Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

March 27, 2013

Sticks and stones may break my bones…

Filed under: Op-eds,Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:48 am

Note: This is my syndicated column.

Well, we know the rest of that old saying isn’t true. Words hurt. Sometimes a lot, depending on who says them.

In every society children are taught social rules for what kinds of speech are appropriate, when and with whom. Rules backed by sanctions ranging from dirty looks to social ostracism, or in extreme cases an educational beat down.

These days though, speech is policed on many university campuses by speech codes – and “policed” is no idle metaphor for speech deemed “offensive.”

Recently my attention was drawn to this website “Microaggressions”

According to the creators, “Microaggressions are the subtle ways in which body and verbal language convey oppressive ideology about power or privilege against marginalized identities.”

The site solicits contributions from people with “marginalized identities” about ways people have conveyed their oppressive ideologies.

Already I’m not liking this. But maybe that’s because I get antsy when people start talking about offensive speech in ways that seem to indicate a need for legal remedy rather than say, a punch in the nose.

But have a look at the site by all means. There’s a mix of valid, invalid, too-easily offended, and some that infuriate you with how thoughtlessly cruel people can be.

A random sample:

*”Entered an informal backgammon tournament (8 players, all men but me) and won my first round. Was told by another player that I was “good…for a woman.” My vanquished opponent called him out on that – and noted that it was likely the attitude why more women don’t play.”

Valid, irritating, what an idiot. Note that the idiot was called on it though.

*”I go to a McDonalds for lunch break, alone. I sit down at an empty table next to an elderly man, who immediately comments, “What a pretty little thing, I wonder if she’s waiting for her man to come along.” Made me feel like my only purpose is to be some man’s ornament.”

Annoying, but can we give the geezer a break? He’s from another age, probably lonely and trying to start a conversation with an attractive lady. Overreacting.

*”’I wish I could bring my dog out to eat with me!’ Teenage girl and mother to me at a Chinese restaurant; I’m a 23 year old male with a service dog.”

Overreacting, get over it, they were trying to be nice. Perhaps a bit clumsily.

*”I was walking behind a male coworker when he stopped in his tracks and began backing up into me, dancing, while singing “Big Booty Bitches.” I’m a woman. Made me uncomfortable, angry, demeaned.”

In a more civilized age any gentleman within range would have offered to thrash this boor. Regrettably in this age you can get into lots of trouble for that – but a job complaint is definitely in order.

*”’If she wears those shorts out there, it’s her own fault if she gets into ‘trouble.’ My grandmother referring to my shorts on a cruise in Turkey. Apparently if I wear short shorts out, I’m asking to be raped. I’m 18. Made me feel upset, exposed, scared.”

GRANNY IS RIGHT YOU TWIT! Do not go to another country, with a radically different culture, and expect them to abide by YOUR rules.

*”’My first words to her were what any father would say to their own daughter: What were you thinking walking alone like that!’ The director of Campus Security in a lecture to first-years. The girl she was talking about was sexually assaulted when she was walking back to campus at night. 300 students, no one objected.”

No, those would not be my first words to my daughter. They’re true, and will eventually have to be said, but there is a time and a place for everything.

*”’Well, there are many meanings of the word [rape] other than what you’re talking about.’
Comment made by my MFA program director when I asked her not to use the word ‘rape’ casually in class, after sharing that I am a survivor of sexual assault. Earlier that day she had referred to something jokingly as ‘internet rape,’ and I was so triggered that I had to leave class and cry in the hallway.”

Heartbreaking. What a clueless idiot the instructor was.

*”The learn-to-speak-German tapes I’ve been listening to will ask me to “Say ______ in German” and then will ask me to say the same thing “as if you were a woman” (because some aspects of the grammar are gendered and would be different depending on the speaker). But I already am a woman.”

It’s called “grammar.” Take it up with the Germans if it offends you.

March 26, 2013

Habemus Papam

Filed under: News commentary,Op-eds,Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 7:32 am

Note: My syndicated column of a couple weeks back. I sometimes forget to archive them here right off, but better late…

On March 13, the white smoke let the waiting world know the conclave of cardinals had elected a new pope, following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI on 28 February.

