Friday, February 27, 2009

"Is there such thing as insanity among penguins?"

The most interesting part of last Sunday's Academy Awards show was the ten-second clip of German director Werner Herzog discussing documentary filmmaking. Actually, I have a suggestion for the Academy. How about inviting Herzog to host next year's show...without a script. That I would watch with relish. Here is a clip from Herzog's nominated documentary Encounters at the End of the World. The distinctive voice you are about to hear is his.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Machen's early education

Like many heroes of the faith J. Gresham Machen owed much to the godly training of a Christian mother. Machen's mother Mary (pictured at left) saw the value of catechesis and memorization at an early age. Shannon and I have been reading together through Starr Meade's excellent book Training Hearts Teaching Minds: Family Devotions based on the Shorter Catechism. We're doing this first to train ourselves, and second to prepare for using it with Samuel when he gets older. We might even try this.

In Baltimore I attended a good private school. It was purely secular; and in it I learned nothing about the Bible or the great things of our Christian faith. But I did not need to learn about those things in any school; for I learned them from my mother at home. That was the best school of all; and in it, without any merit of my own, I will venture to say that I had acquired a better knowledge of the contents of the Bible at twelve years of age than is possessed by many theological students of the present day. The Shorter Catechism was not omitted. I repeated it perfectly, questions and answers, at a very tender age; and the divine revelation of which it is so glorious a summary was stored up in my mind and heart. When a man has once come into sympathetic contact with that noble tradition of the Reformed Faith, he will never readily be satisfied with a mere "Fundamentalism" that seeks in some hasty modern statement a greatest common measure between men of different creeds. Rather will he strive always to stand in the great central current of the Church's life that has come down to us through Augustine and Calvin to the standards of the Reformed Faith.

My mother did more for me than impart a knowledge of the Bible and of the Faith of our Church. She also helped me in my doubts.

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity in Conflict

To be continued...

The stakes couldn't be any higher

German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg (who's far from a flaming conservative) lays out in stark terms what's at stake for the church in the current debates over homosexual practice and same-sex marriage:

The entire biblical witness includes practicing homosexuality, without exception among the kinds of behavior that give particularly striking expression to humanity's turning away from God. This exegetical result places very narrow boundaries around the view of homosexuality in any church that is under the authority of Scripture. What is more, the biblical statements on this subject merely represent the negative corollary to the Bible's positive views on the creational purpose of men and women in their sexuality.

These texts that are negative toward homosexual behavior are not merely dealing with marginal opinions that could be neglected without detriment to the Christian message as a whole. Moreover, the biblical statements about homosexuality cannot be relativized as the expressions of a cultural situation that today is simply outdated. The biblical witness from the outset deliberately opposed the assumptions of their cultural environment in the name of faith in the God of Israel, who in Creation appointed men and women for a particular identity....

Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical grounds but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. [emphasis mine]

Are you listening my PCUSA brothers and sisters? Are you listening Tony Jones and Brian McLaren? Are you listening my fellow Christians who wish to avoid these issues? The above is just a portion of Pannenberg's article entitled Revelation and Homosexual Experience -- perhaps the best thing I've read on this -- in which he makes the case that the Old Testament, New Testament, and Jesus, leave no wiggle room for the church.

Read the whole thing. (pdf)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Update from "the Guay"

Emily Jones is a member of our church, and was part of our missions team to Paraguay last summer. Through that experience she heard God's call to go back permanently to pursue her vocation as a teacher. She's just returned to Paraguay after spending some time back in the States, and shares these challenging thoughts.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Changing diapers to the glory of God

One of the great achievements of Martin Luther and the Reformers was the elevation of family life back to its rightful place. The medieval church looked down on marriage as a necessary evil, and saw the roles of spouse and parent as "secular" callings inferior to the "religious" life of monastic orders. Luther was at his best when railing against Rome's false dichotomy between the sacred and the secular, as in this characteristically blunt and earthy passage from one of his sermons on marriage.

