Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Top Ten: Reasons People Don't Like the Latin Mass

In the years' since I've grown attached to the form of the Traditional Mass I've also encountered a variety of its critics. Most of these people have intellectual arguments about why they think TLM is bad for the church or Catholics as a whole, but I think their unspoken criticisms are more revealing.

I mention these not to point fingers but rather so proponents and lovers of TLM may find some measure of insight into people who at first might seem simply obstinate or even ill-intentioned. The grievances below vary quite a bit and few if any can be addressed by simple remedies. As Aristotle said, the orator must use all available means of persuasion to persuade the judge, and anyone you hope to persuade is your judge. Understanding and empathizing with their feelings will go further toward amity and reconciliation than any amount of citation or logic.

The Philosopher also added, as far as is possible, because some arguments cannot be won. For my part I have a long list of types of people with whom I won't even bother to disagree since I have no means of persuading them unless I learn to channel Demosthenes himself.

10. "It's so dense."

Some people need a lot of things going on. They are unaccustomed to the inwardness and intimacy which accompanies sustained contemplation of one finite, external object. People often express this as boredom, but it's an emotionally arrested state.

In my experience, these people are willfully surrounded by the din of radio or television and when without such, they fill the void with any available means of clamor. To paraphrase Guardini, words are consciously debased into talk for crowding out the intimidating inwardness of silence, and thus the silence of the Latin mass brings discomforts rather than conveys truth.

9. Bo-ring

come on, click it
Similarly, some folks just need physically to be busy. This is a way of creating the sense of importance when it is lacked and missed. Thus the hand-holding, hand-shaking, greeting, nodding, laughing, reading, and so forth, all to compensate for the fact they don't actually feel that something important is happening. These people often don't realize that they either dislike the Novus Ordo as they experience it, or simply aren't getting what they need from it.

8. Are you not entertained? 

On the other hand, some people just want entertainment plain and simple. They need to be awash in easily-comprehensible gestures which they can quickly consume and digest. Thus such people aren't bothered by priestly additions to the mass: little jokes, explanations, asides, and so forth. Anything which can jazz up what could otherwise be predicted is a real boon to the experience. Just a little more cowbell.

7. Why so serious?

This is simply a confusion of serious and solemn, the former of which is merely grave while the latter encapsulates a sense of reverence. Taste in movies is instructive: such a mind describes movies as "heavy" or "deep." It finds seriousness only in the grievous, joy only in the jovial.

6. Status Quo

Plenty of wonderful people have spent years and decades in service to a parish which has changed little. They're financially and, more importantly, emotionally invested in the status quo which they helped maintain for the lion's share of their life. They deserve a little understanding even if they've perpetuated decades of Haugenesque cultural squalor.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Movie Review: 12 Years A Slave

Directed by Steve McQueen. 2013.

The story of 12 Years A Slave sits in the twice-fold unfortunate place: it's not about a hero, but heroic endurance, and it's not about a man who finds courage, but already is of such fortitude. For these reasons, which could have only been overcome by dramatic invention upon its factual basis, 12 Years A Slave is an inevitably imperfect drama. There simply isn't enough development and contrast of character. Its story of Solomon Northup, a freeman kidnapped into slavery in 1841, remains nonetheless compelling and affecting.

This affect owes mostly to the film's depiction of the institution of slavery and how people in different walks of life and of different classes, tempers, and intellects deal with the terrible system which they've inherited. To the slaver Freeman (Paul Giamatti) slavery is strictly a matter of commerce and he treats slaves as commodities, with a slave's outburst of anguish at the separation from her children amounting to a mere inconvenience of the trade. Slavery offers a man of blunt character and no intellect like the overseer Tibeats sources of imagined slights on whom he can take petty vengeance.

A female slave who catches the fancy of her owner might end up with her own attendants like Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), but upon his death she might just as easily lose them and all standing. Too she risks running into the wrath of the master's wife. A hardworking slave might be praised one day then whipped the next for not living up to yesterday's success.

