Star Wars, truth, and redemption

When George Lucas first envisioned the movie that became Star Wars IV: A New Hope, he was planning on a single epic movie, not a franchise. As the script developed, the story and characters went through many changes. Lucas came to realize that the story he wanted to tell would not fit within a single movie. In the end, he introduced his characters and then moved them immediately to the big ending he wanted to show: the destruction of the Death Star. When the original Star Wars became wildly successful, Lucas was invited to make more movies with the same characters. He rounded out the trilogy, ending the third movie with another destruction of another Death Star. Along the way, he introduced more ideas about the characters and their setting than had been in the script for the first movie.

As a result, the great Jedi warrior Obi-wan Kenobi is trapped in a pair of blatant lies in the original movie. Handing Luke Skywalker a lightsaber, Obi-wan says, “Your father wanted you to have this.” Shortly thereafter, Obi-wan informs Luke that Darth Vader killed Luke’s father. In the next movie, The Empire Strikes Back, Vader reveals the truth to Luke when he tells him, “No; I am your father.” In Return of the Jedi Luke confronts Obi-wan with his lies, and the warrior feebly twists the family history so that he can tell Luke, “In a way, what I said was true.”

In any other galaxy, Luke Skywalker would have wondered, “How can I believe anything this person tells me?” Honesty ought to be one of the qualities that distinguishes the good guys from the bad guys. Half truths and twisted truths ought to be the tools of evil, not the strategies of good. But in the Star Wars galaxy the bad guys are powerful enough to be open about their plans, while the virtuous rebels must rely on deception to prevail against the Empire.

Philosophers have struggled with the ethics of telling the truth or lying. In a classic puzzle, they ask whether it would be moral to lie to protect a life—such as if an agent of evil is looking for a certain victim, you know where the victim is hiding, and the evil one asks you directly where that person is. Should you tell a lie to keep the potential victim safe, or should you speak the truth, salving your conscience with the thought that the agent of evil would cause the harm; you would be blameless. Most people, I think, would find a lie acceptable, even honorable, under those circumstances. Immanuel Kant (a German philosopher who lived roughly two hundred years ago) disagreed. He insisted that, once you have found one justification for lying, you make all lies acceptable, and no one can trust anyone else anymore. By insisting that no circumstance justifies lying, he upheld what he called the moral imperative of always telling the truth.

Christians know that Jesus Christ is the Truth, and Satan is the father of lies. We would rather speak the truth than tell a lie; we want to avoid the habit of lying. But under a condition where harm would be done by speaking the truth, most Christians would lie. For we have something Kant did not have in his system: we have the forgiveness of our sins. We avoid sin whenever we can; but to save a life we would tell a lie. We would not call the lie justifiable, but we know that we are justified. All our sins have been forgiven by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. He has justified us, redeeming us and bringing us back to his kingdom of pure and perfect truth.

In George Lucas’ universe, even Darth Vader could be rescued by sacrificial love. In his story, the father was saved by the son. In our truth, the Son redeems those who have fallen into evil and makes them acceptable to the Father. In a way, Jesus accomplishes this through a holy deception. He clothes us in his righteousness and takes the blame for our sins. By transferring guilt to his Son and righteousness to sinners, God the Father participates in this deception, and by it we are saved.

Obi-wan’s lies happened only because George Lucas did not know what would be in his second Star Wars movie when he filmed the first one. But God knows everything. When he created the world, he knew about our sins and about the price that would need to be paid to redeem us. God went ahead and created anyhow. He thought we were worth the cost. J.

Advertisements

The Chicago Cubs

Now that the World Series is under way, I will write about my favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs. They are not playing in this year’s World Series, but only two years ago they won the World Series, ending the longest championship drought of any professional sport.

Around Christmas of 2016 I told my father that I hoped the Cubs would take after the (basketball) Chicago Bulls of the 90s who won six championships in the span of eight years. I hoped that they would not take after the (football) Chicago Bears of the 80s who assembled a talented team but only won one Super Bowl. I regret to say that, over the last two seasons, the Cubs have resembled the Bears more than the Bulls.

This year the Cubs won ninety-five games. That tied them for most wins in the National League, which is a good thing. They were tied with the Milwaukee Brewers, who—like the Cubs—play in the Central Division of the National League. Because they were tied, the teams had to play each other in one game to determine who would represent the Central Division in the playoffs. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Colorado Rockies, both in the West Division, also finished the season with the same number of wins and also played one game to name the division champion. This is the first time that two extra games have been added to the schedule at the last minute to determine the championship of two divisions.

