Sunday, October 31, 2010

Movies That Scared Me, But Are Not Horror Films: A Sunday Halloween Journal

Halloween is a great time to re-visit and make lists of one's favorite (or scariest) horror movies of all time.  Most eveyone agrees on a handful of timeless classics, and, depending on your tolerance for gore and mayhem, a few others make the lists consistently. (Personally I can't top "Psycho," or "The Exorcist", or "Night of the Living Dead", and "Rosemary's Baby" is an all-time favorite, too.)

I generally agree with these lists, and generally can't add anything more to what true connoissuers have already said.

So I've compiled a list of movies that are not considered "horror" films, that nevertheless scared me in  different ways, often profoundly, sometimes in ways I can't explain.  I would love to hear if any readers have been terrified and shaken by mainstream films that are not in the horror genre.

Here (in no particular order) are my 6 choices.  Have fun!


If Kyle MacLachlan's discovery of a severed ear in a vacant field isn't enough to unsettle you, then what he observes while hiding within Isabella Rossellini's closet should do the trick.  Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth is pure, unredeemable evil. David Lynch unleashes an inferno of disturbing images and dangerous emotion, and plumbs the rot beneath seeming innocence.  Rarely have I been as startled and uncomfortable, even though I could not force myself to look away.


The director's characteristic generosity turns malevolent.  He confronts viewers with the stuff of his nightmares, in a world that is as alien and yet ominously familiar as the fall of Rome is to modern culture.  It's an eerie procession of images of gluttony, violence, and decadence, while haunted and haunting faces stare back at us. Fellini immerses us in a Nighttown of hermaphrodites and madmen, decapitations and pestilence, nymphomania and cannibalism.  Even the sound and music are unworldly. Truly, this is Fellini's science-fiction version of the ancient past. 


Naysayers complain that this movie is too long, especially the protracted first hour, which recreates a Russian/American Orthodox wedding and the mythical male-bonding of a deer hunt.  The film saturates us with iconic American images and overwhelming detail that, in time, we take for granted.  Then, with one cut, it all makes horrific sense; the familiarity with which the film surrounds us is yanked away, forcing us into a hell where nothing makes sense, where people that we have grown to love are pitted against each other in a  brutal contest of Russian roulette. The contrast between the safety of home and the fear of the unfamiliar touched primal fears of abandonment and death. The violence and tension of the film's second third left me as terified as anything I had ever experienced at the movies.


Robert DeNiro again. His Travis Bickle is a terrifying study of a forgotten man unhinged by loneliness.  What's most frightening here is the certainty that people like Travis walk among us every day, and we never know when the inevitable time bomb will explode.  In 1976, few of us were prepared for the power of the last ten minutes of this film; and the slow buildup to it kept us in a state of unease.  Director Martin Scorsese himself had a terrifying cameo as Travis' passenger, who cooly explained what he would do to his unfaithful wife and her lover.  "Taxi Driver" has lost none of its shock value.


My hero of European Art Film, Ingmar Bergman, often created his films to examine the human soul.  His chilling visions of existence in a universe without God reached its peak with "Cries and Whispers", which I saw as nothing short of a metaphysical horror film.  A dying woman struggles to connect with her caretakers: two sisters with troubled psyches, and a servant who has her own mysteries.  It's a thriller complete with an agonizing death, a wandering soul come back to haunt her survivors, and blood-red-soaked images of terryfying beauty.  Bergman described the soul as a moist membrane in shades of red.  Candles flicker, winds howl through the drafty corridors of a wintry estate, clocks tick, and each character tries to silence the whispers and the cries of the demons from their past.  Not meant as a casual moviegoing experience.


OK, my tongue-in-cheek selection.  It wouldn't be Halloween without a little bit of drag.  In this case, it's the singing group The Village people: Biker, Native American, Construction Worker, Soldier, Cowboy, and Cop, who gave music history such classics as "Macho Man" and that staple of high-school sporting events, "YMCA".  Here's the ill-conceived and disastrous disco-era saga of how the group was formed.  What was most frightening to me were the implications for our culture and civilization in general.  And has there ever been a more terryfying assembly of talent?  Bruce Jenner, Valerie Perrine, Steve Guttenberg, director Nancy Walker (Valerie Harper's mom in "Rhoda" and star of the Bounty Paper Towel commercials) and producer Alan Carr (infamous for the 1988 Oscar fiasco with Rob Lowe and Snow White).   Actually good for a laugh...if you can get your jaw off the floor.

Now, it's your turn! 

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Follow-Up: Chicago "Sanity Rally" Crowd Treated Insanely--A Saturday Journal

(As I write the following, I have not yet seen the coverage from today's festivites at the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity (and Fear) in Washington, D.C.)

The Chicago "Rally to Restore Sanity" was sadly marred today when a security guard berated the enthusiastic and peaceful crowd--because we wanted to enjoy the Comedy Central event that was, after all, being broadcast on theTV that was provided.  Her words were not civil, and she cast a pall on the entire proceedings. 

It was Saturday, the end of October, and as beautiful as an autumn afternoon in Chicago can be.  As we approached the event, with the cheers from the crowds in Grant Park fading in, I felt excitement.  I was going to be a part of something fun, even historic; I was about to feel a connection to the Big Rally in Washington DC, and proudly lend my support along with my hometown revelers. 

