Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Quick Review of the Film "Locke" (2014 - written and directed by Stephen Knight)

A class action lawsuit might be in order for all those who bought this film based on the blurbs on the DVD box. "Explosive and flat-out thrilling" says the Wall Street Journal. "A powerhouse of suspense" says Rolling Stone. Let's see what could rival these quotes in the realm of fantasy. Perhaps, "Carrot Top's Chairman of the Board exudes wit and intellectual rigor!" says the New York Times. How about, "Ben Affleck and JLo promise to be the next Bogart and Bacall based on their performances in Gigli" raves the TV Guide. Or "Ryan Reynold's Green Lantern finally brings comic book films into the realm of Bergman and Kurosawa!" says Highlights Magazine.

The film is just so picking dull. Tom Hardy is an interesting actor, but phone book reading might have been better than watching and hearing him deal with family and job problems while he drives. And yes, that is the whole film, Hardy talking on the phone while he drives. If you are one of several Americans who finds soccer deadly dull, wait until you see a film sequence in which you get the thrill of a disembodied teenage boy recreate soccer highlights on the phone (tis not as exciting as that sounds.)

Don't listen to any critical raves, they are a siren's song.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Review of "Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia" by Dennis Covington

In Dennis Covington’s account of Pentecostal Appalachian Snake Handlers, he talks to a woman who has decided she will not touch poisonous serpents in the month of July, because in two precious Julys she had been bit. So during that July, she would only drink strychnine. “Good idea,” thought Covington, “Play it safe.”

Covington didn’t play it safe when he researched and wrote “Salvation on Sand Mountain” in 1996. A reporter for the New York Times, he went to cover the attempted murder trial of Glenn Summerford, a preacher convicted for trying to kill his wife with poisonous snakes.

But he didn’t stop with the trial. He went to spend time with the snake handling congregation that had lost their pastor to a 20 year jail sentence. And not only does he capture the culture of a number of these churches, he eventually becomes, for a time, part of it. He handles snakes himself.

The Scriptural basis for the churches is Mark 16:18 where Jesus said, “They will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink poison, it will not hurt them at all.” Nowhere in the book is it mentioned that Mark 16: 9 – 20 is a passage with relatively weak textual support, it might have been in the original text.

A passage of Scripture that is not mentioned Matthew 4 where Satan tempts Jesus on the highest point of the temple saying “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” And Jesus answered, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” One would think that snake handling, poison drinking, as well as touching hot stoves and sticking fingers in electric sockets might well be called testing God.

None of the Snake Handling Preachers really go for the seminary learnin’. They have favorite passages that focus on faith and the miraculous. An interesting quirk is the emphasis on the name of Jesus. In fact, many of them take the idea that Jesus being the only name by which one can be saved and say that Jesus is the only name for God. They scoff Trinitarians, saying that God is not in three persons, there’s just Jesus. Most Christians have a word for that teaching…Heresy.

But Covington comes to love the energy, music and rapture to be found in the Snake Handling services. And he eventually joins in, singing and testifying, and eventually snake handling and preaching. But his preaching leads to him leaving this strange world.

It is a captivating story, well told. While one may question the sanity of many of the people featured, one comes to admire their faith.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Review of "State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America" an anthology edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey (Harper Collins, 2008)

In 2016, my wife and I are anticipating a great adventure, traveling to each of the United States. In preparation, we've been reading.

There is some good writing in Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey's collection of essays about the 50 states, "State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America" but much of it is written from a penthouse view from Park Avenue. The book itself is a good idea. In the thirties the WPA made a series of guidebooks, one about each of the states. (Obviously, Alaska and Hawaii were not written about in those volumes.) This book has one chapter, one essay about each state each written by a different author.
The problem with the book is that each author seems to have the same aesthetic, cultural and political sensibility. Obviously there are chapters about red state but all the chapters have a blue state sensibility. One would think with such a book it would be possible to find natives of states. But often there is instead a New York tourist in a state. Literally. Here is the opening from the chapter on South Dakota by Said Sayrafiezadeh:
"The idea of traveling to South Dakota for vacation had been all mine. I hit upon it one night in my apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan."