Because the Cubs won more than half the games they played against the Brewers this year, the tie-breaking game was played in Chicago. The Cubs lost that game 3-1. The Rockies also lost on the same day. This led to the Cubs and Rockies playing a game to determine the Wild Card team. Because the Cubs had the better record, that game also was in Chicago. The Cubs lost again, this time 2-1.

It is possible to win a baseball game 1-0. In fact, it happens quite often. Usually, though, when a team scores only one run, they lose the game. When Chicago’s offense fails in the two most important games of the year, fans like me worry. Granted, they were one of the best teams all year long. Granted, they have been in the playoffs the last four years, making it to the pennant-deciding games three of those years. And granted, they have recently won a championship in memorable style. But champions cannot rest on their laurels.* Their fans expect them to succeed every year.

The Cubs have assembled a team with awesome talent. This season they had to contend with injuries and other distractions. They still did very well. But only one team can be a champion. Cubs fans waited 108 years to see the Cubs win a World Series. (They won the World Series in 1907 and again in 1908.) They do not want to wait another century for another championship.

A meme was posted on Facebook by a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. It depicted a “participation trophy” for the 2018 Cubs in the postseason. That was clever. It was also painful to see.

The bright spot is that the Cubs were beaten by the Colorado Rockies. There are ten teams in the National League East and West divisions, and now eight of them have blocked the Cubs from advancing in the playoffs. Aside from the Dodgers, who took the pennant from the Cubs in 2017, no National League team has stopped the Cubs in the playoffs more than once. Every time the Cubs faced a team in the playoffs more than once, the Cubs won the second time. (On the other hand, every East or West Division team that met the Cubs in the playoffs for the first time beat the Cubs—until 2017, when the Washington Nationals broke the pattern by losing to the Cubs.) So, according to that pattern, only Philadelphia stands in the way of a Cubs Championship in 2019.

Cubs fans have suffered from the slogan “Wait til next year” for most of our lives. The great players wearing Cubs uniforms today owe it to their fans to do more than participate. They are paid to be champions, and champions they will be.

 

*The expression “rest on your laurels” comes from the ancient Greek Olympic games. In the ancient world, winners were not given gold medals. They were given laurel crowns—C-shaped ornaments worn on the head, woven from branches taken from a laurel tree. Julius Caesar wore a laurel crown. So does the cartoon Little Caesar of the pizza chain. Laurel crowns dry up quickly. They become brittle and fall apart. Therefore, athletes need to go out and win new crowns. They cannot rest on their laurels. J.

Happy birthday Barbara Eden

Today is the birthday of one of the most beautiful and charming actresses ever to appear on television. Barbara Eden is 87 years old today, and even at 87 she remains both beautiful and charming.

She is best remembered as the title character in I Dream of Jeannie. The show told the story of an astronaut (played by Larry Hagman) who was stranded on a beach after an unsuccessful mission. A finds a bottle and rubs the dirt off it, and a genii magically appears. A language barrier exists until he wishes that she could speak English. Afterward, she is able to draw rescuers to him. He sets her free, but she has already set her heart upon him. So she smuggles herself and her bottle into his equipment and travels with him to Florida.

All this is but the first part of the first episode. The rest of the five seasons depict the various ways in which she tries to serve him and protect him by her magical power. Generally her misunderstanding of American culture and technology cause trouble rather than service and protection. The scriptwriters struggled to find situations in which her power would be somehow limited or otherwise hindered. Larry Hagman was scornful of the show; he once claimed that they had only three scripts that they kept reusing with only the details changed. But the show had a huge following, which indicates the scripts could not have been that bad.

Barbara Eden starred in other shows, including Harper Valley PTA. Like most of her friends, though, I remember her best as Jeannie. I vividly remember one episode which I saw when I was very young. Jeannie and her bottle were trapped inside a safe, and the safe was in danger of being destroyed at a garbage dump. The show depicted the safe being carried down a conveyor toward certain destruction… and then of course they broke for a string of commercials.

I Dream of Jeannie aired during the same years as the Apollo space program. I was a fan of real astronauts as well as of those depicted on the show. The makers of the show cooperated with NASA to make the show as realistic as possible. There were, however, goofs. Real astronauts lived and trained in Houston, Texas—not Cocoa Beach, Florida. Both Houston and south Florida are very flat, but mountains were sometimes seen in the background of the neighborhood where Tony and Jeannie lived.

