Deal W. Hudson
February 21, 2018
The title above may appear to be of trivial importance, or of no importance at all. But to me, as a lifelong film buff, it’s akin to declaring a change in sexual orientation. All of my adult life, I have placed the date of the Academy Awards on my calendar, making sure that night would be free, no matter where I might be traveling or what responsibilities I had to honor. Oscar night was sacrosanct.
After the 2017 Golden Globe and SAG Awards, I’m certain the 2017 Academy Awards will be nothing less than a President Donald Trump hate-fest. I voted for Donald Trump and Mike Pence, along with another 61,201,03 American citizens. I wish him, his family, his administration, and our nation well. I want to make “American Great” again. I will not subject myself to the bait-and-switch of an Academy Awards show turned into a political theater to attack the newly-elected President of the United States.
To give you a foretaste of what Oscar night will offer: Judd Apatow tweeted that after the election of Trump, “I feel like I’ve just been raped and I just don’t know if I’m going to get murdered.” This comes from the writer-director of some of the highest-grossing comedies of the past decade: The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), Knocked Up (2007), and Funny People (2009),
Some might ask why it took me so long to turn the channel. I would like to think it’s a testimony to my love of movies that I lasted this long. When I started watching the Oscars, Bob Hope was the master of ceremonies which lasted, with a few exceptions, until 1968 when I was a college freshman. Hope would return one more time in 1978, but the next year Johnny Carson took over for five of the next six years. In 1985 Jack Lemmon would host one more time after being a host or co-host three previous times.
The only political excitement I recall during the Hope-to-Carson era was the surprise appearance of Sacheen Littlefeather to receive Marlon Brando’s Oscar for “The Godfather” in 1973. Both Liv Ullman and Roger Moore, presenters for the Best Actor Award, looked appropriately surprised, but the statement about Native Americans was made and the show went on.
Two years later, 1975, when Bert Schneider, the winner for Best Documentary, used his acceptance speech to make an anti-Vietnam statement, co-host Bob Hope handed a note to co-host Frank Sinatra to read in response: “I’ve been asked by the academy to make the following statement regarding a statement that was made by a winner. ‘We are not responsible for any political references made on the program, and we are sorry they had to take place this evening.’” Another co-host, Shirley MacLaine, fumed.
I would, however, date the politicization of the Oscars beginning in 1977 when the Best Actress winner, Vanessa Redgrave, declared her support for the Palestine Liberation Organization: “the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world and their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression.” I recall being shocked by the virulence of her words in the context of an event to celebrate filmmaking.
Later in the evening, Paddy Chayefsky responded to Redgrave, “I would like to say, personal opinion, of course, that I’m sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda. I would like to suggest to Ms. Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed.”
Chayefsky’s plea has not been heeded by subsequent generations of Academy Award participants.
There have been other excellent hosts, notably Billy Crystal (9 times), whose self-deprecating humor ameliorated the rising tide of politicized acceptance speeches. For example, Crystal was the host in 1993 when Richard Gere, talked about Tibet before presenting the award for Art Direction. The same evening Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins used the stage to demand the closure of the U.S. government’s internment camp in Cuba for Haitians with HIV and AIDS.
The Oscars started to hit their nadir in 2003. Accepting his award for Best Documentary, Michael Moore blasted President George W. Bush for the invasion of Iraq: “We live in fictitious times that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man who sends us to war for fictitious reasons. Shame on you, Mr. President.” And in 2005, politics invaded the host’s traditional opening monologue when Chris Rock went after the just reelected president. “When Bush got into office, there was a surplus of money. Now there’s like a $70 trillion deficit. Now just imagine you worked at the Gap. You closin’ out your register and you’re $70 trillion short. The average person would get in trouble for something like that, right? Not Bush—no…”
Since Hollywood idolized him, the Obama years brought some relief, but there will still the contentious social issues, particularly abortion and gay marriage, requiring the expert comment of actors. Best Actor and Best Screenwriter winners in 2009, Sean Penn, and Dustin Lance Black, used their allotted time to tout gay rights. Patricia Arquette used her time in accepting the Best Supporting Actress Award in 2015 to tout women’s “rights.”
