Monday, January 27, 2014

Favorite Songs By Year

It would be impossible for me to rank my favorite songs of all time. Unlike books and film, my feelings for music are in constant flux. Today I like The Walkmen, and all their songs are my favorites; tomorrow that will be true of Peter Gabriel. But here's a more manageable task: coming up with a favorite song of the year, going back about 40 years.

I could go back as far as 1975. Beyond that point lie periods of music not generally appealing to me. I was born in the late '60s, and came of age in the '80s -- a faddish decade for music. But if you knew where to look, there was good alternative, and of course the omnipresent voices of U2 and Peter Gabriel. The '90s I associate with Radiohead most of all, and for me the past decade was ruled by The Walkmen. In recent years I find myself leaning increasingly to obscure bands, and I suspect when this decade has had its say, my favorites will be songs virtually no one has heard. (Witness my entry for the year 2013.)

Enjoy the list.

75: Welcome to the Machine, Pink Floyd. Three bands were responsible for broadening my musical horizons in the awful decade of the '80s. Not surprisingly, they were bands who shined during the '70s: Genesis, Rush, and Pink Floyd. Welcome to the Machine was among the first songs that showed me the true potential of music.

76: Dance on a Volcano, Genesis. Many great bands sell out at some point, but none so appallingly as Genesis. Their '70s music remains some of the best progressive rock ever recorded; in the '80s they deteriorated into top-40 sewage , and by the '90s they were even in the realm of the elevator. "Dance on a Volcano" is genius.

77: Heroes, David Bowie. This was the "tunnel song" in the film adaptation of Perks of Being a Wallflower, replacing Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" from the book. Which is interesting, because I almost chose a Fleetwood Mac song for this year ("The Chain"). But it has to be "Heroes".

78: Deep in the Motherlode, Genesis. Like U2's "Drowning Man" (see the 1983 entry), this song faded into tragic obscurity, and was never performed live after the '70s. It's about a guy traveling west during the Nevada gold rush, and has an epic sweep seldom captured in five-minute songs.

79: In the Flesh, Pink Floyd. It's impossible to disassociate this song from the warped fascist rally portrayed in the film. There are other songs hailed by Floyd-fans as The Wall's best ("Another Brick in the Wall", "Mother", "Comfortably Numb"), but... "if I had my way, I'd have all of them shot!"

80: Spirit of the Radio, Rush. It's ironic that this was the first song of the '80s: Rush's album was released on Jan 1, 1980, and "Spirit of the Radio" is the first track. Ironic, because the song is more a looking back -- encapsulating everything good about the '70s -- rather than looking forward to the abysmal '80s.

81: A Promise, Echo and the Bunnymen. Before their mainstream success in the mid-'80s came cult classics like this one. Forget the dancing horses, this is when Echo was really good.

82: Wallflower, Peter Gabriel. Most would claim "Rhythm of the Heat", "San Jacinto", or "Shock the Monkey" as the best song from Security, but as excellent as those are, they don't beat the underrated "Wallflower". It's about the torture of Latin American political prisoners, but as always with Peter Gabriel, completely transcends politics.

83: Drowning Man, U2. "New Year's Day" made them popular, and "Sunday Bloody Sunday" marked them as pacifist revolutionaries. But "Drowning Man" is the real gem from War. It's devoid of percussion, heavy on bass, and delivers the most haunting use of an electric violin I've ever heard. To this day, U2 haven't performed it live since the '83 tour, which makes no sense at all.

84: Where Were You Hiding When the Storm Broke?, The Alarm. These guys opened for some of U2's concerts, and in some ways are a Welsh version of U2. Hilariously, they were called The Toilets in their early punk years.

85: She Sells Sanctuary, The Cult. I lost count of all the remixes; the original version is still the best. The Cult's music was a bastardization of so many forms -- post-punk goth, heavy metal, Zeppelinesque guitar -- and it worked wonders.

86: There is a Light That Never Goes Out, The Smiths. I agree with those who claim that The Smiths were the most important indie band of the '80s. Songs like "Panic", "Ask", and "Shoplifters of the World Unite" showed them doing things completely on their own terms, and this song is their very best. Who would guess that lyrics like this could sound so graceful: "And if a ten-ton truck/ killed the both of us/ to die by your side/ it's such a heavenly way to die."

87: Never Let Me Down Again, Depeche Mode. For whatever insane reason, this song didn't catch on much in America (the Germans loved it). During my freshman year at college, someone on my dorm floor played Depeche Mode relentlessly. I think I was the only one who didn't mind, and I became obsessed with "Never Let Me Down Again".

88: Beyond the Pale, The Mission UK. Thus began my love affair with gothic rock. The lead singer's voice is goth legacy.

89: Worlock, Skinny Puppy. They're an acquired taste, but I've found that even the most shallow top-40 listener will confess to liking "Worlock", which takes brutal synths and rasping vocals and slowly morphs them into a lush melody. This is Skinny Puppy's masterpiece.

90: Put the Message in the Box, World Party. In my final year as an undergrad, I was (re-)expanding my horizons beyond gloomy, depressing-sounding goth music, and was delighted to discover the obscure band known as World Party. This song you can listen to over and over again.

91: Ultraviolet, U2. The stated intent of Achtung Baby, as Bono tells it, was to "burn down The Joshua Tree" and do something entirely new. The result was a masterpiece. Everyone loves "The Fly", "Mysterious Ways", and "One" -- but "Ultraviolet" is my personal favorite.

92: Secret World, Peter Gabriel. Us was released during my Peace Corps stint, and a friend mailed me the audio-cassette which I listened to on my cheap battery-powered Walkman (it's hard remembering the days before ipods). Lesotho was very much my own secret world, and this song resonated on many levels. It's one of three Peter Gabriel tracks to make this list, and probably my very favorite.

93: Disarm, The Smashing Pumpkins. It's amazing how controversial this song was when released, and the hidden messages it was thought to contain. In any case, it's the Smashing Pumpkins' best song, and the video (which I linked to) is fantastic.

94: Ode to My Family, The Cranberries. This could well be my favorite song of all time. I never tire of it, no matter how many times played, and no matter when. I don't think there's another song I can say that about. "Ode to My Family" is pretty much the purest song I know.

95: No More I Love You's, Annie Lennox. A cover of the Lover Speaks song from 1986, and vastly superior to that original. Annie Lennox is a gift from the gods.

96: Don't Let It Bring You Down, Annie Lennox. I'm not sure what happened in 1996, but it's the one year I can't come up with a suitably favorite song, so I'm drawing on Lennox's Medusa album again, especially since some of its singles were released in '96 anyway. This is a cover of Neil Young's cherished classic from 1970, and beautifully done.

97: No Surprises, Radiohead. This band was a game-changer in the '90s. I think of them as I think of Pink Floyd in the '70s, U2 in the '80s, and The Walkmen in the '00s, each effortlessly dominating a decade with true uniqueness. (Each has a song that is idolized: "Another Brick in the Wall", "Where the Streets Have No Name", "Creep", and "The Rat".) In the case of Radiohead, their music seemed to come out of a new dimension. "No Surprises" is a special one for me.

98: Every You Every Me, Placebo. Thus began my love affair with Placebo. I couldn't decide between this song and "Pure Morning", so I flipped a coin.

99: Take a Picture, Filter. There's an embarrassing story to this one, involving me dancing, trying to get cute, and sending both me and my partner sprawling on our asses. Even so, it remained my favorite of '99.

00: Kite, U2. After two miserable teen-pleasing albums (Zooropa and Pop), I thought U2 was dried up. It was a beautiful day indeed when I finally got around to buying All That You Can't Leave Behind -- fully expecting the worst, and getting gobsmacked with music as good as their early stuff. "Kite" is the crown jewel.

01: The Breaking of the Fellowship, Howard Shore. The Lord of the Rings films were my universe in the first years of the new millennium, and Howard Shore's symphony orchestra was so much of that cinematic experience. I think I've listened to this particular track as often as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Bach's Air in C. In the movie it plays over Frodo making the painful decision to abandon the fellowship, Sam chasing after him in the boat, and the final frame as they gaze out over Mordor.

02: Growing Up, Peter Gabriel. As much as Peter Gabriel evolves, his music is always timeless. He's the Stanley Kubrick of music making. For that matter, he's the Kubrick of music videos, and this video is as good as the song.

03: The Grey Havens, Howard Shore. Ditto for what I said about "The Breaking of the Fellowship". It seems almost a crime to play this piece without watching the sacred scene, so I use the actual movie clip.

04: The Rat, The Walkmen. I'll grant this song is over-worshiped, but it is my favorite of '04, and it's easy to understand why the band chooses to end all their concerts with it.

05: All These Things That I've Done, The Killers. Considered by many music critics to be one of the greatest rock songs of all time, and for good reason. It is.

06: Hands Across the Ocean (Palmer Version), The Mission UK. The original 1990 version is too radio-friendly. This remake is almost an entirely different song, much better, and an absolute earworm.

07: Your Arms Around Me, Jens Lekman. It's impossible for me to hear this song without seeing Ellen Page do underwater-strip tricks, so that's the video-clip I use, from the movie Whip It. Lekman is a Swedish indie singer of compulsive, addicting ballads.

08: In the New Year, The Walkmen. Songs like this come once in a blue moon. It's the Walkmen's best song to date, and taps the same plane of power attained by Rush's "Spirit of the Radio".

09: Skeletons: Original & Acoustic, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The original song is ethereally transcendent; the acoustic version pure as it is simple. It's impossible to choose between the two, and I defy you to try.

10: Mountain Lions, Old Abram Brown. I used to work with the lead singer at my library, and that's how I learned about his indie rock band. Their Restless Ghosts album deserves way more attention; I've played it repetitively. "Mountain Lions" is my song of choice.

11: Paradise, Coldplay. These guys get a lot of flak, and frankly they deserve it. Songs like "Yellow" make my piles fester. But "Paradise" is the rare crowd-pleaser that's honest-to-God perfect.

12: Battle Born, The Killers. For me, this one ties with "Miss Atomic Bomb", and since everyone adores the latter, I'm going with the former. It's the expansive final track on an album with blazing ambition, and succeeds smashingly.

13: Beatrice, Yield & Into the West, Tan Vampires. I choose two favorite songs from 2013, for two reasons. First so I can get 40 songs instead of 39 on this list. Second because they're obscure and thus all the more reason to promote them. The guitarist who calls himself Yield is actually biblical scholar Zeba Crook (who would have thought?), and Tan Vampires have been mucking about with Old Abram Brown (see the 2010 entry) with whom they share certain commonalities. Great songs both.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Abraham: "The Father of Everyone"

People mean well when they say it, but is it true? Is there any scriptural basis for Abraham as a prototype for all faiths at once?

