19 July 2012

Dark Knight and ridiculous plot

A day ago, I saw The Dark Knight Rises, the third movie in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy.  In brief, I thought it was decent, but not great.  For several reasons, though, I thought it was exactly like Batman Begins, and so if you really loved that movie, you'll love this one.  I didn't.

(Warning: this post contains complete plot spoilers for every aspect of all three movies  For serious.)

I'll start by praising some aspects of The Dark Knight Rises that I particularly appreciated.  First of all, Bane is an amazing villain, fully realized and compelling.  The juxtaposition between his hulking puissance and his creaking-but-cultured voice meant that he dominated every scene - even when Batman was there, Bane was the interesting person.  This was a welcome change from the truly painful Bane of Joel Schumacher's campy Batman and Robin.  That Bane was a ridiculous thug powered by super-steroids.

The new Bane is from the comics.  The uninitiated might not be aware that Bane was the a brilliant strategist of the "Knightfall" storyline in the comic.  When he sets out to defeat Batman, he does so through the most clever and obvious expedient: he simply blows open Arkham and lets loose the entire imprisoned legion of madmen within.  Batman is forced to track and capture all of his opponents, one after the other.  And finally, when Batman is weary and battered, Bane confronts him, and breaks the back of the Bat over his knee.

In the movie, it happens differently, of course, but they still try to get to that moment.  And that's when I realized that this was both the strength and weakness of The Dark Knight Rises: they were trying to portray a series of dramatic moments, but didn't quite connect them well enough.

After "Knightfall," Batman must train himself and return to Gotham.  But his confidence has been broken, and even after turning to the fearsome assassin Lady Shiva to return him to fighting strength, he is never confident enough to engage in the death-defying acrobatics necessary to swing around Gotham on a bat-line.  In particular, there is one terrible jump in the city, a straight fall from a prominent tower, where perfect timing is required to correctly grapple and swing away on an outcropping a hundred feet below.  It takes a long time before Batman is finally able to dive from a skyscraper, whip out a line, and slice through the air as he had done before.  Every aspect of the prison scene from The Dark Knight Rises was an attempt to build up to that same moment, when Batman must shed his fear and make a leap.

Another example of the attempts to seize moments and put them in the movie is the martial rule of Bane over Gotham.  This is an attempt to create the atmosphere of the long "No Man's Land" storyline, when a massive earthquake cut the city off from the rest of the country, and a few policemen and the Batman crew had to try to maintain order.  It was a desperate time.

I appreciated all of that, because I loved the long arc of the comic - Batman's defeat, his recovery, and his triumphant return.  But unfortunately, it doesn't work in the movie.  There's just not enough time to tell all of these stories, crammed into one movie.  It's why the movie feels jumbled, as it tries to shift gears rapidly.  The Dark Knight Rises tries to evoke too many things, simultaneously or in rapid sequence, and their atmospheres all conflict.

The movie might have survived this problem, though, if it hadn't been for the plot.  The plot of The Dark Knight Rises is so silly that it's almost insulting, and it's a big reason why The Dark Knight was amazing, while Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises are only mediocre.

In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne trains with a group of judgmental ninja, but eventually must fight them as they plan to destroy Gotham.  Their plan is to pour a fear-inducing chemical into the water supply for week after week, then to turn it into an aerosol with a microwave transmitter that travels through the city on the elevated train, vaporizing the water.  They try to get the transmitter to the central water station, at which point it would vaporize all the water in the whole city.  This plan, of course, is way too complicated and silly.  It would have made much more sense to simply drive the transmitter to the central water station in a van, then turn it on there.  They didn't do this because it allowed Christopher Nolan to have the cool moment where Batman flies backward off the train, leaving the transmitter and the chief ninja to die.  It's also a little silly to have a secret organization devoted to judging all the cities of the world, but whatever.

In The Dark Knight, on the other hand, the plot was enormously better.  The two villains, Two-Face and the Joker, each had simple motives.  The insane Two-Face wanted a twisted vengeance.  The Joker wanted to cause chaos and destruction.  Their plots were similarly intelligent and simple.  Two-Face kidnapped people and shot them 50% of the time.  The Joker blew people up with timed explosives.  It got a little silly near the end, with the magical cell phone technology, but even the Joker's twist with the hostages (dressing them up like clowns) is simple and clever.  Combined with Heath Ledger's amazing performance, it made this into a great movie.

