The World, the Flesh, and All About Eve

JMJ

20th Century Fox’s 1950 masterwork, All About Eve, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who also wrote the screenplay) and produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, is a classic of Christian theology. Staring Bette Davis, Gary Merrill, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, Hugh Marlowe, Thelma Ritter, and George Sanders, at least for the purpose of the credits, it should also list St Paul, St James, and St John as writers. Even though the eponymous Eve (Anne Baxter) is the seeming focal point, the starring role of Margo Channing, more of a Mary Magdalen played by Bette Davis, is the one who gets saved. How she gets saved should put every post-modernist on edge.

If you’ve not seen the movie I have provided, on another page, a Synopsis. It lists the prologue, seven acts, and an epilogue. The following commentary is more thematic. You may want to read the synopsis first.

Synopsis (Spoilers)

Although it’s not usually classed as such, I treat this as Film Noir. Culturally, the Noir arose in the aftermath of WW2. In the economic collapse of the post-war economy and the cultural confusion that resulted from the sudden peace, men returned home, women lost their war jobs, and people tried to “be normal” again. But many rural families ended up in urban environments, there were also many refugees coming into this country. What was hoped to be “normal” ended up being very strange. Film Noir provided a cathartic release for these tensions: clipped dialogue, shady characters, confusion, but a good ending where all things work out well. And yet an undercurrent of concern and suspicion. This movie has all of the above. It takes place in a few glitzy NYC apartments, a world unfamiliar to most audiences. It has some very cardboard characters – until all the masks come off and people are people. But the ending is classic noir.

During the Prologue we are introduced to all the main characters in turn through a voiceover from Addison DeWitt. By way of this filter we learn more about Addison than we do about others: as Critic who writes for the press, Addison thinks of this world, “The Theatre,” as filled with royalty and a bloodline. He speaks of people being “of the Theatre” by birth or by marriage. Curiously, through the course of the movie, we learn that the only other person who shares this view is Eve herself. Bill will blow this idea of The Theatre out of the water indicating it includes show girls and vaudeville, radio, TV, movies… it’s not just wooden stages and a few blocks on Broadway. Margo will ignore the traditions of the theatre when it suits her, Lloyd married a young college student. Etc. So, most of The Theatre is normal people who are actors. But there are a few cultists, for whom this is everything. Maintaining the purity of the cult is very important.

The characters Lloyd and Karen do not make much of a journey in this movie. They serve as foils for Margo and Bill, but their characters do not evolve much. Karen stays the calm housewife, Lloyd is the hard-working writer. Their actions result in changes in Margo (especially) but they do not change. Addison, too, does not change. He is a snarky queen, of a sort that may be familiar to anyone who watches black and white movies of this era.

Bill does not make much of a journey himself. He’s matured: Margo says as much in one of her famous lines, “Bill’s 32. He looks 32. He looked it five years ago. He’ll look it 20 years from now. I hate men.” He’s hit where he’s going to be for a while. Margo, however, matures a lot in the course of this movie. In fact, although the movie is called All About Eve it really is all about Margo. This is Margo’s journey. What we learn about Eve is how Margo can go wrong: Eve is Margo’s shadow. Eve falls as deep as she can. Margo rises so far and above all expectations.

Eve is an ingenue -or at least she pretends to be. Margo is in her 40s and yet tends to play 20-somethings on Broadway and act 20-something when she can’t get her way. Eve is begins to learn her own way by copying everything Margo does. Eve thinks that pretending to be like Margo will make her as Margo. Margo does not notice that’s at first, but when pretending to be like Margot results in needing to have Margo’s boyfriend and Margo’s job then things go awry. Margo finally notices the sort of theatrical Invasion of the Body Snatchers just in the nick of time and saves herself from the defenestration that would have resulted in the “cancel culture” of the day, if an elderly matron was seen to be standing in the way of a young darling of the theatre community.

What others do not see (except for Karen and Lloyd and, of course, Bill) is that Margo sidesteps Eve not by killing her or stabbing her in the back or leaking rumors to the press, but by getting married and going TradWife. This quote does not tend to make it into the “Favorite Quotes from this Movie” listing on the internet but it’s important. When Margo and Karen are talking in the car about what would make Margo happy the subject of Marriage comes up:

[Eve is…] so feminine, so helpless. The things I want to be for Bill. Funny business a woman’s career. The things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forgot that you will need them again when you get back to being a woman. That’s one career all females have in common: whether we like it or not, being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve got to work at it. No matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted. And, in the last analysis, nothing’s any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman. You are something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings. But you’re not a woman. Slow curtain, the end.

