Two Films: One Right, One Not So Right

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The weakest of this season’s Oscar finalists is Philomena. This film about an Irish woman’s search for the baby she gave up for adoption, more than half a century earlier, has received four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay). It is a good film, with moments that are lighthearted and funny and other moments that are deeply emotional and full of anguish. The performances by Judi Dench as Philomena; Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith, the down-on-his-luck journalist who helps her; and Sophie Kennedy Clark as the young Philomena are top-rate. But the film is marred by the same characteristic that is probably driving the critics and the Academy to rave about it: it revels in unfair and bitter vitriol against the Catholic Church. Hollywood loves to hate religion.

Philomena is really the story of two souls — the title character and the journalist — who have had their lives pulled asunder by external forces. When the young and unmarried Philomena becomes pregnant, her parents send her to a convent house where unwed mothers are hidden away and cared for until their babies are born and put up for adoption. To earn their keep, the girls do domestic work inside the convent, and they are allowed to see their babies every day until homes are found for them. But the outcome is known from the beginning: the girls have come to the convent to hide their pregnancies, give up their babies, and return to normal life. The nuns are simply doing what they agreed to do.

Philomena’s parents are scarcely mentioned in this film. All the vitriol and venom are reserved for the Catholic Church.

The sad truth, however, is that no one knows until she has experienced it how hard the mothers’ role really is. How can she “return to normal life” once she has had a baby growing inside her? Whether she marries the father, raises the child by herself, gives the child to another family, or terminates the pregnancy, there is no forgetting the child and no going back to what life was like before. Parents of the pregnant girl might mean well in trying to go backward; “six months away and it will be as though it never happened,” they might think. But they don’t know. Certainly the nuns and priests don’t know; they’ve taken a vow never to become parents except indirectly, as Mother Superior or Father to the flock. Only the members of this exclusive club of special mothers can truly know what it’s like, so I won’t pretend to suggest that I know the answers. I only know that it’s hard.

The film turns the nuns and the church into the villains of the story, and it’s true (or seems to be true) that they were harsh in how they enforced their rules. But it should be remembered that no one in the church reached out and kidnapped these young unwed mothers; their parents sent them to the convents, and social custom embraced the plan. In a climate in which unwed mothers were treated as outcasts and their children were treated as bastards, these premature grandparents did what they thought was best for their daughters, the babies, and the childless couples who wanted them. And yes, for themselves. But Philomena’s parents are scarcely mentioned in this film. All the vitriol and venom are reserved for the Catholic Church, through several disparaging remarks made by Sixsmith toward the Church, and even more through the cruel, heartless way the nuns treat the mothers of the babies, and by the deliberate withholding of information by the convent’s head nun. I’m not Catholic, but I am offended by the anti-Catholic sentiment that permeates the film.

Martin Sixsmith has experienced a frustration of his own: as the film opens, he is a former journalist who has been sacked from his position with the Labour Party over an offense that he did not commit. He is outraged by the unfairness and tries to have his job restored, just as Philomena tries to reclaim her son, but to no avail. After reporting international news for so long, he feels demeaned by accepting this fluffy human-interest story for a magazine. But accept it he does, and the two set off for America to trace the snippets of information available to them about the child’s adoptive parents.

They are an unlikely pair, Martin with his international political interests and Philomena with her game shows and romance novels. She nearly drives him nuts with her never-ending summaries of the latest love story she is reading and her penchant for talking to strangers. These lighthearted scenes provide some of the most enjoyable moments in the movie, and balance the scenes of unbearable anguish portrayed by Young Philomena and the more controlled, but just as real, anguish felt by her older self. This is a lifelong pain that never goes away.

The film is certainly worth seeing, on its artistic and its social merits. But better than Inside Llewyn Davis? Or even Saving Mr. Banks? (Neither of them was nominated for Best Picture.) Not on your life. Philomena was nominated purely for its political correctness in hating on the Catholic church. And that’s just not a good enough reason in a season of such outstanding films.

No external considerations were necessary to produce admiration for the next film that I want to consider — another nominee for Best Picture: her.

her is a cautionary tale about the love affair with electronic devices and the disconnect it is causing in normal relationships, from simple inattention to internet dating and cybersex. Even the name, “her,” suggests objectification; the title is not She, and it is not even capitalized. “her” is just the objective case of what once was a woman.In this story of a near-future utopia, the voices that talk to us from our phones and GPS units and have names like “Siri” have developed emotions and personalities that aren’t almost human; in many ways they’re better than human. But this is not Westworld (1973) run amok, with sentient robots destroying their creators in order to take over the planet. No, “her” is a soft-spoken voice that comes in the night, whispering sweet nothings and taking over the creators’ emotions.

But this isn’t intercourse, and it isn’t real. It’s just mutual masturbation.

Theodore Twolmy (Joaquin Phoenix) is an emotionally crippled introvert who writes “heartfelt personal letters” for other people. It’s sort of like being a cross between a Hallmark poet and Cyrano de Bergerac. Theodore is separated from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), whom he has known since childhood, and is very lonely. His days are filled with writing love letters, but he lacks any love in his own life. He turns to what amounts to porn calls in the middle of the night, but that doesn’t satisfy him. He spends his evenings playing holographic video games and becomes so immersed in the adventure that when he’s out on a blind date, he talks about the video character as though he were a friend. And the date gets it. Without thinking it’s weird or nerdy. Just as Ray Bradbury predicted in Fahrenheit 451, the people on the screen have become family.

This scene in which Theodore talks about his video friend reminded me of the time, years ago, when my son completed the final level of the first “Zelda” game. He had been working at it for a few weeks, and I thought he would feel exhilarated. Instead, he was morose and despondent. “You can start the game again,” I told him, thinking that would help him shake the blues. He responded with great sadness, “But she won’t remember me!” That was my first understanding of just how deeply someone can become involved in a cyber relationship, even one that doesn’t have a real person at the other end of the email.

Enter Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the witty, husky voice inside Theodore’s electronic devices. When Theodore purchases a new operating system to manage his electronic information and Outlook files, he is surprised to find how humanlike the artificial intelligence interface is. Because this software has complete access to all his files, “she” knows him inside out and can evolve into a personality that responds to his emotional as well as organizational needs. And he responds viscerally to this being who knows him so deeply. It is what he has been aching for.

The film’s delicate tone makes it both very special and very disturbing. The sets and costumes contribute a great deal to that tone. The colors are mostly soft oranges and greens, the fabrics natural and touchable. The clothing is only slightly futuristic — the shirts have a different kind of collar, for example, and they are tucked into pants that ride high above the waist, instead of riding low on the hips as they do today. Furniture is sleek and mildly mid-century, with wall hangings and table decorations made of wood or stone. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before, yet so natural and comfortable that I expect to see it “in reality” next year. The overall effect is rather dreamy and inviting, not unlike Theodore’s relationship with Samantha.

Soon Theodore is spending all of his time talking with Samantha. He takes her on “dates” by putting his phone in his shirt pocket with the camera facing forward, and they have flirtatious conversations together. At a party he leaves the group of human friends to go into an empty side room and chat with Samantha. At night he feels especially close to her. He lies in bed in the dark, watching for his phone to light up with a message from her. There is something so magical and enticing about speaking to her in the dark. He tells others that Samantha is his girlfriend. He becomes goofy with happiness, giddy with the swivet of romance. It leads to a sick isolation from the real people in his life — an isolation many real people create for themselves as they engage in cyber relationships.

Of course, the nighttime conversations eventually lead to cybersex. Despite the giddiness of the growing “relationship,” he still feels morose and disconntected.

He tells her, “Sometimes I think I’ve already felt everything I’m ever going to feel, and from here on out I’m never going to feel anything new.” After a pause he adds, “But you feel real to me, Samantha.”

And then it starts. “I wish I could touch you,” he says. “How would you touch me?” she asks, genuinely curious, since she does not have a body or any experience with touch. “First I would . . .” and he tells her where he would touch her. And touch her.

His imagined touching is gentler and more romantic than his experience with phone porn earlier in the film, before he has “met” (that is, purchased) Samantha. It suggests that their deep intellectual conversations have led to a deeper, more meaningful sexual connection as well.

“Mmmmmm,” she responds. “That’s nice.” And he expresses more places he would touch her if he could.

And then . . . the fireworks. For both of them.

It seems utterly romantic. They’ve been talking for weeks. It feels like real communication. They seem to be connecting on a deep, intimate, personal level. There’s a reason sex is called “intercourse.” But this isn’t intercourse, and it isn’t real. It’s just mutual masturbation. Or in this case, single masturbation, because Samantha exists only in his computer. She’s not real, and what they seem to have is not real, either. He loves the rush he feels when he is talking to her, but it keeps him from having any real relationships with real people. And that, of course, is the danger of cyber “relationships.” They are emotionally stimulating, but socially crippling.