Unfortunately no.

In Judaism, Abraham is an ancestor by blood. In Christianity he is an ancestor by faith. In Islam he is an intolerant role model. The first is ethnically supremacist, the second is spiritually supremacist, and the third is militantly supremacist. None leaves much room for religious pluralism.

My approach to the question of Abraham is similar to that of Jon Levenson, and not someone like Bruce Feiler. We do ourselves a disservice when we are afraid to be honest about religious traditions. By all means turn Abraham into a multiculturalist if you want to. But be upfront about what you're doing, and don't claim a scriptural precedent for it.


The Hebrew Bible opposes the idea that Abraham is the ancestor of more than one people on an equal basis. His line of inheritance passes to one son and one grandson (Isaac and Jacob), but not the others. He is the ancestor of this line by blood, the Jewish forefather by natural descent (Isa 51:2). The Jewish people are his seed (Ps 105:6, Isa 41:8). He was circumcised and even kept the Torah, though it hadn't been given yet (Sir 44:19-20). He's the father of many nations (Gen 17:5), but proselyte conversion -- getting circumcised and taking on the full Torah -- is the only way for pagans to be saved on an equal basis; becoming Jewish is the way Gentiles become children of Abraham.

Otherwise they are just Noah's children. They can still be saved, and in fact most Jewish expectations entertain pagan salvation on a second-class basis. Many texts speak of Israel as a light to the nations, and her salvation going forth to the ends of the earth (Isa 49:6, 51:4; Mic 4:1); Gentiles would be added to Israel and thus saved (Isa 56:6-8; Zech 2:11, 8:20-23; Isa 45:22; Tob 14:6f; I En 90:30-33). Other texts speak of the Gentiles being subjugated under Jewish imperialism (Isa 49:23; Mic 7:17; I En 90:30; 1QM 12:13), and still others hope that Gentiles will be destroyed and their cities occupied by Israel (Isa 54:3; Ben Sira 36:7,9; I En 91:9; Bar 4:25,31,35; 1QM 12:10).

There is diversity, but it's generally clear. The Jews -- the physical descendents of Abraham -- stand at the center of human history, and their blessings radiate outward to pagans who acknowledge the significance of God's covenant with Israel. Gentiles can be saved as Gentiles, if they turn from idolatry to the worship of Israel's God, and follow minimal Torah standards required of righteous Gentiles. If they fully convert (get circumised and take on the whole Torah), then they become Jews and are saved as children of Abraham. If they chose the former option, they are saved as second-class members of the covenant community.


It's a common belief that the Abraham of Christianity breaks down racial barriers, and to some extent that's true. According to the apostle Paul, Abraham was justified by his faith alone, and such faith is the common ground uniting Jews and Gentiles on an equal basis. But two things need to be kept in mind.

(1) Paul demolished Jewish privilege, but he introduced a new form of supremacism: obviously, the exclusion of non-Christians. If salvation is by faith in Christ, how meaningful is it, really, to speak of such faith "breaking down barriers"? In fact, Paul's language of destruction for the unsaved (throughout all his letters) is more grim and uncompromising than most of the Jewish texts mentioned above, which at least entertain hope for pagan salvation, even if as "Noahide" second-class citizens.

(2) Paul not only introduced a new form of supremacism, but in one letter he went even further by replacing Jewish privilege with an implied Gentile privilege. In Galatians he disinherits the Jewish people by claiming they were no longer even Abraham's seed. In Romans he had the sense to drop this argument.

Let's see how Paul radically reinterprets the figure of Abraham in the two letters (for more detail on what follows, see Philip Esler's books).


In Galatians, Abraham is primarily the ancestor of Gentiles (Gal 3:6-9,14). His seed refers to Christ (Gal 3:16), and Gentiles are then included in this seed via Christ, through spiritual adoption as sons of God (Gal 3:26-29). Paul's argument is rather ridiculous, but he seems to think he has scored a zinger. He fixes on the fact that Abraham's seed is singular throughout Genesis, insisting with relish that "scripture does not say 'seeds" but 'seed'" (Gal 3:16), which he then (re-)interprets as Christ instead of the Jewish people. As if that weren't offensive enough, he then includes uncircumcised Gentiles in Abraham's seed at the expense of law-abiding Jews.

Abraham's seed is obviously singular in Genesis, but it's also obviously a collective noun (Gen 12:7,13:15,16; 15:5,13,18; 17:7,8,9,10,12,19; 22:17,18; 24:7). The seed refers to the Jewish people who keep circumcision and the Torah yet to be handed down by Moses (Gen 17:9-14). By making the seed refer to Christ, Paul disinherits the Jewish people. The promise bypasses them altogether, referring directly to the messiah, and then brings law-free Christians (who are mostly Gentiles) into the seed from there.

As for what Paul says about faith-righteousness, it's admittedly clever. He exploits a chronological technicality: Abraham had faith before he was circumcised (and before the law was given), and since that faith made him righteous, what's good enough for Abraham is good enough for pagans. Rival missionaries in Galatia would have made the obvious retort: you can't cite Gen 15:6 while ignoring Gen 17:9-14. Abraham's faith-righteousness in Gen 15 was credited to him on account of his covenant loyalty in Gen 17, without which the former would not have been credited to him. Paul simply denies the second part.

It's one thing to put Gentiles on equal footing by exploiting a chronological technicality. And it's certainly nice to insist that Gentiles don't need to become Jews in order to be saved on an equal basis. But it's quite another to go beyond this with the "seed" argument implying that Jews have been disenfranchised and Gentiles have the leading edge.


In Romans, Paul tries to sanitize and improve his argument. Abraham is now the impartial ancestor of the Jewish and Gentile peoples (Rom 4:1-17). His seed does not refer to Christ anymore, but to both ethnic groups (Rom 4:16-17), against the polarizing implication of Galatians that Jews have been disinherited. In fact, Abraham became circumcised and sealed his faith-righteousness precisely in order to become the ancestor of Jews as much as Gentiles (4:11-12).

Paul no longer wants to abolish ethnic boundaries, as he did in Galatians. He does not repeat the offensive baptismal formula that "in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek" (Gal 3:27-28). Now he uses baptism (Rom 6:1-15) to reinforce ethnic differences: Gentiles escape the power of sin (Rom 6:16-23) in a different way than Jews (Rom 7:1-25). Gentiles die to ungodliness -- to "impurity and lawlessness" (Rom 6:19) -- and then become slaves of God (Rom 6:22), while Jews die to the law (Rom 7:4). But even though the law has no saving value, Jews are encouraged to practice it (Rom 14:5-6), and Gentiles are even commanded to obey at least parts of it while in Jewish company (Rom 14:15,21), so as not to give offense.

It's important not to lose sight here. As "Jewish-friendly" as the Romans version is, Paul's view of Abraham is still radical and supremacist. Christians descend from Abraham, but not from Isaac and Jacob -- Jewish lineage is still skipped over. It's a spiritual ancestry. The promises made to Abraham benefit Christians alone, and in Paul's day there were less and less Jews becoming Christians. Paul hoped in vain that this was a temporary state of affairs, that the biological children of Abraham had been "cut off" only to make room for Gentiles, and would be "regrafted" at the apocalypse (Rom 11). But of course the apocalypse didn't come, and in twenty years Judaism split forever with Christianity.

If Paul could finally insist on a measure of respect for the Torah and Jewish heritage in Romans, it was lip-service, since the law was ultimately useless and Jewish election a farce. Abraham was an ancestor by faith -- Christian faith -- and a clear prototype of spiritual supremacism.


In Islam, Abraham isn't an ancestor. He is one of many prophets who points towards Muhammad -- a true Muslim, in other words, like Moses and Jesus (Qur'an 3:67). According to the Qur'an, the original forms of Judaism and Christianity were Islam. Abraham, Moses, and Jesus all taught Islam and it was their followers who later hijacked Islam and created what we know as Judaism and Christianity. As such, the Jewish and Christian preoccupations with ancestry and election distort the true Muslim teachings. Abraham is a role model, not a father figure.

Qur'an 60:4 specifies this role model in relation to people of other religions. Abraham expressed animosity and hatred for people including his father, who don't worship Allah. His hatred is precisely what makes him a good role model. The same passage (Qur'an 60:4) also makes clear that Abraham told his father he would pray mercy for him, and that this prayer of mercy (believe it or not) is what makes him a bad role model. In other words, Muslim believers should imitate Abraham when he says -- to even his closest relative -- that he hates someone and will hate him forever because he is not a Muslim. But believers should not imitate Abraham when he says that he will pray for a non-Muslim.

So in the Qur'an, Abraham is an exemplar of intolerance and hatred for non-Muslims.

Jon Levenson even suggests that the jihad could be the spiritual successor to Abraham's binding of Isaac. Where Jews have the substitutes of circumcision and the passover lamb, and Christians the eucharist, Islam has never accepted vicarious sacrifice. It demands personal sacrifice only, and the jihad is one such way to put the role demanded by Qur'an 60:4 into practice.


As a liberal Unitarian I sympathize with the intentions behind interfaith dialogue -- intentions, basically, to turn Abraham into a prototype of Unitarianism! We need to respect each other, and to respect each others' creeds. But respect entails honesty, not distortion; reading in context, not cherry-picking; and being willing to disagree with scriptures that are not enlightened, instead of claiming that such scriptures are actually enlightened but woefully misunderstood.

If we have problems with our sacred cows, we can do as Paul did, and reinterpret as we please. We can turn Abraham into a prototype that serves our needs. We can make him a Unitarian and respecter of all faiths. But unlike Paul, we should acknowledge what we're doing: reinterpreting a problem, not agreeing with something which has been there all along but tragically misread. It's often claimed that the Qur'an is a book promoting peace, and that those who say otherwise, or act on it otherwise, misunderstand the Qur'an. In fact they understand it very well.

Someone like Robert Spencer also understands the Qur'an, and rightly points out its supremacism. But he then misleadingly claims that "in the understanding of both Jews and Christians, Abraham is a great father figure who embraces a huge variety of people". As we've seen, Abraham excludes and embraces in all three religions. The exclusive factor is particularly aggressive in Islam, but it's very strong in Christianity too. No one was a pluralist in antiquity. Whether ethnically, spiritually, or militantly, the monotheist religions enshrine a supremacist Abraham in their scriptures.

Friday, January 17, 2014

"Paul and the Law" Pick List

Three years ago I posted a Historical Jesus Pick List, which I've meaning to follow up with a list for "Paul and the law". These are my rankings of Galatians and Romans treatments. As before, I choose scholars not to endorse everything they say (though again my #1 choice comes close), but because they make contributions I personally think are important. Also as before, a certain N.T. Wright fails to make the cut, though ironically it's the recent release of his Paul and the Faithfulness of God which prompted me to post a list of far better treatments.

