Death Wish (1974)

When I was a little kid, I used to watch Adventures of Superman.  In one episode, “The Stolen Costume,” which aired in 1952, a criminal and his girlfriend discover that Superman’s identity is Clark Kent.  To keep them from talking, Superman takes them to a cabin on top of a mountain, telling them that he will bring them supplies from time to time.  After he leaves, they try to climb down, but fall to their death.  Obviously, what Superman did was against the law.  But I was fine with that.  What he did was for the greater good of mankind (although I was not capable of expressing my feelings that way at the age of six).

In 1963, when I was sixteen years old, I saw the coming attractions for Dr. No (1962).  It said that James Bond had a license to kill, “whom he pleases, when he pleases, where he pleases.”  That made sense to me.  Government agents, acting for the greater good of mankind, should be able to execute bad guys without bothering with the usual legal niceties.  And indeed, Bond does kill a man in cold blood, just after delivering a wisecrack, even though he could easily have called the police and had him arrested.

I do not believe I was unusual in this regard.  A lot of people felt that way in those days.  After the Vietnam War and Watergate, it became clear that people with power could not be trusted, as our Founding Fathers clearly realized when they framed our Constitution.  At least, it became clear to a lot of people, but for others, not so much.  Some people just naturally have a fascist bent that is a permanent feature of their character.

The idea is that all too often the law just gets in the way of true justice.  In the movie Dragnet (1954), Frank asks why the laws always protect the criminals, and Friday answers, “Because the innocent don’t need them.”  For a long time, the law that protected the criminals that the innocent did not need was habeas corpus.  In Scarface (1932), Tony Camonte says that he was released on a “writ of hocus pocus.”  But after 1966, the bane of the fascist cop was the Miranda ruling, something that the title character of Dirty Harry (1971) just never could quite get his head around, not in that movie, nor in any of the sequels.

At one extreme, the fascist is the president of the United States, as in Gabriel Over the White House (1933), or as in real life, unfortunately.  At the other extreme, it is the ordinary citizen, the greatest example of which is Death Wish (1974), which was so popular that is spawned four sequels and a recent remake.

When this movie starts out, Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) and his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) are at the beach on vacation.  It’s a deserted beach, so Paul suggests making love right there in the open, but Joanna says they are “too civilized,” so they go back to the hotel.  When he returns from his vacation, we find out from his coworker, Sam, that the murder rate in New York City is getting worse, saying that decent people will have to work in the city and live somewhere else.  Paul notes that by “decent people,” Sam means those who can afford to live somewhere else.  His coworker accuses him of being a bleeding-heart liberal in his concern for the underprivileged, saying that they should all be put into a concentration camp.

Meanwhile, back in the jungle, Joanna and the Kersey’s daughter Carol are at the grocery store where three hooligans are behaving so obnoxiously that we don’t even need to see the rape and murder that come later.  We are ready for someone start wasting these characters right now.  As they follow Joanna and Carol to their apartment, we see some nuns crossing the street, as if to make it clear that we live in a godless universe where faith is folly.  Pretending to be the delivery boy with the groceries, they get in.  What follows is a nightmare of cruelty and horror, as Carol is brutally raped and Joanna is murdered.  The funeral, where words are spoken over Joanna’s grave by a priest, acts as a bookend to the nuns, further driving home the pathetic impotence of religious belief in the face of so much evil in the world.  Had Carol died as well, there might have been a period of grieving and then moving on.  But Carol degenerates into a catatonic state, thereby acting as a continual reminder of what happened to her and her mother.

If this had happened to Sam’s family, and he got out his gun and started blowing away the city scum, this would have been all wrong, for two reasons.  First, since he is already a fascist, there would be little dramatic value in seeing him put his beliefs into action.  Second, as he is played by William Redfield, we would know that someone who looked like that in a movie would never be able to do what someone who looks like Charles Bronson could do.  Of course, speaking of looks, we had a hard time accepting that Bronson’s character was a bleeding-heart liberal in the first place, but we knew that we were just being set up for a reluctant-hero situation.

Paul puts some roles of quarters in a sock to act as a homemade blackjack, which he gets to use in short order when someone tries to hold him up.  But as he reenacts the scene at home in his elation, the roles of quarters bust apart, so we know that something a little more dependable will be needed.

As an architect, Paul is sent to Arizona to have a look at the real estate project proposed by Aimes Jainchill (Stuart Margolin).  Never mind that places out West like Texas and Arizona are just as modern and urban as the rest of the country, the movies still like to play up the idea that cowboy culture is alive and well.  And this movie really lays it on thick.  As Paul is arriving at the airport, we see Aimes pushing open a couple of swinging saloon doors underneath a sign that reads “Last Chance Cocktails.”  He is dressed in full Western regalia.  Except it’s modern Western clothes, and he is wearing glasses, so he’s kind of an urban cowboy.

They go out to where Aimes wants to build his houses, and while they are looking around, we see a cowboy named Judd herding cattle through the area.  Aimes says he doesn’t want to bulldoze the hills.  Paul says that will take up a lot of space.  Aimes replies that the open spaces are what this part of the country is all about, saying we need space for life, for people like Judd, for horses and cows.  That sounds nice, but once the houses start being built, won’t Judd and the horses and cows find themselves in the same situation we have seen in Westerns many times, where the free-range cattlemen find themselves shut out by homesteaders?  There won’t be any range war, of course, but it just shows how silly the whole Western nostalgia business is, something Aimes seems to oblivious to, and which we are supposed to overlook.

