Gentlemen Broncos

You’d think this Hess film would be a passing fad in my life, but instead it’s become the film that I must watch once a year. From the beginning credits, you’ll see what the Hesses appreciate: traditional sci fi … or at the very least, pulp sci fi covers. There is a glorious rolling out of these covers as the credits roll, set against the Zager and Evans’ song “In the Year 2525”.

The first scene in the film sets up the hopeful heart of a geek: Benjamin Purvis is a homeschooled teenager, whose father died at some point in his youth. His father is the image of masculinity, a Forest Service ranger with a bushy beard. In his honor, Benjamin has written a completed sci fi novel, which he is ready to turn into a contest at the Cletus Fest, adjudicated by a famous sci fi novelist whom Benjamin admires.

From there, it dawns on the audience that the entire world is set against a young man with a masculine vision succeeding in the world. His mother, played by Jennifer Coolidge, is well-meaning, but doesn’t understand her son. The homeschool group is populated by domineering girls and sexually obscure boys (represented by the characters Tabatha and Lonnie respectively). The famous sci fi novelist Benjamin admires turns out to be a creepy washed-out writer with an overbearing ego (Dr. Ronald Chevalier, played by Jemaine Clement). As Benjamin’s novel gets out into the world, it’s corrupted by a couple of amateur filmmakers (also Tabatha and Lonnie) and plagiarized by Chevalier.

While Tabatha and Lonnie are busy sexualizing the story by means of Lonnie dressed up in drag, Chevalier has flipped Benjie’s main character from a masculine guy like his father, complete with beard, into a trannie with Marilyn Monroe blond hair and a pink outfit. The film is studded with B-movie sci-fi scenes, which serve to demonstrate the destruction of Benjamin’s innocent and hopeful vision.

Benjamin is, of course, vindicated and his vision restored in the end, but it’s only after he gets angry enough to go rogue, defending his mom against a perv and confronting Chevalier face-to-face. In other words, he has to wake up from his innocent childhood where his single mom has always protected him and become a man — a masculine man, like his father.

There are a few really gross scenes in this film, with characters vomiting, etc. It has the same kind of zany adolescent-boy style humor you’ll find in all Hess films. Some people can’t handle that. Some can’t handle the absurdity of the B-movie scenes. But if you can handle all that, I recommend this film. It’s heart-warming to see a boy whose vision has been completely skewed and misunderstood stick to his principles anyway and become a bestselling author. You can see why this film might be crack for me, despite that I’m a female author not exactly fighting for my masculine vision. Rather, it appeals to my desire to be understood and successful while maintaining my standards.

In addition to all of the above — the geek sci-fi homeschool and writing world, the great comedians (I mentioned Jennifer Coolidge and Jemaine Clement, but it also has Mike White and Sam Rockwell) — the soundtrack is amazing. No, it really is. It has songs by Ray Lynch, Scorpions, Buck Owens, etc. There’s no scene quite as amazing to me as the one when Benjamin steps out of the bank after he realizes the check the filmmakers cut for him is dated for a distant point in the future, and he catches the film parade of the cross-dressing Lonnie slapping a fake deer rump in slow motion to Wind of Change. Now you’re beginning to understand why I like it so much. The only video I could find of said scene is posted below (there are two spots where there’s German overdubbing, oh well):

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Don Verdean

Sometimes I’m surprised at what audiences discard as unworthy. I don’t understand people. There, I admitted it. I don’t connect well with other human beings, and this includes my taste in films. This film is unusual, but not in the outlandish way of, say, Nacho Libre. But like other Hess films, its humor is good-hearted and entirely lacks postmodern cynicism.

At first, it appears to be a film mocking evangelical Christians, of the variety that believes wholeheartedly in dubious archaeological biblical artefacts because they need to see or feel physical evidence. They’ve been bitten by the empirical bug, and like their classic lefty counterparts, will go as far as trumping up the evidence — if need be — because the end justifies the means. And often somewhere in the process, they forget that the evidence was trumped up in the first place and begin to believe in their own stories.

