A spring break medley

medley (med-lē) n., 1 a mixture of things not usually placed together; heterogeneous collection; hodgepodge.

A quiet week, with many ideas wandering through my mind without quite attaining blog post velocity. Sitting here, with a cup of coffee and the windows open to a fine spring morning, I decided to scoop up some of these notions, not necessarily in order of importance, and present them to you as a medley, or hodgepodge as the case may be.

On Mickey Rooney: I wish I had known that last Sunday, all day, Turner Classic Movies was  hosting a day of Mickey Rooney movies. I tuned in late, but did get to see Boy’s Town (1938) and The Human Comedy (1943), both notable for their idealistic and almost too sentimental presentation of American life. Boys Town tells the story of Father Edward Flanagan (Spencer Tracy), who founded a home for abused and delinquent boys in Nebraska. Rooney plays Henry Hull, the tough kid who tests Flanagan’s belief that there is “no such thing as a bad boy.”

Tracy and Rooney in "Boys Town," 1938

Tracy and Rooney in “Boys Town,” 1938

In addition to the real life humanity of Flanagan, whose Boys Town still exists in the Midwest, the film reflects 1930s progressive ideals, as well as an older, deeper, American romanticism, the belief that by nature, we are noble beings, corrupted only by cultural dysfunction. Watching Boys Town, I thought of the next great eruption of that ideal in the ’60s and remembered a line from Crosby, Stills & Nash that almost stands as an epitaph for that era: “It’s been a long time coming / it’s gonna be a long time gone.” The album came out in 1969, the year Charles Manson called optimism like Father Flanagan’s into serious question.   

Mother Nature on the run: Now that I’m thinking of Crosby, Stills & Nash, that phrase popped to mind as title for this subsection, though it’s really about animals on the run. An editorial in yesterday morning’s paper, The case for banning wildlife-killing contests by Camillia H. Fox, outlines the common practice of for profit, recreational predator hunting contests.

Exercising Vixen the fox while a volunteer at the Folsom City Zoo, ca. 1996. She was a sweetheart, though a bit of a drama queen. Is this the enemy?

Exercising Vixen the fox while a volunteer at the Folsom City Zoo, ca. 1996. She was a sweetheart, though a bit of a drama queen. Is this the enemy?

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” said Mahatma Gandhi. It is heartening to learn that pushback is growing, both from citizens and state Fish and Game Commissions. In California, commission president, Michael Sutton said:

“I’ve been concerned about these killing contests for some time. They seem inconsistent both with ethical standards of hunting and our current understanding of the important role predators play in ecosystems.”

The way we treat the animals seems increasingly to be like the way we treat each other. Witness the case cited in the article, of the organizer of one of these killing contests, who (allegedly) pushed a 73 year old man to the ground for trying to photograph the event. We have to say, “allegedly” because, although the older man’s spine was fractured, the perpetrator has yet to be charged. This is not what our founding fathers meant when they spoke of a “well ordered militia.”

Of Jungians and Tibetans: I’ve recently started, with keen interest, The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra (2012) by Rob Preece, an in depth practitioner of both Jungian psychology and Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan iconography is striking and vivid, almost begging for Jungian analysis, but most western commentators, including Jung himself, have written about it as outsiders looking in.

Not Preece, who studied with Lama Thubten Yeshe, one of the greatest 20th century Tibetan teachers to come to America. Lama Yeshe understood Jung and understood that Buddhist practice has always undergone change when crossing geographic and cultural boundaries.

Preece writes of Col. Francis Younghusband, who visited Tibet in 1904. Seeing pictures of wrathful deities, Younghusband concluded that this was a culture that worshiped demons. Jungians may pounce on the concept of shadow, but that too, will often be wide of the mark. Although Tibetans and Jungians both understand such imagery as depicting internal qualities, in this case, it is wrathful energy in the service of compassion. It’s the energy of, “This shit’s gotta stop!” The energy that led Camilla Fox to start a foundation to stop the slaughter of animals.

Two large gatherings: Over the last two weekends, I took part in two separate events which drew hundreds of people. Both were immensely satisfying days of harmonious groups, drawn together by shared interest, working cooperatively and having a lot of fun doing so. It’s almost enough to make you believe in no such thing as a bad boy or girl, in Mickey Rooney’s America.

That fundamental goodness is precisely what the Tibetans and Buddhists in general believe, even with their finely honed awareness of both relative truth, here in the trenches, and ultimate truth. Our ultimate nature, they say, the ground of our being is pure, unstained by any event, the way the sky is unstained by pollution. The bad news is, it can take eons for us to figure this out; a weekend at Woodstock is clearly not enough.

