Sun and snow and a bad cold

Still fighting this really bad cold that hit me a couple days ago.

It’s making writing very difficult. I spent some time last night hacking an interview down from well over 3,000 words to something less than half that length, but that sort of task is more methodical than creative, and it doesn’t require too much brainpower. Coming up with new things to say, though — ah, that requires a clear mind, which I currently do not have because it feels like someone’s popping bubble wrap inside my head.

So, my professional writing has slowed down a bit, and my blogging is kind of on hold at the moment.

I have, at least, begun watching movies for fun again, after a few weeks in which it seemed like everything I watched had to be work-related in one way or another. And I figure I might as well take advantage of my under-the-weatherness to post a few not-very-creative comments on them.

On Thursday, my sister and I caught Sahara, which I found a little noisy and long — when Steve Zahn says he’s tired of being shot at, I found myself nodding and sharing his exhaustion — but overall it’s a fun ride. It may not be up to the heights of the first Indiana Jones movie, and it may tangle too many plot threads together for its own good, but the actors are clearly having fun, and charisma can go a long way towards overcoming bad writing and clumsy direction, in my books. And if anything, Mark Steyn’s criticism that the film tries to fuse the old Crosby-and-Hope Road movies with the James Bond films actually enhanced the movie for me. (Re: the length and plot threads. My wife, who saw the film with her brother a few weeks ago, said it seemed like the filmmakers wanted to start a modern adventure serial, to which I replied that they shouldn’t have put the entire serial in one movie.)

I also liked a few bits of dialogue here and there. For some reason the one that sticks with me most is the scene where Matthew McConaughey shows Penelope Cruz some shells that glow underwater. He says “modern science” can’t explain why they do this, to which she replies, “There has to be a reason!” He then replies that, until science can come up with an explanation, his own theory is that they glow “because they can.”

There’s something about the anthropomorphizing of nature, or ascribing intentionality to basically inanimate objects, that just kind of tickles me — partly because I suspect much of the point of modern science is to reduce all human beings to clusters of inanimate objects, nothing but particles and chemical reactions, etc. If we humans are to have any intentionality or spirit at all, then it must essentially come from “above,” so to speak, for it cannot simply rise up out of our building blocks “below”. And once that intentionality hovers over us and the matter of which we are made, it must somehow lurk behind everything else, too.

Thinking about this now, I find my thoughts going back to that bit in the Narnia books where one of the children meets a being who calls himself a “star”, and the child says that, in our world, a star is just a ball of hot gas, to which the Narnian star replies that, even in our world, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of. Or how about that line in Chariots of Fire about running fast and feeling God’s pleasure? Why does God make the shells that glow underwater? “Because he can.” Works for me!

Then, last night, the wife and I watched the film version of Oklahoma! (1955), and I once again experienced that thrill of watching a movie made in the 1950s that just happens to have a fair bit of sexual innuendo and even titillation; the song about the women in Kansas City who seemed to be wearing clothes with lots of “padding” but who then began dancing in a way that made the guy think that all those curves were “actually real” is particularly striking, given this was in the days before surgical breast enhancement and whatnot.

I’m not entirely sure why my wife happened to take this film out of the library, but I did have a few reasons of my own for wanting to see it. (You know how sometimes a variety of impulses all converge on a single decision? Kind of like how I saw the 1951 version of Quo Vadis? for the first time ever about a decade ago because I was just beginning to research Bible movies and I was going through a major Deborah Kerr phase.) For starters, I was curious to see certain actors that I had just come across in other films; I had recently seen James Whitmore, who plays Ado Annie’s amusingly stern dad, in Kiss Me Kate! (1953) and Rod Steiger, who plays the creepy, jealous Jud, in the original Amityville Horror (1979). But most significantly, I had read about the historical significance of Oklahoma! to Broadway theatre in Mark Steyn’s book a couple months ago, and the other day, he re-posted an article of his on the tenth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, during which he just happened to be in town for an unrelated musical. Along the way, of course, Steyn talks about the Oklahoma musical, and given how the media originally assumed the bombing was the work of Muslim terrorists, before Timothy McVeigh was caught, he makes this interesting point:

In Oklahoma, most of the Muslims are black and most of the Arabs are Christian. Even Rodgers and Hammerstein understood there was more to the state than farmers and cowmen: in the show, Ado Annie, the girl who cain’t say no, is much taken by a pedlar called Ali Hakim.

Interestingly, in the film version at least, Ali Hakim is described as a “Persian” and he talks about his polygamous brother and he sells one of the women a potion called “the elixir of Egypt” — but Eddie Albert, who plays the character, doesn’t seem particularly Middle Eastern, despite his accent. FWIW, I also got a kick out of Shirley Jones’s chaste nude swim, which predates Jean Simmons’s similar scene in Spartacus by five years. Scenes like these — and the suspicions of infidelity frequently voiced by Ado Annie and Will Parker — are why it always amuses me when people today say that movies used to be so clean and family-friendly in the 1950s.

And then, this morning, The Empire Strikes Back (1980). I hadn’t watched my Star Wars DVDs since they were brand new, but I have been listening to the soundtrack to this film an awful lot lately, and it just sort of occurred to me that I could put the entire film on while I read the morning paper. So I did.

