Sticking up for ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

So, a few days back, someone posted an attack on It’s a Wonderful Life in the ‘Boston Herald,’ criticizing it, not only as a bad film, but as promoting socialism. It was a very poorly done piece, of the “make a bold claim, then support it with a sarcastic comment” variety, but since the point of view is one that I’ve seen infecting Conservative circles a lot, I thought it needed to be addressed. Hence, today’s piece in The Federalist:

Having dismissed “It’s a Wonderful Life” on a technical level with a single ill-informed paragraph, he proceeds to tackle the film’s message. Graham’s position is that George’s life is “pretty awful” because he endures a lot of suffering, is unable to go to college or even on his honeymoon, and “his kids wear second-hand clothes and get sick from the cold…because George can’t afford nice things for his family.” Graham then claims the film’s vindication of George’s life “fails” because “his life still stinks. He’s not, in fact, rich or even financially secure…and on top of that, Potter gets to keep the eight grand!”

Thus, apparently, Graham’s definition of a good life is one in which we are “rich, or even financially secure,” able to do what we like, able to avoid suffering as much as possible, and perhaps one in which evil people are punished as well. He then rather absurdly goes on to claim that “It’s a Wonderful Life” represents socialist, New Deal-style economics, and that it was intended for “the workers at a Soviet collective circa 1949,” with the message “who cares that you have no shoes? Back to the factory for Mother Russia.”

Ironically, Graham’s view of the good life as defined primarily by material security and wellbeing is far closer to a socialist perspective than anything in the film. The foundational idea of Marxism is that the world is purely material, and therefore creating material security and equality for the most people is the highest good.

Judging by this op-ed, Graham would agree, but only dispute with a Marxist whether socialism or capitalism creates the most good for the most people. One thing with which a Marxist would never agree is that a man’s happiness is far more dependent on family, community, virtue, and so on than by his material well being.

This is a fundamental flaw in modern discourse for both conservatives and liberals: we focus so much on material issues, trying to work out a system that will make, as Graham says, “the best world for the most people,” that we don’t stop to ask what we mean by “the best world” or a “good life.” Both sides are making the exact same mistake even as they draw different conclusions: both accept the same basic philosophy, but disagree on its application.

Read the rest here

Yes, Virginia, ‘Die Hard’ is a Christmas Movie

My latest piece is up at The Federalist, and it’s all about the Christmas classic Die Hard and what makes it a Christmas movie.

Since the question hinges on there being a difference between a Christmas movie proper and a movie set around Christmas, it seems that a Christmas movie proper is a film that has some thematic element of Christmas as a central part of its story, while also linking this theme with the Christmas holiday itself. For instance, generosity and kindness are Christmas themes, but a film is not a Christmas movie for featuring them, only if they are linked with the Christmas season (otherwise something like “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” would be considered a Christmas movie).

So a Christmas movie is a movie specifically about Christmas and the related ideas of love, generosity, family, and so on. “Miracle on 34th Street” is a Christmas movie, not only because it is set during Christmas and features Santa Claus, but because it is all about putting innocence, generosity, and kindness ahead of modern cynicism and consumerism.  

It would be going too far to say that “Die Hard” has the same moral premise as “Miracle on 34th Street,” but it wouldn’t be wholly inaccurate either, because “Die Hard” is all about the clash between love and materialism.

Read the rest here.

Celebrating 30 Years of Mystery Science Theater 3000

By an interesting coincidence, I am exactly as old as one my favorite shows: Mystery Science Theater 3000. This show has had a huge influence on me, particularly when it comes to developing my sense of humor and appreciation for the obscurer side of the entertainment world. Now, as the show turns thirty years old, I explore a little bit of why it was so important at The Federalist:

Part of it is, of course, simply the humor; a group of very talented, very funny people reacting to some of the strangest and poorest films ever made. The Best Brains developed a distinct style of comedy, blending encyclopedic knowledge of cultural and entertainment subjects with clever wordplay and precision timing. They generally didn’t simply override the film, but carefully matched the gags to the events on screen, so what was said and what was happening came together to form the complete joke.

As the letters the cast used to read at the end of each episode demonstrated, the show made many, many people happy, and gave countless viewers a smile when they needed it most. That alone is worthy of commendation. But the show probably wouldn’t have found the audience it has if it weren’t for another factor: the jokes are not just funny, they’re often extremely smart, playing on cultural reference points that most of the audience won’t even get, but those who do will laugh twice as hard.

This doesn’t just appeal to the viewers. It also serves as a kind of cultural time capsule. Part of the MST3k “formula” was the writers’ vast knowledge of cultural and entertainment subjects. Since each episode was so long—about 90 minutes—each probably averaged well more than 100 individual jokes. These ranged over nearly every subject imaginable, from history and religion to politics and pop culture.

Thus, in a single episode, we could have references to “Gilligan’s Island,” Oktoberfest, the Clarence Thomas hearings, Batman, the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials, the Vietnam War, “The Great Race,” the Nuremberg Trials, the Nativity, “Twin Peaks,” and Jimmy Durante. Very few viewers would get all the esoteric references on a first viewing, and many would be inspired to seek out the reference. So the attentive MST3k viewer would find himself exposed to a whole host of cultural, entertainment, and historical touchstones that he might never have known of otherwise. To watch a single MST3k episode is to receive a crash course in American culture of the 1990s.

