Thursday, March 14, 2013

argo pope yourself!

At about the same time yesterday that cardinals at the Vatican were busy naming a new Roman Catholic pope, my older son and I were two of four people seated in a movie theater watching "Argo," the 2013 Academy Award winner for best picture of the year.

Ben Affleck with Oscar
The movie, which never bothered to tell the joke on whose punchline ("Argo fuck yourself!") the title was based, concerned the CIA's wily and successful attempt to secure freedom for six Americans caught up in the 1979 "hostage crisis" in Iran. Fifty-two hostages were held for 444 days in the wake of American maneuverings and interference in a country that could aptly wear the historical title of "the cradle of civilization." History, of course, was not on American minds at the time: Iran, that backwards, raucous, revolutionized nation, was holding our countrymen. Fifty-two were held. Six escaped.

My son and I managed to sit through the movie whose impact rested at least in part on America's wary and sometimes hostile feelings about the "Middle East' and its brown inhabitants who seem to be willing to send American interlopers home in body bags. 'They' of course were responsible for the (never adequately defined) terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 ... so a depiction of them strikes a chord in the American heart.

But the movie itself was mediocre. There was a good building of tension ... would these six escape or would they be eaten alive by the mobs in the streets? The mobs were credible, but the actors in the escape scenario were listless and cardboard. Anyone could recognize, viscerally, the mindlessness of a group determined in some common cause. As LaRochefoucauld observed, "The intelligence of the mass is inversely proportionate to its number." The mobs were scary.

But the movie did not linger on any of its central characters long enough to allow the audience to identify with them. There was "no there there" when it came to character development. The mission and its dangers were apparent. The flesh and bone of the people involved was left to the audience to fill in. It was a cheap date. Ben Affleck, who picked up the best-picture Oscar for "Argo," had been responsible for "The Town," a 2010 crime drama about Boston's Charlestown ... a much better, though not perfect, attempt to depict the people it portrayed.

People, in my mind, are what tell any good story. The more credible and identifiable the people, the better the story. Not that I'm against books or movies that are long on action or technology and short on character ... they can be a lot of fun. But they don't move or convince me to the same degree... and I don't call them "the best" with the same conviction I bring to 'people' movies.

Pope Francis with cross
In St. Peter's Square, after my son and I returned from "Argo," another sort of throng was shown on TV. At the Vatican, the cardinals had chosen a new pope in lickety-split time. Dressed in papal white, seventy-six-year-old Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina appeared on the balcony over the square, having donned the name, "Pope Francis." He blessed the throng below -- a throng that appeared jubilant, sometimes to the point of tears. Those faces -- the faces of the people -- were filled with a wonder and delight that might be compared to the faces of family members after the safe and successful birth of a baby. A baby could hardly be construed as unusual, and yet the birth is marvelous ... who could or would want to deny that sort of jubilation and joy? I love to be happy and I love to see it when others are happy. It would be churlish and mean-spirited and untrue, somehow, to do otherwise. It's so flat-out human ... joy! This is The Story ... people.

People with a new baby ... joy.
People with a new pope ... joy.
People with a compelling political agenda ... joy.

And then, and then ....

In spiritual realms -- let's call it, roughly, religion -- there is a truism that strikes me as unavoidable: Religion posits a revolutionary agenda that relies, organizationally, on a sometimes viciously conservative agenda. For religion to flourish, there needs to be a certain stability, a certain peace in the lands where it is to flourish. This isn't a criticism ... it's just an observation.

Whether the land in which it flourishes is called a dictatorship or a democracy does not matter. Religion as an institution needs to do what it can to secure and nourish a stable environment. It has to, in short, become cozy with the powers that be. The revolutionary message of religion depends, organizationally, on the static certainty of ... the static certainty of whoever rules the roost. No amount of revolutionary caterwauling can change this fact as far as I can see. No amount of crying out on behalf of the poor and marginalized people who may flock to religion's organized ranks can sidestep or change the anti-revolutionary stasis required for religion's flourishing.

So, for example, the joy-unto-tears in St. Peter's Square may find a home in the revolutionary wonders of a new baby or a new pope -- hope springs eternal -- but then there are the rock-solid assertions of a religion that requires stasis. Gay marriage, women in the priesthood, financial machinations in the Vatican, and the cesspool of priest sexual abuse ... all of them rising up like piranha around some hapless calf fording a river. "Hush, hush," the stasis commands. "These are small matters when compared with the good (revolutionary) news we bring." But there is blood in the water ... people's blood.

Pope Francis' collusion with the dictatorial Argentinian regimes of the past, like the collusions of any stasis-prone organization, are likely to be overlooked as the Catholic Church moves forward. Everyone's got blood on their hands one way or another, so ... let's forgetaboutit. But the yin-yang of revolution and stasis cannot be eradicated, whether in politics or in the human heart.

Where walls protect, walls likewise entrap. In Buddhism, Gautama came out from behind the protective palatial walls his father had constructed for him. It was not so much an act of rebellion or revolution as it was an act of necessity. He had to leave because ....

Because he was human and the human heart cannot be constrained ... even in the name of safety or agreement or joy. People -- the good stuff that makes good stories -- are alive and life simply cannot be gift-wrapped, however enticing the gift.

It is as if, without anyone's bidding, the human heart will always proclaim, "Argo pope yourself!"


  1. No way! Was it the 7:05 showing in Hadley??? If hubby and I were the other two people! LOL!

  2. No, Narda, we hit the 1:15 show.

  3. Passing ships, I guess. :)

    As for the movie, we did the same. I was watching with the knowledge of the nomination, and saying, 'So why did it get nominated??' Okay, but not exceptional in all aspects. Middle of the road, safe topic.

    Much like the modern world we live in, where black-box committees weigh in with a leveling effect, and we end up with...well...unremarkable popes.