Scream (1996)

People in movies often refer to movies.  And why, not?  They are a big part of our lives.  However, when it comes to remakes, it is necessary that the characters in those movies be unaware of the original.  For example, in the remakes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the characters exist in a world much like our own with one notable exception:  it is a world in which the original movie does not exist.  Of course, the 1978 version alluded to the original when Kevin McCarthy was seen running down the street screaming, “You’re next!”  But that was just an inside joke with the audience.  No one in the movie said, “Isn’t that the actor who was in that body snatcher movie?”

Remakes aside, the characters in a horror movie are usually unaware of horror movies in general. The very title I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) tells us that this is a late entry into the genre.  And yet, it appears that no one in this movie has ever seen a werewolf movie.  When law enforcement officers are perplexed about the nature of a recent murder, Pepe the janitor (Vladimir Sokoloff), having looked at a photograph of the murder victim and crossed himself in terror, says he knows what killed the boy.  He tells Officer Stanley (Guy Williams) that the boy was killed by a werewolf.  Speaking with an East European accent, Pepe tells of a how in the Old Country, when he was a little boy living in a village in the Carpathian Mountains, there was a story, passed down from generation to generation, of men who became like wolves when the evil eye was upon them.  Stanley acts as though he has never heard of such a thing, and Pepe has to explain to him what a werewolf is.  In real life, Stanley would have said, “Oh yeah, there was a wolf man in that Abbott and Costello movie I saw last week at the Bijou.”

In defense of this decision to make characters in a horror movie seem to exist in a world where no one has ever seen a horror movie, the reason is that it would be like breaking the fourth wall, which interferes with our ability to suspend disbelief.  Had Officer Stanley alluded to having seen a werewolf movie, it would have reminded the audience that what they were watching was also just a movie, which would undermine the movie’s ability create an atmosphere of terror and suspense.  When this happens, the movie tends to also be a comedy.

I can’t say that An American Werewolf in London (1981) is the first movie in which people have an awareness of werewolf movies, but it is the first one to do so in a big way.  Two American college students, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are hiking through England.  They stop at an inn called the Slaughtered Lamb, and one of them comments on the pentangle on the wall, saying, “Lon Chaney Jr. at Universal Studios said that’s the mark of the wolf man.”  After they leave, they are attacked by a werewolf.  Jack is killed, but David is only wounded.  Jack comes back from the dead to tell David that all that stuff about werewolves is true, and that David has become one himself.  It is interesting that though these two characters are Americans, yet the setting is in England, much in the way that the Lon Chaney character, Lawrence Talbot, in the movie referred to above, The Wolf Man (1941), returns from America to his ancestral home in Wales, and it is there that he first learns about werewolves.  In other words, in the Old World, they know about werewolves from legends they are told from the time they are young; here in the New World, we know about werewolves from the movies.  Unless we are in a movie, and then we might be oblivious.

In Fright Night (1985), teenager Charley Brewster suspects that his new next-door neighbor, Jerry Dandridge, is a vampire.  That would be scary enough, but the real dread is oedipal.  Vampires in the movies always seem to have sexual implications, and Charley’s mother, who is divorced, is attracted to Dandridge.  It is not uncommon for a teenage boy to be disturbed by the prospect of his mother having sex with another man, especially an attractive mother who tells her son in the middle of the night about a dream she had:  “I was at this white sale and suddenly realized I was stark naked.”

Now, you may be thinking I’m going overboard with this Freudian interpretation.  And indeed, if such a thing happened in real life, a mother telling her son about a dream she had in which she didn’t have any clothes on, it wouldn’t necessarily mean anything.  But writer and director Tom Holland, who also was the writer for Psycho II (1983) and Child’s Play (1988), a couple of other movies about a boy and his strange relationship with his mother, deliberately wrote that line into this movie.  He could have had Charley’s mother tell her son any one of a hundred other dreams, but Tolland, with malice aforeplay, decided to have her tell her son about a dream that encourages him to imagine her naked.

Anyway, Charley consults his friend, Evil Ed, who knows a lot about vampires from watching movies on the eponymous late show.  One item on Evil Ed’s list of vampire traits is that a vampire cannot enter your house unless invited in.  Wouldn’t you know it, no sooner does Charley get back home than he finds Dandridge in his house, having been invited in by his mother, who seems to find Dandridge quite charming.  In Freudian terms, the house represents her vagina, which Dandridge has entered after having been invited to come inside.

But while Charley is apprehensive about his mother’s fondness for the vampire next door, Dandridge is smitten by Charley’s girlfriend Amy, who reminds of his lost love.  Charley’s unconscious desire to keep his mother to himself is recapitulated openly by his jealousy over the fact Amy also desires Dandridge, even to the point of having sex with him, something she never did with Charley. Of course, that was actually Charley’s fault.  Just as Amy was taking off her clothes so that they could finally have sex for the first time, Charley lost interest in her when he looked through the bedroom window and saw that a vampire was moving in next door.  Dandridge’s sexual relationship with the two women in Charley’s life, merely suggested in one case, fully consummated in the other, establishes a psychological identity between Charley’s mother and Amy.

As informative as Evil Ed has been, Charley turns to Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell), former actor in vampire movies and host of Fright Night, which features vampire movies.  He also claims to be a vampire killer.  He is a Van Helsing character, except that in the old movies, Van Helsing’s knowledge about vampires came from books, but now such knowledge comes from the movies.  Vincent helps Charley kill Dandridge, allowing Charley to regain possession of both his mother and Amy.

The next stage in the evolution of movie awareness in horror films came with There’s Nothing Out There (1991).  The movie begins in a video store in which Sally, a teenage girl that works behind the counter, is all alone.  There is a television in the store featuring a movie in which a girl is apparently being chased by a mad slasher, since the store seems to feature almost nothing but movies of mad slashers chasing pretty girls.  Someone enters the store and begins chasing Sally.  It turns out that she is dreaming, having fallen asleep at the wheel, and the car crashes in the woods.

Presumably, she does work in such a store, which has led her to have a dream in which she is threatened by a mad slasher, just like all those movies she is surrounded by every day.  This scene makes us aware of the interaction between art and life, between dreams and reality, something that has always existed, but by this time has become intensified by the invention of the videotape recorder.

By coincidence, a large space frog has fallen from the sky and lands right near her car.  It further damages the car trying to get to her so that, as we later find out, it can mate with her; for it is a given in such movies that teenage girls are the most sexually desirable creatures in the universe.

Meanwhile, seven teenagers decide to spend spring break in a house in the woods, owned by the parents of one of the teens.  As they pass by Sally’s deserted and demolished car, surrounded by a police car and an ambulance, Mike says it’s a shame that this has spoiled their plans, but they must turn around and go back home.  The others in the car think he has just been spooked by the scene itself, but Mike points out that it is suffused with meaning that he has gleaned from renting every horror video that has ever been made.  The scene with Sally’s car, he avers, is what is technically known as the warning stage.  It is worth noting that the other six teenagers are couples, and that Mike is the only guy without a girl.  This is significant for two reasons:  first, only a nerd who can’t get a date would have the time to see all those horror films; second, virgins stand a better chance of surviving a horror film than their sexually active companions.  Anyway, they ignore his foolishness and press on, with Mike saying, “There’s mistake number one.”

