Monday, June 21, 2010

The Smartest Religious Movie Ever Made

Recently, I wrote a post about faith which seemed to stir up a lot of strong feelings. So strong were these feelings, in fact, that I decided it best to stay away from the subject from now on. But then I saw my name mentioned on someone else's blog dealing with faith, and thought, "Well, if people are still interested in my views on the subject..." So I've decided to take another stab at it. I've even eschewed the usual wordplay in the post's title. I'm telling you flat out it's about the smartest religious movie ever made.

And what movie might that be? The Ten Commandments? No, as entertaining as that film is, it's not the smartest. Nor is it that other mainstay from Easters past, Ben-Hur.

And it's not King of Kings, Sign of the Cross, Song of Bernadette, Going My Way, Bells of St. Mary, The Keys of the Kingdom, Joan of Arc, Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, Quo Vadis, The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators, Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, Salome, Solomon and Sheba, The Silver Chalice, The Big Fisherman, Barabbas, Sodom and Gomorrah, The Nun Story, The Singing Nun, Lillies of the Field, The Agony and the Ecstasy, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Bible...In The Beginning, The Sound of Music, Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, King David, or The Last Temptation of Christ.

It's not even Bruce Almighty

No, the smartest religious movie ever made is...

Raiders of the Lost Ark.

What's that, you say? Raiders of the Lost Ark? That's not a religious movie! It's action-adventure!

Well, there is action, as well as adventure. And there's also religion. At least there's something from the Bible. Where do you think the Ark comes from? Actually, there are two Arks in the Bible. The more famous Ark is the big boat with all the animals that Noah captained. The other Ark, the Ark of the Covenant, is less well known. At least it was less well known before director Steven Spielberg, producer George Lucas, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan got their hands on it. Here's King James' earlier take:

10 "And they shall make an ark of acacia wood; two and a half cubits shall be its length, a cubit and a half its width, and a cubit and a half its height. 11 And you shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and out you shall overlay it, and shall make on it a molding of gold all around. 12 You shall cast four rings of gold for it, and put them in its four corners; two rings shall be on one side, and two rings on the other side. 13 And you shall make poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. 14 You shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, that the ark may be carried by them. 15 The poles shall be in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. 16 And you shall put into the ark the Testimony which I will give you.

--Exodus 25:10-16

The above is God's instructions to Moses on how to build the Ark. Where Moses was supposed to get all that gold, I have no idea. Anyway, the Ark was a kind of chest with supernatural powers that contained bits and pieces of the original Ten Commandments. The Israelites carried it around the wilderness for some 40-odd years, until they reached the Promised Land. After that, it pops up throughout the Old Testament, often to lethal effect, zapping Philistines or even dim-witted Israelites who come too near the thing. Keep that in mind as I discuss the movie.

Now, I said Raiders was smart. But it's not immediately smart. Like any Hollywood product designed to separate an adolescent from his 1981 currency, there's a lot of watchable silliness. The movie begins in a South American jungle in 1936, where we find a big guy with a big hat, ratty clothes, and a whip going into a cave to snatch an ancient idol, evading all sorts of pre-Industrial Age booby traps to do so. He gets out of the cave alive, only to be confronted by an apparent archrival backed by a bunch of spear carrying natives. Our hero is forced to hand over the idol, and then somehow manages to outrun, outjump, and and outswing hundreds of spears thrown in his direction. None of this has anything to do with the Ark of the Covenant, which is in a whole different hemisphere. It's all meant to establish character, and, boy, what a character: Indiana Jones, an professor of archeology (his real first name is Henry, but you won't find that out for another couple of sequels) who apparently doesn't believe in hiring hundreds of diggers to excavate a site, but rather just do the job himself.

Back in his classroom at the university, having exchanged his ratty clothes and whip for a tweedy suit and blackboard chalk, he's approached by a couple of government agents. Adolf Hitler is looking for the Ark of the Lost Covenant, hoping its' powers of God will give him an edge in the upcoming World War II. Now, the agents refer to Hitler as a "nut" and that he's "crazy" for actually thinking he can get away with this. But as nutty and crazy as Hitler may be, they decide to hire Professor Jones to stop him, just to be on the safe side. Do intelligence agents always outsource their work to college archeology professors? They must be understaffed.

