Astronomers and Pirates

In an effort not to travel, the internet offers a great resource while it’s still free. If you don’t want to wander from home, it brings movies you might’ve missed right to your domicile. This year has been so busy that we’d missed completely Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. I know, as the Pirate movies spin on and on they become more special effects extravaganzas with insipid, if complex, plots. Still, we’ve been watching from the beginning, so last night we decided to see it through. The movies are fun, if less well written than they were at the beginning (and the movie began without a script). There are moments worth attention, however.

The story follows Carina Smyth as she attempts to discover her father through following his diary. This, of course, brings her path across that of Captain Jack Sparrow. Smyth is an astronomer and horologist. Because she’s female and this is the eighteenth century, she’s labeled a witch. Both the proximate and ultimate cause of the accusation is her gender. Although she proves to be the real hero of the film, the men can’t help thinking she’s a witch although she’s using science to find answers. In fact, if a male astronomer did the same things she did, there’d be no story here. This is a post-Galileo world. It’s also post-Salem. We don’t watch these films for history, of course, but it is true that although the witchcraft trials ended at the turn of that century, the accusations continued for some time after. The woman of science is a threat to the male establishment. She alone, however, discerns the truth.

Swashbuckler cinema was a male invention. Still, even in the twenty-first century too much of it comes at the expense of women. Jack Sparrow’s famous compass, for example, is passed on to him aboard a ship called the “Wicked Wench.” Surely this is meant to be funny, but at whose expense? The other women in the movie hardly come off better. Shansa actually is a witch, working for the establishment. Beatrice Kelly, in Jack Sparrow’s noose wedding, is portrayed as an undesirable bride, purely for laughs. Disney is famous for its princesses, but also for its wicked women. Even the strong female characters such as Mulan, Moana, and Anna find themselves being helped to success by male characters. Obviously the genders do interact in real life, and as recent history has shown us, men will demonize women if it helps them get ahead. You might think a movie of anti-heroes, however, would show the most intelligent character receiving a bit more respect. Especially since she’s a woman in a pirate’s world.

Beautiful Beast

Like most kids in America I grew up with some form of Disney. We couldn’t afford to see many movies, but those we could often originated from the acknowledged master of childhood viewing. When I became a parent I naturally turned to Disney as one of the components of constructing a happy environment for my own child. Who doesn’t want better for their children then they had themselves? This was, however, in the days of VHS tapes. Disney frustrated more than one attempt to see a movie that was currently “locked in the vault”—a marketing tool used to glut the already overflowing coffers on demand. The heart wants what the heart wants, as the saying goes, and you knew that if you didn’t purchase the movie when it was available you might never see it again. Regardless, Disney does produce memorable work.

One movie that we missed until the vault unlocked was the animated Beauty and the Beast. We didn’t want to send the message that girls should be the captives of men, but Belle is a strong character, and we eventually realized that withholding much of childhood culture would isolate our daughter from what everyone else knew. Old habits die hard, as Disney knows. Our daughter is now grown, but a new Beauty and the Beast is in theaters and what was once vault material has softened into nostalgia. Recently I’ve begun to notice differences between original films and remakes when it comes to religion. In the new Beauty and the Beast there are only a couple of such instances, but they did make me wonder. In the opening sequence, as Belle is returning her book to Père Robert, a large crucifix stands in the background. Indeed, the camera keeps Belle off-center so as to make the cross obvious in the scene. Clergy and books make sense, and, of course, Belle offers to sacrifice herself for her father—a biblical trope.

When Gaston riles up the angry villagers, Père Robert is once more shown, objecting to the growing violence. Then, unexpectedly, as the castle transforms at the end, a gold finial of Michael the archangel slaying the dragon appears atop one of the towers. Again the symbolism is clear as the beast has allowed Gaston to escape, but the 45-inspired antagonist, unwilling to let grudges go, shoots the beast anyway. As the movie opens the famous Disney castle shows itself topped with that same finial. Is there a deeper message here? It’s just a children’s movie after all. Yet Père Robert is black and there are two interracial couples in the film. We should be, if I’m viewing this correctly, entering into a more tolerant and accepting world. Prejudice has no place in fantasy. Or reality. There are dragons to be slain here. If there is a deeper conscience at play it’s likely only to be found locked away in a vault.

