Monday, June 30, 2008

Book Review: Suffering the Storm

Reviewed by Mutt Ploughman

Exiles, by Ron Hansen. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 224 pages.

I notice a funny thing when I read reviews of historical novels. Many times, probably more often than not, the reviewer will make some kind of passing judgment about whether the novelist “got the details right” about, say, village life in the Ming Dynasty, or if the writer “did their homework” well in drawing a convincing portrait of 12th century Lisbon, or Chicago during Prohibition, or pre-historic Egypt, or what have you. But how would they know? When you think about it, the only way the average reviewer knows whether the writer actually “got it right” or “did their homework” is if they did the exact same homework. How likely is that?

For most readers – meaning those of us who do not get compensated to review books – I have to assume that the criteria for determining whether a novelist has succeeded in recreating another place and time has less to do with whether the writer has described a world that was historically true, and a lot more to do with whether they have described one that feels true. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edward P. Jones commented rather prosaically a few years ago, “If I say it’s 1855 Virginia, then you’ll believe me until I say something to contradict that.”[1] What a power trip! No wonder people often think of writers as narcissists.

The thing is, Jones is correct. I mention his words here because they kept coming back to me as I read the harrowing dramatization of the demise of a German ocean liner called the Deutschland that occupies a large portion of Ron Hansen’s moving and eloquent new novel, Exiles. I have no idea whether Hansen, who is in possession of excellent credentials when it comes to writing historical novels (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Hitler’s Niece, Mariette in Ecstasy), actually got the details “right” in his minute-by-minute charting of the ship’s fateful course, for example, or his explanation of what sort of cuisine was available on the dinner menu on December 6, 1875, the night the ship ran aground in the Thames River. I trust that he did the necessary research.

What I do know is how foreboding and gripping it felt to read about these details, and many others. I could clearly visualize the décor inside of the ship’s restaurant; I could shudder in the bitterness of the icy December winds strafing the passengers along the rails; and later, horribly, I was forced to experience, uncomfortably, the agonizing final moments of a young nun’s life as she was swept under the merciless waves and into the void of the sea.

Consider the following artfully-constructed sentences to decide if you feel it too:

A great wave boomed against the ship, and cannoning white seawater that seemed high and heavy as a house hit Sister Henrica full on, joining her to its onwardness. She screamed and could hear other men and women screaming as she and they were carried on the raft of its swift, stinging journey across the width of the ship. She flailed in a last chance for the ship’s railing, but she was plunged over the side of the Deutschland and into the coldest cold of water she’d ever felt.

Exiles – Ron Hansen’s finest novel since 1996’s Atticus – is about more than just a shipwreck, however. It is both inspired by and steeped in the life and work of the Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who submerged his own passion for writing stunningly original religious poetry in favor of the unheralded lifestyle of a humble but misunderstood teacher and clergyman.

The novel opens with a young Hopkins’ discovery of a London Times news item reporting on the fate of the German liner and its passengers, which included five young nuns en route to the United States, themselves exiled by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s crackdown on Roman Catholicism during Germany’s Second Reich. Moved by the suffering of his sisters in the Catholic faith, one of whom was reported to have howled into the gales, “Oh Christ, come quickly!”, Hopkins is inspired to create. We see him laboring over and reluctantly sharing his now-classic poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland” with his friends and colleagues, and are privy, thanks to surviving correspondence and Hansen’s imaginings, to their less than enthusiastic responses.

From there, Exiles ventures forth on two fronts, intertwined with one another: Hopkins’ early apprenticeship, ordination, and increasingly inglorious assignments in Wales and Ireland as a young Jesuit; and the fated voyage of the Deutschland, related from the point of view of the five young nuns. The somewhat strange juxtaposition of these two narratives can be held responsible for one of the novel’s few flaws. There is a marked, almost startling downshift in tone and momentum that occurs in the passages between an account of an ocean liner in the throes of a disastrous journey and the muted, somber life experiences of a physically frail, intellectually incisive but often anguished Jesuit priest of the 19th century.

With each transition from the terrifying melee aboard the doomed ship back to the interior landscape of Father Hopkins’ religious and artistic struggles, even the most spiritually attuned readers will feel at least an initial letdown. Readers of fiction always have the foremost expectation to be entertained, and rightfully so. Even though we know from the beginning what happens to the suffering passengers on the Deutschland, we yearn to experience it viscerally. Hansen delivers on this front, but he also demands that we slow down frequently to ruminate on the consequences of Hopkins’ crucial but far less dramatic spiritual tempest, and this may tax some readers’ patience.

