Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Summer Films Continued!

The Thin Man (1934) "Hey, would you mind putting that gun away? My wife doesn't care, but I'm a very timid fellow."  This is one of Hollywood's priceless attempts to clean up the novels of Dashiell Hammet, fit them to the code, and put them on the big screen. It's still not exactly squeaky-clean--the detective-hero and his wife spend alot of time with, um, the dregs of high society--but the overall result is a witty and clever mystery tale with less objectionable content than the original novel.  This one was such a hit that Hollywood made about, oh, four or five sequels. The chemistry between William Powell and Myrna Loy, playing Nick and Nora Charles, is absolutely delightful. Interesting historical note: the Prohibition and post-Prohibition era attitude toward drinking is exemplified in this film; see the effects of driving alcohol underground! They drink "indiscriminately;" it's "fun," it's "funny," and no one thinks twice about breaking the law. "How many drinks have you had?" "This will make 6 Martinis." "Alright. Leo, bring me five more dry martinis, and line them up right here."

Rope (1948)  "After all, murder is - or should be - an art. Not one of the 'seven lively', perhaps, but an art nevertheless. And, as such, the privilege of committing it should be reserved for those few who are really superior individuals."  Here's a psychological thriller from famous suspense director Alfred Hitchcock, based on a true story: two college students (a charming John Dall and a painfully nervous Farley Granger) decide to commit the perfect murder . . . simply because they think they have the right to do so. Then the professor (James Stewart) who has been preaching this mentality to them for years suddenly comes face-to-face with the consequences of his words. There are many subtleties here: the shots are exceptionally long, for instance, to increase the claustrophobic effect. But above all, the crowning quality of the movie is its uncompromising exposé of what happens when elitist and Nietzsche-like philosophies move beyond the professor's podium or the casual parlor chat, and are played out to their logical conclusions, even on a personal level.

Harvey (1950) "In this life, you can be either oh-so-smart, or oh-so-pleasant. Well, for years I was smart. I prefer pleasant. You may quote me." When a man in a small town calmly says that he is best friends with a 6 ft tall, invisible rabbit--which no one else can see--his family and the community start having fits; they try to convict him of insanity, but end up showing how much everyone else is lacking in sanity. Jimmy Stewart should have won an Oscar for this; Josephine Hull is also excellent in this as his nerve-racked but loving elder sister. She did win an Oscar for her performance, as Best Actress in a Supporting Role. 

Beau Geste (1939)  "The love of a man for a woman waxes and wanes like the moon, but the love of brother for brother is steadfast as the stars and endures like the word of the prophet." Many film critics hold that 1939 was definitely Hollywood's greatest year, because there are simply an incredible amount of superb films made then. Here's one that's less well known, but definitely deserves it's place among the great films from 1939.  Part mystery and part drama, It's a beautiful and very touching tale of three orphaned brothers raised by an impoverished English noblewoman. As men, all three join the French Foreign Legion, each with a secret self-sacrificing motive--either to save their brothers or their adoptive mother. It's almost impossible not to cry at the ending. Gary Cooper stars in the title role, with excellent performances by Ray Milland and Robert Preston backing him up as the other two brothers. Also, take note of the ferocious and memorable Brian Donlevy--a real life soldier--playing the villain commander Markoff. "I make soldiers out of scum like you, and I don't do it gently. You're the sloppiest looking lot I've ever seen. It's up to me to prevent you from becoming a disgrace to the Regiment. And I will prevent that if I have to kill half of you with work. But the half that lives will be soldiers. I promise you!" 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Third Man (1949): What is Truth?

“Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

From the opening sequence of The Third Man, there is an uncanny sensation that something is not right. As a narrator casually opens up the tale, a shot pans across murky portside water, rank with flotsam and jetsam, and suddenly it becomes clear that there is a corpse floating amid the rubbish.