We Are an Island

moana_teaser_posterApropos of both building your own deity and Disney, my family went to see Moana. Now, I have to admit up front to being a bit behind on my Polynesian mythology. Scholars of the history of religions feel terribly insecure if they don’t read the languages or haven’t spent time with the culture first-hand. I’ve seen the Pacific Ocean a few times, but never from the point-of-view of an islander. In fact, one of the areas of growing interest in biblical studies is the interpretation of Holy Writ by islanders. Their perspective, it seems clear, is different from others in more populated land masses. So Moana, which delves into Pacific islander mythology, was a brand new world for me. More than hearing about the demigod Maui, it was a chance to consider what destruction of our ecosystem looks like to those who have more limited resources at hand. Those who, when global warming really kicks in, will be the first to become homeless.

One of the strange things about living in the post-truth world (defined as the world after 11/9) is that many movies, novels, and other creative explorations I encounter seem to underscore the demon we’ve invited in. Moana is about a girl who saves her people, but she only does so by defying the man in power. Had she not journeyed beyond the reef, her people would’ve starved on their island. Meanwhile the big white man prepares to assault the White House and all that our founders held dear: an educated leadership. Progress. Fair treatment for all. Someone needs to remind these short-sighted individuals that every landmass is an island.

As we approach the end of 2016 it’s time to think of where we’ve been. At the theater, an ad by Google showed the newsworthy events of the year. There could not have been a better rendering of the high hopes with which we began and the sorrow with which we’ve come to an end. Our scorn of education has caught up with us and we’ve asked “the man” to please destroy our world and enslave our women and deport anyone who’s different. We need a lesson in how to build better deities. We need to be willing to admit that a girl might know more than her father. We need to learn the wisdom of the islanders.

Lions and Lambs

This brief break between Christmas and New Year’s Day, taking into account the vacation days expended to enjoy it, is a time filled with movies, reading, writing, and sufficient sleep. In short, it’s like a dream. I’ll get around to addressing the movies eventually, but right now one in particular is on my mind: Zootopia. Disney movies weren’t a big part of my childhood. We did watch the Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights, but movies were an expensive treat. I remember seeing The Jungle Book, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and Herbie the Lovebug. When we could afford a movie, it was frequently at a drive-in where a carload was cheaper than individual seats. I missed several of the childhood western canon—I never saw Mary Poppins until I was in college. Becoming a parent in the 1990s meant becoming conversant with Disney.

zootopia

Oh, I’ve heard the conspiracy theories: Disney is “the evil empire,” part of the Bilderberg Group, the Illuminati, and any number of other collectives that want to run the world. They have access, we are told, to the young and a reach that excludes few before the age of ten. I know little of Disney’s business practices, but Zootopia suggests to me that they are telling our children the right message. The movie follows the ambitions of Judy Hopps, a bunny that want to be a police officer in Zootopia, the largest city in the animal world. Threatened and bullied because she’s a girl, and small—traditionally prey—she nevertheless overcomes the obstacles necessary to meet her dreams. Once she meets success, however, she finds herself engaging in prejudice against predators. Species profiling takes over and the white sheep (literally) take over.

The message of not assuming someone is a slave to their “biology” is a powerful one. Nick Wilde, the fox that assists Judy to her goal, becomes a victim. The only way forward for Zootopia is to recognize that profiling—gender or species—is wrong. Since the story isn’t preachy, it’s all the better. Watching unchecked prejudice surging through our political machinery today, it was difficult to believe that this movie was released all the way back in March. The prey animals are the majority, and they feel threatened and so follow the leadership that controls, deports the predators who’ve been law-abiding citizens all along. Only when we once again see shrews living peacefully next to elephants, rabbits, lions, and polar bears, do we get the sense that everything’s as it should be. I know nothing of Disney’s business practices, but with messages as important as this, I have but few worries.

