books

Round Up

Lately, I’ve been blessed to have my writing featured on a number of different websites.

After my Wes Anderson article was published at Catholic World Report, I also reviewed the recently-released film Little Boy for CWR. 

Director Alejandro Monteverde’s upcoming film Little Boy offers a story about childhood, faith, and prejudice set in a tiny California town during World War II. The film, in theaters this weekend, features beautiful imagery and a compelling storyline, and demonstrates careful production that captures the charm of 1940s America.

The film is rich in potential, and some are rushing to support it merely because it is a “Christian” film, while others wonder whether Monteverde’s latest effort might not feature the same weaknesses of storytelling and pacing that handicapped his 2006 pro-life movie Bella. Read the rest at Catholic World Report. . . 

Then, the Civilized Reader over at Crisis Magazine published my piece on C.S. Lewis’s last novelTill We Have Faces, which I found profoundly powerful and moving.

Oft forgotten amid the fanfare for The Chronicles of Narnia and his sci-fi trilogy, C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces was the last novel he wrote; and it is an unforgettable fiction that feels, in some ways, a little too real.  Much as The Screwtape Letters dissects the shameful foibles of the human soul with insight sharper than a surgeon’s knife, Till We Have Faces takes up with shocking clarity a grim problem as old as Job: man’s complaint against a seemingly inscrutable God.

The result is not easy reading. Although the plot races through a powerful drama based on the pagan myth of Cupid and Psyche, readers must keep pace with difficult spiritual questions as the narrator navigates painful memories and grave soul-searching. Lewis thus takes a bold and unfiltered look at some of humanity’s darkest struggles: pride; doubt; anger against God; the problem of suffering; and the mysterious battle between love and selfishness in the human heart. Read the rest at Crisis Magazine . . .

Mrs. Mike

~This post first appeared over at The Mirror Magazine.~

“It is the possibility of loss that makes love tender.”

I’ll be honest: I anticipated something much less intense than what this slim, chick-flick-ish novella cover disguises. In fact, I expected a quaint romance with a little adventure thrown in and possibly a love triangle or something, but ending with the standard romantic proposal and happily ever after.

I was wrong.

Published in 1947, this little gem of a book was highly recommended to me by a friend, as a romance based on a true story–-“But I’m pretty sure it’s out of print now,” she added dolefully. Intrigued, I began begging everyone who I knew lived within 50 miles of used book stores to start searching the shelves to see if they could find me a copy. I ended up with two, miraculously, and eagerly began delving into its pages.

The cover bills Mrs. Mike as a “heartwarming classic story about the girl who married a rugged Canadian Mountie,” but unlike the conventional romance setup, the real love story does not end in a wedding but begins with it. Sixty pages in, 16-year-old Katherine Mary has already wed handsome Mountie Mike Flannigan, and I asked incredulously: “But, where is the story going to GO from here?!”

Authors Benedict and Nancy Freedman, a married couple themselves, clearly utilized their experiential insight into the “feel” of a marital relationship, it’s struggles and tensions, it’s highs and lows, and what it means for two people wedded to each other to cope with adversity, suffering, and loss.

The story traces Katherine and Mike through years upon years–-making this a real story of their love and their marriage, not just of their (admittedly loving and tender) romance. And that makes it particularly unusual in a world where popular romance lit is dominated by porn-fests like Fifty Shades of Grey.

Neither Mike nor Katherine is perfect. Katherine has a hot temper and a tendency to daydream her way out of the struggles of daily life in the Canadian frontier, pushing away her husband’s affection through her escapism. Mike, in turn, withdraws into his shell when faced with marital stress and personal grief, thus isolating his wife when she most needs his help to heal.

