Movies About Movies

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently rewarded two movies that celebrate movie making with a combined total of 21 nominations for this year’s Academy Awards: Hugo (11 nominations) and The Artist (10 nominations).

Asa Butterfield and Chloë Moretz

Hugo, based on the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, follows twelve-year-old Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphan who lives in a Paris railway station, who finds himself at odds with a toymaker for stealing mechanical parts in his attempt to repair an automaton he had worked on with his father.  The toymaker turns out to be Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), a real-life pioneer of early filmmaking.  Méliès’ best known film today, perhaps, is A Trip to the Moon (1902), which depicts a capsule shot from a gun that strikes the man in the moon in the face.  Hugo meets Méliès’ niece (Chloë Moretz), who aids him in his quest, which ultimately leads him back to Méliès.

Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese, gives us glimpses of the early days of movie making, before the golden age and the studio system.

The Man in the Moon

The Man in the Moon from "A Trip to the Moon"

Méliès, a magician and creator of automatons, pioneered early special effects and camera tricks to create fantasy and sci-fi films.  He directed 531 films from 1896-1913.  He built his first camera from parts from his automatons, robotic figures built from clockwork parts that performed simple, human-like actions.  Films that Méliès directed ranged from one to forty minutes in length, and he taught himself how to develop prints by trial and error.  Later, Méliès went through bankruptcy, and during World War I, the French confiscated over 400 original film prints to melt them down for the celluloid and silver content.  Film scholars revived his reputation in the late 1920s, and he influenced countless filmmakers who followed him.  Many of his films survive today, though quite a few were lost.

Scorsese, a life-long student of film, shows a love of film magic through the characters and story.  His masterful use of 3D technology enhances the film greatly.

Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, being silent

The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, focuses on the transition from silent films to talkies, and follows two silent film stars whose careers take divergent paths, one to stardom in talkies, and the other to decline.  The film has the unusual distinction of being itself a silent film presented in black and white.  The acting mirrors that of silent films, with excessive expression and movement to tell the story.  The film was also shot in a slightly faster filmsetting to imitate the motion of early movies.  Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a classic silent film star in the 1920s.  Valentin is playful and basks in his stardom.  He soon meets Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) by accident while clowning around for reporters.  Miller kisses Valentin for the cameras, causing the morning headline, “Who’s that Girl?”  Miller is cast in one of Valentin’s films, and Valentin suggests that Miller dab on a beauty mark with a grease pencil.  When sound films come into vogue, Miller ends up as the new star and Valentin’s films are no longer in demand.

Bérénice Bejo

Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller

Through most of the film, the only sound is a music soundtrack borrowed from many classic films, though a few times director Hazanavicius gives the audience a few surprises by clever use of sound.  Hazanavicius also kids the audience about watching a silent movie.  In the film’s opening, for example, Valentin plays a character being tortured.  He says, via title cards, “I’ll never talk!”  Later, his long-suffering wife, who has a habit of blacking out her husband’s teeth in pictures of him in film magazines, says to Valentin, “You never talk!”

Bérénice Bejo in The Artist

Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) bringing Valentin's coat to life

Jean Dujardin, who could easily have been a star in the silent era, has an infectious smile and expression that adds to the enjoyment of the film.  In one moment, we see him put on an exaggerated stern expression repeatedly as he attempts to perform a serious movie role, but his clowning around side keeps intruding.  Bérénice Bejo, who also does her share of clowning, performs one of the film’s most amusing sight gags when she slips her arm inside Valentin’s coat to bring it to life.  The Artist, a black and white and silent film in 2012, deservedly made the majority of critics’ ten best lists.

Movies about movies are a rare breed, but it is refreshing to find a renewed appreciation and love of classic movies.  Movies are magic, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is right to point that out.  Personally, I loved both films, but if I had to choose, I would go with The Artist for best picture.  It brought the experience of movie magic to life in a fun, romantic way that is all too rare these days.

Posted in Books, Film, Sci-fi & Fantasy | Leave a comment

Open Mic Celebrating Valentine’s Day

The Fresno Sci-fi & Fantasy Writers group will sponsor an open mic this Friday, February 10, 2012 at the Clovis Book Barn.  The event will take place from 6:30-9:00 pm. and the theme is Valentine’s Day.  The event is free, and anyone is welcome to read either their own work, or the work of a favorite author.

