August 20, 2008



Don't know what to watch on TV this Fall? Confused by all the cancelled shows and changing show times/dates? Why not watch some "real life TV"? Before you run screaming for the hills (oops, "The Hills" is a "reality TV" show), did you know there's a difference between "real life TV" and "reality TV"? Yup. "Real life TV" is following real people around their real lives or real jobs, unscripted. "Reality TV," instead, is a concocted, fully- or partially-scripted show like "Survivor," "Big Brother," "The Surreal Life," often throwing a bunch of strangers into a competition and having them behave badly towards each other.


When you think about it, we already love different kinds of "real life TV," as evidenced by wildly popular cooking shows, talk shows, sports shows, and top-of-the-charts talent shows like "American Idol," "So You Think You Can Dance?" and "America's Got Talent." Not only is it great to see non-celebrities on the little screen, we can interact by voting via cell phone for whomever we think is most deserving.


Interested in expanding your cranium? Why not dip into the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel, Chicago's own WTTW (channel 11), the History Channel, C-Span (Capitol Hill), or BookTV on C-Span2?


Need to get in touch with nature (but it's cold, dark and late at night) or learn about the world? Try the Animal Planet Channel, National Geographic Channel or Travel Channel which boast fantastic shows that will take you all over the world to explore diverse cultures and observe all creatures great and small in their natural habitats.


True "real life TV," (chronicling real lives, real jobs) would be shows such as "Jon and Kate Plus 8"--the family life of a young couple with twins and sextuplets; "Project Runway"--although a competition, aspiring clothing designers have their creations judged by experts; "Ice Road Truckers"--those hearty souls who risk their lives hauling goods and supplies over frozen lakes, rivers and, yes, oceans, to the planet's northernmost reaches; and my fourteen-year-old nephew's favorite: "Dirty Jobs," (the smellier and grosser, the better). Other "real life TV" shows throw charity into the mix, constructing or refurbishing homes for families in need.


But remember, the first rule of media literacy is: "All media messages are constructs." Therefore, no media are "pure reality," no matter how objective the media makers are trying to be. The media product is a human creation, filtered through perspectives and choices. What was focused on and emphasized? Why? What was left out? Why? What was put in a favorable light through use of music, camera angles, composition, juxtaposition? What was put in a bad light?


How can we know whether or not something is scripted, falsified, exaggerated? The truth of the matter regarding these shows usually outs itself, due to the close scrutiny of the shows' fans! For example, "Laguna Beach" and "Real Housewives of Orange County," 'fessed up to being part myth. Other shows (not recommended) like "Keeping Up with the Kardashians," "Denise Richards: It's Complicated," smack of trumped-up conflicts and motives of extreme self-promotion. They are shows about the show. (Sometimes you can trust what you see: looks phony? Just might be….)


Rather than voyeurism, "real life TV" can help us experience vicariously "how the other half lives," what daily struggles and victories our fellow human beings face. Some shows drag a little ("World's Deadliest Catch"), kind of waiting for something big to happen, while others consistently scintillate ("Dog, the Bounty Hunter").



August 19, 2008



"Fireproof" is the story of two strangers living in the same house. And they're married. The metaphor of firefighters "never leaving their partner behind" fits perfectly. Caleb (Kirk Cameron) is a fireman married to Catherine (Erin Bethea) for seven years, and their relationship is in serious trouble. On fire. In a bad way.  

Caleb, although a heroic lifesaver, isn't terribly heroic in his marriage. He and Catherine have separate schedules, separate bank accounts, separate lives, and Caleb has become demanding and selfish. And if that weren't bad enough, he's addicted to internet porn and Catherine knows it. She tells her mother how humiliating it is and asks: "Since when did I stop being good enough for him?" She confronts Caleb more than once about it, to no avail. Although the problem of internet porn doesn't take over the story, it's a huge hurdle for the relationship. We are shown discreetly and effectively how tempting, easy and available internet porn is, and how radical a cure is sometimes called for.