Speaking of Western nostalgia, they next find themselves in “Old Tuscon,” a movie lot for Westerns and a tourist attraction where scenes are acted out in which a sheriff takes on the bad guys.  These were the good old days, when outlaws met with swift justice.  Subsequently, Aimes takes Paul to his gun club, where we find out that Paul was a conscientious objector during the war.  It seems his father was killed in a hunting accident, and so his mother turned Paul into a pacifist, but not before his father had first taught Paul how to use a gun, so he is a crack shot.  After solving the real estate problem he was sent to fix, Paul heads back home.  Before he leaves, Aimes puts a present in his suitcase.  When Paul gets home, he discovers that the present is a thirty-two revolver.

Now, wait a minute!  Did some city slicker write this script?  No self-respecting, macho, urban cowboy would buy someone a thirty-two unless it was for his wife, and even then it would probably be a thirty-eight.  Nothing less than a forty-five would be the thing for Charles Bronson, even if his character is a bleeding-heart, conscientious objecting, momma’s boy.

In any event, it is important that someone gave Paul this gun.  It is standard in the movies that if a civilian buys a gun, he is just going to get himself killed.  But if he acquires the gun in some other way, then he will be able to use it effectively.  And that he does.  Not only does he successfully kill hoodlums right and left, but he causes the crime rate to go down as well.  He never does encounter the men who murdered his wife and raped his daughter, which is just as well, because that would really have been a stretch.

At the beginning of the movie, “civilized” just meant not having sex on the beach.  Later in the movie, it acquires a more pejorative connotation.  Jack, Paul’s son-in-law, says they should have moved to the country, out of the city, where Joanna and Carol would have been safe, recalling Sam’s remark about what decent people would soon need to do.  Paul is contemptuous of this idea, of running away, suggesting that if the police cannot protect people, they should do it themselves.  Jack says, “We’re not pioneers anymore, Dad.”  Paul asks, if we are not pioneers, what are we then.  “I mean, if we’re not pioneers, what have we become?  What do you call people who, when faced with a condition of fear, do nothing about it?  They just run and hide.”  Jack answers, tentatively, “Civilized?”

As we get toward the end of the movie, more Western tropes start piling up right along with the bodies.  Paul tells one bandit to “fill his hand,” to “draw.”  Later, when a police lieutenant (Vincent Gardenia) tells him to leave town, because the higher ups don’t want him arrested for political reasons, Paul says, “By sundown?”

Paul does move to another city.  Chicago, of course.  And when some punks in the station harass a woman, Paul helps her with her packages, and then uses his thumb and forefinger to suggest a gun, pointing it at them, allowing us to enjoy the thought that this fascist fantasy is not really over.

So, what moral, if any, should we draw from the popularity of fascist fantasies like this one?  It’s hard to say.  Just because someone has a fantasy, it does not mean he really wants it to happen.  I knew a guy who had a fantasy that his ex-wife would come over one day, lock the door behind her, and say, “We are going to go in the bedroom and have unprotected sex, and we are going to have a baby.”  As arousing as he found this fantasy, however, he said that if she really had come over and said that, he would have replied, “No, we’re not.”

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Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Most movies, if they are done well, create expectations and then meet them. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a well-made movie, but it deliberately creates expectations that will not be met.  And so it is that while we enjoy the movie for its artistic qualities, we are taken aback as it continually goes out of its way to deny us the satisfactions that we anticipate. Before trying to decide whether this is a good thing or not, we should first examine those unmet expectations in detail.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is the mother of Angela, a girl that was raped and murdered.  Frustrated that so many months have passed with no arrests, she decides to rent three dilapidated billboards and have them state the crime, mention the lack of arrests, and ask Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) why.  It’s pretty early in this movie, but our first expectation is that Willoughby is going to be her antagonist, that he is ultimately responsible for the fact that the police force is primarily concerned with keeping black folks in their place rather than solving crimes.

We are disabused of that notion when we find that Willoughby is a married man with two daughters.  It is axiomatic that villains in movies never have young children, for then we would feel bad when the villain is killed or sent to prison, leaving the children at home, crying for their daddy.  If an ostensible villain in a movie does have young children, he will typically escape punishment in the end. Furthermore, Willoughby is slowly dying from pancreatic cancer, thereby eliciting our pity.  And then he commits suicide to spare his family the misery of watching him slowly die.  Well, one thing is sure.  He’s not going to be the one that raped and murdered Angela.

Our attention quickly shifts to Officer Jason Dixon.  He is the one who is suspected of torturing a black guy.  Unlike Willoughby, he is not married and he does not have children. Even more ominous is the fact that he lives with his mother, who seems to have a baleful influence on him.  Why, we can almost see him holding a knife to Angela’s throat, with a maniacal look in his eyes, as he tells her, “Now, Momma says ….”  So, we sit back and wait for him to get what’s coming to him.

At one point in the movie, Mildred is in a pool hall where Dixon is trying to intimidate Red, the man who rented Mildred the billboards, and who is playing pool with James, who is commonly referred to as “the town midget,” but who correctly refers to himself as a dwarf.  Mildred picks up on the fact that he has a thing for her.  Hold that thought.

After Willoughby shoots himself in the head, Dixon decides to take it out on Red by pistol whipping him and throwing him out the second story window.  He punches Pam, Red’s secretary, in the face on his way out the door, stopping by Red’s body to kick him while he’s down.  This is witnessed by the new Chief of Police, Abercrombie. We figure that since he is black, he will be a man of impeachable integrity.  Having just witnessed a brutal assault, we just know that Abercrombie is going to have Dixon arrested and sent to prison.  Nope. Apparently, Abercrombie does not want a scandal to muddy up his new job, so he just fires Dixon.  But that only makes us think the movie is saving Dixon for later, perhaps to be killed by Mildred.