Besides the romantic content, a word should be said for the fairly unusual setting of the story: the Canadian wilderness (two words I’ve rarely heard put together, and never encountered as the stage for a story before now). From the snow and frozen rivers to unbearably mosquito-infested summers (who knew?!), from the dangers of fur-trapping to vivid native culture, the Freedmans bring both the beauty and the danger of this stunning setting to life–a backdrop fitting to the passionate and unpredictable love of Kathy and Mike.When I learned that the authors were Hollywood scriptwriters from the 1940s, I imagined an idealized version of pioneer life in Canada, a la Little House on the Prairie. However, while the Freedmans definitely spend plenty of page time praising the natural beauty of the Albertan wilderness, the portrait of Flannigans’ life is punctuated by the all-too-gritty details of pioneer hardships. Ignorance, mental illness, misogyny, abortion, violence, petty thievery, and disease far away from the comforts of civilization, all play prominent roles in the tale. Death, especially, recurs as a theme again and again with grim inevitability. The authors don’t shy away from tragedies that provoke the deep, heart-searching questions: “Why? Why did this have to happen to me, or to you?”

In the end, Mrs. Mike is fundamentally a romantic adventure, with a stingingly realistic twist; it offers significant insight into the workings of human relationships and the role of Providence in the pattern of a human life. It’s not exactly Brideshead Revisited, and perhaps doesn’t plumb the answers as deeply as it could, but if you’re looking for page turner that still has substance, and a tender look at the intricacies of the human heart, Mrs. Mike is well worth the read– and a masterful alternative to trash like Fifty Shades of Grey.

Hell is Other People

 Hell is other people.
A production of Sartre’s Huis Clos
At least, that’s what French existentialist and Marxist Jean-Paul Sartre said. The line comes from his 1944 play Huis Clos (“No Exit”), in which three damned souls discover that their eternal punishment is not fire-and-brimstone tortures such as abound in Dante’s Inferno, but rather to be locked in a room with the people who will most get on their nerves, to put it mildly, for all eternity.
Sartre’s “Hell is other people” line is usually taken as his commentary on the discomfort caused by living in community with other human beings. The most terrible, exasperating torment, in Sartre’s eyes, is the agony of soul caused by having to live forever alongside someone who drives you up the wall. Their annoying habits, their pettiness or cynicism or stupidity, their disposition and tastes that so frustratingly conflict with yours and require, if you are to live in communion with them, some sort of accommodation or concession of your own likes and desires—that, says Sartre, is Hell.
But another man, an English contemporary of Sartre, had a vastly different vision of Hell. In The Great Divorce, a novel written in 1945, C. S. Lewis made it shockingly clear that Hell is not being forced to live with others you hate; rather, real, genuine, horrible Hell is to be all alone at last with nothing but your sins; alone without any true communion with others or with God. Condemned souls, from Lewis’ point of view, are not souls who suffer because they are forced to be around people they don’t like; they suffer because they are utterly absorbed into themselves, and are left in the end with no solace from their own sins.
Like Huis Clos, Lewis’ novel dispenses with the typical depictions of hell as a place of physical torture; yet unlike Sartre’s play, The Great Divorce paints hell as a grey, mundane, dull town where people are constantly restless and dissatisfied, in increasing and agitated personal and spiritual isolation from one another even if they yet remain in some façade of a community. To be sure, they retain a sizeable contempt for their fellow sinners and even for the saints; the arrogant poet considers them all intellectual inferiors, the narrow-minded cynic thinks them all fools, and the self-satisfied apostate thinks them all unenlightened. Yet their punishment is not to be in company with such people, but to have isolated their souls from real and selfless relationship with an “other,” leaving them alone with their pride, or their cynicism, or their lust, or their selfishness.
The essential point Lewis is trying to make is that, in the end, Hell is not a punishment imposed by God upon unwilling, unfortunate souls. It is a deliberate, individual choice, a choice a soul makes freely.  As Lewis’ “guide” through other-worldly regions explains: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it.” He goes on to clarify that at some point, a condemned soul decided it would rather keep a damning little sin, even if it cannot be happy with it, rather than have that sin taken away altogether. When that happens, a soul becomes practically swallowed up by its self-destroying sin; the soul almost ceases to be itself, and begins to be merely the stuff of its own sins. 
Often, as flawed human beings we can be easily tempted to think our problem is other people. If only so-and-so wasn’t such a jerk, this wouldn’t be so frustrating; my life would get so much better if people just appreciated me. He is just so unreasonable; she whines all the time. Dealing with other people can be so trying an experience that we may despondently declare that someone is “giving us Hell.”
But Lewis’ insight is clear: Hell is not bearing with the (perhaps grave) faults of other people, but living willingly in our own. In reality, human community (“other people”) is our greatest opportunity to grow in charity; it sanctifies us in this life, and is one of the great joys of the next. Here on earth, living with “other people” is not our hell, but our Purgatory: it teaches us to learn about, cope with, and grow out of our own faults in order to function as best we can in a faulty human society. In heaven, at last, we will be relieved of our deficiencies and our sins will be erased from our souls, so that the “other people,” the community of saints and angels, will not be a burden but an everlasting joy—that exchange of mutual love with each other and with that all-important “other,” God, for all eternity.