Now observe that when that clever harlot, our natural reason (which the pagans followed in trying to be most clever), takes a look at married life, she turns up her nose and says, "Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores, and on top of that care for my wife, provide for her, labour at my trade, take care of this and take care of that, do this and do that, endure this and endure that, and whatever else of bitterness and drudgery married life involves? What, should I make such a prisoner of myself? Oh you poor, wretched fellow, have you taken a wife? Fie, fie upon such wretchedness and bitterness! It is better to remain free and lead a peaceful, carefree life; I will become a priest or a nun and compel my children to do likewise."

What then does Christian faith say to this? It opens its eyes, looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties in the Spirit, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as with the costliest gold and jewels. It says, "Oh God, because I am certain that thou hast created me as a man and hast from my body begotten this child, I also know for a certainty that it meets with thy perfect pleasure. I confess to thee that I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother. How is it that I, without any merit, have come to this distinction of being certain that I am serving thy creature and thy most precious will? Oh how gladly will I do so, though the duties should be even more insignificant and despised. Neither frost nor heat, neither drudgery nor labour, will distress or dissuade me, for I am certain that it is thus pleasing in thy sight."

Now you tell me, when a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool, though that father is acting in the spirit just described and in Christian faith, my dear fellow you tell me, which of the two is most keenly ridiculing the other? God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling, not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith. Those who sneer at him and see only the task but not the faith are ridiculing God with all his creatures, as the biggest fool on earth. Indeed, they are only ridiculing themselves; with all their cleverness they are nothing but devil's fools.

St. Cyprian, that great and admirable man and holy martyr, wrote that one should kiss the new-born infant, even before it is baptised, in honour of the hands of God here engaged in a brand new deed. What do you suppose he would have said about a baptised infant? There was a true Christian, who correctly recognised and regarded God's work and creature. Therefore, I say that all nuns and monks who lack faith, and who trust in their own chastity and in their order, are not worthy of rocking a baptised child or preparing its pap, even if it were the child of a harlot. This is because their order and manner of life has no word of God as its warrant. They cannot boast that what they do is pleasing in God's sight, as can the woman in childbirth, even if her child is born out of wedlock.

Martin Luther, The Estate of Marriage (1522)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Machen looks back

It's been a while since I've posted anything on my hero J. Gresham Machen. So this week I'll be sharing some of my favorite excerpts from his autobiographical essay Christianity in Conflict published in 1932. It's an illuminating essay full of vintage Machen. He wrote it, in part, to answer the question "how it has come about that contrary to the majority of the men of our day I am a believer in the truth of the Bible and an adherent of the redemptive religion which the Bible presents." A large part of the answer to that question was the foundation laid by Machen's parents. Here he pays tribute to his father: a lawyer, lover of books, and faithful elder.

He was a profoundly Christian man, who had read widely and meditated earnestly upon the really great things of our holy Faith. His Christian experience was not of the emotional or pietistical type, but was a quiet stream whose waters ran deep. He did not adopt that "Touch not, taste not, handle not" attitude toward the good things or the wonders of God's world which too often today causes earnest Christian people to consecrate to God only an impoverished man, but in his case true learning and true piety went hand in hand. Every Sunday morning and Sunday night, and on Wednesday night, he was in his place in Church, and a similar faithfulness characterized all his service as an elder in the Presbyterian Church. At that time the Protestant churches had not yet become political lobbies, and Presbyterian elders were chosen not because they were "outstanding men in the community," but because they were men of God. I love to think of that old Presbyterian session in the Franklin Street Presbyterian Church of Baltimore. It is a refreshing memory in these days of ruthless and heartless machinery in the Church. God grant that the memory may some day become actuality again and that the old Christian virtues may be revived!

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity in Conflict

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Will work for milk

Everything our friends who've been through the newborn experience told us has been true and more. The joy, the frustration, the sleep deprivation, the disorienting acceleration/suspension of time, the prodigious amount of diapers used, but mostly the joy. A few of my favorite things about Samuel at two weeks + one day.

