Monday, December 30, 2013

Movie Review: American Hustle

Directed by David O. Russell. 2013.

Casting actors is an art. The casting director has to balance an understanding of the film's story, setting, and tone with the harsh realities of budget and availability, all the while coordinating with those notoriously easygoing people: directors and agents. On what sides does the casting director err: looking the part, giving a good reading, playing well with the other lead, or popularity?

Don't knock popularity either; too many movies try and recreate the buzz of yesteryear by nostalgic casting, such as Gravity's pairing of George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, and the umpteen re-pairings of Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, to leave aside altogether Hollywood's infinite capacity for remakes, reboots, and ripoffs. So how does American Hustle fare? It's a triumph, the perfect pairing of 2013 A-listers with the acting chops to boot.

Breaking out of the Batman mold is Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld, the Bronx-born minor business owner who moonlights as a bogus financier promising to procure loans in exchange for a modest fee. Irving's personal and business arrangements stay private because he keeps things modest; the feds don't poke around a measly 5k scam and with the extra income Irving is able to keep his flaky, moody, and wildly irrational wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) quiet at home. Everything is neatly under wraps until Irving meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a pool party. The two don't simply bond over the recent passing of Duke Ellington, but bond over a sobering fact: his music saved their lives. After they finally fully fall for each other in the most romantic kiss ever at a dry cleaner's, Irving reveals his little scheme to Sydney, who first storms out only to return in the persona of Edith Greensly, an English aristocrat with overseas banking connections. In other words: she's in.

That's really the theme of American Hustle, the mask that each character puts on for the world and for themselves, and while Sydney's guise is the most histrionic, Irving's covers the most. Literally. The movie begins with a close up look at Irving's extraordinary efforts to cover up his receding hair by means of styling, hair spray, and a preposterously large tuft of hair. We laugh until he pulls of the look and realize his talent for fraud. Talented and small-time, two traits FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) picks up on when he pinches the pair for impersonation. Actually, he only pinches Sydney, a fact which he uses to pin down Irving: she'll go free if they help DiMaso hook some bigger fish.

As the fish get bigger and bigger, moving up to mayors, congressmen, senators, and full-blown mob kingpins, we realize two things about DiMaso. First, he's ambitions. Second, he's wearing a mask too, playing the part of the hard-nosed FBI mastermind when he's really an upstart agent who can't get funds from his boss and lives with his fiancé and mother in a tiny apartment. Like his criminal catch, DiMaso even has a physical affectation and like Irving's, DiMaso's is a follicular fetish: curling his hair.

The script wisely begins in medias res, getting straight to the political plot which plays like a thriller, and then doubles back to give us backstories. This not only whets our appetite for the resolution, but a head start allows the script to labor over details which might seem ponderous if they prefaced the plot. Likewise the backstory elucidates details of the opening scene, such as the tension not only between Agent DiMaso and Irving, but also between Irving and Sydney. We learn that love and lust  have blossomed into a quadrangle of confusing affections. Irving loves Sydney, but really does care for his wife and of course her son, whom he adopted. Rosalyn has feelings for Irving, but is too flaky to maintain any healthy relationship. DiMaso falls hard for Sydney, but how do we judge Sydney's reaction to his advances? On the one hand she's bitterly angry with Irving for not fleeing with her on account of his family, and on the other she needs to play DiMaso so they can try and put on over on him and come away clean.

As characters develop, relationships weave together, the fraud gets more and more elaborate, and the fish get more and more toothy, we start to realize we're in a pretty hefty movie. You'd never know it from Hustle's light tone, though. Whether it's Rosalyn's preposterous rationalizations, Sydney's poised juggling of Irving and DiMaso, or our glee at Irving's audacious hoaxes, we're always coming from or heading to a laugh, the biggest owing to a running joke that puts the laughs of most comedies to shame.

Yet pleasing as it is, Hustle is no pushover and one foil puts the drama into perspective. Of all the phony accents and primped hair and personae, of all the aspiring agents and two-bit cons on one side, and all the corrupt targets they're after on the other, NJ Mayor Carmine Pollito (Jeremy Renner) is a good man caught in the middle. The chimerical perfect politician, family man and servant of the people beloved by all, Carmine gets caught in DiMaso's sting to bring down the congressman and mobsters. He's innocent, so naive, and so comfortable with himself that he befriends Irving, taking his ensnarer to dinner and buying him gifts. Renner is really splendid here, with Carmine's unaffected manners, chummy talk, and wide grin throwing everyone else's phony act into sharp relief.

