Borges & Chesterton

In his story “The Theologians,” Borges conceives of two theologians who were in such perfect ideological opposition that they were seen by God as the same person. As Borges writes in another story, “Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden,” the “obverse and reverse of this coin are, in the eyes of God, identical.”

Borges’ metaphysics are essentially mathematical. His stories are surreal, but their surrealism is not far from the surrealism inherent in quantum physics. His narratives follow rigorously constructed, methodical, if sometimes alien and unfathomable, logic. The logic of Borges’ fictional universes is the logic we see play out in the realm of Schrödinger’s cat, which is to say they are best understood as troubling paradoxes. People are just variables in the equations that describe these paradoxical truths.

Borges called Chesterton a “man of genius, a great prose writer, and a great poet,” and to read Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries is to encounter Borges’ mirror image, for Chesterton’s own universe is similarly dominated by logical paradoxes. Such is the nature of the Catholic universe; the Medieval theologians were resolute in their belief in discernible order. Chesterton’s Catholicism sees the universe as an elaborate and intricate and comprehensive mathematical equation that will one day resolve with ecstatic epiphany.

Chesterton and Borges part ways in their perception of eternity. Chesterton thought God baffling (in The Man Who Was Thursday, he depicts God as something of a benevolent prankster masquerading as a villain), but nevertheless believed in the hope represented by the Christ of orthodox Christianity. In the divine person of Jesus Christ, the concretely human becomes eternal. To Chesterton, the journey from the finite to the infinite suggests joy unending and the ultimate dissolution of sorrow.

Borges has no such faith. His sense of the divine is cold and remote and unfamothable. His fiction and poetry again and again pulls at the threads of theological dogma, perhaps nowhere more concisely than in “Three Versions of Judas,” which postulates the existence of a theologian convinced that the Son of God was Judas (Jesus’ own antithesis). Only in Judas could God be “totally man,” and bear the weight of “reprobation and the Abyss.” Both humanness and divinity kneel to Borges’ Abyss, where infinity overwhelms all.

Chesterton is more directly and arrogantly polemical than Borges, and the more polemical Chesterton gets, the less convincing his intricate paradoxes are. Chesterton is so amused by his own (admittedly astonishing) aptitude for wit, and so smugly believes in the correctness of his own convictions, that he is often unable to sufficiently empathize with his opponents to see beyond himself. A marvelous showman, Chesterton creates elaborate narrative labyrinths with colorful conceits and thematic resolutions that, at their worst, smack of cheap sleight of hand. At their best, they resonate with the anxious euphoria of hopeful mystery; the dream that the inferno is but the shadow of a greater paradise.

Borges is less overt in his polemical posturing (at least in his fiction), but he takes a perverse pleasure in tarnishing visions of paradise. Borges, a self-styled prophet of eternity, proclaims the terrible and wonderous nature of cosmic paradoxes. For Borges, to consider eternity dramatically recontextualizes human experience, history, ideology, and society. Humans are but a part of the intricate cosmic riddle that extends out infinitely like a fractal. Borges, like Chesterton, sets up elaborate queues of bowling pins only so that he might knock them down and observe the way they clatter together to create new patterns, but Borges’ patterns only resolve into new enigmas.

For Borges, his stories’ concluding moments of anticlimactic non-resolution reverberate like cynical, if bitterweet, sighs that dissipate into a dark expanse. Chesteron’s fiction similarly bends towards anticlimax, but his moments of modest narrative resolution gestures towards a greater cosmic reconciliation that exists beyond the boundaries of his text (and the world).


Christopher Nolan’s cinematic worlds are spaces in which humanity only can surpass itself by taking a courageous leap into the void. His vision of transcendence is infused by a reverence for human fortitude, suggesting that human destiny has a reciprocal relationship to the fabric and trajectory of the universe. The deities that guide human progress are shadows of humanity’s future selves. In dreaming of becoming a greater version of itself, humanity achieves greatness. For Nolan, imagination has the power of prophecy.

