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Archives for December 2007

On Sansho the Bailiff

I watched this movie (Sanshô dayû in Nihongo) the other night, one of director Kenji Mizoguchi’s very last. It was made in 1954, and is certainly one of the most beautifully photographed films I’ve ever seen. The opening scenes of a family traveling through the woods reminded me of Bergman’s The Virgin Spring: the same dazzling black and white contrast in the forest, the scintillating surface of water, the mysterious light at sunrise and sunset – it all made me want to live in a world without color for a while. Well, for two hours anyway. There are other similarities with The Virgin Spring, especially regarding revenge and what it really accomplishes, but I won’t give the game of either away by saying too much here. I’ll go along with everyone else who calls it a Great Film, although I won’t go so far as to call it the greatest ever made. Read along with Anthony Lane:

I have seen Sansho only once, a decade ago, emerging from the cinema a broken man but calm in my conviction that I had never seen anything better; I have not dared watch it again, reluctant to ruin the spell, but also because the human heart was not designed to weather such an ordeal.

I’m not so sure the human heart was designed to weather this kind of rodomontade, but the movie is certainly very, very sad.

A govenor runs afoul with his superior and his family is broken up and sold into slavery. As he prepares to leave, he tells his son that mercy is important above all else: “Without mercy, man is not a human being. Be hard on yourself, but merciful to others”. We then watch as his son, Zushiô, loses sight of this and then tries to get it back. Does he? I think it’s more open to question than what I’ve seen in most other responses to the movie, leaving his hope of redemption unresolved. So: maybe not the best movie ever made, but more evidence that the world’s best cinema produced so far is that of Japan, particularly in the years after World War II. As a drunk Faulkner once wrote (or maybe it was one of his characters that was drunk): “Defeat iss good for art; victory, it iss not good.” Or as a drunken Lane might write, whatever you might weather in life, art iss sure to do you in.


from an interview with Rene Girard by James Williams

JW … You said that for you the resurrection is an objective event. Do you distinguish between “objective” as you use it here and “historical.”

RG I am not certain I understand the difference. You see, the thing about the Gospels is that there may be tiny mythical infiltrations in them, but their basis is not mythical. The mythical mentality can take them and construe them mythically, but quintessentially they are the destruction of myth. Early Christian faith intuits or understands the nonmythical element and discerns, one way or the other, the mimetic phenomena that are unraveled. The structure of mythology is repeated in the Gospels, but in such a truthful way that the mythological structure is unmasked. The fathers of the church saw this, but were not able to express it in terms of generative scapegoating and the liberating representation thereof. Our mimetic interpretation is less important than their faith but, if it can help our own vacillating faith a little, it is useful.

Part of the problem in the history of Christian interpretation, beginning already with the fathers, was that the Passion was for them a unique event. That is understandable of course. They saw it as a unique event, a single, unique event in worldly history. It is indeed unique as revelation but not as a violent event. The earliest followers of Jesus did not make that mistake. They knew, or intuited, that in one sense it was like all other events of victimization “since the foundation of the world.” But it was different in that it revealed the meaning of these events going back to the beginnings of humanity: the victimization occurs because of mimetic rivalry, the victim is innocent, and God stands with the victim and restores him or her. If the Passion is regarded not as revelation but as only a violent event brought about by God, it is misunderstood and turned into an idol. In the Gospels Jesus says that he suffers the fate of all the other prophets going back to Abel the just and the foundation of the world (Matt. 23:35; Luke 11:50).

So what theology needs is a corroborating anthropology. This anthropology will open up the Gospels again to their own generative center and witness.

JW You have already presented an atonement theory, in effect. Would you care to say more about it?

RG The word “atonement” is unique to English as far as I know. Atonement is what the French, I believe, would call expiation. Atonement is “at-one-ment,” becoming reconciled with God, and this is the work of Christ.

JW The doctrine that has dominated Christian thought, certainly since Anselm, is the satisfaction theory. According to it, the justice of God and God’s honor are satisfied by the one who dies, who is allowed to be scapegoated for the sake of all.

RG What you can say, in my view, is that the Father is working on a sort of historical schedule. Christ comes at the right time, at the right hour. I think Gil Bailie’s paper is very important because it suggests that kenosis, emptying, here the emptying of the personality, is crucial. Bailie refers to Jean-Luc Marion, God without Being, and helps me understand it. I had struggled with the book. I think the title “God without being” could be translated as “God without the sacred” — God without sacred violence, God without scapegoating. (pp. 281-282 of The Girard Reader)

From The YouTube Music Video Archives: Sweeney Todd

I saw Tim Burton’s version of Sweeney Todd last week: no denying it’s a very good movie, well directed, well acted, well filmed, etc., etc. The trouble is that a good 20% of it was, for me at least, entirely unwatchable. The reason, as the friend with whom I saw it said, is that film is the most aggressive artistic medium ever invented. This will be true, I guess, until we get our holodecks, but after seeing this movie I think I can wait for that day. Sweeney Todd is the most violent movie I’ve ever seen. By far. I haven’t watched a whole lot of slasher flicks, but I can’t see how any of the Friday or Nightmare movies can top this. Okay, maybe those Saw movies are worse, or Hostel, but it’s clear to me that Burton directed this to be way, way over the top. Although he doesn’t deviate from the original Broadway production in any appreciable way, the meticulous attention he pays to getting every last drop of horror out of every last drop of blood spattered from slit necks and crushed skulls … Ugh. I’m exhausted by just describing it.