When they arrive at the house, Mike enunciates some rules needed to stay alive, such as not wandering off by yourself in the woods and not going skinny dipping.  Later, another group of teenagers arrive.  They appear to be low class and scroungy, all doped up on marijuana, and they go skinny dipping in the pond.  Turns out they thought they had arrived at the “camp by the lake,” undoubtedly an allusion to Camp Crystal Lake of Friday the 13th (1980).  They leave when they realize their mistake.  Mike declares that this is a foreshadowing, saying, “Those kids were born to be murder victims and just paid us a visit.”  As for Mike’s friends, one couple does go skinny dipping, and another couple does wander off into the woods, all destined to become victims of the space frog.

At first, Mike uses his horror-movie knowledge to thwart the alien, but he eventually comes to suspect that he and his friends are actually in a movie.

In the end, Mike comes up with the idea of using mirrors to confuse the space frog, allowing him and two remaining companions to trap the frog in the oven.  And thus it is that by reflecting on horror movies, Mike kills the frog through reflections in the mirrors.

The ideas in this film reached their apotheosis in Scream (1996).  The movie begins with a scene in which Casey (Drew Barrymore) is home alone at night in a fully-lit house that almost seems to have more windows than walls.  She receives an ominous phone call, and instead of hanging up immediately, she keeps talking to the caller.  This is typical of women in movies who receive such phone calls, where they say things like, “Why do you keep calling me while I’m naked?”

But instead of the creep on the phone asking her what color her panties are or whatever, this guy asks her trivia questions about horror movies.  And this is just the beginning of such allusions.  As audiences of Psycho (1960) were said to be shocked by the fact that a major star like Janet Leigh was killed off early in the movie, so too is Drew Barrymore’s character Casey likewise killed off earlier than one might expect for a star of her standing.

Casey and her boyfriend are killed by a character that eventually came to be referred to as Ghostface, who is both scary and funny.  When thwarted in his attempts to stab someone, he takes what might be called variations on pratfalls.  And yet we are brought back from these scenes of mirth to horror when he succeeds in plunging his knife into one of his victims.

Though seemingly a minor character, the most essential person in this film is Randy, a teenager that works in a video store and is an expert on horror films.  He is like a combination of Sally and Mike in There’s Nothing Out There, except more so.  He enunciates the basic rules for surviving a horror film:  don’t have sex; don’t drink or do drugs; and never say, “I’ll be right back.”  But even he fails to take advantage of his own expertise in such matters, as when he is is drunk, watching a horror film, presumably Halloween (1978), yelling at Jamie Lee Curtis to “Look behind you!” while he fails to look behind himself, where he would have seen Ghostface standing behind him, holding a knife.  Nevertheless, his expertise in this area allows him to correctly identify one of the two killers early in the movie, and he further acts as a guide through the movie by drawing inferences from horror films to the situations the teenagers find themselves in.  In the sequel to this movie, he draws inferences from sequels, and in the third film he draws inferences from trilogies.

But Randy is not the only one doing this.  The two killers, who take turns dressing up as Ghostface, are also guided by their study of horror films.  One of them says that they even took notes while watching them.  And just as Mike in There’s Nothing Out There wonders if he and his friends are actually in a horror movie, one of the killers in Scream tells his girlfriend Sidney, protagonist and ultimate target of Ghostface, that life is a movie, “Only you can’t pick your genre.”

Going one step further, the sequel to Scream includes as a plot point a movie called Stab, which is based on what happened in the movie Scream, and it has sequels paralleling the sequels to Scream.  So, not only are the characters in these movies aware of the horror movies that came before, but they also live in a world where there are movies based on what happens in this movie, not external to it, like Scary Movie (2000), but within the movie itself.

I suppose it is possible to go even further with this principle of people in horror movies referring to horror movies, shaping their behavior according to what they have seen in horror movies, and even believing they are in a horror movie.  But the question is whether it is possible to do better than Scream with this idea.  I don’t think so.

Dark Victory (1939) and The Hasty Heart (1949)

As a disease movie, Dark Victory might have been believable in 1939, but it is certainly far-fetched today.  Bette Davis plays Judith Traherne, a young, rich woman with all the character flaws that might easily come from being rich:  arrogant, spoiled, frivolous.  Transcending all this, however, is her intensity, which makes even her ordinary actions seem like vices.  Just watching her walk across a room will wear you out.  By way of contrast, her boyfriend, Alec, played by Ronald Reagan, is cool and relaxed.

Judith suffers from headaches and double vision.  Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald), her secretary and friend, finally gets her to go to the doctor, and, not surprisingly, she is a bad patient.  Despite her resistance, she is diagnosed as having a glioma, a malignant tumor in the brain.  She consents to having surgery, but upon its completion, the prognosis is negative.

Negative, but preposterously artificial and precise:  she will live less than a year, but she will have absolutely no symptoms until just a few hours before she dies, at which point her vision will begin to fail and things will become dark.  The doctor says this is a rare case, which is an understatement, since it is so rare as to be nonexistent.

Well, they went to a lot of trouble to create this disease for this movie, so we know that something is up.  Presumably, the point is to pose the question, what effect would the certainty of death have on someone once all the symptoms leading up to death had been eliminated?  Judith will still be young, pretty, rich, and otherwise healthy.  She has no accompanying complications, like still needing to work in order to pay the bills or worrying about who will care for her children, of which she has none.  It is only death in all its purity that she must deal with.

Moreover, there is no indication that she is even remotely religious, so she must face death with no hope for a future life.  Nor can we believe that she has the consolation of philosophy, for the above-mentioned intensity of her personality suggests that she has been too busy living life to have spent much time reflecting upon it.  To be sure, neither religion nor philosophy can fully prepare anyone for death when it comes, but Judith has no cushion at all.

Dr. Steele (George Brent), who performed the brain surgery, and Dr. Parsons (Henry Travers), Judith’s family practitioner, agree not to tell Judith that she is going to die.  We have doubts about the ethics of their decision, made all the more suspect when Steele confides in Ann about Judith’s condition.  After Steele and Judith fall in love and decide to marry, she accidentally finds out about her negative prognosis.  She becomes angry, accusing Ann of getting Steele to marry her out of pity.

As a result, the marriage between Steele and Judith is off, and she apparently descends into drunkenness and promiscuity, including affairs with married men.  At least, that’s what the movie let’s us think for a while, until it makes us aware that it is mostly malicious gossip.  She almost has an affair with Michael (Humphrey Bogart), her horse trainer, but then realizes that this is not how she wants to spend what is left of her life.  That is not surprising.  Most people want more out of life than just drinking and screwing.  Similarly, at different points in the movie, the subjects of euthanasia and suicide are broached, but quickly dismissed.  That too is not surprising, for most people believe that deliberately ending an unhappy life, one’s own or that of another, as not being the answer either.  At least, that is the attitude of this movie.

So, what is the answer?  At first it would seem that the movie says we should live a life of deception and delusion.  To begin with, the doctors and Ann lie to Judith about her condition, the idea being that she will be better off not knowing.  Right after Steele tells Ann the truth, Judith joins them and gives Steele a present, some cufflinks “from a grateful patient,” she says.  The act of giving him a present gives her an idea.  She declares that it is her birthday, not literally, but figuratively, in the sense that her life has a new beginning, now that she has been cured.  She suggests that they get together every year to celebrate, not realizing that by this time next year she will be dead.  Though Steele and Ann think they are doing the right thing by concealing the truth from Judith, yet there seems to be something so wrong about letting her live in a fool’s paradise.  They deprive her of dignity for the sake of a false happiness.  Then, after Steele and Judith reconcile and get married, they become deliberately oblivious to her illness, acting as though there is nothing wrong with her.  Finally, just as Steele gets word of an invitation to attend an important meeting in New York regarding his work, Judith experiences a dimming of her vision and realizes she will soon die.  But she deceives her husband, encouraging him to go on without her, which he does.