The denouement is surprisingly complex, satisfying the drama with a finale consistent with the movie's tone. Just look what gets wrapped up:
  1. DiMaso, Sydney, and Irving have to trap the mobster whose rear end is very well covered.
  2. Sydney has to choose either DiMaso or Irving.
  3. Irving and Sydney have to try and out fox everyone.
  4. Irving has to choose between Sydney or Rosalyn.
  5. Irving has to overcome or mend his increasing guilt over selling out Carmine.
  6. And keeping her in the loop consistently with her character, Rosalyn's mouth runs over and throws a wrench into the whole operation.
It looks for a while like American Hustle is going to go for a cheesy happy ending or a full-blown bloodbath a la Scorsese, but finds its own way not only to resolve its caper, but to bring its characters to meaningful ends. Love and lust, loyalty and betrayal, ambition and redemption, I won't spoil the resolutions but they are rewarding endings to rich a rich movie. A brilliant touch, the script leaves one of its characters exactly the same, adding to the final scene two priceless things best taken together: a reminder to know your self, and a little laugh.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

All Too Simple

Ours is a complex age, contemporary wisdom advises. Everyone is so busy and there are so many people bustling about, doing different things. Manmade electronic satellites are whirling around the earth, for crying out loud. And that internet. No one ever exclaims, "What a complicated world: There are so many ideas!" The antidote to complexity is naturally simplicity, right? If we take a blade to complexity we can whittle it down to something more manageable.

This is the fool's game, for while simplicity is the opposite of complexity, its antidote is unity. People perceive the hustle and bustle of life, with all of its commerce and commotion, to be complexity because they presume there is some conglomerate entity, called society, which out to have a definitive character. The society which deviates from that character appears disordered. The phrase social engineer is often propped up by the paranoid and derided by political movers, but what does he do who attempts to move the masses of the polity?

Simplicity is harder to judge with respect to other aspects of life. Living seems complicated when it is not unified by purpose and the universe seems a maze of physical laws in the absence of a prime mover. Philosophy and physics are the tortured pursuits not for simplicity but for a principle of unification. As in philosophy and physics, though, it is challenging to comprehend the presence of simplicity in aesthetics because it is difficult to understand the unifying principle of complex art. How easily to explain that an overture is structured around the deviation from one expected note in the first few bars, or to trace out the vanishing point of a painting? Of course it is very easy to apprehend the purpose of great art and one, thankfully, need not be an expert to appreciate Bach and Shakespeare.

That nature tends to hide, however, does mean, though, that simplicity makes a dangerous mantra. Roger Scruton has pointed out that much simple modern art is simply a disguise for an artist's lack of creativity, from Duchamp's urinal to Koons' kitschy balloons. Artists have worked furiously to be creative within genres and limits; just compare Schubert's lieder, Mozart's concerti, Shakespeare's histories, or Rembrandt's portraits. And yet sterility persisted in the name of simplicity until it reached its apex, utilitarianism. One of the most egregious intrusions of this trend has been in architecture, specifically architecture with the most specific of purposes: churches.

Of church architecture, architect Ralph Adams Cram wrote that, "Every line, every mass, every detail, is so conceived and disposed that it exalts the altar, as any work of art leads to its just climax." [1] As a demonstration of this principle and the danger of adopting simplicity as a master, let us look at a church altar and its reredos, aka altarpiece.

The altar and altarpiece below reside in the chapel at Alton Towers, home to the Early of Shrewsbury in Staffordshire. Anyone who doesn't sympathize with the Crawley's of Downton Abbey and their quest to preserve the estate should know that Alton Towers was sold in 1924 and, with the exception of Alton's chapel, the property is best known today as Alton Towers Resort, "Making Britain Happy" with eight roller coasters and five water rides. [2, 3]

Anyway, Alton's chapel is beautiful and in the following images I've progressively eliminated the visual complexity of its altar and reredos. Let us see what the simplification reveals.

We could have reduced the structure further, leaving only the altar, but the points are apparent. Notice foremost that contra complaints about baroque detail distracting us, our attention to the altar fades in proportion to the removal of the detail, especially the loss of contrasting colors, shapes, and textures, namely the vertical elements which raise the parallel dimension of the altar upward. We also can see how, far from being busy, the structures neatly scaffold atop the altar. Finally, even those tiny details first eliminated serve to exalt the altar, adding contrast by their shape, direction, and texture, and a unity by their symmetries. All of the detail points to one purpose: Soli Deo gloria.

