Thursday, April 26, 2012

Off the Cuff Movie Review - Charade

Last night my wife and I went with a group of friends to the local second-run movie house to watch a showing of the 1963 suspense thriller Charade. The movie stars Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant, two of my favorite actors. They couldn't have had better screen chemistry than they do in this film, which is suspenseful and fun from start to finish.
     To begin with, Regina "Reggie" Lampert (Hepburn) is an American living in Paris, but she's planning to divorce her Swiss husband Charles and go back to America. Before she can do more than talk about it, Charles is found dead, having exited a train while it was in motion. Worse, before he died, Charles sold off everything in their apartment, and was apparently going to run off to South America. He made $250,000 from the sale, but the money is nowhere to be found. Enter Peter Joshua (Grant) whom Reggie met on her divorce-planning vacation, who offers to help her out while she makes the transition. 
     At the funeral, three strange men (James Coburn, Ned Glass and George Kennedy) appear, not to mourn, but to verify that Charles is dead! Then, to further confuse things, Reggie gets called to the American Embassy where Mr. Bartholomew (played by Walter Matthau) of the CIA explains that Reggie's dead husband was actually a thief, along with the three men from the funeral. Bartholomew and the thieves believe that Reggie has a quarter-million dollars, which both the thieves and the CIA want back (it was originally US government money). But Reggie has no idea where the money is, as all her husband had on the train was a small valise full of random household objects and toiletries.
     Mr. Joshua re-appears and is trying to help Reggie, but soon she finds out that he's not who he says, and that he's trying to find the money too. Who's side is he on, anyway?  From this point, the movie takes us on a fast-paced ride, going between tense suspense, action and mystery as more and more secrets are revealed. Reggie and Mr. Joshua flirt fantastically in every scene they're in, despite the fact that Reggie keeps learning things that make her hesitant to trust this man she seems to be falling for. I'm told that Cary Grant took this role only after the writers had adjusted the dialogue so that the much younger Hepburn was romantically pursuing him, rather than the other way around, which wouldn't have seemed right. 
     After a barrage of surprise revelations and plot twists, the movie ends on the expected happy note, with Grant and Hepburn together. In addition to the two leads, Matthau and co-stars Coburn, Glass and Kennedy all turn in very convincing and scary performances as ruthless men who want the money at any cost. The scenery shots of Paris were excellent, even though the film quality shows the decade it was made in. The only character I disliked was a child of about six, who contributes to the plot in a minor way, but he's in very few scenes.  There were very few young people in the theater, which was not surprising. The pace is too slow and the action not flashy enough for today's young adults, and the actors, though well known to me are not well known generally today, especially as many of them are dead. All the same, I think this movie would be enjoyable by anyone other than children. For the younger ones, the one kid in it is annoying, and while there is no blood and gore, several characters die in pretty gruesome ways that might frighten children. Or for that matter, any woman who's ever been stalked or threatened by men bigger than her might find Coburn & Co. upsetting. Otherwise, a fun blend of suspense and romance which also has had its copyright protection expire. This film is in the public domain. 
     UPDATE 2/7/2013 - This film is available for download from the Internet Archive. Get it!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Wisdom from the Fathers - St John Chrysostom

Today the Orthodox Church celebrates Pascha, the Feast of the Resurrection, which in the West is called Easter. 
The Paschal Homily of St John Chrysostom, (late 4th/early 5th century)
If anyone is devout and a lover of God, let him enjoy this beautiful and radiant festival.
If anyone is a wise servant, let him, rejoicing, enter into the joy of his Lord.
If anyone has wearied himself in fasting, let him now receive his recompense.
If anyone has labored from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let him keep the feast. If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; for he shall suffer no loss. If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near without hesitation. If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let him not fear on account of his delay. For the Master is gracious and receives the last, even as the first; he gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has labored from the first. He has mercy upon the last and cares for the first; to the one he gives, and to the other he is gracious. He both honors the work and praises the intention.
Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord and, whether first or last, receive your reward. O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy! O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day! You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today! The table is rich-laden; feast royally, all of you! The calf is fatted; let no one go forth hungry!
Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.
Let no one lament his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn his transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Savior's death has set us free.
He that was taken by death has annihilated it! He descended into Hades and took Hades captive! He embittered it when it tasted his flesh! And anticipating this Isaiah exclaimed, "Hades was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions." It was embittered, for it was abolished! It was embittered, for it was mocked! It was embittered, for it was purged! It was embittered, for it was despoiled! It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!
It took a body and, face to face, met God! It took earth and encountered heaven! It took what it saw but crumbled before what it had not seen!
"O death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory?"
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb!
For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the First-fruits of them that slept.
To him be glory and might unto ages of ages. Amen. 
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death; and to those in the tombs bestowing life. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Speaking of Fools