That uneasy feeling soon permeates the atmosphere, as the audience is presented again and again with imagery that is both haunting and unforgettable: the crumbling ruins of bombed-out buildings, shells of ornate architecture laying topsy-turvy in the rubble, plain mismatched furniture and coverless light-bulbs cluttering vaulting rooms of elaborate Italian design. The city is a showcase of post-war poverty struggling for survival amid the grim near-anarchy of crime and corruption, death and disillusionment. Shadows, fogs, and shafts of light obscure the viewer’s vision; cobblestones glitter like glass in the streetlamps and shadows of men loom deceptively as tall as buildings. Every shot, every line of shading and light, is just slightly off; the angles are just barely skewed, resulting in the distinct sensation that the whole dark and twisted world in which the characters are entangled is swiftly slipping off the screen. The queer zither soundtrack also strangely fits the setting: the local color and local intrigue seem equally tangled up in the music’s twanging, repetitious, changing chords.

This evocative setting is the perfect backdrop for director Carol Reed’s film adaptation of Graham Greene’s tale, set in the post-WWII black market days of Vienna, about a bumbling, naïve American writer named Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), who is offered a job in Vienna by an old school friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), but arrives barely in time to be told that, at that very moment, the last shovelfuls of six feet of earth are being laid over his pal Lime.

At the funeral, Holly falls in with British inspector Calloway (a resigned, grim Trevor Howard) who, after buying Holly one too many drinks, informs him candidly that the police have known for some time that Lime was a vicious racketeer but were never able to convict him. Reeling and aimless after the sudden shock of death and accusation, Holly foolishly commences a one-man crusade to clear his dead friend’s name. He determines to investigate the “accident” surrounding Harry Lime’s death, at first suspecting foul play, but eventually unearthing a much darker truth about good ol’ Harry. This tale of deception and discovery is Graham Greene’s oblique stab—oblique as Carol Reed’s cinematography—at moral relativism, especially in the human soul’s perception of and reaction to the truth.

Holly sets the tone for this theme when Calloway first implies that Lime was involved in the black market. Holly’s reaction isn’t to deny the statement, but to interpret it in such a way that justifies Lime: that Lime was perhaps a small-time operator, trading tires or gasoline or cigarettes—just like everyone else is in the city, sure, everybody, in a small way—and that Calloway is a petty policeman with a vindictive drive against Lime. Calloway calmly reassures him that Lime was one of the foulest criminals in Vienna, pays for the drinks, and arranges for Holly to go home. Calloway, at least, sees the truth, but he cannot force anyone else to accept it.

Holly, on the other hand, is a hopelessly flawed character. He fumbles through his fool-hardy investigations, making mistakes that tip his hand or are even fatal to others; at one point he even gets himself accused of murder. He misjudges, misapprehends, and misconstrues his way towards the truth. His real problem, however, is more than simple American blundering or romantic naïveté. The real problem—indeed, the problem that confronts most of the characters—is that they find it nearly impossible to reconcile the horrible facts about Lime with their own perceptions of him.

The elusive and powerful personality of Lime is not buried at his funeral. It looms large and mysterious in the background of the entire film, and fills the mind and thoughts not only of Holly but of everyone who knew him or had to deal with him, including Calloway and Lime’s girlfriend, the depressed and lonely Anna Schmidt (played by the beautiful and intense Valli). His personality is shrouded in darkness, and for the first half of the film the audience has no notion of what he looks like. Even then, the first glimpses of Harry are—like the snapshots of his personality as seen through the eyes of Holly and Anna and Calloway—incomplete, swathed in shadow and questionable gloom. With time the audience gleans that he was Holly’s closest companion, a flippant and amicable man, a treasure-trove of useful facts, little tricks, and hints of humor. He was Anna’s roguish beloved, a charmer, light-hearted and loveable. He was their friend; but according to the police file, he was a fiend. They all saw him in a way which seems to contradict Calloway’s accusations. Who was Harry Lime? What is the truth about him? What is true? Is it, after all, just a question of perspective?

