Veterans Day and Freedom

November is a month particularly set aside for thanksgiving. Not only is there the Holiday of Thanksgiving itself, but the month begins with a call to remember those who have gone before us and are now among Church Triumphant and the Church Suffering, and we cannot but remember them with gratitude. And there is yet another holiday where we give thanks, Veterans’ Day. I was in the Marine Corps and fought in Afghanistan, had friends die and have things inside my head I wish I hadn’t seen, and yet not until recently did I learn to graciously respond to the ‘thank you’ I receive ever year with a simple ‘you’re welcome’. I couldn’t see a real connection between what I had done and the lives of those who were shaking my hand. Had I given them something? I had never thought deeply about what it meant to give a gift or how I had participated in giving the gift of freedom as a combat veteran.

How did I come to understand? A few weeks ago I was reading Saint Thomas, and was, as usual, confused. In his discussion of whether the name ‘Gift’ is a personal name of the Holy Spirit he defines gift not as something given but as something which has the aptitude to be given. This made me pause, for it didn’t seem true. For instance, isn’t it true that I have many things I could give away but which I intend to keep? I wouldn’t call my possessions gifts, and if I were to walk into my friend’s house and begin to refer to his paintings and books as gifts he would consider me an odd and grasping sort of fellow. What was Saint Thomas driving at?

Well, Saint Thomas is being very careful, as always. All the personal names of God cannot be said to imply as their first meaning a relation to man since it was not necessary for God to create man, and so he must show the name ‘Gift’ can be said without needing to be received by us. He finds a solution and says that a gift was not something given, but something that has an aptitude to be given. When I first read this, though, I thought it was clever but only something that would belong to the Holy Spirit, it was ‘gift’ used in a Trinitarian, unique sense, and stripped of all imperfection only so it could be said of God. I was wrong.

I saw this in how we speak of gifts. We say that we have a gift for someone before we give it to them, and we see this clearly when we give a gift and it isn’t accepted: in such cases there is a gift but no one receives it. We also say ‘this is a gift for Dad’ even before we give it, but when we have received it, we say ‘this was a gift from my son’. Insofar as it is a gift, it never ceases to belong to the giver in some way. If we treat it as though it were entirely ours to dispose of as we wish, without bearing the giver in mind, then we are justly accused of ingratitude. In these ways I saw that Saint Thomas was right.

I also see now that there are different kinds of gifts. Some are nearly entirely possessed by us once received, like birthday cash which, though merely a means in our possession, ought to be used for something beyond the paying of bills. Others, preeminently the Gift of the Holy Spirit, are not ours once we receive them because they are greater in themselves than we are, and we cannot have dominion over them. This sort of gift belongs uniquely to the giver even after we have received them. Freedom is a gift of this sort.

The gift of freedom is a gift which has been given to all men. Man’s reason and free will are the greatest natural gifts he has received and must be formed and used in such a way as to give thanks to God, and it is a state’s responsibility to so constitute itself to not hinder man’s return to God. That is why freedom of religion is emphasized in our founding documents. Further, in our country we have a civic freedom which permits us to participate in politics by voting, and perhaps being elected to serve. These freedoms are not ours to use as we wish, but belong primarily to the giver, to God first and then to our country, and so we have a duty to exercise our freedoms.

Since freedom is not ours but from God, it is a mistake to say that we may use our freedom however we wish. However we live, we must bear in mind that we act freely because we have something greater than ourselves in hand, and so we are not free to define ourselves as we wish and do what we want. It is when we fall into ingratitude and see our freedom as belonging to us and us alone that we start speaking of our right to abortion, gender choice, and the myriad of other ‘personal choices’ we see around us today. We are blessed to live in a country which permits us to flourish in our freedom, but our truest freedom is not from our county, but from our God.

The United States is a wonderful country in which we are not only free to exercise our highest freedom, but in which we are given a civic freedom unknown elsewhere. These freedoms are not private goods but common, and that is the reason those of us who have served in our military can and should accept the thanks of our grateful fellow-citizens when Veterans Day comes. Because common goods are not lost by the giver when he gives it, it is understandable that a marine like I might not feel as though he should be thanked, but his participation in and contribution to the good of the country is a sure and direct aide in the giving of God’s gift of freedom to each and every citizen. So, take the opportunity this month to thank those around you who have helped you realize in your life the gifts God has given you, and if you yourself are thanked, do not hem and haw and say it was no big deal, but graciously say ‘you’re welcome’ and turn to God yourself and thank Him for making you an instrument of His will and a channel of His Love.

