So the other night I saw the movie Non-Stop, because who doesn't enjoy watching Liam Neeson kill large numbers of people for a couple of hours? Unfortunately, it was set on a transatlantic jet flying a mere couple of hundred passengers to London, and he doesn't even get to kill all of them. So it was a bit small potatoes after Taken, where he kills approximately 30 per cent of the population of Paris, and Taken 2, where he kills approximately 40 per cent of the population of Istanbul, and, between the two pictures, kills approximately 70 per cent of the population of Albania. My favorite line in Taken 2 was Liam Neeson's advice to his daughter in an emergency:
Go to the US Embassy. You'll be safe there.
It opened the week after Benghazi.
Such topical resonances are rare in Hollywood. But even so a film still needs to be about something. Hitchcock called it "the MacGuffin" - the pretext that kick-starts the plot, and explains why good guys and bad guys are chasing each other up hill and down dale. It's the secret formula, the microfilm, whatever - see The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, North By Northwest... Hitchcock defined the MacGuffin as "the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is almost always 'the papers'." A MacGuffin in that sense principally motivates the villains.
What motivates the villains these days? In the perfunctory "monologue-ing" speech in Non-Stop (I'd preface this with "Warning: Plot Spoiler", but it barely qualifies as a "plot", and therefore can't really be said to make much difference anyway), the head bad guy explains that his father died on 9/11 and so he wants to blow up a plane to show how, despite post-9/11 security, it's still really easy to blow up a plane...
Er, okay... Liam Neeson wisely decides not to waste time trying to wrap his head around that, and gets back to punching everyone's lights out. In last summer's Olympus Has Fallen, there's a scene in which the President demands to know why his traitorous Secret Service agent has teamed up with the North Koreans to nuke the entire United States, and the guy mumbles back something about banks... bailouts... Wall Street... whatever... Are we done yet? Can we get back to the explosions now?
In their determination to avoid all the awkward questions of the age (like who are the guys who actually try to blow up airplanes), Hollywood plot devices no longer pass muster even as MacGuffins. They're MacNuffins:
"You have a giant nuclear space laser simultaneously programmed to destroy Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Moscow, London, Beijing, and Tipperary. Why are you doing this?"
"It's Mitt Romney, man. He put his dog on the car roof..."
~Back in the real world, the MacGuffins can seem trivial but they're proxies for larger battles. A group called American Atheists is currently suing over the inclusion of a metal cross in the National September 11th Memorial and Museum, which is scheduled, after 13 lethargic years, to open in May. I think most recent American jurisprudence on the so-called "separation of church and state" is stark staring nuts. It seems perfectly obvious what the Founders intended, given the world into which their fledgling republic was birthed: They did not want the President Washington to be Supreme Governor of the Church of America, as today Queen Elizabeth II is Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and they did not want the Archbishop of New York to have a seat in the United States Senate, as today the Archbishop of (old) York has a seat in the House of Lords. The notion that they wished to prohibit crosses on all government property or (per one ludicrous New Jersey decision) the performance at the school "holiday" concert of an instrumental version of "Silent Night" is nonsense - and a fine illustration of where putting all your eggs in the basket of nine robed rulers can lead. Aside from anything else, it's child abuse: Most of the greatest achievements of western painting, sculpture, architecture, and music have a religious theme, so to prevent the school band playing, say, the Bach Passions or Handel's oratorios is profoundly wicked.
But this 9/11 case goes far beyond even that. We're not talking about anybody making a cross and erecting it in the museum, but about a piece of steel rubble from the World Trade Center that happens to be shaped like a cross. It was discovered in the days afterwards by rescue workers, who found it comforting - a sign of hope amid the ruins. But it's not a memorial, it's part of the event, an historical artifact. For Edwin Kagin, national legal director for American Atheists, to demand an "atheist memorial" at the museum of equal size is to insist that the courts have the power to force a bogus equivalence on reality regardless of the historical record. As I well know, too much of American life - far more than anywhere else on the planet - is over-lawyered to the point where the whole joint is seizing up. But if a museum curator can't include artifacts found at the event the museum commemorates without having a judge impose some phony-baloney ersatz-artifact to appease the usual litigious special-interest group, America might as well close up shop. Who needs terrorists when you're doing such a grand job of putting yourself out of business?
~In Lake Elsinore, California, meanwhile, the American Humanist Association is suing to remove another cross. I feel somewhat differently about this matter, because it's a roadside memorial, marking the spot where 19-year old Anthony Devaney was struck and killed by a car two years ago. It is also somewhat larger and, frankly, rather odder (an outline of a cross rather than the real thing) than most roadside memorials.
There seems to me something sad and bleak about these ad hoc freelance memorials along the shoulder. They're symptoms of a culture that's lost its sense of rituals of observance. Unlike America, in Commonwealth countries the tradition is for soldiers to rest where they fall. Thus, Rupert Brooke's famous poem from the Great War:
If I should die, think only this of me;
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
I can understand that more easily than the idea that there's some corner of a domestic two-lane blacktop that is forever your beloved son or daughter. Aside from reducing a rich and full life to a few fatal seconds of misjudged motoring, there's an unseemliness in the act of appropriation. Putting aside atheists vs Christians, the intrusion upon the public space is dubious, especially for two years of "grieving". The place for Anthony Devaney's family to honor and remember him is at a well-tended grave in a graveyard of his fellow Americans.
~Several listeners to Monday's Rush Limbaugh Show heard me say I'd be speaking at something called the "Northeast Republicans Leadership Conference", and wanted to know when and where. It's in Nashua in southern New Hampshire at the end of this week. Not just me, but Kelly Ayotte, Fred Barnes, Bobby Jindal, John Bolton, and a cast of bazillions. More details here.