I will be reading two short short pieces, including my entry for the Snowfest Blogfest (my previous post) called “The Rat and the Hawk.”  I will also read a new story, “Clockwork Ballerina.”

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Snowfest Entry: The Rat and the Hawk

The following short short story is part of Roh Morgon’s Blogfest (approx. 1050 words):

The Rat and the Hawk

by Don Gilbert

The tapping on the window startled Bill Templeton.  He had just added another log to the fire and was about to settle in on the sofa for the evening.  A hand on the other side of the glass waved a police badge.  Bill unlocked the window and slid it open.  A gust of wind brought goose bumps to his skin.

“Could you help me in?” the officer said.  “A big snow drift is blocking your front door.”

Bill grabbed the officer’s hand and pulled him inside.  He quickly shut the window.

“Nasty weather,” the officer said.  “Ray Camacho, Denver PD.”  He brushed snow from his coat.

“To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Officer Camacho walked to the fire and rubbed his hands.  “I thought these cabins were vacant this time of year.  Saw the smoke from your chimney and thought I’d check it out.”

“You’re a long way from Denver, officer.”

Camacho surveyed the room.  “You watch the news lately?”

“The storm took out my cable.”

“Prison break last night.  Three inmates.  Two were popsicles by morning.  One still at large.”

“And you think he came this way?”

“Possibly,” Camacho said.  “Did you see anyone suspicious?”

“Not many visitors this time of year, like you said.”

“Five foot ten, about 180 pounds.  Brown hair turning grey, clean-shaven.  Sound familiar?”

Bill stared at the officer in silence.

“Kind of like the guy you see in the mirror, isn’t it?  Our guy also has a five-inch surgical scar on his abdomen.  Care to lift your shirt and prove me wrong?”

“I’ve been here for three days,” Bill said.

“Can anyone verify that?”

“My wife.”

“She here?”

“Nope.”

“I see,” the officer said.  “Any identification?”

“Nope.  Everything’s at the house.  Left in kind of a hurry.”

“Care to explain?”

“Nope.”

“Then I have no choice,” Camacho said, pulling out a set of cuffs.

“Officer, you came into my cabin without a warrant, and you have no proof that I committed any crime.  I’ll sue you and your department.”

“Go ahead,” the officer said, and cuffed Bill’s hands behind his back.  “One more frivolous lawsuit for the bonfire, I always say.”

“I’m not who you’re looking for.”

Camacho lifted Bill’s t-shirt and saw the scar.  “I disagree.”  He then patted Bill down and found no weapons.

Bill sat on the sofa.  “What happens now?”

Camacho smiled.  “Now the fun begins.”  He drew his glock and pointed it at Bill’s head.

“What are you doing?”

“Where is it?”

“Where is what?”

“They always wanna do it the hard way,” Camacho said to the ceiling.  “The package, dirt bag,” he said to Bill.  “Where is it?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I spoke with your wife,” Camacho said.  “She gave you up like you was a rancid cannoli.  Even told me about the scar.  Smart girl.  If she hadn’t spilled her guts, my shiv would have spilled them for her.”

“I’ll kill you if you touch her!”

“Chill, pal.  She’s fine.  For now.  Hand over the package and she stays that way.”

“What about me?”

“You’re a dead man, either way.  That’s my fee for going through all this trouble.  Just business, you understand.”

“You’re not really a police officer,” Bill said.

“You finally figured that out, Sherlock.”  He raised his arms and spun around.  “Picked these duds up from a cop I once iced.”

“So, you’re one of Don Divine’s punks?”

“No,” he said, with a cold stare.  “I’m Don Divine.  In the flesh.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“They call me The Rat.  I don’t often dirty my hands these days, but when a guy steals a street value of fifty million from me, I find it necessary to deliver the message in person.”

“The package is under the floor boards.  Move the rug by the table, and you’ll see a removable panel.”

“Atta boy,” Divine said.  He re-holstered his glock and walked to the rug.  A woman in heels entered the room behind him and pointed her Smith and Wesson at his back.

Divine spun around, drawing his glock.  The woman fired, hitting Divine in the hand.  The glock struck the floor.