Catherine is first to throw in the towel. Both have a good sense of their self-worth, so neither is going to let the other trample over them.  They are well-matched for the battle that lies ahead, although they continue to live together for practical reasons. The fights, the hurt, the lack of respect--all rings painfully true. There are literally millions of marriages in this very predicament right now. It is truly hopeless, even when Caleb starts to change, because Caleb's heart isn't in his "changes" and Catherine can feel it. Catherine also misinterprets his every out-of-character move (with the "help" of some well-meaning gal pals). Caleb is being coached by his Dad, who sends him a forty-day "Love Dare" book with daily instructions on how to woo his wife back (something that saved his own marriage), but more importantly, these daily instructions are about how to transform himself into the man and husband he needs to be permanently. Is nothing Catherine's fault? Basically, no, except the fact that she takes up with a doctor at the hospital where she works, while still married to Caleb.

"Fireproof" screams that working at a marriage—especially one on the rocks—is very, very hard work that takes lots of time and patience. But the film also provides a roadmap that either a husband or wife can use. And of course, everyone is going to want this book tie-in! Actually, there are two books: "Love Dare" and "Fireproof: the Novel." offers lots of resources for home, school and church. (I'm surprised the classic "His Needs, Her Needs" wasn't listed.)

Theology of the Body (John Paul II) enthusiasts will be delighted by this film. Without explicitly saying it, the film revolves around a key TOB passage, Ephesians 5. Marriage between a man and woman has a direct correlation to Christ and the Church.

When push literally comes to shove, there's no way around God. When Caleb tries to justify himself as a "good person" to his father, his father simply asks him, but do you love God, the God who gave you life? Whoa. Thank God for these fearless filmmaking Christians who are getting better and better at bringing the Good News to the screen. For every ninety-nine scoffers, there will be one who hears the message of salvation loud and clear. And repents.  And the angels shall dance and rejoice.

This scene of Caleb with his Dad is really the crux of the whole film. And it involves a big crux (you'll get it when you see the film). And I just have to quote Dad here: "God's standards are so high that He considers anger to be murder and lust to be adultery." Whoa again. I would put it a different way and say simply that our interior life is as real as our exterior life. It's not so much "God's standards" as "simple reality." To paraphrase Jack Nicholson: "Can you handle reality?" Lots of great advice and wisdom in this film: "You can't just follow your heart. Your heart can be deceived. You have to lead your heart."

"Fireproof" is definitely a "Christian" film—there are lots of portrayals of people of faith, Bible quotes, prayer, giving one's life to God, etc., far beyond what mainstream films show. Corny? Why should faith be corny? But yes, sometimes. A non-believer unfamiliar with Christianspeak might ask: Do people really talk this way? The answer is, um, yes.  Lots of people.  Are they for real? Indeed. The faith depicted is a kind of Southern Evangelicalism.  It seems that one just "confesses Jesus with one's lips" and that's that (no mention is made of baptism). However, there are no pat answers or easy solutions. We can feel the torture of people who believe they are doing everything right, and yet that's still not good enough. Every Christian who seems to have their life together is also one of the walking wounded. The difficulties tearing at this marriage are the same as everyone else's:  the little everyday attitudes, words and run-ins that belie much bigger deficiencies, and that build up over time into an impasse. Omissions are as important as commissions. Curiously and very effectively, we only see the estranged part of this couple's relationships throughout the entire film, but we know only too well what they have lost, or what could have been.

Perhaps we need a "Christian" genre in film, one that will allow for some detailed, in-depth conversations between characters, rather than just quips. We've been trained to not even want to get down to the nitty-gritty of relationships in films. We get nervous when a soundbite develops into a three-dimensional, reasoned-out motivation. "Fireproof" is not a big talkfest, either. The Kendrick Brothers (who created this film) excel at tense, big action moments like a car wreck on train tracks and a little girl trapped in a burning house. The realism was every bit as good as "Ladder 49." In some ways, "Fireproof" is a profounder "Ladder 49," that forces us to look beyond universally-acknowledged heroism (firefighting) to another dimension of heroism—but every bit as important—the heroism of the heart and hearth. (More fire imagery!)