- His involuntary smiles when he's sleeping

- The way he grips my finger in his little hand

- His milk moustache

- The way his eyes get real wide just before a bowel movement

- The dreamy look on his face when I rub his back

- The dark hair on his shoulders that makes him look like a little old man from behind

- His "Mr. Grumpy" face

To be continued...

Friday, February 20, 2009

My alphabetical favorite movies meme

This is a fun little exercise that's been spreading like kudzu. To make it more challenging I restricted myself to one film per director. If you're inspired to create your own let me know, and in true "meme" fashion I'll link to it. Good luck with X.

Amadeus (1984, Milos Forman)

Being There (1979, Hal Ashby)

Conversation, The (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)

Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder)

Election (1999, Alexander Payne)

Fargo (1996, Joel Coen)

Groundhog Day (1993, Harold Ramis)

Howards End (1992, James Ivory)

Ikiru (1952, Akira Kurosawa)

Jules and Jim (1962, François Truffaut)

King of Comedy, The (1982, Martin Scorsese)

Last Picture Show, The (1971, Peter Bogdanovich)

Maria Full of Grace (2004, Joshua Marston)

North by Northwest (1959, Alfred Hitchcock)

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, Sergio Leone)

Paths of Glory (1957, Stanley Kubrick)

Queen, The (2006, Stephen Frears)

Rushmore (1998, Wes Anderson)

Searchers, The (1956, John Ford)

Thin Red Line, The (1998, Terrence Malick)

Unforgiven (1992, Clint Eastwood)

Videodrome (1983, David Cronenberg)

Waking Life (2001, Richard Linklater)

X-Men (2000, Bryan Singer)

You Can Count on Me (2000, Kenneth Lonergan)

Zodiac (2007, David Fincher)

Redeyespy's meme (well done!)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A good definition of Reformed

Labels are inherently problematic, but inevitable. That's why I have no problem wearing the label "Reformed" or "Calvinist" even though the meaning of those terms is often in dispute or misunderstood. Hopefully what I mean when I say I'm Reformed comes through in my ramblings here.

Kevin DeYoung offers a definition of what he means by Reformed to which I offer a hearty amen!

What I Mean By Reformed

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

L.A. weather

David Lynch has been broadcasting his pithy weather reports going on four years now. Here is today's.

Keep up with future installments here.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What if Willy Loman made it big?

The cynical sage of Ecclesiastes writes, "He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep." (Ecc. 5:10-12) The perceptiveness of these words are illustrated in many of the stories told by Laurence Leamer in his fascinating study of Palm Beach, Madness Under the Royal Palms.

In it Leamer writes about the amazing rise and equally amazing fall of real estate tycoon Abraham Gosman. At the height of his success Gosman had it all -- a massive oceanfront mansion (pictured above), a wife decades younger hanging on his arm, and a 131-foot speed yacht named Octopussy on which to wine and dine guests. His was a quintessentially American success story. Born of modest means in Manchester, New Hampshire, Gosman had the gift of turning everything he touched into gold. He made his millions buying low and selling high, often flipping the same assets more than once.

By the late 90s thing started to go sour both personally and professionally. Hundreds of millions of dollars literally evaporated ending in Gosman declaring personal bankruptcy and losing virtually everything he owned. In 2004 Donald Trump bought his mansion at auction for $41 million, and used it as a prop on The Apprentice before selling it last year for $95 million to a Russian oligarch. Currently, Gosman's estranged wife is out of jail on $1 million bail while awaiting trial on charges of mortgage fraud related to the bankruptcy. When Leamer interviewed Abe Gosman for the book he was living alone in a rented condo in West Palm Beach. Leamer found the 79-year old sitting behind a huge desk still trying to make new deals. "Always be selling," the man said. Like Shelley Levine in Glengarry Glen Ross or Arthur Miller's immortal drummer Willy Loman, Gosman is ever the salesman, and for a salesman -- as Miller wrote -- there is no rock bottom. Hope springs eternal that the next prospect will bring the elusive payoff. Leamer prefaces his account of the interview with some reflections on Miller's play.

