Frank Miller and the City of Dis

I went to see 300 with my 11 o’clock shadow and musky pheromones primed and ready for action. I had heard magnificent things: “this movie makes men out of boys” I had been told.

My stubble and smells in tow; I left unsatiated and curious as to why. I felt as if I had consumed a bag of marshmallows instead of a full meal – I didn’t know why, and that left me frustrated.

Several conversations later I think I’ve pinpointed a couple reasons as to why. These reasons are not specifically directed to 300: they have more to do with Frank Miller. Get your grain of salt ready however because my knowledge of Miller consists of 2 viewings of “Sin City” and, of course, my recent viewing of 300.

In general I reject the divide between moral critiques and artful critiques, because to tell a good story you have to have a good story as well as telling it well. Spielberg, a masterful but conservative director, tells some great stories (Schindler’s list) and some sub par ones (War of the Worlds). Tarentino flitters between magnificent vapidity and ends up with entertaining and sick movies – with the brief hope of a glimpse of humanity. Scorsese can tell intriguing stories magnificently, but it’s ceiling is capped. Oliver Stone sucks. (OK I did like Platoon).

Frank Miller has emerged as one of today’s premier story tellers but he will never satisfy me until he understands the City that isn’t Hell. I could forgive him in SinCity because the parallel to Dante’s hell is easy (especially the City of Dis) and because it was my first exposure to him. Alternately, I’m sympathetic to the contemporary version of the tragic hero: the noir hero. SinCity revolves around these figures: stubborn and competent men who soberly welcome whatever fate has planned for them in order to protect the divine thing (aka “girl”) that they have seen. Of course in SinCity the divine spark is always a hooker or a stripper, but that’s forgivable because it’s still a woman; full of beauty and crying out for help. This is a noble virtue for someone in hell, stubbornly and self sacrificially protecting the divine spark.

But the City is evil, and the hero cannot escape it, at best he can only gain someone else’s release. I’m not going to rag on charitable self- sacrifice; but where Bruce Willis’ and Mickey Rourke’s characters satisfy the noir role, King Leonidas doesn’t. He fights, and bellows about Sparta. Miller also “bellows” about Sparta a bit, but mostly only to belabor one point: the entire civilization is geared towards making men into hard, ruthless soldiers. This ideal, while appealing on the surface, is the hollow sort of ideal city rejected in Plato’s Republic as the “City of Pigs”. It’s artless, heartless, and void of beauty. While the “City of Pigs” may or may not be an outright picture of hell, it certainly isn’t an enviable culture. The praise in honor of the Spartan ideal amounts to nothing more than a cheap pep rally for self-discipline and stubbornness.

Miller does see one sin clearly however. As even the demons pity and shame at the sight of Satan chewing on the traitors, so Miller looks on the hapless traitor Ephialtes. Betrayal, that which is beyond faintheartedness, lust, and greed, is the only real sin in Miller’s worlds. SinCity didn’t mind a bit if you’re a killer, hooker, or drug addict. Just don’t be a Satanic cannibal, beat up too much on nice women, or betray your army. I’m not even sure if it matters what you sickness you prefer in SinCity as long as you’re on the side of the noir hero, the exception being treachery; it makes you an outcast to everyone. It is the stain that cannot be removed, and the coldly served justice in the final scene reminds us of that

Did the 300 die well? Though I am tempted to look up to people who value something above their own life, it isn’t always a virtue. I want to say that these men fought and died for something grand that they loved – thus putting them alongside Braveheart’s William Wallace and Gladiator’s Maximos, but I’m just not sold. This isn’t because the movie offended my personal ideal or some esoteric philosophy, it’s because it didn’t sell me on what the people were fighting for. The story here is simply shallow and unconvincing. New, inventive, tremendously well shot; and unconvincing.

But I will go one step further out on my creaking limb and say that the reason that Miller can’t be convincing about Sparta is the same reason that he can’t write a story where The City isn’t the City of Dis. King Leonidas is as formidable a character as Jack Bauer, but with less depth because Miller doesn’t understand people relating to people, he only understands the lone man standing against the City. And all the man can seem to do is die for a dead hooker. Community is a boring and insignificant theme for Miller, whose best insight is into the most individual of individuals. These heroes follow a long pedigree and their profundity is not to be overlooked; but it seems that Miller can’t write a story that isn’t a version of the noir hero and have it be very effective. I might pay to see a movie because its talked about, different, or just because it’s cool – but it will not make it a classic. 300 hasn’t been very well received by the critics, but neither was Gladiator, and it went on to win Best Picture and has ingratiated itself into culture. 300 will not do that, and in 5 years time it will be remembered much like the Blair Witch Project is today: it made history as a trend.