Nolan’s time-bending spy adventure, Tenet, embodies this all to a tee, making it one of Nolan’s most complete expressions of this ideology. It is also his most dispassionate work, a film so fatalistic that it loses interest in human agency. If Cameron’s Terminator films posed that there was “no fate but what we make,” Nolan’s Tenet posits a more complicated determinism in which human beings are simultaneously authors of and the product of bidirectional causality. In Tenet, the future can shape the past. It’s an idea so abstract that it defies typical narrative momentum.

Nolan seems to want both the characters and the audience to feel somewhat adrift. Early on, a character explains that to manipulate causality that flows simultaneously backwards and forwards in time, you have to “feel” your way through it. Still, in its essential plot structure, Tenet is just a Mission: Impossible-style spy blockbuster that spirals off into existential territory, so if the territory is alien, then the journey itself is familiar.

The film’s convoluted setpieces and heists flow past the audience and characters in blunt-force disorientation. They’re mostly diverting up until the confusing and limp climax, which stages a military battle across two planes of time. This intriguing idea seeks to reinvent the large-scale James Bond climaxes of yore with a psychedelic spin, but Nolan sketches it out without much visual imagination. This big showdown opts for prosaic “wartime” chaos and aesthetic austerity when it should be going for something more jaw-dropping.

More effective is the climax’s dramatic emphasis on the power of a parent-child bond. As in Interstellar, parental love shapes the universe. But what truly propels Tenet is not love, or even its sibling, revenge, but a kind of determined passivity. To accept one’s subservience to the universe is the ultimate self-actualization.

The lead character is simply known as the Protagonist: a human abstraction. In the role, John David Washington leans into this characterization, giving us a chilly, distant, analytical hero. His cool-as-ice delivery and confident swagger does have a unique appeal (even if Nolan’s attempt at James Bond-style banter is largely robotic; wit has never been Nolan’s strong suit).

The movie’s secondary protagonist, played by the unearthly Elizabeth Debicki, is similarly frosty, though she is permitted to manifest more interior emotion and psychology. Her character’s narrative self-actualization gives the movie its fulcrum; others exist to enable it and bear witness.

Only Robert Pattinson seems to be having fun, dressed up like a dandyish expat while dryly smirking through each scene with a detached amusement that calls to mind the way Alec Guinness might have approached similar material. He should be commended for finding some exuberance in the film’s portentous fatalism.

The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for composer Ludwig Göransson, whose deafening, percussive sonic landscape picks up from where Hand Zimmer’s collaborations with Nolan left off, but lack Zimmer’s talent for mingling experimental sonic textures with more emotionally resonant melodic and harmonic expressions. Nolan needs a composer who can embrace his aesthetics and themes while also expanding the film’s emotional palette.

In cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, though, Nolan has found an ideal collaborator. Hoyte van Hoytema brings a style of composition to Nolan’s filmmaking that feels as structural as Nolan’s approach to storytelling. Tenet feels enigmatically architectural in a way that the Escher-inspired Inception never did.

For all of its failings, the mysteries Tenet attempts to express in its images of monolithic stone and industrial machinery achieve a measure of fascination. Take him or leave him, Nolan remains a singular authorial voice, and Tenet is something no other filmmaker would have made. That, in and of itself, is a kind of artistic accomplishment.

Johnny Guitar

Joan Crawford was almost too powerful a force to be contained by the boundaries of the film frame. Few films serve her quite as well as Johnny Guitar, which allows Crawford to dart between contemptuous courage and existential fragility within the space of seconds.

After a brief prelude, Johnny Guitar unfolds as a tense and invigorating one-room stageplay, expertly and precisely staged by director Nicholas Ray as a ballet of wills and longings and violence (both latent and expressed). A suicidal energy cuts through each interaction. Every character here stands poised on the brink of combustion.

That’s an excellent arena for Crawford, in particular, whose Vienna has clawed her way up from the streets and hitched her dreams to the westward expansion of the railroad. She made her way through the seedy underbelly of the old America and now dreams of building a new one.

