Sunday Thoughts

In addition to being one of the great philosophical minds of human history, St. Thomas Aquinas was also a mystic who experienced visions and ecstasies while in prayer. Near the end of his life, while still working on his magnum opus, the Summa Theologica, he was granted a vision of Christ. When he came out of it, he vowed never to write another word, as he said that compared with the reality he had seen, “all my writing is as straw.”

This is something we would do well to keep in mind; there is an unbridgeable gap between what a thing is and what can be said about it. Whether we’re talking philosophical or scientific or written descriptions, they always and necessarily can only convey an approximation of the thing. The most obvious instance of this is that no description of a beautiful object could ever convey its beauty to someone who did not already have an idea of beauty. But in the same way, even the most complete, perfect scientific description of a thing; a picture that takes in every natural law and accounts for every factual observation (assuming such a thing is possible) could contain the complete nature of even a single stone.

Words can suggest something of what what a thing is, but only to an extent, and like the dinosaur DNA in Jurassic Park, it has to be completed by what we ourselves bring to it. In the end, real things cannot be formularized; they can only be encountered.

“All the efforts of the human mind cannot exhaust the essence of a single fly.”

Thoughts on ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’

The story behind the Sonic the Hedgehog movie is, in its way, more interesting than the story of the film itself. About a year ago the first trailer dropped, revealing the film’s design for the title character. It should be noted that Sonic is one of the top-draw characters of video-game history. His games are not what they were, but he was one of the big names of the medium’s early heyday, a rival to Mario himself. Everyone of that generation, even though who haven’t played the games, knows Sonic: if Mario is gaming’s Superman, Sonic is its Spider-Man.

So, the trailer dropped, and this was the design they had:

He looks like someone stuffed an emaciated child into a furry onesie and then CGed a piece of bad fan art over his face. It’s as if they weren’t working off of the games so much as off of a cheap live show version of the character.

The backlash was, unsurprisingly, intense. Even the original designer of Sonic said he thought it looked awful.  It was to the point that only a few days later the director, Jeff Fowler, took to Twitter to announce that they were going to re-do the entire design from the ground up, pushing the film back from its original November release date to do all the effects over again.

This was the result:

Ben Schwartz in Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

Not only is he now about a thousand times cuter and more charming, but it’s also much, much closer to the Sonic that people know and love. You look at the original and you see a strange variation on Sonic. You look at this guy, and you just see Sonic.

But with that taken care of, what about the film itself?

Having just seen it, I can say that I liked it quite a bit. It’s very light, has some extremely glaring gaps in logic, and Sonic’s powers are about as consistent as the average politician’s moral convictions, but it was a very sweet, wholesome kind of film just bursting with goodwill.

One thing that stood out was that the filmmakers very clearly cared about this character. The film is littered with nods and references to the games, from the sound effects to some of Sonic’s mannerisms. The prologue even has him being attack by red echidnas, promising an appearance by Knuckles in a future film (my favorite, being a Nintendo fan, is when Sonic comments on how much he hates mushrooms). More to the point, the filmmakers actually seem to have taken the time to think out what Sonic’s personality is. His essential kindness is established right off the bat, where he saves a turtle crossing the road then, thinking how sad it must be to always have to go slow, takes it on a wild ride to show how exhilarating speed can be. That right there is perfect Sonic; he’s an adrenaline junkie who just loves to go fast, and who, for all his cockiness, genuinely cares about others.

One moment that stood out to me was an early  scene where the extent of his loneliness comes in on him and he expresses his frustration by running as fast as he can. That, it seems to me, is how Sonic would burn off anger; pushing himself to go faster and faster. The bit  leading up to it is very nicely done, playing off of the early gags of Sonic using his speed to pretend he has friends, but suddenly finding that actual human contact – the one thing he really wants – something he can’t give himself, no matter how fast he can run. I also like that the film maintains Sonic’s habit of talking to himself through much of its run time, keeping us aware of his isolation.

Sonic’s presented here as kind of a hyperactive kid; not quite the ‘hedgehog with attitude’ that we know from other sources, but clearly poised to grow into it, and I think it’s certainly an acceptable variation on the character, from what I know of him.

As for the villain, Jim Carey is still not my first choice for Robotnik (I would have gone with Nick Offerman), but again, the film hits his character pretty well and makes him a suitable counterpart to Sonic. Where Sonic is free-spirited and longs to connect with people, Robotnik despises people and prefers his machines, which do as they are told and are never unpredictable or illogical. This fits nicely with the franchise’s motif of live, active animals pitted against cold, crushing technology. Carey is clearly having a blast in the role, hearkening back to his heyday in the 90s (coincidentally, also the time of Sonic’s peak popularity, as I recall), and to be honest, his eccentric, over-the-top arrogance does fit with Robotnik, as I understand him(his boasting and arrogance gives the film plenty of chances to flesh out his character without coming to screeching halt). He’s not nearly fat enough (though the ‘Eggman’ moniker is used in the film, and in a way that makes sense), but he grows into the role, so that like Sonic, by the end of the film he is recognizably the Eggman from the games. And to be honest, seeing these two face off on the big screen after so many years actually did feel like a big deal. The climactic showdown captured the particular tone of their rivalry very well.

