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Sunday, October 18, 2015

"Bridge of Spies" Richly Produced, for Thinking Adults

"Bridge of Spies" is a big-budget, beautifully produced movie that is unabashedly geared toward thinking adults. There are no nods to fanboys who need to see "part four" after a title or a comic book superhero in tights to commit to a film. If you go to movies for fast-paced fight scenes, explosions or strippers, stay home.

"Bridge of Spies" is an historical drama about the Cold War. It's based on real events. Insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is pressured by colleagues to defend Russian spy Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), who has been caught in 1957 Brooklyn. It's his patriotic duty, they tell him, to provide the accused with counsel, even though the accused is a Russian spy at the height of the Cold War. Donovan does such a good job defending an unappealing client that he is later selected to help negotiate the release of downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. No, this isn't the most scintillating of plots. Most scenes consist of men over fifty wearing suits conversing in cagey language and subdued voices about big, big issues.

Lavish spending by gifted costumers, set directors and cinematographers is all over the screen. The interior of a middle-class American home in the 1950s-1960s era is beautifully recreated, right down to the divided aluminum foil trays for TV dinners. It would be hard for a male to watch this film and not feel serious fedora envy. Women may yearn for the day when a woman could single-handedly prepare a five course meal for an intact family that eats together in a formal dining room, and yet appear at that dining table looking like a Vogue cover model with cinched waist, pointy assets, firm hair and bright lipstick. And then mom, dad, and the kids hold hands and say grace, and no one looks at their cell phone, or even the TV. They all pay attention to each other.

As soon as the camera moves from the United States to East Berlin, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski drains almost all color from his images, the way Dracula drained blood from his victims. The sky is dead white, without clouds or sun, and almost everything you see is the lifeless gray concrete of the Berlin Wall or the charred gray of remaining bombed out buildings. People dress in gray wool; their grim faces are the only vague smudge of color. East Berliners attempting to escape are shot by snipers in watchtowers. It's a totalitarian nightmare.

When Donovan enters East Berlin to negotiate Powers' release, he enters an absurd maze of petty manipulations and espionage that would be laughable were it not so deadly. These scenes are reminiscent of the depiction of the state apparatus of petty terror in real Eastern European films like Andrzej Wajda's "Man of Marble." Russian actor Mikhail Gorevoy as Ivan Schischkin, a Russian negotiator, is simply a weird and scary looking and sounding man. He wonderfully channels Peter Lorre.

We all know, love and trust Hanks so much that there is not as much tension in the film as there ought to be. We know he's going to do the right thing, in spite of every obstacle, temptation, threat or sneer from a stranger on a train who recognizes him from a newspaper photograph. Somehow "A Man for All Seasons," as many times as I've seen it, gives me the sense that maybe, just maybe, this time Paul Scofield's Thomas More will figure out a way to compromise with Henry VIII's demands and not be decapitated. That tension that maybe Donovan will weaken or sell out or be even slightly less than utterly heroic is missing from "Bridge of Spies." Spielberg wanted an uncomplicated hero, and he has created one.

Mark Rylance gives an amazing performance as Russian spy Rudolph Abel. Rylance is apparently a highly celebrated British stage actor but I'd never heard of him. Rylance does virtually nothing noticeable except tuck his chin into his neck and elevate his eyebrows, yet he is riveting, moving, and memorable. Now that's acting!

Abel was just one of the spy's many aliases. His real name was Vilyam "Willie" Genrikhovich Fisher. He was of German-Jewish ancestry. Did that play any role in his dedication to Communism? He had lived during the Holocaust. Did Communism offer the only brighter tomorrow in which he could believe? It would have made his life so much better if he had defected to the West, rather than go to prison. Why did he not? The film offers no clue.

"Bridge of Spies" recreates for the viewer the undercurrent of daily fear during the Cold War. Schoolchildren cry during a school "duck and cover" presentation. A boy fills his bathtub with water so as to be prepared for nuclear attack. What was missing for me was what each side offered: an articulation of capitalism v communism. Perhaps the film could have included scenes where Donovan and Abel present their respective systems, their promises and flaws. There are reasons the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, and came down in 1989, reasons that seem to elude the supporters of US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.


As it is, there is a marvelous scene where Donovan tells Hoffman, a CIA agent who looks a bit like Bobby Fischer (another pawn in the Cold War) what makes an American an American – the Constitution. 

