What I’m Into: September 2015

20110925-011821This month I came through an existential crisis and reaffirmed my trust in the goodness of life and an ultimate purpose to human existence. I also watched a lot of movies about outer space, because apparently that’s what I’m into in September 2015.

            Movies

            A few of the lesser films I saw this month (there were a lot, okay?): Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, The Road Warrior, 2012 (blame this on my brother-in-law), Home, Tom Brown’s Schooldays (with Stephen Fry), A Tale of Two Cities (1989), Arabesque (with Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren), Week End (Godard’s worst movie? hopefully?), Bigger than Life (a fine performance from James Mason), The Haunting (1963), Never Let Me Go.

            Now for the better ones:

            Kingsman: The Secret Service. Somehow I saw the censored version of this one. A few days later I watched the original cut and walked away with a less positive feeling. The violence is cartoonishly over-the-top, but it features an excellent performance by Colin Firth as a Hagrid-type father-figure shepherding a young man into a secret spy organization. The narrative combines elements of Ender’s Game and Harry Potter. ***1/2

            Captain Phillips. Based on a true story and powerfully directed by Paul Greengrass (who also directed the second and third Bourne movie), this movie about Somali pirates hijacking a merchant vessel features one of Tom Cruise’s best performances in years. ***1/2

            Saving Mr. Banks. More fine performances from Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson as Walt Disney and P. L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, respectively. Colin Farrell appears somewhat randomly in flashbacks. ***1/2

            The Theory of Everything. A Stephen Hawking biopic that tells you almost nothing about Hawking’s ideas, choosing to focus on his disastrous marital life. Excellent performances by Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne (who won an Oscar for the role).

            Westworld (1973). Initially I rated this one only three stars. But then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Or talking about it. Michael Crichton writes and directs this pre-Jurassic Park story about a Wild West theme park staffed with robots who turn and kill the human guests. But the highlight of the movie is Yul Brynner as a gun-toting, slow-walking, murderous robot cowboy—the Terminator in spurs and a Stetson. ***1/2… actually, no, make that **** stars

            Stalag 17. One of the classic prisoner-of-war dramas, about a group of men being held prisoner by the Nazis and the one man (William Holden) who is suspected by his fellow soldiers of being an informant. Great script and several unforgettable moments. ****

            Inside Llewyn Davis. Come for the folk music, stay for a sweet story about a cat and a vivid evocation of winter 1960 in New York. ***

            The Lady from Shanghai (1947). It’s no secret that I love everything Orson Welles has ever done. This noir film about a man framed for murder occasionally stretches credulity (how could anyone be so gullible?), but features possibly the first use of a “hall of mirrors” climax in cinema. ***1/2

            The Stranger (1945). Another great Welles noir, featuring the first use of concentration camp footage in a motion picture and a dizzying denouement atop a clock tower. ***1/2

            Carrie (1976). The movie that helped launch John Travolta and Sissy Spacek into stardom, this is one of those films that everyone knows the plot of, even if they’ve never seen it. Still, I was surprised by how effectively it made me feel for Carrie in the moments just before she wreaked her unholy vengeance. ***

            They Live! John Carpenter’s quasi-Gnostic, pre-Matrix parable about a man (Roddy Piper, sporting a mullet and fresh out of bubblegum) who discovers a pair of sunglasses that reveal a hidden alien society all around him. Simple, sometimes troubling, but always engrossing. ***1/2

            Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (special edition): the highlight of this late western is the Bob Dylan soundtrack. (Dylan himself appears in an understated role as a curly-headed young man). ***1/2

            The Secret Garden (1949). Great black-and-white cinematography and set design elevate this story about three children who discover a secret garden. Directed by Fred Wilcox (who would go on to direct Forbidden Planet), this movie is a wonder to look at. ***1/2

            Howl’s Moving Castle. Stunningly original, visually brilliant, with a story that is convoluted (in the grand tradition of most Miyazaki films) but always compelling. ****

            2001: A Space Odyssey. I loved this movie. I don’t understand why everyone thinks it’s so boring. It’s contemplative. It’s a prayer. It’s humanity in search of the meaning of our own existence. ****

            Lawrence of Arabia. Several finely staged setpieces, some unforgettable narrative twists, and the most epic cinematography ever committed to film. Worth it just to see Peter O’Toole and Alec Guinness together on screen.

            Before Midnight. The third film in Richard Linklater’s Before series deconstructs the romance of the previous movies, showing us a Jesse and Celine who are nine years older and beginning to wonder if their relationship is really worth it. Includes one of the most realistically written and acted arguments in any movie. ****

……....Fanny and Alexander. Bergman released this movie in a theatrical edition and a TV version for Denmark television that was five hours long. I started watching the shorter version and became so engrossed I knew I had to watch all of it. Having now finished part one of the TV series, I can already say it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen, like a Tolstoy novel on screen.

            TV Series
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            Black Mirror. A modern-day spin on The Twilight Zone, but focused on the perils of technology. The first, unforgettable episode recently made the news when Lord Ashcroft claimed that David Cameron had had sexual relations with a pig at Oxford, which happens to be almost the exact plot of that episode.

            Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Continuing my trek through this decades-in-the-making TV series, I finished Season 6 with “Dumb Witness” and began Season 7 with “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.” The series has adapted Christie with admirable consistency (and at this point might be my favorite show, ever).

            Veronica Mars. Joss Whedon called this teen mystery drama the TV version of Harry Potter, and it’s true. This show is everything I need right now.

