Love Conquers All Movies

Recently, I had a two movie day. The next week was busy, and there were two new movies I wanted to see. It’s been a long, dry spell on the big screen, and the times worked. Downton Abbey was first, of course, and that may make next week’s blog. I did shop in between and grabbed a pair of leggings for $5 after Penney’s discounts and a $10 coupon. Great! That’s how life on Earth is, not the film I’m about to review.

Ad Astra pits Brad Pitt’s Roy against an impious universe, a piteous voice in the void. The alliterations in the last sentence don’t have meaning but are just for show, like most of what happens in the movie. Having been negative twice now, I will continue briefly in that vein before a slightly more positive conclusion.

Rotten Tomatoes, the go-to for reviews, has Ad Astra at 83% positive critic ratings and 41% for viewers. As I’ve said before, the opposite reaction is more telling to me. This breakdown in positivity, however, is particularly stark and probably more accurate. This isn’t 2001: A Space Odyssey, folks, not even close. Roy’s repetitive psych reports are dull, with two exceptions. He rambles through one near the end that suggests he is losing touch. The final one does make the movie worthwhile, almost.

In the beginning of the movie, we assume Roy is in space and about to walk out on some task. He has on the suit, a good sign. Soon we learn that he’s on a high tower that’s anchored to the Earth. When mysterious blasts destroy his footing, we see him and many others plummet toward the Earth. He has a parachute, luckily, and makes it down safely even though shards of metal shred the ‘chute. (Sorry.) Anyway, those bursts are called The Surge and come from Neptune, where Roy’s presumed-dead father was last seen. My own cleverness lacking, a number of reviews (including this one and this one) noted that the tower was reminiscent of the Tower of Babel. Perhaps I’m too literal. It becomes Roy’s task, first, to establish contact with his father (Tommy Lee Jones) and, on his own initiative, to end the attacks.

Along the way, two things are remarkable: needless carnage and religious references. The deaths begin early, with a man taking Roy to a shuttle via armed moon transports amid pirates. He’s a good guy, and we see pictures of his family on the dashboard. These days, you see the pic, you know the fate: he’s toast. Roy arranges for his body to be retrieved, of course.

Once on Mars, Roy sits repeatedly in a sound room sending messages out into space in the window of time needed to reach Neptune. No response. Until there is one, perhaps. He has broken protocol and script to offer his father a final plea. Roy’s attempt at humanity and connection results in his being scrubbed from the mission to Neptune. With the aid of the base chief, Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), he catches (rather literally) a ride on the departing ship because her parents were on his father’s mission, and his father killed them. Once on board via an unbelievable arrival, he kills the crew in self-defense. Also ridiculous. Luckily, he can get himself to Neptune without help. Unrealistic: it’s a 12-year journey, says CalTech, at its closest to Earth of 2.7 billion miles. Once there, he would like to redeem his father, who is insane. Clifford McBride does not want redemption, preferring instead the horror of solitude. He ends his life before they can reach the escape vehicle before the original station blows up, helping propel the ship toward Earth. Sigh. Didn’t they have scientists to consult?

Now for the good parts. Religion is important here. The prayers that are said, the allusions of St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers, are lovely, especially considering the lack of resolution. The idea “At least we know we’re all we’ve got” seems premature, really. The funereal prayer includes the line “May you see the Redeemer face to face, and enjoy the vision of God forever.” This comes from a set of Catholic texts but has echoes of meaning throughout. If Clifford has found nothing beyond our solar system, does that suggest nothing is really there? Brian Tellerico, a major reviewer, writes, “Science fiction is often about search for meaning, but this one literally tells the story of man’s quest to find He who created him and get some answers, including why He left us behind.” I disagree with Tellerico that this movie is “masterful.” I think its conclusion has, in fact, nothing to do with science fiction but represents one more example of the family-and-love-are-everything cliché.

In another movie with a similar plot, A Dog’s Way Home (2019) involves Bella trying to obey her last command to “go home” with a years-long, dangerous journey. Along the way, she finds several owners. One set believes she belongs to someone else because she saves his life in an avalanche. She doesn’t, and the really mean man doesn’t want her or even his own dog. She comments, “He deserves to be alone.” She is finally reunited, of course, and love triumphs, of course. The line resonates, however, and may be what saves Ad Astra: Even if mankind is alone, at least there is love.

In the final scene, as Eve walks back into Roy’s life, his psych eval has included a refreshing turn. He uses words that are from Galations 6:2—“Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” He says he will love as well. It has a sweetness that is beyond what the movie would seem to deserve. That search for meaning doesn’t have to wonder/wander so far afield. Christians have long said that we walk by faith, not by sight. We’ve got the songs to prove it, that atheists don’t. Thanks, Steve Martin.

