The Best of Stephen King

In my coming of age years I read Stephen King religiously. Then two things happened: he began to change, and so did I. His change was for the worse, as I saw it; I was acquiring a taste for authors with more subdued writing styles. A lot of the King classics didn’t age well for me, and the new (post-Misery) stuff seemed twice as bad. But I kept reading him anyway. King was a part of me, for all his garrulous excesses, and I still respected his imagination. The upcoming It film prompted me to revisit his work and see what has aged well.

As I worked on this list, it struck me that Stephen King is at his best when he’s least like Stephen King — when he’s doing something different, or going outside his comfort zone. I’m sure many King fans will disagree with that, and with my rankings, not least my omissions of what are widely considered his finest works. I have always found The Stand (1978) to be way over-hyped. Many critics thought Duma Key (2008) was a return to form, but I wasn’t terribly impressed. I did enjoy the time-traveling blockbuster 11/22/63 (2011) but was underwhelmed by the final act. Here are what I consider to be the jewels of the Stephen King canon.

[See also: Peter Straub Ranked.]

wizard and glass1. Wizard and Glass, 1997. 5 stars. The ’90s were the sewer of King’s career, but this one exception shines like a thousand suns. It’s the story of Roland’s first and only love affair, and the tragedy that made him so hard and unforgiving. King said he was scared to write it: “I knew that Wizard and Glass meant doubling back to Roland’s young days, to his first love affair, and I was scared to death of that story. Suspense is relatively easy, at least for me; love is hard. Consequently I dallied, I temporized, I procrastinated.” He finally locked himself in motel rooms and tried as a 48-year old to capture what romantic love looks and feels like to those of age 17. I’m 48 myself now, and I still say with confidence that King nailed Roland and Susan on all the right notes. Wizard and Glass an incredibly well told story about the young gunslinger’s exile in a province teeming with rebellion and measurable characters. Rhea the witch-hag is one of King’s best creations of all time, but then so is Aunt Cordelia with her sanctimonious “thee’s” and “thou’s” — and for that matter everyone else in the Barony of Mejis. King shows us a dystopian world where everything is rushing to oblivion. It’s the best thing he ever wrote, and I wish the other Dark Tower books offered this quality of storytelling. The first one does (see #4 below); the second and third are okay; the fifth through seventh are garbage. Let the record state clearly that for all the problems of the series, it has its moments, and Wizard and Glass achieves a tragic greatness seldom reached by the most aspiring writers.

PetSematary2. Pet Sematary, 1983. 5 stars. King thought it was too scary to publish, and he eventually released it only to fulfill a contract obligation when he couldn’t finish another book on time. Think about that: a novel “too scary to publish”. Imagine if The Exorcist film had been shelved at the advice of those on the production team who thought it was too unspeakably obscene? And this gets to the root of my problem with King. When he finally nails it, he doubts himself. Pet Sematary is the perfect horror novel. The writing is incredibly disciplined, with no narrative fat or self-indulgent digressions; the story is told with surprisingly un-Kinglike economy. And it has room for profound reflections that either didn’t impress me or went over my head as a teenager. Now approaching 50, I’m rather shaken by Pet Sematary‘s themes of death and grief. Resurrection is a precious idea in our western heritage, and King gives it a truly terrifying twist. Pet animals come back to life when buried in this cemetery, but as sluggish and stupid versions of their former selves. Human corpses return as grotesque blasphemies who know and broadcast everyone’s most vulgar secrets. The novel’s point (which King didn’t like) is that “dead is better” than what lies beyond, but we’re powerless against our grief; it consumes us to the extent that we’ll do anything to get loved ones back no matter what’s lost in translation, and what takes its place. The death of Louis’ two-year old son and his unspeakable resurrection is one of the most terrifying things I’ve read, and King did right by his nihilistic conclusion.

3. ‘Salem’s Lot, 1975. 5 stars. After forty years ‘Salem’s Lot is still one of the best American novels. Every vampire tale after Dracula stands in its shadow. And unlike my other top five choices, this novel is “pure” Stephen King — the purist Stephen King book that was and ever shall be — written in his particular colloquial voice that has the power to engage and annoy. But it was his first novel (he started writing it before even Carrie), when he had himself under control, and so the style isn’t weighed down by the later self-indulgences. As I read ‘Salem’s Lot for the sixth or seventh time, I found myself marveling over its craft. Of all the undead — ghosts, zombies, mummies, etc. — the vampire is the best but hardest to do justice by. The aristocratic model is cliche, the pop model (Blade, Underworld, Buffy, Twilight) is silly, and the tragic Hamlet figures out of Anne Rice get old very fast. King showed how to take the creature seriously: keep it off-stage until at least halfway through; peripherally sight its lair, and let atmosphere do the work; make the creature mean — sadistic and vindictive. When Barlow finally appears, he drips menace in all the right shades of subtlety and blunt aggression. There are scenes in ‘Salem’s Lot that haven’t lost their capacity to terrorize, the number one for me being Matt Burke climbing the stairs at night, “the hardest thing he had done in his life”, holding on to his crucifix, looking down at the guest room slightly ajar, suspecting, knowing, the awfulness that has invaded his home.

the-gunslingers4. The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, 1982. 5 stars. Before it turned into a “Stephen King” franchise, Roland’s story was the most professional thing King ever wrote, and in my opinion deserves being classified as literature of enduring value. It was originally published in five parts in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, starting in the ’70s. King refused to release it as a novel, because he thought the story had limited appeal and wouldn’t please his mainstream readers. And here we go again, as with Pet Sematary. When King strikes gold by crafting the perfect novel against his own voice, he gets cold feet. Not only that, he later (in 2003) published an alternative version of the novel to align it with the later franchise — in other words, King-e-fying the voice, and, outrageously, changing things for the worse. George Lucas sanitized Han Solo by making Greedo fire first; King pulled his own Lucas by sanitizing Roland in the village of Tull. In the original, Roland cold-heartedly guns down his lover when she is seized by someone to be used as a human shield; she begs him not to kill her but he does so anyway before killing her captor (and then virtually everyone else in the town). In the revised version she has been driven mad and begs Roland to put her out of her misery. I’m flabbergasted when people like Lucas and King emasculate their own perfection. That’s a way of saying stick with the original Gunslinger. It’s a haunting quest across wastelands and scorched civilizations to make the world right again, a brilliantly meshed genre of post-apocalyptic, western, and fantasy. Then read Wizard and Glass (see #1) for Roland’s tragic backstory. You can ignore the rest of the series.

5. Mr. Mercedes & Finders Keepers, 2014-2015. 4 ½ stars. I didn’t think King had it in him to write mysteries, but the first two Bill Hodges novels proved me wrong. They’re his most disciplined works to date (even more than The Gunslinger, I think), and King admitted how difficult they were to write: “I just can’t fathom how people like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Peter Robinson and Ruth Rendell are able to do this in book after book.” It’s just too bad King was unable to keep this up to the end of his trilogy: he ruined the third book, End of Watch, by resurrecting the Mercedes killer and falling back into his supernatural comfort zone. Had he stayed in genre, the trilogy could have ended up a masterpiece. Throughout Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers (they’re equally good), King keeps his plot tense and reverses expectations to extremely good effect. Each novel opens in 2009, with the recession at its worst; a job fair is about to be held at a sports stadium, where hordes of the unemployed line up in a queue; dawn breaks, and a Mercedes car barrels out of the fog into the crowd, killing eight people and wounding fifteen. Each novel then follows the plot of different characters who were present at the slaughter, with retired detective Bill Hodges and his friends getting tangled in both. Some of the best scenes involve the Mercedes Killer and Hodges chatting in a private online forum, engaged in a deadly game of verbal chess, and the killer getting so incensed at Hodges’ taunts that it takes him five minutes to type a single-sentence reply because his hands are shaking so badly. I couldn’t put either of these books down, and it’s a long time since I’ve been able to say that about Stephen King.

talisman6. The Talisman, 1984. 4 ½ stars. The critics blasted this, and even after thirty years I can’t make sense of it. King teamed up with my favorite author to write a splendid epic about a 12-year old boy on a dark quest to save his mother and, in the process, the cosmos. I first read it in my high school years while visiting Grinnell College in Iowa, and so Jack Sawyer’s westward trek starting in New Hampshire (my home state) resonated in spades. I expected any moment to flip into a Territories-version of the midwest, and the Grinnell campus to sideslip out of reality like Thayer School or transform into a hellish pit mine run by Sunlight Gardener. I even spotted my Twinner in a classroom. In the ’80s it was hard to find dark fantasy (George Martin being a decade away) and for me this was the next best thing after The Wounded Land. Donaldson gave us the Sunbane, and King & Straub came up with horrors just as vile (see here for the Covenant parallels). There are admittedly some quaint fantasy tropes that stand out today, but the occasional laziness is forgivable in an otherwise grand epic. The sequel is Black House (2001), which doesn’t make this cut though I’d probably put it at #11. Objectively it’s better than It but I couldn’t bring myself to omit that one. (The writing on display in Black House is even better than that in The Talisman; the plot is an ultimate let-down for involving the problematic world of King’s Dark Tower series, when these books should be about the Territories only.) Don’t listen to the critics; The Talisman is excellent and for the most part has aged really well.

