In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
-Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae

Thought of the Day: 11-7

So, apparently they’re planning a gender-swapped Zorro TV show. Because that sort of thing has been so successful with GhostbustersBatwomanOcean’s Eight, Terminator: Dark Fate, and so on.

You just know that the writers are patting themselves on the back for being so modern and up to date, calling it a ‘modern re-imagining’. The funny thing is, this has already been done. In the 1940s.

Well, kind of. Technically, the wonderful Linda Stirling didn’t actually play ‘Zorro’ in the 1944 serial Zorro’s Black Whip: The Zorro name was mostly just used for advertising purposes, though she did play a masked vigilante called “The Black Whip” fighting for justice in the old west.

This is a major reason I always laugh when I hear contemporary writers preening themselves on their ‘strong female leads’ as though they were pioneers. I remember heroines like Linda Stirling’s Black Whip and Tiger Woman, Lorna Gray’s Daughter of Don Q, Frances Gifford and Kay Aldrige’s Nyoka the Jungle Girl, and so on, not to mention the innumerable courageous, determined, skillful serial heroines who didn’t make the title card. Basically, we’ve had ‘strong female leads’ in film pretty much since we’ve had films (that’s not even considering the features, because this is just a quick thought and not a book).

The thing is, I suspect that most of these filmmakers and writers and such probably don’t know about any of this. I get the impression from most contemporary films that those who make them have very limited knowledge of their own medium and its history. Their knowledge of the past is a vague and highly limited impression gotten from film school, probably tailored to illustrate a particular narrative that they never bothered to investigate for themselves.

The same is my impression of, well, most of the contemporary world: we receive a particular, highly selective and colored narrative about the world in school, then never bother to check it for ourselves. Thus we go about in a kind of mirage, fixated on the illusions around us and wondering why things don’t turn out the way we expect.

Catholic Match Post on a World without Manners

My latest post is up on Catholic Match, discussing the pitfalls and solutions of dating in a world without set manners:

For an example; just the other day I read a woman claiming that it is inappropriate behavior for a man to compliment a woman on her looks if they are not dating. Not long after, on a different site, I read a man recounting how he did just that in a (successful) bid to cheer up an evidently unhappy stranger.

Now, suppose a man who thinks it is an act of kindness compliments a woman who believes that such behavior is inappropriate. We immediately have a conflict in which one thinks she is being mistreated and the other thinks he is being rebuked for an act of kindness.

The immediate point isn’t which one is right; the point is that neither can justly claim the other did anything wrong, as far as this little scenario goes, because they were each following what they believed to be appropriate. Only there is, at present, no objective and exterior standard which both may be expected to know and to which both can appeal.

To make matters worse, the same man may receive a completely different response from a different woman, meaning that even his own experience cannot serve him as a guide.

Thus, the answer often given when this problem is brought up—“Just don’t act inappropriately”—misses the point entirely. The problem isn’t so much that people behave inappropriately, it’s that the word ‘inappropriate’ in this circumstance has no content.

To say ‘act appropriately’ is meaningless unless there is an agreed upon, objective standard for ‘appropriate’ that both parties can be expected to be aware of and to which both sides can appeal. We simply do not have that in modern Western society (we are not discussing here obviously aggressive behavior such as physical grabbing or open solicitation).

Now, the obvious solution is “then we need to establish new standards!” Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. No one sits down and says, “our society shall have these manners and these norms for this reason.” These things develop over time, born of ethics, custom, common beliefs, and so on. All that’s mostly been torn up and thrown out of our culture, and restoring it is beyond the scope of any one of us.

No, my point is much less ambitious; it is simply to encourage charity. Being aware that the other person is operating under such uncertainty ought to make us more patient and less quick to judge when he does something we consider inappropriate. This alone would smooth out many if not most of the friction that occurs in such cases.

Read the rest here.

UPDATE: I realized that I put in the wrong link in both cases. It’s been fixed.

It Came from Rifftrax: ‘House on Haunted Hill’

Life’s been busy lately, but I wanted to make sure we got this one up for Halloween (more or less: it’s late, but under the wire). In another live show (I really like grabbing these when I can; you get shorts, ad-libbing among the riffers, and the added energy of the crowd), Mike, Kevin, and Bill tackle one of the most ‘Halloween’ films ever made: William Castle’s 1959 classic House on Haunted Hill, starring the unique Vincent Price.

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“I think everyone wonders what he’d do if he saw a ghost.”

