Monday, October 24, 2016

Ghostbusters 2016

I finally got around to seeing the recent Ghostbusters movie, since it came up at the Redbox. Some thoughts.

(1) It's not as thunderingly awful as one would have expected from the trailer. But it's also not great. It's like an OK TV movie, the kind you can bear to watch, but usually while you're doing something else more interesting.

(2) For one thing, it's not very consistently funny. It does have its moments, but they are just moments. This is, as a lot of people have said, a problem for a reboot of one of the great movie comedies of all time. Most people seem to be a bit off, which is probably the biggest contrast between it and the original -- in the original no one, even bit parts, is really off. I re-watched it recently and there is a great scene in the hotel after they have fired on the maid's cart. After they apologize and turn around to discuss what to do, you can see the maid in the background trying to put out a toilet-paper fire with a spray bottle. It's the sort of thing you could easily miss -- entirely in the background, nothing in the scene is focused on it, but when you catch it, the poor maid (played by Frances Nealy) trying to spritz the fire out, in context it is hilarious. That wasn't just comedy; it was craftsmanship. There's not really anything like that here. But the real issue is that the main characters just don't seem to fit together well. They all have moments, but the attempts to play off each other are generally quite lame. Individually, they also struggle -- Kate McKinnon's Holtzmann is the kind of character that might have been funnier in a different kind of movie, Kristin Wiig's Erin is largely just awkward, and Melissa McCarthy's Abby is like a Melissa McCarthy character. Of the women, Leslie Jones's Patty ends up being funniest, but the fact of the matter is that Chris Hemsworth's Kevin steals practically every single scene he's in, despite the fact that the kind of comedy he's doing here is really minor-level stuff that should be funny background.

(3) No movie that has this many call-backs and shout-outs to the original should be a reboot. It literally makes no sense whatsoever to do a straight reboot and bring in all of these cameos and references. If you can get Murray, Aykroyd, Weaver, Potts, and Hudson, it's going to raise the question of why you couldn't have just tied the original in from the beginning. And if you build so much on the previous movie, you lose all right to ask audiences to take the movie on its own merits -- it will necessarily be compared, at every point, to the original. Which, again, is an unusually high standard here.

(4) The movie kind of works if you think of it as a kind of alternate-universe version. But only 'kind of'. There's not actually much story here. It looks originally like we're going to get a healing-of-friendship motif in the Erin and Abby characters -- but after the beginning it's not really built up. It ends up being a sort of self-esteem story about outsiders. That's OK, I suppose.

But, as has been noted through the years, the original was layers and layers of story. Aykroyd had insisted that at no point should the ghostly or paranormal itself be mocked, so you can watch it as a ghost story in which the humor is about human beings unable to deal with things so far outside our normal experience; and we have the excellent scene between Ray and Winston as they are just driving around and talking. It can be watched as a buddy film, which it certainly is. As other people have noted, it's a workplace comedy that is also one of the best movies ever made about starting a business -- the actual villain is not any of the ghosts (even Gozer), it's the over-reaching bureaucrat trying to shut down a struggling business on a dubious technicality, and some of the funniest lines in the whole thing have nothing to do with the ghosts but with the workplace. (Think of Janine's "I've quit better jobs than this" or Winston's "Ah, if there's a steady paycheck in it, I'll believe anything you say" or Ray mortgaging his parents' house.)

Throughout this one, however, you get parts that could have been taken somewhere and never are, and it gets somewhat tiring.

(5) One thing that the movie had me thinking about was how movie comedy has changed. Contemporary comedy in movies seems to be built more on awkward moments than carefully constructed jokes or even improvised hilarity. I think this is seen here, and the movie suffers for it. The blunder comedy works very well -- the majority of the genuinely funny moments in this film are blunder comedy. But the repartee is often awful as written and weak as delivered, and the actual jokes are usually more groan-inducing than chuckle-inducing. This kind of thing can be made to work -- it's a staple of comedies geared to teens -- but the whole movie seems structured in a way that is inconsistent with actually making it work. The result is mostly just corny and flat.

(6) The special effects here are not all that good -- which is really disappointing, because that's usually the one thing that is guaranteed to be quality in movies today. The original special effects are much better, which is a devastating indictment given that they were done over twenty years ago. Subpar CGI is not an improvement.


Rizal lamented that his people were converted to a religion they did not understand. It's absolutely sure that the early native converts understood the Faith no more deeply than did the Gauls or Goths of Europe; but if the same argument had succeeded in stopping the introduction into Europe of an alien Oriental religion the world would not have had Chartres or Giotto or Chaucer or Michelangelo.