I’m Right, You’re Wrong, and Other Lies

This adventure began way back. I was 6 and had to be tested for tuberculosis. They said I didn’t have TB; I heard TV. As hard as such a thing is to imagine, we hadn’t had one very long, but I didn’t want to give it up. Stubborn as I was, I feared it was lost forever. They finally made me understand that I was, yes, wrong.

An odder example involves myself as a teen, still stubborn, who thought Twilight Zone was hosted by Rod Sterling, not Rod Serling. Again I had misheard. It was my inability to admit I was wrong that was the problem.

Recently, I responded to a woman who insisted my pronunciation of “preparatory” was wrong. She was quite adamant. Recounting my authority and credentials to tell her that there are two acceptable ways to say this word did no good: it was her way or else. Whatever. I can say it that way to suit, but I prefer mine, with the accent on the first syllable. It is not—as she insisted—a right or wrong question. (The British have a third, but I’ve only heard that here. Quite different. We don’t live in London.)

Sometimes both versions of the truth are true. A friend asked me to make some copies for her. I wanted her to spend 10 cents each. She prefers another location, but I said theirs cost 25 cents. She was sure it was just 15 cents. We were both right, depending on the size of the paper: 15 for regular, 25 for legal. I decided to make my own copies with hers. I am quite cheap/frugal and would have usually driven the three blocks for the difference but thought better of it. (Please note that the topic sentence here is a trick. There is only truth.)

Now to the matter of chili. This week I reposted a picture of a young man holding a sign that said “Beans don’t belong in chili.” To strengthen my unspoken argument, the International Chili Society does not allow beans or pasta in its traditional category. Pasta? Oh my. Anyway, my lunch got taken to the cleaners, to mix a metaphor. Some tried to calm the argument, citing diversity or personal choice. Others stood firm: Of course beans go into chili. Or tomatoes. I tried to appease by taking meat out altogether, noting that I once won “Most Unusual Chili” with just wheat berries. Same seasonings and tasty. Talk about fiber though…

As someone added, the same argument applies to barbeque and stuffing (or dressing). I’d add cornbread (sweet or not) and meatloaf (ditto). There is a Latin maxim, “De gustibus non est disputandum.” (About matters of taste there can be no argument.) Obviously, that doesn’t settle much. People can agree that it is a true statement but still wander through what seems to be an endless path of this versus that. This experience, this week, suggested that recipes can metaphorically be a place where we can control what we think is right, even though it doesn’t matter in the grand theme of things.

What my conclusion may be concerns neither truth nor preference, neither recipes nor resources. Rather, I will say that I believe some things can be called “right” and others “wrong.” It’s easy to post a “Stand up for what you believe in” meme when, in the long run, the topic doesn’t really matter. I didn’t change anyone’s mind, confused a few people, probably irritated a few more. I’ll not list those issues here. I won’t suggest that I haven’t done things that are, observably and admittedly, wrong; probably daily I will do the wrong thing. I strive to do the right things and admire those that do, while striving not to judge those who don’t agree with me. I often say (and with disagreement occasionally), “Life’s a test. Not everyone’s doing that well.” That’s not so much a judgment as an observation. I think it’s true—not a lie. What do you think?

Swashbuckling Men of Questionable Character, and Bananas

Several weeks ago, a friend offered me a set of CDs called The Lost City of the Monkey God. She said it was about an abandoned city deep in the Honduran jungle and a virus, somehow associated with the people who went there. I accepted her gift, put it in the back seat, intended to start it immediately, and immediately forgot it. So completely was it forgotten that when she asked last week what I thought of it, I denied having ever heard of it. She assured me that I had taken it, and knowing my weak brain, I realized it was probably still where I left it. I apologized. She forgave me. I started listening.

Oh my goodness. The title today comes from a sentence the writer, Douglas Preston, uses to describe a set of explorers active before his 2017 adventure. I had no idea. Of course, I knew there were swashbuckling men of questionable character, but I didn’t know they were responsible for our current supply of bananas. As in all things, more happens around us than we have any idea. The same is true for bananas. This article details the modern upshot of the banana trade. They’re ubiquitous, and cheap, this fruit. Side note: I’ll bet you can name five varieties of apples without much difficulty. My favorite, Honeycrisp, is perfect; I never eat Red Delicious anymore, but Gala, Pink Lady, and Fuji are good. And there are my five. Granny Smith for pies, which I make every 15 years. But I’ll bet you don’t know that the variety of bananas sold commonly in this country are Cavendish. Now you do, and on we go.