Anyway, Indiana Jones goes to Cairo, meets an old flame who decides to help him find the Ark. The Nazis, along with the archrival from the film's opening scene, try to stop him. But Indy does indeed find the Ark, only to quickly lose it to the Nazis. My memory's a bit faulty on this, but the Ark seems to pass back and forth between the Jones and the Nazis until they all end up on some island together. Indy has a chance to destroy the Ark with a rocket launcher (good thing to have when a whip won't do), but, dedicated archaeologist that he is, can't bear to destroy something of such obvious historical significance.

Now we come to the part that always intrigues me. The Nazis have won. They've prevailed. They've got the Ark. Before presenting it to the Fuhrer himself, they decide to take a peek inside.

They shouldn't have. Benign ghostlike figures at first emerge, but they quickly turn malignant. Fire and lightening shoot out out of the Ark, fricasseeing the Nazis standing closest to it. The ones standing a little farther away don't last much longer, as they soon melt or combust or both. Only Indy and his girlfriend survive, having shielded their eyes.

So by winning the Nazis have lost. The power of God gives them no actual military advantage. How you gonna use a weapon if you can't even open the damn thing? Not that the U.S. government is much better. They must have shelled out a lot taxpayers' money, in transportation costs if nothing else, to have Indiana Jones go halfway around the world to stop the Nazis from finding something that turned out to be irrelevant. He could have saved himself the trouble and just stayed in the classroom, though it's always nice to see old lovers reunite.

Indy gets the Ark (did he close it back up with his eyes shut?) to Washington D.C., where it is stored in a giant government warehouse.

"Fools. Bureaucratic fools! They don't know what they've got there," Indy says at the end.

I imagine sometimes after Pearl Harbor, some of those bureaucratic fools will open up the Ark to see just what kind of military advantage it gives them. When they do, well, time to mop up the warehouse floor. So the WWII in the movie's fictional world is fought much like the WWII in our real one, without any discernible help from God.

Of course, in our real world, people are always fighting and thinking God gives them some sort of advantage. Look at the Middle East. The Israelis and the Arabs have been fighting over the Holy Land for how long now? And why is it even called the Holy Land? If the Lord created the entire Earth, shouldn't the whole enchilada be considered holy, rather than just one tiny morsel? Then there's the people who attacked us on 9/11, thinking they were doing God's work. The average devout terrorist doesn't even have to open up an ark if they wish to immolate themselves. They'll do it with a strapped-on bomb, with the expectation that they'll be greeted in Heaven by 72 virgins (what do they have against more experienced women?) And what about female suicide bombers? Are they greeted by 72 eunuchs?

Just as in Raiders, the U.S. Government in not immune to the sway of God's strategic value. According to Bob Woodward's book Plan of Attack , in the run-up to the Iraq war, George W. Bush referred to himself as a "messenger of God" who was doing the "Lord's work". In the Pentagon, the war was often referred to as a "crusade".

Meanwhile, the Catholic-Protestant conflict in Northern Ireland seems to be finally winding down. It only took four centuries.

To be fair, if you examine some of these religious wars more closely, you'd see that they're as much about politics, territorial conquest, ethnicity, and natural resources (oil comes to mind) as they are about the divine. But nothing rallies the troops like saying it's God's work.

From the Crusades on, can you really say all the blood shed in God's name has made the world a more spiritual place?

Some arks should just stay lost.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Quips and Quotations

Cold are the hands of time that creep along relentlessly, destroying slowly, but without pity, that which yesterday was young. Alone, our memories resist this disintegration and grow more lovely with the passing years.

That's hard to say with false teeth!

--The Palm Beach Story, screenplay by Preston Sturges.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Archival Revival: Crude and Unusual Punishment

(Now that oil is once again in the news, I've decided to rerun something I wrote back in the summer of 2008. Back then it was nothing as dramatic as a spill, just skyrocketing prices, which may have had some people even more outraged. The first couple of paragraphs may seem a bit puzzling if you don't recall that some people were blaming energy traders and speculators for the sudden spike in prices. Nothing was ever proven, and prices eventually came back down. About halfway through my essay I move from high prices to talking about our country's dependence on oil in general, how we got that way, and how difficult it's going to be for us to be any other way. I believe that part of the essay is still relevant--KJ)

If you're too young to remember the Energy Crises of the 1970s, or are old enough but have blocked that traumatic event from your mind, here's a brief recap. OPEC, long lines at the pump, thermostats turned down, sweaters over sweaters, diesel cars, siphoned gas, siphoned gas poisoning, moral equivalent of war. Things were bad. Then things got worse, and worse, and WORSE , and WORSE , was the 1980s, and the Energy Crises had gone the way of pet rocks and Leo Sayer.

