When Elvis Was Hot

Ann-Margret and Elvis Presley

The King died this day in 1977. Celebrate his better days with one of the greatest cinematic moments in rock ‘n’ roll history, the introduction of Ann-Margret to Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas.

August 16, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

“Is Narnia a place of Christian faith or a place to get away from it?”

The Lion, the Witch and the WardrobeI loved the Chronicles of Narnia when I was a kid. If memory serves, the last time I read my family’s copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the book had to be held together with a rubber band because pages were falling out.

Christianity did not factor much in my upbringing. I had nothing in particular against Jesus or God, but what little I knew about Christian belief and practice just seemed kind of creepy and weird. That the only obviously religious person in my family, my great-grandmother, was a maudlin alcoholic with a pronounced mean streak and a naïve, desperate faith only reinforced my childhood views. I mention all this by way of pointing out that, when my parents recommended the Narnia books, they recommended them as fantasy, not as Christian allegory.

By the time I understood that some folks read C.S. Lewis’s fiction as Bible stories my childhood fear of religion had turned into curiosity: I was a religion major concentrating in New Testament studies. I knew a great deal about Christianity at this point, enough to know, for instance, that Aslan makes for a truly crappy Christ figure. Jesus was the suffering servant, the sacrificial lamb. He was not lord of the jungle. I was also struck by how very odd it is to include fauns and Silenus and such in a Christian fable. And I recalled how very much I didn’t enjoy The Last Battle when I was a kid; its apocalyptic existentialism and eternal ending really freaked me out, just like imagining nuclear war or trying to envision heaven freaked me out. This is to say that, from my perspective, the Lewis’s novels were least successful when they were most Christian.

I’ve been thinking about all of this as I’ve watched the progress of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe: The Movie, which is, it seems, an effort on the part of Disney to make up for all the dollars they lost when they passed on The Lord of the Rings, and to tap into the “Christian” audience—that is, all the people who paid to see The Passion of the Christ and who have made the Left Behind books bestsellers. And Walden Media—Disney’s partner in the project—is an explicitly evangelical entertainment company.

Given that the Christian apologists seem to have won Narnia for now, Adam Gopnik’s recent New Yorker piece on Lewis is a provocative reassessment of the situation. It’s also a lovely piece of criticism, and it introduced me to Lewis’s apparently quite brilliant scholarly work on the interplay of religion and imagination in art. Really, it’s one of the best things I’ve read in awhile.

November 22, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

I Wish I Had Watched Bell, Book, and Candle on Turner Classic Movies Instead

Yesterday, I was worried that the Sci-Fi Channel’s Earthsea movie would suck. Today, I know that it does.

Oh, it’s not the suckiest thing I’ve ever seen (that is—and, I hope, ever shall be—Airheads). It certainly looked lovely—cool costumes, gorgeous scenery, some nice effects—but, mostly, it fluctuated between boring and bad. The dialogue, in particular, was often cringe-inducing. It was full of jarring—well, “anachronisms” isn’t the right word, because the movie wasn’t set in the past but in a fantasy world—I don’t think there’s a word for what I’m trying to describe: All I’m saying is, hearing Isabella Rossellini, all dressed up in medieval-inspired priestess robes, tell a novitiate to come see her in her “office” was just odd. And the less said about the film’s attempts at humor, the better.

I know that movies are not the same thing as books, and I realize that language or imagery or action that works in one medium might not translate well to the other. I do feel, though, that if a filmmaker is going to work from a book, he should be faithful to that book, by which I mean not that he should reproduce it line-by-line, but that he should strive to reproduce whatever it is that makes that book great. Judging from comments they’ve made in interviews, the people who created this movie apparently did try to engage with Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels, but, while I am loath to suggest that someone else’s interpretation of a literary work is wrong, some of the things they said were just kind of nutty (the author herself reproduces some of her least favorite comments on her website). It’s also fairly easy for me to imagine that the whole project didn’t originate from love of the books so much as someone somewhere saying, “Hey! It’s Lord of the Rings meets Harry Potter—with dragons! We can’t lose!”

The Earthsea books are good, though, not because they happen to have a school for wizards and an epic quest, but because Le Guin retained the familiar power and poetry of mythology and infused it with an intense interiority, because she was able to turn a tale about magic and heroism into a compellingly realistic story about growing up. And these books are great because they are not—despite what the filmmakers seem to believe—about anything so unsubtle as a cosmic struggle between good and evil. They are, rather, about balance and responsibility. I think it would be almost—but not quite—impossible to translate all that to film, and I think it would be very easy to get all that up on the screen and produce a very boring movie. Nevertheless, I don’t think the answer to that challenge is to jazz up the story with a megalomaniacal king, a slutty priestess, and half-baked dualistic mysticism.