This problem, like Harry’s personality, is more than what it appears. “Stop making him in your image,” a pained Anna rebukes Holly, “Harry wasn’t just your friend and my lover. He was Harry. A person doesn’t change just because you find out more.” Anna perceives that Holly adjusts his memory of Lime to fit his own sympathies and emotions. She’s partly right: Lime hasn’t changed. However, what they know about him has, and so their judgment of him should. As they uncover the nasty and brutal facts about Lime’s racketeering, which caused death and irremediable harm to many, they are granted a glimpse into his real character. They can accept the truth, or reject it. Holly struggles with this choice, flopping back and forth like a pendulum, whether to side with the police for justice or with Lime for loyalty. Anna, for her part, eventually falls prey, in a way, to the sin for which she reprimands Holly. Her love for Lime borders on obsession—she absently calls Holly “Harry” when she is deep in discussion with him; she wears his pajamas, cries herself to sleep thinking of him. She clings hopelessly to her personal memory of Lime, without reconciling it to reality, remaining loyal to this illusion and ignoring the truth; consequently, she forever closes herself off from the kindness, love, and life offered her by others. She accepts only her vision of him—in other words, makes him in her image—and refuses to see the truth.

For the sake of this review, it is necessary to reveal a few plot points; I will not give away the ending, merely a crucial mid-way detail. If you do not want this spoiled for you, then please read no further.

This problem of perspective on the truth is most perfectly manifested when—in a sequence which is so beautifully filmed it invariably sends tingles up the spine—it is suddenly revealed that Harry is not six feet under. He is alive and well. Holly catches a mere glimpse of him, and then he’s gone, disappearing into the dark city streets once more.

Later, however, he is able to meet with him, and the interview seems almost unreal. Holly meets Lime at a Ferris wheel and suddenly the audience understands why Holly and Anna have such a hard time deciding where their loyalties lie. Orson Welles’ performance is superbly subtle and disturbing. He’s devilishly charming, charismatic, a pleasant talker, possessing all the gentle outward qualities of a true friend. But again, something is not right. As they ascend the tilting world of the ferris wheel, Holly feebly attempts to rebuke Lime, and Lime reveals that he is the quintessence of moral relativism. He throws open the door of the Ferris wheel, and points to the people a hundred feet below on the sidewalk.

Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”

To him, they are only blots on the road. They aren’t people. It’s all relative; it’s all a matter of perspective.

It’s not until the final moments that both Holly and the audience catch a glance of Harry Lime in all his ugly reality. When the perspective, at last, is righted—through a brilliant chase sequence involving the sewer system of Vienna—we see Lime for what he is, at once as pitiable and repulsive as a rat caught in a trap. Holly is faced at last with the irrefutable, unambiguous, truth.

However, Greene and Reed end the film with an eerie, queer element of ambiguity, along with a powerful déjà vu sequence, which not only leaves the ending open and questions unanswered, but ultimately reinforces his point. The men and women of his tale have trapped themselves by their moral relativism, locked tight in their mental habits of denying the truth in favor of the “other side of the story,” which is really a lie. They embraced relativism and ambiguity; and in the end, that is all they have left. Because they could not accept the truth, unambiguous, whole and entire, they cannot escape to freedom and love.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Flip-side of Chivalry

(The Shop Around the Corner, 1940)

All of my brothers were trained from a young age to always follow some basic standards of chivalry: Open the door for people. Give someone else your seat. Let others go first. Naturally, I picked up on these principles, too; to my mind, it was simply a question of good manners. So, when a young gentleman I know offered me his seat at a recent gathering where there weren’t enough chairs to go around, my initial reaction was to thank him but assure him I was quite alright without one, as was perfectly true. But then I realized: how do we expect our boys to be gentlemen if we won’t let them be?

