A Tale of Two Cultures

Sometimes Providence furnishes life lessons in unexpected ways. One of those for me was the juxtaposition and the timing of the death of one of my mentors, president emeritus of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Father Michael Scanlan, TOR, on Saturday — and the speech of one of my idols, Meryl Streep, at the Golden Globe Awards ceremony the next day.

Meryl Streep is one of the great actresses of our time. No debating it. From The Deer Hunter to Kramer vs Kramer to Sophie’s Choice to Iron Lady — give me a break, she’s an extraordinary entertainer. But like all celebrities who are paid inordinate amounts of money to entertain us, someone close to her probably should explain that she should stick to the item on her resume marked “Entertainer.” It’s what they do best. Proffering politics isn’t.

Seriously.

Her astoundingly tone-deaf speech at the Golden Globes represents Exhibit A showcasing the difference between a culture based on self-promotion and one based on self-donation.

Three small samples from her speech (comments by me in bold):
“Just to pick up on what (actor) Hugh Laurie said, you and all of us in this room really belong to the most vilified segments of American society right now.”

Um, Meryl, I adore your talent — I do — but listen to yourself. You’re wearing a $18,000 gown; a sleek limousine will float you home to Malibu; your net worth is north of $65,000,000; people seek your autograph, signed photo, and opinions every day of the week. I know you were going for facetious here, but…

“So I only ask the famously well-heeled Hollywood Foreign Press and all of us in our community to join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists, because we’re gonna need them going forward, and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.”

Hahahahha! I though she said we are going to need Hollywood celebs to safeguard the truth!

“It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It — it kind of broke my heart when I saw it.”

This is an allusion to the claim that Donald Trump did a mock impersonation of a handicapped reporter who wrote something negative about him (Trump). I have no idea where the truth lies on this, but for now, let it be said I don’t support the mocking of people based on things they can’t control, like physical looks. But have you seen the bazillion mocking images and impersonations liberals come up to mock Donald Trump’s looks? I’ll go out on a limb and I say I doubt these break Meryl’s dear heart.

As for her advocacy of the underprivileged and the disabled — I say, fantastic. But wasn’t a disabled teenager tortured on Facebook Live only days ago by four African-American adults, who forced him to say “F*** Trump, f*** white people,” and all manner of other vile things, while being gagged with tape, cut with a knife, and forced to shove his head into the toilet. Beyond terrifying.

Still waiting for Ms. Streep (whose ability to entertain I greatly admire) to weigh in. Oh, and Donald Trump won the election. Meryl et al in the room, you lost.

And then there was young Michael Scanlan. Fresh out of Harvard Law School back when that meant something beyond resume padding, he had the world by the tail. What made him pause before beginning a stellar career as a certified Judge Advocate General (JAG) in the U.S. Air Force, was a question God asked him quite directly one day: “Michael, will you give me your whole life?”

Scanlan broke up with his sweetheart and began looking for some path to priesthood that made sense, eventually zeroing in on an Order whose charism is humility, the Franciscan TORs. There is no way to summarize here his accomplishments and his influence around the world.

Let’s just say that by the time Father Michael (“Father Mike” to all) Scanlan stepped down as president of the University in 2000, his unconditional “yes” to God had doubled the school’s enrollment, and lit a fire of renewal in the Catholic Church and America and beyond. I credit so much of my own growth in faith (and reason) to this man.

For 18 years, he hosted a talk show on EWTN that I was privileged to co-produce. He published more than 16 books and even more booklets published in multiple languages. And he provided a model of the priesthood as servant leadership, and he embodied an ideal for Catholic higher education he embodied: dynamic orthodoxy.

Meryl and Mike. Representatives of two very different cultures and sets of priorities.

Closing thought. Are you bold enough to think God is not asking you the same basic question he asked young Mike Scanlan?

 

 

In Praise of Tarrying

I’m slowing down for this blog post. Real slow. I want to hit upon the importance of tarrying.

Before you dash to a dictionary or to The Google (which I argue has wrought massive damage to our collective memory skills), to tarry means to intentionally delay or to remain.

In our frenetic world of glowing glass screens and ADHD-fueled lifestyles, tarry stands out as a word full of melancholy loveliness.