In The Dark Knight Rises, things went back to the ways of Batman Begins, but just got ridiculous.  Spoilers! Talia, the daughter of the ninja from the first movie returns, intent on destroying Gotham.  She does this by becoming incredibly wealthy, and over the course of seven years invests in fusion technology with Wayne Enterprises, which builds a fusion reactor.  After seven years, her ally Bane arrives in town, and engages in a complicated robbery that reduces Bruce Wayne to penury and opens the way for Talia to take control of Wayne Enterprises.  Bane then breaks into the company basement and steals all of Batman's technology, then steals the fusion reactor's core and turns it into a five megaton nuclear bomb.  He breaks Batman's spine and sticks him in a prison, and then proceeds to take over Gotham for five months.  At the end of this time, he and Talia plan to nuke the city, finishing her father's intentions.

Now, since their goal was to destroy Gotham, why engage in this ridiculously circuitous plan?  If you're a multimillionaire with access to an elite team of ninja, wouldn't it be trivially easy to get a conventional nuclear bomb?  Five megatons isn't particularly impressive - it's about a tenth of the power of the USSR's "Tsar Bomba" bomb, which was 97% fusion.  Why do all these silly machinations that take seven years?  Just buy a nuke or steal one, and nuke the city.  It would take a week, and would be a lot less risky than forcibly capturing an experimental fusion reactor.

And what was the point of the difficult and dangerous raid on the stock market, when they were just going to steal the reactor anyway?  As far as I can tell, removing that entire sequence doesn't affect the movie at all, or their plan.

But even if you did the whole first part of the plan, why wait five months to nuke the city?  Nuke it on the first day.  It's torturing Batman really so important that you'll put your entire plan in jeopardy and draw things out for half a year?  It's not like the world is going to learn any sort of lesson from Bane's forcible rule over Gotham - there's no moral "mankind is basically evil" style of instruction involved when you free all the prisoners and give them machine guns.

None of it seems to make any sense, and that's because the plot is this flimsy thing jury-rigged out out of spit and baling wire, designed purely to carry us from artificial moment to artificial moment.  Added to these problems was Catwoman: it wasn't hard to top Halle Berry's performance, but Anne Hathaway remained woefully inferior to Michelle Pfeiffer's magnetic madness in Batman Returns.

All in all, The Dark Knight Rises was mediocre, especially when compared with its predecessor.  Sorry, folks.

15 July 2012

"No Bone Left Unturned," "Unbroken," and "A Year in Korea."

 No Bone Left Unturned, Jeff Benedict
Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand
A Year in Korea: an American Journal, David R. Wellens

No Bone Left Unturned, Jeff Benedict

When you write the story of a life and career, there are several ways to organize the book.

The most common tactic is to focus on a single active moment of drama.  This is especially the case when it's been a life of drama and intrigue, or a story centered around one single adventure.  In Going Rogue, Sarah Palin opens her tale in a carnival.  We are given a moment of folksiness to ground us in her projected character, before she will receive the momentous phone call that will propel her to stardom as the Republican candidate for the Vice-Presidency.  It's a classic hook: Attention, readers, here's a sample of the exciting things you'll get to read, as long as you make it through the story of my childhood!  Persevere!

Alternately, the life might be more episodic, and so you predominantly organize into chapters - each chapter is a case file, or a job, or an event.  When Oliver Sacks wrote about some of the most interesting people he'd met as a neurologist in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, he focused on each case in their turn, even though the reader was still given an impression of the passage of time and the track of Sacks' career.

Frequently, people choose to blend these tactics.  Bear Grylls' Mud, Sweat, and Tears opens with a moment from later in his career, when he has been badly injured, before turning to an episodic account focusing on his youth, school, and jobs.