Or pieces by people who grew up a state in a red state and moved to a blue state, for example from Daphne Beal's essay about Wisconsin, when imagined Cheese Heads ask if she was really asked to write the chapter about the state, "'Yes, me,' I imagine myself saying, smiling, always smiling because that is the state-determined social contract among us, and perhaps adding that such a wedge (a cheddar-Swiss hybrid, if you've never seen it) took a precious amount of room in my New York City closet for a long time."

Admittedly, not all of the writers live in New York. Ha Jin, who writes about the nine years he lived in Georgia now lives in Massachusettes. Jim Lewis has lived in New York and London and to his credit he now lives in Texas (but Austin, of course) but he was assigned to write about Kansas. Lewis lived a short time in Kansas, not long enough to appear on his Wiki page. He writes about "the Kansas of the Mind", an imaginary place, because he can't write about the real one since, as he writes "The mind is a kind of Kansas, or mine is anyway. Or my memories are: For one thing I seldom go there, so however near they may be, they remain somehow far away." (Yeah, a real Thomas Guide to the state there.)

But with limited contact, many of the writers are still able to write about flyover country with these tools:

1) Bumper Stickers and Billboards. One essay after another points out the nutty stuff these hicks advertise on their cars and roadways. Can these people really believe that fetuses deserve to live, that ordinary people should be allowed to have guns and that God exists?

2) Historical accounts about how Native Americans were treated in the previous centuries, clear evidence of the current backward state of current Anglo populations.

3) Talking with the sometimes limited number of right thinking people the Republican wilds. Such as in this chapter by George Packer on a state captured by The Southern Strategy, "The tribe of surviving white liberals in Alabama today is so tiny and embattled that they all know one another personally...They suffer from a commingling of conscience, privilege and impotence. And a large fraction are members of my extended family...They are secularists in a state that at times seems to be run as a Christian theology." So like Abraham argued about Sodom and Gomorrah, even these states should be saved because there are at least 10 righteous, um liberal, men, um persons.

4) They can acknowledge the natural beauty of the states, while pointing out the residents want to destroy that beauty with pavement, fast food restaurants and fracking.

5) Heartfelt accounts about how they always will keep the state in their hearts (and perhaps occasionally visit it on holidays when Paris is out of the budget.)

6) Making visits to the Red Land at great risk. In the essay on South Dakota, the author goes to the state at great nutritional peril. After all, his girl-friend says, "All they eat is beef and not just beef but bison beef"

So, I admit, there were chapters I started, read 2 or 3 pages and moved on. But some of the chapters were very good. Dave Eggers writes a fine salute to Illinois opening with these lines, "The slogan on all license plates on Illinois, for as long as anyone can remember, has been the Land of Lincoln. Everyone in Illinois and all sensible people elsewhere believe it to be the best license-plate slogan of all the state of our union" And it keeps getting better.

Susan Choi writes a moving and funny account touring Indiana with her father who still lives in the state (she, not surprisingly lives now in Brooklyn.)

John Hodgman writes sardonically about Massachusetts, Jonathan Franzen interviews the State of New York herself, Joe Sacco and Alison Bechdel write about and also cartoon their states.

The book has wonderful things. It can best be enjoyed by skipping the writing that isn't always so wonderful (thought the states being written about are all, in fact, glorious.)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Is it Fair to Say Some Robin Williams Air Time Should Go to Queragosh?

I really liked Robin Williams. I admired a lot of his work. I met him a couple of times and he seemed like a genuinely decent guy. So I don’t mean any disrespect to the man or his wife or children. But…the President and Secretary of Defense were quick to put out statements honoring Williams’ art and work for the troops. That’s appropriate. I watched a bit of ABC National News last night (a rare thing) and they gave a lot of time to Williams’ death and life. That’s okay, his death had quite an impact as I can see when I look at my Facebook pages. I just wonder how many people know about ISIS taking the city of Queragosh in Iraq and how they are killing Christians; there are reports of ISIS beheading children. I don’t know how you strike a balance about such things, between celebrity news (that is genuine news) and horrific world events. I just didn’t hear the folks at ABC mention Queragosh. Or the President either.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Dana Gioia: An Impressive Guy (Part III)

I try to be a cultured guy, I really do. When I read that a poet has won the Doodle Brand Endowment for Outstanding Poetry of Year I check out his or her (or whatever other gender happens to be pertinent) poetry on the net or at the library and I usually come away baffled.