The new pope is a Jesuit, which is the first interesting thing about the election. The Jesuits, though technically in subordination to the pope, have throughout history often functioned as a separate center of power within the Roman Catholic Church. Though Pope John Paul II was known for demanding, and getting, the subordination of the order, for the first time the two centers of power will be united in one person.

The former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio let it be known he wished to be called Francis, following the precedent established by John Paul I of picking a name never worn by a previous pope.

This he said, was in honor of the beloved St. Francis of Assisi, called by some cynics, “history’s only practicing Christian.”

“The man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man,” the Pope said. “How I would like a poor Church, and for the poor”.

Francesco d’Assisi was born a privileged brat who grew up to be a carouser, a brawler, and a wencher until he had a conversion experience during his service as a soldier for his city. Many men go to war and come home crazy. Francis went to war and came home sane.

Though a lot of people at the time must have thought he was pretty crazy. Francis, who by the way was never ordained, preached sermons to the birds and animals he loved, and wrote hymns to “my brother the sun, my sister the moon.”

There is also the famous story of how Francis went to Egypt to try and convert the Sultan. He failed but the Sultan was so impressed with Francis that he sent him away laden with rich gifts, which Francis used to help the poor.

Interestingly, some Sufi writers, members of that mystical brotherhood within Islam that claims they seek the truth behind all religion, have a different take on the story. According to Sufi writer Idries Shah, Francis was not on a mission of conversion, he was paying a visit to a brother in the same lodge for an evening of conversation.

This is interesting in the light of the good relations Pope Francis has with both the Islamic and Jewish communities in his native Argentina.

But there is another St. Francis that means something to the new pope, St. Francis de Sales. As a young priest, Bergoglio was mentored by a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest, Stefan Czmil of the Salesian Order, and as a result knows the Byzantine liturgy.

St. Francis de Sales is by the way, the patron saint of writers and journalists, known for spreading the faith through pamphleteering and gentle persuasion.

The new pope is going to need the aid of St. Francis de Sales. The Roman Catholic church is under sustained assault from within and without.

The election of a traditional conservative Catholic is not going to please leftist atheists who want a strong Christianity to disappear, or yield to the cult of the almighty state.

It’s going to discomfort American cafeteria-Catholics who wish the church would endorse a “one from column A and one from column B” approach to doctrine.

The new pope is going to have to deal with the elephant in the room, the still-unresolved issue of clerical child abuse. And sooner or later someone is going to have to address what is increasingly obvious but never mentioned; that there is an ongoing, more-or-less organized campaign by pedophiles to infiltrate the Catholic clergy. (If you don’t think pedophilia is organized, Google “NAMBLA,” but prepare to lose your lunch.)

The new pope may or may not be able to get a handle on the recurring problem of corruption involving Vatican finances.

Whatever he does or does not accomplish, a lot of people are going to be disappointed.

I wish this new pope well. Evidence suggests he is a good man, and we need good men in positions of spiritual and temporal power. For those who expect miracles I recommend contemplation of two things.

One, any center of power and wealth is subject to corruption, for the simple fact that we are men, fallible and corruptible. The Church has always known this and has always maintained an awareness that there are two churches: one temporal and subject to the sins of our nature, the other spiritual which is the ideal men strive for.

The other is that in the Church we have an organization whose central purpose is to last until the end of time – literally. While acknowledging that change happens, and hoping that it might be for the better, one does not want to go around making irrevocable changes for what may turn out to be passing fads.

March 24, 2013

Review: Vikings

Filed under: Movies,Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 11:12 am

Note: This originally appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent.

Kine die, kin die
And so at last yourself:
But this I know that never dies
How dead men’s deeds are deemed.

– Hávamál: The Words of Odin the High One, from the Elder Edda

“Vikings” is I believe, the first venture of the History Channel into historical drama.

The gold standard for Viking movies is still, “The Vikings” with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, based on a book by Edison Marshall. The movie begat a TV series, “Tales of the Vikings” (1959-1960).

Everybody loves Vikings, which is kind of odd and paradoxical. On the one hand, you have a people who were energetic, active, and wonderfully bold. They had a robust sense of humor, the laughter of free men. The mostly dealt justly with each other, and women probably had more rights in their society than anywhere else, or at any other time until the present.

