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JOHN LENNON, SUNSET BOULEVARD AND THE PRICE OF FAME

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2020 marks two anniversaries. The first is the 40th anniversary of the murder of ex-Beatle John Lennon (1940 – 1980) by the social misfit, Mark David Chapman (1955 – ). The second is the 70th anniversary of the release of Sunset Boulevard. Although they are separated by some thirty years, each event acts as a reminder of what can happen when the desire for fame gets out of hand.

At 10.50pm on December 8th, 1980, Chapman watched as Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono (1933 – ) made their way through the entrance of the Dakota building, dropped into a combat stance, and fired five shots from his Charter Arms .38 Special revolver. Four bullets struck Lennon in the back and shoulder. The fifth missed and shattered a window.

Lennon was rushed to the Roosevelt Hospital where three doctors, two to three medical attendants, and nurse spent ten to twenty minutes trying to revive him. The doctors even tried opening his chest to perform a manual heart massage, but the damage to the vessels around his heart were too great. John Lennon was announced dead on arrival at 11.15pm.

Lennon had been shot at close range by four hollow-point bullets. Two had passed through his body, one had lodged itself in his upper left-arm, and a fourth had lodged itself in his aorta. The autopsy concluded that Lennon died of “hypovolemic shock, caused by the loss of more than eighty-percent of blood volume due to multiple through-and-through gunshot wounds to the left shoulder and left chest resulting in damage to the left lung, the left subclavian artery, and both the aorta and aortic arch.”

John Lennon’s murder and the plot of Sunset Boulevard mirror one another in many ways. Lennon was murdered by a deranged lunatic who believed he could achieve notoriety for himself by murdering a popstar. Similarly, Sunset Boulevard tells the story of a long forgotten, and equally demented, film star who achieves a return to fame by murdering her gigolo.

Sunset Boulevard was the product of a collaboration between Billy Wilder (1906 – 2002), Charles Brackett (1892 – 1969), and Donald McGill Marshman, Jr. (1922 – 2015). The story was based, in part, on the Evelyn Waugh (1903 – 1966) novel, The Loved Ones which recounted the author’s experiences in Hollywood and the funeral business. Wilder, who had become fascinated by American culture whilst living in Berlin, dreamt up a story about a long forgotten silent film star who resides in one of Sunset Boulevard’s grand houses. Brackett suggested making the story about the star’s comeback, whilst Marshman, Jr. suggested using it to explore the relationship between the forgotten film star and a young man.

Sunset Boulevard’s success was aided by three factors: the writing of Wilder, Brackett, and Marshman, Jr., the direction of Wilder, and the cinematography of John Francis Seitz (1892 – 1979). Seitz gave Sunset Boulevard a dreamlike quality in which fantasy and reality blend together almost seamlessly. The fantasy world Norma Desmond inhabits is shot in deep focus and made to look dark and ominous. By contrast, the real world that Joe Gillis inhabits is depicted as well-lit and filmed in a documentary-style fashion.

Numerous actors were considered to play Joe Gillis, including Fred MacMurray (1908 – 1991) and Montgomery Clift (1920 – 1966). Clift was originally signed to play the part, but withdrew from the project at the last minute. The role eventually went to William Holden (1918 – 1981).

Joe Gillis is a down and outer. Prior to meeting Norma Desmond, Gillis’ situation is so dire that he actually considers returning to his newspaper job in Dayton, Ohio. He is hounded by debt collectors, forced to use the telephone at Schwab’s drugstore because he cannot afford one of his own, and is even fired by his own manager. Gillis believes that he can live the life of an expensive playboy by reading Desmond’s script and entertaining her deluded fantasies. The problem is that he has to make a Faustian pact in order to do so.

The reason Gillis finds Desmond’s offer so tempting is that he has become jaded about the Hollywood system. He represents the writer as just a mere cog in the movie-making machine. He notes the general lack of recognition for the writer and his craft, the writer’s uncertain prospects, the likelihood of executive meddling, and the ever-present risk of plagiarism. He complains that Hollywood will reject your script if it is too original or if it is not original enough.

Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard’s antagonist, was based on a myriad of silent film actresses. The name is believed to be derived from the silent film star, Mabel Normand (1892 – 1930) and the film director, William Desmond Taylor (1872 – 1922), who’s sensational 1922 murder has never been solved. Suggested models for Desmond include Norma Talmadge (1894 – 1957), Mary Pickford (1892 – 1979), Pola Negri (1897 – 1987), Mae Murray (1885 – 1965), Clara Bow (1905 – 1965), and Valeska Surratt (1882 – 1962).

Norma Desmond was played by former silent film star, Gloria Swanson (1899 – 1983). Like Desmond, Swanson had been a major silent film star and was known for her beauty, talent, and extravagant lifestyle. And like Desmond, her film career faded with the coming of sound. Unlike Desmond, however, Swanson was able to accept the end of her film career, moved to New York in the early-thirties, and pursued a successful career in theatre, radio, and television.

Norma Desmond has come to symbolise an entire generation of silent film stars whose were thrust aside by the advent of sound. When her star fell, Desmond retreated into her gothic mansion and built up a fantasy world where she was still a big star. At one stage she tells Gillis that she had the floor of her ballroom tiled at the behest of Rudolph Valentino (1895 – 1926), as though Valentino was still a big star. She speaks in melodramatic tones, acts like an infatuated schoolgirl in Gillis’ company, and engages in acts of emotional blackmail through mock suicide attempts.

Desmond refuses to admit that the “parade has long since passed her by.” Incapable of functioning in the real world, she has constructed a fantasy life for herself. Any attempt to bring her out of her stupor is met with either denial or indignation. Towards the end of the movie, Gillis informs her: “Norma, you’re a woman of fifty, now grow up. There’s nothing tragic about being fifty, not unless you try to be twenty-five.” And just like John the Baptist in Salome (the 1891 Oscar Wilde tragedy Desmond has chosen to adapt), Gillis pays for the faux pas with his life.

When Sunset Boulevard premiered, Louis B. Mayer (1884 – 1957) reportedly shouted at Billy Wilder: “You bastard! You have disgraced the industry that made you and fed you. You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood.” Mayer had reason to be angry, too. Sunset Boulevard is perhaps one of the most scathing criticisms of Hollywood ever made. The film indicted Hollywood for its treatment of the writer, its obsession with youth, its toxic star system, and cult of celebrity worship.

In a world of social media and reality television, the murder of John Lennon and the story of Sunset Boulevard is more potent today than ever before. Thanks to reality TV and social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, it is far too easy for mentally unstable people to achieve easy fame. How long will it be before society produces another Mark David Chapman or Norma Desmond?

IN DEFENCE OF CHRISTIANITY

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In 2017, the online video subscription service, Hulu, embarked on the production of Margaret Atwood’s (1939 – ) 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The story is set in the fictional, totalitarian state of Gilead: a society run by fundamentalist Christians who overthrew the previous secular state and set up a theocracy in its wake. For years, influential thought leaders and other arbiters of popular opinion have espoused the opinion that broader society would greatly benefit from the abolition of Christianity. It is my belief that such an occurrence would have precisely the opposite effect.

No group has criticised Christianity more than the New Atheists. Frequently deriding it as nothing more than “science for stupid people”, prominent New Atheists have ridiculed Christianity and dismissed its positive effects. Atheists and anti-Christians turn Christianity into a straw man by reducing it down to his most basic elements (they are helped, unfortunately, by those fundamentalist Christians who still assert that the earth is literally six-thousand years old). They then use this straw man to discredit the idea of faith. The philosopher, Sam Harris (1967 – ) argued in his book, The End of Faith that religious belief constituted a mental illness. More alarmingly, the British Scientist, Richard Dawkins (1941 – ) took things one step further by claiming that religious instruction constituted a form of child abuse.