Before that, we get not one, but two Halloween-style shorts, both of which are absolutely brilliant. First is Magical Disappearing Money (“The story of the trillion-dollar stimulus package!”), in which a witch uses her dark magic to show people at the grocery store how they can save a small amount of money by putting in some extra work and severely lowering their standards (e.g. she recommends condensed milk as an alternative to regular milk: “Not just for war time conditions anymore!”). She also doesn’t consider ideas such as “part of the price is for the saved effort” or “if you want pudding for a school lunch, it’s probably not practical to just make your own pudding from scratch.” Of course, the real fun comes from the witch’s bizarre, ditzy behavior along with her dubious recommendations. The Riffers delight in interpreting her as a demonic harbinger of evil, sending milkmen to hell and swiping the souls of the innocent (Kevin’s skit of being trapped in the milk fridge was particularly great).

-“Hm, ‘Beard Completer.’ Worth a shot…”
-“Satan’s oats only cost you your soul!”
-“Meanwhile, Fred the cat makes his escape.” “I can has freedom?”
-“You know, she’s pretty pathetic, but not nearly as creepy as the witch who lives in the adult video store.”
-“You know, drainage runoff is cheaper than everything here. Where do you draw the line, you harpy?!”

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“Join me in the abyss of savings!”

Next up is Paper and I, which features a living paper bag instructing young Willy about the paper industry, in the process turning him into a dead-eyed fanatic who thinks only of paper, and eventually they combine their dark powers to remove all paper from the world to teach people not to take it for granted. I am not really exaggerating at all. Then it ends with Willy euthanizing the bag. Again, that happens. The information is kind of interesting, but the whole thing is so nuts that it gets lost amid the insanity (Watch out for the kid who randomly decides to imitate a chimpanzee in the background of one scene. Again, not kidding: that happens).

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“You’ll never be rid of me, Willy!”

This is possibly one of the funniest shorts they ever did, for the combination of the utterly insane storyline, the paper bag’s hilarious, nasally voice, and the fact that they barely have to exaggerate the content at all to turn an educational short for kids into the tale of a boy’s descent into madness (also watch for the bit where the Nashville audience cheers the information that the South provides most of the nation’s paper).

-“Now I will show you your sins, Willy!”
-“Why didn’t we just say ‘plastic’ at the grocery store? Now our boy’s a lunatic!”
-“Here I am, Willy!” “I’m just serving some gruel to the other captured children.”
-“We’ll grow and grow! Stronger and stronger.” “And then we will march on Saruman!”
-“Oh, no; someone invented the internet!”
-“We’ll blot out the Moon, Willy! We’re gods!

Both these shorts are so strange that they barely need any riffing to make them funny, but the jokes just push them from ‘funny’ to ‘painfully hilarious’ territory. Not to mention the unintentionally dark content set a perfect tone for Halloween.”

Which brings us to the main feature. Vincent Price plays an ultra-rich man who, together with his wife, hosts a party in a giant house on ‘haunted hill’ (actually a Frank Lloyd Wright house), in which the five guests will each earn ten-thousand dollars if they spend the whole night in the house. The party, as it turns out, seems to be primarily a pretext for a murder, though who will be trying to kill whom remains to be seen.

The film is a pure delight, from the lushly gothic cinematography and set design to the deliciously arch dialogue between Price and Carol Ohmart, who plays his equally devilish wife (she claims he murdered his three previous wives, he claims she’s tried to poison him. The audience has no trouble believing both).

Price’s trademark hamminess is, of course, the chief asset of the film. The man was simply a joy to watch whatever he did, and when he did horror he was truly one-of-a-kind; equal parts ghoulish and elegant. For instance, there’s a bit in the film where he shakes up a champagne bottle and aims it at his wife’s head like a rifle before commenting on what a good headline it would make. That’s the Price character: the kind of man who will cheerfully poison you with a fine old wine and then discourse on the vintage while he watches you die.

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“Arsenic on the rocks.”

(Needless to say, he was also a master actor whenever he ended up in a ‘straight’ role: he just enjoyed the horror persona he developed too much to stray far from it most of the time).

The film also includes prolific character actor Elisha Cook Jr. (best known as Wilmer from The Maltese Falcon and nicknamed “Hollywood’s lightest heavy”) as the fidgety owner of the house, who fills in the history of the ghosts while chewing any scenery left by Price and his wife. The rest of the characters are pretty standard: the innocent young heroine, the stalwart and rather dense young hero, the skeptical doctor, and so on.

