of Northern or Southern claims in the war.

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