The basis for much of Christianity’s negative portrayal finds its roots in the philosophies of the political left. A central tenet of the left-wing worldview is an adherence to secularism, which appears set to replace Christianity as the prevailing cultural belief system. (This is not to be confused with atheism, which denies the existence of a creator). On the one hand, secularism promotes both religious liberty and the separation of church and state (both of which are good things). On the other hand, however, proponents of secularism reject the knowledge and wisdom religious institutions can impart on the world. In a secular society, God can be believed to exist, but not in any sort of a productive way. God is something to be confined the private home or the sanctuary of one’s local Church. God is something to be worshipped behind closed doors where no one can see you.

Of course, anti-Christian rhetoric has been a facet of popular culture since the 1960s. Today, finding a positively-portrayed devout Christian family is about as likely as finding a virgin in the maternity ward. Christians are routinely depicted as stupid, backwards, hateful, and extreme. By contrast, atheists are routinely depicted as witty, intelligent, and tolerant. In short, Atheism is deemed as good and Christianity is deemed as bad. And, of course, this attitude has filled some with a kind of arrogant grandiosity. During an interview in 1966, John Lennon (1940 – 1980) opined: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue with that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first, rock and roll or Christianity.”

The mainstream media rarely discusses the persecution of Christians. Indeed, prejudice and discrimination against Christianity is treated with a type of permissiveness that prejudice and discrimination against other religions, Islam being a primary example, is not.

Christians are estimated to be the victims of four out of five discriminatory acts around the world, and face persecutions in one-hundred-and-thirty-nine countries. Churches have been firebombed in Nigeria. North Koreans caught with Bibles are summarily shot. In Egypt, Coptic Christians have faced mob violence, forced removals, and, in the wake of the Arab spring, the abduction of their females who are forced to marry Muslim men.

In China, Christian villagers were instructed to remove pictures of Christ, the Crucifix, and Gospel passages by Communist Party officials who wished to “transform believers in religion into believers in the party.” According to the South China Morning Post, the purpose behind the drive was the alleviation of poverty. The Chinese Communist Party believed that it was religious faith that was responsible for poverty in the region and wanted the villagers to look to their political leaders for help, rather than a saviour. (Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Chinese Communist Party looked at their own evil and ineffective political ideology as the true cause of poverty in their country rather than blaming it on religion?). As a result, around six-hundred people in China’s Yugan county – where about ten percent of the population is Christian – removed Christian symbology from their living rooms.

Popular culture and thought in the West has attempted, with a great deal of success, to paint Christianity as stupid, backwards, dogmatic, and immoral. It is the presence religion that is to blame for holding the human race back. It is religion that is to blame for racism, sexism, and all manner of social injustices. It is religion that is the cause of all wars. So, on and so forth.

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I strongly disagree with this argument. Indeed, it is my belief that the abolishment of Christianity from public life would have the effect of increasing intolerance and immorality. Christianity’s abolishment will have precisely this effect because it will abolish those metaphysical doctrines – divine judgement, universal and absolute morality, and the divinity of the human soul – that has made those things possible.

Christianity and Western Civilisation are inextricably linked. In the field of philosophy, virtually all Western thinkers have grappled with the concepts of God, faith, morality, and more. As the writer, Dinesh D’Souza (1961 – ) wrote in his book, What’s So Great About Christianity:

“Christianity is responsible for the way our society is organised and for the way we currently live. So extensive is Christian contribution to our laws, our economics, our politics, our art, our calendar, our holidays, and our moral and cultural priorities that J.M. Robers writes in Triumph of the West: ‘We could none one of us today be what we are if a handful of Jews nearly two thousand years ago had not believed that they had known a great teacher, seen him crucified, died, and buried, and then rise again’.”

The primary contribution of Christianity to Western civilisation has been to act as a stabilising force, providing society with an overarching metaphysical structure as well as rules and guidelines that act as a moral foundation. This shared metaphysical structure and moral foundation, combined with traditions and cultural customs, has the effect of bringing a country, a township, even a school or parish, together.

