Stonehenge Theatre: We’re No Angels (1955)

Angels_Poster
Mayhem for Christmas! And a few little miracles…

Christmas is so universally loved and its themes and monikers lend themselves so well to film that literally hundreds of movies  have been made featuring Christmas, taking place at Christmas or taking for itself a Christmas theme or aspect. Some have Christmas directly in their heart–A Christmas Carol or Miracle on 34th Street–while others are only related to Christmas accidentally, a la Black Christmas or Silent Night, Deadly Night. But the end result is that because so many Christmas films have been made that many of them fall between the cracks and are forgotten. And while for some this is justified (no one I know of is breaking YouTube to watch Scrooge’s Rock and Roll Christmas) for other’s it’s a shame. We’re No Angels falls into the latter category.

We’re No Angels plays cat and mouse with the audience; the story of three escaped prisoners trying to get off Devil’s Island–the embezzler, Joseph (Humphrey Bogart) and murderers Jules (Peter Ustinov) and Albert (Aldo Ray)–and conning the Ducotel family to let them stay in their store performing minor house repairs until nightfall when they plan to kill the family and escape with clothes and money, sounds like it would be a movies that only uses Christmas as a backdrop. And, at first, that is what happens.

The Ducotels may be a happy family–even in the French colony, away from their homeland–and it may be the merriest time of the year, but black clouds hang over them: the store belongs not to Felix Ducotel (Leo G. Carroll) but to his penny pinching cousin, Andre (Basil Rathbone in a wonderfully “light” villain role) who is en route to inspect the books and profits for the year. Which would not be such a cause of concern if Felix actually had a head for business; his too meek manner and his scattered mindedness has left the store in ruin (where people, if they come in at all, simply take what they want and instruct Felix to charge it to their account) and he knows that when Andre discovers the truth, he will be sent to the prison for embezzling. To make matters even worse, Isabelle Ducotel (Gloria Talbott) is in love with Cousin Andre’s nephew, Paul (John Baer) creating a soft Shakespearian dilemma. It all gives our three convicted protagonists amusement as they watch and listen while pretending to fix the store roof…but as time passes, they find themselves more and more inclined to help the Ducolets however they can–even if it hampers their plans for escape.

We’re No Angels benefits from three aces–the acting, the director and the writing. In 1955, Humphrey Bogart  was the undisputed king of Hollywood; the technically minded might quibble and say that Clark Gable was the only “king” of Hollywood’s Golden Age and, no offense to Gable, but the press boys and paparazzi and king makers spoke too soon when they gave him that moniker. Bogart at this point in his career, had proven that he could do it all–gangster pictures, comedies (All Through the Night especially), dramas (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and In a Lonely Place) romance (Sabrina), leading men, villains, PIs, soldiers–he could do it all and proved it time and time again. This film allowed him to have fun with his early image as a crook and gangster (the scenes of him minding the store, getting unsuspecting customers to buy things they don;t need through his fast, flattering patter are gold) but to also tap into his comedic abilities. Although he didn’t make many out and out comedies, many of his films allowed him some comedic moments; think of Rick talking to Captain Renault in Casablanca or quipping with Mary Astor as they went Across the PacificWe’re No Angels let Bogart go full out:

Joseph: You talk like you don’t want to cut their throats.

Jules: Well, speaking for myself, I’d just as soon not.

Albert: After all, it might spoil their Christmas.

Joseph: I don’t care how nice things are, they’re not going to soften me up. We’re escaping, and this is our only chance. We came here to rob them and that’s what we’re going to do—beat their heads in, gouge their eyes out, cut their throats…as soon as we wash the dishes.

Angels_2
Bogart with a sucker…I mean…customer

For directing duties, Paramount selected Michael Curtiz, the director behind Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Life with Father, White Christmas and The Comancheros. A WWI vet and an emigree from Europe (his father, brother and sisters all died in Auschwitz) Curtiz was like Bogart in that he was not only versatile but a master jack of all trades, directing dramas, musicals, adventure (he is credited with popularizing the swashbuckler with the like of Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk) film noir, Westerns, melodrama and comedy. That might be why he and Bogart worked so well together; all in all, Curtiz directed Bogart in eight pictures. Curtiz was a firm believer that character and story were the foundation of a good story, saying, “…human and fundamental problems of real people” were the basis of all good drama. He demonstrated that commitment to the human element in We’re No Angels conveying to the screen what screenwriter Ranald MacDougall put in the script.

And this is where the real spirit of Christmas shines in the movie. The title of the film is a play on the classic, French carol, “Three Angels Came Tonight,” with the three angels, of course, being Joseph, Jules, and Alfred. But unlike in other Christmas movies, these three have to earn their wings. Their camaraderie and quips make them seem like good hearted men but, as they themselves remind each other, they are ruthless criminals–there is no revelation of being framed or of mistrials; Joseph did swindle people while Jules and and Alfred did murder people (Alfred, when asked by young Isabelle, with whom he is smitten, tells her that his trial established that he hit his uncle fourteen times on the head; when she asks how he could do such a thing, he replies, “With a poker, mademoiselle”); they fully intend to kill the Ducolets and rob them to escape. It is not just seeing and interacting with Isabelle (Joseph tells her mother, Amelia (Joan Bennet) that she reminds Jules of his youth and himself of the family he never had) that changes them; it is seeing the entire family unit; Isabelle’s naivite and happiness, Amelia’s love and loyalty to her husband, and Felix’s honesty wrapped in the season and spirit of Christmas.This is a movie where the family who needs help rubs off on the angels sent to help them, where the heroes need just as much saving as the people they’ve been sent to save.