Nick Joaquin, Culture and History, Anvil (Mandaluyong City, Philippines: 2004), p. 121. This is a point that came up in discussing Shusaku Endo's Silence a couple of years back.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Maronite Year LXXVIII

Sixth Sunday after Holy Cross
Galatians 6:1-10; Matthew 25:14-31

Bright the Cross was shining in the sky,
when Constantine saw it as a sign;
on high the banner of it was raised:
the Cross of martyrs did not falter.
The kings of the world were astounded.

Queen Helen through faith found the True Cross,
the sign of our holy redemption.
The truth of the Cross floods the whole world;
the miracles of Christ pour from it.
By it all nations are astounded.

The Cross of Christ raises us on high,
our destruction made our salvation,
for death is overcome by sure faith,
and by the love of God for our souls;
all who come to it are astounded.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Anthology of Epochs

We know that we can inherit a nose from a grandfather, or asthma from a grandmother, or left-handedness from a parent; but dos our having the nose, or the asthma, or the left-handedness or all three together, mean that we are not ourself a new person but only still our grandfather, grandmother, or parent? One might as well say that the persisting use of the term horsepower proves that the machine age is still in a horse culture!...Shouldn't we rather recognize that each person is a sort of unconscious anthology of all the epochs of man; and that he may at times be moving simultaneously among different epochs? A Filipino, for example, who knows Tagalog, Spanish and English will, with Tagalog, be mentally moving in the world of oral tradition; with Spanish, in a visual culture; and with English, in the electronic era....

Nick Joaquin, Culture and History, Anvil (Mandaluyong City, Philippines: 2004), pp. 50-51.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Two Poem Drafts

The First Way of Saint Thomas Aquinas

The changed all around us is easy to see,
but unchanged by another no changed thing can be.
What is able to differ cannot be its own act;
it is but a potential for something else to make fact.
So can-change by a changer is made actual change
and thus is a series of changes arranged.
Suppose that the causes as a whole are all moved;
that's one change without changer, so impossible proved.
Every series of changers, in an unchanged cause ends,
and from that first mover those changes descend.
But a first cause of change by its causing unchanged --
to call this thing 'God' is not at all strange.

Things to Do with Poetry

To say the brilliant thing in one's peasant tongue
To nourish scholar's thought with substantial rice and bread
To make the simple truth to be by angels sung
To cast a tale enchanted for the living and the dead
To those who thirst for reason to give a quenching drink
To bury dead with honor and to comfort those who ache
To humble all the pedants and to make the asses think
To clean the airs and waters by exposing every fake
To clothe the naked dream in vestments both pure and plain
To harbor orphan wonders within a royal wall
To make the mundane holy and to make all madness sane
To give the blind a vision and make deaf ears hear a call
To whisper in the darkness of the dawning of the light
To deepen simple prayer with the wisdom of the years
To warn the lazy afternoon of coming night
To temper fears with hope, and hope with fears
To wander through the mazes found in mind and heart
To capture unknown concepts by allusion and by sign
To find the soul in need and to take its part
To slay the evil notion with an aphoristic line
To those who are imprisoned to give truth that sets them free
To give to wonder breadth and to reason span
To form a quiet refuge where one and all can flee
To be the living voice and the memory of man

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Links of Note

* Elisa Freschi, What counts as philosophy? On the normative disguised as descriptive, at the "Indian Philosophy Blog", and Prof Manners, Philosophical Vanities, both do a good job of critiquing recent attempts of discipline-defining in philosophy.

* Jessica Murdoch on papal infallibility

* William Doino Jr, Pius XII's Duel with Hitler

And the Pope vs. Hitler documentary at National Geographic

* Ashok Karra on Xenophon's Apology

* Dale DeBakcsy on Xunzi

* I found this article at McLean's on the collapse of the economy of Churchill, Canada's only Arctic deep water port, to be quite fascinating.

* How the Canadian ambassador at the end of WWII created a minor diplomatic incident by signing on the wrong line.

* James Delingpole on learning poetry by heart.

* Another news story this summer about the difficulty of the construction business in Iceland because of elves.

* Simon J. Cook, How to Do Things with Words: Tolkien's Theory of Fantasy in Practice

* Eve Keneinan has a good post on the history of the word 'monotheism'

* Robert Talisse interviews Martha Nussbaum on anger.