On the other hand, for a couple of centuries these admirable people liked to take annual sea voyages down to Europe where they’d steal anything that wasn’t nailed down, rape everything in skirts, and kill anyone who got in their way, or sometimes just for fun. (I’d tell you what “carving the blood eagle” was, but not before lunch.)

“Vikings” is the story of the beginning of the age of Viking raids in the ninth century, told as the story of the semi-legendary Ragnar Lodbrok (Travis Fimmel), known to history as “Ragnar Hairybreeks.”

Ragnar and his wife the shieldmaiden Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), and his brother Rollo (Clive Standen) are progressive, forward-looking Vikings who want to discover new lands to plunder. They are opposed by the backward-looking Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne), who wants to keep raiding the poverty-stricken Baltic coast.

“A furore Normanorum, libera nos Domine!” medieval monks prayed. “From the fury of the Northmen, deliver us Oh Lord!”

Deliver us Oh Lord, from writers who can’t be bothered to get their history right!

There is so much that could have been done with this. They have the scenery down. They built a Viking village whose authenticity you can almost smell, and one very cool longship,

They have an outstanding cast. In particular Katheryn Winnick, a Canadian actress of Ukrainian origin who looks like she carries genes from the Viking kingdom of Kiev. She is also an accomplished martial artist and pulls off the role of a warrior woman to perfection.

There is in the first episode, a law case that ideally should have set the stage perfectly. A man kills an enemy in a dispute that would ordinarily have called for weregild, the blood money paid to the family of someone you’ve killed, even if it was self-defense.

But in this case, the killer passed by three houses before he announced the killing, and thus is technically guilty of “secret murder” a heinous crime. A very nice touch indicating someone has done their homework.

Unfortunately, they’ve got too many things in here which are just flat absurd.

Ragnar has learned how to use a sun disk and a sun stone. The first is a wooden plate with a peg in the middle. You float it in water and take note of the length of the peg’s shadow at noon, which gives you a pretty good idea of longitude. The latter is a piece of crystal which polarizes light, enabling you to see the sun through heavy clouds.

They follow this up with the absurd notion that the Vikings didn’t know about the existence of England, except as legend!

The ninth century was when Vikings and their Irish thralls colonized Iceland!

They make Earl Haraldson out to be a scary, semi-psycho who rules with an iron fist and terrifies everybody.

In reality ninth century Viking society was very decentralized, with local chieftains jealous of their independence and quick to speak their minds, even to their kings.

When Ragnar returns from the first raid into England with booty, and a captive monk who speaks their language, Earl Haradson demands all of the treasure as compensation for their having disobeyed him.

No earl wielded that kind of authority to begin with, and while a chief might claim a share of the spoils, no one could have gotten away with taking it all.

And as for the Saxon monk, Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon were probably close enough for the Viking and the monk to talk to each other with a little practice anyway.

I’m sorry, there is much to like about this series, but there are too many sour notes that spoil it and can’t be fixed within the constraints they’ve written themselves into.

March 18, 2013

Review: Jack the Giant Slayer

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:50 am

Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent.

“Jack the Giant Slayer” did not do very well opening weekend, earning only $28 million of the $200 million they need to break even.

On the other hand, nothing else that weekend did either and “Jack” wound up on top anyway. There have been indications it’s been picking up, perhaps due to word of mouth advertising.

I went to see it with two very uncritical movie reviewers, my six-year-old daughter and her best friend. I was glad it was on the marquee because nothing else looked suitable.

Well that and the fact that I do want my children exposed to fairy tales. When I was growing up we had Andrew Lang’s Red and Blue fairy books in the house (there are 12 in all). These were themselves taken and translated from other collections of European folk tales and edited for children. So they are already at least second hand.

“Jack” is like that, in that it is very loosely based on two stories involving guys named Jack who have a lot to do with giants. There’s “Jack and the Bean Stalk,” first published in 1807, and “Jack the Giant Killer,” earliest published version 1811.

Both of these, though they borrow heavily from mythology and the folk tales of Cornwall, are apparently early 19th century creations possibly written for a market that had already heard all the classical tales and wanted more.

Jack and the Beanstalk was first done on film in 1902, and has since been reinterpreted by Mickey Mouse (1947), Abbot and Costello (1952), Bugs Bunny (1955), The Three Stooges (1962) and Gene Kelly (1966) among others.