misery7. Misery, 1987. 4 ½ stars. The last novel of the “classic King” era is one of his best, and involves only two characters in a single setting. It’s possibly the best bottle drama I’ve read in a work of fiction, and it’s too bad that when King tried this sort of thing again in Gerald’s Game, the result was nothing but pages of waste. Misery is top-notch suspense all the way through, about a psychotic woman who has rescued a wounded man who happens to be her favorite author, and then forces him to write the sequel novel he never intended. Along the way, she alternates between smothering him with fan-affection and cutting off pieces of him when he displeases her. The novel examines dependency — the way writers depend on fans, as they depend on him, and also drug dependency, as Paul is fed pain killers by his psycho-fan. It’s also a fascinating (and rather transparent) look at the way an author’s mind works when trying to overcome writer’s block and undo his literary mistakes without cheating the reader. Authors are at their best when they write from experience, and in Misery King exploits everything his fame, drug addictions, and writing challenges have done to him. It’s a special novel that was universally praised by the critics, and as I said it marked the end of period of King’s towering greatness, following his longest and most ambitious book It (1986), then followed by one of his longest (and by far his shittiest) book ever The Tommyknockers (1988). I’d be immensely proud if I could ever do so much in short space like Misery.

8. The Shining, 1977. 4 ½ stars. Let me dispel all doubts as to where I stand in relation to Kubrick’s film. Kubrick’s is the masterpiece, and King is a fool for his life-long career of blasting it. His corrective version for TV proved that even more: it was faithful to his book, yes, but horrible because of it. This is what novel purists and authors like King don’t get. The worst screen adaptations are often the “faithful” ones — the ones that avoid creative interpretation. Literal adaptations hang on every element of the text, with the result that it fails to become a film in its own right and forces the unforceable into a new medium. Only in rare cases is a novel tailor-made for a film (The Exorcist, The Road, for examples). The Shining cries for all sorts of changes, and yet King just spat it back like a stage play. Audiences deserve better, and Kubrick delivered a piece of artistry beyond criticism. King couldn’t see that because he could only see what was lost in his own precious vision. That’s what happens, Mr. King, in a good adaptation: some things are lost, and better things take their place. Jack Torrance’s psychological dysfunction and inner turmoils work well on the page where you can inside someone’s head; a film demands something different. Kubrick did what any great filmmaker aspires to, and if not for The Exorcist his adaptation would stand as the greatest horror film of all time. All of that said, the novel is obviously excellent. But if I had to choose between losing the novel or Kubrick’s film in a trip to the moon, I’d lose the novel. Kubrick outdid King, and I think the knowledge of this is what really, privately, sticks in Stephen King’s craw.

The+Dead+Zone+[front+cover]9. The Dead Zone, 1979. 4 stars. King thought this was his best novel until he wrote Lisey’s Story (2006), and this is how he described it long ago: “The best I’ve done so far is The Dead Zone because it’s a real novel. It’s very complex. There’s an actual story. Most of my fictions are simply situations that are allowed to develop themselves. That one has a nice layered texture, a thematic structure that underlies it, and it works on most levels.” I see what he was getting at. In college I recommended The Dead Zone to a friend who wasn’t a horror fan but wanted to read a Stephen King novel to see what all the hype was about this author. This novel came to mind without hesitation. It was King’s first number one bestseller on both hardcover and paperback lists, and it took an exceptional risk of making the protagonist an assassin like Lee Harvey Oswald. Granted the political target is more like Donald Trump than JFK, a killer is still a killer. On top of that, Johnny Smith is a failure. For all his diligent planning, he botches his assassination attempt and dies for it, to be remembered as a crackpot who couldn’t even succeed when he had the upper hand. I will say that The Dead Zone resonates in spades under a Trump presidency and is worth reading (or rereading) for that reason alone. And I repeat my earlier advice to anyone today who has never read Stephen King but wants a taste of what makes him so good without the more terrifying brutalities of Pet Sematary, ‘Salem’s Lot, Misery, and The Shining. Make The Dead Zone your point of entry.

10. It, 1986. 4 stars. It may be the quintessential Stephen King novel, but that speaks against it as much as for. The excesses of King’s writing style are at their most unrestrained here; he shouts at the reader, and digresses from digressions; he’s all over the map. And the formula of sleepy towns torn apart by supernatural forces, with points of view diluted across multiple characters hasn’t aged well for me. (‘Salem’s Lot still works, but that’s the exception.) The loser kids are too good to be true: they speak in ways that sound contrived, and even some of the dialogue given to adult characters isn’t convincing. But I can’t possibly leave this book off my list. It was a milestone for me back in the day, for its examination of childhood fears and innocent beliefs which make anything possible. The story is set simultaneously in 1958 and 1985, and I have to admit the way King segues from one period to another, often mid-sentence, is a brutally effective narrative device. The novel contains King’s most controversial scene of the six boys gang-banging Beverly (they’re all 11 years old). Not only is it an extremely well-written scene, it’s the heart of the book, and I’m enraged that the upcoming film by Andrés Muschietti won’t have it. After battling It in the sewers, Beverly invites her friends to bang her in a quasi-mystical ritual, and that orgy represents many important things, not least the kids’ first stage on the road to losing the power of their childhood and becoming learned but lesser adults.

Assessing Lincoln: Slavery, the Indians, and Civil Liberties

This week a congressman out of North Carolina claimed that Abraham Lincoln was like Adolf Hitler. A crackpot claim, to be sure, but perhaps not a surprising one, given that extremes call forth extremes. After all, Lincoln is usually rated the best president in American history, and has attained a mythological status that makes it almost criminal to question his sanctity. It doesn’t help matters that the ones who do question it are usually either crackpots like Larry Pittman, or revisionists with Confederate sympathies.

The worst revisionist claim is that the South fought for states’ rights and not slavery, which has been thoroughly debunked. Not only was the South very obviously trying to protect slavery, but whenever the rule of law had interfered with maintaining slavery in the past, the South became a burning advocate for federal power. Only after the executive branch was no longer friendly to slavery (i.e. after Lincoln’s election), did the South begin to harp on states’ rights.

Revisionists over-vilify Lincoln for his “unconstitutional” suppression of the South. While it is arguable that Lincoln should have acted in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and let the South peacefully secede, he did have the authority, under the mildly centralizing Constitution, to put down the southern insurrection. So the war effort was not itself unconstitutional. That he maneuvered the South into starting the war, on the other hand, by making them fire the first shot — a point widely accepted, even by scholarly giants like Shelby Foote and Bruce Catton — was certainly unethical. But that’s actually a minor offense. The real point is that the Civil War should not have been fought at all.

Here’s the run-down of what I consider to be Lincoln’s worst sins. They fall under what he did for slavery, the Indians, and civil liberties. He fails in all categories.

1. Slavery. If the Civil War ended slavery, African Americans hardly experienced more freedom in the face of white southerners who were bitter over it. In Ivan Eland’s view, peaceful alternatives to Lincoln’s policies would have achieved better results and far more quickly. Recarving Rushmore supplies those alternatives:

(1) If Lincoln wanted to preserve the union (which he did: it was his main reason for the war), he could have offered southern slave owners compensation for a gradual emancipation of slaves. Many other countries had already ended slavery by these measures, and Lincoln himself had made such proposals earlier in his career. The cost of this kind of emancipation would have been far less than the financial costs of the Civil War, not to mention the obscene cost of human lives, which by the end of the Civil War totaled 600,000 Americans, 38,000 of whom were African Americans.

(2) Or he could have simply let the southern states go, and get Congress to repeal the Fugitive Slave Act, which prosecuted those who did not return escaped slaves to their owners. Abolitionists had already made this proposal anyway and it would have easily passed, making the northern states a haven for escaped slaves, in time emptying the South of slaves. This option would have honored the spirit of the Declaration of Independence for the South, which is based on free government and self-determination, while also choking off slavery.

Either option would have ended slavery without producing the backlash of “Jim Crow” laws and organizations like the KKK. After the war and union occupation, African Americans were subject to a discrimination that was almost as bad as in the slave times, and it would be an entire century before the Civil Rights Act came in remedy. This is what admirers of Lincoln ignore. The North’s ruthless war tactics and post-war reconstruction policies produced exactly what happens anywhere else we try to “build democracy”, like in Vietnam and Iraq. When outside powers attempt to change culture through military occupation, the results are never good.

Slavery was doomed and Lincoln knew it. The British Empire had eliminated it in the 1833-38 period, even “backwater” Mexico has ended the practice in 1829, and other parts of the world too. And it was ended without resorting to bloody wars. Lincoln himself had entertained the compensation option, so this isn’t an unfair hindsight judgment. He was aware of how the world was moving, both at home and abroad.