It appears in an old gospel song penned in 1912 called In the Garden, which I first heard performed by Johnny Cash, although it’s been recorded by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Glen Campbell, and appears in the films Places In the Heart and Nashville.

A LOT of the greats love this song! Tarrying makes the experience of the narrator possible. Here’s a sample of the lyric:

I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses

And he walks with me
And he talks with me
And he tells me I am his own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known

American culture is obsessed with “time-saving” methods. We hanker for tips for “hacking.” We love shortcuts and the words, “just give me the bottom line.” Business books devoted to higher productivity sell briskly.

I’m not necessarily opposed to any of the above. But the attitude they express comes at a cost, and that cost has to do with serenity.

The Bible repeatedly recommends tarrying, probably because God knows how prone we are to embracing the frantic, hyperkinetic pace we call normal. Here are a few examples in context:

“Tarry all night and wash your feet.” – Genesis 19
“Come down to me, tarry not.” – Genesis 45
“Tarry; stay behind.” – Exodus12
“Tarry ye here for us, till we come again to you.” – Exodus 24

Tarrying lies at the heart of the famous, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). It also captures the disciples’ desire when they realize they don’t want the strange Visitor walking with them to Emmaus to leave them. The King James Version renders it:

“And they drew nigh unto the village, whither they went: and he made as though he would have gone further. But they constrained him, saying, ‘Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.’ And he went in to tarry with them.” Luke 24:28-39

I remember a saying of Father Vincent Serpa, OP, “God has two speeds: slow, and stop.”

True statement.

Tarrying is a great habit to develop. It’s not easy for people like me who are more go, go, go than slow, slow, slow. Nor does it mean laziness or the avoidance of duty. It means lingering on experiences of great beauty, which pass quickly and need to be savored. It’s the condition required for prayer. Tarrying is more “Mary” than “Martha,” and we know which mode of being was praised by our Blessed Lord in Luke 10.

What are you willing to slow down for? How long can you go without recharging?

 

 

Kevin Costner’s Big Gamble

The iconic actor-director’s new custody drama, “Black or White,” offers a fresh, poignant, and sometimes funny treatment of an old social wound.

Actor-director Kevin Costner is an iconic fixture in American cinema. At 60, he still bears a neo-Gary Cooper, or, some would say, James Stewart, quality. With an understated “aw shucks, ma’am” quality you can’t get from a Stella Adler acting class, Costner has appeared in over 45 movies, often, in the 1990s, as the protagonist. His lanky, leathery screen presence, along with the closest thing to a drawl possible for a native Southern Californian, made him a natural for the westerns and sports dramas that have been his métier. The big hits include The Untouchables (1987), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991); Field of Dreams (1989), The Bodyguard (1992), and Dances With Wolves (1990), the latter in which he starred, directed, and for which was given dual Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Director.

Not bad for a novice director with material that neither publishers nor Hollywood studios wanted.

Not all of Costner’s creative risks have paid off. He was the prime mover behind two of moviedom’s biggest box office duds, the expensive post-apocalyptic movies Waterworld (1995) and The Postman (1997), reportedly dubbed “Dirtworld” by the crew. Not unlike Babe Ruth, who was known as both the Sultan of Swat and the King of the Strikeouts, in his art Costner prefers to swing for the back fence.

This flair for risk-taking is on bright display with his new movie, Black or White, written and directed by Mike Binder and co-starring Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer (The Help). USA Today reports that the script was unloved by reluctant studio financiers, so—believing in the gem of a story on his hands—Costner ponied up half the film’s nine million dollar budget with his own money.

Black or White is not your father’s Kevin Costner movie. The character Elliott Anderson is a doting, if boozy, grandpa whose power attorney hairdo has seen better days. He’s a bit bloated and in a lot of pain. In the opening shot, he’s perched absently on a hospital hallway bench. Having just learned his wife had died in a car wreck, Elliott barely holds back a flood of tears, impaled by a sword of grief he never saw coming.