December 14, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Archival Interview: Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books are some of my favorite books ever, and they have been since I was a kid. Learning that the first two volumes in the series—A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan—had been turned into a TV movie filled me with a desperate hope that it wouldn’t suck and the dread awareness it almost certainly will. (Anybody remember the wretched Mists of Avalon miniseries? Anybody else horrified to learn that Tom Stoppard has been dropped from the His Dark Materials project and that God will not appear in the film? Am I the only one who detects a feel-good vibe in the commercials for A Series of Unfortunate Events?)

It seems that the author—who was not involved in this Sci-Fi Channel production—isn’t really looking forward to it, and, as she explains on her website, she’s found the experience of having Hollywood-types interpret her work and put words in her mouth rather trying. She was particularly cranky about the idea that her books are about any kind of duality. Apparently, though, she made some kind of peace with the folks at the Sci-Fi Channel, as they have an interview with her on their Earthsea website. Based on the clips they used to illustrate some of her points, however, I’m not entirely sure they understood what she was talking about.

I interviewed Le Guin a few years ago, when The Other Wind came out. We talked about some of the themes that run through all the Earthsea books—some of the same themes that appear to have mystified the Sci-Fi film’s creators—so now seems like a good time to pull that interview out of the archives.

Interview conducted in 2001

After reading The Other Wind, I read A Wizard of Earthsea for the first time in a long time. I was struck by how much you seemed to know, right from the beginning, about Ged’s future and the whole history of Earthsea.

Ursula K. Le Guin: If I knew it all, I didn’t know I knew it. I was not thinking of that story as the beginning of a series. It was the first book for young adults I ever wrote, and the first heroic fantasy that I had written. I thought I would write it and go back to other things, yet I built into it an obvious lead-in to the next book… My unconscious mind is much smarter than I am sometimes.

Your style has changed over time. Your voice changes from the slightly distant style of myth to something much more familiar.

UKL: The first three books are written in that traditional, epic style, which is the way the great fantasies were being written at the time, or had been written. With Tehanu, I stopped writing from the point of view of the people in power and started writing from the point of view of the people who are not in power. I couldn’t keep up that high style. I needed to get a little quieter, a little plainer.

What made you decide to go back to Earthsea?

UKL: Well, the big long gap was actually between The Farthest Shore and Tehanu… I always knew there needed to be a fourth book, but I couldn’t write it until… I guess I had to grow up. After Tehanu… I had called it "The Last Book of Earthsea," because I really thought that was where the story ended. That came out in 89… after a couple of years in the 90s, I realized things were going on in Earthsea, that I had to catch up with it. I began asking some questions about why things were the way they were. I was thinking about it’s history, and that led me to the various stories. And then, when the stories were done, I went straight to the Other Wind, because there was the rest of Ged and Tenar’s story to be told, all this stuff about who the dragons are…

One thing that struck me while reading The Other Wind—and as I re-read the other Earthsea books—was the way you talk about good and evil, which are not popular concepts outside of fantasy. Do you have any idea why fantasy is such a popular medium for discussing good and evil.

UKL: Well, I do think a lot of novels handle good and evil, but, of course, the more realistic they are, the more embedded those concepts are. In fantasy, they can come out clearer, because things are more transparent in fantasy. The world is an invented world, and therefore, it is not as thick and dense and confusingly rich as the real world.

I think a lot of people think that fantasy oversimplifies the battle between good and evil… These guys have white hats, and these guys have black hats, but they are equally violent, and neither of them is really better than the other, and that is just a cop-out to me.

My master here, of course, is Tolkien. His bad people are pretty bad, all right, but you understand how they got that way. And his good people have a lot of trouble staying good. They’re really human, and that’s much more interesting.

In my books, there really aren’t any villains. There are difficult choices and there are moral dilemmas. I’m not particularly interested in violence, which I guess is why evil to me is a failure to do something you ought to do, rather than a malicious act. Not doing what you know you ought to do… Evil comes into you and you go along. Big battles with good people and bad people—that oversimplifies life immensely.

