[I posted this yesterday on Facebook. It got absolutely no reaction. This makes me sad.]
These are waters I don’t often wade into. Nothing in what follows is meant to be a rah-rah for any sociopolitical side, and there should be something to make anyone uncomfortable. Because everyone should be uncomfortable today.
I’m in the apparent minority in today’s shouting culture, because I DON’T KNOW what can or should be done about our culture and its violence. What I do know is that the violence isn’t the problem per se (and the guns, being the implement of the violence, are even further downstream from the actual problem). There is a rot in the soul and the souls of our civilization, of which mass violence and suchlike are perhaps the most headline-grabbing manifestation. And I think I found a perspective on it inadvertently a couple of weeks ago, in a video I saw about a demonstration against cultural appropriation or imperialism or something of that ilk. The right-leaning person behind the camera asked a white male demonstrator about whether the culture being thus protected was somehow inherently better than the culture from which the white male demonstrator came, and the white male demonstrator bellowed, “We don’t HAVE a culture! We don’t HAVE a f***ing culture!”
I’m not sure what the demonstrator thought he meant. But I’m starting to see what that actually means.
John Adams famously said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Lesser known is the line he penned two sentences before this one: “[W]e have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion.” My takeaway from these lines isn’t that only a Christian or Bible-believing society can enjoy the blessings of liberty, but that a society which depends on big-G “Government” as its only governance is doomed to failure. A society without the rigors of standards, of mores, of ethical integrity not just as an abstract concept but as a foundation of a worthy character, will find itself growing an overarching external scaffolding to provide a poor substitute for the skeleton it no longer has.
America has often been described as an experiment in self-government. That doesn’t just describe a system of representative republicanism; it also denotes an experiment in self-governance and self-control. When the extra-governmental culture provides a full suite of commonly accepted standards and strictures, the government only needs to build the roads and collect the taxes to pay for them. If, however, “we don’t HAVE a culture,” then the most over-regulatory nanny-state can never compensate for the lack.
And all of that is exquisite and high-falutin’, but the real question on the ground today is, “What do we do about the guns?”
Unlike perhaps many people who lean right, I don’t believe the Second Amendment itself is something sacred, except as it is in an expression of the Rule of Law, of which I am a VERY big fan. The Constitution is the axiomatic foundation of all governmental authority in this country. It also contains the means by which it may be modified, which means have been exercised before. If the conditions set forth in the Constitution are met, then the Second Amendment could be abolished, modified, or recast. Otherwise, there is simply no legitimate way to circumvent it while also maintaining the claim that this is a country governed by law.
But if the Second Amendment were abolished or weakened, it would sadden me immensely. Not because I own guns – I don’t – but because it would be an explicit admission that we are no longer a nation of self-governance. We (by which I mean, “a not-insignificant fraction of us”) don’t have the moral wherewithal to be adults in any meaningful sense. We don’t have a culture; instead, all we have is its weaker cousin, government. Nor do I think that those who would work most energetically in the cause of weakening government recognition of the right expressed in that amendment, even if doing it out of compassion and a desire for the safety of others, would be doing it with an eye toward stiffening the nation’s moral fiber and then returning that right “when we can be trusted with it again,” as those forces doesn’t seem to ever want to temper their pity with responsibility, their inclusiveness with standards, their empathy with expectation. The moral skeleton would continue to atrophy under their compassion.
So what should we do? What CAN we do?
I’m going to have a Mormon moment here, so bear with me.
You don’t have to believe this, but you do have to understand it: The Book of Mormon presents itself as a thousand-year history of an otherwise unknown culture, compiled from primary records by Mormon, last in a long line of historian-prophets. After documenting and redacting his civilization’s rise, its golden ages and its cycles of wars and pride and tribalism, Mormon then gives an account of his own era, when the constant wars are a sign of the to-the-core depravity of both halves of the polarized culture. And there’s a point where Mormon looks at when and where he lives and realizes, It’s not going to get better. It’s just not. He continues to push back against the rot of his society, but he knows that the forces of darkness are going to collapse inward on him all the same. And they do.