Bill stood up and tossed the cuffs to the woman.  She kicked the glock over to Bill, who picked it up.

The woman grabbed Divine by the collar and slammed him into the wall.  She cuffed him.  “So, if it isn’t Don Divine.  The Rat is easy prey.”

“You are both dead,” he said, and spat at the woman.

“You ever hear of The Hawk?” Bill said.

Divine looked at him.  “The assassin responsible for the Christmas Massacre?  Why do you ask?”

“In the flesh,” the woman said.

“You?”

“My husband and I work together, actually.”

“You’re the wife?  We spoke?”

“Like you, I wore a disguise.  Of course we spoke.”

“Why didn’t you just kill me then?”

“For one, we needed confirmation of your identity,” she said.  “Thank you for that, by the way.  Let me introduce ourselves.  We are Wendy and Bill Templeton, a middle class couple from the Denver suburbs.  We took up assassination to put our kids through college.”

“The suburbs?” Divine said.

“Turns out we’re really good at killing people,” Bill said.  “We kind of enjoy it, too.  Don’t we, honey.”

“We sure do.”  She blew a kiss to her husband.  “Sure beats tax accounting.”

“Why did you send me all the way out here, in a snow storm?”

“Well,” Bill said, “our client ordered our specialty.  You know, slow and excruciating.”

“And really messy,” Wendy added.  “This is the perfect place, don’t you think?”

“Absolutely,” Bill said.

“Because out here, no one can hear you scream.”

Bill reached under the sofa and pulled out an ax.  “And the snow makes perfect cover.”

“No one will find you until the spring thaw.  And even then, they will have a devil of a time putting all the pieces back together.”  She wrapped her arm around Don Divine’s neck and threw him to the floor.  His legs flailed against the floorboards.

“We usually start small,” Bill said, landing his boot against Divine’s chest.  “Fingers, toes, then hands and feet.  And so on and so forth.  The sensitive parts I let Wendy do.  She really is an expert.”

“Thank you, darling.”  She smiled brightly.  “Let’s get started.”

Posted in Mystery | 8 Comments

Reinterpreting Murder on the Orient Express

Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot, 1974

In 1974, when I was eight years old, I went to the movies with my family to see Murder on the Orient Express, staring Albert Finney and Lauren Bacall.  I had never heard of Agatha Christie, the famous detective novelist, nor did I know anything about her classic golden-age detective Hercule Poirot, portrayed in the film by Albert Finney.  In fact, my eight year old mind was unable to grasp what had happened at the end of the film during the big reveal.  I remember asking my mother, “So, who did it?”  Four years later, I saw Death on the Nile, with Peter Ustinov as Poirot.  By that time I was twelve and understood more.  I began reading Agatha Christie novels, and quickly figured out which were the Poirot novels.  Later, I learned to appreciate Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, and Inspector Battle, who even appeared in one or two Poirot novels.  The first Christie novel I wrote a book report on for school was The Seven Dials Mystery, which became one of my favorite non-Poirot novels.

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot, 2010

In the late 1980s, PBS began airing a British television series based on the Poirot stories.  David Suchet portrayed Poirot, and because I had read quite a few Poirot stories by then, I realized that I enjoyed Suchet’s performance much better than Ustinov’s because Suchet came much closer physically and in personality to the Poirot I came to know in the books.  Later, I rediscovered Albert Finney’s one-time performance of Poirot from Murder on the Orient Express, and appreciated both Finney and the story, which was one of Christie’s greatest mysteries.

Suchet went on to portray Poirot far more often than any actor before him.  Only five more Poirot books remain to be filmed, and my understanding is that filming on those last five has already begun.  The series will end with Curtain, which Christie wrote as the final Poirot case.  Suchet will have portrayed Poirot in nearly every story in which the detective appeared (only two Poirot stories will not be filmed: a short story,”The Lemesurier Inheritance,” and a play, Black Coffee).  As the series developed, writers began to reinterpret Poirot and make some changes.  One change is that all the stories in the Suchet series are set in the 1930s, while Christie set her later stories in the 1950s and 1960s.  While Poirot was stuck back in the 1930s, however, writers often attempted to appeal to audiences of today.  One of the most recent television films, which aired in 2010, was Murder on the Orient Express.