I don’t write about good and evil so much as I write about balance, about the idea that acts have repercussions. As one of the old wizards explains, the more power you have, the less you can do. You can’t do just what you want, but only what you must.

Tolkien’s name often comes up when your books are discussed. I’ve read that he didn’t see himself as a writer of fantasy so much as someone who was writing a history of a real place that had been lost…

UKL: Earthsea—as far as I’m concerned, it’s there. I can’t make what happens there. I have to find it out. I have to wait for it to happen, and then I can tell it.

December 13, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Archival Interview: Bill Murray

Not too long ago, I quit my job. As is customary in the business world, this occasioned some department-wide reminiscing from my bosses—via e-mail and at the farewell luncheon—about my years with the company. One article that everyone seems to remember with fondness is the interview with Bill Murray I did in 1999, when he published his golf memoir, Cinderella Story.

That interview has long been languishing in electronic black hole, the victim of a server upgrade. While I was combing the corporate databases for work I might like to take with me, I finally found it again. Here it is.

May, 1999

I don't know anything about golf. Sure, I've putted a Day-Glo pink ball through the slowly revolving blades of a miniature windmill, and I have heard the somnambulent sounds of TV golf while my dad watched on Saturday afternoons, but that's about it. Ordinarily, my lack of interest in this game is not a problem. However, it quickly became a problem when I learned that I would be talking to Bill Murray. Suddenly, I was interested.

Bill Murray's book is Cinderella Story: My Life in Golf, and he's not kidding. The book is about golf. It's not a gag. Reading it, I often felt like a kid listening to grown-ups talk, only half understanding what I heard. I started to get a little nervous.

I called my dad, hoping he could give some emergency insight. Alas, he was not at home. I called my friend Catherine, but she has given up golf for deep sea fishing. I searched the web. Most of the sites I found were meaningless to the unitiated. I did find one entertaining site on the history of golf. There I learned that the rubber used to create the first modern golf ball had been packing material cushioning a statue of the god Shiva. Hmm, Shiva—the god of destruction and creation, death and life, art, and asceticism. Interesting, but could I use it? I was desperate.

As it turns out, I needn't have worried.

Hi Bill.

Bill Murray: Hi Jessica.

How are you?

BM: I'm okay, I'm a little rattled. All this is kind of strange.

Why are you rattled?

BM: Oh, I don't know. This book world is weird. Are you in the book world?

Yes, I'm in the online book world.

BM: Which is similar but different.

Yes, it's similar but different.

BM: I tried to explain it to somebody the other day. This guy said to me, "People don't read books anymore." I said, "No, I think you're wrong. I think that the online world has actually brought books back. People are reading because they're reading the damn screen. That's more reading than people used to do."

That's an excellent point. By the way, I'm glad to hear you're rattled. I'm a little rattled myself.

BM: I'm not really rattled. I was on the Today show this morning, and the guy that drove me was sort of puzzled by the whole urban experience. I had to help him get there and the phone kept ringing in the car with this hysterical woman who was… berserk is the only way to describe her. "Where are you?"

I'm sorry to hear that. So you were on the Today show this morning.

BM: It was all right. It was kind of amusing I guess. I said, "Here's the thing, you just have to drive a lot faster, and if you don't get there, we're both fired." So, anyway, he didn't get my joke. Eventually we made it in there. Just exactly the kind of guy you'd want to drive you out of town in a hurricane situation. Where are you?

I'm in Michigan. I'm in Ann Arbor.

BM: Really?

Yeah, I really am.

BM: Well, I don't know from Ann Arbor, but everybody says it's nice. Do you go to Michigan?

No, I'm not a student—I'm a working gal. I'm working all the time.

BM: Yeah, you sound like a tired, old woman. How long have you been working, Jessica?

Oh, since high school. But I've been working in the online book business for about a year.

BM: So what are you? Like 60 or 70 years old or what?

I'm 28.

BM: Oh, you've been working since high school. You're about finished.

That would be nice. Who wouldn't like to retire early?

BM: Now, let me just ask you, how do you get to the top of your business? What's your next move, or are you going to make a parallel move?

Well, I don't know what my next move it going to be. If all goes well, if all goes according to my rather tenuous plan, it will be out of the retail realm all together into the world of pure writing.

BM: You're going to write something?

That's the plan. I mean, I write now. That's a big part of my job online. As you mentioned, people are reading online, so I write things for them to read. And I'm kind of hoping to get some of this writing into book form.