What works so well on the stage with music and choreograhy – not to emphasize the horror, but to mitigate it – was just too much in my face at the movies. And as much as I like Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter … try as they do, they just can’t sing like Angela Lansbury and whoever happened to be next to her. Good thing we have the original cast recording, with Len Cariou as Todd, and video from the London production with George Hearn.

[Introduction][The Worst Pies in London][A Little Priest][By the Sea]

Bird’s Nest In Your Hair

Chapter Sixteen

After his assignation with Julie, Tom had the day off from Videosyncracy, as he’d scheduled the evening for his continuing education down at the studio with the pornographers. Things didn’t usually get started for that crowd until the afternoon, which was a good thing for Tom since he hadn’t gotten in until well after three in the morning the night before. He’d left the hotel room after just a few hours with Julie, leaving her in a tangled swirl of sheets and clothes. She didn’t stir when he got out of bed; she actually didn’t stir until 10:00 the next morning, when the maid knocked on the door and she woke up just enough to yell “I’m still sleeping, come back later!” Tom had taken a long, hot shower when he’d got back to the condo, then quietly slipped between the sheets and stayed as close as possible to his edge of the bed until morning.

He naturally felt a little sheepish when he got up the next day. Did Helen know? Probably not, but he wasn’t sure she’d let him know if she did. No, she probably knew, but she’d never let him know she knew. Not right away at least; this was one way she maintained control. When they first moved in together she said that sooner or later they were bound to be attracted to other people, and that he or she would just as likely act on these instincts as not. The point was not to hurt or embarrass the other. At the time Tom wasn’t sure whether she was reserving the right for herself or for Tom, knowing his past and not wanting it to mean the end. Helen may not have known the specifics, but she was a realist and Tom wasn’t about to hide it from her if she’d asked about it. What they had couldn’t exactly be called an ‘arrangement’, much less an ‘understanding’ or anything else that suggested that a boundary had ever existed for their extra marital activities, articulated in advance and established for mutual maintenance by each. Their ideal was to not have an ideal, at least when it came to sex. Helen was obviously doing her part for Tom and Tom, for his part, was happy to go along with that. What she wanted out of him he wasn’t exactly sure.

He’d started stocking the store with her videos, and though it wasn’t much of a moneymaker for the store or her, it nevertheless provided an important service for concerned customers – especially since Purple Video (a smut store down the street) had been closed a few years before. Pay per view, pictures on the Internet, streaming video, mail-order porn: all this was profitable and in its own way convenient, but the trouble was with the inevitable trail which, however thoroughly erased, never leaves the more paranoid lecher comfortably secure. The humble video store fills that need. Nothing beats a cash transaction: no names, no numbers, and a hat, sunglasses, and even a false mustache can be used by those paranoid clients imagining pesky, investigative reporters searching for another exposé on the sordid activities of some of the shameless, shame-filled citizens of Seattle.

At the kitchen counter next to the breakfast nook, Helen poured an orange juice and with a smile (half a smile, a third… gone) she said “Hello, good morning, there’s fresh coffee, just made it.”

“Yeah, I’ll need that. I’m not used to three or four drinks at one sitting.”

Helen cheered up a little as he talked. “You’re going down to the studio today, right?”

“Oh yeah, I’ll be there.”

“Roger was asking if you could fill in for Tom today.”

“I am Tom.”

“The other Tom, dummy. He was busted again a couple of days ago. At least he’s not missing anymore.”

“Wow, my chance with a camera.”

“It’s a nice break for you. I’m telling you, Roger likes you, you’re doing well, you’re getting to know the equipment, and you’re going to be doing whatever you want before too long.”

“It’s a good gig, I know. I’m lucky. I’m thankful.”

“Thank Roger. Thank yourself.”

“Well I’m starting with you.”

“That’s what I’m here for.”

They both sat and stared at each other for a moment.

“So … you got in kinda late last night,” said Helen.

“Yeah,” said Tom, noncommittally. “You shoulda stopped by the store.” He sat there feeling stupid for a second. Helen let it all sink in for a good couple more.

“So … been working on any scripts lately?”