But this cannot be the answer.  It is one thing to go on with your life without dwelling on the finality of death, but it is quite another thing live in perpetual denial.  There is something almost desperate about their forced happiness.  And it is untenable.  When Michael casually refers to the prayers he has been saying for Judith, she flinches.

But before Steele leaves, she becomes realistic, speaks frankly about her fate, and says that she is prepared for the end.  Still unaware that Judith can no longer see very well, Steele reluctantly leaves on his trip.  Judith then tells Ann she wants to die alone, so that her husband will know that in the end she was not afraid.  This is what we have been waiting for, courage and honesty in the face of death, and the peace that comes with resignation.

This movie is similar to The Hasty Heart (1949), set in a makeshift hospital in a jungle in Burma just after the end of World War II.  Colonel Dunn, who appears to be the chief surgeon, tells the men that are still recovering from wounds or malaria that a new patient, a corporal that goes by the name “Lachie” (Richard Todd), will be arriving soon.  On the last day of the war, a piece of shrapnel damaged one of his kidneys, which had to be removed.  He has just about recovered from the surgery and appears to be well.  Normally, he could get along with just one kidney for the rest of his life, but the doctors have discovered that the other one is defective.  For the next few weeks, the kidney will do the work of two and then collapse.  At that point uremic poisoning will set in and he will die.

All this is more believable than the disease in Dark Victory, but just barely.  It seems a bit of a stretch that doctors in an army hospital in the jungle in Burma would be able to diagnose a kidney that is still functioning as being defective, and then give the prognosis that he will apparently be in good health for a few weeks and then die.  However realistic all that may or may not be, it is clearly designed to serve the same function as in Dark Victory, to allow someone to face imminent death free of all symptoms.

Colonel Dunn has not told him, however, much in the way that the doctors in Dark Victory decide not tell Judith.  And just as the doctors in Dark Victory told Ann about Judith’s prognosis, Dunn tells the men in the ward about Lachie, and he asks the men to keep the secret as well and to be extra nice to him.  Once again, we have to wonder about the questionable ethics of not telling the patient that he is going to die, and then telling others who are not even related to him about his terminal disease.  And just as Judith has no family when she is diagnosed with her disease, so too does Lachie have no family, “no ties.”  Because of this, Dunn has decided not to let Lachie go back home to Scotland as he so dearly wants.  Instead, Dunn has taken it upon himself to decide that Lachie will be better off if he is kept in this hospital, surrounded by men who have been ordered to be friends with him.

Lachie’s personality is every bit as intense as that of Judith.  By way of contrast, Ronald Reagan, playing the role of “Yank,” is also in this movie, and here too he is cool and relaxed.  Lachie hates the world and everyone that is in it.  The explanation given for his misanthropy is the fact that he was born illegitimate.  However, we have a hard time believing that this alone could make anyone as surly and hostile as he is.  Had Yank been born illegitimate, we have the feeling he would have shrugged it off and made the best of it.  In other words, Lachie’s personality is just one more contrivance, something made up for dramatic purposes only.

Patricia Neal plays a nurse, Sister Parker.  She comes up with the idea of having a birthday party for Lachie, in which she and the men in the ward buy him a complete outfit consisting of a kilt, brogues, and other appurtenances, all of which is rather expensive.  As in Dark Victory, we have the theme of a birthday for someone who will never live to see another, yet does not realize it, celebrating a beginning instead of facing the end.  Lachie is finally touched by their gesture of friendship.  He begins to think he has been wrong about people.

Soon after, he falls in love with Sister Parker, asking her to marry him.  She says, “If it makes you happy to think of us being married, then that’s what I want too.”  Now, you or I would surely have balked had we received an answer like that to a proposal of marriage.  And we would have wondered why a nurse and other men in a ward, whom we had only known for a couple of weeks, would have spent so much money buying us gifts.  But Lachie’s social skills are such that he suspects nothing.

And so it is that both movies feature references to the three most important events in a person’s life, birth, marriage, and death, each of which justifies an announcement in the newspaper, and for each of which we get a certificate.

Having gone this far with this deception, the only proper thing would be to see it through to the end.  That is, when Lachie’s kidney begins to fail him, everyone should act surprised and sad.  But no, just as Lachie has come to believe in friendship and love, Colonel Dunn tells him that he can go home after all.  Moreover, because his is a special case, he gets priority and can even go home by plane.  Why is he a special case? Lachie wants to know.  Dunn says he has been ordered to give him the facts of the case, which is that he is going to die soon.

We may have had misgivings about the way the doctors handled Judith’s case, but at least Ann really was her friend, having been so before Judith was diagnosed, and Dr. Steele really did love her and want to marry her.  But this handling of Lachie’s case is cruel.  He sees immediately that the men were just pretending to be his friend and that Parker only pretended to want to marry him, that they gave him “a fool’s religion to die on.”

To make matters worse, after Dunn tells Lachie he is going to die, he doesn’t bother to tell the men whom he ordered to befriend Lachie that Lachie knows everything.  He just walks past them, letting them make fools out of themselves by continuing to carry on the charade.  Of course, when Parker finally tells them that Lachie knows the truth, they all protest that they only pretended at first, but now they really are his friends, and so forth and so on.  “Well, then,” Lachie replies, “should I be proud that you liked me only because I was about to die?”  Just as Judith suspected Steele proposed marriage out of pity, Lachie accuses Parker of accepting his proposal for the same reason.  She replies, “Surely there’s pity in every woman’s love.”  That answer is even creepier than the one she gave to his proposal.

Needless to say, through one more contrivance that we need not bother with here, Lachie is finally convinced that Parker and the men really are his friends, and he decides to stay.  In the end, we are glad that he finally opens his heart, choosing to die among the only friends he has, just as we were glad in Dark Victory, when for the sake of those she loves, Judith chooses to die alone.

 

The Music Man (1962) and The Rainmaker (1956)

The Music Man is a musical about a traveling salesman, “Professor” Harold Hill (Robert Preston), who is also a con artist.  According to his nemesis, Charlie Cowell, an anvil salesman, Hill’s latest swindle is to sell small towns on the idea of a boys’ band.  After collecting money for the musical instruments and for the uniforms, he leaves without fulfilling his promise to teach the boys how to play because he doesn’t know one note from another.  In so doing, he ruins things for legitimate salesmen like Cowell, who get chased out of town by citizens ready to literally tar and feather them and run them out on a rail.

But, Cowell goes on to say, just as the train that he and other salesmen are on crosses the state line, Hill wouldn’t have the nerve to try to pull that stuff in Iowa on account of the surly, no-nonsense people that Hawkeyes are known be.  Unbeknownst to him, Hill is also on the train, and he cannot resist the challenge, so he disembarks before Cowell and the other salesmen can put their hands on him.

Hill’s first encounters with the citizens of River City make it clear to him that this will be a tough sell, so he needs to create a problem that he can then promise to alleviate by means of a boys’ band.  When he hears that a pool table is being added to the billiard parlor, he creates a distinction between billiards, which improves the mind and builds character, and pool, which encourages sloth and introduces young men to the ways of sin.  A boys’ band, he promises the townsfolk, will keep their sons away from the pool table.