BM: Well, all right. Are you one of those people who resent authors that are already published?

No, absolutely not.

BM: Somebody called me the other day and said, "You got a bad review in New Times." I said, "Really?" He said, "Yeah, the guy hadn't read it yet, but he said you got paid too much money."

Myself, I got no problem with people who are getting paid.

BM: Well, I don't know how this guy knew how much money I was making. I didn't know how much money I was making. I said, "How could he possibly know? I don't even know."

I admire people who make money. If someone can do something he wants to do and get paid for it, I'm all for it.

BM: Yeah, I think that's sort of the American way. And it's also the Polish way, it turns out.

Is it the Polish way?

BM: Yeah, it's a free market economy now. We're all racking up. Where is Borders anyway?

Borders is in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

BM: Oh, that's where the headquarters is?

Yeah, that's part of the reason I like working for Borders—I can keep my ties to the Midwest.

BM: Where did you grow up?


BM: Thank God you got out! Where were you?

I grew up in Akron.

BM: Dacron?

Yes, I grew up in Dacron. The rubber capital of the world.

BM: Dacron, Ohio. Well, I've driven that way and seen that blimp rolling down the highway. It's kind of funny. All of the sudden you're driving down the highway and there's a damn blimp rolling about 75 feet off the ground. It's kind of a freaky thing.

It is kind of freaky, although when you grow up with it, it doesn't really strike you as all that freaky.

BM: You don't fear it anymore.

So, I have three heroes, and you're one of them.

BM: Really? I'm a little afraid now!

I'm sorry.

BM: Cher and who else?

No, not Cher—Elvis Presley and Marcel Duchamp.

BM: Marcel Duchamp? Formidable! So why Marcel Duchamp?

Well, because I don't know of any other artist who had such a sense of humor. I mean he was a pie-in-the-face man. He was a pie-in-the-face to himself. He destroyed art, which I think was kind of important for it to continue to exist.

BM: To grow. I agree with you.

So, I like him because he seemed like a fun guy.

BM: Well, there's something about him that's… there is a certain integrity when you can destroy about what you do—you know, when you're able to laugh at yourself. Even in life, people who can laugh at themselves are the only ones I can really bear.

He was a clown, and there aren't that many clowns in art.

BM: I've been called a clown.

Yes, yes you have. I was planning a little segueway there.

BM: My friend, Harold Connor actually wrote a piece… he did an interview with me once and he said, "Bill Murray's a funny guy." And at the end he said "He was a clown." You know, clown, people don't always take that well, but it was a very nice way of putting it. But clowns, the ones in the circus, can be kind of scary.

I don't dig circus clowns, but the like mythic ideal of the clown—the trickster.

BM: Speaking of French clowns, there was this one guy, what the hell was his name? Clousseau? No, not Clousseau. He died a couple of years ago. He was this heavy guy, psychologically, but he was also a large man…. Peluche. Do you know Peluche?

No, I don't know Peluche.

BM: Peluche was a French clown. He was like nobody in America because he'd say anything that he wanted to say, and he was really funny, and he was sharp—incredibly smart, savage wit. He would say anything, and he wasn't mean, either. He was almost like a peasant in a way, but he was brilliant. He died in a motorcycle accident or something. It was really a tragedy. Anyway, when the French would ask—when I'd have to work over there or something—"What are you like?" I'd say, "Well, I'm a Peluche with cheekbones," They used to think that was pretty good, except they didn't quite get what the "with cheekbones" thing meant. He had a TV show and, at the end, he'd say, "Goodnight, shits!" That was basically the translation. He'd say, "Goodnight, shits!"

One of the things a clown can do is say anything—that's a prerogative of the clown.

BM: Well, like Duchamp, if you're willing to turn it on yourself, you can say anything.

Yes, you're right, that's the important distinction that keeps you from being an asshole.

BM: And so, Presley…. You've been to Memphis I guess?

No I haven't. I'm waiting.

BM: Oh. What are you waiting for?

I'm not sure.

BM: Well I would wait for a nice, warm day. You probably don't know that I went to Elvis' funeral?

I did not know that you went to Elvis' funeral.