There was a Jumbo TV with a live broadcast from the Rally in the Capitol. The crowd around me laughed and cheered as our comedic heroes addressed both crowds....DC and Chicago.  The former Cat Stevens sang "Peace Train", and I was hit with a wave of nostalgia for my laid-back days in Iowa City, (when the song was ever-present), mixed with unspoken feelings of fellowship with college students, staunch liberals, and hundreds of regular, practical people along with their kids, their dogs, their costumes and their placards. 

Mark and I wanted to share this experience with our brothers and sisters in Chicago as well as in the Capitol.  We wanted our presence to contribute to a grand statement that would move people to vote, convinced that we stood with truth and civility, backdropped by some of the strongest and most beautiful architecture in the world.

Then, just as the O'Jays (another College favorite) were about to perform "Love Train", the audio was cut.  A droning emcee made some meaningless announcements, and over the mild protests of the crowd, introduced a lame comedian as "entertainment", while the TV tantalized us with significant goings-on that we could not hear. The comic sensed his unwelcome, but pushed on with a tasteless monologue, something about comparing abortion with the making of a cheese sandwich. 

When he finally wrapped and left the stage, we were subjected to more announcements, and introduced to the next "guest", an actor playing FDR complete with wheelchair.  As the crowd's protests grew louder and sustained, a woman's amplified voice (I thought for a moment that Oprah was there, and that it was all a joke, but alas, no) screamed at us that we were being rude, that if we wanted to watch TV we should have stayed the hell home, and that if anyone continued, they would be escorted from the grounds.

I wanted to cry with embarrassment and disappointment.  Scores of people left in protest.

Without the rally in Washington, there would have been no event in Chicago; and without a connection to that rally through a simulcast, few would have showed up in Grant Park.  What was supposed to have been a fun and energizing event in Chicago alienated a whole lot of people and destroyed their good will.


We soon left too, but the day wasn't lost.  We got some good photos, especially of a couple friendly dogs; attended a preview of the Chagall Windows exhibit at the Art Institute; and saw a wonderfully reflective French film at the Gene Siskel Film Center, called "Hideaway" (or, in France, "Refuge").

Best of all, we secured tickets to see "Billy Elliott" once more before it's untimely end-run in November.  Actually, that show can do more, to energize our electorate, than being scolded for wanting to watch our comedic heroes on a TV that was, after all, set up at great pains for that very reason.

If only Dogs ran government.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Stewart and Colbert "Sanity and Fear" Rally--Jesters for Truth. A Friday Journal

In older times it was said that the Jester was the only person who could tell the truth to the King.  Honesty, tempered with humor, worked then, and just might save us now.

I wondered why are there are no conservative counterparts to the satire of Comedy Central's liberal-leaning Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert?  I decided that conservatives have no sense of humor; if they did, they would see how funny they are.  If they weren't so dangerous, they might even laugh at themselves.

Mark and I have become habitual viewers of Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show", and Stephen Colbert's "The Colbert Report" (both of the "t" s are silent!).  If you have not experienced these programs on Comedy Central, or you live in an area that does not broadcast them, I invite you to check out both links for some thoughtful American satire and a lot of laughs.

Stewart is one of our smartest and wittiest pundits.  His sly honesty and irony have attracted an audience of well-informed truth-seekers to "The Daily Show".  Polls suggest that a large number of young viewers derive most of their knowledge of current events from Stewart (and Colbert).   Stewart doesn't pander; he is informative, and allows viewers to understand the events of the day, while mocking the pomposity, corruption and incompetence of those in power (and their media stooges).  He trusts the intelligence of his fans, who find the show funny because they know the score.  And Stewart is smart.  He is well-read, and is gently humorous even in his pointed and well-planned interviews. He is the iron fist in the velvet glove.  I love it!

Stephen Colbert's satire is even more wicked.  He hosts "The Colbert Report" in the character of an ultra-conservative commentator, who is just smart enough to speak to the issues, but clueless enough to render foolish the very people his alter-ego imitates (like Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck).  Because of his on-air persona, Colbert can get away with even more outlandish hijinx.  His devastatingly funny commentary and features might be considered hard journalism on the likes of FoxNews. His "political incorrectness" is understood by those who get the joke as a slam and a put-on.    He is the Ultimate Jester, and boy is he fun. 

I have been following with amusement their joint rally, which takes place tomorrow (Saturday October 30) in Washington D.C.  At first, they were "competing" events (Stewart and Colbert are good friends, with similar ideologies; Stewart even helped Colbert, a former cast member on "The Daily Show", to launch his own show).  Stewart created The Rally to Restore Sanity to counter the anger and irrational behavior that has characterized  recent American politics, encouraging the blowhards to "take it down a notch".  Colbert offered his own "March to Keep Fear Alive", a pointed reference to what has been a Republican method of generating enthusiasm among their voter base.  Although they claim otherwise, both of these events are a parodied response to Glenn Beck's August 28 "Restoring Honor" gathering.

Mark and I "feared" that we were "too sane" to drop everything to travel to the Capitol to take part in the festivities.  We actually wished we could participate, and lend our support to what promises to be a boost to rational political discourse. 

Then, today, I learned that Chicago is holding a rally of its own on Saturday.  In Grant Park from 11-2, there will be a rally and march, with a closed-circuit broadcast of the East Coast revels.  We will be there!!  I invite all of you to join us here in Chicago if you can't make it to Washington. It will be less crowded, and I believe there are plenty of hotel rooms!