In 2001 Jim and Bryan Henson told “Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story” in a TV miniseries, revealing for the first time what a rotten scoundrel Jack was.
“Jack the Giant Killer” however appears to have been done on film only once before, in 1962.

In this latest interpretation, farm boy Jack (Nicholas Hoult) goes to town to sell his uncle’s horse because they are seriously broke. However our Jack is no simpleton and acquires the magic beans from a monk who was doing something or other with them in his laboratory and is on the run from the king’s guard.

Jack also meets the beautiful Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) who is wandering around the marketplace incognito because she wants to get to know the people she’s going to rule.

Isabelle’s father King Brahmwell (Ian McShane), loves his daughter deeply, but is nonetheless going to marry her off to Rodrick (Stanley Tucci) the nogoodnik prime minister she doesn’t love to secure the future of the kingdom.

Coincidentally they meet again when the Princess seeks shelter during a rainstorm in Jack’s humble cottage, which is soon whisked off into the sky by the magic beanstalk that grows from one of the beans that’s slipped through a crack in the floor.

Enter the King and his guard, led by stalwart and faithful Elmont (Ewan McGregor). Jack volunteers to join the rescue party going up the beanstalk to the land in the sky where the legendary giants dwell.

Unfortunately Roderick and his henchman (Ewen Bremner) are going too. Roderick it seems has possession of the crown the kings of Albion once used to control the giants the last time they came to the kingdom to serve Man (roasted, toasted, or raw).

Roderick wants to rule the giants and use them to conquer the kingdom. Why would he want to do that? He’s going to get it anyway when he marries Isabelle?
Roderick it seems, has wider ambitions.

The climbers meet the CGI giants. The giants want to know the way down. They find it. That’s how the war starts.

Of course you can guess how it’s going to wind up for Jack and the Princess, but there’s a lot of less predictable twists and turns before then.

Jack does in fact slay some giants. One in a manner right out of the tales, and one in a way which perfectly illustrates Chekov’s principle of hanging the gun on the wall in act one and using it by act four. Which of course I can’t tell you.

There’s something else in the ending I can’t tell you either, and this is truly original. Not to mention pretty funny. Probably even funnier if you’re English.

So hey, it’s really not bad and it doesn’t do serious damage to folklore. You could argue it adequately translates traditional stories into new media, thus showing it’s still a living tradition.

It’s not going to make film history but it’s not a bad way to spend an afternoon with the kids.

My junior partner in film criticism summed it up, “It was awesome!”

March 14, 2013

One more reason why I sometimes despair of humanity.

Filed under: Personal,Politics — Stephen W. Browne @ 10:22 am

Note: Cross-posted from my professional blog at The Marshall Independent.

This morning I saw something on Facebook that almost made me lose my breakfast.

It was under a label “Take Back Socialism” and posted by someone I’ve known for 30 years – who I know for a fact has never visited any of the countries he has held up as exemplars of socialism. Not a one. Nor has he ever visited any of the former Eastern Bloc countries – though I personally urged him to visit Poland as my guest.

Quoted in full.

“I love socialism.

I love socialism because I love having a post office that will deliver my mail.

I love socialism because I love having roads to drive on, bridges to drive over and sidewalks to walk on.

I love socialism because I love having national parks to visit.

I love socialism because I love having libraries where I can borrow books to learn about new topics.

I love socialism because I love having a fire department to call if my house is on fire (or to make sure my neighbor’s burning house is saved before it catches mine on fire).

I love socialism because I love having a police department that keeps the streets safe.

I love socialism because I love having a military that keeps the country safe.

I love socialism because I love having water that I can drink straight out of the faucet without worrying about ingesting poisons or parasites.

I love socialism because I love knowing that the food I eat is safe to eat.

I love socialism because I love knowing that the medicine I take has been tested and proven to be safe.

I love socialism because I love knowing that when I get old and retire, I will have Social Security to buy food and housing with and Medicare to pay for my medical expenses.

I love socialism because I love the environment and am glad there are regulations to protect it.

I love socialism because I love knowing that if I get hurt or sick or layed-off, I’ll be able to get assistance in buying food, paying medical bills and paying rent… and that’s why I’m happy to pay taxes towards those things.

I love socialism because I love knowing that there is a minimum wage, a weekend, sick days, holidays, a 40 hour work week and an 8 hour work day, overtime pay and all the other benefits that labor activists have fought and died for.