12 Years A Slave revolves around three men, though. The first is Ford, a plantation owner who abides by slavery, though with reluctance and pity. He tries to keep families together and do good where possible, but he's resigned to the fact that he can change little outside of treating his own slaves with compassion. Ford gives hearing to Solomon, forced to take the name Platt, and offers him a fiddle as thanks for completing a special project. Yet the fact remains he owns Solomon slaves and no protestation or misery prompt him to free them. In the end, though, Ford transfers Solomon to another owner to save him from the wrath of his petty and cruel manager Tibeats who would, with the authority or not, kill him.

Solomon's new owner is Edwin Epps, brought to appalling life by Michael Fassbender. Epps is a man of appetites who uses everything for his own satiation. He uses his wife as a trophy and when angered threatens to send her back to the whorehouse in which he found her. He uses his Christian faith to justify owning his slaves and the obedience he commands from them. Sometimes he uses the slaves for amusement, waking them from sleep and forcing them to dance for his entertainment. He uses a pet favorite as an object of his sexual wants. He uses their daily quotas as an opportunity to derive pleasure from judging their sufficiency or inadequacy. When his cotton is hit by blight for a season he uses them and their alleged godlessness as an excuse for the misfortune. Slavery gives this most avaricious and libidinous man a world to dominate and plunder.

At last we have Solomon Northupp himself, who seemed to pay slavery little heed when he walked about a freeman into shops and through the parks of Saratoga, New York. When he's captured in a kidnapping ruse and wakes up in the deep South as Platt, his opinion surely shifts, but not to that of condemnation, even. Instead, Solomon's approach is aimed only at surviving. He refuses to give into the grief and despair that swallow all the slaves around him even as every attempt to get word of his liberty to friendly ears, and these attempts are few and far between, is met with failure.

Yet all of his sadness and resilience must remain within. He cannot confide in the overseers who manage him like a beast or to the owners who disbelieve his story or fear to report it. Solomon cannot even confide in the other slaves because he is so different from them. First, he is an educated man whose ideas and emotions have expression which is foreign to them. Second, he holds in his mind the image his lost freedom and the hope of reclaiming it, a sight they cannot imagine. The other slaves are lost to despair, some so far that they ask Solomon to end their life. Yet while the slaves carry on in their private torment they share the experience in their spirituals. They sing together, except for Solomon, who has nearly muted himself for fear of revealing his education.

When Solomon finally finds himself at uttermost need, though, he joins the other slaves in singing. With more and more desperate energy Solomon sings and learns their despair and the lone recourse of their song.

Solomon's eventual escape, though, is a happenstance to the plot, a conclusion which is brought about by fortune and which neither causes nor results from any deed or change from Solomon. In fact Solomon changes very little throughout. He commits early and hews consistently to a stoic philosophy of endurance which, while it serves him well, is not terribly interesting to watch. We don't watch him change so much as react. In lieu of dramatic tension director Steve McQueen supplements long shots–Mike Leigh long–of the slaves, which emphasize their passivity and isolation. On the one hand this is effective and appropriate because the movie's theme is endurance and isolation. On the other hand, although this structure mimics the experience of slavery, the movie becomes an episodic pour of misfortune after misfortune. A little more reflection on and development of Solomon's internal world and a little preparation of the film's denouement would have given his journey more shape and weight.

Nonetheless 12 Years A Slave gains more from its structure than it loses. We feel Solomon's isolation, from the pain of his silence to the remorse of participating in that from which any man would recoil. We see the ways in which everyone accepted what they assumed they couldn't or didn't want to change. We admire the resilience of one man who while his body was tormented kept his spirit free.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Movie Review: The Face Reader

Directed by Jae-rim Han. 2013.