Now, for "your moment of zen", here's an excerpt from an article in the Huffington Post:

Angie McMahon, of Chicago's Chemically Imbalanced Comedy, started off with an innocent Facebook post in support of Jon Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity" in the nation's capitol this weekend.

The event snowballed into a satellite rally that McMahon found herself at the helm of, as the Sun-Times wrote in detail earlier this week.One of the myriad headaches she's faced has been dealing with permits from the city. On Thursday night, the Park District denied her a permit for the rally based on "insufficient documentation."

Still, the District instructed her on how to go forward with the event, and even offered to provide some services, under McMahon and the group's First Amendment right to freedom of assembly.
Reports on Friday morning suggest that she may have finally secured the proper permit from the city; security arrangements were likely altered because Governor Pat Quinn has announced that he'll be speaking at the event.

What: Rally to Restore Sanity Chicago Satellite
When: Saturday, October 30, 11 a.m. - 2 p.m.
Where: Petrillo Music Shell, Grant Park
235 S Columbus Drive, Chicago
Price: Free!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Catching Up With Great Blogs

I want to get back out to the blogosphere,  to visit and thank all of you writers I visit regularly, comment on your great work, and offer thanks for your feedback.

It is time to take a breather. Looking back on the last few posts, I seem to have given voice to a lot of contentious topics and reviews of films that have divided opinion ("The Social Network"), or treated alarming subjects ("Inside Job", "Waiting for Superman"). 

The world is an insecure, irrational place....  Sometimes I feel powerless, and wonder if my words will touch anyone, comfort anyone, or ultimately do some good.

Any of you who love to write and do so regularly know the anxiety of not posting.  So I will set aside the anxious world, and clear my head at the keyboard, and not try to be so important, at least tonight.  Here's what's coming up...

I'll retreat again soon to the animal world.. I am finding more meaning and solace in the rescue and care of animals, of all kinds, be they pets, farm animals, or any creature in trouble.  We are making plans to bring  a new dog to our home by next Spring.  In fact, we will most likely give our home to two dogs!

More movie reviews are on the way.  At least, I'm finding my way back to the movies...Good movies seem to be finally in release, after the usual summer blockbusters and pictures that didn't seem to welcome the likes of me...  I'm looking forward to visiting ther new Woody Allen( "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger"); Clint Eastwood's meditation on death ("Hereafter"); Hillary Swank's rabble-rouser "Conviction" (and hope this isn't "The Blind Side in sheep's clothing); and before long, Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere", and Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter in "The King's Speech". 

Much as I love James Franco, I am on the fence about "127 Hours".  I was not a big fan of Danny Boyle's "exuberant" treatment of squalor and child abuse in "Slumdog Millionaire." 

And with Halloween on the way, I am planning a special piece this weekend about Movies That Sacred Me That Are Not Conventional Horror Movies...hope it's fun.

In the meantime, I will catch up with the great blogs I follow, and conscientiously offer my commentary, feedback and support.  So to Cathy (Cinema Style), Bill Up Close; Ben (Runs Like A Gay); Andrew (Encore's World of Film and TV); Walter (The Silver Screening Room); Tom (Sophisticated Lunacy); Dave (Ultra Dave);  Eric (Daventry Blue);  (RealityZone); Steve (Mindfully Gay); and Adam (The Oscar Completist), as well as others I am just finding, and others I follow regularly (Torqopia, Blue Truck Red State)...Get the coffee on, I'm coming over!

Monday, October 25, 2010

"Nowhere Boy"--A Movie Review

It was a nice coincidence that I happened to see the British John Lennon biopic "Nowhere Boy" a day after watching "The Social Network".  "Nowhere Boy" is a throwback to a traditional style of film biography, with a difference: this film stops before Lennon even imagines that he will achieve fame, fading out as he leaves home for Hamburg with his young mates Paul McCartney and George Harrison.  Next to "The Social Network", the more conventional storytelling of "Nowhere Boy" seems almost stodgy. 

And yet, it works most of the time, in a simple and emotional way.  Whereas "Social Network" looked at creative genius in a world of privilege, in which success is achieved at the expense of happiness or personal fulfillment, "Nowhere Boy" chronicles the rise of a musical talent of few means or advantages. We are invited on a journey of wild, dangerous joy and primal heartbreak.  As a result, in spite of some awkwardness in character development and conflicts verging on melodrama, this film is enormously satisfying. 

John Lennon was abandoned by his birth mother, Julia, at a young age, and raised by his buttoned-up aunt Mimi and exuberant uncle George.  When George dies, Julia reappears in Lennon's life, to sister Mimi's dismay.  The film follows Lennon's anguish of divided loyalties between mother and aunt, and how that influenced his emerging passion for music.  The movie treatment of Mark Zuckerberg ignores his background and past; he is a cipher.  Lennon's story is all background, and heart.  It moves across the screen like a fast car from one's youth.

Ann-Marie Duff  (a well-known British actress and wife of actor James McAvoy) plays Julia with an almost dangerous lack of character boundaries.  Her nearly incestuous familiarity with her handsome son creates an interesting dilemma that builds to scenes of increasing intensity and tragic resolution.  Kristin Scott Thomas is Mimi, a refined and detached guardian, restrained to the point of impassiveness, but in reality a volcano waiting to erupt. I have missed her appearance on the big screen lately. Rarely has she had an opportunity to hide her lead-actress glamor inside a character part.  Her skill anchors the film and lifts it from conventional soap opera.

