Saturday, April 21, 2012
While looking around at First Things, (see my last post) , I came upon this gem in one of the comboxes ...
Perhaps, Christians would do well to ponder Henri de Lubac's words, "the church is not instrumental to God’s purpose of redeeming the world, rather the world is instrumental to God’s purpose of fashioning a body and bride for his Son."
Friday, April 20, 2012
My actress Maria Romine tells me she's really only learned about Acting since working with me, that the four years she spent at a small private liberal arts college majoring in Acting were a "complete waste of time".
One of the bad bits of learning Maria has had to unlearn since her college days has been the False Dichotomy of "Acting from the Inside" versus "Acting from the Outside". This came up when Maria and I were doing a "Line Speed" today for one of our shows. For those of you not in the business, a Speed is when you and your fellow cast members go through your lines as fast as you can, without Acting them, like a robot on 78-RPM. This makes sure that you not only know the dialogue, but that you know it well, automatically, at speed, under pressure.
But Maria has never been able to do a Speed without Acting her way through it.
I pointed out to Maria that she must not be learning her lines the way I was taught to learn them - neutrally; which is to say, learning the words only without any emphasis or interpretation attached. When you learn your lines neutrally and when you "over-learn" them, so that they become automatic and can be recited at Speed without thinking, as most of us know the Pledge of Allegiance or our favorite daily prayers, then and only then are you free as an actor to be spontaneous in rehearsal and performance without your Acting becoming contrived or forced.
And if you do this with blocking as well as dialogue, then you have the Form set and can provide the Matter that fills the Form more easily. Paradoxically, the constraint of strictly adhering to the Form (lines and blocking) allows greater creative freedom and leeway in the Matter (the per-form-ance) that fills it.
But, oddly, Maria's college instructors seem to have felt that honoring the Form by overlearning it so as to internalize it was working from the "Outside In", which is not as preferable as the Sensitive Actor's way of working, which is from the "Inside Out". Learning lines neutrally without struggling to Act even in your room while memorizing was, apparently, "technique". It seems anything that was not emotional was "technique", and was frowned upon as Acting from the Outside-In.
And yet all Acting - even sensitive emotional Inside-Out "Method" Acting - is largely technique.
I am reminded of a young man I once tutored. He loved music and wanted to learn to play piano. But he riled when I introduced the metronome. Way too much structure for his taste (but so was getting to class on time, for that matter).
Imagine music without meter - it would not be music. Acting without scripted dialogue (improv excepted) is not Acting. A drawing without lines is likewise not a drawing. It's more like nothing in particular.
There is no "Outside-In" or "Inside-Out", there is no art that is not dependent on technique, or Form. Now, if art is only technique, only formal, it is lifeless and contrived and leaves us cold. The Form and the Matter go together; there is no complete reality if one is without the other.
Seen in this way, all art is Incarnational.
As Chesterton said, "Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere."
It is generally a good idea for a drama critic to see a play before he critiques it.
However, I'm going to be bold enough to say a few things about a play I didn't see. Why? Read on.
Last Sunday I had planned to go see a production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale produced by a small semi-professional theater company in St. Louis.
Let me begin by clarifying what I mean by "semi pro".
In show biz, we seem to have three types of companies that produce live theater outside of high school or college settings:
COMMUNITY THEATER, or groups of amateurs who don't get paid and who do shows either for the fun of it, or to hook up with folks other than their spouses. Their audiences are friends and family and members of the community and they usually rehearse every night for six weeks;
SEMI-PRO THEATER, or groups of actors who have more talent and experience than community theater folk, and who get paid, but whose pay amounts to perhaps $30 for a three weekend run (nine performances) of a show. I am not making this up. This is what most semi-pro companies pay their actors. Their audiences are friends and family almost exclusively, drawing hardly at all from the community in which they are located, and the troupe usually rehearses about half as much as a community troupe; and
PROFESSIONAL THEATER, or groups of actors who may or may not belong to the union, but whose non-union members get paid at least $100 per performance, whose audiences are general theater-goers, with no significant percentage of them being family and friends, the demands of production often requiring rehearsal time of as little as two weeks.