Throughout the movie, he tries to hold it together in between swigs of a ubiquitous glass of whiskey. Without the stabilizing presence of his wife around, Elliott slowly becomes a paunchy, disheveled shadow of the smart lawyer he once was: he sleeps in his work clothes; wanders absently minus a sock; and has vivid dreams (or are they visitations?) of his late wife (Jennifer Ehle). Now he must raise his biracial granddaughter Eloise (newcomer Julian Estell) alone.

Elliot’s only daughter hooked up with an African American ne’er-do-well named Reggie (Andre Holland), and died giving birth to Eloise. The appearance of the paternal grandmother, Rowena (Spencer as a feisty mother in denial) who demands custody of the middle-school girl gets the story up on two legs. The stage is set for a courtroom clash. And, at this point, Black or White is vulnerable to the charge of cliché and political correctness. Whether Binder’s script succumbs depends on your perspective. Racists on both sides of the color line will despise this movie.

Many people continue to suffer “racial issue fatigue” after a string of police-related clashes and their controversial court outcomes—all inflamed by a media industry that makes money off conflict, real or imagined. Reginald Hudlin, producer of Django Unchained (2012) and former president of entertainment for BET (Black Entertainment Television) suggested in The Hollywood Reporter that Selma (2014) was shut out of Oscar consideration partly because of this fatigue.

Binder & Costner are banking on the hope that moviegoers are ready for a fresh—at times even funny—treatment of an old social wound. Whether all white, all black, all Native American, or all Upper Bessarabian, the story would work as a tense family drama. The race thing is just spice on a tasty dish.

Sometimes jalapeno-grade spice: the movie dares to invoke the dreaded “n word” in an angry exchange between the hung-over Elliot and the failing-but-trying Reggie that audiences will understand even as they cringe. Above all, Black or White is a human story that refuses to vilify or glorify any of its characters on the basis of skin color. As deprivations go, Original Sin is truly colorblind. In this movie, there’s plenty of dysfunction and vice, and plenty of hope and virtue, to go around.

Thanks to Allied Integrated Marketing, in a recent interview for the new Catholic Answers Focus podcast, Kevin Costner gave some of the story behind the story, and discussed the movie’s underlying transcendent themes of family, ignored grief, and the cost of running from emotional pain. Here is the interview, edited only slightly for length:

Patrick Coffin: In some ways your new movie Black or White would represent a certain risk for an actor in light of the police clashes and racial tension and so on, so I wanted to ask you right off the bat about what won you over to the project and to the role?

Kevin Costner: (chuckles) Well, you know I didn’t think it was, I don’t know, I didn’t think it was courageous. I didn’t think it was risky. I thought it was really honest and I thought, Wow. I’m always comfortable with things that are honest because I don’t have anything to apologize for. And when it’s about my own time, about what I think feels broken out there, I feel even a greater obligation to share it. I would have felt worse about running away from it.

PC: I was reading some of the comments on the trailer channel on Youtube, and people on both ends of the racial divide, if you will, have reacted somewhat viscerally—never having seen the film. But having seen it myself, I can say it has nothing to do with race relations and more to do with family, and forgiveness.

KC: Yeah, that’s just jumping to conclusion. That’s this idea that you can critique a trailer—my God, the shallowness of those who would get drawn into a conversation based on a trailer. And if those people in any way would scare off people from going to this movie, I almost want to say “shame on them” because there’s so much truth in this movie and so many things that get said that people have been unable to articulate for themselves; it’s surprisingly warm, this movie, yet it doesn’t pull punches. So it’s kind of a miracle, actually.

PC: So it’s not the kind of trailer where the best parts are in it.

KC: Absolutely. That’s by design, that’s me saying, “No, we don’t have to lead with our right hand more.” We are going to find our champions. I don’t know where they’ll come from but it will be people who have seen the movie who have open hearts. Those will be our champions. And us trying to win over any other thing—getting off message, of what the movie’s intended to say or softening it or making it more politically correct—is a mistake.

PC: Watching the movie reminded me of watching Kramer vs Kramer [Ed: the 1976 custody drama starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep] and enjoying your performance as Elliott and it occurred to me that the story is about emotional woundedness and about the effects of addiction on the family. I wondered to myself whether I would watch it if it had nothing to do with race and my answer was yes, I would.