It’s difficult to tell whether the main character, Don Verdean believes in his fake artefacts or even whether he believes they would lead to the greater good of spreading the gospel. Perhaps what he really wants is to be admired, a man of God whom other men follow. Of course, there are also riches at stake: a pastor willing to pay him big bucks to unearth an archaeological treasure bigger than the pillar of salt known as Lot’s wife (which turns out not to be due to…masculine anatomy): Goliath’s skull. Played by Sam Rockwell, Don’s character is too impassive to easily pin down. His sidekick, Jemaine Clement’s Boaz, gives the audience better insight into the kind of soul Don Verdean really has: a skeevy, cheating one. While it’s clear Boaz’s motive is money and Don’s is muddled up in promoting a narrative, they are flipsides to the same coin. The third element to Don’s psychology is the loyal female assistant (Amy Ryan). Her belief in Don and his archaeological finds is unwavering; she is truly gullible, possessing of a pure faith that is, of course, shattered at the end of the film. But Don’s likewise devotion to her gives an indication that Don, himself, had once possessed her type of faith.

It’s obvious by reading some of the negative reviews of this film that the critics hated it for the very reason I liked it — the comedy doesn’t delve into the dark regions it could. In the Hess universe, Clement always plays a thoroughly repulsive bad guy, albeit one where his worst proclivities are offscreen. For example, we see that Verdean is willing to pimp his assistant to Boaz in exchange for his silence on the fake artefact, but their “date” is awkward more than it is revolting.

The comedy is also deadpan, tongue-in-cheek, and softened by good characterization. This is a character-driven movie. Therefore, the audience (or this audience) is able to sympathize with Don as he ultimately faces prison time. Critics can be incredibly world-weary people. They’ve seen everything on screen, and many of them have no love for Christianity. They want obvious laughs and obvious stereotypes of despicable Christians. And that brings me to my favorite part of the film. Don Verdean isn’t completely lost; he isn’t the fool critics prefer. Instead, he finds redemption, and it is beautiful and unexpected. It’s the type of redemption that comes in the form of God “working all things together for good for those that love him and are called to his purpose”.

This is a 2015 film, not new, and I would like to give away the ending, but I’m not going to do that. It’s lovely. Go watch it for yourself. Maybe you’ll like it as much as I did.

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Jared and Jerusha Hess

They’re weird and funny filmmakers. Together, this husband and wife team pulls together the craziest tales with the best actors. I relate to their films. In my fantasy world, I collaborate with them to turn The Minaverse into a hilarious screenplay, complete with funky visual comedy and sympathetic characters. And my chosen actor for Oso would be one they’ve cast repeatedly in their films (lucky): Jemaine Clement. This is, as I said, my fantasy. Another one is to actually have an audience who appreciates my book. But that’s another subject altogether.

From Napoleon Dynamite to Austenland, their weirdness knows no bounds except in the realm of morality. Yes, that’s right. They’re what writer Daniel Eness used to call the good weird. Their weirdness doesn’t rely on nakedness or gross sexuality such as incest, or whatever the current literary “exploration” is these days that wins kudos and awards from the hot-air establishment of films and books. I suppose this is because they’re Mormon by way of religion. I’ve long wondered why certain religious groups encourage a flourishing art community and others don’t; in the case of Mormons, they are generally an intact and monetarily well-off culture, which lends them the freedom to be creative. That’s my best guess, anyway.

Last weekend, I watched Austenland for the first time, which was Jerusha Hess’s directorial project. While it’s ultimately a standard romance plot, the concept of a Jane Austen theme park is bizarre, and it gets points for casting Jennifer Coolidge in a supporting comedic role as a modern-day Mrs. Malaprop. Coolidge plays the role perfectly. But it’s not just that. Jane Austen’s writing was inspired by the comedies of her day, which included plays like The Rivals (Mrs. Malaprop’s origin). The inclusion of a Malaprop character demonstrates the kind of intelligence found in Hess films; this film wasn’t just written by a fan of Mr. Darcy, but by people who understand the life and times of Austen. Before this starts sounding too much like an undergraduate essay, I’m going to cut it short. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if the film showed up in Jane Austen survey classes for undergrads to analyze. If I taught JA, I’d play it just so I could snigger at Coolidge before I had to listen to the students’ serious interpretations. This is, by the way, why I don’t teach. I don’t take life seriously enough. Because it’s weird. And there are people in the world who would go to a JA theme park. Just like in the film. People are weird, and this movie made me laugh.

Next up: I’m going to write a review of another great Hess film, Don Verdean.

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The Bookstore Adventure Memoir

After a particularly bad bout of insomnia, I’m rising up again to wax poetic about bookstores. If you live in a large city, you might not notice the complete dearth of bookstores in many towns across America. Large cities will always cling longer, catering to the hangers-on of niche stuff, the cult-followings.