The first three are my crown jewels, (1) Esler for the imperative frameworks of honor-shame and social identity, (2) Sanders for obvious reasons, (3) Nanos for a persuasive alternative to Esler. The next three also make a strong tier, (4) Watson by decimating both the old and new perspectives, (5) Tobin by combing through all of Paul's contradictions and tensions, and (6) Given by calling Paul on his lies and deceptions. I couldn't leave off (7) Wrede, and the final three have important insights while missing the mark on whole.

1. Philip Esler. Galatians (1998); Conflict and Identity in Romans (2003). Esler's books provide everything I look for. They ground Paul in the honor-shame framework of the Mediterranean. They account for dramatic shifts in thought between the two letters. They explain why Galatians is sectarian favoring Gentiles, and why Romans bends over backwards to favor both ethnic groups. They tease out murky backgrounds, suggesting that Antioch was about treachery instead of mere hypocrisy, and that Rome was about a church situation on top of Paul's personal conflict with the pillars of Jerusalem. They reject the old Lutheran perspective, while being unafraid to acknowledge Paul's offensive similarities with Luther. For the law was obsolete, and the best it promised but never delivered was now available by a different route (the spirit). Between the times of Abraham and Christ was a long period of gloom and doom; righteousness was anticipated by figures like David and Moses, but no one had the righteousness of Abraham, who was an exception to the rule in a faithless era. Esler's work is the best treatment of Galatians and Romans to date.

2. E.P. Sanders. Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977); Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (1983). He's the Schweitzer of the quest for the historical Paul. He smashed Protestant interpretations to smithereens. He ushered in a new era of study, which in turn prompted break aways, spin-offs, and rebellions. No matter what fads creep in, sensible critics return to his basic premise: that Paul broke with Judaism by shooting down the law and Israel's special place in the divine cosmos. Not because he found these inherently wanting; not because they implied an inferior way of religion; and certainly not because he couldn't keep the law himself. But because Christ's bizarre victory over evil made everything else trivial that nothing was sacred anymore. As a result, Paul began digging himself into holes explaining why the sacred used to be -- and then desperately out of these holes, the steepest slopes being those of Rom 7 and 11. Sanders work remains the place to start, and the place you return to in varying degrees, for a solid understanding of Paul.

3. Mark Nanos. The Irony of Galatians (2002); The Mystery of Romans (1996). The opposite of Esler can be just as persuasive. There was a time I found myself nearly convinced by Nanos' work. Unlike other "Jewish-friendly" reconstructions (Gaston, Gager), these books never go off the rails or abuse your trust. Parts of them I still agree with, especially the key argument of the Romans book, which clarifies the identity of the weak in Rom 14-15. These Jews are weak for the same reason Abraham would have been weak in Rom 4:18-25, had he failed to trust in God's ability to create life out of death in a stupendous context. In other words, the Roman Jews were weak for being non-Christian (failing to confess the resurrection), not for being Jewish (since they should be fully confident in their beliefs about diet and holy days). As far as the Galatians book goes, it's always going to be a tall order to milk a Jewish-friendly apostle out of this letter, but Nanos' theory of ironic rebuke never seems forced or strained, whether or not you can accept it. Nanos makes the strongest and most persuasive case for a Jewish-friendly Paul who remained part of the synagogue.

4. Francis Watson. Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective (2007). This revised critique of the Lutheran perspective is just as smoldering as it was in the '80s, and its thesis remains intact. We get the same sectarian Paul who divorced himself from the synagogue and said the law was obsolete. But Watson calls us to move "beyond the new perspective" too -- which is effectively a plea to move backwards and forwards at the same time. Backwards to Sanders' view of Paul (which he has always approved) but forwards beyond Sanders' view of Judaism (which he now only half-approves as a corrective to Lutheran caricatures). Backwards also, in acknowledging that Sanders basically had it right before scholars like Dunn and Wright tried improving on Sanders in the wrong way -- over-emphasizing Gentile rights at the expense of Paul's radical breed of exclusive Christology. Watson's only major liability is his sectarian model, which works fine for Galatians but not for Romans, where Paul is trying to reinforce at least some ethnic distinctions in the body of Christ. Watson skewers the old and new perspectives without mercy, and leaves us a more alien Paul to ponder.

5. Thomas Tobin. Paul's Rhetoric in its Contexts (2005). For a long time, this was the book I was waiting for: an exhaustive catalog of Paul's revisions in Romans, which correct his claims made in Galatians and also the Corinthian letters. Abraham is no longer the ancestor of primarily Gentiles, but rather Jews and Gentiles in equal measure. Paul's freedom language is no longer from the law, but from the power of sin. The law is no longer active in confining people under sin, but passive in relation to it (the power sin is the real culprit). And much more. Esler accounted for some of these shifts in terms of audience; Sanders thought Paul was having a genuine change of heart as he struggled with his Jewish heritage; and Given claimed that Paul was just covering up his offensive views with deceptive polish. I think there are elements of truth to all of these, but Tobin offers perhaps the most obvious reason of all: Paul evolved to clean up his image. His nasty reputation was killing him.

6. Mark Given. Paul's True Rhetoric: Ambiguity, Cunning, and Deception in Greece and Rome (2001). This is the kind of book we need to see more of, that treats Paul like a real person instead of a theological architect, who lied to make his offensive views digestible. It suggests that in Romans Paul's views on the law and Israel hadn't softened at all. He was shrewd and sophistic, saying things he really didn't mean, patronizing the Jewish people with platitudes hither and yon. When he credits them with having "adoption", "the covenant/law", "worship", "the promises", and "the patriarchs" (Rom 9:4-5), that's empty credit, because we know what he really thinks: that real adoption comes from being liberated from the law and being led by the spirit, that there are two covenants, an old and a new, the former of which has been superseded by the latter, and that real worship takes place "in Christ" (the temple of one's body) rather than the Jerusalem temple; etc. A book like this forces interesting questions about the nature of one's "gospel truth", and given how often everyone lies, it's a treatment that needs more attention. Given knows (and shows) too well what Paul really thought under his greasy arguments about Israel and the law.

7. William Wrede. Paul (1904). This short classic does Paul more justice, and with less tools, than many of today's sophisticated treatments. Like Schweitzer, Wrede was a genius and his summary on redemption alone was ahead of its time: liberation for Paul was not deliverance from the torment experienced by guilty souls, but rather a complete change in the nature and conditions of people's existence. Paul spoke in terms of external powers, forces, and dominions, not internal states of being. Redemption went beyond forgiveness of sins; it involved a dramatic switch of allegiances, a bondage, slavery, to new powers. As for Paul's Gentile mission, it had to be free of Jewish ethnic customs and broadcast the superiority of Christianity in all ways, and "the doctrine of justification was nothing more than the weapon with which these purposes were to be won". Wrede is still right after all these years: "righteousness" was not central to Paul's thinking.

8. Douglas Campbell. The Deliverance of God (2009). This reminds me of a math textbook I used in an Advanced Calculus class. It was all over the map, its proofs unwieldy, and it even bungled some theory. None of us could understand why the professor chose the damn thing, but he explained that its failures were its strengths: it forced students to come to terms with the math concepts through the author's illuminating deficiencies. That's a perfect description of Campbell's tome. It makes us wrestle with two competing schemes of salvation in Paul's thought -- justification and transformation -- and tease out their full implications. But Campbell jumps the shark in reshaping the former into the latter. That kills the patient. Justification theory is certainly present in Paul (Rom 2-4), even if only as a weapon to claim ground in a Jewish-pagan context. It's subordinate to transformation theory (Rom 5-8), granted, but it's not a mirage. The even greater value to this book is its correctives to the new perspective, especially in the way it rehabilitates legalism in the Jewish framework when understood properly. Campbell's compulsive fascinating project assesses the old and new perspectives against a huge canvass of justification and transformation.

9. James Dunn. Romans (1988). I throw this bone to the hyper-New Perspective. It argues that Paul affirmed Judaism more than he opposed it. He affirmed covenant faithfulness and claimed the law should be fulfilled. He only opposed the way the covenant confined the scope of salvation to the Jewish people. Paul didn't oppose the law, only the works of the law, since ethnic observances (like circumcision, food laws, sabbath) confined the grace of God to the chosen people -- they were covenant badges signaling Israel's favored status. Faith-righteousness did away with these badges and opened salvation to Gentiles on an equal basis. Like Wright, Dunn has a perfectly valid point about about the meaning of "works", and this interpretation works well enough in a context like Rom 2-4. But not in Rom 5-8, where Paul goes on to contrast faith with the law on whole. Paul says he destroyed the law in its entirety, and Jewish "works" are nowhere in view in Rom 5-8. But where works are in view, Dunn has shown beyond a reasonable doubt that Paul was speaking of ethnic observances characterizing one as Jewish, and not good deeds in general.

10. J. Louis Martyn. Galatians (2004). Here's another commentary with problems but massive strengths to make up for them. It assesses Paul's most affronting letter in terms of a dramatic apocalyptic divide between two ages. Martyn sees Christ and the Spirit as invasive entities that wipe out ritualism, sacramentalism, pseudo-possession and false empowerment -- indeed nothing less than the whole of "religion" itself. If the case is overstated, it perhaps needs to be in order to appreciate how dark Paul thought the age of Moses and the law really was. (Aside from Martyn, Esler is a rare scholar to clearly grasp this point.) It doesn't make for a pleasant view of Paul, and I think that's why so many resist it. Certainly those advocating a Jewish-friendly Paul will never accept it; nor will those like Tom Wright who want to see Paul in covenant-climaxing terms within the framework of their own Christian supersessionism. The unpleasant fact is that Paul was a hard-core supersessionist -- far more so than most are willing to give him credit (or blame) for. Marytn underscores the black-and-white contrast of ages in Paul's thought.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

What I'm Reading: The Seven Altars of Dusarra

One of my favorite books growing up was a fantasy novel called The Seven Altars of Dusarra, by Lawrence Watt-Evans. It's been out of print for a long time, and for whatever insane reason I discarded it at some point. But it's available in ebook, which I began reading last night.

It's a sword-and-sorcery novel in the vein of the early pulps, and the second in a quartet called The Lords of Dus: The Lure of the Basilisk is the first (which I read last and thought of as a light prequel), The Sword of Bheleu the third, and The Book of Silence the fourth. I remember the third and fourth volumes being really good too, but none fired my imagination like the second.