KC: Well, there are some roots there from that particular movie; you can see them, and a completely original take set against this world of racism that we have been dealing with since the formation of this country, and before that, actually. And it’s a cloud that has chased us. It’s one that we’re making some progress on, and movie like this can accelerate that conversation. But there’s just the same weird wickedness of people who would debate a trailer with such vitriol. The energy that must go into that kind of discussion versus the good that people could talk about is just unbelievable to me.

PC: And the title is not Black vs White

KC: Yeah, it’s almost a rhetorical “Black or white?” Well, who cares? Does it matter? No, it doesn’t matter; in this instance it’s about the welfare of a child, and where is this child going to be loved and nurtured? It turns out, it could be from both households.

PC: One word that occurred to me when I was watching you and Octavia Spencer—especially in the courtroom scenes—is fun. There’s a real chemistry between you as you enter the epic battle.

KC: Yeah, that’s a highlight of the movie, all through the movie. I mean, the sense of humor that runs through Black or White, while it’s still hitting so close to the bone is kind of a really fine dance. It’s an incredible screenplay.

PC: And all the characters are flawed. There’s black heroism and white heroism, and black “flawedness” and weakness, and so on, but all the characters have their compassionate giving side, too.

KC: Absolutely! You find yourself alternatively laughing at it and then being kind of appalled by it.

PC: There’s no explicit reference to faith in the film but there’s a beautiful portrayal of the fact that love and forgiveness are choices that sometimes fly in the face of feelings.

KC: I think that with faith and stuff like that we find a way to move forward, and what you feel like in this movie without it being a kumba ya ending, is the ability for a man to move forward, to accept something that he couldn’t see before. He (Elliot) was backed into a corner; he was dealing with alcohol and people were rushing him and when that happens in life, we dig in. He had barely buried his wife and suddenly he’s getting phone calls asking for shared custody.

There’s a lot in this screenplay people will never discuss—the nuance of it—that we if you think about that he might have come to this conclusion he we see at the end of the movie had he not been rushed but when people get rushed they get defensive and they need to win, an when they need to win they’re willing to pull out all the stops. Then race becomes an issue.

PC: I thought the chemistry between Elliott his late wife—she’s almost the co-star of the film. She seems present, if not seen, in every decision he makes.

KC: Yeah, and boy does he wish she was around. Because she not only was the person who gave love to this child and did all those things but now he was going to have to take over those duties and you can see that it doesn’t matter how hard he was going to try to do it, there are some things a woman can do. And it was really interesting to me.

PC: Your character Elliott Anderson is kind of an anti-Eliot Ness—a big change-up for you. Here’s this paunchy, crabby, boozy grandfather. Looked like you were having fun letting go, in a good way.

KC: Well, I think I had to. I had to put on the weight, let the hair go—let it all go—because when you don’t have your woman you don’t know how to take care of yourself. The things they did to make you sharp are not there. But I was armed with incredible dialogue, some speeches of a lifetime to be honest.

PC: Especially in the courtroom scene and while walking absently with one sock on, one sock off on the sidewalk outside the house.

KC: (laughing) Or getting in the wrong van!

PC: Exactly right. In addition to box office mojo and golden accolades from your peers, what do you hope for this film? What kind of conversation do you hope to jump start?

KC: Well, I hope it’s a massive success in that it’s a movie that wants to be shared. And that it’s a movie that travels through time. You know, we so often measure movies on how they do on opening weekend when it fact the value of a movie is that one you’ll take off the shelf 10 or 20 years from now. Will this movie still be relevant then? That is what I want for this movie. That’s why all the decisions were made to not soften it, to make it as relevant as it could possibly be. And that means all the flaws are shown and all the possibilities are shown. And when we do, I think we have an ability to have a higher understanding when we’re absolutely honest.

PC: That’s the watchword of the film. It raises stereotypes to shoot them down for what they are. Kevin Costner you have amazing staying power as an actor and it’s good to see you continue to be on top. May God bless you richly and all the best with this film.

KC: Well, thank you. That was beautifully said. And certainly, I don’t walk alone.

PC: Amen to that.

This article was first published for Catholic World Report www.catholicworldreport.com