Pass the Popcorn: Star Wars the Rise of Skywalker

December 19, 2019

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The critics liked Last Jedi more than the audience on Rotten Tomatoes.  Currently the critics are lukewarm on Rise of Skywalker but the audience is at 88%. I usually trust aggregated audience more than critics, but in this case I’m with the critics. “A victorious army wins and then seeks victory. A defeated army seeks battle and then seeks victory” said the warrior-sage. If Disney had a plan going into this trilogy it sure looked like “making stuff up on the fly” in this film.

Oh well, back to the Mandolorian and Baby Yoda, which is good fun thus far.


Pass the Popcorn: Anything Mentionable Is Managable

December 14, 2019


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

”Do you know what that means? To forgive?”

Adults only. I’m not joking.

Go see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood in theaters. It is a masterfully made film, using every inch of the screen and every decibel of the soundtrack to accomplish its nefarious purpose – to invade your defenses and subvert your cynical expectations. This is not so much a movie as a lived experience invoked by means of a movie. (No, they didn’t spend $100 million on CGI to make Tom Hanks look exactly like Fred Rogers. Get over it.)

But do not take anyone under 13 to see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. And 13 is marginal. Not because of language, violence or nudity.

Feelings can be much more obscene than any of that.


”Someone has hurt my friend Lloyd.”

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a movie about death, betrayal, secrets, hatred and hand puppets.

It’s a movie about a man who is so angry at another man that he wants that man to die. So much that he still wants that man to die even as the man is actually dying, painfully, right there in front of him.

A man who must make a choice to release another man from his feelings of anger, but does not realize that he must do this, and does not contain in himself whatever it might require for him to come to that realization on his own.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a movie about what we can do with the mad that we feel. About what it takes to take the armor off.

But it’s also a movie about what kind of man it takes to help another man make a choice to release his feelings of anger.


“Until recently, my eldest son didn’t tell anyone about me. He’s a very private person. And that’s okay.”

In this movie we watch Fred Rogers do for a grown-up who is in a very (very) grown-up situation what he did for millions of children in their juvenile situations.

An investigative journalist is sent against his will to interview Fred Rogers. Rather than write a simplistic “puff piece,” he feels responsible to figure out what really makes Fred Rogers tick.

That requires the journalist to push Rogers to open up and be vulnerable.

And Rogers, with a divinely innocent cunning and ruthlessness that I can only describe as a good mirror image of Hannibal Lector torturing Clarice Starling for confessions, turns the reporter’s demand for vulnerability against him.

Rogers will reveal himself, alright – he reveals himself by compelling the reporter to reveal himself. Rogers could not reveal himself in any other way, because that is who he is.

Be careful what you wish for.

The singular mystery of Fred Rogers is not that no one but his wife seems to have known what he was really like. Plenty of great men are like that. They’re like that because they’re coy, they’re disciplined not to take risks, they’re always on stage – always have their armor on, lest a vulnerable moment damage whatever great work they’ve set their hands to.

The really singular mystery of Fred Rogers is that he was a completely open book – walking around all day with no armor, making himself vulnerable to other people, talking about things that nobody wants to talk about (“to die is to be human”). That transparency and vulnerability, taking the armor off and keeping it off, was the great work he set his hands to.

And even so, nobody but his wife seems to have had the first clue what he was really like.

Because it takes divine power for one man to carry the burdens of another man’s sins.


“Let’s take one minute and just think about all the people who have loved us into existence.”

Some right-wing culture-war morons have tried to farm clicks (I refuse to link them) off the fact that Fred Rogers’ Christian faith is only referred to obliquely, a couple times, in this movie. But that is of course the whole goddamned point here.

(Of course nothing that follows releases Christians from the obligation to express their faith verbally. But there is such a thing as a story, and such a thing as the point of a story, and such a thing as things that are beside the point of a story.)

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that the people in the fictional world of Lord of the Rings don’t have religions because that fictional world is itself an expression of religion. If Aragorn and Frodo and Eowyn and all the rest had religions, the story about them would become something other than religion.

Fred Rogers walked around all day taking on the burdens of other people’s sins, and never seemed to mind bearing the burden. And that made him a complete mystery, because nothing in natural human life is like that. No one who is living a natural human life is like that.