Now, the company that produced the show in question, The Winter's Tale, is the only other troupe in St. Louis that I know of that claims to be "faith based", but I am told they are rather vague about which faith upon which they are based. I am told (albeit third-hand) that this troupe is actively seeking Hindu and Muslim scripts. After all, we're called to "believe", and we all believe that "believe" is an intransitive verb, don't we?
Anyway, I was a tad curious about this production because my friend Tom Leith of Credo of the Catholic Laity had arranged a discussion afterwards led by a local professor on the topic "What are the Catholic Elements in The Winter's Tale?" Tom reports that the discussion went well, and that the professor, who is quite familiar with the scholarship of Joseph Pearce, is convinced that Shakespeare was in fact a Catholic and sees the obvious Catholic elements in this play, of which there are many. That's good to hear.
What is not good to hear is that the production was botched - at least in one crucial area. Again, I didn't see it, and I can not speak on the acting, the costuming, the direction, the overall production - but I can speak on this.
Somebody along the way decided to bring Mamillus back to life.
To know how wrong - and how anti-Christian and frankly anti-literary this choice is - you must understand at least the general outline of the plot. King Leontes gets a wild notion that his wife is cheating on him. His rage leads to the death of his little son, Mamillus (from stress and a wasting away over the uproar about his mother), and his rage leads also to what the king believes is the death of his wife. Leontes is pretty well raving mad, beyond even Othello, until he learns that the Divine Oracle has revealed him to be in error. Knowing that his jealousy and madness had led to the death of his son and to what he thinks is the death of his wife, Leontes embarks upon sixteen years of heartfelt penance. At the end of the play, we all learn that the queen is not dead, that she has in fact been hidden away all this time, and in a striking scene where she poses as a statue that comes to life (although older than when the king accused her and with wrinkles), she is restored to Leontes, who is fully sorry for his sin, and overcome with joy at this apparent resurrection.
But the boy remains dead.
And the queen has wrinkles.
This is because sin has consequences.
Our faith is not a fairy tale. Christ died a bloody and horrible death because of our sin. When Catholics receive absolution in the confessional, they are still required
To insert a stage direction or bit of business like bringing Mamillus back to life in Act Five so that Leontes gets to go right back to one big happy family serves no good purpose. It subverts the intention of Shakespeare, undoes one of the main points of the play, and frankly confuses the audience. With no dialogue indicating that Mamillus has been squirrelled away with his mother, the audience is left wondering why he comes out - now fully grown - and embraces his daddy beside the newly restored living "statue" of his mother. At least one audience member told me as much.
Now I'm sure the production wasn't all bad. But this is a serious error and tells us - even those of us who didn't see the play - that the director (or whoever made this choice) just didn't get it.
God bless them all for trying, but I'm kind of glad I went to the Three Stooges movie instead.
Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Headline Bistro seems to have republished today an article by David L. Schindler from a few years back that really trumps everything else written about Christopher West in its conciseness, its focus, and above all its fairness to West and his good intentions.
Some money quotes (emphases mine) ...
West misconstrues the meaning of concupiscence, stressing purity of intention one-sidedly when talking about problems of lust. When I first pointed this problem out to him several years ago, his response was that he refused to limit the power of Christ to transform us. My response is that concupiscence dwells "objectively" in the body, and continues its "objective" presence in the body throughout the course of our infralapsarian existence; and that we should expect holiness to "trump" temptations or disordered tendencies in the area of sexuality exactly as often as we should expect holiness to "trump" the reality of having to undergo death.
West, in his disproportionate emphasis on sex, promotes a pansexualist tendency that ties all important human and indeed supernatural activity back to sex without the necessary dissimilitudo.
West presents a problem for the Church, not because he lacks orthodox intentions, but because his unquestionably orthodox intentions render his theology, a priori, all the more credible.
In the same way that our pop culture tells us, in movies and songs, that we should "believe", while quite carefully avoiding the thorny question of "believe what?", so those who are "pro choice" but claim they are not "pro abortion" tell us that a person can "choose" without choosing anything in particular.
Thus, a friend of mine tells me that to be "pro choice" is not to endorse abortion, but simply to recognize a woman's right to decide for herself. "To decide what?" is left conveniently vague. This odd little semantic game is apparently all the rage among the "pro choice" crowd, at least those who are seeking to soothe a troubled conscience with half-hearted logic and bad grammar.
