Democracy vs. Liberty

libertyAre the principles of democracy and liberty self-reinforcing, or do they stand in tension? Should the U.S. president be chosen by the people, or by a professional Constitutional-geared search committee?

In the original vision for America it was the latter. We often forget that the American Founders believed democracy could be as big a threat to liberty as governmental tyranny, and so they designed only one sixth of the federal government — half of the legislative branch, namely the House of Representatives — to be voted in democratically. Senators were chosen by their state legislatures (until 1913), Supreme Court justices were appointed by the president (and still are today), and the president was chosen by an electoral college (or by the House of Representatives if no candidate got votes from a majority of the electors). In the Founders’ vision only Representatives (Congressmen) were chosen by popular elections.

In the case of presidential elections, the Founders intended the electoral college to function essentially as a search committee that would forward a list of their top candidates for the presidency to the House. The Congressmen would then choose the president except in cases where there was a consensus among electors. The system never ended up working that way, but that was the original vision. In the nation’s first decades, the methods used by states to select their electors kept changing so that rather than having state legislatures choose them, they were chosen by the people directly. So in effect there was popular voting for the president despite the process outlined in the Constitution.

It was the seventh president Andrew Jackson (1829-37) who did the most by far to make presidential elections democratic in the way we think of them today. He is usually praised for this, but the catch is that popular opinion can be as treacherous as governmental tyranny. This has obviously been proven in the recent Brexit and Trump votes. (In America’s case, Trump lost the true popular vote, but the point is that in the hands of an electoral college operating in a manner envisioned by the Founders, someone like Trump would have never been nominated let alone win an election.) Jackson was a rather terrible president himself, though chosen and loved by “the masses”. It’s the story as old as Rome: democracy is a poisoned chalice. The historian Randall Holcombe says:

“What Andrew Jackson did not anticipate was that by making government officials more accountable to the general public, they would be more inclined to make decisions that pandered to popular opinion rather than sticking to the guidelines of the Constitution. The Founders had good reason for trying to insulate the actions of the federal government from the demands of popular opinion, but Jackson wanted to remove that insulation, making the federal government more accountable to the electorate. Jackson was successful, and his most lasting legacy is that he made the federal government more democratic and thus more oriented toward satisfying the demands of the voters than protecting their liberty.

“Jackson believed that liberty could be protected only by allowing the people to govern through majority rule. He saw democracy and liberty as self-reinforcing, because democratic oversight of the government would guard against its being taken over by a political elite and would prevent the elite government from pursuing policies that would benefit the elite few at the expense of the masses. The Founders felt otherwise, for two reasons. First, they did not believe that most people had the capacity to make thoughtful and informed decisions about their government. Second, they believed that rule by majority could be just as tyrannical as rule by a king, or rule by any elite group. Thus, they designed the government to be run by a political elite, constrained in its actions by the limiting powers of the Constitution.”

This cuts to the heart of my own duality. On the one hand I have a misanthropic streak favoring elitism. It may be a contemptuous thing to say, but people by and large are stupid and poorly informed and can be counted on to give up their liberties and/or vote against their own interests without realizing it. On the other hand I cherish the idea that every individual, no matter how ignorant, should have a say in who governs and leads them, and that they should participate in the voting process accordingly.

“With little imagination,” says Holcombe, “one can envision how American politics would be different today if the president were chosen by a search committee of knowledgeable electors not committed to any candidate, rather than by popular voting.” Certainly we wouldn’t have a disastrous Trump presidency. In any case, Andrew Jackson is the one largely to thank for the double-edged sword of our democratic presidential elections.

Quiz: Which President was most like Donald Trump?

Which president is MOST comparable to Donald Trump? No peeking at the answers below, until you choose.

(A) John Adams (2nd president)
(B) John Quincy Adams (6th president)
(C) Andrew Jackson (7th president)
(D) John Tyler (10th president)

 

joh(A) John Adams (2nd president, 1797-1801)

John Adams may be the last who comes to mind when you think of Donald Trump. He has a generally favorable image among most historians, but is rightfully censured by others. I consider him a terrible president. Like Trump he had a volcanic temper, exploding with little provocation. Many of Adams’ colleagues believed he was too unstable to be a leader, and that’s how many people feel about Trump.

The crucial commonality is tyranny, with respect to foreigners and also citizens who speak against the president and his policies. Adams used the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 with zeal. These four acts made it harder for an immigrant to become a citizen (Naturalization Act); allowed the president to imprison and deport any foreigners who were considered dangerous during peacetime (Alien Friends Act), or to imprison and deport any foreigners who had ties to a hostile nation (Alien Enemies Act); and then criminalized anyone, citizens included, who spoke out against the federal government (Sedition Act) — an egregious violation of free speech. One might wonder how these odious laws were even possible at such an early stage of American history. Supposedly they were “security” measures” because the nation was engaged in a semi-naval war with France, but in reality they were all domestic measures. Adams was just trying to insulate his Federalist Party and crush all opposition from the Democratic-Republicans. He punished journalists and others who spoke out against the government with huge fines and prison sentences.

Most of these laws, thankfully, were abolished when Jefferson took office in 1801 (though one of them, the Alien Enemies Act, is still on the books today, and was used by FDR in World War II). They were the worst assaults on civil liberties in all of American history (aside perhaps from Woodrow Wilson’s crackdowns during World War I). If Trump could get away with using laws like these today, he surely would, and he is already following their spirit. His hostility to immigrants and foreigners is beyond dispute, and he has openly disdained free speech and threatened to sue journalists and media figures (like Bill Maher) who “slander” him.

Award yourself 5 out of 5 points if you chose Adams. I believe he is the closest presidential analogy to Donald Trump.

j_quincy_adams__original(B) John Quincy Adams (6th president, 1825-1829)

Quincy-Adams and Trump share the commonality of pure self-allegiance — loyal to themselves and no one else or any party. Quincy-Adams was a Federalist who repeatedly sided with the Democratic-Republicans when it suited his purposes. Trump was once a Democrat but now a Republican; he was once pro-choice and now an anti-abortionist; etc.

But this is a rather superficial comparison. Quincy Adams was an average president, in Ivan Eland’s judgment for example, “never doing anything spectacularly good or spectacularly awful”. That description doesn’t fit the profile of Trump, who is spectacularly awful in every way.

Award yourself 2 out of 5 points if you chose Quincy Adams.

andrew-jackson-600(C) Andrew Jackson (7th president, 1829-1837)

Andrew Jackson will be the most obvious answer to many, and it’s even Trump’s own choice. It’s disturbing that he chose Jackson as “his” president to hang in the Oval Office. Perhaps he fancies himself a populist and champion of the common man, as Jackson was. Or maybe he emulates Jackson’s nasty temper; Jackson repeatedly got his way by intimidation, his opponents were terrified to cross him, and one biographer said that Jackson “hated with a Biblical fury and resorted to petty and vindictive acts to nurture his hatred”. Or it might be that Trump feels bonded to Jackson by voter-fraud paranoia; Jackson had claimed that the system was rigged after losing the first presidential bid in 1824. (Trump goes Jackson one better: he’s been bitching about the “rigged system” even after he won.)

But it could also well be that Trump feels inspired by Jackson’s worst claim to fame — the outrageous treatment of the Native American Indians, which aligns in some ways with his pernicious views of Hispanics and Muslims. Thomas Jefferson had set the precedent for ethnic cleansing over 20 years before Jackson, arguing that if the Indians would not assimilate into white society, then they had to be removed from their ancestral homelands and relocated to less desirable land further west. But Jackson was the president responsible for implementing Jefferson’s ethnic-cleansing policy on a grand scale. In 1830 he got Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act, driving Indians off lands that had been guaranteed to them by more than ninety treaties, using state militia to evict them from their homes, and sending them out on the infamous Trail of Tears, to die by the thousands en route to their new homes in the west. Incredibly, Jackson justified all this by saying that whites had left their homes to travel to new far-flung destinations, and the Indians were only being asked to do the same. This obviously ignores that (1) whites did this willingly, while the Indians were coerced and terrorized into doing so; and (2) whites were seeking advancement and better opportunities in the west, while Indians were being downgraded as they had to give up their homelands for poorer land in Oklahoma. One thing can certainly be said: Trump is just as anti-intellectual in rationalizing his bigoted policies for the Mexican wall and the moratoriums on Muslim countries.