The Face Reader has all the makings of a great epic. A grand, operatic opening sweeps us back into Medieval Korea where we find Nae-gyeong, a peasant with the remarkable ability to peer into a man's heart by reading his face. Nae-gyeong is manipulated by everyone in the land who hopes to use that gift for his own advantage. All Nae-gyeong hopes to do, though, is see his son happy and successful, an impossible task because of his father's disgrace which still stains the family and prevents any of them from gaining a post in the government. Throughout we have some light comedy in the antics of his bumbling brother-in-law, a struggle for the throne, and the underlying question whether you can really know what's in man's heart. All the makings, but success?

The opening scenes roll out with a leisure that bids us to settle in. A beautiful woman and her servant walk up to a hillside house where they find Nae-gyeong, the greatest face reader in the land. The woman is the wily chief procuress of the most popular house of courtesans and she proposes that Nae-gyeong use his skill for her and earn some money. When his son runs off in the hopes of becoming a government minister under a false name, Nae-gyeong decides to take the courtesan's offer and sets out with his brother-in-law.

General Kim Jongseo
Nae-gyeong slowly moves his way up the social ladder, helping the courtesan and her circle until his skill catches the attention of General Kim Jongseo, whose service he enters and whom Nae-gyeong helps rid the province of corrupt magistrates and ministers. These scenes find a balance between the humor of the pair's bumbling, the gravity of General Kim Jonseo's attempt to reform the government, and the fun of seeing Nae-gyeong show off his face-reading skills. They also scaffold up to the highest level of political intrigue wherein the mortally ill emperor seeks Nae-gyeong's skill to rid the kingdom of an unknown man who plots a coup against his young son who'll succeed him but be unable to fend off a vicious usurper.

Prince Suyang
The subsequent scenes initially play well, with Nae-gyeong and the loyalist Kim Jongseo scouting for the would-be assassin. We feel the passage of time and the loss of surety as the emperor's passing leads to a period of uncertainty and danger wherein the nation, which hangs on governmental administration, will inevitably fall to either the wise Kim Jongseo or ruthless Prince Suyang. Here the movie was poised to round its circle and comment on its main idea: the crown prince, now the adolescent emperor, still trusts Prince Suyang because he has a trusting face, and so Nae-gyeong concocts a plain with his old friend the courtesan to give Suyang a facial mark which will signify to the young emperor that the man is evil. At the same time, though, Jongseo seems to have committed a terrible crime while the heretofore evil Suyang seems a man of his word. Can a man's face lie, and his heart change?

Apparently not, contra the trailer, and the next act bounces around through confusing nocturnal intrigues and subterfuge, none of which advances so much as prolongs the resolution of the succession question. Here The Face Reader bounces back and forth a bit too much among the machinations of Prince Suyang and his three chief henchmen, about and for whom we don't especially care.

Finally General Suyang seizes the throne and asks Nae-gyeong one last time whether the face reader sees in him the visage of a great king. When Nae-gyeong replies in the affirmative that one day he will be a great king, Suyang in offense at the shrewd response strikes down Nae-gyeong's son. This is a terrible and meaningful if not per se tragic turn in that all of the political maneuverings of the emperor, General Kim Jongseo, and Nae-gyeong have failed and the evil man has won.

When Nae-gyeong reflects on his failure to protect his son and stop Suyang, he finally realizes that his folly laid in seeing the waves and not the wind that moves them. The seasons were changing and he could not fight the winds. This is not an ending either prepared or expected, but it is not an abortive gesture. At first I found it unsatisfying, that the script hewed close to history at the detriment of the drama. Now I find that the ending casts an autumnal, elegiac tone back on events which turned out to be the end of an era; a fitting conclusion, for who can see the end coming? Too, The Face Reader takes a longer, closer look at the personal suffering inflicted by tyranny, dynasty, and political unification in the story of Nae-gyeong and his son, unlike Yimou Zhang's more popular Hero, which glosses over the suffering by gracing the sacrificed with its titular epithet.

The Face Reader is not perfect. It's a tad too long and gets a bit bogged down in political intrigue, but it is thoughtfully made and by turns beautiful, comic, gentle, and full of meaning.