 While Sartre may have been on to something about the pain of living in community, he missed the other side of the coin: in a certain sense, Heaven is other people—because we cannot get there, and we cannot choose to be there, without being other-centered, without coming to live in the selfless communion of love with God and man.
Jean-Paul Sartre
C.S. Lewis

A Room With A View

When I first arrived at college for Freshman Orientation, I was secretly hoping that I would get “a room with a view.” There is nothing so refreshing, after hours of intense studying, as stopping to stretch and gaze out a window at a pleasing panorama. I knew that if I was lucky enough to land a room on the top floor of the dorm, then I would get a view of the surrounding countryside, of the library in the distance, or maybe even a glimpse of the Shenandoah River. So, I’ll admit I was just a little disappointed when I discovered that not only was I not on the top floor, but my room was actually in the so-called “basement” level. I had a window, of course, but it looked out on the parking lot. However, I soon discovered that this particular room had more to offer than that particular view.
Our room was located just next to the entrance—not just to our level, but to the whole dorm. Because of our unique location, a lot of traffic would pass by our door every day. (This had its downside, too, of course: I remember telling my poor roommate that if one more girl slammed the door on her way out I would scream. Patience isn’t my strongest virtue.) During the normal course of the day, it happened that every girl on the floor and almost every girl in the dorm would pass by on her way to the chapel or class or the library.
In a few weeks, I began to realize that this position next to the exit was an unexpected little grace.  My roommate and I liked to leave the door open while we studied, and most days we did our homework in the comfort of our rooms, with our desks positioned so that we could easily turn and extend a cheery hello to the girls going by. They would stop by on their way in or out of the dorm, at all hours, at least to say hi and occasionally to chat. Sometimes the chats would turn into heart-to-heart talks, and before long, the girls who passed most often began to tell me about their homes, their families, their hardships and hopes. At first, when these beautiful young ladies began coming to me with heartaches or stress about schoolwork, I thought they were looking for advice, and often I would rack my brains to try and think of something wise to say, usually ending with the only thing I could think of, which was hardly original or sagacious: “Well, go pray about it, sweetheart, and trust God, and I’m sure it will turn out alright.”
However, pretty soon I understood that these girls weren’t looking for advice, and didn’t need me to give any. They were simply looking for someone to talk to. They often knew what they had to do in the challenges they had to face; they just needed a listening ear, a welcoming smile; in other words, a safe harbor where they could tell someone their troubles. I began offering tea to the ones who looked like they were particularly in need of a respite; and over steaming mugs and crackers we’d unwind or open up our books to study together. Others didn’t have time for tea, and they would simply drop in for a few minutes and be on their way.
Looking back over the year, I realize that God had given me that room and placed those young women in my life not simply that He might be able to use me as an instrument of His grace in their lives, but so that they could teach me. Through them my view of life could widen beyond my struggles to comprehend their headaches and heartaches, their spiritual or scholastic mountains to climb. They were there to teach me to listen, to open not just the door but the ears to my heart, to truly pay attention when my neighbor needs compassion or encouragement or just a little attention. Through them God gave me the chance to see Christ in my spiritual sisters. That is a lovely view indeed—and I don’t have to live on the top floor to see it.

