treating human life like a Joker

Joker movieI saw the movie Joker yesterday. This is possibly the most satanic film I’ve seen since Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. I’m referring to its vision of the human person, and its insistence on a world without forgiveness, and thus a world without hope.

It is dark in a way that is more extreme than the truth, and political in a way that is even more polarizing than our current climate.

And then there is the gratuitous, intimate on-screen violence.

I predict it will leaven the culture in a very bad way. Two thumbs down.

I’m reminded of a quote from Dietrich von Hildebrand in his book titled Image of Christ: Saint Francis of Assisi:

Amorality is worse than immorality. The immoral man can repent his moral failure, he can turn back to his depth, whereas the amoral man has condemned himself to the periphery and finds no way back, when he has committed something objectively immoral.

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight had a moral compass I could accept.

But the Joker truly is the hero in this new film, convinced as he is of humanity’s total depravity. Nothing in this movie ultimately proves him wrong. I’m not a Calvinist, so I find that problematic.

Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck (aka Joker) is very compelling. However, I thought the character study was quite uneven… at times nuanced and thoughtful, and at other times, as hyperbolic and binary as a two-year-old in the throes of a temper tantrum. I suppose one could argue that faithfully reflects a certain sort of mental illness; I don’t know.

The movie never suggests that the evil that overtakes Arthur Fleck is anything more than of human origin; it never makes a nod to the supernatural (either divine or demonic), which is another reason I consider this movie satanic in character.

As a result, it’s hard to avoid the impression that the movie is willing to — at least partially — scapegoat those who suffer from mental illness. And our culture needs that right now like a hole in the head.

On the other hand: I felt the movie consistently allowed the Joker to claim victim status, without ever really holding him to account… It was more interested in shaming the aggressors than in recognizing that the Joker had choices.  For instance, the talk show host played by Robert De Niro was portrayed as a hypocritical scold. In this sense, Joker rather reminded me of Mystic River; my review of that movie can be found here.

I do think the story touches on several wounds in our culture: among others, our fascination with posturing, shaming and scapegoating (three catalysts of the phenomenon of social media); the modern tendency to descend into narcissism and solipsism; and the insistence on denying transcendence, which reveals itself in the myth of self-manufacture, most especially through gender ideology.

One story problem — something shared by many films today — was the lack of an ending. At a certain point in the film, after one of Arthur Fleck’s unmitigated victories, the screen just went dark, after throwing up a stylized title screen with “The End” on it.

Maybe the audience was supposed to feel like the Joker’s next victim at the end: lights out, so to speak. We, too, had been victimized, or at least robbed. The Joker is on us:

There are a lot of mirrors in Joker—many shots of Fleck looking at himself, his clown makeup smeared by blood and tears. But the ghastly images of Fleck are less disturbing than what the film reflects back to us: a society strangely intoxicated by macabre spectacles but oddly resistant to confronting the realities of evil, least of all in our own hearts.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers may be laughing all the way to the bank. Joker has broken box office records for October, raking in $93 million on opening weekend, with a $55 million budget. If the filmmakers had any reservations about what they created, that kind of windfall is sure to anesthetize their consciences. I do hope they set aside some of the profit to pay for support for those left behind after the next mass shooting; it’s not a question of if, but only a question of when.

What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?

The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16, verse 26

The movie has nothing beneficial to say to us; it is devoid of what Pope Benedict XVI once described to educators in the United States as “intellectual charity”:

Within… a relativistic horizon the goals of education are inevitably curtailed. Slowly, a lowering of standards occurs. We observe today a timidity in the face of the category of the good and an aimless pursuit of novelty parading as the realization of freedom. We witness an assumption that every experience is of equal worth and a reluctance to admit imperfection and mistakes. And particularly disturbing, is the reduction of the precious and delicate area of education in sexuality to management of ‘risk’, bereft of any reference to the beauty of conjugal love.

How might Christian educators respond? These harmful developments point to the particular urgency of what we might call “intellectual charity”. This aspect of charity calls the educator to recognize that the profound responsibility to lead the young to truth is nothing less than an act of love. Indeed, the dignity of education lies in fostering the true perfection and happiness of those to be educated. In practice “intellectual charity” upholds the essential unity of knowledge against the fragmentation which ensues when reason is detached from the pursuit of truth. It guides the young towards the deep satisfaction of exercising freedom in relation to truth, and it strives to articulate the relationship between faith and all aspects of family and civic life. Once their passion for the fullness and unity of truth has been awakened, young people will surely relish the discovery that the question of what they can know opens up the vast adventure of what they ought to do. Here they will experience “in what” and “in whom” it is possible to hope, and be inspired to contribute to society in a way that engenders hope in others.

