the first casualty of war

Screen Shot 2020-08-26 at 6.52.13 AMI remember one of my high school English teachers explaining to us that truth is the first casualty of war.

Sacrifices during wartime make sense. But if a government makes serious miscalculations about the nature of an enemy and the extent of a threat, and then refuses to face the data, soldiering on with measures that trample over the lives of its citizens, one could be justified in asking if we are being compelled to join in a false crusade with grave consequences to the human family.

If you haven’t yet watched the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, it’s incredibly relevant to this moment.

There are manifold ways to mislead others. One is by understating a threat, and another is by overstating it. Still another is by refusing to change course when the truth appears down an unexpected road. But once the truth reveals itself, and you insist on keeping it concealed: look out. The truth has no regard for your attempts to suppress it. It’s a losing battle every time.

May our first fidelity be to the truth, discovered along the pathways of humility and generosity. Let us be convinced that only on that basis can we serve the common good. All other paths lead to deadly illusions.

Pray

I have two movies to recommend this month, both very appropriate for October, the month dedicated to the rosary. I have personal connections with the creators of both films, for full disclosure, from my years in Hollywood.

PRAYToday, I’ll post about a documentary on the life and work of Father Patrick Peyton, CSC, the Irish-born priest who initiated a worldwide movement of family prayer. The film Pray opens in theaters this weekend.

When I lived in Los Angeles, I worked for Father Peyton’s non-profit in Hollywood: Family Theater Productions. I helped to digitize a massive collection of vinyl recordings of his popular weekly radio program, Family Theater Presents, which began airing on the Mutual Broadcasting System at the end of World War II.

“Utilizing radio, films, outdoor advertising and later television, with the help of celebrities, artists and advertising practitioners, Peyton was one of the first pioneers of evangelism using mass media. He would also pioneer in conducting public rallies to bring families to pledge to pray the Rosary as a unit. These Rosary rallies attended by millions would become the most significant event where Peyton could be best remembered.” (source)

I had a chance to participate in an advance online screening this past summer, and can vouch that it’s a very inspirational look at a tireless contemporary apostle of family prayer. While it’s a timeless message, in the current social climate of radical individualism, identity politics, and the decimation of family life, it seems especially relevant as a healing balm for the culture and a sign of hope.

For theater locations and showtimes, visit https://www.praythefilm.com.

On Tuesday, I’ll post about the second movie I’m recommending for October.

in theaters and online today: Fatima

Screen Shot 2020-08-28 at 8.34.52 AMToday, a new film about Fatima opens in theaters and online.

My friend and screenwriting mentor Barbara Nicolosi wrote the original script. There’s a nice article about the film on the website for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis:

Screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi says that redemptive suffering “was absolutely one of the themes” in her original script. She adds that, “the sacrifices of the children were actually as much a miracle and proof of the reality of Fatima as the Miracle of the Sun. After the July apparition [the seers] began to take on extraordinary penances and they would say, ‘For sinners.’ ” It was for this reason Nicolosi first titled the original draft of her script “For Sinners.”

For showtimes and to see which online platforms are making it available to stream, visit the website for the film.

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.