This would be good enough but the story is taken one step further by having the three angels not just solve the Ducolets’ problems but rubbing off on them as well; by staying and helping the Ducolets, the family, especially Amelia (and by extension, us), sees that there is still good in them and that while they may not be the angels sung about by the carol, with gold halos and perfect wings, they are still angels; perhaps even providentially sent for that specific Christmas.

Surprisingly, We’re No Angels was a failure when it premiered in 1955; critics stated that Curtiz couldn’t seem to make up his mind whether he was directing a crime drama or a light hearted comedy; furthermore, they ruled the movie as unfunny. Luckily, time has proven them wrong. And though it may not be the equivalent of a present you find under the tree, it is definitely one that you would find in a stocking.

Angels_1
After earning their halos. 

 

Heroes For a Non-Heroic Time

Choice of Heracles
Hero or non-hero?

Man has been defined as a rational animal, a political animal, an imaginative animal, a loving animal but he just might as well be described as a Heroic Animal. Not because he’s the only animal that engages in the tight definition of the word–animals will do the same, especially to protect their young–but because he is the only one who will do it for individuals who are complete strangers to him. He could also be described as a Heroic Animal because he’s the animal animal who himself needs heroes whether he’s in danger or not. From Heracles in Ancient Greece, to Aeneas and Arthur, Richard and Saladin, Washington and Lincoln, Johnny Appleseed and John Henry to even Batman, Iron Man and Wonder Woman, people all over the world have either recognized heroes and honored them or created their own heroes to act as types and mythological symbols for their cultures.

And we have, to a great degree, all been in agreement as to what constitutes a hero. True, some of the details have changed according to time and place; the Ancient Greek hero was not so much in the hero business because he was fighting a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the Athenian way but craved glory, glory which could only be gained through the accomplishment of mighty deeds; the heroes of Rome added self-sacrifice, self-effacement and duty to the needed repertoire and the Christian world added the idea of virtue to the mix so that anyone who fought for the Good was deemed a hero. Even so, there is more overlap than differences. As Bonnie Tyler sang for the first time in 1985:

I need a hero
I’m holding out for a hero till the end of the night
He’s gotta be strong and he’s gotta be fast
And gotta be fresh from the fight
I need a hero
I’m holding out for a hero till the morning light
He’s gotta be sure and he’s gotta be soon
And he’s gotta be larger than life,
Larger than life

But that trend is ending, if recent events are any indication. This past summer, US soccer star, Megan Rapinoe was said to be the hero that the United States needed not because of her prowess on the soccer field but because, in the words of the Rolling Stone, she was “an international voice standing up to Trump” exemplified, for example, when she answered the question of whether she and her teammates would go to the White House after winning the FIFA Women’s World Cup by saying, “I’m not going to the f****** White House.”The almost deification of Rapinoe has continued with her now being declared “sports person of the year,” complete with her on the cover of Sports Illustrated, draped in a dress but carrying a John Henry style hammer, not so subtly attempting to destroy the feminine image of the dress.

At the same time, Greta Thunburg, the sixteen year old climate activist was named as one of Time’s Persons of the Year. The Person of the Year, while Time is quick to point out is not a title or a reward, is (in Time’s estimation) an incarnation of the year, bringing together the hopes and dreams and challenges of the world at large in a single individual as was such, past Persons of the Year have included Pope John Paul II, presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, AIDS researcher, David Ho, Martin Luther King Jr, Charles Lindbergh, Ghandi, Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill and Chiang Kai-Shek; individuals who  made a difference in the world. The fact that Thunberg, disregarding her her passion for a moment, has not actually accomplished anything concrete that could be seen as a way of addressing climate change, makes her the odd one out in the list.

In a sense, this is not Rapinoe or Thunberg’s fault for two reasons. In the first place, this trend of making heroes out of people who are not heroes in any real sense of the word, started before this year; one prominent example was when the Noble Prize was awarded to President Obama in 2009 “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The Committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.” Regardless of your politics or how you personally feel about President Obama, the fact remains that he had not done anything to deserve a Noble Prize when it was awarded to him in October of 2019, only nine months after being sworn into office. No countries relinquished their nuclear weapons; no promises were even made that a. country would release their arsenal; it was simple Obama’s ability to “captur[e] the world’s attention and giv[e] its people hope for a better future.” Hope is a necessary quality to have in life but it doesn’t qualify for a Noble, especially (again) when compared to some of the past winners of the award which include Theadore Roosevelt for drawing up the peace treaty that ended the Russo-Japanese War; Woodrow Wilson for helping found the League of Nations; Albert Schweitzer for founding the Lambarene Hospital in Gabon.

In the second place, human nature, being what it is, we are not likely to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially when it it something which our culture deems auspicious. Robert Greene has said that we all crave recognition and when this recognition is given–deservedly or not–our nature greedily devours it. Only a character with the steel of a Washington, Lincoln, or Adams would have the strength and honesty to decline the offer (think of Washington refusing to even consider the idea that he be crowned the King of the United States). And there are very few people of their caliber today.

The growing trend of declaring people heroes who are not heroes is what could be called “comfort heroism.” One of the overlaps agreed on by all the people who recognized heroism throughout history, was that the role of the hero was not what we would call fun. The hero was a sword who was forged by a combination of his own time and timeless ideals who then set himself to fight the wrongs and evils in his own time. In each case–the forging and the fighting–the result was pain. In Taran Wanderer, Lloyd Alexander has Hevydd the Smith tell Taran Wanderer, “Life’s a forge! Yes, and hammer and anvil, too! You’ll be roasted, smelted, and pounded, and you’ll scarce know what’s happening to you. But stand boldly to it! Metal’s worthless till it’s shaped and tempered!” And the path of the hero did not improve after the forging, many times dying, always suffering from his actions–Robin Hood, Aeneas, Washington, John Henry, Batman, Wilberforce and the rest, all paid the price for doing the right thing for the right reason. The glory that was heaped upon them was only just repayment.