As the young John Lennon, an aimless and fun-loving adolescent with a poet's soul and a rascal's smolder, Aaron Johnson is cute and passionate, and has a strong physicality on-screen. There are shadows of a resemblance to the real-life Lennon.  Johnson, who is engaged to be married to director Sam(antha) Taylor-Wood with whom he has a daughter, gives everything to this part.  Wood obviously loves this guy, and her camera can't get enough of Johnson in a variety of closeups, styles, and romantic circumstances.  Beneath the burnished, well designed period surface, there is a definite sexual heat.

"Nowhere Boy" was released last December in Britain, and after a few festival appearances (one in Chicago in August), the picture has been widely released here. My only reservation was whether or not anyone not familiar with The Beatles or John Lennon would be engaged in this picture.  I admit, my enjoyment was enhanced by my knowledge of what Lennon would become, his fame and infamy, and his tragic end.  But there is such energy, and the musical scenes are staged with such care, and the unusual relationships hold fascination all on their own, that the fact that this is Lennon's story is almost incidental.

Would this story of a boy torn between his two female caregivers justify an entire film if the protagonist were fictional?  I would say, based on the stirring result here, the answer is yes.

After "The Social Network", I Quit Facebook--A Movie Review

On rare occasions, while I'm watching a movie, I am aware of its clever pacing, bravura editing,  rhythmic musical interludes, meticulosly written dialogue, and obvious care in its direction and performances;  and yet, because the film and its subject matter are so inextricably entwined, and because I find the subject matter so bleak and depressingly trivial, I ultimately dislike the whole experience.

That, for me, sums up "The Social Network,"a brilliantly made but cold film about the development of the Facebook phenomenon, and the callous degredation practiced on and suffered by everyone involved. Director David Fincher and Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin treat this material with a heavy hand, as though the fate of the world hung in the balance. And while the intricate script, with its transitions between sequences and periods of time, and the rapid-fire editing, are clean and expertly handled, it is all in the service of a topic that often seems as trite as--well, many Facebook entries.

It's a shame because I long for intelligent cinematic portrayals of intelligent, thinking people. 

"The Social Network" is single-minded in its portrayal of the workings of Mark Zuckerberg,  his inept social skills and cool, unsympathetic intelligence, his effect on his friends and business partners, rivals,  and would-be romantic attachments.   The film slavishly chronicles the rapid rise of the site, the intrigues and triumphs and depositions, and deftly flashes back and forth, drenched in technical jargon and edited to a palatable pace. 

Yet nowhere in this story is there a redeeming figure. Yes, there is an eleventh-hour appearance by a sympatheic legal intern.  And one major character displays enough emotion for the whole cast.  But I didn't enjoy spending two hours with calculating, privileged people, as they connive and hurt each other in the name of connecting humanity for the common good.  There was little humanity on display here. The filmmakers take a matter-of-fact tone, and an almost reverent awe in the machinations of Facebook, as though a seeming communications revolution justified the interpersonal emptiness of the world that created it. 

We are meant to believe that it was a deep sense of isolation and loneliness that caused a computer genius to lash out at a former girlfriend, hack into Harvard's computer system, then get high on his own cleverness, and unwittingly create an addictive popular pastime.  The filmmakers try to convince us that there is something profound and sad about this young man's inability to get into the most fashionable clubs, or connect with the "beautiful" people.  But make no mistake:  Zuckerberg is no Charles Foster Kane, whose intricate psychological puzzle was tragic and universal.  Zuckerberg, and his milieu, are merely trendy and unpleasant. 

Jesse Eisenberg plays founder Mark Zuckerberg with eerie consistency.  His character has been stripped of all background; he could have been computer-generated.  Eisenberg gamely performs as directed, and is skilled enough to occasionally suggest the simple yearnings that he is powerless to satisfy.  After a while, though, Eisenberg's furrow-browed, tight-lipped machine-gun delivery becomes a ready-made Mad Magazine parody.

Andrew Garfield is Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg's best friend and, ultimately, his betrayed business partner.  Garfield is a wonderful screen presence and acts as the viewer's emotional connection to the film; but he portrays such a nice fellow ultimately shafted by Zuckerberg, that it seems improbable that these two would ever have been friends to begin with. The film, at least, does not make this clear.

Justin Timberlake adds some wicked energy as Napster founder Sean Parker, who is as sleazy in his charm as Zuckerberg is repellent in his lack thereof.  Instead of being fully formed, his character is an archetypal paranoid villain, a plot device.

Handsome Arie Hammer (with help from a digitally enhanced body double) portrays BOTH Winklevoss twins, Harvard big-shots and future rowing Olympians, who attempted to exploit Zuckerberg's talents to help with a social network of their own. Along with Saverin, the Winklevoss twins eventually sued Zuckerberg for their alleged share of the billion-dollar business that they felt cheated out of.

If it were anyone but flashy David Fincher, I would say that casting Hammer to play both twins was an interesting decision that required unique technical and digital solutions.  However, reagrdless of how accomplished the effect is, I think Fincher just wanted to add some Benjamin Button-style magic to an otherwise non-special-effects enterprise.  Nice-looking as he is, Hammer is often wooden here, and ironically indistinguishable from himself; in other words, he does not convince us that he embodies two unique human beings who happen to share the same DNA.