So the swashbucklers get us into Honduras, start growing and selling bananas, look for and occasionally find gold, and hear about the Lost City, also called La Ciudad Blanca. The White City, perhaps named for the color of the cliffs surrounding it, promised so much to so many: Hope for the oppressed of the region, knowledge about a culture lost for centuries, fulfillment of those swashbucklers’ dreams.  Our adventure takes a long time getting started because of the preparatory history, but the book was planned first as an article for National Geographic, with photographer Dave Yoder along, as well as a film crew for a documentary. I’m not finished yet, but I have to say that the entire project sounds completely daunting. Our writer can describe scenes incredibly well. He introduces us to the fer-de-lance, an extremely poisonous pit viper, hints at previous crew member encounters, and then practically steps on one going out of his hammock to pee in the night. What luck for the excitement factor!

And I’m only half-way through the CDs. I did finish a charming German short film, Bis Gleich, only 20 minutes long. With very little dialogue, it chronicles two elderly neighbors as they watch the goings on around them. It’s written by an American, Tara Lynn Orr, married to Phillipe Brenninkmeyer, a Dutch actor born in London who lives in Los Angeles. The title means “until then” which is a really kind, sweet comment on the ending.

I look forward to finishing my adventure. I’ll never be a swashbuckler. Probably just a swash, which is a loud noise. Looking forward to that. And, I hope, a better memory.

And Bingo was his name-Oh?

You know the song about the farmer and his dog named Bingo. Or, according to a GIF circulating currently, is the farmer named Bingo? Here is the opening: “There was a farmer who had a dog,
and Bingo was his name-o.” If you can bear to listen to it here (I feared an earworm), you will have no doubt that it’s the dog’s name. The problem, of course, stems from pronoun reference: “his” isn’t clear until the video in which a name tag and a plaque proclaim the dog’s identity. Most of us never would give the matter another thought until made to do so.

An alternative title: “Would it surprise you to know…?” A riff on the Matrix movies in which Neo hears that phrase from Morpheus, revolutionizing his thinking. Except that I can’t find that to be a true statement. It is only what I thought I knew. And on that note, here we go…

Students were taught, somewhere, that you put a comma where you breathe. This brief article divides the punctuation camp into two parts: to pause and to clarify. I can’t imagine where the first camp gets its bona fides as clarity must rule. The writing center at UNC calls the breathing idea a myth. Sadly, all my writing students are in the first camp, happily so. Telling them that what they believe because it is what they were taught is wrong usually fails. And that was a long, bad sentence that doesn’t need a comma, just editing.

But students actually like rules. You can hang onto them, for clarity. They were also taught that paragraphs have 5-7 sentences. Suggestions are not rules. A paragraph can have one sentence or 28, depending on the writer’s need and ability. UNC agrees.

But back to sentences, which can have just one word, technically. No! (See what I did there?) But this sentence also has just one word: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. This will give you a headache and not an earworm. Here’s the translation, remembering that the word “buffalo” can be a creature, a city, and a verb: “Bison from Buffalo, New York, who are intimidated by other bison in their community, also happen to intimidate other bison in their community.” It will seem briefly that there is a mistake, but what happens is that buffaloes 3-5 are imbedded and are describing the opening two buffaloes. You’ll get it.

Next, something which is happening here is that phenomenon of seeing everywhere something you just learned. It’s called frequency illusion, or Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. As I’ve learned before, the name has nothing to do with reality as we know it. A message board commenter made it up when he heard the name of a radical German gang twice within 24 hours. Still, it’s easier to say than “you know when you see a word that you just learned everywhere?” My other example is Sauce Bérnaise Syndrome. It’s when (not good writing to say that but…) you get sick after eating something and then never want to eat it again. It didn’t make you sick, remember, it’s just associated with getting sick.

Two examples for this. One involves those buffaloes. Did you know that there are different kinds of gingham? I didn’t. A friend told me that she got her buffalo fabric online minutes after I’d just figured out the buffalo sentence. It’s two colors in a plaid pattern; you probably know red and black best. This is on sale for $1.99, a great price. Of course, there is such a thing as buffalo fabric such as this nice watercolor version with actual buffaloes, but I’d think it has limited use, especially at $19.70 a yard.