"He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose."  Missionary & martyr Jim Elliott

     I saw this quotation as the tag line on an email I got from a student recently. Elliott was referring to Jesus' saying "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? 7Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?"  (St. Mark chapter 8 v 35-37)  I know the Church does not formally recognize Jim Elliott and his companions as martyrs for willingly going to their deaths to bring the light of the Gospel (as seen by Protestants) to a tribe of South American people. Never the less, any Christian, Orthodox or not, should acknowledge their sacrifice as motivated by their love for Christ. May their memory be eternal!

       At the same time, that quote reminded me of another saying about fools, for which I cannot find a reliable attribution. It may have been one of the Eastern Fathers, since I've only heard it in discussions of Orthodox Christianity: 
"He is a fool who has himself for a spiritual father."

     In Orthodox spirituality, every Christian should have a spiritual 'father', or mentor. Usually, this is the person's parish priest, but it can be a monk, a priest from another parish (like where the person grew up) or even a wise layman. The spiritual father is an adviser, counselor and in most cases the person's confessor, if a priest or hieromonk (an ordained monastic). One of the benefits of this kind of relationship is that the spiritual father can guard against doctrinal error and misplaced enthusiasm. This is the danger of operating as a spiritual 'lone ranger'. A person who puts confidence in their own wisdom has succumbed to pride, and is open to all the sins that Pride engenders, as well as to influences that distort sound doctrine.

     While on the subject of fools, one of the more surprising aspects of Orthodox spirituality that I discovered as our family were being catechized was the Fool-for-Christ, a title of honor, instead of reproach. The Holy Fools sought to combat Pride in their own hearts by abasing themselves and appearing to all men to have lost their wits - incurring worldly scorn yet secretly possessing wisdom. Holy Fools often surprised the people they encountered with God-given insight into the other person's spiritual condition. Those who might not listen to a priest may heed the words of a Fool instead. The classic spiritual work the Way of a Pilgrim is the story of a Russian Fool-for-Christ who sought to answer the question "How can I pray continually, as the Apostle Paul taught?"

     Not all acts of religious lunacy will earn one the title Fool-for-Christ, in fact most religious lunacy is just that: lunacy. Fools did not teach doctrine, they dealt with individual's hearts.

     Here is the story of one Fool-for-Christ, St. Xenia of Petersburg (from Mother Xenia pray for us!