“How do you share your life with someone?” Samantha asks when Theodore tries to tell her about his relationship with Catherine and his grief at their breakup.

“Through influence,” he suggests, thinking about how he and Catherine would talk to each other about their writing and their careers. “Try this, try that,” he explains about their creative influence on one another. “You grow and change together,” he continues, trying to understand the sharing of a life as he explains it to Samantha — who is, of course, his own creation. “But the danger is growing apart.”

Perhaps she is right. Perhaps falling in love — true love, with a real human — is insanity.

He believes that he cannot grow apart from Samantha, because they are so completely in sync and in love. “You’re mine,” he says simply. But there are no guarantees in cyber relationships; there is only what you believe you have created. And that, too, is a danger. It is far too easy in cyber relationships to invent personas that aren’t quite real, to create dialogs that are fresh and funny and exciting, but in the end are just scripts in an evolving melodrama.

Are human relationships any better? “Falling in love is socially acceptable insanity,” Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) opines at one point. And perhaps she is right. Perhaps falling in love — true love, with a real human — is insanity. Perhaps there isn’t any logic or sense or sanity about human relationships. They’re hard to develop and even harder to maintain, especially in this day when everyone’s head seems to be dipped toward an electronic device. “Falling in friendship” can be just as inexplicable. We seem drawn toward communicating with cyber friends, checking our email and updating our tweets, even while a real, live friend is right there beside us. It’s a serious and growing problem, this love affair with electronics, a problem that is beautifully, disturbingly displayed in this creative and powerful film.


Editor's Note: Review of "Philomena," directed by Stephen Frears. BBC Films, 2013, 98 minutes; and "her," directed by Spike Jonze. Annapurna Pictures, 2013, 126 minutes.



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The Big One

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Gravity, the new sci-fi space thriller, is a stunning piece of filmmaking that gives new meaning to the phrase "cutting edge." The technology used to create the sensation of astronauts floating weightlessly in space is so new that director Alfonso Cuarón had to wait over a year for the marionette-like equipment to be designed and manufactured that would allow him to simulate weightlessness without the aid of the "Vomit Comet" airplane used in such movies as Ron Howard's Apollo 13 (1995). The result is uncanny. Star Sandra Bullock pushes off from walls and slithers through air as though she were swimming under water. James Cameron, known for his own cutting-edge animation in such films as Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) said of Gravity, "I think it's the best space photography ever done, I think it's the best space film ever done, and it's the movie I've been hungry to see for an awful long time."

According to interviews, Cuarón spent a year creating the initial computer animation for the film, a year filming the live actors, and another year coordinating the live footage with the computer animation, in addition to the year and a half wait for the puppetry equipment. Gravity was worth the wait. The lighting, the graphics, the cinematography, and the physical movement of the actors work seamlessly together to create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Visual effects supervisor Tim Webber realized that the filmmakers could not use traditional green-screen technology if they wanted to create the sensation of astronauts tumbling through space and banging into space stations or dodging debris. Instead, they shot the actors' faces and did everything else digitally.

This introduced a whole new challenge for the lighting team, who would have to match the lighting of the faces with the lighting of the all-digital setting. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki explained the difficulty they faced when he discussed the fact that the believability of the lighting “can break if the light is not moving at the speed that it has to move, if the position of the light is not right, if the contrast or density on the faces is wrong, et cetera." To prevent that from happening, the film crew built a box in which they could move the light around the actors instead of moving the actors around the set. The actors had to be precise in the position of their bodies and in moving to their marks in order to match the animation. In essence, Cuarón became as much a choreographer as a director of his actors. The result is a stunning, seamless collaboration of live action and computer generated animation.

Alfonso Cuarón nurtured the project through two studios, multiple stars, myriad technical obstacles, and several rejections, but he never gave up.

Whatever they did, it works. There is never a break in believability, never a sense of "this is live and this is animated." Cuarón and his team have created a work that will be held up for decades as a turning point in cinematic science. You must see it the way it was intended, in 3D, in order to experience the full effect. I don't typically like 3D movies, but this is one film that deserves and requires the technology, especially when space debris is hurtling straight at you or papers are floating around in the cockpit, or when a tear floats away from a cheek.

But enough about the technology; what about the story? Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer making repairs to the Hubble Telescope while seasoned astronaut Max Kowalski (George Clooney) provides technical support. Max, acting more like Buzz Lightyear than Buzz Aldrin, plays with his power thrusters, listens to country music, and tells shaggy dog stories while Ryan struggles with air sickness and wrestles an errant motherboard out of its casing in the telescope. Warned that debris from an exploded Russian anti-satellite test is hurtling toward them, Max and Ryan can't get into the space station fast enough. Then Ryan panics and can't disconnect her tether. Debris knocks her loose and she tumbles end-over-end away from the shuttle. Max uses his jet pack to go after her, risking his own chance at survival to rescue the young maiden.

Here I have to interject how annoyed I was to hear Bullock's panicked "What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?" and her almost orgasmic hyperventilation, contrasted with Clooney's calm, soothing reassurance. Sure, I would probably be panicking in such a situation. (Well, maybe not. I'm known for my problem-solving skills in an emergency.) But I'm not an astronaut. I have met a few astronauts, however (OK, two), and they both talked about the psychological testing that precedes an astronaut’s physical training. Anyone who does not demonstrate the ability to remain calm and focused in an emergency would not be selected for the program, no matter how skilled a medical engineer she or he might be.

Still, for carrying the story forward and creating fearful empathy with the audience, Bullock's panicky hyperventilating certainly does the trick. It also creates a tremendous contrast as we watch her character grow in courage, innovation, and determination throughout the film. And isn't that what disaster films are all about? They allow us to walk around in the hero's moon boots and test our own mettle. What would you or I do if we found ourselves in the darkness and utter isolation of outer space? Or swirling around in an ocean or marooned on a mountainside or trapped in a building that had been hit by a jet airplane? Would we accept the inevitable, turn off the oxygen, and make the end quick and sweet, or would we sally forth with indefatigable determination until our last ounce of courage had been expended?

The rest of the film is a tense and exciting race against time and improbability as the survivors of the crash struggle to find a way back to safety. One interesting metaphor that appears throughout the film is the connection between hope and survival. If the astronauts somehow manage to get back to the space station and into a landing pod, they will still need help from someone on the earth in order to return safely. But they hear nothing from Houston; communication with ground control was severed when the space debris damaged the satellites. What's the point, then, of trying? The astronauts have no reason to believe (or have faith) that Houston can hear them, but they proceed with the hope that their transmitters will work, even if their receivers do not.

I have to interject how annoyed I was to hear Bullock's panicked "What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?" and her almost orgasmic hyperventilation.

Hope is the power that allows us to overcome fear. It leads to action. Without hope, without faith, the astronauts would simply give up. "Houston in the blind" they begin every transmission as they report their location, their movements, and their plans. “Houston in the blind" is a technical phrase that nevertheless suggests something more — a reference to blind faith.

It has been said that there are no atheists in a foxhole, and that may be true; three of my most Objectivist atheist friends admitted to praying as their prop plane took a nosedive toward an African jungle many years ago. (Their survival when the plane leveled out at the last minute did not lead to any lasting conversions; when they told the story, they all laughed at themselves for their weakness.) While no one actually prays in this film, they do discuss the existence of God and the power of prayer. Ryan laments that no one ever taught her how to pray. But she does learn the power of hope, and the faith required to call out to "Houston in the blind" when Houston is the only means of arriving safely home. She also learns that the simplest and grandest of prayers consists of just two words: "Thank You."

Of course, those readers of this review who are not currently cowering in foxholes may prefer a more Randian interpretation of the hero, and that is just as legitimate a message to draw from the film. Gravity celebrates the human mind's ability to draw on its inventory of knowledge and make connections to solve problems. As the seasoned astronaut, Max is able to use his experience, training, and reason to figure out what to do, even though he has not been in this exact situation before. As a rookie, Ryan has no experience and very little training. Nevertheless, she, too, has the ability to tap into her experience when she lets her intuition guide her (in this context, see my review of Jonah Lehrer's book How We Decide, http://libertyunbound.com/node/815). Despite her weak and cowering beginning, she develops into a strong, self-reliant hero.

The greatest hero of this film, however, is its maker. Alfonso Cuarón nurtured the project through two studios, multiple stars, myriad technical obstacles, and several rejections, but he never gave up. Gravity grossed over $55 million in its first weekend alone, and is likely to become the biggest film of the year.


Editor's Note: "Gravity," directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Warner Brothers, 2013; 90 weighty, weightless minutes.