Sterling Hayden, a master of wry delivery, appears in the title role as Vienna’s former lover. His Johnny, a self-destructive gunslinger who has come to the end of his tether after a history of wanton bloodshed, represents both the culmination of Vienna’s dreams and the threat of its collapse into the wreckage of the past. They carry their wounds with them, and each might find their own demise in their acquiescence to the other.

This ballet, always in danger of transforming into a death-dance, plays out against the backdrop of a frontier turf war. This war between old and new Americas eventually breaks out from Vienna’s would-be enclave, the casino she’s built beside the future path of the railroad, into the unforgiving terrain of that frontier.

As with nearly all of the great Westerns things come together in a tense shootout. If victory remains elusive for any of the film’s characters, the next best thing is remaining alive. If Vienna cannot build the new America, she might survive the pangs of its birth.

The Trouble with Harry

Unfairly dismissed as a film of minor pleasures, The Trouble with Harry is subtle and humble, but it’s also one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most assured, coherent pictures, and stands as his most full-bodied statement on the paradoxes of human nature.

Set in beatific, beautiful Vermont, Harry is a light comedy about how small-town charm can coexist with indifference towards violence. The charming and twisted opening scene, which stages the birth of a winter romance over a corpse (with one character casually stepping over the body as they go to make their exit) sets the tone.

Here, Hitchcock lavishes his attention on his characters’ idiosyncrasies (he may have famously referred to actors as cattle, but Hitchcock does love to revel in actorly mannerism as a cinematic effect unto itself). Every one of its protagonists are simultaneously sweet and mercenary: self-deprecating and generous and casually cruel and complicit in crime.

The policeman is cast as the story’s antagonist (Hitchcock claimed to fear policemen above everything). He’s as uncompassionate and arrogant and unlikable as our complicit band of small-town maybe-murderers are charming. It’s the band of small-town, accidental crooks who have our sympathy. Therein lies the joke. Murder only troubles us when we dislike the murderers.

Alien Resurrection

The woefully misbegotten and mostly tedious Alien Resurrection has only one truly vivid, uncanny, destabilizing moment, and that is when Ellen Ripley (now resurrected as an alien-human hybrid clone after her sacrificial death at the end of Alien 3) encounters a room full of unsuccessful attempts at Ripley’s resurrection.

Thus Ripley’s sacrificial death led not to some dreamy heaven, but to another layer of the nightmare. This hall of half-human, half-alien horrors extend neatly from the biomechanical nightmares of the original Alien, and this moment of confrontation dramatizes what the prior trilogy of films had already signified: the alien eclipsed all of Ripley’s hopes and dreams, and now she has finally been remade in its terrifying image.

Neither director Jeunet (whose stylized, comic sensibilities jar with the material) nor the screenwriter, Whedon, properly capitalize on this profoundly unsettling turn for Ripley, which is a shame: it offered fertile ground for a series that had seemingly come full circle.

Weaver, constrained by the film, still finds the character within. She was and is, for all intents and purposes, the heart of the series because she can so uniquely express the bitter fortitude that can only be born in the furnace of great trauma. The first film may have been a haunted house movie driven by a sense of the ethereality of outer space, but both Aliens and Alien 3 found their momentum in Weaver’s face and the profound depths it suggests. No actress has ever recoiled in horror with more conviction.

The Big Lebowski

The Coens make better “termite” than “white elephant” pictures (to borrow Manny Farber’s useful, if nevertheless overworn and somewhat dubious, dichotomy). The Big Lebowski is the kind of towering work that achieves greatness through its own effortless oddball-ness, the sort that can only emerges when an artist (or, in this case, artists) are motivated primarily by their own idiosyncratic amusement.

A Gen X Long Goodbye, this hazy, somewhat wistful take on American idiocy and confusion by way of the Bush Sr. era of politics, offers a farcical take on Chandler in which America just doesn’t make sense, man. (Burn After Reading is its acid-tongued cousin, a spiritual successor linked to the next phase of the Bush political dynasty.)