The resurfaces later, after Margo and Bill announce their engagement.

Groom! (She’s addressing Bill) You know what I’m going to be? (A cowboy? He replies.) A married lady… I’m going to look up at six o’clock and there he’ll be. Remember Karen? … No more make believe off stage or on.

Salvation has come to Margo by marriage.

Margo realizes that the important things in life are brought to fulfillment in relationship. Her (future) marriage to Bill, her friendship with Karen and Lloyd and Birdie and even with Max, the producer of the play, are the real things in life. Her plays, her acting, what reviewers say about her are nice things – and yes, it’s nice to be on top of her craft – but these are not real things. They do not matter at all compared to looking up at six o’clock.

At the same time Eve falls to the very depths of depravity. Eve goes from copying Margo – especially in clothing, in voice, and in personal style – to trying to steal Margo’s place in the theatre and in Bill’s heart. Since her one goal is theatrical success without any moral underpinnings (such a cold woman with a lack of morals is another Noir trope) she doesn’t imagine love as between Margo and Bill or Karen and Lloyd has any real value. She thinks everything is playacting – not real. She wants to rewrite the script with her in it instead of Margo, but she doesn’t think she’s ruining Margo’s life… that has no value. Margo will just find another playwright, another play to be in. Nihilistic solipsism is also a Noir trope.

As Eve falls further and further she tries to steal Lloyd away from Karen. But it doesn’t matter if she succeeds or not, she only wishes to appear as if she has succeeded. It’s a play: appearance is the only thing that matters. Then she doesn’t care at all only the next part must be hers. And when she gets it she doesn’t see Addison swooping in for the kill. He will ride her coattails, having discovered the truth about her. He can spill the beans (by way of blackmail) or she must take him with her. In the one act of violence in the whole movie Addison slaps Eve and says, “Never laugh at me.” There’s reality when there are no morals, there is only honor and pride.

In the closing scenes as Margot and Bill go off with Karen and Richard and their friends to a party to which Eve should be coming -as she is the guest of honor – Eve realizes no one likes her. Their parting lines are cold. Eve has missed a signal somewhere: this is not about acting. This is about relationship, but she doesn’t know how to do that. She’s only a shell of a person.

When she meets Phoebe, later in her apartment, Phoebe wants to be like Eve. But Eve’s not a person… Phoebe wants to copy the shell that is Eve. And in the final scene, we see hundreds of Phoebe-shells, all trying to be like Eve, like Phoebe. Not persons, just shells. Snatched bodies. Eve is the first of this new race of shallow non-beings.

Slow curtain, the end.

A note on Names:

Margo means Pearl. The thing of beauty that arrises from so much irritation. This is as perfect a symbol of salvation as possible: for we take our cross and offer it to the Lord and the cross, itself, becomes our throne. Margo’s cross – at this point in life – is realizing that she is female but that she has never worked out being a woman.

Bill comes from William and it means “Protector”. That’s what Bill is for Margaret: a protector.

Karen is a derivative of Catherine and it means Pure. Karen’s motives are pure throughout the movie, nearly naive. But because of the purity of intention the motives succeed – even when Karen thinks they’ve failed.

Lloyd is a Welsh name meaning grey. It comes from the word llywd. It implies worthy of respect, a sort of elder wisdom. It’s a perfect name for a writer, but also for one whose function is basically to be the strong silent type.

Book Review: The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run

JMJ

Hagiography is a tricky thing. What you say can be nearly eclipsed by what you do not say. I have a friend who was served in a leadership role in a Protestant denomination. After his death, many folks talked about his fierce loyalty: but few mentioned how his fierce loyalty blinded him to the failings and criminal behavior of those around him. We generally do not speak ill of the dead. Hagiography, telling the stories of the lives of the Saints, is another matter entirely. It’s intended for edification: writers tend to gloss over the bits that would leave questions in the reader’s mind or doubts in their hearts about the sanctity of the saint at hand. For this, you must know your audience. If your readers are a bunch of folks from the rural Plains States, you may need to gloss over some things from column A, a reader from the urban coasts, however, might rather not be told about things in column B.

To return briefly to my friend and his loyalty to a criminal: when that other party had to flee away, there was an announcement of their retirement. They were retiring, it was said… and moving far away… because suddenly their husband had a new job. Entirely believable under normal circumstances, but not in this case. Those of us in the room at that moment looked at each other and said, “What? There’s a hole in this story so big you could drive a truck through it.”

The same is true of the Hagiography of Bl. Stanley Rother. It’s good… it’s edifying. But there are some things missing from column A. And so the whole thing doesn’t quite make sense.