When Christianity lost its supremacy in society it was replaced by smaller, less transcendent and more ideological, belief systems. Where people had once been unified by a common belief, they have now become more divided along ideological lines. Religious belief has not been replaced by rationalism or logic, as the New Atheists supposed. Rather, people have found outlets for their need to believe in other places: social activism, political ideologies, and so forth.

The most prevalent contribution that Christianity has made to the Western world comes under the guise of human rights. Stories like The Parable of the Good Samaritan have had a remarkable influence on its conception. Human rights stem, in part, from the belief that human beings were created in the image of God and hold a divine place in the cosmos.  Christianity has played a positive role in ending numerous brutal and archaic practices, including slavery, human sacrifice, polygamy, and infanticide. Furthermore, it has condemned incest, abortion, adultery, and divorce. (Remarkably, there are some secularists who wish to bring back some of these antiquated practices).

Christianity placed an intrinsic value on human life that had not been present in pre-Christian society. As the American Pastor, Tim Keller (1950 – ) wrote in Reasons for God: “It was extremely common in the Greco-Roman world to throw out new female infants to die from exposure, because of the low status of women in society.” Roman culture was well known for its brutality and callousness. Practices of regicide, gladiatorial combat, infanticide, and crucifixion were all common. Seneca (4BC – AD65), Nero’s (AD37 – AD68) chief advisor, once stated that it was Roman practice to “drown children who, at birth, are weakly and abnormal.”

Christian morality has had a notable effect on our views on human sexuality and has helped to provide women with far greater rights and protections than its pagan predecessors. Christianity helped to end the hypocritical pagan practice of allowing men to have extra-marital affairs and keep mistresses. It formulated rules against the cohabitation of couples prior to marriage, adultery, and divorce. Unlike the Ancient Greeks and Ancient Romans, Christians do not force widows to remarry, and even allowed widows to keep their husband’s estates.

The Christian faith has been instrumental in the enactment and promotion of public works. The instigator of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) championed the idea of compulsory education and state-funded schools. Similarly, the Lutheran layman, Johann Sturm (1507 – 1589) pioneered graded education. Christianity has been the source of numerous social services including health-care, schooling, charity, and so forth. Christianity’s positive belief in charity and compassion has lead to many orphanages, old-age homes, and groups like the Sisters of Charity and Missionaries of the Poor, the YMCA and YWCA, Teen Challenge, the Red Cross, and numerous hospitals and mental health institutions being founded by the faithful.

One of the frequent criticisms levelled at the Christian faith, particularly the Catholic Church, has been that it has stymied scientific and technological development. In truth, Western science and technology have been able to flourish because of the influence of Christianity, not in spite of it. This is because the Christian belief that God created everything lends itself to the idea that everything is worth contemplating. It is certainly true that the Catholic Church has been hostile to those discoveries that do not conform to its doctrine. Galileo, for example, was forced to retract his claim of heliocentrism because it challenged the Church’s doctrine that the earth acted as the centre of the solar system. For the most part, however, Christianity has been largely supportive of scientific endeavour. Christian scientists have included Gregor Mendel (1822 – 1884), Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543), Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630), Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642), Arthur Eddington (1882 – 1944), Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727), Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662), Andre Ampere (1775 – 1836), James Joule (1818 – 1889), Lord Kelvin (1824 – 1907), Robert Boyle (1627 – 1691), George Washington Carver (1860s – 1943), Louis Pasteur (1822 – 1895), Joseph Lister (1827 – 1912), Francis Collins (1950 – ), William Phillips (1914 – 1975), and Sir John Houghton (1931 – ), and more.

The forces behind the stratospheric success of Western civilisation has not been its art or music or architecture, but the ideas it has built itself upon. It is notions like the rule of law, property rights, free markets, a preference for reason and logic, and Christian theology that are responsible for making Western society the freest and most prosperous civilisation that has ever existed. It cannot survive with one of its central tenents removed.