Lately, I’ve been listening with great interest to Eric Weinstein’s new podcast, The Portal. I find it fascinating as an analysis of the conversations we are not having as a culture because of a de rigueur climate of political correctness and shaming which inhibits the free expression of ideas. He describes a global phenomenon of preference falsification, with the 2016 US presidential election as an example of how disastrous it is when people no longer express their political opinions in the open, but save them for the ballot box alone. The idea of preference falsification is one I think it would be valuable to explore, and a Joker movie could provide a powerful dramatic way to examine the theme. But this movie had nothing meaningful to offer in this regard. Alas, it was too much to hope for from Hollywood.

I do recommend The Portal podcast. The topic of preference falsification is discussed most thoroughly in episode 4: Timur Kuran: The Economics of Revolution and Mass Deception.

“What if everything we are taught in economics 101 is not only wrong, but may even be setting us up for populism, dictatorship or revolution? On this episode of the Portal, Eric is joined by renegade Economist Professor Timur Kuran whose theory of Preference Falsification appears to explain the world wide surge towards populism, and is now threatening to rewrite the core tenets of modern economics.”

Eric Weinstein

Last night, after wasting 150 minutes on Joker, I spent 15 minutes watching Rabbi Sacks. Very clarifying:

For a slightly different take, see the review by friend and fellow Act One alumnus Carl Kozlowski: Sympathy for the Devil.

Also: Steven Greydanus critiques the film in his characteristically thoughtful and nuanced style; he mentions a dimension of the film that I omitted, and does so in a way that includes no spoilers (kudos, Steven):

Arthur’s descent into violence seems to have a liberating, empowering effect on him. By making spectacular use of a gun, he gets the attention and even apparently the celebration that all mass shooters desire.

Or does he? One can choose, not unreasonably, to regard some or all of the denouement as a self-gratifying delusion. (I know where I would draw the line between reality and fantasy.) Regardless, though, Joker does nothing to cross-examine the Joker’s experience of triumph. On some level the film offers a mass-shooter fantasy fulfilled.

You can read his full review in the National Catholic Register.

Act One @ 20

I’m in Los Angeles this week, to attend a celebration marking the 20th anniversary of the Act One program:

ActOneEmailLogoAct One is a Christian community of entertainment industry professionals who train and equip storytellers to create works of truth, goodness and beauty.

The celebration is happening today (Saturday, August  17) at First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood.

Here’s a summary of what will be happening:

As part of our year of twentieth-anniversary celebrations, ACT ONE is hosting a day of thoughtful consideration of what we, as a community have learned. We are calling it, “Towards an Authentic Christian Cinema”.

Our speakers and topics for the day will include:

“Religious Metaphors in Art and Movies”

by Enzo Salveggi

Enzo Selvaggi leads a team of designers, artists, and craftsmen to create singular, compelling liturgical space and sacred art through the firm he founded in 2008, Heritage Liturgical. Through acclaimed murals, award-winning mosaics, exquisite hand-carved statuary, authentic french paneling,  decorative finishes and effects, and fine art both new and antique, artisans at Heritage employ the grammar of traditional art to create spaces of aesthetic value and spiritual meaning. American-born, Selvaggi grew up in Italy and continued his university education in the Tuscan hills, where his connection to art and architecture blossomed. Tapping into his traditional European education, Selvaggi weaves the ancient canons of composition with the dynamism and breadth of contemporary styles and techniques.

“Towards a Christian Aesthetic of Cinema”

by Dr. Zach Cheney

Zach Cheney is an assistant professor of Screen Studies in the Department of Cinematic Arts at Azusa Pacific University. He is also a graduate of Covenant College (Lookout Mountain, GA), Covenant Theological Seminary (St. Louis, MO), and San Francisco State University. He has presented at numerous academic conferences on film and media, as well as published an essay on Alfred Hitchcock in the anthology Faith and Spirituality: Masters of World Cinema, Vol. III, published by Cambridge Scholars Press in 2015. His current undertakings include expanding his dissertation into a book manuscript along with a book-length project addressing film and media studies within a biblical-theological framework.

And much more including Dr. Barbara Nicolosi on Flannery O’Connor and Haunting Moments as well as writer/producer, Thomas Bernardo, from the hit show, “Bosch,” on the topic of “Making Television Through A Christian Lens.”

We will also have panels discussing successful writers groups and how to get your indie projects off the ground.

Plus a lot more surprises throughout the day!

Reconnect with your Act One classmates, meet lots of new friends from the other groups, and thank the faculty who have served throughout these last two decades.


