Two Writers

There are many cliches about the artist/writer’s life; one of them is that artists are basically very screwed-up people. In fact, it’s been raised into something of a romantic myth. This seems to have been proven by the fascinating Academy-Award nominated film Capote. Truman Capote, a rejected child who became a flamboyant and out-sized character, always begging for attention and recognition. After becoming fascinated by the story of accused killers Perry White and Richard Hickock, he made it the basis of his most famous book, In Cold Blood.

Capote felt a real kinship with White because of their abused childhoods. But in pursuit of his story, he was drawn into moral compromises that made him even more akin to his subject. He lies, makes promises he doesn’t keep, and manipulates his the two killers, pretending friendship while planning to let them die, as long as he has his account of the murders.

Finally White confesses to the writer that the moment he saw fear in his victim’s face, recognition that he could become a killer, he quickly decided to prove him right — and shot him. Capote, listening, seems to become at least partly aware that his own seeking for recognition has made him a monster. The titles at the end of the film tell us that he never wrote another book.

Critics (who are writers) are naturally fascinated by this aspect of the film — the Faustian bargain that a writer can make in the name of art. But Capote actually portrays two writers. Fascinating as Truman Capote is, the other writer is even more fascinating to me. I first read her book as a young girl, when my father was assigned to an Air Force base in North Carolina in the late 60′s. I read it to pieces; I practically memorized it. It taught me things about the South (a new place to me), about racism and about humanity that I couldn’t have gotten so well in any other way. A kind of radiance has always hung around the author for me and I’ve always longed to meet her. She is, of course, Nelle Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ll never forget my amazement when I learned that the model for the character of Dill, the childhood friend of the heroine Scout, was none other than Lee’s own childhood friend Truman Capote.

Beautifully portrayed in the film by Catherine Keener, Lee is as clear-eyed and self-effacing as Capote is self-deluded and narcissistic. When her first and only novel is published, she isn’t yet the famous literary figure that Capote is. People mistake the title of her book, speak patronizingly to her, and ask questions like “Its a children’s book, isn’t it?” She winces, but replies politely, “Well, yes, it’s about children.” Yet when her book becomes world famous, wins the Pulitzer Prize for literature, and is made into an award-winning film, she doesn’t change. She always gives the impression of being more concerned with her friend’s decline than with her fame, which she never speaks about. She doesn’t try to be the center of attention at parties with talk of the writing life. At the gala party for the film version of Mockingbird, Capote stands as though posed for a photograph, while being ignored by everyone, while Lee speaks with her friends, seemingly ignoring the cameras. And yet when she asks Capote, someone whose ideas she truly values, for his opinion of her work, he is too absorbed in his own trouble to answer.

Few critics have written as much about Lee as a character in the film — and of course she is a supporting character. One thing we’re not told at the end of the film is that Lee also never wrote another book after her best-selling novel. She seemed happy to return to obscurity. Perhaps because she saw what seeking for fame did to her friend. We also never learn anything about her writing process, or what facing racism did to her.

It’s something of a shame that the true sacrifices made for art aren’t quite as exciting on film as the ruinous temptations. As for myself, I’d rather be more like Harper Lee.

An Overlooked Gem

Less than a week to go before the Oscars now, and the mood seems to be . . . a little flat. A few voices are suggesting that the nominees selected by Hollywood insiders might really have been the best offerings this year. As several writers have pointed out, the nominees this year tend toward a few works that politically correct (and increasingly insular) Hollywood finds significant, while audience-pleasing films like The Chronicles of Narnia or or Batman Begins are all but ignored. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all films that are popular deserve nominations. In fact, there were some wonderful gems out there this year that never found much of an audience – or nominations. So I’ll talk about some of those this week, as well as some of the nominated films. But new DVD releases are coming out every week — and not just of this year’s films. I’d love to urge everyone to see one recent release in particular.

Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 film Francesco, Giullare di Dio, known in English as The Flowers of St. Francis, became available last fall on DVD from the Criterion Collection (b+w, in Italian, with English subtitles). The film celebrates the life of St. Francis of Assisi and his brothers. The DVD release was practically unheralded, but this is nothing new. Italian neo-realist director’s work was panned by critics and all but ignored by audiences when it first appeared in 1950. But it has since come to be known as “one of the masterpieces not only of Italian cinema, but also of religious cinema,” as film critic Father Virgilio Fantuzzi, S.J. notes in the extras on this beautifully produced DVD.

