Thoughts on ‘Star Wars’

I have decided to do a total re-watch of the Star Wars films: all ten films (plus the Holiday Special) in order of release. Partly this is out of curiosity, partly because I’ve determined to finally see The Last Jedi now that it’s on Netflix and I want to be fully prepared. Also, I only just realized upon beginning this project how long it’s been since I’ve seen these films: the original trilogy, of course, I saw many times as a kid, and more than once in subsequent years, but I haven’t been back to it for quite a while. As for the prequels, besides The Phantom Menace, I’ve only seen them once, when they first came out. Ditto for The Force Awakens. Rogue One I’ve seen once in its entirety and then when I rewatched it I skipped around to the highlights.

I actually have copies of the original trilogy in their original cuts: they’re not ideally formatted, but they are pretty much what the original theater audiences saw in 1977, 1980, and 1983, respectively, so that’s what I’ll be watching, aiming to see them as much as possible as they were originally viewed.

With that out of the way, here is my impression of the original Star War, now retitled A New Hope.

This may be a controversial opinion, but it’s a really, really good film: just a very enjoyable, action-packed adventure, bursting with creativity. You could, and I’m sure many do, give a whole course on storytelling just from this one film. The opening scene alone is a brilliant piece of visual exposition, letting us know at once who are the good guys, who the bad guys, and how badly the good guys are out-gunned, all without a single line of dialogue.

The plot (which you all know, so I won’t rehash it), is simple and easy to follow; there is a clear goal (destroy the Death Star), a clear condition (get the plans in R2 to the rebels), and a clear consequence for failure (whole planets will be blown up, and a tyrannical Empire will use the threat of more destruction to maintain power). This latter point helps show the thoughtfulness that goes into even such a simple plot as this: the evil plan of the Empire is actually pretty well thought out. A few quick lines of dialogue establish that there is an Imperial Senate that thus far has kept at least a theoretical lid on the Emperor’s power. Later we hear the Emperor has dissolved the senate, gambling that the awful threat of the Death Star will be enough to keep the galaxy in order. That’s a perfectly reasonable set of actions: it’s not just being evil for evil’s sake, but doing evil things as part of a larger goal. It also puts the heroes’ struggle in the larger context that this won’t just remove a single terrible threat, but will also loosen the Emperor’s grip on the galaxy.

Again, all of that is established in about two or three scenes and a few brief lines of dialogue. Moreover, none of it is really necessary to understand in order to follow the film: it’s enough to know that the Death Star is evil and must be destroyed, but paying closer attention reveals deeper levels to the plot. I don’t mean that it’s brilliant or intricate, but it is sturdy and well-put together, and holds up well under scrutiny.

One thing that struck me this time around was how good some of the acting is, especially from veterans like Peter Cushing and Sir Alec Guinness. Look at the subtle change of expression on Guinness’s face when Luke first mentions the name “Obi Wan Kenobi.” Or watch as he silently formulates a plan of action after hearing Leia’s message. It really is kind of amazing that this film, which was, after all, little more than a mid-budget B-picture has two such established powerhouse actors in key roles. Though, in hindsight, it’s no more amazing than anything else about the history of this film.

On the other hand, the three leads are generally no more than serviceable, with Harrison Ford probably being the best and Carrie Fisher being the most awkward (as others have noted, she seems to switch accents at several points in the film). Mark Hamill, I find, starts out the film a little stiff and whiney, but his performance improves as his character grows in confidence and begins to take a more active role in the story. But no one gives a bad performance; they are all serviceable at the very least, and it helps that, one, their characters are all very vivid and well-written, and two, that the three actors have fantastic chemistry with each other. Basically, they all have a lot of personality, and that compensates for some of the weaknesses in the acting. For instance, I love how, when Luke bursts into Leia’s cell disguised in armor, her reaction – while expecting her imminent execution – is to cock a hand on her hip and sneer at his height. Desperate though her position is, she retains her every inch of her poise. This is not just entertaining, but good character writing: she’s a princess, and so has considerable natural authority. We’ll…come back to that issue in a later entry.

I also really like the bit where Han shoots Greeto the alien gangster, preceding it with a sarcastic, though vitriolic quip (yes, upon revisiting the scene, I have to say having Han shoot first is necessary for the scene). Again, it establishes that he is a rather dark character at this point: he lives among people who stab each other in the back at the first opportunity, and he’s perfectly willing to stab them before they can stab him. This stands in stark contrast to the Rebellion characters, who willingly risk their lives for each other and their cause. Again, the scene works on a surface level of establishing that Han is deep in debt and all-but desperate, as well as being a somewhat shady, dangerous character in his own right, though not to the point that we can’t sympathize with him (no one’s going to cry for Greeto), but when you think about it it also provides insights into the motivations and progression of the characters. Again, the film works fine on a surface level, but gains strength from closer scrutiny.