November and the Culture of Death

Halloween has its roots in All-Hallow’s Eve and so is rooted in Christianity, at least in name. Despite this, a writer on liturgical traditions, Fr. Francis Weiser, has pointed out that many of the traditions of Halloween are not rooted in Christianity but in heathen practices from druid times. Whether Halloween was inspired by paganism of not, it is innocent enough to take the kids trick-or-treating. The spectacle, however, of the ‘normal’ college party, among the dorms and at the local bars, might indeed suggest a demonic influence or at least an influence that is in no way parental: boys find old cut away outfits from the 70’s and cut away more while girls parade in the emperor’s new clothes merely reinforced with patchwork. If our culture is a culture of death, we’ve seen its fashion show.

Pagan garb clothes pagan practice; the world has returned to child sacrifice in search of a carefree life. Some states are passing laws permitting infanticide in all but name while others are stipulating that abortifacients be freely available on all state-college campuses. Where once the universities were revered institutions of culture dedicated to the awesome task of handing on all that was true to ever increasing swarms of youth, they are now turning against the universal demand of culture to self-perpetuate. They encourage or succumb to demands for abortion rights and a host of other perversions, demands which, if fully indulged, could only end in the final drying up of their supply of students.

Do you look around and find the world rapidly fragmenting before your eyes, with news delivered in short clips, lives defined by tweets and Instagram posts, and no clear, integral picture presented anywhere? These fragments are neither the tools nor tactics of a culture but of an anti-culture; here is an asymmetrical warfare waged in the hope of harassing and mocking us without ever holding a position firmly enough to be caught and exposed by the truth. Although the speed with which the world tweets and rants is dizzyingly fast, we Christians have this anti-culture on the run but haven’t caught our breath to say so.

A healthy, whole society is self-sufficient, and there is nothing self-sufficient in any offspring of Catholic Europe if the faith is separated out and tossed away. While the druids may have presided over a culture of death, such a culture exists today in only one form, the Catholic Church where Christ is Lord and rules death by right of conquest. Although the world is reverting to hellish customs, it is not reconstructing a culture of death, for with Christ’s victory death no longer has dominion.

What does this mean to us? “Aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we charged you; so that you may command the respect of outsiders and be dependent on nobody,” says Saint Paul to the Thessalonians. Here is a true recipe for culture. Men’s inborn desire for the truth will have many pause and stand aside in disgust as the gif and emoticon masquerade as intelligent expressions of their brothers’ souls. Standing aloof, they will look around searching for an antidote; let us hope that we have paused long enough in the running fight against the anti-culture to present to their eyes a culture which springs from leading a quiet life and minding our affairs.

It is within Catholicism that the great work of human hands is consecrated on the altar and becomes the source of all peace. Around this greatest of works is gathered in dazzling concentration the full array of human arts: the music of Palestrina and Mozart, the paintings of Michelangelo, the architecture of thousands of the greatest builders. No argument has the force of the Blessed Sacrament, no plan the enduring, indomitable structure of Notre Dame, no rhetorical device the suasive order of Mozart’s Mass in C minor. To mind our affairs is not to turn our back on the world but to turn our face to God and offer life to those who seek it, and give it to them abundantly.

The fullness of Catholicism is dependent on nothing outside the life of Christ, takes all its life from Him, and embraces every moment of life, leaving death as a mere doorman to further life. You would not approach a king without thinking through what you would say to those you must pass upon your way: servants who might ask your business or turn you away if you are not decently dressed. In like manner we look to prepare ourselves for death, which stands at the doorway to eternal life, to be fit for what is beyond death. In November, dedicated to remembrance of the dead, we pray for those who have died and ask them to pray for us when we approach death. We can pick up Saint Alphonsus Liguori’s Meditations on Death. Only the Saint can look to death as something at once so terrible and awesome, as only the Catholic monk can boldly turn a funeral wake into a marriage feast, and be so clear-sighted as to see, at the end of mortal life, life’s foundation and superabundant continuation.

