Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Fool for Christ

Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a great Christian movie.

I feel a little guilty saying that, but hell, Easter was only a couple weeks ago; 'tis the season for forgiveness. But no, really, I watched it last week for the first time since it was in theaters, and aside from the painfully bad comic relief provided by the three gargoyle sidekicks, it is really quite good. It's one of the better Disney animated features, and certainly the most adult, beginning as it does with its villain dashing a woman's head against the steps of Notre Dame and attempting to throw her hideous baby down a well. Not your typical Disney princess fare.

Hunchback is also one of the most explicitly Christian films Disney has ever produced. This is inherent in the Victor Hugo source material--the struggling poor, the noble man of the cloth, the obsessive hound of justice; all of these character types make it an obvious kissing cousin of Les Miserables--but it's still a little shocking to see characters praying to the Christian God in a movie produced by a studio that, despite its cultural conservatism, only rarely broaches the subject of religion. Perhaps that rareness is why the religious theme goes down as well as it does; though this is almost certainly a bastardization of Hugo's novel (I haven't read it, so I wouldn't know), in certain respects it presents an excellent universal appeal for Christian morality.

I'm thinking mostly of the pivotal Festival of Fools scene early in the movie. Quasimodo, the hunch-backed bell-keeper, having lived his life in the Cathedral and having only been able to observe the people running riot at the Festival below, sneaks out to witness it first-hand. He ends up being drafted into a competition for the ugliest mask and is good-naturedly crowned King Fool when the audience finds out he really is the ugliest man in Paris. Then things take a bad, bad turn.

The cruelty lasts only a minute, but it feels like it goes on forever, so abject is Quasimodo's public humiliation. It's remarkably upsetting to watch, and it brings to mind nothing less than the Crucifixion, complete with mock crown. The Son-of-God-made-flesh nailed to a cross is first of all a brutal image, but the violence that captivates Mel Gibson, to the exclusion of almost everything else about Jesus' life and message, is only one part of the scene's broader degradation. Half the power of the crucifixion is not the punishment itself, but its public nature and attendant humiliation that comes with it. The image of the deformed Quasimodo, tied down, abandoned by his father figure, jeered and pelted with food, draws from the same well of abject shame as Calvary and can't help but be moving, especially when we're operating under the assumption that this is a kid's film.

The mockery ends when the Gypsy Esmeralda, alone among all others, steps up to offer Quasimodo comfort, which in the book (according to Wikipedia) is the only act of kindness he's ever known. As she very enthusiastically informs us, she is herself of a despised minority seeking merciful treatment. Her song, "God Help the Outcasts," is rather mawkish, yet it's as good a summation of the Christian message as could be hoped for:

Yes, I know I'm just an outcast
I shouldn't speak to you
Still I see Your face and wonder...
Were You once an outcast too?

God help the outcasts
Hungry from birth
Show them the mercy
They don't find on earth
God help my people
We look to You still
God help the outcasts
Or nobody will

I know I'm risking my credibility by insisting on a Disney cartoon as a paragon of Christianity, so let me turn the accusation around to point out that mainline Christianity has largely become a discredited cartoon version of itself. Andrew Sullivan, who actually believes in Jesus and has written on faith extensively, can detail it better than I can. But essentially, a religion that systematically shields child rapists, hounds gay youth to suicide, and comprises one of the most powerful special interests in Washington, has little credibility when it comes to its stated mission of comforting the weak. Incidentally, Hunchback deals with the religious hypocrisy issue head-on in its very best song, "Hellfire" in which villain Judge Frollo--originally an archdeacon in the book--wrestles with his bewitching lust for Esmeralda:

To jump back to the modern day, Jesus was at best indifferent to power and made a point of associating himself with the dregs of society, and his submission to crucifixion in the absence of any crime is by design the ultimate act of powerlessness. It's hard to square the oratory of "blessed are the meek" with this:

I don't want to belabor this point too much more, except to say that one need not be an atheist to believe a Christianity which keeps the bully out of its pulpit would be a positive development. And to be sure, the Disney cartoon trades in this kind of muscle hero imagery as well, at the beginning of its third-act lurch for a ridiculously unearned happy ending. As I said, I'm speaking of certain elements of the movie, not of the movie as a whole.