The film is a series of vignettes based on The Little Flowers of St. Francis and other early Franciscan sources. They realistically show Francis and his brothers suffering from rain, cold and hunger, as well as the suspicion and misunderstanding they arouse among the townspeople of Assisi. It portrays their inner spiritual struggles, their asceticism (even those aspects uncongenial to modern viewers) and the contrast between their poverty and humility and the violence of their time. Most of the roles, including St. Francis, are played by real Franciscan friars. Rossellini treats Francis’ story with warmth and insight, and is faithful to his sources. One of the film’s highlights shows the simple Brother Juniper being tortured by the tyrant Nicolaio,but bearing it so patiently that the brutal man is eventually overcome with remorse and converted. Love overcoming violence is an especially strong theme in this film completed not long after World War II.

Along with the interview with Father Fantuzzi about the film and his relationship with Rossellini, the extras also include a delightful interview with the director’s daughter, Isabella Rossellini, who says that her father chose St. Francis as a subject because “he is loved by everyone, even non-Catholics. His was a simple way of being good that anyone can reach.” She adds that this simplicity was in perfect accord with her father’s filmmaking style; he preferred to observe with the camera rather than use much editing or rely on the studied performances of professional actors. With the friars, he captured genuine spirituality on film. “The innocence in their faces is something that an actor cannot play,” she said.

Father Fantuzzi recalls that though Rossellini claimed not to be religious, religious themes of “good and evil and redemption.” often occur in his work. This moral quality adds to the excellence of this film. Don’t miss it.

Where Will You Be on D-Day?

It launches on May 19. Not the invasion of Europe, but the storming of theaters by the film version of The Da Vinci Code. Some of my Christian friends online are debating whether to go to the movie — or even read the book.

On one hand, we have to be informed. When we discuss the ludricous historical errors, distortions and blasphemies in the book with those who have read it, as soon as they find out we haven’t read it, it’s likely to stop the discussion right there. Nobody wants our opinion on something we’re ignorant of. But reading the book or seeing the movie will put money into the coffers of the publisher and filmmakers.

Now Sony has put up a web site so that Christians can “discuss” and ‘”respond to” upcoming film. The publicity team for The Da Vinci Code have long been making it known that they are seeking some “Passion dollars” for their film. They’re referring of course, to the over $300 million earned by The Passion of the Christ, much of it contributed by Christians, Hollywood’s newly-discovered audience.

One thing is clear to me. Every person who has read and believed the book or at least has become interested in it is a soul for whom Christ died, someone who deserves and needs to know the truth. Many people who have wandered far from Him over the years may have become interested again. Many who left the Church long ago, still have some respect for the person of Jesus. Some who know little about Him have become interested for the first time. We don’t dare not be informed; we don’t dare not respond. Here’s a free way to get yourself better informed.

But at the same time we have to send a clear message to those who promote and stand to make money off the Christian audience through something that is an offense to all Christians. We need to state loud and clear that we aren’t playing along with them.

That’s why I’m very glad to spread the word about this initiative, started by Jan the Maven. In short, let’s vote with our feet, with our box office dollars and see a movie on the weekend of May19 – any good movie EXCEPT The Da Vinci Code. You see, Hollywood is still hoping that the Christian audience is a small one. Yes, at first they thought the Christians who went to The Passion were just a few people dredged up from under rocks in the Bible Belt — people “who otherwise never go to the movies.” They’ve eventually learned they can’t exactly ignore us, but they still hope we’re not that important. Staying home won’t prove how big an audience we really are (80 percent of the country, actually). Staying home won’t send the message that Christians can make or break a film at the box office.

And if anyone knows of a way to advertise and promote this initiative in the media, let’s do it. Because we should let them know why.

Oscar Noms tomorrow!

