Once Upon a Time at the movies

Today has been gorgeous in the City of Lakes and its environs. The weekend’s blessed rains washed the humidity out, and the temperature stayed south of 80. This is what outsiders imagine a Minnesota summer day to be like, but it happens all too rarely in real life.

By way of Gene Edward Veith’s Cranach blog, I have discovered one of the funniest blogs I’ve ever read. Luther at the Movies purports to be film criticism as practiced by Dr. Luther, whose natural exuberance cannot be stifled by the mere accident of death. If this doesn’t win all you thin-blooded Calvinists over, I don’t know what will.

I bought the DVD of Once Upon a Time in the West a while back, and I watched it yesterday. What an incredible piece of work that film is.

If I were to read the things I’m about to write about a movie I hadn’t yet seen, I’d probably boycott it for life. Fortunately for me, I first saw the movie without knowing anything about it (I’d never even seen an Italian Western before), so I was caught in the majesty and sweep of the thing, and nothing I’ve learned since can cut that visceral connection.

It was 1969, my second year of college. I had an evening at loose ends, and decided I wanted to see a movie. This western was playing at the theater in Forest City, Iowa, so I walked downtown to see it.

It was the strangest western I’d ever seen. Parts of it troubled me a great deal.

But it stuck in my head as few movies ever have.

Westerns are generally “about” scenery, when it comes down to it, and OUATITW certainly lays the scenery on heavy. It was filmed both in Spain and in the United States, and director Sergio Leone used John Ford’s iconic Monument Valley to particular effect. On a big screen, the spectacle is breathtaking.

But even more than scenery, this movie is about music. One of the commentators on the DVD notes that the film was shot like a music video. Before there was a script, the genius Ennio Morricone, who’d already done the classic scores for the “Dollars” movies, wrote the music. The script was built on that. I’d nominate it as the greatest film score ever written, and there are those who agree with me (actually I agree with them, but I’m on an ego trip here).

They don’t make movies like this nowadays. Today’s action movies are all about speed. Forget plot consistency. Forget character development. Just put bodies in motion and crash them into each other a lot. Blow things up. Set things on fire.

Once Upon a Time in the West is purposely slow, like Henry Fonda’s walk. It’s about tension that builds and builds, from Charles Bronson’s shoot-out with three familiar gunmen at the beginning, to his and Henry Fonda’s climactic showdown, in a corral around which the whole world revolves.

Slowly.

Mysteries abound. What was Brett McBain’s secret? Why is Charles Bronson pursuing Henry Fonda, and what is the meaning of Bronson’s recurring flashback of a man walking toward him? How can any heterosexual male manage to spend time around Claudia Cardinale without spontaneously combusting?

There’s a political subtext, I’m afraid. At the time some people congratulated the Italian Westerns for bringing to us a newer, grittier, more realistic picture of the American West than the old Westerns had.

This is balderdash. Even granting that the old movies were bowdlerized (of course they were), that doesn’t mean that the kind of cynical violence and cruelty we see in spaghetti westerns is closer to reality. Cowboys were Victorians. Yes, there was a lot of prostitution in the West, but men still took their hats off to ladies, regardless of their reputations. Even cold-blooded killers like Kid Curry, or genuine psychopaths like John Wesley Hardin never killed innocent people for sport (not white people, anyway). They believed in virtue and considered themselves respectable men. Jesse James taught Sunday School off and on.

When Sergio Leone shows us Henry Fonda murdering a little boy, he has a purpose in mind. He wants Americans to think differently about themselves and their history. He wants the viewer never to be able to watch My Darling Clementine or Young Mr. Lincoln the same way again.

And he succeeded. More’s the pity, in my opinion.

But the spectacle. The music. I can’t get free of Once Upon a Time in the West.

When Is a Town Beautiful?

My sister pointed out this sentence so I want to ask you what you think. How does sentence, published in a novel, strike you: “The beauty of [the town] was evident even in the autumn twilight.”