Maybe it’s unfair to complain because of how magnificent a movie isn’t, and maybe I shouldn’t be outraged that I can’t list it next to Citizen Kane, Philadelphia Story, and Rear Window. I didn’t complain when I saw Serenity or Gattaca because they’ll be forgotten in years. But I wanted this movie to move me, to thrill me, to tell me about battle and home. I wanted the Ballad of the White Horse sort of apocalypse – full of death and pain and glory and God. I wanted the grass on the screen to be the grass of my hometown that I carved mazes in, but instead it was the desolate plains of hell on the outskirts of the City. I was ready to “drink a dreadful death for wine” and realized instead that the wine was actually the black river of Styx. I was ready to vicariously love and die and instead I was mildly entertained while my soul witnessed the hacking off of limbs as if they had been attached with scotch tape. I received neither the joy of real battle nor the lightheartedness of fantasy, and was given instead haunting pictures of a world without meaning where even those who die in glory have never lived.

Thoughts following a cigar…

First, you should know that I just finished smoking a cigar with the boys. You should also know that it was very good, especially following an afternoon of sun- scortched backyard baseball. Now, back to the program…

I have begun several posts on the Emergent(ing) Church and the New Monasticism. I have been unsatisfied with these early attempts because there is story I am interested in telling that informs my views on “organic” communities full of intentionality and comradeship. In order to somewhat explain my muddled thoughts on the matter I rely (as usual) on the genius of G.K. Chesterton, as witnessed in his delightful little book humbly titled “What’s Wrong With The World”. The first part make some points about camaraderie and equality, then it moves on to the relationship and difference between men and women. How does this relate to the Emergent(ing) Church and the New Monasticism? You’ll have to read to the very end…

Now, pure comradeship is another of those broad and yet bewildering things. We all enjoy it; yet when we come to talk about it we almost always talk nonsense, chiefly because we suppose it to be a simpler affair than it is. It is simple to conduct; but it is by no means simple to analyze. Comradeship is at the most only one half of human life; the other half is Love, a thing so different that one might fancy it had been made for another universe…. Both sides are essential to life; and both are known in differing degrees to everybody of every age or sex. But very broadly speaking it may still be said that women stand for the dignity of love and men for the dignity of comradeship. I mean that the institution would hardly be expected if the males of the tribe did not mount guard over it. The affections in which women excel have so much more authority and intensity that pure comradeship would be washed away if it were not rallied and guarded in clubs, corps, colleges, banquets and regiments. Most of us have heard the voice in which the hostess tells her husband not to sit too long over the cigars. It is the dreadful voice of Love, seeking to destroy Comradeship.

All true comradeship has in it those three elements which I have remarked in the ordinary exclamation about the weather. First, it has a sort of broad philosophy like the common sky, emphasizing that we are all under the same cosmic conditions. We are all in the same boat, the “winged rock” of Mr. Herbert Trench. Secondly, it recognizes this bond as the essential one; for comradeship is simply humanity seen in that one aspect in which men are really equal. The old writers were entirely wise when they talked of the equality of men; but they were also very wise in not mentioning women. Women are always authoritarian; they are always above or below; that is why marriage is a sort of poetical see-saw. There are only three things in the world that women do not understand; and they are Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. But men (a class little understood in the modern world) find these things the breath of their nostrils; and our most learned ladies will not even begin to understand them until they make allowance for this kind of cool camaraderie. Lastly, it contains the third quality of the weather, the insistence upon the body and its indispensable satisfaction. No one has even begun to understand comradeship who does not accept with it a certain hearty eagerness in eating, drinking, or smoking, an uproarious materialism which to many women appears only hoggish. You may call the thing an orgy or a sacrament; it is certainly an essential. It is at root a resistance to the superciliousness of the individual. Nay, its very swaggering and howling are humble. In the heart of its rowdiness there is a sort of mad modesty; a desire to melt the separate soul into the mass of unpretentious masculinity. It is a clamorous confession of the weakness of all flesh. No man must be superior to the things that are common to men. This sort of equality must be bodily and gross and comic. Not only are we all in the same boat, but we are all seasick.

