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.

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.

Cleo from 5 to 7

Cleo from 5 to 7 begins with a consideration of death. The only color in the film is that of the tarot cards in the opening sequence; after that there is an exquisite black-and-white. The color had illuminated a gritty world which the descent to monochrome masks just in time to face the despairing Cleo’s bracing manifesto ‘As long as I am beautiful, I am even more alive than the others.’ The film might well take these words to itself.

Cleo and her film together step away from the presence of death and conceal themselves: Cleo into the bustle of a Parisian evening, the film into the intimate life of Cleo. How intimately can she be seen? Only as much as she will expose herself. On the way to her rooms she stops to buy a hat and is momentarily, yet tellingly, roused from her poor spirits. From 5 to 7 are the lovers’ hours in Paris, and when she returns, crushed by death’s portend, to her flat from the fortuneteller’s apartment the arrival of a lover is expected.

The lover arrives and goes, a man too busy to look at Cleo and see her panic; she is outside his life and he outside hers. What we need is some music: enter the songwriters, those who ought to know the passions, desires, and needs of Cleo. They cannot, even with music, touch Cleo’s soul, and when they accidentally do, they are wrapped up in something beyond their comprehension. In the most powerful scene of the film Cleo sings of the loneliness of the ugliness of death, and no one gets it—to them it is just a song, they dare not let it be more.

Cleo flees, and finds herself, in the end, seeking out her friend, who models part time and is comfortable with her nakedness, a nakedness which makes her happy, not proud. Where Cleo was unable to await her lover naked, instead adorning herself in pretentious, carefully considered negligee, her young friend happily reveals her beauty to a consort of unknown artists. Until this meeting I do not think Cleo could be taken seriously when she equated beauty with life, but suddenly, seeing her contrasted with her friend, she is taken in deadly earnest. She claims that she is worn out always looking at herself while pretending that she is looking at others looking at her. Here she touches upon a question worthy of minds like Walker Percy and St. John Paul the Great and exposes the film in all its depth.

The film is no longer hidden away, but is Cleo also able to return to a sense of innocent nakedness? That is the question the film is willing to reveal, but I do not think I will answer it here. Whether or not this film is a tragedy depends on the answer to this question. Does she see another and is she seen by another’s loving look, as St. Augustine describes man’s desire? That is the question behind the film’s art; mirrors and reflections are almost constantly present on the scene forcing us to keep this question in mind; Cleo is living in the eyes of others, terrified of ceasing to be, and knowing that ‘man is a being who tries to have an air of being, even if he does not wholly succeed in convincing himself that he is somebody’. The fear of being an ‘anybody’ hinders her from being a ‘somebody’—there must needs be a person to affirm Cleo. But is she looking in the right place? In the unnamed Parisian crowds? Jeramiah warned, ‘In vain you beautify yourself; your lovers despise you; they seek your life.’ Does she heed the warning or does she smother her beauty in artificial illusion?

Mission: Impossible – Fallout

This movie, with its convoluted punctuation, is a fun way to spend two hours and ten minutes, the downside being that you are nearly required by etiquette to stay in your seat for another twenty minutes. It delivers what we have come to expect from the Mission Impossible franchise: clever twists in the plots, action-packed sequences, and Tom Cruise’s good looks. I smiled broadly at the revealing of the first twist in the film, and that silly grin remained plastered on my face for a good two hours more. The clever, tongue-in-cheek exchanges between Tom Cruise and his cocky CIA counterpart are good for a few laughs, a few classic who’s-wearing-a-mask tricks tickle your apprehension, and the myriad of good looking girls (some of whom are quite handy in a pinch) keep up the glamour which, in justice, should surround a man with Ethan’s talents. I guess there are perks to always being undercover. I guess there is a downside as well: arriving in Kashmir only to find that your ex-wife who has been ‘ghosting’ for years is there with her new lover and is in danger of being killed in a nuclear blast and also of derailing your action driven plot. Thankfully for Cruise, there is nothing more to do than to fly around in a helicopter and then kill the bad guy, all pleasing and distracting cleverness was left behind in the sewers of Paris. It is from Paris onward that the film devolves into a monotonous race against time, and what better way to add intensity than an ex-wife? Nonetheless, Tom Cruise does not disappoint, and is as enjoyable to watch as he ever has been.

Titanic (1943)

Although this movie is thoroughly enjoyable, it is unable to rise beyond the propagandist element. It was made by a German during the Second World War, and it shows. It belabors an Anglophobic message, introducing each German character at length and even spending much time explaining their presence on this English-speaking enterprise. Our hero is a German officer; the true-love story (the only one blind to money) is between two German third-class passengers. According to this story, the ship sank because of a Wall Street (or Fleet Street) feud between the owner and the richest American on board.

Because of this feud, which dominates the first two-thirds of the movie, the actual sinking of the ship is only seen accidentally and as a consequence of British greed. If you missed the implication, it is literally spelt out at the end of the movie. This subservience of the sinking to the propaganda artistically takes away from the tragic nature of the catastrophe; the panic among the passengers and their partially constructed stories are muted throughout the beginning and unfortunately rushed at the end.

The acting and directing are quite good; in an effort to first immerse the audience in the glamour and arrogance of British industrial might and then in the dynamic panic and rush of disaster, Titanic is shot in such a way that nearly every shot is magnificently layered and crowds and mobs are frequently moving in the background. This gives a certain spectacular effect which the British film A Night to Remember does not match, but takes away from the necessary impression that these characters are people who are each facing their end in their own way. As for special effects, which demand a note, Titanic too clearly uses a model and thus there is a separation between the ship’s floundering and the characters affected.

The Great Race

Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis were together in Some Like it Hot, and so I thought that perhaps The Great Race, a movie I had seen and loved as a little child, might be more than just a children’s movie. I’m afraid it wasn’t even that. It is poor, flat, slapstick. Big actors and set-piece situations do not make a movie fresh, and the staleness of this movie is all the more apparent for being so similar to Help!, the Beatles movie released the same year. Jack and Tony are sloughing through their lines, knowing they are stars and the script is trash and they have done this all before with Billy Wilder, who was a master. Help! And The Great Race could be pieces of the same script, but if that were so, the Beatles would be constantly going off script and infusing their wacky scenarios with their dry and fresh humor. Don’t waste your time.