It's of the same tension as those obnoxious gargoyles, the impulse to produce a soothing kiddie flick at war with the original story's austere demands for nuance and moral ambiguity. Yet this too may be seen as yet another reflection of today's Christianity, which is torn (in part by Mel Gibson?) between the tremendous political power it wields and the atomized and personal nature of the faith itself. It even has its own hideous gargoyles, in the form of Pat Robertson, the deceased Jerry Falwell, and other telegenic vulgararians.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is compromised, and so too is the belief system that informs it. Yet one can always hope for change; some enterprising YouTube users have taken to re-editing the film to minimize the gargoyles' presence. The same is possible in the real world religion. For what was Christ about, if not redemption?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Racism Isn't Just Acting Like John Derbyshire

This Thursday past, longtime National Review contributor John "Derb" Derbyshire published a column about how black people are stupid and dangerous and should be avoided except for, maybe, the smart ones. This wasn't on the National Review's website, but elsewhere, Taki's Magazine, which bills itself as "Cocktails, Countesses, and Mental Caviar." Here are some of those intellectual fish eggs on which to feast. Note that this is a sub-list of item ten of how to interact with black people:

(10a) Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally.

(10b) Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods.

(10c) If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date (neglect of that one got me the closest I have ever gotten to death by gunshot).

(10d) Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks.

(10e) If you are at some public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible.

(10f) Do not settle in a district or municipality run by black politicians.

(10g) Before voting for a black politician, scrutinize his/her character much more carefully than you would a white.

(10h) Do not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway.

(10i) If accosted by a strange black in the street, smile and say something polite but keep moving.

After at first only tut-tutting the article, National Review editor Rich Lowry gave Derbyshire the boot. The reasons for doing so should by now be obvious, but it's worth reprinting the official explanation of their ways-parting:

Anyone who has read Derb in our pages knows he’s a deeply literate, funny, and incisive writer. I direct anyone who doubts his talents to his delightful first novel, “Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream,” or any one of his “Straggler” columns in the books section of NR. Derb is also maddening, outrageous, cranky, and provocative. His latest provocation, in a webzine, lurches from the politically incorrect to the nasty and indefensible. We never would have published it, but the main reason that people noticed it is that it is by a National Review writer. Derb is effectively using our name to get more oxygen for views with which we’d never associate ourselves otherwise. So there has to be a parting of the ways. Derb has long danced around the line on these issues, but this column is so outlandish it constitutes a kind of letter of resignation. It’s a free country, and Derb can write whatever he wants, wherever he wants. Just not in the pages of NR or NRO, or as someone associated with NR any longer.

The first thing that should be noted is that the nature of the column in question is not new. The Atlantic Wire has a good roundup of Derbyshire's long history of proud racism, but suffice it to say it's hard to imagine anyone else having a career as a opinion writer in a mainstream magazine after telling the University of Pennsylvania's Black Law Student Association, in person, that as African descendants they should collectively resign themselves to being dumber than whites. John Derbyshire often comes off as a terrible human being, but he is compellingly terrible, and both refreshingly and alarmingly upfront about his white supremacy.

So really, this whole fracas is just "Derb being Derb." And that's part of the problem, for "Derb" has some qualities, if not redeeming (there's no redeeming the unrepentant), then that at least help explain why he lasted as long as he did. His cranky pessimism (his most recent book was titled We Are Doomed) led him to butt heads with his erstwhile National Review colleagues ever so often, on issues like George W. Bush, creationism, and Terri Schiavo. This was amusing, if nothing else, but it also made him idiosyncratic and not at all a mere conservative apparatchik. He also has a way with words and on occasion put them to good use, such as his account of how he ended up playing an uncredited thug in a Bruce Lee movie.

Derbyshire's mixture of qualities both compelling and repelling, then, tends to trip up even (especially!) folks who we would like to think would know better about this sort of thing, but hate to see someone with otherwise admirable qualities as so morally deficient. I myself will admit to not saying anything when certain acquaintances have made ugly, racist remarks, for risk of jeopardizing the relationship. If we are to grant President Obama's understanding for his white grandmother, who feared black men passing her on the street, we can on some level feel that Lowry and company being slow to action regarding Derbyshire (whose bigotry is much, much worse) is understandable, if not acceptable.

The sad fact is most people don't grapple with these issues enough to have an informed opinion. To the casual observer, racism is a skinheaded, swastika-tattooed Edward Norton curb-stomping a black guy--not some crusty old Englishman who writes for a magazine the average American has never heard of. Thus the depressing number of people--if the comments on some of these pages are any indication--who echo Derbyshire's sentiments and claim they aren't being racist (though, notably, Derbyshire has before admitted his racism straight up). I don't wish to defend such ideas, but I do think it important see where the people who espouse them are coming from, that they may just possibly be corrected.