Read the rest here.

Halloween at the Federalist

New post up at the Federalist discussing the original Halloween:

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To understand this film, it is necessary to understand its monster. The thing in “Halloween” is usually referred to as Michael Myers, the name of the young boy in the opening. However, that’s not how Nick Castle is credited. He’s listed as playing “The Shape.” What is a shape? It is form without matter. A circle has the same nature, whether rendered in wood, ink, smoke, or mathematical notation. Thus, the Shape in “Halloween” is some form or reality that can materialize in many different ways, but always with the same nature.

Taken with Dr. Loomis’s pronouncements of the Shape’s inhuman nature, and especially with his final exchange with Strode —“It was the bogeyman!” she says, and he replies, “As a matter of fact, it was”  —  the implication is that the Shape is in fact a supernatural manifestation of evil. It isn’t Myers; he is only the material the Shape uses to give itself substance. This is why it always wears a mask, to the point that when Laurie briefly tears it off, the Shape pauses its assault to re-don the mask.

The Shape needs a disguise to give itself substance. It needs a “mask” of some sort. Even Myers himself is the Shape’s mask. This, of course, explains everything; The Shape cannot be killed because it is not a person but a supernatural entity. This is the same reason it has inhuman strength (enough to effortlessly strangle a German Shepherd with its bare hands) and some power over its environment (it seems able to lock and unlock doors from a distance).

It also explains the Shape’s eerily unnatural behavior. Not just its senseless murders, but the way it simply does strange things at times, such as when it appears in front of Linda wearing a ghost costume and then just stands there. Or when, after dispatching another victim, it pauses and thoughtfully tilts its head back and forth, as though studying its handiwork.

Likewise, there doesn’t seem to be any point to much of its behavior. For example, why the tableau with Annie’s body and Judith Myers’s gravestone? Or, for that matter, why is it targeting Laurie at all? The Shape, whatever its nature, is operating on a clearly alien mentality to anything we the audience can understand. It isn’t human.

Read the rest here.

Why I Remain Catholic

New Post on the Federalist.

But now I will answer his question directly. The Protestant asks: “Do you believe Protestants have Christ?” The Roman answers: “Not as we do.”

You Protestants have him as a distant voice; we Romans have him body and soul and majesty and divinity. We feed upon his body and drink his blood. We hear, with our bodily ears, his voice through his anointed ones saying, “Your sins are forgiven you” and, “This is my body.” We touch the bones of his saints and venerate the wood of his cross. And yes, we hear his written word in scripture as well. We have him not only as Protestants do, but also in a way that can be seen and and touched and tasted.

Christ is not words on paper or high lessons. He is a man, solid and real. A man who tromped the Earth with his feet, struck people with his hands, and sweat and bled from his body. He is hard, brute, unmistakable Reality, and his bride the church is no different. She is no invisible collection of believers, but men and women bound by words spoken aloud under the same law and the same doctrine: doctrine that means one thing and not another. A visible, objective entity upon Earth, just as he was and is.

You Protestants do not have that. You have pieces that you tore off and carried away. We are original: you are derivative. You have an echo or an image or a dream of Christ. By the grace of God, that may be enough to bring you to salvation, but it is a poor substitute for the real thing. So, that would be my answer to Maas’s question. I hope that makes the issue a little clearer.

Go here to read the rest.

New Essay Up at the Federalist

Don’t particularly care for the title they gave it, but such is life. This one is a semi-sarcastic examination of the idea of ‘The Age of Faith’ as it applies to the modern age

Sample:

We’re not taught how to reason in school: we’re just presented with “right answers” and told to put those down. Science textbooks don’t delve into the complexities of research, competing theories, the long, hard process by which accumulated facts slowly create a clearer and clearer picture of the workings of nature. They just list the facts, laws, and theories as ready made, sometimes with an understated sneer at those who initially doubted them for failing to give the right answer.

It’s like this with most aspects of our lives. When was the last time you actually heard someone lay out the reasons why, say, racism is wrong, or democracy is good? We don’t make arguments, just statements of faith based on what we’ve been taught to say.

The trouble is that this kind of faith-based approach is very fragile (which is one of the reasons the old Christians didn’t use it). It’s apt to breed resentment and rebellion, and to crumble if the observed facts don’t seem to match the received doctrine.

We’re sometimes told with horror that half the country doubts evolution. Well, why shouldn’t they? They’ve been taught it as a matter of faith, not as a scientific fact dug out of nature through observation and reason. They’ve simply been told, in essence, “This is true and you’re a bad person if you don’t believe it.”

We should only expect some people to rebelliously turn their backs on it for that reason alone. Then again, there’s the fact that anyone of basic intelligence can see where evolution, as it is usually taught, seems to contradict the observed world around us. It doesn’t make sense that the vast variety, beauty, and efficiency of the natural world came about simply by random mutations that happened to be beneficial (I am told modern evolutionists generally think the situation is much more complicated and interesting than that). So, when forced to choose between the rather patronizing faith that’s been shoved down their throats or their own good sense, they choose the latter.

Read the rest here.

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