Next, I listened to an excellent lecture this week about women in the New Testament (and beyond!). The interviewee mentioned Thekla, one of the Beyonds. Apparently, she was very popular in the 1st century, as a Christian martyr and saint. On first look, that’s all I can find about her. So I was surprised this week when I was alphabetizing a set of names to find someone named Thekla. Baader-Meinhof or…something else? What will you see this week?

I’ll close with something else to change your thinking. We hear all the time that it’s good to do good. For a lesson once, I just shifted the punctuation a bit. First, good works. Then this: Good works. In the first set, “good” is an adjective describing the noun “works.” In the second, “Good” is a noun, and “works” is a verb. Go and do likewise. (The Bahamas is a good option right now. This article lists 20 resources accepting donations and suggests traveling to one of the unscathed islands to support tourism, a major source of income. Classic win-win.)

A lagniappe, since you’ve learned to rethink: “They say people eat more bananas than monkeys. Duh. I can’t even remember when I ate a monkey last.” I’m betting “lagniappe” will appear in your view within 24 hours.

A Pre-Post-Apocalyptic Screenplay

Scene 1: It’s a day like any other. Suddenly THEY land. I hope they aren’t in any way anthropomorphic. Admittedly, the aliens in Arrival don’t look human, but they are intelligent squid-looking things that could exist in the Pacific, for all I know. Not to be confused with Charlie Sheen’s 1996 The Arrival in which the aliens are totally human-like or Alien Arrival, an unwatchable 2016 Australian flick with really big flea-things who take over a human body a la Alien, from 1979, although technically the humans are the aliens in both cases. But I digress. So either the THEY look like humans completely—thereby confusing the Darwinists—or they have nothing in common with any other earthly life form. I have no pictures.

Scene 2: Shots of emptied shelves, wrecked cars. No, it’s not apocalyptic yet—just the day before a predicted ice storm in Dallas. We must buy water and bread and milk and Coke Zero and chocolate! Preparing for the post-apo part, since the ice only lasts two days, we get into those 100-lb. containers of wheat we’ve been saving for just such an occasion. But what do we do with it? Oh no! We forgot to learn! Oh well. We decide to eat the chocolate with abandon since what will a diet matter anyway.

Scene 3:

Everyone has had a cleanse from all the boiled wheat they’ve eaten after the chocolate ran out. Time for selfies! The traditional pictures with the alien craft in the background give way to the ones in which right hands seem to be holding it up like those shots at the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Unfortunately, the resulting shape resembles something better left to the imagination and quickly fades from public view.

Scene 4:

We await intervention from the government. Joke: “I’m from the government; I’m here to help you.” Levels of apathy fall and rise. Crowds form and disperse. Can the aliens sense we are growing bored, restless, anxious, bored again? Helicopters spin about the craft, anticipating a forthcoming documentary. News anchors pontificate; wildly absurd theories seem real: “If true…”

Scene 5:

The NFL decides to host the Super Bowl LIV early, just in case. The fans go mad. It’s the Dallas Cowboys against the Houston Oilers. (Technically, I don’t even know if that’s a possible combination, but I’m sure someone will correct me.) The game will be played in Hawaii, far from the crowds, just in case. But it will stream LIVE (play on words, LIV, get it?) The 54th game is as interesting as the Super Bowl 50 which didn’t get the L. Not dramatic enough, obviously. Dallas wins the game, also obvious, since this is fiction anyway.

Scene 6:

The spacecraft opens, slowly, like one of those wooden cat forms made in Mexico that can lay flat if needed. Out come these little THEYs, Lilliputian-like, similar to that Twilight Zone in which humans turned out to be the invaders in this old woman’s house; she turns out to be huge (Episode 15, Season 2) or its inverse that begins “Quitting time at the plant. Time for supper now. Time for families. Time for a cool drink on a porch. Time for the quiet rustle of leaf-laden trees that screen out the moon, and underneath it all, behind the eyes of the men, hanging invisible over the summer night, is a horror without words. For this is the stillness before storm. This is the eve of the end.” That’s Episode 14, Season 1. Two families head off for safety, 11 million miles away…to the Third (Rock) from the Sun. I added that to connect to a similarly-named sitcom with John Lithgow. All these peeps look just like us, of course, but that can’t be helped now. Again I digress. We decide not to crush these little beings, and we hope to find out what they want before it’s too late a la Season 3, Episode 24, “To Serve Man” with the classic line, “It’s…it’s a cookbook!”

Scene 7: In all seriousness, Earth decides to find someone who can write this monumental change poetically and not cynically, insightfully and not jadedly. Obviously, it won’t be me. I don’t think this will happen, but I admit sometimes I do think about it. Before and after. It just seems better if we aren’t responsible for destroying the place.