In contrast we may say paraphrasing architect Duncan Stroik, [4] that architectural reductionism reflects a liturgical reductionism. While we have examined diminution, the opposite is true too, for neither by addition or subtraction can we impose meaning irrespective of form, but must pursue through creativity, with existing forms and in tradition, an exalting unity.

[1] Rose, Michael S. Ugly as Sin. 2001. p. 84
[4] Rose, Michael S. Ugly as Sin. 2001. p. 153
–– H/T to the Modern Medievalism blog for the picture of Alton's chapel.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Good Intentions

Traditionalists are seldom lacking reasons they prefer the older form of the Roman Rite: the lectors, the extraordinary ministers of communion, the priest facing you, the sign of peace, and on and on. You name something, and one of us has a gripe about it, wisely or not. Experts might be able to justify better candidates and name a more egregious cobbling or snipping, but for my part as a humble layman I find the recitation of the petitions the most awkward part of the Novus Ordo.

To begin with charity, the notion of simple requests for God's help was a noble idea. It hearkens back to one of my favorite passages from Classical philosophy, a passage from Marcus Aurelius Meditations in which the emperor reminds himself to pray like the Athenians, "simply and freely" or not bother praying at all. Not structured by formula or tradition, these are short, simple petitions–even the word is appropriate, from Latin peto, which simply means to ask–seeking help. With regrets, that's where my charity ends and my frustration begins.

First, you can't structure spontaneity. I cannot force a genuine, simple outpouring of concern for these fleeting, unprepared announcements, whether or not I actually have concern for them, just because they're tossed at me. I know what the mass is and prepare myself for it, but these petitions blindside me and I'm paralyzed.

Second, the petitions often wildly differ. Who can with honesty and a moment's notice, pray for earthquake victims, political leaders, vocations for the priesthood, the military, and the deceased of the parish? This variety is also distracting and sends my mind down various byroads away from the mass.

Third, these requests are usually read by lay readers. Why? Who is this person and what function of the mass do they serve? Are they saying prayers? The Missal Instructions (GIRM 69) say that the priest "regulatesthe "prayer" from the altar and then (GIRM 99) that the lector announces the petitions.

So are the words of the lector the prayer or not? If not, what does it mean for the priest to regulate my prayer?

Also, nuntio in Latin means to bring news. To whom is the lector bringing news? If it's God he brings the news to, then it's a prayer (whose?), and if it is I to whom be brings it, then how can he bring me my own prayer? What's going on here?

I'm really not trying to be clever here, but this is confusing.

Fourth, what about the Kyrie at the beginning of mass? Yes, those six words which so many priests speed by are prayers for mercy from God. I find when they're sung as some length and with beautiful music the words are a perfect time for collecting one's various concerns, and coming at the beginning of mass they are gradually focused into the prayer of the mass.

Fifth, why do the petitions have to be the same for everyone? Who decides what "the prayer of the entire community" (GIRM 69) is, and why does it change on a weekly basis? Why is it called the "Universal Prayer" or "Prayer of the Faithful?" What about other prayers? What about the mass itself?

Sixth, The Missal Instructions define the Universal Prayer as one in which "the people respond in some sense to the Word of God which they have received in faith. . ." (GIRM, 69) This is not even a syntactically comprehensible sentence, let alone a theologically comprehensible one.

Seventh, the speaker always references a "parish book of intentions," which I'm apparently supposed to have read, perhaps? Or maybe I'm just supposed to offer prayers for everyone? I just don't know what to do here.

Finally, the Universal Prayer always ends with an encouragement to pray for our own special intentions, as if to say, "Right now find something to pray about!" Or am I supposed to save something to pray for at this time? What about that spontaneity? Or why not just pray when it occurs to you? What's special about saying it right at that time?

Also, why send everyone off on their own prayers right before the Liturgy of the Eucharist?

I might seem out to be contentious, but I'm bewildered by the fact that no matter my preparation or disposition I always feel awkward at this part of the mass.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Top Ten: Polyphony for the Nativity

In celebration today I humbly present a small, choice sampling of my favorite polyphonic pieces for the Nativity. I've taken a few liberties listing a few pieces not specifically part of the liturgy for today, so I hope you'll pardon me. Contemporary and frivolous pieces have their places in our hearts, for sure, and while we don't have to reject Rudolph and friends, these pieces, their texts and the music which elevates them to that realm of purest expression, dwell at the centers of hearts which they elevate to the cosmic dimensions of this holy day.