In places like New Mexico, you will find veritable book wastelands. This is, I suppose, why I was an early ebook user. I could buy books, cheap books, and have them delivered instantly to my reading device. No travel required. No insanely slow media-shipping required. Books! Books! Books! Don’t think about it: just feed the addiction for knowledge! Knowledge! Knowledge!

But sometimes, dammit, I want to visit an actual bookstore, a physical place where I can browse stacks of unruly books. My patience with Roswell, where I’m stuck living for the time being, wears thin. We have no bookstore. The culture here doesn’t support a bookstore. There used to be a Hastings that sold skateboards and coffee, as well as renting videos, but now even that has disappeared with a whisper to the grassland, deserty wind. The smell on the wind here is cattle, not literature. And furthermore, education and book knowledge is not heavily valued in New Mexico, hence our status at the bottom of the states for our school system. Government bureaucrats will tell you this is from a lack of funding, but throwing money into education when nobody cares about it has never been proven to work yet. Rather, they get more after-school programs and food programs. In some areas, they have to continue the school breakfast and lunch programs throughout the summer because kids weren’t getting fed once school was out. That’s a different subject, but it does demonstrate that monetary funding doesn’t inspire people to care, even about fundamentals like feeding their kids, let alone encouraging their kids’ education.

Deep breath. I digress. I love New Mexico. Spaniards used to be big on education, as Catholic culture has historically been big on education. But that’s the same for Anglos — they used to care. They still do, in some areas of the country. New Mexico isn’t one of them. And Roswell, at heart a ranching and farming community, has no pretentions about being high culture.* This regularly frustrates me because the nearest big city in any direction is three hours away. That means the nearest Barnes & Noble’s is three hours away.

Last Sunday, with a desire to get out under the blue skies and hike, we drove to Cloudcroft, a mountain town sitting at 9000 feet elevation. Our plans were quickly derailed, not by the expected cold of the high elevation in February, but by icy, gusty winds. The cold is bearable in New Mexico because the sun is almost perpetually shining, but the winds of late winter and early spring are biting, to say the least. Instead, we ran in the nearest shop, where we bought lukewarm beverages (some coffee shops think 120 degrees is normal) and wandered up a set of twisty stairs because a sign informed us the bookstore was open.

Bookstore! Small, two rooms, piled with books. At the entrance, there were a number of photographs with the proprietor and George R R Martin. How did we know it was the proprietor? The old white-bearded man was glaring at us from behind the glass case that housed collectible books. In fact, most of the shop was filled with collectible books: old Edgar Rice Burroughs and Raymond Chandler with original dust jackets. This place was a treasure house. I was like a kid in a candy store; I wanted to buy everything. There was just one problem. He only took cash, no credit, debit, or checks. And he was not interested in conversation. Or sales, it seemed. This was his domain, a domain of books high up in the mountains. He was the archetypal Mountain Man.

I was disappointed, to say the least, because I had no cash. None of us did. And it got me thinking about everything I’d always wanted in life: this minus the beard and photos with George R R Martin. No need to sale — not even a desire for it, but a space of my own surrounded by unruly books, where I could glare at the world. And then cackle gleefully when the people of the world were unable to buy my coveted collectibles

But before I could express this sentiment, my husband chuckled a little and said he thought I should have a shop like that upon retirement, a place for me, his misanthropic wife. At least he understands me.

*New Mexico has a thriving art community, and Roswell isn’t exempt. For a town lacking almost everything, there are two very high quality art museums. Artists are attracted to the light and landscapes here. There’s really no place like New Mexico.

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On Human Suffering

Much of what we do in this world is meant to eradicate our own suffering. All humans are like trapped and wounded animals at some point, even those who’ve cultivated an image of polish and success or fortitude. It’s impossible to avoid pain. Physical, emotional, mental: one of these, maybe all of these, will eventually find us.

While some are content to wallow in it alone, far too many will cause others pain in order to avoid their own. They’ll step on others, steal from them, bear false witness against them, and in more extreme cases, take others’ lives. They do this out of primitive or base self-preservation, or perhaps because of deep envy that doesn’t allow for the empathetic understanding that the beautiful person or the wealthy person actually feels very deep pain, too.