What you should not do is what Jeff Benedict has done in No Bone Left Unturned and move through someone's life in a slavishly chronological fashion.  Benedict breaks his story up into irrational chunks.  Fully half the book is devoted to a single case, the Kennewick Man.  This is the most important case with which the subject, anthropologist Doug Owsley, was ever associated.  That fact should indicate to any thoughtful biographer that the book should be organized around this case.  It is not.

Here's a rough sample of how the book is organized:

Owsley is called in to investigate some old bones that they've found.  He takes a look and makes some notes!  There are tool marks, which probably means something.  But the next week, he has to file some legal briefs about something else, so we switch to that topic for a few pages.  Then it's on to a third case, but it turns out to be nothing, so Owsley does some more work on that first case, with a brief pause while the narrator relates the outcome of that legal brief.  Meanwhile Owsley examines the tool marks, and just when he's about to realize something, he has to take a conference call.

It goes on in this way, taking an intriguing subject - a forensic anthropologist! - and a fascinating life, and sloshing it sloppily into a series of jags, like a drunk frat boy trying to pour a line of shots.  Characters are introduced and described in detail, only to vanish forever into the mists of the ancient realm of Completely Goddamn Irrelevant.

There's an interesting book in here, somewhere - when Benedict gets out of the way for a moment:
Moving to the next gurney, Owsley stood in front of a body identified as MC73. “Age one point five,” he said. “Body is in an advanced stage of decomposition. A foot found in a stocking was separate from the rest of the body. The infant is wearing a snap cotton undershirt and diapers saturated in urine, now crystallized. The waistband of the diaper is decorated with Disney characters. The child’s pants are ankle-length, thermal underwear, with the brand name Young Stars.”
But usually the writing is poor and the author's choices are bizarre, which is a shame.  I'd bet that Owsley's life would make a fascinating book - this just isn't that book.  Is it possible to sue someone for biographical malfeasance?

Don't waste your time.


Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand

What a pleasure!  What a marvel!  Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken is good, and you should read it, and that's all there is to it.

It's possible to think of nonfiction in two ways.  Sometimes, the actual information is not new or interesting on its own.  The interesting part of the book is the way that information is presented and shown to us, tilted and displayed in a wonderful new way.  The essays of John Jeremiah Sullivan or David Foster Wallace are of this sort, crafted like a beautiful and ornate vase with looping handles and elaborate swirls.  They're a pleasure to see, even if they're only holding water.

But other times, the information in work of nonfiction is the real attraction.  The job of the writer shouldn't be decoration or elaboration, but simply to get out of the way.  Sometimes, this is the harder task.  One must provide context and use judgment, but do so voicelessly.  To guide without even being seen - that can be the real difficulty.

Laura Hillenbrand had a fascinating subject in World War 2 veteran Louis Zamperini.  As the book begins, the former Olympic athlete is stranded on a life-raft, the surviving members of his bomber crew around him.  A Japanese plane begins strafing their raft.  The ocean would be a refuge from the machine gun, but sharks are circling around them, waiting to devour yet another airman.  And yet this will not be the climax of the book, but only the midpoint - the eventual extent of  Zamperini's adventures would have stretched my credulity if this book wasn't so painstakingly researched.

I don't want to provide any further information, because the story itself is such a delightful and doleful series of surprises.  Just go out and read it, immediately.


A Year in Korea: an American Journal, David R. Wellens

David R. Wellens' A Year in Korea: an American Journal is one of the most interesting mystery stories you will ever read.  Usually I can figure out the puzzler at the heart of any detective tale, but Wellens managed to write this bit of autobiography with such cunning that I could never answer the central mystery: why would anyone publish this book?

David R. Wellens buys a pizza and 1.5 liters of Coke and eats it for dinner.  David R. Wellens is ripping his music to his computer.  David R. Wellens watched a movie tonight, it was Public Enemies with Johnny Depp and Christian Bale and he thought it was pretty good.  David R. Wellens was tired when he woke up this morning, but he drank some coffee.

Why?  Why is this a book?  It is literally just a reproduction of his diary from a year spent teaching at a Korean elementary school, and let me tell you something: David R. Wellens does not lead an interesting life.

Here is the whole of the first entry.  It is 100% representative of the rest of the book.