It's another annoying example of the use of technology simply because it's there.

My favorite scenes were those that used music in interesting ways: an extended conversation in a nightclub, in which Zuckerberg is tempted into a lifestyle of glamor;  and a rowing competition in England.  This latter is beautifully shot and edited, although the use of Norway's Edvard Grieg was a stirring but seemingly incongruous choice for a British competition won by Dutch sportsmen.

Overall I find "The Social Network" a harsh, and perhaps unfortunately, accurate, reflection of a closed world consumed by technology.  It also seems to revel in that world, its style seeking to keep the viewer in a state of exultation rather than cautionary reflection.  As a touchstone of an era, it may have its counterpart in "The Graduate" (1967). Whereas Benjamin Braddock struggled to create a future that was "different" from the status quo, and tried to understand the workings of his heart;  Zuckerberg and company, as shown in "The Social Network", want to hoard the status quo, and don't need the companionship of flesh-and-blood friends.

Having lived through decades of seismic social shifts, I have tried to keep up with, and keep open to, rapid movements in technology, and the cultural changes that motivate new generations.  
The original impulse behind Facebook, as portrayed (and approved by implication) in this film, seems to have been one of exclusion and humiliation, and of comparing people to each other in order to demean them.  After observing the suffocating world presented in "The Social Network", a world I would never choose to be a part of, nor support, I deleted my Facebook page.  The world did not end. We will not miss each other.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Bassett Hound Philosophy

I Applaud NPR For Releasing Juan Williams

Juan Williams, a long-time commentator and panelist on Fox News, went on Bill O'Reilly's show and said:

"[P]olitical correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don't address reality. I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous..."  (He goes on to try to say that he also believes that we are not fighting a war on Islam.)

For this, National Public Radio, who also employed Williams as a news analyst, swiftly moved to terminate Williams, citing "his remarks on The O'Reilly Factor this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR," .

Williams had been a news analyst since 1999 for NPR, whose ideology and journalistic philosophy are at a polar opposite from that of Fox News.  At one time I watched Fox News regularly, naively believing that they offered a uniquely forthright viewpoint.  I soon retreated from the network's stridency and dishonesty in the guise of "balanced" news.  So I was mildly surprised when I first heard Williams on NPR.

When I learned of NPR's firing him, I had reactions on both sides of the fence.

My first reaction was, Why did NPR hire him in the first place?  Aren't his public views on Fox a known quantity, and wasn't there a conflict of interest somewhere?

Then I thought, If I worked two jobs, and did something at one job that offended my other employer, would there be grounds for termination?  Well, I thought, that would be possible...  depending on the nature of the offense, and how big an influence it would have publicly.

Then I really looked at what Williams said. "...if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous..." 

Muslim garb.  Muslim garb?  What, exactly, is that?   Many Muslims I know dress like 'westerners".  Looking at pictures of the alleged 9/11 hijackers, their manner of dress would not have been considered particularly "Muslim".  Is there, maybe, something else about them that would make Juan Williams nervous?  And what makes him nervous about people identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims?  Unless, he automatically equates Muslims with terrorists?

Even if scores of Americans feel this way, privately or not, it's irresponsible to use the public airwaves to reinforce this notion, and use one's respected position in the media to, even indirectly, justify continued harassment, ignorance and hate.  When I hear charges of "political correctness" leveled at NPR or others of responsible sensitivity, it sounds like bored kids whining about losing their right to yell "fire" in a crowded theater.

And the call by some Republicans to cut funding for NPR is laughable, especially since Fox, their mouthpiece, just gave Williams a multi-million-dollar contract. This move leads me to believe that there was more information that lead to NPR's decision than we will ever be privy to. 

I do think NPR's canning of Williams might have been more accepted and understood had they challenged Williams on their own network, and confronted him, asking him to speak to the comments he made on the rival station.  Either Williams would have had to recant, exposing him as a hypocrite, and calling his integrity into question; or, he would have had to defend his position right there on NPR, going far enough to clearly justify his removal.

But looking more closely, I think they did the responsible thing (maybe years too late).  Williams' personal, expressed opinion is that Muslim garb makes him nervous.  Which can be seen as a thinly veiled way to say that Muslims themselves, who identify themselves as such, make him nervous.  He has to know that regular viewers of Fox probably believe this, too.   So he covered his ass by not coming out and saying what he truly feels: that Muslims make him nervous, because they are terrorists.  This was not about "garb" at all, and NPR knew it.

In the ideological war of words which is American partisan politics, NPR merely cracked Juan Williams' code, and launched a pre-emptive strike.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Purple Shirt, A Boston Terrier, and "Fuel"--A Wednesday Journal


Short Takesfrom Wednesday:

--I wore my lavender shirt and purple tie today, as part of a Spirit Day recognition, designed to show support to troubled gay youth, and commemorate the ones who lost hope and ended their lives.

In the course of my day, as I traveled to different parts of campus, I saw others in purple shirts, jackets, hair bows, lapel pins. Most of these were, as expected, counselors and campus activists, those who organized the event through Facebook, or the usual free spirits who are on hand any time they are called upon for symbolic support of gay issues.

What struck me most was the matter-of-factness, a smiling self-consciousness, and no self-serving reverence,  misplaced anger, or drama. We were seeking out kindred spirits, looking for as much support as we were giving, and it was subdued and comforting.