Most of the similarities between Jackson and Trump are more apparent than real. When Trump entered the White House his approval rating was awful; it’s becoming clear to even those who voted for him that he is actually the opposite of a populist — a business man for the rich. Jackson was a populist in every way and revered by the people. Trump’s nastiness is that of a boor and a blowhard and a narcissist, and it’s unpredictably volcanic in the manner of someone like John Adams. Jackson’s temper was rooted in a genteel code of chauvinistic honor, that thoroughly disdained Trump-like vulgarity. He was a gentleman, in other words, when it came to women, and constantly fought hot-headed duels to protect their honor. If he had ever heard remarks about “pussy-grabbing”, he would have given Trump a thrashing without second thought. That leaves the Indian outrage as the only substantive point of contact — though that is an admittedly huge issue, as the bigotries of both presidents impact huge amounts of non-white peoples in ways that oppose what free societies stand for.

Award yourself 4 out of 5 points if you chose Jackson.

john-tyler(D) John Tyler (10th president, 1841-1845)

John Tyler and Donald Trump were belligerent kids: as a ten-year old, Tyler bound and gagged his schoolmaster and left him for dead; as a seven-year old, Trump punched his music teacher and gave him a black eye. In adulthood they became sexually coarse: as a 26-year old congressman, Tyler flung around lewd innuendos left and right, and when he took a second wife (who was 30 years younger than he), he openly bragged about his sexual prowess. Trump, of course, has become infamous for his “pussy-grabbing” statements.

But as with John Quincy Adams, the comparisons are superficial. On whole John Tyler was not only an excellent president, and vastly underrated, but in the judgment of a historian like Ivan Eland he was the #1 president of all time! He was cautious and restrained in his approaches to governing, and he courageously stood up to members of his own party (the Whigs) to preserve those ideals, which ruined his chances for a second term. He ended the longest Indian War in American history, and allowed the Seminoles to stay on their reservation in Florida rather than continue the Jeffersonian/Jacksonian ethnic-cleansing policy of sending them west of the Mississippi. He reduced troops in the U.S. army by 33%. And as a man with southern sympathies, he remarkably reached an agreement with Britain to jointly enforce a ban on the slave trade. If I were to rank the U.S. presidents, Tyler would easily make my top five.

Award yourself 2 out of 5 points if you chose Tyler, then dock yourself a point since Tyler was one of the best presidents of all time, if not the best (Trump will be one of the worst presidents of all time, if not the worst), for a total of 1 out of 5 points.

“Donald Adams Trump”?

In my opinion, Donald Trump is most like John Adams. Like the 2nd president, Trump has a dangerously unstable temperament, is hostile to immigrants and foreigners, and has no respect for free speech when he is the one being criticized. From here on, I’m calling him President Donald Adams Trump.

Cinematic Milestones: From Childhood to the Present

This is a personal chronicle of films that had the strongest impact on me, going back to my early childhood. It’s not necessarily a list of “favorite” films, though most of them obviously are. It’s more a reflection of what changed me — my approach to film and sometimes even life itself.

Childhood/Teen Years (Age 8-17)

I saw my first three films when I was eight: Across the Great Divide (1977), a family western about two orphans trying to get to Oregon in 1876 with the help of a shady gambler; The Rescuers (1977) a Disney animation about which I forget almost everything except for Evinrude the dragonfly, who transported people by pushing them in river-boats to the point of exhaustion (my family and I got endless mileage out of Evinrude); and then Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), which blew everyone’s mind it seems except mine. These were my cinematic foundations — narratives of adventure, hope, and the triumph of good will — and I would see many more like them in my years growing up. But they were never my thing. I was drawn to darker and tragic material from a very early point.

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1. The Exorcist, in 1979. I saw this unspeakable movie on TV, and it devastated my 11-year-old psyche. Groomed on family films like Across the Great Divide, I was unprepared for the most terrifying movie of all time — even the censored version for TV is the scariest thing you could ask for — and it’s a good thing I was staying over my best friend’s house that night. There’s no way I could have slept alone in a room right after watching The Exorcist, and I remember waking up and walking down the stairs in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, and then walking back up — it was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do in life up to that point. For years afterwards, images from The Exorcist would assault me at unexpected moments, the worst being at night, leaving me paralyzed and terrified of my own existence. It was a shameful, hideous secret I spoke to no one about because I couldn’t give it voice. Just thinking of The Exorcist upset me. Movies weren’t supposed to violate you like this. For the first time I felt the real power a film could have on its viewer (with a vengeance), and while it would eventually become my favorite film of all time, it left scars that I carry to this day.

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2. Conan the Barbarian, in 1982. The film that made me fall in love with film was my first R-rated theatrical outing, and it did a number on my 13 year-old sensibilities. Between scenes of graphic sex — especially Conan’s coupling with a vampire who goes rabid on him at the moment of orgasm — and a deluge of blood and gore, I was for the first time immersed in the world of cinematic adulthood. (Not counting The Exorcist, which I was still trying to suppress memory of.) But Conan also felt like a real-life Dungeons and Dragons game come to life. This was high adventure in which thieves robbed the temples of evil priests, rescued their victims, battled giant snakes, and stumbled on forgotten swords held in the clutches of cobwebbed skeletons. I was seeing the hobby that defined my life, come to life. The score showed me how important music is in film. Thundering brass and Latin chants roll over grim battle sequences, while variations of the main theme play at just the right moments; and the waltz for the orgy scene fits perfectly over the sex and cannibalism. By this point in my life, the first two Star Wars and Jaws films, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, had wowed most of the kids my age. Not me. Conan was my movie, and it holds up incredibly well today unlike other ’80s fantasies.

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3. Revenge of the Ninja, in 1983. Laugh it up. Yes, the ninja flicks of the ’80s haven’t aged well, and many of them were pretty bad to begin with. But Revenge of the Ninja was the godfather of ninja films, and despite the cheesy elements (which my 14-year old self was blind to), I would sooner watch it today than any of the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Superman, and Jaws movies that were cherished back in the day. Not only are the martial-arts fight sequences amazing by ’80s standards, they are worked into a powerful story of redemption. Sho Kosugi plays a warrior who has come to America and given up fighting, but takes it up again of necessity when his mother is killed and his son’s life threatened. The street fight/road chase, and final duel between the two ninjas on top of the skyscraper — using every martial arts stunt in the book — blew my mind and set the bar for what I looked for in fights and showdowns. Not until the martial arts battle in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill would these scenes be surpassed. When I bought the VHS I got more re-watch out of it than any other film. It also caused my long obsession with ninja weapons: my best friend and I bought stars, throwing knives, numbchucks, swords, climbing spikes, and yes, the ninja costumes too.

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4. The Shining, in 1984. The reason I could survive The Exorcist and stay sane was my love for all things scary — Halloween dress-up, Edgar Allen Poe, and TV movies like This House Possessed. When I saw The Shining, my psyche was again put to the test. I was too young to critically analyze what made Kubrick’s film an effective piece of terror. On some level I took in the one-point perspectives gliding the viewer through hotel halls, around hedge-maze paths, and over mountain roads; Jack Nicholson’s ferocious performances, Shelly Duvall’s hysterical ones, and Danny Lloyd’s incredibly believable reactions as a child; the nihilistic tone that (unlike Stephen King’s novel) didn’t allow that things would turn out okay. My heart stopped at many points: Danny’s vision of the hacked-up girls in the hallway, the look on Wendy’s face when she discovers Jack has been typing the same sentence over and over for weeks, and — especially this one — Jack’s face in the hotel painting at the end. That last frame is far more scary than King’s explosive climax. The film leaves no doubt that the “Caretaker” Jack Torrence lives on as the Overlook does. The Shining spoiled me (The Exorcist went beyond that; it nearly broke me), and since then I’ve waited years for another film to come along and affect me on that level. In vain.

Early Adulthood (Age 18-30)

When I entered college in the fall of ’87, I thought that films like Scarface, The Terminator, and The Fly were top of the line. How naive. There was a whole world of film I would soon be exposed to, not least classics from the ’70s Golden Age, like The Godfather, Chinatown, and Taxi Driver. But it was the following six that were my epiphanies in my early adulthood years.