2. The Indians. Try asking them what they think of Lincoln. They say he was one of the Five Worst Presidents for the Native American Tribes, and they’re obviously right. Even by 19th-century manifest-destiny standards, Lincoln was a demon. He seized one of the largest portions of land from the Indians, running the Navajos and Mescalero Apaches out of their New Mexico territory and into a reservation 450 miles away. When this kind of thing happens in places like Bosnia and Dafur, we call it ethnic cleansing. The journey for the Indians was a death march, a lot like the Trail of Tears under Andrew Jackson: thousands of them were herded across a scorching desert, “escorted” by Lincoln’s army who killed those who lagged behind. The survivors who made it to the reservation were shoved into squalid camps infested with disease.

No one would excuse this behavior if it weren’t the president named Abraham Lincoln we were talking about, who has been mythologized to the extent that he can’t possibly, really, have been this bad. But he was. He worked against the Indian tribes them at every turn, and with more ruthlessness than most of the 19th century presidents. He cheated the Sioux out their lands as well, and when they revolted, he unleashed General Pope on them, who promised to exterminate the Sioux, who were “maniacs and wild beasts, and by no means people with whom treaties or compromise can be made”. Lincoln afterwards signed off on 38 Indian prisoners in Mankato, Minnesota, and on December 26, 1862 the largest mass execution in United States history took place under his authority. Only a dishonest apologist could salvage anything for Lincoln’s reputation out of this.

3. Civil Liberties. Lincoln was an enemy of the First Amendment. He arrested journalists, newspaper publishers, and critics of the war, and threw them into prison. He closed the mail to publications which opposed his war policies, and he deported an opposing congressman. On top of all that, he physically attacked and removed a peace movement. There have been only two other presidents with this level of contempt for free speech: John Adams and Woodrow Wilson. Today, Donald Trump shows himself to be on the same page as Adams, Lincoln, and Wilson.

Lincoln likewise “disappeared citizens” without arrest warrants, or in other words detained them without allowing them to challenge their detention (a violation of habeas corpus). To date there has been only one other president who has claimed and exercised this right — you guessed it, George W. Bush. In Lincoln’s case, he simply ignored Supreme Court Justice Robert Taney’s order that habeas corpus could be suspended only by Congress and not the president. Lincoln played the dictator and suspended it anyway. As if that weren’t bad enough, he also created military tribunals to prosecute civilians who were discouraging people from enlisting in union armies. Those civilians were simply exercising their free-speech rights.

“Tear down the memorial”

It’s always easy to judge by hindsight and fancy how we could do better. I’m under no illusion that I would make a good president. But I’ll say this: As president I sure as hell would never start an unnecessary war by making the other side fire first, and then use the federal army to kill hundreds of thousands of people, cripple tens of thousands more for life, destroy their economy, burn their towns to the ground, abolish my own people’s civil liberties, and inflict all the other miserable costs of war, just to prevent certain states from leaving the goddamn union. Yes, Lincoln did have the Constitutional right to suppress the South (against what Confederate revisionists claim), but that doesn’t mean he should have; and I would not have. As president I hope I would have had the wisdom to pursue one of the two options entertained by Eland:

“Lincoln should have let the South go in peace, as the abolitionists advocated, or offered southerners compensation for the emancipation of slaves. Under the first option, industrialization and rising moral objections likely would have peacefully eliminated slavery in the South — as they did in most other places of the world — helped out by a slave haven in the free North. In sum, a close study of Lincoln’s presidency leads to thoughts of tearing down the Lincoln Memorial.” (Recarving Rushmore, p 130)

Lincoln was no Hitler (only a crackpot would say that), nor was he the villain of Southern revisionism. But he was indeed a bad president — one of the worst, I believe, in our nation’s history.

Paul’s Death Metaphors: A Conflicted Soteriology

If you need something to read for Good Friday/Easter, make it Stephen Finlan’s The Background and Content of Paul’s Cultic Atonement Metaphors. It’s a detailed analysis of how Paul thought Christ’s death had saving power, and while no single answer emerges, at least one can be safely excluded: the Protestant idea of penal substitution. The idea that “Christ stands in for the sinner” is absent in Paul’s letters, despite his rich variety of death metaphors.

There are four metaphors, as Finlan shows: (1) martyrdom, (2) sacrifice, (3) scapegoat, and (4) ransom payment. For Paul, Christ was a martyr who also functioned as a sacrificial paschal lamb, mercy seat of faith, sin-bearer, and redeemer all in one. The metaphors are different and even at odds with each other, so let’s go through them.

Paul’s favorite metaphor: martyrdom

I call it his favorite because he uses it most. It is best explained in Jeffrey Gibson’s essay, “Paul’s Dying Formula”, cited by Finlan, which argues that Paul inverted the “noble death” theme found in Greek literature (see pp 196-197). “X dies for Y” referred to the warrior ideal by which heroes die for friends, family, city, or religious ideas, though never for enemies. So when Paul says that “Christ died for sinners”, and for his enemies at that (and by submitting to dishonor on the cross rather than going down in combat), he was invoking martyrdom and giving it a brutal twist. Christ died for the benefit of sinners and ungodly people and he went down in shame. The point is that “Christ died for us” doesn’t refer to sacrifice or atonement (far less penal substitution). It refers to martyrdom.

So how does martyrdom benefit the believer? What does Christ’s death “do” for the sinner, if not atone? Surprisingly, Finlan doesn’t mention David Seeley’s The Noble Death, which deals with the subject at some length. Like Gibson, Seeley thinks Paul’s view is closest to that of the Maccabean martyrs and Greco-Roman philosophers. In IV Maccabees the Judean heroes defeat tyranny through defiance and obedience to the Torah, dying for it (IV Macc 1:11; 18:4). In a Greco-Roman context, a philosopher like Socrates dies in prison in order to free humanity from the fear of death and imprisonment (Seneca, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales 24:4), an example followed by Cato who kills himself rather than be captured by Caesar. The deaths of the martyrs and philosophers benefit others who follow their example and die virtuously.

And what is the benefit to following Christ’s example? According to Paul, believers die with him at baptism, reenacting his death by destroying the sinful body and gaining release from enslavement to sin (Rom 6:1-11; 8:10). To be sure, Christians have only begun to die — and they’re not literally crucified like Jesus — but the “mimetic pattern”, says Seeley, is exactly the same. Just as copying a martyr gains victory over a tyrant, or copying a philosopher gains victory over fortune, copying Christ gains victory over sin and death. “Christ died for us” means that one can achieve the same victory by dying as Christ did. It does not mean that Christ died as a sacrifice of atonement, or ransom payment… though Paul does happen to believe that Christ’s death functioned in those ways too.

The importance of all four elements

Seeley notes that the idea of sacrifice sometimes creeps in to martyrdom theology. The blood of the Maccabean martyrs served as “an atoning sacrifice” (IV Macc. 17:21-22); the blood of Thrasea’s suicide was sprinkled on the ground as a libation to the gods (Tacitus, Annals 16:35); the blood of Christ was put forward in atonement as the messiah became a new “mercy seat of faith” (Rom 3:25). But Seeley thinks these sacrificial metaphors are subsidiary, supplementing the far more important martyrdom theme.

Finlan refutes attempts to downplay the importance of sacrifice and other elements. Martyrdom may have been Paul’s “favorite” idea, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was his most important. Martyrdom provided a platform for other ideas that were imperative for him and other Christians of his time: cultic sacrifice, scapegoat, and ransom-payment:

“Martyrdom seems to have been absorbed into these other metaphors, to be interpreted by them; it may be the most fundamental of Paul’s concepts, but its meaning requires the usage of metaphors from the cultic and social realms.” (p 193)

This is the strength of Finlan’s approach, as it takes all of Paul’s ideas seriously, and integrates them without glossing or distorting ideas currently out of favor. Here are the texts pertaining to each metaphor.

(1) Martyrdom/Noble Death — I Cor 8:11, I Cor 15:3, II Cor 5:15 (x2), Rom 5:6-8 (x2), Rom 14:9, Gal 2:20-21, I Thess 5:9-10

(2) Sacrifice — Rom 3:25, I Cor 5:7, I Cor 11:25

(3) Scapegoat — Gal 3:13, II Cor 5:21, Rom 6:6, Rom 7:4, Rom 8:3

(4) Ransom/Redemption — I Cor 6:20, 7:23

Paul believed all of this, and it was a bold fusion on his part. Finlan devotes an entire chapter to distinguishing sacrifices from scapegoats, showing why their fusion in the Christian tradition is radical. Scapegoats were not sacrifices but rather expulsion victims, and opposite in every way. Sacrifices were pure and offered reverently to God; scapegoats impure and driven out harshly to a wilderness demon. The former were spotless and their blood was a cleansing agent; the latter were sin carriers, vile and corrupt (see pp 81-93). To portray an individual as a sacrifice and scapegoat at the same time, as Paul did, would have been an oxymoron. Putting all four together makes this game of metaphors schizophrenic in the extreme.