The story's hero is Garth the Overman, morally ambiguous like all the great pulp-fantasy heroes. His personality reminds of Conan; his world is like that of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser (Lankhmar/Newhon); the sword he steals from one of the altars -- and which possesses him to wreak devastation in the third book -- calls to mind Elric's Stormbringer. Yet I don't remember any of this seeming like copycat formula or pastiche. Here is a reader review at Goodreads, written just last year, a lot of which targets how I felt about the book 32 years ago:
Watt-Evans sends Garth, via the Forgotten King, to another portion of the map, this time with the job of stealing "whatever lies upon the seven altars of Dusarra." Soon Garth arrives in Dusarra and discovers that this job is, in fact, a hell of an undertaking.

What is a straightforward, fearless overman to do? How about throwing himself into any situation or opportunity that arises without forethought or strategy, relying on his martial prowess and gumption to get him through? Seriously, this guy fails in the planning department, and there were many times I wondered just how he was going to get out of the shit.

This frequent uncertainty -- combined with an eerie city that is obsessed with the "dark gods" of the national pantheon -- made for good reading, and I enjoyed paging through this in a day. The setting and plot reminded me of Leiber's Lankhmar stories, especially all of the scenes set in ill-lit temples devoted to perverse deities. The story takes a violent turn in the last act, and some of the gore surprised me; brutal as George Martin may get in Westeros, Garth and his warbeast do not hesitate to spill mass quantities of blood to achieve their means. The finale sets the stage for bigger things, and I remain interested in seeing where this all goes.

I gotta say: this series hit me from nowhere, and now I wonder what other fantastic tales are out there, hiding behind the wind namers and dancing dragons and black prisms and smart-mouthed city wizards that dominate the genre.
Not only did Dusarra remind me of Lankhmar, I actually ended up liking the stories of Garth better than those of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. I dare say The Lords of Dus, and The Seven Altars of Dusarra in particular, will remain my favorite pulp fantasy after all these years. Back to reading.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

The Best Scenes in The Lord of the Rings

Yesterday I featured the worst scenes in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, the ones I removed in my special cut of the films. Today I rank the best scenes. It's easy to get the impression from yesterday's post that The Fellowship of the Ring is my favorite film, while The Two Towers and The Return of the King leave much to be desired. That's not the case at all. Even before my ruthless editing, the third film has always been my favorite, because whatever its deficiencies it more than makes up for on whole. It's tragic on a biblical level and an emotional juggernaut.

Of the following twenty scenes, seven are from The Fellowship of the Ring, four are from The Two Towers, and nine are from The Return of the King.

1. The Grey Havens. The best scene of the book is the best scene of the film, and breathes Tolkien's theme of the long defeat: the failure of Frodo, the passing of the elves, and the foreordained deterioration of men. If it doesn't make you cry, then you don't have your priorities straight. If on my deathbed I could watch one scene from one film, it would be The Grey Havens from The Return of the King. The white shores and far green country awaiting Frodo would be out of my reach, but I'd take comfort anyway.

2. "Do You Remember the Shire?"/"The End of All Things." I have to take these two scenes together, as they're counterparts. In my (many) theatrical outings a decade ago, they overwhelmed me and affected me so much I was shaking. No film has ever had that kind of power over me. The first scene is the courage, finishing the one-way journey with no real hope of success. The second is the aftermath, the unexpected victory even in failure (Frodo claimed by the Ring), and accepting imminent death.

3. The Breaking of the Fellowship. This one's a cheat, but really everything is a favorite scene from Aragorn and Frodo's farewell to the closing credits. The Uruk-hai battle is fantastic, and the scene between Aragorn and the dying Boromir is probably the noblest in the trilogy. Frodo's resolve to go to Mordor alone, remembering Gandalf, and Sam chasing after him in the boat all culminate in an emotional scene foreshadowing dark times ahead. This entire sequence stands as a serious cinematic achievement for its perfect closure despite being a cliff-hanger.

4. The Siege of Gondor & the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. This one's another cheat, but once the boulders start flying, the battle for Minas Tirith doesn't let up until the last oliphaunt goes down. It's relentless chaos and destruction -- the catapult attacks, winged Nazgul, Grond, and (best of all) the apocalyptic charge of the Rohirrim. Eowyn's confrontation with the Witch-King exceeds expectations, and the army of the dead is a brilliant transposition from the book. Their victory implies that Theoden and Denethor were both right, that Sauron's forces could not have been defeated by the armies of men.

5. Flight to the Ford. Beginning with Arwen and Frodo on horseback and ending with the incredible flood at Bruinen. Arwen's close evasive action, coupled with the pulse-pounding choir music, still leaves me mesmerized after seeing it so many times. It's a testimony to Jackson's vision that he can alter a crucial scene from the book and make it even better. I also find it fascinating how horse chases work so well in movies, unlike car chases which easily become boring. This scene is the best horse chase in any film, hands down.

6. Gandalf and the Balrog (TT). My favorite scene of the second film is the flashback starter. The battle between Gandalf and the demon as they hurtle down the shaft makes the preliminary confrontation on the bridge look like child's play. Great music goes with it too. Complaints about the Balrog's wings continue to this day (Tolkien's Balrogs of course don't have wings), and it is rather silly that the creature is falling when it could have just flown upwards. But it doesn't matter; this scene is a juggernaut.

7. The Morgul Vale. The most terrifying scene in the trilogy and true to the book. I could easily vote it the best purist scene, even if the Witch-King isn't on horseback. It's hard to imagine the terror of the Black Breath being conveyed so convincingly, but here it is. I was nearly cowering in my seat the first time I saw this in the theater, just like Frodo cringing and holding his ears against the Nazgul shrieks. Tolkien describes a "noisome exhalation of decay", and the sorcerous reek on display is hideous.

8. Frodo and Bilbo in Rivendell/Gollumized Bilbo. We don't get much of Frodo and Bilbo together in the Shire, which turns out to be fine, because their interactions in Rivendell are perfect. First is the scene by the waterfall, where Bilbo produces his finished book, "There and Back Again", and they contrast their adventures. In the later scene, Bilbo passes over of Sting and the mithril vest and asks to see the Ring. His sudden demonic transformation nearly gave me a heart attack when I first saw it; it's that scary.

9. The Mirror of Galadriel. I had forgotten how frightening some scenes in the first film really are. Peter Jackson started as a horror film director, and no one else -- certainly not Speilberg or Lucas -- could have made Lothlorien so ethereally haunting and Galadriel's temptation so terrifying. Much as I love the way the Shire and Rivendell are realized in these films, it's the eerie forest of Lothlorien that impresses me most. The scene at the Mirror is the best, and it's great that we get to see the water ring Nenya.

10. The Voice of Saruman. This eight-minute scene is brilliantly acted by Christopher Lee and a vast improvement over the lame "Sharkey" epilogue from the book. The dialogue is pure Tolkien, even including the part about "the rods of the five wizards". You can feel Saruman's relentless contempt for Theoden as he goes on about Rohan being nothing more than a "thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek and their brats roll on the floor with the dogs". It's wonderful poetic justice when he's impaled on his own machinery.

11. The Forbidden Pool: "A Clockwork Orange". The waterfall and pool are just how you imagine them from the book, and the shot of Gollum squatting over and eating the fish is great. His regression to self-pity and schizophrenia after Frodo's treachery is heartbreaking, and in the extended version the rangers beat the living shit out of him. Faramir comes off considerably darker than Tolkien's character, and rightly so. This is the kind of reality lacking in most fantasy, where good guys are usually a bit too good to be true.

12. Frodo Poisoned/Sam and Shelob. The first part of Shelob's lair is pretty good, but the second part is an absolute classic. The spider is played brilliantly against Frodo after his narrow escape (Shelob's revenge), and her silent stalking (with no scoring) as she positions herself above to sting him is genius directing. The rescue battle shows Sam coming into his own, just like Tolkien wrote him, and his grief over "dead" Frodo is some of Sean Astin's best acting.

13. A Knife in the Dark. Misty Weathertop, the steady advance of the five Nazgul, and the music all combine to offer a scene scary and gothic. And the sight that greets Frodo when he puts on the Ring comes right off Tolkien's pages. Much like the Morgul Vale (#7), I could vote this one of the best purist scenes. Jackson nailed the Nazgul in a way that shows him at home in the horror genre.

14. "Where is the Horse and the Rider?" In the book Aragorn recites this poem (the Rohan anthem) as he approaches Edoras. But it's far more cinematic to have the King of Rohan himself tragically recite this before going into battle, what he thinks is certain doom for his people. This one still gives me chills after so many viewings. Great theatrical acting on Bernard Hill's part, and by far the best part of Helm's Deep.

15. Pippin's Song for Denethor. The editing here is brilliant. Pippin singing -- cut to Denethor gorging -- cut to Faramir galloping to suicide -- cut back to the steward's slobbering mouth -- back to Pippin's lamenting anguish -- to Faramir again -- it's a uniquely memorable scene that has Jackson stamped all over it. Billy Boyd is a gifted singer. It's impossible to forget the details of this scene, it carries such impact.

16. The Treason of Isengard. The interior of Orthanc is splendid, especially the chamber of the Palantir. The wizard battle between Gandalf and Saruman, absent from the book, could have come off rather cheesy. But it's surprisingly well done. There's none of the lightning or fireworks of B-grade fantasies; the wizards use telekinesis to beat the crap out of each other, and you can practically feel their bones cracking as they get pounded against the walls and floor. The score is perfect, and the choir reaches that intense crescendo as Saruman goes crashing through the double doors.

17. Arwen's Fate. Elrond's vision of the dead Aragorn, and Arwen wandering alone in the empty forest of Lothlorien, brilliantly captures the long defeat theme. Elrond's monologue comes from Tolkien's appendices: "Aragorn will come to death, an image of the splendor of the kings of men in glory, undimmed before the breaking of the world. But you, my daughter, you will linger on in darkness and in doubt. Here you will dwell, bound to you grief, under the fading trees, until all the world has changed and the long years of your life are utterly spent."

18. The Black Gate Opens. The theatrical version wrecks this by omitting the Mouth of Sauron. In the extended version the Mouth displays the mithril vest in order to prove that Frodo is dead and the Ring is on its way to Sauron. Going into battle, the army of the west really has no hope at all, and Aragorn's line ("For Frodo") refers to the hobbit's sacrifice -- they are avenging his death rather than buying time for him. But it's a great scene in either case. Even the theatrical version conveys hopeless courage as the Army of the West charges the hordes which outnumber them.

19. Sam's Star. This really should have been in the theatrical version: Sam overcome by a single sign of beauty in the worst hell on earth, and Frodo on death's door. The shot of Mordor here is the best in the film, a wasteland reminiscent of Ted Nasmith's drawings. Much like other scenes between Frodo and Sam in Mordor (especially the sacred ones of #2), it's diminished by commentary.