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5. Blue Velvet, in 1987. I didn’t see this on big screen, but even on VCR Blue Velvet was nothing less than a conversion experience. Until this point I watched movies mostly to be thrilled. Now I saw that I could be thrilled, stimulated, provoked, and awed on multiple levels. It was the critical controversy that drew me into it. Roger Ebert’s nasty review is still talked about today and contrasted with other critics proclaiming it one of the best films of all time. My best friend was firmly on Ebert’s side, so we experienced the joy of controversy in our own disagreements. I started to understand what critical analysis was, and the power of the independent film. Blue Velvet assaulted me with sadism, sadomasochism, and full-blown lunacy, but around all the depravity is worked a stunning beauty, and like all of David Lynch’s films (as I would later discover) made me feel like I was inside a dream. It’s not even my favorite Lynch film (Fire Walk With Me and Mulholland Drive are the superior masterpieces), but it’s the one that most impacted me, and of all the milestones on this list it’s one of the most important. It showed me film’s almost limitless potential.

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6. Pulp Fiction, in 1994. When I returned from Peace Corps service in Africa, I was starving to catch up on all the great cinema I’d missed since November ’91 — Unforgiven, Fire Walk With Me, Last of the Mohicans, to name a few gems. Then came this landmine no one expected, which my friend and I saw on a whim. I laughed so hard in the theater that day I was choking, hardly able to believe what Pulp Fiction‘s characters were saying and doing. Hilarious bickering sessions accompanied acts of overblown violence, scenes that were instant classics — the pounding of the adrenaline needle into Mia’s heart (image above); Vince accidentally blowing Marvin’s brains out in the car, which he and Jules proceed to argue about as if they’d just been inconvenienced by spilling milk; and the infamous Ezekiel 25:17 killing. Pulp Fiction taught me many things: that absurdist theater works in the hands of a good director; that non-linear storytelling can be a great technique; that anything can be funny (even rape) if handled right; and above all, that writer-directors like Tarantino have an easier time pushing envelopes and upping the ante without going off the cliff. Tarantino has done even better since Pulp Fiction, but this is his film that educated me and then some.

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7. Seven, in 1995. Sue me for heresy, but I believe that Silence of the Lambs is overrated. (Especially compared to brilliant TV series Hannibal.) Seven is the serial-killer masterpiece which continues to impress me at the level it did at age twenty-seven. I felt like the film was written for me, as it fed my fascination with the seven deadly sins and the contrapasso punishments of Dante’s Inferno. What elevates Fincher’s film above greatness to masterpiece is the way John Doe wins in the end — “the box” has become an icon of our collective mindset like “Rosebud”. And even if the comparison seems absurd, Seven is pretty much perfect like Citizen Kane. There’s nothing to fault here: the atmosphere (always either dark or raining), the scoring (the prologue’s Nine Inch Nails song, and the library scene’s Air on the G-String in particular), the casting (I say Morgan Freeman’s and Kevin Spacey’s best roles), and above all for its dramatic tunnel into the depths of hell and the meticulously crafted climax, all of which combine to suggest a hopeless world, an ugly humanity, but with enough heroes like Somerset and Mills who for their flaws are willing to fight on regardless.

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8. From Dusk Till Dawn, in 1996. This one caught me off guard as it should, and remains the greatest example of how to switch genres mid-film. In that sense it taught me how bold filmmakers should be in breaking rules, just like Pulp Fiction, which is no surprise given that Tarantino wrote the script (besides co-starring in it). When that stripper finishes her table dance, From Dusk Till Dawn turns from a nasty hostage thriller into a vampire slaughter-fest — a hellish outpouring of exploding eyeballs, spraying guts, and stakes being pounded seven ways to Sunday through the beasts while every human being dies under their onslaught save two. I literally had no idea what this film was about — I just grabbed it off the rental shelf because it looked interesting — and as a result, I got the full gratification that comes with the switch of genre. And after all the rewatches I still can’t decide which half is better, which completely vindicates the gear-shifting. I wish more films would mess with audiences expectations like this. It’s a vicious piece of work, about a couple of psycho killers on the run from the law, and who abduct a man and his two kids, terrorize them, force them to drive over the border to Mexico, where at the Titty Twister bar, vampire hell breaks loose. It sounds insane and it is in the best ways.

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9. Rope, in 1997. This was the year I went on a Hitchcock craze. Vertigo is easily his most cinematic effort, his ultimate masterpiece, and certainly my favorite. Rope, however, left a deeper imprint. Some have called it a dark mirror to Rear Window, which also features Jimmy Stewart in a city apartment, but instead of being a spying outsider, he’s an insider to the crime scene. For me it’s the reason I fell in love with bottle dramas. It’s set in real time and uses incredibly long (10 minute) camera takes, and milks all its tension from the hideous secret lying in the chest on which dinner is being served. Two college students have killed a classmate for the sheer thrill of it, and are hosting a party to celebrate their act while the corpse lies hidden under everyone’s noses. We feel its crushing presence every moment, especially when conversations turn morbid, and Brandon and Rupert espouse theories of intellectual superiority and the killing of stupid people, to the astonishment of the other guests. Rope is based on the Leopold and Loeb case of 1924, and it was ballsy of Hitchcock to portray a gay couple as lead characters in the ’40s, and make one of them sympathetic to boot. Jimmy Stewart’s final thundering indictment comes as nighttime descends, neon lights flash in from the outside, and makes me want to punch the air every time.

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10. Eyes Wide Shut, in 1999. Kubrick’s final work proved to me that a snails-paced film could carry excitement in every frame, and it completed the process started by Blue Velvet twelve years before in turning me from a casual moviegoer into a cinephile. I can’t stress enough how it effected me and made me query my deepest, wildest desires. If David Lynch made me feel like I was inside a dream, Eyes Wide Shut accomplished the more ambitious task of making life itself seem like a dream. Every weird thing that happens to Dr. Bill on his night out — professions of love next to a patient’s corpse, a young girl’s seductions at a costume shop, and finally the orgy of masked performers — is real but hardly feels it. It struck me as an oblique Christmas Carol spin-off, as Dr. Bill wanders around New York encountering “ghosts” of sexual temptation, barely avoiding one disaster after the next, weighing the value of what he lusts for against the wedge that has come between him and his wife. (She had described a fantasy of cheating on him and he can’t stop imagining her fucking the man’s brains out.) There’s a Christmas tree in every other scene, and the aesthetic is staggering. But there’s not a slice of artistic pretension, unlike the Kubrick copycats who have so desperately tried to crack his code to cinematic purity.

The New Millenium (Age 31-40)

By the turn of the millenium I had given up on blockbusters and was shunning mainstream films with a snobby superiority that I didn’t have much right to. I’d be reversing myself in short order. The Fellowship of the Ring came out in Christmas of 2001, and for the next three years I was consumed by everything Lord of the Rings. I reread Tolkien, dug out my Middle-Earth RPG modules, and saw each of Peter Jackson’s films in the theaters over ten times. When the extended DVD versions were released the following years, I obsessed those too, as well as the DVD extras and audio commentaries. By around 2005 I came up for air again. But before all of that came another stage of my childhood nightmare.

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11. The Exorcist (Revisited), in 2000. News of the theatrical re-release made me wary. Of course, I had seen The Exorcist on VCR many times by now; I’d worked up the courage to tame my trauma back in ’85 when I was 16. But even at age 31, seeing this in a huge theater with deafening surround sound diminished me. I sat in my seat (all alone; I had the theater to myself, which was both good and bad) utterly petrified. In fact, I remember becoming so panic-stricken when the priests went up the stairs to begin the exorcism that I actually cried out. But while The Exorcist still scared the shit out of me, I could also process it as a film deserves and be awed by Friedkin’s flawless direction. It’s an artistic masterpiece in the style of an induced documentary, and a searing examination of the mystery of faith. It remains the mother of horror films because it presents exactly what you imagine a demon to be as it destroys a girl from the inside out. Regan is saved in the end, but at the expense of the priests, and the power of good over evil isn’t clear. I came out of the theater visibly shaken. Before going to my car I just stood for a minute and soaked in the sun, acutely aware of my limitations, grateful for my sanity.