Seeing the Trees

Into_the_Woods_film_posterI first learned of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods while liking in the woods of Wisconsin. I was teaching a summer term course of mature students, one of whom used one of the songs to illustrate the point he was making during a presentation. Of course I don’t remember what the point was, but I did remember the movie. Then along came Shrek and fractured fairy tales were back in business. Enchanted brought Disney into the act, and a number of self-aware takeoffs from the brothers Grimm have followed. I’d seen the film of the stage show of Into the Woods before, but it had been a while. Over the weekend we decided to watch the new Disney offering of the story and as we did a couple of familiar, if obscure, ancient mythological motifs came to mind.

Cinderella, as we all know, was sorely abused by her evil step-mother and step-sisters. She seeks solace at her mother’s grave, in the woods, of course, in the movie version. While there, singing somewhere between a lament and a prayer, her mother appears to her in the tree that grew from a branch she’d planted there many years before. It’s a musical number, of course, but my mind couldn’t help going back to Asherah. Asherah is considered by many (without good reason, and I should know) to be the goddess of the trees. Yes, this was a mortal, a dead mortal at that, who spoke from the tree but the way she was presented in the movie was distinctly divine. Indeed, there is similar iconography from ancient Egypt. It was almost enough to make me go back on my own evidence that Asherah wasn’t a tree goddess.

The giant’s wife poses a real threat in this film. Jack’s beanstalk and the effects resembled those of Jack the Giant Slayer, a movie that I only vaguely remember as being one of many I watched with bleary eyes on a transatlantic flight a few years back. Nevertheless, Mrs. Giant is here stomping about the village when Jack and the baker decide to take her out at the tar pit, with the help of Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella. The preferred weapon is a sling. As the giantess is pelted with stones, she grows annoyed until Jack, in the perfect image of David, strikes the giant between the eyes, slaying her. We all know the fairy tale version ends with the beanstalk chopped down. We’ve entered a new world, however. A world where Bible and fairy tale are harder to distinguish. And not only that, but even fairy tales no longer have the canonical status they once held.

Land’s End

Although not due for release for another two years, the internet is already buzzing about Pirates of the Caribbean 5. Thing is, once a studio finds a successful formula, they’re reluctant to let it go. Nevertheless, with a couple days off for New Year’s, and all the family here, we decided on a marathon of the four movies available for home viewing. I used to use a clip from the second movie (Dead Man’s Chest) in my classes to demonstrate how the Bible is portrayed in popular culture. In the scene where Pintel and Ragetti are rowing toward the beached Black Pearl, Ragetti is leafing through a Bible, although he can’t read. He says, in his defense, “It’s the Bible. You get credit for trying.” Indeed, the Bible appears disguised as the huge codex of the pirate code (a kind of over-compensatory pentateuch), and, as I noted before, the book that saves the mermaid’s life in On Stranger Tides. In fact, for those willing to look behind the scenes, the Bible shows up repeatedly in the series.

Even as a landlocked child maritime themes and concepts were compelling to me. I yearned for the ocean without ever seeing it. Long I stared at the cover of Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us in wonder. When I finally had the opportunity to strike out on my own, it was to Boston I headed, with its rich New England tradition of the sea. I have tried, ever since, to return there. Theologians, although I don’t count myself among their number, have often found a religious resonance with the sea. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies, based as they have been on a Disney ride, nevertheless manage to tap into the romance of the ocean. Not compellingly written, apart from the fun antics of Captain Jack Sparrow, they don’t present an entirely coherent story line, but they do put the viewer, vicariously, at least, on the ocean. And they have been among the most successful film series ever released. Many, I suspect, are drawn by the lure of the open ocean.

Rewatching the films also reminded me of Cthulhu’s influence on the character of Davy Jones. The origins of the euphemism “Davy Jones’ locker” are uncertain, although some trace it back to Jonah. Nevertheless, it stands for the place of death on the sea floor—the very place where Cthulhu lies dead but dreaming according to his creator H. P. Lovecraft. No doubt, Lovecraft’s description of Cthulhu played into the depiction of the character of Davy Jones as presented by Disney. At the end of At World’s End, Jones falls dead, once again, into the maelstrom that will take him back, dreaming, to the ocean floor. In so doing he participates in the endless give and take of the sea. I suspect a couple years hence will find me in a theater to watch what seems a somewhat tired trope, but it will be more the sea than the sparrow that will draw me in.