            Books

            Dombey and Son. Almost a hundred pages into this one. It has some of Dickens’ best prose, which is both a virtue and a drawback. Dombey has a son (and possibly a daughter?), but apart from that I have no clue what’s going on.

            Spooky Texas (S. E. Schlosser). Now that I’m home, I have access to several collections of southwestern folklore. This one compiles several of the best-known legends of Texas.

            We Were Liars (E. Lockhart, 2014). This is a gorgeous book and everyone must read it.

            The Missing Girl (Norma Fox Mazer). I read this book about five girls and the man who decides to kidnap one of them in one sitting.

            Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream (H. G. Bissinger). A powerful and damning indictment of Texas sports culture, and possibly Texas in general.

            Jane Austen’s England (Roy and Lesley Adkins). A breezy but informative handbook for writers.

            The God of Hope and the End of the World (John Polkinghorne). A book that helped me through a profound crisis.

            Collected Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor. Flannery! FLANNERY!!!

            First Term at Malory Towers (Enid Blyton). The first in a series of books about a girls’ boarding school. I LOVE this book. The relationships are all beautifully, convincingly rendered and the girls’ mischievous antics are reminiscent of the Weasley twins, among others.

            What about you? What did you read or see this month?

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Two Stories About Bells

Vertigo 02One thing you learn in writing stories is that certain objects have a mysterious and almost magnetic power that defies words. Castles, swords, rings, goblets, buried treasure—the appearance of any one of these in a story is like a radiant stone that vibrates with its own intensity. Perhaps that’s why I became Catholic, because as a storyteller I was naturally drawn to a religion that invests material things with sacramental power: holy water; crosses; bells, books, and candles.

 

Bell towers have fascinated me ever since I saw the movie Vertigo when I was nine or ten years old. Recently voted the greatest film of all time in the once-a-decade Sight & Sound poll, Vertigo tells the story of a retired detective (James Stewart) hired to trail a young woman (Kim Novak) who may be possessed by the ghost of a long-dead ancestor. He pursues her to an old Spanish mission, the Mission San Juan Batista, where, at the very top of the bell tower, tragedy strikes. And then strikes again.

 

The understated use of Hispanic and southwestern folklore in this movie slowly worked its way into my brain, taking root in dark corners. During my first couple of months at Southwestern University, ten years ago this summer, I was enchanted by the beige limestone, the rounded-arch doorways, the old chapel at the heart of campus with a door leading up to the tower, a door that was only unlocked on the rarest of occasions. I remember being struck with a sense of the history of the place.

 

It was there that I had the idea to write a series of children’s books, books that would draw on the cultures and legends of the Celts (my ancestors) and the Southwest (my adopted home). This summer in going back and rereading some of the folklore and mythology of England I’ve been struck by how many stories center around the ringing of bells. In the days before telephones and wireless, sometimes the cathedral bell was the only means of communication between one town and another, or between the church and those in peril on the ocean’s dark waters.

 

One such story from County Surrey tells of a man, Neville Audley, who was captured fighting on the wrong side during the long-ago War of the Roses. Arrested and sentenced to die when the curfew bell tolled on the next night at Chertsey Abbey, he realized that the only hope of being spared was to obtain a pardon from the king.

 

Neville conferred with his girlfriend, Blanche Heriot, and their mutual friend Herrick. Herrick agreed to ride towards London to seek pardon. But on the next day, with only five minutes left before the bell tolled, Herrick was seen flying towards the town from half a mile away—still too far away to save Audley’s life.

 

The minutes passed. The townsfolk awaited the tolling of the bell. But the bell did not ring.

 

Just as Herrick arrived in town, the sexton, accompanied by soldiers, went up into the tower to investigate. There they found Blanche Heriot, dashed against the bell and frame but still clinging to the clapper with a tenacity born of desperation. Luckily she had hung there just long enough to save her beloved, who was spared from death by the king’s timely pardon. The two were married shortly afterwards.

 

Another story with a less happy ending is told of the tenor bell of Burgh le Marsh church. The people of Burgh le Marsh once made a living off the debris of doomed ships, lighting the beacon on Marsh Hill to lure poor sailors to their deaths. Once the sailors were all drowned and the weather had calmed, the townsfolk would scramble ashore to loot the broken vessels.

 

As the story goes, in 1629 the Mary Rose was sailing from Leith, Scotland along the Lincolnshire coast on its way to Flanders. A storm began to gather. The wind howled and the rains beat against the ship, while the people of Burgh watched from the shore with growing excitement.

 

But not everyone was pleased by the buffeting of the storm-tossed ship. The elderly sexton Guymer, when he learned what was being planned, begged them not to light the beacon. No one listened.

 

A crowd made its way towards Marsh Hill and the beacon was lit. Captain Frohock, seeing what he mistook for a lighthouse, called out to his men that they were safe. The crew turned the ship in the direction of the light.

 

Back on shore, desperate to avoid the collision that was imminent, Guymer ran towards the church. Ascending to the top of the bell tower, he grabbed the rope and rang the bell with all the strength he could muster. Captain Frohock, realizing how close he was to shore and certain death, ordered the Mary Rose back to sea, away from the treacherous sands.

 

Enraged by the tolling of the bell, the townspeople stormed into the church. Breaking down the belfry door, they found Guymer, still clinging to the rope, his dead body swaying to and fro. His heart had burst open from exhaustion.

 

When Captain Frohock returned to the village a year later and learned what had happened, he bought an acre of land known as “Bell String Acre.” He ordered that rent from the land be used to buy a silken rope for the bell. It’s said that he married the sexton’s daughter.