We are led to believe that Dixon set fire to the billboards.  In revenge, Mildred tosses Molotov cocktails at the police station, setting it on fire.  Dixon is inside, engrossed in a letter from the deceased Willoughby, saying that deep down, Dixon has the makings of being a good detective, but what he needs is love, because love will bring calm, and calm will bring thought, and thought will solve crimes. It’s bad enough that someone would actually write such drivel, but it turns out that the letter is transformative, that it turns Dixon into a good guy. But just as he is having this revelation, he becomes aware that he is trapped in the fire.  He crashes out into the street, badly burned. James happens to be passing by at that moment, and he becomes aware that Mildred, who also enters the street, is the one who set the fire.  He provides her with an alibi. She agrees to have dinner with him but says she won’t have sex with him.

It is rare for a dwarf to be in a movie, and when one is, we don’t expect him to be the love interest, unless it is with someone his own size.  So, we wonder what is going on. I won’t try to speak for others on this matter, but my expectation was that Mildred would end up giving him a “pity fuck,” and then when it turned out to be pretty good sex, they would start making a regular thing of it.  But when they go to dinner, she humiliates him and makes him feel contemptible. Did they have to put that in the movie just to make us feel bad?

At the same dinner, Mildred discovers that it was her wife-beating ex-husband who set fire to the billboards.  After James leaves, she picks up the bottle of wine by the neck, which leads us to think that she is going to use it as a weapon, to break it over her ex’s head.  But she just sets the wine on the table for him and his nineteen-year-old girlfriend to enjoy.

A menacing character, who earlier threatened Mildred in the store where she works, is later heard by Dixon bragging about some girl he raped and then burned with gasoline, which fits with what we know happened to Angela.  We think that this will finally be the payoff we have been waiting for, that he will suffer for what he did to Angela. Nope.  DNA evidence proves it wasn’t him, besides which he was stationed in the Middle East at the time.

But he’s still a rapist.  And now that Dixon knows that he needs love, so he can be calm, so he can think, so he can solve crimes, he teams up with Mildred to go kill the rapist as a substitute form of revenge.  We don’t expect to actually see them kill this bad guy, since we are running out of movie time, but at least it will be implied.  But as they are driving down the road, their dialogue begins to sound like something out of a Paddy Chayefsky play:  You sure about killing this guy? Not really. What about you? Not really. Well, what do want to do tonight? I don’t know, what do you want to do tonight?

So, now we can ask, “What is the point of all these unmet expectations?”  One reason might be that we do tire of formulaic movies, so it is good to watch a movie occasionally that defies the norm.  A second reason might be that it makes the movie seem more realistic, because we all know how unfulfilling and disappointing life can be.  After all, the movie is loosely based on a real unsolved murder that involved billboards.  Of course, while art may reflect life, not all life is worthy of being made into a movie.  My own life is proof of that.  A third reason might be pretensions on the part of the writer and director, who wants to be like, well, Paddy Chayefsky.

Whatever the reason, I suppose it’s all right to make a movie like this once in a while, one that frustrates our expectations, just so we can have a little variety in our movie-going experience.  But I don’t think we want them to make a regular thing out of it.

A Guy Named Joe (1943)

A Guy Named Joe has two strikes against it.  First, it is a combat film made during World War II.  It is painful to watch these movies today, what with all the gung-ho patriotism they exude.  Second, it is one of those Heaven movies, which are even more painful to watch.  The fact that it belongs to both genres makes watching it all the way through a most trying experience.  But I must say at the outset that as far as WWII combat movies go, this one is about average, but as far as Heaven movies go, this is the dumbest one I have ever seen.

The title character of this movie is Pete Sandige (Spencer Tracy).  Early in the movie, a child explains that in American slang, “Joe” refers to anyone who is a “right chap,” and that’s what Pete is.  Pete loves being the pilot of a bomber so much that he is constantly taking risks disapproved of by his commanding officer, “Nails” Kilpatrick (James Gleason), and by his girlfriend, Dorinda Durston (Irene Dunne).  She’s a pilot, working for the Ferry Service, and she takes risks too, for which Pete threatens to put her across his knee and spank her.

Nails and Dorinda both want to take Pete out of combat, either by promoting him or by reassigning him to teach new officers how to fly.  Pete is appalled at their suggestions.  He says he’d go crazy sitting around in an officer’s club when he is not teaching “kids,” whom he hates.  One gets the impression that he will be miserable when the war is over, when he will no longer be able to drop bombs on the enemy.

Dorinda gets a premonition that “his number’s up.”  In a movie, when someone has a premonition that something bad is going to happen, it always does.  She really puts pressure on Pete to accept that teaching assignment and marry her, and he agrees.  But first, there is this one last mission for him to fly in.  His plane is damaged, but instead of bailing out, he flies the plane right over a Japanese aircraft carrier and blows it up.  But then he crashes and dies.

The next see of Pete, he is walking along on the clouds.  He is still wearing his uniform.  Is that the way it works in Heaven?  Must you wear forever what you were wearing the moment you died?  There must be a lot of people in Heaven wearing their pajamas.  Come to think of it, there must be a lot naked people in Heaven too.  Anyway, it’s good Pete is still in uniform, because Heaven appears to be an army air force base.  Another dead pilot, Dick Rumney (Barry Nelson), explains to Pete that he is dead and in Heaven.  Pete says he never played a harp, but Dick says, “There’s not much time for harp playing up here.  There’s plenty of work to do, and good men to do it.”

Work?  In Heaven?  Oh no!  And here I was worried about what I might be wearing when I die.  Don’t tell me I’m going to have to go back to work, doing what I did for a living for thirty-five years.  Of course, Pete loves being in the military, and one of the conceptions of Heaven is that we get to do in Paradise what we were doing on Earth.  He loves being a bomber pilot during wartime, so he gets to continue in that line now that he is in Heaven.  Almost.  The General (Lionel Barrymore) tells Pete that he will be assigned to helping out new pilots, so he will sort of have that teaching job Dorinda was talking about.  Obviously, they won’t be dropping bombs in Heaven, so Pete will have to back to Earth to help out those pilots.  On wonders if dead Japanese pilots go back to Earth to help out their comrades.  We don’t know, because we never find out whether there is a Japanese air force base in Heaven too.

