Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Best of William Friedkin

I've been excited to get to William Friedkin in this blogathon of favorite film directors, and not just because he ruined my child-psyche with The Exorcist. He practically reinvented American cinema in the '70s, but strangely, in the eyes of many, fell from grace after the '80s. Not in mine. Amidst his '90s "garbage" he crafted at least one masterpiece (even it was a remake), and in the last five years has had a serious comeback with two insanely wild Tracy Letts scripts. But even in mediocrity, Friedkin worked a magic that's hard for me to define. He reveled in documentary-style realism, '70s-style introspection, and searing intensities that remind me why I watch film: for emotional payoff to dramas that make us question the premises of our crazy world. Whether or not he's aware of it, he seems to share Tolkien's view of the "long defeat", the idea that in every generation we must face evil in some form and oppose it -- even if it's just a temporary holding action or lost cause -- while also confronting evil in ourselves. Happy endings are foreign here. Of the 20 films he's done between 1967 and this year, here are my 10 favorites. This November installment comes a day early, as the top slot demands that it be featured on Halloween.

1. The Exorcist. 1973. 5+ stars. In this year-long blogathon, you will see me awarding three, and only three, films with a beyond-perfect rating of "5+". This is one of them. It messed me up so badly when I was a kid that some nights I lay paralyzed in bed, afraid to fall asleep or stay awake. It starts out documentary-style in Iraq, then moves to the suburbs of Washington D.C., the terror building slowly -- and with patient character development so typical of '70s scripts -- until it explodes into the mother of all horror films. Somehow Friedkin came up with exactly what you'd imagine a demon to look and sound and act like, and this one proceeds to beat the shit out of a 12-year old girl from the inside out. She speaks like the damned, pukes buckets of green, and reams herself bloody with crucifixes, until two priests finally intervene with a long ritual that kills them both. The girl is saved, but the power of good over evil is far from clear. Some continue to insist that The Exorcist is an unspeakable obscenity, and in many ways it is. It couldn't have made in a decade other than the '70s, and I state for a fact there will never again be a movie so frightening and well done.

2. 12 Angry Men. 1997. 5 stars. I've seen this so many times I can recite the dialogue, which is saying something since there's nothing but, sharp and constant. It's a rare case of a remake surpassing an excellent classic; that it hasn't been released on DVD yet is insane. This time the jury room is populated by a good fraction of Afro-Americans, and better acting by all involved, to make the film more relevant. The best performance comes from Mykelti Williamson as racist juror #10, now a Muslim whose burning contempt for Hispanics and nasty put-downs draw the ire of the other black jurors. As for the two leads, George C. Scott is as good as his predecessor Lee J. Cobb, as the unyielding juror #3, and ditto for Jack Lemmon, who replaces Henry Fonda as moral crusader juror #8. Then there is Armin Mueller-Stahl, who plays the shrewd intellectual antagonist, juror #4, who has always been my secret hero of 12 Angry Men. But they're all good, each and every one, and their interactions almost too real to be staged. Hot tempers and shouting matches have never been more primal.

3. Killer Joe. 2012. 5 stars. I saw this recently and as far as I'm concerned it's the film of the year. The script is by Tracy Letts, and so chock full of sex and sadistic violence that it earns the NC-17 rating that would have been slapped on The Exorcist had the label existed back then. And if The Exorcist was about a family under attack by unstoppable evil, so is Killer Joe. Opposite '80s films which saw hope in the nuclear family, this film kills that fantasy with cruelty, and it's a Fargo-like comedy to boot, so you get filthy sick laughing your ass off. The story: a gambler can't pay his debts and so hires a hit man to kill his mother for insurance money; because he can't front the advance payment, he loans Killer Joe his sister for sex; the mother gets bumped off, but it turns out she left her money to someone else; things careen out of control -- around misogynistic beatings and trailer-trash violence -- to an outrageous climax involving a forced blowjob with a chicken leg, and an unforgettable "last supper". I applaud Friedkin for sacrificing the financial payback that would have come with a censored R-rating.

4. Bug. 2007. 5 stars. Ashley Judd proves she can act for a change, and goes completely batshit in the sweaty confined setting of a motel room where her universe swiftly collapses. Tracy Letts is again the writer, adapting his own stage play about a woman who takes on the insanity of a dangerously paranoid boyfriend. Convinced that he's infected by tiny insects that spy for the U.S. government, he claws himself apart, and yanks out his teeth with pliers, in order to rid himself of the perfidious "bugs", and rants non-stop about government control, UFOs, and cult victims. The narrative crescendo builds until your nerves are screaming, and the sudden horrific ending -- Agnes and Peter pour gasoline on themselves and light up -- leaves you wondering what the hell you watched for the last two hours. Only Ingmar Bergman's Hour of the Wolf has dealt with the theme of contagious insanity so compellingly. At heart, I see Bug as a story about two lonely people trying to compensate for their miserably empty lives, until they die deliriously in the comfort of each other's arms.

5. Rampage. 1987. 4 ½ stars. [1992 version: 2 stars.] In spite of being nominated for awards, this film is almost impossible to come by, or at least the '87 version is. The '92 version is a very different film. Basically, Friedkin made a gem whose distributor went under, and by the time he could get a new one had evidently become a strong advocate of the death penalty. The original version stacks the decks on both sides of the issue; the "official" version is a right-wing sermon. Both versions are based on real-life serial killer Richard Chase, who shot people in their homes, sodomized women's corpses and drank their blood. It's a gruesome thriller that becomes a courtroom drama focusing on the question of legal insanity, and in the well-done '87 version we're really not persuaded by either the prosecution or the defense, regardless of our own views. I, for one, endorse capital punishment for people like Chase (if you want to know why, see here), but that doesn't mean I want to be preached to, even if I'm the choir. It's so unlike Friedkin to trash artistry in favor of didacticism, and my guess is that he had (understandably) become so fed up with sentimental Hollywood agendas bashing the death penalty at every turn.