Another thing that stood out to me was just how grounded the world felt, despite the fantastic technology. Surfaces are grimy, dented, and covered in dust. The environments are often dimly lit and full of miscellaneous, but purposeful dressing. There’s realistic-sounding military chatter coming over the soundtrack in the Death Star, and later on the rebel base. The world of the film feels real, even when it doesn’t necessarily look real. Little details like the Stormtroopers chattering with each other, or a pair of low-life aliens having an unintelligible, yet obviously heated discussion in the corner of the cantina, contribute to making this feel like an actual world, where things are going on outside of the view of the camera.

Then, of course, there’s the whole matter of the Force, which is the final element that ties it all together. I won’t go into the question of what is the Force: part of the strength of the film is that it leaves the matter vague. What matters, to my mind, is that there is an element of magic and mysticism in this technologically-driven space adventure, and with it almost an element of religion. This gives the whole story and the actions of the characters greater weight than they would in a straight sci-fi space opera. Their choices don’t just matter with regards to the events of the world, but matter in a larger, more fundamental sense, and doing things one way or another can have unexpected consequences based on their essential moral nature.

On this viewing, I also noticed a few more flaws: the editing is sometimes kinda choppy, with overly-quick scenes and transitions that don’t quite match up. The effects, even absent the special edition upgrade, have aged extremely well; I especially love the model work on the ships, and of course the crazy creativity in all the aliens and robots that fill out the screen in the first act. As others have commented, the final assault on the Death Star goes on a little long, though I don’t really mind that because it both serves to ramp up the tension and because the organization and plan of the assault actually plays out like a legitimate military operation. For me, the biggest problem with the sequence is that it’s about here that the film’s effects budget starts to run out. It still looks pretty good, all things considered, but they’re obviously struggling to work with what they have, and there are some very awkward edits, while Darth Vader’s fighter in particular doesn’t sit well in the scene. Though I don’t suppose anyone really cares because the storytelling in the climax, with Luke hearing Ben’s voice, turning off his computer, and Han joining the battle at the last minute, is just so strong.

Of course, I’m not saying anything a thousand other people haven’t said over the past forty years. Star Wars is one of those movies that just flat-out works on almost every level, for almost every audience. A full description of its virtues would fill a whole book (and I’m sure has on many occasions). Even viewed independently of what came after, it’s just a really, really good film.

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: The Clown

Frank Catelli sat in his car, watching the children play. He had a newspaper on his lap, but wasn’t reading it. It was only for show, in case someone came up and asked what he was doing. Always best to provide yourself with an innocent excuse for anything you’re doing. In the same way, his final meeting with Nora Eckhart had taken place at the circus, in a crowd of people, almost right under the noses of her employers. In a crowd, no one looked at you twice. And there was no harm in going to the circus.

Frank watched little George Reiner as he played on the slide and smiled a cruel smile.

Enjoy it while you can, kid, he thought. Next few days aren’t gonna be as much fun.

That was the worst part of his job; having to hear the kids cry over the two or three days until their parents decided to pay up. He couldn’t stand the whining. That’s why he always tried to use a place that had a good, strong closet or something, where he could lock the kid up and leave him without worrying that he’d figure a way out and from where he couldn’t hear the screams. He’d gotten a good one this time; an old cottage off in the woods where no one would ever think to go and that had a root cellar with a heavy wooden door. Three or four days of peace and quiet, and a fat pay off at the end of it. He really did have the perfect job.

All that was remaining now was for him to signal Eckhart the nanny, who would then lead little Georgie over to the car, and before the kid knew what was happening, they’d be on their way. He just needed to wait for the right moment, when the other people in the park weren’t paying attention. Wouldn’t be long now; the only other kid was being gathered up by his mother and led away. As soon as they were out of sight…

Frank cursed aloud. A clown in full regalia, big floppy shoes, oversized pants, and an electric blue wig had come waddling into the park dragging a brightly-colored cart full of balloons, popcorn, and other treats. And he was heading right for little George.

Nora Eckhart glanced around. Frank shook his head slightly to indicate she should wait.

The clown, meanwhile, was waving at George, his colorful face seemingly one enormous grin.

“Hi, there!” he said.

George stopped his play, hovering by the monkey bars indecisively. The bright colors and friendly demeanor of the clown interested him, but he was cautious as well.

“Hello,” the boy answered.

“Would you like a nice balloon? Or some popcorn?”

George nodded, but didn’t move.

“My dad says I’m not allowed to talk to strangers.”

“And very right of your father!” said the clown in a serious tone. “You certainly should not! So, my name is Cosmo, and this…” he suddenly produced a large hand puppet of a chicken with a top hat and monocle. “Is Lord Cluckington.”

George Reiner laughed in delight at the sight of the puppet. Already, Frank could tell, the clown was getting past his defenses.

“And your name is Georgie Reiner,” the clown went on. “There! Now we’re not strangers anymore!”