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12. The Fellowship of the Ring, in 2001. When I heard that my favorite story was being adapted for a blockbuster, I cursed Peter Jackson, whoever he was, sure that he would massacre Tolkien beyond repair. Five minutes into The Fellowship of the Ring I was eating crow and spellbound, and for the next three hours I forgot everything about my life as I was swept into this spectacular incarnation of Middle-Earth. The Shire, Rivendell, and Lothlorien were all perfectly realized. The Nazgul were fearsome in the extreme, and I was blown away by their assault on Weathertop and ferocious chase of Arwen — my adrenaline rush matched the flood she unleashed on them. I cried with Frodo when Gandalf fell to the Balrog, and shared his awe of Galadriel’s ethereal might. I thought Boromir’s death and the breaking of the fellowship were so moving that they surpassed the book. This is the film that taught me blockbusters can have soul when in good hands. I have never been so alive in a theater as when watching The Fellowship of the Ring (twelve times throughout Dec ’01 and Jan ’02) and for that reason I consider it the most profound cinematic experience of my life. Though the next one is mighty close…

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13. The Return of the King, in 2003. This is an even better film than Fellowship, because it’s tragic on a biblical level and so emotional that I cried through the last 45 minutes — from the point of Frodo’s collapse on Mount Doom (“Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo?”), to Aragorn leading the hopeless charge on the Black Gate, to Frodo and Sam resigned to dying before the eagles come, to the hobbit reunion in the Houses of Healing, to finally the aching departure at the Grey Havens. Even before all of this, The Return of the King is on another scale from the previous two films. The Battle of the Pelennor Fields remains the best war sequence ever filmed, and though it lasts for about an hour, it never fatigues (unlike Helm’s Deep), with catapult stones that look like they’re about to fly out of the screen and pulverize you, winged Nazgul swooping down and snatching people up, the charge of Theoden’s Rohirrim, and the incredible Oliphant attack. It’s really close as to whether Fellowship or Return is more precious to me, though I give the slight edge to Fellowship for the sheer wonder I wasn’t prepared for. Return of the King is the miracle that does lasting justice to Tolkien’s heroes, who are noble failures and inspire for that reason.

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14. Sunshine, in 2007. After seeing Sunshine I bought another ticket and saw it again right away, which is something I’ve never done with any other film. It’s an underrated suspense masterpiece, and ten years later still hasn’t undergone any serious reassessment. It’s strange that of the zillions of outer-space films, none have bothered to focus on the sun — the most important and dangerous body in our solar system. Here the sun is dying, and so a space crew embarks on a mission to drop a nuclear bomb into the core of the sun, which will hopefully reignite it. Right from the start the mission becomes one calamity after the next, and the crew members have to sacrifice themselves, even to the point of contemplating murdering the one of them “least fit” in order to save oxygen. There is also the subplot of a hideously disfigured religious fanatic who believes God wants humanity to die, and does everything he can to slaughter the crew. There are homages to Alien and outer space claustrophobia, but for my money, Sunshine is (yes) better than Alien, and I adore that masterpiece to begin with.


15. Juno, in 2007. This one might cause a double-take. It should be obvious by now that I’m no fan of comedies. But Juno is so good that I watched it three times when I rented it, and then bought the DVD the next day. I had a crush on Ellen Page anyway, and she was born to play this snarky teen who contemplates abortion but decides to have the baby despite her take-it-for-granted feminism, and give it to a wealthy couple. It’s not only the best comedy I’ve seen, but also the best film involving the abortion question, for the way it has confounded and misled people who think it promotes an anti-abortion agenda. It does nothing of the sort. Against the pro-choice objectors, Juno doesn’t glorify teen pregnancy; against the pro-life crowd it doesn’t present an exemplar in its lead character. It’s about a particular girl’s choice, clearly established, and how that choice affects others for better and worse. You can watch the film many times; there’s none of the cheesy sentimentality that mars most comedies like this. Even supporting characters like the stepmother (stepmothers are usually unsympathetic and awfully stereotyped) are genuinely likeable. It showed me that comedies can be endearing when they don’t try so damn hard.

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16. Doubt, in 2008. When a film refuses certainty about anything and everything it runs the risk of copping out, but Doubt gains conviction the more it pushes its theme to every possible extreme. We never find out for sure if the priest had an affair with his altar boy. When things point alarmingly in that direction, we get smacked with a mother who thinks that isn’t so bad: through tears she insists to an inquisitorial nun that Father Flynn is a good refuge for her probably gay son, who is beaten at home by an abusive father. Scenes like that are upsetting and test hard ideas in a world that pathologizes eroticism between adults and youths. And we’re never sure what to believe or how to feel, because the evidence is murky and the priest is a sympathetic character. He’s a progressive Vatican II thinker (the film is set in 1964), while the nun who thinks he’s a predator is antiquated and feared by the students for her disciplinary methods. The four pivotal scenes of extended dialogue are brilliant; every line of that dialogue earns its keep; and Doubt shows that a stage-play based film can produce more searing tension than the best action thrillers.

Midlife (Age 41+)

The current decade has been excellent for film. To name a few gems, the Coen Brothers remade True Grit; Quentin Tarantino gave the awesome westerns Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight (both of which surpass even Pulp Fiction, in my opinion); Abdellatif Kechiche portrayed a powerful love story between two girls in Blue is the Warmest Color; and Robert Zemeckis managed a visceral re-enactment of Philippe Petit’s wire-walk between the towers of the World Trade Center in The Walk. The following four, however, were the milestones for me, two of which are older films.

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17. Cries and Whispers, in 2010. Soon after my father died I began obsessing the films of Ingmar Bergman. They made me confront the worst in myself, but especially Cries and Whispers. It’s about a woman dying of cancer in her home, tended to by her maid and two sisters who loathe each other. When I saw it I was struck by two things. First is that I’ve never found a movie so painful to watch. The hurt on display is relentless; facial contortions, gasps, and screams so awful it doesn’t seem like acting. The use of red color permeates everything and accentuates the world of hurt. And there’s plenty of emotional trauma to match the physical assault of Agnes’ cancer: the sisters feed off each others faults with raging insecurity. Second is that this film is basically The Exorcist — it was released only a year before, and its influence on that film is hardly subtle — except the demon is the disease of cancer from which there is no liberation; Agnes dies in the end. You can see how clearly Friedkin was inspired by Bergman — the clock imagery, house atmosphere, bed agony, and self-harm. Cries and Whispers resonated for me on these levels and helped me face my mortality for the first time.

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18. The Tree of Life, in 2011. For years I’d wanted to see a cinematic meditation on the book of Job, and The Tree of Life gave me more than I bargained for. The 20-minute cosmos sequence accomplished what the text of Job 38:4 tried. I felt truly humbled by celestial mysteries. It didn’t exactly make me feel better about the problem of theodicy (why the innocent suffer), but the visual canvass with Lacrimosa playing over it triggers a perspective: our tragedies look admittedly small in the grand scheme of things. The film examines an American family of the ’50s within this macrocosm of evolution, and also within a dialectic of nature vs. grace: “Grace doesn’t try to please itself,” comes the mother’s voice-over at crucial juncture: “It accepts being slighted, insults, and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself, and to get others to please it.” And yet graces emerges not as something which contradicts nature (even if it is its conceptual opposite), but rather something inherently part of it, or complementing it, or mutating from it. The final sequence is an afterlife vision — something that wasn’t available to Job’s author — a fantasy we cling to in order to cope with our losses, though not necessarily an unhealthy one. I felt God’s breath in The Tree of Life, and that’s no light praise from a secular agnostic.

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19. Little Men, in 2016. Along with the TV series Stranger Things, this film was last year’s salute to the freedom of youth. Stranger Things did this in a science-fiction/horror context; Little Men did it in a social parable. I have a strong attachment to Jake because he reminds me of my own friendship at that age with an uninhibited extrovert like Tony. When I moved out of town I never really saw him again, so the unpleasant separation of these two at the end hit close to home. Also, I watched Little Men the day after the election (Nov 9), when I was feeling rather suicidal over Donald Trump’s victory. This was the movie I needed to see: a film that celebrates difference despite the avalanche of parental roadblocks. Jake is Caucasian and middle-class, Tony is Chilean and poor, and their friendship grows the more their parents become enemies. In the end Tony and his mother are evicted for not being able to keep up with rising rents, and I cried with Jake; after election day this film was a serious trigger for me in light of Trump’s screeds against Hispanic people. Taplitz and Barbieri are allowed to play their roles with simple and understated tones that makes you feel you’re watching the everyday lives of real people, and for me it’s a very special film.

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20. Leon the Professional, in 2017. My latest milestone was actually released in the ’90s, but I’m glad that for whatever reason I missed it in the theaters. It took the child sidekick trope and had the nerve to turn it into a love story, but the American version removed the love-story part — 25 minutes worth of scenes that show a 12-year old girl lusting for a guy in his 40s — which is the whole damn point. The international version was later made available on DVD, and it’s an uncensored masterpiece. Obviously a film like this stands or falls on the child, and Natalie Portman nailed it in what I consider the best kid performance of all time. Her character, Mathilda, is a girl whose family gets gunned down by corrupt DEA agents, and so she hooks up with the hitman Leon in her distress. She gets an instant crush on him and he doesn’t 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. This film showed me that even the wildest ideas can succeed under a good script and amazing acting talent. I love Leon to pieces.