6. The French Connection. 1971. 4 ½ stars. Most consider this Friedkin's masterpiece after The Exorcist, but it's a bit weak on character. Aside from that, it holds up astonishingly well. It's all atmosphere (cold New York greys) and suspense (stalking, chasing, shooting), and makes you long for the old days when filmmakers really understood suspense. Only recently did I learn the appalling reality behind the famous car chase, that Friedkin didn't get permission from city officials, that he unleashed chaos on an unprepared New York, put people's lives at risk and caused real accidents; it's a miracle he and his crew weren't arrested. The scenes of violence are well played, held in reserve until exactly the right moment, perhaps the most shocking one being the sniper shooting down at Gene Hackman's character, but missing and hitting a lady with a baby carriage. Everything about The French Connection indicts old-fashioned police thrillers where the good guys can be counted on to prevail. Friedkin worked with real cops and portrays his cop-heroes as dirty as their profession requires; they don't win in the end (the French druglord escapes) and even get punished by being transferred out of narcotics.

7. To Live and Die in L.A. 1985. 4 stars. The contemporary trappings stand out, but in a mostly good way, as they copy something decent that actually came out of the '80s: Miami Vice. In fact, Michael Mann sued Friedkin for supposedly stealing the concept for this film. Like Sonny Crockett, Richard Chance is a cop who tries too hard to be cool, an obnoxious reaction to the Reagan years, playing fast and loose with the law when it fails to bring justice to scumbags. If you never tuned in to Miami Vice, you'd think this blurring of cops and criminals was near unprecedented. It's also yet another showcasing for an exceptional car chase, this time barreling up a highway in the wrong direction. (It seems Friedkin felt obligated to push the envelope with a car chase once a decade: The French Connection in the '70s, this one in the '80s, and Jade in the '90s.) It's a revenge story at heart, as an unhinged cop does everything possible to bring down a counterfeiter who killed his partner.

8. Jade. 1995. 3 ½ stars. Of all the sore reputations in cinema, none have confounded me like Jade. Panned as a trashy murder mystery lacking substance, it's for-God's-sake not supposed to rely on "substance", and certainly doesn't pretend to be anything more than it is -- an erotic thriller with all the Joe Eszterhas usuals. (Frankly, I think Eszterhas did better with this script than Basic Instinct's, though of course Friedkin notoriously tampered with it.) There are the obligatory blends of violence and sex; women who feed misogynist or feminist fantasies, depending on your point of view. The camera's attention to exotic masks becomes a metaphor for the deeper, invisible masks worn by everyone: the assistant DA's renegade detectives, his best friend and jealous rival, and, of course, the enigmatic Jade herself. Then there's, yes, a superb car chase, which, no, isn't French Connection worthy, but still damn impressive, and I'm tough to please with car scenes. Jade is no masterpiece, but for me it's very enjoyable, and I can understand why Friedkin calls it one of his favorite creations.

9. Rules of Engagement. 2000. 3 ½ stars. Another thriller-courtroom drama, but a more mainstream effort than Rampage. This one too has the balls to flip off Hollywood liberalism, but in the right way, unlike Rampage's later version which could only bash it through an equally problematic opposite bias. Here we are made to identify with a marine colonel who murders a prisoner of war and orders fire on a crowd of protesters, as he had good reasons for doing both. Those who accuse this film of being anti-Arab are fools. An examination of the difficulties soldiers face under threat of terrorism is in no way racist, and Friedkin was right to dismiss these accusations with contempt. He used the jihadist milieu to put ethical question marks over the U.S. military's rules of engagement in dealing with hostile civilian crowds, while at the same time skewering government officials who scapegoat soldiers instead of accepting responsibility in complex situations. He did this quite well, and Samuel Jackson plays the marine colonel under court martial superbly.

10. Sorcerer. 1977. 3 stars. This is one of those commercial disasters turned cult classic, and its release at the time of Star Wars had everything to do with it. One might even say that the two films symbolize the falling out of a certain genre (gritty '70s amorality) alongside the ascendance of another (action blockbusters). And make no mistake, Sorcerer is gritty as they come. Four high-profile criminals from different countries are hiding out in South America, living in conditions so squalid and hideous you can almost feel the reek of disease. They hook up taking a high-paying job, which involves driving trucks containing unstable explosives through impossible wilderness obstacles -- the famous sequence being the teetering off a rotten bridge (see left). I never warmed to Sorcerer as much as the cult-following has, but it is a decent film that deserved better than being overshadowed when it did. The Tangerine Dream scoring is fantastic; the characters a bit hard to care about; the fantasy title makes no sense at all.

Next month: Terrence Malick.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Music Video Pick List

In protest against Black Friday, I stayed home today and did nothing much beyond passing gas. I did use the time to compile a ranking of my favorite music videos, which I'm happy to share. Enjoy.

1. Ode to My Family, by the Cranberries. 1994. Thankful and mournful at the same time -- and God knows the Irish have a lot to mourn -- this is almost a perfect Thanksgiving video, and so tops my list. It also happens to be one of my favorite songs of all time.

2. Strawberry Swing, by Coldplay. 2008. Possibly my favorite animated video, it captures a magic that's hard to describe. From the band's best album, Viva la Vida.