“I guess not!” said the boy.

“That’s good, because Lord Cluckington doesn’t talk to strangers either. But maybe he’ll talk to you, if you’re polite to him. Go ahead! Say ‘hello.’”

“Hello, Lord Cluckington,” said Georgie.

“Good-day, to you, young man,” the clown answered in a faux-dignified voice. His ventriloquy, Frank had to admit, was very good. The puppet bowed, and the boy laughed with delight. “It is rare,” the clown went on in the puppet’s voice. “That I should meet such a distinguished and obviously noble child such as yourself. I must apologize for the uncouth manners of my associate.”

“Oh, now!” Cosmo said. “I think that’s going a bit far!”

“I will not lower myself to discuss the matter with you, beyond saying ‘bawk, bawk,’ sir.”

Georgie giggled. Cosmo cast him an apologetic look.

“It isn’t easy living with the rich and famous,” he sighed.

“My daddy’s rich too!” Georgie said.

“Oh?” said the puppet with interest. “Does he possess many grain silos?”

“No,” said Georgie. “He’s in business.”

“Oh, I see,” said the puppet in a politely disappointed ton. “Well, I suppose that is a very worthy calling as well. You don’t happen to have any grain on you, do you?”

Georgie shook his head.

“I have some popcorn, my lord,” said Cosmo. “Would you like to share some with Georgie?”

“Share? I am far above sharing, my good fellow. Bagawk. However, I may make an exception in this case.”

Cosmo produced a bag of popcorn and Georgie eagerly took some of the salty treat, then handed a few to the puppet.

“Much obliged, sir,” said the puppet as it feigned pecking at the corn. He made sounds as though satisfied. “Hm, that is quite enough for me. I am dining with the ambassador of Estonia later. Perhaps you would care to finish the rest?”

Georgie was, of course, only too happy to accept, and Cosmo the clown, with his absurd puppet, said their goodbyes and left the boy happily munching his popcorn on the park bench while he took his cart elsewhere. Nora looked back again, and Frank motioned for her to wait a moment.

“Give him a minute to leave,” Frank muttered. “Then we take him…”

“Hi, there!”

Frank swore as the clown’s painted face suddenly popped up at his window, chicken puppet and all.

“I know you!” said Cosmo the clown, pointing at him with an exaggerated look of excitement. “You were at the circus the other day!”

Frank did a double take. At the circus he had been preoccupied with his job and hadn’t paid much attention to the acts, but now he realized that this particular clown had been there and had performed. Or at least, someone wearing similar makeup.

“Yeah,” he said, feigning a smile. “Great show.”

“The greatest show on Earth!” said Cosmo much too loudly.

“Right. Look, pal, do you mind? I’m kind of busy right now.” He indicated the newspaper.

“Oh, I know!” said the clown with exaggerated concern. “You have been so very, very busy these past few days. Not only fixing up that cottage that no one knows about, but renting this car, paying off Miss Eckhart, and carefully mapping out little Georgie Reiner’s routine. You must be exhausted.”

Frank stared at him. His hand moved to his holster, but he didn’t draw. The smiling face of the clown – the clown that had just accurately described everything he’d been doing to prepare for this job – seemed to hypnotize him.

“But, of course, this is just what you do, isn’t it?” Cosmo went on cheerily. “You kidnap children and hold them for ransom! You don’t care that it scares them; you don’t care if they get hurt. You don’t care about them at all, except that they can get you money.”

“Look,” said Frank. “Just how the hell do you know all this?”

“I am Cosmo!” said the clown with a parody of a stage magician. “I know all!”

“Yeah? You know what this means?” Frank drew his pistol and pointed it at him. “It means beat it and keep your painted mouth shut, clown, or you’ll end up in a body bag.”

Cosmo clapped a hand to his mouth, laughing as though he’d never seen anything so hilarious in his life.

“You think that’s funny?” Frank asked. This clown was clearly off his rocker.

“Well, no, not too funny,” said Cosmo, chuckling. “But Lord Cluckington here, he just thinks it’s a riot!”

The chicken puppet said nothing. Frank stared. Nothing in all his years of experience had prepared him for this.

“Now, Mr. Frank Catelli,” Cosmo the clown said. “That is your name, right?”

“Yeah, so what?”

“Well, the reason I stopped by is that Lord Cluckington really, really wanted to meet you. So, without further adieu….Lord Cluckington, may I present Frank Catelli, sometimes known as Frank Carlyle, sometimes by a host of other names. He is a professional kidnapper of children and he’s planning to kidnap little Georgie Reiner.”

Lord Cluckington considered Frank, then leaned in to whisper in Cosmo’s ear. Frank wasn’t sure whether he should shoot or not; a murder might spoil the whole job, but this clown…

“Oh, you already knew that?” said Cosmo, speaking to his puppet. “Because you saw him? Because we both saw him making these preparations?”