But Fred Rogers was like that. And I can think of another person who was like that.


“I can see that you are a man of conviction. You know the difference between what is wrong and what is right.”

The final image and sound of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – Rogers at a piano – suggests the price Fred Rogers paid for the life he chose to live. Even the greatest beauty must be disrupted to release the sad and mad feelings our human experience of suffering creates.

But it suggests, also, the price we have all paid for the sin of humanity. A world without injustice would be a world of uninterrupted beauty, a beauty that would never have to be disrupted to release the sad and mad feelings. And that’s just not the world we live in.

Sometimes people are good

And they do just what they should

But the very same people who are good sometimes

Are the very same people who are bad sometimes

Go see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. In theaters, where the divinely innocent cunning and ruthlessness of the filmmakers can do its work properly.

Leave the younger kids at home.

Leave your armor at home, too.

Pass the Popcorn: That’s My Girl

July 2, 2018


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

This post contains mega major spoilers. I mean it. You have been warned.

Okay, let’s get the tiresome part out of the way first. Pass the Popcorn hereby presents:


  • Ridiculously patronizing fan service: A visit to Edna, with the conveyor belt and everything, is shoehorned in; Frozone gets yelled at by Honey
  • Act I totally undermines the psychological climax of the first movie: They put on their masks to fight the Underminer – they are now supers again, and proud of it! But then we needed to make another movie, so suddenly they’re not.
  • The visual look of this movie is just different enough from the original that you constantly notice it – especially Dash, did no one go back and review what he looked like in the first movie? – but not so different that your brain accepts it as different. It’s the animation version of the uncanny valley.
  • The villain’s back story is insultingly contrived: It would have been sufficient if she’d just hated supers for the reasons given in the big Screenslaver speech, which would have made her a really interesting political/ideological villain with a megalomaniacal vision of reshaping the world by force; but no, it all had to go back to a ham-handed story about a personal trauma, because we’re all babies now.
  • Mind control is always bad: It negates the only part of any story that’s really interesting: the characters’ choices and struggles.

What bugs me is not that these are huge problems, because they aren’t, but that they would have been so easy to fix if the studio had respected our intelligence just a wee bit more. I think these issues collectively made the difference between I2 being a really good movie (which it is) and a really great movie, on par with the original (which it isn’t, alas).

Whew! Now let’s get to the fun part.


I2 continues the Pixar/New Disney tradition of goring our cultural sacred cows, but doing it in just the right way so people will take it. In this case, as in some others (see: Frozen) it’s done by giving us a real encounter with the reason people believe in those sacred cows – the other side gets a full airing of its case before the movie pulls the rug out.

The Incredibles franchise, here as in the first movie, takes on two big cultural dimensions at once. Which is what would have made I2 a really great movie if they hadn’t fumbled too much of the small stuff, since taking on just one is tough enough.

The first dimension is the male ego. In the first movie this was simply (simply!) the conflict between Mr. Incredible’s longing for the glory days and the prosaic task of being a father. He must learn that parenting is heroic. “You are my greatest adventure, and I almost missed it!”

That theme is echoed in I2 by having Mr. Incredible become a full-time dad to three unruly kids with superpowers, the comedic value of which is expertly milked. And it leads, halfway or so through the movie, to the same conclusion – parents are the real heroes.

But now there is a new twist. The male ego comes up against the female ego.


Mr. Incredible is not just invested in his own professional success – his glory days. Now he’s also deeply threatened by the possibility that his wife might outshine him.

All civilizations always needed to mortify the male ego sufficiently to make men into good fathers. But in the new social order that is emerging after feminism, the male ego must be further mortified to make room for female competition in the workplace – without the compensatory satisfaction of the paternal role being valued in the same way the maternal role is valued. Whether that is sustainable is an open question, but if it is, it will only be so if men learn heroic virtue similar to the heroic female virtue Tocqueville praised as the foundation of the American regime. Tocqueville said (in substance) that the American experiment in constitutional democracy avoids degeneration into atomistic indiviudalism only because its women had not demanded the equal rights to which they were clearly entitled under the governing principles of the regime; if they ever did demand those rights, he warned, the regime could not deny them, but the result would be the collapse of the traditions by which the family rather than the atomized indiviudal is the basic unit of society. That, in its way, is one of the lessons of I2 – only men of heroic moral virtue can sustain the new social order feminism has catalyzed.