Still, I always feel energized after such gatherings, even as that wrathful energy rises at the thought of all the artificial barriers that divide us in our day to day lives. That’s something everyone has to work out for themselves. Meanwhile, I felt like listening again to Crosby, Stills & Nash. I hope they’re right in this song: that it’s always darkest before the dawn.

The Dark Crystal: a movie review


“Another world, another time. In the age of wonder.”

So begins The Dark Crystal (1982), a movie that pushed the limits of what was possible in animation when it was released 32 years ago. That was the year the Commodore 64 hit the market, becoming the best selling personal computer. Ms Pac-man was the hot new item in digital animation. Pixar, as we know it, was more than a decade away. Jim Henson, who wrote, produced, and co-directed the movie with Frank Oz, used models, puppets, and costumes for human actors to make this extraordinary film, which has largely been forgotten now that we’ve come to take sophisticated animation for granted.

Dark Crystal is a hero’s quest. A thousand earlier, when the three suns of the planet, Thra, came into alignment, the Dark Crystal shattered. At that moment two new races appeared, the evil skeksis and gentle mystics. Jen is the last of the gelflings (or so he thinks), a race wiped out by the skeksis for fear of a prophesy that one of them would be their undoing. As the thousand year alignment nears, Jen’s master, a dying mystic gives him a quest – find the missing shard and heal the crystal before the suns line up, or the skeksis will rule forever.

Dark Crystal: Jen's master gives him a quest

Dark Crystal: Jen’s master gives him a quest

Jen reacts like any fledgling hero at the start of a quest – “But master, I am only a gelfling “ he says. “I am not ready to go alone.” But go alone he does, aided by the ancient seeress, Aughra, who helps him find the shard, and Kira, last of the female gelflings, who joins his quest. In a moment of despair, Jen flings the crystal shard away. Unable to sleep, he mutters, “Master, nothing is simple anymore.” Kira helps him find the shard at “The House of the Old Ones,” where they are confronted by a treacherous skeksis.

The Dark Crystal: Jen and Kira confront a Skeksis at The House of the Old Ones

The Dark Crystal: Jen and Kira confront a Skeksis at The House of the Old Ones

They flee, but the treacherous one surprises them at the Dark Castle where the crystal is housed. He captures Kira and the skeksis begin to drain her life essence, which will prolong their own lives and leave Kira in the state of their other slaves, a mindless automaton. Jen and Aughra help Kira to save herself, the mystics arrive at the castle, the three suns’ come into alignment, and the final confrontation begins.

Prior to Dark Crystal, animation involved full length cartoons, claymation shorts, and The Muppet Show, which ran on TV from 1976-1981. I’m not aware of another full length feature involving such detailed world-building animation before this movie. It feels a little dated now, but then so do movies like Casablanca which stand as classics in their genre. That’s how I think of Dark Crystal. I think it’s required viewing for lovers of animation and fantasy in the movies.

Thor: The Dark World


Sometimes the movies surprise you. On Friday, I saw The Muppets Most Wanted and wished I had waited for the DVD. Sunday I watched Thor: The Dark World on DVD, and was sorry I hadn’t caught it on the big screen.

As “the Convergence” approaches, a once every 5000 year alignment of the nine realms of the universe, portals between the worlds start to open at random.  Exploring one near London, Dr. Jane Foster, Thor’s mortal honey, is infected with the Aether, an ancient, indestructible weapon of evil that the gods of Asgard had hidden away.  The Dark Elf, Malekith, hopes to use the Aether to plunge the universe into darkness when the worlds align.

At the critical moment, Thor and his half-brother, Loki, the usual suspect in all things nefarious, team up to save the world and avenge the death of Frigga, their mother. Loki’s trickery fools Malekith into withdrawing the Aether from Jane and saving her life.  The movie has lots of explosions, and moments that echo both Lord of the Rings and Star Wars (though admittedly without the depth).  The forbidden love of immortal Thor and mortal Jane also parallels Superman and Lois, but for me, the character of Loki made the movie.

As I wrote in an earlier post, Loki the Trickster, has fascinated me since I read a book of Norse mythology as a kid.  Sometimes an ally and sometimes a nemesis of the gods, in the old stories, Loki was finally imprisoned under the earth for killing Baldr, the golden boy of Asgard, where he will remain until the final battle when this world will be destroyed.