“What are you talking about?” Frank snapped.

“Cosmo the magnificent excels in all the arts of the clown,” he said with a solemn air. “Tumbling, fumbling, bumbling, juggling, but my favorite is impersonations. Specialties include passing drunks, window washers, janitors at car rental establishments, and realtors who happen to have perfect kidnapping cabins!”

Frank stared, then squinted at his face. It was almost impossible to tell under the makeup, but now that he mentioned it, he could just see the slightest resemblance between this clown and the man who had rented him that cottage.

“So, Lord Cluckington,” Cosmo went on. “Since we’ve seen Mr. Cateli at all these tasks, and heard him make all those very incriminating statements, what do you suppose we should do about it?”

Again, the puppet was made to whisper in his ear, and the clown adopted a look of mock solemnity.

“Lord Cluckington says we should eat your soul,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. “But I think we ought to just inform the police. What do you think?”

Frank looked from the clown to the puppet, then lowered his gun and laughed. The job was ruined now, of course, but damn if the clown didn’t know his business. The image of ‘Cosmo’ marching into the police station to swear out a statement against him, corroborated by Lord Cluckington, was hilarious.

“Go ahead,” he said. “I’m sure they’ll listen to the likes of you.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t tell them,” said Cosmo. “Lord Cluckington would! He is a very respected person, as you must know. The police will believe everything he says.”

“I just bet they will,” laughed Frank.

Lord Cluckington opened his beak, and a perfect recording of Frank repeated, “I just bet they will.”

For a moment, Frank Catelli froze. He slowly realized just what his position had become. He raised the gun, but Cosmo was too quick. Lord Cluckington shot forward and hit him full in the face. The puppet, as it turned out, didn’t only have a recording device, but also a metal frame.

When Frank Catelli came to, it was to the sight of flashing red and blue lights, his own hands tied to the wheel. Little Georgie was in the arms of his mother, who was talking to the police. Nora Eckhart was already in the back of a squad car, looking dazed. And right in front of him, two detectives were looking over a pile of documents and tapes that appeared to have been left on the hood of his car in a brightly wrapped package.

REPOST: Why I Love ‘Independence Day’

Posted this last year, but since I watch the film every year, I might as well post this every year as well.

x538            When Independence Day came out, it was a huge hit, but ever since then it’s kind of become the poster-child for the big, dumb, CGI-fueled blockbusters of the late 90s. And, yes, in a way it is, but…well, that’s kind of beside the point.

The Story: On July 2nd, a massive alien craft appears in orbit around the earth and sends out an armada of city-sized flying saucers that take up position above several of the world’s major cities, including Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. We then see the unfolding war of the worlds through the eyes of four American men and their families: underachieving New York cable company technician David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), Los Angeles-based Marine pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith), drunken Californian crop duster pilot Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), and the youthful President Whitmore (Bill Pullman).

So, is this movie pretty stupid? Sure. This is light science-fiction pulp, of the kind you might find in Amazing Stories, or in a drive-in theater in the late 1950s, only given a massive budget and an all-star cast. Granted, a lot of those classic films were better than this one (The War of the Worlds in particular does many of the same things while being an overall superior film), but none achieved the same sense of scale and grandeur as this one.

As for me, I’m glad we have it.

This is the movie that Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, or Invasion of the Saucer Men, or those 1940s serials dreamed of being. It’s cheesy pulp sci-fi done as epic: national and world-spanning in scope, drenched in apocalyptic dread and patriotic defiance, with implacably hostile collectivist aliens pitted against scrappy, courageous, freedom-loving humans. This may or may not sound appealing to you, but to the film’s credit is unambiguously knows what it’s trying to be and doesn’t make any apologies for it.

There are a lot of things to like about this movie. In the first place, it’s huge. Four main characters, each one carrying a small cast of supporting characters, a world-spanning plot involving a large-scale alien invasion targeting the major cities of the globe, huge airborne battles…it’s just a grand, glorious spectacle. Yet, amazingly enough, the film still manages to keep the focus largely on the people involved: we see these events through their eyes, and the real story of the film is how it affects them. It’s not done brilliantly, but it works. We very rarely leave the perspective of one of our leads, and then only briefly to illustrate things that they are talking or thinkings about. For instance, late in the film we have a brief glimpse of various armies around the world receiving and responding to the President’s call for a united counter-attack, but we quickly cut back to where the President and his military aids are receiving the answers.

At the same time, though, the four interconnected storylines make the film seem anything but constrained. On the contrary, the multiple-perspective format gives the story an epic feel that few subsequent blockbusters (Armageddon, Transformers, etc.) have successfully imitated. This is in stark contrast with Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which though in some ways a better film was rendered all-but unbearable by the fact that we spent the whole thing welded to three boring and unpleasant characters.