These pieces, against the traditions of our day, remind us that solemnity, reverence, and joy are not contradictory, but in fact very much one and the same.

10. Missa Puer Natus Est Nobis. Thomas Tallis [YouTube]

9. Mirabile Mysterium. Jacobus Gallus [YouTube]

8. Ab Oriente Venerunt Magi. Jacobus Gallus [YouTube]

7. Hodie Christus Natus Est. Giovanni de Palestrina. [YouTube]

6. Videte Miraculum. Thomas Tallis [YouTube]

5. Jauchzet, frohlocket! J. S. Bach [YouTube]

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Movie Review: Christmas Vacation

Directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik. Written by John Hughes. 1989.

Christmas Vacation is one of the most American of Christmas movies, and not just because Aunt Bethany manages to recite both the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem. Rather it's American insofar as it captures what has for decades now been the American father's quest for the perfect family Christmas of presents, good food, and festive tradition. This third entry in the Vacation series again follows the hapless but well-meaning Clark W. Griswold as he attempts against ill fortune, yuppie neighbors, selfish relatives, cheapskate bosses, and his own ineptitude to pull off the Griswold Family Christmas.

The real star here is John Hughes script which keeps the Yuletide vexation of the American everyman running through every scene. Whether it's the jerk pacing you on the highway and souring the family's car-ride caroling, your kids complaining about the house guests, or the neighbors' contempt for your holiday decorations that troubles you, Christmas Vacation knows your frustration. Some of these scenes are played for broad comedy, but some remind us how hurtful simple slights can be, such as the in-laws' mocking Clark's efforts.

Not all of the scenes hinge on curmudgeonry, though, and some of the movie's best gags are Clark's fumbling attempts to decorate the house, a task which sounds trivial until you go to put up Santa. The scenes of Clark festooning the house with hundreds of strands of lights only to be outdone by one overlooked switch and his subsequent attack on the lawn reindeer are infamous, but one quickie late in the movie is my favorite. Here, after most of the season's damage has been done, Clark is on the precipice of hysteria. As he prepares to chop down his own tree from the lawn to replace the Official Griswold Family fir that Uncle Lewis flambéed, Clark heads down the stairs with his chainsaw and in stepping down he notices the wobbly rail post. With Chevy Chase's classic straight face Clark fires up the chainsaw and lops the post right off, declaring afterwards with pride, "I fixed the newel post!"

Probably my favorite scene overall, though, combines Hughes' affection for the beleaguered father and plain old physical comedy. Here, Clark's oafish cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) has arrived unannounced with his family in their dilapidated motor home. Sipping some egg nog the surprise guest begins to fidget with the Christmas Pyramid and promptly destroys it with Clark looking on in suppressed horror before he fumbles in vain to re-attach the delicate fins. Now Eddie isn't a bad guy, in fact he has a good heart, but his arrival has just  thrown a huge monkey wrench into Clark's plans and he doesn't realize it at all. In fact, that's what everyone does, including Clark himself by his own stubbornness. The difference for Clark is that he's in charge of Christmas and he has to pull it off for everyone.

Which eventually he does despite himself and despite everyone's foibles because of a few pointed reminders from his father and some old home movies which remind him of what matters. These are nice little Hughes touches which hit the sweet spot between serious and sappy, just enough to give an honest heart to the movie and ground the slapstick in something meaningful. The finale is famous for being over the top, but it actually amplifies the plot's resolution: once Clark realizes that he has overreacted and learns to rejoice simply in togetherness, who cares what happens? Everything else rips loose then, SWAT raids and gas explosions included. It's appropriate, though, that the father who suffered much on land and in snow to keep Christmas together gets the final triumphal words: he did it.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Movie Review: Bad Santa

Directed by Terry Zwigoff. 2003.

Bad Santa is a refreshing reactionary Christmas movie. Instead of setting in us the typical frosty New England milieu, Zwigoff tosses us into the desert of the Midwest. Instead of setting the scene around family, hearth, and home, the lives of his characters revolve around a shopping mall. In place of cliche Christmas tidings we get profanity-laced tirades. Finally, rather than show us a good man who triumphs in the exultation of the Christmas spirit, we get a nasty misanthrope who repels us with his every boozy breath. In this respect Bad Santa is a riff on A Christmas Carol, but whereas Dickens' tale reaches its moment of recognition by presenting to its hero his mistakes and baleful demise, the antihero of Bad Santa is transformed by the love of others unfolding in the present.