I think I probably chose the wrong year to start my blog. For two years running, I’ve enjoyed reading blog posts discussing potential Oscar nominees and winners. Normally I try to watch all the films that have a prospect of a nomination, but this year, while I did see several potential nominess that came out earlier in the year (Crash, Cinderella Man, Good Night and Good Luck), I for the last two months I’ve had a problem with my leg that has largely kept me confined to bed (though happily able to work sitting up with a laptop). So I have missed practically all the year-end Oscar hopefuls. Since I’m almost well, I’m still hoping to see a number of them in the following month before the Oscars – including Walk the Line, Munich and Capote.

So I guess there’s no way I could make any credible predictions about who is going to be beaming a few hours from now, or deserves to — on the other hand, I sometimes think the Oscars are so much a matter of favoritism and inbred “politics” that it isn’t really necessary to have seen the films to guess who’ll be nominated. So here are a few random thoughts.

Russell Crowe – for my money, definitely deserves a nomination for Cinderella Man. I hope he’ll be nominated, but because of his recent phone-throwing shennanigans, won’t win. But Philip Seymour Hoffman has given too many critically acclaimed but awards- unrecognized performances not to be nominated — and win.

Reese Witherspoon — With her SAG Award, she’s getting some long-overdue recognition as well. Can Oscar be far behind? She’ll be nominated for sure -I can predict that without having seen her film yet. But can she win?

It will be interesting what the Academy thinks a good lead woman’s role is this year. It’s usually slim pickings for actresses.

Hang in there, cast of Crash – no real star role, so everyone’s a supporting player. The roles are spread too thin, I’m afraid, for any one of them to get recognition – though I’d be glad to be proven wrong. At least they can hug their SAG Awards.

As Janet Batchler is so fond of pointing out, the Academy loves actors who write or direct. Will this bode well for George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck – or will voters shy away from the controversy? And will they embrace Brokeback Mountain or shy away from it for the same reason? (Hollywood’s generally “liberal” until it becomes unpopular with audiences).

People who deserve to be nominated but probably won’t — largely because comedies, (non-dramatic) musicals and fantasy films aren’t taken seriously by the Academy:

Keira Knightly, Best Actress, Pride and Prejudice – she was the best part of one of the most joyous films of the year.

Uma Thurman, Best Supporting Actress, The Producers – she was a singing and dancing sensation and a comic delight. This was a side of her I’d never really seen before.

Georgie Henley – Best Supporting Actress, The Chronicles of Narnia. C’mon, it isn’t such a stretch – rember Tatum O’Neill and Paper Moon (she won and she was only 9), and the upset nom of 11-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes for Whale Rider? So I guess I’m entitled to dream – because the character of Lucy is the heart and soul of Lewis’ story: in her trust and her courage, Queen Lucy the Valiant is what we all ought to be – and Georgie embodied her perfectly.

Unfortunately, Chronicles, this year’s one heralded “Christian” film doesn’t stand a chance of any nominations, except for special effects. But there’s always the possibility of an upset. And of course the Oscar nominations aren’t any fun at all without upsets.

I expect to have more to say after I’ve seen a few more of the nominated film, so stay tuned. . .

Christ in the Marketplace (Mission Statement)

The problem comes, she suddenly realized, when you have to write your second post . . . This is something that I’ve wanted to write for a long time, but didn’t have the proper forum for it. So let it stand as a kind of mission statement for me and what I want to do. I hope others will want to adopt it too. It’s based on the style of another of my mentors, Pope John Paul I, and his letters to famous people.

To: St. Justin Martyr

Dear St. Justin,

You don’t know me, but I have long been a fan of yours. It might sound strange to describe yourself as a fan of a saint, but that’s the word people would use in my culture — almost 2,000 years after your world of second-century Rome. I think you would understand why I chose it, and that’s the reason I admire you: because you were one of the first Christians who tried to build bridges between our faith and secular culture.

justin_filosofThis is especially amazing since in your time, Christians were not only ridiculed for their faith, as they still are now, but put on trial, tortured and executed. This was the time in which you, a layman, defended the faith in public debate and in an open letter to the Roman emperor — and became a martyr. As someone who wants to reach out to our culture through media and film, I have a tremendous admiration for you.