The word comradeship just now promises to become as fatuous as the word “affinity.” There are clubs of a Socialist sort where all the members, men and women, call each other “Comrade.” I have no serious emotions, hostile or otherwise, about this particular habit: at the worst it is conventionality, and at the best flirtation. I am convinced here only to point out a rational principle. If you choose to lump all flowers together, lilies and dahlias and tulips and chrysanthemums and call them all daisies, you will find that you have spoiled the very fine word daisy. If you choose to call every human attachment comradeship, if you include under that name the respect of a youth for a venerable prophetess, the interest of a man in a beautiful woman who baffles him, the pleasure of a philosophical old fogy in a girl who is impudent and innocent, the end of the meanest quarrel or the beginning of the most mountainous love; if you are going to call all these comradeship, you will gain nothing, you will only lose a word. Daisies are obvious and universal and open; but they are only one kind of flower. Comradeship is obvious and universal and open; but it is only one kind of affection; it has characteristics that would destroy any other kind. Anyone who has known true comradeship in a club or in a regiment, knows that it is impersonal. There is a pedantic phrase used in debating clubs which is strictly true to the masculine emotion; they call it “speaking to the question.” Women speak to each other; men speak to the subject they are speaking about. Many an honest man has sat in a ring of his five best friends under heaven and forgotten who was in the room while he explained some system. This is not peculiar to intellectual men; men are all theoretical, whether they are talking about God or about golf. Men are all impersonal; that is to say, republican. No one remembers after a really good talk who has said the good things. Every man speaks to a visionary multitude; a mystical cloud, that is called the club.

It is obvious that this cool and careless quality which is essential to the collective affection of males involves disadvantages and dangers. It leads to spitting; it leads to coarse speech; it must lead to these things so long as it is honorable; comradeship must be in some degree ugly. The moment beauty is mentioned in male friendship, the nostrils are stopped with the smell of abominable things. Friendship must be physically dirty if it is to be morally clean. It must be in its shirt sleeves. The chaos of habits that always goes with males when left entirely to themselves has only one honorable cure; and that is the strict discipline of a monastery. Anyone who has seen our unhappy young idealists in East End Settlements losing their collars in the wash and living on tinned salmon will fully understand why it was decided by the wisdom of St. Bernard or St. Benedict, that if men were to live without women, they must not live without rules. Something of the same sort of artificial exactitude, of course, is obtained in an army; and an army also has to be in many ways monastic; only that it has celibacy without chastity. But these things do not apply to normal married men. These have a quite sufficient restraint on their instinctive anarchy in the savage common-sense of the other sex. There is only one very timid sort of man that is not afraid of women.

The Baptism of Wonderful People

I thought of this passage during my conversation the dear Protestant, because it so interestingly marks the shift in my thinking about man, his sin, and his restoration. May we not confuse ourselves with our sin, and thus understand forgiveness.

Why couldn’t I understand forgiveness before? According to Fr. Alexander Schmemann its because “the sacrament of forgiveness is baptism”, and I didn’t understand baptism as a Protestant. (Maybe if I had grown up Lutheran, but even then…). I didn’t understand any of the Holy Mysteries when I was a Protestant – I naturally believed in some sort of Real Presence in the Eucharist, because I believed I could “eat and drink judgment on myself.” But then we would pour the left-over grape juice to the toddler’s for snacks.

How are we forgiven? We are returned to the true Humanity by being in Christ. How are we “in Christ”? We are baptized.