Most famously, Barbara Eden’s navel was not to be seen on network TV, although on two or three occasions her costume did slip, and her navel did appear briefly. But in more than one episode other women were seen in two-piece bathing suits, exposing their navels and much more flesh. That double standard did not make much sense.

Wherever she is and however she is celebrating, I hope that Barbara Eden has a very happy birthday. J.

Five movies for Independence Day

On this fourth day of July, citizens of the United States of America celebrate the independence of our country and remember the freedoms we have as citizens of this country. Americans celebrate with parades, picnics, fireworks, and other traditional activities. Here is a list of five movies that I like to see around Independence Day. Not that I claim they are the best possible movies or that every American should see them. I don’t even watch all five every year, but it’s a safe bet I’ll be watching one of these five movies while others are out watching the firework show.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939): Actor James Stewart and director Frank Capra combine to bring viewers this movie about America’s government. Jeff Smith, played by Stewart, is a simple honest patriot. Named by the governor of his state to fill a vacancy in the United States Senate, Smith finds himself confronted with cynicism and corruption in the nation’s capital. Some elements of the movie fall short—for example, it’s hard to believe that a patriot like Jeff Smith would need a lecture from his office secretary about how a bill becomes a law. Still, the unabashed patriotism of Smith and his supporters—along with the tour of Washington DC’s landmarks—makes this movie a refreshing holiday treat. Some American politicians objected to portions of the movie that depict corrupt politicians (although no states or political parties are named), but the movie was banned in the totalitarian countries of Europe for its celebration of democracy and the power of the common man.

Music Man (1962): Made from a successful Broadway musical, this movie is not about patriotism or the Fourth of July so much as a celebration of the heartland of the United States and the people who live there. Harold Hill is a traveling salesman who markets musical instruments, lesson books, and uniforms, promising to form a boy’s band, even though Hill cannot read a note of music. Marian Paroo is the town’s librarian and must choose whether or not to reveal his scam. With songs including “Seventy-Six Trombones” and “Til There Was You,” Music Man joyfully depicts the state of Iowa in the summer of 1912. The dance scene in the library is particularly not to be missed.

1776 (1972): Also made from a Broadway musical, this movie uses song, dance, and acting to depict the writing and acceptance of the Declaration of Independence in the Second Continental Congress of the North American colonies of Great Britain. No movie is a purely accurate source for history lessons, but this movie comes close. The actors truly live the parts of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and the other founding fathers of the United States. At times humorous and at times gloomy, 1776 does not back away from the harsh realities of war and of American slavery. In the end, though, it is a glowing endorsement of that document created back in 1776 which gave the founding principles of a new nation.

Moscow on the Hudson (1984): Robin Williams plays a Russian musician who defects to the United States while his employer, a Russian circus, is performing in New York City. A landmark movie that can help younger people understand the issues of the Cold War, the movie shows the differences between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but it does not retreat into jingoistic propaganda. Life in Russia has joy as well as gloom, and life in America has sorrow and fear as well as freedom and opportunity. Several other powerful actors depict the population of New York City, a group of people who have traveled from all over the world to take part in the American way of life. Though the film is not entirely family-friendly, it remains one of the clearest proclamations of America’s values during the Reagan administration.

Independence Day (1996): An obvious choice for the Fourth of July, Independence Day tells the story of Earth being invaded by hostile aliens from outer space. Jeff Goldblum, Will Smith, and Bill Pullman all shine in their roles of survivors who must confront and defeat this unexpected threat. Goldblum is especially effective as the environmentally-conscious computer expert who perceives the threat earlier than most people and eventually helps to create a solution. Doses of humor spice the action of this movie, including some lines so subtle that they might not be noticed until a second or third viewing. The President’s speech to his troops before the final battle is particularly uplifting and memorable.

Happy viewing, and happy Independence Day!  J.

(originally published July 3, 2015)

Parallels of Wonder Woman and Full Metal Jacket

Last week the movie Wonder Woman was shown for free at the park downtown, and so I got to see it again. I’ve not gotten deeply involved in the superhero genre, but Wonder Woman had sufficiently good reviews for me to see it in a theater, and I enjoyed it. The story has enough depth and the characters and settings are sufficiently interesting to make me want to see it more than once. Gal Gadot’s portrayal of the title character is nicely done. I have to be cautious expressing my admiration for her, though, because I have a daughter who looks much like her—something apparent not only to her father but also to her coworkers. So I don’t want to rave overly much about the actresses appearance or talent.