It’s still a fun film, it’s still impressive, it’s still the film that suffered the least when George Lucas put out the “special editions”, and it definitely remains the most satisfying film of the entire series, not least because the climactic duel between Luke and Vader is part of a major mythological story arc that matters very deeply and personally to these two individuals; contrast that with the duels at the end of, say, Attack of the Clones (my review), which were tacked onto the end of a rather boring political conspiracy plot.

Let’s put it this way: I noticed a few plot holes in Empire today, and not for the first time (how does Luke make it past the Imperial blockade around Hoth without any opposition whatsoever? how can Han get from one planetary system to another if he cannot make the jump to light speed? etc.), but they don’t matter because the story is really about other things. The problem with the prequels is that they are all about plot, rather than character; and they do dwell just a little too much on precise scientific details like gravity wells, etc. The prequels lack the spirit that lifts the story and helps it fly over and past these problems.

Still, it’s interesting to watch this film while trying to keep the prequels in mind. I don’t believe for a second that the prequels are giving us the exact back-story that Lucas had in mind when he made the original films — reportedly, Lucas decided to make Leia the twin sister of Luke and daughter of Vader at the last minute, before making Return of the Jedi, and that sort of thing is certainly bound to change things — but I find that, e.g., I look at Darth Vader’s pompous arrogance in a whole new way, now that I try to imagine sulky Hayden Christensen underneath that costume.

And I can only wonder what it would be like to see all the footage for any of these characters in chronological order. No doubt the last time we see Yoda in Revenge of the Sith, it will be a somewhat depressing moment. And I can only wonder what it would be like to go straight from that to the cackling muppet who makes his entrance in this film!

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).

  • Anonymous

    I must say that I’ve enjoyed your blog from the start – thanks – but you’ve taken me aback with a couple of things you about Sahara. Not up to the heights of any Indiana Jones movie more like it, nowhere near. (In fact, probably my least enjoyable cinema experience since the similarly `fun’ Evolution.)

    Anyway, I’m surprised at your general comment about (so-called) modern science. As a scientist, of sorts, I feel I should come to its defence.

    I found that particular bit of dialogue about the glowing shells between Penelope Cruz and Matthew McConaughey to be lazy characterization on the part of the screen writers. Basically quickly establishing Penelope’s `scientific’ attitude, versus the typical attitudes required of an action hero such as McConaughey. That’s all very well if you want charicatures rather than characters. (Note: You see who I’d more like to be on first name terms with.)

    Anyway, the flaws of the film aside, what I take issue with is your comment that “much of the point of modern science is to reduce all human beings to clusters of inanimate objects”. That’s not true at all! Science (and now I’m making broad generalisations) is based on discovering how and why the world works, admittedly NOT about finding a purpose. However this is no way devalues neither its usefulness, nor its beauty. A star, for instance, is more beautiful if you know/knew how it works (& I know too little). The Universe is God’s canvas and I find the ability to learn a little of it’s nature a great privilege. Looking at the human body on the scale of atoms and molecules just makes life seem even more of a miracle.

    I’ll leave it at that for now, though plenty more defence of science if you require!

    Tom

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07395937367596387523 Peter T Chattaway

    Hi, Tom, thanks for the comments!

    Not up to the heights of any Indiana Jones movie more like it, nowhere near.

    I dunno, I take a fairly dim view of the two Indiana Jones sequels, especially the first one, and while I have no intention of watching these two films back-to-back and comparing them, I think I would be hard pressed to say that Sahara was worse than Temple of Doom.

    It probably also helps that I went into Sahara with fairly low expectations. :)

    In fact, probably my least enjoyable cinema experience since the similarly ‘fun’ Evolution.

    Wow, that is a slam! :)

    That’s all very well if you want charicatures rather than characters.

    Oh, absolutely. Definitely caricatures. And you know, I would not want to pit (no pun intended!) one character’s viewpoint against the other — I think there should still be room for a “because they can” kind of attitude even when it is possible to explain how they can.

    Anyway, the flaws of the film aside, what I take issue with is your comment that “much of the point of modern science is to reduce all human beings to clusters of inanimate objects”. That’s not true at all!

    I actually wondered if I should post a link to this 1999 article by Steve Sailer that really rammed this point home for me. The relevant quote goes like so:

    “Edward O. Wilson, founder of sociobiology, outlined the philosophical framework for evolutionary atheism in his impressive bestseller ‘Consilience.’ Wilson argues that the future of science resides in ‘reductionism.’ Sociology should ultimately be reduced to (i.e., be explained by) its underlying sociobiological mechanisms. In turn, sociobiology needs to be reduced to biology, which will eventually be completely explicable by chemistry. Ultimately, all knowledge can be explained by physics.”

    This is the sort of thing C.S. Lewis was already dealing with in the 1940s and 1950s — I think you see it quite pronounced in That Hideous Strength, for example.

    A star, for instance, is more beautiful if you know/knew how it works (& I know too little). The Universe is God’s canvas and I find the ability to learn a little of it’s nature a great privilege. Looking at the human body on the scale of atoms and molecules just makes life seem even more of a miracle.

    I agree wholeheartedly — it’s kind of like how being a film critic, and being able to analyze the workings of a film, actually increases your appreciation for the really well-made films and makes them, too, “even more of a miracle.” The trick is to keep the poetry in the science, as it were.


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