Wednesday, July 16, 2008

John's DVD Of The Month Club - June 2008

Heaven Come Down

Directed by Michael Mees and Gabriel Wyre

One of the things that I like about life in general and America in particular is the variety, the strangeness, the deep weirdness that you can find in human behavior. It's found everywhere on Earth, but somehow the combination of America's size, its ideal of the pursuit of happiness, and its emphasis on the importance of individual beliefs creates a perfect environment for everyday craziness unlike anywhere else. Spending most of my time on an island of the coast of America, I feel safe to indulge my fascination with how others live, thankful that that is not my life.

So I was interested in Heaven Come Down, a documentary about the lives of those who handle snakes as part of their religious worship. The film offers a textbook lesson in why some people embrace religion: faced with suffering, often self-induced, they need to believe in something greater that gives meaning to their suffering. Their faith in God is so strong that God never disappoints them, no matter what happens. They handle deadly poisonous snakes: if they get bit and die, it's because God willed it. If they get bit and don't die, it's because God willed it. If they don't get bit, it's because God willed it. The idea of not picking up the snake in the first place, and taking responsibility for the consequences of your own actions never seems to occur to them.

It's almost a parody of fundamentalist religious thought: basing an entire belief system (and thus your entire life) on one quote from the Bible. While I find this subculture interesting (especially in scenes where they clandestinely sell snakes), and like the music in it*, on repeated viewings, it seemed too easy, too obvious. There's not much here that really surprises you. I don't think your opinion or knowledge about snake-handling will be much different after watching the film than it was before. I almost wish the filmmakers had found more ordinary people who were serpent handlers, instead of everyone in the film being...well...white trash. But I suppose ordinary people don't handle snakes as a way of communing with God.

The giveaway is the second half of the film, which introduces a snake handler who has been accused of sexually abusing children. This section stacks the deck by playing up to the audience's worst prejudices. But it also happens to be true, so what can you do?

*Recently I happened to watch loudQUIETloud, a documentary about the band The Pixies which featured scenes of the guitarist Joey Santiago recording the soundtrack music for Heaven Come Down.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Another Letter From My Great-Great Aunt Ell To her Husband James, October 3, 1917

This is another letter written by my great-great aunt about six months after the US declared war on Germany.

Of particular interest is the fact that Ell wrote this letter from a house (pictured below) only a few blocks from where I lived when I first moved to New York seventy-eight years later.

Postmark: Brooklyn, NY
October 3, 1917, 7:30 PM
Addressed to: Mr. J.J. Gildea
Ashley, PA
#49, Luz. Co.
Top Floor
362 Greene Ave., Brooklyn, NY

My dear Jim,
Lonesome yet? So far this week has been quite stren(u)ous. Sunday, Anna and I went to Mass and came right over here expecting to see Bill* before he left. Well, we got here and Bill was not to leave until Monday. We got up Monday morning and were down at Sheepshead Bay at 10 o'clock (for those who don't know Brooklyn geography, even by train this is quite a schlep - JH). At four o'clock, the company he belonged to, left. Imagine me all that time without a bite to eat. We went to a small restaurant and all they had was hot coffee, everything else sold out, so we had the coffee and it helped some. It was a good thing Bill was in Co. B. because he was in the second train load. There were twelve companys(sic) and the last left at six thirty. The poor fellows must have been tired. The last company remarked that the first co. would be in France before they left Brooklyn.

They are going to Spartansburg, S.C. Charlie** has not been home for two nights and Aunt Mary*** is afraid that probably he has gone. Because they won't know when they are going. Will be sent right off without any warning. Only some of his clothes are here. Aunt Mary is keeping up fine.

Monday night, Helen (Cousin Helen McBride) and I went to a movie. Yesterday Mae (great Uncle Pete's wife?) and I were over to Pete's. Stayed for supper and came back by way of Mame's.

Mame has a very nice smoking set for you. A genuine mahogany stand with the glass ash tray, match box holder & two cigar holders. It stands beside your chair when smoking. Some class. No more saucers or papers for your cigar ashes. She said just a little remembrance for your kindness to mother. It's supposed to be a surprise.