The paragraph goes on to describe the beauty of the town, especially in autumn with its tree lined streets . . .its hair with a luster as Fall hits the air. . . . I know you in Autumn, and I must be there. I’m sorry. I lost myself in another thought for a moment.

Anyway, what do you think of that sentence?

Perhaps It Was a Dream

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,

Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend

More than cool reason ever comprehends.

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet,

Are of imagination all compact:

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,

That is, the madman; the lover, all as frantic,

Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And, as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

Such tricks hath strong imagination,

That, if it would but apprehend some joy,

It comprehends some bringer of that joy;

Or in the night, imagining some fear,

How easy is a bush suppos’d a bear!

My wife and I drove down to Atlanta last night to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Atlanta’s New American Shakespeare Tavern. Almost too much fun. I was weary of laughing by the end.

The play seemed to end before it truly ended. In fact since Act V is mostly a poorly written tragedy performed by buffons who have “never labour’d in their minds till now,” it’s appropriate to have only a weak connection to the rest of the story. In that act, the silliness wore on me–well done and the crowd was roaring, but my laughter softened a bit. Maybe it was the lateness of the night.

It was a great play, though. I’ll see it again sometime.

Fuzzy-minded Friday

What will I do? I have nowhere to go this weekend. No Viking events. No battles. No family reunions. Just me and the house maintenance I’ve been putting off. It’s a pathetic man who has to make out his own Honey-do list.

I’m at loose ends. Here are a couple random links for you to study while I mutter and paw through my junk drawer in search of… I forget what.

Aitchmark, apparently having forgiven me for my anti-feline hate speech yesterday, sent me this amusing page from Merriam-Webster, with a list of favorite unofficial words.

Gene Edward Veith posted a link to this article about three new movies and an opera, all about Beowulf. No doubt they’ll all bomb, convincing publishers that no one’s interested in matters Norse, and assuring that I’ll never find another publisher.

Am I just sensitive, or isn’t it a form of racism to be unable to do a movie about an ancient Scandinavian without making the hero half black?

But I like Angelina Jolie for Grendel’s mother. I’ve always seen her as a kind of a monster. This is a woman whose appeal escapes me entirely.

To quote Oscar Levant, speaking of Madame Nu (at the time First Lady of South Vietnam): “She has all the wistfulness of an iron foundry.”

The other shoe drops

Or “another shoe.” There’ll doubtless be more.

While we were putting up my rain gutters, my brother Baal noticed that my shingles didn’t look good.

I consulted the documentation on the last roofing job. It was done in 1996. Twenty-five year warranty.

But that’s only on materials.

I called my real estate agent. He recommended a roofer who attends our church to come out and look at the situation. The guy came out today.

All bad news.

The problem is not the material. The shingles were improperly installed. By a company that’s out of business, so I can’t pursue them with fire and sword.

I’m smack out of luck. I’ll have to spring for new shingles.

I really need to find a publisher again.

By way of Mirabilis (again), I offer this story purely for the purpose of aggravating Aitchmark.

Could it be that the escalating wussification of our culture doesn’t come from bad education and effete entertainment, but from a cat parasite we’ve picked up?

Read and decide for yourselves.

Then go down to the river and drown your cat.

(I’m a Roofing Victim. You were expecting sweetness and light?)

My inner demons remain repressed

Two young women came to my door and rang the bell a few minutes ago. One’s left arm had been amputated at the elbow, and she wore a nose ring. The other didn’t make much of an impression on me, other than that she wore her hair cut short.

“Hi! I’m So-and-so, and this is my bodyguard Such-and-such,” the memorable one said. “We’re organizing the neighborhood for NARAL.” She tried to hand me a packet of literature.

“I’m pro-life,” I said.

“OK,” she said with a smile. They walked away and I closed the door.

Doubtless they heaved a sigh of relief that they’d once again escaped the inherent violence of all Christianist oppressors.