The leads here, by contrast, are all charismatic and likable (though some might find Jeff Goldblum’s stammering speaking style annoying), as are most of the supporting characters. They’re not especially original, but they all have personality and serve as pleasant enough company. I particularly like Robert Loggia as the President’s right-hand general and Judd Hirsch as Goldblum’s father.

More than that, though, it’s just a really good story and well-done adventure. It’s grand and epic, but also keeps focused. Appropriate for a film about the Fourth of July, the theme is pitting freedom and the American way of life against the encroaching forces of collectivist aliens backed with all-powerful technology. When, after the opening salvos, we see the Statue of Liberty lying broken in New York harbor we understand what the battle is really about.

The film’s theme plays out in the lives of its characters, who all start off having forgotten what’s really important, which they rediscover throughout the film, even as they have to fight against the implacable hostility of the alien menace. Levinson and his wife have divorced due to their divergent career paths, with her working on the White House staff while he wastes his talents at a dead-end cable job. Whitmore’s caught up in politics and has lost his authority. Hiller dithers about marrying his girlfriend for fear of how it will affect his military career. And Casse is a drunken wreck who can barely take care of his family. All the characters are then forced to reexamine their lives and ‘re-center’ on what really matters: family, faith, and country.

The four leads provide an interesting cross-section of American society about the mid-nineties: blue collar, white collar, military, politics; Black, White, Jewish; married, unmarried, widowed, divorced. The film is thus about as representative of the American way of life of the time as could be asked for. We see that the characters in the opening don’t appreciate what they have in that way of life, being lost amid their petty concerns and self-destructive behavior. It’s only when their world is threatened that they begin to re-orientate their lives around the things they’ve neglected for so long, and it is this that gives them the power to strike back.

On the other hand, the aliens prove to be the reverse of American values; they’re a kind of hive-mind, with little or no individual personality, each subject to the collective. They have no home and no land of their own: they simply move from planet to planet taking whatever they need like locusts and moving on when they’re done. When asked if there’s any possibility of the two species co-existing, they bluntly respond that there isn’t.

In this context, it’s significant that the film explicitly describes the aliens as having bodies ‘just as frail as ours.’ All men, and aliens, are created equal; the aliens just have better technology that allows them to impose their will upon the earth. Once mankind figures out a way around that technology, the fight becomes more even.

The specifics of that method have justly been called out as ridiculous, but, again, that’s not really the point. All they needed was a semi-plausible excuse to bring down the alien shields, and a computer virus works as well as any other (the fact that the aliens were previously established to have been using the Earth’s satellites in their attack lends it just enough pseudo-validity to work in context). The important thing was how the idea was given (amid a heart-to-heart between Levinson and his father about the need to go on hoping) and what it leads to (a last-ditch battle for freedom).

I could go on about it, but suffice to say, I think it’s a really good movie. Yes, it’s kinda stupid, yes it’s cheesy and overblown, but at the end of the day it succeeds in being exactly what it sets out to be, which is a big-budget, large-scale version of a classic sci-fi b-movie. It has pleasant characters, great visuals, and tells a simple, but solid story. All in all, it’s one of my favorites.

Second Meditation: On Beauty

Note: This is just a series of loose thoughts written out more or less as they come, presented in the hopes that someone will find something worthwhile within them. 

Our society despises beauty. This may sound surprising, given how much we hear about overvaluing of physical appearance, impossible beauty standards in media, and the rest of it, but that sort of thing isn’t an overvaluing of beauty, but an extension of our bonobo-like obsession with sex; it is ‘hotness’ we value, not beauty. Granted, beauty and sexual attraction, in women, often overlap, but they aren’t the same thing.

Once this distinction is clear in our mind, examples and proofs pile up almost faster than we can describe them. Female fashions are designed to emphasize and draw attention to the bodily form, as opposed to earlier fashions which were meant to adorn it. Compare a woman’s frock from the 1930s, with its patterned dress and accompanying hats with a modern body-hugging dress or pants. It isn’t just a matter of being more or less revealing, but a matter of how much the dress itself was meant to look pretty compared to how much it was meant to draw the eye to the woman’s body (this distinction occurred to me watching an episode of All Creatures Great and Small, where I realized that the dress of the protagonist’s wife was doing something very different than a modern dress would).

Also, if our culture valued beauty as such, we would prize it in our art, architecture, music, and so on. We do not. This is almost a truism; no one looks at modern architecture or modern art and praises it for its beauty. Even people who like the stuff like it for other reasons. In architecture we either go for bland utilitarianism or self-indulgent absurdism.

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modern-low-rise-office-building-14048267

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This is supposed to be a Cathedral, by the way.

 

We further denigrate beauty with grotesque blasphemies such as “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” trying to render the whole thing subjective, either in an excuse to provide poor work or out of misguided compassion (looking at you, Mr. Serling).