Isn't it enough to save other people's wives and husbands and children? No. Real men dry the dishes (and not just at the firehouse). (Catherine works full time while Caleb has a much more flexible work week). Is this some kind of Promise Keepers "real men serve their wives"? Yes. But Promise Keepers doesn't have a patent on the "servant king" model. It was started by the first Servant King, Jesus, who laid down His life for His Bride, the Church. Wouldn't it be just ducky to see movies like this on "Lifetime"?

"Fireproof" offers a completely different view of marriage than is commonly accepted today: covenant, not contract. If it isn't working, you don't walk away, you try everything to make it work, even if you are "two different people now," even if "I don't love you any more," because you are both part of something bigger than yourselves here. "Fireproof" successfully lays out the theology of marriage, even the fact that marriage is a natural institution recognized by the Church even if between non-Christians.

The jokes and pranks are rather old, flat and predictable. The soundtrack boasts great ambience music as well as that ubiquitous "Third Day" Contemporary Christian Music sound ("Third Day" also contributed to the soundtrack), and there's a poignant and fitting song about waiting that accompanies an important montage/sequence like a Dalmatian on a fire truck. (This song became the answer to a prayer for me, as I found myself applying Caleb and Catherine's marriage covenant to my own vowed covenant with the Lord!) If the cinematography/editing were just a tad fancier, "Fireproof" would have a complete big screen Hollywood feel.

 "Fireproof" is a well-crafted story with plenty of secrets, questions and twists to keep us guessing. And it never looks away from the pain. There's pretty much solid acting all around, especially from the two leads. The dialogue is some of the most honest I've ever witnessed in a movie (it's the same reason I liked "Brideshead Revisited-- the way characters talked and related to each other was intimate, fleshed out and non-oratorical).  Catherine is truly a "modern" woman, right up to the end.  (Sorry, can't be a spoiler.) The ending is slightly long, but has a GREAT closing shot.

"Fireproof" augurs well for the future of Christian films. (And it doesn't hurt that it was distributed through giant Sony Films.)

NB: The cool graphics of the wedding rings in the title! (The use of wedding rings throughout reminded me of Karol Wojtyla's "Jeweller's Shop.")

The pitch-perfect trailer truly represents the movie. You like? You go see. Check it out on the superbulous website:


Let me tell you of MY HISTORY with words.
ENGLISH words.
I was raised on words in BOSTON.
We consider ourselves KEEPERS OF THE LANGUAGE.
Even with our funny accents.
But then I entered the convent with nuns from all over.
And I lost a lot of words.
Then I went to TORONTO for eight years
where hardly anyone has English for a FIRST language
and being in the heart of LITTLE ITALY every fourth phone call
was in ITALIAN and I was the phone operator and all our staff were ESL.
And I lost a lot of words.
And then I was diagnosed with a non-functioning thyroid and that caused "brain fog" (yes, the technical term) for many years.
And I lost a lot of words.
And then five years ago
I almost died.
An experience far beyond words and poems and even music.
And I lost a lot of words.
Now they tell me words are DEAD.
That it's all about the viz-yoo-al now.
IMAGES. Post-word-literacy.
As much as I LOVE and USE
ALL the NEW media:
iPods, Bluetooth, txting, Flickr,
YouTube, Google, Facebook, cell phones,
digital cameras, Tivo and the like
I believe there is a qualitative difference,
not better, just different
when it comes to words
deep words vis-a-vis utilitarian words
deep reading vis-a-vis utilitarian reading
and it's not so much about words really
But now we're wading hip-deep into PHILOSOPHY and CULTURE and WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN
and I am not afraid of that. BIO! (Bring it on!)
They tell me words are DEAD.
Well I say: poppycock.
I am tired of losing words.
You will have to pry WORDS from my cold, dead fingers.