SPOILER ALERT:  To those reading this blog post who have not ever read or seen any version of Murder on the Orient Express, and who do not like spoilers, stop reading now.  In order to discuss the story in depth, I will need to refer to the surprise ending.

When I finally saw Suchet’s Murder on the Orient Express late last year, I was curious as to why many of the reviews on Amazon were so negative.  Angry, in fact.  The reviews made me want to see the film even more to find out what caused the negative reaction.  Suchet’s version is remarkably similar to the novel, and even borrows from the Finney film version from 1974 to some extent.  The negative reaction, though, seems to have come from how the filmmakers chose to frame the story.

Christie’s main theme in Murder on the Orient Express is about justice and the jury system.  A man, Ratchett, is killed on the Orient Express.  Ratchett’s true identity is Casetti, the one responsible for kidnapping and killing a child, Daisy Armstrong.  Casetti, though, escaped justice, and the jury system failed.  On the train, however, twelve of the passengers were somehow connected to the Armstrong family, and they get together and kill Casetti, each stabbing him until he is dead.  Thus, the jury system triumphs, convicting and executing the criminal.  In both the Finney film version and the novel, Poirot easily accepts the twelve killers on the train as a jury, and agrees to cover up their crime by saying the killer is some unknown man who escaped from the train.  In the Suchet version, Poirot does not accept the killers as a jury, and believes they should all hang for the crime.  Suchet’s Poirot, though, in the end reluctantly agrees to lie to the police, but he is clearly disturbed when he does.  The Finney version is classic golden-age detective genre, but Suchet’s version is dark and complex, making Poirot’s struggle with the nature of justice the center of the story.

The Albert Finney version of Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Sidney Lumet, is a well-known classic, as is the novel on which it is based.  To remake such a film requires a different interpretation, as a close remake could easily become a pale imitation of the original.  Plus, the “surprise” ending is well-known, too, which was not the case when the Finney version was first released.  The newer version with Suchet is a new take on the story, one that digs deeper and examines the justice theme.  Early in the film, Poirot witnesses a woman accused of adultery being stoned to death in Istanbul.  Poirot comments that such an event is disturbing, but one must not question a different culture’s view of justice.  Later, Poirot must wrestle with his own words and decide what to do when a group of passengers decides to take justice into their own hands.  The film also, like the original version, has the train become stranded in a snow drift, but unlike the earlier version, all passengers are left freezing due to lack of heat.  Being left in the cold is symbolic of the struggle for justice, dramatizing how difficult it was for these passengers to take justice into their own hands, and the uncertainty they face afterwards.  The filmmakers push things even further by revealing early on that Ratchett/Casetti has feelings of remorse for his crime, and that one of the passengers suffered permanent damage from being hit on the head by the kidnapper.

Audiences familiar with Christie’s stories obviously were expecting a close remake of Murder on the Orient Express, and were disappointed when it wasn’t the cozy British mystery anymore.  As for me, I enjoyed Suchet’s version as much as I enjoy the Finney version every time I see it.  Both are excellent films, well-acted, and Poirot comes to life more or less the way he was written.  Both film interpretations are valid.  One version need not be an exact copy of an earlier version to be good.  In fact, I found the Suchet version refreshing and got me to see the story in a little different way.  After all, Shakespeare’s plays have been framed all sorts of ways to appeal to modern audiences.  Why not make the classic British cozy mystery into a more hard-boiled American detective story?  Or into a Kafkaesque fantasy?  Or a Russian story about crime and punishment?  Artistic license is a wonder thing.

Posted in Books, Film, Mystery | 5 Comments

Blogfest!

Roh Morgon, local Fresno fantasy writer, member of the Fresno Sci-fi & Fantasy Writers group and author of the novel Watcher, is holding a Blogfest that she is calling “Snowfest.”  I am participating, and anyone with a blog is eligible to enter.

The following information comes from her blog:

I haven’t hosted a blogfest in quite awhile, so I thought in honor of the New Year I’d do so.

I’m calling it * Snowfest *, because it’s that time of year for some folks (I say this as I look outside at sunny skies and the non-snow covered rolling hills of California). I love the snow, so the theme of this blogfest is… to write a scene in the snow!