The Third Man (1949): What is Truth?

“Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

From the opening sequence of The Third Man, there is an uncanny sensation that something is not right. As a narrator casually opens up the tale, a shot pans across murky portside water, rank with flotsam and jetsam, and suddenly it becomes clear that there is a corpse floating amid the rubbish.

That uneasy feeling soon permeates the atmosphere, as the audience is presented again and again with imagery that is both haunting and unforgettable: the crumbling ruins of bombed-out buildings, shells of ornate architecture laying topsy-turvy in the rubble, plain mismatched furniture and coverless light-bulbs cluttering vaulting rooms of elaborate Italian design. The city is a showcase of post-war poverty struggling for survival amid the grim near-anarchy of crime and corruption, death and disillusionment. Shadows, fogs, and shafts of light obscure the viewer’s vision; cobblestones glitter like glass in the streetlamps and shadows of men loom deceptively as tall as buildings. Every shot, every line of shading and light, is just slightly off; the angles are just barely skewed, resulting in the distinct sensation that the whole dark and twisted world in which the characters are entangled is swiftly slipping off the screen. The queer zither soundtrack also strangely fits the setting: the local color and local intrigue seem equally tangled up in the music’s twanging, repetitious, changing chords.

This evocative setting is the perfect backdrop for director Carol Reed’s film adaptation of Graham Greene’s tale, set in the post-WWII black market days of Vienna, about a bumbling, naïve American writer named Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), who is offered a job in Vienna by an old school friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), but arrives barely in time to be told that, at that very moment, the last shovelfuls of six feet of earth are being laid over his pal Lime.

At the funeral, Holly falls in with British inspector Calloway (a resigned, grim Trevor Howard) who, after buying Holly one too many drinks, informs him candidly that the police have known for some time that Lime was a vicious racketeer but were never able to convict him. Reeling and aimless after the sudden shock of death and accusation, Holly foolishly commences a one-man crusade to clear his dead friend’s name. He determines to investigate the “accident” surrounding Harry Lime’s death, at first suspecting foul play, but eventually unearthing a much darker truth about good ol’ Harry. This tale of deception and discovery is Graham Greene’s oblique stab—oblique as Carol Reed’s cinematography—at moral relativism, especially in the human soul’s perception of and reaction to the truth.



Holly sets the tone for this theme when Calloway first implies that Lime was involved in the black market. Holly’s reaction isn’t to deny the statement, but to interpret it in such a way that justifies Lime: that Lime was perhaps a small-time operator, trading tires or gasoline or cigarettes—just like everyone else is in the city, sure, everybody, in a small way—and that Calloway is a petty policeman with a vindictive drive against Lime. Calloway calmly reassures him that Lime was one of the foulest criminals in Vienna, pays for the drinks, and arranges for Holly to go home. Calloway, at least, sees the truth, but he cannot force anyone else to accept it.

Holly, on the other hand, is a hopelessly flawed character. He fumbles through his fool-hardy investigations, making mistakes that tip his hand or are even fatal to others; at one point he even gets himself accused of murder. He misjudges, misapprehends, and misconstrues his way towards the truth. His real problem, however, is more than simple American blundering or romantic naïveté. The real problem—indeed, the problem that confronts most of the characters—is that they find it nearly impossible to reconcile the horrible facts about Lime with their own perceptions of him.