The martyrs were united through death to God by the murderous hands of pagans, and so perhaps it is well to bear in mind that God permits evil that good may come of it; the villainous murder of innocents ends in death, but not a death defined by the murderers. Since in death an innocent soul is freed from the hands of those who hate it us and goes to God, if we must name the enemy, let us not speak of the culture of death. Death is our passage to eternity and is embraced by our culture, the enemy can be nothing but a murderous mob, terrified of death and without true guidance or any principle of stability.

Bearing this in mind, we cannot be discouraged: there is nothing but harassment and heckling to fear, and everything to gain if we continue to focus on the sacraments, the works of mercy, and all that our Catholic life entails. Though we cannot yet perceive Catholic culture in its transcendent fullness, ‘when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory, O death, where is thy sting?’

Night of the Hunter (1955)

I recently re-watched a movie which has somehow slipped quietly from everyone’s minds, Night of the Hunter (1955). Really, though, it never was in anyone’s mind as it failed to appear anywhere in the Oscars, even in a year that was slim pickings and saw a half dozen movies selected which would be lauded and lost without a backward glance (back then such a fate for the Oscars was rare, and the movies from the year before are still household names: On the Waterfront, Rear Window, Sabrina). Perhaps there should be no surprise that Night of the Hunter should pass unnoticed; it is such a strange film that anyone setting out to watch it will be shocked and maybe upset. Want to watch an old movie with Robert Mitchum? Well, here he is but he is no friendly man but Preacher Powell, a widow-killer who goes wherever money might be. Perhaps the darkness of the film means we have film noir on our hands? Well, the only virtue in the film is to be found in a child (John Harper) and an old woman, not in some jaded middle-aged bogartian man. This could be a horror movie but even the unnatural horror of the murdering preacher fails to captivate us and only serves to give us a nightmarish tunnel vision, a focus in which we only see the boy, John, and the strain under which he moves.

There is a strong surrealism that corrals our minds and turns us back to John throughout the film. Wherever he turns for help he is brought up short, and no one in his life possesses a character which goes beyond a frustrating mockery of personhood: doting old men and foolish women surround him and he is forced to keep his own council and protect Pearl, his young and easily seduced sister, in his own solitude. Even Preacher Powell, with his terrifying, powerful presence, fails to be anything more real than a nightmarish figure around whom light and shadow never seem to be quite right. We are unable to do anything but look at John.

So, with all the attention on little John, what is he doing? He is trying his best not to have himself and his sister killed, and to that end is doing what he can to prevent Pearl from listening to Preacher Powell. If Pearl gives away the hiding place of the money then the murdering can begin and she (along with all the other women) has taken a powerful liking to Preacher Powell. Now, it doesn’t seem that John knows that death must follow if he yields to the fork-tongued words of the preacher, but he has promised his father to keep the money hid, and he knows that only evil can come of Preacher Powell. The overt symbolism of the film can’t fail to bring to mind the temptation in Eden and points to what might have happened if Adam hadn’t yielded to Eve but instead had been willing to die for her. That might seem to be a comment from out of the blue and requiring exposition, but I don’t want to have you watch the movie with an analytical eye, but also couldn’t let you watch it and walk away with only an amused and disturbed state of mind to show for it.

I’ve watched this film again and again and never reviewed it because I couldn’t do it justice (and haven’t here)—there is too much to say and too indescribable an atmosphere in this movie. Watch this movie. It is one of the best American movies ever made. It can be rented on Amazon, iTunes, and Youtube and for the couple bucks you’ll spend you will be sitting down to one of the strangest, most terrifying and most beautiful films you’ve ever seen.

All the President’s Men

There are at least two kinds of detective stories, some which are driven by clues and some which are fueled by the characters. Great writers blend the two seamlessly, but even among Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries there is a special appeal to A Study in Scarlet because it is a great pleasure to watch Dr. Watson and Mr. Holmes become acquainted. Of the two vehicles for such stories, the more sure is character, and so all good detectives are either in partnership or at least ensure they have a good sidekick and work in a big office where they are looked upon as a liability.

All the President’s Men begins with a break-in, a burglary which was to create a sensation, at the Watergate Hotel. Soon after we see the botched robbery, we are placed in the offices of the Washington Post and can rest easy, knowing we are watching another investigative reporter flick. When Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford are chosen by the newspaper magnates to pursue the initial leads, it seems as though we know what sort of detective story we are sitting upon: who would pay to have two such actors if their characters were not going to drive the plot?