"The Intern" 2015 Warm and Cuddly, Sweet and Funny

I fell in love with Ben Whittaker, Robert DeNiro's character, in the first five minutes of "The Intern." Ben is a seventy-year-old retired telephone book executive. He's super competent, humble, kind, caring, and hard-working. His eyes twinkle and his cheeks are pinchable. He would make the perfect father, boss, or Santa. Ben Whittaker is writer-director Nancy Meyers' best creation yet. I didn't just like Ben, I found him believable, thanks to DeNiro's superb performance. I have to guess it's not easy playing such a nice person in a believable way.

Ben is unsatisfied by retirement so he takes a position as an intern at About-the-Fit, a fashion start-up, the brainchild of Jules (Anne Hathaway). Jules is impersonal and demanding, again, in a very believable way. Ben, worldly-wise and humble man that he is, makes positive changes in the company. He is a kindly mentor to younger male employees who rarely shave and don't tuck in their shirts. Ben explains to them why a man should always carry a clean handkerchief.

Anne Hathaway is so beautiful it's hard for me to assess her acting. I keep focusing on her face. I found her very believable as a driven businesswoman lacking in people skills. The movie softens her. There are scenes where she is revealed to have a toasty warm marshmallow heart. I was disappointed by those scenes and didn't find them believable or interesting. I wish the script had been as interesting and believable in its development of Jules as it was with Ben.

There are two relationships in the movie that didn't work for me at all. Jules is married to Matt (Anders Holm). I could see a really beautiful, driven woman married to a charisma-free, vaguely creepy schlub like Matt, so, yes, Holm was believable. I just didn't want Jules, this brilliant, talented, interesting woman, to be married to Matt.

Ben dates Renee Russo, and that relationship didn't work for me, either, although, again, it was believable. Ben has the wrinkled face and thinning, gray hair of a man in his seventies. Russo looks like a Hollywood actress fighting time, rather than like most real women her age. Also I saw no onscreen chemistry between these two. Linda Lavin does look like a real, older woman, and she is in the movie as a predatory, mean and obscene old lady. There are cheap jokes at her expense. It's sad but not surprising that Nancy Meyers, a woman herself, depicted an older woman as an old witch, and set her up for coarse humor, and rewarded a much younger, and more Botoxed woman with romance.

 "The Intern" is one of those rare, recent movies for adults where nothing horrible happens. Nobody dies or behaves in a deeply despicable way or loses his cool and screams obscenities or knocks the movie off the rails. There are no body fluids on display. "The Intern" really is a feel good movie. If you are ever having a lousy day and you want to watch something that will give you a smile and make you feel good about humanity, please consider "The Intern."

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

More Guns = More Death

Sarena Moore, one of the victims of the UCC shooting. 
I did not write the article, below, and I do not own the copyright. If the New York Times wants me to remove it, I will.

More Guns = More Killing

By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL

IN the wake of the tragic shooting deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last month, the National Rifle Association proposed that the best way to protect schoolchildren was to place a guard — a “good guy with a gun” — in every school, part of a so-called National School Shield Emergency Response Program.

Indeed, the N.R.A.’s solution to the expansion of gun violence in America has been generally to advocate for the more widespread deployment and carrying of guns.

I recently visited some Latin American countries that mesh with the N.R.A.’s vision of the promised land, where guards with guns grace every office lobby, storefront, A.T.M., restaurant and gas station. It has not made those countries safer or saner.

Despite the ubiquitous presence of “good guys” with guns, countries like Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia and Venezuela have some of the highest homicide rates in the world.

“A society that is relying on guys with guns to stop violence is a sign of a society where institutions have broken down,” said Rebecca Peters, former director of the International Action Network on Small Arms. “It’s shocking to hear anyone in the United States considering a solution that would make it seem more like Colombia.”

As guns proliferate, legally and illegally, innocent people often seem more terrorized than protected.

In Guatemala, riding a public bus is a risky business. More than 500 bus drivers have been killed in robberies since 2007, leading InSight Crime, which tracks organized crime in the Americas, to call it “the most dangerous profession on the planet.” And when bullets start flying, everyone is vulnerable: in 2010 the onboard tally included 155 drivers, 54 bus assistants, 71 passengers and 14 presumed criminals. Some were killed by the robbers’ bullets and some by gun-carrying passengers.