* Eratosthenes and the Circumference of the Earth at "yovisto blog"

* The history of the question, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?"

* "The Verbose Stoic" has an interesting post on Law's Evil God challenge

* Silverstream Priory, a Benedictine monastery, is raising money for a new library, and is fundraising for it online

* An excellent interview with Cardinal Robert Sarah on the importance of liturgical silence

* John Brungardt on voting as a human action

* DarwinCatholic, Be Careful Where Your Loyalties Lead You, has some salutary comments for the voting season

* An interesting Scientific American article on research that attempts to work out the evolutionary history of myths

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Music on My Mind

Club for Five, "A Sky Full of Stars"

He Trampled on the World

Today is the Feast of San Pedro de Alcántara. He was a spiritual theologian whose book on prayer was a major influence on Catholics of the Counter-Reformation period, particularly Saint Teresa of Ávila and Saint Francis de Sales. It was a letter from St. Peter that led St. Teresa to embark on founding convents, in fact. From his Treatise on Prayer and Meditation:

It is a well known fact that one of the greatest hindrances we have to attaining our final happiness and blessedness, is the evil inclination of our hearts, the difficulty and dullness of spirit we have in respect to good rules; for, if this was not in the way, it would be the easiest thing possible to run in the path of virtues, and attain to the end for which we were created. Concerning which the Apostle says, "I delight in the Law of God, according to the inward man; but I see another law in my members warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin." (Rom. 7:22-23) This, then, is the universal cause of all our evil. One of the most efficacious means for overcoming this dullness and difficulty, and for facilitating this matter, is devotion; for as St. Thomas says, "Devotion is nothing else than a certain readiness and aptitude for doing good." For this takes away from our mind all that difficulty and dullness, and makes us quick and ready for all good. It is a spiritual refection, a refreshment, like the dew of Heaven, a breath and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, a supernatural affection. It so orders, strengthens, and transforms a man's heart, that it imparts a new taste and inspiration for spiritual things, a new distaste and abhorrence for sensible things....

If you ask me, by what means so powerful and noble an affection of devotion is attained, the same holy teacher answers that it is by meditation and contemplation of divine things; for from deeply meditating and pondering over these things there springs up this disposition, and affection in the will, which is called devotion; and this stirs and moves us to all good.

Saint Teresa of Ávila on Saint Peter of Alcántara (Life, Chapter XXVII, 17):

And what an excellent likeness in the person of that blessed friar, Peter of Alcantara, God has just taken from us! The world cannot bear such perfection now; it is said that men's health is grown feebler, and that we are not now in those former times. But this holy man lived in our day; he had a spirit strong as those of another age, and so he trampled on the world. If men do not go about barefooted, nor undergo sharp penances, as he did, there are many ways, as I have said before, of trampling on the world; and our Lord teaches them when He finds the necessary courage. How great was the courage with which His Majesty filled the Saint I am speaking of! He did penance—oh, how sharp it was!—for seven-and-forty years, as all men know. I should like to speak of it, for I know it to be all true.

Monday, October 17, 2016


Today is the feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch. He was one of the early bishops of Antioch. Depending on the precise source, he was either the second bishop after St. Peter, or (as in the traditional list) the third bishop after St. Peter and St. Evodius. Probably in the reign of Trajan, he was arrested and sent to Rome for trial. Along the way he wrote a number of letters to various churches, and these are the works we have from him. Seven works are generally thought to be authentic:

The Letter to the Ephesians
The Letter to the Magnesians
The Letter to the Trallians
The Letter to the Romans
The Letter to the Philadelphians
The Letter to the Smyrnaeans
The Letter to Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna

They are mentioned both by Eusebius and by Jerome. In the nineteenth century the ones we have were often thought spurious on the (somewhat dubious) basis that their ecclesiology was so robust, but it was discovered that the common versions, usually known as the Long Rescension, were probably interpolated revisions of another, less well known version, the Middle Rescension, and the arguments against the earliness of the Long Rescension, whatever their status, did not really apply to the Middle Rescension.

On reaching Rome, at some point around AD 108, St. Ignatius was martyred. In Antioch his feast was celebrated on his traditional martyrdom day, October 17, and this spread throughout the Church, although slowly the feast drifted in various calendars to other days (February 1 in the West, December 20 among the Eastern Orthodox); the new calendar for the ordinary form reverts to the ancient memorial, which had continually been kept by some churches of the Syrian tradition.