Indeed, the investigation stands accused just as suspected. Hoffman plays an old hand, whose loose reporting has him in hot water with the brass—he is the sort of reporter who might balk at typing the word ‘allege’ and all its conjugates. Redford is new to the paper and eager to make his mark and, perhaps, is also interested in discovering the truth. There is friction at first: Hoffman takes what Redford writes and polishes it without permission, and when doubt is thrown on their efforts they accuse each other of making mistakes; but their fusion is quickly accomplished and the paper is, for the most part, willing to stand by their reports. The structure of the film is all wrong if we want to hammer it into a readymade hole.

I do not think it is generally advisable to use the title of a work to argue to its conclusions, As You Like It is not a relativistic play nor is the main character of Ivanhoe the knight of that name, but when ordinary means for understanding a work of art are not forthcoming, a return to the title can give the necessary clue without which we could go astray. All the President’s Men is about… all the president’s men. As Redford and Hoffman go door to door and make numberless phone calls their personalities hold our interest and underpin the story, but the story is not about them, it is about those whom they interview. Much of their time is spent trying to confirm their hunches and leads, but they are baffled everywhere they turn; no one is willing to go on record. The film is about all those who could expose the scandal and about their fear. It is about those men to whom the camera never turns, those powerful men within the Whitehouse entrusted with the president’s campaigning. In a clever shot (or rather, a splicing of shots) at the end of the film the television in the lower left shows Nixon’s swearing in while in the top right Hoffman and Redford type out the story which will sink his presidency; the film is finally about the precarious nature of wrongdoing when greed jumps the fence and runs free of the law.

All the President’s Men is available on Netflix, and on many other platforms for rent and purchase. I definitely recommend you watch it if you have Netflix, are interested in the detective genre, or want to learn more about the events surrounding Watergate. The movie is enjoyable, but perhaps not great.

Foreign Correspondent (Hitchcock, 1940)

It seems as though I have a dislike for Hitchcock’s style. With eleven of his movies under my belt, I have the data to say, with little extrapolation, that the later the movie the less I like it: The Birds was a grand disappointment; Vertigo was dependent on the twist, the acting, and its grittiness; North by Northwest only held my interest so long as I anticipated the famous blue and yellow scene which was a challenge to make suspenseful. In mid-career he made some great movies, Rear Window or I Confess perhaps being the best of them and Rope the most faux. Early in his career, though, he made the enjoyable 39 Steps, and the movie I watched this evening—Foreign Correspondent.

Foreign Correspondent is a straightforward investigative-reporter film in which we are allowed to see the game before the game is up. Not only are we privy to the gentle insinuations of Hitchcock’s low-key direction, but it doesn’t take long for us to be left alone in a room eavesdropping on the conspirators of the plot, which is a bid to force secret treaty information from a signee of the treaty before general war breaks out in Europe, and we learn what the protagonist will spend his time trying to discover. The good characters are good, the bad are bad, and the ambivalent man is sympathetically so. This simplicity of characters and genre goes a long way toward making the twists and chases unambiguously enjoyable and lets the audience settle back and revel in the pursuit without having the unsettling feeling that the girl will prove a tramp or the hero a shyster. Perhaps the film is blessed by its timing: released in 1940, between the beginning of the war and the entrance of America, it knows who the enemy is and isn’t jaded or calloused.

The forthright story is ably accompanied by deft camerawork. The shots are elegant, and nearly all the work lucid. I don’t know that Hitchcock succeeded in taking the elegance of his early work to the full-spectrum color of his later films, but here, in this film, he is certainly in his element, and the sureness of his camera, which never moves unnecessarily, is a tribute to his grasp of his art. The disconcerting camera angles of his later movies are perhaps foreshadowed, but not indulged, while his ability to place the action firmly in concrete places is superb. There is, it must be said, an unfortunate sequence in a windmill which fails to transcend the set: the lighting in the mill is wrong, the geometries of sight are off, and stairs initially sturdy enough for a man running up them to be unheard by men directly beneath are then loud enough for a man in another room surrounded by the moving mill gears to hear men walking up the stairs. The distancing effect of this failure is particularly unfortunate since the scene concludes the only lengthy chase sequence in the film, but the scene does redeem itself somewhat by being a fitting fusion of the surreal with the mystifying conclusion of the sequence.