Scientific studies have consistently found that places with more guns have more violent deaths, both homicides and suicides. Women and children are more likely to die if there’s a gun in the house. The more guns in an area, the higher the local suicide rates. “Generally, if you live in a civilized society, more guns mean more death,” said David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. “There is no evidence that having more guns reduces crime. None at all.”

After a gruesome mass murder in 1996 provoked public outrage, Australia enacted stricter gun laws, including a 28-day waiting period before purchase and a ban on semiautomatic weapons. Before then, Australia had averaged one mass shooting a year. Since, rates of both homicide and suicide have dropped 50 percent, and there have been no mass killings, said Ms. Peters, who lobbied for the legislation.

Distinctive factors contribute to the high rates of violent crime in Latin America. Many countries in the region had recent civil wars, resulting in a large number of weapons in circulation. Drug- and gang-related violence is widespread. “It’s dangerous to make too tight a link between the availability of weapons and homicide rates,” said Jeremy McDermott, a co-director of InSight Crime who is based in Medellín, Colombia. “There are lots of other variables.”

Still, he said that the recent sharp increase in homicides in Venezuela could be in part explained by the abundance of arms there. Although the government last spring imposed a one-year ban on importing weapons, there had previously been a plentiful influx from Russia. There is a Kalashnikov plant in the country.

In 2011, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Honduras led the world in homicides, with 91.6 per 100,000 people. But rates were also alarmingly high in El Salvador (69.1), Jamaica (40.9), Colombia (31.4) and Guatemala (38.5). Venezuela’s was 45.1 in 2010 but is expected to be close to to 80 this year. The United States’ rate is about 5.

THOUGH many of these countries have restrictions on gun ownership, enforcement is lax. According to research by Flacso, the Guatemalan Social Science Academy, illegal guns far outnumber legal weapons in Central America.

All that has spawned a thriving security industry — the good guys with guns that grace every street corner — though experts say it is often unclear if their presence is making crime better or worse. In many countries, the armed guards have only six weeks of training.

Guatemala, with approximately 20,000 police officers, has 41,000 registered private security guards and an estimated  80,000 who are working without authorization. “To put people with guns who are not accountable or trained in places where there are lots of innocent people is just dangerous,” Ms. Peters said, noting that lethal force is used to deter minor crimes like shoplifting.

Indeed, even as some Americans propose expanding our gun culture into elementary schools, some Latin American cities are trying to rein in theirs. Bogotá’s new mayor, Gustavo Petro, has forbidden residents to carry weapons on streets, in cars or in any public space since last February, and the murder rate has dropped 50 percent to a 27-year low. He said, “Guns are not a defense, they are a risk.”

William Godnick, coordinator of the Public Security Program at the United Nations Regional Center for Peace, Disarmament and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean, said that United Nations studies in Central America showed that people who used a gun to defend against an armed assault were far more likely to be injured or killed than if they had no weapon.

Post-Sandy Hook, gun groups in the United States are now offering teachers firearms training. But do I really want my kid’s teachers packing a weapon?

“If you’re living in a ‘Mad Max’ world, where criminals have free rein and there’s no government to stop them, then I’d want to be armed,” said Dr. Hemenway of Harvard. “But we’re not in that circumstance. We’re a developed, stable country.”

Elisabeth Rosenthal is a physician and a science reporter for The New York Times.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: January 5, 2013


An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the Guatemalan Social Science Academy as Flasco. The correct acronym is Flacso.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Protestant Anti-Catholic Bigotry and Pope Francis' Visit to America

Still Life with Lobster by Catholic Painter Jan Davidsz de Heem
Recently Pope Francis visited the United States. Protestant anti-Catholicism visited, as well.

I've been exposed to Protestant anti-Catholicism my entire life. I grew up in a very diverse, and also very small town. There were Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Jews, at least one Confucian, and at least one Hindu. The only group that I knew hated me for religion reasons were the Protestants. The kids at the Dutch Reformed Church told me I was going to Hell. It occurs to me now to wonder if one had to be Dutch to be a member of this church. Lots of tulips, ice skating, and dikes in Heaven, I guess.

***

Protestant anti-Catholicism is more than a nyah-nyah-nyah game from childhood. It has world historical importance that resonates today.

Protestants devoted a great deal of energy to producing skewed histories that slandered Catholics. Those histories are still powerful. They are used by capital A Atheists and Muslims to discredit all Christians and Christianity.

