Sunday, December 10, 2017

MovieMonday: Novitiate

"Novitiate" is a deeply flawed movie.  It is well-written and nicely filmed, and its actors are convincing.  I went to see it because it is about Catholicism and because it was filmed in Nashville, where I spend several months each year.  

The location shots, unrecognizable to me, were still fine.  There were lots of women in black-and-white habits, which ratified my personal theme that there are more Catholic sisters and nuns (there's a difference, BTW) in film than in real life.  

The only problem here is that the film pretends to be a Catholic story.

The premise is this: Cathleen, a young woman, decides to join a cloistered nunnery, apparently in search of meaning in her life.  Her reasoning:  "I want an ideal love that I have to give everything to."

You can see why.  The 17-year-old's mother is a divorced, angry smoker with a randy sex life.  "I don't believe in religion," says the mother.  "Actually I think it's kind of a waste of time."

On the other hand, the girl has attended a Catholic school and been treated kindly by a teaching sister who seems to have been an inspiration. 

So Cathleen goes to the Sisters of Blessed Rose monastery for postulancy and her novitiate, the steps that will prepare her ("train" her in the film's lingo) for a life of prayer secluded entirely from secular society.

During the same period, Roman Catholic bishops are meeting at the Second Vatican Council in Rome; its purpose is to open the church to greater participation by lay persons and to greater respect for and cooperation with people of other religions.  

The monastery's Mother Superior hates the idea of church reform.  She has ruled her institution with an iron fist for many years, and she has no plan to change.  

"When you hear me speak," she says, "I am the voice of God speaking on behalf of his wishes."  (This is not Catholic, by the way.  Catholics are admonished to practice humility.)

There is a lot of talk -- too much of it -- about each nun being a bride of Christ.  Instead of perfecting their souls, the nuns-in-training wonder constantly about whether they are worthy of His love.  (In Catholicism, the religious think less about themselves and their fears; they focus instead on the works and prayer that earn God's love.)

There is a weekly Chapter of Force session in which the Mother Superior orders the new crop of postulants to kneel in a circle, then singles one out and directs her to "List every single fault that you're aware of in yourself."  Then the other postulants are told to pile on, naming other faults of the woman under attack.  After the abuse, the victim is ordered to reform by saying prayers.

Also at the monastery, uppity postulants are assigned to pray silently while crawling around the convent on hands and knees.  

Ultimately, the nasty atmosphere of the place causes an older nun to act out in an extremely strange and vulgar way.  And a kind and generous young nun flees entirely. 

Cathleen obeys but is stressed.  She withdraws into a tension that is manifested in fasting and then serious weight loss.  When her mother visits, she notices this and confronts the Mother Superior, who of course asserts her authority.  

"Lady, I am not calling you Mother!" Cathleen's mom shoots back, a line that drew the expected laughs and applause from the movie audience.

On and on it goes.  

The movie is absorbed with the emotional and sensual needs of the young women; these are not the focus of any monastic experience, in any religion.  The film also categorizes the personal depredations young women suffered at the hands of a rigid, unfeeling, authoritarian and fictional Catholic institution.  

Unfortunately, the film was made by non-religious people who know nothing about Catholicism -- not its history, its teachings, its values, its sacraments, its gospels or its rituals.  

I'm Catholic, born and raised.  I know nothing about cloistered nunneries, but I call foul. 

A few points:

-- In Catholicism, an unbaptized person would not have been admitted to a convent.  Postulants in 1962 would arrive knowing that the Mass was said in Latin and that the altar faced the crucifix and not the congregants.  The movie is unaware of these basic facts.

-- In the days of large Catholic families, it was common for parents to hope that one child would have a "vocation," effectively a calling to become a sister or brother or nun or priest.  The movie says families regarded this as a "sacrifice" when in fact it was a point of pride.

-- Catholics did not and do not sponsor brutal group discussions of individuals'  "flaws."  They confessed their "sins" privately with priests in the sacrament now known as reconciliation.  Nuns, including mother superiors, did not assign penances or offer forgiveness.  The practices in the movie have more in common with those of the nastier late-20th century New Age cults, which themselves were adapted from tactics employed by totalitarian regimes to break down egos and enforce submission.