One of the real pleasures of this film is the love story. It is understated and a little abrupt, but it fits so neatly into the plot development that it is charming. Much of the dramatic progression and our sympathy for all involved depends on its course so that although it seems as though it should not hold much weight in this tale of the coming of war, it plays the perfect sidekick.

How can I hold a dislike for Hitchcock’s style when I have found him so elegant and lucid? His lucidity, his ability to say what he intends, is only perfected as his makes further movies, but the elegance of his style suffers when he begins to use color. I don’t think he ever masters color and he is incapable of excluding distractions when he switches to it. As for the third element of style, individuality, as he develops, he lets his motifs (manipulative music, unsettling twists, odd angles, and overemphasis on the psychological element) have too much play. But if you watch the early Hitchcock you can see his genius unobscured by his eccentricities.

Foreign Correspondent is available on the Criterion Channel’s streaming service, and for rent from the Apple Store. I strongly recommend abandoning Netflix if you have it and getting a subscription to the Criterion Channel, but if you are only occasionally going to watch a movie, by all means spend a couple bucks and watch this wonderful movie.

The Ladykillers

The Ladykillers is one of the great comedies, and comedies are a hard thing to pull off. Why is this so? Since the primary aim of comedy is to let you give yourself up to laugher for a few hours, albeit such an aim does not preclude the inclusion of deeper currents of thought, there is a danger that the comedy will never develop enough depth to withstand a slowing of the comedic pace. That there are very few films which elicit continuous laugher throughout is sign enough that comedy itself is a fickle vehicle for a movie; a comedy driven by laugher alone cannot sustain momentum through its less raucous scenes. Look at modern comedies: how many of them fall flat after twenty minutes? Nearly all of them. Their problem is that although they have a promising premise, they lack a structure which permits the divorcing of character and plot development from laughter; when the laugher becomes sporadic to make room for development, they stall. Structure and pacing are paramount in comedy, which may explain in some way why we speak of comedic timing but never of tragic timing.

The Ladykillers is one of the great comedies because of its structure: its laughs are as golden as they come, as good as those in its more famous cousin, Arsenic and Old Lace, but its structure is what sets it apart. The film runs for ninety minutes, and if you divide it in half and then roughly into fifteen minutes segments you can see the carefully constructed foundation upon which it builds its laughs. It is at the halfway point in the film that it takes a sinister turn, turning from a light comedy to a dark one. Of course, the characters are the same, and sinister, in the second half, but instead of having robbery in mind they have murder. Here is a chart in which the movie is broken in half and sixths:

1st 2nd 3rd
Intro to Situation
Conflicts introduced (lighthearted) Climax: Robbery
Boccherini Boccherini
In the house, odd angles
ends with unitive roof scene
Begins with separation of antagonists
4th 5th 6th
Intro to situation
Conflict Introduced (hard-edged) Climax: Murder
2nd musical piece 2nd musical Piece
In the house, muffled angles
ends with divisive roof scene
Begins with separation of antagonists


This structure is not perfectly rigid, but the exceptions to it highlight the unity of the parts. Take, for instance, the Boccherini theme which plays continually in the lighthearted 2nd and 3rd parts, is identified at the halfway point by the old lady of the house, Mrs. Wilberforce, and then never heard again until the end where it takes on a maniacal form.  Again, the frightening aspect of Alec Guinness’s character is present, but played for laughs, in the first moments of the film although it properly belongs to the darker 2nd half where it helps define the mood.

One particularly brilliant move the film makes is having the same sets of antagonists in the first and second part and tying the two conflicts together causally. When the first conflict turns from trying to use a clueless old lady as an unwitting accomplice for a robbery to trying to kill her, the second conflict turns from questioning what sort of faith a man of action can put in such a plan to how to escape from the ghoulish brain who came up with the plan to begin with. Whereas the music and setting of the scenes unify the parts which are separated temporally, the unity of the different narrative threads is achieved by the causal connection between them.

As you watch this movie you may not really see the structure, you may be laughing too much to notice it beyond the abrupt dropping of the Boccherini theme, but it is the form on which the movie rests. Whether this brief description of that form is enough to make you watch the movie only you can say—I’ve yet to meet someone who watched a comedy for its structure. Watch it for its laughs, but be thankful that someone once put so much effort into giving you something to unwind to.