Photo credit: Anthony92931, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Anthony92931, Wikipedia Commons

Flash Freeze

Frozen_(2013_film)_poster

One industry has, in this era of leisure, proven itself powerfully recession-proof. Entertainment, conceived broadly enough to include the sellers of strong drink, always seems to do well when the bread-and-butter parts of the economy tank. Among the entertainment giants is Disney, making it an easy target for curmudgeons like yours truly. Every once in a while, however, the cynicism has to melt. Frozen induced one of those experiences. I left the theater feeling that this may have been the best Disney movie of all time. You see, I grew up largely without Disney. We didn’t vacation in fantasy-lands like Disney World (when we could afford to vacation at all), and watching a movie was a rare treat. We did see some of the old style animations that came to our small town, such as Bambi and Dumbo, and we did watch the television program, I want to say on Sunday night. My real experience of Disney, however, came with parenthood where VHS and then CD then online versions of the movies made them accessible any time, in nearly any place. In the past decade or so, I’ve noticed, Disney has been putting considerable money behind the crafting of story, something many movie moguls fail to attempt. Frozen, however, stunned me.

The visual beauty of the Scandinavian world is no doubt part of it. I don’t often mention C. S. Lewis on this blog—he has been so thoroughly appropriated by the evangelical crowd that it is often difficult to admit how influential his work was to my college-age self. Lewis was unashamed of his Christianity, but in his fiction it isn’t always in your face. When I read Surprised by Joy, his autobiography, a scene—just a sentence really—lodged in my head. Joy, he noted, could be brought on by visions of the grandeur of the frozen far north. Lewis noted that not everyone has that perception, but I certainly share it with him. Elsa’s icy world impales with its beauty. Although I’m sensitive to cold, a deep desire stirred in the construction of that isolated ice castle. Elsa could, as an appropriately messianic figure, walk on water and ascend to heaven.

Of course, as I’ve observed before, the central trope of cinema is resurrection. Anna takes on the self-sacrificial role for her sister, marking Disney’s move away from the magic of the heterosexual kiss as the cure to all female ills. No, here are women who thrive not only without, but in spite of strong male characters. This is a world where not one, but two female protagonists are needed to carry the plot to fulfillment. Self-sacrifice, in fantasy worlds, often leads to resurrection. With Anna’s act of love for her sister, the cinematic world has reached an important pinnacle in its lesson to children: love comes in many forms, and if it is really love it is never bad. Elsa ends up satisfied without a king to guide her, a woman who reigns as she is, not as society says she should be. If only the ice of our patriarchal world could be melted so easily.

Vive la différence

Scientists, those to whom society has passed the responsibility for knowing, have an increasingly difficult time defining humans as opposed to other animals. Still, we know a person when we see one. That’s when the crucial ethical issues arise: how should we treat others? Two unrelated articles about human rights recently came across my virtual desk: one about Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and another about how religious rights sometimes/often hamper human rights. There’s so much to sort out here, and I’m not even one of those that society deems fit to do such sorting. Well, I am human, so perhaps I can give it a shot anyway. In an article in Friday’s The Guardian, Deborah Orr points out that for progress in human rights to move forward, rights for the freedom of religion have to take second place. Clearly she’s onto something because, historically, one of the greatest enemies of human rights has been religion. Labeling suffering as virtue, it’s relatively simple for religions to suggest that the lot of the oppressed is to bear suffering so that the faith can continue untainted. After all, those religions with an afterlife, in any case, declare that it all gets sorted in the hereafter.