The Second Vatican Council did indeed change the experience of Catholicism.  The screenwriter/director of this film consulted an minor vein of memoir written by former cloistered nuns, whose previous purpose in life -- prayer and prayer only -- came to seem irrelevant in the larger scheme of a world of poverty and suffering.

In addition, the Vatican Council's reforms came to fruition as a new wave of feminism offered more opportunities to ambitious women. The church lost many religious women -- sisters and nuns -- while those who remained have become more influential. 

At the same time, many priests left their vocations. And, among the secular, many people left their marriages.  It's a mixed picture, and the effects are only now beginning to be understood.

As a Catholic, I can name experiences when I was disappointed by individual religious figures, but the rigor and values I learned in my childhood continue to inform my personal ethics and standards of honorable behavior.  I have no regrets. 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Art + Fashion + Commerce = Kitsch

Here are some famous European paintings.

Mona Lisa, 1503, Leonardo Da Vinci

The Tiger Hunt, Peter Paul Rubens, 1616

Wheatfield with Cypresses, Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

And here is an advertisement that ran on at least one billboard in Paris this spring.  Do you see some similarities?  

These handbags are not subtle:  In addition to gold plates naming the original artists of the featured designs, they have LV logos for the fashion house and cute little bunny-shaped bag charms, the emblem of Jeff Koons, the artist who collaborated with Vuitton on the collection.

The new bags were dreamed up by LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault and his daughter, who know the artist and have bought some of his work.  They discussed the idea, called the Masters Collection, with Koons during a lunch meeting. 

What are we to make of this?

Jeff Koons

If you have heard of this artist, it is probably because of his balloon dogs.  

Above is Balloon Dog (Orange), one of several great big stainless steel likenesses of the sorts of prizes children used to get at carnivals or birthday parties.  This one holds the record for the highest price ever paid for an artwork by a living artist -- $54.8 million.

A few years ago, I saw a Koons retrospective at the Whitney in New York.  The show featured many works made over many years, but the one that got the most attention by far was the balloon dog.  

I attended the exhibit with a young friend who is a serious artist in the Cy Twombly mode.  When I asked his reaction, he said, diplomatically, "I think the artist is having a little bit of fun with his investors."

And what's not to like?  You see a balloon dog, and you know what it is.  It is shiny and perfectly made.  It may remind you of a happy moment in your childhood.

Since then, Koons has moved on.  In recent years, he has been creating his Gazing Ball series, which consists of large large copies of classical paintings and statues that have blue reflective balls attached. Here is one.  

Not everyone is enchanted with the concept.  Koons has had a good long career, but among art cognoscenti, skepticism has been growing over time.  Here is a reaction to a Los Angeles showing of the recent stuff:

  "Koons appropriated famous artworks, had them repainted in oil on canvas, and affixed a gazing ball — a blue glass globe with a highly reflective finish — on each. 'This experience is about you,' Koons has said, 'your desires, your interests, your participation, your relationship with this image.' Similarly, if there is lasting interest in ... Koons’s new projects, it will derive from the moment they reflect rather than any quality inherent in the art itself."

Natasha Degan and Kibum Kim
"The Kitsch Gazes Back"
LA Review of Books
July 2, 2017

I don't know what to make of that, but you definitely can see how the Gazing Ball series led to the Louis Vuitton Masters collection.

More Handbags

In October, a new set of art-themed bags was released.  

I'm not the first person to observe that these bags look like the sort of thing you'd find in a museum shop.  They're pretentious and derivative.   If I were the sort of person who spent $3,000 or more on handbags, I wouldn't buy one.

In fact, this isn't the first Koons handbag.  Back in the peak balloon dog years, the artist partnered with the fast-fashion H&M chain, which put balloon dog replicas in its shop windows and sold balloon dog handbags priced at $50.  Here is one.

If I had a personal wayback machine, I'd take one of these and a new LV Mona Lisa bag and pay a call on Leonardo.  I'd ask what he thought of the use -- call it cultural appropriation -- of his work for a commercial venture.  

I'm guessing the painter would be amused to hear that Koons once threatened to sue a company for making balloon dog bookends -- as if Koons himself had copyrighted the idea of balloon animals.  My bet is the conversation would be full of mirth.

Other Reactions

"The issue here is not exactly a mystery. On one hand, Vuitton is exploiting art for its own gain. On the other, an artist is selling out. In the middle, consumers are being introduced to great art as if it is disposable.