In line at the campus coffee shop was a tall young man with a purple graphic t-shirt.  When he sat down, he sat alone, apart from everyone.  I got my coffee and took a small detour tell him how much I liked his shirt.  I never expected such an enthusiastic smile and hearty "thanks"!  I didn't see him again during the day.  But I think the emblem, and our connection, was the spirit of the thing.

I revised yesterday's post about "Honoring Gay Teen Suicides".  My opinions are the same, but I got past the awkwardness in my expression, and I think it reads better.  I hope you will read it again, or for the first time, and let me know what you think.

A good friend at the college is also a dog-lover.  I was amused by his stories about his Boston Terrier.  I of course love all dog breeds.  Basset Hounds have a lock on my heart; but Mark and I also have a soft spot for Boston Terriers and bulldogs. In fact, any floppy-eared dog; dogs with unfortunate builds with lively personalities (like Dachshunds); or any dog with a sad demeanor that masks a joyful personality, will always have a fast friend in us.

I can understand why my friend would get an extra smile in his eyes as he talked about his dog.

I was reminded of our first visit to Boston last year.  Within an hour of our arrival, we encountered a lonely Boston Terrier who was waiting for his person to finish shopping.  We approached, and he greeted us with a wiggling tail and a big face-lick.  I took a picture which I love:


The college Activities Board arranged a screening of the 2008 documentary film "Fuel", followed by a lecture and question-answer period with filmmaker Josh Tickell and his wife, producer Rebecca Harrell.  (Click HERE for a link to the "Fuel" web site.)

It was a full house, mostly students whose attendance was a mandatory class assignment, and a sprinkling of involved staff and faculty.  The Q and A was lively and engaging.  The film was successful in presenting its message, which was compelling, challenging, yet personal, and often fun. 

The tone of "Fuel" is energetic and upbeat, designed to persuade viewers of the benefits of clean energy sources, and to advocate for practical, low-cost, and clean solutions to the decades of problems caused by the oil industry. 

It is nothing if not comprehensive, almost overwhelmingly so. There is a generous spirit and enthusiasm, presenting us with a colorful and amazing plethora of data, graphics, interviews, history and interpretation of it,  sobering problems and exciting and practical solutions that have been blocked by powerful interest groups (oil) for decades.

I never considered, for example, that John D. Rockefeller, President of Standard Oil, might have introduced legislation for Prohibition as a way to block Henry Ford from manufacturing an engine that ran on ethanol.  (With alcohol banned, oil retained a healthy monopoly on transportation).

It is hard to watch "Fuel" and not be convinced that the solution to break our oil-dependence is available now, relatively easy to make available, and in our best interests.

After seeing eye-opening documentaries about American public education, the global financial crisis, and the oil industry within two weeks, it's depressing to watch our current political candidates campaign on issues that don't really matter, distract us with negative advertising, and politicize matters of heart and personal philosophy.  These so-called issues are an insult to the electorate they purport to represent.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"Honoring" Gay Teen Suicides? A Tuesday Journal

I'm afraid this will not be easy.....

Out of sympathy for the families who lost gay loved ones to a series of recent, highly publicized suicides, I plan to join in an initiative called Spirit Day on Wednesday.  People are asked to wear purple, to remember the gay teens who felt hopeless to escape the impossible situations that homophobia had made of their lives.  I make this simple gesture to raise awareness of the particularly troubling stresses placed on young gay people, who are still forced into frightened silence, threatened with cruel humiliation or violence, or abandoned by their families.

I say "still" , because these things are not new.  Gay people have been bullied and ostracized in America (and the world) for centuries.  Gay teens are far more likely to kill themselves as their non-gay peers, and many gays have, for decades, chose suicide out of despair, of profound feelings of isolation and of no escape from ostracism and self-hatred.  However, many others who have been subject to the same pressures and cruelty through the decades, have not chosen to end their lives.

I don't want to make light of the tragic consequences of homophobia, nor of the terrible effects the desperate act of suicide has on the survivors, and others who contemplate the same fate.  But I am uneasy.  Something inside me tightens up when I read statements like the following from Lambda Legal:

 "Tomorrow, October 20, has been named Spirit Day, and supporters across the country will wear purple in honor of all of the LGBT young people who have committed suicide."

While I think that suicide is a personal decision not to be lightly considered, nor encouraged, I likewise  believe that suicide is not an action to be honored;  nor is the rash of highly publicized gay suicides (a disturbing trend, but not new) an appropriate form of protest even against the irrational and continuing hatred of gays. 

Will I wear purple to commemorate the deaths out of compassion? Absolutely.  Can it be seen as a symbol to encourage allies, from schools to the military, from Congress to the wedding chapel, to stridently oppose homophobia, and demand civil treatment of gays? Of course. 

Yet it seems wrong to hold these tragic young people up as martyrs, who are likely to be emulated as heroes by an impressionable age group.

Believe me, I do NOT mean to appear unsympathetic.  I am merely dealing with what my instinct tells me could become a misguided gesture.  I, too, know the terror of loneliness for being different, and the fear of being shamed or hurt, and not being able to tell a single soul.  Maybe my coping mechanisms were less than healthy, but I coped,  I hurt no one, and maybe even helped others;  and millions like me did the same. 