Like most Heaven movies, we do not get to see God, the exception being The Green Pastures (1936).  In fact, the other Heaven movies never even refer to God.  There is always some administrator, like the title character in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), who talks about what was meant to be and what must be done.  The people who make these movies probably know that there is something a little frivolous in their depictions of Heaven, and they are afraid that any reference to God might cross the line and move into the territory of sacrilege and blasphemy.  Furthermore, if God did make an appearance, we would expect Pete to ask God why he doesn’t just stop the war himself, thereby plunging the movie into the whole problem of evil that has bedeviled man since the story of Job and the dilemma of Epicurus.

Pete and Dick head back down to Earth, where no one can see or hear them.  So, we wonder, how are they going to instruct anyone?  They do it by planting thoughts in their heads.  Pete is assigned to tutor Ted Randall (Van Johnson), and he gets him to relax by psychically putting the command to relax into Ted’s head.  Pete doesn’t like Ted, in part because he had inherited four million dollars.  “I never did see a guy that inherited a lot of dough that was any good,” he says.

He likes him even less when Ted starts wooing Dorinda and she agrees to marry him.  Then Pete starts trying to sabotage him by putting bad thoughts into his head, making him show off in the airplane, hoping he will be demoted and hoping his hotshot stunts will anger Dorinda.  It doesn’t work, and Pete has to go back to Heaven for a reprimand from the General.  Finally, Joe sees the light and psychically tells Dorinda to forget about him and marry Ted, right after she commandeers a bomber to fly a dangerous mission destroying an ammunition dump so that Ted won’t have to fly it and possibly be killed.  Yeah, that’s right.  The Heaven part of this movie wasn’t ridiculous enough, so they had to throw this absurdity into the plot as well.

Prognostications on the Deficit

We all knew this would happen.

First, we had a tax cut for the rich, which, according to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, will not only pay for itself, but will also help pay down the debt. We wonder how such a magical formula for generating revenue had escaped the attention of mankind throughout the ages.

Not all Republicans are convinced, however.  Low taxes are not the problem, they aver, but too much spending.  While there is a bipartisan consensus that we should cut spending, there is less agreement as to which spending that should be. Some say that we should cut the amount spent on defense, while others say domestic spending needs to be reduced.  So, they compromise and increase spending on both.

To show that their hearts are in the right place, Republicans plan on voting for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.  When Democrats refuse to vote for it, the world will see who really is to blame for the grievous fiscal situation we are in.

By refusing to raise taxes to pay for all the things they want to spend money on, members of Congress are sometimes said to be placing the burden on future taxpayers.  That would be reason enough, I suppose, to explain the motive behind deficit spending.  Future taxpayers cannot yet vote.  And by the time the future taxpayers become future voters, present politicians will have long since retired. But it’s worse than that.  Not even future taxpayers will have to pay for all this deficit spending, because then they will be voting for future politicians. I mean, really!  Does anyone suppose that future politicians will make future taxpayers pay enough in taxes to balance the budget, let alone retire the national debt?

While it is unrealistic to think that future taxpayers will pay more than present ones, it is quite realistic to cut spending on future beneficiaries of government programs. This can be done in one of two ways.  First, Congress can pass laws that will begin to affect people negatively fifteen years from now, because there is a heavy discount applied to years extending beyond that time frame.  It is often said that benefit cuts to the entitlements should be designed to affect only people that have at least fifteen years to go before they become eligible for them.  This way they will have time to adjust.  In reality, people with fifteen years to go will not adjust, because they don’t really care about what happens fifteen years from now.  And since they don’t care, they won’t vote against politicians that cut benefits fifteen years hence.  At least, that’s the theory. The second way to cut spending on future beneficiaries is to do nothing.  This is much safer, politically speaking, because it requires that no votes be taken at all.

However benefits are cut, people will die as a result.  But the dead don’t vote. And however benefits are cut, people will suffer.  But those who suffer don’t vote either.  They are too miserable to worry about voting in an election.  And so it is that policies that cause death and suffering may be politically viable.

Somewhere along the way, taxes will be raised, but not by much.  And somewhere along the way, spending will be cut, but not by much.  And so, we’ll borrow what we can and print the rest.  The borrowing will come first, and it will last until interest rates get too high.  Then we’ll print.  The quantitative easing during the last decade was a figurative form of money printing. There is a lot of brave talk by the Federal Reserve about reversing this through quantitative tightening.  But you know how it is. A taboo broken once is more easily broken a second time.  And this will be especially true considering the salubrious effect of the first go-round. That’s the way things usually are.  A little money printing can be a good thing.  But if some is good, the thinking goes, then more will be better. Unemployment is up? Print some money.  The stock market is down?  Print some more.  The big banks are in trouble?  Print a lot!

Then, when inflation has gotten completely out of hand, we’ll repudiate the debt and introduce a new currency, with far fewer zeroes.  All the death and suffering will soon be forgotten.  It will be new day in a new nation.  And a new Congress will start over again.  Of course, one of the first acts of that Congress will be to run a deficit.  And amazingly enough, we will have no trouble finding people willing to lend us money.

The Pope Steps in It Again

Just as the term “White House” can no longer be taken as a metonym for the President, so too may it be that the term “Vatican” can longer be regarded as a metonym for the Pope. And that is because the Pope keeps saying things, or is reported to say things, that the Vatican denies were ever said, or were misunderstood, or were misreported by the media. First, the Pope seemed to want to go easy on homosexuals and the divorced, and then he was reported to have said that animals go to Heaven.  These statements were later denied or qualified, by the Vatican, of course, not by the Pope.  Now there is a report that the Pope said that Hell does not exist, that the souls that are not saved merely disappear, and this too has been denied by the Vatican.