As I drove over to West Palm Beach, I kept thinking about Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. I have seen the classic American play many times, and each time I see it, I see it differently. The tragedy takes place during the last days of Willy Loman, that boastful braggart who has made his last sale. He has filled his bold, strong sons, Biff and Happy, with his dishonest palaver and they are empty vessels, albeit in different ways.

The first time I saw the play, I was a fire-breathing young liberal, and I saw it as a parable on capitalism that makes salesmen of us all. Poor Willy was nothing more than a cog in a gigantic machine. As I grew older, I saw it more as a psychological family drama, how emotional dishonesty distorts and destroys. In recent years, I have come to view it as a profoundly conservative play. "Pop! I'm a dime a dozen, and so are you," Willy's son Biff tells his father. "You were never anything but a hardworking drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them!" The perverse egalitarianism of America has convinced Willy that he can be anything, but he cannot. He is just a drummer.

Living in Palm Beach I see something else in the play now. Death of a Salesman takes place in a lower-middle-class milieu, but Willy's life could have been different. Willy could have been peddling a different product. Willy could have had a better territory. Willy could have been selling in a different era. Willy could have ended up in a great mansion on the ocean, and he still would be Willy. Willy would still be selling himself, selling a product he did not believe in.

Quoted from pp. 182-3 of Madness Under the Royal Palms (2009, Hyperion)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Some CSL on this holiday devoted to Eros

And all the time the grim joke is that this Eros whose voice seems to speak from the eternal realm is not himself necessarily even permanent. He is notoriously the most mortal of our loves. The world rings with complaints of his fickleness. What is baffling is the combination of this fickleness with his protestations of permanency. To be in love is both to intend and to promote lifelong fidelity. Love makes vows unasked; can't be deterred from making them. "I will ever be true," are almost the first words he utters. Not hypocritically but sincerely. No experience will cure him of the delusion. We have all heard of people who are in love again every few years; each time sincerely convinced that "this time it's the real thing," that their wanderings are over, that they have found their true love and will themselves be true till death.

And yet Eros is in a sense right to make this promise. The event of falling in love is of such a nature that we are right to reject as intolerable the idea that it should be transitory. In one high bound it has overleaped the massive wall of our selfhood; it has made appetite itself altruistic, tossed personal happiness aside as a triviality and planted the interests of another in the centre of our being. Spontaneously and without effort we have fulfilled the law (towards one person) by loving our neighbor as ourselves. It is an image, a foretaste, of what we must become to all if Love Himself rules in us without a rival. It is even (well used) a preparation for that. Simply to relapse from it, merely to "fall out of" love again, is--if I may coin the ugly word--a sort of disredemption. Eros is driven to promise what Eros of himself cannot perform.

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Taking of Power by Louis XIV

It's no exaggeration to call Roberto Rossellini the most influential European director of the 20th century. His reputation rests mainly on a trilogy of films made in the immediate aftermath of World War Two -- Rome Open City, Paisà and Germany Year Zero. These were pioneering efforts of neorealist cinema using non-actors in real locations. Rossellini has inspired everyone from the directors of the French New Wave to American heavyweights like Martin Scorsese. Rossellini had a checkered career and made headlines as much for his personal life as artistic efforts, especially his affair and later marriage to Ingrid Bergman. By the 1960s Rossellini had become fed up with the politics and financial frustrations of studio filmmaking. Film Professor Colin MacCabe -- writing for the Criterion Collection -- describes the surprising turning point in Rossellini's career.

In 1962, Roberto Rossellini called a press conference in a bookshop in Rome and announced that the cinema was dead. "There's a crisis not just in film but culture as a whole," he explained. Increasingly, Rossellini had understood the great task of film as education, but he had been unable to find anyone in the cinema to share his passion. So, he said, "I intend to retire from film and dedicate myself to television, in order to be able to reexamine everything from the beginning in full liberty, in order to rerun mankind's path in search of truth." (Colin MacCabe, ...Long Live The Cinema!)

