Christmas Past

20131222-200619.jpg I once watched a boy steal all my Christmas presents. I lay on my stomach and stared through a sweaty blur as he grabbed my box-full of gifts and scampered into the woods. I did not chase him; propped on one elbow staring as he ran, I did not even rise from my stomach. The presents were gone.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, I was camped out with my Marine unit in the woods at Cheat Lake, West Virginia, where we were setting 300 pounds of C-4 to blow a bridge. Four months later, I was camped off Green Beach, near Subic Bay, Philippines, training for desert warfare in the dense jungle—by Marine Corps logic it makes sense—on our way to Iraq.

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Orthodox Films Fill the Void

Living on the F train subway line in Brooklyn, I am regularly exposed to one of the more consistently curious sights that New York City has to offer, one that tends to trump those attention-seeking sights that surround it by virtue of its contrasting virtues: the Hasidim, the black-clad ultra-Orthodox Jews who’d rather go unnoticed in our midst.

From where I’m standing, their disdain for the vanities that drive those other eye-catching strangers on the train who actually want your attention only makes the Hasidim that much more interesting.

All the full-sleeve tattoos, cringe-worthy piercings, and whacky hairdos combined can’t add up to the sight of a single Hasidic man mumbling over the Torah in his broad black fedora and long black coat deep down the infernal New York underground during last week’s brutal heat wave.

From my standpoint, they’re nothing short of fascinating for their steadfast resistance to the mores of the larger culture into which they refuse to be absorbed. Is there anything more radical in our workaholic, super-consumerist day and age than a genuine observance of the Sabbath? I don’t think so. [Read more...]

The Impossible Shows Us How To Live

If you were to live a day as though you’d be dead at the end of it, you’d be a better person. That’s a trope that’s as true in the saying as it is rare in the realizing. It’s impossible to know what’s coming, to know how many hours, if not seconds, we have left. 

So we go about living each day by way of a much more outrageous artifice: that the end of the sun will be followed by the rise of the moon, and that they will parade in their courtly circle above our heads, neither catching the other—well—for a long, long time yet.

But just the same, every once in a while we hear these amazing stories. People are dying out there. Planes crash. Buses collide. Maniacs work their horrors. Bodies decide to turn on their hosts and eat them away, either in vicious holocausts of disease or in slow landslides of decrepitude.

Such carelessness, we think; how slipshod and unwise. With a little foresight—with a little planning—with a little attention to detail and the taking of sound advice—all this can be avoided—well—for a long, long time yet. [Read more...]

What We Learn

As he is evacuated from a battle zone, Chris Taylor—Oliver Stone’s protagonist in Platoon—marches us through What It All Means. Only minutes before, Stone the director exploded Stone the actor playing an embattled camp commander—using a suicide bomber, no less. There might be dullards in the audience, however, so Taylor explains that we are at war with ourselves. On Taylor’s head is the bandana of the movie’s Christ figure, juxtaposed with facial wounds that approximate the scars of its demonic figure. No matter, he must explain to us the duality of man.

Stone’s instinct to lecture is understandable. If readers can miss Flannery O’Connor’s symbolism, the same could be expected of anything less subtle. A woman gored by a god-like bull, Parker’s wife beating the face of Jesus on his back with a broomstick—this imagery is thick with Catholic dogmatism, but it’s lost on those ignorant of dogma and the heresies that shaped it.

Not that this bothered O’Connor so much: she believed symbols lose their richness when we undertake to explain them. Chris Taylor’s monologue at the end of Platoon, however, reveals that Stone’s mission is pedagogical, to “teach others what we know.” He’s not just making art, you see. He needs you to know what he’s learned. [Read more...]

The Boy Who Believed in Airplanes

This is Jeffrey Overstreet’s last post as a regular contributor to Good Letters. We thank him for the thoughtful words and reviews he has shared so faithfully and wish him well in his next pursuits.

Matthew was a high school senior, two years ahead of me. He was a gifted musician, a generous friend, and not too cool to hang out with a sophomore like me. I learned a lot from him. His interests in books, music, and movies influenced mine.

But one Saturday afternoon in 1987, as we emerged from a matinee of Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, Matthew startled me into silence by complaining about the movie. He was smarter than me, a better talker. I was too intimidated to respond. But I disagreed. Fiercely. What he found dispiriting (and “way too long”) I found enthralling and transcendent.

It may have been that afternoon, as I wished for the eloquence to argue, that I began my journey into film criticism. [Read more...]


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