In an article entitled, “Does the Pope Believe in Hell?” Pat Buchanan gives several reasons why denying the existence of Hell is unacceptable.  First, it would be “rank heresy”:

Had the pope been speaking ex cathedra, as the vicar of Christ on earth, he would be contradicting 2,000 years of Catholic doctrine, rooted in the teachings of Christ himself. He would be calling into question papal infallibility, as defined in 1870 by the Vatican Council of Pius IX.

Questions would arise as to whether Francis is a true pope.

That is an argument primarily directed toward Catholics. However, even Protestants may be persuaded by the need to believe in Hell, inasmuch as its existence was affirmed by Jesus and others in the Bible.

Second, belief in Hell is needed to put a check on man’s wickedness:

Did the soul of Judas, and those of the monstrous evildoers of history, “just fade away,” as Gen. Douglas MacArthur said of old soldiers? If there is no hell, is not the greatest deterrent to the worst of sins removed?

And yet, Judas and all those other “monstrous evildoers of history” were not deterred by the concept of Hell, either because they did not believe in it themselves, or because people have no trouble adjusting their views on religion to suit their purposes. Presumably, Buchanan would argue that the world would have even more wickedness in it were it not for the threat of Hell, but that would be a counterfactual not easily justified.

Finally, Buchanan asks, “What did Christ die on the cross to save us from?”  In general, it is claimed that the death and suffering of Jesus on the cross was necessary to atone for the sins of mankind.  The doctrine of original sin has it that man inherited his sinfulness from Adam, and that he cannot be saved on his own, but only through the grace of God.  Had Jesus not paid for our sins through his crucifixion, we would all be damned to an eternity in the fires of Hell.  Take away the concept of Hell, Buchanan argues, and Jesus died for nothing. He does seem to have a point.  Without Hell to save mankind from, it would seem that Jesus suffered and died because he was not a god, but just a man after all.

However, there is a way to square what the Pope is alleged to have said with Buchanan’s third argument.  We could say that there is a Hell to which mankind would have been condemned, owing to man’s sinfulness, but when Jesus died for our sins, he did so universally and without qualification.  As a result, Hell exists, but it is empty.

However, even the Pope supposedly made a distinction between the souls that repented and those that did not, the former going to Heaven, the latter merely ceasing to exist.  I suppose even for the Pope, universal salvation would be a little too much, as it would be for most people.  The idea that Heaven might be populated by the likes of Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson would be unacceptable. Needless to say, it is deeply hoped by the faithful that Hitler, Manson, and the like did not repent at the last minute, for that would spoil everything.

There is one function of the concept of Hell that Buchanan did not address.  For many people, the idea that those who would otherwise be condemned to Hell would merely cease to exist is not enough.  They need to believe that Hell is full of sinners and atheists.  Otherwise, their salvation will not be as satisfying, for Heaven is thin gruel unless there is the accompanying thought that one has escaped the eternal fire. In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, in Summa Theologica, III, Supplement, Question 94:

Now everything is known the more for being compared with its contrary, because when contraries are placed beside one another they become more conspicuous. Wherefore in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.

Of course, if there really were a God and an afterlife, the ones who would truly deserve a reward in Heaven would be those who had refused to worship a God that condemned people to Hell.

Lost Horizon (1937)

Movies about Heaven, such as Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and Stairway to Heaven (1946), sometimes begin with a prologue that bespeaks of timidity, almost apologizing to the audience for the movie they are about to see, as if to say that the story to be told might not be true.  This would seem to be rather unnecessary, for movies are usually understood to be fiction unless there is an assertion to the contrary.  The purpose of such a prologue is not to keep a naïve public from being misled into thinking that the movie they are about to see depicts Heaven just as it really is, but rather to forestall criticism, to keep people from analyzing the movie too closely and laying bare its absurdities.

Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon is not Heaven movie, but it is similar, a kind of Heaven-on-Earth story, and so it is that we are not surprised to find that it too begins with a prologue:

In these days of wars and rumors of wars—haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?  Of course you have.  So has every man since Time began.  Always the same dream.  Sometimes he calls it Utopia—Sometimes the Fountain of Youth—Sometimes merely “that little chicken farm.”  One man had such a dream and saw it come true.  He was Robert Conway—England’s “Man of the East” —soldier, diplomat, public hero—

This movie is definitely about a place, Shangri-La, that is a combination of Utopia and the Fountain of Youth.  As for that little chicken farm, the only thing I know about chicken farms is what I saw in The Egg and I (1947), and there does not seem to be much connection between that movie and Lost Horizon.

Although the prologue says that Conway’s dream came true, the association between this movie’s story and a dream has been established, which is another distancing device sometimes used in Heaven movies, such as The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945).  The idea is that if it is a dream, then that should make it immune to criticism, because we all know that dreams do not make a lot of sense. Only a pedant would fault it for being illogical.

The prologue goes on to establish the setting and circumstances.  It is 1935, in Baskul, China, which is in the middle of a revolution. Robert Conway (Ronald Coleman) has been charged with the task of evacuating ninety white people from the city.  The last plane to leave has just five passengers:  Conway; his brother George; Lovett (Edward Everett Horton), a paleontologist; Barnard (Thomas Mitchell), a plumber who built up a thriving utilities company, but then was accused of being a swindler when the stock market crashed; and Gloria, a consumptive prostitute, whom the doctors told a year ago she had six months to live.

The remark in the prologue about Conway’s rescuing “white people” has a racist ring to it, which does not surprise us for a movie made in 1937, but interestingly enough, Conway is contemptuous of that attitude.  He asks George, who apparently is Conway’s amanuensis, if the report he sent in said that they saved ninety white people.  When George says it did, Conway says, sarcastically, “Hooray for us.  Did you say that we left ten thousand natives down there to be annihilated?  No, you wouldn’t say that.  They don’t count.”