You see what I mean about goring sacred cows? But we’re not done yet.

The female ego comes in for a subtle but no less sharp skewering in I2. From the moment they meet, Evelyn begins stroking Helen’s female ego – her sense of resentment and exclusion in a man’s world – in order to get under her defenses and take advantage of her. And Helen falls for it hook, line and sinker. The two of them spend half the movie just stroking each other’s female egos, right up to the point where Evelyn plunges in the knife. Like Iago worming his way into Othello’s trust by flattering his male ego and then twisting that very ego to his own purposes, Evelyn has used Helen’s feminist pride to destroy her.

The other big social topic is of course the role of superheroes.


In the first movie, Syndrome spoke for the envy and resentment of all those who hate heroes – and they have been a prominent and influential voice throughout the modern period of history. So pervasive is this resentment that Helen herself parrots it without really thinking – “Everyone is special, Dash.” The modern period could almost be defined as the period during which it became plausible to say that it is evil to admire heroes.

I2 tries to pick that thread back up. In the Screenslaver speech, the critique of superheroes is even broadened into a critique of the Big Media and Internet culture for which superhero franchises are a sort of proxy. “You don’t talk, you watch talk shows; you don’t play games, you watch game shows.”

The makers of I2 have seen that under the surface of the standard-issue snobbery about mass media we constantly hear is an aristocratic (or worse) contempt for democracy and egalitarianism. Evelyn’s attack on bourgeois society strikes the note of every totalitarian ideology: You’re all SHALLOW and WEAK and LAZY. That’s why mass media is nothing but a tool of social control – you’re all so easily controlled because you’re pathetic and worthless. WAKE UP, SHEEPLE!

This is all botched, however, because it does not remain at the center of the villain’s character and motivation. The contrast with Syndrome is instructive. Syndrome has a personal trauma to provide resentment and a motive for megalomania, yes. But Syndrome’s revenge consists of remaking the world according to a new political vision, a vision whose principles he understands and articulates as a coherent ideology. This is precisely what makes him interesting. “When everyone is super, no one will be!” If Evelyn’s big “monologuing” scene with Helen in the frozen chamber had been a further elaboration of that political vision and not the recitation of a mind-numbingly boring series of convolutions designed to give her a stronger personal trauma, she could have ranked with the best of the Bond villains.


But in spite of this misfire, I2 does remember to pull the rug out from under Evelyn’s ideology. And the character who does it is Violet.

Let’s face it, there’s a great deal to be said for the critique of bourgeois society as shallow and morally undeveloped. But the bourgeois society is a little like Winston Churchill’s democracy – it’s the worst kind of society, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.

The self-appointed superiors who look down upon the shallow complacency of bourgeois society never actually rise to moral heights. Time after time, in arrogance and contempt, they sink to moral depths.

Who is it that learns real humility? The supers, who – precisely because they have so much power – must learn to use it rightly or face catastrophe.

Violet spends the whole movie wanting to be a superhero. Even when she says she doesn’t, she only says it because she really does – and the sacrifices are so painful. And then, in the climactic moment, she chooses to stay out of the fray in order to protect her baby brother rather than seek glory and adventure.

And her father says, “that’s my girl.”

Pass the Popcorn: Living in Shadows

April 13, 2018


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Chappaquiddick accomplishes something very few movies do: it explores why a man made an evil choice. That is very hard to do because (as James Q. Wilson put it in his brilliant little book Moral Judgement) any explaination for why someone made a decision naturally becomes an excuse for that decision. A man beats his children now because his father beat him twenty years ago; to the extent that the beatings twenty years ago really do explain the beatings now, the man’s choices seem less culpable, and to the extent that they don’t, the man’s choices are less comprehensible. Either the explanation of the evil act is not satisfactory as an explanation, in which case we are left unsatisfied, or the explanation of the evil act does satisfy as an explanation, in which case the act seems less evil.

Chappaquiddick does not compromise on the fact that Teddy Kennedy’s choices were evil. For that reason, it is getting a lot of attention from right-wingers who have long waited for some sort of justice to be done upon the Kennedy family’s crimes. Chappaquiddick shows, in ways that would be impossible for any fair-minded observer to deny, that Teddy Kennedy did evil things, and that is a sort of justice for which we have indeed waited long.