This was no publicity stunt, and for the rest of his fifteen years on earth Rossellini created dozens of hours of low-budget historical films for television, including biopics of St. Augustine and Blaise Pascal. Many of these have yet to be made available to American viewers, but Criterion has just released The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (La Prise de Pouvoir par Louis XIV) which Rossellini made for French television. It's one of the oddest motion pictures I've ever seen, an experience akin to watching paint dry, but strangely fascinating. The dialogue is delivered in monotones by mostly non-professional actors. The film tells an extraordinary story in an extraordinarily prosaic way. The story of how a playboy prince -- dominated by his mother and disrespected by the nobility -- metamorphosed into the godlike Sun King of Versaille, and created an absolute monarchy that lasted until the mobs and the guillotine ended it in bloodbath a century later.

Louis is acted (if one can call this acting) by Jean-Marie Patte, certainly one of the homeliest young men to ever play such a starring role. The office worker Patte was nervous in front of the camera, and unable to learn his lines. Rossellini improvised a solution of having crew members situated around the set holding boards with his lines written on them. The fact that Patte is always looking past his fellow actors -- his eyes searching for the next tote board -- makes the performance all the more effective. Rossellini focuses inordinately on the small details of 17th century court life -- the clothes, the food, the bodily functions. This is a microscopic look at the mundane, which Rossellini believed held the key to unlocking a better understanding of our common human experience. This is what he meant by reexamining everything from the beginning. MacCabe: "These incidental details, it can be argued, form the real subject matter of all of Rossellini's history films...Rossellini is fascinated by the material reality of previous cultures, which film is uniquely able to render for a contemporary audience." Those hardcore film buffs with the required patience may find The Taking of Power a uniquely rewarding experience. I say may. It took me several sittings to get through it, but I'm anxious to watch it again. A big "merci" to Criterion for making it available!

Jean-Marie Patte (right) reading his lines

Monday, February 9, 2009

How little I can do

Philip Brown shares a quote from English churchman William Law on training up a child in the way he should go (Proverbs 22:6). It expresses something I've been reflecting on the last months as we've awaited the birth of our child -- that though Samuel has been highly favored to be born into a Christian home, yet I have no power over his ultimate salvation. In a short time we'll present him to God and the church for baptism. In so doing we'll be giving him back to God and acknowledging that it's He alone who'll make the sign and seal of covenant baptism a reality in his heart. The following quote is from Law's Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. He's writing in the voice of a father to his son.

How poor my power is, and how little I am able to do for you, you have often seen. Your late sickness has shown you how little I could do for you in that state; and the frequent pains of your head are plain proofs that I have no power to remove them. I can bring you food and medicines, but have no power to turn them into your relief and nourishment. It is God alone that can do this for you. Therefore, my child, fear, and worship, and love God. Your eyes, indeed, cannot yet see Him. But all things that you see are so many marks of His power and presence, and He is nearer to you than anything that you can see. Take Him for your Lord, and Father, and Friend, look up unto Him as the fountain and cause of all the good that you have received through my hands; and reverence me only as the bearer and minister of God's good things unto you. And He that blessed my father before I was born, will bless you when I am dead.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Samuel Edward Ley

Born February 6, 2009 @ 4:40pm, 8 pounds, 20 inches. Overall the labor and delivery went remarkably well. Mommy and baby both came through like champs. Daddy is still a bit in shock, but overwhelmingly grateful for this gift. The words that best describe how I feel are from Psalm 16. "The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance."

Even as we celebrate this new life my heart breaks for a former classmate who lost his 7-year-old daughter yesterday. Oddly enough I heard the news while I was coaching Shannon through the final hour of labor. Truly, life is a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Pray for the Winter family.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Whit Stillman's films of the spirit

Austin Bramwell writing in First Things:

It is a truth seldom acknowledged that the most delightful art is also the most didactic. Jane Austen comes readily to mind, as does the best of children’s literature. Supposed counterexamples only prove the rule. Oscar Wilde is celebrated for his dictum that “bad art is always sincere,” but he is in fact one of the most sincere of writers in the sense that in all his works virtue triumphs and vice is defeated. That few of his admirers today realize this is a testament to Wilde’s skill, for so pleasing is his wit that he can lead even the most unwilling reader to accept, even if only unwittingly, a moral truth. Wilde and Austen, to use a phrase that sounds almost paradoxical to modern ears, are delightful moralizers.