Catholic websites are overflowing with articles—usually by women—about how important it is for men to be chivalrous, and how sadly lacking in chivalry many men are today. (Clare Ryan has an excellent post about how we often forget that for a man, being a true gentleman entails so much more than simply opening doors for women.) But there’s another side to chivalry—the flip-side. As young women in society, we have a special role in being on the receiving end of chivalry. In a certain sense, in today’s world it is actually up to women whether men act like men.

Our culture is laboring under almost a century of feminist agitprop, and all sorts of strange side-effects are now rising to the surface. A student can get a degree in something called “Women’s Studies,” for instance, but there simply isn’t anything called “Men’s Studies.” Movies for the last 25 years at least have been full of women who can kung-fu kick their male companions to kingdom come, shoot straighter than them, and hold their liquor better. They bossily take charge of situations, immediately deem their male sidekicks immature and incapable, and occasionally swear to punctuate their “toughness.” In other words, they imitate the less admirable qualities of men. This cliché has become so ingrained in society that too often the stereotypes are accepted without question or protest.

It’s exactly this sort of situation that kills chivalry. If chivalry dies, it is our fault—the fault of women, at least in part. It is the fault of women when they usurp what is properly the role of men. When they push themselves to the front, and automatically take charge of all of life’s sundry dilemmas, they can impede the men around them from stepping up to the plate and being truly chivalrous and self-sacrificing.

Now, this requires a fine line of distinction. This does not mean that women shouldn’t have careers or management positions, or that a woman has to let a foolish man take the lead just because he’s a man. But it does mean allowing good men to assume the roles of leadership and of protection that come naturally to them. A man can’t step into his boots if a woman is already wearing them herself.Quite simply, women must allow men to be chivalrous by not getting in the way of their chivalry.

It’s sometimes hard to do this. A young man I know told me that he once let a girl lead him while they were dancing. “It was terrifying,” he said, “I never knew what was going to come next.” He had had a glimpse of the other side of the situation, and realized that women don’t have it easy. Women have to work at their role of receiving chivalry, just as men must work at their role of being chivalrous. If they don’t both fulfill their roles properly, the whole relationship, like a dance, doesn’t work. I’m used to being self-sufficient and independent. I am perfectly able to open a door on my own, carry moderately heavy loads, wait my turn in lines behind a guy, etc. But it is actually up to me—up to all women—to allow men to be chivalrous, or they never can. With practice, there are little things I’ve learned to do to help me pursue this goal: for example, waiting that extra second to let the fellow walking alongside me reach the door first, so he at least has the opportunity to hold it open for me, instead of pushing through on my own.

In My Heart Lies South, Elizabeth Borton de Trevino tells how she, an American woman, met and married an amorous Mexican and spent the rest of her life learning to appreciate the Mexican culture. One of the cultural standards to which she had to adjust was a certain old-fashioned chivalry in which the women did not insist on being totally independent at all times. Her sage Mexican mother-in-law, Mamacita, explained the situation to her, in a teasing tongue-in-cheek way:

“Men are not very brave,” she says, “Otherwise God would have arranged that they bear the children. . . . So it is up to the women to make them practice being valiant . . . Let them, every day or every week, do something that strengthens their will against pain or danger. . . The man who performs a brave act before a lady will love her very much, for she has seen him do it. But if instead, she pushes him away and acts with courage to save him from some physical danger, he will feel robbed of his virility, and he will never feel toward her in the same way.”

What Mamacita says is partly jest, but the lesson she references is very true. Men and women compliment each other; they have distinctive virtues that help them to balance out each other’s flaws. If we want men to be strong, admirable, chivalrous gentlemen, then the battle starts here—with us. We must examine ourselves and see if our lack of feminine virtues is failing to help them be true men. Life is a dance. Let the men lead.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Person You Are Meant To Be