"Only a continuous tradition of gentle speech, with all its implications--the avoidance of boredom and vulgarity, the exchange of complicated ideas, the observance of subtle nuances of word and phrase--can preserve the written tongue from death, and lifelong habitude to such speech alone schools a man to write his own tongue."
--Evelyn Waugh

August 15, 2008


Taken at night by Lake Michigan! The camera was on a trashcan.
back row: Sr. Margaret Michael fsp, Jennifer Dittman (IL), Sr. Laura Rosemarie fsp, Lindsay Trapp (SC),
Sr. Triphonia, fsp (KOREA), Veronica Han (CANADA), Angela Frayna (IL)
front row: Cheryl Galema (CANADA), Sr. Helena Raphael fsp, Jackie Gitonga (with water bottle) (KENYA/IL)

August 6, 2008




"Brideshead Revisited" is one of the most Catholic movies I've ever seen. Not just because a Catholic aristocratic family is at its center with a cornucopia of Catholic images and vocabulary, but because of the way Catholicism matters, as it bumps up against the biggest vagaries of life and delivers some big answers. Charles (Matthew Goode), a non-aristocrat, enters into a relationship with every member of the eccentric  family who live at the majestic Brideshead manor. He is introduced into the inner circle by the son, Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), a fellow student at Oxford with whom he begins a homosexual relationship. The teddy-bear-toting Sebastian is thoroughly miserable due in part to his completely overbearing, hyper-religious "Mummy" (Emma Thompson). But Sebastian is also the wisdom figure who is not deluded by life, who goes on to become a hero—the only one willing to break free of family, wealth, privilege, and "destiny" to find true Happiness.

"Brideshead" requires some familiarity with the inner workings of Catholic spirituality in general and early twentieth-century British Catholicism in particular. In filmmaking lingo, it "cuts deep" into the world of its characters. It's up to us, the audience, to do our homework if we want to take full advantage of the story. Without this prior knowledge, the jokes could seem like cheap potshots at the Faith (they're not: Evelyn Waugh--who wrote the novel that BR is based on--was a convert to Catholicism), and the portrayal of the family's religiosity could seem like a condemnation of hypocrisy and superstition. Waugh, like a good writer, stares the tragicomic truth in the face and lets no one off the hook.  As Dorothy Day said: "I converted with my eyes wide open." (Perhaps the most uncluttered Catholic character in BR is the happy-to -the-point-of-annoying Irish priest at Papa's bedside, trying to help him make a "beautiful death.") The filmmakers seamlessly capture Waugh's profound and satirical sense of humor which is so subtle that it mischievously echoes long after the credits roll. They also marvelously "get" Waugh's voice and don't just squeeze it into a droll, established formula. Either they are geniuses or Waugh is imminently adaptable to the screen!

As British as Waugh was (check his bio), I find him free of the usual British cynicism. (None can be as cruel as the British when it comes to lampooning the sacred.) Perhaps because, for him, Christianity was the only alternative to "chaos." Like his contemporary, Aldous Huxley ("Brave New World"), Waugh peered into the "post-Christian" future and shuddered.

How does Catholicism matter in BR? In the marriage covenant. Some really tough, heart-breaking choices need to be made, and they are. Unlike Graham Greene's "The End of the Affair," which relies on supernatural interventions in order for characters to do the right thing in regard to marital fidelity, BR relies on the unconditional faith and hope of some extremely flawed individuals.

The emphasis on guilt and sin, so prevalent in a pre-Vatican II milieu, could feel off-kilter today, but Waugh may be holding up a mirror-opposite (our all-too-frequent response) to what Catholicism is really all about (God's love). On second thought, BR is not about sin but about the absolution of sin. What greater gift is there?

The best love stories are horizontal AND vertical, but they are very, very difficult to execute. It's also very, very difficult to portray an inner journey of faith, prayer to an unseen Being, etc., in film (although there have been some very successful attempts recently:  see "Amazing Grace"), but the semi-autobiographical BR manages quite well through its ruthless, wart-exposing frankness. Would that we could all live our lives in the constant scrutiny of God's tender light.


Purists may find the screen adaptations not to their liking--especially since the book is a beloved classic--but many of the liberties taken are in keeping with the medium and structure of a film-story.