During the sniper scene in the Belgian village, I began to think of Stanley Kubrick’s movie Full Metal Jacket, which also includes a sniper scene. In the last few days my mind has found many other connections between these two fine movies.

First, they are both about war. Not only do they include wars or have wars in the plot—both movies explore the meaning and significance of war. Although Full Metal Jacket does not have a figure like Ares to personify war, it demonstrates the same thought that Ares speaks to Wonder Woman: war springs from the violent tendencies embedded in human nature. The very fact that we entertain ourselves by watching movies about war underlines that point; if we were too horrified by war to watch it on the big screen, we might have a better chance to restrain it in real life.

Both movies divide neatly into a training section and a combat section. In spite of the many differences involving the training of warriors, there are similarities in the training technique. For example, in both movies the instructors demand the best of their warriors, urging them to push beyond their limits and achieve more than they thought possible.

In both movies the instructor is violently removed before the combat section begins.

Both movies have the warriors traveling to combat in a different and unfamiliar part of the world. In both cases they have to adjust to foreign situations. And in both movies they confront an enemy that is determined to win by any means possible—corrosive poisoned gas, or booby-trapped toys.

Then of course there is a sniper in each movie.

A much longer list could be made of differences between the two movies, but the similarities are far more interesting. The story of war is much the same whether it is told by Homer or by Oliver Stone. Whether our heroes are ordinary mortals or the offspring of the gods, we still see them wrestle with the senseless violence of war and destruction. The questions are easy to ask; the answers are harder to find. J.

Movie review: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

I bought the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for one reason: the movie celebrates the city of Chicago. Other members of my family do not approve—not that they don’t love Chicago, but because they are involved in education. The depiction of high school, and especially of teachers and administrators, in the movie is insulting, no doubt. All the same, the movie is widely regarded as a reminder to enjoy life, to seize the day, and to make one’s life worth living.

Like many other John Hughes movies, Ferris Bueller involves high school students who are confronted with an adult world that they neither understand nor respect. Set in the 1980s (the time period in which these movies were made), Hughes’ work can be regarded as commentary upon the Baby Boomers, a generation that questioned authority and made their own rules in the 1960s, only to become every bit as rigid and authoritarian when they rose to positions of power. The youngsters in Hughes’ stories are not taking to the streets to protest, nor are they seeking Flower Power. In many ways they are conformists, even though they quietly resent the lives they are forced to live. Generally wealthy, well-dressed, even pampered, they lack a loving connection to their parents. As a result, they form their own tribal culture which grants them an identity which comes from themselves and not from the adults who make all the rules.

Ferris Bueller is supposed to be a likeable character. Even the school secretary reports that most students in the school like and admire Ferris—“They say he’s a righteous dude.” But Ferris is dishonest, manipulative, conniving, self-centered, and smug. Some reviewers have labeled him a psychopath. He breaks into the school’s computer system and changes his attendance record—probably also his grades, although that is not shown. He sets up an elaborate system of props and sound effects to cover his absence from his bedroom, should anyone check on him. He faces the camera and speaks to the audience (which is hardly new or clever; Woody Allen did it earlier, and far better, in Annie Hall). Ferris gives instructions about how to deceive one’s parents and be excused from school due to illness. Ferris’ sister Jeannie is not fooled by his ruse, and neither is the school principal. But the movie’s script demands that Ferris succeed at everything he tries. He is a prankster like Till Eulenspiegel; and, as with Till, the audience is expected to be on the side of Ferris Bueller.

Ferris has a friend, Cameron, who is also missing school due to illness. Ferris decides that Cameron’s illnesses are psychosomatic, a result of neglect from Cameron’s parents. Besides, Ferris does not have a car and Cameron does. In short order, Ferris browbeats Cameron into getting out of bed and getting dressed and driving to the Bueller house. He then forces Cameron to pose as the father of Ferris’ girlfriend Sloane, getting her released from school through the phony news of the death of a grandmother. Still manipulating Cameron, Ferris gets access to the prized possession of Cameron’s father, an expensive sportscar. With that vehicle, they escape into the city to enjoy a baseball game at Wrigley Field, lunch at a fancy restaurant, a German heritage parade, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Meanwhile, the school principal is determined to catch Ferris playing hooky. In a series of cartoonish events, Mr. Rooney attempts to visit the Bueller house, only to be struck by misfortune after misfortune. He is like Wile E. Coyote trying to catch the Roadrunner, except this time the Roadrunner has all the props from Acme. Mr. Rooney tangles repeatedly with a fierce dog. Then, when he finally gets into the house, he is attacked by Jeannie, who—not recognizing him—calls the police to report an intruder in the house.