Of course, it’s true that I do have a sword in my house. More than one, in fact.

Today was Conspiracy Day on Michael Medved’s show. Always the best entertainment of the month.

I’d like to make it perfectly clear that there is no truth at all to the rumor that the world is secretly run, not by the Masonic Lodge, but by the Sons of Norway. There is even less truth to the rumor that the Viking Age Club and Society of the SON is the super-secret Inner Council of that world-wide conspiracy.

Just so you know.

I mentioned the Blue Crab Boulevard blog the other day. I only discovered it recently, but it’s rapidly becoming one of my favorites. It’s almost perfect. Some serious information. Some whimsy. Some screamingly funny satire. And he updates several times a day.

Does his boss know what he’s doing on company time? Is he independently wealthy?

Well, he should be. He does a great blog.

You Laughing at Me? You Laughing at Me?

Frank Wilson points out a call for humor suggestions by Scott Stein. “What’s So Funny?” is the title of a course Mr. Stein will be teaching this fall at University of Pennsylvania. He says, “I would welcome suggestions about what to include on the reading list. . . . No choice is too obvious. After all, somehow I never got around to reading P.G. Wodehouse until this year.”

I don’t see James Thurber on the list yet. I think his grammar guide is hilarious, and I’ve been meaning to read Is Sex Necessary? or, Why You Feel The Way You Do for a while.

Two Types of People

1. There are two types of people in the world: those who divide people into two types and those who don’t. (attributed to Robert Benchley)

2. “There are basically two types of people. People who accomplish things, and people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded.” (Mark Twain)

3. There are two types of people in the world: those whom we are happy to see again and those whom we are happy to see go away.

4. There are three types of people in the world: those who can count and those who can’t.

old jokes

The black man’s burden

There was a Polynesian dance class going on in the park by Lake Crystal today as I took my constitutional. Sorry. Erase the picture that sentence generated in your mind. It wasn’t like my (and probably your) stereotyped fantasy of Polynesian dance. In fact, I’m not entirely sure it was Polynesian dance. I drew that conclusion because the teachers looked Polynesian to me, and the motions the students made looked more like something from the South Seas than anything else I could think of.

No, there were no nubile girls in grass skirts there, wiggling their firm, fetching brown hips. This was two lines of mostly middle-aged white people, doing a step-step-while-making-a-sort-of-rowing-motion-with-the-hands. I immediately judged them all former hippies, striving for some kind of multicultural salvation.

I felt particularly bad for the guys in the group, who were no doubt married to (or living with) women in the group who’d dragged them along. I’d be willing to wager that, if you got enough beers in them to get them to tell the truth (like Mel Gibson), they’d admit that if they had to make fools of themselves in public, they’d rather do live steel with the Vikings and me. Only their Significant Others wouldn’t let them, and the folks down at the Whole Foods store would never understand.

There. You know what one of my prejudices is.

Which brings me to this article, by way of Mirabilis:

With church-going on the wane in Europe, Africa’s vibrant Protestant churches are sending scores of men like Mukholi to the West to win souls and revitalize shrinking congregations — an ironic twist on the 19th century drive by Western missionaries to convert Africans.

I’ve been waiting for this for years. I have doubts whether Europe is salvageable anymore at this point, but it seems to me that if it is to be saved, this will be an important element.

It all depends on racism. Racism isn’t dead. Not here in America, and not in Europe. It’s just turned itself inside out. Instead of the nasty white people of the last century, who thought themselves Nature’s Pinnacle, looking down on the vile dark races, today’s white racist despises his own race and idealizes those blessed richly with melatonin. It’s been noted by other writers before me that whenever an author or scriptwriter wants a character to deliver a Message from God nowadays, he generally puts that message in the mouth of someone black. Preferably someone old and black.

This makes a lot of sense. It’s a rare old black person who hasn’t seen a lot of hate and injustice, and just surviving a long time under those conditions implies that they must have learned something.