During his recent visit to Croatia, the Pope addressed a crowd of young Croatians at a prayer vigil in Zagreb. Among his words to them that evening, he emphasized one phrase in particular which he must strongly believe that the youth of today need to hear, as he also chose it to be the message for the upcoming World Youth Day. “Dear young people,” he told them, “If you are rooted in Christ, you will fully become the person you are meant to be.”
“The person you are meant to be.” This phrase is steeped in deeper meaning than it might at first appear. Young people often struggle with painful questions of identity; during adolescence, they feel a deep desire to discover and cement their personality as something distinctly their own. They have an innate sense that their personhood must be not only uniquely valuable, but also definitely valued by someone else. Without being “rooted in Christ,” without a solid spiritual foundation and guidance, they will turn desperately to what guidance they are given: the voice of the world. This is why many young women struggle with anorexia, why young men join gangs, why the mandates of fashion convince so many young people to all adopt the same style of shoes and haircut and listen to the same music.
But the reality is that outside of Christ the human soul loses its true identity. In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the master-tempter Screwtape comments to his devil-nephew Wormwood on how vice and virtue affect a soul’s personhood: “When [God] talks of [humans] losing their selves,” says Screwtape, “He means only abandoning the clamour of self-will; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality . . . when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever” (Letter XIII).
Even a cursory view of humanity illustrates this. Who are the most unique persons in all human history? The answer is not always the most famous people in history. World conquerors, for instance, all blend into a certain mold; “a lust for power united with extraordinary military genius” equally describes both Napoleon Bonaparte and Julius Caesar. A puzzling amount of renowned artists and musicians seem to have had the same sort of tragic personal life: torn by infidelity and scarred by sin. Even the villains of history aren't unique. When they are more evil, they are less original, and begin to all fit the same pattern: the horrid shape of the demonic. Hitler was more unique as a German schoolboy playing games than he was as the Fuhrer; Robespierre, a brilliant student with a love for Cicero, was more himself before the Revolution. It is when they became evil that they lost their identity and became uncannily like one another: corrupted mass-murderers exercising worldly power to persecute others.
The most unique persons in history are the saints. The word “saint” may draw to mind images of monks and nuns kneeling on clouds, in an aura of light, and gazing upward with saccharine smiles on their faces. But saints aren’t like that. Saints, in conforming themselves to Christ, don’t become all the same. They each become distinctly themselves. They become, as the Pope said, the person they were meant to be. The fiery, down-to-earth Teresa of Avila spent her life traveling through Spain, facing opposition and disappointments, to dramatically reform the Carmelite order. Gianna Molla was a doctor, wife, and mother who gave her life to save her child. Thomas More was a lawyer executed for refusing to deny Christ on a point of law; Junipero Serra traversed the California wilderness to bring the universal law of the love to those who did not know Christ. Edith Stein sought God through philosophy; St. Isidore the Farmer sought God while humbly plowing his farm.
These people are unique, they are fascinating, they are authentic--they are who they were meant to be, because they were truly rooted in Christ. Vice destroys our human identity. Virtue completes it. Pulling away from God robs us of our only source of true individuality. Like prisoners in a dungeon, starved and hidden away from the sunlight, souls that feed on sin alone begin to all look alike: malnourished, ill at heart, sad, bitter, even if they are surrounded by worldly glory and pleasure. But God designed each soul to have its own special character. A soul who embraces Christ embraces the fullness of his own identity, because God gives that soul the grace of becoming what His plan always intended him to be: a saint.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

More Summer Films!

