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, at least not in the form of Jehovah, 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 a 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.  Note that Conway is not saying his plan would not work, only that he knows how much resistance there would be to it.  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 one that is natural and one that is magical.  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.

Rape Is about Sex

I remember first becoming informed that rape was not about sex around 1970. This was back in the days when the typical bookstore would carry numerous books written by Freud, of which I had read about a dozen.  As we all know, Freud argued that owing to the role of the unconscious in determining behavior, our motives are often hidden from us.  We think we know why we did something, but it turns out the real reason was something else, something we never suspected.  And, owing to the large role that sex played in Freud’s theories, the motive hidden in the unconscious often turned out to be a repressed sexual desire.  The theory that rape is not about sex certainly followed Freud, in that an unconscious motive is attributed to the rapist.  But it was a complete reversal of the usual Freudian formula:  instead of sex being the unconscious motive for something else, something else was asserted to be the unconscious motive for sex.

In general, I was a little skeptical of all the claims being bandied about in those days regarding the unconscious, whether by Freud or any other psychoanalyst, and so I merely noted this peculiar notion that rape was not about sex with indifference.  A couple of years later, I saw Frenzy (1972), a film by Alfred Hitchcock.  It is about a “necktie strangler” who rapes and murders women.  At some point during the movie, the detective tells a sergeant that most men like him are impotent.  The sergeant expresses surprise at this remark, and rightly so, I thought to myself.  That was carrying the rape-is-not-about-sex theory to an extreme.  After all, impotence is the failure to be able to perform sexually, owing to the inability to get an erection. In any event, the detective goes on to say that it is not the sex that gratifies the rapist.

The detective speaks with an authoritative voice in the movie, and so we know we are supposed to believe him.  But aside from squaring impotence with rape, there is the incongruity between his words and the rape that took place in the movie thirty minutes before.  In the history of mainstream cinema, no movie, made before or since, has depicted sex, consensual or coerced, in which anyone, male or female, experiences greater heights of sexual ecstasy than the necktie strangler in Frenzy.

What is remarkable about this movie is that, in discussing it with others, I have noticed that most people accept the pronouncements of the detective, notwithstanding their apparent inconsistency with the rape scene.  This is in part due to the authoritative voice of the detective, and in part due to the widespread acceptance of the rape-is-not-about-sex theory at that time.  I have seen people twist themselves into a pretzel trying to argue that the rapist never really got it up, let alone gratified himself sexually.  I suspect that this was Hitchcock’s idea of a joke.  He purposely put this contradiction into the movie between the words of the pompous detective and the scene of sexual passion, as his way of making fun of that theory.

This movie aside, I have heard this rape-is-not-about-sex theory discussed many times.  I have never known one woman to disagree with it.  And while a lot of men will also agree with it, I have noticed that a lot of men grow silent, particularly in mixed company.  Though a man may disagree with this theory, yet he will quickly realize how inadvisable it would be for him to say so. Imagine a man, upon hearing it declared that rape is not about sex, saying, “Oh no!  Rape is all about sex.  I mean, sometimes you want it so bad, you feel like holding them down to get what you want.” Any man that would say something like that, especially with women present, would be a fool. By the time that story got around, no woman would ever go out with him again.  And so, the theory largely goes unchallenged.

People often use force to get what they want.  Wars are fought for territory or natural resources, revolutions are fought to wrest power away from others, and criminals rob and steal to get money.  Given how much men want sex, why they should not use force to get that too is a mystery.  Alternatively, if we are willing to say rape is not about sex, why not say that robbery is not about money? Granted, there are cases where robbery does have an additional motive.  A gangster may be angry at society, or maybe he enjoys dominating his victims. But mostly, robbery is about money; and mostly, rape is about sex.