Here’s the details:

1) What: Write a scene that takes place in the snow. It can be snowing or not, just as long as snow is part of the setting. And for those of you who like an extra challenge, write a scene in which snow is the main focus of the characters, whether they’re building a snowman or fighting for their lives in a snowstorm.

2) Word count: 1,200 words or so (I can never keep my own entries in any blogfest under 1,000!)

3) Blogfest date: February 2, 2012

BONUS: Watcher Giveaway!

One entry will be selected at random to win a free copy of Watcher: Book I of The Chosen.

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A Rotten Apple for Bad Teacher

Cameron Diaz as Bad Teacher

First there was Bad Santa (2003), and now there’s Bad Teacher, which was followed soon after by Horrible Bosses.  Focusing on the worst of human behavior as a source for comedy is hardly new, and such comedy works best when the observations come with a ring of truth.  As a teacher myself, I have known many real life bad teachers.  One of the earliest was a young male history teacher who I knew of when I was a student teacher at a public high school.  He was very popular with the students, and seemed especially close with them.  A couple of years later, I saw his mug shot on the local television news, and learned that he had had affairs with underage female students.  Being popular with students can be a good thing, but I get nervous when a colleague gets a little too close.  As Sting would say, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” 

The title character of Bad Teacher is played badly by Cameron Diaz, and by bad, I mean good.  At least that’s how the movie presents things.  The bad teacher is the hero, and the good teacher, known as Miss Squirrel (Lucy Punch), the busybody teacher across the hall, is the villain.  Actually, good teacher Miss Squirrel has her issues, too, like using students as spies against her colleagues to dig up dirt.  In fact, there really are no good teachers at the middle school known as JAMS (John Adams Middle School) where our bad teacher works.  A panorama of still pictures of faculty on a hallway bulletin board designed to present teachers as energetic reveals a sorry looking group of hopelessly burned out people.  A seasoned male teacher is constantly napping, while a female teacher looks forward to summer off so that she can visit the zoo every weekend. 

So, how bad is our bad teacher?  Pretty darn bad.  I mean, I would rather my kid had Miss Squirrel across the hall.  Our bad teacher doesn’t waste any time.  From the very first day of school, she has two of her students wheel over the television set.  She digs into her desk drawer, pulls out a DVD of Stand and Deliver, and falls asleep as her students watch Edward James Olmos act the part of a good teacher and better role model.  During open house, Miss Bad Teacher is barraged with questions about why she just shows movies.  She’s ready for them.  She tells them that she uses multimedia in a variety of innovative, instructional ways, which seems to actually impress the naïve parents.  When parents ask how their own child is performing in class, she pretends to know the child’s name and offers hopeful sounding comments. 

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Our bad teacher does more than just nap and have her students watch cliché teacher movies.  She has actual goals to accomplish as a teacher.  For example, she wants to raise enough money so that she can pay for breast implant surgery so that she can attract a rich husband who will take care of her so that she won’t ever have to teach again.  Such a goal would benefit students enormously.  Such a goal causes our bad teacher to volunteer to help out at the car wash fund raiser, where she shows up wearing Daisy Dukes and a halter top.  The car wash ends up being a great success, as men, as well as the school’s female gym teacher, stop by to watch her slide all over wet, soapy cars.  Some of the money earned actually goes to the students, too.  Miss Squirrel just happens to pedal by the fundraiser on her bike, becomes ticked off, and barges in on the principal in the men’s room to complain.  The principal says that the car wash was such a success that many of the fathers would like to see the school have one every week. 

I doubt if our bad teacher from the film could actually get away with the things she does if she were in the real world.  I doubt that parents would be that gullible, or that there wouldn’t be uproar over her provocative display at a middle school fundraiser.  I also doubt if a faculty of a public middle school is the best place to hunt for a rich husband, but Justin Timberlake’s character, Scott Delacorte, just happens to be an heir to a fortune who chooses to be a substitute teacher.  He’s such a do-gooder.  The male gym teacher, played by Jason Segel, sees through all of her shenanigans, but seems more amused than upset.  Not much rings true here, but scarily enough, some of the things our bad teacher does remind me of some of the real life bad teachers I have known.