In every story, something is supposed to happen to the main character that changes him or her. No such thing happens to Ferris Bueller on his day off. He catches a foul ball at Wrigley Field, he commandeers the sound system of a parade float to serenade his friends and the city in general, and he returns home in the nick of time to escape capture by his parents. Some people suggest that Ferris Bueller does not even exist in the movie. They suggest that Ferris is an imaginary character, created by Cameron to be all the things that Cameron cannot be. Although this explanation does not match all the events in the script, it does underline the key to the movie: nothing but good happens to Ferris, and he is unchanged at the end of the movie, but his day off does provide important changes in most of the other characters in the movie.

Sloane does not change. She is there mostly to stand next to Ferris and look pretty. Cameron admires her, and she shows warmth toward him, but she is definitely Ferris’ girl. They even speak lightly of becoming married.  This does not stop Ferris from flirting with young ladies on a parade float. Later, he interrupts a mad dash across the back yards of his neighborhood to introduce himself to two sunbathers. That’s how little respect he has for Sloane. At the same time, though, Cameron, Jeannie, and Mr. Rooney each experience important changes in the movie, changes that would not have happened without Ferris Bueller’s day off.

Cameron begins as a deeply troubled character. He is in bed with symptoms said to be brought on by neglect from his parents. As he prepares to heed Ferris’ call to drive to the Bueller house, Cameron suffers an anxiety attack, crying out and striking the seat of the car. Overcoming his rage, he then has a tussle with his best friend in the midst of his phone call to the school principal. The purloining of his father’s car weighs upon his spirits throughout the day off. Finally, when the group discovers that the garage attendants have taken the car for a spin (adding to the mileage recorded on the odometer, something Cameron’s father monitors carefully), Cameron drops into what appears to be a catatonic state. Even if he is faking it, his choice to respond to his problem in that way, and his success in holding the state for a good length of time, indicate severe emotional health problems. He ends his catanoia with the appearance of an attempted suicide by drowning—again, not an emotionally healthy choice.

After the episode at the swimming pool, the group returns to the garage holding the precious sports car. Once again Cameron suddenly strikes out in anger, kicking and flailing at his father’s car. Realizing that he has damaged the car, Cameron begins to assess his need to deal with his father, no longer to hide behind illnesses and silence. Before he can assimilate that reality, though, the car shoots out the rear of the garage and crashes below the house. “You killed the car,” Ferris observes. Although Ferris weakly offers to take blame for the incident, Cameron refuses. He is going to use the disaster involving the car to assert himself to his father. He is finally going to stand up for himself. This is the last we see of Cameron in the movie.

Meanwhile, Jeannie faces changes of her own. She begins the movie irritated with her brother and his ability to do as he chooses without any negative consequences. After she discovers students in the school hallway raising money to help with Ferris’ feigned illness, she tries to report his crime to the principal, but Mr. Rooney has already left the school in pursuit of Ferris. When Jeannie returns home, she senses the presence of an intruder in the house and calls the police for help. Waiting for them to arrive, she hears a noise in the kitchen. In self-defense she assaults the intruder, not recognizing him as Mr. Rooney. When the police arrive, they find no evidence of an intruder in the house, overlooking Mr. Rooney’s wallet, which he had dropped in the Bueller kitchen. (The police bumble as badly as every other adult figure of authority in the movie.)

Taking her to the police station to charge her with placing a false report, the police leave her for a few minutes sitting next to a drug-dazed Charlie Sheen. In their brief conversation, Sheen gives Jeannie a new outlook on life, beginning with the ability to let Ferris be Ferris without being bothered by whatever he does. Jeannie gets to act on this advice driving her mother home from the police station. Seeing her brother sneaking through the neighborhood, Jeannie begins to drive erratically, distracting her mother and delaying so Ferris can return home safely. He nearly makes it, but he finally is confronted by Mr. Rooney. At this point, Jeannie has found Mr. Rooney’s wallet in the house. She can vindicate herself before the police and still see Ferris suffer for his crimes. Instead, she uses the wallet to blackmail the principal and prevent her brother from the punishment he deserves. Is this turn against authority and responsibility a permanent change for Jeannie or only a temporary softening of her heart? We do not know; her part in the story is over.