Regarding National Review, it's perhaps uncharitable to say Derbyshire got fired for being too obviously racist, but Lowry's statement that "Derb is effectively using our name to get more oxygen for views with which we’d never associate ourselves otherwise," even though Derbyshire said plenty of other nasty things under the National Review banner, suggests he was fired because of the shitstorm he brought to their doorstep rather than their understanding of why the shit was storming. It's not only Derbyshire's ridiculously offensive prescriptions that are the problem. They are the symptoms of the disease: a rotten dehumanization and objectification that is palpable in the very words he employs.

Consider the "intelligent and well-socialized blacks," which Derbyshire finds so remarkable as to require a category unto themselves. He encourages his hypothetical children to befriend these "IWSBs," because these ostensible friends are an "amulet" to guard against charges of racism, like a crucifix to ward away the devil. ISWBs are furthermore, "something of a luxury good, like antique furniture or corporate jets: boasted of by upper-class whites and wealthy organizations, coveted by the less prosperous." Black people were once literally white people's property, and today John Derbyshire argues they are at best a commodity good.

That black people aren't really even people to him, just "blacks," just objects and things that are without agency or feelings or lives outside of a general incompetence and hostility to whites, is inherent in the very premise of the article. The piece is a tongue-in-cheek response to "The Talk" that black parents give their (male) children about interacting with trigger-happy and negligent law enforcement and the culture at large. This is a horrific and persistent issue, with the Sanford Police Department's botched handling of the death of Trayvon Martin (and Geraldo Rivera's subsequent declaration that Martin brought it on himself for wearing a hoodie) being only its latest and most visible iteration. Derbyshire's response is to treat the death of innocent youth as a joke and write a "Nonblack Version" of The Talk that proves its point by getting the issue precisely backward; in response to a talk about how to maneuver in a world of prejudice, we have a "talk" on how to perpetuate prejudice.

This mindset, viewing vast swaths of people as cultural grindstones and other mere tools, goes beyond this single episode. Recently leaked documents from the National Organization for Marriage revealed a strategy to court conservative blacks and Latinos--the latter of which must have their assimilation into the culture interrupted for fear of losing their conservatism--purely as a means of attacking gays. Nor is this at all restricted to conservatives. Bill Maher's recent declaration that he can't be a racist because he gave a million dollars to Barack Obama (as a follow-up to an Alexandra Pelosi video that 'documented' dumb, poor, liberal New York City blacks in response to criticisms of her footage of dumb, poor, conservative Mississippi whites), displays a similar reductiveness.

The whole episode, and the Martin case more broadly, is a depressing reminder of our discourse's gross immaturity. Racism is not demonology. It is, at heart, like a great many problems, a failure of empathy. To miss this crucial point and focus on the obviously outrageous is, pardon the term, so much thinking in black-and-white.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

When in Rome

Modern-dress Shakespeare is a chancy affair. As often as it is successful, like Julie Taymor's ancient-modern mashup Titus, it can be just as often gimmicky (certain aspects of the Baz Luhrmann Romeo+Juliet) or a bloody mess (the Australian gangland Macbeth is one of the worst filmed Shakespeare adaptations I've ever seen and most definitely my worst-ever blind buy). As with every other directorial decision, displacing time needs to be justified: why should this text of 400 years of age be re-set in modern times? What does it have to say to us today? Titus worked so well because it took an obscure and sort of crappy play and turned it into a meditation on humanity's timeless penchant for violence. Ralph Fiennes' take on Coriolanus, another lesser-known Roman piece, albeit one much higher in quality, is quite happily a success: more than an exercise in cleverness, it makes the Renaissance writing and the classical conflicts viscerally immediate.

Our story takes place in "a place calling itself Rome," besieged from without by the Volsces, led by Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), and within, by grain shortages that have the people rioting. Caius Marcius (Fiennes), one of Rome's most decorated soldiers, spurns the rioters and their objections, and then proceeds to drive the Volsces from their city of Corioli, for which he is rechristened Coriolanus. His mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) convinces him to run for consul in spite of his contempt for popular rule, but two scheming tribunes, Sicinius (James Nesbitt) and Brutus (Paul Jesson), goad him into denouncing the masses, leading to his exile to Volsces territory, where he offers himself to Aufidius to lead a revenge campaign against Rome.