How sacrifice worked

But how did sacrifice, whether traditional Jewish or Christian, effect atonement? It served a propitiatory function, appeasing an angry God as a “food bribe”. The idea of propitiatory substitution was different from the later (Protestant) idea of penal substitution. In penal substitution the sacrifice “stands in” to take the punishment of the offender, and that’s what most of us today associate with atonement. But propitiatory substitution involves a pure sinless offering, offered as payment to a sovereign deity in order to appease his anger and wrath.

As the Torah became increasingly important, sacrifice also took on a purifying/expiatory role, the cleansing of impurity and sin. Lev 17:11 explains: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.” (Lev 17:11) When harnessed properly, the life-force that resides within blood somehow reverses the anti-life of sin and pollution.

In other words, by the time of the Holiness Code of Leviticus, propitiatory-substitution and expiatory understandings had become fused: tribute payment and animistic cleansing both explained how sacrifice atones for sin. The context of Rom 3:25 shows that Paul believed both. His explanation that Christ is the new mercy seat involves both propitiation (appeasing God) and expiation (cleansing of sinners) (p 135). Gentiles would have probably heard propitiatory themes in the background, while Jews and God-fearers would have heard both (pp 141-143). Propitiatory themes dominate, however, since the cultic act of Rom 3:25 offsets the divine wrath recounted previously at great length in Rom 1:18-3:20 (p 144). But the idea of penal substitution, developed centuries later by Protestant reformers, is alien to Paul’s thought. (The Catholic view of satisfaction substitution is the one that more properly derives from propitiatory-substitution.)

That’s the sacrifice passage of Romans, anyway. What about the sacrifice passages of I Corinthians (5:7 and 11:25), where Christ is depicted not as a mercy seat (for the Day of Atonement), but as a paschal lamb (for Passover)? Passover sacrifice did not atone/forgive; it protected. Yahweh “passed over” those so protected when he came in judgment. The ancient tradition of Israelites smearing lamb blood on the doors of their homes was so that God would deliver his people from oppressors. In the eucharist tradition (I Cor 5:7, I Cor 11:25), the flesh and blood of the passover lamb was replaced by Jesus’ own “body and blood”, in the bread and wine, which was likewise intended to protect (not propitiate or purify as in the rite of atonement) his followers from God’s fiery judgment against Jerusalem and its leaders.

That’s a lot of ideas Paul makes room for, but for all the variety there’s not a hint of penal substitution. The only passage in the New Testament which possibly provides a basis for penal substitution is I Pet 2:24b, which owes to Isa 53:4-5, “by his wounds we are healed”. This may indicate that (for the writer of I Peter), Christ, like Israel’s servant, died in place of others. Aside from this one text, however, there is nothing in the NT pointing to Christ’s death as a penal substitute — certainly nothing in Paul.

The evolution of sacrifice

A fascinating part of Finlan’s book is his discussion of the way sacrifice evolves in practice and thought. Though it irritates many scholars to speak of evolution in a way that suggests “progress through spiritualization”, it’s a matter of fact that “a heightening of intellectual culture brings a heightening of moral sensibility, and calls bloody sacrifice into question” (p 46). Finlan proposes that sacrifice evolves away from its primitive roots in six stages: substitution, moralization, interiorization, metaphorization, rejection, and spiritualization (see pp 47-70):

1. Substitution, occurring when human sacrifice (Gen 22:2) becomes replaced with animal sacrifice (or other foodstuffs) (Exod 13:2,12-13; 34:20; Num 18:15).

2. Moralization (or reformism), attributing new spiritual and abstract meanings to the practice of sacrifice (Psalm 4, Malachi).

3. Interiorization, asserting that what matters to the deity is the right attitude and a clean heart, though sacrifice is not rejected (I Sam 15, Psalm 51, Psalm 141, Proverb 15, Proverb 21, I & II Enoch).

4. Metaphorization, applying cultic ideas to non-cultic practices; sacrifice is valued on a metaphorical level (IV Maccabees, Paul, Philo, Greco-Roman philosophers).

5. Rejection, repudiating the sacrificial cult altogether (Amos, Hosea, Micah, Jeremiah, and Isaiah 1).

6. Spiritualization, interiorizing religious values to the extreme that transformation of the human character has become the chief goal of religious faith (Middle Platonic philosophies, the patristic and Greek Orthodox concept of theosis).

Paul values sacrifice on the metaphorical level, superseding without rejecting the temple cult. In saying that “God put forward Christ in a bloody death as a mercy seat of faith” (Rom 3:25), he claims that the crucified Christ has become for the world what the mercy seat was for Israel. Or in saying that Christ is the new paschal lamb (I Cor 5:7, I Cor 11:25), he claims that the savior’s blood protects believers against the wrath of God poured out on oppressors and the wicked.

Supersessionism is inherent to levels 3/4 (interiorization/ metaphorization), when death and glory are seen simultaneously in the old system (as in II Cor 3:6-11; Philip 3:4b-11). But it gets complicated, because sometimes a view of sacrifice can be found straddling many levels. And there are subtypes within levels. For instance, level 4 metaphorization can involve either typology (Paul) or allegory (Philo). Typology can lean in a direction of level 2/3 (reform/interiorization) or 5 (rejection) without taking sides. Allegory, meanwhile, involves a strategy of replacement along levels 1/3/5 (literal/ interiorization/ rejection). So typology sees fulfillment, whereas allegory sees replacement; each is a variation of the level 4 stage. (See pp 68-70)

Jesus’ thoughts on the matter…?

What would the historical Jesus have thought about all this? Did he have a martyr’s complex and brace himself (and his followers) for a “noble death” as he prepared to take on Jerusalem? Did he have even more radical ideas — cultic ideas which scholars are loathe to attribute to Paul, let alone him? I suspect that, at the very least, Jesus had a martyr’s complex, believing that his suffering and death were part of the tribulation period that preceded the apocalypse. He may also have attributed sacrificial (Mk 14:22-25/Mt 26:26-29) and/or ransom elements (Mk 10:45/Mt 20:28) to his death as reported in the gospels, but I suspect that he didn’t.

Finlan’s book is the best I know of that does justice to Paul’s understanding of Christ’s death. We may have little use for “barbaric” ideas like cultic atonement and bloody sacrifice, but for better or worse they were part of his theology, integrated into a broader framework of martyrdom. The variety of metaphors makes Paul conflicted to say the least, but there you have it.

Stan Uris and the Sewer Orgy in Stephen King’s It

It has long puzzled fans of the novel It why Stan Uris is the only one who kills himself when his childhood memories come flooding back. The other six kids’ encounters with It were as bad as Stan’s, and they weren’t driven to suicide. Something in particular pushed Stan over the edge, but the novel doesn’t explain what. Fans of the novel have tried:

(1) The usual answer is that Stan is the most skeptical member of the Club, relying on logic and reason more than anyone, and is the least of the seven willing to accept that It actually exists. Thus he was too emotionally fragile to face It a second time.

(2) However, it is also implied that Stan was the only one who had somehow become aware that It was female (and pregnant), something that Bill, Richie, and Ben learn in their second encounter with It as adults. Thus Stan chose death over returning to Derry to face the ancient terror that could lay eggs and multiply its terror a thousandfold.

The first suggestion is likely true, but if the second is also true, then it raises an interesting point about the sewer orgy. Stan would have probably freaked out over the idea of gang-banging “Queen” Beverly. She would have come across as a grotesque parody of It, orchestrating her own sex-rite down in Derry’s sewers, and in a mystical orgy that defies the sense and reason he holds precious. Beverly’s seduction of him would have probably amounted to a rape, and a more traumatic one than Eddie’s and the others’.

Many readers seem unaware that what Beverly is doing in the sewer orgy amounts to rape, but the text makes it pretty clear that it is, as I will show below. I’m not saying Beverly is a monster by any means. Eleven-year old kids aren’t accountable in the way adults and even teenagers are. She is actually easy to empathize with when she dominates the boys, because what she is ultimately doing is reclaiming something from an abusive father — her sense of self that her father diminished. Granted she is doing this at the expense of someone like Eddie, but even if she is wrong, it is the sort of wrong that should be weighed according to how we judge young kids who aren’t yet wise in the ways of the world.

Here is the text describing the first orgy act, with Eddie. My notes in bold follow the non-consensual elements.

Eddie comes to her first, because he is the most frightened. He comes to her not as her friend of that summer, or as her brief lover now, but the way he would have come to his mother only three or four years ago, to be comforted; he doesn’t draw back from her smooth nakedness and at first she doubts if he even feels it. He is trembling, and although she holds him in the darkness is so perfect that even this close she cannot see him; except for the rough cast he might as well be a phantom.