This leaves Mr. Rooney. His car has been towed. His nice suit and shoes have been ruined. His body and his pride have been damaged. Now comes a final humiliation. A school bus, filled with students from his school, is ready to take him back to his office. Bedraggled like the Coyote after every attempt to catch the Roadrunner, Mr. Rooney walks down the aisle of the bus. The students stare vacantly at him; in their own way, they have faced a day as tough as his day. One girl takes sympathy upon the principal, offering him a seat and a piece of candy. Has Mr. Rooney learned his lesson? Will his bus ride help him to empathize with the students and care more about their lives? Again, we do not know. Mr. Rooney is left on the bus.

We do not learn about Cameron and his father, or about Jeannie and her new attitude, or about Mr. Rooney and his revelation. This is not their movie. It is Ferris Bueller’s day off. Because he does not care about these people, except for the parts they play in his own entertainment, we are not expected to care about them. Ferris underlines this attitude by addressing the audience one more time after the closing credits. Informing them that the movie is over and they should go home, he reinforces his point. He claimed a day off to enjoy himself, and the effect that has had on other people does not matter to him. In this, he completes his role as the merry prankster.

Moreover, Daylight Saving Time must be abolished. J.

Movie review: Dr. Strangelove

With Vladimir Putin rattling the Russian sabers last week, it seemed time to watch again the classic Cold War movie Dr. Strangelove; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Made in 1964, Dr. Strangelove depicts the possibility of the world’s superpowers going to war because of the belligerence of one United States general.

The movie opens with a comforting statement from the United States Air Force that the events depicted in the movie could not possibly happen in real life. Yet the rules and regulations used by Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper seem entirely reasonable and likely in the context of the film. Usually described as a black comedy, the script contains remarkably few laugh-out-loud lines. (“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here—this is the War Room,” is one of the few.) The humor consists rather in situational comedy and irony bordering on parody: an Air Force pilot replaces his regulation helmet with a cowboy hat after receiving the order to bomb targets in the Soviet Union; a military officer with the code that can call off the attack attempts to reach the President and his advisors from a pay phone but does not have enough spare change to place the call.

Dr. Strangelove combines the extemporaneous comedy of Peter Sellers with the micromanaging direction of Stanley Kubrick. Sellers is one of the very few actors who has had a major role in more than one Kubrick film. This improbable pairing shows the enormous respect the two professionals held for one another. The cast also includes Sterling Hayden as General Ripper, George C. Scott as General Turgidson (a gung-ho, gum-chomping general who must explain to the President and his advisors what is happening and why—the gravely voice of Scott’s future portrayal of General Patton can be heard from time to time), Slim Pickens as the Air Force pilot, and James Earl Jones as a member of his crew. Sellers is given three roles: the title character, the American President, and a RAF officer assigned to General Ripper’s staff.

The title character, Dr. Strangelove, is meant to portray German scientists like Werner Von Braun, who were brought to the United States after World War II to assist the military and the space program. As portrayed by Sellers, he is uncannily reminiscent of a then-unknown Harvard Professor of Government named Henry Kissinger. Of his three characters, Sellers spends the least time on the screen as Strangelove. His portrayal of President Merkin Muffley—said to be based on unsuccessful presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson—makes the character a single voice of calm and reason surrounded by insanity, yet Sellers’ comedic genius shines in his telephone conversations (during which only his words are heard) with the Soviet Premier. Group Captain Lionel Mandrake is also, for Sellers, an understated character, played against the madness of General Ripper. Yet his efforts to wheedle the call-back code from the general, along with his scene in the telephone booth, are among the highlights of the movie.

Kubrick based the movie on a serious novel and only realized along the way that the movie would play better as a comedy than as a serious war film. The foolishness of a Mutually Assured Destruction policy, followed by both the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1960s, is skillfully portrayed in the film. This movie may have help lead to the turn toward détente that both governments attempted in the 1970s. Peter Sellers was the first actor to be nominated for an Academy Award for a film in which he portrayed more than one character. The movie was nominated for Best Picture (and remains the longest-titled movie to be so honored) along with Zorba the Greek, Becket, and Mary Poppins, but they all lost to My Fair Lady.