I worked closely with Miss Kim on this my first day. She needs my syllabi by Tuesday and I am trying to get a handle on the elementary teachers training plan. I started out the day waking up at 4:30 am and reading the teachers handbook before getting picked up by Myoung for a ride to CIFLE (Chungnam Institute of Foreign Language Education). Though I didn’t feel very hungry, I enjoyed a lunch with the Staff of CIFLE at a local restaurant. I sat opposite Lexi, a teacher from Jacksonville. I talked of Anthroposophy and other educational ideas. At the computer in the media room, I typed a plan for an essay that got erased when I tried to save it in a file. I had to get it done again. I worked with Miss Kim, my supervisor, until 8:10 pm (overtime) and she ordered a Korean dinner we enjoyed with the security guard. Miss Kim called me a cab when I finished the essay “Cultural Lessons—The Korean Experience in America” about the experiences of my Korean aunts and uncles who managed to make their lives in the USA.
I didn't change that. That's all of it - and that's pretty much all of the book.

David R. Wellens and I have many things in common.  We're both from Clearwater, Florida.  We were both English majors.  And we both went to teach elementary school in Korea.  I feel like I have a kinship with David R. Wellens.  And so I kept waiting for the punchline - the moment when the book/diary/slug would take a surprising turn.  I knew it would happen:  David R. Wellens will go on the local news, get discovered by a talent agent, and be catapulted to stardom!  David R. Wellens is walking out of Paris Baguette when he sees a masked man run by, and he captures this fleeing bank robber with a barrage of doughnuts!  David R. Wellens is ironing his shirts, as he describes doing every week, when a jolt of electricity races through him, sparking a new personality that calls itself Susanna!

But it never happens.  I spent a considerable amount of time trying to find hidden clues or patterns, looking for acrostics or a disguised rhyme scheme.  There was nothing - only a vague sense of depression.

David R. Wellens does not have a joyful life.  He has a weird fixation on pearls, and doesn't seem to deal with women very well - he frequently writes about how he tries to give expensive gifts to female coworkers.  This may explain why he is quietly fired from his job, near the end of the book.  He often drops the names of the books he's read and loves (Joyce, Flaubert, etc.), yet his diary is about as complex as that of a child. David R. Wellens is an enigma.

David R. Wellens is a also startling failure at most of his goals, and this ongoing pattern made his diary faintly depressing.  He intends to save money, but keeps buying expensive computer equipment, and so he saves very little beyond his severance pay.  He plans to go to Cambridge for an M.A. in English, then later plans to go to M.I.T. for computer science, but soon lets these goals slip away, unremarked and unlamented.

I have other complaints:
English is the official international language and the importance of the English language is increasing every day.
No. There is not an official international language. Even the U.N. has no fewer than six official languages.
It gives so much information and such a candid look at what I experienced while teaching in Korea for a year that anyone considering English teaching in Korea can take less of the guess work out of trying to anticipate whether or not teaching overseas is something the reader would want to do.
In the introduction to your book as an English teacher, why wouldn't you go to the effort to use all your idioms correctly?
I rode with Daniel B. and one of the staff ladies. I bent his ear about myself. I showed him where I lived, then went upstairs. Then I went to eat. I had bibimpap and then bought some baked things at Paris Baguette. A very pretty teenager I said “you should study your English!” to laughed and said “See you again.”
What is "bibimpap"? What is Paris Baguette like? That might be the sort of information you'd expect to find in someone's journal of their year in Korea. It's not in this book. Mangled Korean is tossed out without explanation.  Information on the day-to-day is the only conceivable reason to read this book, yet it is almost proudly ignored.
I picked up my new Korean hambuk. It’s beautiful. I will get more Korean style clothes.
Hambuk?  David R. Wellens, do you mean hanbok, the traditional Korean garment?
I also got a Chilsung Cider from the GS25 store on the way. The lady was wearing a pearl necklace. It seems to mean that she would look after me, like mom or Julia would.
What the hell, David R. Wellens?
We had a one-day camp today. Susan had prepared laminations. Mrs. Chae delighted me with her bothering Jeff about his shorts—“Do you want my resignation?” asked Jeff over and over again. I wanted to pipe in “yes” for Mrs. Chae. Mrs. Chae, the beautiful creature she is, skipped in her low heeled shoes like a child across the floor. She was happy about something. I was happy to catch a glimpse of her unbridled, joyful playfulness. I don’t think she saw anyone noticing her. I did, though. (She was wearing a string of pearls).
What the hell, David R. Wellens?