Last week I went to hear poet Dana Gioia lecture and I asked in the Q & A time why when I read so many contemporary poets I had no idea what they were saying. He answered simply, "Because they're bad." He did elaborate, "They're are good poets that are difficult, such as T. S. Eliot." Gioia then went on to recite a passage from The Wasteland. "Now, you probably couldn't get everything out of that listening, but the emotion came through. And the second and third reading would be rewarded. Whereas with much modern poetry, it's an elaborate box with a difficult lock but when you open it you find nothing. We live in the wreckage of postmodernism."

Gioia said that one of his goals as a poet is to be clear. He credits his working class background and his mother's love of poetry with that goal. But many modern critics now mock the simplicity, heart and rhyme schemes that made much poetry in the past so rich (along with Eliot he quoted extensive passages from Shakespeare and Poe.) And when he got around to quoting his own poetry, I was happy to find that it was clear, thoughtful and beautiful.

So for your weekend's amusement and culture, here's the first half one of Gioia's poems from his collection "Pity the Beautiful":


The dead say little in their letters
they haven't said before.
We find no secrets, and yet
how different ever sentence sounds
heard across the years.

My father breaks my heart
simply by being so young and handsome.
He's half my age, with jet-black.
Look at him in his navy uniform
grinning beside his dive-bomber.

Come back, Dad! I want to shout.
He says he misses all of us
(though I haven't yet been born).
He writes from places I never knew he saw,
and everyone he mentions now is dead.

There is a large, long photograph
curled like a diploma - a banquet sixty years ago.
My parents sit uncomfortably
among tables of dark-suited strangers.
The mildewed paper reeks of regret.

I wonder what song the band was playing,
just out of frame, as the photographer
arranged your smiles. A waltz? A foxtrot?
Get out there on the floor and dance!
You don't have forever.

Find and read the rest of the poem, it's worth it. Which is not true of most living poets.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Dana Gioia - An Impressive Guy Part II

For centuries, if you drew a Venn diagram, one circle with Fine Art and another circle with Roman Catholic Art there would be very little found in just one circle. Come the Renaissance and the Reformation the circles began to separate. Still, a majority of the work in the Fine Arts circle (music, paintings, sculpture, literature, etc.) had religious or Biblical themes.
Things have changed, according to Dana Gioia in his essay, "The Catholic Writer Today" (published in the December 2013 issue of First Things and as a pamphlet published by Wiseblood Books.) He writes, "If one asked an arts journalist to identify a major living painter or sculptor, playwright or choreographer, composer or poet, who was a practicing Catholic, the critic, I suspect, would be unable to offer a single name."

Gioia notes that there are a couple of Catholic writers in the literary world that have respect, Ron Hansen and Alice McDermott for example, but even then there are many more writers that mock or attack organized religion than those that practice or even tolerate it. Fifty or sixty years ago this was not the case when Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Walker Percy, J. F. Powers and many other Catholic and Catholic influenced writers dominated the literary scene. Some of the great genre writers of the time, Anthony Boucher, Donald Westlake and Walter Miller were also Catholics.

Gioia writes, "Sixty years ago it was taken for granted that a significant portion of American writers were Catholics who balanced their dual identities as writers and believers. These writers published in the mainstream journals and presses of the time...Catholic authors were reviewed and discussed in the general press."

But things have changed. Gioia writes, "Today the cultural establishment views faithful Catholics with suspicion, distain or condescension...Anti-Catholicism has also been common among the intelligentsia...As the British novelist Hilary Mantel recently declared, 'Nowadays the Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people.'"

Gioia argues that the lack of a Catholic (and perhaps even a Christian) voice in literature (and all the fine arts) diminishes the world of art and the intellect. For without it, there is not the dialectic debate of the issues that really matter. Sin, grace, faith, eternity, even love, have unique, long standing meanings in the Catholic understanding of things and have provided some of the great themes of literature. Great literature has come from expounding on these themes from a traditional view and great literature has come from those reacting against them. But without these themes, the world of literature and art is much poorer.