Monday, October 14, 2013


The philistine is one of the most curious species of our happy hominidal tribe. Sure, Erectus might impress with his haughty posture and Neanderthal may wow as the new man wanders his valley, club in hand, but for all these two brutes have fascinated scientists and pulp directors and authors, they do not fascinate me because they rose to the modest heights of their limits. Even they had wondered enough to paint their caves. No, they have my respect but not my interest. Their and our relative however, the philistine aka homo ignavus, perplexes me with his sensate indifference to his world and ultimately himself.

The most obvious characteristic of the philistine is an ignorance which resembles stupidity but in fact is simply a lacuna in his reference. This lack of tutoring is less about education, though, than about protection and conservation. No one appreciates Bach because of a predilection for counterpoint, Caravaggio because of a love of shadow, or an English garden because of a deep desire for symmetry. Instead one approaches them as an initiate who has grasped some sliver of secret knowledge and taken a step into a larger world. The philistine differs then from his wise brother simply in being asleep. The tutor's task then is less of education in the modern sense as in the ancient of ducens, of bringing up. The role of tutor is less to instruct, i.e. to equip, or to inculcate, i.e. to impress upon, than to protect and cultivate. It is of course a terrible irony that schools accept tuition from parents in exchange for exercises in "beating the SAT" and getting, "college ready."

The barrier to the high forms of expression then, is not so high. The philistine of course asks then: Why do we need to engage with any expression at all besides our own? The response on the one hand is the utilitarian reply that the expressions of others help us cultivate and resolve our own woes. On the other, though, is the need to elevate human life to realm of the beautiful. Human life is fairly ugly even in its most beautiful moments. How ugly are not birth, sex, and death in corporeal terms? Who finds joy in the sight of the old and infirm? In a terrible fight with loved ones?

Yet art presents us the possibility of raising activity to, or perceiving activity in, the world of perfected ideals. Who would not call beautiful the birth of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, the intercourse of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, or the death of Homer's Hector? How much beauty is there in the hands of Rembrandt's woman, and joy in the eucatatrophe of Mozart's Figaro?

These expressions signify as both human and sacred the experiences around which man's life turn, rendering them at once personal and universal. It is something human, or better something of human to partake in them as experiences, and something transcendent to see the activity elevated to the beautiful.

Yet all this talk of elevation and transcending is rather patently offensive to modern sensibilities and actually ripe for perversion, for high expression still implies a hierarchy. You need not think hard or long for an image of the cultural guardian who towers on an imagined Parnassus above his fellow man, or perhaps some misanthropic Hitchcockian villian, or worse. Instead, the role of cultural elite should take that form of that tutor which we discussed, conserving and cultivating high art and apprehension of it. What we have seen in the West today, though, is not the evolution of cultural elite into totalitarian guardians, or even upper crust bullies. We have not seen old ways mutate as the old Roman system of patronage, from traditions of pragmatism and beneficence into rent-seeking and degrading toadyism, but rather the elite taking on the ways of the popular culture. Far from their tailors' tutors, nobles have traded custody for celebrity, with what concern remains focusing on endeavors to improve physical health. We know the fear of disease and exercise our technological and economic powers by "declaring war on" them, but we cannot even contemplate our artistic impotence. We will not understand that creation cannot take place in slumber, and that awakening cannot be funded.

Does religion then point the way today? If instruction has replaced cultivation in education and the arts, what of religion? Should not the jettisoning of the old high forms, in practice if not print, have flung wide the gates? Where are the faithful now that the alleged aesthetic barrier has been lifted? It would seem that excluding the aesthetic has had an unexpected effect: without transcendent form, the beauty of the act relies alone on comprehension instead of apprehension. Robbed of its "poetry, mystery, and dignity" [1] it is now an intellectual enterprise. If you agree, of think you do, then you go to mass and as long as a few choice things take place, all is well. If you disagree, you disregard it as you do any unpalatable bit. The invitation to mystery, which might even persuade the skeptical more than the didactic, has been rescinded. The people are left grappling in intellectual terms with what, as Romano Guardini wrote, "Actually. . . is not difficult but mysterious." [2]  Exeunt.