The new fad was the oil glut. People now drove more, mowed more, flew more, snowmobiled more, motor boated more, and even accidentally spilled more at the pump. It was cheap; why be careful? Cars beget minivans, minivans beget SUVs, SUVs beget Hummers. Things got better, and better, and BETTER, and BETTER, until...well, until now.

As soon as he took office, President George W. Bush appointed an energy task force, with Dick Cheney in charge. This energy task force's task was to force energy to be more, um, plentiful? Cheap? Energizing? Among the groups this task force met with was, well, we don't know. Dick Cheney won't tell us. He's claiming Executive Privilege. Isn't having your own chauffeur, and your own bodyguards, and your very own hiding place in case of another terrorist attack privilege enough? No, he also wants the privilege of dancing up and down Pennsylvania Avenue singing, "I know a secret and you don't. Ha, ha, ha," Word did get out that the task force included several Enron executives. It was later revealed that Enron was doing all it could to make energy less plentiful. At least in California. Off the record, but on a recording (like Nixon, they taped themselves), Enron executives joked about engineering blackouts that left little old ladies in the dark. A year later, when their company collapsed, they themselves were left in the dark. A dark jail cell.

I bring this up because there's been speculation that speculators are behind the spectacular rise in gas prices. This didn't make sense to me at first. Why speculate about oil? What do you think that black, gooey substance is, syrup of ipecac? Then I did a little research. See, there's something called a "futures market" What kind of futures are they marketing? Star Trek? The Jetsons? Nope. Those were fiction. This is real. A future is what a commodity, such as oil, will cost in the future, assuming you buy it in the, uh, present. Mathematically, this is expressed as F={S-PV (Div) (1+r)(T-t) (let's see THAT on the Jetsons!) Apparently, what you do--"you" being either a humongous financial institution that buys and sells a commodity, such as oil, or a humongous financial institution that buys and sells pieces of paper that represents a commodity, such as oil--is agree to buy the future sometimes in the future, and hope that the future in the future is more expensive than the future was in the past, and then resell that future in the present, which was the future in the past, and that's how you make your profit (come to think of it, maybe this is like an episode of Star Trek. Remember the one with Joan Collins?) Now, all this buying and selling the future use to be regulated. You could buy only so much of the future. You only could buy the future with the money you had in the present. You couldn't pretend you had less future than you did. These regulations were repealed because--well, I've searched the Internet for some other explanation than "political favor", but to no avail. Enron first took advantage of this new freedom. Boldly going where no humongous financial institution had gone before, they bought a lot of the future (electricity) with money they didn't have in the present, and then pretended they had less of the future, now the present, than they did. In short, they shut down a few power plants, causing the aforementioned blackouts. Are oil speculators the new Enrons, leaving old ladies, if not in the dark, than in the red? (No, it's not like Star Trek, after all. Captain Kirk let Joan Collins get hit by a truck so as to keep Hitler from winning World War Two, and he didn't even make any money off it!)

That's just one theory on the current spike in gas prices. There are others. Ones that don't involve the future. Such as, oil executives, in the present, are screwing us over, in the present, in order to make a big pile of money, in the present.

You may get the impression from reading all of the above that I don't believe there's an actual shortage of oil. You'd be wrong. I genuinely believe that overpopulation, combined with mass consumerism, combined with globalization, combined with our corporate masters' need for this quarter's profit to be bigger than last quarter's profit which were bigger than the quarter before, will eventually cause us to run out of everything from oil to food to water to the very ground beneath us, and we'll all have to walk, hungry and thirsty, on the Earth's molten core.

But what I just don't get is this twenty year lull between energy crises. It's like some one's on their death bed, surrounded by his loved ones, with a priest delivering the Last Rites. The guy doesn't die, however. The very next day, he plays a couple rounds of golf, takes in a game of tennis, goes jogging, shoots a couple of hoops, does some laps around the pool, plays horseshoes, and, at night, goes bowling. The day after that he's back on his death bed, his loved ones are all looking at their watches, and the priest is reminding everyone he gets paid by the hour.

Then there's that other problem--global warming. It made all the headlines last year, but lately it's been pushed toward the back of the paper somewhere between Goren Bridge and the crossword puzzle. It'll come back. In fact, during that twenty year lull (and this is why I think the shortage can't be entirely fake), we had the two hottest decades in history. Until this decade, that is. We shouldn't be surprised that energy shortages and environmental destruction should coincide with each other. They're both caused by the same thing: using too much fuel. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, the two problems go together like a horse and carriage (which may soon become our principle means of transportation.)