Its facetious, but oddly resonant, thesis is that in stupid, cruel, criminal times, there needs to be a constant, something to stabilize the chaos: someone with minimal ambition who will kick back and bowl and drink a White Russian.

The brilliance of Lebowski lies less in what it says than in how it carries itself, which is with the same unimpeachable casual exuberance and weirdness that runs through Bridges’ central performance. It’s the equivalent of a night out at your favorite neighborhood dive bar (which is to say a night spent reveling while in the eye of the American storm).

The Big Sleep

No cinematic Chandler adaptation has successfully channeled the same psychic forces that propel his Marlowe novels (in my estimation, the Mitchum-starring Farewell My Lovely comes closest, even if it gives us Chandler by way of Nathanael West). The Hawks adaptation of The Big Sleep keeps the narrative outlines, but it’s a Hollywood glamour vehicle (even if it has a seedy side).

Bogart excelled at conveying self-destructive psychology, so it’s a shame that Marlowe’s essential cynical loserdom isn’t in evidence. Here, he’s in charismatic heartthrob mode, a kind of James Bond P.I. Still, let’s not complain too much; Bogart is a joy to watch, especially when he shares the screen with Bacall.

Bacall comes from some other planet, a young dynamo that’s all desire and contempt and fortitude. If Gene Tierney was the ultimate self-destructive femme fatale, a woman who would inevitably combust in spectacular fashion, Bacall’s film noir women would survive everyone (including the men they loved).

A Touch of Zen

King Hu’s great wuxia feature, A Touch of Zen, may be cinema’s greatest expression of human spirituality. Certainly, no other film has so perfectly embodied the concept of holiness with such force and such effortlessness.

Hu presents transcendence as both tangible and ineffable, all the while suggesting that it is profoundly effortless: to live a holy life is to live the most natural and sensible life.

“The sea of suffering is boundless. Arise and come ashore.”


In Showgirls, some people become has-beens, some become grocery clerks, some become forgotten victims obscured by PR cover-ups, and some skip town and head for Los Angeles.

It’s a garish, vulgar, unsubtle epic, but it’s not senseless. It takes talent and chutzpah to make something this brazenly ridiculous, this unflinchingly earnest, and this strange. It’s a movie made for people who, like me, can laugh and cry at the same time.

The Swimmer

No film channels late-summer existential malaise quite like The Swimmer, one of the strangest and most arresting films to come out of 1960s Hollywood.

Awash in high-art pretensions and tacky period affectations–literary pedigree, quasi-psychedelic transition montages, a heavy-handed Marvin Hamlisch score, unsubtle symbolism, untamed melodramatic gestures–The Swimmer somehow survived a troubled production (after clashing with Burt Lancaster, director Frank Perry was pushed off of the project after assembling his first cut, with Sydney Pollack reshooting portions of the film and assembling it into its finished form) to become a vessel for the failures of an American generation, or at least some of them. Set in the midst of wealthy Connecticut, The Swimmer offers a portrait of a masculine mind in crisis, disconnected from time and social structures, frantically tumbling into the liminal regions between hope and delusion and despair. Everything about The Swimmer could easily ring false if it all wasn’t so sincere.

That sincerity extends directly from Lancaster, who gives the greatest performance of his career as Ned Merrill, a proto-Don Draper without any of Draper’s cynicism. Lancaster’s Merrill wholly believes in his own mythology. Lancaster looks and speaks like a god from Olympus; if anyone might speak a daydream into existence, it would be him. But he’s more akin to Sisyphus than he is to one of the Olympians, trying to achieve the impossible through sheer will, only to find that his feats of strength and determination lead him right back to where he started.

But to analyze The Swimmer is considerably less interesting than actually watching it. Its observations about class and race and gender and generational shifts sit on the surface; what makes them powerful are the spiritual energies that flow beneath them. To describe The Swimmer‘s dramatic conceits would fail to capture anything of the film’s uncanniness, in the way it makes its own literariness fluid and vital, in the way it finds both hope and sadness in the promise of summer sunlight, in the way Lancaster’s blue eyes strain to see a world that does not and cannot exist.