The film is structured as an origin story of sorts, showing Sonic growing from basically a runaway living in isolation to the hero we know from the games and other adaptations. He learns his spin-dash, discovers chili dogs, gets his red shoes, and, significantly, learns that he can use his powers for more than just running away. Again, this all feels very appropriate for Sonic. Is it the best possible story they could have told with him? Probably not, but it’s a story that works with his character. The climactic line (heard in the trailers, so it’s not a spoiler) “This is my power, and I am using it to protect my friends,” is a pretty good summation of who Sonic is.

Sonic teams up with James Marsden as a small-town cop who feels unfulfilled with his safe, comfortable small-town life and has tentative ambitions of being a San Francisco cop. He also talks to donuts (“…and eats them if they get out of line”), which I thought was a fun twist on an old cliche. He’s happily married to a very supportive and affectionate wife, and it’s refreshingly charming to see such a patently successful marriage in a family film and not to have any trite ‘relationship crisis’ moments (the only obstacle is her sister, who inexplicably hates him, but whom no one pays attention to. She’s a comedic element that your mileage will probably vary on, but she doesn’t have a lot of screen time). Moreover, their easy-going, familiar relationship, along with the equally easy-going small-town life we see in Green Hills, gives context both to Sonic’s loneliness and Robotnik’s misanthropy. It was vital for this film to have happy connections among its supporting cast to emphasize the plight of its hero. And really, it just warms my heart to have a major Hollywood film championing small town, rural life and happy, mutually supportive marriages over cities, technology, and shrieking misandric single women.

I was impressed by the action scenes, which make full use of Sonic’s speed for some high-adrenaline chases and rapid-fire battles. The climactic chase in particular, with Sonic racing from location to location, dodging Robotnik’s attacks, is exactly the kind of thing you want to see in a movie like this (and for once leaping to famous landmarks actually makes sense, given how the rings work).

I do have to dock points for how inconsistent Sonic’s powers are; his speed basically lets him do anything the script needs at the moment, but not anything it doesn’t need. At one point during a bar fight he runs around the room causing chaos while everyone else is standing completely still. Earlier on, he got shot with a tranq dart because he was caught off guard. Another time he runs from Montana to the Pacific Ocean and back in about ten seconds. When he needs to get to the top of a tall building, why can’t he just run up the side? The climax manages to pull a convenience to allow Robotnik to keep up with him, but it’s still a bit much. Likewise it’s unclear why Sonic gets his heroic second wind in the finale; was it really just the power of friendship (it is magic, after all)? Logic is not this film’s strong suit, so take that for what it’s worth.

Likewise there are a number of plot threads that just kind of fall off at the end. It’s not hard to make surmises about them, but a few throwaway lines or scenes might have helped; like while Robotnik is fighting Sonic, why not have a quick bit of the government trying to reign him in and being ignored to explain why they were so willing to drop the whole thing at the end? Little things like that would have made the film stronger.

As it is, though, I think ‘light, wholesome fun’ sums it up. All I asked of this film was that it be enjoyable and not be morally offensive. That’s a low bar, but so few movies manage to clear it these days. This one soared over it with flying colors (the worst content, as I recall, are a fart joke and a single cut-off swear word). Not great, but worth the time.

The film, and the story behind it, also gives the lie to the idea that fans are impossible to please. When the redesign came out, fans absolutely fell in love with it and the film went from a sure-fire flop to an expected hit. For the most part, I think, fans want to love things associate with the characters and stories they love. Give them just a little understanding, a little good-will, show that you care about the thing they care about, and they will appreciate it. After seeing the writers of Star Wars and the DCEU seemingly going out of their way to belittle and ‘improve on’ the very thing they are supposed to be honoring, basic care and respect come to seem precious.

Between this and Detective Pikachu, I can only hope we are the dawn of a new era for video-game movies, which have had a notoriously bad track record for a long time. But these two films show that they can work, at least when the filmmakers actually care about them. Onward and upwards for Sega and Nintendo!

SonicNoIdea.png

P.S. Definitely stay for the credits. This is one film I really hope gets a sequel.