Casablanca (1942) "I've often speculated why you don't return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Run off with a senator's wife? I like to think you killed a man. It's the Romantic in me." There are some rare occasions in Hollywood when films seem to magically come together; when everything--directing, acting, writing--just fits seamlessly and makes a superb film, almost as if by accident. Casablanca is the best example of this. It was technically a "B" movie--its greatness wasn't at all expected. But great it really is, and I think its largely because of the memorable characters and the excellent acting by everyone involved--even side actors. The stars--Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman--have had their roles lauded enough, but my personal fave in this movie is Claude Rains as the "poor corrupt official," giving what I think is possibly the best performance in the film. He's a totally despicable character--but somehow you just love him. He evinces charm and evil at the same time--and just enough goodness to be redeemed at the end. His back-and-forth repartee with Rick is unforgettable and among the best ever filmed. Other characters of note: an excellent Paul Heinreid as the idealistic Resistance leader, the unctuous Peter Lorre (frequently cast alongside Bogart) as a "cut-rate parasite" in the beginning, and the imperturbable Sydney Greenstreet (also a frequent Bogart side-kick) as a rival cafe-owner.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) "Great principles don't get lost once they come to light. They're right here; you just have to see them again!" This is the best performance of Jimmy Stewart's life, and the more times I watch it, the better it gets. An innocent young idealist on fire with patriotism but without any working knowledge of politics is made a Senator by a political graft machine, because they think he will harmlessly fill the empty seat with a positive image until they have time to find one of their own men to do the job. But when he gets a sense of what's really going on in Congress, he turns the tables on them and fights--desperately--for the "lost cause" of honesty in politics. Everyone involved does a great job. For instance, the villain James Taylor, played by Edward Arnold, could have been blustery and obnoxious, but instead he's subtly intimidating, threatening without showiness. Claude Rains' character is also beautifully complex: a man who once had ideals, but consciously let them slip as he became entangled in the nuances of Washington politics. The message of the movie is a call for the re-awakening of the American political conscience.

King Solomon's Mines (1950) "Stupid waste, this safari. All of it! Half our supplies gone after that all-night stampede. Wasted! Waste of time, supplies, and lives." Ready for a change of pace? Here's a wild adventure of the most exciting kind. Stewart Granger (the dashing fellow on the right) plays a fearless hunter/guide/explorer in Africa; the lovely, red-headed Deborah Kerr plays a woman determined to find her long-lost (good-for-nothing) husband, who disappeared into the heart of Africa to find the legendary diamond mines of King Solomon. Fantastic African escapades ensue. It's quite a thriller, and very good. It was filmed in Africa, so the scenery is beautiful, the extras are authentic, and some of the tribal music is fascinating.

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) "My great aunt Jennifer ate a whole box of candy every day of her life. She lived to be 102, and when she had been dead three days, she looked better than you do now." This has to be the most bizarre "Christmas" movie ever made. When a famous writer and radio celebrity breaks his hip in a small Midwestern town, he and his assistants must stay in one family's home and wreak havoc in their lives--because he turns out to be a selfish, cynical, and eccentric man. The story is unforgettable, the dialogue witty; Monty Wooley is brilliant as the curt and obnoxious writer, and Ann Baxter is also hilarious as one of his friends, a gold-digging, back-stabbing actress. The one rough spot is Bette Davis--who usually played fierce, troubled women--playing the antithesis of her usual roles. I'm not a Davis fan, and I feel like this movie could have been better without her--but it's certainly worth the watch.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Summer Movie List

Recently, a very dear friend of mine who wanted to become more familiar with old movies asked me to compile for her a list of some of the films that were essential to understanding classic Hollywood and cinema as an art form. I'm an incorrigible old movie buff, and so was thrilled to have an excuse to talk about my favorite films. In fact, I had so much fun arranging it I decided to reproduce the collection here on God's Spies.

There are many people who tend to dismiss old movies as boring. A subdued black-and-white movie from the '40's in which the best thing is acting and dialog seems a bit unbearable to audiences accustomed to the deluge-style eye-candy in popcorn-blockbuster movies like Pirates of the Caribbean. As filmmakers have upped the visual ante with every new decade, it is sometimes too easy for the mind-blowing techniques of today to numb our senses to some of the subtle artistry--and good ol' fashioned fun--in older films.

Films made in Hollywood of yesteryear are a not only a window into the ideals and perspective of the past few generations, a way to see things through their eyes, but also an extremely potent art form with gems of cinematic workmanship that shouldn't be ignored by audiences today. We put great art on display to be viewed by future generations, and don't stash it away in a back closet just because it's old. We can't ignore the old movie masterpieces; we have to appreciate them for their full artistic and entertainment value.