John Henry tunneling
John Henry tunneling through the mountain for the railroaders…a heroic act which caused his heart to burst. Lierally. 

But one of the watchwords for our society today is comfort. We cringe at the idea of actually putting skin in the game, of putting something on the line. My own personal theory is that we are wired for comfort because in the hunter-gatherer days of our prehistoric ancestors, comfort was a luxury that said you were probably not going to die in a world that was ready to strike and kill where where you stood because being comfortable meant that you felt safe. Add that rooted instinct today with the politicization of today where all it takes to be a hero is to say something that one side of the political aisle or another already agrees with, and the combination is complete. Want to be a hero? Talk trash about Trump if you’re on the left and hold yourself up as a successor of the Founding Fathers if you’re on the right. The respective halves of the culture will cheer. But try to expand those boundaries, try to add nuance (and truth) to your statements–such as saying that the impeachment process against Trump seems to have been building steam from when he first took office (casting a shade over the entire process) or go into the details of what the Founders believed (besides the go-to quotes hat we share over and over and over again) and you will find yourself ostracized.

The result is that actual heroes are stunted and shams are allowed to hold the stage, whether by active campaigning or by being thrust into the role. And without actual heroes, the culture becomes more and more impoverished because it has no role models, not stars for people to look upon. All that’s offered is a void for a sky, one that has no light and no guidance for anyone.

Stonehenge Theatre: Holiday Inn (1942)

Holiday_Inn_1
Friends or enemies?

Christmas movies are expected to have certain elements to justify them being Christmas movies; one of the reasons why there is still debate over whether movies like Die Hard and Batman Returns make the cut, decades after their original release. Some of those elements are: taking place at Christmas time; Santa Clause; family; learning the lessons of peace and goodwill and generosity (a la Scrooge); and snow. But in yet another irony of Hollywood and culture in general, Holiday Inn doesn’t really have any of these elements and yet still has managed to become a classic of the Christmas season.

That’s not to say that there are no Christmas elements at all in Holiday Inn; there is snow and Santa Clause makes a very brief appearance at the beginning as a Salvation Army bell ringer and some parts of the movie do take place at Christmas time, specifically three scenes. It could be argued that these scenes make up a third of the movie and do form the emotional core of the entire film but compared to other Christmas classics–The Bishop’s Wife, Miracle on 34th Street, The Family Man, Christmas in Connecticut, A Christmas Story, practical any version of A Christmas Carol–the time spent in Christmas is rather minor. And with some snow (more on that in a minute) the Christmas elements in Holiday Inn are pretty much used up.

The closer one looks at Holiday Inn the less it looks like any sort of movie that could be made today but could only have been made in the Golden Age of Hollywood, especially during the war years.. The story of show biz singing entertainer, Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby) leaving the glitz of the Big Apple to start a rural inn in Connecticut that’s only open for the holidays is a unique but small idea, not the sort that would get today’s executives exactly excited. The two love triangles in the film–first between Hardy and his “frenemy” Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire) and their act’s lady, Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale) and then between the two men and Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds)–leads to some dynamics between the characters and to some funny predicaments but that’s about it. In fact, one of the reasons why Holiday Inn couldn’t be made today is the same reason why The Princess Bride was a financial failure when it was released in 1988–there are too many elements in it. Is Holiday Inn a picture that celebrates American holidays in the bleakness of war and depression (when the film was released in September of 1942, the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese were still on the offensive for all intents and purposes)? Or is it a love story that takes place against the back drop of show business? Is it a drama? Is it a comedy? Paramount and director, Mark Sandrich, both said “All of the above.” It was a fine and wonderful mix for WWII audiences (whom we’ve, for some reason, labeled as being of simple taste when it comes to their movies and likes) but would be too confusing and not marketable enough for 2019/2020.

A more valid criticism of Holiday Inn comes from the realization that not much actually happens in the movie. Hardy starts his inn, begins a romance with Linda, Hanover tries to horn in again on his girl–and everything is resolved in the end. None of the characters actually change, no one gets their cumuppance (Hanover even gets one of the girls at the end). The only things that really changes from start to finish is that Holiday Inn becomes a success. And this can’t be chalked up to the excuse, “1942 audiences wanted light fare because of the war and lingering Depression,” since a list of films released in 1942 shows that movies like Casablanca, Cat People and The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe were all released that year and none of them are what you could call light fare.

Despite this criticism. Holiday Inn still deserves its place in cinema (and in our hearts) for three reasons. The first is is, naturally, the performances. Everyone does well but the four that stand out are Crosby and Astaire, as well as Walter Abel as Hanover’s greasy manager, Danny Reed, and Louise Beavers, as Hardy’s housekeeper, Mamie. Both Crosby and Astaire were established in Hollywood at this time, having made their way through the ranks in the Thirties and both were on top of their game, both in the movies and in their respective niches–singing and dancing. It’s true that Holiday Inn was not a break out movie for either of them–Crosby’s were still, arguably, coming with Going My Way in 1944 and The Country Girl in 1954 which cemented him as a bona fide actor and not just as a singer who sang in front of a movie camera; and Astaire’s work with Ginger Rogers as well as in future films such as Funny Face in 1957 (with Audrey Hepburn) is arguably better (although his drunk dance in the New Year’s Eve segment [where, according to Hollywood legend, he really was slightly tipsy from bourbon] and his Independence Day dance with firecrackers are both great). The real show stealers though are Abel and Beavers; Abel as the excitable, scheming Reed is a perfect comic character for the movie; one almost gets the impression that the scriptwriters (and Abel) were deliberately poking fun at some of the industry’s less flattering characteristics:

REED: I promise, the show will start any minute!

HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER: You said that over an hour ago.

REED: But this time I’m sincere.

And Beavers, as the housekeeper, Mamie, is the soul of the film, the one who keeps Hardy’s house in order, literally and metaphorically when she becomes the one to pull him out of the dolldrums to win Linda back from Hanover.

The real star of the movie though is a man who never even appears in it–songwriter Irving Berlin. Berlin is to 20th century American music what Beethoven is to Romantic music–basically, a god. From immigrating from Russia to the US with his family when he was five, to moving out on his own at the age of 13 to ease his mother’s financial burden after the death of his father, Irving became not just a powerhouse of American music; he WAS the powerhouse, composing some of our most well known and well loved songs such as “Putting On the Ritz,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,” “Heat Wave,”  “God Bless America,” and, of course, “White Christmas.” Not bad for a man who quit school at 13 to work and who taught himself music. The entire idea behind Holiday Inn was, in fact, Berlin’s; after composing “Easter Parade” in 1933 for his show, “A Thousand Cheers” he thought a project where he wrote a specific song for each American holiday would be a suitable challenge for him and after he moved to Hollywood at the beginning of the 40s, he pitched the idea to director Mark Sandrich who got the ball rolling for the making of the film. Holiday Inn acts as a microcosm for Berlin’s talents with the toe tapping “Happy Holidays” and “Freedom Song” sitting alongside love ballads like “Be Careful It’s My Heart.” But at the core and center, of course, is “White Christmas.”

Holiday Inn_3
When you’re the song writer and it’s your movie…

“White Christmas” was not even anticipated to be the hit that it was; that honor was predesignated for the aforementioned love ballad (written for the St. Valentine’s Day show at the inn) and even Bing Crosby was not overly enthusiastic about it when Irving played it for him for the first time, according to reports simply remarking, “I don’t think we’ll have any problem with that one, Irv.” But the timing was perfect; the nostalgic longing for the Christmases of childhood when everything was white and wonderful and magical captured by the song was exactly what was needed for American souls in 1942 both at home and on the fronts. And they showed their appreciation by making “White Christmas” the number one single until 1997 when it was beaten by Elton John’s “Goodbye, England’s Rose.” And it wasn’t just the masses who deemed “White Christmas” a success; the Academy recognized the song and Berlin by bestowing both with the Oscar for Best Song at the 1943 Academy Awards.

“White Christmas” works not just because it captures the nostalgia and yearning we all have (especially at the holidays) but because it captures Crosby’s character in the movie to a tee, encapsulating his desire for simplicity and peace, to live a successful life that he’s built for himself. And that is, finally and thirdly, the reason why Holiday Inn works–it takes the idea of success and turns it on its head. Maybe, success isn’t just measured in applause and bookings and wealth; maybe success can also be measured by the happiness you give others and the progress you make in carving out a place for yourself and your ideas. No one takes the idea of an inn only open on the holidays seriously; even Linda is initially skeptical of it. Hardy though has faith in the idea, in himself and in the people that he has with him. And, in the end, there’s definitely an implication that the world (at least of the Big Apple) has come to the realization that there needs to be a place for place like Holiday Inn. Which is a perfect message for a nostalgic movie at the most nostalgic time of the year.

Holiday Inn_4
A very good and nostalgic Christmas 

 

 

Stonehenge Theatre: Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Planes Poster
All aboard for the ride from hell. 

It’s a terrible fact, but a fact all the same: there are very few movies that actually deal with Thanksgiving. Which is odd since Thanksgiving is the most American holiday that there is, more so in a way than even Independence Day (many countries, after all, have independence days but very few have a national day of thanks). Without the coming of the Puritans in 1620 to Plymouth Rock, without the Revolution and the congressional callings for days of thanksgiving, without the Civil War and President Lincoln’s solidifying the last Thursday of November as a national day of Thanksgiving, there would have been no tradition of gathering with the family from across the country to celebrate the blessings that we all have if we simply look around us.

Unfortunately, other holidays have bigger market appeal when it comes to film: Christmas has themes of family and winter and love and Santa Clause and (when people actually remember) Jesus; Hallowe’en plays right into the fantastic/horror element that every loves to some degree or another; Independence Day, of course, markets itself in the US. Even Easter can draw inspiration from the Bible with the result that classics such as The Ten Commandments, King of Kings and The Robe are often played on TCM, streamed for Netflix and watched by families over the baskets of chocolate eggs.

One exception to the rule though is John Hughes’ Planes, Trains and Automobiles which, in an appreciative touch, opened on November 25, 1987 the day before Thanksgiving, breaking with the habit of holiday themed movies playing well outside their designated seasons (look at this year’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark which opened in August or at 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street, a veritable Christmas classic that opened on…May 2nd).

The film marked John Hughes’ entry into “mainstream” Hollywood movies. Before, he had been a director of teen movies, with his directorial debut being 1984’s Sixteen Candles; other teen movies included contemporary classics such as The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But directing wasn’t how he made his way into Hollywood or what Hughes originally set off to do as a career; he was working as a writer for National Lampoon magazine when he wrote the screenplays for National Lampoon’s Class Reunion, National Lampoon’s Vacation and Mr. Mom. While the first was a dud, the other two (both released in 1983) becomes hits, leading to Universal offering him a three movie deal and Hughes leaving National Lampoon’s offices in New York City for Hollywood.