"In part to counter this, Vuitton and Mr. Koons have added a subnarrative to the project that spins it as an effort to address the falling profile of classical art — a civic service, if you will. Inside each bag, for example, is a little description of the artist, like a hidden history lesson for the Twitter generation."

Vanessa Friedman
Jeff Koons's New Line
New York Times
April 11, 2017

"They're bad. They're, like, disaster-level bad. They're bad in a way that feels pointedly contemptuous of Louis Vuitton's customers."

Amanda Mull
April 13, 2017 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

MovieMonday: The Man Who Invented Christmas

Here's a story about Charles Dickens during the the last couple of months of 1843, the period when he wrote "A Christmas Carol," his most loved book.

The source material is a history that has the same title, but the film includes some imaginative bits -- it has been compared to "Shakespeare in Love" -- that reward those  who are familiar with the story.  

The plot is this:  Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), the superstar author of his day, is strapped for cash after his most recent novel, "Martin Chuzzlewit," has not earned out.  He's overextended financially, and he needs money soon. 

Dickens hears the name Marley, observes his family's Irish maid telling his children a Christmas fantasy story, thinks a little and decides to write a book about a Christmas ghost.  He tells his publishers it will be a comedy.  For this he is all but laughed out of the room.  

Even his boon friend, John Forster (Justin Edwards), is skeptical.  "Why throw everything away over a minor holiday?"  he asks.  (The thesis of the source book is that "A Christmas Carol" changed the way the holiday was viewed, imbuing it with themes of generosity and kindness.) 

With a six-week deadline, Dickens sets to work, drawing inspiration from everything around him.  He meets or imagines his lead character, later named Scrooge (Christopher Plummer), at a dismal funeral and asks the dour man a few questions.

"What do you think of children?" 





A pause ensues, and then comes the answer:  "Humbug."

From then on, Dickens' imagined Scrooge walks with him.  Other characters emerge, drawn from and played by the same actors as Dickens' relatives and friends.  (Think of the buddies Dorothy meets on the yellow brick road.)  They join the troupe in Dickens' head and, in the movie's telling, in his office.

As his deadline nears, Dickens is frustrated by family interruptions, consumed by unpleasant childhood memories and puzzled as to how to end his book.  This is not suspenseful because we know how the story ends, but its resolution is enlarged by the suggestion that every one of us may have a bit of an inner Scrooge who could use reforming.

I liked the movie.  Go see it with children over the age of eight who know the the story.  Take your parents too.  You'll all have a good time.  


Audiences generally like this movie, but there are Ebenezers out there too.  The main critical complaints are that the story is saccharine and too much like a TV movie.  I didn't find the film cloying, and I did like the energy Stevens brought to the Dickens role. (Plummer also does an excellent Scrooge, and the script and directing are crisp.)  To be fair, though, we are  bombarded with months of Christmas promotions every year, and there may be fatigue with the Dickens story and lines like, "God bless us, every one."   

One trailer before the film, about a cartoon or CGI piece called, "Sherlock Gnomes," looked pretty bad. The Sherlock is Sherlock Holmes, and the gnomes are those kitschy garden figures.  The target demo seems to be young viewers, and the result may be a mashup of saccharine and pop-culture cynicism.  Two moments from the preview:  A gnome saying, "No ship, Sherlock," and a gnome twerking in a mankini.  Kids deserve better.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

MovieMonday: Coco

There is much to admire in this latest children's movie from Pixar. 

Its young hero, Miguel, wants to be a musician.  In the style of all heroic stories, he must prevail against one barrier after another to achieve this goal.  

One big hurdle is Miguel's family.  His older relatives love him dearly, but they hate -- really hate -- music, and they expect him to join the family shoemaking business.  His tough-minded abuelita (grandmother) even smashes Miguel's home-made guitar, which causes him to search for a replacement.  

By some magical sleight of hand, this search transports Miguel to the land of the dead just before the Día de los Muertos, the day when Mexicans celebrate symbolic reunions with friends and family members who have died.  

It takes a brave children's movie to tackle the topic of death, a matter of great concern to the very young.  Here the dread is ameliorated by an afterworld where the dead live a parallel existence for as long as their relatives remember them.  

In the land of the dead, Miguel meets lost relatives and spirit animals, and he faces a deadline to get back to his home and family. New, disturbing information is revealed, and battles are fought.  It's a children's movie, however, and so things work out in the end. 