The line-up of Oscar presenters this year includes the rank-and-file of the Trump-haters — Emma Stone, Amy Adams, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Dakota Johnson, Shirley MacLaine, and Hailee Steinfeld. First-time Oscar host, Jimmy Kimmel, is trying to lower the political temperature of the show by telling the Hollywood Reporter that he doesn’t “think the [Oscar] audience in its entirety is as liberal as people in Middle America imagine it is.” Given the egos involved, it’s highly doubtful any of the celebrity presenters or award recipients will take the hint. And Kimmel knows it — “the celebrities, most of them are pretty liberal.”
But, thankfully, we have an alternative to the 89th Academy Awards. At 8 pm on the same Saturday evening of February 26, Turner Movie Classics (TCM) will be showing “The Thin Man” (1934), starring Myrna Loy, William Powell, and Asta. I won’t be alone in switching the channel from the Oscars to “The Thin Man.” Why? Because of W. S. Van Dyke’s comedy classic, based upon the novel by Dashiell Hammett, will far greater tribute to the movies than sitting through three hours of self-important tantrums. As the great screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky put it, “winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed.”
Deal W. Hudson
May 14, 2017
Over thirty years ago, I left the Southern Baptists and was confirmed as a Roman Catholic. There were many reasons for my conversion but among the most important was their suspicion and fear of culture. I was taught God spoke only through the “Bible,” properly interpreted of course, and Catholics believed in “idols” beginning with the Virgin Mary.
The Catholic Church that I discovered didn’t believe in idols but embraced God’s presence in culture and history, beginning with the saints and including the arts, sciences, humanities, philosophy, and even politics. His presence was encountered throughout creation and among the descendants of Adam and Eve, in all that they did, thought, made, imagined, dreamed, and what they created made the limiting of Christian wisdom to Scripture both unnecessary and “downright un-Biblical.”
While Scripture and tradition remained normative among Catholics, both the knowledge and experience of God were viewed as ubiquitous, literally everywhere.
Thus, when I encounter the same a negative attitude towards culture among fellow Catholics I get cranky. Over the past thirty years, I have watched as good people bailed out of the “culture wars” either because the good guys were losing or it just no longer appealed to them, while others have decided to “say goodbye” to the division between “left and right.” (And I have lost count of the number of times in the past 30 years this has been announced.)
The so-called “Benedict Option” takes another approach to erasing the tension between faith and culture — the retreat to the safe environs of a home and community where the incoming cultural “stimuli” can be intercepted and repelled.
That these sentiments emerge among Catholics from to time to time testifies to the Puritan-Protestant roots of our nation’s culture. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote after his American visit in the 1930s, “methinks I see the destiny of America embodied in the first Puritan who landed on those shores, just as the human race was represented by the first man” (Democracy in America, Ch. 17.1). As a result of this pervasive influence, Catholics in America have been attacked head-on throughout our history, think of the Blaine Amendment (1875) and Prohibition (1917). But instead of Catholics reaffirming their unique heritage, and in spite of the exclusion, persecution, and prejudice, they self-appropriated much of the Protestant criticism which led them to find a safe refuge in self-doubt and conformity.
Let me propose another option, one both more Catholic as well as being American in the best sense: The Whitman Option, named for one of the greatest of our native poets, Walt Whitman (1817-1889). More than reprinting his words from “Leaves of Grass” (1855-1892), I’m posting his words set to music by the composer Ralph Vaughn Williams, an Englishman, who like many artists of his generation, were inspired by Whitman’s unabashed poeticizing in free verse about the body, soul, nature, and God. In A Sea Symphony (1910), Vaughn Williams found the music to match the irresistible desire, unforeseen exultation, and the expanding vision of a soul seeking God.
The Whitman Option goes in the opposite directions from those who seek either refuge from, or a faux reconciliation of, the tensions between faith and culture: a radical openness to seeking and embracing all that is good, beautiful, and true in our world. Rather than a theological argument, two lines of Whitman will guide us: “Bathe me O God in thee” and “Are they not all seas of God,” lines which combine the desire for God with His ubiquitous presence.