3. Little Feet (Live, the Hunt Memorial Library), by Old Abram Brown. 2010. I don't know why this feels so Thanksgiving, but it does, and I place it as high as #3 since this indie band isn't known half as well as it deserves to be. Great acoustics at the Hunt Library building in my home town.

4. Skeletons, by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. 2009. I can't think of a more stunningly beautiful depiction of the morbid. I don't want a funeral when I die, but if people throw me some kind of party, I'd like this video played at the event, please.

5. Sledgehammer, by Peter Gabriel. 1986. If you remember '80s videos as being horrendously embarrassing, you're right, and that's all the more reason why this one retains the honor of being the most played MTV video in the history of the station. Peter Gabriel was ahead of his time in every way, and Sledgehammer is pure classic.

6. Where the Streets Have No Name (Live, Slane Castle), by U2. 2001. When I think of songs that have "evolved", this one comes first to mind. The live performances are always better than the studio, and always very different. Slane Castle rules them all.

7. No Light, No Light, by Florence + the Machine. 2011. It was a tough pick between this one and Spectrum -- both of Florence's videos are simply mind-blowing.

8. Closer to the Heart (with Bubbles), by Rush. 2007. This '70s classic was played as part of a fund-raiser for the Solomon Islands tsunami devastation, with Bubbles (from the vulgar hilarious Candian comedy Trailer Park Boys) playing guitar with the band members. Drummer Neal Peart hasn't lost his touch.

9. No More I Love You’s, by Annie Lennox. 1995. Graceful, creepy, and arresting in the way only Annie Lennox can be. A longtime favorite.

10. What Makes You Beautiful, by One Direction. 2011. Well, how can you possibly argue with this one? I mean, just listen to these neo-Beatles... these darling boys... and you'll fall in love... right?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Herschel Shanks and Harvard's "Cowardice"

I'm not the biggest fan of Herschel Shanks, and his take on the "Jesus' Wife" controversy doesn't surprise me. He writes:
"What is for the Harvard Theological Review to suspend publication because of the dispute about authenticity. Dispute is the life of scholarship. It is to be welcomed, not fled from. When a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, backed up by two experts from Princeton and NYU who declare the text to be authentic, presents the case—and tentatively at that—that should be enough for HTR to publish King's article, not to cowardly suspend its decision to publish. Instead, HTR has cringed because there will now be a dispute as to authenticity. This is shameful."
No, Herschel. When a text has enough tell-tale signs of being fake, it is academically responsible to hold off; it is proper and prudent to err on the side of skepticism. If you're wrong that way, then fine, it costs nothing. But if it turns out you've entertained seriously what's indeed a fraud -- no matter what qualifiers and disclaimers you've piled on -- then you've not only wasted time and labor, you've been played a fool. People like Shanks need to read Harold Love; the punishment he calls for may be tongue-in-cheek, but the implications about academic credulity serious:
"Faking is the cancer of scholarship. The appropriate punishment for fakers should be public execution, with a last-minute interruption when a reprieve is brought to the gallows, only to be disregarded when it is discovered to be a fake. Likewise there is nothing amusing in the fact that a fellow scholar may have been misled by a fake: it is a sign of incompetence and dereliction in the individual concerned." (Attributing Authorship, pp 192-193)
Lest I be misconstrued, I'm not implying that Karen King is a bad scholar (see also Mark Goodacre), and it goes (I hope) without saying that she deserves no associations with a crank like Simcha Jacobovici. But in light of everything, Harvard's holding off her publication is simply the prudent move.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Retrospective/Review: Q, Thomas, and Killjoy Scholarship

Spring 2002: "If we were to dispense with Q, it would not be without tears. For Q has been all over the world, loved by everyone, feminists and liberation theologians, the sober and the sensational, the scholar and the layperson, a document with universal appeal. Indeed one of the keys to its success has been its ability to woo both conservatives and radicals alike. While conservatives, for example, are drawn by its early witness to the sayings of Jesus, others have seen its lack of a Passion Narrative as witnessing to an alternative stream of early Christianity, one not based on the proclamation of a crucified Christ. For those at one end of the theological spectrum, Q can give us a document of Jesus material from before 70, written within a generation of the death of Jesus. For those at the other end of the spectrum, Q aligns itself with the Gospel of Thomas to form a 'trajectory' in early Christianity that contrasted radically with emerging orthodoxy." (The Case Against Q, pp 16-17)

Fall 2012: "The idea that Thomas is familiar with the Gospels can seem unwelcome. If Thomas derives much of the material it shares with the Synoptics from the Synoptics themselves, then... no longer would Thomas be an early, independent witness to primitive Jesus tradition or to early, variant Christian ideologies. It is easy, in such circumstances, for a case in favour of Thomas's knowledge of the Synoptics to be seen as something of a recalcitrant, spoil-sport attempt to hark-back to a position that is now passé. Unless there are new arguments, and new perspectives, the case for an autonomous Thomas remains a highly attractive one to anyone interested in exploring the diversity of early Christianity. Given the difficulty in making progress in scholarship, some might feel that the last thing we want is to undo the fine work of the last generation and to set back the clock to a bland, monochrome view of Christian origins." (Thomas and the Gospels, p 3)

Mark Goodacre has become something of a killjoy in biblical scholarship, and that's cause for rejoicing. If historical criticism is supposed to be about scientific inquiry, or where evidence leads, then its results shouldn't necessarily please us. Yet it would seem that the field is often a playground for those who don't move beyond conjectures and deductions in efforts to paint things more complicated or arousingly different than they really were. The work done on Q and Thomas falls in a particularly unflattering spotlight, as the existence of one and early dating of the other enjoy remarkable followings, even by those who can only vaguely explain why they even believe such things.