Loki, from 18th c. Icelandic manuscript. Public domain.

Loki, from 18th c. Icelandic manuscript. Public domain.

The movie Loki is far more nuanced; he and Thor compliment each other.  Thor is ready to charge ahead, swinging his hammer against an invincible foe, while Loki embodies consummate strategy.

Loki and Thor plot their next move

Loki and Thor plot their next move

Loki, rejected by the Father of the gods and always subordinate to Thor, though he is older and smarter, is more the existential Outsider than any other movie superhero. Peter Parker may pine for Mary Jane, in a malt shop kind of way, and Clark gets tongue-tied near Lois, but Loki portrays the adult experience of not fitting in.

If you know what that’s like (and if not, why are you writing and reading blogs), you’ll enjoy this portrayal of Loki. The next time you’re in the mood for heroes, aided by Natalie Portman, saving the world, with help from a professor who runs around naked at Stonehenge, grab some popcorn and consider renting Thor.  It’s a fun ride.

The American Monomyth

In my so far disappointing effort to make sense of Tumblr, I have at least found several intriguing posts, including this one from josephcampbellwasright.tumblr.com called “The American Monomyth.”

The Monomyth is a world-wide mythic pattern that Joseph Campbell described in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, 1949:  “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

The Tumblr post references a lesser known book by Robert Jewett, The American Monomyth, 1977, that describes an interesting variant:

“In the American monomyth, the hero is an outsider who comes into a once-perfect community in peril (the “violated Eden”) to confront the evils that have caused trouble. The hero eschews such things as joining the community, standing apart from them in order to better keep them safe, in a manner that could best be described as vigilantism. Once the evil has been vanquished, the hero either allows himself to absorb into the community (through such means as moving in, marrying, etc.), or he moves on to the next violated Eden.”

The post lists several movies as examples, but doesn’t mention several key genres that raised the “Heroic Outsider” to the mythic status of true American Hero.  What of superheroes like Batman and Superman or crime fighters like The Untouchables?  What of the genre I grew up on, the western?

Clint Eastwood and Sidney Penny in Pale Rider, 1985, my favorite "Heroic Outsider" western

Clint Eastwood and Sidney Penny in Pale Rider, 1985, my favorite “Heroic Outsider” western

While Googling for westerns with the classic, “clean up the town” theme, I came upon an interesting syllabus for a course at Dominican University, The Western:  America’s Mythology – books it would be fun to add to my geometrically expanding list of things I would like to read!

Meanwhile, I suspect that everyone has personal favorite books and movies in this “swoops in and saves the day” genre.  What are some of yours?

The Monuments Men: a movie review

George Clooney;Matt Damon;John Goodman;Bob Balaban

The Monuments Men, based on a 2009 book of the same name by Robert Edsel, tells of a small group of mostly middle aged men who risked their lives to recover thousands of looted works of art from the retreating Nazis in the final days of WWII.

George Clooney co-wrote, directed, and starred in the film.  A Washington Post review suggests why the project mattered to Clooney, saying the movie “continues his long-standing — even heroic — effort to preserve a certain kind of movie in the American filmmaking canon…the classical, even old-fashioned kind of film that, we’re so often depressingly reminded, Hollywood doesn’t make anymore.”

If you’re like me, that means movies that center on story and even dare to depict personal heroism.  Explosions and digital effects, if present, are subordinate elements.

The Monuments Men has not fared well with reviewers.  In an obvious comparison to Saving Private Ryan, another quest/buddy movie set in WWII, The Monument Men lacks tension at many points.  The Post review gives a plausible analysis of the structural cause of a lack of focus in the central part of the movie, that resolves in the ending sequence where the team races to save several key artistic treasures from destruction by the Nazis and capture by the advancing Russian army.

Whatever its flaws, I enjoyed The Monuments Men and recommend it as a good story that poses key questions on the way a people’s art and history is central to their identity, something Hitler knew very well when he tried to erase it from the lands he conquered.

The Legend of Bagger Vance: a movie review


One of my favorite movies of all time centers on the game of golf, which has never interested me.  It is not about golf, however.  As Roger Ebert said in his review, “It is the first zen movie about golf.”  The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000) was directed by Robert Redford and stars Will Smith in the title role, Matt Damon, and Charlize Theron.

Rannulph Junuh (Damon) is a promising golfer whose girlfriend, Adele (Theron) is the daughter of a wealthy and prominent family in Savannah, Georgia.  Junah, the golden boy, has everything going for him until, as a captain in the first world war, his entire company dies in battle.  Though he wins the medal of honor, when Junah returns home, he lives in the shadows for a decade, as a drunk, abandoning everything from his former life.