All of this, as I see it, is a concerted effort by modernity to try to shut down the one thing it can’t successfully lie about or explain away. G.K. Chesterton exposed this dilemma of the revolutionary in The Loyal Traitor:

“We can rise up ignorance against science and impotence against power, but who is going raise ugliness against beauty?”

Against truth, the revolutionary can assert a lie, and the lie may be convincing. Against nobility, the revolutionary can assert liberty and license, and they are appealing. But against beauty he can only offer sophistries and evasions, because beauty is unanswerable. You can give someone a false idea to fall back on, but you can’t stop him from seeing it if he has any humanity left.

Of the three great pillars of goodness – Truth, Nobility, and Beauty – beauty is the easiest to perceive and that hardest to define. You cannot exactly say what constitutes it; it is not evenness (trees are beautiful), nor size (flowers and mountains are both beautiful), nor vision (music and poems and even ideas can be beautiful). The only way to really describe it is a thing being as it ought to be. In short, beauty is the raw perception that the thing before us is good.

This is why beauty leads to love, and why talk of love is so often couched in terms of beauty: perception of goodness leads easily to willing that goodness to continue, and consequently to the desire to subordinate oneself to it.

This is also the reason for the ‘beauty equals goodness’ trope, which was never as universal as some like to claim, but it a venerable practice: storytellers make the good people beautiful as a shorthand way of showing their goodness, and the reverse for the bad guys. In visual media, it encourages us to be on their side from the beginning. Beauty is raw perception of goodness, at least in terms of form and appearance, so it is helpful as a means to lead audiences to perceive other good qualities about the heroes.

If beauty is the raw perception of goodness, then we may say that, in our experience of beauty, we have a dim image of how God perceives creation. God saw that creation was good; that is, creation affected God after the fashion a beautiful object affects us. Had mankind never fallen, no doubt his ability to perceive beauty would have been greatly increased, as would his ability to produce it in his own work.

What is more, beauty, as I said, is a perception that a thing is as it ought to be. Thus, the notion of objective beauty contains within it something akin to the notion of intent in creation, something akin to the Platonic forms, the essential concept that there are ideas behind real, physical things we encounter. That is, if we perceive beauty, we perceive that that beautiful object conforms to its pattern or its concept. But that means there is a concept that precedes the object, as the concept of a machine precedes its invention.

There are two ways to understand this; the progressive claims that the concept comes from us; that our perception of beauty depends on how well it fits our own pre-conceived notions of the object. Thus, a woman is beautiful is she fits the ‘standards’ of the (male) observer. The traditionalist, on the other hand, would say that the concept comes from God, and that we perceive that the beautiful object, insofar as it is beautiful, fits the perfect idea of it in the mind of the Creator. We are able to perceive this because we are made in His image and likeness and thus have minds akin to His, if infinitely lesser.

The problem with the progressive approach is first that we may perceive beauty in things we are seeing for the first time, and which we had no conception of before hand. A traveller from the Navajo who ended up in Paris would be able to perceive beauty in Notre Dame Cathedral though he’d never seen a stone building before. A boy raised in the Sahara would not be blind to the beauty of a snowfall merely because he’d never imagined one before (indeed, this is the opposite of our experience; totally new perceptions of beauty strike us more forcefully than ones we are familiar with).

Another problem is one that progressive thought runs into constantly; the problem of origin. If beauty is socially constructed, it is hard to see where the concept came from in the first place. That is, if our perception of beauty is only our perception of the preconceived notions we have been taught by social pressures to apply, then whence can these notions and to what purpose? Who was it that decided Mozart and Bouguereau ought to strike the senses as they do and why?

You see, if our conception of a given object, and hence of its beauty comes from ourselves through social pressures, there must be an origin point at which this process began. And it is hard to imagine either how that would happen or why it would be applied to such completely irrelevant objects as stars, landscapes, and music, but not to more survival-crucial factors such as food or tools (for beauty is so far not utility that the two concepts are almost opposites: very, very few things are valued both for their beauty and their utility).

Now, I am sure some explanation could be offered that was more or less plausible (off the top of my head, a common conception of beauty fosters group cohesion. Though I severely doubt primitive peoples, or really anyone prior to the modern world even thought in those terms, let alone formed quiet conspiracies to enact them. Considering how incompetent we, with our ‘scientific’ understanding of these phenomena are at creating such things, I doubt our ancestors even bothered trying). The point is that beauty requires an explanation, and more than that, if it isn’t going to end in what might be termed a traditionalist view – of objective values, supernatural origins, and teleological creation – it has to be explained away. Beauty, as an objective reality, does not fit into a progressive view of the universe.

Yet even when intellectually explained away, it can’t be avoided except through maiming the soul. Jaded high school students raised on ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ will still stop and gaze at a Bouguereau painting. People still flock to the Grand Canyon and still stargaze, and you can still pack an auditorium to hear the music of Mozart. Beauty is unanswerable because it is simply perceived, as a color is. You can quibble about the definition of green, but you can’t argue a man into seeing red. You can explain beauty away, but you can’t stop someone from seeing it. Beauty, in the last resort, is the final snag that links a man to God.