In short, these films are milestones because…

The Exorcist, for its complete hold on me.
Conan the Barbarian, for making me love movies.
Revenge of the Ninja, for incredible rewatch value.
The Shining, for what true terror looks like.
Blue Velvet, for awakening me to film’s potential.
Pulp Fiction, for breaking all the rules.
Seven, for the most merciless film in the Hollywood mainstream.
From Dusk Till Dawn, for changing genre halfway through.
Rope, for the power of bottle drama.
Eyes Wide Shut, for pure undistilled artistry.
The Exorcist, for continuing to impact me like no other film.
Fellowship of the Ring, for making me feel alive and the magic real.
Return of the King, for tragedy and emotional transcendence.
Sunshine, for the best apocalyptic film and space thriller and examination of the human condition.
Juno, for redeeming the comedy genre.
Doubt, for blasting the unholy trio of righteousness, gossip, and certainty.
Cries and Whispers, for helping me face my mortality.
Tree of Life, for my most sacred cinematic experience.
Little Men, for channeling my youth as I near 50.
Leon the Professional, for proving there are no limits to wild ideas.

“God is all for immigration”: A fundamentalist-Bible proof

hqdefaultOver ten years ago, Pastor Steven Anderson proved from the bible that God is all for immigration (May 7, 2006). It’s interesting that this sermon is being recirculated online in view of the current “Muslim ban”, which deserves a few comments before getting to Anderson’s argument.

Some are defending Trump’s executive order by noting that it isn’t really a ban on Muslims entering the country, but only a moratorium (temporary halt) on immigration from seven particular jihadist hotspots. While that is correct, it’s not the most compelling justification, given that Saudia Arabia isn’t on the list, even though it spends millions of dollars promoting jihadist warfare all over the world, and even though most of the 9/11 hijackers came from there. Not a single American has been killed by a citizen of any of the seven banned countries in 40 years, so the question is why do we need a moratorium for proper vetting to occur?

On the other hand, Trump’s critics aren’t always on the ball. Their claim that places like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Lebanon were excluded from the order because of Trump’s business interests is highly questionable. The list of seven countries was established in laws signed by Obama in the last two years, and Trump’s executive order does not even list the seven countries by name except (obviously) Syria. It simply refers to the “countries referred to in section 217(a)(12) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12).” All Trump did was lift a preexisting template. I’m not saying it’s a good one, and I don’t support a moratorium in any case — not even against a place like Saudi Arabia. It’s just not a proper way of dealing with refugee plights, and I believe it’s also an ineffective counter to the (very real) jihad threat. But let’s not spin-doctor Trump’s motives either.

On to Anderson’s sermon…

The sermon is noteworthy because Anderson is a renowned hate-preacher (at least when it comes to gay people) and he is so hardcore in his fundamentalist beliefs that he has been disowned by most other fundies. So when he goes out of his way to condemn Donald Trump as an “abomination to the Lord”, and that anyone who supports Donald Trump is “wicked as hell” (see here), and on top of that defends the rights of immigrants in the eyes of God, with assertions that Muslims or anyone else should be able to come and practice their religion in the U.S. without any governmental interference — well, that’s rather saying something.

Here is his biblical proof:

**** God is all for immigration****. “Everyone in America is an immigrant,” says Anderson, “except for the Native American Indians,” and so anyone opposing immigration sets themselves against God’s will. Against those who say that the less people we have, the better off we are, God’s wisdom says that the more people we have, the better off we are (Proverbs 14:28). God, moreover, specifically tells his followers to welcome and love the immigrant:

  • “The stranger (immigrant) that dwells with you shall be as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:34).
  • “You shall neither vex a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21; cf.23:9; Leviticus 19:33).
  • Ruth wondered why she should receive grace, given that she was an immigrant from Moab. Yet Boaz took care of her anyway, and told others to treat her well. (Ruth 2:10-16)

Anderson offers the following caveats:

1. Immigrants must obey the laws of the land. God, in other words, doesn’t approve illegal immigration. Natives and immigrants are bound by the same laws: “You shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger as for one of your own country” (Leviticus 24:22). No double standards are allowed.

2. Immigrants must learn the language of the land. Anderson appeals to the example of Nehemiah, who went ballistic over immigrants who couldn’t speak native Hebrew: “I saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab; and half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah. And I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take oath in the name of God, saying, ‘You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves.'” (Nehemiah 13:23-25)

3. Immigrants can practice their religion, but they must respect the religion of the land. Anderson is a staunch libertarian: “Immigrants should have freedom of religion, and to practice whatever religion they want. If they want to be a Muslim, that’s fine. God bless them, I don’t want them to be forced to be a Christian, I’m totally against that. I’m 100% for religious freedom.” But he also believes they must respect Christianity in the way immigrants had to respect the Israelite faith in Old Testament times: “When they start blaspheming the religion of the land, they cross the line (Leviticus 24:16). They can practice whatever religion they want, but they have no right to come here and badmouth the religion of the land, or to try and change it.”

Anderson says, “I’m probably the most non-racist person you’ve ever laid eyes on in your life. I’m not racist at all. If half of this nation was Hispanic, or if 75% of this nation was Hispanic, or if 99% was Hispanic, or black, or anything, I would be thrilled. But what I’m against is when they say, ‘I don’t want to be like an American with freedom. I want to bring my culture and my language and change your country, so it can be like the hell-hole that I came from.'”

That last may not be the most diplomatic way of putting it, but for a fundamentalist of Anderson’s stripe, his biblical case for immigration is, on whole, rather impressive. I certainly wouldn’t object to hearing it preached from more pulpits across the nation.

The Problem of Ranking U. S. Presidents

recarving_2nd_1800x2700Ivan Eland has offered a new approach to ranking the U.S. presidents, and it’s one that I both applaud and have reservations about.

His book is called Recovering Rushmore (2014, now updated to include Obama) and its hall of fame/shame is based on (1) the degree to which a president’s policies promoted peace, prosperity and liberty, and (2) the president’s adherence to the Constitution’s limitations on presidential powers. This opposes the criteria used by most historians, who tend to reward a president who happens to serve in a time of crisis and by expanding his presidential power. And herein lies the rub. As a libertarian I largely approve Eland’s criteria, but as a left-leaning libertarian I’m not as hostile to executive activism when it comes to fiscal benefits (the prosperity category) for the common good.

I agree with Eland entirely when he criticizes rankings based on a president’s charisma, oratory skill, and/or management style. People who want an inspiring speaker basically want a class president instead of a real president. Charisma is a nice bonus, but that’s it.

Eland also scores for non-partisanship. For example, he skewers the Republican Bush and Democrat Obama for their many indistinguishable policies. Both started and escalated needless wars, toppling Islamic dictators which paved the way for jihadist groups that have been far worse. Both restricted civil liberties in the fight against terrorism, and both ignored the plight of the working middle class. Precisely because of all of this we now have a demagogue (Trump) who will likely be the worst president in history.

Meanwhile, in Eland’s judgment, the Republican Eisenhower and Democrat Carter come off rather well. Eisenhower minimized American involvement and intervention, and made sound decisions that helped the economy. Carter, while inheriting the stagnation caused by the Vietnam War, fostered economic policies that eventually led to the prosperity of the Reagan years and set a precedent for renewed prosperity during the Clinton years.

Anyway, here’s Eland’s list, followed by a list from the American Political Science Association for comparison. The greatest value to be taken from Eland is his critique of charismatic activists. As a species I believe we are drawn to such figures. We experience the pull of “good leaders”, forgetting that bland personalities who show executive restraint can be just as good leaders — and often better ones. Right now we have a president who doesn’t understand the meaning of restraint at all, and precedents for executive overreach don’t help matters.