It's a slick point of argument the moderns make which faithful philistines corroborate in deed: that it matters not what happens around the sacred acts. It's still mass. It still counts. Yes, of course it does. Theodore Dalrymple shares a thought about architecture which we might borrow:
Suppose you are in a restaurant and your meal is delicious. Suddenly the diner at the next table vomits copiously. Do you continue to eat with the same delectation as before, just because the food on your plate remains unchanged? [3]
No, plenty of its details don't render a mass illicit. So we pass over the disposable missalettes which render the words cheap and disposable. We pass over the microphones which distort our voices. We pass over foreign gestures from handshakes to unity candles. We pass over Bach for Marty Haugen. We nod off during ad libbed sermons. And in our arrogance we assume that because we understand the mass and because it "counts," that all is well. We look to our borrowed and reconstituted gestures and pretend that we see and feel what we think. Speaking of art and institutions in general, Roger Scruton writes how,
We're joined together to pretend. . . that we really are feeling the deep and serious things. . . even though underneath, the measure of self interest is taking things over. [4]
It's an easy leap, though. We believe in the faith and we're at mass. What else is there? I feel satisfied. I have the whole thing figured out. (The fault for empty pews and coffers, for listless immiseration amidst historic prosperity lies with the liberals, hippies, atheists, Sandinistas, and all foreign ills.) Instead of being awed, though, by the Cosmic Christianity of Titian, we're dulled by the soft kitsch like that of Thomas Kinkade, the self-described "painter of light" who boasted that, "We have found a way to bring to millions of people, an art that they can understand." [5] What a familiar argument. No mystery needed. Just add understanding, a few gestures, and poof! Mass? Faith? Religion? 

Never mind searching for the proper articulation of ideas, that'll frighten off the contingent of philistines without which the church will crumble. Never mind searching for receding meanings and reconciliations of life and faith, Roger Scruton again explains,
In a world of fakes, the public interest is constantly sacrificed to private fantasy, and the truths on which we depend for our rescue are left unexamined and unknown. [6]
Rod Dreher in his recent Time piece, picked up on the same diversionary vibe of fantasy when he wrote about how, "The 'spirit of Pope Francis' will replace the 'spirit of Vatican II' as the rationalization people will use to ignore the difficult teachings of the faith." [7]

Thus all faith and expression are smeared into a pastiche of smarmy coziness which can be molded into whatever shape we wish. The work of the progressives and conservatives is done: not the "triumph, yea the resurrection, of the Philistines." [8] The poor in spirit are pastured into dolorous ennui. The aesthetes recoil.  Exeunt.

Magnificat: Esurientes implevit bonis

[1] Waugh, Evelyn. Diary Entry, Easter 1965. A Bitter Trial. Saint Austin Press. 1996. p. 79
[2] Guardini, Romano. Meditations Before Mass. 1939.
[3] http://www.skepticaldoctor.com/2013/09/21/monstrous-carbuncles/
[4] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDvg2sdbPIo (2:46)
[5] Leung, Rebecca (December 5, 2007). "60 Minutes interview". CBS News.
[6] http://www.aeonmagazine.com/world-views/roger-scruton-fake-culture/
[7] http://ideas.time.com/2013/09/29/im-still-not-going-back-to-the-catholic-church/
[8] http://thesixbells.blogspot.com/2008/02/william-f-buckley-jr-1925-2008.html

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Shadow of A Doubt: Ten Frames

1. The first two shots of the film are of these two contrasting bridges, setting up the contrast between Young and Uncle Charlie.

2. In bed after his arrival, Uncle Charlie blows a smoke ring. As he does, we hear a train-whistle, hearkening back to his train's arrival and picking up on the foreshadowing of evil that was the train's black smoke.