While Hughes’ teen movies were praised as showing a more honest portrayal of the teenage years of the Eighties, contrary to other teen comedies of the time (which came from the fact that Hughes actually listened and respected teens) he didn’t want to be pigeonholed as “the director of teen movies.” Searching for a suitable project to extend his resume, he came upon the idea of Planes, Trains and Automobiles from his own hellish experience with modern travel. According to Mental Floss:

Before he became a screenwriter, Hughes used to work as a copywriter for the Leo Burnett advertising agency in Chicago. One day he had an 11 a.m. presentation scheduled in New York City on a Wednesday, and planned to return home on a 5 p.m. flight. Winter winds forced all flights to Chicago to be canceled that night, so he stayed in a hotel. A snowstorm in Chicago the next day continued the delays. The plane he eventually got on ended up being diverted to Denver. Then Phoenix. Hughes didn’t make it back until Monday.

The adventure allowed him to write the first 60 pages of the script in six hours, proof again that every cloud has a silver lining in it somewhere.

Not only did his own experience allow Hughes to write the script and direct the film but it helped make Planes, Trains and Automobiles the classic that it is, worthy of the accolades that it received in 1987. The movie, unlike so many others, has weight; it’s honest in its portrayal of everyday American life in the 20th century which is not as cracked up as it is supposed to be. A lesser director would have allowed focused on the political facet of that but Hughes was too good a writer to go for that cliche. The rust on the edges of the American Dream come from everyday life: human weakness, human pettiness, human failure, weather, and human nature itself. The film, in fact, is a great play on the very idea expressed in the title.

If there is one thing the West has been obsessed with since the Enlightenment, it has been technological advancement. To be sure, new inventions, such as the plow and mechanical clock (both of which were invented in the Middle Ages) were greeted with enthusiasm; but it was in the Enlightenment that the hope was expressed that technological innovation would, eventually, create utopia; in its own way, force man to morally evolve. A prominent example came in the early 20th century when luminaries such as Charles Lindbergh and H.G. Wells expressed the hope that the airplane would be the invention that ended warfare. The idea was that with travel made so much swifter with the conquest of the skies, men would be able to actually communicate faster and, implicitly, better; this new improvement would lead to better understanding and the eventually abolition of war. But, as G.K. Chesterton pointed out, as only he could, that no machine could perform the impossible–make a man better or worse than he already was and, in terrible irony, he was proven correct with WWI, where the device which had been so optimistically praised as the destroyer of war was turned to warfare itself.

NYC Blackout
1977 NYC blackout. 

In 1987, traveling from New York City to Chicago, two of the most prominent American metropolises, should be a walk in the park, which is exactly what Neal Page (Steve Martin) counts on, which is why he waits until the very last minute to leave a high level advertisement meeting in NYC to fly back home to his wife, Susan (Laila Robins) and his children. Of course, the exact opposite turns out to be true; a winter storm forces his flight to land in Wichita, Kansas and from there, it is a race against time as he takes the trains, automobiles (and buses) to get back home before Thanksgiving. A single storm disrupted all his plans and, in the space of a few days, his entire life, a trend that continues with delays to the train, a disappearing rental car and another car’s explosion. Thirty-two years after Planes, Trains and Automobiles has not changed this situation and we are still as reluctant to admit that we are not in as great control of our own lives as we would like to think; don’t want to dwell on the fact that as life has become more intricate and interwoven, especially in communication and travel, more and more can potentially go wrong and bring the entire system to a standstill, as James Burke pointed out in his first episode of Connections

But this leads to the main lesson that Neal learns: family is more important than career and work, which is not surprising, considering Hughes’ own strong beliefs about the importance of family. If Hughes had left the message at that, the film would still be serviceable, probably even still good, but it wouldn’t have the punch that it has today since that theme is a cliche. Fortunately, Hughes pushed the theme one step further.

For most of the film, Martin’s Neal is a man who has been ostracized from the main web of humanity. His world is New York City and Chicago among the movers and shakers and powers that be. His adventures force him to bear the company and idiosyncrasies of the people who live in the spaces between, like Owen  but most especially, Del Griffith (the late, great John Candy) an overweight, slovenly, boisterous, perpetually good humored shower ring salesman who clings to him like a bad penny much to Neal’s chagrin since Del is, in the words of his wife, “…the biggest pain in the butt that ever came down the pike.” Most of the humor and conflict of the film comes from the interaction between Martin and Candy’s characters but it’s Neal who, by the end of the movie has changed. He doesn’t just become looser and more easy going, the usual character arc for the stereotype that is the Obsessed, Overworked Businessman; instead, he comes to see Del and the other people he interacts with as real, honest-to-God people with their own personalities, vices, weaknesses, fault lines and–yes–even their own virtues. He’s reminded that they are people.

In that sense, Planes, Trains and Automobiles isn’t just a story for Thanksgiving or just the holidays (the Blue-Ray edition cover of the movie slaps snow, presents and a candy cane pole onto itself to make it seem like it’s a Christmas movie); it’s a story for every year and one that’s especially needed now. As politics continue to rip apart the social fabric and make us intolerant of people and not simple principles, we desperately need more stories that remind us that behind every face is a person and that that person must be treated holisticly and not just as part of a political or social equation.

But we still have to bring our own shower rings.

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A Word for the Holidays

Image 11-27-19 at 4.03 PMThe older I become the more special holidays become. That’s not to say that holidays were never not special; each one came wrapped in its own spirit and flavor: Independence Day was loud and tickled the noise with the smell of gunpowder; Christmas was for giving presents, snow and light across the spectrum; Hallowe’en was the night when fantasy crept from the books and stories and walked down the streets and lanes while the cold autumn winds blow the witches on the brooms across the sky.

 

Each holiday still possesses these traits and these flavors but there’s more to them now that some years have tried to burn a little bit more sense in me. Holidays, it seems to me know, are about the two things that everyone needs, love and knowledge: love, because everyone needs to not just feel but be a part of a relationship (not necessarily a romantic one [the ancient Greeks, after all, were smart enough to realize that there are different species of love]); and knowledge because our rational nature drives us to hunt out and hold onto the truth, which necessarily entails gaining knowledge. But love and knowledge, as the 20thcentury Thomist, Jacques Maritain, pointed out, can only be obtained through community because they can only be gained through a communion of persons. In other words: people, who need love and knowledge, can only obtain these things by being in relationships with things that can give them those things and the only things that can give them those things are other rational creatures—other people.

 

And because of that fact, the best people from which we can gain love and knowledge are our own families. Our family is the first community to which we belonged; the family, in general, is the first political society as Aristotle pointed out. United by bonds of blood and history, families have stronger and deeper ties than ordinary friendships and other communities so it’s no surprise why families would be natural nests for love and knowledge. Parents are predisposed to love their children throughout their lives and children are naturally inclined to love their parents; siblings may not express that innate love as readily as parents, but it is still there, as natural as a sunrise. And because there is love, knowledge is naturally distributed because family wants to see its members succeed and to be happy; that’s why parents will teach their children how to count, tie their shoes, go on walks with them and read to them.

 

If we lived in a utopia, families would be as perfect as the day they were first created. Since we live in a fallen world, the reality is quite different. Families can fracture and crack; some even rupture and no amount of time or patience can ever heal those wounds. That’s always been true, to be sure; in the American Revolution and the American Civil War, the lines of division on the battlefields often first appeared in the family farms and homes. But today, it seems even more so. Perhaps that’s the result of being both a romantic and a historian—the past always looks better through rose colored glasses—but I believe it’s objectively true as well. In the past, different philosophies might have driven members of families apart but it was understood that they were still families; Waylon Jennings in “The Ghost of Robert E. Lee” captured the grief of a Confederate soldier who has realized that he killed his Union brother in the day’s fighting, turning to God to ask in his sorrow, “Lord, is it right?/Did you mean for me to kill my brother here tonight?” You don’t have that amount of grief if you’ve disowned your brother for choosing the wrong side.

 

Today, the math is different. Because our identities are so intricately wrapped up in our sense of identity, any challenge to our ideas is seen as a direct threat to ourselves; whoever disagrees with our ideas is an enemy. Instead of sorrow, we’re more likely to feel righteous over the family members that we excommunicate. And because of how politics has over saturated everything in our culture (so that now even things that were never political and should not be political are made political) the disownments can come thick and fast, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

 

Because of this new equation, peaceful holiday gatherings (peaceful here meaning simple unifications with our family where whatever political differences we have are tactfully left under the rug for 24 hours) are becoming more rare. And it is not being helped by the different forces arrayed against each other on either side of the political chasm. At Teen Vogue, Jenn Jackson wrotethat it is your responsibility to challenge “bigoted relatives” at the holidays. She lists an array of reasons why Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years are the times to actually fight this war, including the fact that white people don’t have diverse enough friends and that trans people still face discrimination. It could be pointed out that black Americans only compose 13% of the total population so it isn’t amazing that every single white American doesn’t have at least seven black friends; it could also be pointed out that if discrimination includes standing for the plain fact that a woman cannot become a man and vica versa (as many people define it today), there will always be discrimination, as such, against trans people. And in case anyone thinks that this is only happening on the left, it’s not; on his podcast, Matt Walshsaid that the only things you can talk about at Thanksgiving are politics and religion because, otherwise, the conversation is too boring.

 

It’s a small, shriveled, unimaginative world we live in when we think that a day without politics and religion is dull or when we think that the holidays are the best opportunity to convert people to our causes even if those causes—whatever they may be—are the noblest causes in the world. And that is because they reduce both ourselves and the people we hold hostage with our rhetoric to political beings in the shallow sense; not in the deep sense that Aristotle meant when he described man as a political animal (a fact of his nature that came from his rationality); the shallow sense that reduces are lives only to politics and political causes and alliances and does not take into account our dreams and failures, hopes and fears, our triumphs and defeats or the most basic, primordial fact that these people gathered around the dinner table with us are the people to whom we are most closely linked, bonded together by our blood. It’s a failure to see these people as people; to refuse to see them in a holistic light but only how we want to see them.

 

Life is too short for this sort of mentality. There’s the old saying that the only thing sure in the world are death and taxes. We say that as a joke when the unexpected comes and disrupts our plans but we conveniently forget the truth nestled in the saying: every life ends in a casket or an urn. It’s inevitable. And it’s unplanned; we never know when that string of our life, or the lives of our family, is going to end. And no one has ever looked down at a family member in their casket at their funeral and wished that they had had more time to talk politics to them.

 

 

Imagination’s Death

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Old Time Hallowe’en

One off the great things about G.K. Chesterton was his ability to pull significant insights from the most trivial things. One time (if I remember correctly) he was able to explain the philosophical differences between himself and his friend and rival, George Bernard Shaw, simply by their opinions on birthdays. Because “the devil is in the details” the trivial things and our ideas about them can sometimes tell us more about a person, a position, or a movement then a position on something more “important.” I was reminded of Chesterton and trivial things a week ago after Hallowe’en had ended.

Scrolling through Twitter on the morning of November 1st, I came across two different. tweets; one by Matt Walsh and one by Paul Joseph Watson. Walsh made it clear that he thought Hallowe’en was only for children; adults who celebrated the day with costumes or a spirit of fun were out of touch with reality.

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Watson, for his part, was more blunt:

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Me? Degenerate? 

 

I’ll be the first one to say that if Walsh and Watson were complaining about the sexualization and gorification of the holiday, I completely agree. Hallowe’en has been taken over by a crass, commercial mentality that figured out some time ago that sex and violence sell well, turning what is supposed to be a joyous occasion into a day and night to shock people with gore, blood, synthetic body parts and revealing clothes. The irony, for the commercialists, is that this might be considered shocking if the rest of the year did not resemble this new, perversion of Hallowe’en. When every day is a day to push the limits of what’s socially acceptable and another day to throw pearls before swine (when it comes to sex) it diminishes the shock value of Hallowe’en.

But the same commercialization has happened to other holidays too: Independence Day is now a a day to but fireworks (created through Chinese labor) and drink beer; Easter is about chocolate eggs; Labor Day and President’s Day are all about the three day weekend; and Christmas is now about buying more and more. The reaction to these holidays though isn’t to banish dismiss them as only children’s days and look down the nose at anyone who decides to celebrate; the proper reaction is to decry the commercialization and work to return some degree of humanity and sacredness to them. Hallowe’en deserves the same consideration.

Hallowe’en has gone through a vast evolution, it is true. Originating in the Celtic feast of Samhain, when it was believed the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was especially thin, it was Christianized by the Catholic Church and then was attached to harvest festivals. It was the harvest festival aspect of the holiday that was most prominent in Puritan New England. But, in the 19th century, and especially in Victorian America, Hallowe’en began to regain some of its ancient traits, seems especially in the single girls of the town partaking in “occult” rituals to determine who they would marry and when. It wasn’t until the 1930s and 1940s that the night became specifically for children.

And there is nothing wrong with Hallowe’en being for children, just as Christmas and Easter are for children. But this doesn’t’t mean that there isn’t room for adults too. In fact, adults need Hallowe’en just as much as children primarily because of its carnival nature. Carnival is an atmosphere and an event that all people need for the basic reason that we are not simply brains making us “thinking machines.” An occasion of public revelry is just the thing to shake people back into the the crazy dance of life and, what’s more, to keep them invigorated to keep participating in the dance; an occasion to feed body and soul and to even partake in the reversals of reality.

Today, “reversal of reality” has a very dark connotation and when reversing reality becomes the norm, you enter very dangerous territory. But a day/night set apart for this specifically is not only a harmless tradition but a necessary one, allowing people to purge  and reinvigorate themselves for the coming year. Even the medievalists understood this. The people of the Middle Ages could be said to have been much more practical and commonsensical than we are today but the Feast of the Fool was still celebrated on or around the New Year, a day when the entire social order was reversed: masters waited on their servants, ecclesiastical ceremonies were parodied and a boy was even elected bishop for the day. In a world that was “nasty, brutish and short” (descriptions that still fit it to some degree or another) it was away to poke fun at the powers that be and enjoy one’s fantasies coming true.

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Costumes, masks and revelry. What does this remind us of?

Hallowe’en is our Feast of the Fool, the day when reversals rule the day (death is celebrated instead of life), pranks are the coin of the day instead of order (“trick or treat”) and when people can engage their imaginations by pretending to be something that they are not. For one night, imagination is allowed to run free of rationality before the first sun of November reminds us to hitch the two back together again.

And this is why Walsh and Watson’s disparaging remarks about Hallowe’en are so disappointing. Whether they realize it or not, by attacking Hallowe’en carte blanche–and not just the overt excesses which we all should protest against (carnival doesn’t’t mean ugliness)–they were attacking the imagination. Imagination, like Hallowe’en, has suffered a loss of reputation today; it’s something made up, make-believe, something we have to pull our children out of so they can participate in the real world. But instead of pulling children out, the world would be much better if the children pulled their parents in. Imagination, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, is the only real organ of understanding. This is why G. K. Chesterton says parents read fairy tales to their children; so that they can understand that dragons can be defeated, that knights are real and bold and that the world is a bigger place than what we can experience with our own senses. The lack of imagination today has made a world where people are stuffed with facts and data but our understanding of the world has never been weaker. Regardless of which side of the political chasm one is on, we can all agree that this lack of imagination has not done the world any favors and that one way to track it back to sanity would be to remind ourselves that data is only one half of the equation.

Walsh and Watson should also remember that if Russell Kirk, the grandfather of modern American conservatism, loved Hallowe’en, there must be something in the holiday worth salvaging and celebrating. Jolly Halloween

 

 

The Stonehenge Theatre: The Thing (1982)

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NOT a love story!

Technically speaking, any movie can be remade, even the golden classics like Casablanca and The Sting. If a director has another layer that he can add to the original story or movie, or if he can think of a different angle for the story, or if he just knows that he can make a movie that stays more faithful to the source material, remakes can be good. Even some of the best movies remembered today are technically remakes: Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epics, The Ten Commandments and Ben -Hur are both remakes of silent movies from the Twenties, also directed by DeMille; one of my all time favorite films, John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart was the third time that Dashielle Hammet’s novel had been adapted. The problem is that most times, the vision or the dream is not there to justify the remake. One of the exceptions to this rule is John Carpenter’s The Thing. 

The story of The Thing was first filmed in 1951 under the tile The Thing (From Another World), based on the novella “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr. which itself was published in Weird Tales in 1938. The 1951 version bears little resemblance to the novella and for good reason; the effects available in 1951 were not conducive to making the Thing a shape shifter that could also “infect” other living things, thereby making them a part of it. It was therefore decided to turn the Thing into an “intergalactic carrot” (as one character describes it), a bald, Frankenstein monster-esque plant that needs human blood to survive and to feed its seeds. While not as good as, say, War of the Worlds (1953) or Forbidden Planet (1956) or Them! (1954) or Day of the Triffids (1962) it’s a movie that still deserves its place especially when you consider it was the real harbringer of the Atomic Age and science fiction in Hollywood and for the added reason that the man who played the Thing, James Arness, would achieve cinematic immortality in the role of Marshall Matt Dillon when Gunsmoke moved from radio to television.

It was because the original movie was not true to the source material that Universal (who had bought the rights to several RKO Pictures including the film rights to The Thing and Cat People) decided in the mid-70s to remake the story. Several directors and writers were attached to the project until the project was given to a young filmmaker by the name of John Carpenter. Carpenter had been making films since the late Sixties when he was a film student at the University of Southern California. When Universal came knocking at his door, Carpenter had just directed a string of commercial successes–Halloween, The Fog and Escape from New York–all on relatively low budgets (with a price tag of only $300,000, Halloween grossed over $65,000,000) and Universal saw him as the natural man to direct The Thing. Carpenter wasn’t so sure; being a fan of the original 1951 version (which can be seen playing on the television in Halloween) he believed that a remake would be difficult. After reading “Who Goes There?” though, he discovered the original creepiness of the Thing  and noticed the similarities between the novella and Agatha Christie’s masterpiece, And Then There Were None which finally convinced him to take the director’s chair.

The Thing is definitely not a terror movie in the lines of the old, Universal Monster movies; there’s too much physical horror for that, though it’s not slasher horror, the kind of which Halloween, ironically spawned (ironic since it itself is not a slasher movie). At the same time, The Thing eschews the overt body horror of David Cronenberg; bodies infected by the Thing–at which point they become extensions of it–do transform horrifically; a dog’s head falls off to become a “fleshy flower” of maw and tentacles; carnivorous mouths appear on torsos; hands become claws; faces melt but none of the transformations are done to disgust; Carpenter’s goal is not to make the audience stampede for the toilets as he plays with how far he can mutilate and transform the human body. Instead, the transformations are done to show the stark otherness of the Thing, to beat into the audiences’ mind that it is not human, not anywhere close to being like a human, that it is not even an alien in the traditional sense of alien. An alien, like the one that terrorized Ridley Scott’s crew, may be a non-human but it still has a form of some sort, as horrible and frightening as it might be; it also has a purpose. Scott’s Alien is the perfect killing machine. Not only does the Thing have no actual form (each transformation is unique) but its purpose is never discovered. It’s never even found out if the UFO which crashes into Antarctica is the Thing’s or some other alien’s whose ship has been infected with the Thing. Everything about it remains a mystery.

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Norris always did have stomach problems

And this is where The Thing hearkens back to the old monster and terror movies. Just as in those movies, our cast of characters find themselves in a secluded place (Antarctica rather than an old, dark house or Transylvanian castle), facing an ancient monster that they cannot understand, the fear and terror of which makes them turn on each other and perfectly willing to kill each other.

“Childs!” radio operator, Windows, (Thomas Waite) says to Outpost 31’s mechanic (Keith David) after the latter has decided to not let in out of the storm helicopter pilot, MacReady, (Kurt Russell) for fear that he might be infected. “What if we’re wrong?”

To which Childs respondes, “Well then we’re wrong.”

This is the true power of The Thing and the real source of its horror; it’s not about bodily transformations, body horror, jump scares or racking up a high body count. It’s the fear of losing your identity–of losing what makes you, You. Every other monster, from the Wolfman to Freddy Kruger, the Invisible Man to Jason Vorhees, Irena to the Candyman, will kill you in various degrees of gruesomeness. That’s horrific but once you’re dead, you’re dead; the story (for you) is over. But the Thing doesn’t kill you physically; instead it changes you, makes you a part of it erasing not only your personhood but strips you of your basic humanity. And why it is doing this is never explained, never hinted at, never hypothesized. You’re simply trapped in a frozen waste with a group of men you’ve bunked with for months who now you can’t trust, anyone of which might attack and destroy not just your life, but the very core of what makes you you.

In another sign that the world is not just, The Thing was Carpenter’s first failure. Part of the problem was that 1982 was a summer for science fiction and horror movies: Blade Runner, Poltergeist, Star Trek II:Wrath of Khan, and Tron were all released that summer. Even worse for Carpenter, two weeks before The Thing was released, Steven Spielberg released a little movie called ET and 1982 audiences were much more receptive of a story of a benevolent alien who just wants to go home with the help of a 12 year old Elliot than a nihilistic movie about an alien horror. Another problem was that critics and audiences did not see what Carpenter was trying to do, complaining that the characters were simply stereotypes and that the special affects for the Thing’s transformations took away from the story, as thin as it was. Fortunately, time corrects many things and The Thing is now considered a modern classic. So rehabilitated has its reputation become that in 2011 a remake/sequel was released proving the rule again that unless you have something substantial to add to a story, remakes are not a good idea.

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When slitting your throat and freezing to death is better than the alternative…