The 11-hour BBC 1981 made-for-TV version that launched the career of Jeremy Irons, now available on DVD, seems to have kept to the book verbatim. However, in a film, with only two hours, you can't be verbatim, and in film school one is taught that books SHOULD be adapted for the screen, not just slapped up there as they are.

Every poppet, of course, is entitled to their own opinion.

Some major differences of book/movie:

(In general, in keeping with the medium of film, drama is heightened, events conflated and strategically timed, relationships are tighter/closer, stereotypes employed, circles/levels of conflict are multi-layered, and information is given by showing, not telling. To have a same-sex kiss to show that Sebastian and Charles were in a same-sex romantic relationship would be consonant with the medium of film, although not found in the book. The book makes it very clear they were in a same-sex relationship, however. Their relationship does not appear to be any kind of agenda-pushing in the film, but rather a very three-dimensional, sensitive look at a commonly-known British "tradition" in all-male schools. It is rumored that Waugh himself may have engaged in one of these dalliances. One must not run out of the cineplex at the first kiss, but stay and see how both Charles and Sebastian are redeemed.)

BOOK: Lady Marchmain (Mummy) is not such a monster as she is in the film.
MOVIE: Lady Marchmain's character is a much more imposing presence than in the book.
BOOK: Charles is not obsessed with possessing Brideshead Manor for himself, nor does he "buy" Julia.
MOVIE: Sebastian and Anthony Blanche are both gay (as in the book), but not portrayed as lovers, as in the movie.

--What does the title "Brideshead" signify? Without having done any research into the matter, I believe it's a metaphor for the Church--Virgin and Mother, soothingly divine and shockingly human.

--If we don't understand that God is the Lover and Spouse of every soul, we'll never understand what Julia means by "I can't cut myself off from His mercy." However, I'm not sure that the characters or Evelyn Waugh himself saw God this way (due to the times), however much enamored he was of the Faith. The "awful," "fearful" element is very strong.

--The "little characters" flame onto the screen fully formed and fully necessary: Nanny Hawkins, Papa's mistress, Rex—Bravo!

--The soundtrack is lush, gorgeous, Romantic and sad. SPOILER: The "sad" part was a tad misleading.

--My first introduction to Evelyn Waugh (and of course I thought he was a she) was years ago in the "Vatican II Weekday Missal" meditations. It was a quote from BR and went something like this (probably Julia speaking): "'Living in sin,' 'living in sin'—it has a terrible ring to it. You bathe it in Dial and clip diamonds to it, but you never get rid of it." And years later I have discovered a new favorite author in Evelyn Waugh! I have never been able to unreservedly warm up to Tolkien, C.S. Lewis or even Chesterton. I think it was Waugh I was looking for. He even considers his best work his novel on my patron saint, "Helena."

--Evelyn Waugh is incredibly original (without trying too hard), his characters are "writer's-agenda-free" and truer to life than any I have ever met, and he is very, very funny. You never know what the characters will say next, but it's not quirky. It's real. And it's intelligent and clever. Check out the excellent entry for EW in Wikipedia.  Don't be fooled, you've never read/seen/heard anything like Waugh. He's in a category by himself.

--Great line: "Don't be vulgar, Cordelia. Vulgar is not the same as funny." –Lady Marchmain

--Great line: "As Catholics, we have to do all in our power to save those we love from themselves." –Lord Bridley Marchmain

--Sebastian's gay friends, the atheists, the Catholic matron, ALL have their say. (And when "Mummy" stated that the only important life was the life hereafter, EVERYONE in my theater snorted. Including me. Ha ha.)

--The house, of course, is a character.

--This is Charles' story and many people tell Charles who he really is, and it's a mixed picture (Charles is a painter). Good people automatically trust him, but the wicked also recognize their own wickedness in him and his capacity for monstrous greed.

--The actress who plays Julia Flyte, Hayley Atwell, is a sweet blend of innocence and passion.

--Who is the true believer(s) in "Brideshead"?