In the final section of the “A Sea Symphony,” called “The Explorers,” the two solo voices announce their intention to “launch out on the trackless seas . . . singing our song of God.”
O we can wait no longer,
We too take ship O soul,
Joyous we too launch out on trackless seas,
Fearless for unknown shores on waves of ecstasy to sail,
Amid the wafting winds, (thou pressing me to thee, I thee to me, O soul,)
Caroling free, singing our song of God,
Chanting our chant of pleasant exploration.
The voices pause for a moment of reflection before both the poet and his soul are slowly and unexpectantly drawn upward with a prayer, “Bathe me O God in thee, mounting to thee.” But we have not yet reached the place of vision. That arrives as the most powerful moment of the symphony: “O Thou transcendent . . . Light of the light, shedding forth universes, thou centre of them.” These last four words are punctuated with the crash of cymbals.
O soul thou pleasest me, I thee,
Sailing these seas or on the hills, or waking in the night,
Thoughts, silent thoughts, of Time and Space and Death, like waters flowing,
Bear me indeed as through the regions infinite,
Whose air I breathe, whose ripples hear, lave me all over,
Bathe me O God in thee, mounting to thee,
I and my soul to range in range of thee.
O Thou transcendent,
Nameless, the fibre and the breath,
Light of the light, shedding forth universes, thou centre of them.
Such a vision cannot last, the poet and his soul “shrivel at the thought of God,” shrinking for a moment before regaining footing, “turning, call to thee O soul, thou actual Me,” the one who has “swellest full the vastnesses of Space.” The chorus singing, “Greater than stars or suns,” declares that God’s being transcends the whole of His creation. But in spite of infinite vastness ahead of them, and its mystery, they, “hoist instantly the anchor!”
Swiftly I shrivel at the thought of God,
At Nature and its wonders, Time and Space and Death,
But that I, turning, call to thee O soul, thou actual Me,
And lo, thou gently masterest the orbs,
Thou matest Time, smilest content at Death,
And fillest, swellest full the vastnesses of Space.
Greater than stars or suns,
Bounding O soul thou journeyest forth;
Away O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers — haul out — shake out every sail,
After hints of a mystical vision, their searching will continue in “the deep waters only.” Here they “will risk the ship, ourselves, and all.” After all, they ask, “are they not all the seas of God?” so why not “farther, farther sail.” The poet and his soul continue on.
Reckless O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me,
Sail forth — steer for the deep waters only,
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.
O my brave soul!
O farther farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!
There will be those who predictably read The Whitman Option with exactly the suspicion that makes them live safely indoors, so to speak. They will accuse me of recommending the words and deeds of a pantheist and accused homosexual in the place of a saint. They will be missing the spirituality of Whitman’s text and how it is deepened and amplified by the beauty of Vaughn Williams music, who himself professed agnosticism in spite of editing the English Hymnal (1906) and composing a large corpus of sacred music.
Yes, these two, Whitman and Vaughn Williams, hardly stand for role models in Christian saintliness. Yet, the beauty they created has stood the test of time, in part because each of them gave expression to our infinite desire for God in a way that made that desire palpable. We are convinced not by argument but by the extraordinary experience of encountering what they, as artists, made for us. This can be an experience of ekstasis in which we are taken out of ourselves for a time. As I once put it in an essay on Jacques Maritain’s aesthetics: in a work of art, the ecstasy of the artist meets the ecstasy of his viewer.* Needless to say, such encounters can be life-changing.
The Whitman Option is offered on behalf of those whose intellectual curiosity, aesthetic hunger, political participation, artistic creativity, and social activism is part of their daily bread. This bread feeds their souls and those who are in their care. They pray “Bathe me O Lord in thee” and live their lives in expectation of joy. They’ve decided that joy is possible, even in a wicked world. Yes, these are “reckless” souls, but they know wherever they choose to journey, “are they not all the seas of God??
*”The Ecstasy Which Is Creation: The Shape of Maritain’s Aesthetics,” in Understanding Maritain: Philosopher and Friend, eds. Deal W. Hudson and Matthew J. Mancini, Mercer University Press, 1987.