That is why modern, progressive society hates it so much. That is why we try to scrub it as much as possible from our lives, why we insist on subjectivity, why we insist that ugly works of art are just as good – nay, better – than beautiful ones. That is one reason we lay so much stress on the sexual aspect of female beauty. That is why the Catholic liturgy has been gutted and Catholic churches defaced by their own congregations.

Beauty leads to love, and to love anything for its own sake is to take one step away from the progressive mindset that the end goal is the greatest thing and one step closer to loving God, from whom all good things flow.

 

WALL-E at the Federalist

For the ten-year anniversary of one of my favorite films.

The film is often described as an environmental parable, or a caution against consumerism. Those things are present, but they are subordinate themes. The main thesis of the film is something much more universal, interesting, and timely. Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously said in “The Idiot” that “beauty will save the world.” In its own quirky little way, that is the central idea of “WALL-E.”

Little WALL-E has a great appreciation for beauty, as demonstrated in his introductory scenes, and when EVE appears on Earth he almost immediately falls in love with her. Beauty inspires love. His love for her leads him to try to care for her when she shuts down, then to follow when her spaceship returns to take her back. Love carries a sense of obligation and duty, and the courage and senseless determination to carry it out. Because he loves, he will do and face anything for the sake of his beloved.

This same pattern plays out with the captain of the Axiom, the ship where the human race “enjoys” endless leisure in an almost comatose indifference. He is at first merely curious about the strange substance called “dirt” that WALL-E brought into his chambers, and has the computer analyze it. Then, on seeing images of the Earth in its heyday, he is awed by its beauty and falls in love with the planet.

When he discovers what it has become, he realizes that he has a responsibility to his home. This sense of duty gives him the courage to stand up to the autopilot and at last take control of his own destiny. So, beauty saves the world because it inspires love, which in turn inspires duty, and with it the courage to carry it out.

Read the rest here

First Meditation: God the Creator

Note: This is just a series of loose thoughts written out more or less as they come, presented in the hopes that someone will find something worthwhile within them. 

 

Most of the truths of our faith have become truisms through repetition, so that we fail to appreciate their meaning. To say that God created the Heavens and the Earth, and that through Christ all things were made seems to us, at the end of two millennia of Christian teaching, to be simply what a god does. We hardly even remember that the pagan gods, by and large, were not creators. At best, they were artisans making new things out of what already was. Zeus was not the creator. Odin the all-father himself had fathers. But God, the God of the Hebrews, is Creator of all, including of the devil himself, and He made them out of nothing, through His word alone.

It is an interesting point that: In the Beginning was the Word, through Whom all things were made. And God, in Genesis, creates by word, merely by commanding it to be. God speaks, and the world was made.

That raises a question: what is a word? Is a word not an idea made manifest? If I say ‘chair,’ well you and I have an idea of what a chair is. The word conveys the idea through sound or symbol, yet neither sound nor symbol contain within themselves the idea (as shown by the fact that other sounds and symbols can and are used to manifest the same idea: hence the variety of language).

A word is an idea made manifest. When God speaks His word, His ideas are made. It might almost be said that, as setting up sound waves are our method of speaking, so Creation is God’s.

That means that everything that is corresponds to an idea within the mind of God. These ideas may be said to correspond with what Plato called the Forms (if I read him correctly): the deeper reality that physical things are the reflection of.

All this world we live in came direct from the mind of God, yet is external to Him, as a spoke word is external to the speaker (the image in The Silmarillian of God and the angels singing creation into being is a very fitting one). Moreover, God called the world good, and we know that He loves the world, and especially mankind. If He loves it, then we are to love it as well.

But what of the unlovable parts of Creation? Sin and pain and suffering and the like?

Part of that I think may be that nature, in the sense of non-human physical nature, was never meant to quite correspond to rational values. Just what she is or what her purpose is, we do not know. Perhaps before the Fall we did, but not now. But she is separated from us in a way she is not from the other animals: the rules for lions and deer and insects are not those for us. Yet, as both come from the same mind, we must be able to find parallels and illustrations between them: they are not absolutely different.

More importantly, however, is the reality of sin: that is, the creature rebelling against the creator and refusing to correspond to the perfect idea in the mind of God, even though it is only in such correspondence that the creature can experience what is called happiness.

I don’t know whether nature herself can sin, but a rational being, one aware of itself and its creator, certainly can. This follows from God making all things good. The creature, contemplating itself, sees that itself is good. It is thus aware of two goods; itself and God. Whenever two or more goods are presented, it is possible to choose one or the other. Yet God cannot make anything that is not good, and as it is better to choose freely than by compulsion, His goodness would require Him to grant free will to His creatures, which being themselves good and reflections of Him, must tempt them to choose themselves apart from Him.