That's an awful lot of story to recap, but really I'm just scratching the surface. The Roman plays are Shakespeare's most politically-minded, and Coriolanus is thematically one of his richest, with its rival strains of democratic and elitist thought. Alas, this is chiefly why the play remains relatively unknown. Marcius has the distinction of being one Shakespeare's most opaque tragic heroes; he has only one soliloquy, here expunged, and so the audience's opinion of him is based entirely around his heated and often contemptuous interactions with other characters. His disgust with the plebians is a hard sell in a modern democracy, and is counter-balanced by the populace itself--fickle, ungrateful to its military protector, and easily manipulated by unscrupulous politicians.

It's not an easy piece, but Fiennes has confidence in it and takes it in fascinating directions. Whereas the original historical context of the story is the very early days of the Roman republic, shortly after the expulsion of the Tarquin kings, the Rome of the film is an apocalyptic, bombed-out urban shell that everywhere seems to be coming apart at the seams; had they referred to it as 'Athens,' the opening scenes could barely be considered fiction. DP Barry Ackroyd of the Bourne trilogy and The Hurt Locker, films the proceedings in his now trademark rough-hewn handheld camerawork, giving the movie an even grittier edge. All this is grounded further with the occasional BBC-style news report that serves the additional functions of condensing the text and easily communicating story developments. Occasionally the modern approach falters, like with a political-debate scene on a Sunday morning talk-show style set whose audience consists of the same couple dozen protesters we saw earlier. But by and large world is very well-realized.

At the center of it it stands Fiennes' Marcius, battle-scarred and bald-shaven. He lives to fight, if not with enemy soldiers then with his own people, and is patently unsuited for the political life that is expected of him. He is the end product of a society that has been at war so long that the violence has taken on a life of its own. The character is not likable per se, but neither is he trying to be. He is proud, but not boastful, and part of his antipathy towards the rabble is a refusal to pander to and flatter them. As a protagonist Marcius has his limitations, but Fiennes gives him as much seething life as can be imagined.

The performers that surround Fiennes, which also include Brian Cox as the sympathetic senator Menenius and Jessica Chastain as Marcius' wife Virgilia, are uniformly strong. The Jacobean English never sounds forced or out of place, which really is tremendous praise. Ultimately, however, the movie belongs to Fiennes, Butler, and Redgrave. Butler is capable, but Aufidius isn't Shakespeare's most nuanced villain by a long shot; he is basically a mirror image of Marcius. What makes their dynamic so interesting is its barely-veiled homosexual subtext. Their close-quarters dueling at the beginning and end of the movie is an erotic death dance, given ample support by the text itself:

O Marcius, Marcius!
Each word thou hast spoke hath weeded from my heart
A root of ancient envy. If Jupiter
Should from yond cloud speak divine things,
And say 'Tis true,' I'ld not believe them more
Than thee, all noble Marcius. Let me twine
Mine arms about that body, where against
My grained ash an hundred times hath broke
And scarr'd the moon with splinters: here I clip
The anvil of my sword, and do contest
As hotly and as nobly with thy love
As ever in ambitious strength I did
Contend against thy valour. Know thou first,
I loved the maid I married; never man
Sigh'd truer breath; but that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing! more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold.

This in turn is mirrored in the Oedipal shadings of Redgrave's performance. Her Volumnia worships her son but is also virtually the only character that can successfully challenge his headstrong stubbornness. She does so while occasionally donning a decidedly unfeminine military officer uniform. All of this working in tandem conveys a brutalizing masculinity that is driving the world over the edge. As Volumnia sniffs,

"Anger's my meat; I sup upon myself,
And so shall starve with feeding."


That is basically what happens in the end. Marcius is a born fighter, and in true tragic fashion what dooms him is his betrayal of this nature, by relenting to his mother's pleas to halt the invasion of Rome. This isn't communicated as clearly as it could be, and in fact the ending is slightly altered. In the original play Aufidius whips the Volscian people into a frenzy against Marcius, who "kill'd my son.' 'My daughter.' ' cousin Marcus.' ' father,'" and who in turn refuses to abide an insult to his pride. In the movie it is merely the Volscian army that gangs up on him, and the ending speeches are jettisoned in favor of a final bloody embrace with Aufidius and the discarding of Marcius' corpse.

Aside from that admitted nitpick, however, and a few cut speeches that I missed (there's a exchange in the beginning of the play talking about the revolt against Marcius as the body's revolt against the belly; it's great writing, but probably would have slowed the action down too much), this is probably the best adaption of Coriolanus that could be hoped for, and one of the better filmed Shakespeares, period. It makes the original material extraordinarily relevant to the current zeitgeist, but without ever condescending to to work or the audience. Time, is on its side.