While we're pointing fingers at oil speculators and oil executives, how about We, The People? Are we to blame? Well, Pogo's dictum still holds: "We have met the enemy and he is us!" First, though, we have to be introduced.

You may have heard it said that Americans are addicted to oil. Well, let's compare it to other addictions. Most addicts don't start out as addicts. You don't smoke, then you have that first cigarette. You don't drink, then you have that first beer. You don't do drugs, then you have that first toke, snort, or fix. Where petroleum's concerned, you have to go back almost 100 years, to the horse-and-buggy era. At first, that was all people knew. It was all they ever knew. Then came the automobile. In the beginning it was intimidating. As intimidating as the personal computer was to a later generation (at least this particular blogger.) Then they got behind the wheel. Goodbye, horse. Goodbye, carriage. It was their first smoke, first drink, first toke, first snort, first fix.

Those people are all most likely gone by now, but they left behind their addiction, the car culture we all grew up in. We, The People are not just addicts, we're crack babies.

Actually, I may be jumping ahead a bit. If you watch old movies from the '30s and '40s, yes, there are cars, but they also take trains and buses. And they walk. Even in the big city. Especially in the big city. At all hours of the night, in the poorest neighborhoods, without the slightest fear of getting mugged (even in the gangster films it's safe, as long as you stay the hell away from Edgar G. Robinson.) Then came the suburbs, and that's where we get to the crux of the problem.

No trains came to the suburbs. Buses came maybe twice a day, not twice a minute like in the big city. You could walk in the suburbs, but where? One development led to another, identical development. You'd find yourself walking in circles, or in cul-de-sacs. You needed a car. It's a lot easier driving in circles than walking.

I grew up in the suburbs, but my parents didn't. They grew up in the big city. So did the parents of the kids next door. And the kids across the street. And all the kids on the block. And all the kids at school. I never met a single kid whose parents grew up in the suburbs. How could they? There was no suburbs for them to grow up in. We kids were first generation suburbanites.

Lo, these many years later, it's quite different. Not only have the average suburban kid's parents also grown up in the suburbs, but in some cases, so have their grandparents . Not always the same suburbs, of course. First, there were just suburbs, which we now call inner ring suburbs. Followed, naturally, by outer ring suburbs. Now, there's exurbs. What's next? Inner and outer ring exurbs, I suppose. After that, who knows? Extraexurbs? Meanwhile, the abandoned big city is turning into Greenfield Village, but without the tour guides.

Suburbs, superhighways, shopping centers, and parking lots. It's all we know. It's all we've ever known. Not only are We, The People crack babies, but crack babies abandoned on the doorstep of the Columbia drug cartel. And who abandoned us? Just our politicians, business leaders, advertisers, developers, editorial writers, even our educators, when they all sold us on the Good Life. Of course, we bought it. What do you want, a Bad Death?

Please don't think from reading all this that I'm anti-car or anti-driving. Nope. I absolutely, positively love to drive. Or I did until I got into one wreck too many. Still, it beats walking 20 miles to work in the morning. And it's a way of getting out of the house on a Saturday night. What I absolutely, positively don't like, however, is being sold a bill of goods.

But that's all in the past. We've got the future (but not the kind you buy and sell) to think about. We need to free ourselves from foreign oil. Maybe oil, period. We need green technologies (see Kermit? That color's in now.) We need to develop alternative (punk? grunge? new wave?) sources of fuel. We need renewables, such as wind or solar (I hope the sun's renewable. I'd hate to see two moons in a permanently dark sky.) We need an Apollo-like program for energy independence ("One small spin around the block for man, one giant cross-country trip to the Grand Canyon for mankind!")

Do all that, or even begin to do all that, and we'll see which drops faster: the price of gas, or an oil executive's shit.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Quips and Quotations

I might repeat to myself slowly and soothingly, a list of quotations beautiful from minds profound -- if I can remember any of the damn things.