Conway goes on to talk about what he will do when he becomes a foreign secretary.  He has a plan to thwart all his nation’s enemies.  He says he will disband the army and sink all the battleships.  When the enemy arrives at the border, they will be so confounded by his nation’s refusal to fight that they too will lay down their arms.  Of course, Conway realizes he is being impractical, saying he will fall right in line and do what is expected of him, because he hasn’t the nerve to do anything else.  In other words, the mind of Conway is utopian even before he gets to Shangri-La, which, as it turns out, is not a coincidence.

This is the sort of thing I was talking about when I said that the prologue was meant as a preemptive strike against the kind of criticism one would normally level against poppycock.  I don’t suppose I have to say it, but World War II is just four years away from when this story takes place.  If England had done what Conway said he would do if he had the nerve, does anyone believe the Nazis would have just said to themselves, as Conway suggests, “These people seem quite friendly.  Why should we shoot them?” after which they too would have laid down their arms?  Of course not.  They would have marched right in, taken over the government, and turned England into a vassal state.  But, you see, we are not supposed to make such criticisms.  We are supposed to play along with this fantasy.

What the passengers don’t realize, but eventually find out, is that Fenner, their pilot, has been murdered, and there is another pilot, “Chinese or Mongolian,” flying the plane in a direction opposite from where they were supposed to be going, which was toward Shanghai.  Eventually, just as the plane is reaching its destination, it runs out of fuel and crashes, killing the pilot.  But a rescue party arrives shortly, led by a man named Chang (H.B. Warner), for they have been expecting Conway and the others.  After a short climb, but through a treacherous snowstorm, they reach the entrance of Shangri-La.

As soon as they pass through the portal, the wind stops and the temperature appears to be like that of a nice spring day.  As they look upon the fertile valley below, Chang, who manages to go through the entire movie with a look on his face and a tone in his voice of insipid serenity, says, “You see we are sheltered by mountains on every side, a strange phenomenon, for which we are very grateful.”  Seconds later, Lovett, while taking in the wonder of Shangri-La, says, “Magic.”

This is the first time, but it will not be the last, that the explanation for Shangri-La vacillates between a physical explanation and magical one.  On the one hand, we all know that a valley surrounded by mountains will not cause a change in climate of that magnitude.  On the other hand, if the explanation for this place is purely magical, then this will undermine any notion that what goes on in this valley can be extended to the rest of the world, which, as we find out later, is the whole point of kidnapping Conway.

Conway asks Chang what religion they follow in Shangri-La.  Chang replies that they believe in moderation: “We preach the virtue of avoiding of excesses of every kind.”  We recognize this as the fundamental ethical principle of ancient Greece, formalized into a complete theory by Aristotle.  However, Chang goes on to say that they even avoid the “excess of virtue itself.”  This makes no sense, as Aristotle pointed out a long time ago.  Once you define virtue as avoiding excess, it makes no sense to say that one of the excesses to avoid is virtue.  But this is no place to get into the finer points of the Nicomachean Ethics.  More importantly, this is an atheistic religion, although no one in the movie actually characterizes it as such, for there is no mention of God.

Conway approves of this ethical religion, saying, “That’s intelligent.”  Chang then moves on to the nature of their government.  Reading between the lines, we gather that there is a ruling class, to which Chang belongs, and then there are the natives, the subjects they rule over.  Class membership is apparently hereditary.  No mention is made of holding elections, so this seems not to be a democracy.  Chang says that they rule over the natives with “moderate strictness.”

It is not clear exactly what the nature of this strictness is or how it is enforced.  According to Chang, they have no soldiers or police because they have no criminals.  They have no criminals because there is a sufficiency of goods.  But then, where does the strictness come in, moderate though it may be?  Chang’s vagueness on this point obscures the absurdity of what he is saying.  Let us take a particular example.  Let us assume the strictness he refers to consists, in part, of a law against stealing.  But no one ever steals, because everyone has everything he might want.  Because no one ever steals, there are no police to arrest those who do.  But that makes the law against stealing pointless.  How can you be strict about a law no one has any inclination to break?

In any event, Conway comes up with an example of something that people might want to possess that sufficiency will not take care of:  women.  There may be plenty of women in the valley, but women are not fungible.  It is in the nature of things that a man will find he wants one woman in particular, and if he cannot have her, he will be miserable, even if there are plenty of other women about that he might have instead.  When asked about disputes over women, Chang says it rarely happens, but when it does, the men who are in dispute over a particular woman are quite courteous about the whole thing, the result being that the woman goes to the man who wants her the most.

You see, in the outside world where Conway is from, England in particular, it is left up to the woman to decide which of two men she prefers, if she wants either one of them at all, which she may not.  This unenlightened custom causes much grief, in that no matter how much a man might want a woman, he may never get to possess her.  How much better it is in Shangri-La, where women have no say in the matter!

All right, women aside, there is so much plenty that no one ever commits a crime.  But someone must produce these goods.  For example, certain people must grow the crops that produce the abundance of food.  Even in Shangri-La, farming is bound to be hard work.  Why should the natives spend their days planting and harvesting crops so that others can have all the food they want without lifting a finger?  Chang, who, I guarantee you, is not one to ever get behind a plow, says, “We have no money as you know it.  We do not buy or sell or seek personal fortunes, because there is no uncertain future here for which to accumulate it.”  In other words, the farmer does not sell his crops, he just gives them away.  So, why would a farmer produce more than what is needed to feed himself and his family?  Why should the natives work extra hard so people like Chang can have everything they need for free?  Perhaps this is where the strictness comes in.