20. The Green Dragon. Here is hobbit culture at its purest. The hobbits get drunk and rumor-monger, the Gaffer tells Frodo he's as cracked as Bilbo, and Merry and Pippin are just themselves -- a couple of singing, boisterous clowns. Their song ("Hey-ho, to the Bottle I Go") is actually a fusion of two songs from the book, one of which Pippin sings solo while taking a bath at Crickhollow. This scene renders the "Concerning Hobbits" prologue superfluous and shows more in a single minute than Bilbo's voice-over explains in five.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

My Special Cut of The Lord of the Rings Films

It seems that everyone agrees Peter Jackson has gone off the rails. His Hobbit is a mess as his Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece. This week-end I watched the latter, a marathon I hadn't done since 2004. I'm pleased to say the trilogy holds up superbly. Especially since I improved on it by removing scenes I can't stand, thanks to special software. Now The Lord of the Rings is truly perfect.

Here is the list of all the scenes I cut. The three extended DVD versions have a total running time of about 11 hours. My special cut runs about 10 hours (9 hrs 56 minutes), which means I ended up axing about 10% of Jackson's story. If you have the software for it, I encourage you to make your own special version of the films. It's such a treat to watch The Lord of the Rings without being able to complain about the worst scenes that make you curse at the screen. Stay tuned tomorrow for my ranking of the best scenes.


Concerning Hobbits. I used to love this extended scene. Ten years later I now see that it fails on every level. (1) It's effectively a second prologue, voiced-over by Bilbo, on top of the excellent prologue narrated by Galadriel. (2) It commits the sin of explaining, not showing; we see plenty of hobbit culture at Bilbo's birthday party and the Green Dragon that we don't need it explained to us. (3) It rudely jerks us back and forth between Bilbo (in his study at Bag End) and Frodo (in the wagon with Gandalf), which makes for a poor introduction to them both, dividing our interest. (4) Indeed, Bilbo opening his front door to Gandalf is his perfect first scene. If you think you like the Concerning Hobbits prologue, I encourage you to dig out your theatrical version and play it; it's the much stronger and better introduction to Frodo and Bilbo.

Basically I use the theatrical version from the start of the film up to Gandalf passing through Bilbo's "No Admittance" sign. From then on, I use the extended version which is otherwise flawless. Except for a small matter...

The Doors of Moria. There's a story to this one. On the day before The Fellowship of the Ring was released in the theaters, I was certain I would hate these blockbuster adaptations of my favorite story. But I was trying to get in the spirit and be a good sport, and when a co-worker asked me what part of the movie I was looking most forward to, I said (somewhat sarcastically) the part where Gandalf threatens to knock on the doors of Moria with Pippin Took's head. Of course, by the time I got to Moria I was in love with the film after all, but still disappointed that my favorite line didn't make it. To add insult to injury, Jackson further reduced Gandalf by having Frodo solve the door riddle for him. I removed this from my special cut. And since the extended version has the Pippin line I wanted, all is now perfect.

Also: I cut some of the battle with the Watcher of Moria, which looks a bit like a videogame.


The Osgiliath Detour. I love Jackson's Faramir. He's a darker character than Tolkien's, tempted by the Ring as he should be, and much more believable. The "Clockwork Orange" scene at the Forbidden Pool (Gollum getting beaten to a pulp) is one of my favorites. But I absolutely hate the detour to Osgiliath -- more than any scene in the trilogy. Faramir should have let the hobbits go when Sam explodes at him. That's where I made my special cut, right before Faramir can say, "The Ring will go to Gondor." In my version of The Two Towers, Frodo and Sam do not reappear until the epilogue in the forest.

The Osgiliath scene is actually a disaster in every way. The Nazgul that confronts Frodo is poorly used. Frodo's attack on Sam is unconvincing. Worst is Sam's monologue, cribbed from the Stairs of Cirith Ungol in the book, about the "tales that really matter". It's one of my favorite Tolkien passages, in which Sam reminds Frodo about the great heroes of Middle-Earth who "had many chances of turning back, but went on, and not all to a good end". Jackson rewrites the pessimism in favor of crass cliches; now those great heroes kept going, not despite the hopelessness of their cause, but rather the opposite: "because they were holding onto the good in this world worth fighting for". Having Faramir recant and let the hobbits go after this cheesy line makes it twice as awful.

Helm's Deep. I took a heavy axe to Helm's Deep, as the catalog of crimes is huge. First are the elves, who have no business participating. They undermine the thoroughly bleak feeling the battle is supposed to have. I obviously couldn't get rid of every scene with elves, but I did cut all the close-up shots, and especially Haldir, whose death was melodramatic and contrived. (Unlike the genuinely emotional deaths of Boromir and Theoden.)

There are also lame scenes prior to the battle filled with corny dialogue. I removed them all. One such scene is Legolas and Aragorn's shouting match over the way they are outnumbered. Another is when Aragorn tells the young Haleth that "there is always hope". Always hope? The idea that hope springs eternal is an alien intrusion in Middle Earth. The Aragorn of the books said things like, "We must do without hope, and at least be avenged." (After leaving Moria.) See also my comments about the Osgiliath scene above.

Finally, there are the videogame battle sequences: Legolas surfing on his shield; Aragorn and Gimli jumping a wall and holding off multitudes of orcs. Anything like this I got rid of.

In the end, my version of Helm's Deep is far shorter and much more impressive.

Pippin Manipulates Treebeard. Let me be clear: I love the fact that the ents act like Switzerland and first decide not to get involved against Saruman. I also approve the way Treebeard reverses the democratic entmoot decision like a tyrant, when he sees the tree massacre and flies into a rage. I consider all of this an improvement on Tolkien. However, I do not like how Pippin engineered Treebeard's discovery of the clearcut. This is the same problem I had with Frodo solving the riddle at the doors of Moria. I understand that Jackson wanted to give the hobbits more proactive roles, but making them clever at the expense of immortals like Gandalf and Treebeard are cheap Hollywood maneuvers. So I cut the scene -- a truly stupid and ridiculous one -- where Pippin suddenly tells Treebeard, in a very conniving fashion, to go south, as if Pippin would know the precise location of a tree massacre but Treebeard would not. The result is that in my cut, Treebeard stumbles on the tree slaughter by accident, and in that scene I removed Pippin's condescending "I'm sorry, Treebeard", which implies that he regrets having to give the ent a wake-up call.


Smeagol and Deagol. This scene is mostly well done, but I don't care for it. A prologue is unnecessary in the second and third films. (Gandalf falling with the Balrog is an excellent start to The Two Towers, but that's a flashback more than a prologue.) The Return of the King opens perfectly on Frodo and Sam waking up in Ithilien. I should also note that Gollum's makeup job is atrocious as he evolves over the centuries. Bottom line, I removed the entire scene. We know how Gollum began.

Early extended scenes. With the exception of Saruman (criminally omitted from the theatrical version), all of the extended scenes prior to Denethor entering his pyre chamber are either silly or superfluous. They bog down the pace at points when things are supposed to moving quickly, and some of the levity (used so well in extended scenes of Fellowship of the Ring and Two Towers) clash with an increasing dark tone. So from the point of Saruman's death up to that of Denethor marching into his death chamber, I simply use the theatrical cut of the film. Thus in my version, there is no drinking game between Legolas and Gimli. Merry does not kneel before Theoden. (A poorly handled scene, unlike Pippin's oath to Denethor: Merry acts like a giggling school girl with no dignity whatsoever. Also, there's not even the payoff we get in the book, when Merry speaks to the dying Theoden on the Pelennor Fields; Jackson wisely chose Eowyn instead.) Pippin does not speak words of encouragement to Faramir, which somehow ring hollow. Sam does not encourage Frodo with "There and Back Again" optimism near the cross-roads, which contradicts his more realistic outlook in the book (on which point see my criticism of his Osgiliath monologue in The Two Towers). Merry doesn't have the uninspired dialogue with Eowyn en route to Minas Tirith. Most importantly, Gimli does not act like a clown on the Paths of the Dead, and he certainly does not blow ghosts away from him with his goddamn breath -- a truly outrageous scene -- nor do we get the cheesy avalanche of skulls.

After the point of Denethor's entry into the pyre room, however, the extended scenes are all excellent. Denethor gets in his best line from the book: "You may triumph on the field of battle for a day, but against the power that has arisen in the east there is no victory." Gandalf confronts the Witch-King, who shatters his staff. Eowyn does battle with the Orc leader Gothmog. Eomer grieves in rage on the Pelennor Fields. It takes Pippin a long time to find Merry wounded on the battlefields -- well into evening. We get the Houses of the Healing. There are two important scenes in Mordor, with Frodo and Sam joining the orc army, and the especially moving one of Sam seeing the star, when Frodo is at death's door. And finally there is The Mouth of Sauron at the Black Gate. Naturally, I retain all of these.

However, there are three particularly offensive scenes from the Pelennor Fields I removed...

Ninja Legolas. His oliphaunt acrobatics put a stain on an otherwise perfect battle where you feel the heavy realism of war on both sides. Suddenly with Legolas, we're out of Braveheart and into Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (a film I deplore). Legolas has cheesy stunts elsewhere (like the shield-surfing at Helm's Deep, which I also removed), but at least they're usually brief. His oliphaunt stunt goes on forever. Not in my version. Gone.

Indiana Eowyn. Eowyn's oliphaunt maneuvers aren't as offensive as Legolas', but they're silly nonetheless and there's no reason to keep them. Besides which, the extended version gives Eowyn and Merry more battle scenes -- better and more believable ones than the Indiana-Jones like ride under the oliphaunt that ends with Eowyn chopping off its legs in a single stroke.

A Far Green Country (Gandalf deludes Pippin). I don't like trashing this scene, because it involves some of the best writing from the final pages of the book, and is brilliantly acted by Ian McKellan and Billy Boyd. The problem is that it's horribly misused. Gandalf comforts Pippin with promises of a paradise he'll never obtain. Only the elves go to Valinor. Mortals -- men, dwarves, and hobbits -- never get to see those "white shores and far green country under a swift sunrise". Frodo and Bilbo were exceptions, granted them as Ringbearers.

It was painful to cut this scene, because unlike Sam's Osgiliath monologue, the transposition is well conceived. It's an inspired scene, much like Boromir's moment with the Ring on Mount Caradhras (a great move from Emyn Muil in the book) and Wormtongue's creepy come-on lines to Eowyn (recreated from her description in the Houses of Healing). But I had to kill it. We can't have Gandalf feeding poor Pippin delusions.