From his epistle to the Ephesians (Chapter 10):

Pray continually for the rest of humankind as well, that they may find God, for there is in them hope for repentance. Therefore allow them to be instructed by you, at least by your deeds. In response to their anger, be gentle; in response to their boasts, be humble; in response to their slander, offer prayers; in response to their errors, be steadfast in the faith; in response to their cruelty, be civilized; do not be eager to imitate them. Let us show by our forbearance that we are their brothers and sisters, and let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord, to see how can be the more wronged, who the more cheated, who the more rejected, in order that no weed of the devil may be found among you, but that with complete purity and self-control you may abide in Christ Jesus physically and spiritually.

[Michael Holmes, ed. & tr., The Apostolic Fathers, Baker Academic (Grand Rapids, MI: 2007) pp. 191-192.]

Xenophon's Anabasis, Book III

Book III

The Greeks are stranded in a hostile land, their leadership heavily destroyed. They have no obvious way of getting home. They have no market, and thus no easy way even to feed themselves. They spend a night in grief. They seem doomed.

But Xenophon will step up and pull them together. Books I and II are, in a sense, just prologue. It is only in Book III that we learn how Xenophon even happened to be with the Ten Thousand at all:

There was a man in the army named Xenophon, an Athenian, who was neither general nor captain nor private, but had accompanied the expedition because Proxenus, an old friend of his, had sent him at his home an invitation to go with him; Proxenus had also promised him that, if he would go, he would make him a friend of Cyrus, whom he himself regarded, so he said, as worth more to him than was his native state.

Having received this invitation, Xenophon visits Socrates and asks for his advice. Socrates points out that if Xenophon becomes a friend of Cyrus, who is very pro-Sparta, the Athenian government might see that as a betrayal. Thus he advised Xenophon to go to Delphi and ask the Oracle about this endeavor.

So Xenophon went and asked Apollo to what one of the gods he should sacrifice and pray in order best and most successfully to perform the journey which he had in mind and, after meeting with good fortune, to return home in safety; and Apollo in his response told him to what gods he must sacrifice. When Xenophon came back from Delphi, he reported the oracle to Socrates; and upon hearing about it Socrates found fault with him because he did not first put the question whether it were better for him to go or stay, but decided for himself that he was to go and then asked the god as to the best way of going. “However,” he added, “since you did put the question in that way, you must do all that the god directed.”

Thus Xenophon did his sacrifices and joined the expedition -- late, as it happens, because he only caught up to it in Sardis as it was just starting out. Proxenus was glad to see him, and Cyrus himself promised that Xenophon would be sent home right after the expedition. This was still the point at which Cyrus was deceiving his troops into thinking he was only building an army against local enemies, and Xenophon was deceived just like everyone else.

Xenophon ended up being as depressed by the final turn of events as everyone else, but that night he had a dream in which there was a great thunderclap and lightning set his father's house on fire. He didn't know whether it was auspicious or not, but he realized that the immense problem they were facing could not possibly solve itself, and waiting around for it to do so would be a quick way to die. So he called together the officers who had been serving under Proxenus -- as a friend of Proxenus they were, of course, the commanders he would know. He urged them to take the initiative and be courageous, for the Greeks were better soldiers and, unlike the Persians, has shown themselves honest before the gods, who would likely be on their side. As a result, the officers ask him to take over leadership, despite his youth.

All of Proxenus's officers then went around to the other sections of the Greek army to see which of the leadership had survived from each group, even if it was only a lowly captain, and called them all to a meeting. All together there were about a hundred. When they were gathered, Xenophon laid out his plan. First, they needed to replace their leadership as soon as possible, and, second, the new commanders needed to rally the troops, who were in a state of understandable depression. The surviving commanders agree, and new commanders are chosen, with Xenophon taking the place of Proxenus. They gather the troops and the commanders speak to them. Finally Xenophon arises, in his full battle armor (3.7-8):

Hereupon Xenophon arose, arrayed for war in his finest dress. For he thought that if the gods should grant victory, the finest raiment was suited to victory; and if it should be his fate to die, it was proper, he thought, that inasmuch as he had accounted his office worthy of the most beautiful attire, in this attire he should meet his death. He began his speech as follows: “The perjury and faithlessness of the barbarians has been spoken of by Cleanor and is understood, I imagine, by the rest of you. If, then, it is our desire to be again on terms of friendship with them, we must needs feel great despondency when we see the fate of our generals, who trustingly put themselves in their hands; but if our intention is to rely upon our arms, and not only to inflict punishment upon them for their past deeds, but henceforth to wage implacable war with them, we have—the gods willing—many fair hopes of deliverance.”