SCHEDULE FOR THE DAY

  • 9:00 am – Welcome/Opening Remarks (James Duke)
  • 9:15 am – “Towards a Christian Aesthetic of Cinema” (Dr. Zach Cheney)
  • 10:00 am – “Religious Metaphors in Art and Movies” (Enzo Salveggi)
  • 10:45 am – Break
  • 11:00 am – “A Tribute to David, Ava, and Jack” (Charles Slocum)
  • 11:15 am – “Act One…The Next Twenty Years” (James Duke)
  • 11:30 am –  “Writing Groups That Work and Last” (Panel Discussion)
  • 12:15 pm – Lunch
  • 1:30 pm – “Making Television: A Christian Lens” (Thomas Bernardo)
  • 2:15 pm – “Just Get it Done: Getting Your Indie Project Off the Ground” (Panel Discussion)
  • 3:00 pm – “Flannery “OConnor Meets Sergei Eisenstein: Moment Centered Cinema” (Dr. Barbara Nicolosi)
  • 3:45 pm – Time of Prayer & Celebration
  • 4:30 pm – Event Concludes

You can still register at the door for the conference, though it’s too late to sign up for lunch. 🙂

Here are two video interviews about the history of Act One with founder Barbara Nicolosi:

requesting prayers for a writing project

This summer, I am at long last drafting a novel that I have been brooding over for seventeen years, since I completed the 2002 Act One writing program in Chicago. Once I have the story in novel form, I hope to adapt it into a screenplay.

The screenplay is set in an arena I know intimately – namely, an American Catholic seminary in the 1990s. Given recent developments in the scandals in the Church, the story seems especially timely. This is not a documentary, or a scandal script, per se, but really intended as a theological thriller in the vein of Charles Williams’s novel Descent Into Hell.

As you might imagine, this is rather highly charged material, that has to stare squarely into the face of some very uncomfortable realities. As Flannery O’Connor once wrote in an essay entitled The Church and the Fiction Writer:

A belief in fixed dogma cannot fix what goes on in life or blind the believer to it…. If the Catholic writer hopes to reveal mysteries, he will have to do it by describing truthfully what he sees from where he is. An affirmative vision cannot be demanded of him without limiting his freedom to observe what man has done with the things of God….

It is when the individual’s faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life; and when there is a tendency to compartmentalize the spiritual and make it resident in a certain type of life only, the supernatural is apt gradually to be lost. Fiction, made according to its own laws, is an antidote to such a tendency, for it renews our knowledge that we live in the mystery from which we draw our abstractions. The Catholic fiction writer, as fiction writer, will look for the will of God first in the laws and limitations of his art and will hope that if he obeys these, other blessings will be added to his work. The happiest of these, and the one he may at present least expect, will be the satisfied Catholic reader.

I’ve hesitated for a long time to move forward with the project. Only recently have I felt ready (personally) to address this subject in a way that I hope will be redemptive for the audience. At least I know that the story, as it is unfolding, has been redemptive for me.

I plan to first draft the project as a novel, and then work on its adaptation for the screen. (I understand that Graham Greene took this approach with The Third Man).

I’d be grateful if you’d consider keeping this in your prayers. The operative title for the project is Saint Judas.

Pre-work reading includes:

The Third Man – Graham Greene
Goodbye, Good Men – Michael Rose
Ungodly Rage – Donna Steichen
Trojan Horse in the City of God – Dietrich von Hildebrand
Descent into Hell – Charles Williams
The Chocolate War – Robert Cormier
The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene
Story – Robert McKee

another Unplanned encounter

I saw the movie Unplanned a second time, this time at the AMC in Eden Prairie.

Before going into the theater, I purchased seven tickets at the kiosk, and went over to the nearest Planned Parenthood clinic, which is only a block away from the AMC in a strip mall.

Unlike the Burbank location, the Eden Prairie clinic allows people to walk in during business hours without having to buzz in through an intercom system.

Once inside, I had the following dialogue with the person sitting at reception.

Planned Parenthood Eden PrairieHi there. How can I help you?

Hello.

Yeah, um, I wanted to talk to you about, um, the possibility of scheduling an appointment.

Yes, we could schedule that for you.

OK.

Could you write down here what you would like to schedule an appointment for?

She pushed a post-it note pad over the counter to me, with a pencil. I wrote down “possibility of scheduling an abortion” and gave the note pad back to her.

So, are you the patient then?

No.

No? So, we would have to talk to the patient then.

Sure, OK, so the patient would need to come in.

Yes. So, do you want to tell them they can make an appointment by calling this number (She pulled out a business card an highlighting a phone number)… That’s our patient services line.

Ok, so that is the number they would call?

Mmhmm.

OK.

Um, it’s a little unusual… um… in that it would be my mom.

So, they would have to be speaking with the patient.

Right. Right.

To discuss the appointment.

Got it.

Yeah. So that would be the number that person would call.

OK. She’s no longer alive.

Uh… your mother?

Right.

So, I mean, she couldn’t call. But I know that when she was considering having me, she was thinking about an abortion, because I’m the youngest of ten, and they just didn’t have the resources. But, it was before Roe v Wade, so she didn’t really have that choice.