Chang admits, almost reluctantly, that there is buying and selling of sorts when it comes to acquiring goods from the outside world, mostly cultural goods like books and works of art, which they are able to pay for because, as Chang puts it, “Our valley is very rich in a metal called gold, which, fortunately for us, is valued very highly in the outside world.”  Now, you might be wondering why Chang can’t simply say, “We have a lot of gold in this valley.”  This is just one example of the ways this movie tries to impress us with the childlike naiveté that characterizes the mentality of even the ruling class in Shangri-La.  Chang has to talk in a way that indicates a lack of sophistication in worldly things such as “this metal called gold.”  It would not do for him to evince a keen awareness of what an ounce of gold will fetch on the open market.  And yet, it is exactly such knowledge that would be needed to keep from overpaying for the goods brought in from the outside.

Conway says, “There is something so simple and naïve about all this that I suspect there’s been a shrewd guiding intelligence somewhere.”  Just as we are left uncertain as to whether it is the surrounding mountains that account for the climate, or whether there is something magical about the place, so too is there uncertainty as to whether the peace and tranquility of Shangri-La is due to something magical or to the influence of someone who designed this society to operate that way.  If the latter, then it is possible that someday all the world may be like Shangri-La; if the former, then this magic will never extend beyond the valley.

Chang reveals that it all began with a Belgian priest named Father Perrault, who stumbled into the valley in 1713.  One leg was frozen, and since there were no doctors among the natives, he had to amputate it himself.  Later, the natives told him, when he learned their language, that that was unnecessary, that his leg would have healed on its own, owing to the salubrious nature of Shangri-La.  The natives don’t have doctors because the perfect body in perfect health, having a life expectancy well beyond what is typical for the rest of the world, is the rule.  This is borne out by the way Gloria appears to have recovered from her tuberculosis.  (She also appears to have recovered from being a slut, looking clean and wholesome.) And once again, Chang attempts a natural explanation rather than a magical one, saying, “Climate, diet, mountain water, you might say.  But we like to believe it is the absence of struggle in the way we live.”

Conway expresses amazement, but Chang in turn expresses surprise that Conway is amazed.  Referring to books that Conway has written, in which he has “dreamed and written so much about better worlds.”    “Or,” Chang continues, “is it that you fail to recognize one of your own dreams when you see it?”  Once again, an association is made between Shangri-La and a dream.  It is a communist dream, of course, like the one envisioned by Karl Marx:  there is no God, there are no capitalists, and there is practically no state, for it has all but withered away.

Being that Shangri-La is like Conway’s dream (or is Conway’s dream?), he is naturally content to stay in Shangri-La.  But his brother George wants to get out and back to civilization, even to the point of threatening violence.  To find out whether there will be porters coming that can take George out of this place, Conway agrees to meet with the High Lama, who turns out to be Father Perrault (Sam Jaffe).  From him Conway finds out that Sondra Bizet (Jane Wyatt) is the one who suggested that Conway be brought to Shangri-La.  (She happens to be the woman Conway has already decided that he wants so much that he expects any rival to courteously let him have her.)  The reason for his being brought to Shangri-La is that the High Lama, now over two hundred years old, will soon die and needs someone to take his place, and that someone is Conway.  Just as the “religion” of Shangri-La reminds us of Aristotle’s ethical philosophy, so too does the government of this place begin to remind us of Plato’s Republic, in which a philosopher king is in charge of things.

The High Lama had an apocalyptic vision once in which civilization is destroyed by machines of war.  Conway’s task as will be to act as a curator, preserving culture in the form of books and works of art, so that he will be able to emerge after the destruction and lead the entire world to become like Shangri-La, fulfilling the “Christian ethic” of kindness.

The next day, in talking with Sondra, Conway marvels over the way he does not mind the fact that he was kidnapped:  “I’ve been kidnapped and brought here against my will.  A crime, a great crime, yet I accept it amiably.”  Well, Conway may accept the whole thing amiably, but I doubt if Fenner would have been quite so forgiving.  You remember Fenner, don’t you?  The pilot who was murdered as part of the kidnapping plot?  Apparently the ethical religion of Shangri-La permits the crime of murder as long as it is done in moderation.  In any event, Conway seems to have forgotten all about him.

Meanwhile, George has fallen in love with Maria, who detests Shangri-La as much as he does.  We are supposed to think of them as being wrongheaded, as deserving punishment if they leave Shangri-La.  Eventually, they convince Conway that all he has been told about this place is a lie, and that furthermore, they need his help to leave with the porters that have just arrived.  Reluctantly, he consents to go along.  But after they get beyond the realm of Shangri-La, Maria, who claimed that the story about her actually being almost seventy years old was a lie, that she was only twenty, suddenly transforms into an old woman and dies.

Well, that puts the kibosh on the natural explanation for why people live so long in Shangri-La.  It’s not just climate, diet, mountain water, or the absence of struggle that allows the inhabitants to enjoy a long life with a youthful appearance.  If that were it, we would have expected Maria to grow old in appearance slowly, just as if she really were only twenty.  Her rapid transformation into an old woman is reminiscent of Larry Talbot changing from a werewolf back into his human form at the end of The Wolf Man (1941), which also required a magical, supernatural explanation.  But if it is all just due to the magical influence of the place, then what hope is there that the way of life in Shangri-La can someday be extended to the rest of the world?

George is so repulsed by Maria’s transformation that he runs away, falling over a cliff to his death.  Conway manages to make his way to civilization.  But he temporarily suffers from amnesia.  When he recovers, he tells his story, and then decides to try to get back to Shangri-La, apparently succeeding in the end.

Why this amnesia?  Why couldn’t Conway simply get back to civilization and tell his story immediately? Its purpose is to underscore the idea that maybe it is all just Conway’s dream.  In other words, if a man walks out of the mountains and says, “Boy, wait till I tell you where I’ve been,” we figure that he is telling us about something that really happened.  Or he knows it didn’t happen, and he is intentionally telling us a tall tale.  But if a man suffers from amnesia after having disappeared, we might reasonably wonder, given his abnormal mental state, if he just dreamed it all.  Once again, if it is just a dream, then we are supposed to admire the man who had this dream, as if dreaming about world peace were some great accomplishment, and accept it without criticism.  And that means we are supposed to admire this movie and accept it without criticism.