But if you walked out of this movie saying to yourself, “boy, Teddy Kennedy really did evil things in Chappaquiddick, didn’t he?” you missed the point of the movie.

The filmmakers have set out to explain, without excusing, what Kennedy did. And they succeed brilliantly.

I must reluctantly admit that part of the formula for success in this endeavor was for the film to steer completely clear of the sexual side of Kennedy’s depravity. This is unsatisfying to my sense of justice, in light of the fact that Kennedy spent his whole adult life – long after Chappaquiddick – leaving behind him a trail of harrassed and attacked women, not only in his own workplace and on his own payroll but in restraurants, airplanes, you name it. Full justice is not done to Kennedy’s depravity in this movie. But that is probably necessary, because such matters probably could not be depicted or even suggested without ruining the project of explaining rather than condemning.

The traditional story of the burden of growing up in the shadow of Jack and Bobby – and of Joe, Jr., who died a war hero – is of course an important theme. At the beginning of the movie, we see Teddy being interviewed for an upcoming television broadcast about Jack’s legacy. The occasion is the immanent landing of Neil Armstrong on the moon – Jack’s big challenge to the nation in 1961. Teddy displays the extraordinary Kennedy eloquence, which he possesses in equal measure to his brother, then suddenly cuts off the interview when the pain of contemplating his place in his brother’s shadow becomes too great. Then he lets a woman die on Chappaquiddick, and it’s all over the news. Then the moon landing comes and the interview airs, and the whole nation watches it with Chappaquiddick in mind.

But this movie places greater stress on the role of Teddy’s iron-fisted father, Joseph, Sr. Teddy, who is a vain and foolish man but has a real conscience, keeps wavering between doing right and protecting himself. He does not always make the evil choice, and when he does, he does not always stick to it. A cousin who was with him on the night of his disaster keeps urging him to do the right thing – to report the incident, to admit that he was the one driving, to resign his Senate seat rather than keep it at the cost of ghastly lies.

And every step of the way, Joseph, Sr. and his army of highly comptent schemers is there to demand more lies, more subversion of the law, more destruction of the innocent to protect the guilty.  And constantly, constantly reminding him that he has always been the family screwup, and will always be the family screwup.


Explanations of evil tend to function as excuses for it because they demand our human sympathy. What Kennedy did was evil. But let no one judge too harshly anyone who has had to grow up the son of that kind of man, and make moral choices while still professionally under his power. No, not even in a case of aggravated manslaughter – not even in the case of a man who escaped punishment for aggravated manslaughter, and got off with a slap on the wrist for leaving the scene of an accident, by a systematic campaign of lies and influence-peddling. Condemn, by all means, but spare also a charitable thought.

Reserve the venting of your spleen for the millions upon millions of Kennedy idolators, whose folly is given ample display at the end of the movie. They were not sons of Joseph Kennedy, Sr. They had no tyrant threatening to destroy them if they followed their conscience. And they chose cognitive dissonance and irresponsible moral relativism – anything rather than permit themselves to confront the monstrosity of the idol they had made in their own image.

And yet, and yet . . . I am left contemplating the contrast between Teddy Kennedy and another family screwup of a great American political dynasty. George W. Bush was the Teddy of the Bush clan for many years. Then he found Jesus, kicked the bottle, stayed home with his wife and became an honorable man. You may or may not join me in attributing the primary difference to the inscrutable mystery of divine providence, selecting one man and not another for the gifts of the Spirit. And I will grant that George H. W. Bush, tough as he undoubtedly was, was not the detestable tyrant Joseph Kennedy, Sr. was.

But that image of W. as the road Teddy didn’t take must heighten the imperative that we remember, not without some sympathy, what a monster Teddy really was.

Pass the Popcorn: Words and Deeds

January 24, 2018


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Okay, depending on where you live, maybe maybe maybe it’s not too late for you to head out and see Darkest Hour on the big screen. As the surprise standout in Oscar nominations, the movie may find itself on a few extra screens. (Theaters screening Mary and the Witch’s Flower get a dispensation, all others are on notice.)