I'm not exempt from this charge. I once believed in Q, for over a decade in fact, despite fleeting initial misgivings. As an undergrad in '91 I remember being taught the way Luke faithfully preserved Q as contrasted with Matthew's spiritualizing agenda, the classic point being "blessed are the poor" (Lk 6:20) which became "blessed are the poor in spirit" (Mt 5:3). Yet I had also just been taught that Luke had a social agenda for the poor and outcasts. Doesn't it make better sense, I asked, that the agenda worked in the opposite direction? That Luke socialized a spiritual saying? Well, came the answer, Q was concerned about the poor too.

And that was that. On the strength of scholarly consensus, assurances from a professor I held (and still hold) in high regard -- and because my introduction to the New Testament didn't even seriously entertain the idea that Luke could have known Matthew -- I accepted the phantom Q: a mysterious lost source which Matthew and Luke used independently of each other. I bought into this business with ease, and wouldn't seriously confront the Farrer theory1 until Goodacre's user-friendly defense of it in 2002.

I was not, however, on fast friendly terms with The Case Against Q. I was nonplussed by it at first, admiring its aesthetic (Goodacre is a good writer) while hating its content. It was an irritation and meant the great historical-Jesus scholars of the '90s -- and I mean the mighty ones like Meier and Allison as much as fantasists like Crossan and Borg -- were speaking the wrong language. It meant that so much scholarly labor on early Christian origins relied on a mirage. True, there was always Sanders, and yes, many a thesis would have pressed home the same with or without Q to lean on, but for purposes of academic dialogue, Q had been (and I think still is) a major common denominator. And I liked Q, or the idea of it: a tantalizing "gospel behind the gospels", which hinted at more primitive ideas.

Thomas is a different matter. I never bought into ideas about its early dating and literary independence, and so Goodacre's sequel is an immediate validation of what I always knew: that Thomas was familiar with the Synoptics, he used Matthew and Luke quite clearly, and his gospel is significantly gnostic (though Goodacre avoids the term: see further below) and can be comfortably dated to around the 140s. Lest I wax too smug, Goodacre does include a chapter on orality that gives me pause, as I've been somewhat guilty of caricatures he complains about when contrasting oral and print cultures. But more on that in a later post.

Back to Q: On second reading of Goodacre's book (in 2004), it emerged for me as what it is, becoming -- not to sound too dramatic -- a summons. What would happen, I asked myself, staring dully at the blue-and-white cover with its overbloated "Q", if I did not skim the uncongenial arguments this time, but gave myself to them, if I truly lowered the plow through the surface crust? Chapter seven's "How blessed are the poor?", in particular, pointed an accusing finger; it voiced my own nagging objection from way back in '91. But it wasn't just the specific point about Luke's social agenda that began turning me. The Case Against Q is one of those books that compels on every page with its even-handed candor and muscled interdisciplinary approach. Like the hot-off-the-press Thomas and the Gospels, it shows how the science of historical criticism can truly be at one with the humanities, when employed by aesthetic writers and shrewd thinkers.

Today, in retrospect, it actually stuns me how flimsy the basis for Q is. Its defenders have manufactured problems where none exist. That Luke doesn't reproduce Matthean elements within the triple tradition is unsurprising, as Goodacre notes, since those elements conflict with Luke's interests;2 we don't suddenly pretend we've never heard of redactional criticism in trying to prove a case for Q (p 51). More importantly, this claim isn't even true; there are very clear cases in the triple tradition where Luke looks more Matthean than Mark does. Yet when this happens, the Q advocates appeal to "Mark-Q overlaps", an astounding heads-I-win-tails-you-lose argument (p 54). Even worse is the "argument" that Luke doesn't reproduce Matthean elements only found in Matthew (M material), silly at the most basic level, since that's the way M material is defined, but even on a more detailed level doesn't hold up to scrutiny (p 55). As for the so-called "distinctive character of Q", which favors issues of poverty, the Gentiles, debates about the law, Jesus' relationship to wisdom, and the spirit, these are (of course) precisely the sorts of "Luke-pleasing" issues we would expect to see co-opted from Matthew on the assumption that Luke copied him (p 68). It's the same reason that M material, by definition, was ignored on grounds of it being "Luke-displeasing" (p 70).

A better argument is the one of alternating primitivity: that if Luke were copying Matthew, we'd expect Matthew more often to preserve the more original form of the saying. But this only spotlights how Q advocates have gone about assessing original forms (p 60), based in no small part on the assumption that Matthean expressions are typically not primitive, nor distinctive of "Q", which Goulder long ago showed to be false. Assuming its existence, Q's style is in fact quite Matthean at times (p 61). But more generally, the whole befuddlement over alternating primitivity ignores the oral dimension to the way texts are handed down and received. No reasonable scholar denies that Luke was aware of oral Jesus-traditions -- he tells us himself that he was working with both oral and literary sources in Lk 1:1-4 -- and we should obviously "distinguish properly between direct use of a prior text and knowledge of oral traditions, both of which are key in the composition of Luke's Gospel" (p 66). "Alternating primitivity" is one of those hands that seem monster but show air when the cards are flipped over.