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Think Twice

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Prisoners is an aptly named film filled with characters who are all imprisoned in one way or another. The central story involves the search for two little girls, Anna (Erin Gerisamovich) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons), who have gone missing on Thanksgiving Day as their families celebrate together. The prime suspect is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a mentally deficient young man whose camper was seen parked in the girls' neighborhood earlier that day. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the lone-wolf police detective who is determined to find the girls.

Subtle hints suggest that Loki is a prisoner of some childhood trauma. He blinks a little too deeply and a little too long, especially when he is stressed. He works alone and is normally calm, determined, and controlled, but he bristles at his captain's authoritarian attitude and is prone to sudden violent outbursts when he is frustrated. Loki has numerous small tattoos on his fingers and hands, the kind that appear to be self-applied. While investigating the disappearance of the girls, he interviews known sex offenders and hints that he knows the pain of their victims. And he wears on his pinky a small silver ring with the Freemason symbol on it, suggesting metaphorically that he has built a wall around himself. Even his name, Loki, suggests that he is a flawed god.

Even more determined to find the girls is Anna's father, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman). Dover is drawn initially as a stereotypical right-wing Bible-thumping survivalist. He "prays for the best but prepares for the worst." He has a basement full of survival supplies, sings the Star Spangled Banner in the shower, and recites the Lord's Prayer as he is teaching his son to shoot his first deer. His truck radio is set to a Christian station and a cross hangs from his rear view mirror. But he swears a blue streak and he has a sadistic side that comes from somewhere deep inside his past. He is so certain of Alex's guilt that when the police let Alex go for lack of evidence, he grabs the young man and holds him hostage in an abandoned building where he resolves to beat the truth out of him. For days.

Well, what would you do? the film seems to ask. Wouldn't you break every law, risk every punishment, to rescue your sweet little child? Echoing last year's Zero Dark Thirty, in which torture was used to uncover terror plots, he tells Joy's parents, "We hurt him until he talks. Or they're gonna die."

The scenes of torture are not easy to watch. The rest of the film is. Full of suspense but not of gore, the plot is superbly written and tensely developed. The film is as much about the many prisoners of their past as it is about finding the missing young girls. It exists in the closed universe that is essential for this kind of thriller, and also essential for the central metaphor of prisoners; the characters can hide behind their emotional walls, but they can't escape their setting. There are no good guys or bad guys in this film, just prisoners who do good things and bad things as they try to escape their own private hells.

Prisoners is the kind of film that keeps the viewer engaged long after the credits have rolled and the lights have come up. So much is left unsaid and unexplained about the characters and what makes them tick, yet the clues are all there. Director Denis Villeneuve trusts his audience to figure it out, even if it takes a day or two to exit the maze. It's not the kind of film for lone-wolf reviewers like me, so take someone with you so you can talk about it later. The complexity of the characters will keep you guessing what has happened and what will happen next, even after you learn who done it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Prisoners," directed by Denis Villeneuve. Alcon Entertainment, 2013, 153 minutes. (Use the bathroom before you go in — you won't want to miss a minute!)



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The Faith of Our Fathers

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The Land where the Statues Walked

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Early on Easter morning, 1722, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen spied land in the distance and set his sails for the tiny island. His men grew puzzled and anxious as they neared the coast, for they could see giants lining the shore. But as they drew nearer they realized that these sentries were not moving; the giants were stone statues. Roggeveen and his men were probably the first Europeans ever to see the stunning monoliths. They called the place Easter Island. The residents call it Rapa Nui. It is a tiny dot in the ocean, barely fourteen miles long and seven miles wide, over 2,000 miles from the coast of Chile and 1,300 miles from Pitcairn Island, its nearest neighbor. Pitcairn Island is sometimes regarded as the remotest place on earth.

Since that day nearly 300 years ago, the mystique of Easter Island has increased. Why were the statues with the elongated heads and comical expressions carved? How were they transported as many as six miles from a volcanic quarry to their seaside platforms? Who toppled them during the 19th century, and why?

In 1956 Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl sailed to the island on the raft “Kon-Tiki” and encouraged the island’s governor to raise one of the 80-ton statues back to its standing position. Heyerdahl’s book and lectures created a new awareness of the mysterious stone heads, and they began appearing in works as diverse as National Geographic and Bugs Bunny cartoons. It was in this atmosphere that my own lifelong fascination with ancient artifacts began.

Love among the ruins

All my life I have longed to see the mysterious statues on Easter Island. When I was 8 years old, my father was going to college and majoring in history. One day I stayed home from school with a stomach ache, and he couldn’t miss class, so he took me with him. The course was about ancient civilizations. The professor showed pictures of Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, and the giant statues, called moai, of Easter Island. I was hooked for life. I asked more questions than anyone else in the class that day, and afterward the professor told my father that I was a prodigy. I didn’t know what that meant, but I could tell it was something good.

Since then I have had the opportunity to visit the ruins of ancient temples in Greece, Rome, and Central America. I have stood in the theaters where Paul taught the Ephesians and Corinthians and where Oedipus Rex was first performed. I visited Stonehenge when people were still allowed to touch the stones. I’ve been to Machu Picchu and Tikal and Chichén Itzá and the Great Pyramids of Egypt. But Easter Island eluded me. Three times I came as close as Santiago, Chile, but flights to the island were so infrequent that I was never able to travel the final 2,300 miles and make it to the island.

Until now. When my daughter Hayley’s tour with Disney on Ice ended up in Chile with a week off between shows, she decided to visit Easter Island. No way was she going to get there before I did! So thanks to my adventuresome daughter, I finally visited the moai of Rapa Nui.

What an indescribable thrill! It was, as Hayley said several times, the best vacation ever. We knew we would see statues; we had no idea that we would explore caves, swim in tide pools, watch gigantic ice-blue waves crash against the rocks, climb mountains of lava, or ride four-wheelers around the entire island. It was magical. Simply magical. Even sacred in a way. Every hour we said, “If this was all we did, it would be enough.” And then we did more.

It was drizzling rain when we landed at Rapa Nui. The season was winter, after all, so I had prepared for the Antarctic winds that, as the guide books said, often flow through. But our weather app was predicting temps in the high 60s or even low 70s. Could we be so fortunate?

We found our lodgings through airbnb.com, an organization that matches travelers with local residents who are willing to sublet their homes to short-term visitors. My family has used this site to rent houses and apartments all over the world, always with satisfactory results. We have stayed in a rustic log cabin in North Carolina, a sleek modern apartment in Madrid, and a modest but quaint home in Dublin, to name a few.

Alvaro, our host, gave us a quick tour around the town before taking us to our hotel, a small bungalow-style facility right in the middle of Main Street. The center courtyard was surrounded by palm trees and hibiscus bushes, and Alvaro spread his map on the table there to show us where he would be taking us. We shared a kitchenette with other residents and met in the courtyard for breakfast. It was a very relaxed, cozy place to stay.

The town is beyond rustic — the road in front of the tiny government house isn't even paved! We never saw a large shopping center, or even a grocery store that was larger than a 7-11. They don't have a movie theater on the island. But the restaurants were outstanding. After a quick lunch of freshly made empanadas at a restaurant half a block away from Alvaro's place (it was hard to call it a "hotel"), we joined a small tour of seven people, including four Disney on Ice skaters. Alvaro recognized our venturesome spirit and took us to many of his favorite family beaches and caves, off the beaten path (not that there are many beaten paths on Rapa Nui). He also arranged our schedule so that we avoided the early-morning bus tours.

Alvaro grew up on Rapa Nui and is a direct descendant of King Jean I, who invaded the island in the 19th century and made himself king. His grandfather was the mayor of Rapa Nui when Heyerdahl arrived in the mid-1950s; he oversaw the raising of the first moai in modern times. Alvaro knows his history and loves the island. We loved his enthusiastic hospitality.

Off the beaten path

Since it was drizzling that day, Alvaro first took us to visit some caves. The island was created by a volcanic eruption, and it is a veritable Swiss cheese of lava tubes, many of them extending more than a mile. It was not unusual for people to live in these caves. Alvaro told us that his grandmother hid in a cave for two months when she was young because she didn’t want to consummate her arranged marriage. Eventually she went back to her husband, but he understood that she did not love him. Later she fell in love with Alvaro’s grandfather and lived with him the rest of her life (Catholics don’t divorce, so they lived in sin . . .)

We knew we would see statues; we had no idea that we would explore caves, swim in tide pools, watch gigantic ice-blue waves crash against the rocks, climb mountains of lava, or ride four-wheelers around the entire island.