I began thinking of this last week when I was suffering. I was suffering from a lack of sleep and a church-wide Daniel fast I was taking part in. I engaged in the fast willingly (brought on my own pain, in other words); it just happens that my digestion can’t handle a vegan diet. My digestion can’t handle much of anything, I’ve learned throughout my life. By the end of the fast, my whole body was on fire with inflammation, achy joints, and intestinal distress. And I was exhausted from chronic lifelong insomnia and digestive pain, and begging God to take it away, just as I’d been doing from childhood. God has not done this. Instead, he’s sustained me through it and given my insight into human suffering. I know my suffering isn’t as bad as so many others’, and in fact, it’s the way I’ve lived my life and is, therefore, the only normal I know. I hate to admit that I’m suffering at all, but that is a stupid egotistical stance that causes stinginess toward my fellow humans. More on that in a minute.

In my determination to take control back from where I’d let my mind slip, I put suffering out of my head and took care of business. Some people binge eat for comfort; I forget to eat in my quest to accomplish, accomplish, accomplish! That’s my crack. And then this morning, I found myself watching a speech by a man with Down syndrome, John Franklin Stephens, who spoke of how much he valued his life. To be honest, I started crying. And my “deep thoughts” of human suffering worked their way to the fore again. They had to be thought through instead of avoided in the same way that suffering itself can’t be avoided.

Stephens’ speech was given to the United Nations, and it was an appeal to consider people like him as humans and not disorders. Consequently, the video has been making its rounds through the pro-life internet. See, his message is very relevant to the issue of abortion because abortion is ultimately a response to human suffering. Women who have abortions want to avoid their own suffering, and they want to avoid giving birth to babies who suffer. They are very much like a trapped and wounded and animal, who would chew their own foot off and make-believe this will ease their pain — because at the moment of their pregnancy diagnosis they don’t see their baby as a baby, but a condition. And if the baby has its own condition, that’s what they see. They see suffering and not humanity, and their primary goal is to end this suffering by any means possible.

As a Christian, what is, or what should my response to suffering be? This is perhaps the most crucial of all questions. While I was going through that Daniel fast and suffering from pain and chronic insomnia, we had prayer meetings at church, in which the pastor specifically prayed over people with insomnia (he doesn’t know me at all, so he had no idea then and still doesn’t know this is my biggest struggle). My insomnia didn’t abate, but others’ did, and it was hard — I mean, really hard to listen to their testimonies without feeling that God had forgotten about me. There are many Protestant sects that instill in their congregants the idea that if God doesn’t heal them, it’s because their faith is lacking. This might be unwitting, as in, not the actual doctrine, but to people who are suffering, listening to others talk about their miraculous faith healings is a thorny rose to cling to that is like the dog chewing off its own wounded foot. Focusing on having enough faith for our pain to disappear doesn’t help us through it. Catholicism doesn’t skirt the issue of suffering, and this is possibly why I find it attractive.* This is taken from The Divine Mercy, where there is also a link to the full apostolic letter of Pope John Paul II on human suffering, which this summarizes:

The Pope said that there are two basic attitudes that we should have toward human suffering. We should do what good we can for the suffering, and we should try to do what good we can with our own sufferings.

First, we should try to relieve the sufferings of others (and our own) as much as possible, with compassionate care. The Pope recalls for us the importance of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in this regard. But where our own crosses cannot be taken away, we can still offer them up, in union with the Cross of Jesus, for the good of others. United with His Cross, in the Holy Spirit, our sufferings can thereby become a source of blessings and graces for the Church and the world. The chronically ill and suffering are therefore not just to be objects of our pity: they have an important vocation in the Church.

That last part is very important: Those who are suffering have an important vocation in the church. But first we have to acknowledge suffering for what it is: an inevitable part of being human. Once we’re able to work through our own suffering — not avoid it or smother it with pleasure or feigned strength — we’ll be better equipped to allieve the suffering of others, even those we hardly recognize as suffering, such as women who are ready to abort their own offspring. Earlier, I said that my disavowal of my own suffering causes me to be stingy towards others. This is because it forces me to quantify how much suffering should actually be considered valid, rather than just accept that it is all valid. All humans are in need of compassion and help, including me. All humans are in need of the divine model of suffering, Jesus, to walk with them through their pain.

*It seems to fit with how hard it is to become Catholic in the first place. If frustration with the moving goal posts of confirmation is a type of suffering, the Catholic church sure knows how to dole it out. đŸ™‚

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