Orr makes a very good point: we are all human, but we may not all share religion. Isn’t the need of the whole greater than even the need of the many? Utilitarianism would declare it so. So would common sense. (Science warns us not to trust common sense, however.) Some of the harshest violators of human rights continue to be religious traditions. Others are heathens, pagans, infidels, heretics, beasts—take your choice—and therefore displeasing to some divine being, generally male and either hetero- or asexual. Oh, and he’s from the Middle East, ethnically. Over on PhotoBlip.com, a piece about Beauty and the Beast makes the point that Gaston, the strapping, über-masculine antagonist of Belle’s provincial town, is frightening because the people so easily follow him. He whips the crowd into a frenzy because, as a thoughtless but handsome (and ripped) figure, people naturally do what he tells them to. He is a dangerous, selfish bully, and many politicians have learned their tactics from him. Belle, a bookish girl, is considered odd and in need of domesticating. The beast is deformed and in need of killing.

We could learn a lot.  (Photo credit: Brian Forbes, WikiCommons)

We could learn a lot. (Photo credit: Brian Forbes, WikiCommons)

These two stories, from very different sources, point in the same direction: tolerance is the only humane response to a complex world where lots of different types of people live. Still, the problem isn’t wholly a religious one. Human rights insist that all people have access to the basic necessities of life, and, ideally, the possibility of flourishing into what they desire to be. Some, however, desire to dominate. With or without religious backing, this Gaston-esque drive to bully is all too real since might does seem to make right, and even some political darlings get their way by being bullies. One of the most poignant points that religion has ever made is that you can identify the divine by its willingness to lay down power and identify with the weak. We are seldom presented with that side of the gospel truth, for there is a paradox at the heart of it, and people want clear answers, not puzzles. Even science, however, when pushed far enough must answer with a paradox. Is light a wave or a particle? Some religions would say that light is a gift of the divine.

Money Poppins

Marypoppins Easy answers seldom hold up. Generalizing is a way of dealing with the vast amounts of data people continually process. Now that many of us in the “developed” world spend much of our time indoors, those skills earned from thousands of generations of learning about the environment have transferred to media of various sorts. I watch a lot of movies—they are my escape from an urban reality that often weighs too heavily on my primate brain. Long ago I relegated Disney to that shelf of the least profound films. Although many of their animated features of the past decade or so have introduced complexities and some seriousness into the mix, often I find myself still hungry after sitting through a helping of the Disney fantasy-land. It seems to me that nature is crueler and more careless than Disney makes it out to be. Nevertheless, sometimes something profound can be discovered in the most unlikely of places.

I never saw Mary Poppins until I was in college, but now I come back to it as an adult from time to time and I still learn from it. While watching recently it struck me that two worlds (at least) are juxtaposed here: the world of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Dawes Tomes Mousley Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. On the night before the Banks children accompany their father to the bank, Mary Poppins suggests that some things are important, although quite small. She refers, of course, to the birds that the Bird Lady uses to make her pitiful living. She sells crumbs within sight of an opulent bank that stands for the order of society. She is dressed in poor clothing, a beggar woman under the protective gaze of saint and apostles. The bank has guards and bars and powerful men. The worlds are brought into collision by Jane and Michael wanting to feed the birds but they instead are forced to open a bank account. In the ensuing melee, George Banks takes the blame and is fired.

On his way to the bank that night to be sacked, he reevaluates. In a brief but significant scene, he pauses in front of the Cathedral, deserted at night, and scans where the Bird Lady sat. The scene immediately cuts to the bank, still at work, its great doors snapped open by uniformed guards. The Cathedral, dark and glowering, is just down the street. And yet, once dismissed Mr. Banks chooses the way of the Bird Lady, an unemployed man spending tuppence for paper and string to mend a kite. No, I don’t attribute much profundity to Disney, but Mary Poppins does give pause for a moment. We never see the inside of the Cathedral. It is generally dark and forbidding. The bank is light and inviting, yet liable to turn on you. Maybe it is merely lack of sleep, but as I closed my eyes last night, it seemed that even Disney may have, for one brief instant, turned its back on money.

Fall Silent

Some books impact an individual profoundly. Others are powerful enough to influence an entire society. Rachel Carson was the author of both. Tributes to the fifty year landmark of the publication of Silent Spring have appeared this month, and although the players have changed, the plot remains the same. Bryan Walsh’s tribute in Time a few weeks back captures the essence of the situation: an environmental danger is discovered, “industry” will at first deny it, then attack the science, and then try to frighten the population with the inevitable escalation of costs. Sometimes common sense wins, but only after a long tantrum by those whose main desire is personal enrichment.