Nota bene: there is a Revised Version now. The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run: Blessed Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma, Revised. These truck-sized holes may be filled in in this edition, but I suspect the main difference is my version did not yet have him as “Blessed”.

By way of full disclosure: Stanley Rother is my Patron Saint. I feel closer to him than I’ve felt to any other saint, in devotion and in personal experience for a number of reasons. None of what follows is intended to deny his sanctity – but rather to point out openings in this book where questions are raised.

In brief, the Martyr’s life looks like this:

Born on 27 March 1935 (a year before Pope Francis was born), and raised in Okarche, OK, Stanley Francis Rother was a farmer and the son of a farmer. But he felt a higher calling and went to seminary where he was a poor student and was sent home. But his bishop believed in his calling and found another seminary for him. He was ordained and served in parishes before answering another calling: to be a missionary. In 1968 his diocese sent him to their mission parish in Santiago Atitlán. He couldn’t learn Latin in Seminary, but by God’s grace he learned Spanish and the local Mayan Dialect. He…

…immediately identified with his parishioners’ simple, farming lifestyle. He learned their languages, prepared them for the Sacraments, and cared for their needs. Fr. Stanley, or “Padre Francisco” as he was called by his beloved Tz’utujil Indians, had found his heart’s calling.

After nearly a decade, the violence of the Guatemalan civil war found its way into the peaceful village. Disappearances, killings, and danger became daily occurrences, but despite this unrest Fr. Stanley remained hard at work, building a farmer’s co-op, a school, a hospital, and the first Catholic radio station, used for catechesis.

In early 1981, his name was on a death list, so he returned to Oklahoma and was warned not to return. But he could not abandon his people, so he went back, and made the ultimate sacrifice for his faith.

His Guatemalan parish was a busy place! “In 1974, for example, there were 649 babies baptized at Lake Atitlán; approximately 2,000 holy communions were distributed each week; 85 couples made marriage vows at a group ceremony during The Village’s annual Fiesta; and about 150 little ones came forward for their First Communion.”

Why was such an active parish life a threat? What is never explained in this book is why the right-wing death squads would be targeting the church here as they did in other places in the 80s – also producing martyrs such as the Maryknoll Martyrs, St Oscar Romero, and the Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador. Why was the Church a target? Also never mentioned is that these killings (including Stan’s) were done at the hands of men largely trained in America (or by Americans trained) at The School of the Americas, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, located at Ft Benning in Columbus, GA. These happened during the Carter and Reagan administrations. Our foreign policy has not changed much since the mid 1950s in this respect: Communism is bad. Ergo, rightwingers are good.

It was a CIA-backed dictatorship that was causing trouble. And the “death list” was theirs. The Church, here as in other places, was targeted because the Church knows that human beings in the image and likeness of God, come before politics, before economics, before governments. And those systems that treat icons unjustly must be opposed by those who live the Gospel: not with guns or even votes, but by open disobedience.

I once laid Stanley Rother’s death at the feet of President Reagan, but it was Carter that was in charge at this time. Here’s a fun picture in that context:

My parents, the President and Mrs Carter, and your host.

What clued me into the truck-sized holes was a talk Fr Stanley did in Oklahoma in 81, just before his death. Members of congregation stood up after the talk and said that he was going to report Fr Stan to the gov’t and the Archbishop as a traitor. Why? It was never explained. But if he was speaking in the Clergy Ergot of the time, Liberation Theology, there would be a thing from Column A that might offend someone on the Great Plains. It’s pretty much communism in that context. And from that point on, the author says things like:

“He tended to provoke the right by giving Hospitality to those they thought were guerrillas and by helping the widows of guerrillas… The Army had the idea there was a military organization in the church… Stan tried to do it openly. As a result, from the Army’s Viewpoint, it looked like he was favoring the left.”

Was it just that there were no hospitality needs on the right? No widows on the right? Or is something missing from this paragraph? Father Stanley had taken sides with the poor people of Santiago and that put him on the “left,” as we would say, politically. Of course he was just being Catholic: Standing with the Poor, whom God favors.

Stan writes:

The president gave a speech where he laid aside the prepared text and spoke from the cuff. I haven’t seen the official text, but one remark made was that he wanted to expel all those religious who were catechizing the people.