Personally, I thought the "Coco" plot was too complicated and pulled too many figurative rabbits out of hats.  Still, the family love theme connected the story, and the children in the theater audience seemed untroubled by its awkwardness.  So what do I know?  

On the plus side, it's nice to have a children's movie with a Mexican setting, Mexican characters and Mexican cultural references.  There's a big world out there, and kids deserve more than stories about suburban families, Lego superheroes and cute animals.  

As we have come to expect from Pixar, "Coco" is sincere, rich with creative detail and not stuffed with silly pop references to appeal to the cheap seats.  The colorful CGI imagery is particularly well done.  There also is nice Mexican music and a particular song, "Remember Me," that is sweet, but not cloyingly so, and is central to the plot resolution.


If you go to a theater to see "Coco," consider arriving a half hour late.  In addition to previews of other films, the movie is preceded by a lame 20-minute Disney cartoon, "Olaf's Frozen Adventure," which apparently aims to keep interest alive for a sequel to "Frozen."  

Together, these make the "Coco" experience a longer one than fidgety children will appreciate. 

Friday, November 24, 2017

Philip Larkin and 20th Century Alienation

This poem, from 1971, is probably the most famous ever written by Englishman Philip Larkin, who was born in 1922 and died in 1985.

This Be the Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn

By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,

And don't have any kids yourself.

Scholars suggest, seriously, that Larkin wrote this after spending several weeks with his mother, who outlived his Nazi-sympathizing father by many years and who was a difficult and needy person herself.  The poem's sentiment is harrowing, but he is said to have treated her kindly. She died the next year.

Larkin understood himself as a damaged individual.  As might be surmised, he never married and never procreated, frustrating the women who over the years were partners of some sort to him.  He was mostly asexual but keen for pornography, a lover of the natural beauty of the countryside but disinterested in the outer world of civilization.  He worked as a librarian and wrote poetry of steadily growing acclaim.  

Larkin's title comes from the first line in the second stanza of a less downcast poem by another Englishman, Robert Louis Stevenson, who lived a century earlier. 


Under the wide and starry sky  
  Dig the grave and let me lie:  
Glad did I live and gladly die,  
  And I laid me down with a will.  
This be the verse you 'grave for me:
  Here he lies where he long'd to be;  
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,  
  And the hunter home from the hill.

The contrast between the two works could hardly be greater.  In essence, Larkin offered his personal correction to the more romantically inclined Stevenson, who was "glad" in his life and wanted his gravestone to say that he had been buried "where he long'd to be."

There is no reconciling these two poets' outlooks, but each is true to its moment.  Larkin denied sometimes that his work could be defined as modern, but the moderns admired his bleak and unsparing honesty.   The 20th century and its two world wars took their huge toll on Western sensibilities and confidence.  The period also gave us film noirabstract impressionist art, atonal music and Brutalist architecture -- all reactions against traditional norms.  

We don't know yet what conclusions the 21st century generation, millennials, will draw of the world as they found it.  There are good signs and bad signs.

One of the bad ones is the disconnection of so many people in the wealthiest country in world history.  Coming soon:  The Kids Are Not All Right.  Other posts may follow.

More Larkin

Below is a morning song, the 1977 Larkin poem most admired by literary critics.  It is beautifully written, but its attitude is consistent with the cold eye cast in the work above. 


I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.   

Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.   
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.   
Till then I see what’s really always there:   
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,   
Making all thought impossible but how   
And where and when I shall myself die.   
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse   

—The good not done, the love not given, time   
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because   
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;   
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,   
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid

No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being 
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,   
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,   
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,   

A small unfocused blur, a standing chill   
That slows each impulse down to indecision.   
Most things may never happen: this one will,   
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without   
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave   
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.   

It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,   
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,   
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring   
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

MovieMonday: Mudbound

The title of this film suggests its thesis: that black and white families are stuck in their moment in the post-war Mississippi Delta.  

Its opening scene, the burial of a white family's elderly father, is the same as the final scene.  It is not giving away too much to say that what happens in the interim suggests that change may come to the Jim Crow south, but not soon. 

The story contrasts two families.  

The first is the McAllans, Henry and Laura.  Henry, an engineer, announces one day that he has bought a farm and they are leaving Laura's hometown.  When they arrive, they move with Henry's difficult father and Laura's piano into a shack without indoor plumbing.