In 1930, in an effort to recover the family fortune, Adele organizes an exhibition tournament between Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, the most famous golfers of the era, at an extravagant golf resort her father built just as the depression struck.  To try to generate local interest, she asks her estranged boyfriend, Junuh, to play.  Junuh can barely hit a straight shot when the mysterious Bagger Vance (Smith) literally steps out of the night and announces he will be Junuh’s caddy.

Vance and Junuh

Vance and Junuh

Bagger Vance becomes a mentor in every sense of the word, helping Junuh recover his “own authentic swing,” a metaphor for recovering an authentic life.

The movie did not do well at the box office, and critical opinion was mixed.  Though Roger Ebert gave it 3 1/2 stars, George Perry of the BBC called it “pretentious piffle,” and Dana Stevens, writing in the New York Times said, “it’s central premises are so banal and dubious as to border on offensiveness.”  Such a reading results from failing to understand that the movie’s genre is mythological, and Bagger Vance is a spiritual guide.

When the movie was released, director, Robert Redford, spoke of the “spiritual journey.” In one interview said he believed in “mythology as a foundational storyline,” and in Bagger Vance, the image of losing and finding one’s “authentic swing,” meant losing and recovering one’s soul.

The theme was close to my own heart.  Nine years earlier, I’d finished a psychology masters thesis on “Imaginal Guides,” but when the movie came out, I felt my corporate work milieu threatened my own soul.  Part of the problem, I think, confronts us all, as the mythical/imaginal dimension of our collective psyche has collapsed.  Events, which once were woven into stories and ballads, become the stuff of headlines and clips on Entertainment Tonight, which are no more nourishing to the soul than yesterday’s tweets.

Redford came “from a big family of storytellers,” which led him to “place value…on mythological story lines because they’re the most solid and they usually have moral and rich characters and a simply told story. And [Bagger Vance] had that…a wonderful, simple, mythological story. A classic hero’s journey.”  

The fact that the movie didn’t have more success may say more about our “entertainment culture” than about the film itself.  Watch this clip, and if it resonates, you are sure to enjoy the movie.

Notes on spies, cowboys, and heroes.

I’ve done some car travel recently, and that is my favorite time to listen to audio books.  This time I picked a spy novel by a popular author I hadn’t read before.  I’ll discuss the specifics when I finish the story, but it sparked some new thoughts on a subject that I’ve written about before:  heroes, antiheroes, and how they change with the times.

As a teenager, I loved reading James Bond novels and probably finished all 11 books that Ian Fleming wrote between 1952 and his death in 1964.  In the novels and early movies, 007 was confident and competent in every area of life, including protecting a world in which good and evil were clearly defined.  That wasn’t just the fantasy of an adolescent male; Fleming’s huge popularity suggests that Bond embodied much of the cultural dream of the early cold war era.

Sean Connery and Ursula Andress in "Dr. No," the first Bond movie, 1962

Sean Connery and Ursula Andress in “Dr. No,” the first Bond movie, 1962

Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale, was published in 1952, just seven years after the end of World War II, a conflict in which the author served as a naval intelligence officer.  There was little moral ambiguity in Fleming’s world or in his novels.  How different that is from the latest Bond movie, Skyfall, 2012, where moral clarity is scarce, and the adversary of British Intelligence is one of their own, gone rogue.


Daniel Craig makes a good Bond but has little time to exhibit all of Sean Connery’s gentlemanly skills.  This 21st century Bond is too busy killing people to worry about whether his drinks are stirred or shaken.

I’ve watched more westerns than spy movies, so that’s where I’ve seen the changing dynamic of heroes with greatest clarity.  Yet I begin to sense a parallel progression in both genres.   Using westerns as examples, I think we can identify three types of protagonists:

The Hero:  He (it’s always “he” in this kind of western) fights for a righteous cause, greater than himself.  In John Ford’s classic Fort Apache, John Wayne may feel for the Apaches, and thrash the corrupt trader who sold them whisky, but they still have to go back to the reservation.  It’s manifest destiny – the American way.

Fort Apache, 1948

Fort Apache, 1948

The Anti-hero:  Though the term dates from the 18th century, Clint Eastwood’ westerns pushed it into the popular lexicon.  There are no grand causes in these movies, just the gritty play of good and evil, but there is still room for the stranger – or in one of my favorites, Pale Rider, 1985, “the Preacher” –  to lend his aid, and especially his skill as a gunfighter, to those he finds deserving.