Sin, thus, is perhaps a necessary, not condition or even consequence, but possibility of the world God has made. The very goodness of goodness itself creates the possibility of evil.

This we see in our own experience: everything good can potentially be turned to evil. Anything good can be abused, and the better the thing is, the worse the abuse. Creation was good; perhaps the best thing there is apart from God (well, by definition it must be, as those are, broadly speaking, the only two categories in existence), thus it has the potential for evil.

Does God, who is all good, therefore have the potential for Evil? No, because evil means choosing the self or some other good besides God. Obviously, God Himself cannot do that.

Creation, therefore, by its very goodness creates the possibility of evil. It also spreads God’s own goodness and reflects it. Why did God create, if creation brings with it the possibility of Evil? It seems to be that He wished to share the goodness that He is; to give it to others. Creation is a pure gift of goodness; when we gaze on the night sky, or enjoy the taste of food, or spend time in nature, or listen to music, or make love with our wives, we are sharing in the goodness of God. We are experiencing, in a minor key, a taste of what He experiences eternally and offers to share with us.

I don’t know whether non-rational creation experiences anything like this; certainly there is some measure of happiness found in animal life, such as dogs or horses, and perhaps there is something akin to happiness in nature herself. Wordsworth described every flower rejoicing in the air it breathes, but I wonder whether what is actually happening is not more like the entirety of nature herself has some form of spirit, which experiences something like happiness. Or perhaps God’s idea of each species and each type of plant and stone and ocean has its proper spirit or angel to partake in its share of the goodness of God. Or perhaps these things exist for the sake of the rational creation, and experience happiness only through man. The example of domestic animals might seem to indicate this: a dog achieves its full state of happiness, if that is the correct word, only through the love and training of a kind master.

But this is speculation. What we do know is that God created all things through His Word, which is Christ, the second person of the Trinity. All things, therefore, are good to the extent that God made them.

And what of the evil things of creation? Cancers and diseases and the like? I think we can say these things were not made that way by God, but twisted by the Devil. For instance, the little bacteria that causes Bubonic Plague was created innocent by God. It was Satan that took it and twisted it to be the vector of disease. Viruses, those little un-living bundles of protein, may have been created direct by the Devil as a mockery of life. Cancer too is not a creature itself but a misprogramming of the body. Such things are not the work of God, but corruptions or distortions. Disease is the Devil’s creation, as seen by Christ casting it out wherever He goes, together with the demons who are the Devil’s minions.

But we are not like that. We were made direct by God and in His image and likeness. He made each of us individually, and knew us before He formed us in our mothers’ wombs. Each human being corresponds to a particular idea in the mind of God: each man has his own proper Form.

These ideas are what God means for each of us, the pattern that He intended us to be. He does not create to no purpose, and He expects something specific from each one of us (see the parable of the Talents). None of us, save Our Lord, Our Lady, and perhaps St. John the Baptist, has ever fully matched the Idea God had of us in His head. Those of us who make creative work will recognize that the ideas we have never seem to measure up to the reality: perhaps this is God’s way of conveying His frustration to us.

And why do we not fit the pattern when we have a perfect creator? Because, in a staggering condescention, God does not act as sole creator. He permits us to have a hand in our own creation. He provides the baseline: our time, our appearance, our sex, and so on, and guides our hand through the rest, but we are the ones He wishes to create according to His pattern: to build upon what He provides us.

It is since the initial fall and the onset of original sin – like the familial tremors that make it so hard for me to write neatly – that this co-creation has become impossible. We can’t help missing the line or twitching the pen out of position, and that’s when we are trying to follow the pattern. When we decide to freestyle on the idea we can make something better than God, we end up with a complete mess. We make ourselves into things that are no longer even akin to what God intended, fitting outselves for nothing but the rubbish heap.

For never forget: we are made in God’s image. These selves we are creating are little portraits of our Divine Creator. An image of God that conveys a lie, or a slander, or a caricature of Him is unacceptable, even in the interest of the ruined man himself. To be eternally proclaiming a lie is no happiness and does no good to anyone. Thus enters Hell: the repository for lies and broken images. To be made in the image of God contains within itself the requirement of Hell: for if an image turns false to its subject, it ceases to be an image at all.

God created the world, but He allows us to help create ourselves. Our lives are the creation process: in fact, we do not know what it is like to be in a finished creation, only in an ongoing one. That state of completion, of having it said of us “It is good,” is what we call ‘Heaven.’

Thus, properly speaking, our lives are a single, continuous creation, like the lines in a picture make up a single image. The revelation of Our Faith is in the Life of Christ, and before that the Life of Israel the nation: not in any one formula or set of statements (though these are used to clarify and understand revelation). God speaks through creation, and the life of a man is a single element of Creation. Thus, the Life of Christ is, in its totality, God’s statement to mankind.