Movie Review: Shadow of A Doubt

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. 1943.

When I first saw Shadow of A Doubt, about ten years ago, I was a little underwhelmed. It was slow with a lot of corny elements. My second viewing a few years later impressed me more as the craftsmanship became apparent: music, lighting, plotting. Yesterday's third time was most certainly the charm. There might not be a scene, even a shot, out of place in this masterpiece. When you stop to consider what has to come together before, during, and after shooting, one might be amazed that any good movie gets made at all, but when you see a great movie made without the luxuries of massive budgets, staff, and time, well you just need to tip your hat to one of the greats. That Shadow of a Doubt works on so many levels and then equally well as a whole is a true directorial triumph.

The whole film pivots off the relationship between dear Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) and his darling namesake, Little Charlie (Teresa Wright.) From the outset Hitchcock develops symmetries between the two. Eager to spice up the family routine, Little Charlie writes her uncle to beg him and visit, only to find at the telegraph office a message that he's on his way. (Hitchcock mirrors this by introducing both characters rising from bed.) Both characters also deplore the ordinary. Little Charlie bemoans in adolescent pangs to her father about the dullness of the family routine, while Uncle Charlie waxes on bitterly over dinner about the "fat, wheezing animals" he sees going on about life with no purpose.

Yet while Little Charlie really is an average girl, pretty, pious, and law-abiding, her uncle is not. Uncle Charlie drips with scorn for the world, calling it a "foul sty" and a "hell." One of Hitchcock's best scripts, though, doesn't pile explication or psychologizing jargon onto Uncle Charlie, but rather mythologizes him and elevates his worldview to the level of a philosophical dichotomy. While serving her baby brother breakfast in bed, Charlie's sister remembers how once he, as a child, rushed headlong with his tricycle into the street, nearly dying, and how their mother wondered after whether he'd ever be the same. The apparently insignificant detail is a prompt: did Uncle Charlie simply respond to evil with evil, or was it already in him? (Compare the maturity of this consideration to the heavy-handedness of the similar Rope.)

Surrounding the Charlies' discontent and contempt for the ordinary is that ordinary world of fathers working nine to five jobs, mothers baking and keeping house, precious siblings, and bedtime prayers. It is the leisure of these opening scenes, nearly twenty minutes, which gives weight and import to Uncle Charlie's arrival, itself a miniature masterpiece of introduction. First, the bilious black soot chuffing forth from the train foreshadows the evil that Uncle Charlie brings to the small town. Next, Uncle Charlie hobbles off the train like a consumptive, leaning on his cane and with his jacket draped over him. With the train pulling away and slowly catching sight of his favorite niece, Charlie stands upright and slings his coat over his shoulder. Like his first words to them, in his telegram which said he was "lonesome for you all," his first appearance is a lie.

The pace doesn't quicken, though, upon Uncle Charlie's arrival. Hitchcock instead lets his evil seep into little Santa Rosa. At first Charlie all is all avuncular good will and cheer with gifts for the family and business for the bank. Then we find a conspicuous inscription on the ring Uncle Charlie gives to his adoring niece. Did he really get rooked by the jeweler? He then takes some awkward pains to hide a newspaper article from the family and again issue with his sister's promise to let some pollsters interview the family, a conversation which leads to the backstory of his childhood accident and thus sets up his reveal.

Poison? Strangulation?
Mixed in with these plot points we find subtle hints that Uncle Charlie doesn't fit in. He lives for the present only, he says, while everyone else with their routines lives constantly cleaning up yesterday's mess and setting up tomorrow's. When he visits the bank to make a deposit, he doesn't mind jesting about bankers and corruption, even though he's clearly making everyone there, who takes their job seriously, uncomfortable. Amidst these gradual revelations is a classic Hitchcock touch of preparing the climax in parallel. In Shadow of a Doubt, Little Charlie's father and his friend share an interest in crime fiction and after dinner the two theorize about the perfect crime. Blunt instrument? Poison? A little nudge down the stairs? On the one hand these details sew the theme of murder parallel to the plot and prepare the climax, but on the other they mirror our questions about Uncle Charlie: how can Uncle Charlie do the evil which fascinates their father? Where's the line between thought and deed?