For now, here's the start of the list! I'll post more as the summer goes on!

The Caine Mutiny (1954). "I don't want to upset you too much, but at the moment you have an excellent chance of being hanged." If you watch ONE movie this summer, let this be it. An excellent cast (Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray, Jose Ferrer) back up this story about a crew on a back-water ship in WWII who begin to suspect their captain is mentally unstable; one officer takes the situation into his own hands and then faces a court martial for mutiny. There's a random irrelevant romance in Yosemite that is entirely unimportant to the plot, but otherwise this movie is a masterpiece about the psychology and politics of a tight-knit society--there's so many twists, right up to the final scenes, that it'll leave your head spinning.

Stalag 17 (1953) "The first week I was in this joint, somebody stole my Red Cross package, my blanket, and my left shoe. Well, since then I've wised up. This ain't no Salvation Army - this is everybody for himself, dog eat dog." A typical witty Billy Wilder film: dark subject matter treated humorously. It's part black comedy and part drama, about American POW's in a Nazi prison camp during WWII who suspect that there is a spy in their midst, and have to find out who it is before they plot the escape of a condemned American saboteur. Bill Holden won an Oscar for the main anti-hero role in this, and boy, did he deserve it.

Rear Window (1954) "That's a secret, private world your looking into out there. People do a lot of things in private they couldn't possibly explain in public." A thriller from famous suspense-director Alfred Hitchcock; for years it was my favorite film of all time. A photographer (James Stewart, excellent as always) holed up in his apartment with a broken leg begins spying on his neighbors, at first for fun--until he suspects one man of having murdered his wife. It raises a serious moral question: Is voyeurism ethical if by doing it you prove or even prevent a crime? It raises this question--but doesn't answer it. A great movie, all the same.

The Mark of Zorro (1940) "They heated the water from my bath too early. It was positively tepid! By the time more was carried and properly scented... Life can be trying, don't you think?" A true swashbuckler. This is not the original Zorro--there was a fantastic silent version made with Douglas Fairbanks (Sr.)--but you can't miss this one. Tyrone Power--besides being dashingly handsome--is the perfect Zorro, equally convincing as the hapless, effeminate fop and the daring bandit. Basil Rathbone (a fantastic fellow) plays the villain (he typically does); the sword fight at the end is alone worth the watch. But the characters are also unforgettable, the setting lovely, and the story as romantic and adventurous as they come.

It Happened One Night (1934) "I never did like the idea of sitting on newspapers. I did it once, and all the headlines came off on my white pants. On the level! It actually happened. Nobody bought a paper that day. They just followed me around over town and read the news on the seat of my pants." One of the original and best romantic comedies ever made; along the lines of "Bringing up Baby," though less screwball. Claudette Colbert plays a spoiled brat heiress who runs away when her father won't let her marry the shallow aristocrat she thinks she's in love with. She falls in with self-sufficient, plebeian newspaperman Clark Gable who offers to help her on her cross-country trek in return for exclusive newspaper rights to her story. But of course, you can imagine what happens instead. This is very witty and lots of fun; Colbert and Gable are quite comfortable and even easygoing when they are playing off one another's personalities on screen, so that they work very well together and are able to somehow make this highly improbably romance believable.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Perfectionist

Last summer, I was privileged to take a class on how to “write” an icon. For one week, I intensely studied and copied the sacred features of Our Lady and the Child Jesus in a 14th century Russian icon. It was a very powerful experience—contemplative and almost like a retreat.

On the final day, after much hard work and long hours, I had nearly completed the icon. As I finished tracing the last few strokes in Christ’s halo, I set down my red-dripping paint brush too hurriedly, and to my shock it scattered splashes all across the image. Fortunately, such a mistake was reparable, and I instantly began to wipe it away; I painstakingly scanned the painting for any pin-point red blotches.