This morning, Mae & I were down town to the stores and this afternoon we are going to Cecil's. Tomorrow aft. I am going over to Mame's to see a Red Cross Parade and, in the evening, to Mamie's sewing circle at a girl friend's house. Friday I expect to go to Pete's (I am assuming this refers to her brother Peter who lived in either Jersey City or Sunnyside, NY at the time-IHH) to stay over Sunday and then I will come back and spend the rest of my time at Mame's. Mamie Mc has a nice little apartment and very nice furniture. She is getting dinner ready now. Some cook. She's a joke. Haven't sent a postcard yet but will get some today. Jim (since she has just referred to Mamie Mc, I believe the Jim here is Jim Anderson, who was Mary McBride's husband - IHH) just got up. We let him get his own supper Mon. & Tues. night and have designs on tonight and tomorrow night. Good natured skate.

Haven't heard from you yet.
Will close with lots of love from your darling.
Don't want any money yet.
Lovingly yours,

*Bill - a reference to her cousin William McBride, who is also mentioned in the previous letter.
**Charlie - this is her cousin, Charles McBride, a veteran of WW1 also.
***Aunt Mary - Mary McBride, Sarah Ruddy's sister, and mother to Charles, William, Mary (Mame McBride Anderson) and Helen.
There was also a daughter Susie, but so far no mention of her in any of the letters.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Letter From My Great-Great-Aunt Ell To Her Husband James, September 30, 1917

My mother (IHH) has been the family historian and genealogist for a couple of decades now. She recently sent me the text of several letters written by her great aunt Ellen (Ell or Nell or Ella) Mulhern Gildea to her husband, James, during Ell's visits to the New York City area. The first is dated just a little over a month after the death of her mother, Sarah Ruddy Mulhern and almost six months after the United States declared war on Germany and became actively involved in World War I.

New York City
September 30, 1917

"Here comes the servant with our breakfast..some speed to your wife."

My Dear Heart,

Mame has gone to eight o'clock Mass and, not being able to find ink, here goes with pencil...a good blunt one at that.

After an uneventful trip, I arrived on time. I had a seat to myself all the way; although quite a crowd of people got on along the line, no one bothered me, with the exception of a little girl who borrowed my magazine for her father.

The two Mamies* and Anna met me at Jersey and talk about soldiers. The 23rd & 71st were at Jersey, had been there from 5 AM waiting to go. The poor fellows, some were all in, sleeping on anything they could put their heads on, others strolling with their arms around their sweethearts and others holding their youngsters in their arms. Almost every woman you saw had nice red eyes. One poor little thing came into the car with us and she simply could not control herself. She would look at her wedding ring and start to sob.

Will** expects to go today. I am in hopes that I will get over before he leaves. They expect that he will go to the Philippines.

Mame just got in from Church and I am getting quite hungry. I suppose her (servant) will soon bring her breakfast, likewise mine. Anna*** & I are going to the ten o'clock Mass and go right over to Brooklyn.

Anna left the Plaza and starts tomorrow to work for Mame in the linen room. This is Mame's busy time, so I will stay in Brooklyn for a new days now.

Well, my dear, take good care of yourself and you can go to see any miss daisy (note: I have no idea what this means, IHH) you wish, providing you leave at ten PM and come home alone to your own wee bed, with the nice we (sic) spring and mattress and think about your darling once and a while, if it is only when you are cracking your own eggs. I told Winnie (Reilly, probably. IHH) to come over and take some tomatoes, both green and ripe.

Will close with lots of love,
Your loving wife,

*The two Mamies, I think, are most likely her sister, Mary Mulhern, and her cousin, Mary McBride Anderson.
**Will is most likely her cousin, William Mc Bride.
***I am not completely sure who Anna is. There are no McBride cousins by that name...I wonder if it may have been Anna Smith, who was a close friend of the Mulhern girls all their lives.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Pictures Of Fireworks Celebrating The Death Of Jesse Helms

On Friday there were fireworks demonstrations in New York celebrating the death of former Senator Jesse Helms. The fireworks were no doubt symbolic of the eternal torment that Senator Helms is now suffering in Hell, in addition to being really really pretty.