These clips are taken from a performance of Ralph Vaughn Williams “A Sea Symphony” at the 2013 BBC Proms conducted by Sakari Oramo with the BBC Orchestra and Chorus, and soloists Roderick Williams and Sally Matthews.
Deal W. Hudson
January 11, 2018
My title may seem a bit pretentious, but it poses the central question of Francis O’Gorman’s 2017 book, Forgetfulness: Making the Modern Culture of Amnesia.
I interviewed Francis yesterday on ‘Church and Culture,” to be aired this coming weekend, about his rich and unsettling book. Its richness lies in O’Gorman’s seamless intertwining of his expertise in 19th-century English literature, especially the Victorians, and his critique of modernity. It is unsettling because this is not the kind of critique to which we have become accustomed — focused on themes of genocide, moral decline, and subjectivism. O’Gorman rather focuses on the creation of a culture of amnesia, meaning the attempt, since the French Revolution, to postulate life’s meaning without any attention to the past.
This dismissal of tradition, with its deeply rooted narratives what it means to be mortal, entered into the mainstream of Western culture giving birth to a succession of intellectual movements, such as Marxism and Communism, with their promises to create a world of perfect equality. Among intellectuals, this amnesia gave rise to existentialism, phenomenology, structuralism, deconstruction, multiculturalism, ethnic studies, and gender studies, each one more destructive of our connection to the wisdom of the past than the previous. His insights, however, only begin at a theoretical level but expose the impact at every level of human life, beginning with the millions of millennials walking the streets with their head bowed before the glimmering screens of their iPhones.
Deal W. Hudson
January 12, 2018
Ken Burn’s documentary masterpiece, “The Civil War,” premiered in September 1990. Its depiction of the isolation of Abraham Lincoln is strikingly similar to that of President Trump.
As hauntingly narrated by David McCullough, Burn’s “Civil War” traces the rise of Lincoln from his 1847 election to Congress to his surprise election to the presidency in 1860, which immediately set off the call to succession in South Carolina — sound familiar?
Also, all too familiar, was the public scorn and ridicule that Lincoln and his wife, the southerner Mary Todd, endured from the moment they arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A short carriage ride away was the unfinished dome of the United States Capitol, started in 1793, burned to the ground in the War of 1812, was rebuilt in 1815, expanded in 1850 with the new, cast-iron dome, double in size and three times the weight, but far less than the weight born by Lincoln through the course of the Civil War and his tumultuous re-election in 1864. His assassination on April 15, 1865, at age 56 would put an end to an experience he described as more painful than “hell.”
The documentary describes Lincoln as a man without any support, either from his party, his own cabinet or from the generals he deployed along the “1,000-mile front.” His Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 was met with disapproval in the North, abolitionists thought it was too weak, thousands of Yankee soldiers deserted, and only two members of Congress supported him. “Lincoln was isolated and alone. . . . there were only two men in the House who defended him.” One visitor to Washington in February 1862, lawyer Richard Henry Dana, reported: “As to the politics of Washington, the most striking thing is the absence of personal loyalty to the President. It does not exist. He has no admirers, no enthusiastic supporters, none to bet on his head. If a Republican convention were to be held tomorrow, he would not get the vote of a State.”
The epithets aimed at Lincoln from his being an “imbecile” to having become a “dictator” have become the daily memes of the mainstream media toward President Trump. This is not to say that Trump is Lincolnesque, but it makes the larger point that such violent attitudes and commentary about an American president is the product of the age, not the man. Lincoln faced a “nation divided.” President Trump faces a division just as deep but subtler and more complex to tease out in all its facets.
In his novel War and Peace (1867), Leo Tolstoy often comes back to the issue of whether Napoleon “caused” the invasion of Russia, or “caused” any of his many triumphs. Tolstoy presses the point that no single man can be said to be responsible for human events. Each man and woman, he explains, have freedom of will that in times of war are caught up in a dynamic larger than any one of them, even Napoleon himself. It’s worth thinking about Tolstoy’s point, as we point our finger in blame or raise our hands in salute towards any one person.