Billy Bob Thornton is Willie, the drunken, lecherous, thieving, cussing, safe cracker who sneers at any hint of kindness or good nature and, of course, plays Santa Claus at the mall. Thornton's performance here was inspired enough to earn cheap encores in the Bad News Bears and Mr. Woodcock, but there really is something to Willie. He loathes everything he lacks, namely all of the bourgeoisie pleasantries and kindness which surround him at Christmas time. More importantly, he had a lousy childhood and can't find it within himself to strive for anything better than he knows. Because he hates what he lacks as inauthentic, he justifies and revels in his disgusting self. Add to this character Willie's predilections, inspired cussing, and crackling indifference to social mores, and then finally mix in that strange, Zwigoffian tone, and you have one bad and memorable Santa.

Bad Santa also has a rich bag of foils for the holidays, though. Willie's partner, Marcus, tolerates his shenanigans because Willie is the other half of their scheme. Every Christmas they play Santa and elf at a mall and on Christmas when everyone goes home, Marcus disables the alarm and Willie cracks the safe. The duo parts ways with their loot and meet up at a new mall the following year. Yet while Marcus takes ribbing for his height, he's not just there for cheap laughs. There's a dark heart to his character, for while Willie steals out of indifference to his life, Marcus is genuinely greedy. He likes life, or its luxuries, so much that he's willing to destroy some of it to gain for himself. Willie's at least consistent in hating what he's tearing down. There's a similar contrast within Willie's other foil, mall guard Gin, played by the late Bernie Mac. He's nominally on the side of the mall and law and order, preaching about justice to the mall's delinquents, but when he catches wind of the pair's Christmas scheme, the store dick wants a piece of the action, a piece he wins in a side-splitting scene of bargaining with Marcus. Willie may be a criminal and reprobate, but he's decent enough to be unhappy whereas Marcus and the store dick relish in their natures.

Willie's redemption comes in the form of Thurman Merman, whom Willie calls with increasing affection, Kid. Thurman's a miserable, friendless boy and raised by his senile grandmother he doesn't have any parents to guide him either. The Kid latches onto Willie, naturally, when "Santa" breaks into his house. When Willie realizes Thurman's place is a free safe-house for the season, he shacks up with Kid and Grandma. As he gradually realizes how miserable Thurman is, Willie starts to tutor him in not being quite such a wuss. Finally, when Willie in full Santa regalia goes flips out in rage on a bunch of punks who were bullying Thurman, we realize he's turned a corner and started to live for someone else. Similarly we find Sue, (Lauren Graham) a bartender and fling of Willie's who moves in with the increasingly motley crew of Grandma's House. She might seem a simple love interest or sexpot for spicing up the movie, but she has depth and significance: Sue has confessed kink for Santa because she was raised without Christmas. Like Thurman, and opposite Willie, she's reaching out for, and overcompensating for, what she lacked as a child.

If you can't see the makings of a happy ending you don't know the genre, and if you think it'll be your vanilla conclusion then you don't know Terry Zwigoff. Bad Santa's thoughtful characters and development are spiced up by Zwigoff's inimitable sense for humor in incongruity and the finale is no exception. Even as Willie finds others to live for and the three make a new and wacky family, it's amidst clever montages (with some smart and subversive use of classical pieces), gunfights, profanity, one hilariously flipped bird, and a bloody wooden pickle. Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Thanksgiving, 2013

With apologies to J. R. R. Tolkien.

Out with the schola and toss out the chant!
     Graduals down and hymnals up!
There's no tradition we can't replant,
     You'll love it til your all grown up!

Sunder the altar and rip off the rail!
     Hands apart and up in the air!
Now reach across and shake without fail:
     Pray by yourself? Now don't you dare!

So dump the trads in a boiling bowl;
     Pound them up with a thumping pole;
And when you've finished, if any are whole,
     Send them down the hall to roll!

That's what every Catholic does hate!
So, carefully! carefully with the faith!

This year I'm grateful for the Latin mass, for everyone who has preserved it, and for everyone with whom I have shared it. In thanksgiving, my Top Ten Chants.

10. Creator Alme Siderum [YouTube]

9. Pange Lingua Gloriosi [YouTube]

8. Asolis Ortus Cardine [YouTube]

7. Viderunt Omnes [YouTube]

6. Miserere [YouTube]