11 July 2012

A Description of Dissenters

Recently, while discussing Milton, a professor made mention of a broadside from 1647, called A catalogue of the several sects and opinions in England and other nations : With a briefe rehearsall of their false and dangerous tenents.  It was published by "R.A."  I thought it was fascinating and tracked down a scanned copy.

It was published during the Commonwealth period, after Charles I was beheaded.  Puritanism was on the rise and would soon rule in the person of Oliver Cromwell, but most of the country had a more middling sort of Protestantism.  Some new kinds of Protestant beliefs and a number of different religious and ideological groups that had been thriving abroad, mostly in Germany and the Low Countries, began to enter into an England that was rather more receptive of revolutionary thought than ever before.1  Baptists arose and became a serious force among these groups, known as Dissenters.  Still, there was fierce resistance to more radical beliefs, and the thoughts of many extremists were considered heresy, treason, or both.

The sheet has a short poem for twenty-two of the different extreme "sects" appearing in England, and a small illustration for the first twelve.  Some of the sects are formal organizations, while others are simply loose ideas.

By hellish wiles the States to ruine bring,
My Tenents are to murder Prince or King:
If I obtaine my projects, or seduce,
Then from my Treasons I will let them loose,
And since the Roman Papall State doth totter,
I'le frame my fly-conceits to worke the better.

The Jesuits, or Society of Jesus, are an order of priests in the Catholic Church.  While today they are best known for their educational accomplishments and institutions (I went to a Jesuit high school), they were formerly famous for being "devious" agents of the Pope.  Unlike most priests, they were sworn only to obey the leader of their order and the Holy See, rather than local bishops and archbishops.  Combined with a formidable reputation for intelligence and erudition, this made them appear sinister and gave rise to the still-used adjective "jesuitical" to describe complicated reasoning (with a connotation of obfuscation).  The poet's accusations are colorful and probably need no explanation.

The Jesuit appears to be holding a beer stein as he lectures.  I don't know the significance, but it's probably a veiled accusation of intemperance.  There have always been a lot of smear attacks on the Jesuits, and they're still ongoing, as one modern evangelical tract shows.

By cunning art my way's more neatly spun,
Although destructive to profession;
Obscuring truths, though substantiall,
To puzzle Christians or to make them fall:
That precious time may not be well improv'd,
I'le multiply strange notions for the lewd.

The Socinians are very obscure today, and I was forced to look them up on Wikipedia: they are named for their founder, whose Latin name was Faustus Socinus, and they were famous opponents of trinitarianism (the orthodox belief in a trinity of three persons united in a single godhead).  They held a number of other heretical beliefs, as well, such as denying the divinity of Christ and the doctrine of original sin.

The poet's condemnation of the sect is strangely nonspecific, it seems to me, and could just as easily have described any heretical sect that is wasting the "precious time" of men and "obscuring truths."

Would any comfortlesse both live and die?
Let him learn free wills great uncertaintie:
Salvation that doth unmov'd remaine,
Arminian logic would most maintaine,
And faith that's founded on a firme decree,
Is plac't by them to cause uncertaintie.

This sect has nothing to do with the Armenian people; rather, they are named after philosopher Jacobus Arminius.  It was one of the most dominant strains of Protestant thought, rivaling Calvinism, and held that men had to rationally choose faith, with benefit of the intercession of the Holy Spirit, in order to go to Heaven.  Much emphasis was given to man's role in his own salvation: he might not be persuaded, or might fall to sin even after he received the faith.  This is the "uncertaintie" condemned by the broadsheet.

The Arminian is the most badass-looking of all the heretics.

What they dare to deny, Christians know,
Christ God and Man, from whom their comforts flow,
'Tis sad, that Christians dive by speculation,
Whereby they loose more sweeter contemplation:
Where Christian practice acts the life of grace,
There's sweet content to run in such a race.