It (2017)

It is set in Derry, Maine in the late 1980s.  Ben, a chubby kid who has recently moved there, says, “Derry is not like any town I’ve ever been in before.”  Well, that’s for sure.  In Derry, the bullies-to-victim ratio is so high that bullies have to stand in line to get their turn at tormenting their victims.  Said victims belong to a group known as The Losers Club.  Ben quickly gets to join, for it is clear that he is Loser material, especially when the chief bully, Henry, carves his initial into Ben’s belly.

Another new member of the group is Beverly, who was introduced to us sitting on the toilet while mean girls poured filthy water on her for being a slut.  At least, that’s the rumor.  What those girls don’t know is that Beverly could not have been having sex with half the boys in town, because her father has been molesting her for years, and he is too possessively jealous to allow her to have anything to do with boys.

And she is not the exception.  You see, in the town of Derry, after the Losers spend the day being bullied by all the kids in school, they get to go home and be bullied by their parents.  Actually, even the bullies get bullied by their parents in Derry, Maine, as when Henry’s father ridicules and humiliates him in front of his friends.  But it’s not just parents.  All the adults bully the children in this town, because it takes a village.  For example, when we first meet Ben, he is in the library reading about the history of Derry.  The librarian belittles him for spending time there reading books.  “Don’t you have any friends?” she asks derisively.

In other words, Derry is a nightmare town, a place where children are continually tormented by those around them.  So, Ben was exactly right when he said that Derry is not like any town he had ever been in before.

Oh wait!  I almost forgot.  Ben wasn’t talking about all that.  He was talking about the way people, especially children, disappear at a rate of six times the national average, and it is especially concentrated in recurring periods of twenty-seven years.  As he and the other Losers soon find out, the culprit is Pennywise, the Dancing Clown.  You see, it’s not enough that they have to live in a town where the natural torments of bullying and child abuse are unrelenting.  They get a bunch of supernatural horrors piled on top of that.

Well, there’s a lot of running around and being scared by special effects, especially when the Losers finally decide they have to do something about Pennywise.  They figure out that he is in this old house enclosing a well.  At one point, Pennywise gets hold of Beverly and puts her in a trance, at which point she begins to float slowly upward.  Her friends realize that all the other children that have gone missing over the years are floating above her.  They pull Beverly down, but she is still in a trance.  Then Ben kisses Sleeping Beauty, and she wakes up.

You see, Ben has had a crush on Beverly for a long time, and he gave her a postcard with a love poem on it.  Beverly was deeply moved.  And so Ben and Beverly fall in love, right?  Wrong!  How could you possibly think that little chubby kid would get the girl?  Obviously, it is Bill, who is slender and a little taller, that Beverly wants.  In fact, she was disappointed to find out that the poem was not sent to her by Bill, but rather by Ben instead.  And so, poor Ben is bullied not only by Henry and his gang, and not only by the librarian, but also by the people that made this movie, who deliberately added to his torment by making him a loser when it comes to love on account of his looks.

We don’t get much by way of explanation as to the how or why of the supernatural in this movie.  There is some suggestion that Pennywise feeds on fear.  Well, no wonder he thrives in Derry!  Other than that, we never really find out what’s going on.  I admit that I have never read the book on which this movie is based, nor have I seen the miniseries based on this book.  Maybe there is an explanation somewhere in all that, but you won’t find it in this movie as a stand-alone story.  At the very end of the movie, the words “Chapter One” threaten us with a sequel, so maybe everything will be explained in that movie, but I doubt it.  In any event, I’ll never know, because I certainly won’t be watching it.

After Pennywise is dispatched, presumably because the Losers are not afraid of him, though they damn well should be, the floating children start to descend.  What does that mean?  Are they going to be brought back to life?  Are they going to be able to go back home so they can be bullied by their parents?  Are they going be able to go back to school so they can be bullied by their classmates?  Are the bullies that went missing going to be able to return and start making other children miserable again?  The missing children may not be left hanging in the air, but we are.

One more thing.  Beverly finally got tired of being her father’s sex slave, so she killed him by hitting him on the head with a toilet lid, leaving his body in the bathroom.  There is no hint of an investigation of this homicide.  I’m not saying this movie was obliged to present us with a big trial like the one in Peyton Place (1957), but without there being even a reference to what happens when you leave a skull-crushed father lying around, such as Beverly saying she’s glad that the grand jury believed her story, that too is left hanging in the air.  She just tells Bill she is leaving town to go live with her aunt.  Then they kiss.  Too bad for you, Ben.

Let us step back for a minute and examine the theme of this movie, which is fear.  Fear is a useful emotion, causing us to avoid danger or to flee from it.  But it is the dangers of this world that cause our fears, not the other way around, as this movie seems to suggest, which is that it is our fears that cause the danger, and that if we could just get rid of our fears, the dangers would go away.  There is such a thing as being unduly afraid of something, as in the case of phobias or superstition.  But Pennywise aside, the dangers in this movie are real.  They are not the imagined fears of a neurotic.

Now, it is certainly true that we sometimes have to overcome our fears in order to eliminate the danger, as when Beverly splits her father’s skull by whacking him with the lid of a toilet.  But it was not her fear of her father that caused him to molest her.  Or consider Ben’s situation with the gang of bullies.  Are we to believe that if he had not been afraid of them, his troubles would have been over, that they would not have held him while Henry carved his initial in his belly?  This movie conflates the perfectly reasonable notion that we sometimes have to stop being afraid of our enemies in order to defeat them with the nonsensical notion that our enemies exist because of our fears and that they will be eliminated by the mere absence of that emotion.