PZ offers some thoughts on a novel and a film that have been regularly misunderstood, or at least mischaracterized:

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

This is an interesting movie (1956) and a very interesting book (1955).  Sloan Wilson, a master novelist who understood marriage and men, wrote the novel.  Darryl F. Zanuck produced the movie, and Nunnally Johnson scripted it and directed it.  It starred Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones.

I was drawn to the novels of Sloan Wilson in the aftermath of a personal trauma,
for, come to find out, Wilson’s characteristic protagonists are men who are trying to find themselves in the aftermath of a shock.  Wilson is not in fact the portraitist of 1950s “suburban conformity”, which is the usual critics’ tag attached to his work; but rather, a portraitist of men who live in the aftermath, as Wilson himself did, of trauma.  His heroes are usually early middle-aged “Everymen” who have seen disturbing action in wartime and are trying to re-adjust their lives to “account” for what they have been through.

Tom Rath, the gray-suited Westport commuter of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, is carrying inside himself absolute shock at the things he had to do in France in l944 and the losses he suffered in the Pacific right after that.  No one knows this about Tom Rath — he is taciturn and diffident, like many survivors of that war.  Not even his wife knows. There is another aspect, too, of his time overseas that returns to haunt him.  Nothing can be compartmentalized, even on the New Haven Line.

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is a truly explosive novel and movie, nuclear but also abreactive.  It is not about conformity.  It is about engaging pain.  Fortunately, Tom and Betty Rath do engage the pain.  They are enabled somehow to go into it, rather than shy away from it.  They are literally saved by a kind of confrontation with their suffering.  Their story is almost ennobling.


When you think about the Eisenhower years, or if you have experienced a trauma since the Eisenhower years — like maybe last week — you could learn from Sloan Wilson.  You could get something out of quiet Tom and not-so-quiet Betty Rath.  Life’s acuteness forces them to go towards, not suppress and flee — like my own tendency, for example.  It is not exactly “fight or flight” in the Raths’ case. But it’s certainly not flight.

While you’re at it, read Sloan Wilson’s Georgie Winthrop (1963) — the year of the Great Event we’ve been recently remembering.  Poor George Winthrop.  He is not allowed off the hook either.  But he comes into something, too.  Something good.  Or at least, survivable.

[PZ also points out a telling difference between the U. S. and the European advertising art for the film.  In the German poster above, the context of the tale is emphasized by the ghost of the soldier he once was standing behind and towering over the figure of Peck.  In American advertising art, this ghost figure did not appear.  This suggests that American audiences would not have been immediately attracted by an image of PTSD haunting returned American soldiers.  That subject had to be treated obliquely, in the guise of crime thrillers, for example, in the film noir tradition, or in the guise of a tale about "suburban conformity".]



PZ offers some thoughts on Edward Snowden from a religious perspective:

‘Edward Snowden’ by Howard Terpning

Viewing the 1968 movie The Shoes of the Fisherman, which was based on a 1963 novel by Morris West, made me think of Edward Snowden.  To my mind, Howard Terpning’s theatrical poster for that movie (above) of a good man dressed in formal whites, brings Snowden’s immortal sacrifice bunt into the world of popular art.


Why would I say this?

Well, the hero of The Shoes of the Fisherman, a Russian-born pope and former political prisoner named Kyril Lakota, is a real Christian!  That sounds a little strange to me as I write it, but what the Pope in West’s novel and the movie does is so unexpected and counter-institutional that it could break the moral impasse of the world.  (You’ve got to see this movie.)


The Pope suddenly starts to stand in the real shoes of the fisherman — the poor, broken and impetuous first head of the Church.  In doing so, Kyril kicks the legs out from under the set table of international politics and self interest that permeates the world. This is what I believe Edward Snowden has done — the wonderful illegal sin he has committed.  He has knocked the legs out from under a massive set table.

We talk sometimes about “speaking truth to power”.  Religious people will speak of the “principalities and powers of this world”.  But rarely does a religious person actually go there.  What usually happens is that religion “strains out gnats and swallows camels” (Matthew 23:24).  Which is to say, religion, in many forms, gets stuck on tertiary things — personal angers and giant nothings.


In Snowden I see a man who has touched a nerve.  A really BIG nerve.  I say this because a country like ours would not be straining so hard to get him, using client states to force down a president’s plane and threatening every airport and state — every Middlesex village and farm — before he has even taken a single footstep to freedom, if he had not touched a really big nerve.

What is this nerve? It is Power and Control, the truth about Power and Control.

Edward Snowden has embodied George Orwell’s maxim, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”


As a religious man, therefore — Snowden himself has said he is an agnostic –I can’t help putting together this operation of personal sacrifice, truth-telling, and hitting the world’s open secret of Power and Control.  When I think of Edward Snowden, I can’t help thinking, of Kyril Lakota, and Howard Terpning’s picture.


An Easter message to Barack Obama from various religious leaders, including my friend, and a contributor to this blog, Paul Zahl.

My personal objection to Obama’s drone policy has to do with its opacity and lack of judicial (or any other kind of) review but the more fundamental objections in this message need to be part of the conversation, too.