Clint Eastwood as Preacher in "Pale Rider."

Clint Eastwood as Preacher in “Pale Rider.”

The Non-hero:  This protagonist may be sympathetic, but should not bear the title of “hero,” with its implication of honor.  He’s the winner who gets to write the history, and that may be his only claim to moral high ground.  In Unforgiven, 1992, Clint Eastwood plays William Munny, a widower who has tried to give up killing and drinking.

"Deserving's got nothing to do with it," says  Munny in "Unforgiven

“Deserving’s got nothing to do with it,” says Munny in “Unforgiven”

Unfortunately, he’s failing in his new trade as a pig farmer, so to raise money to support his kids, he takes one more job as a hired killer: to take revenge on two cowboys who disfigured a prostitute.  The body count is a higher than two when the movie ends with an epilogue saying Munny is rumored to be in San Francisco and prospering in the dry goods trade.


So why does this matter?  I’ll have more to say on this in my next post, but for now, a couple of ideas that come to mind are:

– In the movies I’ve highlighted, we see the concern of characters shrinking from the common good to narrow self-interest.  This is a trend we see echoed in headlines every day.

– What do we mean when we call someone a “hero?”  Do we actually bestow the name, or is it most often done for us by various outside agencies, usually of the government or the entertainment industry?

– When is the last time we heard the great story that Joseph Campbell identified as the “monomyth?”   “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

I’ll have other reflections to add to this in the next post.

Stardust: a movie review


One day while Neil Gaiman was driving in England, he noticed a wall by the side of the road and imagined Faerie on the other side. He conceived the story of an American author visiting Britain who would discover the wall. Shortly after this, on the night he received a literary award, Gaiman saw a shooting star, and the idea for Stardust was born.

Stardust was first released as an illustrated series in 1997 and then as a novel in 1999, which won an award from the Mythopoetic Society.  A movie version in 2007 received favorable reviews.  After my recent review of Gaiman’s 2013 novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I realized I’d never seen the Stardust movie.  It’s available for rent on iTunes, and I highly recommend it.

Stardust gives us the wall, a wonderful metaphor for much of human culture, erected to keep us out of Faerie, the realm of imagination, heightened emotion, wonders, terrors, true love, and our true selves.

Responsible citizens don't cross the wall.

Responsible citizens don’t cross the wall.

Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox), a young man who lives in the town of Wall, is a classic dummling.  He’s a klutz who can’t keep a job and is infatuated with Victoria, a girl who won’t take him seriously and whose finance delights in tormenting him.  Yet Tristan’s father, who has been over the wall, says that might be a good thing – most people who find it easy to fit in “lead unremarkable lives.”  Then he tells Tristan the secret of his birth on the other side of the wall.

Tristan and Victoria see a shooting star fall into Faerie.  Still infatuated, Tristan vows to bring the star back to win her hand in marriage.  He forces his way through the wall to begin his search, but he is not the only one who saw the star.

The murderous sons of a dying king in the realm of Stormhold set off to find the star when their father vows that the one who finds it will be his heir.  And Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), senior member of a trio of witches joins the hunt – when stars fall to earth, the witches cut out their hearts and eat them, a little at a time, to preserve their youth and beauty.

Tristan reaches Yvaine the star (Claire Daines) first. Still intent on winning the hand of Victoria back in Wall, he uses a Faire chain to compel her to follow him.

Yvaine and Tristan

Yvaine and Tristan

At first they bicker constantly, but their time on the road and helping each other survive attempts on their lives creates a bond of friendship and finally love between them. Ever the dummling, Tristan is the last to realize this, but is helped when he finds a mentor.  Robert De Niro, in a virtuoso role as Captain Shakespeare, the gay captain of a flying steampunk pirate ship, teaches Tristan to fight, Yvaine to dance, and with a parting gift of  wisdom, whispers to Tristan, “She is your true love.”

Captain Shakespeare at the helm

Captain Shakespeare at the helm

As with any good dummling story, the ending of Stardust will leave you happy.  Though rooted in the sensibility of a modern coming of age tale, with elements of character development that the old traditional stories lack, Stardust fits Tolkien’s paradigm of the classic fairytale – the wonders and terrors we mortals encounter when we venture into other worlds.

Faerie whispers to us in sunlight, in starlight, and in our dreams.  Those intimations may be what make us most truly human.  No wonder we have an endless appetite for wonder tales, and Stardust is one that thoroughly satisfies.