This is a visually stunning movie and it well deserves a big-screen screening. I especially appreciate the filmmakers’ having lavished so much effort on the cinematography of a movie that isn’t about superheroes or spaceships, and for that matter doesn’t even have that much to work with in terms of war machines.

Yes, part of it is the effort put into the bombing scenes. But it’s also recreating the cramped quarters of the underground bunker, the vast chamber of Parliament, and the dingy makeshift bedroom in which the king made his decision to back the war.

Oh, and whoever it is playing Churchill does a pretty okay job, too.

(I’m proceeding with full spoilers because, duh, history.)


This movie begins as a character study of Churchill. But any character study of Churchill must ask the question: What is it that makes a man refuse to agree to surrender his nation (for that is what “negotiations” with Hitler would have meant) even in the face of certain destruction? And that is not really a question about the man. It is a question about the nation. For, as it is the burden of this movie to show, Churchill could not have stood firm if the nation had not been willing to stand firm.

Yes, part of the story is that Churchill’s leadership brought the nation to choose resistance unto death. But leaders must have something to work with. The nation itself has to have moral resources for making right but hard choices.

This is why I cannot join those who are upset that this movie emphasizes Churchill’s temporary willingness to broach negotiations. It looks to me like the movie did not deviate from the historical record as far as some suggest. Perhaps it would have been better to show a little more of the cunning that lay behind Churchill’s decision to speak to the outer cabinet; Churchill did manufacture their pressure upon him to change course and forbid negotiations. But the point of this movie is that Churchill was almost boxed in. The professional political class did not provide the moral resources needed to sustain a stand against Hitler. Churchill had to go find them elsewhere.

So this movie transitions from a character study of Churchill to a character study of Great Britain. It asks: What are the moral resources of a nation?

The answer is words – but not words.

Words cannot produce the needed force by themselves, because the needed force is moral, and it transcends mere words. That is the abracadabra fallacy. But words rightly used are needed to transform moral truth into moral action.

Persuasion is not an autonomous power. Persuasion exists to connect people to truth.


The first big turning point of the movie is when Churchill lies to the nation about the severity of the situation in France. As he says to his wife, for years he has been the only person with the guts to tell the people the truth. But now he believes he has to lie to them.

This, the movie makes clear, was a wrong move – the abracadabra fallacy.

Halifax, demanding Churchill negotiate, tells him that with the British army facing certain destruction, he has nothing to fight Hitler with but “words, words, words!”

Yet that same Halifax, at the end of the movie, declares that Churchill has won with words. “What just happened?” someone asks Halifax after Churchill wins over Chamberlain’s faction to support the war effort.

“He mobilized the English language and sent it into war,” replies Halifax.

And what is the bridge between words and moral reality? History.


History brings us into contact with two things that give words moral reality: kings and books.

Our nations and their institutions and traditions are a mess. They really are. They’ve done much wrong and are shaped by many irrational forces. And they are not an absolute authority, for there are authorities in whose light they too can be judged (we will come back to that in a moment).

But they embody moral truths, because human beings are moral creatures and we cannot organize our lives in any kind of sustainable way except around moral truth. And so the institution of the monarchy may be irrational, but it exists to embody something. When the monarch chooses to carry out this function rather than neglect it, he has extraordinary power. The same can be said to some extent of all political institutions and traditions (including those in republics).

The makers of this movie thought a lot about how to portray George VI. It is clearly in dialogue with another outstanding movie that reflects on the tensions between aristocracy and democracy in light of World War II, The King’s Speech. For one thing, Darkest Hour really wants to make sure you know that Churchill stupidly opposed Edward’s abdication and George’s ascension, despite what you may have seen in that other movie.

It falls to George, who hates Churchill and has every good reason to do so, to make the decision to back Churchill at the crucial moment. When the short-sighted political class all go one way, the king goes the other – because that is his job.

And it is through words, used rightly, that George helps Churchill understand the moral ground he has been lacking. Go to the people, he says, draw from their moral strength and give them “the truth unvarnished.”

Yet this call to go to the people suggests that kings (and by extension political institutions and traditions generally) are not the highest authority.

We find the highest authority in another part of history, in the world of ideas – literature, religion, philosophy – that comes to us from the great minds, through their books.