During the Reformation, when Catholics and Protestants began to vie for power, money, territory, and butts-in-the-pews, Catholics announced the superiority of their faith through art. The lush, flamboyant Baroque style, found in music, painting, sculpture, and architecture, and, yes, even food, was meant to overwhelm all senses, to immerse the audience in the splendor and truth of Catholicism. See, for example, Bernini's "Ecstasy of St Teresa." See also the "Still Life with Lobster" by Catholic painter Jan Davidsz de Heem.

Protestants, in reaction against all things Catholic, including splendor, chose minimalist clothing, food, and architecture. As one scholar said, "Protestants don't eat." England, famously Protestant, also famous for bad food. America, child of England, also once very Protestant, was also once famous for bad food like Jell-O mold salads. Of course this is a sweeping generalization, and Protestants no longer follow an ascetic approach to food. But there is a kernel of truth in this generalization. Most people, if asked, will admit to preferring traditionally Catholic Italian, French, or Spanish cuisine to that of traditionally Protestant England or Holland. Then there is this joke:

Heaven Is Where
The French are the chefs
The Italians are the lovers
The British are the police
The Germans are the mechanics
And the Swiss make everything run on time
Hell is Where:
The British are the chefs
The Swiss are the lovers
The French are the mechanics
The Italians make everything run on time
And the Germans are the police
And then there is the theory that "fast food is Protestant."

"Massimo Salani, professor of the Inter-diocesan Center of Theology of Pisa, has responded with a harsh judgment on the fast food revolution in his book At the Table with the Religions.

'The style of fast-food completely ignores the sacred dimension of meals,' Salani told the Italian Catholic daily Avvenire on the occasion of his book launching this January. 'At McDonalds you satisfy your hunger in a rushed way so that you can move on to do other things,' he lamented. Adding fuel to the fire, he insisted: 'It lacks the communitarian or sharing aspect of a meal. Fast food is not Catholic. It is Protestant. Even atheist." (Read more here)

I'm on a bit of a tangent here … my goal is not to slander Protestant food. It's already been slandered, and Catholic cuisines have been celebrated, by writers much more powerful than I. Rather, I am referring to the competition between Catholicism and Protestantism, and how that competition played out in culture.

Protestants proclaimed their superiority not through art, but through texts. They produced written propaganda disparaging Catholicism. This propaganda's reach extends to the twenty-first century. The world understands the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the Witch Craze largely through the distorting lenses of anti-Catholic propaganda. Atheists and Muslims mine this rich vein for material in order to slander all Christians and Christianity. It is tragic that Protestants don't acknowledge, and have not corrected, how their distorted histories are used to undermine their own faith.

There's a good Wikipedia article on how Protestants rewrote the history of the Inquisition to suit their own mythology. It's here

Author Robert P Lockwood assesses one Protestant propaganda book about the Inquisition as one of the five most influential anti-Catholic books ever written. Lockwood wrote

"The Inquisition as depicted in Reformation anti-Catholic propaganda is perhaps the most persistent image of Catholicism, appearing in everything from later editions of John Fox's Book of Martyrs to Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Pit and the Pendulum' to D.W. Griffith's film Intolerance.

…Unfortunately, the Catholic urban legend of the Inquisition, defined in Reformation and post-Reformation polemics as a universal Catholic machinery of repression centered in Rome, has remained a part of the normal cultural and political language of today."

You can read Lockwood's full article here

Bernini's Ecstasy of St Teresa of Avila Source: Wikipedia 

In recent years historians have attempted to correct the records in each of these areas. Below are three examples. There are many more.

Henry Kamen The Spanish Inquisition a Historical Revision published by Yale University Press, see here

Lyndal Roper Witch Craze Yale University Press see here

Rodney Stark God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades Harper One see here

I'm not a huge fan of Walid Shoebat, but I very much appreciate the outrage he shows against Protestant propaganda's distortion of history by way of maligning Catholics in his blog post, "Them Damned Catholics," see here

Shoebat wrote,

"Why is it so rare to find holy spirit-filled evangelicals that speak of such history, except paint it as Crusader, dark, warring and bloodthirsty? What difference then is there between the die-hard liberal and the spirit-filled evangelical? Both criticize this history. Even further, like many evangelicals and liberals, the Muslims also condemn this history. So why do we echo their interpretation as we damn the Catholic?