“Sure,” said Tom, feeling somewhat relieved. “Tossing a few things around up here,” he said, tapping the top of his head with his index finger. He was eyeing the Sports section the way hikers look for a cave before the rain comes.

“Talk to Roger. He really knows how to put a movie together. Even if it’s just, a, you know…”

“Yeah, sure. Fleshing stuff out is always a good idea.”

“Well, he could help you figure out what shots would work for whatever you’re thinking.”


“Tom, are y’all there in there? You seem a little distracted this morning.”

“Yeah, sorry. Maybe a little. But I definitely have some of good ideas about some projects. But I could always use some new ideas and scenarios. Now I keep thinking of porn stuff myself. Maybe I could help Roger out with some of them.”

“Like what?”

“Like a mother and daughter show.”’

“It’s just so old, Tom. Nobody cares anymore, and if nobody even thinks it’s perverse, it’s not really perverse. On the screen they’re all just bodies now. We’re all just bodies, really. And you know I think we should just work or way down to erotic instruction videos.”

Tom was wondering whether these reactions had as much to do with personal static as it did with the idea itself, but he knew it was better to let that one go. It was a good thing he had going with Julie, after all, and he didn’t want to lose it, not yet. He’d been on the verge of trying to get some pictures of her, and at that point there was no saying where it could all lead. Where exactly did he want it to lead? He pondered this for a moment, but was uncomfortable thinking about Julie in front of Helen. He wondered whether Helen could tell. He’d heard about married couples that were able to read each other’s minds, although in their case he realized this would only work in one direction. Of course Helen had always seemed to know more about him than he did himself.

They sat together in silence for five minutes or so, finishing breakfast and reading the paper. His was simple – a banana and a cup of coffee. Helen had an English muffin, covered in butter and raspberry jam, which were now running together in tiny marbled swirls, down into the honeycombed crevices of the bread. After she had finished, a few two-toned, oblong drops remained. Because of her nails, she could only get at the sugary blend of butter and jam by pressing her fingers almost flat against the blue porcelain plate. After licking her index and middle finger, she stood up and walked the plate over to the sink. Tom had discarded the Sports in favor of the Arts section, but looked up when he sensed her standing by.

“I’m doing the radio show this afternoon, so I’ll catch up with you later.” Had her tone changed as she was preparing to leave? It was impossible to say.

“That’s right. Go easy on them, okay?”

Being in the business, Helen was sometimes called on by various members of the media to act as an ad hoc spokeswoman for the adult entertainment industry. It was a position from which she’d like to resign, but some of them had become friends for whom she liked to do the occasional favor. This particular show was a kind of Howard Stern imitation, always looking for the latest sensation on the strip circuit. Helen didn’t take her clothes off much anymore, not that it would have mattered on the radio, but she’d been on the show a number of times before, accompanying some of her fresh talent.

“Oh yeah, I’m easy, you know me. Good luck with Roger.”

“Yep. I guess I’ll see you down there.”

They didn’t kiss, but smiled at each other before she headed down the hall and he went back to the daily TV guide.

After awhile he pushed the paper aside and took a fresh cup of coffee into the living room. He was thinking about last night, thinking that maybe he’d crossed the line in his conversation with Julie. He was used to skirting the edge of something forbidden in a lot of his conversations, but with Julie he wasn’t sure how much he wanted her to know about the rest of his life. After a few minutes he picked up his notebook and began fishing for ideas. Even bodies need a plot in which to be placed. As had become his habit lately, he began by trying to make up titles for porn. Something witty was best, something sexual, certainly, but better still if somehow tied to popular culture. He worked at this for a few minutes before lifting his feet onto the couch and stretching out into a more comfortable position. He needed to get his mind off of porn; there would be plenty of time for all that this afternoon. He tried to think of something that was really on the cutting edge, something like the independent movies or the European films he’d always wanted to make. He turned on the television and settled into a recent release on one of the cable stations, looking for inspiration. He was able to follow it for almost an hour before he fell asleep.

He was back at the fraternity, although it wasn’t clear if he was twenty years old again or was just there for a reunion. Everyone was upstairs enjoying the party, which he’d left because he was wearing only his white briefs. He’d held his hands in front, worried that he might flop out of the fly. Downstairs he looked for a shirt, found one that was blue, or one that he’d hoped was dark blue because he really didn’t want to wear black. He had a thing about black. He convinced himself that the shirt was blue by merely saying the words to himself, “royal blue”, and certainly couldn’t have seen the color in the dark. He got tangled up trying to reach back into the sleeve, began turning around, and then became more and more disoriented as he spun around in the dark. A light nearby, and then a lot of lights were burning so brightly that he was blinded, and a crowd in the room seemed to be moving in on him like a pack of wild dogs. His head was throbbing, was he on the set already? He was, until his eyes opened, and then everyone left, leaving Tom alone on the couch under the lamp he’d turned on for writing. Now sunlight was streaming in from outside. The sky was an immaculate blue. ‘Like a swimming pool,’ he thought to himself, ‘or my shirt,’ and then forgetting the dream he rolled off the couch to take a walk outside. He wanted his head to be clear when he went down to the studio later in the afternoon.