Alvaro had discovered one such cave just a week or so earlier, when he noticed the top of a tree at ground level and realized that the trunk had to be growing out of a cave. He was anxious to explore it further, and we were just the group to accompany him. We climbed down to the entrance and ducked inside. There we followed the tunnel as far as we could, grateful for the helmets and flashlights Alvaro provided. We explored a side tunnel as far as it led us, crouching down as it became more and more shallow. It dropped off at the end, so several of us shinnied down to see what was there, using a thick tree root as a rope to ease ourselves down and pull ourselves back up. Then we went back to a larger cave near the road, where a few other tourists were milling around at the entrance, getting ready to leave. Once again we explored to the very end of the tunnel, and had to climb out through a hole in the ceiling! What an adventure — and we hadn’t even visited the moai yet.

The moai average 40 feet in height and 80 tons in weight. Earth and sand have built up over the years, making it appear that they are merely heads. But most of them have torsos that extend to the thighs, and a few of them are full bodied. Their arms hang at their sides, with their hands held neatly over their abdomens. The bodies are carved from the yellowish stone of Rana Raraku, located at the bulbous northern tip of the island.

Most of the statues wear cylindrical topknots of contrasting red lava. These hats, called "pukau," weigh as much as 12 tons each, so it was quite a feat to move them to the statues and lift them to the top of the heads. Alvaro told us that they represent the bun that many Rapa Nui men still wear high on their heads (although I had to wonder which came first, the stone hat or the men's hair bun). These pukau were made at Puna Pau, a red-lava quarry in the center of the island, 12 kilometers from the sulphur-rich quarry where the bodies of the statues were made. Several top knots dot the hillside at Puna Pau, and dozens of statues are found lying in transit across the island, indicating that something dramatic happened to end the statue-making suddenly. No one knows exactly what it was.

Near Puna Pau is Ahu Akivi, the site of the seven moai that face the sea. All others face inward, standing on burial platforms called ahu. The statues represented the deceased leaders of tribal families — so much for my theory that they were supposed to scare away intruders by appearing to be giant soldiers. Alvaro told us that these sea-facing statues at Ahu Akivi, known as the Seven Explorers, represent the seven original men to arrive on Rapa Nui from Polynesia. Another feature that sets this group apart from the rest of the moai is the absence of skeletons found under the ahu, indicating that this is a memorial, not a mausoleum. The third and most remarkable feature of this ahu is that it marks the summer solstice, December 21, when the statues face the sunset straight on instead of at an angle.

Back in town we watched the sun set, and then had dinner at Te Moana, where the meals were so beautifully presented that we took pictures. Banana leaves lined the plates, and exotic flowers decorated them. The food was delicious and elegant, the best teriyaki chicken and grilled pineapple we’ve ever eaten. This quality of food was an unexpected delight on a rustic island, where we didn’t even have hot water for our showers.

We were in bed and asleep by 10 pm, so thrilled to be on this enchanting island and so delighted by the day’s surprises. It was sort of like camping out, as there was no heat in the room, and no hot water, despite the fact that it was probably 40 degrees outside. We shivered under our single blankets. I got up during the night to put on a long sleeved shirt and spread my ski jacket over my bed. Roosters woke us at 5:30 am, but it was so dark that I didn’t get up until almost 9. Then I hurried to shower. The tepid water made me shiver, but the air was so much colder that I didn’t want to leave the shower once I got wet. As I put on my watch I realized that I was two hours early — my phone hadn’t adjusted to the new time zone. We all laughed about it. It was part of the adventure. And it gave us more time for exploring the shoreline before going on the tour.

High winds had blown away the clouds, giving us clear blue skies for our visit to Rapa Nui National Park, the site of the main quarry and the largest number of extant moai. Alvaro recommended that we start our full day tour at 10:30, so we would avoid the tour-bus crowds. Bus tours normally begin at 9, so by the time we reached each spot, they were already gone. The later start gave us time Saturday morning to walk down to the shore, climb around on the rocks, and watch the waves spew foam into the tide pools. We could see surfers in the distance preparing to ride the waves. As we headed back to the hotel for the tour we all agreed: Even if we didn’t have the statues to see, this would still be the best vacation ever.

But we did have statues to see — and I had waited 50 years to see them. Yet this was such a last-minute trip that I was virtually unprepared. I was kicking myself for not at least buying a travel guide. Fifty years to get here, and I had no idea what I wanted or needed to see.

As it turned out, however, that was the perfect way to visit this island. Every moment was unexpected. Every hour brought another surprising discovery. I didn’t have a clear picture in my mind of what I would be seeing, so it was all brand new. And Alvaro was the perfect host. He fed off our enthusiasm and shared aspects of his island as though we were friends, even taking us to his family’s favorite camping and picnicking sites. When he took us to a small cave where his family used to camp out when he was a kid, I asked whether they still go here. He shrugged his shoulders and said they don’t because the privacy is gone. “You never know when a tourist might show up.” He said it matter-of-factly, without any tinge of animosity. This was the attitude we encountered throughout our stay. It was welcoming and refreshing.

The statues represented the deceased leaders of tribal families — so much for my theory that they were supposed to scare away intruders by appearing to be giant soldiers.

As we caught sight of the ocean in the distance, with its deep blue water and massive ice blue waves, one of the Disney skaters asked, “Can we stop and take a picture?” Alvaro was pleased to comply, but I’m sure he was thinking, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” Our first real stop was the Blow Hole, where powerful waves spew a geyser of steam-like water through a fissure in the rocks. Of course, Hayley and her friend Taylor climbed down to the blow hole so I could take pictures as water roiled around them. We could see the remains of broken moai nearby. These remnants cover this island. You see them everywhere, once you know how to spot them.

Further up the coast we visited an ahu where the toppled moai have not been re-erected. Most of the moai were knocked down during tribal wars several centuries ago, and it is very expensive to repair and lift them. It costs about $10 million to restore an ahu, so most of the restorations have been conducted by organizations from other countries, especially universities and archeological teams. The most photographed set of moai was restored by a Japanese crane company in the mid-1990s. What a great advertising gimmick, to show their cranes lifting these 80-ton monoliths! And what a boon for the island to see the moai watching over the islanders again.

But still, I had not yet seen a standing statue from the classical period — not with my own eyes. Alvaro pointed out a large moai face down on the dune several yards from the ahu platform near the beach. He showed us that the eye sockets were incomplete, indicating that this statue had been interrupted in transit. It wasn’t knocked down during the tribal wars; it was never erected. How sad to think that the ancient craftsmen had spent a year carefully carving the statue from the mountainside, and then weeks more, painstakingly moving it from the quarry to the sea, only to have it topple over, a few yards from its ahu. A parade of other unerected moai with unfinished eye sockets told the same tale.

Alvaro took us to another favorite family spot and suggested that we have our lunch there. It was a delightful tide pool with a shallow waterfall created by the waves. Taylor immediately took off climbing, and soon he and Hayley were in the water. Fortunately two of the other skaters told us to bring a lunch, because there was no place to buy food outside the town, and Alvaro failed to mention it to us. We lunched on delicious turkey and cheese sandwiches on rolls baked fresh that morning. Sandwiches always taste better at a picnic, especially after a day of exploring!

Meeting the moai

But finally it was time to see the real thing: we were about to visit the quarry where hundreds of moai still dot the mountain.

As we came around a curve, there it all was, breathtaking — the blue sky, the green grass, and the dark stone faces emerging from the ground. Alvaro pointed out the unfinished statues still in the side of the quarry, waiting all these years to be released. One is the largest known statue on the island, 70 feet tall, like an Egyptian soldier guarding the entrance to a royal pyramid. I was trembling with excitement as we drove up to the national park, where we would finally walk among the statues.

But yes — we were roped off. We had to stay on the path. This was a development I had anticipated. If I had come here 15 years ago, when I first visited Santiago, I would have been able to touch the statues and stand right next to them. Or stand right on them, as many people did back then. But I don’t mind. They need to be protected, and the paths have been strategically placed for effective photo opportunities, with the added benefit that no else is going to be in the pictures. Nice!

We enjoyed a leisurely hike around the statues, pausing to take photos and imagine the history. Alvaro knew that I had the most intense interest in the island, so he loved telling me about every “surprise” around the corner. He never rushed us. His theory is that the statues in the quarry were used as samples. Various craftsmen displayed their work, and local people would then select the style and size they wanted to use as the memorial for a family burial platform, rather like selecting a grave marker today. In fact, an archeologist recently discovered three statues with an artist’s signature, suggesting that each craftsman had a specific part of the quarry from which to work.

This is also the only place where full-bodied statues are found, although the bodies are buried waist deep in the earth (probably to keep them standing up straight). Archeologists have unearthed them to study them, but then they cover them back up to maintain their historic integrity. Consequently, the bodies are in pristine shape and their markings are clear, because they have never been exposed to the wind, sand, and rain erosion that punishes the rest of the statues.

As we left the park I took one last look at the enigmatic heads, so alike and yet with personalities all their own. Hayley and I especially liked the guy whose head was tilted at a rakish angle. I never felt rushed, yet I couldn’t get enough. I want more pictures! I want to go back.