The elusive and powerful personality of Lime is not buried at his funeral. It looms large and mysterious in the background of the entire film, and fills the mind and thoughts not only of Holly but of everyone who knew him or had to deal with him, including Calloway and Lime’s girlfriend, the depressed and lonely Anna Schmidt (played by the beautiful and intense Valli). His personality is shrouded in darkness, and for the first half of the film the audience has no notion of what he looks like. Even then, the first glimpses of Harry are—like the snapshots of his personality as seen through the eyes of Holly and Anna and Calloway—incomplete, swathed in shadow and questionable gloom. With time the audience gleans that he was Holly’s closest companion, a flippant and amicable man, a treasure-trove of useful facts, little tricks, and hints of humor. He was Anna’s roguish beloved, a charmer, light-hearted and loveable. He was their friend; but according to the police file, he was a fiend. They all saw him in a way which seems to contradict Calloway’s accusations. Who was Harry Lime? What is the truth about him? What is true? Is it, after all, just a question of perspective?

This problem, like Harry’s personality, is more than what it appears. “Stop making him in your image,” a pained Anna rebukes Holly, “Harry wasn’t just your friend and my lover. He was Harry. A person doesn’t change just because you find out more.” Anna perceives that Holly adjusts his memory of Lime to fit his own sympathies and emotions. She’s partly right: Lime hasn’t changed. However, what they know about him has, and so their judgment of him should. As they uncover the nasty and brutal facts about Lime’s racketeering, which caused death and irremediable harm to many, they are granted a glimpse into his real character. They can accept the truth, or reject it. Holly struggles with this choice, flopping back and forth like a pendulum, whether to side with the police for justice or with Lime for loyalty. Anna, for her part, eventually falls prey, in a way, to the sin for which she reprimands Holly. Her love for Lime borders on obsession—she absently calls Holly “Harry” when she is deep in discussion with him; she wears his pajamas, cries herself to sleep thinking of him. She clings hopelessly to her personal memory of Lime, without reconciling it to reality, remaining loyal to this illusion and ignoring the truth; consequently, she forever closes herself off from the kindness, love, and life offered her by others. She accepts only her vision of him—in other words, makes him in her image—and refuses to see the truth.



For the sake of this review, it is necessary to reveal a few plot points; I will not give away the ending, merely a crucial mid-way detail. If you do not want this spoiled for you, then please read no further.

This problem of perspective on the truth is most perfectly manifested when—in a sequence which is so beautifully filmed it invariably sends tingles up the spine—it is suddenly revealed that Harry is not six feet under. He is alive and well. Holly catches a mere glimpse of him, and then he’s gone, disappearing into the dark city streets once more.

Later, however, he is able to meet with him, and the interview seems almost unreal. Holly meets Lime at a Ferris wheel and suddenly the audience understands why Holly and Anna have such a hard time deciding where their loyalties lie. Orson Welles’ performance is superbly subtle and disturbing. He’s devilishly charming, charismatic, a pleasant talker, possessing all the gentle outward qualities of a true friend. But again, something is not right. As they ascend the tilting world of the ferris wheel, Holly feebly attempts to rebuke Lime, and Lime reveals that he is the quintessence of moral relativism. He throws open the door of the Ferris wheel, and points to the people a hundred feet below on the sidewalk.

Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”

To him, they are only blots on the road. They aren’t people. It’s all relative; it’s all a matter of perspective.

It’s not until the final moments that both Holly and the audience catch a glance of Harry Lime in all his ugly reality. When the perspective, at last, is righted—through a brilliant chase sequence involving the sewer system of Vienna—we see Lime for what he is, at once as pitiable and repulsive as a rat caught in a trap. Holly is faced at last with the irrefutable, unambiguous, truth.

However, Greene and Reed end the film with an eerie, queer element of ambiguity, along with a powerful déjà vu sequence, which not only leaves the ending open and questions unanswered, but ultimately reinforces his point. The men and women of his tale have trapped themselves by their moral relativism, locked tight in their mental habits of denying the truth in favor of the “other side of the story,” which is really a lie. They embraced relativism and ambiguity; and in the end, that is all they have left. Because they could not accept the truth, unambiguous, whole and entire, they cannot escape to freedom and love.