More and more, I understand Mormon’s realization of a tipping point already past, of a downhill acceleration for which no braking is sufficient. I don’t pretend to be a prophet, and I hope that I am wrong. But I can’t bring myself to entertain that belief deeply or consistently. I suspect, more than I want to, that the cultural soul is too decayed to ever be brought back. Uphill from the guns, uphill from the will to violence and rage, is a font too mucked up to ever flow pure again.
Please, America. Prove me wrong.
I end with this, the recent single from my favorite band, Marillion. (It’s okay if you’ve never heard of them.) When the album which contained this single was released, I found it disappointing – too thin musically, too vapid lyrically. But with every incidence of soul-rot exposed in our country, it becomes more insightful.
I leave this not as a solution or a final pronouncement on the subject, but simply a comment in the conversation.
As is our family tradition on the Friday before Halloween, last night I lined up a bunch of spooky movies and kept going until all of us finally gave up or simply fell asleep where we were. Now that my children are all at least teenagers (and one doesn’t live here), there was no time when all four were present, but each spent at least some time gazing upon the marvels presented.
Matango (1963) – I much prefer the original Japanese title to the American Attack of the Mushroom People, since “Matango” really doesn’t mean much to most people, whereas “Attack of the Mushroom People” promises events which really only occur during the last five minutes. Seven people of various careers and levels of Japanese society (including a torch singer who provides us with two musical numbers), on a pleasure cruise on a private yacht, run into an unexpected storm that knocks out the radio and breaks the mast (this was made by Toho, so cue footage of a toy boat in the wave tanks that Godzilla would otherwise occupy); after several days of drifting, they end up on a deserted island with the wreck of a research vessel and lots of fungus.
On paper it sounds good, but the focus is so much on the soap opera of five men and two desirable women, there’s too much feel-good jazz-club music for the appropriate mood of apprehension, and as mentioned above, the “good parts” are almost completely confined to the final five minutes. On the other hand, it was refreshing to get the worst movie of the evening out of the way first.
The Tingler (1959) – Sure, several lines of dialog taken out of context are a hoot, and the titular Tingler is a silly rubber prop that doesn’t actually use its legs for locomotion, but Vincent Price is always worth watching and listening to (especially in a “Vincent Price with a hateful wife” plot, almost as common as a “Vincent Price takes revenge on people” plot), and William Castle was a master of keeping things interesting. You can tell how much fun seeing this in the theater or drive-in would have been. And now my kids want to watch Tol’able David (1921), the silent movie showing when the Tingler makes its memorable theater attack.
The Haunting (1963) – Proof that pounding sounds and some good terrified acting can convey fright far more than all the CGI in the world. This movie adaptation stays true to the heart of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, with wonderful editing solid performances (except for Russ Tamblyn’s one-note performance that made me long for the character’s death to be written into the screenplay) conveying the uncertainty and ambiguous core of both the haunted house and Eleanor (Julie Harris), the investigator the house focuses on. My daughter Sariah wanted a movie in this year’s batch that was honestly spooky, and The Haunting delivered. As did…
Tales From the Crypt (1972) – Five EC Comics stories of sometimes-supernatural comeuppance filtered through a British sensibility (by Amicus Productions, which produced the best Hammer-style movies not actually made by Hammer Films), which lends gravitas to the sometimes simplistic morality tales, and also takes out a lot of self-consciously corny aspects. The centerpiece is Peter Cushing’s wonderful performance as a kindhearted garbage man whose soul is slowly crushed by an uppity neighbor’s psychological campaign. The whole movie is good enough that you desperately want to ignore how Richard Greene’s character doesn’t fit with the conceit of the framing device.