BM: Uh huh. I was the twenty-seventh person on standby. The last flight out of New York City to Memphis the night before the funeral. Miraculously, I got on the plane—standby, twenty-seven people, I was the twenty-seventh person that got on the plane. And I got to Memphis. I just took a cab to Graceland. I said, "Graceland," you know, which is king of a funny thing to say when you get a taxi anywhere! It's actually good to say here. But I went out there and I met this guy, a photographer… he sort of walked me through a little bit of it. They'd stopped letting people into the house at that point. They just stopped. Everybody was trying to get a photograph of Elvis in the casket, and there was a $50,000 bounty on a photograph of Elvis in the casket. So all kinds of people—especially the paparazzi—were walking through time after time. These guys said to me, "I went and I had three cameras, but they'd take away a camera you'd have another one, they'd take away that, one more…. But there was a picture of Elvis in the casket, anyway, and it was given to the Globe, I guess, or the Star, by one of his cousins. He went in there at night, when only the family was supposed to be praying in there at night, and took a photograph. He was disowned by the family and outcast, but it turned out that five of his other cousins photographed it, too—it's just that his photo had the best composition, so they took his!

That's a pitiful story.

BM: But the actual funeral was a spectacular thing. I still have incredibly powerful impressions of it. I rode in the press bus that rode in front of the hearse—not directly in front, because there really was a sense of pageant about it. It was an amazing thing. We were the last people to go the route before the hearse left the mansion. Just to drive the route and see all the… I mean, hundreds of thousands of people waiting for The King to roll by. It was incredible—very powerful. It looked like a collection of WPA photographs—people waiting in the shade underneath an aqueduct. It was about 90 degrees. Waiting in the shade for The King. And all the signs, like Dairy Queen, and all those kinds of places, their signs said, "God bless you, Elvis" and "The King lives." All that kind of stuff—it was something to see. But the thing that really got me… we got to the cemetery before the hearse actually left, even though we were the last thing to go. When the hearse rolled out on the street, and it reached the speed it was going to go at, I burst into tears. It was like the long, slow walk. The speed of the car was only maybe six miles an hour—five, six miles an hour. It rolled out in traffic and straightened out and just moved like a swan gliding down the road. And it was just so poignant.

And then all the helicopters converged on the cemetery, overhead, and there was a riot at the other gate, you know, at the back gate—people were trying to storm into the cemetery. The hearse was arriving, and I started racing, running from where we were—we were already near the site where the hearse was going to come. I started running towards where I thought the riot was coming from—I wanted to see what was going on. On the way I encountered the hearse being led by 24 motorcycle cops. It was one of the most terrifying things I have ever seen, because these cops had… they were guarding Elvis. And all of the sudden there was one man standing in the cemetery right where they were passing by, and there was not supposed to be anybody there. There's one guy, and it's me. And this cop gave me a look that said, "If you move, I will shoot you right through the heart." I mean, I just froze—you know, like when your hair stands on end. It really did stand on end.

I had two really strange sensations. First, I had this really strange vibe, and when I turned around I looked right behind me, I saw that I was standing right on Gladys Presley's…

Nuh uh!

BM: Yeah. I'm standing right at the foot of the plot right there where she is. Gladys Presley's grave. It was very, very strange. I absolutely froze as all the cars went by—I mean the hearse and all the motorcycles and the cars—and then I ran back to where I had been before.

They carried the casket out and it had like, I don't know, 300 roses on top of it or something amazing—like two or three masses worth of rose on top of the casket. They were going to put it in a mausoleum overnight—it turned out later that people tried to tunnel into it and all kinds of crazy things. But they were going to put it in this mausoleum building before they actually buried it at Graceland. Anyway, as they tried to carry it up the steps, they almost dropped it—it fell like sideways. The thing weighed… I mean, it wasn't solid gold, but it was some sort of incredible metal—bronze or something—and he wasn't that light to begin with, and they almost dropped him.

But then there was a very strange moment when Pricilla actually left. Because you could feel Elvis. You could absolutely feel his presence everywhere. And when she left, it was almost like you could feel his real love went with her, as she rode out of the cemetery. It's was an amazing feeling. I'll never forget it.

That's quite a story.

BM: Yeah, it's quite a story.

I'm so glad I mentioned Elvis.

BM: Well, you gotta have role models. He was an extraordinary guy. The Albert Goldman book gets some of the facts…. He could have really been good. I mean his movies, some of them were absolutely terrible, but I don't think people know how hard it is to be as natural as he came off in his movies.

Well, and his career didn't take the direction he had desired for his movie career. I mean, some of his movies were not bad. King Creole was a pretty good movie.