And finally, this one from Mordor.

Ducking from the Eye. This one irks me. That Frodo and Sam could hide from the Eye by "ducking" is rather silly, and it continually cuts back and forth to interrupt what's going on at the Black Gate. Because it just looks wrong, I removed it to keep the spotlight on the approach to the gate right before the Mouth of Sauron appears.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

50 Films I'd Save

When asked to rank my 50 favorite films of all time, I thought it would be an impossible task. A top 500 list would be more feasible. But then I made it easy by simply imagining I could save only 50 films -- that whatever I chose would be the only ones I could ever watch again. That cleared things up pretty fast. Ranking them in order also became fairly easy when approached this way.

It's worth noting directors who have multiple entries. Ingmar Bergman gets 7. Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock, and Martin Scorsese each get 4. William Friedkin and Quentin Tarantino each get 3. Kathryn Bigelow and David Cronenberg each get 2. That adds up to 33 films right there, leaving only 17 directors with single entries. So it's fair to say I've been hooked by certain visionaries.

1. The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson. 2001, 2002, 2003. I never thought my favorite story could work as a film, let alone as an action blockbuster. But the casting here is flawless (except for Orlando Bloom), the scoring genius, and the setting of New Zealand too good to be true. But it's the emotional core that makes it a miracle. In my (many) theatrical outings I was overwhelmed, moved to tears, and in the final 45 minutes of Return of the King so affected I was shaking. No film, save the next, has ever had that kind of power over me. Tolkien's story is about the long defeat, as he saw it -- the failure of Frodo, the passing of the elves, and the foreordained deterioration of men -- and Jackson nailed the theme in all the parts that matter.

Scene: "Do you remember the Shire?"

2. The Exorcist, William Friedkin. 1973. This could also be my top choice, so consider it a tie. It never gets old and resonates on many levels, even new ones I've only recently discovered. It's the scariest horror film ever made. It's the strongest crisis-of-faith statement -- more so than even Doubt and Winter Light. It has the gritty feel of an induced documentary, but with artistry owing to Ingmar Bergman. It pulverized me when I first saw it as an 11-year old, and has stayed in my head for years, making me terrified of my own existence. I don't think it's possible to achieve what this film did ever again. But I keep waiting to be proven wrong.

Scene: "The Sow is Mine."

3. Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock. 1958. Whenever I watch Vertigo I feel mesmerized all the way through. It's about a necrophiliac fantasy, some say a reflection of Hitchcock's deepest obsessions, but in any case his most personal film. It's about a man who wants to bang a woman who's dead; it's about a man on fire for a woman who doesn't exist; it's about a man who stole a woman from the very husband who hired him, and the fact that she was really a decoy does nothing to exonerate him since he didn't know this when he began the affair; it's about a man who loses both women, the same woman, twice in exactly the same way. I'm glad that Vertigo dethroned Citizen Kane as the acclaimed best film of all time; it deserves the honor.

Scene: Judy becomes Madeline.

4. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick. 1968. I used to respect this classic from a distance, admiring the aesthetic around the difficulty of "experiencing" it, but in recent years that distance collapsed; now it's my favorite Kubrick film, my favorite outer-space film, and my favorite futuristic film. It plumbs the vastness of space through some of the most ecstatic imagery ever put on celluloid, and grounds this vision in humankind's evolutionary roots. There are genius shots like the falling bone from the primitive chimpanzee age "becoming" the space shuttle in the 21st century. I consider Dr. Bowman's transformation into the Star Child the best open-ended conclusion in cinematic history.

Scene: Hal murders Dr. Poole.

5. Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino. 1994. I've watched this more times than any film to date. I count it among three that educated me profoundly (the others being Blue Velvet and Taxi Driver), showing me that movies could be art as much as entertainment. And sickeningly hilarious. I remember laughing so hard I was choking when I first saw it, scarcely able to believe what the characters were saying and doing. Tarantino is that rare breed of writer-director, like Kubrick, who is in complete command of his material. No one writes dialogue like he can, and in the case of Pulp Fiction every stroke of the pen was inspired.

Scene: "I shot Marvin in the face."

6. Cries and Whispers, Ingmar Bergman. 1973. Some days I call The Seventh Seal my favorite Bergman film, but I'm going on record with Cries and Whispers. Perhaps it's because of the similarities with The Exorcist -- clock imagery, house atmosphere, bedridden agony, vaginal mutilation, etc. (Both films were robbed of best picture the same year; certainly one of them should have taken it.) It's a horrifying look at pain, about a woman dying of cancer attended to by her dysfunctional sisters. The hurt on display is relentless, with facial contortions, gasps, and screams punctuating every other frame. And the use of the color red is, for my money, the most effective use of color in any film I've seen.

Scene: Agnes' suffering.

7. The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman. 1957. Bergman's most famous film sounds a bit boring when described (a knight plays chess with Death), but it's the knight's journey around the game's intervals, through a land struck by plague and religious fanaticism, and his attempts to penetrate God's mysteries, that drive the story. There's so much entertainment here -- bar brawls, apocalyptic tirades, insult contests, self-mutilation, and a witch-burning to top it off -- that the theological side helpings make it the most balanced art-house film I know. The final Dance of Death is oddly comforting for its nihilism, and a tune I could move to when I reach my end.

Scene: Apocalyptic procession.

8. The Shining, Stanley Kubrick. 1980. This is the only horror film that's come close to pulverizing me on the same level as The Exorcist, and it's far scarier than the book. The book is good on its own right, but Stephen King was misguided in making a faithful version for TV. The Shining is the best example (granted there are many) of "what works in a book doesn't on screen", and Kubrick's artistic license was pure genius. 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.

Scene: "Okay, let's talk."

9. Fire Walk With Me, David Lynch. 1992. It has an awful reputation, and I used to regard it as one of Lynch's mediocre efforts until I got a full distance from the TV series. You have to watch it this way. If you take it in conjunction with the show, or if you expect in any way a "Twin Peaks" movie, you will be let down. The TV show was about mystery intrigue and small town dynamics. Fire Walk With Me is an intensely personal film, and a horror picture -- the best horror film of the '90s, mind you -- that stands completely on its own terms. The scoring is brilliant, it's shot beautifully, and there are scenes more savage, terrifying, and heartbreaking than I've seen anywhere else. This is Lynch's best film, appreciated by few.

Scene: The Bang Bang Bar, The Pink Room.

10. The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick. 2011. Like Space Odyssey this is a picture-perfect film showing humanity dwarfed by celestial mysteries. It spotlights an American Catholic family within a macrocosm of evolution, and an implied dialectic of nature vs. grace. But grace emerges not as something which contradicts nature (even if it's its conceptual opposite), rather something inherently part of it, or complementing it, or mutating from it. Every frame depends on just the right camera angle, scoring, and particular subtleties around snippets of dialogue you can barely hear. It ends on a spiritual apocalypse that could move an atheist: the yearning for reunion in some form of afterlife, a hopeless fantasy we cling to in order to cope with pain and loss. I'm turned by new surprises each time I watch The Tree of Life.

Scene: Birth of the universe.

11. Doubt, John Patrick Shanley. 2008. My favorite stage-play based film is a parable that refuses certainty about anything. We never find out for sure if the priest molested his altar boy, though things point alarmingly in that direction. But then we get smacked with a mother who thinks that isn't so bad. The dialogue sequences between her and Sister Aloysius are harrowing, as she insists through tears that Father Flynn is a good refuge for her son, who is gay and beaten for it at home by an abusive father. That scene is so upsetting (see below), and entertains a hard idea in a world which pathologizes eroticism between adults and youths. Doubt is a perfect film in every way; the performances are first rate, and every line of dialogue earns its keep.

Scene: "Let him have my son."

12. 12 Angry Men, William Friedkin. 1997. Another dialogue-driven favorite of mine, and this remake is superior to the '50s classic. This time the jury has four Afro-Americans, and better acting by all involved, to make the film more relevant. Mykelti Williamson steals the show as racist juror #10, now a Muslim whose burning contempt for Hispanics and nasty put-downs draw the ire of the other black jurors. 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. Hot tempers and shouting matches have never been more primal.

Scene: No good ones on youtube, but Juror #10's hate speech would be my scene of choice.

13. Hard Candy, David Slade. 2006. This film is so many things: a dialogue drama, revenge thriller, enacted domination fantasy, and morality puzzle. I see a different film every time I watch it, and in the sum of those viewing experiences certain faults become strengths. The first time it was a Lolita set-up which turned into castration revenge. On second viewing I knew what was coming, and since Hayley was faking the castration her torture seemed a cop-out, and Jeff's suicide silly and unbelievable. But on third and later viewings I saw an enacted domination fantasy: a man's guilt-ridden wet-dream of being tormented by a 14-year old fantasy figure, and ending in his "noble" agreement to kill himself. Hard Candy works brilliantly for me on these meshed levels of reality and fantasy.

Scene: Jeff meets Hayley.

14. Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick. 1999. Whenever I hear people criticize "boring slow-paced art films", this is my first line of defense to get them reformed. It's slower than molasses but thrilling in every frame, and I'm not just talking about the orgy. Of course, this is Kubrick we're talking about, and he did the same thing in Space Odyssey, but I'm amazed how hooked I am by long camera takes of, say, Tom Cruise wandering streets. And even those who sneer at artistry can't fail to be impressed by the Christmas-seasoned atmosphere, which marries a perfect aesthetic to lustful themes both real and imagined. But yes, the orgy is fabulous too, like every other weird thing that happens to Dr. Bill on his night out, from professions of love next to a patient's corpse, to an underage girl's seductive airs at a costume shop.

Scene: The reality of the orgy ritual.

15. Blue Velvet, David Lynch. 1986. This nightmare of perversions is what started me on a new avenue in life. I saw it as a college freshman, and at the risk of sounding melodramatic, it was an epiphany. Films would no longer be "just movies" for me; I saw that they had the capacity to illuminate, stun, delight, and horrify in lasting transcendent ways. Blue Velvet makes artistry out of sadism, sadomasochism, and full-blown lunacy; yet around all the suffocating depravity is also worked a stunning beauty, particularly in the relationship between the Kyle Maclachlan and Laura Dern characters. It's impossible to exaggerate its impact on me.

Scene: In Dreams.

16. Mulholland Drive, David Lynch. 2001. If Blue Velvet threw me into a new world of cinema I could barely begin to define, Mulholland Drive reinforced the magic 15 years later, at the time Peter Jackson was giving magic a new name. It's about frustrated wish-fulfillment: Diane is the reality, Betty the dream; the first comes last, and makes devastating sense of the second; this reinvented figure is loved by everyone, a naive Hollywood star, and she gets off super lesbo sex with the woman who in life barely returns her affections. This manner in which people from Diane's life fill their dream-roles is a brilliant recontextualization of a go-nowhere actress drowning in criminal guilt, and it's one of the most intimate experiences I get out of any film.