At the very moment Xenophon said the word 'deliverance' (soterias) someone sneezed -- a common omen in ancient Greece. So Xenophon proposes that they sacrifice to the gods, especially Zeus Soter, and asks the soldiers to raise their hands if they agree, which they do. After the sacrifices, Xenophon finishes his speech by reminding the Greeks of the great things that Greeks had accomplished in battle over the generations, as well as their recent successes against Persian foes. He then addresses a matter of significant concern for the army -- they are all infantry, with no cavalry to assist, while the Persians were well equipped in that area; and he points out that, whatever advantages a cavalry may provide, it is the infantry who actually do the work -- armies are not defeated by the biting and kicking of horses. The primary advantage the Persian cavalry will have is being able to flee faster. As for another major concern -- the lack of a market -- Xenophon notes that they can simply appropriate what they need now -- no longer are they confined to "small measures for large prices". He suggests that they hide the fact that they intend to return home, to throw the Persian King back on what he would do if the Greeks decided to stay, and that they burn their tents and wagons and do everything else they can to travel more lightly. And, finally, he proposes that soldiers who do not obey orders should be disciplined not merely by the commanders but by everyone. But he says if anyone has a better plan, he should bring it, "for the safety of all is the need of all." When the soldiers agree to his proposals, he further proposes that they march in hollow square formation, the better to protect in the center what supplies they do need to carry, and they agree by raising their hands again.

The next day the Greeks began to put Xenophon's plan into effect, but it was a brutal day for them, as they were continually harried by the Persians and could only proceed very slowly. In response, Xenophon tries to organize a pursuit, but fails to catch a single attacker, because they have no horses. The experienced generals found fault with him for this, and Xenophon agrees with them, but notes that it shows that they need horsemen and distance weapons. There are Rhodians in the Greek army, and Rhodians are famed for their skill with the sling -- if they could be supplied, they could outsling the Persian slingers. They also have some scattered horses (including some of Xenophon's own), and if they could equip even a small cavalry, they could do more damage. The generals agree, and so it goes. The result was about fifty horsemen and two hundred slingers.

The next day, the Persians show up with a large army backed by a thousand horsemen and four thousand archers and slingers. But the Greeks are able to repulse this force, and to march onward. Eventually Tissaphernes himself shows up with a massive army pulled together from all the sources available to him. But the Rhodian slingers, deadly accurate and capable of a longer range than the Persian slingers, keep them at bay. The Cretans, meanwhile, were able to supply their small but effective archery corps with the spent arrows of the Persians. Raids on villages supply the slingers with lead for bullets. So it went for a while. The Greeks, meanwhile, discovered that the hollow square is not a good formation when you are being pursued -- it is too difficult to keep regular over inconsistent terrain. So they adapted their formation to their needs, by organizing into companies that could pull forward or fall back as needed.

We get an interesting view of how authority works in the Greek army from a situation in which they discover that the Persians are occupying the spur of a mountain near which they need to pass. Cheirisophus, the most experienced remaining general, and a Spartan, summons Xenophon, telling him to bring his peltasts, or light infantry, to the front. Xenophon, however, can see that Tissaphernes is coming up with an army behind, so he leaves the peltasts and goes himself. They inform each other of the problems, and Xenophon proposes a charge to the mountaintop -- the Persians may have the immediate high ground, but if the Greeks can quickly take the higher ground above them, the Persians on the mountain will not be able to maintain their position. They come to an agreement that Xenophon will lead the charge. Unfortunately, the Persians realize what is happening almost at once, and it becomes a race to the top -- which the Greeks win, due to Xenophon's quick handling of discontent over the hard, fast slog.

After some puzzlement over the best route to follow, they eventually decide to march north to the lands of the Carduchians -- a warrior people independent of Persia -- rather than directly west toward Ionia. This would let them get to Armenia, where travel should be easier due to fewer mountains and rivers. And so they set out.

Additional Comments

* It's noteworthy that Socrates' warning to Xenophon that joining the expedition could be grounds for an accusation against him seems to have come to pass. While we don't know the details, Xenophon on his return will be exiled from Athens. The immediate accusation was probably his service under Agesilaus of Sparta, but (1) this service is arguably a result of his having gone on the expedition; and (2) his association with Cyrus may have indeed been a contributing reason for his banishment.