Goodacre is at his best, however, in demolishing assumptions about order and rearrangement. Three whole chapters of The Case Against Q are devoted to the question of Matthew's implied aesthetic. Far from the disorderly scattering charged by Q-advocates, Luke's reworking of Matthew is a huge improvement. The reason Luke's gospel has the biographical verisimilitude appreciated by all scholars owes precisely to his "unscrambling" of Matthew which makes the material flow more smoothly. For those who have any doubts about what is obvious -- or what should be obvious when we look at the gospels literarily as much as theologically -- Goodacre's "bonus" chapter on the celluloid Christ pays dividends. Modern filmmakers evidently agree with Luke that Matthew's Sermon on the Mount is too long and unwieldy -- too much to keep the audience interested, compromising the narrative flow, and weakening the literary impact of the gospel narrative (p 126). Even Pasolini's slavishly faithful Gospel According to St. Matthew abbreviates, truncates, and rearranges the sermon with a vengeance (pp 125, 130). It doesn't take a literary genius to see that Matthew's discourses interrupt his narrative all around, while Luke cleans him up so that the sayings complement and grow out of the narrative (p 129). Put bluntly, Matthew's sermon is not the masterpiece implied by some Q-enthusiasts, and indeed his literary skills are a liability -- the clever five-block infrastructure notwithstanding.

Fast-forwarding to today, Goodacre is still on target about ordering. Thomas' rearrangement of the Synoptic sayings are no more a problem than Luke's rearrangment of Matthew. This is especially true in view of his agenda aiming at shock, surprise, even disorder. "It is not just the sayings themselves that shock and surprise, but also the bizarre juxtaposition of apparently contrasting ideas, side by side... Thomas' Gospel is aiming at enigma, and this is why it announces itself as an enigma from the beginning (Incipit, 1), and why it orders sayings in this apparently incomprehensible way. If there is one thing that is clear about Thomas, it is that it is not clear. Modern interpreters with their bright ideas about Thomas's arrangement run the risk of attempting to explain what the author wishes to leave unexplained." (Thomas, p 16) There are bizarre ideas that take on near axiomatic status in biblical scholarship, and the one which assumes gospel writers are so unlikely to scramble and reorder their source material is among the most bizarre.

But you could almost throw all of this out. The most imperative point relates to realistic expectations about verbatim agreement. In the case of Q, Goodacre echoes Goulder: the minor agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark (which are at least acknowledged by Q advocates, unlike the major ones which are circularly attributed to Mark-Q overlaps) remove the very reason to postulate Q (Case, p 168). After all, Q's existence is predicated on the assumption that Luke didn't know Matthew at all. All that is needed to demonstrate Luke's knowledge of Matthew is exactly that. The minor agreements aren't so "minor" when you stop and think about what constitutes evidence for familiarity, and to ignore this point is to also ignore Occam's Razor.

In the case of Thomas, Goodacre invokes the "plagiarist's charter" against those who similarly demand unreasonably large amounts of verbatim agreement. Stephen Patterson's standards would excuse a lot of unethical behavior:
"When students are accused of plagiarism, it is no excuse for them to point to the amount of material that they have not taken over. No reasonable disciplinary body would accept the lack of copying in parts of the paper as an excuse for the copying in other parts of the paper, or as evidence that the copied parts are not copied. Nor is this just the case in relation to student plagiarism. The relevant legal judgement on the topic is clear: 'No plagiarist can excuse the wrong by showing how much of his work he did not pirate.'" (Thomas and the Gospels, p 55)
Again, all that is needed to establish Thomas' use of Matthew and Luke is exactly that. Goodacre establishes this beyond a reasonable doubt. The Greek fragment of Thomas shows the same kind of verbatim agreement with the Synoptics (as between P. Oxy. 1:1-4 (Thom 26) and Lk 6:42/Mt 7:5), as the Synoptics do with each other; and no one seriously thinks that agreement between synoptic texts like Lk 6:42 and Mt 7:5 are due to oral tradition (pp 30-33). That Thomas knew both Matthew and Luke is pretty clear.

His dependence on Matthew is seen most clearly by the phrase "kingdom of heaven" (Thom 20, 54, 114), which is not, as has been claimed, an avoidance of the term "kingdom of God" -- for that phrase is found in the early Greek fragments of Thomas if not the complete Coptic version (pp 66-69). Then there is the "out of the mouth" phrase (Thom 14), in which Thomas follows Matthew's redaction of Mark about what truly defiles a person (pp 70-73). There is also the curious case of Thomas' reworking of the Tares (Thom 57), which in turn is probably a redactional expansion of Mark's Seed Growing Secretly, which Thomas also knows (Thom 21). Goodacre underscores the missing antecedent in the missing middle of the parable, as well as the glaring apocalyptic allegorical Mattthean residue which opposes Thomas vision; indeed, the only reason Thomas seems to have used this parable at all owes to his love affair with everything in Mt 13 for the agricultural imagery (pp 73-80).

His dependence on Luke is also evident. In the "nothing that is hidden that won't be made manifest" saying (Thom 5), he parallels the Lukan rephrasing of Mark (pp 82-84). And the saying about a prophet in his home country (Thom 31) follows Luke's theme of acceptability in place of Mark's theme of honor (pp 84-86). There is also special Lukan material: the Rich Fool (Thom 63) and the "womb and breasts" passage (Thom 79), rather glaring instances of dependence, even if it's not as easy to see redactional work when there are no parallels in Matthew and/or Mark; we don't suddenly suspend redactional-criticism when we run into Sondergut material (pp 87-96).