Yet weaving these two storylines together also accounts for the utter singularity of Hansen’s accomplishment. Given his track record of writing books like the exceptionally detailed and thrilling The Assassination of Jesse James... and the luminous, spiritually intoxicating Mariette in Ecstasy, this is a novel that only Ron Hansen could have written. One might make the case that he was destined or even called to do so. For Hansen understands perfectly well that while these alternating stories may not align in terms of their aesthetic impression, they cleave to one another on the metaphorical level.

Hopkins immediately identified with the deceased nuns because they were ‘exiles’, like himself: he was an Anglican convert whose family never accepted or understood his embrace of Roman Catholicism, let alone his vocation to the priesthood. As Hansen details the arc of his religious and artistic career, both burdened with limitations and frustrations, we recognize that Hopkins’ own course is steadily running aground, and his early death exposes the tragic consequences.
When, late in the novel, an ailing Hopkins (he died of typhoid at age 44) comments to a fellow Jesuit that he ‘just needs some change, some relief’, we feel that in spite of its muted expression, the soul that utters this lamentation is in similar peril to the one who cried out for Christ in the midst of a terrifying vortex. Additionally, both the five young nuns and Hopkins achieved a certain type of martyrdom, in that they floundered and ultimately suffered while on earth, but maintained their fidelity to God in the face of it all, and the fruits of their labor outlived them and nourished others by their eventual confluence in Hopkins’ classic poem.

Ron Hansen, a Roman Catholic deacon himself who happens to hold the title of the Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. Professor of English at Santa Clara University, has erected a unique and engrossing platform upon which to deliver an uncommon and beautiful performance. Exiles exploits his considerable insight into and fascination with matters of the spirit as well as his natural gifts as an engaging storyteller and graceful prose stylist. When you read Exiles, you will vicariously experience both the horror and anguish of a terrible tragedy aboard a doomed ocean vessel and the agonizing struggle of a heart yearning to discover God and bring honor to Him through the expression of its deepest desires and doubts.

The fact that both of these experiences will resonate powerfully in your own heart afterwards bears testimony to Hansen’s victory in this wonderful novel. To purloin a phrase once used by Thomas Merton to profile another religious figure, while it may be a dark and perilous journey, Exiles ultimately ends in glory.

[1] The Washington Post, October 30, 2003.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Duke Altum's POTM #63

And you thought this series was dead??

Charles Simic has said very openly that film noir has had an artistic influence on his poetry. Well nowhere, perhaps, is that more apparent than in this cryptic, existential masterpiece... I love everything about this poem, but especially those haunting last few lines. You can almost hear the lonely, muted trumpet wailing in the background... and, like the best of the films these lines so powerfully echo, you get the feeling that in the end, the hero has lost it all... and for what??


Club Midnight

Are you the sole owner of a seedy night club?

Are you its sole customer, sole bartender,
Sole waiter prowling around the empty tables?

Do you put on wee-hour girlie shows
With dead stars of black and white films?

Is your office upstairs over the neon lights,
Or down deep in the dank rat cellar?

Are bearded Russian thinkers your silent partners?
Do you have a doorman by the name of Dostoyevsky?

Is Fu Manchu coming tonight?
Is Miss Emily Dickinson?

Do you happen to have an immortal soul?
Do you have a sneaky suspicion that you have none?

Is that why you throw a white pair of dice,
In the dark, long after the joint closes?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Mutt's Top Ten Movie Openings

Note: If you're seeing before seeing Duke Altum's post preceding this one, GO BACK AND READ DUKE'S FIRST.

Inspired by Duke Altum's outstanding list, below are my all-time movie openings. I had fun assembling this list - note several differences with Duke's!!

Raiders of the Lost Ark. Dir. Steven Spielberg. To agree with Duke’s excellent observation, this opening sequence is not only one of the most exciting introductory set pieces in cinema history, and a brilliant evocation of the old-time Saturday morning matinee pictures from before my time, but it is also the perfect tone-setter for the entire remainder of the Indiana Jones films. This iconic opener is fun and exciting every single time you see it.

