Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, December 28, 2018

They Shall Not Grow Old: Film Review

I had a chance today to go see the limited release World War One documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, directed by Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame and The Hobbit infamy. The concept of the film is fairly well conveyed by both the poster and the trailer. As Jackson explains in a brief interview before the film (and in a 30min making-of piece after it) the Imperial War Museum approached Jackson (who was known to have an interest in WW1) to see if he'd be interested in doing "something unique" with the ~100 hours of vintage film footage from the war that the museum possessed. The request was open-ended, and what Jackson eventually decided to do is surprisingly restrained and quite effective.

If you've watched movie footage from 1914-1918, it tends to look jerky and fast. The reason for this is that the frame rate of early movie cameras (and projectors) was slower than today, and often inconsistent. The "standard" for silent movies was 16 fames per second. A standard modern movie is shot at 24 frames per second. So if you run film stock shot at 16 frames per second through a projector at a rate of 24 frames per second, you get jerky, fast movement. Add to that the effects of 100 years time on the physical film stock, and you can see why the clips you see so often in documentaries don't look very good.

What Jackson did was to make use of the full powers of a modern special effects house to adjust the frame rate, bringing the movement back to a natural, smooth movement. You can see this contrast watching the trailer above. They also cleaned up scratches, smoothed grain, and in places colorized the footage. Conscious of the bad artistic reputation that colorization has, Jackson argues that the use of black and white footage by military photographers in World War One was not due to some artistic choice, but simply due to the fact that they didn't have access to color, and thus that by colorizing the film he's doing a better job of conveying what the soldiers really saw.

All this technical work is very well done, and the movie would be worth watching just for this.

The additional very interesting choice which Jackson made in putting the film together was to restrict himself exclusively to images from the war and to narration taken from recorded audio interviews with WW1 veterans recorded by back in the 1960s. Thus, rather than hearing historians or writers tell us about the war, we hear veterans in their 60s and 70s talking about their experiences. The only modern voice talent added is where the footage clearly showed someone talking, in which case Jackson's team had forensic lip readers figure out what the men in the film were saying, and voice talent from the proper part of the UK for that regiment dub in the words.

From the ~100hrs of film footage the Imperial War Museum had, and ~600hrs of audio interviews with veterans, Jackson has created a movie which provides a soldier's eye view of the war experience from start to finish. At the beginning, we hear men talk about how they enlisted and about training. Then we hear them talk about trench life, life behind the lines, and about an attack. At last we hear them talk about the end of the war and going home.

What's good about this is that there's fairly little interpretive filter on what we hear. Jackson seems to have gone into this with no particular ax to grind, and so we hear a wide variety of reactions, from men who said they'd do it all again to men who said there was no point to it all.

What's limiting is that this is such a relentlessly soldiers-eye view that we get no sense of how the war progressed and changed. Near the beginning, one of the veterans who fought all the way from 1914-1918 talks about how the war changed so much that if you could take a man from 1914 and drop him straight into 1917, it would seem to him like a different war. However, because the film focuses on the experience of training, the experience of trench life, the experience of attack, we don't get any sense of how all those things changed during the four years of the war. Near the end, we see footage of men preparing for an attack, and we hear narration from men talking about an attack. But the narration is cutting from one veteran to another, and if you know your WW1 history well, they're clearly talking about different battles. One talks about an attack with 300 tanks, which must be from 1918. Another is clearly talking about the Somme. One talks about how their attack would be a complete surprise with not long barrage. Another talks about the artillery firing all night before the attack.

I'm not actually sure that a non-expert would notice this much at all. You do get a strong impression of the war, both visual and audible. But it's a very static impression, which is too bad in that one of the misconceptions about the war is that it was one long static period in which tactics and technology failed to develop as foolish generals sent millions of men charging towards machine guns.

That sort of editorializing isn't here. I don't think that generals are mentioned even once in the movie. The view is totally at the foot soldier level. And in a movie that's only an hour and 39 minutes long, there's not time to get across all of the change that went on during the war. So I think that the approach Jackson took is a good one for what he was doing. It just has certain limitations.

The movie itself was only in very limited release in the US. It played on two days (December 17th and 27th) so the next stop will doubtless be DVD and/or online streaming. If you have an interest in the period or in the technology of film restoration, it's definitely worth your time.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Home For Christmas

Family portrait drawn and given to me by several of the children.  The animals
are all plays on nicknames or favorite animals: Baby Groot, dragon, skunk, baby
shark, pigeon, giraffe, monkey.