The other family are Hap and Florence Jackson, black sharecroppers and their children, all descendants of generations who have worked cotton fields with never a chance to own land themselves.  

Laura and Henry MacAllan try to get along, but they are not well-met and the household tension is palpable, particularly as Henry becomes frustrated by the challenges of farming.  

The Jacksons face much more external peril but have responded with deep commitment to each other and their children, and with lived Christian belief that offers solace and the promise of eventual justice.

This background is sketched efficiently in the film's early scenes, which are beautifully filmed and enhanced with off-stage narratives by the characters.

Then comes World War II.  Henry McAllan's younger brother, Jamie, goes to Europe and is a bomber pilot.  The Jacksons' oldest son, Ronsel, rises to become a battalion sergeant in George Patton's army.  Both survive, but each is a changed man when he gets back to Mississippi.  

The two veterans find they have much in common, and they form a friendship that is both guarded and not received well in the unchanged community.  Local suspicion and a perhaps too convenient plot point provoke an event of Southern Gothic horror that I found painful to watch.  (And yes, my discomfort must have been less than that of black audience members.) 

Eventually the sun rises, sort of, but the two veterans have learned that, in the late 1940s American South, Thomas Wolfe was right:  You can't go home again.  


Much is being made of the casting of hip hop artist Mary J. Blige as Florence Jackson, and Blige's performance here is excellent.  But, to be fair, all the acting in this movie is excellent.  Blige also wrote and sings a beautiful song, "Mighty River," that runs as the film's credits roll.

Dee Rees, the director of the movie, is a Nashville native of considerable talent.  She's also a great interview subject.  

Netflix funded the movie, which is getting a brief theatrical run, presumably to qualify for Oscar consideration.  Soon you will be able to stream it at home.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Land on Fire

"The closer we look, the clearer it's becoming that wildfire -- 

which has long exerted an enormous impact on western lands -- 

is becoming a bigger force than ever before."

Above is the opening observation of an interesting new book that gives perspective on last month's fires in Northern California and the puzzlement I described in a September post about the smoke I had seen in my native Pacific Northwest.

People who live and work near the western forests are well aware that there have been more fires, and more really big fires, in recent years. For the rest of us, author Gary Ferguson, a Montanan, provides a thoughtful, well-written study of the phenomenon in a handsome book full of great illustrations. 

The story starts in 1905, when Theodore Roosevelt established national forests by executive order and the US Forest Service to manage those properties.

In those days, forests were national treasures, and the plan for dealing with fires was to Put Them Out.  Over time, foresters learned that fire had its purposes, including clearing dead vegetation and allowing for forest regeneration.

Before people came along, fires were set by lightning.  But today, most fires are caused by unintended human action -- power tools, dropped cigarettes, contained burns swept along by wind -- and a few by arson.  In fact, more Americans than ever live near western forests in what is called the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) of small-density housing developments that make forest management, and fire management, more challenging.

Climate change factors include rising temperatures and variations in rainfall and snow accumulations.  These have led to shorter winters, longer burning seasons and more really big fires, which Ferguson describes generally as ones that consume 100,000 acres or more.  He emphasizes his point when he notes that fire containment costs rose from $600 million in 1995 to $3 billion in 2015.

Other associated costs are replacement of structures, lost timber, reduced water storage and electrical grid repair.  And then there is the accumulating damage to forests, from which we derive half our water and whose trees absorb a significant amount of carbon dioxide.  

By way of example, the author discusses the healthy regeneration of a lodgepole pine forest in Yellowstone National Park following a big 1988 fire, and then a different case in Colorado, where a 2001 fire destroyed a Ponderosa pine forest that had not even begun to recover 14 years later.  The book includes photographs and information about other major fires from across the region.

Two essential points are that many factors are at work and that much research is being done. Ferguson discusses what has been learned from tree rings, satellite photographs, patterns of pine bark beetle infestations, the movement of fire based on wind and leaf observations, the changing composition of post-fire understory and the vulnerability of dry and dead trees following years of drought.  The more that is learned, the more the process of fire management seems to become one of micromanagement.

But there is always more to know.  The author quotes plant ecologist Frank Egler, who said this in the 1980s:  "Ecosystems are not only more complex than we think.  They are more complex than we can think."