Silent Spring is credited with starting the ecological movement. Until the early 1960s the world seemed vast enough to absorb our filthy, toxic run-off. We were only on the cusp of understanding that the world is much smaller than we had ever imagined. Disney had not yet published the theme song that would get through to the American imagination. We had yet to stand on the moon and look back at just how tiny our troubles were in an infinite universe. Using pseudo-religious backing, industries often claim the planet was made for us. In truth, we evolved to adapt to this planet. The sad story after sad story of those who’d figured out how to line their pockets at the expense of the health, and often the lives, of others constitutes an ignoble hall of shame. Rachel Carson, who truly deserves the title of prophet, was considered the enemy of progress. Better living through chemicals—who hasn’t heard the phrase?

The science behind DDT, which nearly drove the bald eagle to extinction, is not the culprit. The radium that rotted the teeth, mouths, and jaws of young women employed to paint it on watch hands, had always been radioactive. The coal still burning under Centralia suffers from properties properly discovered by science. In case after case we find greed running away with the science. Science unlocks the secrets of our universe, but it also gives ideas to those who are always looking to make a buck. It may be that Rachel Carson knew she was slinging stones at giants when Silent Spring was published. This one biblical metaphor might come in useful for those who are able to see the larger picture. We’ve only got one planet and if we want it to survive we’ve got to make it last. Giants should come to fear the disadvantaged who know how to use slings, whether with rocks or words.

Preachers and Pirates

One of the more colorful characters, albeit briefly mentioned, in Jon Butler’s New World Faiths, is Rev. Henry Loveall. While not a major historical figure in any sense of the word, and as a man who is known without the benefit of his own account of himself, the little we know of him intrigues. According to Butler, Loveall was dismissed as pastor from the Baptist church in Piscataway, New Jersey (a town in which I once worked) on charges of bigamy, prompting the Philadelphia Baptist Association to note he’d chosen an appropriate name for himself. Genealogical records online indicate that his given name was Desolate Baker and that he was born in Cambridge, England. As a youth he found himself in trouble for immorality with a woman at his church and he moved to America. Records are sketchy, but he apparently moved from Rhode Island to New Jersey to Maryland to Virginia. He had married but had gone to Virginia with another man’s wife. Even the usually forgiving genealogical records indicate some suspicion of his character.

Loveall lived in the eighteenth century when the world was still large enough to hide in. While I’m not the one to be impressed with Disney’s attempts at profundity in the Pirates of the Caribbean series of movies, there is one parsimonious line from At World’s End where Barbossa and Sparrow are discussing the incursion of business interests (in a delightful irony for a Disney film) into the free-spirited world of piracy. Barbossa avers that the world is smaller, but Jack Sparrow retorts that it’s not a smaller world after all, but “there’s just less in it.” Our world has been rapidly reduced to the pixels we can see on the screen in front of us. Bloggers are acclaimed as experts while those who’ve gazed across the war-torn promised land from atop the Mount of Olives with its frenetic network of churches start to doubt what their own eyes have revealed to them. We are content to let the Lovealls and Sparrows live it for us.

Our names are seldom a matter of choice. Like being born, they are factors in the midst of which we find ourselves—someone else supposed that we might turn out like this. The names we would select for ourselves show the size of our inner worlds. To love all is a noble sentiment. A sparrow is nervous, flighty, and has but a small brain. Our inner worlds are partially constructed by our religions. Declaring on divine authority what we must and mustn’t do, we find ourselves born into religions like we’re born into names. Few question the faith tradition fed to them by parents with such certainty, and that religion, just as surely as our name, becomes an integral part of our identity. History tell us little of Henry Loveall, a man who changed his name, and a clergyman who lived religion on his own terms.

Baptized!