But our respect for black people in the West goes far beyond this. It amounts to pure veneration. Idealization. That’s why the U.N. will never do anything about genocide in Africa, as long as it’s blacks killing blacks. To take action would be to admit that black people aren’t morally superior, and that would be a death-blow to their faith.

It is a little cynical, I suppose, to exploit this white racism for evangelistic purposes, but I’m basically a pragmatist. Whatever works, I’ll pretty much support.

The second reason I like this strategy is for its genuine educational value. African Christians know a whole lot about Islam and paganism, and they know it first-hand, not from New Age books and television documentaries.

I met an African man who went to our seminary a while back. I didn’t know him well, but he had an interesting story. He’d been an Olympic athlete for his country of origin. After converting to Christianity, he’d attended a mainline Lutheran seminary in the U.S. He left it angrily when a Comparative Religions professor assigned his class to attend a mosque.

“I do not need to attend a mosque to learn about Islam,” the man said. “I know about Islam.” He finished his seminary training with us.

The same sort of thing goes for paganism. People who’ve actually been pagans know it’s not about pretty naked women dancing under the stars. It’s about superstition and the constant fear of breaking taboos. It’s about sticky blood and sacrifice and ugliness.

So God bless the African missionaries. May He speed their feet and open the listener’s ears to their message.

Of battles and bittersweet discoveries

From the rear-view mirror, the weekend feels like it must have been one of those three-day operations, enhanced either by a holiday or a vacation day. But it was only Regular Size. Two different and dissimilar events in two different places conspire to leave the impression. Not to mention all the driving. But it was great driving—high quality, expensive driving on gas worth more than three bucks a gallon. How’s that for luxurious living?

I’d packed my Viking apparatus into Mrs. Hermanson the night before, and so was able to start south immediately after work. The road was Highway 169, a Minnesota favorite once you get past the congestion around Shakopee. 169 winds through a beautiful wooded valley in the St. Peter and Mankato areas It’s one of my favorite drives in the state. With Sissel on the stereo it doesn’t get much better (at least in my emotionally impoverished life). I was saddened, however, to see that one of my favorite Dairy Queens in the world, the one out in the country north of Mankato, has closed down after all these years. The last time I stopped they’d expanded their facility. Perhaps they overreached. A lesson to us all.

The road got narrower and less picturesque as Iowa approached, but I carried on. The people of the Bode (pronounced “Boad”), Iowa “Uff Da Days” festival put the cowardly Vikings (those who, like me, did not care to camp in tents) up in a motel in Humboldt, about twenty minutes away. I went there and slept well.

The day dawned gray, wet and stormy, but the forecast on the Weather Channel said it should clear, and it did that. The day went well, a welcome contrast to the heat and poor attendance in Decorah a week before. Bode is a very small town (about 350 residents), but we actually had more visitors to our encampment in one day there than we had in two days in Decorah.

We did four Live Steel Combat performances. I link to this page from a Viking discussion board where Eric posted some photos. I make the link, not because it’s terribly illuminating, but because I think I look fairly studly in the pictures, for an aging fat guy. I came home with a bruise on my left shoulder, and another on my ribcage. Also abrasions on both shins and the underside of my right forearm. I bear them proudly. They are wounds of honor. Eric is catching up to me, beating me more often than I beat him. He’s learning my tricks. However, I did fight Ragnar to a draw (we “killed” each other) once, so maybe I’m learning too.

It’s tough in small towns these days. They seem to be on the wrong side of history, and they know it. Economics and government subsidies favor big farms, so that instead of a hundred small farms, each feeding a family, you’ve got one big farm with a single family and a few employees, often transients. The towns have lost their economic base. Jonah Goldberg wrote about farm subsidies recently in National Review, and what he said was all true. But it doesn’t change the fact that a small, rural American town may have been the best environment for raising kids in the history of the world. And we’re losing it as we watch.