Yes, the subway scene is odd, and ahistorial, and if the filmmakers had asked me I probably would have told them to find another way to accomplish what they’re doing here. But what they’re doing here is the right thing.

Some have interpreted the scene as an attempt to tear down quasi-aristocratic leaders like Churchill, establishing that they’re not allowed to lead us but we must lead them. That’s not how I read it, and I think Steven Hayward has made that case well, so I don’t have to.

Churchill is going to the nation to find out what they’re made of, how far they’re willing to go. It is right for political leaders to lead with full awareness of how much they can ask of their people.

And what does Churchill find among the people? The words of Macaulay – the same words, if I remember rightly, that he found in his library in an earlier scene:

Then out spake brave Horatius, captain of the gate:

“To every man upon this earth death cometh soon or late.

And how can man die better than facing fearful odds,

For the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods?”

And so we are led back to political institutions and traditions (the ashes of his fathers), but now in light of what is higher (the temples of his gods) and also what is lower (Londoners on the tube).

For the words of great books are democratizing; they make the lowest highest. They arm ordinary people – even a black man in 1940 Britain – with the moral strength to stand in judgment of a Chamberlain, a Churchill or a George.

And so, in the end, having drawn strength from the words of his national traditions (by way of the king) and the words of the greatest of the wise (by way of the people), Churchill uses his enormous gift with words to rally the nation, giving form and force to their moral resources and saving the world.

His gifts really were extraordinary, but the point of this movie is that his gift with words was less important than his willingness to deploy them for moral truth.

As Chamberlain said: “He was right about Hitler.”

Pass the Popcorn: Powers that Cannot Be Harnessed

January 19, 2018

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I know, I owe you a review of Darkest Hour – which is so great on the big screen, you should go out and see it before it leaves theaters. I’m working on that review! (At least I don’t have to worry about spoilers.)

You know what else you should see before it leaves theaters? Mary and the Witch’s Flower, a worthy successor to the Studio Ghibli legacy producd by the fledgling Studio Ponoc, and helmed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, director of the outstanding Secret World of Arietty.

So, yes, this movie has credentials. And it lives up to them.


Some have unfortunately attempted to describe it as “Harry Potter meets Spirited Away.” That is accurate as to subject matter. It’s about an ordinary kid who gets swept away to a magical alternate world, and spends most of her time in a magical school. But the magic in this movie is the weird and dangerous magic of pagan animism, not the rational and orderly – the essentially Christian – magic of Harry Potter. So that description is technically correct.

Actually, you could have made a pretty interesting movie out of “What if Hogwarts were pagan?” But that movie is not Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

This movie has a point, and a good one. It’s not actually about magic – ancient or medieval. It’s about the corruption of good causes and ambitions into bad ones. In particular, it illustrates the tendency of well-meaning people to seek to harness and control the whole universe in the name of their high ideals and aspiration to progress. What disappears in this mental world of total control is any kind of standard – nature – that is outside our control and to which our efforts at progress and reform are supposed to conform. We set out to produce order and beauty, we take control of the world to produce order and beauty, and by taking everything under our own control, we lose any standard outside ourselves for what counts as order and beauty. And so we destroy even the imperfect order and beauty that was already in the world before we took control of it, and we produce only monsters.


Those who remain morally awake, who don’t lose their heads under the influence of grand ideologies, are those who combine a love of adventure and a love of ordinary life. Paradoxical as it seems, this is actually a very normal and logical combination. The dream of total control kills both the awe of an uncontrollable world that is the essence of adventure, and the unselfconscious, purely natural domestic affections. Adventure and comfort must both be spontaneous and unplanned. And of course it is the contrast with being at home that makes the road romantic. As G.K. Chesterton puts it, the boy at the center of the fairy tale must be ordinary for the tale to be extraordinary; Jack must be small for the giant to be gigantic.

As a wise person says to Mary, “there are powers in this world that cannot be harnessed.”

I can’t get much more specific than that without spoiling things. Like Kubo, this is a movie you want to discover as you experience it.

Just go!

Pass the Popcorn: The Past Jedi

December 31, 2017


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Start 2018 off right with my review of The Last Jedi over on Hang Together:

Where TFA was about the family, TLJ is about the past. We need the wisdom of the past, but the corruption of the past threatens to destroy us.