Our Holy Mother Xenia of Petersburg, fool for Christ (~1800)
    She was born about 1730, and as a young woman married an army colonel named Andrei, a handsome and dashing man fond of worldly living. When she was twenty-six years old, her husband died suddenly after drinking with his friends, leaving Xenia a childless widow. Soon afterward, she gave away all her possessions and disappeared from St Petersburg for eight years; it is believed that she spent the time in a hermitage, or even a monastery, learning the ways of the spiritual life. When she returned to St Petersburg, she appeared to have lost her reason: she dressed in her husband's army overcoat, and would only answer to his name. She lived without a home, wandering the streets of the city, mocked and abused by many. She accepted alms from charitable people, but immediately gave them away to the poor: her only food came from meals that she sometimes accepted from those she knew. At night she withdrew to a field outside the city where she knelt in prayer until morning.
      Slowly, the people of the city noticed signs of a holiness that underlay her seemingly deranged life: she showed a gift of prophecy, and her very presence almost always proved to be a blessing. The Synaxarion says "The blessing of God seemed to accompany her wherever she went: when she entered a shop the day's takings would be noticeably greater; when a cabman gave her a lift he would get plenty of custom; when she embraced a sick child it would soon get better. So compassion, before long, gave way to veneration, and people generally came to regard her as the true guardian angel of the city."
      Forty-five years after her husband's death, St Xenia reposed in peace at the age of seventy-one, sometime around 1800. Her tomb immediately became a place of pilgrimage: so many people took soil from the gravesite as a blessing that new soil had to be supplied regularly; finally a stone slab was placed over the grave, but this too was gradually chipped away by the faithful. Miracles, healings and appearances of St Xenia occur to this day, to those who visit her tomb or who simply ask her intercessions. Her prayers are invoked especially for help in finding employment, a home, or a spouse (all of which she renounced in her own life). A pious custom is to offer a Panachida / Trisagion Service for the repose of her husband Andrei, for whom she prayed fervently throughout her life.
      Saint Xenia was first officially glorified by the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia in 1978; then by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1988.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Gaming Report - Battle of Bladensburg

     This year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, sometimes called America's Second War of Independence. Maybe this year I'll write some posts about the war, but this is a game report. Last year, my Military History class re-staged the Battle of Bladensburg, (August 24, 1814) which was the run-up to the British sack/burning of Washington DC. Historically, the American force crumpled before the oncoming British, and in the class' re-enactment, things went much the same. The American militia was unable to even significantly slow the British advance. 

     Check out the page Pictures from gaming events to see the battle. 
      Well, today was different. I played the battle again, with my older son, on the floor in the basement. My son played the Americans, and I played the British. The American forces lined up on the west bank of the Potomac, and met the British advance with steady fire that not once but three times forced back the leading British units when they tried to cross the Potomac bridges. I made use of Congreve rockets which sowed panic among the American lines, but far fewer of the Americans ran that I had hoped. Instead of great big gaps, I got only small tears in their lines. The American's fire was not even as hard as it could have been, for the front line units blocking the units behind from adding their fire. American artillery greatly harassed the British lines until one battery was put to flight by the Congreves and the other was charged and over-run. Once the British had crossed the Potomac they made modest gains down the road to Washington, but the superior American numbers had chipped and chopped away them to the extent that the attack lost steam in the middle of the map. An American Dragoon (cavalry) unit got in behind the British and convinced me that the situation was unsalvageable. The remnants of the British force retired back over the Potomac and returned to Chesapeake Bay. The British lost two Battalions of Foot and two Battalions of Marines, including several officers.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Thwart Not the Librarian

(I found this as a static Web page all the way back in graduate school. It's still awesome.)

     Ok, sure.  We've all got our little preconceived notions about what librarians are and what they do.  Many people think of them as diminutive civil servants, scuttling about "Sssh-ing" people and stamping things.  Well, think again buster. 
     Librarians have degrees. They go to graduate school for Information Science and become masters of data systems and human/computer interaction.  Librarians can catalog anything from an onion to a dog's ear.  They could catalog you. Librarians wield unfathomable power.  With a flip of the wrist they can hide your dissertation behind piles of old Field & Stream magazines.  They can find data for your term paper that you never knew existed. They may even point you toward new and appropriate subject headings. 
     People become librarians because they know too much. Their knowledge extends beyond mere categories. They cannot be confined to disciplines. Librarians are all-knowing and all-seeing. They bring order to chaos. They bring wisdom and culture to the masses. They preserve every aspect of human knowledge. Librarians rule. And anyone who says otherwise is itchin' for a fight.  

Not my own work. I have seen credit for this quotation ascribed to the website

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Intuition of Narnia

     Father Stephen Freeman writes about the mythic quality of C.S. Lewis's Narnia stories.He contrasts this quality with the literalism found in so much of modern religion - "The weakness of literalism is its acute limitation to itself."

The Intuition of Narnia