When I had the last red marks wiped away, I began to apply a protective coat of varnish to the
image. As I ran the brush, dripping with the thick, glossy varnish, over the edges of my painting, I realized to my horror that there was a glaring red splatter on the side of my “storm-blue” border, unfixable and obvious to the artist’s eye, and it was now sealed beneath the irremovable coat of varnish. To me it seemed like a bleeding wound in the lovely body of the icon. I didn’t understand how I could have missed it. I gasped and panicked, allowing the other ladies in the class to try and soothe my vanity by telling me it was not noticeable. Then, as I stood there, dripping varnish from my brush and lamenting loudly, one of these kind ladies spoke up.

“That’s good.”

“What?” I sputtered nervously, and stared at her, failing to comprehend what she meant.

“That red dot is good,” she said patiently, “even though no one can see it really but you. Nobody’s perfect. Only God can make something perfectly, so it’s good to have that little flaw on your icon to remind you of your human failures.”

I could do nothing but sheepishly bite my lip, nod, and proceed with my varnishing. I knew she was right. She had discovered my secret: I was a perfectionist. I had prided myself on the quality of my painting, and even secretly attributed it to my obsessive attention to detail. My reaction of melodramatic distress at the tiny flaw was simply a result of the perfectionism which could not stand to admit I had made a mistake, that my work was not perfect.

This is because perfectionism is simply another kind of pride. There is a whole world of difference between doing something to the best of your ability, honestly trying to complete a job as well as you can, and having an unnatural drive to do something perfectly.

Of course, Jesus said, "Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” didn't he? Yes: but what that means for Christians is constantly striving for that ideal of holiness, pursuing it with determination in spite of our mistakes and flaws, getting back up again after we fall. That does not mean refusing to accept that we can make mistakes, or despairing when we do. Hard work and a determination to do something right is admirable; pursuing an ideal is the motivation for man’s greatest achievements. But perfectionism is not the pursuit of an ideal; it’s a sort of hopeless agony over miniscule errors, an improper focus—ignoring the bigger picture to point out the flaws that do not ultimately make any difference at all. The idealist will fight for a main goal and willingly endure a thousand little annoying imperfections if they do not compromise his principles or ultimately hinder his progress; for, as G.K. Chesterton once said, “Idealism is only considering everything in its practical essence.” The perfectionist, on the other hand, will not be satisfied unless every detail is flawless—something that, in truth, is unachievable on earth. So he will often be ungrateful and unsatisfied with a job well done; no matter how good it is, he will find a flaw. If a student, he is distressed with a grade of 99 instead of a 100, even if he studied his hardest; he quibbles about unimportant details when working on a project with others. An idealist learns from his mistakes. A perfectionist won’t let them go.

The irony is that a perfectionist sees his own motivation with a skewed perspective. He may tell himself he is doing something to please another, or to make someone proud of him, or to do something worthy of his talents, or even to give glory to God. But in reality, when his drive is perfectionism, he is doing it for himself, to satisfy his own desire. It’s a desire that assumes he can exceed his human limitations by his own power; he fails to humbly recognize that what good things he does or makes are not ultimately to be attributed to him, but to the One who made him.

The pride of perfectionism goes hand in hand with false modesty. Both are a sort of lying, to oneself or another, because authentic humility is simply the truth, which sees everything plainly in the clear light of virtue, in its proper position according to its relationship to God. Such is the humility that allowed St. Thomas Aquinas to call his great works of theology, which are priceless when laid beside other human works, “a pile of straw” when laid at the foot of the Cross.

My friends will often remark upon the beauty of my icon. I try my best to receive their kind comments graciously and with gratitude; but when they are gone, I take a peek at the little red dot on the side of the painting, to remind me that true humility will recognize that even in my best achievements, I am not perfect—I am a finite, faulty creature, and can only pray God to bring something good out of the talents he gave me in spite of my mistakes and sins.