Hill learns that a big obstacle to his plan will be the town librarian, a maiden who gives piano lessons, wears glasses, and will see right through him.  Hill realizes he will have to make love to her to keep her from spoiling his plans, which he will be more than happy to do when he finds out how beautiful she is.  Said librarian is Marian (Shirley Jones), the only person in town of any appreciable intellect. She has somewhat scandalized the town because it is falsely rumored she had an affair with “Old Miser Madison,” an unappreciated philanthropist, who gave the town their library, but who left the books to Marian for their safekeeping.  Many of these books are regarded as being of a salacious nature, though we recognize them as classics.

Marian lives with her mother and her brother, Winthrop (Ron Howard), who is unhappy and withdrawn because he has a lisp.  Her mother is exasperated with Marian’s high standards regarding men, which may result in Marian’s becoming an old maid.  Marian, on the other hand, simply wants a man who will love her and not merely be interested in possessing her sexually.

Marian finds proof in a reference book that Hill is a fraud just as the musical instruments arrive in town.  She is about to expose him, but then she sees how happy Winthrop is, and how he is no longer afraid to express himself on account of his lisp.  She tears the incriminating page out of the book and keeps it to herself.  Moreover, she realizes that everyone in town has become happier on account of Hill’s presence, leading her to start falling in love with him.

Hill and Marian make up a sexually dangerous couple, dangerous in the sense that we fear that he will take advantage of her.  As Cowell says to Marian later in the movie, “That guy’s got a different girl in every county in Illinois, and he’s taken it away from every one of them.”  The pronoun “it” in that sentence has no antecedent, but we may assume it to be their virginity.  Hill and Marian stand in contrast to a sexually safe couple, Tommy and Zaneeta.  Zaneeta is the daughter of Mayor Shinn (Paul Ford), who doesn’t want his daughter having anything to do with the likes of Tommy.  But we know that there is no danger that Tommy would seduce Zaneeta and then abandon her.  Instead, we figure they will end up happily married.

Hill’s only instruction to the boys with their new instruments is what he calls the “think system.”  He tells them to think Beethoven’s Minuet in G.  Eventually, the uniforms arrive, money is collected, and it is time for him to abscond, but not before collecting what he calls his “commission,” which involves some dalliance with Marian.  He gets her to meet him at the footbridge, a rendezvous for young lovers, a bridge where young girls cross over to the other side, as it were.  They start kissing.  But then he finds out that she knows he is a fraud, yet she doesn’t care, owing to the happiness he has brought her and others.  She pulls the incriminating page out of her bosom and hands it to him, saying, “I give it to you with all my heart.”  Soon after, they learn that Cowell has informed the townsfolk that they have been bamboozled.  As a result, they are now looking for Hill to tar and feather him.  Marian tries to get him to run, assuring him that she understands and that it is all right.

I believe we are supposed to use our imagination here.  It would be no big deal for a traveling salesman to kiss a woman a couple of times and then leave town.  In other words, it was not merely the page kept in her bosom that Marian gave to Hill, but herself as well.  Only when understood in that way is her telling Hill it is all right for him to leave her of any significance.  Furthermore, the way the scene is filmed is also suggestive of this interpretation.  As Hill and Marian kiss while standing on the middle of the footbridge, and it is a kiss of sensual longing, we see their reflection in the stream below.  Something drops onto the stream, distorting the image to the point that it is just a blur.  This is reminiscent of the fireplace trope, in which the camera pans away from the kissing couple and focuses on the fire, allowing us to imagine that they are having sex.  When the image becomes clear again, their expressions have changed, and they seem to be in the afterglow of sex, as reality slowly begins to set in once more.  Now aware of the cool night air, she asks Hill to walk her home so she can put something on to keep her warm.

The fact that Marian let Hill “kiss” her while knowing he is a fraud causes him to fall in love with her, which in turn keeps him from leaving town before the mob can get to him.  The townsfolk are about to tar and feather him, but they think better of it when they slowly realize, as Marian has, that Hill has brought them a lot of happiness.  Still, he did cheat them out of the money paid for musical instruments and uniforms.

But then the boys’ band appears in their cheap uniforms.  They manage to play a rather sad version of the Minuet in G.  One by one, however, the parents of the boys get excited by the fact that their sons are actually playing in a band.  In their imagination, the boys become accomplished musicians outfitted in brilliantly colored uniforms, led in a parade by Hill, arm in arm with Marian.

At this point we might note that it is not only the dreams of the people of River City that come true regarding the boys’ band, but the dream that Hill has had as well, for earlier in the movie we see him fantasizing about actually being a band leader, and then feeling disappointed that he is not.

What exactly is this movie telling us?  That by being the victim of a fraud we can find happiness?  There is no question but that people sometimes think they have found happiness while they are being swindled, only to be brought to grief when later they discover they have been lied to.  The misery they experience then makes a mockery of their false happiness, which they would have been far better off without.  Winthrop’s tears when he finds out the truth are a gesture in that direction, but Marian is able to persuade him and everyone else that they are better off for what Hill has done.

Or is this movie telling us that as long as we realize we are being victimized, that makes it all right?  Finally, if both the con artist and his mark have the same wish, which is that the promises of the con man actually be fulfilled, will that make those promises come true?  Is that the key to happiness?

Perhaps my saying that the movie is “telling us” something is inapt.  Rather, we might better ask ourselves why this story appeals to us.  Why do we enjoy the fantasy that by succumbing to a fraud we can find love and happiness?  The movie could not successfully tell us this or anything else were we not already receptive to it.

While I was mulling this over, I kept getting the feeling that the movie reminded me of something.  Finally, The Rainmaker (1956) popped into my head.  It has the same formula, so let’s review it first, before trying to understand the message that these two movies have in common.  The con artist in this movie is Bill Starbuck (Burt Lancaster).  His thing is to get farmers to give him money to make it rain.  But just as Harold Hill could not read a note of music, Starbuck has never been able to make it rain.  Hill had to manufacture a problem to be solved, the morally corrupting influence of pool, whereas the problem in The Rainmaker is real, a drought.

Corresponding to Marian is Lizzie (Katherine Hepburn), a woman who is in danger of becoming a spinster.  According to her father and two brothers, she is too intelligent for her own good, which was pretty much the same attitude Marian’s mother had toward Marian.  The idea is that a man doesn’t like it when he meets a woman that is smarter than he is.  That’s probably true.  I don’t know what I’d do if it ever happened to me.  In any event, in addition to being a major reason for still being unmarried, the intelligence of these two women is essential for our believing that they knowingly allow themselves to be taken in by the con.

Lizzie’s older brother Noah (Lloyd Bridges) corresponds to Charlie Cowell.  He is the one who knows Starbuck is a swindler and is the one most against him.  Her younger brother Jim (Earl Holliman) believes Starbuck can make it rain, and he even helps out by beating a drum.  He and his sweetheart, Snookie Maguire, constitute the sexually safe couple corresponding to Tommy and Zaneeta in The Music Man, as opposed to the sexually dangerous couple, Lizzie and Starbuck.

Starbuck gets Lizzie’s father to pay him to make it rain, while allowing him to sleep in the barn for the time being.  While Starbuck works his gizmos, Lizzie’s father and brothers try to get Deputy File (Wendell Corey) to come to dinner, but he cynically says he does not want to get married.  Lizzie is humiliated when she finds out, and in her frustration turns to Starbuck.  Like Marian, she knows Starbuck is a fraud, but he makes her happy by seducing her.