We experienced a few gnarly moments in the mud from the previous days’ rains, but we finally made it to drier ground. And then we were driving right toward those 15 moai raised by the Japanese crane company, all different heights and personalities, with the bright blue sea behind them as a perfect contrast to their dark stone and the green field in front of them. Simply gorgeous. “I’m in heaven!” I blurted to everyone in the van. Alvaro let us out to explore and take pictures on our own. Behind the platform we found a collection of smaller statues, some with bodies and some just heads, almost like babies gathered in a circle. Why were they there? Like so much else on the island, that is a mystery.

Our final stop of the day was a beautiful sandy beach, the only one we saw on the island. Every other shore was protected by foreboding lava rock. This is where Thor Heyerdahl arrived in 1955, and where Alvaro’s grandfather supervised the raising of the first statue in modern times in 1956. Alvaro told us the sad story of the day the statue’s unveiling was celebrated. A group of school children came to the celebration, and the teacher asked Heyerdahl if he could take the students out on the boat. The boat capsized, trapping one girl underneath it, and trapping the teacher under a pile of panicked students, all clinging to him to keep from drowning. The girl and the teacher drowned. She was Alvaro’s 14-year-old aunt, his grandfather’s own daughter. The grandfather was so distraught that he left the island and did not return for over 20 years. Alvaro’s grandmother went with him, leaving Alvaro’s 16-year-old father to take care of his younger siblings. So sad! His grandfather felt responsible for the tragedy. He regretted restoring the statue.

On a happier note, five additional moai were discovered under the sand and are now restored to their platform. The sand protected them from erosion, and they are beautiful, with most of their markings (ears, belts, hands, back decorations) still intact and clearly visible. I took off my shoes and rolled up my pants to walk in the sand. Nearby stands that first statue Alvaro’s grandfather raised, looking like a giant eroded blob compared to these well-preserved statues that had been entombed in the sand for centuries.

Exploring the island off-road

Greatest idea Hayley had all weekend: let's rent scooters. Greatest contribution from Taylor: let's make it four-wheelers instead. What a perfect way to experience Rapa Nui! We could strap our backpacks to the front of the motorbikes, and the sturdy machines could bounce over the potholes with ease. We didn't have to lean to turn, which made it so much safer. And we could stop wherever and whenever we wanted. It was still a little drizzly and gray as we began the morning, but that was the end of our sketchy weather. The clouds blew away, the sun came out, and we had a glorious day of off-road exploring as we retraced our steps from the tour, but took our time to hike, swim, and simply soak in the gorgeous scenery

Most of Easter Island is uninhabited wilderness. In the mid-19th century, Peruvian slave traders kidnapped many of the islanders to work in the mines on the mainland, leaving their European diseases behind as an unfair exchange. As a result, by 1872 only 111 native Rapa Nuians remained. The island was controlled by European sheep ranchers, and led by self-proclaimed King Jean I, who married a local princess (Alvaro’s great-grandmother) to strengthen his authority. The native population was forced to live behind barbed-wire fences on the southeast corner of the island. The government policy of moving all the people to one end of the island, terrible though it was at the time, inadvertently protected the island’s pristine features.

Today, everyone lives in four little towns, located side by side near the airport. There are a few isolated farmhouses and one rustic but high-priced hotel — The Explorer, $1300 a night; David Letterman and his children were there the week before us. Outside of that, it is completely barren and primordial. Horses, cows, dogs, and chickens roam wild across the fields. Broken moai dot the coastline as they have for centuries. Even after the Rapa Nuians gained independence from the Europeans and became Chilean citizens, they remained congregated in the same area; the rest of the island is virtually undeveloped. Fearful of outsiders, they have limited land ownership to native Rapa Nuians, which has prevented commercial development and chain hotels.

The native population was forced to live behind barbed-wire fences on the southeast corner of the island. The government policy of moving all the people to one end of the island, terrible though it was at the time, inadvertently protected the island’s pristine features.

This makes Easter Island an ideal place for off-road exploring, and we took full advantage. Before long we were climbing lava formations and discovering new tide pools, watching the waves, and having a great time. At our first stop I suddenly remembered that we left our helmets and Taylor's backpack on the four-wheelers. But it was fine — unlike the other South American countries we've visited, where crime is rampant, Rapa Nui is safe and virtually crime-free.

We ate our lunch on a lava outcropping above a wild and windy coastline. The waves were so tall that a couple of times we had that rollercoaster sensation of impending disaster. We thought about what it would be like to see a tsunami coming, and almost ran to higher ground a couple of times, even though we were probably 25 feet above the water and at least 100 yards away from it. But it was such a beautiful sight, with the light aqua water in the waves, the white roiling foam, the deep blue ocean against the dark lava. It was so nice to relax and enjoy the view without worrying about time and tour guides.

We stopped near the blow hole to watch surfers in the distance being dropped into the waves by a jet ski. It would be deadly to surf all the way to the shore and get smashed against the rocks, but in the distance they can surf the waves and then drop into the water again behind the next wave. We rode past the ahu with the fallen statues near Alvaro's family cave, and the large abandoned moai, until we finally reached the tide pool. No one was there, so we stripped into our skivvies and swam in the pool until a huge wave flooded it and nearly dashed us against the rocks. Then we continued our ride. If there was a path, we followed it, and found gorgeous views as a result. At one point we ended up high in the hills near cows, cliffs, and a pile of bones that was once a horse. We could see the hoofs and even the hair on its legs — it must have been a fairly recent kill. We don't know how it died, but all the bones were piled in a circle. Some kind of ritualistic sacrifice? Or maybe it simply broke its leg and couldn't go on. We saw so many piles of animal bones on the island that "there's another bag of bones" became a running joke.

We were completely alone for most of the day, except when we stopped again at the 15 moai restored by the Japanese, where we took some fun photos of ourselves jumping in front of the statues and pretending to hold them up. I was happy to get another view of them, and I kept looking back as we left, thinking, "One last look. One last look."

Not a single person joined us. We explored on our own. Everything we saw was a delight.

Storytelling under the stars

After a late dinner we hopped back on our ATVs and headed for Puna Pau in the interior of the island, the place where the red topknots had been quarried. There would be no light pollution so far away from town, and we would be able to see the stars. I was at the back of our little caravan. Every once in a while I would look behind me, and it was pitch dark. I wasn't scared, but I was a little nervous, and I knew that I could work myself up into real fear if I let myself start imagining things. Taylor was also spooked, so when we stopped the bikes we both ended up turning them around, to be ready for a quick getaway . . .

Nevertheless, we put our blankets out on the grass and lay down to gaze at the stars. They were brilliantly bright, of many different sizes — you don’t see that in the places where most people live. And so densely packed! The Milky Way was fully visible, but of course the constellations were completely different from any we see in the northern hemisphere. I told some stories about constellations — the myths of Deer Hunter and White Corn Maiden, Orpheus and Eurydice, and others. We saw shooting stars, including one that was huge — like a dove flying across the sky. We were shivering with the cold, but we warmed up under our blankets. It was peaceful and beautiful, and we all had the sense of seeing something we would never see again.

It was late when we returned to the hotel, but we decided to get up early and explore just a little more before turning the bikes in at 9. So we settled our bill with Alvaro and told him it was worth the cold showers to be able to stay at his B and B. Chagrined by our report, he walked to the back of our cottage and changed the propane tank. Then we enjoyed our first hot showers of the week.

At 7:30 we were up, showered, and on our ATVs, heading north on the east side of town, to see what we had missed. Just outside of town we spied a spectacular set of moai, along with petroglyphs, "mana vai" where the early islanders created rock enclosures to protect their crops from the wind, and the remains of Rapa Nui’s ancient boat-shaped houses. I knew that thousands of people had seen these moai before me, but there was still something extra special about them. I had found them for myself, and no one was there but just we three. Horses came thundering across the field, chased by wild dogs, and one of the horses nearly lost its footing and almost fell into the sea. There was a playfulness in their chase, however; the dogs weren't really trying to catch the horses, and the animals seemed to be enjoying the morning as much as we were.

It was magical. I loved it, loved it, loved it. Although we could see another moai far in the distance, up the coast, we didn't know how to get there, and we were running out of time. So with one last backward look we headed back to town to turn in our mechanical steeds. Then we grabbed some towels and headed back to the cliffs, walking this time. The sun was warm; the wind had died down. Our last experience on the island was relaxing in the ocean’s crystal pool. Then three quick showers, three quick empanadas, and 3,000 pesos (for the taxi), and we were back at the airport, saying goodbye to this enticing island and its enigmatic folklore.

They walked

Why did ancient Polynesian craftsmen create these monolithic statues on this tiny dot in the ocean, but nowhere else? How did they transport the 80-ton sculptures from the quarries to the coastlines? What caused them to stop erecting them so suddenly that many of the statues lie along the paths, abandoned in their tracks? What virtually destroyed the island population?