We tore down the camp Saturday evening, and after another pleasant motel night I set out for Belmond, Iowa and the Severson Family Reunion. I remembered that my church body has a congregation in Goldfield, Iowa, through which I passed, so I hunted it down and attended there. It’s a very small church at the best of times, and this was summer, so there were only about ten of us. The pastor is a Licensed Lay Pastor who drives up from Des Moines. Without the expense of a full-time minister, they manage to get by.

I enjoyed the service. It was neither emotional nor elegant, but it was familiar to me—more like the services I grew up with than what we have at the church I attend today. I don’t know how long it’s been since I heard a pastor give thanks for the crops. I felt I was among my own people (I know it’s wrong and evil for anyone with white skin to say that, but that was how I felt). And the sermon spoke to me.

Then on to Belmond. The reunion met in a nursing home’s dining room. Attendance was poor this year. People blamed gas prices. But the potluck was sumptuous. I met a distant relative (a lady of course) who was 91 years old. We can do better than that at the Walker reunions, but then we have higher attendance and a larger pool. I told them the story of my search for Cousin Trygve’s ancestor. I won a door prize (nearly everyone did). Everyone seemed pleased to meet me. They don’t get many people from my branch of the family at these do’s.

Then Bob, the organizer I met in Decorah, offered to take me to Kanawha, Iowa (the epicenter of Severson history in this country) to look for Trygve’s ancestor’s grave. I followed him the ten miles there, and out to the tree-bordered cemetery. It’s not a large cemetery, but I despaired of finding a single grave, without a map.

But Bob knew the place well. We started going around to places (mostly at the west end) where family was buried, on the theory that relatives tend to group together. He showed me various graves—one the son of the man I was looking for. I looked over and said, “There’s a stone that says Swelland.” (Swelland was my dad’s maternal grandmother’s married name, and she was a Severson). I went and looked at it and found a large family stone in a plot that otherwise contained only a single grave—that of Dad’s uncle Theodore, who died in a threshing engine explosion in 1918. The Swellands had a penchant for leaving underpopulated grave plots behind. They left one in my home town, Kenyon, Minnesota, too, with only my great-grandmother in it. My family took it over, and my grandparents and two aunts and an uncle are buried there. It belongs to me now, and I hope to lie there in time (but not too soon). Martha Severson Swelland’s been alone on her side of the stone a long time.

As I was photographing Theodore’s grave, Bob said, “Here’s the one you’re looking for.” I walked a few feet over to where he stood, and there was the gravestone Cousin Trygve wanted. I took several pictures for him.

I drove away triumphant.

Only afterward did I think that it might be sad for Trygve, in a way. He’d wanted to learn his ancestor’s story, but it may be he’d hoped to learn some good reason why the old man had cut off all communication with his unacknowledged offspring in Norway. If he’d died young and poor, for instance, that would be an excuse.

But he lived to be 90 and did all right for himself. One understands that after years of marriage it would be awkward to say to one’s wife, “Uh, there’s some unfinished business in Norway I need to take care of.” But for all that, the abandonment was a wrong act. This man was remembered as a Christian, a church sacristan, a man so kindly that his wife had to discipline the children. Yet at the back of his mind the old sin must have remained. Did he plan to “do something about it someday,” and did the right time just never come? Or did he try to bury the past? We can’t know, and mustn’t judge.

But it’s too bad.

Chesterton on blogging, sort of

The Jollyblogger points out advice from G.K. Chesterton to Christian journalists and applies it to Christian bloggers. It comes to use by way of Gilbert Magazine.

The “bad Christian journalist” seems to write from a worried, panicked, mindset. The sky seems to be falling to him. . . . There is no sense of “Christ the overcomer” in this, only “Christ-and-His-cause-are-about-to-be-defeated-and-we-better-do- something- now-or-we’re-all- gonna-die, . . . aaaaahhhh!!!!”

Book Reviews, Creative Culture