I love socialism because I love that there are public schools and universities where those who came before me, myself and future generations all will or have learned and I would be more than happy to pay a little extra in taxes if it meant funding them properly.

I love socialism because I love our space program and the thousands of advancements it has brought to everyday life from GPS to freeze-dried ice cream and everything in between.

But most of all:

I love socialism because I love my country and all the people in it and think that everyone deserves a FAIR shot at life, whether we agree on politics or not. The American people deserve better than dog-eat-dog capitalism.

-Seth Bailey

I replied:

“I lived from 1991 to 2004 in the former Eastern Bloc – none of this describes the socialism I experienced first hand. The post office was inefficient, and mail theft was rampant. Every bureaucrat down to the little old ladies that sold tickets at the railroad stations were petty-minded tyrants whose idea of relaxation was to ruin your day. Medical care was a nightmare.
As for “fair” the Party aristocracy enjoyed access to special shops full of western good ordinary folks could only see in movies. For only one example, a Party member could get a telephone installed reasonably quickly – the average wait for anyone else was 14 years!
I saw it get dramatically better, almost day by day, when this evil system was replaced by a freer market-oriented system.
Medical care in the newly privatized sector became so cheap, my first child was born in St. Sophia hospital, the one in Warsaw patronized by movie stars. The whole 9-month process cost about $1,000 equivalent – and our pediatrician made house calls!
Now tell me about your experience living under socialism.” (Said I dripping sarcasm.)

I could have multiplied examples point-by-point, but you get the point.

Some time back a writer coined the term “xenophilia” for this kind of phenomenon. The conviction among some Americans that it must be better somewhere else, in spite of all evidence that people everywhere else still want to come here, in spite of all our problems.

Twenty-four years after the most disastrous political experiment in the history of the world collapsed, there are still people who want to give it another try.

Sometimes I despair of the human race.

March 8, 2013

Progressives aren’t progressive

Filed under: Op-eds,Politics — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:57 am

Note: This is a recent syndicated column.

“We find comfort among those who agree with us, growth among those who disagree.”

– Frank Meyer

I have a great many friends I do not agree with on a great many issues.

Once upon a time that statement would have been considered banal, and likely met with a “So what?”

Alas, in this day and age we seem to be self-segregating, not according to race or religion, but opinion. And those opinions are identified with certain professions and sectors of the economy.

For example what would you automatically assume if I told you, “I have a friend who is a sociology (English, liberal arts, humanities) professor”?

Friendships across ideological lines are getting harder to maintain these days, and that’s a pity. When we associate only with people we agree with, our ability to defend our opinions atrophies.

Recently I had a Facebook disagreement with a friend I’ve known since he was a boy. He identifies himself as a “progressive.”

I think he’s wrongheaded, naïve, and having known his parents I can’t conceive of how he got that way.

I think he’s well-meaning in his error – to a point. I also see in him motivations of envy towards “the rich” and an overwhelming desire to be important, which as e.e. cummings noted, is the source of a great deal of the harm in this world.

He’s a “progressive” you see. A position I heartily dislike, as much as I like him.

Why should that surprise anyone? Arch-conservative Winston Churchill maintained a long friendship with George Bernard Shaw, a socialist and one-time ardent admirer of both Hitler and Stalin. When Shaw died, Churchill genuinely mourned the passing of one of the few men who could match him in repartee.

What I owe my friend is, that he makes me think more deeply about why I believe what I do. He forces me to refine my argument. Not to convince him, but to clarify it for myself.

To being with, “progressives” – aren’t. They’re living in the past.

There is nothing progressive about the philosophy expressed by those who sail under that label.

Progressivism is a grab bag of very old ideas that have been tried many times before, and caused untold misery.

Progressives believe society must be directed from a head, that society is broken and needs to be fixed – by them.

Progressives believe in the rule of the wise. They have no concept of distributed knowledge, that the world works best when everybody is free to manage his or her little piece of it.

Thus progressives favor the government sector, fear and loathe the private sector.

Progressives see fortunes made from the production of concrete goods and services as tainted, evil. They see money made in sports, entertainment, information technology, law, and government connections as good, worthy, and well-deserved.