“Man’s mind cannot grasp the causes of events in their completeness, but the desire to find those causes is implanted in man’s soul. . . . It may seem to be a matter of indifference whether we understand the meaning of historical events this way or that; yet there is the same difference between a man who says that the people of the West moved on the East because Napoleon wished it and a man who says that this happened because it had to happen, as there is between those who declared that the earth was stationary and that the planets moved round it and those who admitted that they did not know what upheld the earth, but knew there were laws directing its movement and that of the other planets. There is and can be, no cause of a historical event except the one cause of all causes. But there are laws directing events, and some of these laws are known to us while we are conscious of others we cannot comprehend. The discovery of these laws is only possible when we have quite abandoned the attempt to find the cause in the will of some one man, just as the discovery of the laws of the motion of the planets was possible only when men abandoned the conception of the fixity of the earth. (War and Peace, 188.8.131.52)
Deal W. Hudson
January 13, 2018
There are no bayonet attacks or cannons firing away into the night, but there are trenches. Take one small town I recently visited in Maryland. “We don’t get invited to any dinner parties, or anything, anymore,” my hostess told me. The street itself is only four short blocks long with no more than twenty houses, but its colonial layout gives it the feel of a small community inside the city, only a street away from downtown. Couples along the block who used to be friends now won’t make eye contact my hostess and her husband as they walk down the street.
The reason, of course, is Donald Trump.
The man of the house, a friend of mine for thirty years, had the temerity to set them right on the downsides of Obamacare. He told me that he had not wanted to say anything, but when one of the ladies at the table expressed with delight — “But isn’t it good that we pay more!” — he couldn’t hold himself back any longer. ( Who could?) The mood around the table turned dark, and my friends soon left never again to be invited back.
I’ve stumbled across the same trench many times since the 2016 presidential campaign began — even on my beloved golf courses where I learned some guys just don’t want you to show up if you’re for Donald Trump. I also meet it regularly, of course, in various arts communities which I inhabit regularly, in spite being occasionally “caught out” and left to spend intermission by myself.
Yes, we are in a kind of Civil War, one that has produced trenches stretching across the ground where we live among families, communities, businesses, and institutions; hardly any portion of our lives remains untouched, where we work, where we play, where we worship. Overall these spaces hang now an air of suspense anticipating the next person or persons to be judged to be living “on a different planet,” at the former president, Barack Obama, described viewers of FoxNews yesterday.
That small town in rural Maryland isn’t the only place where us aliens are no longer welcome
Deal W. Hudson
January 14, 2018
There’s a new and delightful novel, The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce, which I’m kicking myself for not having written first.
The setting is a music shop whose owner, Frank, refuses to sell anything but vinyl LPs in the face of the Compact Disc whose introduction in the mid-80s quickly shrank the demand for anything else. (Now 30 years later, vinyl is back, comprising nearly 9% of all recordings sold in 2017.)
But in addition to his stubbornness, Frank has an unusual gift: he’s able to intuit what music will lift the spirits of his customers, regardless of their familiarity with it or not. One curmudgeonly customer arrives in a dour mood insisting on nothing but Chopin but leaves the shop having fallen in love with Aretha Franklin, her voice “a little boat and the music a Japanese wave.”
Like Rachel Joyce, I believe music has an unusual, almost mystical, power to reach the human heart, and, in doing so, to heal, comfort, and inspire. Though Frank is a musical shaman, his feelings of love only reach out in compassion to others. He keeps his own tightly bound up inside himself as he sits day after day behind the counter placing his precious vinyl on the turntable.
Then one day, a woman named Ilse faints on the sidewalk in front of the store. Frank goes to her aid and finds himself gazing into “eyes like vinyl.” He instantly falls in love, and the feeling, it seems, is mutual. The following scene where the author describes Frank taking Ilse inside the store following their dance of glances and patter of conversation is a gem. She eventually must leave but her purse is left behind. Did she do this on purpose to have an excuse to return? Frank wonders, and so do the group of misfits who work with Frank and the few remaining shops on Unity Street.
They all want Frank to find love and happiness, to experience something of the happiness he has elicited in others with his gift of music. As the novel progresses, it remains uncertain whether Frank will ever open his heart. Yes, the issue for Frank is that simple, which makes Joyce’s novel so very appealing.
I predict that music itself will have the last word…..