Very little has been recorded about your life beyond what you yourself have told us in your writings. I do know that you were born around 100 A.D. in the town of Schechem in Samaria. Your grandparents were Roman colonists who had settled in the city when it had been renamed Flavia Neapolis after the Roman takeover of Palestine in 70 A.D. Your family worshiped the Roman gods. But your town also had other religious associations. Did you know as a child, as you played at the town well, that it was said to have been built by the Jewish patriarch Jacob? Perhaps you even heard that once a wandering Jewish teacher from Galilee had crossed the border and sat down to rest at that well, where he spoke to a Samaritan women about the living water that would satisfy her so that she need never thirst again (Jn. 4:14).

As a young man, you felt that thirst without knowing its cause. You tried to satisfy it through philosophical learning. Your parents could afford to send you to the best schools. But the teachers did not live up to your idealistic expectations. One dismissed questions about God as unimportant to philosophy; another was concerned only with his fees; another was only interested in whether you had taken the proper prerequisites for the course. You felt that none of your professors cared about true learning. (You probably won’t be surprised to learn that young people often feel the same about today’s educational system). You were coming to realize that true philosophy meant the study of God.

Finally in Ephesus you encountered the philosophy of Plato, who wrote about the wisdom of another wandering teacher named Socrates. You immediately decided that Plato had the true approach to God. Looking back with a smile on your youthful enthusiasm, you wrote: “In a short time I imagined myself a wise man. So great was my folly that I expected immediately to gaze upon God.”

You often meditated on Plato’s teachings alone by the seashore. One day, you encountered a venerable-looking old man there and began to discuss philosophy with him. The old man told you that Plato did not have the whole secret, and showed you how the Hebrew prophets had foretold the coming of Christ. This inspired you to study the Old Testament, and you soon learned all you needed to know to accept the faith you were unknowingly searching for. You never said anything more about that mysterious old man, but I have often wondered whether he was really human or instead perhaps an angel, or even Christ himself. I suppose you won’t tell even now!

You moved to Rome and rented a room above the public baths run by a man named Martinus. You wore the pallium, or philosopher’s cloak of coarsely woven wool, and began to gather pupils around you. Perhaps you went around the Roman forum, or marketplace, talking to people in all walks of life about truth and God, just as Socrates — and your Galilean master — had done. At that time, Christians were experiencing a period of peace under the Emperor Antoninus Pius. Christians had been savagely persecuted under Nero, and Trajan, in whose reign you were born, had outlawed the Christian religion. Trajan’s successors had made it a practice not to try people for being Christians unless they were actually denounced by someone, but Christians were still largely afraid to practice their faith openly.

Rome then was much like America today — a multiracial, multilingual culture, mad about faddish Eastern religions, but underneath rotting from moral decay. Christians in turn were suspicious of the immoral culture around them, and — as they often still do today — kept their faith secret so it wouldn’t be tainted. Not understanding this aloofness of Christians, the Roman historian Tacitus had condemned them for their “hatred of the human race.”

You felt that the only way this could be remedied was for Christians to stand up for their beliefs. In 150 A. D., you made the daring decision to write an open letter to the emperor, known as the First Defense of the Christian Faith (or the Apologia). You described the Christian concept of God, pointing out it was compatible with those of Plato and other philosophers, and in fact, the true fulfillment of those beliefs.

You even debated publicly with a well-known pagan philosopher, a Cynic named Crescens. Cynics were famous for rejecting all government, philosophical and religious systems and practicing extreme individualism — another thing familiar to us today. Crescens ridiculed Christian beliefs, but you were able to demonstrate that he knew nothing of the teaching he was mocking. Crescens grew angry and threatened your life.

In about 155 A.D., you wrote your second Defense to the Emperor and Senate, in which you continued to insist that Christians should not and could not be alienated from the culture around them, in words that have been remembered ever since: “The truths which men in all lands have rightly spoken belong to us Christians.”

By the time Marcus Aurelius began his rule in 161, Christians were increasing in numbers, and popular feeling against them was growing. Rome had now had enough. No one knows exactly who denounced you — though my money would be on Crescens. In 165, you and some of you pupils were arrested at your school and brought before the Roman prefect, Rusticus. You were in your sixties then, but when threatened with death if you did not sacrifice to the gods and the genius of the Emperor, you boldly proclaimed Christ not only as the greatest teacher of truth, but the Savior. Do you remember how it ended?