The Excellent

1. John Tyler (1841-1845)
2. Grover Cleveland (1885-1889; 1893-1897)
3. Martin van Buren (1837-1841)
4. Rutherford Hayes (1877-1881)

The Good

5. Chester Arthur (1881-1885)
6. Warren Harding (1921-1923)
7. George Washington (1789-1797)
8. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
9. Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961)
10. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)

The Average

11. Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
12. John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)
13. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)
14. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)

The Poor

15. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)
16. Gerald Ford (1974-1977)
17. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)
18. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933)
19. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877)
20. William Howard Taft (1909-1913)
21. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)
22. John Adams (1797-1801)
23. James Buchanan (1857-1861)
24. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)

The Bad

25. James Monroe (1817-1825)
26. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)
27. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)
28. James Madison (1809-1817)
29. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)
30. Richard Nixon (1969-1974)
31. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)
32. Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969)
33. George H.W. Bush (1989-1993)
34. Barack Obama (2009-2017)
35. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
36. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
37. George W. Bush (2001-2009)

The Atrocious

38. James Polk (1845-1849)
39. William McKinley (1897-1901)
40. Harry Truman (1945-1953)
41. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)

What catches the eye in the “Bad” category are the placements of figures like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. According to Eland, Jefferson claimed to be for small government, but did things that proved otherwise, such as imposing a trade embargo that stifled liberties and led to hunger and starvation. His Louisiana Purchase was unconstitutional, and his ethnic cleansing of the Native American Indians set a bad precedent (followed especially by Andrew Jackson). As for Lincoln, he pursued the Civil War ineptly, and if it ended slavery, African Americans hardly experienced more freedom in the face of white southerners who were bitter over the war. In Eland’s very strong view, peaceful alternatives to Lincoln’s policies would have achieved better results and far more quickly.

As for the last four, they earn their shameful slots on Eland’s list for steering America into completely needless wars that changed us for the worst. (1) Polk started a war with Mexico to steal a third of its land and by doing so inflamed regional tensions that eventually led to the Civil War. (2) McKinley made America into an imperialist Britain by prosecuting the Spanish-American War and acquiring colonies. (3) Truman turned a local war in Greece into a cold war against the Soviets, which led to the creation of the security state, an imperial presidency, and trashed the traditional requirement that the American people, rather than the president, decide if war is needed. (4) Wilson (besides being an overt racist) took America into the disastrous World War I, which laid the seeds for the Bolshevik Revolution and Hitler’s rise to power. I think Eland is too hard on Truman, but most of this is right, and in particular McKinley is the one who laid the foundations for turning America into a trans-world empire.

The American Political Science Association

Compare Eland’s list to a more standard ranking from the American Political Science Association based on a survey of historians and scholars.

Someday…

… I may do my own ranking of the presidents, which would mediate between the approach of Eland and the one above. The peace/liberty criteria is at odds with the hero/hands-on model, yet I believe each has its place.

I can at least agree with the combined assessments of Recovering Rushmore and The American Political Science Association on this point: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were the best two presidents of my lifetime (post-1968), and George W. Bush was the worst. So they’re each doing something right.

Ten Great Religious Films

Religious films have a reputation for poor design and cheesy acting, but there are good ones if you know where to look. People have asked me for a religious pick list in the past, and Martin Scorsese’s Silence finally inspired me to write one up. Here they are, in my opinion, ten truly great religious films of all time.

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1. The Seventh Seal. Ingmar Bergman, 1957. If there was only one religious film I could save, it would be this one. It sounds a bit boring when described (a knight plays chess with Death), but it’s the knight’s journey around the game’s intervals, through a land struck by plague and fanaticism, and his attempts to penetrate God’s mysteries, that drive the story. It opens with the citation of Revelation 8:1: “When he broke open the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour”. Bergman was obsessed with the silence of God in the world (see also entry #10 on this list), and in The Seventh Seal he ties that theme with mortality, existential dread, and apocalyptic fears. It’s set in the 14th century, as the crusades were becoming obsolete, and when modern anxieties queried even more basic aspects of the Christian faith. For example, in his futile quest for meaning, the knight’s best reach comes by enjoying a simple meal of wild strawberries and milk in the countryside with a peasant man and wife. The strawberries meal seems to contrast with the ritualized Eucharist liturgy. But there’s also huge entertainment in The Seventh Seal — bar brawls, apocalyptic tirades, insult contests, self-mutilation, and a witch-burning to top it off — that the theological side helpings make it one of the most balanced arthouse films I know. The final scene (above image) is my favorite frame from any film: the Dance of Death. If it is indeed this nihilistic dance that awaits us all, at least Bergman allows us to enjoy some comforts and unexpected epiphanies, and through a great cast of characters, before we get there.

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2. The Tree of Life. Terrence Malick, 2011. This meditation on suffering was inspired by the book of Job, in which God replies to his servant’s anguish not by having the courtesy to answer the question, but by hubristically displaying His creation: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. (Job 38:4) This is what the 20-minute cosmos sequence is about, a stunning Big-Bang/evolution snapshot that makes us feel humbled by celestial mysteries. While it didn’t exactly make me feel better about the problem of theodicy (why the innocent suffer), the amazing visual canvass with Lacrimosa playing over it (you can watch the sequence here) helps put the matter in perspective in a way that words off the scriptural page cannot do so well. Our tragedies look admittedly small in the grand scheme of things. Basically, Malick takes an American Catholic family of the 1950s and frames them within this macrocosm of evolution, and also within a dialectic of nature vs. grace: “Grace doesn’t try to please itself. It accepts being slighted, insults, and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself, to get others to please it too, and to find reasons to be unhappy.” What’s interesting, however, is that grace emerges in this film not as something which contradicts nature (even if it is its conceptual opposite), but rather something inherently part of it, or complementing it, or mutating from it. The film ends on a spiritual apocalypse that could move an atheist: the yearning for reunion in some form of afterlife, even if that’s a hopeless fantasy we cling to in order to cope with our losses.

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3. There Will Be Blood. Paul Anderson, 2007. This blistering attack on the prosperity gospel was almost enough to make me renounce my capitalist convictions. Set in 1911, it’s about a man’s rise from poverty (a miner) to riches (an oilman), and his relationship with a young pastor who offers faith-healing and hypocrisy to those who dare the doors of his grim church. Daniel is a mean and hateful man, who has no friends and just wants to become filthy rich. The pastor is Eli, who is just as greedy but doesn’t want to get his hands dirty; Daniel scorns religion but has no problems using it as a means to an end. The middle and final scenes define this relationship. In the first, Daniel arrives at the Church of the Third Revelation and suffers a humiliating baptism which involves him screaming his confessions at the congregation and Eli slapping his face: “You will never be saved if you reject the blood,” warns Eli, a statement loaded with irony since there is plenty of real blood on Daniel’s hands. The final scene sixteen years later reverses the humiliation. Eli has become a failure and needs money, and Daniel (now an obscenely rich drunk and more mean-spirited than ever) says he will give Eli money if his admits that he’s a false prophet and God is a fiction. Eli confesses this, and Daniel finishes his revenge by clubbing him to death. Blood spills from everywhere throughout this film — from the land (oil), people, and the Lamb Himself — and critics are right to call it a masterpiece of rare vision. It’s about greed and evangelism eating each others tails.


4. Doubt. Patrick Shanley, 2008. When a liberal priest is accused of having an erotic interest in one of his altar boys, one nun becomes convinced of his innocence while another is certain otherwise. We aren’t sure what to believe or how to feel, because the evidence is murky and the priest a sympathetic character. He’s progressive for the year 1964, while the inquisitorial nun (Sister Aloysius, above image) laments Vatican II. The pivotal scene is the conversation between Aloysius and the boy’s mother, who basically tells the nun to just let the priest have his way with her son, in a jaw-dropping and surprisingly compelling argument, given her limited options as an African-American woman of the time period. She isn’t wild about her son’s friendship with the priest, but thinks it’s a refuge from life at home under a violently abusive father, who hates and beats the boy for “his nature” (apparently the boy’s gay orientation is being signaled at an early age). That’s a hard idea in our world today which pathologizes eroticism between adults and youths, and that is part of Doubt’s challenge. It’s easy to like the priest for many reasons, not least his fantastic sermons. The opening one on doubt (being “a bond as creative and sustaining as certainty”) and the middle one on gossip (which skewers the two nuns wonderfully) are brilliant. Everyone has doubts to the end. Whatever the precise relationship between the priest and boy, it may not be a predatory one, though my guess is that it probably is, given the way the priest gets overly defensive about the obscure reason why he had to leave a previous parish.

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5. Silence. Martin Scorsese, 2017. Scorsese’s occasional forays into religion — The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997) — have been so bad that I set my expectations low for this one, but he finally hit a home run. Silence is as brilliant as his gangster films, and a special treat for someone like myself who loves Shogun. That novel is set in 1600, in the middle of Japan’s “Christian century” (1543-1635), and portrays the complex history of the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries. Oda Nobunaga had welcomed them in 1568 in order to obtain guns and cannons for his military campaigns (though he was also genuinely impressed by the rigors of Jesuit life, while despising the hypocrisies of the Buddhist clergy); Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the next unifier who loathed Christians, issuing an edict to expel them in 1587, and then crucifying a whole bunch of them in 1597; with the ascension of Ieysu Tokugawa and the establishment of his shogunate in 1600 (to last until 1868), attitudes towards Christians became ambivalent, until finally in 1635 Christianity was banned and inquisitorial methods were devised to root out practicing Catholics. It is this “post-Christian” period in the late 1630s that Silence draws us into, and Scorsese is just as good as Clavell in resisting sides. The film is no more a liberal critique of western colonial power than it is a Mel-Gibson-like 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.