I have heard it said that there are two primary types of rapists, anger rapists and power rapists.  The former are motivated by “resentment and a general hostility towards women.”  But how do we make sense of this resentment and hostility unless it has a sexual origin?  It has only been recently that women have had anything other than sex about which men would be resentful. For millennia women have been denied status, property, power, rights, or anything else that might inspire resentment, and yet rape has been going on since caveman days.  Is it not more likely that the hostility toward women arises out of sexual frustration or rejection?

The power rapist, it is said, is motivated by his need to control and dominate his victim, and inversely, to avoid being controlled by her.  But if a man had no sexual desire for women, he would not likely bother with them at all.  How do we make sense out of this threat of being controlled by her, unless that threat be sexual?  In any event, the main reason a man would want to control and dominate a woman is for sexual purposes.  Sex is the end; dominance and control are but the means.  Without the former, there is no point to the latter.

The intensity with which some people defend this theory that rape is not about sex naturally makes one suspicious.  One cannot help but wonder if the purpose of the theory is to demean the rapist. We deny him the sexual motive, which he may regard as manly, something he can be proud of, and assert that he has anger issues and a need to dominate.  In other words, this thesis is an act of revenge against the rapist, undermining his masculinity by insisting that he acts out of insecurity and weakness.

In the end, the claim that rape is not about sex is speculative, almost metaphysical.  It is not the sort of thing that one can verify simply through observation.  Even if we could observe rapes, as we do in movies like Frenzy, all we would see is the use of force and violence in combination with sex.  We cannot observe the motive.  The best that can be done is to interview the rapist. But the whole rape-is-not-about-sex theory is premised on the idea that things are not what they seem, not even to the rapist himself; so his own assessment of his motives is not to be trusted, even granted that he is being sincere, which is a big assumption right there.  Such interviews may reveal the anger and power motives referred to above, but that gets us right back to the whole question of which is cause and which is effect.  The prima facie case is that sex is the cause of rape.  The theory that it is just the effect, an insignificant epiphenomenon of anger and power, is counterintuitive and unverifiable.

Consensual Sex and the Double Standard

In 2014, California enacted a law requiring college students to get consent before they have sex.  The language is couched in gender-neutral terms, so that technically the law applies to men and women, either gay or straight.  But the primary intent of the law is directed toward heterosexual couples, and it is only the consent of the woman that is of concern.  In other words, the law is written in such a way that it appears to grant equal protection under the law to both sexes, even though we all know that a double standard will and ought to be applied in its implementation.

It is women that need protection against rape, even in the case where force is not used.  This is for several reasons:  First, men are bigger and stronger than women.  Not only is this true on average, but men and women tend to select each other on the basis of size as well.  Although the law is not intended to cover cases where force is used, for that is already illegal and does not need additional legislation, the size and strength of a man compared to a woman can be a factor in cases where consent is ambiguous. That is, a man can simply wear a woman out physically, until she becomes too tired to resist.

Second, it is the woman that can become pregnant.  This puts her at a severe disadvantage compared to the man.  Though birth control may make pregnancy unlikely, and abortion may be available to terminate it, yet it is a big problem for women nevertheless.  And while the man may find himself forced to pay child support if she has the baby, she will still have the greater burden in caring for it and raising it.

Third, a woman is more likely to feel violated by a man than a man would feel violated by a woman.  A major reason for this difference is penetration.  Though a woman may be disgusted by the unwanted kisses of a man, or by his groping her, nothing can compare to being penetrated.  Furthermore, an erection is prima facie evidence of consent regarding the man, thereby undermining his ability to claim that he was similarly violated.  Apart from this, there may be psychological differences as well. Some men think of sex as a matter of conquest.  And it is part of nature of sexual conquest to have a “love ’em and leave ’em” attitude, resulting in one night stands, which can make a woman who surrenders to such a man feel betrayed, especially if he whispered words of love as part of the seduction.  In fact, whether a rape has occurred may depend in part on the subsequent behavior of the man.  If a man refuses to have anything to do with a woman after they have sex, and possibly even insults her, she may feel violated; if he calls her up the next day and asks to see her again, thereby beginning a long-term relationship, that is another thing altogether. In other words, whether a rape has occurred may have as much to do with the subsequent behavior of the man as it does with what happened just before and during sex.