Shock Waves (1977) – Featuring Peter Cushing again, looking even more dead than he did in the last movie — and he’s not even supposed to be a zombie! I always wondered why director/co-writer Ken Widerhorn never made bigger splash (it’s terrible to have Return of the Living Dead Part II as the high point of your resume), as this movie shows a great visual command; I’ve always loved the calm way the camera dwells on the immortal aquatic SS commandos rising from the waters…
It was probably a miscalculation to have Shock Waves as the fifth movie of the marathon, as it’s very distinctly not an energetic movie. Just after 3 a.m., I looked over to see that the two remaining children had fallen asleep, and even though it was only ten minutes to the end, I decided that I would rather be asleep.
Contamination (1980) – Of the Italian-made Alien ripoffs, this is not the worst. But that’s only because at least one other (Alien 2: On Earth (1980)) is reallyreallyreally bad. Contamination is only reallyreally bad.
A pain-in-the-ass New York cop, a standard-issue “frigid” female scientist, and an ex-astronaut with PTSD are the only people that stand in the way of another ex-astronaut’s plan to… Man, that sentence was going so well, too. Unfortunately, the evil astronaut’s efforts to spread exploding poisonous giant-avocado non-eggs propagated by his alien cyclops master has absolutely no point. As just mentioned, the things which everyone refers to as “eggs” are spelled out as being not actually eggs, but clusters of some kind of silicon-based bacteria which become active at higher temperatures, pop, and spray any nearby humans with alien avocado juice which immediately causes their chests to explode in a chunky, bloody spray. So despite what the evil astronaut says about this all being part of the alien cyclops’ way to survive, the exploding eggs don’t actually propagate the species. They just kill people.
I mean, Contamination is directed and co-written by Luigi Cozzi (aka “Lewis Coates”) so I knew there was no chance in hell of it being a good movie, but it’s not even the kind of effervescent stupidity that makes his immediately previous movie Starcrash (1978) such a barrel of fun. Contamination is just dumb.
The Professionals (1966) – Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Jack Palance and Claudia Cardinale in a semi-noir Western? Sign me up! The thing probably wrote itself in the aftermath of The Magnificent Seven (1960), and helps give the lie to the idea that the spate of spaghetti Westerns spawned by A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and Django (1966) was entirely unlike what American studios were producing; it also shares some kinship with The 5-Man Army (1969), discussed here. Marvin, Lancaster and Palance each showcase one facet of “masculine” character (the committed, the self-absorbed, and the romantic), while Cardinale is, well, Cardinale — there’s really no point in ever casting her as anything other than the obviously desirable human McGuffin. The movie feels as long as it is (two hours), and loses focus in the second hour, but it’s still an enjoyable genre entry.
Shin Gojira (or Godzilla: Resurgence, of you must) (2016) – So we here in America made our own Godzilla movie in 2014 that works as ground zero for a new mythology, and in 2016 the Japanese did the same thing. Not as radical a move for them, as pretty much every Godzilla film since Godzilla 2000 has almost done the same thing, only referencing the 1954 Gojira and ignoring what came between.
The biggest difference between the American and Japanese reboots: The American one focused on a couple of people on the ground — a soldier and, to a lesser degree, a nurse — in a manner not unlike the story of ordinary people caught in a natural disaster. The Japanese one, though decided to take what had been a common failing in the movies that came before — a concentration on high levels of the administrative services fighting against Godzilla, watching the destruction on screens and commenting — and doubling down on it. It’s Godzilla vs. bureaucracy! Cabinet-level votes and procedures! More conversations between two people walking than has been seen since The West Wing went off the air!
Add to that a Godzilla who looks like a mutant bird embryo when we first see him, the standard bogus understanding of science that has plagued most of these movies (that’s not how evolution works!), some goofy new powers (Godzilla fires radioactive power-streams not only from his mouth, but also his dorsal plates — and his tail), and a final solution that’s both arbitrary and bizarre (if Godzilla’s blood acts as a cooling mechanism for his inner nuclear fission, how does coagulating his blood freeze him?), and, well… I wanted to like this. I didn’t.