The Arian heresy is one of the oldest heresies, and by far the most famous.  Arius was an Alexandrian theologian of the third century, and the heresy he espoused was only resolved by the First Council of Niceaea, the first ecumenical meeting of the Church to determine doctrine, enshrined in the Nicene Creed.  At its heart, the Arian heresy was another denial of the Trinity, with Arius pointing out that because there was a time before Jesus existed, he must be a lesser being.  This assertion is usually still called Arianism, and is exceedingly common among major evangelical groups.

The poet here condemns Arians for "speculation" about the nature of Christ, when they should be busy contemplating Jesus' gift of grace to them.  The depiction makes him look like some sort of monster, but I suspect that's just a mustache that didn't translate very well on the woodcut.

Hath Adams sin procur'd his naked shame,
With leaves at first that thought to hide his staine?
Then let not Adamites in secret dare
Apparent sinfull acts to spread; but feare,
Since Adams sin hath so defil'd poor dust,
Cast from this Paradise by wicked lust.

This religious sect, which I only know because it's hilarious, claimed to have rediscovered an earthly Eden of spirituality.  Accordingly, they practiced religious nudism and rejected the idea of marriage.  They would gather in public squares and dance together, naked, until someone rang up the local soldiers.

Adamites were probably never a very big group, because they are mostly famous only due to constant and loud condemnation.  We very rarely hear about any actual Adamites, although there is a story about a fifteenth-century group in Bohemia, the Picards, that took control of an entire island and gave themselves up to their amazing naked worship ceremonies and communism.  Unfortunately, they were wiped out by the soldiers of Bohemian ruler Jan Žižka, to exterminate the pernicious influence of nudity and an odd sort of pre-Marx socialism.

The famous painting The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch may have been inspired by Adamites.

A pish at sin and open violation,
By willful lust, deserves just condemnation:
Repentance, through a Riddle, this I'le say,
Thou must unfold the same or perish aye.
Then least this holy Law thou yet doth slight,
Shall press thee one day with a dreadfull weight.

This is less a religious sect than what we would still call a libertine today, someone who is a sensualist, indulging in sex and drugs until they rot away and are portrayed by Johnny Depp.  To the poet, this depraved sort of lifestyle is an assault on God's law - thus the "Libertin" is portrayed as smashing the Ten Commandments with a hammer.  The object visible in the background is probably a bedpost, meant to hint at the specific sins of the libertine.

By cursed words and actions to gainsay
All Scripture-truth, that ought to guide thy way,
Without all question, were it in thy power,
Thou wouldst all sacred Rules at once devoure:
Poor man, forebear, thou striv'st but all in vaine,
Since all man's might shall but confirme the same.

Seemingly more of an idea that an organized sect, I was unable to find any information on antiscriptarians as a group.  The name and illustration seem clear enough, though, condemning those who denied the Scriptures and asserting that they would burn all holy books if given a chance.  It seems to have been a common smear against those who believed differently, as one Muggletonian declaims:
[T]he Antiscripturian saith, That God hath
neither body, parts or shape, but yet is an infinite
vast God, filling all things, and is in all places at one
and the same time, and so can neither ascend nor
descend, come nor go, but is every where at once;
as your great Augustine saith.

This is yours and the world's monstrous God:
are those the men that are so capable of Argument ;
if we should be as ignorant in the Scriptures as you,
it were no matter if our tongues should cleave to
the roof of our mouths.2

That souls are mortal, some have dar'd to say,
And by their lives, this folly some bewray;
Whilst (like the beast) they only live to eat,
In sinfull pleasures wast their time and state:
Meantime forgetting all immortality,
To woe or joy for all eternity.

The Soul-sleepers are another one of the strange schismatic beliefs that seem utterly unimportant on their face, but have large implications for the faithful.  The belief that the soul does not remain awake during death, but sleeps until the time of the Resurrection, was stated by Martin Luther in one famous tract as:
Salomon judgeth that the dead are a sleepe, and feele nothing at all. For the dead lye there accompting neyther dayes nor yeares, but when they are awoken, they shall seeme to have slept scarce one minute.
This would not have been controversial, and in fact would be utterly meaningless, but it meant that saints and the dead were unable to intercede on behalf of their loved ones, and that after death there was only oblivion (until the Last Judgment, anyway).  The Anglican church and its affiliates (such as the Episcopalians) still maintain this belief.  But it was shocking and dire for most English Christians in the seventeenth century, when they hadn't worked their way around to agreement and cast off a lingering Catholicism that had been exacerbated by the differing beliefs of successive monarchs.