Scene: Llorando.

17. Rope, Alfred Hitchcock. 1948. I say that Pulp Fiction is the film I've seen the most times, and I believe that to be true. But Rope could make a liar of me at any time. Everything about this film is tailored to my tastes: it's dialogue-driven, occurring in real time; it builds tension at a slow pace, in the claustrophobic setting of a rich apartment; the characters are demented, or at least off-kilter; the subject is morbid. Two college students have killed a classmate just for killing sake, as they consider themselves morally superior and above the law. They then host a dinner party to celebrate their act, and to make it stimulating hide the corpse in an antique chest which they serve food on. It's Hitchcock's most undervalued film, and I'm thoroughly addicted to it.

Scene: "Strangulation Day".

18. The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan. 2008. I generally despise superhero films, so I love it when the genre is either upended to make fun of itself or overhauled to take itself seriously for a change. James Gunn's Super is an example of the former, making us laugh at deranged "heroes" who take pipe wrenches to people who cut in line at the movies; in such satire, heroes are losers and hardly better than those they go against. Christopher Nolan destroys our optimism in the other way, through a would-be liberator like Batman who can only escalate terror as he tries fighting it. Heath Ledger is so good as the nihilistic Joker that I saw this in the theater four times. It's too bad the other films in Nolan's trilogy weren't nearly as impressive.

Scene: Joker crashes the party.

19. United 93, Paul Greengrass. 2006. I said that no films have had held me in their power like The Lord of the Rings and The Exorcist, but this one has come close. I felt entirely helpless watching it, against expectations. It's a skillfully directed and respectfully made film with not a single exploitive frame. It makes you think about 9/11 for the right reasons, and is mercifully devoid of hindsight politics. Interesting is that Ben Sliney agreed to play himself; to this day I can't fathom how he got slammed with 9/11 his first day on the job as the FAA's National Operation Manager.

Scene: South Tower hit.

20. Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese. 1976. The third pivotal turning point in my cinematic education was Scorsese's masterpiece, which I saw in the mid-'90s. Blue Velvet was the bomb that opened my eyes. Pulp Fiction showed me there are no rules. Taxi Driver was the introspective gem, in many ways the quintessential film of the '70s, which was of course the Golden Age of Hollywood before it burned out. It taps into paranoia, alienation, and psychopathic "benevolence" in a sprawling first-person character study, and showed me how deep a filmmaker could go inside someone without becoming self-indulgent about it.

Scene: What a 44 Magnum pistol can do.

21. Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro. 2006. This is how fairy tales were before Disney polluted them: unnerving, with as much horror as fantasy. Here an 11-year old girl retreats into her imagination to escape the brutalities of fascist Spain, but it's never clear whether the labyrinth is truly imaginary. At some points it seems obvious that Ofelia is imagining things as a child would: her stepfather can't see the faun she's talking to; her "fairie" friends are really grasshoppers; etc. On the other hand, Ofelia could not have escaped the locked attic, but she did, and so her chalk door must have really opened a magic portal. Her murder at the hands of her stepfather is stunning, and her after-world "reward" as bittersweet as the Grey Havens.

Scene: Ofelia's death.

22. Alien, Ridley Scott. 1979. Explanation is hardly needed for this one. It remains the scariest sci-fic film ever made. Kubrick's Space Odyssey showed space travel to be an awe-inspiring wonder; Scott showed the underside with claustrophobia, isolation, and invincible savagery. I never cease to be amazed at those who insist that James Cameron's sequel is superior. Aliens is just Alien on steroids, not even a fifth as scary, a cheap blockbuster involving military personnel whose job to die defending others. In the perfect original we feel the raw terror of six civilians stranded in space, hunted and devoured one by one, between nerve-wracking pauses.

Scene: Chestburster.

23. Fanny and Alexander, Ingmar Bergman. 1982. This is what I consider pure storytelling: ghosts and magical surrealism, a boy's gifted imagination, and Dickens-like tragedy under an abusive stepfather. But it's the androgynous figure of Ismael I'm endlessly fascinated by, and still have a hard time nailing down. He's so dangerous that Isak keeps him locked up; when he channels Alexander's wish to murder his stepfather, he erotically caresses the boy; he could even stand for Islam, implying that pagan Christianity (Alexander) needs the lethal power of Islam (Ismael), aided by Judaism (Isak), to break the power of orthodox Christianity (his stepfather the bishop). This is a five-hour epic that I wish lasted ten.

Scene: Alexander and Ismael (the Fire).

24. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, Peter Greenaway. 1989. Albert Spica is the most vile and despicable character represented on this list, the kind of person you can't believe the Lord-His-God doesn't strike dead. He presides over a banquet in a restaurant every night, eating and acting like a hog, demeaning his wife, the cook, customers, and even his thug colleagues. It's a gross obscene display, but for all the repugnance this film is dazzling eye-candy. Every room of the restaurant is saturated in arresting color (red dining room, green kitchen, white bathrooms), and the characters' clothes change color accordingly as they walk from one place to the next. The final act of forced cannibalism is perhaps the sweetest poetic justice I've ever seen.

Scene: The restaurant.

25. The Divide, Xavier Gens. 2012. I'm pleased to say that of my 50 picks, only three are Rotten Tomatoes. Fire Walk With Me (#9) was simply misunderstood, and Crash's (#46) pornography blinded critics to a perfect film. But there's no excuse at all for The Divide's poor reception. It's the best Lord of the Flies-themed film I've ever seen, period. The performances are brilliant. Nine people are trapped in the basement of a high-rise apartment complex after a nuclear bombing, and despite their initial solidarity, cabin fever and base instincts quickly take over. There's torture, rape, sex slavery, and overblown lunacy... Even I am deeply chilled by what Gens believes people are really like under our societal conditioning.

Scene: Mickey's fingers.

26. Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino. 2009. For the longest time I thought Pulp Fiction was Tarantino's first and last masterpiece. Then came this ripper. Please note that I'm no friend of cartoon villains, especially in brutal historical periods, so it's all the more an indication of Tarantino's genius that he can use caricature to great effect. Especially in the character of Landa, a brilliantly conceived Nazi I could watch all day. As for the Jewish Basterds, they're a ludicrous wish-fulfillment fantasy that entertain as they self-indict. The film forces us to see ourselves as Nazis as we cheer the Basterds on for their inhumanities, in the same way Hitler applauds the on-screen carnage of his propagandist film.

Scene: Bar shootout.

27. Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino. 2012. Ditto for everything I said above: this film does to American slavery what the Basterds did to Nazism; they're equal favorites of mine. I honestly don't know whose performance I revere more, Leo DiCaprio as the despicable plantation owner or Samuel Jackson as his collaborationist slave, a cranked up Uncle Tom -- or in Jackson's own words, "the most deplorable negro in cinematic history". The brutal realistic violence done to slaves is run parallel with the cathartic violence of overblown revenge, a dualism that Tarantino has tamed to near perfection.

Scene: Arrival at Candyland.

28. Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock. 1955. In which endless suspense is wrung out of a spying busybody, banal loneliness, bickering, pointless existence -- and finally a murder plot. I love how voyeurism is indicted through the nurse's accusations, and my favorite scenes involve the early sparring between her and James Stewart's character, and then Stewart and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly), as they razz each other over their relationship. Stewart's acting is effortless as always, and he gets not one but two terrific "shut up" lines, whilst Kelly railroads him for his diseased peeping Tom behavior, until finally convinced there's something truly nasty going on across the street. I don't call this blog The Busybody for nothing.

Scene: Caught spying.

29. Juno, Jason Reitman. 2007. The genre of light comedy is normally anathema to me. But Juno is so arresting and honest in its simplicity, and its characters so endearing, that it works just right. It's also genius for fooling the pro-life crowd into thinking it endorses their agenda. Even if you know nothing about scriptwriter Diablo Cody (a pro-choice feminist) and actress Ellen Page (also a pro-choice liberal who participates in films she believes in), the film clearly establishes a girl's choice to have her baby without glorifying teen pregnancy, and that she would be supported by her friends and family regardless of her choice. It takes choice for granted, assumes hard-won rights, and doesn't need to preach. I've watched this many, many times.

Scene: Prom fight.

30. Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, 2012. Last year was a sanctimonious one for critics. Spike Lee leveled ridiculous complaints about Django Unchained's supposed racial insensitivity (the repeated use of the n-word), while others pounced on Zero Dark Thirty's supposed apologetics for waterboarding and similar torture procedures used by the CIA in the days following 9/11. It's no accident that these were the two best films of the year, and thankfully they were well received on whole. Bigelow isn't a political propagandist in any case, and her expose of the hunt for Bin Laden is her best film to date, finer and more disciplined than even The Hurt Locker.

Scene: Bin Laden's Courier.

31. The Faith Trilogy, Ingmar Bergman. 1961, 1962, 1963. I'm cheating here, since each of the three films stand on their own. If I took them individually, Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light would place lower, and The Silence much higher; this slot feels about right for treating them as a whole. Bergman was obsessed with the riddle of God's silence, and each film escalates the issue: from the spiritual frustration suggesting God as sinister, to the anger questioning his existence, to finally accepting there are no answers (though the ongoing search for answers remains important). These were the first Bergman films I saw, and Harriet Andersson quickly became my favorite female Bergman actor, Gunnar Bjornstrand my favorite male; I like the way Glass Darkly and Winter Light complement each other in other ways, one by the intense character interactions of incest and psychological breakdown, the other more by explicit theology. The Silence is the unnerving masterpiece.

Scenes: The spider god, words that kill, hotel of the grotesque.

32. Sunshine, Danny Boyle. 2007. I can't say enough about this film. It flew under the radar when released, and it's still largely unheard of. It's set in a future where the sun is dying, and a crew embarks on a mission to deliver a thermo-nuclear payload that will re-ignite the sun's fire. Captain Kaneda's death is a powerful sacrifice, and from that early point the mission becomes one calamity after the next; more crew members have to sacrifice themselves, and they even contemplate murdering the one of them "least fit" in order to save oxygen. On top of all this, there is the terrifying subplot of a hideously disfigured religious fanatic who believes God wants humanity to die, and does everything he can to slaughter the crew. Underrated is an understatement for Sunshine.

Scene: Captain Kaneda's death.