“What do you want?” he asks her.

“You have to put your thing in me,” she says.

He tries to pull back but she holds him [using force] and he subsides against her. She has heard someone — Ben, she thinks — draw in his breath.

“Bevvie, I can’t do that. I don’t know how –“

“I think it’s easy. But you’ll have to get undressed.” She thinks about the intricacies of managing cast and shirt, first somehow separating and then rejoining them, and amends, “Your pants, anyway.”

“No, I can’t!” [“No” means “no”.]  But she thinks part of him can, and wants to, because his trembling has stopped and she feels something small and hard which presses against the right side of her belly. [Classic rationalizations, according to the standard dogma: rapists justify themselves this way when victims are betrayed by their bodies. Eddie’s body is saying yes, but his mind is saying no.]

“You can,” she says, and pulls him down. [The rape is now in session.] The surface beneath her bare back and legs is firm, clayey, dry. The distant thunder of the water is drowsy, soothing. She reaches for him. There is a moment when her father intervenes, harsh and forbidding, and then she closes her arms around Eddie’s neck, her smooth cheek against his smooth cheek, and as he tentatively touches her small breasts she sighs and thinks for the first time, This is Eddie, and she remembers a day in July — could it only have been last month? — when no one else turned up in the Barrens but Eddie, and he had a whole bunch of little Lulu comic books and they read together for most of the afternoon, Little Lulu looking for beebleberries and getting in all sorts of crazy situations. It had been fun.

She thinks of birds; in particular of the grackles and starlings and crows that come back in the spring, and her hands go to his belt and loosen it, and he says again that he can’t do that; she tells him that he can [again overriding his protests], she knows he can, and what she feels is not shame or fear now but a kind of triumph. [Many would see this as a shameless rapist reveling in her conquest.]

“Where?” he says, and that hard thing pushes urgently against her inner thigh.

“Here,” she says.

“Bevvie, I’ll fall on you!” he says, and she hears his breath start to whistle painfully.

“I think that’s sort of the idea,” she tells him and holds him gently and guides him. He pushes forward too fast and there is pain.

Ssssss! — she draws her breath in, her teeth biting at her lower lip and thinks of all the birds again, the spring birds, lining the roofpeaks of houses, taking wing all at once under low March clouds.

“Beverly?” he says uncertainly. “Are you okay?”

“Go slower,” she says. “It’ll be easier for you to breathe.” He does move more slowly, and after a while his breathing speeds up but she understands this i not because there is anything wrong with him.

The pain fades. Suddenly he moves more quickly, then stops, stiffens, and makes a sound — some sound. She senses that this is something for him, something extraordinarily, special, something like… like flying. She feels powerful: she feels a sense of triumph rise up strongly within her. [Reveling in her dominance.] Is this what her father was afraid of? Well he might be! There was power in this act, all right, a chain-breaking power that was blood-deep. She feels no physical pleasure, but there is a kind of mental ecstasy in it for her. [Confirming what rape specialists say: that for a rapist it’s the display of power, more than any physical pleasure, that gratifies and excites.] She senses the closeness. He puts his face against her neck and she holds him. He is crying. [He could be traumatized.] She holds him. And feels the part of him that made a connection between them begin to fade. It is not leaving her exactly; it is simply fading, becoming less.

When his weight shifts away she sits up and touches his face in the darkness.

“Did you?”

“Did I what?”

“Whatever it is. I don’t know, exactly.”

He shakes his head — she feels it with her hand against his cheek.

“I don’t think it was exactly like… you know, like the big boys say.  But it was… it was really something.” He speaks low, so the others can’t hear. “I love you, Bevvie.”

Her consciousness breaks down a little there. She’s quite sure there’s more talk some whispered, some loud, and can’t remember what is said. It doesn’t matter. Does she have to talk each of them into it all over again? Yes, probably. But it doesn’t matter. They have to be talked into it, this essential human link between the world and the infinite, the only place where the bloodstream touches eternity. It doesn’t matter. What matters is love and desire. Here in this dark is as good a place as any. Better than some, maybe.

It’s a very well written scene, and again, in the context of the novel, Beverly’s thrills of triumph and dominance are more aimed at “getting back” at her horrible father than degrading any of the boys whom she considers her best friends. Eddie might not see it that way, of course, though he seems to have pulled through okay.

After Eddie, Beverly has sex with the other five boys — Mike, Richie, Stan, Ben, and Bill in that order. King skips over descriptions of Mike, Richie, and Stan (covering all three of them in a couple paragraphs), and describes the last two boys, Ben and Bill, with elaborate detail like Eddie. With Ben it begins as a rape, where like Eddie he protests but is overruled and compelled against his will. But halfway through it turns consensual — right after “power” shifts from Beverly to Ben (“She feels her power suddenly shift to him; she gives it gladly and goes with it.”) With Bill, the group-leader, the sex is consensual from start to finish.

It would have been interesting if King had written elaborate orgy scenes for the other three boys, especially Stan, who I can only imagine would have strongly resisted Beverly’s intentions. Who knows, it might have shed light on his suicide.

The Best of Martin Scorsese

This is a long-delayed installment in the favorite director’s blogathon. It was a given that Scorsese would be covered, but I needed to do a marathon of his films. Some are better than suggested by earlier viewings (notably Shutter Island) while others don’t quite live up to their reputation (get ready for a couple of blasphemies). Of his 24 feature films to date, here are what I consider the top 10.

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1. Silence. 2017. 5 stars. This is the film I thought Scorsese was aiming for all his life but never had a hope of pulling off. His other forays into religion — The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997) — were so bad that I said he should avoid the subject. He finally hit a home run. Silence is not only one of the best religious films of all time, it’s Scorsese’s very best film. I had to ponder this hard for the past two months and be sure I really believe it supplants Taxi Driver. The film is a special treat for someone like myself who loves the novel Shogun, set in the middle of Japan’s “Christian century” (1543-1635) and portraying the complex history of the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries. Scorsese’s film draws us into the “post-Christian” period of the late 1630s and he is just as shrewd as James Clavell in resisting sides. The film is no more a liberal critique of western colonial power than a glorification of Christian martyrdom. The priests are decent and have treated the peasants with dignity in a feudal state that was hostile to the poor; yet their work for God incited massacre. Like Clavell, Scorsese shows courageous people going under the sword of honor and shame, and essentially reaped what they sowed. It’s a deep story with a lot of thought behind it, one that I’ll be returning to many times.

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2. Taxi Driver. 1976. 5 stars. What can be said about Taxi Driver that hasn’t been chewed over by the Scorsese cognoscenti? Nothing probably, but I’ll offer this: that there is some of Travis Bickle in all of us. The misanthrope who thinks, with no conscious malice, that society is degenerate and beneath contempt. The sociopath driven to loneliness after failing to connect with people. The frustrated citizen who thinks his country needs an enema, and will assist in this regard by using violence. It struck me as I watched Taxi Driver for the umpteenth time that this ugly potential has more relevance than ever in today’s world — of increased income inequality, alternate facts, social media bubbles, and the ascendance of Donald Trump. Trump won the election on the platform that America is in shitty decay, thanks to regressive liberals and foreigners. (There’s plenty of truth to the former, unfortunately.) There’s a Travis in everyone, yes, but especially in disaffected white men who think it’s time for Travis to take action. I know it cheapens a masterpiece like Taxi Driver to reduce it to a political metaphor, but no one needs me to say the obvious, that it was the first Hollywood film for cinephiles and so brilliantly avant-garde. The metaphor in this case does it justice.

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3. Casino. 1995. 5 stars. The first heresy on my list is that Casino is superior to Goodfellas. Sue me, but it’s true. As Natasha Vargas-Cooper puts it, it’s more epic in the characters’ rise and fall: “In GoodFellas, the hoods, even with all their cheerful sociopathy, get progressively smaller and pettier as the movie progresses. It is, after all, about the grind of small timers. Casino, on the other hand, elevates Scorsese’s favorite themes — greed, hubris, the primal lure of violence — above the street corner and into the inner working’s of America’s Sodom.” Whenever I watch Casino I’m completely swept up in this dark vision of Las Vegas and people driving themselves to disaster. I’ve always said that Sharon Stone’s performance — raging alcoholic tantrums and all — is way underrated, and Joe Pesci’s psychotic mob enforcer, though a repeat from Goodfellas, is less comical and more terrifying for it. Robert De Niro offers a more sympathetic character than he did before, and doesn’t hold us at a distance. Casino uses the mob world to speak to our fallen state and makes me feel like a true insider to that world — that I share more in common with these thugs and pathetic people than I care to admit. I always feel like I’m watching it for the first time, and that’s true magic.