The inscription over the Soul-sleeper says:
Heer's one blasphemous by
That hee was Christ did say
Such spirits were foretold
To rise ith latter daye

Poore men contrive strange fancies in the braine,
To cleanse that guilt which is a Leopard staine:
'Tis but a fain'd conceit, contended for,
Since water can but act its outward matter:
Regenerate, new-born, these babes indeed
Of watry elements have little need.

The Anabaptists, or "twice-baptized," believed that christening, or the baptism of babies, wasn't valid.  Only a rational adult could choose to be baptized, and thus it was necessary to be baptized again upon reaching maturity.  Many Anabaptists also tried to follow the literal teachings of Jesus, endorsing pacifism and other such ridiculous things actually commanded by Christ.

This is certainly the strongest and most amusing poem.  It suggests that Anabaptists must be doing something for which they feel really guilty, and so they keep getting baptized to try to wash away that "Leopard staine" on their souls.  This repeated christening is fitting, the poet says, because they're essentially children.

In Candide, Voltaire, usually so contemptuous of religion, demonstrates unusual sympathy to the creed.  At one point, he relates a parable:
The Anabaptist, being upon deck, lent a helping hand as well as the rest, when a brutish sailor gave him a blow and laid him speechless; but, not withstanding, with the violence of the blow the tar himself tumbled headforemost overboard, and fell upon a piece of the broken mast, which he immediately grasped.

Honest James [the Anabaptist], forgetting the injury he had so lately received from him, flew to his assistance, and, with great difficulty, hauled him in again, but, not withstanding, in the attempt, was, by a sudden jerk of the ship, thrown overboard himself, in sight of the very fellow whom he had risked his life to save and who took not the least notice of him in this distress.

Were all things Gospel that H.N. hath said,
A strange confused work were newly laid:
A perfect state, like Adams, is pretended,
Whilst outwardly each day God is offended:
No Sabbath, but alike all daies be,
If Familists might have their Liberty.

The small but strange "Family of Love" was more like a very well-behaved cult than anything else.  Doctrinally they were mostly Anabaptist, but they added on a variety of other esoteric beliefs, and emphasized serving their fellow men with love and humility.  This was the first I'd heard about them, and I had to look them up, perhaps because they didn't evangelize and just wanted everyone to get along.

"H.N." is a reference to their founder, Henrik Niclaes, who the Familists believe revealed the doctrine of perfect love, and whose Holy Spirit-inspired writings were superior to Scripture.  Once perfect love was achieved, they would no longer be beholden to either secular or divine law.  The poet here is harsher and seemingly more offended by this doctrine, more than most of the others.

All Ordinances, Church and Ministry,
The Seeker that hath lost his beaten way
Denies: for miracles he now doth waite,
Thus glorious truths reveal'd are out of date:
Is it not just such men should alwaies doubt
Of clear'st truths, in Holy Writ held out.

Rather than an organized church or formal system, a Seeker was someone with one fairly simple belief, and one that kind of makes sense: they argued that all human churches were corrupt, so they determined to hunker down and await direct divine revelation.  Beyond this common factor, they could hold any variety of other beliefs, although they mostly dipped into the common Dissenter pool of Arianism, anti-trinitarianism, and so on.

The Seeker is actually shown with sympathy, as he stands confused and pondering.  This is in keeping with the verse, which seems more pitying than anything.

To warrant this great Law of Separation,
And make one two, requires high aggravation:
Adultry onely cuts the Marriage-knot,
Without the which Gods Law allowes it not.
Then learn to separate from sin that's common,
And man shall have more Comfort from a woman.

