I'll Come Speak

    I write and speak on all sorts of topics: ancient Christian spirituality and the Eastern Orthodox faith, the Jesus Prayer, marriage and family, the pro-life cause, cultural issues, and more. You can contact Cynthia Damaskos of the Orthodox Speakers Bureau if you’d like to bring me to an event. This Calendar will let you know when I’m in your neighborhood.


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Does this sound like a good idea for a movie? I can’t decide. Take six women who have suffered the loss of a child. Send them together to South Africa, to work with impoverished children. In the security of each other’s company, with a genuine need set before them, their grief is mitigated and healing is begun.

As therapy, it’s a great idea.

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(500) Days of Summer

Summer Finn, we’re told, is an average woman in many ways—like height and weight, though slightly above average shoe size. (The narrator telling us this, in a wryly amused way, sounds like James Earl Jones, though I can’t find a credit for him.) Yet something about her arrests men’s attention. She gets an average of 18.4 double-takes per day. This is, we are told, “the Summer Effect.”


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[Christianity Today Movies; June 19, 2009]

Stars: 2

Rated: R

Cast: Geoffrey Rush (Angel), Anthony LaPaglia (Jim Peck), Joel Edgerton (Ron), Ben Mendelsohn (Lenny Peck), Claudia Karvan (Michelle)

A movie is like a parade: before you see the fullness of its pomp and circumstance, you see forerunners, standard bearers, that serve to herald the procession and hint at what is to come. And before you see a movie, you see and hear things that frame your expectations, so you’ll know what about the movie is of primary importance, and why someone should want to see it. The advance banner may well be the plot, but it could also be the cast, especially if the actors have had recent personal troubles. It might be the famous director, or the scale of its special effects. Rarely, the advance banner of a movie bears the name of a writer.

That’s the case with “$9.99”—the signal thing about this movie, the thing that people in-the-know find exciting, is that it is based on the short stories of Etgar Keret. Born in Israel, Keret is the author of short stories and children’s books, and co-author of graphic novels. I haven’t read his work, but it sounds like it original and imaginative, from its very conception. “Missing Kissinger,” for example, packs 50 very short stories into 250 pages. Keret’s stories are frequently surreal, and whimsical and hopeful rather than bitter. His story “Kneller’s Happy Campers,” for example, concerns a man who kills himself and then looks for love in the afterlife. That one was made into the graphic novel “Pizzeria Kamikaze,” and then into the feature film “Wristcutters: A Love Story,” starring Tom Waits and Will Arnett.

From that you can get a feeling for how highly Keret is regarded. The director of “$9.99,” Tatia Rosenthal, says, “Etgar has been referred to as the voice of our generation in Israel, and the pull I felt toward his work was immense.” She praises his “bittersweet, exacting literary voice and its expression of humanism in a morally ambiguous world…the dry-witted expression of a complex reality through everyday situations, and magical realism.” The film found a producer when one of Keret’s fans, Emile Sherman, sought out the writer while on vacation in Tel Aviv. Sherman praises the script: “touching, funny, sophisticated, humanist.”

Do you really need to know all this about the writer behind “$9.99”? I suspect that’s the case. Those who anticipate liking it because it comes from the pen of Etgar Keret will have a deeper appreciation of the film, I think, than those for whom the name evokes a blank “Who he?”

In its general outline, the story is one you’ve seen before; it utilizes the convention of enclosing a wide range of people within a physical place (a stagecoach in “Stagecoach,” an army camp in “The Dirty Dozen,” a theater in “The Muppets Take Manhattan”) to explore various undying themes. A man loses his girlfriend, due to his immature, party-hearty character; another man acquires a girlfriend, one who has unusual tastes; a sweetly naïve young man hasn’t the heart to work for a repossession company; an older man tries to be polite and helpful toward a grumpy intruder who simply moved in. The characters interact for 78 minutes, and at the end most stories are resolved, and most for the better.

That kind of movie can indeed be charming, but it’s not necessarily an advance on the last movie you saw that was built along these lines. In two ways it is sure to be *different* from the last one you saw. In the first place, it uses a fair degree of magical realism. The man who’s lost his love is consoled by a trio of 2-inch-high drinking buddies (he gives them sips of beer from a medicine dropper; they ride in circles on his record turntable). The acquired girlfriend likes her men “smooth,” and after her accommodating lover shaves his head and his body he seeks yet a further way to show his love. The grumpy intruder is an angel of some sort (he has wings), but is otherwise sarcastic and rude.

I’ll agree that such elements are imaginative, but they don’t startle the way they once could have. Americans developed a taste for the absurd when Monty Python became a hit on public television in the 1970s; Woody Allen’s early movies helped too. Whether you’re striving for humor or whimsy, it’s useful to pull out a startling, even impossible, contrast. But the more random the association, the less it can persuasively craft character or depict authentic character change. Elements that are arbitrary may be delightful, even scintillating, but for that very reason they don’t make solid building blocks for a story.