The typical man on the street will, in a similar way, tell you that he's all for faith, that having faith is a great thing. "Believe!" is a kind of bumper sticker slogan these days. But whether that belief should be in Allah, Obama or Jesus Christ the Son of God is left unmentioned.
Beyond that, each of us is constantly admonished to "believe in yourself".
Think about that for a moment - "believe in yourself". What kind of people believe in themselves? Well, I can think of one that did and one that didn't. Charles Manson believed in himself, but Mother Teresa never bothered to. She had someone much more important to believe in.
This is all a form of subjectivism, so much so that one can diagram the disease as one would a sentence. We love the Subject, we're crazy about the Verb, but we'd prefer to ignore the Object. In fact, we're not too crazy about the Verb if it's a Transitive Verb, as "to choose" always is.
For if we believe - in what? - in oursleves; and if we choose - choose what? - whatever; then we never have to face the reality of life, we never have to face the object of our choice, the object of our belief, and the objection this object may make.
Sunday, April 15, 2012
Forget about October Baby, even though I was raving about it. Forget about It's a Wonderful Life, or Gone with the Wind.
The best movie ever made is without a doubt the new Three Stooges film.
OK, so maybe I'm exaggerating a bit.
But this movie could have been really good or really bad.
The fact that the film makers found three actors who are able to imitate the Stooges as well as they do is remarkable. They sound like them, they look like them, and they do their bits with an energy and finesse that has to be seen to be believed.
And while the bits the original Stooges and these guys do might seem as stupid and simple as they play, these routines are very hard to do. I say that as an actor. The talent and skill it takes to do this kind of fast-paced slapstick and make it funny without hurting each other is beyond my powers to explain. There is a kind of "acting" involved in selling this schtick, in making it play, and in pulling off a career of doing this, as the original Stooges did for fifty years or more.
Speaking of the original Stooges, I actually saw them live. Moe, Larry and what must have been Curly Joe (see above) appeared on stage at the Kiel Auditorium (?) in St. Louis circa 1966. They rode out in a golf cart, stood at three microphones, did some sort of dialogue bit, slapped, poked and punched each other to sound effects piped over the P.A. system. There were probably 10,000 kids in the audience screaming with laughter.
And now comes the new film, set in modern times, with a clever screenplay that pulls off the miraculous - it makes Moe a sympathetic figure early on, so that his bullying of the other two is seen in context as his tough guy persona, covering up a heart of gold. Quite an amazing accomplishment, especially since it actually works.
Well, now that I've proclaimed The Three Stooges 2012 the best movie ever made, my career as a critic - an unpaid blogging critic - is clearly washed up. So finally I'll be able to get a few things done.
Oh, and if you're down in the dumps (see my last post) and a spiritual solution eludes you: I have a list of names that will help - Moe, Larry, Curly, Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Stan and Ollie, Charlie and Buster, Bud and Lou and many more.
Thank you, Lord, on this Divine Mercy Sunday for your greatest Mercy of all - laughter.
(Above: yours truly as Groucho)
Over at the Ink Desk, Tom Kallene writes about God in the Sleepless Night, and all I can say is, I wish I could take such sleepless nights in stride as Tom apparently does.
This is my fifth in a row. It has been a harrowing week - interiorly, not exteriorly.
A panorama of futility has opened up to me - the selfishness of false friends, the hypocrisy of believers, the lack of love - so I wish I could say as Tom does that I lie awake with the warm presence of God beside me. I do not lie awake, I pace and fret, even in what passes for prayer. God may be present in this, but He's not quietly beside me. He's the hound of heaven and his baying is keeping me up.
The worst part of it all is that I'm complicit. I'm in the midst of all this sin that I see around me. My sin has been putting my faith in princes and in the sons of men, of allowing my love to be spent on fruitlessness, atomized like mist over this valley of waste.
It's one thing to be a fool for God, or even a fool for love. It's another thing to be a fool.
If there is solace, it is in repentance. For the days are sinful and the nights are sleepless and we chase our own tails like mad dogs, running in a circle.
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly.
But, thank you, Jesus, not all.
Thursday, April 12, 2012
To love is to be vulnerable.