Many archeologists, environmentalists, and social scientists have used Easter Island as an example of how human folly leads to self-destruction. They suggest that the islanders cut down the forests to transport giant statues to appease their gods. When the resulting deforestation destroyed the natural plant and animal life, they were unable to feed themselves. Hunger led to tribal warfare, and the natives basically killed themselves off, all because of their religion. Nasty humans. We ruin everything.

It was peaceful and beautiful, and we all had the sense of seeing something we would never see again.

But more recent archeologists have discovered a different story. As our friend Alvaro tells us, "It was the rats!" European ships brought rats along with their cargo, and those rats loved the taste of the palm seeds on the island. A close examination of ancient seed shells reveals the scratching of rats' teeth as they gnawed through the shells to get at the sweet pulp of the seeds. No seeds, no trees. Between the rats and germs the Europeans brought to the island, and their enslavement of the native population, which they took away from the island to work in the mines of Peru, it was the European outsiders, not the native people, who destroyed the ecosystem.

Moreover, a recent experiment by a team of archeologists (Terry Hunt, Carl Lipo, Sergio Rapu Haoa, and Patrick Kirch) has pretty much debunked the theory that the statues were moved on their backs along rolling platforms made from the trunks of trees. Local folklore always maintained that the statues "walked" from the quarry to the ahus, and local folklore usually contains a kernel of truth. (That's how Heinrich Schliemann discovered the city of Troy.) Noting that the fallen moai were fatter and had a different center of gravity from the completed moai standing on their final platforms, they came up with a theory that the islanders slung ropes around the eye sockets and shoulders and then used gravity and the statues’ own sloping shape to rock the objects forward, in much the same way that I have tipped a heavy bureau from side to side in order to rock it gently from one part of a room to another. PBS recently aired a documentary of their experiment using a life-sized, 80-ton replica. Watching it finally "walk" down the path was a magical moment for me. (The documentary, "Nova: Mystery of Easter Island," is available at Amazon.com.)

In essence, through modern technology, the statues had come to life. They could speak to us again, and in so doing, they could defend the islanders who had been maligned for centuries. Japanese crane companies and university archeologists lifted them out of the sand. Modern airliners and cruise ships bring a new kind of visitor today — not visitors who want to pillage and plunder, but people with a reverence for things ancient and a willingness to travel thousands of miles on a pilgrimage to consider the past.

Cultures everywhere create monuments and memorials to their dead. Often they turn to these memorials in times of trouble, seeking the help of their departed ancestors. This almost universal tendency indicates a profound belief, or at least a hope, that there is another existence after this one — that the spirits of the ancestors live on. Easter, with its focus on resurrection and new life, is a perfect time to reflect on the mysteries of Easter Island, and to resurrect the wonder and magic of youthful curiosity. I like to think of those Seven Explorers, facing the sea for century after century and patiently waiting for the sun to set at each year’s summer solstice, even as I wait for the sun to rise on Easter morning as a symbol of the Son who also rises.

History. Mythology. Culture. They reveal the dimensions of our humanity. We are drawn to explore what is different, but end up learning what we have in common with other civilizations.




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Samantha Stevens Meets Mad Max

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At the end of yet another election year, one that saw high hopes largely unfulfilled, we pause, again, to take stock of libertarian prospects. Big-governmentdevotees, Left and Right, have collaborated on a horror movie to scare mainstream voters away from libertarian ideas. They’ve given us a hockey mask and a chainsaw, and every time we manage to resurrect ourselves from the bloody doom to which they would send us, they try to make us even scareder.

It’s time we turned off the projector, turned on the lights, and introduced the public to reality. Here are some ideas it might benefit us to get across to undecided voters in future election years. It is by no means an exhaustive list. I welcome any more items that readers may think of.

People are always being warned about the mighty power libertarians would wield if voted into office, but no libertarian elected to office comes equipped with a magic wand. We can’t really cast a spell or wiggle our noses like Samantha Stevens on Bewitched and automatically implement our will. We bring certain ideas to the table that might not be considered otherwise. Those ideas would still need to be approved and tested. Those who oppose us are at least as likely to fear that our ideas would work as to fear they wouldn’t.

Many of the predictions we hear about what libertarians want to do are merely bad science fiction. The apocalyptic, Mad Max world we’d supposedly make is the product of fevered imaginations. Our concepts could scarcely make the world more apocalyptic than the one statists have made.

Libertarian principles are very basic. It is perfectly all right for one libertarian not to agree with every other about every issue faced by humankind. What we all share is the conviction that violence should not be used to settle political disagreements. That government uses violence to get its way is certainly not just science fiction. It is evident from the news of every day. So why are we the ones who are called crazy? And after all, why must violence be used to implement citizens’ desires?

People habitually treat their fellow citizens in ways they hate being treated themselves. This is what has torn our populace asunder. What we have now is two predominant sides that can’t trust each other because each is determined to use government-backed violence against the other in an insane buildup of power — the political equivalent of a nuclear Cold War. This is mutually assured destruction, and it’s given us a mad, mad, mad, mad world.

What libertarians share is the conviction that violence should not be used to settle political disagreements. So why are we the ones who are called crazy?

Most people fear drugs worse than they do delusions. Hallucinogenic substances are not generally good for us, but popular delusions have done immeasurably greater harm. And drug legalization is not the same as drug use. I’m a recovering alcoholic who hasn’t had a drink in years. I need no reinstatement of the Volstead Act to keep me dry; I stay sober for the same reason I don’t use recreational drugs: because, not caring a damn what the government says about it one way or another, I simply choose not to.

Decriminalizing recreational drug use, and making drugs legal for sale, would put dealers, gangs, and cartels out of business. Instead of having to defend the fact that somebody, somewhere, might want to use drugs, what we ought to ask is, Why do those who make war on drugs want to keep making criminal scumballs rich?

The reason statists make war on recreational drugs is that they want a corner on the market. The most popular hallucinogenic today — that which induces the delusion of omnipotence via the power of government — can withstand no competition.

Violence actually discredits people’s beliefs. It prevents persuasion because it shuts down debate. Suppressing things — whether behaviors, substances, or ideas — does not make them go away. The good ones will survive because they’re worthy of survival, however embattled and driven underground they may be. But the bad ones are given a lease on life they do not deserve and, if left to their own devices, could never sustain.

Why are so many avowedly fervent Christians, in particular, so dead set against libertarianism? Our philosophy is based on the Golden Rule. If the zealots on the social Right ever tire of combing through the Old Testament Holiness Code for rules to force on those they dislike, they might try reading the Gospels for a change. That those who follow Christ are supposed to do unto others as they would have them do unto them was enjoined by none other than the Man Himself. If this were truly a Christian nation, one would think this would be the political philosophy by which it would operate.

In truth, statists don’t dare do unto others as they would have done unto them. Their ideas do not stand up under scrutiny, and much less in practice. They need to implement and maintain their notions by force, because such schemes would not survive in any other way. There’s a reason why they tend to see life as a horror movie. By their policies, they’ve managed to turn a cheesy and utterly unbelievable script into an everyday reality.




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Tiger's Eye

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Life of Pi is a magical adventure story whose narrator claims it will “make you believe in God.” “Impossible!” you might say. “That’s utterly irrational!” Right? Well — just you wait. The main character’s name is Pi, after all . . .

The film is framed as a story within a story within a story. The external frame involves a Canadian author with writer’s block who has come to India looking for a story. The middle story involves a young Indian boy (Suraj Sharma) with the unlikely name of “Piscine” (“swimming pool”). Piscine endures the taunts of schoolmates who pronounce the name as “pissing” until he proactively redefines himself as “Pi” through a series of remarkable classroom calisthenics. Pi, of course, is the irrational number, and that is significant for a boy who is going to defy rationality by making you believe in God.

Pi’s parents own a zoo, and when they decide to move from India to Canada, they secure passage on a cargo boat and take the animals with them. This introduces the central story, which involves Pi’s adventures when the ship sinks during a storm. Pi ends up sharing a lifeboat with the zoo’s tiger. How Pi manages to do this without becoming the tiger’s dinner is pretty astounding. His resourcefulness, imagination, and determination to survive dominate this part of the film.

Even more astounding than Pi’s relationship with the tiger is the film’s cinematography. With a vast ocean as his canvas, director Ang Lee paints gorgeous pictures on film. Reflection and illusion are important both artistically and metaphorically, and Lee takes full advantage of both. It is often difficult to see where the water ends and the sky begins, as stars, clouds and sunsets are reflected off the sea. Often we discover that we are viewing the story through water — water so clear that we don’t even see it until something moves and creates ripples that distort our view. Significantly, it is the real view that seems distorted, and the illusion that seems real. Pi’s internal reflection about his plight is just as powerful, and the metaphors in this film give it a satisfying gravitas beyond the simple plot.