Chariots of Fire. Dir. Hugh Hudson. The moving eulogy speech in the beginning of the film dissolving into the youthful feet running bare through the surf with the overlap of Vangelis’ memorable score is absolutely unforgettable and justly famous around the world. Even better is that the film delivers on the promise of this opening all the way through which you can’t say for every film on this list.

8½. Dir. Federico Fellini. Again to borrow from Duke’s list. A man sits in the middle of a horrific traffic jam. He’s literally suffocating in the claustrophobic space of his own boxy metal car. Suddenly he rises straight up out of the vehicle, floating on the air, and floats forward over the top of all the hapless cretins stuck in their vehicles into the blazing sunlight. The surrealistic beauty and the extraordinary realism of this amazing scene makes this opening to a truly unique and memorable film a classic.

The Boxer. Dir. Jim Sheridan. This may be where my list diverges from everyone else’s, but since it is my list, this happens to be one of my all-time favorite movies, and the opening is also one of my all-time favorites (obviously). A black screen opens the film, over which we hear audio snippets of famous politicians giving speeches after brokering a peace agreement in Northern Ireland. “The sun is shining,” says former President Bill Clinton, “and I hope it’s an omen for peace in Northern Ireland.” There is a crescendo of soft, somber strings, the title of the film appears, and an ominous bell rings. Cut immediately to a striking shot from a distance of Daniel Day-Lewis as Danny Flynn, who is seen shadow-boxing through the iron fence of a prison yard. The backdrop is stark and the technical brilliance of Day-Lewis’ acting is immediately obvious, but what makes it is Gavin Friday’s haunting, pulsing drum track-and-ringing bell music. It is eerily modern and portentious. Day-Lewis is brought in to the prison to be released for good, and his outprocessing is intercut with the striking visual images of a bride in white entering the prison to marry an Irish political prisoner. The historical context of the film is established along with Danny Flynn’s sober, scarred grit, in one beautifully executed opening.

Dreams. Dir. Akira Kurosawa. This entire film is so memorable in so many different ways. Just the fact that it is a kind of film version of a book of short stories is incredible in itself. It is a series of unrelated sequences based on the great Japanese director’s actual dreams. I love many of the different segments, but the opening ‘dream’, called “Sunshine Through the Rain”, is a cinematic experience I will never forget. In the beginning of the short segment, a boy wanders into the woods and spies on a wedding procession of “foxes”, mythically-costumed people whose powers are unexplained, but who have forbid “humans” to observe their ceremonies. The scene where the little boy watches their procession coming through a veil of white mist in a glittering forest after a rainstorm is one of the most beautifully crafted – and yet suspenseful – film sequences I have ever seen.

Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Another of my personal favorites, this film is famous for being visually stunning all the way through. There are many very memorable aspects of this cult science-fiction classic, from the dark color palette to the bombed-out atmosphere of post-nuclear fallout to the dated but effective score from Vangelis, but for me it’s the first moment in which these all come together – the very first shot of the film – in which the camera cruises in behind flashing spacecraft over a traumatized version of futuristic Los Angeles, with fireballs blazing into the air, that really establishes the entire film’s tone. Then the camera zooms through the window of an Orwellian police building, where the opening ‘interrogation’ scene takes place, as a hopelessly out-matched detective tries to determine if the man across from him is human or ‘replicant’…..

Saving Private Ryan. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Duke is right. The opening sequence of this World War II film, which brilliantly depicts the terrifying “fog of war” experienced by the American soldiers who invaded Normandy beach on D-Day in 1994, is shocking and unforgettable. The incredible achievement of this set piece is that I had heard about this day, this invasion all of my life, and had never thought about it ever in the way I did after I saw this film. It is horrible to watch, shatteringly realistic, and technically flawless. It forces you to consider the bravery of these men in a totally new light, and that is a true tribute to what they did, for it was this bravery that helped save Europe and change the course of history. You feel the filmmaker’s intense commitment to these soldiers and to getting it ‘right’ in this sequence. An incredible achievement by Steven Spielberg.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Dir. Peter Weir. Australian Peter Weir in my opinion is one of the finest directors in the world; unfortunately, he makes films sparingly. But when he makes them he has made some brilliant ones: Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show, and this film, Master and Commander. This is one of my favorite opening scenes of all time without a doubt; everything in it is brilliantly executed. Russell Crowe stars as Captain Jack Aubrey, who commands a British naval vessel in Her Majesty’s service in 1805, and engages himself in a sea-borne tug-of-war with a French battleship. In the incredibly suspensful and explosive (literally) opening, all is quiet until a member of the crew is unsure if he is seeing the shadowy outlines of an enemy ship tracing their own through the low-hanging mists. Aubrey is called on board, and peers at length through a spyglass but sees nothing. Then, suddenly, a blazing flash of orange is seen through the vapor, under a cloack of silence due to the great distance, and there is a but a few seconds before the cannonball that has just been discharged will come slamming into the hull of the ship – enough time for Aubrey to scream a warning to the terrified crew……a brilliant, thrilling opening “salvo”.