Then there is the classic "blessed are the poor" saying (Mt 5:3/ Lk 6:20/Thom 54). What we have -- and what I glimpsed immediately in '91 but wouldn't see until a second reading of Goodacre's Q book in 2004 -- is a spiritualized saying in Matthew, which got truncated to a social one in Luke, and then both of them co-opted by Thomas. The common wisdom that Q (preserved in Luke) and Thomas both preserved the early form of the saying independently of each other, and that Matthew, knowing Q, spiritualized it, is not only an unnecessary complication invoking phantoms and unwarranted downward dating, but embarrassingly ignores both Thomas' use of the distinctly Matthean "heaven", and Luke's glaring agenda for the poor and outcasts. "Perhaps," says Goodacre, "we are all too eager to discover a message more palatable in a secularized society, in which 'spiritualizing' represents a secondary, negative development of material originally more conducive to a social gospel." (Case, p 147; cf. Thomas, p 51) There is simply no solid objection to the idea that Luke used Matthew, and that Thomas used both of them in turn; these schemes offer the most plausible and economical solutions; they are completely believable.

Unlike Q, Thomas existed; it is real. But it doesn't testify to some primitive variant of Christianity grounded in wisdom. If some of us can't whiff its gnostic fragrance (I can), the nose isn't necessarily at fault:
"That some insist on Thomas' Gnosticism while others vigorously deny it illustrates the success of Thomas' project. Thomas reinvents Jesus as the mysterious, enigmatic Living One who sometimes sounds suspiciously like the Synoptic Jesus but who, in the end, is not the same man. He preaches but he does not heal; he speaks in parables but he is not the Son of Man. He uses familiar metaphors but he does not quote Scriptures; he speaks of the kingdom but he does not expect the end. Thomas' Jesus does not speak about the passion, and his disciples do not witness the resurrection. The Gospel of Thomas' genius is that it conveys its radical difference from the Synoptic Gospels by hiding its theology in words and images it derives from them." (Thomas and the Gospels, pp 191-192)
But eschewing the term gnosticism altogether (see p 176) is perhaps overly cautious on Goodacre's part. Everything he demonstrates in his last chapter confirms essentially what scholars like Meier and Ehrman have been saying all along. Thomas uses Synoptic sayings to invest his new esoteric material with an older authenticity (p 172), and that esotericism certainly reads as gnostic, and is confirmed as such by Goodacre's own dating of the gospel to around the 140s.

That dating is based on secure data -- the witness to the temple's destruction (Thom 71) and presupposition of the Bar Kochba revolt (Thom 68) (see pp 166-171) -- and makes perfect sense of not only a strategy that relies on co-opting the Synoptics rather than audaciously replacing them, but the striking mention of Judas Thomas. Goodacre underscores a trajectory in the gospel traditions which moves from no authorial self-representation (Mark and Matthew), to hints of authorial self-representation (Luke and Acts), to a definite but unnamed authorial presence (John), to finally an explicit self-representation (Thomas) (p 176). It's a trajectory which reflects increased claim of apostolic authority in a world of unusual gospels. A world, in other words, where the likes of Irenaeus and Valentinus warred on each other through their own writings.

It's also a trajectory which results in a fairly traditional, even boring, picture of early Christianity. But scholarship demands a bit of the killjoy, and we should be thankful for those like Goodacre who don't fear a "spoilsport" branding. I think there's a tendency to expect too much out of historical criticism, that our biblical experts can somehow unlock arsenals that will arm us against the orthodox and open progressive paradigms. The New Perspective on Paul is exhibit A in this regard, for having turned Paul into a modern anti-apartheidist. There's no denying that Judaism has been woefully misrepresented, and the Gentile issue underappreciated (if not ignored), by the Lutheran scholars of old, but the specter of nationalism can be just as intrusive as legalism. Paul's Christology was a radical and complex and harshly alien one that isn't done justice by simply praising ancient Judaism, criticizing Luther, and emphasizing the apostle's concern for Gentile rights.

The scholarly love affair with phantoms (Q) and late heresies made early (Thomas), not to mention hoaxes (Secret Mark), owes to the same kind of romance. It's exciting to tunnel into the past and find countercultural surprises. Sometimes this even genuinely happens. But it requires more than loosing our imaginations and concocting scenarios. Part of me would enjoy setting Calvin on the devotees of Q and early-Thomas, with his famous diatribes against "vain speculation". The other part of me -- the wiser part, I hope -- prefers light over heat, or the radiance of a cold uncaring scientific method which simply takes us where the evidence leads. And as Goodacre has demonstrated, there is no good evidence for Q or an early Thomas.


1. For complete details on the Two-Source Theory (which depends on Q) and the Farrer Theory (which dispenses with Q), see Stephen Carlson's website on the Synoptic puzzle.

2. John Kloppenborg ("On Dispensing with Q?: Goodacre on the Relation of Luke to Matthew", New Testament Studies 49, pp 210-236), unfortunately, doesn't always have the best handle on Luke's interests. He objects to Goodacre's treatment of Matthew's additions to Mark in Mt 3:15 and Mt 16:16-19 as follows: (a) Regarding Mt 3:15, he says that Luke would have had no reason to alter Matthew by putting John in prison at the time of Jesus' baptism, since Matthew solved the problem implied by Mark, by having John call Jesus his superior and by having Jesus describe his baptism as fulfilling righteousness rather than eliminating sin. I can't believe this objection, for Matthew has not in fact solved these embarrassing problems. Jesus is still being baptized by John, as in Mark, and everyone knows what that implies, declarations and appeasements notwithstanding. This is precisely why Luke (like John after him) came up with a better solution. It's very easy to see why Luke altered Matthew in this case, and that's the whole point behind the criterion of embarrassment: there is a trajectory from Mark->Matthew->Luke->John, each of whom controls the damage better than the one before. (b) Regarding Mt 16:16-19, Kloppenborg provides an arsenal of passages which show that Luke holds Peter in higher esteem than Goodacre allows; Peter is sanitized in Luke's gospel and a key preacher and apologist in the first half of Acts, and only recedes in the second half because of the shift of focus to Paul, not out of any low regard for Peter; so had Luke used Matthew and seen Mt 16:16b-19, we would expect to him to have rephrased some of it. It is perhaps true that Goodacre has underestimated Luke's esteem for Peter, but that esteem is a complicated point. The most obvious response is that in Acts the leadership of the church passes from Peter to James, so that no matter how high Luke's esteem is for Peter, Mt 16:16b-19 simply goes too far. But there's more. Luke's esteem is for a fantasy Peter: he has co-opted the historical Peter (who is no friend to Luke) against those like Matthew who were (correctly) invoking him as an authority against certain law-free practices. That Luke felt compelled to claim the support of Peter by reversing his historical role says a lot about this opposition (see Philip Esler, Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts). Given the ugly tension between the two images of Peter, it's not at all surprising to see Luke claiming Peter's glory on his own terms rather than on the terms of the source who holds him in high regard for the wrong reasons. Luke's censorship of Mt 16:16-19 is thus not only again understandable, but wise.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Stanley Kubrick: From Best to Worst