The more you look at the apparent similarities between the two men, the more frightening the movie becomes. The fear of Shadow of a Doubt is the terrible truth that you can't know what's in another man's heart. We ignore the fact and welcome others into our lives, smoothing over our fears by taking outward signs to mean that someone is one of us.  Emma welcomes her baby brother because he's family, and her husband welcomes him because his wife and the children love him. Little Charlie welcomes her special uncle, with whom she swears she shares a special link. The town welcomes him as one of their own, praising his speech although "foreigners seem to make the best talkers" and even declaring him "one of us." Is he?

Once the pollsters out themselves as detectives and confess that and why they're dogging her uncle, Little Charlie is determined to clear him. In the movie's most tense scene she travels to the library for a copy of the paper that Uncle Charlie tried to hide. That's right: the most tense scene is a trip to the library, and no one's even chasing her. Yes, it's about to close, but the only driving force behind the scene is her desperate need to clear Uncle Charlie, and that's quite enough. Dmitri Tiomkin's score here begins with wandering winds as Little Charlie is curiously thumbing through the trash for the clipping but moves to soaring and swooning strings as her doubt grows and finally erupts into a throbbing orchestra and racing chords on piano as she darts across busy streets to find the truth at the library.

No sooner does Little Charlie learn the truth, though, than is Uncle Charlie's name cleared when another man not only takes the rap, but dies in the process. Determined to drive off her uncle, who is now determined to settle in town with a clean slate, Little Charlie begins a game of cat and mouse, dropping hints about his crimes through dinner. Uncle Charlie, though, realizes that one last person knows of his guilt, and that he'll be totally free if he just kills his favorite niece. These scenes work so well for a few reasons. First, Uncle Charlie is set up as such a good fellow that we know no one will believe any accusations about him. Second, the crimes play out like the hypotheticals the father and friend had speculated about, so we have the crimes on the mind when they come. Third, Little Charlie is smart and aware. She knows how her uncle looks to everyone and even the detectives now that his name has been cleared.

That Uncle Charlie is in the clear for the finale is a touch of genius because it forces the confrontation onto the two main characters instead of involving police and authorities for whom we don't care. Just as we've finally peered into the depths of Uncle Charlie's evil as we saw him attempt to murder his niece, he's fully fooled the whole town with a great speech. Our and Little Charlie's special knowledge forces us into the intimate world between the two Charlies, a relationship which has moved from adoration to violence. We feel the intimacy and imminent danger at once in a scene of masterful subtly which is also the true finale. At a party after his speech, Uncle Charlie toasts to his niece, who descends the stairs wearing the ring which links him to his crimes. Once a symbol of their love, it is now one of their antipathy and his evil.

This intimate knowledge is not only a dramatic splash of contrast to the townspeople's ignorance, though, but also a parallel to the theme: who is Uncle Charlie? Who is anybody? In the final scene, when the whole town shows up for Uncle Charlie's funeral and the priest declares that they've, "gained and lost a son," we suspect a fact beyond our inability to know, the haunting one which has been coming to and fro all along in the film's waltzing motif and Uncle Charlie's own advice: that we might not want to.

Movie Review: Rope

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. 1948.

It is the fate of too many masterworks that they get shoehorned into the taxonomy of their creator's oeuvre. Rope is thus Hitchcock's experimental film, his first color film, the film with the long takes, the one that takes place in real time, and the film with the homosexual subtext. If we resist the urge to dig and categorize, though, we'll find a fine film, foremost not because of its color or long takes or such, but because of one ingenious detail: the film is a slow reveal not of murder but of the murderer.