The film begins with long, languorous shots of beautiful exotic animals in vivid jungle scenes; Lee is in no hurry to get to the crux of the story. He has all the time in the world for storytelling — as, of course, does the shipwrecked Pi. In fact, “singing songs and telling stories” is one of the “guidelines for survival” that Pi finds in the lifeboat’s survival kit. And so he creates his story during more than three months adrift in the ocean. He creates a system for gathering dew that he and the tiger drink during the day. He devises a net for catching fish, and when he isn’t able to catch enough to satisfy the tiger’s hunger, flying fish appear like manna from heaven.

The storm and shipwreck scenes are so astounding that I literally starting feeling seasick as I watched it. (Maybe the 3D version wasn’t such a good choice . . .) As Pi struggles to come to the surface of the water, he is surrounded by sharks that he apparently does not see. That seems to be a metaphor as well. Even the “clear water” and the idea that one can believe in many religions at once seemed like a veiled reference to Hollywood’s favorite religion, Scientology. In short, the film is fairly dripping with metaphor, illusion, and allusion.

Although this is a film that purports to make you believe in God, it is not a religious film. Only the first few minutes are devoted to Pi’s religious awakening. Pi is a Hindu who discovers Christianity at the age of 12 when a priest gives him water for his thirst. (Yes, this is another allusion to water.) He says that he “found God’s love through Christ.” But he also earnestly embraces Islam and says that “the sound and feel of the words of the prayers to Allah gave peace and serenity.” Pi’s father tells him, “Believing in everything is the same as believing in nothing.” But his mother counters with “Science can teach us more about what is out there, but not about what is in here,” touching her chest. Pi concludes that “faith is a house with many rooms” and that “you cannot know the strength of your faith without its being tested.”

If this sounds like a bunch of religious mumbo-jumbo to you, don’t let it keep you from seeing this film. You don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate a Renaissance painting, and you don’t have to be looking for proof of God’s existence to enjoy this film. Life of Pi is a stunning work of art, whether you buy the premise of believing in God or not.

Ultimately, faith is a choice. Evidence is all around us, but we choose whether to see the reality or the distortion. We choose how to write our own stories. If there is any message to this film, that’s it. And it’s a pretty satisfying message.


Editor's Note: Review of "Life of Pi," directed by Ang Lee. Fox 2000 Pictures, 2012, 127 minutes.



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Reverse Order

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Grace, a new play by Craig Wright, opens to a minimalist set of simple bamboo furniture, the kind you might find in a Florida beach rental. A front door and a sliding glass door stand alone, but there are no actual walls. Dominating the set is a halo of blue sky and puffy white clouds projected on the back wall and suggesting a hint of heaven. This is appropriate, because the idea of heaven dominates the theme of this play. In fact, for the first ten minutes, the audience sees nothing else. People fidget, waiting for the show to start, wondering why it is delayed. But in fact, like a Pirandello play, it has already begun.

Suddenly the halo of light turns ghastly green. Three characters, two men and a woman, enter the stage and immediately collapse to the floor. After a few moments one of them, Steve (Paul Rudd), rolls up onto the couch in a slumped position and then sits upright. His body shudders, a shot rings out, and he points a gun to his head. The scene is about to rewind. Dialogue is spoken in reverse order. The words are cosmic in timbre but out of context and confusing. More shots ring out and then everyone is standing. It is one of the most stunning opening scenes I have ever witnessed.

And then the sky is bright blue again. Sara (Kate Arrington) is cheerfully folding laundry as Steve enters their apartment with happy news. They have come to Florida to start a chain of “gospel-themed” hotels, and an investor has just committed to sending them $9 million. They are perky and happy and in love. And they believe. Oh, do they believe!

As they praise God and pray their gratitude for being guided to this place at this time for this purpose, Tim (Michael Shannon) limps onto the set shouting “Thank you Jesus F-ing Christ!” It is a primal scream of ineffable pain. His arm is secured in a sling and his face is covered in a mask to heal what appear to be hideous wounds. The set, we learn, functions simultaneously as Steve and Sara's apartment and as Tim’s apartment next door. It isn't a staging shortcut but a metaphor for how lives intertwine. It also suggests that life is far from fair or equal, despite Declarations to the contrary.

Graceis billed as a comedy, probably to attract the fans of Paul Rudd, who is best known for his comic rolls in Judd Apatow's popular and often raunchy movies (Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Anchorman). Grace does have moments of biting irony. Moreover, with Ed Asner cast as Karl, the crotchety old pest control man, one would expect a play filled with offensive anti-Christian jokes and rants. Indeed, when Karl calls Steve "Jesus Freak" — and he does so frequently — the audience roars its approval. "Gospel-themed hotels"? This is, after all, what they came for.

But it isn't what they get. Grace has more in common with Greek tragedy than with light comedy. As the characters come to know one another, the play asks the audience to consider the cosmic questions: What is the purpose of earth life? Does God exist? If so, why do people suffer? If God is going to interfere in the affairs of men, why would he use a miracle to make Steve and Sara rich, but not intervene to prevent Tim’s tragedy? As Robert Frost asks in his poem “Design,” “What but design of darkness to appall? — / If design govern in a thing so small.”

Another question the playwright asks us to consider is whether the world is governed by fate or choice. Several times characters plead, "Can't we just start over?" The opening scene itself is a rewind, suggesting that a do-over would be the greatest miracle of all. Would we change things if given a second chance? Or are our actions predestined?

Although Grace poses the questions, it wisely does not try toprovide the answers. Instead, what we have is a riveting story presented through deftly acted characters who seem as though they could indeed live next door. Tim, a rocket scientist, represents the atheistic view. His earthbound job of filtering out the data noise that interferes with “pure communication” from space is a perfect foil for the worldly noise that believers filter in order to hear the “pure communication” of the spirit. Karl provides not only comic relief but a poignant back story. Asner fans will be sorry to see that he is onstage only briefly, but his part is the subtle heart of the story.

Graceis a brilliant show with brilliant staging and a brilliant cast. Paul Rudd is particularly natural as the earnest and affable young Jesus Freak — er, Christian — who feels compelled to invite everyone he knows to accept the reality of Jesus Christ. He has his standard arguments that seem to prove the existence of God — at least to him. His open smile and eager enthusiasm reveal a surface-bound testimony. Sara is the one who presents the deeper meaning of what it is to be spiritually converted. Perhaps the real gift of miracle lies not in being protected from suffering, but in being helped to endure it.


Editor's Note: "Grace," written by Craig Wright, directed by Dexter Bullard. At the Cort Theatre on Broadway, New York City, until January 6.



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Rich, White, Mormon . . .

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In a recent piece, I suggested that Romney would likely win the Republican nomination, and since he has no history of scandals and is obviously intelligent, the Obama campaign (which cannot run on Obama’s record in office, which is risible) would attack him in the only way it can. It will try to attack him for being rich, white, and Mormon. That is, it will try to arouse envy of the rich among the poor, hatred of whites among blacks and Latinos, and anti-Mormon prejudice among the populace at large (and especially among evangelicals).

So I am not surprised that Obama is now running this sort of campaign. I am, however, surprised — and pleasantly so — at how quickly the Romney campaign and the countermedia are hitting back.

I have already described in some detail the mainstream media’s concerted attack on Romney’s faith. Two recent illustrations have just occurred. MSNBC host Martin Bashir read on air from the Book of Mormon, somehow linking it to his condemnation of Romney to hell for allegedly lying about Obama’s stellar record of job creation (a record that, by the way, should condemn Obama to hell). And Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer couldn’t resist reminding us all that Romney descends from a polygamist great-grandfather.

The countermedia hit back, pointing out that Obama’s grandfather and even his father were polygamists. So the Schweitzer attack quickly fizzled.

Then there were the attacks on Romney’s wealth. Obama felt obliged to remind us that he was “not born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” and his campaign advisor and pet harpy Hilary Rosen opined that Ann Romney had never worked a day in her life.

The pushback was rapid. If not a silver spoon, Obama clearly had some feet in his mouth. The blogs had a field day pointing out that his white grandmother was wealthy; she paid for him to go to the toniest prep school in Hawaii, then sent him to Occidental, a high-priced private college. The sharp-tongued Ann Coulter caused a stir when she observed that Obama was a clear beneficiary of affirmative action, which is certainly a case of being privileged.

As to Rosen’s slur, the backlash was quick and strong enough to make Obama disavow Rosen’s views and make her apologize rather quickly. Ann Romney had, as the countermedia reminded us, raised five boys, which every parent will attest must have involved endless work. The countermedia also showed that Mitt and Ann Romney started out with essentially nothing, and built their fortune together.