So much of literature today is existential whining because there is no acknowledgement of anything beyond our day to day joys and woes.

Gioia argues the literary world which claims to love diversity doesn't even admit the loss of a Catholic voice, though Catholics are a quarter of the American population. Sadly, he also argues, the Catholic Church itself doesn't seem bothered by this situation either; content to live in a parallel world of art. Church music, writing and other art can exist outside of the mainstream of the art world.

I'm a writer of children's books and my Christian publisher distributes books through Christian bookstores and the internet. They have made a conscious decision to not seek to put their books in secular bookstores in order to keep good relationships with those Christian bookstores. We live in a world with greatly segregated choices. One could read nothing but books from Christian publishers, listen to nothing but Christian radio and even watch Christian film and TV exclusively. Except for certain exceptional breakthroughs, there is a world of Christian art, popular art and fine art; and these worlds all occupy their own Venn Diagram circles, rarely touching.

Gioia doesn't expect a renewal of Catholic arts to take place through the efforts of the Church and certainly not through the efforts of the fine arts community. He writes, "The renewal of Catholic literature - or fail to happen - through the efforts of writers."

Friday, August 1, 2014

Dana Gioia - An Impressive Guy Part 1

This has been my year for poets. Usually one doesn't come across poets in one's day to day life. They're like actuaries and Feng Shui consultants: you know they're out there but you don't expect to see them. But this year U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway spoke at my daughter's college graduation. Last April I actually paid money to hear Poet Laureate Billy Collins. And last week I went to hear Dana Gioia, the former Director of the National Endowment for the Arts. He's also, you know, a poet. He says poetry is his true calling and everything else he's done otherwise, as a business man, a professor and bureaucrat he's done to support time with his muse.

He's a very impressive guy, so I'm going to divide these posts about him into three segments over the next week: first about his work with the NEA, next about his writing about the place religion in the fine arts and finally about poetry. I'm sure you'll plan your schedule accordingly.

When Gioia was first asked by President George W Bush to serve as director of NEA, he didn't want to go. He said asked repeatedly and felt like Jonah being asked to go to Nineveh. He accepted before he had to "be delivered in the belly of a whale."

Gioia describes Washington as a place where blood sports are practiced with civility and impeccable fashion. He took the position knowing that Democrats would oppose him as a Republican appointee and Republicans opposed the agency he would head. But he made a commitment with himself and God before taking the job. He would endeavor to act as a Christian. He would not lie and he would treat others with respect and listen.

Gioia is, not surprisingly, a believer in the transformative power of the arts. He grew up in a working class area in southern California and has gone on to highest corridors of power in government and the media. But two sources of culture changed his life. His mother loved poetry and quoted it to him often. And he frequented the public library. It led him to a love of literature that changed his life.

Gioia set as a goal as NEA director that funding decisions would be based on artistic excellence and not partisanship. He is concerned by the coarsening in the popular culture and the self-involved focus of much of the finer arts community and hoped the work of the NEA could address those issues. He also wanted to be sure funding went to all people, not just to the coastal elites.

He said he would often hear from those on the right, "You aren't going to sponsor gay art projects?" And he would respond, "There are gay people in America, aren't there? And the NEA is for all Americans." From the left he would hear, "You aren't going to sponsor Christian projects, are you?" And he would similarly respond, "There are church goers in America, aren't there?" He also established a policy of grants going to every congressional district.
He was most proud of a program to bring Shakespeare to military bases and a writing project for servicemen returning from combat.

Gioia met regularly to members of congress, listening to concerns and complaints about the NEA. And every year he was able to get an increase in funding. He credited the President and the First Lady for their steadfast support.
These days, considering what goes on in the federal parks service and the IRS, I expect NEA funds are being used to paint campaign signs for Wendy Davis, film commercials for PETA and enact a passion play for kindergarteners about the life of President Obama. That's why I would love to see the NEA eliminated. But with the right leadership, I think the agency can do more good than, say, farm subsidies or Obamacare.

With $17 quartrogazzillion in federal debt, I'm all for cutting federal spending. If I was in congress, I would voted to eliminate the NEA. But if I could be assured that a guy like Gioia would always be directing the agency, maybe not.