Much has changed in the world since 1964, but Putin’s boasts last week about Russian weaponry remind us that much has also stayed the same. It may be only the grace of God that has spared the world thus far from the incredible damage humanity is capable of causing, whether through a deliberate act of hate or through mere carelessness and stupidity. For this divine protection we should be thankful every day. J.

Book report

I recently finished reading a science fiction novel; portions of it contained black comedy of a sort. In the plot, the United States has just emerged from a horrible and destructive war. The survivors of the war decide to find a new use for the technology that was developed to fight the war. After brief consideration, they decide to use this new technology to explore outer space.

Of course, if this novel had been written any time after 1960, the plot would be a retelling of current events. Rocket technology was developed by the Germans during World War II to bombard the United Kingdom. At the end of the war, Soviet forces and American forces both sought to capture the German scientists who had developed those rockets. At first the technology was improved only to prepare for another war, as the Cold War was intensifying. By the 1960s, though, both sides were seeing nonmilitary advantages to their respective space programs. In particular, the United States chose the challenge of bringing a man to the moon and returning him to the earth, aiming to achieve that goal before the 1960s ended. In July 1969, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins made that historic journey, lifting off in their rocket from the Florida coast and traveling all the way to the moon. Armstrong and Aldrin both walked on the moon, conducted scientific experiments, and commemorated their achievement. They even spoke with President Nixon, who joked about the longest long-distance phone call in history.

The novel I read, From the Earth to the Moon, was written and published by Jules Verne in 1865. The war in question was the Civil War, and the technology he described was an enormous and powerful cannon. The Baltimore Gun Club resolves to fire a giant cannon ball at the moon. As plans are made for the cannon and cannonball, a French poet volunteers to be a passenger inside the missile. In the end, three men encase themselves in the cannonball, which is gently lowered into a specially built cannon, located on the Florida coast, and the three of them are shot to the moon.

Jules Verse was one of science fiction’s earliest authors. He liked to write travel novels. (His best is Around the World in Eighty Days.) When considering voyages that had never been attempted, such as one to the moon, he carefully considered just how it could be done, down to the smallest details. He had no conception of liquid-fueled rockets like those that would be used by Soviet and American explorers. Verne’s giant cannon and cannonball would not have worked. In many other aspects of his story, though, Verne captured a historic event and described it well… one hundred years before it took place. J.

Cubs win!

The Chicago Cubs clinched their division by defeating the St. Louis Cardinals last night. Since the expansion of the major league baseball playoffs, few teams have managed to return to the playoffs the year after winning the championship. The San Francisco Giants managed a dynasty of sorts, winning three championships in five years (all even-numbered years). The New York Yankees are the last team to win consecutive championships, doing so in 1998, 1999, and 2000.

I have been a Cubs fan since childhood. We Cubs fans were known for our faithful endurance, supporting a team that had not won a championship since the Theodore Roosevelt administration, a team that had not even won a pennant since the year World War II ended. The victories of 2016 were deeply satisfying, as the Cubs dominated the opposition all season, winning more than one hundred games, and then proceeded to bring home the National League pennant. The World Series was hard-fought, memorable for all baseball fans. The championship was not decided until the seventh game of the series, and that game lasted ten innings, including a brief rain delay.

The Cubs’ first opponent in the playoffs next month will be the Washington Nationals. Although the Nationals have never won a playoff series, I am concerned about the Cubs’ chances due to an odd pattern in their post-season history. From the year teams had to win a playoff series to gain the league pennant until the Cubs’ championship of 2016, they were in the playoffs seven times. In 1984 they came close to defeating the San Diego Padres for the pennant, but the Padres managed to win the series over the Cubs. In 1989 the Cubs returned to the playoffs, only to be defeated by the San Francisco Giants. In 1998 the Cubs and Giants were tied for the wildcard position and played a one-game extra game, which the Cubs won. However, afterward they were beaten by the Atlanta Braves. Do you see the pattern yet? Each time the Cubs were knocked out of the playoffs, they were beaten by a different team.

In 2003 the Cubs returned to the playoffs. They met the Braves again and won the series; afterward they had to face the Florida Marlins. The Cubs were within five outs of winning game six and the pennant when the team seemed to fall apart, yielding eight runs, the game, and (the next night) the series. In 2007 the Cubs were beaten three straight games by the Arizona Diamondbacks; in 2008, they were beaten three straight by the Los Angeles Dodgers. The pattern continued.