The other really different element is that the film uses clay animation to tell the story. Little figures made of modeling clay were set in place, photographed, moved only a tiny bit, photographed again, until your brain hurts just to think about it. It’s an admirable effort, though of course movement can never be entirely smooth, and subtly shifting facial expressions are more approximate than a human actor could have achieved. Does this add to the movie? Well, it makes it more curious an artifact, and you have to salute the exhausting effort required. But as to whether “$9.99” might have been just as good, or better, filmed the usual way is an open question.

The title is the price of a book acquired by the reluctant repo man; he responded to an ad reading, “Have you ever wondered ‘What’s the meaning of life?’…The answer to this vexing question is now within your reach! You’ll find it in this small yet amazing booklet…yours for a mere $9.99.” Throughout the film Dave attempts to share with other characters the amazing things he is learning—“People think life has only one meaning, but actually there are six!”—but no one wants to listen.

I’ll admit that what intrigued me about the film was a desire to learn what the filmmakers think the meaning of life is. Like the magical realism, like the meticulous clay figures, this turns out to be one more element of a movie that dances and alludes without coming right down to anything, and invites us to believe that dancing and alluding is sufficient in itself. What is the meaning of “$9.99”? You may think there’s only one meaning, but—once you look past the glow of admiration surrounding the writer—it could be less.


Talk About It [3-5 Questions]

1. The angel says that he wanted to see his wife in heaven, but after he killed himself he was turned into an angel instead. Is there still a common misunderstanding that people become angels after death? How would you talk about this with someone who finds the idea comforting?

2. Zack sets his piggy bank free, and it appears we are supposed to find that a sweet conclusion to this strand of the story. But what is likely to happen to that coin-filled piggy bank? Do you think the filmmakers intend us to foresee that subsequent part of the story, or to pretend we don’t?

3. Why does the policeman refuse to accept Mr. Cruller’s confession? What do you make of his statement, “I’m sure that God forgives you”?


The Family Corner: Although this film is animated, it is not for children. A suicide splashes blood over a passerby, twice. Two characters are shown nude and while having sex. “$9.99” has an R rating.




I knew Up was one of those rare first-rate movies when I found myself really yearning to see it for a second time. Actually, that wouldn’t have been so unusual, except that I was still sitting in the theater and had only gotten through 20 minutes of seeing it for the first time. It’s that good.

And that in itself isn’t so unusual, considering that this is a film from Pixar Studios, whose previous films (Wall-E, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc., Toy Story) have been not only excellent, but also original. Leave it to the other animation studios to crank out films where bland themes (like “Follow Your Dreams”) provide vehicles for pop-culture references and gross-out jokes. In recent years, Pixar gave us a robot cleaning up an abandoned planet Earth, a rat who wants to be a French chef, superheroes chafing under forced retirement, and the courageous monsters who must inhabit children’s closets. Imagination still exists, in some quarters.

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How odd is Odd?  When we meet Odd Horten, he is driving the Oslo-Bergen express train through a blue-white snowy landscape. (This opening-credits sequence is gorgeous:  each dive into a tunnel, each returning plunge through a circle of searing white, is a cinematic marvel.) But a young railroad employee catching a ride up front with Odd finds that it’s very hard to draw him into conversation. Questions and comments get monosyllabic replies, if any. Why is that?


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X-Men Origins: Wolverine

[National Review Online: May, 1, 2009]

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a fanboy. So why did I get such a kick out of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”? Because the title character is an interesting guy, with a complicated history and complicated feelings. Because the plot has some good twists, not all of which are straightened out before final credits roll. Because the story totes us around to an abundance of intriguing locations and sets, from a Nigerian diamond-processing floor to a Las Vegas boxing ring to an alley in the French Quarter to a nuclear reactor. (My favorite was the trailer of a melancholy carnival worker, stuffed with vintage toys and wind-up gadgets, and a hundred bare bulbs dangling from the ceiling.) It’s got people, places, and stuff worth looking at, and that gives any movie a good head start.

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“Earth,” the first release from the Disneynature films, lives up to its publicity; this film is 85 minutes of jaw-droppingly beautiful clouds, waterfalls, icebergs, and savannahs; of graceful animals, scary animals, funny animals, and excruciatingly cute baby animals. James Earl Jones delivers a narration that is mild and accessible to children. (A typical line: after a shot of a penguin sliding on his belly, Jones says, “You might not know this, but penguins are one of the few creatures born with a built-in toboggan.”) It reopens the tradition of Disney nature documentaries, as in the “True Life Adventures” films of 1948-1960, and a better family-friendly nature film can’t be found.


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Hannah Montana: The Movie

[National Review: April 10, 2009]

Whoever’s in charge of truth-in-labeling in Washington needs to take a look at the phenomenon called “Hannah Montana”. That’s the name of a fictitious world-famous pop star, who conceals her secret identity in order to live a normal life as fictitious high-schooler Miley Stewart; this way, she has “The Best of Both Worlds” (as Hannah-Miley’s hit song has it). What needs re-classification is the omni-capable 16-year-old, Miley Cyrus, who portrays this double character. She’s frequently described as a singer, a pop star, or a rock star; you can call her an actress, too, since she’s spent the last three years starring in the Disney Channel show named for her character, and now carries her first narrative film (a concert film released last year was a blockbuster). Pop star, actress, ordinary high school student? Certify her for a whole new title: comedienne.