For example, there are teachers out there who rely heavily on movies shown in the classroom, though not for an entire semester.  A movie sort of gives a teacher a break from real teaching, and usually the teacher at least passes out a worksheet to be completed during the film, or a quiz once the film ends.  And the movie ought to be in some way related to the subject being taught, which is not always true for some of the teachers I have known.  There are also teachers who spend time buttering up the principal, distorting their own teaching successes in a more favorable light to their administrators, or downplaying their more embarrassing moments.  Some, like Miss Squirrel, look for dirt to throw at their colleagues to make themselves look better.  I have known a teacher who fell asleep, on more than one occasion, in the classroom.  His students took pictures of him on their cell phones and distributed them via the internet.  I have known a teacher who was caught shoplifting at a local store.  I have known a teacher who actually paid a high-achieving student to grade essays for him.  Bad teachers do exist, and they are no joke.  Especially when your own child is one of their students. 

But, Bad Teacher is not concerned with reality.  Most of us have had bad teachers at some point in our lives, and perhaps we are not too damaged by them.  The film allows us to laugh at some of the bad teaching we may have experienced, exaggerated to the point it becomes ridiculous.  And yet a little disturbing at the same time.  By the end of the film, the bad teacher grows just a tad and becomes slightly less repulsive than she was at the beginning.  The best news: she leaves teaching on the advice of the male gym teacher, who tells her that she should do something else, anything else.  Unfortunately she returns to JAMS as a guidance counselor.  Maybe the sequel will be called Bad Guidance Counselor.  Like we really need another “bad” movie.

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Wordy Shipmates Worth Reading

Sarah Vowell

An editor of Public Radio’s This American Life, Sarah Vowell has written several books about American history.  I remember seeing her on Book TV several years ago discussing her latest book at the time, Assassination Vacation, about a vacation Vowell took across the USA in search of locations and artifacts pertaining to the assassinations of presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley.  Vowell read an excerpt of her book, which sounded off-beat and fun, despite the somewhat morbid topic.  I found myself fascinated, as I can remember vacations in which I sought out the graves of US Presidents such as Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, and famous writers such as O. Henry, Thomas Wolfe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Sarah Vowell seemed like my kind of historian. 

Last week, I was at Borders looking for a book to buy, a cheap book, as I had not much spending money and a need to spend two more dollars by the end of June so that I would earn five dollars in Borders bucks.  In the bargain section, I spotted a book by Sarah Vowell called The Wordy Shipmates, which had an odd photo of toy pilgrims standing in front of a blurry sailing ship on the front cover.  The cost was five dollars, which would put me three dollars over my spending goal.  I remembered the author’s name, so I bought the book.  I began reading it later that same day. 

Anne Hutchinson debates John Winthrop in court

I was immediately caught up in Sarah Vowell’s clever way of comparing seemingly dry historical facts to things familiar today.  For example, she ties the words of a fictional Native American, “Come over and help us,” appearing on the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to Dick Cheney  in 2003 on Meet the Press saying that the American invaders of Iraq will “be greeted as liberators,” because we are just going over there to help.  She also follows up a discussion of the debate between John Winthrop and Anne Hutchinson, in which Hutchinson wipes the floor with Winthrop, to the 2004 Presidential campaign debate between John Winthrop descendant John Kerry and Anne Hutchinson descendant George W. Bush, in which the tables are turned.  Vowell remarks that Kerry was calm while Bush blinked an awful lot, as if he thought the answers were written on the insides of his eyelids. 

You might have guessed by now that Sarah Vowell is unabashedly liberal in her political views.  Even more remarkable, she identifies herself as an atheist as she describes her own fascination with the words of Puritan spiritual leaders such as John Winthrop and John Cotton.  Winthrop delivered his lay sermon “Christian Charity” on the deck of the Arbella as the future founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony sailed to America.  Winthrop calls their enterprise a “city on a hill,” a line borrowed from the Gospel of Matthew.  But the part of “Christian Charity” that really moves Vowell is this passage:

We must delight in each other, make other’s conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.

Vowell brings up the attack on the twin towers in New York City on September 11, 2001, and says that the above words from Winthrop’s sermon gave her, a New York resident, comfort. 