The Cubs were sold to a new owner, who brought in new management. The new management rebuilt the Cubs from the ground up. In 2015, they surged into contention, earning one of two wildcard spots in the National League. They defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates in the one-game wildcard playoff game, and then won a series against the Cardinals, demonstrating that they could not be stopped in the playoffs by a team in their own division. But when they played the New York Mets, the Cubs were swept in four straight games.

Seven different teams have stopped them in the playoffs: the Padres, Giants, Braves, Marlins, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, and Mets. Three teams remain to be challenged: the Nationals, Colorado Rockies, and Philadelphia Phillies. In 2016, the Cubs were privileged to face the Giants and the Dodgers, teams that had stopped them before. But now they have to break their pattern completely by beating a team that has not threatened them in the playoffs to date.

On the other hand, the Cubs have a pattern of winning championships two years in a row—they did so in 1907 and 1908. J.

Ruby Sparks (movie review)

Five years ago the movie Ruby Sparks appeared briefly in theaters. Reading the newspaper reviews intrigued me and I wanted to view the movie, but it was gone again before I had a chance to see it. This summer, using birthday gift money, I was able to buy a DVD of the movie. It arrived in yesterday’s mail. I watched it last night, and I am pleased to report that it met and exceeded my expectations.

The central premise of the plot is that a novelist creates a character—the title character of the film—and then she suddenly becomes a real person. This story retells the Greek myth Pygmalion, in which a sculptor falls in love with a statue he has carved and a goddess transforms the statue into a living woman. Of course this story has been retold many times in a variety of settings. Ruby Sparks does a better than average job of making the main characters believable, set in a twenty-first century California city.

Paul Dano plays the writer, Calvin, and Zoe Kazan plays the title character. (Kazan also wrote the script for the movie.) Brief appearances by Elliott Gould, Annette Bening, and Antonio Banderas add texture to the film. Calvin is approaching his thirtieth birthday, having written the Great American Novel while still a teenager. Like many prodigies, Calvin struggles to meet the high expectations triggered by his early success. Early in the movie he is shown in a counseling session in which his self-doubt and fear of failure are clearly revealed. A girl he first meets in two separate dreams, coupled with a suggestion by his counselor, ignites Calvin’s imagination and sends him into a writing frenzy, creating a romantic novel starring his dream girl, Ruby Sparks.

The character of Calvin is well established when the appearance of the real Ruby Sparks begins to be foreshadowed. Her sudden manifestation in his kitchen causes Calvin to doubt his sanity, a verdict in which his brother concurs. Two revelations follow: other people can see Ruby and interact with her, and Calvin can cause Ruby to speak fluent French by adding a sentence to his novel. Calvin soberly locks the text of the novel in a desk drawer, and then he and Ruby establish a beautiful romance.

Of course the magic relationship does not last forever. Ruby wants more excitement than Calvin’s reclusive life offers. She increases her independence until Calvin begins trying to manipulate her through his writing. His own emotional problems are magnified in her behavior, until an ugly and inevitable confrontation between author and character occurs, vividly depicted by Dano and Kazan.

The pace of the movie follows the inner life of the author. His emotional disorders are subtly portrayed in a variety of ways without becoming distracting or insulting. His eccentricities—such as using an obsolete typewriter for his work—are important to the story. Yet many of the reviews I have read this morning miss the point, treating the pace, the actor’s work, and the details—such as the typewriter—as flaws.

Ruby Sparks covers far more than emotional disorders. It delves into the relationship between artists and the products of their art. A creator wants to be in control, yet the creator must also allow the art to develop in its own way. Characters find their own voice, begin to make their own decisions, and even force changes in the plot of the work. I am sure that painters, sculptors, and composers of music can share similar stories of the ways their creations overpowered them and forced them to change the work they were doing.

That said, Ruby Sparks is not a flawless movie. The characters are foul-mouthed and have no respect for the marriage bed (although fornication is not depicted on-screen). The ending tries to be both charming and ambiguous and instead is unsatisfying. One cannot be certain whether Calvin has learned from his experiences or if he is doomed to repeat his mistakes again. Like many good movies, though, Ruby Sparks manages the little nuances which carry the story of the movie without relying solely on dialogue and action. It is more than a romantic comedy; it is a thoughtful approach to creativity and the loneliness of the artist. For that reason alone, I recommend it. J.