Step in Time

Magical blingdom

Mary Poppins is one of my wife’s favorite childhood movies. I first saw it in college and, being a parent, have seen it many times since then. Now when I walk through Times Square I see it is playing at the New Amsterdam Theater, and if I time it right I can hear bits of the musical on my way to the Port Authority after work. As is normal in the universe according to Disney, nothing is really ever seriously wrong in the London of 1910. Troublesome children are doing nothing more than chasing a kite and attempting to connect with an emotionally distant father. Even when he loses his job, Banks merely suffers an inverted umbrella and a punched hat. Joblessness lasts for only a day. Everybody sings. When we watched the movie again recently I considered how such an escape is healthy for those of us accustomed to a somewhat harsher adult existence. Joblessness is often long-term and desperation reeks as we find ourselves distanced from that which defines our existence.

Mary Poppins represents a divine figure in the Disney universe. She comes down from the heavens during a troubled period of history, judiciously utilizes a bit of magic, and heals the broken-hearted. When things go bad, Mary Poppins is there to make them right again, even on her day off. She shows the cold-hearted world of business that there is a better way. Who would you rather be—George Banks or the Bird Lady? Who is happier?

“All around the cathedral, the saints and apostles,” saintly Mary sings, “look down as she sells her wares. And although you can’t see it, you know they are smiling each time someone shows that he cares.” Where are the saints and apostles of Wall Street? Instead the optimistic view of humanity plays itself out on Broadway where the intensity of humankind spans from homeless beggar to movie star. Fantasy is underrated. Our minds have evolved the capacity to allow us to escape the realities of suffering, disappointment, and angst. When a week of trouble and turmoil has held us in its grip, we may still escape to the magical kingdom of our choice to find bread and circuses. Mary Poppins does not condemn the greed of Mr. Dawes and the rich die laughing. It is difficult not to like Mary Poppins, the angelic symbol of care that doesn’t disrupt the system. And Disney will see no end to its place among the wealthiest families on earth. It is a small world, after all.

Stranger Tides

Yo, ho, ho and a plate of spaghetti

The closest I’ve come to appreciating pirates is the command of the Flying Spaghetti Monster that its devotees must wear pirate costumes. Nevertheless, being only human, I was curious about the fourth installment of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean series although the old storyline had mercifully died out. This weekend my family joined a handful of others still showing interest and went to watch Captain Jack Sparrow’s antics on the silver screen. Perhaps it was because this movie actually followed, loosely, an actual book instead of a theme-park phantasmagoric pastiche, but I found the movie surpassed my expectations. I’m discussing it here because of the heavy dose of religious concepts brought into the story by the inclusion of a missionary.

In typical Pirates fashion, the character introductions are unconventional, and so it is with Philip, the missionary. Tied to a mast on Blackbeard’s ship as a kind of human talisman, the poor man is cut down by Sparrow and a crewman during a mutiny. The crewman declares to Philip, “You are either for us or against us!” to which the missionary replies, “I am neither with you, nor am I against you!” The crewman asks Sparrow if that is possible, to which Captain Jack replies, “He’s religious, I believe it’s required.” This was possibly the funniest line in the movie, but it was so because of the underlying truth. The sarcasm here is directed at a representative of a church that will ultimately lead to the destruction of eternal life. Granted, the agents of that destruction are Catholic, presumably.

Once the fountain of youth is discovered and Blackbeard and Barbossa engage in their swordplay, Spanish troops arrive and promptly destroy the pagan fountain declaring that the church (presumably Catholic) is the only means to eternal life. The Protestant missionary, meanwhile, in an act of self-sacrifice returns to free a misunderstood mermaid. (This is Disney, after all.) The dialogue is difficult to remember from a single viewing, but the addition of religious elements beyond the supernatural lent a gravitas to this final Pirate film that the others lacked. Even placed among the fantastic, the religious elements grounded it in a reality where faith, sacrifice, and fortitude became intrinsic to the story. I doubt I’ll head off to the Spanish Main any time soon, but I appreciate movies that offer a bit of substance along with their entertainment on that transatlantic crossing.