33. Videodrome, David Cronenberg. 1983. If there was ever a film that merits the cliche "like nothing you've seen before", this is it. The idea is that watching videos can somehow physically change and corrupt you, and involves everything from torture porn to sadomasochism to mind control, all weaved through the body horrors of flesh guns, male "vagina" slots that play VHS tapes, and cruel metamorphosis. There is a snuff-film franchise, and a plot to broadcast a signal to millions of viewers, which will create a "new flesh" -- the merging of human consciousness with a media stream of sexualized violence. This is one of those films that can make you high without drugs, like Pink Floyd's The Wall.

Scene: "Long live the new flesh."

34. Shame, Ingmar Bergman. 1968. I went through a period of watching every war film I could get my hands on. Most were Oliver Stone films -- annoying, politically self-righteous screeds. Others were scarce improvements. Not until I found Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick would I get what I was looking for. Yet as much as I revere Paths of Glory and The Thin Red Line, they don't quite make this cut. Only one war film does: Bergman's Shame. It has no axes to grind (Stone), no politics (Kubrick), no cosmic "messages" (Malick) -- nothing to interfere with the close-up intimacies of a married couple who are are uprooted from home, falsely accused of bad allegiances, and humiliated beyond endurance. The exodus into a sea of corpses will haunt me forever.

Scene: Nothing much available on youtube.

35. Hour of the Wolf, Ingmar Bergman. 1968. This one has surface similarities with Shame, besides being tied at the same place on this list. They were released the same year; they star Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman as a married couple on an island; they involve the character played by Max crumbling under extreme pressure. But in Hour of the Wolf the pressure is interior rather than exterior -- inner demons, personal alienation, homosexual guilt, necrophilia, and the intensified blurring of reality and fantasy. We're never sure if we're seeing Johan's demons, or those shared by Johan and Alma together, or some combination with reality. We're also not sure if Bergman lost his goddamn mind when he made this film.

Scene: Necrophiliac weirdness.

36. Eraserhead, David Lynch. 1977. This nightmare is about many things, from a commentary on reproductive mores, consequences of unplanned sex, fear of parenthood, industrial pollution, even a mysterious Old Testament text which Lynch refuses to come clean about. My bet is on chapter 3 of Job, arguably the most existentially spiritual book of the bible. I'm not surprised that Stanley Kubrick forced his actors on The Shining to watch it. Like the haunted hotel picture, Eraserhead traps us in a unique dreadful atmosphere. It's for my money the best use of the black-and-white medium in any film.

Scene: Death of tadpole baby.

37. Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese. 1990. It's funny how The Godfather films haven't aged well for me. Back in the '90s I'm sure I would have included them on a list like this. Even after seeing Goodfellas, I thought both were masterpieces tackling their subject matter from different angles. Conceptually, I even like what Coppola was doing more than Scorsese. Michael Corleone is a tragic figure, and he and his family are mostly sympathetic characters. In Goodfellas, gangsters are unmitigated scumbags. But that's the point: Scorsese removed the honor which seems over-romanticized when you watch the Corleone family too much. It was time for the eye-opening reality of organized crime. I mean seriously, watch the clip below, and it's clear why Scorsese rules over Coppola.

Scene: Tommy and Spider.

38. Casino, Martin Scorsese. 1994. Can anyone judge this film without worshiping the one above? The standard line is that Goodfellas is a work of art, and Casino a good film that walks in the other's shadow. This is wrong; both are masterpieces. That Joe Pesci is the same homicidal maniac in both doesn't affect this conclusion. Had Casino been made first, everyone would be calling it the masterpiece, and in a way I think it does more. It's as much about place as character, like the Godfather films capturing an era in a mob-runned city (Las Vegas) before the law got control. It has a more epic feel, and I even like the characters slightly better. It's ultimately a tie though, when you get down to it.

Scene: F-bombs in the desert.

39. The Departed, Martin Scorsese. 2006. Yet another film you can get lynched for daring to float on the same plane as Goodfellas. But again, I'm doing exactly that, and as with Casino this film works even stronger in some ways. It shows gangsters infiltrating the highest levels of law enforcement, and cops doing vice-versa. The mole theme of losing one's identity works wonderfully, and The Departed frankly has the highest re-watch value of Scorsese's gangster trilogy. It's constantly hilarious and endlessly violent; it throws curve-balls you never see coming. Even its liability works for rather than against -- the appallingly phony Boston accents (aside from Damon and Wahlberg, who are from Boston), which I can't help think were put on deliberately.

Scene: Elevator carnage.

40. Seven, David Fincher. 1995. I remember a point in my life when I thought The Silence of the Lambs couldn't possibly be topped in the serial-killer genre. Now I can't remember the last time I watched it. The is the one that never gets old. It feeds my fascination with the seven deadly sins and the contrapasso punishments of Dante's Inferno, though admittedly all this would have failed if not for the sickening way John Doe gets his victory in the end. Everything about this film is perfect: the atmosphere, scoring (the prologue's Nine Inch Nails song, and the library scene's Air on the G-String in particular), and casting. Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, and Kevin Spacey fill their roles as if born to play them.

Scene: The box.

41. Conan the Barbarian, John Milius. 1982. This is a very special film for me, and one of only three fantasy entries on this list. It was my first R-rated experience and did a wonder on my pre-teen sensibilities. Between scenes of graphic sex -- especially Conan's coupling with a vampire who goes rabid on him at the moment of orgasm -- and a deluge of blood and gore, I was utterly stupefied. Conan threw me into a world of lust and brutality I was so unprepared for at age 12, high adventure where thieves rob the temples of evil priests, rescue their victims, battle giant snakes, and stumble on forgotten swords held in the clutches of cobwebbed skeletons. It also spoiled me rotten, as the '80s decade afterwards unleashed a deluge of cheesy, PG-rated fantasy.

Scene: Thulsa Doom beheads Conan's mother.

42. The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock. 1963. My favorite post-apocalyptic films are The Divide (#25) and The Road (#49). This is my favorite apocalyptic film. It's nihilistic to the core, unapologetic about nature's savagery, and like the great horror films rarely seen anymore has the patience to let its characters breathe and become people we care about before unleashing the terror. And what a terror -- even by today's standards, the bird attack sequences are convincing. When nature comes after us, says Hitchcock, things aren't going to turn out okay, and he's probably right. We never learn why the birds have turned on humanity, and, like the reason for Regan McNeil's demonic possession, we don't need or want to know.

Scene: Crows on the playground.

43. Killer Joe, William Friedkin. 2012. Friedkin has been a lot like Tarantino. He took the world by storm in his early years, lost his mojo somewhere along the way, then made a raging comeback. Bug was one such comeback (it almost made this list), and Killer Joe an even better one. The Tarantino parallels continue, as I get filthy sick laughing at things in this film which are far from funny. It's about white trash culture, hiring a hit man to kill your mother, loaning out your sister for sex, and everything careens out of control an outrageous climax: a forced blowjob with a chicken leg (it's already become legendary) and a pulverizing "last supper".

Scene: The chicken-bone scene.

44. Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick. 1975. Whenever I'm asked for a historical film that really immerses you in the time period, this one comes first to mind. Kubrick evokes the Enlightenment era with incredible ease, the irony being that there seems precious little enlightening about this world of primitive warfare, ugly duels, brawls, and dishonest gambling. In any case, after three hours I find that I've near forgotten myself and the values I hold. Furthermore, the common complaint that Kubrick lacks life and emotion is disproven by 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.

Scene: The duel.

45. Blue is the Warmest Color, Abdellatif Kechiche. 2013. It's sad that the film has gained notoriety for graphic lesbian sex scenes, which for the record are tasteful and well used. The pornographic tone fits the early part of the story where the young Adele is discovering herself and seeing herself in wildly adolescent terms. The real theme is the all-encompassing power of love, which can be wonderful and then destructive, but with room for healing afterwards. Long after the painful break up, Emma is able to forgive, and Adele obtain at least some measure of closure, knowing this was a once in a lifetime experience. It's a rare example of a film that's long to begin with, but I wish could be twice as long.

Scene: Homophobic bullying.

46. Crash, David Cronenberg. 1996. Who would come up with a fetish of being sexually aroused by car crashes? Cronenberg of course. I would probably call Crash the most artistic NC-17 film I've seen. It's not sensational, just the opposite in fact, incredibly subdued and polished. The cold blue look works wonders in this regard, and dialogue seems to be spoken through a dream-like filter. The parallel of surrendering to an automobile wreck and giving oneself up to a sex partner sounds too crazy to take seriously, but it works in context, and approaches the artistic nihilism of Ingmar Bergman.

Scene: Car fetishes.

47. Sawdust and Tinsel, Ingmar Bergman. 1953. Anne and Albert are unquestionably my favorite cinematic couple. They hurt each other, despise each other, cheat on each other, yet persist in loving each other, trapped in a harsh career of a traveling circus. I've reached the point where I've stopped calling Sawdust and Tinsel underrated, as it seems to have undergone reassessment by enough Bergman scholars in recent years. I catch new and hidden meanings each time I see it. It's a cruel parable of sexual power and degradation, in which the humiliating worlds of the circus and theater collide.

Scene: Anne's confession.

48. The Grey, Joe Carnahan. 2012. First things first: wolves are outrageously misrepresented in this film. In reality the poor things are wimps, so you need to suspend disbelief and just pretend this film takes place on an alternate Earth where wolves evolved with nasty temperaments more akin to grizzly bears. The distortion makes it feel more of a horror picture, which in many ways it is. But it's a survivalist film that has the honesty to kill off the entire cast, one by one, as they flee a crash that's left them stranded in the Alaskan wilderness.

Scene: "Live and die on this day."

49. The Road, John Hillcoat. 2009. I often say, with considerably strained patience, that literal adaptations of novels don't work; that's why we need talented directors and scriptwriters who can "crack the code" of the book and make it work on screen. Once in a blue moon, however, the novel is the film. Like The Road. The post-apocalyptic setting is bleak as you'd expect from Cormac McCarthy, with lone innocents fleeing marauding cannibals across a desolate world. The ending panders too much to those preferring tidy closure -- the one part of the book I would have changed -- but that's a small quibble on my part.

Scene: "Take off your clothes."

50. Near Dark, Kathryn Bigelow. 1987. I could spend days unpacking this beast. It's one of my favorite horror films, but not very scary, since we're made to identify with the vampires who have a grand old time terrorizing and feeding off humanity. It's a love story reminiscent of the romance in Let the Right One In, and while the latter is more critically acclaimed, I'll take Caleb and Mae over Oskar and Eli any day. Noteworthy is the cast (three of the vampires) recycled from Aliens; James Cameron was Bigelow's husband at the time, and she made the far better movie. Just as her award-winning Hurt Locker was vastly superior to the trashy Avatar. Some things never change.

Scene: Bar Feast.