Looking forward to hearing what y’all think!

PS Coming soon, Darkest Hour. Go see it while it’s still in theaters, it benefits from the big screen!

Pass the Popcorn: We Were Voyagers!

December 1, 2016


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I am a girl who loves my island; I am the girl who loves the sea

It calls me!

I am the daughter of the village chief; we are descended from voyagers who found their way across the world

They call me!

I have delivered us to where we are; I have journeyed farther; I am everything I’ve learned and more

Still it calls me!

This delightful movie speaks, not always clearly but always movingly, to some of the central tensions of advanced modern life. We need both tradition and discovery; we need both inner-looking integrity and outward-looking responsibility. Ultimately, we need God, who alone can transcend and reconcile these contradictory needs, sweeping aside the artifical barriers we create to divide them for our own purposes.

I’m not sure what’s more amazing, that a movie this good has four directors, or that two of them are the directors of The Little Mermaid – the high water mark of the Bad Old Disney – yet the occasional intrusions of Bad Old Disney thinking are actually swept up and incorporated (probably against rather than according to the directors’ purposes) into a whole that is very much of the New Disney, the Disney that cares about the transcendent.

Only very general spoilers follow, nothing highly specific. But if you intend to see the movie, better to set this aside and come back when you’ve seen it.


“When It’s Time to Find Home, We Know the Way”: Tradition and Discovery

Moana is raised in a closed, tradition-bound society but longs to explore and discover, which she can only do by leaving her island behind. We, living in an open, scientific society, long for stable sources of identity, meaning and purpose, which is why we like to watch movies that take place in ancient times and places, when people knew who they were.

If this had been a Bad, Old Disney movie, the lesson would have been that “tradition” is either a bad thing or, at best, something that must bow the knee to the Brave New World and the quest for knowledge and discovery that will inevitably marginalize tradition. (Remember the great modernist quip in Sleeping Beauty: “After all, this is the fourteenth century!”)

Not here. Moana discovers that her traditionalist father has withheld from her the elements of the tradition that favor exploration and discovery – he has suppressed the part of the tradition that is anti-traditionalist. She discovers that her ancestors were voyagers who explored the world and colonized the empty islands as they found them.

“We are explorers reading every sign,” sing her ancestors, but also: “We tell the stories of our elders in a neverending chain!”

“We set a course to find a brand new island everywhere we roam” but “when it’s time to find home, we know the way!”

“We know where we are, we know who we are!”

Traditions embody commitments that are not themselves traditional, or at least not tradition-bound. The village didn’t just sprout up on the island; the villagers came from somewhere.

In the Bad, Old Disney, tradition was simply a relic to be surpassed by the great voyage of discovery. Here, the voyagers have a tradition – voyaging is the tradition – and it tells them who and where they are.

Her father has suppressed all this because a new danger appeared on the ocean; like all traditionalists, he thinks safety is to be found by retreat into a closed system of tradition. But traditions themselves speak against this; they point outside themselves to the higher things that traditions exist to serve.

Traditionalists always want to burn the boats. But it was our ancestors who made them.


“I Am Moana”: Identity and Purpose

We need tradition because we need identity (“we know who we are”). We need discovery because we need purpose, a calling to which we aspire (“it calls me”). But it’s hard to hold on to both.

Identity requires an inward movement toward integrity, in the literal sense of that term – we need wholeness, a fitting together of all our pieces into a sum greater than the parts.

Purpose requires an outward movement toward responsibility – we need to be called out of ourselves, to serve something higher than ourselves.

Identity without purpose is narcissistic. Purpose without identity destroys our humanity.

The moment of greatest crisis, which I will not reveal, comes when Moana can no longer attach the person she is to the calling for which she has been chosen. The crisis is resolved when an outward calling brings her to an inward realization of their connectedness.

As I’ve said, there’s some intrusion of the Bad, Old Disney in Moana. It comes in the form of “look inside yourself,” “follow your heart,” “be who you are on the inside,” etc.

But here, that language – which remains dangerous – is used in the service of higher things. “Look inside yourself” is playing with fire, but as Moana shows, it is (to borrow a fine phrase from Allan Bloom) fire with which we must play if we are to transcend it.