How is Catechism opposed to the Gov’t? Why are Catechists, above all, and then priests and religious the targets of the Death Squads? These things are never covered. Stan is part of the generation of Latin American Clergy that gave us Pope Francis as well – and yes I think of Rother as part of the Latin American Church. He spoke both Spanish and the local Mayan Dialect spoken by the Tz’utujil. He translated the Mass into Tz’utujil and could understand cultural references. While he was not born there, he lived there from 68 until his martyrdom in 81. That culture formed him in ways as deep as the Oklahoma farm where he was raised.

Stan writes:

Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people, that our presence among them will fortify attempt to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.

So it’s in light of this “coming of the kingdom” that I want to wrap up this review with this story from the “Traitor” talk I mentioned:

After Mass, one or two discontented listeners accosted Father Stanley. He recalled the incident later, “I got through and one man walked up and said, ‘I don’t agree with anything you say’… The fellow said, ‘I’m sorry I am a Catholic. I’m going to inform the Archbishop.'”

In addition to the letter to the Archbishop, an unsigned letter was sent to the “Embassy of Guatemala, Military Attache” in Washington DC. The author of the letter detailed a long list of grievances and criticisms, noting, “Our local pastor, a frequent visitor to your nation, invited a Catholic Mission Priest from Guatemala, to use God’s puppet to expound a political Dogma urging our local church members to pressure the present US Government Administration into allowing our country to decline military support for your current Administration in Guatemala, in order to provide the basis for a socialist Revolution which would oust the current government of Guatemala…

“In as much as the Catholic church is using the altar of God to influence the Catholic populous in the United States, I feel obliged to warn your nation’s government of the church involvement within the leftist organizations attempting to establish a socialist government in Guatemala…”

The author, however, cast these aspersions aside with a quote from a friend,” Stan was about as apolitical as a man can be.” Then the narrative moves on. This is the Truck-sized hole so big that a right-wing death squad marched into Fr Stan’s house a few months later and shot him. I think the author wants us to read this story as some odd moment in internal Church politics that resulted in the death of a pious man. But in the context of the US political climate, and the actions of clergy all over Latin America… as well as the Vatican’s opposition to “Liberation Theology” through this time, I think we would do well to imagine the letter actually describing Truth. Even if we might disagree (or agree) with what the letter’s author saw: a Catholic priest teaching what the letter describes as “church involvement within the leftist organizations attempting to establish a socialist government in Guatemala…”

Something was up. Stan was a fellow travelor – at least in the eyes of Americans and Guatemalans of the time. Was Stan a “Liberation Theologian” like the great Dominican writer, Fr Gustavo Gutiérrez, OP? This priest who fixes tractors for Guatemalan farmers seems far closer to that theology than the author wants to admit. I think there’s a whole other book worth writing here: a real biography that is less hagiography and more history. But for all that this book fails at the latter, it is quite good as the former. I was moved to pray, to ask for Stan’s intercession at several points in this book.

This book succeeds as the story of a holy man who gave his life for his sheep out of love for them. It seems only to fail in explaining all the ways he did so before his death.

A Dangerous Book

Popular histories can tend to be strident, combative affairs: they carry on arguments on and off their pages, and come with definitive points of view. People love them or hate them. They divide readers and reviewers into camps of good and evil based on reaction to the book. This is very different from scholarly history which is supposed to be “unbiased”.  If you didn’t like the history text in Western Civ I or American History (shoutouts to Dr Doug!) then you were not evil in the author’s eyes: you were only failing in class. Disagree, however, with Howard Zinn’s point of view in A People’s History of the United States and you, Dear Reader, are part of the problem, not the solution. It doesn’t matter if you read Zinn calmly and put it away having done your duty. The author is clear: he’s evangelising with his point of view and if you don’t agree you’re not just “another point of view”, you’re wrong.

A great bucking of this trend surfaced in 2010 when BBC Radio 4 and the British Museum did A History of the World in 100 Objects. This podcast (and radio show), coupled with a website, talked about all of history, while focusing on 100 things ranging from a mummy and a hand axe, to communist propaganda and solar powered products. This history was different on two points: it was not combative, and it was inclusive. Even when discussing something as potentially heated as a war with modern political applications, the British folks managed not to be name callers or to imply you were a dupe if you came to another conclusion. It was so popular that they made a book and a travelling roadshow of the 100 things. (I’ve never seen the BBC’s book, who needs a book when there’s a podcast and a website?) Still, as friendly as they were, they were also very skilled at unveiling history’s events: I found episode #67 on the Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy to be particularly troublesome for me because if its historical honesty. (That’s worth a whole post, maybe later.) Yet even with all these comments and a specific point of view, the Beeb kept saying, “You could have an entirely different history if you took a different 100 objects and read them differently.” And they invited listeners to participate by uploading photos of their own objects with their own histories. So, “Here’s history as we read it: but DIY.”