Young people have been, over the years, just as likely to have been bullied, humiliated, beaten by their parents, as by their homophobic peers.  Institutionalized homophobia must be addressed and eradicated to be sure; but violent mistreatment of kids (physical or emotional) whether it is driven by homophobia or not, must be confronted and opposed and punished.  There are many reasons why a young person may end his or her life. 

Spirit Day draws attention to a pervasive message that still makes it okay to harrass a yong person for being gay.  To battle institutionalized homophobia, we first have to loudly oppose political hatred that is wrapped in the flag; and second, we have to be aware of insidious attitudes, speech, and media images that hide behind the aprons of the Constitution.  We must be willing to fight these. 

Most difficult, however, is that we also have to accept that, sometimes, we unknowingly exacerbate the problem by trying too hard to show our understanding.


If that poor college student, who jumped off a bridge for having his same-sex liaison secretly recorded and posted on-line, was instead recorded having sex with a girl, I believe that he might not have killed himself; and that the perpetrators might have been dismissed as typical college pranksters.  But the pervasive attitude that having gay sex is somehow more taboo makes for a sensational media story, and our focus on the same-sex aspect of it inadvertently perpetuates an attitude that gay sex is shameful in a way that "straight" sex is not.

The student who killed himself certainly felt this way, and it is for that reason, and not because he took his life, that well-meaning people have to fight hard to change attitudes and laws, and define what is acceptable.

Maybe I, too, am perpetuating this notion by wearing purple.  At any rate, I wanted to state my motives in my own way, to say that I do this because I do care, that I want to draw attention to the problems that create an atmosphere of despair, while not creating heroes of the unfortunates who succumbed to that despair. 

Monday, October 18, 2010

"Ward, I'm Worried About The Beaver"-- A Monday Journal


Fond thoughts stirred by the passing of Barbara Billingsley, our favorite TV-sitcom mom:

When I was a kid I used to get home from school just in time to watch the reruns of "Leave It To Beaver".  First broadcast on CBS in 1957, and canceled after one season for lackluster ratings, it was eventually picked up by ABC and ran for 5 more years and became an American cultural phenomenon.

I identified with "Leave It To Beaver", and love it today.  Everyone of a certain era remembers the Cleaver family: Theodore, or "Beaver", the little guy, as naive and adorable as anything, always a victim of circumstance, always in (hilarious) trouble but  learning life lessons each week; big brother Wally, a looker and cynic, one of the guys, and matter-of-fact, an athlete, a hero, in short, cool; Ward, the practical, tie-wearing Dad, a typical corporate guy and former Seabee, whose domain was the den, and the garage, and sometimes the fishing lake on weekends; and of course June, THE "traditional" wife and mother, who maintained a safe space of love around her, who kept the boys, and the house, in line, famously attired for housework in dress, heels, and pearls.

In spite of a slew of similar family-type shows that had huge popularity then, "Leave It To Beaver" was different.  It was so much fun because it was scaled to the antics of the kids: their goofiness, their fears, their schemes (and their efforts to keep trouble from their watchful parents), their slang, and their innocence, were all expertly rendered by writers who knew kids, and liked them.  Surrounding them were recurring characters we knew like our own friends: Eddie Haskell, Lumpy Rutherford, Judy Hensler, Touhy and Gilbert,  Gus the Fireman, Miss Rayburn, Miss Landers and Miss Canfield ("She has toes!"). When my own childhood became too worrisome, I took comfort in the humor and heart of the Clever neighborhood.  Their house was as real to me as my own.

I have so many favorite episodes: Beaver's haircut; Beaver trapped in the billboard soup bowl ("Step on the lady's thumb, Beaver!"); Wally and Beaver and their pet alligator, Captain Jack; the ill-fated class picture; hypnotizing the smarmy Eddie Haskell ("that's a BEAUTIFUL sweater, Mrs. Cleaver!")...and on and on.  I felt as though these were events I grew up experiencing on my own.  I realize now that, unrealistic and white-bread as it may have been (life was NEVER this perfect, even in the '50's), there was a good purpose to shows like this, allowing boys like me to find some laughter and comfort in childhood, a time of life that should not have been as stressful as it was.

I even have a running joke with Mark that "Leave It To Beaver made Me Gay!"...I even considered doing a separate blog, in which every episode would be reviewed in terms of the girl-hating quotient, and the heterosexism that was all pervasive at the time, and so pronounced as to be worth a laugh all its own!  As a boy roughly Beaver's age when I discovered the show, I hung on every word, and must have internalized a lot!

There is even a gut-busting funny book, out of print now, but a cult classic, called "The Beaver Papers", which featured episodes of the show as written by famous authors such as Dostoevsky, Steinbeck, D.H. Lawrence ("Lady Cleaver's Beaver"--!!!), even Ingmar Bergman!

When I heard of the recent death of Barbara Billingsley, who WAS June Cleaver for generations of TV-watchers, it was in some way like the death of a mentor, a friend, a practical no-nonsense figure who took no crap but softened her anger with a smile and a plate of cookies.  Even in this artificial situation, June Cleaver as played by Billingsley was warm and real and helped so many of us project ourselves into an ideal home life. She sort of made childhood bearable for at least a half hour each week.