In this sense at least, Whit Stillman, writer and director of a charming trilogy of films—Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco, and Barcelona—is an Oscar Wilde for twenty-first century America...

Continue Reading

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Red Cross and white ties

Among the colorful cast of characters Laurence Leamer profiles in his immensely entertaining book Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach is Simon Fireman. Fireman -- a plastic pool toys magnate -- came to Palm Beach as a convicted felon having spent six months under house arrest for illegal campaign contributions to Sen. Robert Dole. This (along with his Jewish faith) meant he would never be granted access to the exclusive confines of the Bath & Tennis or Everglades Club. Instead Fireman decided to scale the social heights by way of well-timed gifts calculated to grab the maximum headlines and publicity in the Palm Beach Daily News a/k/a the Shiny Sheet. At the 2000 Cancer Ball, Leamer writes, "Fireman came bounding up to the podium to announce a surprise one-million-dollar gift." Fireman's stunt philanthropy eventually elevated him to chairman of the most prestigious white tie event of them all -- the International Red Cross Ball.

For almost fifty years the Red Cross Ball had been the exlusive domain of the old-money WASP elite, held in the Breakers Ballroom, and run for twenty of those years "like a private party" by Listerine heiress Sue Whitmore. Whitmore died in 1993 and Leamer chronicles the scheming and petty feuding that resulted in Fireman of all people finding himself chairman of the 2005 ball. But he had a problem. Leamer writes, "What set the Red Cross Ball apart from other charity events was not only the white tie-tiara ultraformality, but the slew of ambassadors Trump flew down in his private plane from Washington. However, Trump now said that he was not doing it any longer. He had his shrewd reason for the turndown: He had a brand-new ballroom at Mar-a-Lago. What could be better for business than to host the Red Cross Ball? His plane became available the moment the Red Cross moved the event to his new facility, in which everything except the waiters was gilded gold."

A major theme in the book is the loathing old Palm Beach has for Donald Trump. He's the symbol of everything they dislike about the nouveau crowd. Trump is "the uncrowned king of the New Yorkers...and no one is both as emulated and as despised in Palm Beach." His gaudy Mar-a-Lago is a daily affront to the members of the relatively shabby B&T next door. In 2006 the Red Cross Ball was held at the Donald's club for the second year and Simon Fireman once again chaired. Leamer and his wife were guests that evening and witnessed the sadly comic end to Fireman's social climbing. After the ambassadors had trundled in -- "so weighted down with medals that they looked as if they might keel over" -- after dinner was eaten, Frankie Avalon had finished singing, and guests had begun to leave -- Fireman got up to direct the Michael Rose Orchestra in a final number. Tired and a bit tipsy he fell and hit his head on the marble floor. Leamer writes:

I jumped up and, along with Trump and a few others, stood over the crumpled body of Fireman lying with his head in a small pool of blood. There were many Red Cross employees in the ballroom, and during the evening, speakers had gone on endlessly about the healing hands of the organization. I thought there must be somebody to come forward to take care of the poor man, but for a while nobody did. The crowd did not seem terribly interested either, filing out to the valet parkers, paying no attention to the distressed chairman. Finally, several waiters lifted Fireman up and half carried him to an ambulance, which took him to Good Samaritan Hospital, where he was treated for a nose broken in three places.

For Shannon [Shannon Donnelly - the influential society editor of the Palm Beach Daily News], it was a wondrous opportunity to ridicule Fireman. "There's a lesson in timing here," the society editor wrote after describing the accident. "Had this been the Animal Rescue League Ball, those first responders might well have been two beagles and a golden retriever." Then she went on to pick apart the entire evening.

In 2007 a new chairman took over and Donnelly slyly noted Fireman's demise by writing that this year's ball marked a "return to dignity and elegance." As Leamer has noted elsewhere, in Palm Beach, social climbing is the only sport which if you get caught playing it you lose. A few nights ago Trump hosted the 52nd rendition of the event that's an opportunity for the attendees to celebrate "not so much the Red Cross but themselves." Here are some sights and sounds.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Impact Coffee Co.