Not even Henry VIII could immediately win over his people to divorce.  Divorce has often been one of those situations where "the only moral divorce is my divorce."  The depiction here, though, seems very odd - why would a divorce encourage a man to beat his wife?  Not that domestic abuse is ever acceptable, but forcing a couple to stay together seems like it would make the crime more likely, not less.

The remainder of the sects "described" in this sheet are as follows: Pelagian, Separatist or Independent, Antinomian, Anti-Sabbatarian, Anti-Trinitarian, Apostolicks, Thraskites, Hetheringtonians, The Tatians, and The Marchionites. The poet has harsh words for all of them in the same smug style as above, delivered in rousing defense of a status quo that almost certainly didn't outlive the author.  In short time, these extreme sorts of Dissent would become more and more common, and even as various strains of the above beliefs died out, many others were accepted or only morphed into more respectable versions.

Those darn Hetheringtonians, though, still lurk in the shadows.

1. Wright, Percy.  1841.  Political ballads published in England during the Commonwealth.  Oxford: Percy Society.
2.  Tomkinson, Thomas.  1822.  The Muggletonian principles prevailing : being an answer in full to a scandalous and malicious pamphlet entitled a True representation of the absurd and mischievous principles of the sect called Muggletonians.

10 July 2012

The Newsroom

Aaron Sorkin's new show The Newsroom barely manages to cling to "mediocre," digging its fingernails in to hold on, legs kicking and slipping, just barely above "tendentious crap."  There's only one reason to watch it, which I will get to at the conclusion of this post.

The Newsroom has nothing new to offer. It takes the awkward limbs of Sports Night and sews them to the mouldering torso of the West Wing, topping the lot with the head of a cartoonish liberal stereotype. The result staggers around clumsily.  The only part of this Frankenstein's monster with any life in it is the mouth, which keens a shrill and unceasing, "Why don't they listen, why don't they listen, why don't they listen."

At times, the sheer obviousness that The Newsroom is recycled becomes disconcerting - I start to wonder if this is actually wry commentary.  But it's not.  Jim the Nice Guy is a direct copy of Jeremy, the Nice Guy of Sports Night; they both have plaintive and bemused attitudes interrupted only at climactic moments of righteous denunciation. Jim/Jeremy bashfully woo Maggie/Natalie, twitchy vulnerable girls who are dating jerks. The alpha of the room, Will/Casey, who takes his job seriously but has lost his way, is brought back to self-respect by the female producer with whom he was once involved, Mac/Dana (they still secretly love each other).

This interpersonal framework, lifted almost without alteration from Sports Night, is then dressed up in the wishful political speeches of the West Wing.  Sorkin adheres to the Green Lantern theory of modern liberalism, as Matt Yglesias has named it, which holds that while centrist liberals like President Obama have the right ideals, they just don't want it enough.  In this view, if they would just stop being what Will calls "losers," and start exerting their willpower and fierceness, then they could get more done.

Jeff Daniels' Will spits iron and severity at fools, and it's rousing in the same way that the West Wing's President Barlett's thundering roar could give you a chill.  Unfortunately, The Newsroom is much less nuanced than the West Wing - all the conflict between realpolitik and idealism is gone, and those who want ratings are the Bad Guys and those who want to do the news are the Good Guys.  The resulting picture is not very good, because it's hard to paint realistically with a palette only black and white.

The show is set two years in the past, and the events of the show so far have been Deepwater Horizon, Arizona's SB1070, and the 2010 election.  With each event, the show's reporters show the benefit of hindsight as they dish out heaping piles of outrage - "Ask him about the debt ceiling!"  But not only does this seem like easy pickings and tedious wishful-thinking scenarios, it also leaves The Newsroom  mired in the past.  It's not a show that can look to the future, since it's shackled to endless re-hashing of lost battles.  I told you so I told you so I told you so

The show has serious, glaring problems.  Aaron Sorkin has surely realized that the personal relationships on the show are carbon copies of Sports Night, and that the plot is self-righteous and stagnant.  He has the uncomfortable choice of either making drastic changes that are obviously intended to fix this, or leaving things as they are and continuing to be ridiculous.  What will he do?

Finding out how and if he will fix these problems, which shout with leather lungs over anything the show might otherwise say, is the only reason to watch The Newsroom.