Unformed Thought: The Shadows of Virtue

Something that needs to be gotten clear if we’re going to think rationally about morality is that people are fundamentally consistent. That is to say, with the possible exception of mental illness, a person’s intentional actions are all expressions of the same character, and work upon that same singular character. It’s like heating a stone or running electricity through a wire; you can’t isolate one part of the stone to be hot while the rest of it remains cool. The entire thing is affected. Or, to put it another way, no one willingly does anything truly out of character. When a man goes wrong, he goes wrong in a way proper to himself, just as when he goes right he goes right in a peculiar way. Under different circumstances and influences, Henry VIII may have become a good man, but he never would have had the same kind of goodness as, say, St. Phillip Neri.

Now, there is a consequence to this that, it seems to me, isn’t understood enough. It is that you cannot simply remove a vice, either from men or from society, without almost certainly doing greater damage than the vice itself. All vices are the shadows of virtues; if you drill too hard against the vice, you will lose the virtue as well. In fact, you are far more likely to destroy the virtue and keep the vice; virtue is harder to get in the first place. Remember Our Lord’s story of the tares and the wheat.

Mass Meditations – Sacrifice and Coronation

Before going to Mass today, I brought up the Enthronement Ceremony for Japanese Emperor Naruhito, intending to watch it later, though I perused a few photos and brief footage from it.

In this frame of mind, I went to Mass and a number of thoughts went through my mind. I don’t know how much foundation or antiquity these ideas have; they are my own, though naturally informed by the writings of other men. Take them for what they are worth.

First is that the Mass is the participation in the Sacrifice of Christ. In all sacrificial rituals that I am aware of, and most notably the Jewish rituals, an essential part of the sacrifice is the eating of the victim. Thus, in consuming Christ’s Body and Blood, we are partaking in His Sacrifice, which is re-presented for us in the Mass (that is, Christ was sacrificed once and for all – God sacrificed to God – but by miracle that same event is mystically presented to us in the consecration of the bread and wine).

At the same time, it is also a coronation. Christ comes to rule over us, to take His rightful place as the Lord of our bodies and souls. His minister and representative bears Him in and presents Him to us for our veneration (traditionally, we bow to the Priest as the minister and bearer of Christ as he enters and leaves the sanctuary). Which, of course, is part and parcel with the Sacrifice. A sacrifice is an act of obeisance, a sign of submission to the authority of the Deity. Even more so in this case, the sacrifice offered and the Deity offered to are one, so that in partaking of the sacrifice, we also welcome our Lord in to rule over us.

Of course, just as a sacrifice is an act of submission to divine authority, so too is a coronation. The monarch is placed under the rule of the People even as he takes his place as ruler over them. He is ‘sacrificed’ in the act of taking authority, made into a type and figure of the people themselves. Which, of course, Christ also did in His Passion, becoming the new ‘type’ of humanity; Man sacrificed on behalf of Man to God, and God to God.

Here we’re touching on what I find to be a key theme in theological and philosophical matters; that as you approach the Divine, distinctions break down. Rather than reducing things into ever more precise and ever smaller taxonomic categories, apparently distinct things blend together into a common and irreducible whole. Sacrifice and Coronation are revealed to be, in fact, a single thing that we experience under different forms; namely, the submission of man to the Divine and the elevation of the individual to the archetype. The more you really look at God and Man, the more that apparently distinct things – male and female, individual and society, authority and obedience – blur and reveal themselves to be parts of a singular whole. This is what we should expect from Christian teaching, which holds the God is absolutely simple (in the sense that He has no ‘parts’; He is what He is), and that His act of creation is a singular, coherent act; not like how we build something where we say “I want it to do this, which requires this, but then I’d need that to compensate for the other…” For God, His action is absolute and simple; a singular, coherent whole of which we experience a little bit at a time. Thus, when we speak of His Wisdom, His Wrath, and His Mercy, we’re not describing distinct moods or acts of His, but rather how His singular nature strikes up against us in this particular moment.

We’re getting into very deep water there, which I’m not really qualified to navigate. To return to the Mass coronation and sacrifice, the core of it is, of course, the Consecration and distribution of the Eucharist, which is the actual participation in the sacrifice and ascension of the King. The ritual in the lead up to it is, like all such things, a matter of context. In a coronation, the pageantry and speeches, the ritual of it, is meant to place the king in context of his nation and people. A coronation must be done according to ritual, the repeated, traditional pattern born out of history, because a people are their history and their traditions (again, definitions turning to simplicity; a ‘nation’ cannot exist without history, religion, language, customs, and so on). The oaths, the speeches, the ministers are all a matter of context; recalling to the King and to the people what he is and what they are.