Of course, Rosen was just pushing a line, one found in a strain of feminism that goes back to Simone de Beauvoir. It’s the idea that women who choose to be stay-at-home mothers are being turncoats to The Cause. This may play well with Women’s Studies profs, but it clearly doesn’t resonate with most women.

Finally, it became all too clear how Obama aims to fire up his base among minority voters: look for any racial incident to exploit. One appeared, providentially, in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Knowing the game plan, the mainstream media quickly hyped the story: big, armed white man shoots innocent black child, and gets away with it in the Deep South. Obama quickly pushed racial grievance exploiters like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson aside (not an easy thing to do!) to get in front of the issue. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” the prez solemnly intoned.

Obama’s plan was as obnoxious as it was obvious: find and dramatize a racial incident, get minority supporters to rally behind him, then turn to the rest of the country and say, “See? You need me to keep racial tensions under control! My opponent can’t do that, because he’s white!”

However, the countermedia rapidly discovered facts that shook the Narrative. Trayvon’s shooter, George Zimmerman, was half-Hispanic; he was smaller than Martin; Martin had had trouble with the authorities; Zimmerman had wounds on the back of his head, consistent with his story of self-defense; and so on.

The president and his henchmen in the MSM will continue to assail Romney along these obvious tracks. But the countermedia seem to be pushing back, and Romney seems to be catching on to the vicious assault headed his way. He has had only a tiny appetizer — the main course awaits him.

In the meantime: entitlement programs keep heading towards collapse, war clouds appear once again in the Middle East; we remain totally dependent on volatile oil supplies (Obama having canceled the Keystone pipeline and prevented oil and gas exploitation on public lands), and the pathetically tepid “recovery” seems headed for a stall.

A country gets the government it deserves. And it gets the economy it deserves as well.




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Arab Spring, Winter for Christians?

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In a recent piece, I suggested that the fall of a number of Middle Eastern dictators — most notably Hosni Mubarak of Egypt — actively pushed by the Obama administration, and collectively dubbed “the Arab Spring,” has shown a remarkably ugly side.

One of the ugly features I noted was the removal, in the case of Egypt, of a regime that had been actively fighting the practice of female genital mutilation (the removal of most or all of the clitoris from adolescent girls). Some of our readers were offended by my piece, either thinking, somehow, that I advocated going to war with Egypt, or else shocked that I would dare to criticize the practice at all.

Of course, I was merely commenting on a dubious Obama foreign policy initiative — replacing a disreputable US ally by an unknown force, and hoping for the best.

Well, the situation has developed a more ominous aspect. The Arab Spring is turning out to be not only a winter for women, but also a winter for Christians. Several recent stories bring this to light.

Let’s begin by reviewing the results of the first round of elections for Egypt’s parliament. In a turn eerily reminiscent of what happened in Iran decades ago — when Jimmy Carter, a president as feckless as Obama, withdrew support from the Shah so that “democratic forces” could take over — the resulting elections were victories for hardcore Islamist parties. Once the Islamists consolidated their power, they created a state far more repressive and authoritarian than the Shah could ever have imagined. The consequence was the mass murder of political dissidents, people deemed “deviant,” and worshipers of religions other than Islam (Baha’is, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians). It also created a state quite supportive of terrorism abroad.

Once the Islamists consolidated their power, they created a state far more repressive and authoritarian than the Shah could ever have imagined.

In the recent Egyptian elections, Islamists won two-thirds of the seats. And by “Islamist” I am not exaggerating. The Muslim Brotherhood, an extreme organization, from which sprang Al Qaeda, won about 39% of the seats. But the even more extreme Salafists won an astounding 29%. Together, the two liberal parties (the Wafd Party and the Egyptian Bloc) won a pathetic 17% total of the vote.

So much for the idea that waves of freedom and modernization are sweeping over the largest Arab country.

This should have come as no surprise, since earlier elections in Tunisia and Morocco saw Islamist parties win by large majorities. The results for Christians are ominous. The largest group of Christians in the Arab world — the Coptic Orthodox Church — resides in Egypt, where it constitutes 10% of the population. Mubarak, dictatorial bastard that he was, provided protection for them. He is now gone, and the Copts are at the mercy of the Islamists. Mercy, indeed!

Already reports have come in of the killing of Copts, such as the slaughter of 25 or more during a protest they staged in downtown Cairo recently.

The Copts are now deeply demoralized. If they do as the Muslim Brotherhood does — load supporters on buses and drive them to the polls to vote en masse (Chicago-style voting — maybe that’s why Obama supports the Brotherhood!) — they risk civil war. But if they do nothing, the Islamists will target them and slowly turn up the heat. As an American-based Coptic Christian put it, “They [the Copts] are a cowed population in terms of politics. They are afraid and marginalized.”

This is such a familiar pattern. The Islamists kill off or expel the Jews (if any are left by the time the Islamists take over); then they target other religious minorities (Bahai’s, Zoroastrians, pagans, or whatever). The pressure then mounts on Christians.

This is no less than religious ethnic cleansing.

The Egyptian government has recently taken the necessary first step in setting up the apparatus to carry out religious cleansing. It has raided 17 nongovernmental agencies, including three American agencies that are supposed to monitor the “progress” of “democracy” in Egypt — specifically, Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute. One witness to the raid on the Future House for Legal Studies said that a policeman taking part in it held up an Arabic-Hebrew dictionary he found and said it proved the organization was engaged in sabotage against Egypt.

One predictable result of the Egyptian war against minorities is happening already: an exodus of Copts to America. One story reports that thousands of Copts have come to America since Obama’s chosen “democracy” swept Egypt. The emigrants report growing levels of overt persecution and violence. One recent émigré, Kirola Andraws, fled to America on a tourist visa and applied for asylum. He was an engineer, but now works as a cook and a deliveryman in Queens. His story, unfortunately, is likely to prove typical.

The report also notes that already this year a number of Coptic churches have been burned down. Islamist-spawned mobs have rampaged against Coptic homes, stores, and church schools. Think of it as the Muslim Brotherhood’s take on Kristallnacht. Yet the US Commission on International Religious Freedom was recently rebuffed by the Obama administration’s State Department when it asked State to put Egypt on its list of countries that violate religious freedom.

This is only the beginning. Right now, the Muslim Brotherhood only controls the legislature, and it is still held in check by the military. But a very recent article reports that the Brotherhood is planning to run some of its chosen “leaders” for the presidency — something it had earlier promised to do. Should the Islamists take over the executive branch, the military’s influence will rapidly wane, and Egypt will likely go the way of Iran.

The report observes that the military and the Muslim Brotherhood have been in a struggle for 60 years, with the military coming out on top, until now. The military controls about a third of the manufacturing industry in Egypt, for example, so is not likely to surrender power easily. The Egyptian liberals, now seen to be a small minority, seem to be rethinking whether the military is at this point the main threat to them.

Think of it as the Muslim Brotherhood’s take on Kristallnacht.

Whether the military will back down and let the Brotherhood take control is unclear. If the military reacts by dismissing the legislature, Egypt could be in for a protracted and internecine civil war. In either case, however, Christians can expect to be demonized and targeted by the Islamists.

Christians are also being targeted by Islamists in other countries besides Egypt. Nigeria — to cite one such place — recently experienced a wave of terror attacks against Christians, with at least 39 killed. Most of them died when Muslim radicals blew up St. Theresa Catholic Church last Christmas. Shortly thereafter a Protestant church was bombed as well.

Christians in Iraq and Syria have been fleeing, as violence directed at them increases. Since the US toppled Saddam in 2003, 54 Christian churches have been bombed in Iraq, and over 8,900 Christians have been murdered. The number of Christians remaining has of course dwindled, down to 500,000 from 800,000 to perhaps 1.4 million in 2003. With American troops now gone, one suspects that this trend will dramatically increase. In an interesting twist, Christians are fleeing other areas of Iraq and moving to the Kurdish-controlled region, because the Kurds have offered them protection. Yet there are Islamists even among the generally pro-Western Kurds, and Christians have faced some attacks in their territory.

There is in the end the law of unintended consequences, in foreign policy no less than in domestic policy. Progressive liberals — and even conservatives — should start paying attention to it. It is all well and good to desire an “outbreak of freedom,” but one ought to be careful about what one desires, as he might just get it. Many on the Left and the Right welcomed the “Arab Spring,” but it may not turn out to be an explosion of tolerant democracy, as it first seemed to them.

Lest any reader mistake this story for some kind of call to arms, let me make my view explicit: I do not advocate going to war against anyone. But should the Muslim Brotherhood complete its takeover of Egypt and continue its vicious religious persecution of the Copts, our high level of foreign aid to Egypt — $1.3 billion in military aid alone — should certainly be stopped. And this should be made clear to the Egyptians in advance.




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