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4. Goodfellas. 1990. 5 stars. Which isn’t to deny Goodfellas‘ excellence. It was an instant classic for every good reason. And this may be another heresy: it’s superior to The Godfather. Everyone talks about the opposite approaches of Coppola and Scorsese as if they’re equivalently great in their own ways. The Corleones were tragic figures who held our sympathy; gangsters like Jimmy and Tommy are brutes who kill people just because their piles are itching. But the latter is less an alternative than a corrective to the romanticized myth. The life of a gangster is empty and devoid of attraction, pure and simple. Critical to Scorsese’s success therefore is Henry’s character and the way we experience this repulsive mob world through his gradual disillusionment. The character of Tommy provides the jaw-dropping shock value and trigger-happy mania, and is also sickeningly funny in the way only Scorsese can write. Could any other director have come up with the scene where Tommy taunts the barroom kid, shoots him in the foot, and then later shoots him dead when the kid gets fed up and swears back at him? Or the scene (above image) where everyone in the restaurant (and certainly every audience member) is convinced he’s about to beat the living shit out of Henry for laughing at him?

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5. Shutter Island. 2010. 4 ½ stars. This one keeps getting better. On first viewing I was enraged by the elaborate role-playing reveal. I thought it was a cop-out, and a variant of the “it’s all in his mind” trope used by the laziest script writers. But I was wrong, and Shutter Island’s whole point is appreciated more on subsequent viewings. (As with The Sixth Sense, those later viewings show how obvious everything is.) It’s one of the best psychological horror films ever made, enhanced by the expressionistic style, ominous score, and constant sense of creeping unease. Ultimately it’s about the human drive to reinvent ourselves, which we all do, but most of us in small enough degrees so that we can function and know ourselves reasonably as we should. Andrew Laeddis has completely revised his identity, unable to cope with having killed his wife because she murdered their three little kids. Shutter Island becomes an experimental playground for him to tame his trauma, while we think all the time that he’s actually uncovering a hideous plot of doctors performing Nazi-like experiments on the psychologically disturbed. It’s a brilliant film, and a lot like David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me — easy to misjudge and be angered by for the wrong reasons when you first see it.

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6. The Departed. 2006. 4 ½ stars. It may not have the artistic merit of Casino and Goodfellas, but every single moment in The Departed — every line of dialogue, act of treachery, and shocking death — is a genuine thrill. Scorsese went all in and produced a gangster film of pure entertainment, and one that keeps you guessing. The mob boss (Jack Nicholson) has planted a mole in the Massachusetts State Police (Matt Damon), but there is another mole (Leo DiCaprio) working undercover for those same police to nab the boss. And then in a twist, it turns out the crime boss is a “mole” himself, an informant for the FBI. The supporting Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin characters steal the show, which is saying a lot considering how good Damon and DiCaprio are as the leads. It’s very refreshing to see Irish American gangsters instead of the usual Italians. That said, it was a serious blunder on Scorsese’s part to have all the actors put on Boston accents. It’s a difficult accent to master and everyone sounds absolutely horrible, especially Jack Nicholson, but also Baldwin (whose heavy New York interferes) and Sheen and Farmiga. Only Damon and Wahlberg sound right, naturally, since they’re from Boston. The accents are so embarrassing that I wonder if Scorsese intended it for comedic effect.

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7. Bringing Out the Dead. 1999. 4 ½ stars. This is Taxi Driver with the nihilism dialed down, or as one critic has said, “Travis Bickle wants to cleanse the world and Frank Pierce wants to clean it”. Frank can’t obviously — aside from a few saving moments here and there — and is fated to work the streets of Hell’s Kitchen in a chronic state of depression. The aesthetic is even stronger than Taxi Driver‘s, as we see Frank drive his ambulance through the streets at night, as steam rises from hellish-looking manholes. It’s a great locale metaphor of sin (Scorsese only did better by Casino‘s Vegas = Sodom). The three supporting actors who play Frank’s ambulance partners blow away Nicholas Cage, who I’ve never been a fan of anyway. The first-night partner is John Goodman’s character, who avoids grief and depression by eating all the time. The second night is Ving Rhames, who plays a gospel Christian thriving on bloody emergencies to “demonstrate” Jesus’ healing power. The last-night partner is even more dramatic, Tom Sizemore, who finds his own releases through, yes, beating the shit out of helpless patients he can’t stand. Bringing Out the Dead is no masterpiece, but it’s powerful surrealism that deserves more praise than it gets.

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8. Mean Streets. 1973. 4 ½ stars. It’s amazing how good Mean Streets still is after all these years. When watched alongside Goodfellas and Casino it seems quaint, but this film made the later masterpieces possible. And I love the look of ’70s films (aside from the hideous dress and hair styles); it was the golden age of cinema when directors dreamed big and explored style without pretension. On the surface Mean Streets is about guys hanging out and getting into trouble, and a fond look at the gangs and troublemakers of Scorsese’s formative years in New York. It’s the first movie he had complete control over, his personal examination of Catholic guilt, and his attempt to reconcile that guilt with the world of crime. It was released during the transgressive peak of the early ’70s, the year 1973, during the streak of Malick’s Badlands, Lumet’s Serpico, and Friedkin’s Exorcist (what a feast!). I often say if there was a single year in the 20th century I could go back and live through, it would be 1973. That was the moment of the greatest cinematic breakthroughs, the best of progressive rock (Selling England by the Pound), and bubbling dark energies that would be released as the Dungeons & Dragons game in January the following year. A film like Mean Streets captures the essence of this awesome point in American culture.

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9. The Wolf of Wall Street. 2013. 4 stars. This is Goodfellas for corporate business, showing the mayhem of unrestrained greed, and some critics put it on the same plane of excellence as Goodfellas. They’re wrong, but I should be clear what I’m not faulting the film for. It doesn’t glamorize the lifestyle it portrays, any more than Goodfellas does; there isn’t a fiber of my being that is remotely seduced by stock broker lifestyle when I watch it. The better objection is the opposite problem — that Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t give us any sympathetic entry at all into the characters. Goodfellas did this through Henry Hill, who was scum, yes, but a scum with enough moral compass to be outraged over the senseless murder of a kid, to be sick and vomit over the sight of corpses, and he began as a low-level wannabe (and beaten by his father) unlike the thoroughly savage people who initiated him into the gangster world. There is no Henry Hill analog to anchor us in Wall Street’s insanely repugnant world, and that, I think, is what prevents the film from achieving the heights Scorsese was aiming for. But on whole Wolf is still very good, and there are individual scenes showing Scorsese having fun at his best, not least that in which the Jonah Hill character infamously suggests that someone take the suitcase of money and shove it up his wife’s Slatvian cunt.

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10. Cape Fear. 1991. 4 stars. My tenth slot was a toss up between this one and After Hours. I really wanted to include After Hours since it’s a comedy — a genre I seldom enjoy — and the obscure gem in Scorsese’s bad run of the ’80s. Alas, I simply can’t exclude Cape Fear. I got endless rewatch out of it, and in my opinion De Niro’s Max Cady is a more terrifying psychopath than Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter (a subject deserving its own blogpost). It’s Scorsese’s most commercial effort, but a very good one and vast improvement on the ’60s original. Not only is the acting leagues ahead, the creative innovations up the ante. The most obvious is the pivotal scene between De Niro and Juliette Lewis (above photo) in which he corners her in the high school theater and seduces her, which is far more insidious and frightening than the original scene involving a chase through the school halls. My father was a lawyer, but thankfully not a criminal lawyer. I’d hate to think about the copycats Max Cady has inspired to go after their lawyers and families.

So… what about Raging Bull?

Thus my second heresy: Raging Bull (1980) is obscenely overrated; it’s not the masterpiece it’s made to be. The aesthetic is impressive (shot in black-and-white) and the acting performances are beyond criticism, but what’s left after that? A “profound examination of masculinity”? I’m sorry, I don’t see it, and I certainly don’t get Raging Bull’s place in the American Film Institute’s hall of fame, the 4th best film of all time after Citizen Kane, The Godfather and Casablanca, or Entertainment Weekly’s ranking it the 5th best film of all time, after the same three others plus Chinatown. I may personally not care for Casablanca, but I can at least understand why it’s deemed precious. Raging Bull may as well be Any Given Sunday. And I’m in good enough company. When the film was released, the film’s cinematographer Michael Chapman and scriptwriter Paul Schrader were thoroughly unimpressed with the result: “Wow,” said Chapman, coming out of the theater. “Marty really fucked that one up, didn’t he?” Schrader: “Yeah, he did. I don’t know what went wrong there.” But next year it won the Oscars, and the film would go down a legend. I have seen Raging Bull four times now, and I have paid lip service to its greatness in the past. No more. This list is an honest exercise, and I must honestly confess that the film is okay (3 stars) but not great, and one that I will probably never see again.

Great Performances from Kids

It’s hard for kids to act naturally, but some are truly born for it. These are my ten acting picks from young actors, by which “young” means the actor was no older than 14 when playing the role. So for example, one performance that didn’t qualify is Ellen Page as the 14-year old Hayley Stark in Hard Candy, since Ellen was actually 17 (believe it or not) and thus had more resources to draw on than a younger actor. (Ellen does make the cut for another role.) Natalie Portman takes the top slot in a slam dunk.