Real life family portrait on Christmas Eve, in almost the same order, except that
Monkey is in front of me rather than at the far right and Pigeon is in front of MrsD

We had no visitors, but our house was full this Christmas. This has been striking me the last few holidays: We no longer feel like a small, satellite family staying home from the ancestral gathering with the larger family. We're starting to feel a lot more like the ancestral gathering itself. The older girls (the Big Three at 16, 15, and 12 this year) can be called in to tackle adult tasks in the kitchen and elsewhere, but if left to themselves they drift off to do their own activities. The youngest, at 18 months, is still of an age where he has to be watched, lest he pour someone else's drink on the floor or smash things with the wonderful toy sword someone left lying around, but it's starting to feel more like an older family with a few young kids knocking around than the reverse.

It's chaotic and takes some management. We didn't have dinner until around 7:00pm, and the cake for our Christmas baby turning five wasn't until nine. As we put it together I realized I'd failed to buy birthday candles. At nine o'clock on Christmas, that's a call for creativity rather than a quick dash to the store.

But all these, as I have often to remind myself, are still within the context of a very good time. Yet another golden year. When the one year old can't be calmed because he's cutting multiple molars at once, I have to remind myself to this, because it would be foolish to be ungrateful at a time like this.

These times are not earned. They are not guaranteed. I find myself looking back at the happy Christmases of my own youth. There is no revisiting the ancestral home of my youth. Not all broken families are broken by choice or moral failing. Some are broken by the relentless intervention of outside forces. Cancer broke ours. And it broke it as thoroughly as any other means. We survivors gather, but without that key missing piece -- Dad -- even though we all love each other the connections seem not to work like they used to. Where Dad used to be at the center of every conversation, now silence looms.

So I look around at our happy, healthy family and give thanks, knowing that there is no knowing how long it is given to us. Perhaps a year or two. Perhaps long decades stretching out before us.

This rift, the sundering seas that divide us, whether that divide comes from the brokenness of our lives or the brokenness of our world, is why Christ came to us today, a tiny baby born into obscurity and placed in a manger, a baby born into a world whose turbulence and cruelty is familiar enough around the world today. Christ came to triumph over death, and offer to us the promise that there is beyond this world a healed one, where the grey rain-curtain is rolled back, and we shall behold beyond a far green country under a swift sunrise. We are not meant to feel torn in two, but solid and whole, and we will be.

In the mean time, we have the promise of the Christ Child, and of Christ died and risen from the dead. We have, as this Christmas season reminds us, hope.

A merry and blessed Christmas to all you.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Purity Culture and Chastity

As I've grown older in Christian circles, I've heard a lot of negative re-assessments of what people have labeled the "purity culture" which held some sway in Evangelical and Catholic circles during the 1990s and early 2000s.  As with many terms, what this is applied to can vary.  I'll take it here to mean what I think is the most common usage, referring to a type of evangelization which was used to encourage teens to not have sex outside of marriage.  Since the goal was to encourage kids who had not yet had sex to avoid fornication, this evangelization tended to focus on teaching and rituals designed to emphasize the importance of maintaining the virginity which it was assumed the audience still possessed.

The rituals involved included the giving and wearing of "purity rings" (which symbolized a promise to remain pure until marriage), the signing of chastity pledges, proposals for replacing dating with "Christian courtship", and Father/Daughter purity dances (sometimes accentuated by white dresses for the daughters to symbolize the purity they were supposed to maintain.)

Teaching often focused on a purity vs. contamination metaphor for avoiding sex: Would you want to chew used bubble gum?  Would you want to drink from a bottle of water full of backwash?  Well then why would you want to marry a spouse who'd had sex with other people?  You should avoid having sex until marriage so your spouse won't feel like they're sleeping with lost of other people when they sleep with you.

As with many invented rituals, the rituals of the purity movement could be hokey, which more than any principled stand was why they didn't appeal to me at the time.  Looking back, however, what seems most problematic was the fact that the rituals but most especially the teaching placed such an emphasis on virginity that they seemed to hint that if someone did have sex before marriage, she was permanently contaminated and there was no path back to virtue and salvation for her.

A piece of gum, after all, really only has value as a thing to chew.  If it's already been chewed, it has no value and becomes something useless.  A person is unlike a piece of gum.  A person has value simply for being a person, made in the image and likeness of God.  A person who has sinned by choosing to have sex outside of marriage is not of less value as a person.  They have sinned, but their innate value and dignity is the same.  Because a piece of gum is good only for use (and only desirable for use if it's un-chewed) there's no sense in which a piece of gum can return to virtue.  However, for a person, no matter how many sins we have committed, it is always good to commit to not sinning again.  We never reach a point where we are so spoiled that it just doesn't matter if we sin any more.

None of these misinterpretations of these metaphors occurred to me at the time.  If you'd asked the teenaged me whether someone who had been unchaste once was ruined forever and thus might as well keep sinning, I would have said, "Of course not!"  But apparently plenty of emotionally vulnerable people did take these examples to mean exactly that, and the harm done was real.