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6. Love Exposure. Sion Sono, 2009. To celebrate sexual deviance in a context of religious dogma is a bold strike, and Love Exposure pushes more envelopes than South Park and Borat combined. It’s a four-hour sprawl of religious guilt, sexual frustration, family feuds, industrial pornography, and peek-a-panty photography — the last involving street boys who look up girls’ skirts while camouflaging their camera shots with hilarious martial-arts acrobatics. It’s impossible to summarize without sounding ludicrous, but be assured that critics and audiences love it. I fell absolutely in love with Yu and his quest for the right girl — his “Virgin Mary” as it were. He’s a genuinely good kid, but driven by the need to sin in retaliation against his repressive father, a Catholic priest who treats him horribly in the confessional booth. On the street he finds his dream girl, Yoko, who unfortunately despises men, and yet falls in love with Yu anyway because she thinks he’s a woman since he’s dressed in drag (again: it all sounds too absurd to make time for, but trust me, it works). Things get even crazier when another girl, Koike, comes between them and manipulates them in psychotic ways. While Yu is a product of religious repression, Koike is the product of religious abuse (repeatedly raped by her father until she castrated him) and a destructive sociopath. I felt like these characters were my family by the end of four hours (which seemed more like two and a half), and for all the absurdist comedy, the message about Catholic dogma, new wave cults, and the ultimate nobility of perversion is a very serious one.

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7. The Witch. Robert Eggers, 2016. This horror film was misleadingly marketed to give the impression of a mainstream effort with loud bangs and cheap thrills. It’s far better than that, and a religious film primarily, as the characters obsess God and their purity of purpose. Set in 1630s Colonial America (interestingly, the same period of Scorsese’s Silence), decades before the Salem Witch trials, the story tells of a Puritan family who leave their plantation and settle miles away in isolation from other people. This forest border happens to be the home of a witch, who wastes no time lashing out at them, first by snatching their newborn infant under a game of peek-a-boo and stabbing it to death, and eventually by possessing the 11-year old son who dies screaming a prayer by John Winthrop (one of the Puritan founders of New England) in near orgasmic ecstasy. Not being familiar with the writings of Winthrop, I thought this was some kind of pagan perversion of a Christian prayer, given the erotic overtones (which I should have known better as derived from the Song of Songs). The boy is, to be sure, still in thrall to the witch’s possession at this point, but it’s not clear how much, and it’s incredibly scary. He dies after shouting this litany, and it’s pretty much heads or tails whether he’s saved or damned. The film doesn’t exactly choose sides between Christian zeal and pagan blood rites. If there’s any moral contrast, it’s between the misery and liberation of the eldest daughter, who is falsely accused by her family for being a witch, and then in the end becomes one. There is much to admire in the Puritan zeal, and much not to, as it turns out.

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8. Noah. Darren Aronofsky, 2014. In some ways Noah is a boilerplate blockbuster, but I love it to pieces for the way it reinterprets the flood through Gnostic and Judeo-Christian filters almost impartially. And if it channels Lord of the Rings grandiosity, that works too, because the first eleven chapters of Genesis are complete myth — the same sort of mythic pre-history that Tolkien intended by Middle-Earth. So when we see giant rock creatures (the Watchers) and bits of magic here and there, it somehow makes the story of Gen 6-9 seem as it should. It’s a sweeping epic, but a grim one that doesn’t soft-peddle God’s act of genocide. Noah and his family are commissioned to preserve the animal creation while humanity is wiped out — because people, in God’s eyes, deserve nothing less. Noah turns homicidal like his Creator, as he plans to murder his daughter-in-law’s babies. Don’t listen to complaints that the theme of divine vengeance has been anachronistically aligned with pagan environmentalism or vegetarianism. If Christians knew their bibles, they would know that a significant amount of “environmentalism” can be derived from scripture; and if we’re going to be proper fundies, we would acknowledge that God didn’t add meat to the human diet until after the flood (Gen 9:3). Noah isn’t pro-environmental in any true modern sense, though it can resonate with some viewers on that level. It is a dark chapter of the bible come to life, with a great realization of the Ark and epic battle scene that rivals Peter Jackson’s Ents. But it also forces the hard issues of Job, the Saul and David stories, and the apocalypse of Revelation.

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9. Jesus of Montreal. Denys Arcand, 1989. This reinvention of the passion play is, to be sure, a critique of orthodox Christianity but fires especially on secularist evils — fame, the media, and the contempt actors suffer in the commercial industry. It takes place in ’80s Montreal where a Catholic priest hires a talented actor to direct the annual passion play, but he wants him to get creative and rework the stations of the cross for a more modern consumption. The priest gets more than he bargained for. Using the latest of biblical scholarship, the actor (Daniel) casts himself as Jesus and with four other actors turns out a passion play in which Jesus is an illegitimate bastard sired by a Roman soldier, and less interested in making people feel good than terrifying them with lines from the Abomination of Desolation (Mark 13). The priest is outraged and does his damnedest to stop the project, but Daniel and his group persist and continue to draw crowds. Not only that, but Daniel’s personal life begins to strangely mimic Jesus’, especially in two pivotal scenes. The first summons the moneylenders in the temple, when an actress auditions for a TV commercial and is told to remove her clothes simply because the casting director wants to humiliate her. Daniel bounds to his feet and tells her to leave, and then overturns the lights, cameras, and tables. The second scene comes at the end, where Daniel delivers an incredibly haunting version of the Markan Apocalypse before collapsing on the subway station. Most Jesus films are lame; Jesus of Montreal is genius — the best Jesus film of all time.

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10. The “Silence of God” Trilogy. Ingmar Bergman, 1961-63. I didn’t want to use any film director more than once, but there’s no escaping it with Bergman. His “Silence of God” trilogy is sometimes called the “Faith Trilogy”, but that’s rather misleading considering that Bergman is always about the impotence of faith. Each film stands on its own, but it’s helpful to watch them sequentially as they escalate the riddle of God’s existence: from the spiritual frustration suggesting God as sinister (Through a Glass Darkly), to the anger questioning his existence (Winter Light), to finally accepting there are no answers, though the search for answers remains important (The Silence). The first is a character examination of incest and psychological breakdown; it was my first Bergman film and I fell in love with Harriet Anderson (above image) completely. The second is a theological interrogation that shows a pastor, furious at God’s indifference, breaking his own “silence” towards the kindest woman with an avalanche of brutality. The third carries the theme of silence to its symbolic extreme, with non-communication pervading every level: two sisters stay at a grotesque hotel and retreat into their own silences/dysfunctions of sexual promiscuity and alcoholism. It adds up to a brilliant symphony which reflects Bergman’s evolution away from a doubtful Christianity. All the more ironic is that his secular humanism became even more doubtful, and I find myself revisiting these chamber pieces to get a handle on my own schizophrenic tensions between religion and humanism.

David Lynch: Looking Back

David Lynch is the one responsible for showing me film’s boundless potential. It was a near conversion experience for me when I saw Blue Velvet thirty years ago, and I remember being taken aback by the controversy. It taught me that when films polarize people to the point that critics are yelling at each other, the haters are more likely the problem. I’m revisiting his work in celebration of Blue Velvet‘s 30th anniversary. To watch these films is to be inside the most unnerving dreams.

1. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. 1992. 5 stars. This has a bad reputation even among Lynch fans, and I used to have my own reservations when judging it as a Twin Peaks prequel. It’s essential to get a distance from the TV show and treat it as a standalone piece, and when you do, an entirely different film emerges. The scoring is brilliant and the acting flawless. It’s Lynch’s cruelest film, more so than even Blue Velvet, containing scenes in Laura’s bedroom so terrifying they make parts of The Shining look tame. Basically Laura has processed years of rape at the hands of her father by creating a delusional mythology: the TV series implied that Leland is innocent and possessed by an evil spirit, but the film exposes that for a lie: he’s a monstrous scumbag. This is an extremely terrifying horror film (my second favorite after The Exorcist) and a character piece in contrast to the TV series’ focus on mystery and town dynamics.