In the end, Lizzie’s father and Jim realize that Noah was right, that Starbuck is a fraud, but because of the happiness he brought Lizzie, they do not want to press charges, and even Noah goes along with that in the end.  Starbuck gives them their money back and leaves.  But no sooner does he get about a mile out of town than it starts to rain.  Just as the boys’ band is actually able to put on a great performance at the end of The Music Man after the townsfolk are willing to let Hill go, so too does it start to rain in this movie after Lizzie’s family is willing to let Starbuck go.  Just as Hill wished he actually were a band leader, so too has Starbuck wished all along that he could actually make it rain.  Filled with jubilation, he returns, collects the money, and asks Lizzie to come with him.  At the same time, Deputy File realizes he loves Lizzie and asks her to stay.  She accepts, realizing that Starbuck was just for a night, not for a lifetime.  This is, perhaps, the main difference between the two movies:  Hill and Marian are together at the end of The Music Man; Starbuck and Lizzie are not together at the end of The Rainmaker.

Now let us try to answer the question raised previously:  What are these two movies trying to tell us?  That we should allow ourselves to be victims of a fraud because it will make us happy?  That when we know the swindler for what he is, and when he knows that we know, his flim-flam will be transformed into reality, and his dishonorable intentions will turn into true love?  This cannot be the message of these two movies because it is all too obvious that it just isn’t so.

Furthermore, if that were the message, the sexually safe couples in these two movies would serve no function.  Both movies were made before the sexual revolution, a time in which couples were supposed to wait until they got married before having sex.  Furthermore, both movies were set at an earlier period than when they were made, 1912 for The Music Man and in the 1930s for The Rainmaker, in which we may imagine that the prohibition against fornication, especially for women, was even stronger.  In The Music Man, the safe couple in question are so innocent that it would never occur to us that they would actually have sex, but in The Rainmaker, the required sexual restraint is made explicit when Jim tells how he almost had sex with Snookie, but then stopped because he realized that would be wrong.  Therefore, we are supposed to regard what happens with the dangerous couples as being exceptional and not behavior that should be emulated.  And Lizzie’s subsequent rejection of Starbuck’s offer for her to come with him in favor of staying put and marrying Deputy File underscores that point.

Though we pay scant attention to the subplot of the sexually safe couples in these two movies, yet they allow us to indulge the fantasy of giving in to a seduction, first in the form of the sexually dangerous couple, and then in the form of the promises of a swindler in general, by reassuring us that prudence and the moral order still prevail.  Unleavened by the sexually safe couples, these stories might have been taken to suggest that we abandon all reason and live in fool’s paradise.  This we would be unable to go along with, and the fantasy would be spoiled.

Crimson Tide (1995) and The Sum of All Fears (2002)

In the movie Crimson Tide, Russian rebels take control of nuclear missiles, which they threaten to launch, starting nuclear war with the United States, if their demands are not met.  Leaves are canceled, and Commander Hunter (Denzel Washington) is assigned to be the executive officer aboard the Alabama, a nuclear submarine, whose commanding officer is Captain Ramsey (Gene Hackman).

When we first see Hunter, he and his wife are throwing a birthday party for their daughter, who is five years old.  He also has an eight-year-old son.  When we first see Captain Ramsey, all we see is a dog, which we assume is the extent of his “family.”  So, we know we are supposed to like Hunter, but be suspicious of Ramsey.

Ramsey is contemptuous of Hunter.  When interviewing him, Ramsey smirks when he reads that Hunter spent a year at Harvard.  Even though Hunter was at the top of the list for replacing the submarine’s executive officer, Ramsey belittles Hunter by pointing out that it was a short list.  He further shows what he thinks of Hunter by saying that the previous executive officer was the best he ever had, implying that Hunter will never be able to measure up.  When Ramsey finds out that Hunter likes to ride horses, his favorite being an Arabian, Ramsey disingenuously remarks that he wouldn’t be able to handle an Arabian.  “Just give me an old paint,” he says, sharing a knowing chuckle with the Chief of the Boat.  They clearly regard the riding of an Arabian horse as elitist.  Then we find out that Ramsey is a sexist and misogynist, as he goes on to compare horses to high school girls:

Yeah, horses are fascinating animals.  Dumb as fence posts, but very intuitive.  In that way, they’re not too different from high school girls.  They might not have a brain in their head, but they do know all the boys want to fuck ’em.  Don’t have to be able to read Ulysses to know where they’re comin’ from.

What do you bet that Hunter is a Democrat, and Ramsey is a Republican?

In any event, Ramsey strikes us as a bully, making fun of a subordinate who just has to sit there and take it.  He is small-minded and petty, holding a grudge against Hunter on account of his education, indirectly referring to him as an “egghead.”  Later on, Hunter’s friend, Lieutenant Ince, explains to Hunter what we have already figured out:

To him, you’re Annapolis, Harvard, expert on theory, well-versed in world affairs. Ha!  He’s had his head up his ass driving ships for the last twenty-five years.  He’s probably a little paranoid about that.  I mean, Navy’s all he’s got.  Navy and that little rat-dog of his.  That’s why his wife left him.

Now, the scriptwriters could have made him a widower, having Ince say, “Navy’s all he’s got.  Navy and that little rat-dog of his, ever since his wife died.”  But that would have made him a sympathetic figure, and we couldn’t have that.  In fact, the writers didn’t even vouchsafe him a no-fault divorce.  Instead, the writers had Ince say that his wife left him, from which we are to imagine that she just got fed up with him because he was an insufferable jerk.

Try to imagine that it was Ramsey who, at the beginning of the movie, was filming his granddaughter’s birthday party when the call came in for him to prepare to ship out, while it was Hunter whose wife left him.  That would have made this an interesting movie, with both Ramsey and Hunter playing less predictable roles.  Instead, we get a simplistic opposition—good family man versus bad family man—leading to a predictable outcome.

After they have boarded the submarine and left port, Ramsey expresses his one regret about heading out to sea:  “My last breath of polluted air for the next sixty-five days,” he says, as he inhales on his cigar.  “I don’t trust air I can’t see.”  Now we know he is a Republican.

Tension builds between Ramsey and Hunter.  Then they receive orders to launch nuclear missiles to take out the rebel missiles.  Before they can do that, they are almost torpedoed by a Russian submarine, which causes some damage.  The end result is that they lose communication with Washington, D.C. just as a final message was coming through, of which they get only a fragment.  Ramsey is determined to proceed according to the last complete order received, which was to launch nuclear missiles at the rebel missile sites.  Hunter argues that they should not proceed, because the message fragment might have been an order to cancel the launch.  Let other submarines, which are not damaged and out of communication, do what needs to be done, he argues.  When Ramsey tries to break protocol and replace Hunter, so that he can have someone concur with his order to launch, the result is a mutiny and then a counter mutiny.

Perhaps the most condescending part of this movie is the way the sailors are depicted as being deep into pop culture.  It’s not so bad when they play trivia regarding submarine movies like The Enemy Below and Run Silent Run Deep, but when they get into fights over the Silver Surfer and have to be inspired by comparisons to Star Trek, we have to wonder what kind of sailors are on that submarine.  Actually, the question we really have to ask is, what kind of regard do the scriptwriters have for the intended audience?  They are obviously appealing to all the science-fiction and comic-book nerds that will be watching this movie, so that they can see themselves as fitting right in on that submarine, just like real men.  And they are presumably appealing to movie-nerds like me as well, to make us suppose we would fit right in too, but I have no illusions on that score.