BM: Yeah, King Creole is good. Jailhouse Rock is good. And even just the names of the characters he'd choose, they were good, you know?

I have a cat named Lucky Jackson.

BM: Get out!

Yeah, I do have a cat named Lucky Jackson.

BM: Well…. The amazing thing about Elvis, or another amazing thing, was the guy did some dating in his life, and not one woman that he dated will say a bad thing about Elvis—they were all nuts about him. I mean none of them really ended up with him, but we knew a girl in Illinois who met Elvis once and he bought her a car!

Ladies love that!

BM: Hey, men like that! But ladies do like that. And we'd ask her, "So what's the deal with The King?" He was still alive at that point. And she wouldn't tell us a thing. She was crazy about him. She thought he was just, you know, the cat's meow.

I have an aunt who kissed him when he was a teenager in Memphis. That's the story anyway.

BM: Well, she's not going to give that up now.

No, no, she's going to her grave with that story. This is an aunt on my dad's side of the family, and my mom has noticed some holes in the story, but I've tried to ask her to please just leave the story alone.

BM: Oh, please let it rest!


At this point, my half-hour allotment of Bill Murray's time was about over. The publicist's voice came on the line and asked, "Jessica, are there other questions you want to ask before we wrap it up?" I thought I'd see if, just maybe, the author would like to discuss his book.

Do you want to talk about golf at all?

BM: Talk about the book?

Yeah, we could talk about the book. Do you want to talk about the book?

BM: I don't care. What do people expect to read? It doesn't matter.

I think they expect, you know, some Bill Murray, and that's what we got. Are you comfortable with this?

BM: You know what? I've enjoyed talking to you, and if you're comfortable with it, I'm fine with it too.

So that, sports fans, is how I did not talk to Bill Murray about his life in golf.

August 9, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Heretical? Hilarious!

The following is excerpted with love from "The Passion of the Christ: Blooper Reel" at The Morning News:

Christ, shackled to a stone, is being scourged by Roman soldiers. Blood runs down his gory back. His pain is palpable.

Jesus: [writhes in pain, hands shaking]

[Cell phone rings.]

Jesus: [hands shake furiously]

[Cell phone rings. Caviezel looks up, sheepish.]

Roman soldier: Jim? That you?

Jesus: Yeah.

[Cell phone rings.]

Soldier: Want me to get it?

Jesus: Yeah.

[Roman soldier gingerly reaches into Caviezel’s blood-soaked loincloth, pulls out phone and opens it, then holds the phone to Caviezel’s ear.]

Off Camera: [laughter]

Jesus: Hey, Mom.


March 2, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Do I Care About Anything But the Clothes?

No, I do not.

If you want recap, check out Whatevs (Dot Org).

If you want fashion, here it is, and it's soooo boring. I can't even muster the enthusiasm to have a favorite dress.

Worst gown? Obviously, no contest. I would like to thank Uma Thurman, though, for what seems to have been a good-faith catastrophe, which is always much more interesting than the egregiously oddball. I also would add that Sandra Bullock's marshmallowy Oscar de la Renta frock was pretty weird, too.

I always admire actresses who wear vintage.

In closing, while watching the "What Were They Thinking?" slideshow on Yahoo!'s Oscar page, I was reminded that, no matter how much she might beg, Stella McCartney is never, ever going to dress me.

March 1, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

The Gospel According to Mad Max

I'm probably going to see The Passion of the Christ. It irritates me that I'll have to pay to see it, and I'll probably walk out in the middle, but I have to say I'm curious. I mean, how often do you get to hear Aramaic at the movies? And Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene? I could not approve more.

My objections to the film will, I suspect, be similar to my objections to Mel Gibson's "traditionalist" faith. These are theological objections. Basically, I don't believe that the New Testament was written by followers of Jesus named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; I think they were edited and revised over time by a variety of anonymous writers and compilers. More fundamentally, I don't believe that there is such a thing as an "objective" reading of the Bible; that is, no one person or group can claim to know the unique truth of the Bible. And, seriously: If I were going to give primacy to one person's reading of the Gospels, I would not choose Martin Riggs as my spiritual guide.

So, for me, it's just bullshit when Gibson says, "It happened; it was said." His avowed literalism lets him off the hook; it allows him to avoid responsibility for his own artistic creation. We can't blame him for the movie: God wrote it, and the Holy Ghost directed.