Progressives see nature as good, and mankind as separate from nature. A weaver bird building a nest is natural. A couple building a house is not.

Progressives would do anything for the working class – except join it.

It is very difficult to sustain the idea that the world owes you a living when you make your own living from the strength of your arm and the skill of your hands. You might wish it were so, but the aches in your muscles and the dirt under your fingernails tell you differently.

Progressives trust logic over experience. With logic, you can start with certain assumptions and reason to a conclusion that must be true – if your assumptions are correct. Experience is what puts those assumptions to the test.

This leads progressives to assume a conclusion, that a proposed program will achieve the results they say it will: cheap universal health care, high-quality education for all, world peace, etc.

But if the assumption is true, then any disagreement means you oppose the wonderful results.

If you argue a government takeover of medical care will result in poorer quality, less available, and more expensive medical care – they hear it as, “I oppose good quality, readily available, and cheaper medical care.”

And here we get to the heart of it. Progressives believe if you disagree, you’re not just wrong, you’re evil.

March 7, 2013

Effort Shock

Filed under: Op-eds,Personal,Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 7:22 pm

Note: This is last week’s syndicated column.

Every now and again a term gets coined and comes into circulation that perfectly describes in shorthand a phenomenon you used to have to use whole sentences, paragraphs, pages or books to describe.

The late psychedelic guru Timothy Leary called these terms “neurologically exact.”

Do you remember the first time you ever heard someone say, “Hey, don’t get uptight”? You didn’t have to ask what they meant, did you?

Well recently I was exposed to a term which perfectly describes a phenomenon whole books have been written about. For example Diana West’s, “The Death of the Grown-Up: How America’s Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization,” or David Mamet’s, “The Secret Knowledge.”

I encountered it in the online version of the humor magazine Cracked. I remember Cracked as a sort of poor relation to the much better-known and influential MAD Magazine of beloved memory, before “the usual gang of idiots” died off or retired and MAD was possessed by the Devil, a.k.a. AOL/Time-Warner.

It was in an article titled, “How the Karate Kid Ruined the Modern World” by David Wong. I’m not sure if Wong invented the term or not, but it’s a good one.

The essence of it was that movies like “The Karate Kid” show someone going from being bad at something to being good at it over the course of a two-minute musical montage, after a sudden enlightening attitude change.

Ever work that way for you?

Me neither. Like Daniel-san I was a skinny kid who got picked on. But I acquired my instructors credentials in two martial arts and intermediate/advanced level skill in a half-dozen others via thousands of dollars spent on lessons and reference materials, and tens of thousands of hours of practice.

I switched professions in mid-life when I was living and working in Eastern Europe in an exciting milieu of dramatic change, civil war, and international intrigue.

After getting some great stories as an amateur I went back to school. I then became an underpaid reporter at my first newspaper – one with less than 12,000 circulation. I’m on my second, somewhat larger paper now.

I cover local government, agriculture, small business etc. It’s called paying dues.

Success in most professions does not require genius. It requires a certain minimum of study, experience and a lot of paying dues.

The classic, reliable way of getting rich for those of us not in on the ground floor of the Next Big Thing, is not at all complicated. Get a job, any job. Gradually increase your earning power via skills training. Do a conspicuously good job. Put aside ten percent of your earnings, regular as clockwork, for years and years. Invest it according to the best advice you can find, which itself takes a lot of research. Get married, stay married, buy a house. By the time you’re ready to retire, barring disaster, you’ll be at least comfortably, maybe very well-off.

And yet, every year a multitude of college students graduate from our institutions of higher learning expecting to own the world, or a substantial piece of it, while they are still young and good-looking.

That’s when they run into effort shock.

Notice that formula for success is not complicated, merely very, very, difficult. It requires sustained patient effort, and delay of immediate gratification, over years. And years. Not to mention the fairly frequent bad luck, or bad judgment, that means you have to start all over again.

This applies to success in all things. How many people can’t stay married, not because of those “irreconcilable differences” but because staying married is hard?

Of course people have always encountered effort shock, but it does seem to be more pronounced these days.

If I had to guess, I’d say modern civilization makes us a little too comfortable. Not many of us grow up on farms anymore where kids are part of the workforce from an early age. We don’t grow up working hard just to stay afloat.