After Ramsey retakes command of the submarine, radio contact is on the verge of being restored.  He agrees to wait three minutes for a confirmation to launch.  While they wait, in order to keep from being bored, he starts talking to Hunter again about horses:

Ramsey:  Speaking of horses, did you ever see those Lipizzaner stallions?

Hunter:  What?

Ramsey:  From Portugal.  The Lipizzaner stallions.  The most highly trained horses in the world. They’re all white.

Hunter:  Yes, sir.

Ramsey:  “Yes, sir,” you’re aware they’re all white or “yes, sir,” you’ve seen them?

Hunter:  Yes, sir, I’ve seen them.  Yes, sir, I’m aware that they’re all white.  They’re not from Portugal.  They’re from Spain.  And at birth, they’re not white, they’re black.

While I admit that it’s cute the way the scriptwriters use these conversations about horses as a unifying theme for these two men, I have to wonder about the emphasis being placed by Ramsey on the fact that the horses are white.  Is this supposed to be an indirect way for Ramsey to express his attitude of white supremacy?  And is Hunter’s response supposed to suggest that these horses are essentially black, since they are born that way?  It seems almost too dumb to countenance.  And yet, if that is not the point of this conversation, then what is?

In the end, radio contact is restored, proving that Hunter was right:  the order to launch missiles had been cancelled.  Subsequently, at a hearing on these events, Ramsey is allowed to be magnanimous in defeat, taking early retirement and recommending Hunter be given his next command.

Any chance for suspense in this movie is undermined by the fact that the ending is completely predictable.  First of all, in any movie you have ever seen in which someone wants to launch nuclear weapons, that person is either crazy, as in Dr. Strangelove or:  How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964); evil, as in The Dead Zone (1983); or wrongheaded, as in Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977).  So, we know there is no way that it is going to turn out that Ramsey is right and Hunter is wrong, though we can try to imagine two possible endings going against this formula.

Ending One:  Ramsey succeeds in launching the missiles. And it is good he did too, because all the other American submarines in the area had been taken out by Russian submarines.  As a result, the missiles controlled by the rebels are destroyed, and even the Russians are grateful for Ramsey’s bold and decisive action.  Ramsey is promoted to admiral, while Hunter is court-martialed and sentenced to thirty years in military prison.

Ending Two:  Hunter succeeds in preventing Ramsey from taking out the rebel sites.  As a result, the rebels are able to launch their missiles, full scale thermonuclear war breaks out, hundreds of millions of people die immediately, and the Earth is poisoned with radioactivity.  Hunter realizes he was wrong, as he and the other members of the crew slowly begin dying of radiation sickness.

Needless to say, those two endings, though certainly possible in real life, are unthinkable for a movie.  On the Beach (1959) has the world coming to an end as a result of nuclear war and the radioactive fallout that follows, but it is not an example of Ending Two because no one on the nuclear submarine is to blame.  Notably, this movie did not come up during the trivia game about submarine movies.

The race of the two officers also makes the outcome predictable.  We cannot simply switch the roles of these two actors, because Gene Hackman is about twenty-five years older than Denzel Washington.  But let’s use our imagination.  Suppose they had selected Morgan Freeman to play Captain Ramsey and Brad Pitt to play Commander Hunter.  And then suppose that everything that happened was otherwise the same.  For example, Morgan Freeman punches Brad Pitt twice in the face for refusing to go along with the missile launch.  But in the end, Morgan Freeman is proven to be wrong.

While something like that could happen in real life, this too would be unthinkable for a movie.

Of course, we could have Morgan Freeman’s Ramsey turn out to be right, launching the missiles and saving the day, while Brad Pitt’s Hunter is court-martialed, as imagined in Ending One above.  That would preserve the requirements regarding race, but at the expense of violating the principle that whoever wants to launch nuclear weapons is crazy, evil, or wrongheaded.

Finally, there was no way that the wholesome family man was going to turn out to be wrong, while the man whose wife left him was going to turn out to be right.

Suffice it to say that the ending of this movie is triply predictable:  the officer that is (1) African American, (2) a good family man, and (3) opposed to launching nuclear missiles must prevail over the officer that is (1) white, (2) a bad family man, and (3) in favor of launching nuclear missiles.

A variation on this interplay of nuclear weapons and African Americans occurs in The Sum of All Fears (2002).  In that movie, a bunch of neo-Nazis have decided to do what Hitler should have done:  get the Americans and the Russians to fight each other.  To that end, they purchase a nuclear bomb on the black market, which they intend to detonate in the United States, thereby precipitating World War III.

In the first part of this movie, we aren’t too worried, because Morgan Freeman plays William Cabot, Director of the C.I.A.  Should the neo-Nazis succeed in their plan to explode the nuke, he will provide the wise counsel that President Fowler (James Cromwell) needs to keep from launching a misguided attack on the Russians.  However, when the nuclear device goes off at a football game, Cabot is mortally wounded.  Now there are nothing but white males running things in the White House, and they are all becoming emotional and irrational.  They want to launch a nuclear strike against the Russians.  We know they would be wrong to do so, because it was not the Russians that were responsible for nuking that football game.  But that knowledge is superfluous, because we already know that anyone in a movie that wants to launch nuclear weapons is in the wrong.

Things are worse in Russia.  At least here in the United States, after the death of Cabot, there are still some low-level, African-American officers and intelligence analysts to help keep things on an even keel; but over in Russia, they don’t have any African Americans at all.

Therefore, it’s all up to Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck), Cabot’s top analyst in the C.I.A.  He knows that the bomb’s plutonium was manufactured in the United States, so the attack must be a rogue operation.  But he can’t get through to the president because he and all his top aids are white, and they won’t listen.

Ryan goes to the Pentagon, but things don’t look good.  They’re all white, and they won’t listen.

But wait!  There’s a black general.  Oh, thank God!  He’ll listen.

And listen he does, allowing Ryan to save the day.

And so it is that if you are going to make a movie about the possibility of nuclear war, the only way the movie will have any suspense is if you make it look as though there are no African Americans around to keep the white males from blowing up the world.

Liliom (1930)

I saw Carousel (1956) about thirty years ago, and I was surprised to see that it sentimentalized wife beating and child abuse.  Recently, I discovered that Carousel was actually a softened version of the original play Liliom, first seen in Hungary in 1909.  From what I have been able to gather, it was a failure, but this play was nothing if not resilient:  it kept being staged, made into several movies, adapted for radio, turned into the musical Carousel, first on stage and then the movie, made into a ballet, produced for television in different countries, and still thrives to this day.

To try to get a better understanding of the appeal of this story, I decided to watch the 1930 version in which the title character was played by Charles Farrell.  The movie begins with a prologue, which reads:

This play is the love story of Julie, a serving-maid, and Liliom, a merry-go-round barker. Liliom gropes and struggles through life and death, and even beyond death, ever seeking escape from himself, while Julie’s love for him endures always.

That is to say, Liliom is a tormented soul.  It’s a good thing the movie included this prologue, because without it, we would think that Liliom was just a louse and a layabout without ever realizing his existential significance.  At several points in the movie, he refers to himself as an “artist,” probably because artists are often depicted in film as having tormented souls.  And it is good we are informed of that too, because we sure don’t see him painting any pictures.