The opening homicide is simply a preface to a chamber play about one man's haute depravity, for after collegiate roomies Brandon and Phillip murder their chum David, Phillip collapses into a panic which through tortuous inquisition nearly outs as redemption. Brandon, however, rises to his egoism. Slowly we learn that Brandon murdered not for any sin or indulgence save the thrill. Slowly too, we grow more and more uneasy as his pleasure at the crime seems more and more sincere. The party for which they prepare turns out to be a celebration for the two superior intellects to toast their murderous, ingenious superiority. It's a toast worthy of Poe, though, for the men not only drink over the corpse of their throttled friend, but have invited the friends and father of the deceased to share in their splendor.

As the party unfold and Phillip begins to cringe under the pressure, Brandon is full flamboyance and charm. He delights in dropping hints at the crime and in his most perverse pleasure delights to wrap a gift for David's father with the very cord of rope used to cut off his life.

The leisurely pacing and long takes are not just a gimmick but a source of tension because it denies any relief for Phillip's mounting anxiety and gives no limit or break from Brandon's sick exuberance. While a few of the disguised splices are more distracting than a bald edit would have been, overall the effect is that of amplification and not cleverness. Likewise, the backdrop of the dimming NY skyline is not simply a technical masterpiece but a source of energy in its slow fade to black. As the daylight fades, the energy slowly concentrates onto the apartment until in the film's climax neon lights splash the fraying criminals with green and red.

James Stewart's turn as their former professor is a little gem of restraint and subtlety.  It's one part professorial wit, one part Columbo, and one part high society snob. Their old psychology professor , though, proves the undoing of the caper. Picking up on Brandon's hints and Philip's nerves in the film's best scene, Professor Cadell makes for the chest in which he expects to find the body. The scene is a brilliant misdirection of both the criminals and the audience. Offscreen but in earshot, Cadell peppers the two men with faux concern about David as he allows the maid to clear off the chest. In and out she moves from the foreground to the back clearing the material as Cadell blathers on. As soon as she's about to open it, of course, both we and Cadell are denied the reveal.

The professor isn't a perfect third spoke to the drama, though, for while we believe Brandon's joy and Phillip's nerves, Cadell falls short in both character and tone. You see, the party's witty banter turns to elitist pontification and Cadell espouses his little philosophy about how one ought to be able to kill inferiors. It's clear that Brandon agrees not just from his swift assent but from his own earlier monologue about his moral superiority. We're not sure, though, if Cadell is really their intellectual progenitor, if he's just playing histrionics, or whether he's fishing for information. That Brandon expects Cadell to approve of the murder suggests the former, which raises the question of why. Cadell's no murderer, after all, yet he's not characterized to be beyond reproach or as fully serious about his ideas, so what's the deal?

It would have been better had Cadell either made a more persuasive case which would have plausibly converted Brandon, or articulated an idea which Brandon might have perverted. As it happens, it's not as if Brandon has misapplied the idea so much as applied it. Then again, when Cadell finds out about the murder, he claims it was something innate in Brandon that drove him to murder and not any ideology. Maybe, but how would Cadell know and why do we trust his verdict which conveniently extricates him? It's here that Rope gets in over its head because it tries and can't explain the difference between Cadell and Brandon, who share ideas but not the crime.

This confused scene is unfortunately the movie's climax and Jimmy Stewart's final finger-wagging speech robs Rope of the dark tone which actor John Dall lent throughout as Brandon. Too, Farley Granger is left with little while his Phillip sputters into the sidelines.

Still, Rope is a slick and compact film, tense but fluid. John Dall's energy in Brandon's exhilaration is nearly ferocious and you can practically feel Phillip's palpitations. Too the techniques prove complementary and not extraneous to the plot. There are some ideas here too, ably explored, if a little tongue-tied in resolution.

Since it's the the experimental film, I hope it won't be presumptuous to suggest Rope would play well without the final speech, and reversed.