The Trouble with “The Martian”

Screen Shot 2015-10-21 at 3.58.26 PMLast week I accompanied my son to see The Martian, starring the talented and very engaging, Matt Damon.  I regret that this review — really, observation — will add nothing to the laudatory din swirling round this blockbuster like the sandstorm that unluckily sets the nonsense in motion.  First of all, Matt Damon is not engaging in his role as botanist Mark Watney.  Gone is the freshness, the palpable gentleness-beneath-the- hard exterior, the quick-study neophyte unashamed of his emotions from previous films.  What we get is a detached, self-satisfied geek who hasn’t the decency even to go on a food & drink binge when it’s apparent he has some free time.

What bothers me the most about this ‘space epic,’ though, is that I’m not necessary.  Look, I’ll admit it, I’m not smart.  My only ‘first-ever’ is a dubious claim to having created the first art and culture show on commercial radio.  My fellow creatures would be fools to harness themselves to me as their savior from a burning planet.  That said, I would appreciate my Everyman as embodied in Mark Watney to resemble me to some degree.  Just as today’s gourmet food craze and “farm-to-table” orthodoxy heralds perhaps the future scarcity, or at least unaffordability, of quality food for many, I left this film with the distinct feeling that I would end my days not among the saved, the scientific elect, but clawing amid the crazed proles back on the surface.

Everything in this movie following the storm is flat.  Watney plants a potato garden, a feat to be sure on Mars.  He suffers one setback when an airlock blows, but spends most of his time charting his packaged food supply.  Yes, he probes the ruddy landscape in his rover, ascertaining where a rescue ship might land, but mainly he grabs a coffee and records wisecrack journal entries.  Never forlorn, never reflective, Watney drones about the business of martian survival with cold precision.  The wonder of The Martian is how it makes the glorious small.  If this is heroic, if this is empire building, it’s done so in a vacuum; the victory of sterility over virility.  We, the people, the educated in the liberal arts, need not apply.  It reminds me of the famous exchange between Churchill and his valet.  The valet complains of Churchill’s rudeness to him, but is rebuffed with “Yes.  But then I am a great man.”

In conclusion, I freely acknowledge that The Martian is beautifully filmed.  Watney/Damon is supported well by an ensemble cast featuring Jessica Chastain (today the Hepburn of Hollywood, given the volume of her recent work), Jeff Daniels, and Kristen Wiig.  Unfortunately, this is not enough.  I remember Marooned, with Gregory Peck, in 1970.  It was simply slow and boring.  But the near future depicted in The Martian trumps even that.  It’s exclusionary.  What we have here is the apotheosis of the wonk, the deadening triumph of science over heritage, over taste.  Here we see a glimpse of a cruel new caste system, and are reminded in nearly every scene that most of us are not along for this ride.


Celebrating “The Birds” with its Iconic Heroine

edtippi2Last Friday, October 16, I had the great pleasure to emcee for legendary actress, Tippi Hedren, upon her return to Detroit’s historic Redford Theatre.  She came as the high point to a weekend-long salute to her classic films The Birds and Marnie, both directed, of course, by Alfred Hitchcock.  I had had the opportunity to interview Miss Hedren twice before on “Speaking of Art,” and had met her during her 2012 visit to the Redford.  To speak with her onstage before a warm and enthusiastic audience was, for me, a culmination of my long admiration for this artist.  Let me state flat out that Tippi Hedren is a force of nature.  She possesses Olympian confidence, charm, and vast stores of energy which she directs to getting things done (such as her championing of House bills to protect exotic animals), as well as a timeless elegance.

Her bearing, nurtured in childhood in New Ulm, Minnesota, and enhanced during her modeling days with Eileen Ford in the early 60s, fused with an innate acting talent.  While she has admitted to being nervous during her screen test in front of Hitchcock for The Birds, she was never an ingenue.  During our conversation I pointed out that few actors brought such assurance to their first roles as she.  Two others, Gene Tierney and Teresa Wright, I had in mind but did not name.  She works as hard as ever in film and television, and is a popular speaker here and abroad.   And with Melanie Griffith, her award-winning actress daughter, and granddaughter Dakota Johnson, an acclaimed newcomer, she has established an acting dynasty to rival the Barrymores.

One can learn from Tippi Hedren: commitment, patience, love of nature and its creatures, how to struggle with dignity, etc.  All this on a foundation of immense inner strength and flawless style.  Tippi Hedren is a consummate communicator, and far more than beautiful.

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Pope Clement IX


In consideration of Pope Francis’ electrifying visits to Cuba and the United States, and with millions of Americans still savoring his message of peace, forgiveness, inclusiveness, and human dignity, it might be instructive, perhaps even inspirational, to consider an earlier pontiff whose forthrightness and simplicity during a time of turmoil transcended a brief reign.

Pope Clement IX, born Giulio Rospigliosi in 1600 to a Tuscan noble family, would serve the Church during a century that, along with the fourteenth and twentieth, would count among the bloodiest in history.

Favored by Urban VIII, a scholar, for his gentleness and erudition, Rospigliosi was made Archbishop of Tarsus, but was forced into retirement by the succeeding pope. In 1655 he was recalled by Alexander VII, who elevated him to the cardinalate. With Alexander’s death in 1667 he was elected unanimously to the papacy.

Taking the name Clement IX, the new pope endeared himself to the people through his actions, among them –

“His extreme charity and affability towards great and small.”

By visiting the sick often, and giving “lavishly” to the poor

By personally conducting Confession two days a week in St. Peter’s

For issuing decrees for financial relief in the name of his predecessor

For beatifying Rose of Lima in 1667, who would become the first saint born in the Americas.

For admonishing Louis XIV for his increasing military aggression, while at the same time brokering peace between France and Spain

And for his patronage of the arts both before and during his pontificate

For instance, it was Clement who established the first public opera house in Rome, in 1668. And during his reign Bernini completed the embracing colonnade in St. Peter’s Square. Noteworthy also is that during the high-water mark of the Italian Baroque, the pope refused to place his name on any building, fountain, or public sculpture. And it was only when sick that he agreed to sit for Maratta, for a beautiful portrait known for its color, conveyance of personality, and classical restraint.

Clement died in December, 1669. He had been pope for two-and-a-half years. He stated that he wished to be buried under the floor of Santa Maria Maggiore, with a simple inscription: Clement IX, Ashes. (This was too much for his successor, Clement X, who erected the magnificent tomb in the Basilica’s nave.) Indeed, the words of Pope Francis could apply to Clement: Everybody, according to his or her particular abilities, should be able to make a personal contribution to putting an end to so many social injustices.