He may come fourth in this monthly blogathon, but Stanley Kubrick is my #1 favorite film director. I wish he'd been able to prove his talent more often -- like, say, Hitchcock, Bergman, Friedkin, and Scorsese -- but if he took his sweet time making films, that was evidently what he needed to cook up artistry; in this he was like Terrence Malick. Practically everything has been said about him: he pushed himself into all genres; he never made the same film twice; he refused to be intimidated by controversy; he had a gifted eye for color and lighting, and a brilliant ear for scoring; most importantly, from an early point in his career, he never made a bad or mediocre film that he didn't have complete control over. In what follows, I consider all of his films from Paths of Glory and beyond, which is ten. I'm leaving aside the very early films, mostly because I saw them once and hardly remember them, but also because Kubrick himself considered them more amateur attempts.

[It's worth noting that every one of Kubrick's films since Paths of Glory is based on a literary work. That doesn't mean he wasn't a creator. He generated as much as he took over, which is why Stephen King hated The Shining so notoriously; its tone and thrust shared little in common with his book. Kubrick was a supreme interpreter, able to crack the codes of literature so they worked magic on screen. To hang on a text's every word is to fail in the cinematic task, and that's what defeated King's corrective version of The Shining made for TV.]

Update: See also Carson Lund's rankings of Kubrick.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey. 1968. 5 stars. [Based on The Sentinel, by Arthur C. Clarke, 1951.] If the best fantasy picture (Lord of the Rings) is a blockbuster grounded in soul, the best science fiction film is anti-blockbuster in the extreme, and seemingly soulless to those who don't grasp Kubrick well. I used to respect Space Odyssey from a distance, admiring the aesthetic around the difficulty of "experiencing" it, but in recent years that distance collapsed; now it's my unrivaled favorite on this list. It's intensely visionary, plumbing the vastness of space through some of the most ecstatic imagery ever put on celluloid. And there are pure genius shots like the falling bone from the primitive chimpanzee age "becoming" the space shuttle in the 21st century. There's only one film that has accomplished what Space Odyssey did to perfection, namely Tree of Life, in showing humanity so humbled by celestial mysteries. And make no mistake, there's soul to be found in places you least expect, if you have the heart to feel it.

2. The Shining. 1980. 5 stars. [Based on The Shining, by Stephen King, 1977.] Stephen King hated it so much he made a corrective version for T.V., but not half as good or scary. Kubrick hit a home run because he took the skeleton of a haunted hotel story and fleshed it out with more uncompromising terrors and a unique tone that doesn't let you tell yourself things are going to be okay. The result may be more minimalist than what King intended, but it's sure as hell more effective, and that's what any true horror artist aims for. Scenes I took to bed too often: Danny's vision of the two hacked-up little girls in the hallway, the look on Wendy's face when she discovers Jack has been typing the same sentence over and over for weeks, Jack's sinister face appearing in a hotel painting in the final shot after he dies. Every frame of this picture, every intonation of the score, is part of an overarching terror that only Kubrick could have realized on screen. If not for The Exorcist, this would be the best horror film of all time.

3. Eyes Wide Shut. 1999. 5 stars. [Based on Dream Story, by Arthur Schnitzler, 1926.] There are days I call this my favorite Kubrick film, for the way it marries a perfect aesthetic to lustful themes both real and imagined. It's pessimistic and optimistic at the same time, portraying monogamy as suffocating and stifling, but ending with a married couple's acceptance of each other despite this hard truth. As always for Kubrick, emotion has to be teased out from under cold surfaces, and this works better than ever in the context of a Christmas-seasoned dreamscape. It's almost the inverse of Mulholland Drive, where the fantasy's power is suddenly felt as it bridges reality. Here the fantasy is real -- every weird thing that happens to Bill on his night out a nectar, from professions of love next to a patient's corpse, to a young girl's seductive airs at a costume shop, to finally, the outrageous orgy of masked performers. It's the best snails-paced film I know of that carries excitement in every frame.

4. Barry Lyndon. 1975. 5 stars. [Based on The Luck of Barry Lyndon, by William Makepeace Thackeray, 1844.] Anyone who believes that Kubrick's work lacks life and emotion hasn't seen Barry Lyndon. The scene with Barry weeping over the bed of his crippled son has me doing the same, even if I loathe him by this point in the story. This is certainly Kubrick's most epic film, a period piece that chronicles the rise of an 18th-century Irish peasant to a wealthy noble, who ultimately loses his fortune. It tends to slide under the radar of Kubrick discussions, and I'm not sure why. When given its due, the use of natural lighting (especially candlelight) is rightly underscored as genius; the technique makes it seem like you're watching a series of antique paintings come to life instead of celluloid. Kubrick evokes the Enlightenment era with ease, though there seems precious little enlightening about this world of primitive warfare, ugly duels, brawls, and dishonest gambling... after three hours you almost forget who you are and what values you hold.