We see that not only when we look at the cross, we see it also in our daily lives. There is no "safe love" any more than there is "safe sex". To use psychological terms, you simply can not engage your libido in the world without getting hurt.
I use "libido" in the broader Jungian sense, psychic energy or affection. I'm also using love in the broad sense of Eros or ascending love or desire - in other words the impetus to get up in the morning and seek what we long for with an open heart - of which I've written a few things lately.
Now we all know that if you're foolish enough to love - which is to say foolish enough to live life and not play it safe - you're going to get hurt. Love is all about getting hurt.
The problem is it's easier to get hurt in the Church than in the world.
When we deal with the world - by which I mean all secular activities beyond the "domestic Church", which is our family - we all know that you've got to watch your backside. If you allow your employer to take advantage of you, he'll take advantage of you. If you date somebody who only wants to use you for sex, he or she will simply use you for sex. If you have a friend who sucks your time and energy from you and winds up borrowing money and sleeping on your couch, your friend will continue to do that until you say no or take him to Judge Judy.
So we all learn, fairly early on, that people will take advantage of us if we love "not wisely but too well", in Othello's words.
But when we deal with the Church, or even with any organizations that are para-church or overtly religious, we let down our guards, we take down our boundaries. We think, "Oh, everybody here is doing this for the love of God. Here is someplace where I can love fully and to the max. Here is a little haven where the rules of the outside world do not apply, where I can give my all as I long to do for God."
And then, eventually, we get burned.
We see examples of this most clearly in those who are victims of cults. Cults take the greatest thing in man, our religious desire, and abuse it - sometimes quite graphically. And sad to say, there are many victims of cults within the Church, such as Fr. Maciel's Legion and its affiliated organizations and the "legion" of harm they've done (just take a look at some of the websites devoted to helping former Regnum Christi members adjust to life outside the cult). Indeed, my friend Dawn Eden points out, and I think quite perceptively, that Christopher West's experience of being raised in the Mother of God cult has much to do with his twisted theology of sex (see this long article by the Washington Post in which West and his mother are both quite blunt about the damage the cult caused in their lives).
And, more recently, another good friend of mine is struggling mightily with his disappointing experiences with a group within the Church that has been developing some cult-like characteristics, a group that did what bad people in the Church will always do - take your love and devotion and suck you dry vampire-like, leaving nothing in return and making you feel guilty, making you feel as if you're abandoning God Himself if you decide to stop putting up with it and leave.
And lately I myself have been growing increasingly aware of both a Catholic friend who was "playing me" - taking advantage of my willingness to love, not reciprocating and using it for this person's selfish ends - as well as a Catholic organization's proclivity to do the same. It is so tempting to say when we give to the Church or a Church affiliated group, "Hey, this group is composed of super-Catholics, of individuals who one and all are devoted to God. There's no need to watch my backside or keep up my boundaries around them. I have finally found a place where it's safe to love!" And then next thing you know, you're, well to be blunt, see the cartoon below.
I also think it's our proclivity as sinners to invest our Eros in artificial places. Rather than being true to our vocations and loving our neighbors - which is to say those people we deal with day in and day out who are almost never "lovable" - and loving our families - and God knows our families are the most annoying of all! - instead we find Church groups or Facebook friends or trust-fall buddies where we feel we can invest our love without receiving pain and suffering in return.
But this, of course, is mistaken.
We must love those we are most immediately called to love - our spouses and our children - with a sacrificial love that gives all and seeks nothing. But our love that does seek, our Eros, our longing which is ultimately a longing for God and His love - this we need to steward, not setting what is sacred before dogs, not casting what are pearls before swine, which have a tendency to turn and trample us. For if we don't steward this Eros, if we don't channel it into the forms and boundaries God gives us, we will waste it, Onan like, and the pains we suffer - the pains we are bound to suffer any time we love - will be for nought.
Wednesday, April 4, 2012
THE CALL - What’s your vocation? How can you hear the call of God in a world that never shuts up? Theater of the Word will present its comedy about a young man who knows there’s more to life than money and pleasure, but Old Scratch keeps frustrating his search. 7 PM Wednesday April 11 at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish in Crestwood. Admission is free; donations gratefully accepted. For more info phone 314-842-5231.