I suppose otherwise you could try … Casey Martin may be able to talk to you. (She passed me a second business card) So you could leave a voicemail on that one.

Ok. Ok.

She may be able to answer some questions for you as well.

OK. Alright. That’s good. So does she work out of this office … or he?

She does not. She works out of our, um, downtown office.

Oh, OK. All right. OK. Um… And just the last thing is, I’ve got these tickets for this movie, if anybody in your office is interested in seeing it. (I put seven movie tickets on the counter from the local AMC)

No, don’t worry about it. Yeah.

OK. It’s already paid for, so you wouldn’t have to be putting out any money…

Yeah, I can’t accept anything. I definitely hope you find someone who would definitely appreciate that.

OK, I’ll find somebody for them. Thank you.

Thank you so much.

So I left there and walked over to the Barnes and Noble in the mall. In the cafe, I found some students studying. I approached one young man who was studying a psychology textbook and offered him the tickets for the following evening, explaining that they were for the movie about Planned Parenthood and that the clinic staff at the neighboring clinic had not been interested when I had offered to give them away. He said that although there were seven members of his family, he could only use three of the tickets. I gave him three, then turned to the table behind him where four students were gathered together. They had heard my prior conversation, and so I simply asked them if they were interested in free tickets for the following evening to see the movie about Planned Parenthood. They were willing to take the remaining tickets.

Kudos to the young woman at the clinic who handled herself very graciously in a very odd situation. She must have been a bit confused by the nature of my inquiry. Of course, I have to admit being a bit thrown off by her responses too… especially when asked if I was the patient! But I guess, today, you just can’t assume anything…

And, just for the record, I have since confirmed with one of my siblings that when I was in utero, the doctors had recommended termination of the pregnancy due to concerns about my mom’s health and my viability. I don’t know if she gave the option serious consideration. But in any case, I firmly believe that she loved me; a lifetime of experience provides ample witness to me of that truth.

I’m reminded of a debate I once got into on Facebook about the existence of God and the problem of evil. In the course of the debate, someone asked me:

Name one thing that you (or anyone) thinks or knows that did not rely on empirical data.

I think that my parents loved me. I have evidence, but … no airtight proof, so to speak…. Evidence does not equal proof. I may see a roof over my head, may smell dinner in the oven, may feel my parents give me a hug, may hear affectionate words, may… taste a meal they have prepared… but none of it proves they love me. It could be possible that they provide all these things while being narcissists, and do not love me. (Think of some celebrities that have adopted children as accessories.) But I choose to believe that they love me. True, it might be reasonable to believe it, but the fact is that I could be wrong. It’s a choice I have made to believe it, requiring a leap of faith. Faith is a leap into the light, rather than into darkness…

After my dad died, I did come into possession of a journal entry that he had written sometime after Humanae Vitae was published, in which he was working out in his mind his own convictions about contraception and whether the Church’s position was correct, and I had the sense that it was not a matter of abstract consideration for him. I also know that my mom underwent a tubal ligation after I was born.

Providentially, everything finds resolution and peace in the just and merciful gaze of the Savior. To Him I entrust my parents, my family, anyone who has procured an abortion or has assisted in procuring one, as well as any who might be involved in such an act in the future. Most of all, I entrust myself to Him, as one most in need of His loving and forgiving gaze. Jesus, I trust in You.

something Unplanned

On Friday, I saw Unplanned in Burbank.

Abby Johnson’s story is unique in that it gives insight into the thinking behind both sides of a supremely important debate over a uniquely crucial issue. It makes an appeal to the conscience of every human being about the value of life itself. Forming conscience correctly is essential: the stakes could not be higher.

Today, I’m not writing a review. Steven Greydanus has an insightful and balanced review over on his Decent Films site.

movie tickets for UnplannedThe movie was so compelling that I bought 7 tickets on my way out of the theater. I drove over to the nearby Burbank Planned Parenthood, and rang the door buzzer. I said I had seven tickets for the 7:20 pm show if they wanted them. The woman said they wouldn’t be interested. I said I thought maybe they would want to see it so they could be part of the conversation. She said they wouldn’t be interested. So I offered to leave them on the ledge outside the door, but she asked me not to do that. So I said I would offer them to people in the parking lot.

As it turns out, there weren’t many people in the lot, so I started entering other shops in the strip mall.

strip mallIn El Criollo Cuban Bar & Grill, I found four older men conversing in Spanish. I introduced myself and explained I had free tickets to a movie tonight just down the street. I explained it was about Planned Parenthood. They kind of lit up and said they would be happy to take them and get them in the hands of interested viewers.

Thank you, gentlemen. Well done.

Anyone else in? Please consider buying some tickets for your local Planned Parenthood clinic and offer them the chance to see the movie at no (financial) cost to them.* If they don’t want tickets, surely you know others that would. But start with the people that might benefit the most.

*Conscience sold separately