Image result for mulholland drive2. Mulholland Drive. 2001. 5 stars. If Blue Velvet threw me into a new world of cinema I could barely begin to define, Mulholland Drive reinforced the magic 15 years later, at the exact moment Peter Jackson was giving magic a new name. It parades a brilliant understanding of projection in the context of frustrated wish-fulfillment. Diane is the reality, Betty the dream; the first comes last, and makes devastating sense of the second; this reinvented figure is loved by everyone, a starry-eyed Hollywood star, and she gets off great lesbo sex with the woman who in life barely returns her affections. This manner in which people from Diane’s life fill their dream-roles is a brilliant recontextualization of a go-nowhere actress drowning in criminal guilt, and it’s one of the most intimate experiences I get out of any film. I feel like I am the dual character of Diane/Betty when I watch this, though I have few commonalities with them. The best scene is the lip-synced Llorando, which precipitates the intrusion of reality at the two-thirds point, in the above image.

Related image3. Blue Velvet. 1986. 5 stars. This film was my introduction to David Lynch, back when I was transitioning from high school to college, and it was my best friend who actually warned me against it. He loved disturbing movies as much as I, but he sure didn’t like Blue Velvet; in fact he despised it as much as Roger Ebert, whose legendary TV review is still talked about today and contrasts with Entertainment Weekly‘s awarding it the 37th Best Film of all Time. I’m with EW. But what’s fascinating is that this dramatic polarization, which I experienced personally, emerged when it did: the ’80s were the worst decade for American cinema. (Seriously, how many films from 1983-1989 hold up today?) Blue Velvet seemed to oppose the faddish malaise with an insistence on aesthetic that matched its transgressive content. It takes the rot-under-the-small-town theme and injects heavy doses of sadism, sadomasochism, and full-blown lunacy; yes. But around all the suffocating depravity is worked a stunning beauty, particularly in the relationship between the Kyle Maclachlan and Laura Dern characters.

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4. Eraserhead. 1977. 5 stars. If this film is about parental fear, then maybe it’s why I got a vasectomy. And I’m not surprised that Stanley Kubrick forced his actors on The Shining to watch it. Like the haunted hotel picture, Eraserhead traps you in a dreadful atmosphere where the walls keep closing in. It’s interesting how Kubrick and Lynch tend to work in opposite directions, one’s stories leading to head-trips, the other’s head-trips building to stories if you can make sense of them. I’ve even read that Eraserhead’s tadpole-baby is the antithesis of Space Odyssey’s Star-Child who smiled down on humanity’s technological progress; tadpole-baby rages against humanity, a diseased product of our industrial “progress”. What I still want to know is the Old Testament text which suddenly hit Lynch like an epiphany and cemented his vision for the film; to this day he refuses to come clean about it. My bet is on chapter 3 of Job, perhaps the most existentially spiritual book of the bible, and I can indeed see why Lynch calls Eraserhead his most spiritual film. Not only is it his most profound work, and his most unnerving, it’s also his purest tuning of the dream-consciousness style he’s known for.

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5. Lost Highway. 1997. 4 ½ stars. This one is moderately underrated, but still too much so, and I remember wanting to shoot Siskel and Ebert for giving it two thumbs down. There are shades of all the masterpieces here: the atmospheric horror of Eraserhead, the small-town suburbia (and underground sexual deviations) of Blue Velvet, and the character reinventions of Mulholland Drive. The best parts are the start and finish, the Bill Pullman parts, showing a jealous man who kills his wife and then resurfaces when his dream-identity breaks down. The German voice-overs to the porno shots are so creepy they’re terrifying — as much as the initial murder, also seen on video. When he comes full circle at the end and rings his own doorbell, announcing what he (and we) heard at the start, the cycle is set in motion again, implying that in his attempt to escape reality, he becomes permanently imprisoned in denial. That’s what the “lost highway” is, and while not exactly a masterpiece, it’s still a work of art.

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6. The Elephant Man. 1980. 3 ½ stars. With a moral structure and even sentimental thrust, The Elephant Man isn’t especially recognizable as David Lynch, but it’s a fine piece of work nonetheless. Instead of a surrealist dreamscape, this is practically a documentary. But the subject is gross enough to be out of a nightmare: John Merrick (1862-1890), who was so deformed that his parents rejected him and he became a traveling-circus freak. Also, there is some of Eraserhead to be obliquely found here, most notably in the theme of birth mutation, a horrifying concept that was clearly on Lynch’s mind at this early stage of his career. The Victorian atmosphere with smog and clanging machinery is reminiscent of Henry Spencer’s industrially polluted world. If The Elephant Man waxes melodramatic at points, it also preserves a wonderful ambiguity about Merrick’s caretakers: Bytes’ treatment of Merrick was horrible, but he arguably loved him, if in the way we love our pets. Treves’ humane approach is the one we more approve, but ultimately he’s using Merrick for his own benefit.

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7. The Straight Story. 1999. 3 stars. I suspect that Lynch danced with Disney just to show the world he could do G-rated. His family-friendly film is based on the true account of a 73-year old man who drove his, yes, tractor-style lawn mower all the way from Iowa to Wisconsin, in order to visit an ailing brother. Which means it’s a slow-paced odyssey, taking us through rural Midwest towns populated by the sort of endearing characters we see (on the surface, at least) in most of Lynch’s films. We keep waiting for the NC-17 sideshows, but The Straight Story stays out of the netherworld and dwells on tranquility — extended rests between the snail-paced road travel (the lawnmower doesn’t putt over 5 miles/hour), and scenes of vast corn fields. Think Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, with its beautifully slow camera glides over yellowish landscapes, mix in light doses of small town culture, and you’ve got The Straight Story. It’s a decent film, and a refreshing exercise for a director who usually revels in the dark and sordid, but nothing exceptional.

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8. Inland Empire. 2006. 2 stars. If Fire Walk With Me and Lost Highway are underrated gems in the Lynch canon, Inland Empire is the most bloated and overrated. It basically recycles the seedy mystery plots of Blue Velvet and the identity-blurring of Mulholland Drive, but with a sense that Lynch was just throwing darts. He admitted that he wasn’t even working from a script, and it shows: unlike Mulholland Drive which balanced ambiguity and explanation perfectly, Inland Empire traces crazy-8’s non-stop. To those who respond that this is much the point, I call the critic’s competence into question. When all you really have are non-sequiturs and pseudo clues, that’s called spitballing, not artistry. I wanted to like these parallel stories of a “woman in trouble”, not least for Laura Dern’s ferocious performances, both as the actress and the damaged prostitute. And there’s no denying the aesthetic. But Lynch seems to have been intent on simply making the longest feature possible (it’s over three hours) with no substance behind the surrealism we love him for. The result is a kaleidoscope, little more.

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9. Dune. 1984. 1 star. This steaming pile of manure by rights belongs at the very bottom, but I’ll cut Lynch a sliver of slack since I think any director would have failed with Dune. (Also, I retain a special hatred for Wild at Heart — but more on that below.) Half the novel is inside people’s heads, and Herbert had such command of inner turmoil that it’s where the story’s true excitement is. Lynch tried his best with internal monologues, but they’re frankly abominable, and no one wants to watch stationary characters process thought for long periods of screen time. On top of this, the characters never come a fraction to life as they do in the book, and events whisk by criminally fast. Dune may not be Lord of the Rings, but it needed more than two hours to do it justice. But as I said, I think it was doomed regardless, which is why even the 4-hour TV mini-series years later was scarcely an improvement.

Related image10. Wild at Heart. 1990. 1 star. Some might accuse me of a jaded perspective, going into my second Lynch film expecting another Blue Velvet. I remember that summer of 1990 too well: it was a late night showing at the crummy Premiere 8 in Nashua, and only two others were in attendance, a woman to the left of me, and a guy all the way down in front as crazy as Dafoe’s Bobby Peru; he laughed like a hyena all the way through, at all the sick parts — hell, he was practically part of the show. But that lunatic made me wonder if that’s exactly what Lynch was doing as he filmed this travesty: laughing at us and just having fun. Wild at Heart is the product of a genius who’s not applying himself. And I’ve revisited it enough times to be confident of my objective distance from that loopy experience at the cinema. The dialogue is a farce (Nicholas Cage’s “this here alligator-jacket is a symbol of my individuality” is exemplary); the transgressive content gratuitous (unlike Blue Velvet’s); the Wizard-of-Oz imagery obtuse. Lynch was out to lunch on this one.