Praise for THE CALL
I am so glad I got to come and experience seeing The Call this last weekend! You guys showing up in my life has got to be one of the best things that has ever happened! You and your crew has been an inspiration! I saw God shine in every single one of your faces! You guys are wonderful people! Last night when i got home after 11pm, my grandma and I had a little chat about the conference and of course, about you! I told her how wonderful you guys were and how being with you guys has helped my discernment a lot! I was telling her that whenever I heard a talk on evangelization and missionary work... my heart felt pulled, and also when I watched the show you put on... I also felt pulled. So to sum it all up, I feel God might be calling me to go out and evangelize. I don’t know, though, that it could be through talking, acting, singing... Not sure on that part. But I know your prayers will most definitely help! – Carmen, Liberty, MO
This play is a tremendous offering to the Catholic community and beyond! - Diane, Kansas City, MO
I thought The Call was an extremely great presentation regarding what a person goes through in the initial stages of discerning a call from God to serve His Church. It intertwined humor and reality in a very realistic way that I believe speaks loudly and clearly to both young people and their parents. It is a show I very much would like to host for the young people of our own diocese. – Fr. Greg Galvin, Director of Vocations, Diocese of Noriwch, CT
St. Elizabeth of Hunary Parish is located at 1420 South Sappington Rd. in Crestwood, MO, on the east side of Sappington Rd. between Big Bend and Watson.
On Good Friday, I will be presenting THE PASSION NARRATIVE, my one-man presentation of the Passion accounts from the King James translation of the Gospels, at St. Elizabeth of Hungary in Crestwood, Missouri. This will be part of the 7:00 pm Good Friday Service, and will include antiphons, hymns, and veneration of the cross. This will be a very profound and moving service. I encourage everyone to attend.
Then, next Wednesday, 7:00 pm at St. Elizabeth of Hungary, my troupe and I will present THE CALL, our show on Vocations, described here.
Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Why watch a Christian movie? Why go to a Christian play? I mean, either one is going to be awful, right?
Well ... right. And that's the problem.
When our culture was Christian, our art was Christian. Shakespeare's plays are the best example of profound dramatic art written from a Christian (indeed a Catholic) perspective.
But our culture is no longer Christian. And so the dramatic art of our day that's interesting and engaging and well done usually has a secular point of view or one that is only accidentally Christian, or only marginally Christian, and most typically anti-Christian.
This means that Christian groups often produce dramatic art for the Christian Ghetto, my term for the self-consciously Christian among us, who entertain one another with movies, for instance, produced with bad actors on low budgets with horrendous writing and poor direction. The Ghetto is such a limited market that the producers do not have the resources to do better, and the consumers are so desperate that they don't complain. I have written about this at length.
This has a chilling effect on evangelization.
For example, I've been moderately pleased with the movies Facing the Giants and Fireproof, both of which were produced by a Protestant group from the South, and, although they contain amateur actors and a few "prosperity gospel" plot elements, are not all that bad for "Christian movies".
But that's the problem. "Christian movies" take the risk of being limited from their inception by the Ghetto's protective notion of what something "Christian" should and should not be about (a squeamishness not shared by Christ, who ate with prostitutes, blessed the smelly poor and died on a cross). Flannery O'Connor says somewhere something to the effect that a book written by a Catholic is a Catholic book, and certainly O'Connor's stories, which are profoundly Catholic, are also profoundly disturbing and difficult to read. And yet more real and honest than stuff like Facing the Giants and Fireproof. As any Christian knows, there is nothing that Christ cannot address, engage and redeem - but Christian film-makers and film-goers are a little afraid to admit that.
For, well-intentioned as movies like Facing the Giants and Fireproof are, it takes a special kind of desire to want to see them - knowing the artificiality of the genre. In fact, Sunday my wife Karen told me that she wanted to watch "on-demand" the latest movie from this production company, one called Courageous that's all about Faith helping guys through tough times.
But I talked her into The Muppets instead.
Then on Monday, which was Karen's birthday, she wanted to go see October Baby in the theater. This birthday thing means I couldn't say no. But I wanted to.