Sweet Mother of Mercy – I’m Officially Old

So I went to see Juno last night. I won’t go on about the film here – that’s not the point of this post – except to say that it’s probably worth seeing, especially if you need the feeling of completion provided by a third pregnancy movie, a capstone to the trilogy begun by Knocked Up and Bella (hey, one for each trimester!) No, the point of this post is to note that the song during the opening credits is sung by one Barry Louis Polisar, who was my favorite singer in the world when I was five years old. In 1978, he released his first live album, performed in front of a bunch of five year olds. Awesome songs about Sunday morning food fights with one’s brother, about tormenting babysitters, about shutting up in the library, about sending snotty children to Iran, and on and on and on. Here is one of this albums from back in the day:

Now he’s heading up the soundtrack to an indie flick. Which most likely means that the director decided to mine his own childhood for inspiration. Which means I’m old.

NYT business section: repository of plain-spoken truth

We don’t usually get the paper-type newspaper ’round these parts, but the Old Man was in town, and left the Business Section of his copy of the New York Times lying about. And it was in said section that we came across this deliciously dry (like a good martini) bit of captionary wit, which we thought we’d share:

Birthday Haiku

René Girard found
the mimetic nature of
desire reading

great novels closely,
and then discovered the ties
between violence

and the sacred in
ancient mythology. By

the errors as well
as the insights of Lévi-
Strauss, Freud, and Nietzsche,

Scripture as the key,
and that true knowledge always
begins with the Cross,

he has shown how Christ
revealed to us our great
need of forgiveness.

For Whom Your Heart Yearns

Dear children! With great joy I bring you the King of Peace for Him to bless you with His blessing. Adore Him and give time to the Creator for whom your heart yearns. Do not forget that you are passers-by on this earth and that things can give you small joys, while through my Son, eternal life is given to you. That is why I am with you, to lead you towards what your heart yearns for. Thank you for having responded to my call.

Søren Says

The Ironic Catholic posted a great Kierkegaard quotes a couple of weeks ago, which I’d never read until I stumbled upon her NaPraGoMo site the other day. Maybe the best quotation ever. And I’m sorry I missed the Prayer Month, IC; hopefully you’ll sponsor it again next year?

Anyway, take a minute or two for some silent prayer this Christmas Day – perhaps by following along with Kierkegaard and IC here.

Dalrymple on What Atheists Don’t See

If you are not yet familiar with the British writer and physician Theodore (Greek for ‘gift from God’) Dalrymple, I highly recommend that you familiarize yourself with his books and articles, one of which you will find by following the link by way of the title above. It’s a kind of hybrid review of the recent spate of books by hectoring atheists such as Hitchens and Dawkins, as well as a meditation on the both the personal loss of religious belief and the loss of religious sensibility in the West since the Enlightenment. Dalrymple is decidedly humble about his own non-belief:

I first doubted God’s existence at about the age of nine. It was at the school assembly that I lost my faith. We had been given to understand that if we opened our eyes during prayers God would depart the assembly hall. I wanted to test this hypothesis. Surely, if I opened my eyes suddenly, I would glimpse the fleeing God? What I saw instead, it turned out, was the headmaster, Mr. Clinton, intoning the prayer with one eye closed and the other open, with which he beadily surveyed the children below for transgressions. I quickly concluded that Mr. Clinton did not believe what he said about the need to keep our eyes shut. And if he did not believe that, why should I believe in his God? In such illogical leaps do our beliefs often originate, to be disciplined later in life (if we receive enough education) by elaborate rationalization.

It’s worth noting that this last sentence can apply to Dalrymple’s belief in God’s non-existence as well as the beliefs of believers. I should have written “understated humility”. Anyway, from this point much of the essay is devoted to castigating the intellectual sloppiness of his atheistic confrères and extolling the thoughtful elegance of two obscure seventeenth century churchmen, the painter Juan Sánchez Cotán and the bishop of Exeter and Norwich, Joseph Hall. I’ll return the gesture by saying that I’d much rather read Theodore Dalrymple than, say, Matthew Fox. Or Philip Larkin than Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.

Philip Larkin is no Sam Harris, although it’d be interesting to have them both over for lunch and see what kind of conversation ensued. If Dalrymple were there as well, here’s what he might have to say:

The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy. And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character and personality. If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies.

And I’ll finish by adding that “an existential shopping spree” is exactly what Christmas has sadly come to mean for many in 2007. Gifting and all the rest is entirely fitting – we have it in the gospels, after all. But let’s remember where it all comes from. Merry Christmas everyone!