From Fr. A Schmemann:

To believe in Him is to accept the joyful revelation that in Him forgiveness and reconciliation find their fulfillment. In baptism man wants to die as a sinful man and he is given that death, and in baptism man wants the newness of life as forgiveness, and he is given it. And yet sin is still in us and we constantly fall away from the new life we have received. The fight of the new Adam against the old Adam is a long and painful one, an what a naive oversimplification it is to think, as some do, that the “salvation” they experience in revivals and “decisions for Christ,” and which result in moral righteousness, soberness and warm philanthropy, is the whole of salvation, is what God meant when He gave His Son for the life of the world. The one true sadness is “that of not being a saint,” and how often the “moral” Christians are precisely those who never feel, never experience this sadness, because their own “experience of salvation, ” the felling of “being saved” fills them with self-satisfaction; and whoever has been “satisfied” has received already his reward and cannot thirst and hunger for that total transformation and transfiguration or life which alone makes “saints.”Baptism is forgiveness of sins, not their removal. It introduces the sword of Christ into our life and makes it the real conflict, the inescapable pain and suffering of growth. It is indeed after baptism and because of it, that the reality of sin can be recognized in all its sadness, and true repentance becomes possible. Therefore, the whole of the Church is at the same time the gift of forgiveness, the joy of the “world to come, ” and also and inescapably a constant repentance. The feast is impossible without the fast, and the fast is precisely repentance and return, the saving experience of sadness and exile. The Church is the gift of the Kingdom – yet it is this very gift that makes obvious our absence from the Kingdom, our alienation from God. It is repentance that take us again and again into the joy which reveals to us our sinfulness and puts us under judgment.

A Defense of Wonderful People

I recently had a talk with a dear Protestant who asked me if we could say that people were wonderful. “We’re all such sinners” she said, “can we really say that we’re wonderful?” She then told me that she had been touched by a non-Christian person who told her that she was wonderful, and that this experience had left her in theological bewilderment.

I have been learning is that there is a separation between myself and my sin. St. Basil says that sin is to the person as sickness is to the body, and that when we go to confession we are going to the doctor. What this presupposes is the idea that the general state of humanity is one that is very sick; malnutritioned, fever ridden, and gangrenous. But we are not dead, and we are not beyond help, for we have a great Physician and a place of healing.

My Protestant replies that I have a limited and crass understanding of Jesus’ redemptive power. As I continued to listen, and as she confirmed, what she was concerned of defending was that Jesus’ work “covers” everything of ours: that is, that we can wallow in our sickness and Jesus will cover us, for we will be robed in His righteousness. In one sense I agree with this – for Jesus paid a great price, and in His mercy he does cover us completely. This is His grace, His love, and our great humility to accept. But am I trying to denigrate the work of our Savior by saying that we can be healed, and that His power is essential? Or am I being offensive to Christ’s righteousness when I say that righteousness isn’t imputed, or that abiding in Christ includes the work (liturgy) of imitating Him?

It seems to me that the bewilderment of my dear Protestant is due to confusion between sin and the person. From my own Protestant experience it seems that it is easy to identify yourself with sin, despite ascribing to maxims like “God loves the sinner, but hates the sin.” It is very much a sin in itself to acknowledge your sin, and be complacent or helpless. For healing and help we must have a more complete reaction to sin. St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite says it better than I:

Just as hunters are not satisfied with merely finding a beast in the forest, but attempt through every means to also kill it, likewise, my brother sinner, you should also not be satisfied with merely examining your conscience and with finding your sins, for this profits you little, but struggle by every means to kill your sins through the grief in your heart, namely, through contrition and affliction. And in order to acquire contrition, consider how much you have wronged God through your sins. In order to also acquire affliction, consider how much you have wronged yourself through your sins.

Do the Orthodox then not see themselves as sinners? One need only look at St. Mary of Egypt and St. Isaac the Syrian to know that the Orthodox never exceed their need to repent, sorrow, and cry for mercy. These are mature responses to the state of man, and they require hard work. This saving and humble response must be learned and cultivated. This is why we pray ceaselessly the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I have received two seemingly opposite reactions from Protestants on this topic. One says that the Orthodox don’t have a great enough view of man’s depravity, and the other says that it wallows in self-denigration. One person reacts against the doctrine of theosis as too optimistic and then finds the multiple “Lord have mercys” morbid. The fast is too intense and demeaning for them, but the fruits of it too fantastic for them to believe. During my journey East I asked both Protestantism and Orthodoxy to show me where these things aren’t true to Scripture or reality. Protestantism told me of my naivety and reaffirmed their position on depravity: Orthodoxy silently showed me its saints and handed me the gospels, the evangelion.

Another reason that I’m more evangel-ical now that I’m Orthodox.