Mathilda (Click for video)

1. Natalie Portman (12), as Mathilda in Leon the Professional (1994). If Natalie Portman killed her image in the Star Wars prequels, she made up for it a thousand times before in Leon. I’m glad I missed the film when it first came out, because the American version wrecked it by removing 25 minutes that are the whole point of the love story. Alas, Americans aren’t equipped to handle that sort of thing between a 12-year old girl and a man in his 40s. The international version of the film is an uncensored masterpiece. Portman plays a girl whose parents, older sister, and 4-year old brother get gunned down by corrupt DEA agents, and so she hooks up with a hitman in her distress. She gets an instant crush on him and he doesn’t quite know how to handle it, but before long, he’s training her how to kill and taking her along on his hit jobs, while she takes every blatant opportunity to hit on him. Mathilda is Portman’s best performance (which is saying something, given Black Swan) and I’m in awe of the emotional range she summons here. She’s vulnerable and tender, sensuous, moved by inner furies, and none of it ever goes over the top. You believe her in every frame.

The kids of Stranger Things (Click for video)

2. Finn Wolfhard (12), Caleb McLaughlin (14), Gaten Matarazzo (13), and Millie Bobby Brown (12), as Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and Eleven in Stranger Things (2016). All four of these kids come in at a close #2. They’re incredibly natural actors and the boys represent my ’80s childhood — the hours-long D&D campaigns being the obvious point of contact. It’s almost impossible to say whose performance is the best as they complement each other with personas just as striking. Mike is the group leader, the most sensitive, and the soul of Stranger Things; Lucas the pragmatic skeptic; Dustin a non-stop riot ruled by his appetites. The chemistry between them is extraordinary to watch. Their most iconic scene is probably their prepubescent horror at Eleven when she starts to take off her clothes in front of them. Mike handles himself with the decorum fitting his leadership role, but the reactions of Lucas and Dustin are gut-busting hilarious. (Lucas: “She tried to get naked!” Dustin: indignantly mimics her taking off her dress.) Eleven herself is no less brilliant, and she conveys far more in her silences than most gifted actors do speaking. Simply put, there has never been a group of kids who set the screen on fire like the quartet of Stranger Things.

Mattie (Click for video)

3. Hailee Steinfeld (13), as Mattie in True Grit (2010). The role of Mattie Ross, like Mathilda in Leon, depends on just the right casting that makes or breaks a film. Which is ironic considering the two characters are so opposite. Mattie is completely unsexualized and humorless, living by a stern Presbyterian ethic which allows her to hold her ground in the face of adults who are otherwise inclined to dismiss her. Young characters who bark orders at adults are usually a fail in cinema, and scenes like Mattie running roughshod over a colonel in a horse-trading transaction by rights shouldn’t work. And yet they astonishingly do; at no point is Mattie anything less than 100% believable. When she and Rooster go off into Indian territory to hunt down the bad guy, the result is one of the best sidekick-adult relationships in movie history. Think how awful Short Round was in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. He gave youthful side-kicks a silly reputation. Steinfeld proved that kids can hold their own as the right-hands of heroes on missions of dirty work.

Danny (Click for video)

4. Danny Lloyd (6), as Danny in The Shining (1980). The youngest entry on my list places high. Lloyd was perfect in this horror classic, able to focus beyond what most six-year olds are capable of. Jack Nicholson may be the star of The Shining, and obviously very good, but he did go over the top; I always thought Danny Lloyd and Shelley Duvall were the true stars for the way they acted (reacted) to their maniacal father/husband, but especially Lloyd. Duvall gave an emotional performance that wiped her out; Lloyd portrayed the inner terror of a child so convincingly and under Kubrick’s careful guidance didn’t for a moment overact as kids this young inevitably do. It’s interesting that Lloyd was apparently not aware he was acting in a horror film — told by Kubrick that this was a “family drama” — which I find rather hard to believe given some of his lines and action sequences. Like when he’s being chased by the ax-wielding Jack, or when he conveys how terrified he is to his imaginary friend Tony, or when he’s shaken by his crying mother who wonders why he’s battered and bruised.

Jake and Tony (Click for video)

5. Theo Taplitz (13) and Michael Barbieri (13), as Jake and Tony in Little Men (2016). I have strong attachment to these boys, because I watched Little Men the day after the election (Nov 9), when I was feeling suicidal over Donald Trump’s victory. This was just the movie I needed to see — a film that celebrates difference despite the avalanche of parental roadblocks. Taplitz plays the shy Jake, Barbieri the uninhibited Tony; Jake is Caucasian and middle-class, Tony is Chilean and poor. The boys are allowed to play their roles with simple and understated tones that makes you feel you’re watching the everyday lives of real people. Their friendship grows the more their parents become enemies — they go so far as to boycott their parents by refusing to speak to them — but in the end, Tony and his mother are evicted for not being able to keep up with rising rents. I cried with Jake at the end; after election day this film was a serious trigger for me in light of Trump’s screeds against Hispanic people.

Iris (Click for video)

6. Jodie Foster (12), as Iris in Taxi Driver (1976). It’s funny how Foster has played against the very best and been terrified for her efforts. In Silence of the Lambs she never spoke to Anthony Hopkins off-camera (until the last day of shooting) because he scared her so badly in his Hannibal Lecter role. And that was when she was an adult. As a kid in Taxi Driver she was intimidated by Robert DeNiro — as she tells it today, he was “even quieter and more strange” back then — but I suspect it’s precisely this sort of thing that has always summoned the best out of Jodie Foster. After all, her roles as Iris and Clarice Starling are her best, and she deserves extra accolades for Iris given that she was only twelve. Both her real and in-character attempts to act and appear older as befitting a prostitute underscore all the more that she’s a child.

Maggie (Click for video)

7. Ellen Page (11), as Maggie in Pit Pony (1999). Here’s a family-friendly entry, just to prove I have a soft spot: Ellen Page’s first role on Canadian TV. I wish I’d grown up on Pit Pony instead of Little House on the Prairie, which was made insufferable by the self-righteous figure of Michael Landon’s Pa. The parental figures in Pit Pony are fallible and likeable. The locale is better too, set in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, in the time before unions (1901) when men and boys — and ponies — had a rather nasty time working in the coal mines. Ellen Page is the hidden gem, playing the younger sister of the boy who does more than his share in the mines. It’s amazing to watch her before she became famous as the castrating psychopath of Hard Candy and the pregnant teen of Juno. In this series she’s positively endearing — and even more tiny, as if possible — and I chose a clip from the episode where she runs away from her aunt and comes home to find that things have changed, which she doesn’t handle well.

Jack (Click for video)

8. Jacob Tremblay (7), as Jack in Room (2015). Like Danny Lloyd (#4), Tremblay played a five-year old confined in a horrible place, though I think I’d take the 400-plus room haunted hotel over a one-room tool shed. Tremblay had a tall order in Room. He had to convey a belief that the entire universe consisted of a single room that he never left, and then, in the second half, a child’s reaction to the real world never seen before and zillions of people living in it besides his mother. He nailed it; when Jack sees the sky for the first time, Tremblay looks genuinely poleaxed. Even more convincing and disturbing is the deeper sense he conveys at having been deprived of life’s necessities for the first five years of his life, he doesn’t want them when they finally come. They’re just too overwhelming for him — living in a big house with toys and a backyard — and it’s heartbreaking when he asks his mother if they can go back to live in “Room”.

Regan (Click for video)

9. Linda Blair (13), as Regan in The Exorcist (1973). It’s easy to overlook this one, but Linda Blair did a lot of Regan’s scenes. Her stunt double (Eileen Deitz) only stepped in at a few points. Even the crucifixion masturbation scene was done mostly by Blair. And she did, after all, win a Golden Globe, a People’s Choice Award, and an Oscar nomination. So even if most of her performance comes filtered through the mask of demonic makeup in the latter half, she deserves high praise. And some of her early scenes are frankly as disturbing without the demon involved, as notably when she is strapped down in the hospital getting an arteriogram. Friedkin used real doctors to get the arteriogram procedure exactly right, and it’s just as painful for real-life patients as it looks for Linda Blair. It requires the patient to be conscious. And doctors have actually used that footage to train radiologists who will perform arteriograms, because the procedure — and Linda Blair’s tormented reaction — are so accurately depicted.

Alexander (Click for video)

10. Bertil Guve (10), as Alexander in Fanny and Alexander (1982). I have difficulty assessing performances in foreign films, because when I don’t know the language I’m often clueless as to whether or not the actor is using poor inflection or overacting. But I’ll say this about Bertil Guve: he was obviously a natural. Bergman chose him because he “acted with his eyes”, and I never needed to understand Swedish to see that. And any boy who can act the Ishmael scene is top notch. It’s the pivotal scene where the androgynous figure physically caresses Alexander, encloses the boy in his arms, and together they will the death of Alexander’s abusive stepfather. Speaking of which, the scene in which Alexander defies him and gets beaten for it is also a stand-out, for his non-verbal cues as much as verbal. Because the film is ultimately about what Alexander perceives is happening, it depends on Guve being able to make us believe in the magic — that ghosts and such really exist. That’s what he does, and it’s a first-rate performance.

