Wednesday, June 25, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: "Noah," or You're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

That's what Roy Scheider said to Robert Shaw when he stumbled back into the cabin, frightened by his first look at the gigantic Great White.  It came instantly to mind in the scene where Noah (Russell Crowe) looks out from the ark, before the rains came, and sees a tsunami of a different sort, all the creatures of the world approaching two by two.

[No significant spoilers.]

"Noah" is big, dumb, fun.  I enjoyed it.

It is visually arresting.  The world of Noah and his family is a barren, forbidding place even before God destroys it.  It is mostly desert.  One wonders where all these animals lived, as there is almost no vegetation to eat or hide in.  I thought it was beautiful.

Where are all these animal couples going to come from?  Doesn't look like God needs a flood to wipe wickedness from the face of the earth.

Of course, it bears only the most distant relationship to the Bible story.  Since I did not come to it with an understanding that I was going to see that story, and since that story is not foundational to what I believe, whatever that is, I didn't mind it a bit.  It was still a yarn that kept me watching for its running length of two hours and eighteen minutes.

The movie is, in fact, too long.  Things move along nicely until the rain comes and the ark is underway, at which point the narrative comes to a standstill while an subplot or two are played out.  I suppose those subplots were necessary to flesh out a movie, the basic plot of which will already be known to viewers.  But they were kind of dumb, with some obvious holes I won't disclose.  (The Biblical story itself has at least one of the same holes.)

Which leads to my biggest problem with the movie, which is that it was dumb.  Its "green" message is repeatedly delivered with sonorous speechifying by Noah.  (Does the director, Darren Aronofsky, intend to convey that the relative handful of humans on earth in those days – the exact era in which the film is to have taken place is unclear, despite the presence of Biblical characters – completely denuded the landscape?  And it didn't seem to hurt biodiversity any, as that ark was pretty full.)  It doesn't matter whether you agree with the message or not; its repeated and clumsy expression insults the moviegoer's ability to figure out for himself that the presence of humans will result in a world that is very different than a world lacking men and women.

It's odd in other ways.  The return of the ark to dry land – the entire reason for its existence – was completely omitted.  The people in the ark, who are having a spat at the time, feel a clunk.  The next thing you see is a few animals walking around on some barren ground, and Noah is having a conniption for some reason some distance off.  (Again, what on earth are these animals supposed to eat?)  No dramatic landing, no disembarkation of the animals. 

The acting?  Russell Crowe suffered appropriately, although, as noted, he was given some pretty preposterous things to say.  Anthony Hopkins had himself a ball playing Methuselah.  Jennifer Connelly had almost no lines at all, it seemed, until about two-thirds of the way through the film, but if you have to look at someone not talking, I'll take Jennifer Connelly.  Emma Watson gets knocked up, much to Noah's discomfiture, maybe thought God would change His mind that he was a suitable specimen to escort the two-by-two animals through the flood and himself be the sole patriarch to survive.  And keep an eye out for Nick Nolte. 

Look, when some geological formations exhibit a more impressive emotive range than do the cast, you know you're not dealing with Oscar material here.

As I said, lots of holes.  But it was an outsized cartoon, and I like cartoons.  Some cool effects, I wasn't bored, my faith wasn't shaken or even offended.  Couldn't hurt to stream it if you've got a couple of movie hours banked up.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Wherein I Derive an Important Truth About Our Mortal Existence from a Child's Car Seat

As you read this, I want you to know that I love and adore and want to see all the time my little step-grandsons, three of the six of which presently require car seats, by both law and good sense.

And I also want you to know that I know that car seats for children have saved countless young lives and avoided terrible injuries to their occupants.

This weekend, the Memsahib and I were visited by one of our darling grandsons while his parents spent an enjoyable weekend downtown Dallas, attending a wedding and to their own toddler-free fun.

This car seat  .  .  .

It is enormous.

It weighs more than some roadworthy vehicles.

It is so big that I could barely get it in the back door of one of the largest, roomiest sedans manufactured in the modern age.

It is incredibly plush, robustly bolstered from thigh to shoulder with upholstery that securely cushions his tiny buns from any horizontal movement.  It is so luxurious that Donald Trump could nap in the thing.

And this was not even the entire car seat.  This was only the part of the car seat that was designed to click into a docking device that is presently secured to the back seat of the automobile in which the delightful tyke takes most of his rides.

It has buttons on it.  The kind you push and things happen.  Or are supposed to.

And, of course, it has the usual belts and snaps and things that are supposed to click into place to keep the child secure, if not almost completely motionless.

Not the car seat in question.  But it did have a cupholder.

In preparing the child for his ride, I found the use of these appliances  .  .  .  challenging.

Since it was lacking the base to which it would customarily be attached, there were no passageways in its back through which the backseat belting could be threaded to secure it.  The only alternative being to strap the entire piece of furniture into the back seat by treating it as person and bringing the seatbelt mechanism across its front and securing the tongue to one of the female pieces buried in the seat which had to be dug out.