In the Mass, we begin with prayers confessing sins and begging pardon, then to proclamations of God’s absolute and singular sovereignty, then to the readings from Scripture, all meant to prepare the mind and heart to receive the Lord, recalling Who and What comes to rule over us, Who and What is sacrificed and Why. The Homily is meant to clarify the readings and other teachings. It is the human touch, the one thing which the priest himself contributes (for you can’t have a purely structured system; you need a man’s judgment and presence to ensure it works ‘on the ground’ as it were). This is followed by the Creed proclaiming the content of our faith, then petitions, then the consecration itself. Finally, just before the presentation and distribution of Our Lord Himself, the recital of the prayer that He Himself gave us. Then, after the distribution is the final blessing and (in the old form) the recital of the preamble of St. John’s Gospel, the most complete and concise summation of the Christian faith in Scripture. It is all a singular event directing to that union with Christ which is at once the participation in His Sacrifice, the reception of Him as King, and the being taken into His being.

You see, it is a singular event, but one that we can’t describe fully, so we have to ‘tack back and forth’ as it were, describing it now this way, now that. Pretty much all the things of God are like that; you can’t fully describe them in a single definition, you have to now emphasize one side of it, now the other, and always aware that you’re not getting the whole in. That is one of the signs that you’re really dealing with something of God. Real, natural things don’t fit into easy formulas; does the lover or the beloved command greater rule? But the more the lover loves, the greater the beloveds hold over him, and the more the beloved desires to be loved, the greater the lover’s hold over her. Is the individual or society supreme? But society can only exist through individuals, and is only as good as its constituent parts, yet the individual cannot survive or even come into being without a community and typically reaches his full realization only in the context of communal service. The greatest men are those who give of themselves in service.

The riddles of God are wiser than the formulas of men.

Do You Really Want It? – Catholic Match Post

My latest Catholic Match post is on the all-important question of “do you really want what you say you want?”

I think a lot of the things we claim to want are in this category.

We say we like the outdoors, or that we would like to travel, or that we want a relationship. We may even make some easy, halfhearted efforts in that direction, such as reading up on foreign places or making up a profile on CatholicMatch. But we go no further.

We never book a flight or work out a way to budget for the trip. We don’t make overtures to people we find or respond to those we receive. We play with the idea, but we never commit to it.

But to truly desire something is different. That is when you want the thing itself, for its own sake. We think of it often and give our time and attention to figuring out how to achieve it. We’re excited by every small step that leads us that much closer to its accomplishment.

This is when the wish goes beyond a pleasing fantasy to become a real motivating force. It becomes, as it were, incarnate in action.

For instance, a man who says he ‘would like’ to travel to Japan might spend time reading up on the country, or enjoy relics of Japanese culture, but he won’t go any further.

He ‘wants’ to go to Japan in the same sense that he ‘wants’ to be a millionaire; it is a pleasant fantasy that conceivably could happen at some point. But the man who truly desires to see the Land of the Rising Sun won’t just stop at speculation; he’ll figure out the cost of the trip and carefully budget for it, spend time every day learning the language, and book a flight months in advance so that he’s fully committed to the journey. His desire takes on form by driving him to real and ongoing effort to achieve it.

In other words, you may judge whether you really want something by what you do to acquire it, and what you really desire is shown by what you in fact do.

Now, if you will here stop and honestly ask yourself what your real actions say about your desires, most likely you will find that they are not at all what you would have thought or wanted them to be. Most of us will probably find that watching funny videos on YouTube or engaging in meaningless chatter on social media hold a higher priority with us than serving God or pursuing what we describe as our dreams.

Read the rest here.

A Couple of Christmas Thoughts

-Christ’s birth as a child, a baby, is the supreme sign of God’s good will toward men. This is what all those horrible passages of the Old Testament must be read in light of, along with all the horrible things that happen to us men in this world. It seems like God is cruel, or arbitrary, or indifferent…but then, He chose to be born among us as an infant, a peasant child. And then to suffer and die for our sake. This is the key, the capstone that must be fit into every conception of God and the world that we might form.

 

-We celebrate Christmas as the coming of Christ into the world, rather than the Annunciation, which is technically when He first took on flesh, for this reason. The great effect of Christmas upon the story of mankind is that it is the manifestation of Christ before the nations; the beginning of God’s bringing all mankind to Himself. Before this, humanity was left with vague visions, nagging, half-formed dreams of what God or the gods were like and what his purpose in this world was. They could claw their way to a half-formed image of Him by great effort and great wisdom, and they pursued holiness and righteousness according to such lights as they had. It was truly man’s search for God. The only exception were the Jews, who knew God and His Law, but were not a proselytizing people. They guarded their knowledge of God rather than spread it.

Thus, the nine months that Christ spent in Mary’s womb were, properly speaking, still part of that time of waiting and uncertainty, because He was still hidden away from the rest of mankind. It was the final stage of that time, when it’s end had in fact been assured, but not yet manifested. Christmas is that manifestation. Christmas is, as so properly marked in the calendar, the demarcation point between the old world and the new: the world where man was searching for God and the world where he had been found by Him.