Brady Bunch Pilgrim Episode

One important point of Vowell’s narrative is the fact that most Americans today have an inaccurate image of Puritans.  Most would see Puritans as anti-intellectual fundamentalists.  Vowell points out that Puritans were extremely learned and intellectual, and wrote prodigious amounts of books, journals and letters.  We should know a great deal about Puritan life and society because they wrote so much about it.  The reason Americans have such a distorted view of Puritans, according to Vowell, is that our education about all things Puritan comes from construction-paper Pilgrim hats in elementary school, Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible and Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in high school, and then countless depictions on television programs many of us grew up watching, such as The Brady Bunch, Bewitched, and more recently The Simpsons.  Puritans come across as silly and backward-thinking, especially when it comes to the Salem witch trials.  The celebrity Pilgrims in American history are the Mayflower pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, a group that was largely unsuccessful.  It was the group who came over on the Arbella in 1630 that were the ones to watch.  The Arbella pilgrims founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and their main settlement was Boston.  They founded Harvard, and far surpassed the Plymouth pilgrims.  In fact, Massachusetts Bay soon incorporated floundering Plymouth into its own colony.  John Winthrop became the first colonial governor of Massachusetts, and remained so on and off throughout the remainder of his life. 

Roger Williams

To put things in perspective for us, she compares the Plymouth puritans to right-wing extremists of today, and the Boston puritans to right-wing moderates.  The Plymouth pilgrims were separatists and wanted to break free of England, while the Boston puritans, though they did not agree with the Church of England, still saw themselves as English and wished to remain so.  Soon after the founding of Boston, Roger Williams shows up and becomes the preacher from hell.  Williams likely would have been a liberal if he lived today, and spoke out to Winthrop that he should not prosecute “the table” (the first four of the Ten Commandments) in court, as such violations, or “sins,” were a church matter.  This became an early argument for the separation of church and state, which the Boston puritans could not accept.  Williams also questioned the puritans’ right to the land in America.  King Charles I granted them a charter for Massachusetts Bay, but Williams wondered why the king thought the land was his to give away, and why the puritans didn’t ask the native people already living on the land for permission.  It took a few years, but they finally got around to banishing that arrogant liberal from their city on the hill.  Williams was banished in autumn, but Winthrop, who had a soft side to him, allowed Williams to stay through the winter if he agreed to keep his mouth shut.  Williams was unable to keep that promise, and continued to preach in the church at radical Salem, so they kicked poor Roger Williams out in winter.  Williams survived, though, due to his ties with many Native Americans, and founded his own settlement, which he named Providence.  Vowell notes that Rhode Island had its own squabbles, but nobody was ever banished, and that later on, after the American Revolutionary War, Rhode Island was the last to ratify the newly written US Constitution to hold out for a Bill of Rights guaranteeing the separation of church and state. 

Vowell also describes the Protestant movement.  The early Protestant church began by moving away from the Catholic Church by having the members of congregations elect their own ministers.  They also translated the Bible into the language of church members so that they could read it for themselves.  Roger Williams contributed the separation of church and state, and Anne Hutchinson followed with, according to Vowell, the next logical step in Protestantism.  Hutchinson, another troublemaker who would also be banished, believed that the Holy Spirit lived in all of us, an idea that frightened the establishment in Massachusetts.  If the Holy Spirit lives within us, it would lead to a loss of authority for church leaders.  Congregants could argue with their pastor, and soon, followers of Anne Hutchinson heckled pastors of churches from the pews.  Hutchinson ended up where all troublemakers ended up in those days: Rhode Island. 

Barak Obama

I thoroughly enjoyed The Wordy Shipmates, and one week after I purchased it, I returned to Borders with a fatter wallet, a thirty percent off coupon, and five dollars in Borders bucks burning a hole in my pocket.  I bought Sarah Vowell’s newest book, a follow-up to The Wordy Shipmates called Unfamiliar Fishes.  This book was on display in a more honorable part of the store, as it was newer, and covers missionaries from America who sailed to a small group of islands we know as Hawaii.  And I’m sure Sarah Vowell will somehow mention that, in 2008, we elected the first ever president from Hawaii (by way of Illinois), Barak Obama.

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