Family is part of the answer. This is one of those rare (but less rare than they used to be) Disney movies with an intact family at the center. And it is noteworthy that her father, her mother and her grandmother are all necessary to Moana’s story. Without any one of them, the story either wouldn’t happen or wouldn’t happen the way it should.

In the family, both identity and purpose are provided for. Your family loves you and wants you to be a person with wholeness, but also calls you out of yourself to the service of others – at first, the others within your family, but ultimately the community at large.

The unconditional love of the family is essential. One of the lessons of the movie is that efforts to earn love and acceptance are futile; the love and acceptance thus “earned” are not authentic love and acceptance.

However, the family is not enough. A greater love is required.

Moana’s grandmother passes on to her the suppressed part of the tradition, and clarifies for her the calling for which she was chosen, because and only because a higher power to which the grandmother is devoted has provided for her to do so.


“The Ocean Doesn’t Help You”: The Mystery of Divine Calling

Darkness is rising and monsters have appeared because we sought to steal from the gods the power of creation itself.

To redeem the world, the ocean has chosen Moana for a high and dangerous quest. If anyone else attempts to stop her, the ocean intervenes to keep a path to her quest open for her.

Moana herself, however, the one who has been chosen for the calling, can refuse the calling if she chooses.

At first there’s no question what she will choose, because the outward calling that comes to her from the ocean connects so clearly to the inward calling she senses inside herself, that she understands to be the true center of her identity.

But then comes suffering and failure. And the ocean doesn’t help. If the ocean wants these things done, why doesn’t it help?

“The ocean doesn’t help you” says the unwise man, “you help yourself.”

That turns out to be empty. When the unwise man gets wiser, he says of his efforts to help himself: “It was never enough.”

It never is. But the ocean still doesn’t help.

At first, the divine call resolves our tensions – by its transcendent authority it supercedes and breaks down our artificial divisions between tradition and discovery, between identity and purpose. It demands both; because, and only because, it demands both with an authority higher than both, it gets both.

But then the ocean doesn’t help.

At the end of all things, Moana is left floating alone on a raft at night, in the middle of nowhere, unable to find the path to her quest.

She has been chosen for the calling, but she can refuse the calling if she chooses.

She faces the same question she thought she had left behind her: “Moana, do you know who you are?”

The divine call, coming to her from outside, has not resolved that question. She must resolve it inwardly. She must – dare I say it – look inside herself.

Not for narcissistic self-expression but to discover who it is that the ocean is really calling.

And what she discovers leads to a surprising redemption.

Pass the Popcorn: If You Need to Blink

August 25, 2016


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

If you need to blink, do it now. If you miss a single word of the blog post below, our hero will perish.

Do yourself the biggest favor you’ve done yourself in a long time and go see Kubo and the Two Strings while it’s still in theaters. This masterpiece demands to be seen on the big screen, so you can appreciate not only its oustanding story but its gorgeous visuals.

If you know Coraline, you know what greatness the offbeat animation studio LAIKA is capable of. LAIKA’s last few offerings haven’t been as well recieved, but let me assure you Kubo not only matches but actually surpasses the storytelling and artistic accomplishments of Coraline.


It would be criminal to reveal the plot of Kubo. Indeed, one of the many ways in which this movie shines is the perfect craftsmanship of its progressive plot revelations. These people know how to tell a truly epic story.

I will say this much, though, to motivate you to see it. Kubo is the son of a great samurai warrior who fought a duel with the moon. The plot is driven by this question:

Is it better to be a man, to live a life marred by suffering and then die, leaving behind deeds well done and the memories held by those who loved you?

Or is it better to be the moon, floating high above the world and immune to death and suffering, and have no story?

Don’t miss this gem. I’ll be going back as soon as I can to see it again.

Update: Saw it again, loved it more the second time. “It amazes me that creatures down here will fight so hard, just to die another day.” “Down here there are days worth fighting for.” Don’t miss your chance to see it on the big screen!

Pass the Popcorn: The Belonging We Seek

January 5, 2016

Han Leia

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

My spoiler-laden meditations on Star Wars are fully armed and operational over on Hang Together:

Millennials are destroying the world because narcissistic Boomers broke up the family. That’s The Force Awakens in a nutshell.

Shockingly, I approve of this message! Would love to hear your thoughts, whatever they are, as always.

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