As we go through the movie, we find out at various points that Liliom has beaten at least one woman in his past, is a gigolo, seduces women with promises of marriage, only to take their money and abandon them later, and doesn’t like to work, so he lies around sleeping it off while he and Julie are supported by her aunt.  But all these faults are supposed to be just part of Liliom’s charm, whose good looks make him a romantic figure.

Julie’s friend Marie has a suitor named Wolf, and they eventually get married. We are supposed to think of Wolf in a negative light, as someone who is funny-looking and a bit stodgy.  And there is a carpenter that is in love with Julie.  Every week he comes by and asks her out, and every week she says no.  At the end of the movie, eleven years later, he is still coming by once a week, and Julie is still saying no.  Admittedly, a man would have to be pretty pathetic to do that.  But that’s the point.  The idea is that being married to either of these two men would be a boring, dreary business.  You see, they do not have Liliom’s charm (if you can call it that) or good looks.

When Liliom and Julie first meet, he loses his job, because the owner of the carousel is jealous, and Julie loses her job, because she deliberately stays out late.  That’s why they end up living with her aunt.  Julie has a pretty face, and that’s about it.  She never really wants to do anything, and she never has much to say.  She just sits there and waits for Liliom to seduce her and get her pregnant.  The carpenter doesn’t know how lucky he is.

When Liliom realizes that Julie is pregnant, he decides he needs money.  But he doesn’t want to work for a living, so he and his friend decide to rob a man carrying a huge payroll.  But the man turns out to be too much for them, and rather be arrested by the police, Liliom stabs himself and dies.

Like so many movies that portray the afterlife, modern technology is involved, much in the way Satan used cannons in Milton’s Paradise Lost.  In this case, it is trains.  I guess trains were a big deal in the early twentieth century when the play was written.  And as is usual, we never see God, only some administrator, in this case the Chief Magistrate.  For reasons that make no sense whatever, an exception is made in Liliom’s case about returning to Earth for a second chance.  Perhaps it’s because he is charming (if you can call it that) and good looking.  But first, he will spend ten years in Hell, and then he will be allowed to go back to Earth to try to do something good, to make up for hitting Julie when they argued.

When the ten years is up, he goes down to Earth.  He talks to his daughter.  When she refuses to cooperate in his effort to make amends, he slaps her.  Liliom finds himself back on the train that takes people to Heaven or Hell, and presumably it’s the latter for him.  Liliom says he failed, but the Chief Magistrate says he did not.  They listen in on Julie and his daughter, who agree that sometimes a slap feels like a kiss, that even if a man “beats you and beats you and beats you,” it doesn’t hurt a bit.  The Chief Magistrate says that Julie’s forgiving, undying love for Liliom is touching, even mysterious.

Presumably, this movie and the play it was based on were made at a time in which women were so dependent on men economically that they often had to endure the misery of a bad marriage rather than try to make it on their own, especially with children depending on them.  That is, movies like this tried to make women feel better about the way their husbands beat them and the children, to help them believe that deep down these men really loved them, and so that made it all right.

But those days are long gone.  Women have options today, and there is no longer any need to romanticize wife beating and child abuse as expressions of love.  And yet, this story remains popular.  It beats me.

Death Wish (1974, 2018)

The 1974 original version of Death Wish proved to be so successful at the box office that it spawned four sequels and the remake of 2018.  When the original 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” for that, so they go back to the hotel.  When they return from their vacation, Paul finds 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, Joanna and the Kersey’s daughter, Carol, are at the grocery store where three hooligans are so 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 just as the two women pass by, but before the three men do.  Literally, the nuns come between the men and the women, but figuratively, they do not, 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, the bad guys 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 faith 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, that 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 can 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 prepared for a reluctant-hero situation, so that made it all right.

Paul puts some roles of quarters in a sock to act as a makeshift blackjack, which he gets to use in short order when someone tries to hold him up.  But as he re-enacts the scene at home, elated at the discovery that he is not powerless and does not have to be a victim, the roles of quarters burst 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 a cowboy wannabe.

They go out to where Aimes wants to build his houses, and while they are looking around, we see a real cowboy named Judd herding cattle through the area.  Aimes says he doesn’t want to bulldoze the hills.  Paul says the hills 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?  You can’t herd cattle through the middle of a suburban neighborhood, even if the hills do remain in place.  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 be oblivious to, and which we are supposed to overlook.

Speaking of Western nostalgia, they next find themselves in “Old Tucson,” 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 she’d have to be petite.  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.  Whatever the caliber, though, it had to be a revolver.  A semi-automatic lacks the cowboy juju that is needed to bring Western justice to the big city.

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:  in part, because the bad guys are afraid they might run into the vigilante; in part, because other law-abiding citizens start fighting back too.

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 vigilante’s job is not done, that he will soon be cleaning up the streets of Chicago.

So, what can we say about the 2018 remake starring Bruce Willis as Paul Kersey?  Let us consider a few of the differences.  First, in the 1974 original, what happens to Paul’s wife and daughter is much worse than in the 2018 remake.  The daughter is brutally raped in the original, while her mother watches helplessly.  It is pathetic and horrifying.  In the remake, rape is only threatened, and the women are able to fight back:  the daughter slicing a man’s face; the mother throwing boiling water in the face of another.  The daughter never recovers psychologically in the original; she makes a full recovery in the remake.

Second, whereas Paul was an architect in the original, in the remake he is a doctor who works in the emergency room of a hospital.  At first, I thought this was for the sake of irony.  I could almost imagine a tagline:  “He removes bullets from bodies by day.  He puts them back into bodies by night.”  However, the purpose of his being a doctor was really to provide him with a way of finding out who the perpetrators were, which begins when one of them is brought into the emergency room.  Paul of the original never even imagines that he will encounter the men that killed his wife and raped his daughter.  All the men he kills are just bad guys, none of whom he has any personal connection with.  He just walks the streets at night as bait, luring them to their doom.  Paul of the remake does kill a few bad guys unrelated to the assault on his family, but then the rest of the movie is about tracking down all the men that had anything to do with killing his wife and assaulting his daughter.  Actually, even the killing of one of the men who had nothing to do with the assault on his family is an act of revenge in behalf of a boy who came into the emergency room with a gunshot wound.  Presumably, the producers of the remake thought this would make the movie better.  It doesn’t, and not simply because the original is more realistic in this regard.  Between getting revenge on the men that attacked his family and having his daughter make a full recovery, Paul of the remake gets closure.  The situation for Paul of the original remains forever unresolved, for those men are still out there somewhere, and his daughter will never be the same.

Third, there is no Western theme in the remake.  Though the Western comparisons in the original were a little corny, yet they kept the film upbeat.  Paul is at one with himself in his new role as vigilante.  And when he talks to his son-in-law about whether it is better to fight back or to hide, he is reflective and philosophical.  In the remake, Paul is conflicted.  When his brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) confronts him about what he is doing, his attempt to justify himself comes across as whiny and moralistic.  Moreover, at the end of the original, when Paul forms his forefinger and thumb into a gun, we believe he will continue to be a vigilante after his move to Chicago.  When Paul does that in the remake, we don’t believe him.  Having killed the men connected to his family’s tragedy, there no longer seems to be sufficient motive for him to continue in that vein.