After all, October Baby is another "Christian movie". Yes, my friend and Theater of the Word actress Emily Lunsford had written a glowing review of the movie, which was filmed in Emily's home town of Birmingham, one of my favorite places; and yes, my friend Fr. Brian Harrison of the Oblates of Wisdom and St. Mary of Victories church in St. Louis had emailed all of his parishioners raving about the movie, strongly encouraging us to go see it; but this is not only a Christian movie, but a pro-life Christian movie.
I mean, if you remember all of the fuss over Bella, you recall much ado about a pretty good movie but not the sort of movie you'd really make much of an effort to see again. A few notches above Facing the Giants / Fireproof, but, frankly, not as good as The Muppets.
Now I know you can't compare a feel-good family comedy like The Muppets to Bella, except you really can. Wildly differing as their goals are as films, they are both simply movies - and as a movie, The Muppets is far more clever, entertaining, and well-made than Bella.
I say this with great admiration for the people behind Bella and the message they were struggling to convey.
But I say this with the reservation that Bella succeeded to the extent it did in the same way Facing the Giants / Fireproof succeeded, in the same way that the film Therese succeeded. All of these were pretty good movies that played to a very specific audience - all of these were moderately well-done works that pleased the denizens of the Ghetto. They were supported by film-goers who bought their tickets in order to support Christian cinematic art. Without that element of patronage, one wonders how successful these movies would have been.
Having said all of this, and being fully aware that everything I say applies as well to the stuff we produce here at the Theater of the Word Incorporated, I can affirm at least one thing:
October Baby is a spectacular movie. (For once I was glad I listened to my wife!)
This is a movie that is good even outside the Ghetto.
It is well acted, well directed, and above all well-written.
Perhaps nothing hurts a movie more than a bad screenplay, and frankly the most noticeable weakness shared by all of the films mentioned above (other than The Muppets) was lackluster writing - not particularly bad writing, but rather weak writing.
October Baby, on the other hand, has a story that holds your interest from the beginning. It has three-dimensional and believable characters, well crafted conflict and structure, and above all comedy. There are wonderful comic moments in this film, the sort of thing that self-consciously Christian films lack, moments that let the viewer know that this is a film with a heart, a story that sees humanity in all its foibles and flaws, and therefore a story that is not preachy in any way.
But the thing that really destroys you in the theater is the witness of the actress who plays the birth mother, a real life witness that occurs at the end as the credits are about to run. This is the most effective meeting of fiction and reality that I have ever seen in a movie or in life.
Thank God for this film and thank God that the film-makers get it. Emily Lunsford points out that producer Jon Erwin told christiancinema.com, “I think that’s where we differ philosophically from other Christian filmmakers. We’ve been part of the secular industry for so long that I’ve grown to really love people who work in entertainment. They’re messed-up people who have a lot of needs, but I don’t want to isolate myself with Christian people making Christian movies. I’d rather engage the secular industry and not shy away from what I believe.”
With this kind of attitude there is hope.
And with a movie as beautiful as this, there is hope.
It is a movie that is true to man, to Christ, and to Protestants and Catholic alike. In short, it is true to life. It is a well-made film and the first of what I hope will be a true revolution in the culture of cinema.
And finally - the main character in this film (played beautifully by Rachel Hendrix) is the "October Baby" of the title, born October 7, 1991.
October 7 is the Feast of St. Mary of Victories.
Our Lady, under this title, was dear to St. Therese (subject of the film Therese), was the patroness of the Christian victory over Islam at Lepanto (immortalized in verse by G. K. Chesterton), is the patroness of the beautiful church housing the aforementioned Fr. Harrison and the Oblates of Wisdom, and is very dear to me for many reasons.
She is, unbeknownst to the film-makers, present in this movie in a very pervasive way. And it is the message of the Mother of Our Lord, who carried the unborn savior, and to whom all martyrs of the womb are precious - it is the message of this lady, whose heart was pierced by many pangs of sorrow - it is the message of the virgin whose unborn infant Jesus made the unborn infant John leap with joy in Elizabeth's womb - it is the message of this holy disciple of Christ - that even in the midst of a world that eats its young, a world that grinds and destroys the most innocent among us, a world that hates life and longs for death - it is the message that even in such a world, there is Victory, there is hope.
Go see October Baby. Not because it's pro-life, not because it's Christian, not because it's your wife's birthday and you have to.
Go see it because it's good.