5. Paths of Glory. 1957. 4 ½ stars. [Based on Paths of Glory, by Humphrey Cobb, 1935.] Kubrick's most straightforward film is top-notch, proving that artistry can rely on certain measures of formula and little digressive fanfare. On top of that, it's polemical, and yet manages to press its clear anti-war agenda without any sanctimony. That message is that soldier grunts are worthless pawns, to be thrown away for the sake of their superiors' aggrandizement, and that military tribunals are parodies of justice. The suicidal attempt to take the hill holds up astonishingly well after so many decades (much as Spielberg tried, he didn't quite surpass this brutal intensity in the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan), and the court marshal of the second part remains as good as any courtroom drama. And then there's the final scene: the poor ridiculed stage-singer who manages to shatter everyone's soul, a moment's epiphany in a cruel uncaring world.

6. Full Metal Jacket. 1987. 4 ½ stars. [Based on The Short-Timers, by Gustav Hasford, 1979.] I had difficulty knowing where to rank this one. Like the novel, it's three stories in one, the first of which is excellent, the second a bit middling, and the third somewhere in-between. But I've seen the boot-camp part so many times it's ridiculous. Gunnery Sergeant Hartman is for me the most entertaining character ever, and Full Metal Jacket is defined by his performance. As a nineteen-year old, I remember thinking he went over-the-top for sake of theater, but quickly learned that R. Lee Ermey had been a real-life drill instructor, and that Kubrick allowed him to edit his own dialogue and improvise as he saw fit. I still have his lines memorized -- which I admit is rather pathetic, given the dominance of vulgarities -- and stand in awe at the levels of obscene abuse that can heaped on fresh recruits. The film breaks down a bit in the middle part (which feels more like Europe than Vietnam), but the sniper thriller at the end pulls it back on its feet.

7. Dr. Strangelove. 1964. 4 ½ stars. [Based on Red Alert, by Peter George, 1958.] For some this is Kubrick's ultimate masterpiece, for others the greatest comedy of all time; it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. I'm not that wild about Dr. Strangelove, but then I'm a hard one to scratch with comedy. That's especially true of war comedy, which is why I had problems with some of the middle act of Full Metal Jacket. But I'm praising with faint damn: this remains a classic for good reason, with terrific performances from Peter Sellers who plays literally three characters: the captain serving under the renegade general who orders the strike on Russia, the president of the United States who does his damndest to recall the attack, and of course Dr. Strangelove, the president's scientific adviser who was once a Nazi. The story jumps around three settings, from the patriotic pump-ups in the fighter jets, to the paranoid rantings of the war-mongering general, to the desperate efforts in the War Room to recall the flight. The War Room is easily one of the best cinematic set pieces ever built.

8. A Clockwork Orange. 1971. 4 stars. [Based on A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, 1962.] If there's any Kubrick film I'd have the impertinence to call overrated, it would be this one. Of course, it's still very good, and I was always astonished by Roger Ebert's scathing indictment of it as both "a paranoid right-wing fantasy" and an apology for criminal behavior (that "in a world where society is criminal, the citizen might as well be a criminal too")! Not only are these contradictory, neither is true. Kubrick asks us to identify with a scumbag in the first part so that we can feel crushed by state tyranny in the second, not to justify the former as to underscore its inevitability: violence begets violence. It's a nihilistic message, but doesn't completely shut out hope for humanity's self-improvement. As for being "right-wing", I, for one, endorse capital punishment for people like Alex, which is more humane (for them) and more safe (for society) than the "rehabilitation" on display in this film. I doubt Kubrick shares my view given Paths of Glory; he simply imagines Britain pushed to totalitarianism in the wake of many changes of the '60s, the abolition of the death penalty being but one.

9. Lolita. 1962. 3 stars. [Based on Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, 1955.] This is a case where drastic departures from the source material were for the worse, but Kubrick had no choice. No one could make a film in the early '60s (at least not in America) about a man having an affair with a 12-year old nymphet, and do it justice. Kubrick later stated that had he known the censors would wield such control over his picture, he would have never tried making Lolita in the first place. This film's Lolita is supposedly 14 but looks 17, which may make Humbert an ephebophile (depending what state you're in), but certainly not what any sane person would call a pervert. And this was an age in cinema when you couldn't show two people on a bed unless one person's leg touched the floor. All things considered, I'm amazed I have anything good to say about Lolita, but some of it does work well, and I thoroughly enjoy Peter Sellers' impostering performances.

10. Spartacus. 1960. 2 stars. [Based on Spartacus, by Howard Fast, 1951.] As with Lolita, it's not fair to fault Kubrick here, since he wasn't ultimately calling the shots (Lolita and Spartacus are the only two films on this list which Kubrick didn't produce as well as direct.) I'll let him speak here: "I tried with only limited success to make Spartacus as historically real as possible but I was up against a pretty dumb script which was rarely faithful to what is known about Spartacus. If I ever needed any convincing of the limits of persuasion a director can have on a film where someone else is the producer and he is merely the highest-paid member of the crew, then Spartacus provided proof to last a lifetime." Not to mention all the gruesome battle sequences that were censored; Kubrick wanted to convey the horrendous costs of any war, even the most noble crusades to liberate slaves. Attempts to make authentic films like Lolita and Spartacus in the early '60s, without complete control of your film, were doomed to fall short of greatness.

Next month: William Friedkin.