--Dorothy Parker

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Attention, Pupils

It's 2:00 in the afternoon when I enter the Burger King. I'm sure it was pretty chaotic here about an hour ago, but it's quiet now. Not too many people, just a few retirees milling about, and a mother and her two-year old. I planned it this way. Well, I'm not personally responsible for the retirees milling about. And I don't know the mother nor her two-year old. What I planned is the thing I have the most control over, my own movements. Especially at 2:00 in the afternoon. I could have come in at 12 or 1, but the place would have been busier, much more louder, much more crowded. It's the lack of that crowd that I most desire at 2:00 in the afternoon. If I'm going to control my own movements, I'm going to need as much empty space as possible. Enough space to sit where I want. This is very important to me. I like to eat in solitude. If a bit of special sauce drips from the Double Whopper and lands just below the lip, I want to be able to swoop it up with my tongue without having to fret over prying eyes. In addition, I like to be alone with my thoughts. Such thoughts as, what's the best way to eat this big sloppy Double Whopper without special sauce dripping all over my face?

There's an empty table right in that corner. Perfect. I'll just sit there. I'll have a nice view of the corner wall. Everyone else in the place will have a nice view of the back of my head.

But there's a problem as I approach the table. A crumb. A crumb almost perfectly centered on the table top. Were this ten minutes after lunch hour, I could understand. But an hour has passed! Someone really should have wiped it off by now. I myself could easily flick that crumb off with my fingers. But that's hardly my responsibility. This place pays people good money to remove crumbs. Hold on, this is a fast-food restaurant. Well, they pay money. Whether it's good or not is really not for me to say. I will say they pay me, the customer, absolutely nothing to remove that crumb. I could go back to the counter and bitch about that crumb, but whoever's on duty is busy with one of the retirees, who's probably expecting one of those senior citizen coffee refills.

I'll just sit one table away from the corner. In other words, the table before the table in the corner. No crumb there. And it's still a remote enough spot. Remember, the Burger King is fairly empty. What's the chance of someone actually sitting at that crumb-ridden corner table, thus spoiling my solitude? In fact, my being at the table before the table in the corner, should actually discourage anybody from sitting there. I know if I saw someone sitting at that table, I'd be discouraged.

So, here I am, serenely sitting at the table before the table in the corner, serenely thinking my thoughts, and attempting to serenely eat my big, sloppy Double Whopper without dripping special sauce all over myself. Life is good.

Just then, I see a middle-aged man, older than me but younger than a retiree, walking with a tray full of food right toward that corner table.

All these empty seats, and he's sitting there? Well, if he does sit there, it will probably be with his back toward me. Surely, he'd rather look at the corner wall. Probably why he chose that seat to begin with.

But he doesn't sit there. He sits on the side, so that his face is directly facing mine!

Now, what am I supposed to do? Oh, God, we just made eye contact. Well, it's his own fault. He chose to sit there.

Eye contact doesn't seem to bother this guy too much. But what am I supposed to do? I can't be alone with my thoughts when I got two eyeballs keeping me company!

So I turn my head toward the window. That's a good way to be alone with your thoughts. Hmm, lets see what's out there. Out there in the parking lot. Some woman getting out of her car, and--DAMMIT! We just made eye contact.

I'll crane my head in the opposite direction. Toward the nice empty dining room. Empty except for that retiree, the one I just made eye contact with. Why the hell does he have to sit there for?

Maybe if I just crane my head a couple of degrees, I'll--I'll make eye contact with the mother of the two-year old. No problem, I'll dip my head, and--OK, if there one person I really don't want to make eye contact with it's a two-year. Two-year olds live for eye contact. Two-year olds thrill on eye contact. And why is this two-year old now talking to his mother? And looking at me? And now looking at his mother. And why is the mother again making eye contact with me? Because of what her two-year old told her? It's his fault we made eye contact, not mine!

If I just move my head--another retiree! The place is still almost empty, but the few people there seem to be sitting in strategically placed eye contact positions. To make matters worse, a Burger King employee is mopping the floor. Wherever I move my gaze, he seems to follow. His eyeballs seem to follow. I look outside. Some guy getting out of his car, and, yep, eye contact.

An optometrist doesn't make as much eye contact as I am today. At least an optometrist gets paid good money to make eye contact. Better money, I'm sure, than that kid mopping the floor.

With no other alternative left, I shift my eyes downward. I see the special sauce from my sloppy Double Whopper has dripped onto the tray, the table, even my lap.

Something to think about.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

In Memoriam: Dennis Hopper 1936-2010

Actor and director. Rebel Without a Cause. Giant. Gunfight at the OK Corral. Cool Hand Luke. Easy Rider. True Grit. Apocalypse Now. Blue Velvet. Hoosiers. River's Edge. True Romance. Speed.

"I'm not usually in one of those movies that leaves you feeling good when you leave the theater."

(Well, I'm sure some of those movies made people feel good--KJ)