A History of the Church in 100 Objects, by Grace Aquilina and her father, Mike, falls into the middle. Clearly taking their cue from the BBC’s work (the cover of this book reminds me of the 2010 edition cover on the BBC book as I’ve seen it on Amazon’s website) they write their own history with their own 100 objects. At the same time they have a specific point of view and they are evangelizing.

Christianity is not a religion of mental acquiescence to a few points in a prayer. Christianity is a life of prayer, ascetic struggle, and stuff. St John of Damascus wrote that since God has become flesh, the very stuff of the world has become holy. We can venerate the wood of the Cross, or the image of Christ, or the flesh and bones of a holy dead person – or even of a living person – and know we are venerating the very stuff of God. This is the physical world God gave us, in which we are to work out our salvation. The history of the world is salvation history.

This book uses the stuff – ranging from the star of Bethlehem to the birth control pill – to talk about the history of the Christian Church. The authors clearly believe what they believe: the Catholic Church is the Church founded by Jesus Christ on the Rock of Peter. They are not telling only one possible story of a Christian community, they are telling the Story of the Church. If the reader is not Roman Catholic, however – as with Howard Zinn’s work – the reader will know they’re on the outside looking in. But Mike and Grace do it with such love and, pardon me, grace, that you’ll want to be on the inside, I think. They are evangelizing here.

The book pulls no punches with the bad parts of Church history. The struggle against an invading Islamic army is not covered up as politics in religion sauce. The divisions between the Church and various departing elements is not seen through warm and fuzzy ecumenical glasses. The Vatican’s history of Bad Popes is not glossed over. The presence of Apostate Catholics at anti-Catholic moments is very honestly discussed. Still, popular notions are challenged: the Crusades are presented as defence and there is no “religion of peace” in this book. Missionaries to the New World are presented as missionaries of truth liberating folks from a culture of death and blood sacrifice. The actions of capital and those who worship it either from the left or the right side of its altars taken against human beings is pointed out – and the struggle of the Church to align herself with the poor is highlighted. Popular revolutions of the 18th Century are not seen in a good light. The Second Vatican Council is seen in a positive light that has nothing to do with guitar masses and bad vernacular translations from the Latin.

The presentation is easy to digest. Each of the 100 objects is presented in 2-3 page chapters together with a full page image of the thing in question. Each object is discussed and analyzed and plugged into the over-all story. Unlike the BBC’s work there is no material analysis: the Geek in me would like to know who cut the wood for St Junipero’s cradle and from what tree. But that’s not important in this work: what is important is that one of the greatest missionaries of the world was raised up from that cradle to spread the Gospel in humility to my part of a darkened world. Each chapter ends with a couple of footnotes for more reading and the authors graciously invite more questions and offer themselves to answer them.

As a new Catholic, I felt plugged in by this book: my story is part of this story. My life is part of this life now and this book helped me to connect to people as different as Charlemagne (via his coronation stone) and an auto mechanic in Mexico (via his tools on his tomb). I can’t help but imagine that anyone, new or not to the Church, would be able to draw the same benefit. Like other popular histories, the reader may find himself on the outside of the authors’ point of view. But “you’re part of the problem” is not the attitude of the authors here. Quite the reverse, in fact. If you’re on the outside looking in, why not come in?

Perhaps someone on the outside would want to be drawn into that story which is why is this a dangerous book:

The loving presentation, the careful selection of objects, and the clear goal of evangelism make this a dangerous book. The table of contents alone will show that: the ramble from Bethlehem to the Jerusalem temple, from catacombs to Diocletian, from Helen to Charlemagne, from Homer to Ethiopia and beyond will expose you to the great Catholic claim that there is no secular history. All history is the Christian story. This is the physical world God gave us, in which we are to work out our salvation. The history of the world is salvation history. You’re in it, like it or not. You’ve no choice. Any history of stuff is part of God’s story.

The second reason this is dangerous: you may disagree with their point of view on the Aztecs and you may want to debate – that’s what they’re here for. They’ve drawn you in already. And if you read the chapter on the Aztecs (or Martin Luther or Margaret Sanger) and find yourself agreeing: why are you not Catholic? This book is dangerous because it is covert Evangelism for a History Geek. You can read this story and agree or disagree. But if you agree with the story (and how could you not?) then, you should be going to RCIA. God is using the very stuff of the world to draw you closer to him. That is solid Catholic teaching. Mike and Grace have presented a partial catalogue of how God’s doing that to one end: to get you, the reader, to come home.