The scares are completely over-the-top and contrived as all get-out, though sometimes rather effective for all of that, especially a very well-executed jump scare. Said scare then gets a ‘natural’ explanation that raises far, far more questions than it answers. As a matter of fact, revelations at the end raises the question of just how much we saw was supposed to be supernatural and how much an elaborate hoax, though quite frankly given the things we saw, the supernatural explanation would have been much more credible.

The movie could be described as a “Weird Tales” cover brought to life, or a young boy’s idea of a haunted house made into a film. It’s cartoony, but for that very reason is absolutely dripping with atmosphere and is spectacularly entertaining to watch.

The riffing, like with Jack the Giant Killer, only adds to the fun, and it’s clear that both the riffers and the audience are enjoying the film immensely even as they roast it. Vincent Price in particular gets a full cheer when he first shows up. Many jokes also revolve around how ridiculously sexy Carol Ohmart was (“Is your face on yet?” “Her face but not her shirt!”). One particularly amusing joke deals with Vincent Price actually using the line “It’s close to midnight,” which the riffers imagine him turning into the opening of ‘Thriller’ before thinking, “I should tell that to that young…” An early gag involves drunk Frank Lloyd Wright. Later they get the entire theater chanting for heads (“Aw, it’s just frilly underwear!” “Boo!”).

-“Doctor Trent…” “May I call you ‘Council of’?”
-“Have you ever tried to get rid of four tons of acid in your basement? You know how expensive that is?”
-“$10,000…” “Invest that in Edsel, I think we’ll be set.”
-“You know how blind people’s senses sharpen to compensate for lack of sight? She grew wheels.” “Blind people are cool!”
-“Fear makes people do amazing things.” “Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel due to crippling fear of spiders.”
-“He tried to kill me!” “Did it work?”
-“You all right? You look like you just saw a talking paper bag.”
-*thunder* “Damn neighbor must be counting things again…”
-“And if you run into some meddling kids and a dog that ‘kind of’ talks, shoot to kill!
-“In the meantime I’ll be emptying the cash from my mattress and fleeing to Mexico if you need me. Not an admission of guilt!”

During the actual live performance itself, there’s some fun to be had with the trio dressing up (Kevin with a gorgon wig, prompting questions about the other end of the snakes, Bill as a ‘sexy kitten’, etc.). Not to mention many MST3k-themed costumes in the crowd.

They’re also joined for the second short, and a brief sketch during the film, by comedian Paul F. Tompkins, who I personally didn’t find all that funny, except when he’s threatening to replace Kevin during the film, though your mileage may vary.

In any case, this is a great show from Rifftrax, and perfect viewing for Halloween.

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“Damn it, Bones, leave her alone!”

An Urgent Call for Prayer

On November 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, let the Church Militant (that is us) be united in prayers for the Church in this time of crisis:

-November 1st: The Feast of All Saints. Holy Day of Obligation. Attend Mass and say the Memorare after Communion.
-November 2nd: The Feast of All Souls. Pray for the dead, visit a cemetery if you can, and attend Mass if you can (though not a day of obligation). Say the Memorare after communion if you attend Mass, at some point in the day if you don’t, for the sake of the suffering.
-November 3rd: Sunday. Holy day of obligation. Attend Mass and say the Memorare after Communion for the Church Militant.

We desperately need to be praying, and praying hard, for the Church, now more than ever. Let’s get to it.

Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided.

Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my mother; to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me.

Amen.

Memento Mori at Catholic Match

My annual Halloween piece is up at Catholic Match:

If you ever explore some of the old churches in Europe, or look over art from the old days, you’ll notice quite a few skulls.

Some of which are even attached to skeletons. They show up in some of the most unexpected places: on clocks, or in Cathedrals, for instance, or in the famous painting ‘The Ambassadors’, which features a distorted skull that only comes into perspective when viewed from the lower left. These are often supplemented by various grotesqueries and monsters decorating the church façade or capering about the pictures.

The message of all of this is the same; “don’t be complacent, but remember your death and what might await you beyond. That night of death is full of terrible things just waiting to grab hold of you, so take care before you find yourself venturing out into it.”

In other words, Christians have been doing Halloween, and doing it properly, for a long time. The macabre is as much a part of our heritage as anything else; it is the other side to the hope we have in Christ.

Therefore, the common call of Christians of the past was Memento Mori: Remember Death. As the prophet wrote in his book, “In all thy works, remember your last end, and thou shalt never sin,” and “Remember that death is not slow.” (Sirach 7:40, 14:12).

Read the rest here, and Happy Halloween!