Because of her easy identification with this perfect mother figure, Billingsley scored one of her career highs decades later, re-inventing herself for a brief bit in 1980's screwball comedy film "Airplane".  In a wacky, gag-filled send-up of airborne disaster films of the '70's, Billingsley plays an air-traveler who offers to help a stewardess, who cannot understand the slang of two Black passengers, by translating their "jive".  It worked only because our remembrance of June Cleaver made Billingley's casting against type an in-joke that everyone enjoyed together in a shared nostalgia-fest. ....We all loved her like a mom, albeit a funky, jive-talking one.

When Billingsley, as June, uttered her trademark line, "Ward, I'm worried about the Beaver", her concern was for us too, it seemed.  And we all laughed to ourselves, knowing that it was worse than she imagined, a looming disaster of the slapstick kind.

I took for granted that Barbara Billingsley would live forever....

And for good measure, I will join the collective cliche, and share with you her famous appearance as the jive-talker....  I hope you all enjoyed my look back, and maybe I will hear from others who remember....

Saturday, October 16, 2010

NOW PLAYING: "Inside Job" Essential Information for the Well-Informed: Movie Review

"Inside Job", Charles Ferguson's documentary about the causes and effects of the 2008 global financial crisis, is immensely valuable in understanding the complexities of what happened, and why the world's economy is in dire straits.  Every  American citizen who wants to be well-informed should see this.

The early part of the film sets up the history of the financial industry and the regulations that were in place after the Great Depression.  The last two thirds deftly weaves ominous interview footage with facts and images that detail everything from the collusions between Wall Street and the White House, risk-taking psychology, and the role of top universities in perpetuating the culture of greed and corruption.

All of it great information, but is it a great film?  Among current documentaries, I think it also a great film. The documentary format is producing some of the most important films in release.  The genre requires more than simply treating a popular or controversial subject to produce an easy audience response.  With documantaires, I look for new insights and information, or a new light on the conventional wisdom; a gutsy and honest stand on the material; a look at consequences and repercussions for life outside of the theater; and subtle and straightforward filmmaking.  I fall away as soon as I feel manipulated.

"Inside Job" is both indispensable as a source of important information and education, and as a valuable addition to the pantheon of excellent documentary films. 

I held my breath early on, as the groundwork is laid and the culprits and heroes are introduced. I was reminded of the dry educational movies we watched in high school, on a portable 16-millimeter projector.

But then, like a subtle and subversive classroom upstart, Ferguson takes aim at the sacred cows and exposes the hypocrisy and barely veiled dishonesty and contempt.  The interviews become more pointed as the on-camera subjects stutter and stumble their way through Ferguson's minefield of sensible questions with which he weaves a trap to capture the deceptions. One interviewee even demands that the camera be shut off at one point.  The many high-profile players who refused to be interviewed come under especially focused scrutiny.

No one comes away unscathed.  The film  is at pains to give an honest account of the history of our financial downfall--the deregulation, greed, corruption among each administration since Reagan.  I wondered if the film would somehow protect Mr. Obama, and turn the film into a Democratic campaign ad.  Fortunately, Ferguson trains his lens on the Wall-Street insider club that forms Obama's group of economic advisers, thus maintaining a sorry status quo.

I admire the film for making clear the complexities of ideas like leverage and credit default swaps, for explaining why major institutions went bust and the effects around the world, and for creating such a user-friendly timeline of the plunge, the bailout, and the effects on Main Street.

A couple of omissions left me wondering:  The film does not take the media head-on for its complicity and lack of coverage.  Also, the notorious October 16, 2005 memo by CitiGroup to its investors, describing a deliberate strategy to concentrate wealth and power among the world's wealthiest 1%, and introducing and defining the term Plutonomy, is ignored.
(An excerpt appears below).

This memo first came to my attention in Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story", for which "Inside Job" would be an excellent companion piece.  While Ferguson's film is fact-centered and determined to allow the average voter to understand what is at stake, Moore uses irony to stir emotions. I reviewed "Capitalism: A Love Story" here on October 11, 2009.

Matt Damon reads the narration with conviction. I could not tell if he relished or regretted describing the insidious manner in which schools like Harvard (Damon's Alma mater for a year) earn millions in consulting positions that conflict with their interests as educators. 

(I wish the final image was not of the Statue of Liberty.  There are so many things worth fighting for, but Lady Liberty is a lazy image for those things, especially when millions of our tired, poor, huddled masses still yearn to breathe free.)

Once again, I highly recommend "Inside Job". Make a special trip if necessary.

KevinPhillips in his masterly“Wealth and Democracy” argues that a few common factors
seem to support“wealth waves” - a fascination with technology (an Anglo-Saxon thing
according to him), the role of creative finance, a cooperative government, an
international dimension of immigrants and overseas conquests invigorating wealth
creation, the rule of law, and patenting inventions. Often these wealth waves involve
great complexity.

WHY THE PLUTONOMY WILL GET STRONGER WHERE IT EXISTS, PERHAPS ATTRACT NEW COUNTRIES We posit that the drivers of plutonomy in the U.S. (the UK and Canada) are likely to
strengthen, entrenching and buttressing plutonomy where it exists. The six drivers of the
current plutonomy: 1) an ongoing technology/biotechnology revolution, 2) capitalist-
friendly governments and tax regimes, 3) globalization that re-arranges global supplychains with mobile well-capitalized elites and immigrants, 4) greater financial
complexity and innovation, 5) the rule of law, and 6) patent protection are all well
ensconced in the U.S., the UK, and Canada. They are also gaining strength in the
emerging world.