Babatha’s Orchard

Last week Gloucestershire Live published an article about an “Indiana Jones” biblical scholar who made a great discovery. Usually that’s a warning to count the spoons and brace for impact. But the scholar in question is Philip Esler — just about the last name you would associate with crackpot archaeology. So what is Babatha’s Orchard about?

In the first pages of the book Esler assures us:

“There are no Arks of the Covenant, hidden temple vessels, Holy Grails, lost Gospels or Mary Magdalens here. Instead this is a tale of domestic life. It is the story of how, around 99 CE, Shim’on, Babatha’s father, unexpectedly came to acquire an irrigated date-palm orchard in his village of Maoza, on the southern shore of the Dead Sea, in the kingdom of Nabatea.” (p xvi)

Babatha’s Orchard is exciting to read because it’s real. It offers a window onto everyday life in antiquity, unencumbered by sensationalism. That window is provided by the Babatha collection, discovered in 1961 by a team of archaeologists, which are the possessions of a second-century Jewish woman including sandals, balls of yarn, key-rings, knives, bowls, waterskins, and other items — and also a pouch containing 35 legal documents. These documents are dated between 94 and 132 AD, and consist of various contracts for purchase of property, loans, weddings, and the registration of land.

Esler is concerned with the earliest four documents, Papyri Yadin 1-4, the first of which dates to 94, the other three to 99. P. Yadin 2 and 3 describe the purchase of a date-palm orchard, first by a Nabatean high-ranking official named Archelaus, second by a Judean (Jew) named Shim’on (the future father of Babatha) only a month later — but purchased both times from the same woman. Esler not only reconstructs what went on between P. Yadin 2 and 3, he also argues that P. Yadin 1 and 4 bear on the same issue. “No one seems to have asked,” says Esler, “why the first and fourth documents were found in the archive in the first place.” Why did Babatha, years later, keep copies of these legal documents? They presumably had some relevance to the orchard acquired by her father and should help make sense of that event.

The mystery of P. Yadin 1

P. Yadin 1 describes a transaction in 94 AD that at first blush seems to have nothing to do with the orchard sale (and resale) in 99. Basically a Nabatean named Muqima borrowed money from his wife’s dowry to purchase a lease of property, and to share the investment risk enlisted a partner whose name was Abad-Amanu. What no one seems to have realized before Esler is that the Abad-Amanu of P. Yadi 1 is none other than the father of Archelaus, the buyer of the orchard in P. Yadin 2 — a link that proves of “critical importance in unlocking the mystery behind these documents” (p 111).

The mystery is how Abi-adan (the woman who owned the orchard) sold the orchard to Archelaus (P. Yadin 2) and then only a month later sold it to Shim’on (P. Yadin 3). Scholars have suggested that Abi-adan annulled her agreement with Archelaus when Shim’on offered a better deal, but Esler refutes this, for there is no way Abi-adan could simply have reneged on her deal which gave Archelaus legal rights. Not to mention the extreme unlikelihood that a non-elite woman would act in such a capricious way towards a strategos (a government official charged with both civil and military duties, as Archelaus was) (p 140). No, it must have been that Archelaus himself backed out of the agreement, requesting that Abi-adan annul the contract and refund his money. But why?

Esler spots the reason under our noses in P. Yadin 1 — and the reason for which that seemingly unrelated document is in the Babatha collection to begin with. The partner of that earlier transaction, Abad-Amanu, died soon after Archelaus bought the orchard in 99, and he was Archelaus’ father. At this point the woman (Amat-Isi) was still owed money under the loan agreement with her husband Muqima and Abad-Amanu. Esler argues that Nabatean law provided for universal succession (like the legal systems of Mesopotomia, Rome, and certain Judean provinces), which means that an heir (like Archelaus) received the entire estate of the deceased (Abad-Amanu), benefits and debt included. Amat-Isi would have been calling on Archelaus to pay Abad-Amanu’s debt, and his honor as a strategos was at stake. So he appealed to Abi-adan to rescind the bargain of P. Yadin 2. That turn of fate immensely benefited the Judean (Jewish) Shim’on, who was probably passed over the first go-around in favor of the strategos, and was now waiting in the wings to buy the orchard.

The mystery of P. Yadin 4

That triggers the second mystery, the one of P. Yadin 4, which survives as a fragmentary document without any legible names, but which Esler believes to allow more restoration than scholars have realized. Through brilliant detective work he shows that P. Yadin 4 is a grant (a cross between a gift and a sale, or a transfer of property where the return wasn’t necessarily a purchase price), and indeed the very grant mentioned in P. Yadin 3. Shim’on wanted to buy a larger portion of the orchard than Archelaus did, and Abi-adan was apparently planning to acquire that extra piece of orchard from a certain “son of Lutay”, who would give it to her as a grant. In P. Yadin 4 we have exactly that: someone saying that he will grant an orchard to a female.

More sleuthing on Esler’s part makes everything fall into place, as this “son of Lutay” emerges as the likely husband of Abi-adan. He acknowledges that he is debt to her in P. Yadin 4, and that he will reduce his debt by transferring the extra piece of orchard to her (which he was currently leasing to someone else, to expire in a few months). Esler points out that when men are indebted to women, it’s almost invariably the case of husbands indebted to their wives for having drawn on the wife’s dowry. Also, back in P. Yadin 3, Abi-adan and the son of Lutay are referred to together solely by their first names, which is a familiar manner of designation suggesting a married pair.

The relevance of Nabatean culture

Like any Philip Esler book, Babatha’s Orchard is prefaced by chapters of background history and cultural cues. I hadn’t realized how egalitarian the Nabateans were compared to their contemporaries, and that the ethic apparently pervaded all the way up to the kingship. Esler cites Strabo who describes the Nabatean king as a “man of the people” who served them at banquets, and who accounted for himself at popular assemblies where his means and methods were scrutinized. That’s a humble model of kingship hard to find elsewhere in the ancient Mediterranean.

Esler accounts for this in terms of the nomadic mindset. From their earliest days (in the fourth century BC) the Nabateans jealously guarded their independence and freedom. They were able to take refuge in the desert when forces invaded, and were hard for enemies to overcome because of secret wells they could access. Fredrik Barth has explained how nomadic household leaders had a freedom that was incompatible with the hierarchical structures of agrarian societies.

“Unlike a sedentary community, which persists unless the members abandon their house and land and depart, a camp community of nomads can only persist through a continuous re-affirmation by all its members. Every day the members of the camp must agree in their decision on the vital question of whether to move on, or to stay camped, and if they move, by which route and how far they should move. Every household head has an opinion, and the prosperity of the household is dependent on his decision.” (p 38)

Even after the emergence of a sedentary lifestyle and the kingship (in the second century BC), the Nabateans retained a nomadic dimension to their existence right up into the second century AD. The king and the elites were in sync with this.

This becomes relevant when Esler is able to illuminate things in surprising ways. For example, in his reconstruction, Amat-Isi (the woman of P. Yadin 1) called on Archelaus to collect the debt his father owed her. But Archelaus was a strategos, and in most places in the Mediterranean, it would have been a bold if not suicidal move on the part of a woman (or non-elite man, for that matter) to risk affronting an elite. As a rule, however, the Nabateans disdained elitist superiority and didn’t go out of their way to make life difficult for “presumptuous” commoners:

“Influenced by the nomadic traditions still operative among the Nabatean elite, Archelaus was not someone filled with his own sense of importance and was not likely to hold it against Amat-Isi in the future that she had asked him for the money his father had owed.” (p 224)

Not exactly how things worked in Judea and Galilee.

The Upshot

If I could write a book like Babatha’s Orchard, I’d be very proud. Rarely can scholars piece together missing and obscured information so compellingly, and in a way that allows us to read it as a story. Esler writes that story in the final chapter — how a Jew living in Nabatea bought a date-palm orchard from a woman after a high-ranking official failed to do so — bringing to life a complex web of events, personal motives, and social relations. It’s a story one could easily get a novel from. The book is also impressive as a study for its own sake and not as a means to an end. “I am not concerned,” says Esler, “to interpret New Testament texts against a social context known from the Nabatean legal papyri. Rather, I am seeking to understand better that context itself.” That’s fresh air, and the kind of thing I’d love to see more from our New Testament scholars.

The post-script to Babatha’s story is sad. In the Jewish revolt of 135 AD, she was captured by the Romans and in all likelihood killed or enslaved. But not before hiding her collection in a cave by the Dead Sea, to await discovery in 1961. Esler’s book honors her in the best possible way.