To what extent the people who taught this way believed there was no recovery from sin is, I suppose, an open question.  Certainly, I remember lots of "I used to be a sinner, but now I've changed and I'm waiting to find the perfect spouse" testimonies that went around.  I even remember my native Los Angeles Times running an indignant and perplexed piece about how a local evangelical youth movement was encouraging high school girls with sexual histories to commit to "second virginity" and renounce further sex until marriage.  The author of the piece conceded that the youth pastors involved did apparently realize this didn't cause physical virginity to grow back, but they still seemed to find the whole thing to involve magical thinking.

But regardless, it's important that when people teach on behalf of the truth they do so in a way which conveys the truth as clearly as possible, and I think there's a good case to be made that many of these purity-based metaphors failed in that regard.

All of which is to say: I think there are legitimate complains to make against the 'purity culture' as it existed conservative religious circles in my youth.

That said, however, I want to poke at the confidence with which people reject it.  Because while some of the metaphors used to urge people to maintain their virginity were metaphors that tended to obscure the truth, I think it's worth pointing out that the project of encouraging young people who are virgins to remain so until they get married is not itself wrong.  The problem with these purity metaphors is not that they emphasized that fornicating was wrong, it's that they suggested that someone who had fornicated was then worthless or irredeemable.  However, encouraging someone to maintain their virginity until marriage is not in itself bad.  It is good.

Why should we say that avoiding fornication entirely (in other words, never voluntarily losing one's virginity until marriage) is a good and important thing?  Isn't that in and of itself over-emphasizing the importance of 'purity'?

Perhaps it's easier if we think for a moment about sins which it remains fashionable to consider always and everywhere wrong.

Is it important for a man to maintain the purity of never having beaten his wife?  Are we over-emphasizing the important of sinlessness and discouraging the sinners if we say that a man should never, ever, haul off and smack the woman he loves, no matter how bitter their disagreements?  Are we unfairly smearing men who've beaten just a few women if we suggest that women should consider a man who has beaten other women permanently suspect?  Are we suggesting that there's no forgiveness and thus writing such men off forever?

Of course, I would hope we all agree that it is not at all unreasonable to emphasize not just that guys should overall, most of the time, especially once they settle down, avoid hitting women too much, but rather that they never, ever hit women, that they not do it even the first time.  Why?  Because abuse is wrong.  Does that mean that a man who commits that sin can never be forgiven, that he has no value as a person and might as well keep doing it because there's no redemption?  No.  We emphasize that he should not sin in this way even once not because he'll cease to have human value if he sins, but rather because it's a bad, destructive thing to do and we don't want the bad effects of this sin to touch either him or the person he committed such a sin against.

Now, if we admit that fornication is in fact wrong and destructive (which as Christians we should) then clearly we should desire that any person for whom we wish the good (and we should wish everyone the good) not commit this sin even once.  In other words, we should wish them to maintain their virginity until marriage.

So while it's important that Christians avoid the use of teaching metaphors and rituals that suggest people only have value to the extent that they remain 'pure' for the later use of another person, encouraging young people to maintain their virginity until marriage is not something we should feel embarrassed to do.  It is a good and worthwhile thing to teach young people to avoid sin.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

La Guadalupana

Nuestra SeƱora du Guadalupe has watched over us for another year. As always, our favorite tribute.

This is an interesting year of motherhood for me. As a gift to myself for my 40th birthday, I weaned my youngest child, age 17mo. This is not a bittersweet moment for me. It's a relief, a promise of new things to come. Perhaps this is the last time I wean a child, and that's just fine with me. My oldest will get her driver's license in January, and almost immediately we'll go into driver's ed for the second. My friends: I might not have to drive the children places. Oh, can you imagine?

Ruega por nosotros.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

I Remember MrsDarwin: Forty Years I Endured edition

Today is my fortieth birthday: I am 40 today!

In honor of such, I revive (by actual reader request) I Remember MrsDarwin, these four years extinct, to make a birthday request of all of you: a piece of flash fiction. As I toil for your reading enjoyment, don't let me toil alone! Brighten my journey into the darkness of middle age with the spark of your creativity.

Write me a little story, or a poem, or a six-word memoir ("For sale: baby shoes. Never worn."), or, if the spirit moves you, follow the actual rules of the game:

If you read this, if your eyes are passing over this right now, even if we don't speak often, please post a comment with a COMPLETELY MADE UP AND FICTIONAL MEMORY OF YOU AND ME.
It can be anything you want--good or bad--BUT IT HAS TO BE FAKE.
When you're finished, post this paragraph on your blog and be surprised (or mortified) about what people DON'T ACTUALLY remember about you.

You can find all sorts of mendacity of this sort in past installments of I Remember MrsDarwin.