The Big Lebowski. Dir. Joel Coen. A little bit different choice here, but not every selection needs to be an epic or a drama. This consistently hilarious movie opens with a combination of a slow-roasted voiceover from Sam Elliot as “The Stranger” – who introduces us to the iconic character known as The Dude, played with bumbling perfection by Jeff Bridges – and a zany scene in which The Dude arrives home at his apartment only to be jacked by a couple of incompetent hired thugs who have confused him for someone else. The monologue introduces the Coen’s quirky but intelligent writing style, neatly places the story in the context of world events (around the time of the first Gulf War), and then caps off with the hysterical mistaken-identity rough stuff, when The Dude finally explains, having already had his head stuffed into a toilet repeatedly, that he’s the wrong man. The final shot of this opening with The Dude sitting on the crapper with scraggly wet hair, a soaked bathrobe, and Blues Brothers sunglasses says it all about this very, very funny character in a howlingly funny and unique film.

The Sound of Music. Dir. Robert Wise. A VERY different choice here, but not every selection….wait, I said that already. This isn’t even one of my personal favorite films, but I really tried to think far and wide for this list. And because I have two little girls, I have certainly had occasion to revisit some old-time musical movies, particularly ones with Julie Andrews. I came to realize that in this movie and in Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews gives two of the most iconic female performances in all of cinema. They are incredible performances, with her beautiful singing, flawless diction and overall likeability, and I will always be impressed with her for this work. She has always had grace and class. But it is the beginning of this film in particular that I have been thinking about recently again, and I don’t know a single person who isn’t familiar with or has some kind of affection for the opening camera shot of Andrews on the Austrian hilltop, spinning around and singing ‘The hills are alive…..’. It is one of the most recognizable opening shots in all of cinema history. It’s a gorgeous opening to a wonderful family film.

Mutt's Honorable Mentions: Pan's Labyrinth; Once Upon a Time in the West; Star Wars; Casino Royale; Schindler's List; Ikiru.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Duke Altum's Top 10 Movie Openings of All Time

A few weeks ago Mutt had an idea embedded into one of his posts that I thought would make for a fun little diversion here on the blog, and maybe even get a conversation going… the question he posed went something like this: what would you list as your most memorable movie opening scenes/sequences of all time??

Well like a lot of people I enjoy making and reading “top 10 lists” like this, so I thought why not, let’s answer the call for Mutt’s challenge… and of course, creating such a list never comes completely free of frustration and agonizing decision-making in the eleventh hour. However, I think I have come up a with a solid list that, if nothing else, is a good personal survey of films that have made a deep impact on me in some way and are worth celebrating for their creative vision and execution. There are so many movies that open in striking and interesting ways, but these are openings that I am fairly confident I will never forget. Some hearken back nostalgically to memorable movie-viewing experiences had as a child, some I’ve only seen recently… but all have left their mark upon an already scuffed-up brain!

Needless to say, this is not nor does it claim to be an exhaustive list surveying all of movie history… it’s a personal list. No doubt there are countless perfect opening scenes that deserve to be included on a list like this, but I can only talk about what I remember from what I’ve seen…

Some ground rules: for my list, I decided to cast a broad net. I chose not to limit myself to single opening scenes/shots or credit sequences. For me, it’s about the experience and the impression, not the exact length or sequence. So, it could be a single shot at or near the opening, or it could be a sequence of shots… and may be an entire opening chapter of a film, such as my first selection…

But without any further ado, here is my list (not in order), along with some honorable mentions that I had so much trouble not including that I had to get them in somehow… what would make the cut for you??


The Empire Strikes Back – Doesn’t get any more indelible and classic than this one, for me. I will never forget sitting in the darkened theater (with my brothers and old man), the screen going black, the camera zooming over the ice and the Imperial probe droid rising from the snow… the greatest opening to the greatest film in one of the greatest franchises of all time.