There is one similarity worth noting.  As I mentioned above, it was important that Paul be given a gun as a gift, because normal, law-abiding citizens that buy guns in movies usually end up getting killed.  In the remake, Paul starts to buy a gun, but changes his mind when confronted with the regulations.  He later sees a gun drop from a victim in the operating room, and he opportunistically secretes it on his person to be used later, thereby avoiding the jinx of buying it.  He does buy a gun later, a machine gun no less, but that is after he has already done a lot of killing.

All in all, the Death Wish of 1974 is by far the better movie.  The remake is just another revenge movie.  The original is existential.

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 unimpeachable 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) and Always (1989)

A long time ago, I watched A Guy Named Joe, but just barely.  I would have forgotten about it completely had I not recently seen the movie Trumbo (2015), which begins with a montage of the movies for which Dalton Trumbo had already written scripts before he got in trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947.  Presumably, the idea was to showcase these movies as evidence of what a good sreenwriter he was.  So, I decided to take another look.  In so doing, I learned that it was one of Steven Spielberg’s favorite movies, leading him to remake this movie as Always (1989).  I find it all so hard to believe.  If there was any movie that Trumbo should have written under a pseudonym, this was it.  And as bad as that movie was, Always somehow managed to be worse.

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 one of the dumbest 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.

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 there will no longer be an enemy for him to drop bombs on.

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 we 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?  If so, then listen up, ladies.  Remember when your mother told you always to wear clean underwear in case you are in an accident?  And she was only worried what the nurses at the hospital would think.  Suppose you die in that accident.  Just imagine having to wear those dirty panties for all eternity.  On the other hand, Pete’s uniform is not wet and wrinkled, as you would expect from the fact that he died in the ocean, but is all cleaned and pressed.  So, maybe God will be merciful and give you a fresh pair of panties when you show up for your eternal reward.

Anyway, it’s good Pete is still in uniform, because Heaven appears to be a United States 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 a bomber pilot, and one of the conceptions of Heaven is that we get to do in Paradise what we enjoyed doing on Earth.  He loves killing people by dropping bombs on them during wartime, so he gets to continue killing them now that he is in Heaven.  Almost.  The General (Lionel Barrymore) tells Pete that he will only be helping new pilots learn how to drop bombs on the enemy, 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 go back to Earth to help out those pilots.  Presumably, there is also a Japanese air force base in Heaven where dead Japanese pilots are sent back to Earth to help their fellow officers become pilots too.  Otherwise, how would Japanese pilots ever learn how to drop bombs on Americans?

Like most Heaven movies, we do not get to see God, the exception being The Green Pastures (1936).  In fact, most of 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 him to explain why he doesn’t just stop the war himself, thereby plunging the movie into the whole problem of evil that has bedeviled the faithful since the Book 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 because he inherited four million dollars.  “I never did see a guy that inherited a lot of dough that was any good,” he says.  Now, that’s just the kind of commie sentiment that HUAC was talking about!

Anyway, Pete likes Ted even less when he 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, Pete 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.

And so, as far as this movie is concerned, Heaven is a means to an end, its function being to help someone achieve some worldly good, such as killing the enemy or getting the girl.  By implication, without this world to concern itself with, Heaven would be pointless.  But then, there really is nothing new about this.  Aristotle may have said that God spends all his time thinking about himself, but the gods as conceived of by the rest of mankind always seem inordinately occupied with the doings of man, and so much so that we wonder what they would do without us.  The Bible should have begun, “In the beginning, God was bored.”

While I was girding my loins in preparation for watching Always, the remake by Spielberg, of whom I am not a fan, I was trying to imagine which war would be the setting for this movie.  Since it was made in 1989, the Gulf War was a year away, so my thoughts drifted to the Vietnam War.  But the idea of Pete as a pilot in that war who loves dropping napalm just didn’t have the same feel, especially when he would later be sent back from Heaven to help Ted drop that napalm.  Well, since ten years earlier, Spielberg made 1941 (1979), which was set in World War II, perhaps that would be the setting here.

As it turned out, there is no war at all.  There are World War II planes, however, which pilots fly to drop fire retardant on forest fires, rather than bombs or napalm.  But it just isn’t the same, and Spielberg even has Al (John Goodman) openly express that very sentiment while talking to Pete (Richard Dreyfuss):

What this place reminds me of is the war in Europe….  I wasn’t in it, but think about it.  The beer is warm, the hall is a Quonset, there are B-26s outside, hotshot pilots inside, airstrip in the woods.  It’s England!  Everything but Glenn Miller.  Except we go to burning places and bomb them till they stop burning.  You see, Pete, there ain’t no war here….  That’s why they don’t make movies called Night Raid to Boise, Idaho or Firemen Strike at Dawn.  And this is why you’re not exactly a hero for taking the chances you take.  You’re more of what I would call a dickhead.

And so, through the mouth of Al, Spielberg makes explicit what we would all be thinking anyway.  As if that were not enough, Dorinda (Holly Hunter) does her part to deflate the importance of what Pete is doing after she has her premonition and wants him to quit:  “I could understand how you fly, if you were risking yourself for civilization.”

My guess is that Spielberg decided to remake A Guy Named Joe in a peacetime setting to avoid having Heaven be complicit in killing people, the price of so doing, however, being that the mission of putting out forest fires just doesn’t seem to warrant the attention of Heaven.  But as Al indicates, it doesn’t warrant the attention of those of us in the audience either.

All right, there is a scene in which Pete gets to be a hero, saving Al’s life, but by that time we find the whole business unworthy of a movie, just as Al said.  And Pete hasn’t even gone to Heaven yet.  Well, at this point I figured there would be someone corresponding to Dick Rumney, who tells him there’s a lot of fires that need putting out, and he will  have to help do it.  Instead, there is Hap (Audrey Hepburn), who just says that he needs to help teach new pilots how to fly, just as he was taught to fly by the ghost of a dead pilot, who was taught by the ghost of a previously deceased pilot.  She doesn’t explain how the first pilot learned to fly, however.  She also tells Pete that he will have to spend all his time doing good for others, since it would be a waste of time worrying about himself because he’s dead.

They also talk about Einstein and space and time.  Back when A Guy Named Joe was made, it sufficed to allude to God or Heaven to justify the unrealistic stuff you were seeing on the screen.  But nowadays, when a movie defies common sense, someone will typically utter the magic words “Einstein” or “quantum mechanics” as a way of forestalling criticism that the movie is ridiculous.

Some parts of this movie are played seriously, but some parts are played for laughs.  For example, Pete uses his psychic powers to put thoughts into Al’s head, making him do something silly, sort of like the way Froggy used to do on the Buster Brown Show, which I thought was funny when I watched it as a six-year-old child.

Anyway, just as in A Guy Named Joe, Dorinda flies a dangerous mission so that Ted won’t have to and possibly get himself killed.  Then Pete leaves Earth and goes back to Heaven.  “Wait a minute,” you might be saying, “he’s not through teaching Ted how to fly.  That’s why Dorinda had to fly the mission instead.”  Oh, well, there are probably plenty of other ghost pilots hanging around Heaven who can finish teaching Ted what he needs to know.

Before Pete leaves, he tells Dorinda that she can marry Ted.  And it was important that he do so, because it is only through supernatural intervention that a woman is able to forget one man and move on to another.  Perhaps that is why Pete is allowed to return to Heaven before finishing that teaching job, otherwise he would have had to watch Ted and Dorinda having sex.  On the other hand, it might have been funny having Pete hang around so he could pull another Froggy routine, saying, “And then you put it in her butt.”

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.