In itself not such a challenge, in theory.  But this particular carseat was so wide that it covered that female element, and it was only with the greatest exertion and topological problem-solving that I was able to get the tongue of the seatbelt to click into the receptacle.  All of this performed, mind you, whilst twisting this my body, now in its seventh decade, into configurations the local boot camp would not countenance.

Fortunately, we were not on a schedule, and we proceeded to our destination, your driver somewhat exhausted but only slightly injured, and the lad had a marvelous time riding a pony and swinging on a swing and petting some very cute goat-kids, which made it all worthwhile.

But as I was wrestling with this Shetland Barcalounger, and, for the longest time, losing, I did have a thought.  Not a charitable thought, not one of which I am proud, but one that did cross my mind, and more than once:

Human life is not that precious.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Sects, Lies, and Photographs; or, He's No Saint!

[NOTE:  This book review appeared in slightly different form in the comments section for the book on Amazon.]

BOOK REVIEW:  Why Did the Vatican Honor the Swastika:  A Catholic Couple's Five-Year Search for Understanding by Stephen and Diane Galebach

[For more details on this subject, see my previous articles: ]

Declaration of interest: Steve and Diane Galebach are friends of mine. Steve was a roommate at Yale, and I was honored to attend their Full Wedding Mass. (The most intriguing aspect of which was that, moving as it was, as a non-Catholic I was unable to determine the exact moment of matrimony. Had an earthquake sent everyone scrambling three-quarters of the way through it, I'm not sure the happy couple would have known exactly where matters stood, wedded-bliss wise.) I also read and commented on Steve's earliest drafts recounting his work. The present book bears almost no resemblance to the manuscripts I reviewed.

No matter. This is an extraordinary book that earns five stars on its merits. It is a book of serious, deep – and, most important, original -- research into the relationship between pre-World War II antisemitism in Germany, Argentina, and elsewhere, and the Roman Catholic Church, personified in its Vatican leaders and local cardinals and archbishops. Its structure is unconventional, and the title doesn't hide the ball. Scholarly as it is, it is not presented as a scholarly history. Instead, it discloses its evidence chronologically as the Galebachs and their extraordinary brood uncovered it. University historians may roll their eyes, but shame on them. This book is dense with meaty new discoveries and astonishing connections. And the prose is pellucid.

It begins with Steve's discovery of the cover photograph of Argentine Cardinal Copello blessing a Nazi flag at the Eucharistic Congress in Buenos Aires in 1934. He discovered it in an issue of the Nazis' chief organ of race hatred, Der Stűrmer. Stunned by this discovery, the Galebachs set out to determine whether this was a one-off, a rogue or addled cardinal straying off the reservation. Although they don't come right out and say it, the result of their extraordinary journey of discovery points powerfully to a conclusion that the Vatican rejects: At the very least, the role of the Church and, in particular, one Eugenio Pacelli, cardinal, nuncio to Bavaria/Munich, Vatican secretary of state, and soon Pius XII, in not just the rise, but the establishment of state antisemitism in Germany and elsewhere must be much more thoroughly examined before the elevation of Pius XII to sainthood is given any further consideration.

There is too much here to summarize. Catholic or not, Jewish or not, Third Reich buff or not, you will see things here that will astound you yet are absolutely rock-solid established by the source documentation. Pius supporters worried about some of the evidence of his dealings with the Nazis in previous histories claim that these apparent circumstances lack "context." No longer. I got your context right here.

Minor cavils:

I fear that the personal-journey and self-referential tone of this book will harm its acceptance by historians. It shouldn't; the research is massive and sound. But its topical Q&A-style of proceeding leads to repetition and some confusion ("is this the same article they wrote about a few chapters back?"). Following its somewhat topical, Q&A style of proceeding, there is a lengthy chronological presentation of the evidence. I might have urged them to flip this: present a history of the subject focusing on their new evidence, in which Pacelli's and Copello's actions were placed in this-follows-that context (or, if you will, the Nazis' actions placed in the context of the Church's position on the Jews), followed by a bibliographic essay where the travelogue and interview anecdotes could have been parked.

I would also have liked to see the book structured as evidence in support of a thesis, rather than as a historical whodunit. Indeed, the Galebachs lose interest in the photograph as they go along, and the book somewhat peters out right at the end without explicitly drawing all the threads together. The title asks a question – what is the Galebachs' answer? Perhaps the rather obvious conclusion, my conclusion from the book, anyway – that the Roman Catholic Church was deeply complicit in the rise of state antisemitism around the world in the pre-war years, and Pacelli was smack in the middle of it, rendering him, as Pius, unfit for sainthood – was too stark even for them. They write with great eloquence about holding Church leadership to account, but don't explicitly state to what that account sums. I think this choice bespeaks their admirable modesty -- but their work and perspicacity has earned them the right to speak their minds on what they have found.

These are minor points. It's their book, deeply and personally felt and astonishingly original, shot through with new documents, new actors, and new insights. Five years of their time and resources. I suspect new evidence will begin coming into their hands as historians of the Church and the pre-war years finally take notice, and I would expect some fascinating emendations in the near future.

The book is beautifully written, not strident, not crazy-devout, not flavored with special pleading. It is an important contribution to the understanding of the Holocaust. It deserves a mainstream publisher or university press – and a wide readership.