Not So White

Over the past two decades, an interest in presenting fairy tales more akin to the spirit of the brothers Grimm has blossomed into its own industry. For those of us who were reared on Fractured Fairy Tales, this is a welcome development. Among the more creative approaches to this genre is the 1997 movie, Snow White: A Tale of Terror. Hampered by lack of theatrical release in the United States, this gothic attempt at telling the story in its original, dark form has gone largely unnoticed. I recently viewed the movie for the first time myself, and although the basic storyline is somewhat trite the Grimmesque features redeem it at many points. (Who doesn’t secretly want to see the pretty-boy prince charming thrown out of a castle tower window?) Perhaps the most unexpected addition to the Disneyfied tale we all know is the religious component to the movie.

“Snow White”—never named so in the movie—has been raised by a pious father who wears a cross and insists that she say her prayers and read her Scriptures. Being a local lord, he suppresses ruffians who populate the woods, including a band of not-so-merry men who incorporate some that were tortured for refusing to go on crusade. When the not entirely wicked step-mother needs Lord Hoffman’s blood to raise their stillborn son to life, she lashes him to a crucifix, saying to the corpus that occupies the other side, “now you shall have company.” (Did I mention this is a horror film?) Along with the unexpected twists that those conditioned to happy endings find so disturbing, the film actually contains a subtlety on matters of religion that is frequently missed. It also resists corny dialogue that so often plagues films where the storyline cannot bear any substantial weight.

While it will never be my favorite movie, this particular film was an effective adult retelling of a familiar tale with more depth than the common story might suggest. The Germanic folklore collected by the Grimm brothers often reveals a depth of insight into humanity that is bleached out by Disney’s bright colors and cheerful smiles. It is more true to the human experience. The scene that remains seared in my mind is where one of the seven miners (only one is a dwarf—another is actually a friar) is revealed to have been disfigured by crusaders off to liberate the Holy Land. Refusing to participate, he had to watch his family burned at the stake and had a red-hot iron cross pressed to one side of his face. (Did I mention this is a horror film?) As in the days of Grimm and continuing into our own, the church continues to scar many even as it attempts to heal others.

And I Feel Fine

“Is something supposed to have happened?”—Jane Banks in Mary Poppins. The world was supposed to have ended yesterday, but I haven’t yet looked out my windows to make sure. I suspect that everything is pretty much the way it was on Friday. Nevertheless, I have to admit to a tiny bit of relief. I do not believe in a mythic end of the world, and yet there is always that taunting doubt that maybe somebody knows more than me. To calm my jitters, I watched Chicken Little last night. This particular Disney movie has never been one of my favorites, but yesterday it struck me as a parable for our times. Even better, the original folktale is a parable for our times. No one knows when the story originated; it is an example of a folktale that belittles paranoia and the mass hysteria that tends to accompany it. A common ending has a fox eating all the concerned animals as they make their way to the authorities.

Our culture is rife with end-days beliefs. Since this is an idea clearly traceable to non-biblical origins, one might suppose that Fundamentalists would eschew it, but as we have seen the last few days, quite the opposite is true. Those who like Chicken Licken or Cocky Lockey go around declaring the end of all things clearly believe they will be rewarded for their special efforts. Instead, history will class them along with Goosey Loosey and Turkey Lurkey—those who are easily led. Perhaps the oddest result of this recent scare is that many people will not abandon the belief, but will simply push it off. We have another scheduled apocalypse for the end of 2012. Is it because we are now so closely connected by the umbilical Internet that our natural fears have become international?

The claims seem to be arriving thick and fast. I remember the end of the world scare of 1979 when I was in high school. There seemed to be a hiatus until 1999, and since then the dates have begun to bottleneck. What we are seeing is the role-playing of a Christian mythology, and herein is the real danger. A true believer can try to initiate the end times. We only need recall 9/11 to test that. Like most religions, Christianity has developed its own unique mythology that freely borrows elements from both other religions and popular culture. The apocalypse has a history, you know. Overall the false scare of the end of all things has been good for this blog. It was not without irony that I noticed my post for May 21 was number 666. But like the clock that is still ticking, this post will clear that hurdle, and the world will be around for a long time yet to come. Now I need to go and pull back the curtains, just to make sure, and keep an eye out for Foxy Loxy.