Paul Zahl reflects on what’s not being talked about in this year’s campaign for President — basically, everything that’s really important:

In the 1982 movie entitled Missing, directed by Costa Gavras, the “Ed Horman” character, played by Jack Lemmon, says to two U.S. Embassy culprits, “At least I live in a country where people like you can be prosecuted for crimes like this one.”

The line becomes ironic, as no one from our country ever was prosecuted for complicity in the murder of Mr. Horman’s son, Charles, in the aftermath of the coup against Salvador Allende in l973 in Chile.  The complicity of United States officials in Santiago was later confirmed when a previously classified State Department memo was released during the Clinton administration.

Because Jack Lemmon’s performance as “Ed Horman” is so poignant and so real, it is hard not to identify with him, the grieving father, a devout Christian Scientist businessman from New York City, no matter what your politics are.  You identify with the human drama — it really happened, and I myself knew Ed Horman and Charles personally — and you are filled with feeling for him, and you agree with his indignation.  He left Chile with the faith that justice would be done, at least in America.  It wasn’t.  Justice was never done.  Mr. Horman died without seeing justice done on behalf of his son.

And what about the violators of habeas corpus at Guantanamo Bay?  And the makers and approvers of the “hit lists” of people to be eliminated without capture during an undeclared war?  And the idea that extreme distanced combat, conducted by robots and therefore as impersonal as you could almost possibly get, is a good thing?  (I grant you, it is an expedient thing.)

Or our “hit makers’” confidence that the lynching of a North African dictator without a trial, in the immediate aftermath of a US drone attack, was justified?  (What did our forefathers and foremothers fight for in 1776? Why did they come here?)  Or the people who decided to assassinate a world-historical terrorist, no matter how heinous his crimes, without even the possibility of a trial?  (Why did this country take the trouble to try war criminals in 1945 and 1946 at Nuremberg?  We knew they were guilty.  Why try them?  I ask you.)

Poor Ed Horman in retrospect!  “I knew him, Horatio.”  I remember the week that Charles, the Hormans’ only child, was accepted at Harvard College.  Mr. Horman was as proud and beaming a father as you could ever see.

Last night, after my wife and I had watched Missing, viewing the movie doubles for people I grew up with, I went over to the bookshelf where I keep my childhood books.  There it was: Howard Pyle’s Men of Iron.

The plate inside simply reads: “This Book Belongs to Charles Horman.”  (I’d written my own name in pencil over his — I was about seven.)  Charles’ plate has a drawing of a dog over it, the kind of drawing he liked so much, the kind of drawing that his Jack Lemmon father, at the end of the tale, is gathering up to take back home, to his mother.

It seems that our two, or is it four candidates to become President of the United States agree on a point that cries out from the earth for debate.  They agree about drones, and Executive decisions to kill without trial (and without oversight), and “Let’s lock the door and throw away the key now” (Jay and the Americans).

Why is there no debate on the new American morality?  It has nothing to do with sex and nothing to do with food.  It has to do with Double O Seven — the license to kill.  On that point, on who exactly is “like a tree planted by the waters” (Psalm 1:3), there is no difference at all.


My friend Mary Zahl, widely known as a professional designer of magical gardens, has been spearheading a beautification project in her hometown, Winter Garden, Florida.  In the midst of all the crap going down in America these days, here’s a little glimpse of green and hopeful dreaming about the future.


This is not one of the great Hollywood epics but, boy, is it fun. If you watch it on a decent-sized TV in the Blu-ray edition by Twilight Time, the lunatic spectacle of it all will carry you comfortably through its general silliness.  You can bask in the technical virtuosity of the 20th-Century Fox studio at its zenith, marvel at director Michael Curtiz’s elegant professionalism, and gaze in awe at what stars could do with less than stellar material . . . and at how non-stars, like the ill-chosen leading man Edmund Purdom, could be given a kind of imputed charisma by their surroundings. The whole thing is just a hoot from start to finish.

Elsewhere on this site Paul Zahl (of The Zahl File) has written a more sympathetic evaluation of the film — Walking In Memphis — with some fascinating observations on Jack Kerouac, who saw it when it first came out and hated it!

[Let me take this opportunity to apologize for the erratic formatting of many old posts here -- the unavoidable by-product of a switch to a new blogging platform.  I am trying to regularize the formatting of these old posts to the degree that it's possible, but it will take me some time to get around to all of them.]


                                                                                                                                    [Photo by Mary Zahl]

Above, Paul Zahl in front of the Cocoa Beach Playhouse in Cocoa Beach, Florida.  Paul's visit to the theater, not too far from where he lives, in the Orlando area, was in the nature of a pilgrimage, since the Cocoa Beach Playhouse figured prominently in one of his favorite movies, Matinee by Joe Dante, where it doubled as the Strand theater in Key West:

There was a real Strand theater in Key West (now closed and turned into a Walgreen's) but for logistical reasons it was decided to dress the Cocoa Beach theater to represent it when Matinee was shot in 1993.

Matinee is a really enjoyable movie — check it out if you haven't seen it.  Hard to find for many years, it was re-released on DVD in 2010.