Buy some!

Interesting numbers

According to Gallup a solid majority of Americans (Republicans, Democrats and Independents) approve of most of President Obama's major policy decisions so far. I note with interest and optimism the one action they solidly disapprove of. Are you listening Mr. President?

Americans Approve of Most Obama Actions to Date

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Wrestler

Don't know what you got til it's gone...
- Cinderella

Early on in The Wrestler -- the new film from 39 year old director Darren Aronofsky -- there's an odd encounter in a strip joint between Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) and one of her regular customers Randy "The Ram" Robinson, the wrestler of the title played by Mickey Rourke. Without preamble Cassidy starts quoting from Isaiah 53..."But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed." Has Cassidy -- who we later learn is just Pam -- been reading her Old Testament? No. She's seen The Passion of the Christ and has apparently been reminded of it by seeing the scars on The Ram's face. Randy's only response to her recounting of Christ's sufferings is that He must have been a tough guy. It's obvious that Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert Siegel want to say something about the redemptive power of suffering, but for suffering to be redemptive it needs to have a point. I didn't leave this film thinking "what a sacrifice!" I left it thinking "what a waste!" Further, I think Aronofsky intends for us to watch his film within the context of previous cinematic provocations on the subject of violence (Fight Club and Gibson's Passion being two examples that come to mind). The latter purpose is made explicit in one lengthy, hard-to-watch sequence involving barbed wire, shards of glass and a staple gun. This is professional wrestling after all, where the competition is phony, but the violence and scars are not.

I didn't like this movie as much as I thought I would. I was strangely unmoved despite the amazing performance by Mickey Rourke, every bit as good as advertised. Surely Rourke's well documented personal demons and past career as a pro boxer fueled his absolute commitment to the role (Nicolas Cage was originally attached). It's as impressive as Philip Seymour Hoffman's Oscar-winning portrayal of Truman Capote a couple of years ago, and older film buffs will inevitably gauge it against De Niro's portrait of self-loathing and self-destruction from 1980. Yes, The Wrestler is Raging Bull in tights. In fact, I feel like I've seen this movie many times before, which lessened it's impact. One could argue that this same director has made this movie before. I'm thinking of Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream (2000), a harrowing depiction of drug addiction that I watched one Friday evening in Baltimore with a noisy group of Johns Hopkins students. They weren't noisy when the film ended. It was more like stunned silence.

The Wrestler continues a recent trend of films shot in decaying environs of the Northeast -- locations that scream over the hill. American Legion halls, trailer parks and seedy taverns. Places that time's forgotten. Not quite the city and not quite the suburbs. New Jersey, the ugly side, is a distinct character here. Many scenes are shot hand held, often with the camera stalking Rourke in long tracking shots. One of the best scenes takes place in one of those blue-collar bars, as the two lost souls Randy and Pam gingerly investigate the possibility of a genuine human relationship, one that surmounts their professional identities. Over a couple of Rolling Rock's they discover a mutual love of 80s metal bands, and relive the good old days before that killjoy Kurt Cobain ruined rock and roll. It's one of the few lovely moments in the film. It was fun hearing the soundtrack which features relics of my adolescence I hadn't heard, or thought of, in years. Like The Ram's signature track "Bang Your Head" by those metal health pioneers Quiet Riot. The music is well chosen, but I also liked that some of the most emotional scenes are played absolutely straight, with no musical attempt at audience manipulation. In addition to Rourke, there's fine acting from Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood.

No doubt Darren Aronofsky is one of the most talented American filmmakers working today, but he's managed to make a film I have no desire to experience a second time. Roger Ebert recently expressed well why I love and value movies, even the dark ones. Ebert: "Movies come closer than any other art form in giving us the experience of walking in someone else’s shoes...They expand us, they improve us, and sometimes they ennoble us." Once in a while I come across a film like this one, that though excellent in craft, fails to meet those tests. I can't recommend it.