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The Judgement of the Next Generation

[National Review Online; January 22, 2009]

Just two days after the inauguration, another crowd filled Washington streets, the pro-lifers who gather each year for the “March for Life.” This January 22 marks the 36th anniversary of Roe v Wade, and after so many years with little change or improvement, the nation has grown a bit blasé about this annual demonstration against abortion. We still say abortion is a “hot issue”— but if you think about it, it’s not as hot as it used to be. The abortion controversy used to command cover space on magazines, and TV networks showcased hour-long debates. You don’t see that anymore.

You could say that people just got tired of hearing about it. Year after year the two sides said mostly the same thing, and nothing much changed. Eventually, public attention was bound to sidle off to a newer, more exciting topic (gay marriage, anyone?). When attention drifted, it was the pro-choice side that had command of the status quo.

And you could say that that settles that; from now on there will be less and less talk about abortion, and we’ll just get used to things the way they are.

But I can imagine things going a different way. Not soon—maybe not till the baby boomers have passed from the scene—but it’s possible that a younger generation will see abortion very differently. And the reason is, as the saying goes, “Nobody knows when life begins.” With abortions now running around 1.2 million per year, the total number of abortions since Roe v Wade is about 49 million. That’s a big number—about a sixth of the US population. It’s a especially big number, if you’re not absolutely sure that it’s not a real loss of human life.

After all, if you saw a little girl hit by a car, you’re going to yell, “Get an ambulance!” not “Get a shovel!” It’s in the very fabric of humanity to be on the side of life, if there’s the faintest hope that life exists. We don’t throw children away when we’re not sure whether they’re alive or not. And, as the pro-choice side never stops saying, it’s not that they’re positive a fetus is “not alive” – it’s that they’re not sure.

When I was a young fire-breathing college feminist in the early 70’s, we didn’t see abortion as a melancholy private decision—it was an act of liberation. By choosing abortion, a woman could show that she was the only person in charge of her life, and bowed to no one else’s control. But this formulation turned sour as the grief felt by post-abortion woman began to accumulate. The flip side of autonomy is loneliness, and for many women, their abortion decision was linked to emotional abandonment.

And then there was the advent of ultrasound technology, enabling live images of a baby moving in the womb. In 1989, word went round the pro-life movement to order the tape of pollster Harrison Hickman’s presentation at that year’s NARAL convention. On it he said, “Nothing has been as damaging to our cause as the advances in technology which have allowed pictures of the developing fetus, because people now talk about that fetus in much different terms than they did 15 years ago. They talk about it as a human being, which is not something that I have an easy answer how to cure.”

So there are some reasons to think that the abortion question has not been settled, but has merely gone underground. That might be a necessary step. It has to go away so that it can be rediscovered, and seen in a fresh light.

I don’t expect that reconsideration soon: my Boomer generation will never see abortion as anything other than the wise and benevolent gift we bestowed on all future generations. We still control the media, the universities, and so forth, and it will take time for all of us to topple off the end of the conveyer belt.

But the time is coming when a younger generation will be in charge, and they may well see abortion differently. They could see it, not as “a woman’s choice” but as a form of state-sanctioned violence inflicted on their generation. It was their brothers and sisters who died; anyone under the age of 36 could have been aborted (and somewhere around a fourth or a fifth of all pregnancies, in fact, are aborted). A younger generation might feel a strange kinship with the brothers and sisters, classmates and coworkers, who are missing.

And I’m afraid that, if they do see things that way, they aren’t going to go easy on my generation. Our acceptance of abortion is not going to look like an understandable goof. The next generation can fairly say, “It’s not like they didn’t know.” They’ll say, “After all, they had sonograms.” And they may judge us to be monsters.

Maybe that won’t happen. Maybe future generations won’t think twice about abortion. But even we who have grown sick of talking about it still harbor some doubts. In particular, people who think of themselves as defenders of the weak and the oppressed must have many a quiet moment when they wonder, “How, in this one issue, did I wind up on the side that’s defending death?”

There’s a lot of ambivalence out there, and a lot of unspoken grief too, I think. So you never know. Pro-choice may have won the day—but sooner or later, that day will end. No generation can rule from the grave. When that time comes, another generation will sit in judgment of ours. And they are not obligated to be kind.



Surviving the Economy

[Ancient Faith Radio; January 7, 2009]

FMG: Well, I’m at home, of all things. Occasionally I am at home. It’s Sunday morning at Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church in Linthicum, Maryland, just south of Baltimore. If you’ve ever been to Baltimore Washington International Airport, BWI, we’re just two miles from BWI. And it’s coffee hour, and I’m sitting in the basement in the parish hall, and I’m talking with somebody who’s travelled to be here with us. I’m not the one travelling this week. Deacon Tom Braun, from, is it St. Barnabas Church in San Demas?


Dn. Tom Braun: It’s St. Barnabas in Huntington Beach, California.

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