Fourth, alcohol has one legal implication for women and a different implication for men.  People drink, in part, simply because it feels good.  But they also drink in order to get carried away.  I once had a girlfriend who, by her own admission, had been quite promiscuous in college.  During some pillow talk one night, she told me about all the one night stands she had when she was young, and I expressed amazement.  “I don’t think I could have a one night stand,” I said.  “In fact, I don’t think I would want to.  I would have to get to know a woman first before I would feel comfortable having sex.” Without the slightest hesitation, and through half-closed eyelids, she said, “That’s because you don’t drink, John.  Standing there cold sober, no one could do it.  But when you drink, you feel like you’re in love.  And it’s easy to have sex with someone you love.”

Alcohol not only lowers our inhibitions, it also gives us cover for inappropriate behavior. Drinking gives us a license for license.  We are more likely to misbehave if we know that others will excuse this misbehavior as being the result of intoxication. Therefore, a lot of people drink knowing it will not only make it easier to have sex, but also will be a prophylactic against shame the next morning.

The problem lies in judging when someone has consumed enough alcohol to get carried away, but not so much as to no longer be able to consent to sex.  And here the double standard may strike some people as unfair.  If the woman is drunk, her saying “yes” to sex does not constitute consent, but if the man has sex with her, he cannot use the fact that he was drunk as a legal justification against a charge of rape.   So we end up with the situation in which if a man and woman who are equally drunk have sex, she can claim to have been raped, because the legal implications of being drunk are different for men and women.

But even if the woman is sober and only the man is drunk, their having sex will not be construed as her raping him.  No one has ever watched The Way We Were (1973), and thought that Katie (Barbara Streisand) deserved to go to prison for raping Hubbell (Robert Redford), even though she had sex with him while he was too passed-out drunk to know what he was doing.

The double standard here regarding alcohol, not holding a drunk woman responsible for saying “yes,” while holding a drunk man responsible not realizing that she was too drunk to consent, is justified on account of the reasons given previously:  the size and strength of the man, the possibility of pregnancy, and the difference in the male and female psyches.

It is peculiar that the law seems to apply only to college students.  Although I support a double standard for men and women when it comes to sex, I hope we do not have a double standard for college students and all other adults. Presumably, women who are not in college are not fair game, and the “yes means yes” standard applies to them too.  It is only on account of the unique circumstance of young women living away from home and under the protection of a university that special legislation for coeds has been enacted.

Unfortunately, a double standard is a two-edged sword.  In affirming a double standard for sexual activity, we run the risk of having that double standard leach out into areas where it is inappropriate, such as in the workplace.  By saying men are more responsible for their drunken behavior than women, by saying women are psychologically more likely to feel violated and be traumatized by sex than men are, we run the risk of suggesting that women cannot be trusted with responsibility in the workplace, and that they are psychologically weaker than men.  It is partly for this reason that the law is stated in gender-neutral terms.  Although gender-neutral language allows the law to apply to gay couples too, I suspect that this gender-neutral language would still be there anyway, as if to suggest that a man has the same protection against being violated by a woman, and could thus bring charges of rape against her.  So, to keep from having a double standard for men and women in the workplace and in other contexts where sex should not matter, we pretend not to have a double standard for men and women in the matter of sexual activity.  I don’t doubt that someday a man will bring rape charges against a woman, saying he was too drunk to consent.  In anticipation of this event, allow me to smirk preemptively at such a claim.

This is our dilemma:  either we deny the existence of a double standard in matters of sex as being repugnant to egalitarian principles, and end up being forced to accept conclusions that are absurd or paradoxical; or we admit to the need to have a double standard in matters of sex, which leaves an opening for those who want a reason to discriminate against women elsewhere.