2001: A Space Odyssey – All of human history in one 15-20 minute opening sequence?? The mysterious black obelisk, the electronic drone, the murderous proto-humans, and of course, one of cinema’s most famous transitional shots (from flying bone to space ship)… it all adds up to one word: GENIUS.

Chariots of Fire – Everyone knows the music of course, but the transition from the funeral of Harold Abrahams to the naked feet running on the beach, as the voice-over wistfully recalls a time when they ran “with hope in their hearts, and wings on their heels” is, to me, the most exhilarating (and spiritually uplifting) opening scene in movie history.

Raiders of the Lost Ark – Without a doubt, this is one of the most exciting movie openings of all time – and can anyone think of an opening sequence that sets the tone of an entire franchise more effectively than this one?? Hardly anyone remembers now that the greedy dude who swiped the idol and then took a spike through the face was a young Alfred Molina!?!

Citizen Kane – This innovative and justly famous opening to what many still refer to as the greatest film of all time introduces us to a mystery that won’t be resolved until the very last shot of the movie… who or what is “Rosebud??” A child’s snow globe falling from a dying man’s hand… such a simple image, but it carries so much power and meaning.

8 ½ - The beginning of the movie has to be recognized as one of the greatest, and possibly THE greatest, dream sequence of all time… it’s impossible to be sitting stuck in traffic and not imagine oneself escaping from the car and floating into the ether… the influence of this scene, and this movie, on subsequent films is beyond all calculation.

Children of Men – A very recent one here, but the opening tracking shot and explosion that introduces Children of Men is one of the most realistic and jarring catastrophes I’ve ever seen on film – you feel like you’re watching it from a few buildings over, because, well, you are. Incredibly, the intensity and realism of this scene is matched by an ambush sequence in a moving car only a few scenes after this one, in the same film. Stunning and shattering (quite literally!) filmmaking by Alfonso Cuaron.

Once Upon a Time in the West – To date, this Sergio Leone classic is my all-time favorite Western, and the opening scene is a HUGE part of that… the mysterious, unnamed Man with a Harmonica steps off the train and confronts three killers sent to do him in. They have three horses with them and when he asks if there’s one for him, they say they’re one short. His response? “You brought two too many.” Half a second later, three men lay dead on the ground…

Blue Velvet – I love this opening because not only is it totally unforgettable and a perfect summation of the entire film in a few shots, but it could also serve as a visual synopsis of David Lynch’s entire career… beautiful happy suburbia gleams in the sun, a string-soaked lush 50’s ballad plays, a man waters his immaculate lawn in front of a white picket fence, and then… wait, what’s this? Man clutches chest and falls to the ground, in obvious agony? Camera descends below the surface and shows menacing bugs crawling through the dirt to the tune of a metallic drone… all is not exactly right in Shangri-la (nor in Lynch’s head)!!

Saving Private Ryan – The beach-storming scene at the beginning of this film is not only one of the most harrowing, realistic portrayals of combat I’ve ever seen, it actually made me completely re-think what actually happened on D-Day and the scope of the sacrifice that was made there by kids considerably younger than I was when I saw it… absolutely astonishing sequence. It made you feel like you were right there amidst the “storm of steel”…

Honorable mention:
Jaws, Terminator 2, Dawn of the Dead (both versions!), Jurassic Park, Magnolia, In the Name of the Father

Friday, June 06, 2008


It gives me great joy (and a considerable amount of pride as an uncle!) to announce the arrival of co-founder Mutt Ploughman's first son!

Mutt's "little man" came into the world on this past Monday, June 2, 2008, which just so happens to be the birth date of his aunt (and our sister), born in 1976. Mutt Jr. weighed in at a whopping 10 pounds, 6 ounces and is, as you can imagine, healthy and strong as can be.

On behalf of the entire Secret Thread community around the globe, I want to take a moment to heartily congratulate Mutt, his wife (who is also doing well, I hear from the proud poppa himself) and Mutt Jr.'s two older sisters on this momentous occasion in their lives. As for (not so) lil' Mutt, welcome to the world buddy!! It's a blessing to have you here and we wish you a happy, healthy and holy life.

Mutt my friend, I know how long you have been anticipating this day with great joy and hope. Let your own father-son journey begin, just as Walter Brogan's has... I know you are going to love having a son of your own! What a glorious gift of the Lord.

Ad majorem Dei gloriam!