I wouldn’t give up those civilized comforts. On a not-too-spectacular salary I still have a house full of stuff people used to pay fortunes for when I was a kid, if they existed at all.

But sometimes I wish I could make life a little harder for my children. And sometimes I wonder if that’s not going to happen anyway.

March 1, 2013

Review: Beautiful Creatures

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 10:08 am

Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent.

The first thing you notice in “Beautiful Creatures” is, they’ve got the dialect down. I defy anyone to name the actor who is really from South Carolina, among an Englishman, a Scot, a kiwi, two Californians, a Texan and a New York Yankee.

They got a heck of a dialect coach to teach them how to tawk raht. They even know “Bless your heart” is how well-bred Southern ladies say, “**** you.”

“Beautiful Creatures” is based on the 2009 novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, which falls into the sub-subgenre of fantasy called teen urban fantasy, though it’s set in the fictional rural town of Gatlin, South Carolina. That is, it’s a story where the supernatural lurks below the surface of our seemingly mundane world.

And the world of Gatlin is suffocatingly mundane to teenage Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich, the Californian), a high school junior whose burning ambition is to graduate and get out of town.

You see Ethan, though a popular jock, likes to read books. Forbidden books, such as “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Ethan has been having dreams about a girl he’s never met. Until she shows up in class at the beginning of the year.

Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert, the New Zealander) is 15 and pretty in a spooky kind of way. But though the mean-girls clique led by Ethan’s old girlfriend Emily (Zoey Deutch, California) are really nasty, Lena can hold her own dishing out the insults. And when that fails she can shatter the school windows.

She is also the niece of Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons, the Brit), a reclusive rich man whose family built the town and are rumored to be devil worshippers.

Not quite. They’re casters, something like witches though they don’t like that term. Casters are a race with supernatural powers who seem to be at least provisionally immortal, since they refer to us as mortals.

When Lena turns 16, she will be claimed by either the light or the dark, according to her true nature. And it’s not altogether certain a caster has a choice in these things. Her older cousin Ridley (Emily Rossum, New Yorker) seemed like a nice enough girl, until she turned 16 and became a Siren who uses and discards men mercilessly. And by discard we mean on railroad tracks in front of onrushing trains.

Ethan and Lena bond over a love of books and poetry, and shared loss of their mothers, after a courtship involving some very well-written banter.

Well the course of true love never runs smooth, especially with mixed couples. Lena’s mother Serafina (Emma Thompson, the Scot), who really is a witch, or something that rimes with it, won’t stay dead. She’s possessing the body of Ethan’s best friend Link’s (Thomas Mann, Texas) mother Mrs. Franklin.

Serafina wants Lena for the dark, so casters can come out of the shadows and take their rightful place as rulers of the mortal world.

Macon has his own plans for Lena, which definitely don’t include Ethan. Fortunately Ethan has an ally in Amma (Viola Davis, the real Carolinian), a family friend/housekeeper for his own reclusive and grief-stricken father.

Amma is not a caster, but she is a seer and the Keeper of the caster library. Amma also has history with the Ravenwoods. She’s a black woman steeped in the tradition of southern Hoodoo, and quite capable of putting Macon in his place.

So how does this stack up as modern fantasy?

Pretty good. It’s pretty solidly rooted in the traditions of European folklore about the Other World, its inhabitants and their relationship to ours. And as noted there’s a dash of the African-American folkloric tradition indigenous to the South.

Visual effects are for the most part, very good. The chemistry between the young couple is convincing, and there are plot complications aplenty.

What’s really nice is, teen genre books and movies for the past generation have mostly tended to be about teen angst and the agony of being unpopular. The teen books of my youth and my father’s generation were about teens doing improbable, but bold, resourceful, self-reliant things.

For anyone raised on the adventures of Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys, or for girls Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames, this modern stuff is pretty thin gruel.

Lena is the school outcast, but nobody’s doormat, and trying hard not to go all “Carrie” on everybody.

Ethan is a popular jock, but he has a brain, character and compassion. Thank you!

Newbies Ehrenreich and Englert hold their own as leads supported by heavyweights Irons, Thompson, and Rossum. Davis is known more as a stage actress, but “Beautiful Creatures” might change that – there are two sequels to the book, “Beautiful Darkness,” and “Beautiful Chaos.”

Keep your crystal ball tuned for further developments.

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