Now that film critics besides the Pope have had a chance to see The Passion, the focus has shifted from the movie's latent anti-Semiticism to its pornographic violence. While it should come as a surprise to no one that a man who had himself disemboweled on-screen might decide to lay it on thick when depicting caning, scourging, and crucifixion, even the critics who kept this in mind seem to have been shocked. Kenneth Turan sums up the consensus view pretty nicely in his review for the L.A. Times:

The problem with "The Passion's" violence is not merely how difficult it is to take, it's that its sadistic intensity obliterates everything else about the film. Worse than that, it fosters a one-dimensional view of Jesus, reducing his entire life and world-transforming teachings to his sufferings, to the notion that he was exclusively someone who was willing to absorb unspeakable punishment for our sins.

Despite flashbacks that nod to Jesus' other words and thoughts, no viewer coming to this film absent any knowledge of Christianity would believe that this is the story that gave birth to one of the great transformative religions as well as countless works of timeless beauty.

And without belief, this film does not add up. Without training in or exposure to Christianity, you are likely to feel as flummoxed by what you're seeing as Western missionaries did when they observed pagan rituals to which they lacked any emotional connection.

It's worth noting, however, that violence is, and always has been, a part of the Christian tradition. The most egregious and graphic examples are crusades and autos-da-fé, but Gibson's movie reminds us that the central story of Christianity is one not just of resurrection and redemption, but of torture and self-sacrifice, too. For some contemporary theologians, the violence at the heart of Christianity is a cancer, a pathology that cannot be reconciled with Jesus's message of radical compassion. Of course, the belief that Christianity is a religion of niceness and that Jesus was some sort of cosmic kindergarten teacher is rather new. In this very interesting article for Reason, Charles Paul Freund argues that Gibson's movie is part of a long theatrical tradition, one in which the lives of the saints provided endless material for the medieval equivalent of splatter films.

At the very least, I hope The Passion of the Christ gives Jesus a much-needed image makeover. While I actually appreciate the considerable kitsch value of the 20th-century Jesus, this cleaned-up, soft-focus pretty boy is, from a theological and traditional standpoint, absurd. Jesus's most hardcore followers—from his very first to the Franciscans to the Anabaptists—have recognized that he's a trouble-maker, a rabble-rouser, an ass-kicker. What would Jesus do? I'll tell you what he wouldn't do: He wouldn't say no to drugs and he wouldn't get good grades, but he might take out the trash.


February 25, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

You Just Can't Fuck a Hobbit

SeriouslyI know that it's already blogged six ways from Sunday—I got to it via Whatevs (Dot Org) and I also saw it linked at Cup of Chica—but I can't help myself: Eurotrash's spirited sexual analysis of the men, women, and assorted others of Middle-Earth is a compelling, thought-provoking read.

Before the movies came out, I had no relationship with The Lord of the Rings. I tried to read the series when I was a kid, but I just couldn't do it. I found the books totally boring, a fact which has been a source of profound befuddlement for many of the men in my life. Indeed, when I revealed this truth to my fiancé, he replied, after a long, dazed pause, "I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that." I tried to explain, but the look of anguish on his face stopped me. "Can we just talk about something else, please?" he implored.

Anyway, my point is that I don't have a lifelong yearning for any of the Lord of the Rings characters. When I saw Fellowship of the Rings, though, I developed a serious hard-on of the heart for Aragorn. It only occurs to me now that my crush on Aragorn is, indeed, a purely spiritual one, altogether unsullied by any carnal instincts. Thus, I must respectfully say that I just can't buy Ms. Eurotrash's description of the son of Arathorn's furious and straightforward manner in bed—his post-coronation open-mouth kiss notwithstanding.

This is, I believe, why I found The Lord of the Rings so wan and listless when I tried to read it as an adolescent. While I didn't require hardcore action in my reading material as a pre-teen, I did require the possibility of action, and Tolkien's characters are just a tweak away from the perversely chaste creations of George Lucas. At best, they embody a child's ideal of romance; at worst, they kind of creep me out.

Elves, as Ms. Eurotrash rightly points out, are nothing but trouble. And it's obvious that hobbits are unfuckable, regardless of what we might surmise from Sam's marriage to the busty barmaid. But I can't even envision the ostensible humans of Middle-Earth actually doing it, either. Even though they are, in Peter Jackson's rendering, perpetually filthy—unshaved, with dirt under their fingernails and greasy hair,—it's impossible to imagine them redolent of that particular funk known as sex.

January 26, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack