The Gatsby Smile


He smiled understandingly–much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.

You may recall that, back in late-summer 2012, we got ourselves fired up for the Baz Luhrmann-Leo DiCaprio Gatsby. Also: we wondered last spring if Leo could successfully enact the smile.

Well, the DVD landed (in the Franklin County library). And it turns out we wondered about the wrong things.

IMHO: Leo crushes it. Absolutely tramples all over it, like the flag of an enemy nation. Makes Robert Redford (his only rival as a movie Gatsby)–Leo makes Robert Redford look like a piker, a glib flounderer, a shell.

Great Gatsby 2012 posterI don’t weep at movies. That’s documented. I wept for Leo. Wept for his false and misdirected hope that deserved to be true.

It was actually the Luhrmann flourishes (which we thought, after Romeo + Juliet, that we could take to the bank)–it was Luhrmann’s gussying up the movie that came off as stupid. Waste of time and energy, the dancing girls and party sequences, the castle, the stylized Eckleburg ashpits, the car chases, and the cartoon cityscapes. Mere distractions from Leo’s and Carey Mulligan’s incandescently mesmerizing acting. The two of them could perform the script on an unadorned stage with no props, and it would be every bit as interesting as the movie.

Tobey Maguire sporting beard growth to communicate ‘depressed’ made me laugh. He should leave his ‘deep, soulful’ voice out. The whole sanitorium bit–what was the point? On-screen supertitles of the famous lines of the book? Please. Dumb.

But: We thank you, everyone associated with making this movie–we, the entire staff and crew of this little weblog, we thank you for giving us a movie version of The Great Gatsby (the most movie-make-able novel ever written)–we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for giving us a movie that not only does not suck, but is actually, really, truly good.

Too Cold for School

SA182The Snow Man, by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

[…Here’s a little homily I would have given the chillens today, but for the school-canceling chill. I had my chalk at the ready to 20 C + M + B 14 all the classroom door lintels.]

In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son. (I John 4:10)

When our need for a Savior was great, God sent His Son, born of a virgin.

Is Christmas over? In church, Christmas lasts for almost three weeks. The shepherds came to visit the baby, and who else? The wise men.

wise-menThe wise men were wise about the stars. They found Jesus by following the… The wise men also were wise about knowing their need for a Savior was great. They beheld the great love of God—not that we have loved God, but that God has loved us and sent His Son to save us.

Anybody get any presents? Anybody eats any cakes or pies or Christmas cookies? I got some Christmas cookies, and they were delicious, and now they are all gone. And pretty soon, even in church, someone will take down the Christmas decorations.

But: There is one thing about Christmas that does not end. The fact that God loved us. And sent us His Son to wash away our sins and give us life. The wise men, wise as they were, were wise enough to know that they needed Christ. The wise men were wise enough to know that they were not wise enough to save themselves. Let’s be that wise, too. Let’s dedicate 2014 to letting Jesus love us and lead us closer to heaven. He does not ask for perfection. He simply asks for daily obedience.

After all, Jesus looks at us, and—what do we read?—He looks at us, and His Heart is moved with pity. He loves us, teaches us, feeds us. At Christmas and all year long.

Genre of our Age

I have never had a whole lot of time for Ralph Fiennes. But the man deserves his props for making his Coriolanus movie.

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus play, which T. S. Eliot regarded as the finest of the Bard’s tragedies, has hardly anyone in it for the audience to like.

The hero, frequently called proud, cannot justly be convicted of that vice; he bends his knees piously before Rome’s gods. But what he is is hard. And when the one person who can soften him—namely his mother—moves to do so, his softening costs Coriolanus his life (as he foresees).

This hard Coriolanus holds the unflattering title of being the favorite Shakespeare character of the Nazis, who distributed copies of the play to schoolboys.

Indeed, it is impossible for the audience to like Coriolanus, or his mother, or his wife, or his adversaries—neither his military nor his political opponents have any heartwarming qualities. The only sympathetic characters in the play are Coriolanus’ friends among the Roman nobility, particularly Menenius Agrippa.

Coriolanus, though fearless in battle, lacks the courage to accuse himself of his own faults. Menenius, on the other hand, over a glass of wine, manages to indict the craven Roman tribunes for all their foibles, while in the same breath he freely acknowledges all his own.

Brian Cox’s Menenius makes Fiennes’ movie. The ebullience of the longsuffering friend takes the edge off the Rambo theatrics of the battle scenes. Menenius’ suicide (only hinted-at in the play) signals the summary ending of the movie. From here, there is nowhere to go but downhill fast. Only a few minutes later, Coriolanus, too, is dead.

…Bringing us to my real point:

When only one instance of a certain artistic type exists, then it stands alone, sui generis. But when a second instance comes along, Aha! We now have a new genre.

Rarely does every line of a Shakespeare script manage to get itself spoken when one of his plays is produced.

Usually some, if not many, lines are “cut.” This practice shortens the running time, removes particularly difficult vocabulary or obscure references, makes it easier for actors to memorize everything they have to say, etc. When I performed in Macbeth in 1981, we cut the entire scene in which Malcolm and Macduff discuss the state of Scotland. In his movie version of King Lear, Orson Welles completely removed the charater of Edmund.

(Kenneth Branagh’s triumphant Hamlet movie, in which every line of the script is spoken, stands as the ‘anti-type’ of the genre I am preparing to describe to you.)

So: “Cutting” a Shakespeare script has constituted common practice for centuries. But what about when more than half of the lines get cut? More than 75% cut?

What about when: The actors speak lines from the original script and all the action follows the original plotline. But what is actually being produced is not so much Shakespeare’s play, but rather a stylized video, in which some of Shakespeare’s lines are “sampled,” to great dramatic effect, in a contemporary setting?

Brian Cox lovably enacts Menenius
I would call this a new genre.

The idea appears to be: We will have a fast-moving movie depicting a Shakespearian storyline; chunks of the original script will be delivered by all the clever means we can devise (including using cable newsmen on tvs in the background, delivering crucial plot-developing lines); and we will wind up with something genuinely new.

In this new thing, every spoken word will have come from the pen of the Bard, and every frame of film will meet the standards of contemporary movie-making technique. We will draw audiences into an experience of Shakespeare’s poetry that no preceding generation has ever had. We just have to leave 85-90% of Shakespeare’s actual words on the cutting-room floor.

“Sampled Shakespeare.” Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet. Ralph Fiennes 2011 Coriolanus.

Just to prove my point about “sampling from”—rather than merely “cutting”—one example from each movie…

1. In Romeo + Juliet, Claire Danes, trapped into marrying Dave Paris, shows up desperate at Father Lawrence’s apartment. She cries: “Be not so long to speak. I long to die!” She has no more to say in this scene of the movie.

In the original script she adds:

O, bid me leap, rather than marry Paris,
From off the battlements of yonder tower;
Or walk in thievish ways; or bid me lurk
Where serpents are; chain me with roaring bears;
Or shut me nightly in a charnel-house,
O’er-cover’d quite with dead men’s rattling bones,
With reeky shanks and yellow chapless skulls;
Or bid me go into a new-made grave
And hide me with a dead man in his shroud;
Things that, to hear them told, have made me tremble;
And I will do it without fear or doubt,
To live an unstain’d wife to my sweet love. (Act IV, Scene 1)

2. In Fiennes’ Coriolanus, Menenius, via the t.v., chides the hungry crowd that they “may as well strike at the heaven with their staves as lift them against the Roman state.”

In Shakespeare’s script, Menenius goes on to tell the parable of the belly, just as Plutarch himself originally reported (in the source Shakespeare used to frame his play):

He said, namely, that all the other members of man’s body once revolted against the belly, and accused it of being the only member to sit idly down in its place and make no contribution to the common welfare, while the rest underwent great hardships and performed great public services only to minister to its appetites; but that the belly laughed at their simplicity in not knowing that it received into it all the body’s nourishment only to send it back again and duly distribute it among the other members. “Such, then,” he said again, “is the relation of the senate, my fellow-citizens, to you; the matters for deliberation which there receive the necessary attention and disposition bring to you all and severally what is useful and helpful.” (Plutarch, Life of Coriolanus)

Anyway: I love this new genre. (Not as much as I love reading Shakesepare’s scripts, but still–I love it a lot.) Long may “sampled Shakespeare” prosper.

In Between…

1. Mourning for the demise of Dalhauser (all-time #1 beast, IMHO),
2. Jazzing for the Mexican-soccer Olympic run,
3. Acknowledging that Lithuania has always given Team USA a run for its money, and
4. Doing some deep-background research for an upcoming essay regarding a film genre that I have dubbed “sampled Shakespeare,”

I discovered—to my delight, to my astonishment, to my toe-curling, lets-get-fired-up bemusement—that:

1. Robert Redford may soon be dethroned (from an august throne, a throne originally designed by F. Scott Fitzgerald, held aloft by Mia Farrow and Sam Waterston, and that turned tragic during a dip in a perfectly stylish pool).

2. Baz Luhrmann and Leo DiCaprio have GOTTEN BACK TOGETHER for another run at turning a literary masterpiece into a consummate, two-hour rock-and-roll video, and it just might be something genuinely interesting, because…

1. Their first crack at it made my year in 1996, made my decade in the 1990’s, never ceases to enchant me, and

2. They’ve got an interesting-looking Indian dude to play Meyer Wolfsheim and Tobey Maguire will play Nick Carraway.

December 25?


Allow me to begin by mentioning that your servant is thoroughly annoyed.

I went to check the time and channel for tonight’s Hoyas game. I discovered to my chagrin that the game will be broadcast on exactly zero t.v. channels.

We live in a world of thousands of channels. We live in a world where channels grow on trees. There are entire channels dedicated to sub-species of Cajun cuisine.

fiuAnd yet the (potentially) epic contest at the Verizon Center this evening will not be broadcast on any of these countless channels–not a single one!

Perhaps certain sports-network executives think that the Hoyas’ game against Florida International will not be very exciting, just because Florida International doesn’t really have any good players.

Best announcer on earth
Best announcer on earth

But these tall foreigners just might roar into Washington and make things interesting. If they do, I guess we will hear it on the radio (AM 570).

But who can really complain? Listening to Voice of the Hoyas Rich Chvotkin is actually better than being at the game!

Let’s move on to our main topic…

Was the Lord Jesus really born on Christmas?

First give a listen to the Christmas proclamation from the official datebook of the Church (the Roman Martyrology).

Continue reading “December 25?”

“Days go by…It’s all we’ve been given”

–Keith Urban. Nice song. (Click on the play button on the right of the linked screen to listen. I would have linked to the video, but it is beyond tedious. I almost lost all enthusiasm for the song when I watched 15 seconds of the video. Better just to listen.)

If it were my song, which of course it is not, I would add a phrase to the words “you better start livin’.”

In Christ would fit nicely. “You better start living in Christ.”

Here’s another good DVD to watch. It’s Shakespeare. It’s an extremely clever “modernization.” It is a Leonardo-DiCaprio movie without too much nasty violence. It’s from back when Leo was young and skinny and absolutely to-die-for. It is PG-13, so if you are a child, don’t even think about pressing the play button below.

The preview makes the movie look more violent and racier than it actually is. There is one scene worthy of a serious wince. (Which isn’t even listed on the parents’ advisory page–as if a man dressed as a woman is not something we would want to be advised about.) On the whole, though, it is a refreshingly clean movie, and splendidly done.

Etan Thomas of the Washington Wizards, back from heart surgery
Etan Thomas, a.k.a. the Poet, of the Washington Wizards, back from heart surgery

The NBA season begins, and the Moses beards are proliferating.

…And, getting back to the subject of “Deus ex machina”…

A good plot should contain all the elements necessary to resolve itself. Introducing characters late in the game, or unknown facts that change the whole situation–this is dramatically unsatisfying. Hence the perjorative phrase, “Deus ex machina,” God coming out of a machine to fix everything. Lame.

But, of course, Deus Himself has the prerogative to come out of the machina. It is not “Deus ex machina” for God Himself to intervene in history. He actually is Deus. He is allowed.

Is this what He has done? Is the salvation of the human race by Jesus Christ a case of “Deus ex machina”?

We had fallen from grace. We were condemned to death. We were living pretty miserable lives, punctuated by occasional glimpses of goodness and beauty. Very occasional.

People seasoned their dried fish with ashes. Other people threw babies into volcanoes or spilled out birds’ innards to foretell the future. There were not many virtues being practiced. And there was no hope for eternal life.

Then the perfect man came, lived the perfect life, offered the perfect sacrifice, and promised the perfect gifts to those who believe in Him.

Seems like a bolt out of the blue. Seems impossible to anticipate. Deus ex machina?

Well…there WERE prophesies. Many of the Jews hoped for the Messiah. Even non-Jews looked for Him. The coming of the Messiah was not completely unexpected.

Keith Urban
Keith Urban
But we have to try to go deeper, back to God’s original Creation of the world.

It is certainly true that the coming of Christ was by no means inevitable. His coming was a free gift, a total surprise, never earned, never merited–purely gracious. No one could have anticipated that God Himself would become a man.

But the following is also certainly true: His coming is the fulfillment of Creation. Christ did not enter the world as a foreigner. He came to “what was His own.” All of creation is “for Him.” (quoting Sts. John and Paul) He came not to destroy, but to fulfill. This (in my humble opinion) is the great insight that makes St. Thomas Aquinas’ teaching so profound and so true.

The coming of God as a man is NOT Deus ex machina. It is the exact opposite: The coming of Christ makes everything else make sense. The plot was jumbled and confused BEFORE. Now it unfolds cleanly; now it fits; now it is beautiful.

…In other news: The Wizards just managed to lose their opener at home to the lowly New Jersey Nets. Good grief!

On the other hand: The Phillies just won the World Series!