“You are supposed to be a learned man,” the prosecutor sneered. “Do you really think you will rise up to heaven and receive a reward?”

“I don’t think it,” you replied, “I know it!”

Rusticus quickly pronounced you and your companions guilty, and you were taken outside Rome and beheaded.


Not every Christian today, of course, can be an intellectual or a philosopher as you were. But those of us Christians today who want to reach out to modern secular culture could learn a great deal from you.

Learn about the culture around you. Some Christians feel that secular culture is either evil or has nothing to offer them. This really hurts our efforts to evangelize. We rightly complain that our opponents are ignorant of the Christianity that they attack, but how much do we know about postmodernism or other beliefs people hold today? It is up to us who live in this culture to know what it values, as you knew the values and interests of yours. You cited not only Plato, but Homer, Epicurus, and other philosophers, poets, and playwrights of your time. Beginning the conversation with the things — some of them true things — people already cared about enabled you to approach them with more of the truth.

Approach the culture in a positive way. Too often we Christians are quick to condemn and slow to praise. It doesn’t hurt to recognize that people other than Christians want to feed the poor or work for justice. And we are too smug about our hold on spiritual truth. You realized that not everyone in your time was a Crescens, who was unable “to recognize any good but indifference.” In the same way, more and more people today have lost faith in materialism and are searching for something more. Many without any religious background still thirst for the waters of eternal life.

There is a delightful illustration of this in the recent film Russian Ark, directed by Alexander Sokurov. In it, the ghost of a nineteenth century French marquis wanders the modern galleries of Leningrad’s Hermitage Museum. When he comes to El Greco’s enormous portrait of the apostles Peter and Paul, he drops to his knees, crosses himself reverently, and then notices a young man in modern Russian dress gazing enraptured at the elongated figures of the apostles with their narrow ascetic hands. The marquis asks: “Are you a Catholic?”

“No, why do you ask?” (This young man, like most of Russia’s youth, had spent his early youth under Communism, probably without religious training). The marquis continues:

“It seemed to me that you were deep in thought while admiring the images of the founders of our Church.”

The young man says, “I looked at them because I like them. Someday everyone will be like them.”

“Really?” says the marquis. He bears down on the young man, who backs into the corner. “How can you know what will become of people if you don’t know the Scriptures?”

All the young man can do is reply: “Look at their hands!” as the camera goes to a closeup of the apostles’ hands. “They are good and wise. . .”

“So?” The marquis retorts? “You don’t know the Scriptures!”

There are more than a few Christians today who have the same superior attitude towards unbelievers. We have to encounter a great deal of foolishness, but we may well meet unbelievers who can tell us things we don’t know. Especially in regard to understanding the arts, where pagans often put us to shame, while we cling to a narrow intellectual approach. But we should have nothing to fear in this regard. After all, “The truths which men in all lands have rightly spoken belong to us Christians.”

Respect others when you dialogue with them. Today’s Christians could learn from the way you acted in conversation with a Jew named Trypho at a time when bitterness and suspicion between Christians and Jews were at a high point. It was a no-holds barred debate, but carried out in a spirit of fundamental respect. Both you and Trypho learned from each other. You learned that Jews did not believe the outrageous charges that many pagans made against the Christians; in fact Trypho himself had read the New Testament writings. At the same time, Trypho learned about your belief that those Jews who believed in Christ but held to the Jewish law could still be saved.

Don’t compromise on the truth – even when the truth hurts. Understanding the beliefs of others need not mean compromising our own. You pointed out the foolishness of many pagan religious beliefs, no matter how unpopular this might be. You spoke candidly about the immorality in Roman culture. But you were also willing to admit that many Christians did not live up to the teachings of Jesus.

Take risks. You took the ultimate risk when you spoke the truth to the people of Rome. When we do the same today, we are not risking martyrdom; we only risk being laughed at and called “fanatics.” But that is a small price to pay if it means giving people the water of eternal life.

I think that we would do well to imitate your method, because it is the method of great men like Socrates, and most of all, Jesus himself.


Lori Pieper