Why? Is it because of them 'damned' Catholics who defended Christendom and saved the Protestants from utter annihilation? Could it be perhaps the Catholics did something right, like fight them damned Muslims and thwart them from annihilating Christendom?

In all these battles there were no Protestants coming to help save Europe and Protestant states refrained from helping or even lifting a finger. They were too busy doing Bible studies on how them 'damned' Catholics were the Antichrist."

Blogger Matt Walsh recently was naïve enough to publish a blog entitled "Dear Christians and Conservatives, the Pope Is Not Our Enemy" You can view it here

Boy oh boy did he get hate mail. Samples:

"You lost me when you called Francis a Christian, Matt. He is not. I don't care if Catholics are offended by the truth. The only future, one-world (false) utopia I see in the near future is the NWO under Satan's anti-christ and his false prophet."

"Research the Vatican and its evil. The Pope is a False Teacher. There are so many things wrong w the Vatican, the place filled w Idols and Wealth remember? The Pope peaches Socialism, thats his backround among other things. I have many disillusioned Catholic friends who worship their Pope and Hail Mary Rosarys. I pray for their Souls as all unsaved Souls."

"Take the title of this story and SHOVE IT!!!"

"The pope is a nobody who is given a grand stage to spout his anti-Christian diatribe"

"The pope is the leader of the devils church!"

"The Black Pope abides within the very top levels of the Jesuits, and if you research, you'll find they are the behind the scenes rulers of the world (the shadow government)"

"The pope is either the false prophet or the anti Christ"

***

Again, Protestants' anti-Catholic bigotry is self-defeating.

One example. I know of a university campus where there is a large and active Muslim presence. The Muslims align with the many capital A Atheists and hate-America-first types on the faculty to brainwash students into believing the worst about the Judeo-Christian tradition and Western Civilization.

It would be good if there were a united Christian presence on this campus.

There cannot be a united Christian presence on this particular campus because the Protestant minister who oversees Protestant student activities refuses to speak to the Catholic priest who oversees Catholic student activities.

Self-defeating.

Protestant anti-Catholic bigotry turned up in my Facebook feed. I tried to address it.

One person responded with "tu quoque." "You Catholics do it, too!"

"Tu quoque" is a logical fallacy.

In any case, in my experience, Catholics really don't do it, too. I've been a Catholic all my life, and I've never heard Catholics talk about Protestants or Protestantism as I have heard Protestants talk about us.

That doesn't mean it doesn't happen – perhaps it does.

But is there, anywhere, a current Catholic publishing house disseminating the kind of filth about Protestants that Jack Chick publishes about Catholics?

One person responded with "blame the victim." "You obviously have a problem with Protestantism!"

One person, named Cheryl, sent me the following message:

"I want to invite you to consider Saddleback Church. There is an online ministry also. 50% of our congregation are former Catholics so there should not be any problem feeling welcome. Here is a link recently posted on Facebook to give you a glimpse. The search can be painful, I know and I am so sorry. You are loved by the Creator of the Universe!  http://saddleback.com/watch/media/you-are-called-to-be-loved"

The above message, trying to get me to leave my Catholic Church and join her Protestant Church, fills me with overwhelming disgust.

***

This is what Protestants need to do.

Protestants need to look at themselves and acknowledge that anti-Catholic bigotry has been an issue ever since the Reformation. Certainly Luther's writing was full of inflammatory rhetoric, including "these Cardinals, these Popes, and that whole abomination of the Romish Sodom … why do we not wash our hands in their blood?"

Protestants need to say, yes, we did this, and we are doing it now. They need to apologize. They need to resolve to stop. And they need to stop. And they need to tell their fellow Protestants who persist to stop.

***

While googling around on the topic of anti-Catholic bigotry, I stumbled across this compilation. I think every reader, Catholic, Protestant, or other, could learn something from reading it. "The Persecution of Catholics by Protestants." It's a compilation of brief and pithy quotes from historical texts. The author's stated goal is to give the reader a different point of view than the one usually promulgated. The compiler quotes numerous sources, including Martin Luther and Will Durant. You can find it here

I haven't checked the facts here; did Protestant England really massacre Irish monks at the rate of 800 a year?

The post is followed by an extensive bibliography, so fact checking is facilitated.