Saturday, August 28, 2010

"The Hours" Revisited--A Film Journal

(Grab a tall drink, kick back, and enjoy for a while.  If you’ve not seen “The Hours” do it now, or beware of spoilers.)



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I love the film of Michael Cunningham's "The Hours". I just looked at it again last week.


I revisit great, favorite films all the time...Especially since my trips to the theater are dwindling, owing to a lack of pictures that interest me, or that sustain my creative spark, or that feed my mind or heart...



"The Hours" transports me to new worlds, and helps shed light on my own. It entertains me with seamless craft, and inspires me with that craft. It is a complete movie experience for me.



This is less a review than a tribute, a re-discovery, and how I see it today, after many viewings.


The book was an easy but intricate read, requiring just one winter weekend to complete. Cunningham's formidable achievement was to update and modernize Virginia Woolf's novel "Mrs. Dalloway", and tell that story from the point of view of three female protagonists, each representing a different stage in the liberation of women.



Stephen Daldry's film version is exquisite and subtle. It's a latticework of connections between real and fictional characters. It blends poetic compositions to illustrate its enigmatic themes of freedom, fulfillment, and sacrifice. Dialogue is fraught with meaning, as are the silences in between. The subtleties of sound are as important as the dramatic, insistent music.


It is as introspective, and anticipatory, as a Bergman piece, but more accessible, if one watches it with active care. One may recall the intensity of Timothy Hutton's epiphany in "Ordinary People"; "The Hours" begins at this high pitch and sustains it for its running time.


It's a story of three women from three generations, whose kinship extends across the decades and whose experiences are universal.



 

Nicole Kidman is a revelation as the feminist hero and author Virginia Woolf. Now that the curiosity (and the jokes) surrounding Kidman’s makeup have faded, Kidman's work can be fully appreciated. She loses herself in this role. Her carriage, the modulation of her voice, the surprising variety of strength and gentility in her speech, the expressiveness of her eyes...all combine for a marvelous performance. Woolf wrote “Mrs. Dalloway” to examine life, and the choices one has to live or die. Woolf focused on one day to represent a woman's entire life, and by writing about one woman’s life, represented the universal experience of women. Woolf created a first sentence: "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself..." which, in "The Hours", resonates across generations. This is brilliantly dramatized in the film.




As Laura Brown, the 1950's housewife who is inspired by Woolf's novel, Julianne Moore communicates her ennui, boredom, and depression, her regret at leaving her son, and her longing to fulfill herself outside of the conventional expectations of wife and mother, with an inward look in her eyes, a tilt of her head, a quiet subduing of the primal emotions churning under her housewife's exterior. In her final scene, explaining and justifying the terrible choices she made to escape a deathly existence, she mesmerizes us with a brilliant monologue, delivered in barely a whisper.



 Meryl Streep is the synthesis of Woolf and her characters and the beneficiary of Woolf's and Mrs. Brown's struggles. As Clarissa Vaughn, she is the direct parallel to Dalloway, down to the nickname bestowed upon her by her former lover, the poet Richard, who is dying of AIDS. Clarissa embodies the modern woman, whose experience moves her beyond mere survival and establishment of independence, to the meaning of happiness itself.  Streep is always so good, and she is matched here by such superb actors all around, that it is possible to overlook her stunning achievement here, in what may be her most beautiful portrayal since "Sophie's Choice".



Why do we stay alive? According to Clarissa, we stay alive for one another...it is quite simply, "what we do". Each woman is confronted with her life, and the choices available to her for staying alive....The first one chooses to end her life to escape the impossible trap it has become. The second one decides to live, but escapes into a new identity, defying all societal expectations. The third one has evolved beyond the necessity to conform, but must accept the loss of a loved one who chooses to die; in doing so, she arrives at the doorstep of a happiness that has been around her all along.




Ed Harris is ferocious and heartbreaking as Richard, who in Woolf’s words is "the poet, the visionary". He must die, so another can live...again, Woolf's inspiration. The revelation of his identity, and the realization of how his character connects the others, is a profound and breathtaking moment in the film. To those familiar with “Mrs. Dalloway”, Richard’s fate still shocks us, even as we have come to expect it.



The way this film is structured is at once delicate and necessary....every image, every cut, in some way relates one time period to another, and connects all to "Mrs. Dalloway" and Woolf's philosophy. Motifs appear and connect to each other: flowers (for parties) and eggs (to prepare food for parties) are feminine symbols.


The flowers Mrs. Dalloway/Clarissa buys "herself" are a symbol of independence. Woolf has flowers arranged for her by her housekeepers, on whom Virginia is dependent. She poignantly places a single flower on the grave of the delicate dying bird in the garden. Mrs. Brown's husband buys the birthday flowers instead of his wife, depriving her of her ability to fulfill her most basic role.  Flowers are freedom, are "possibility".


Eggs may well represent fertility, and the breaking of eggs is the visual and aural representation of loss and regret. When Woolf's cooks break eggs during a tense exchange, it constantly reminds us of Virginia's fragility. Julianne Moore's Brown is not seen using eggs for her husband's cake; instead, her neighbor (Toni Colette) confides that she has an ovarian cyst, and Brown's physical reaction to her friend's bad news reveals a passion that she must pursue by sacrificing everything. Mrs. Dalloway breaks the eggs herself, and separates the yolks, and she lets them slip off her fingers so sadly as she recounts her love affair with Richard, that the brief image is unforgettable.




"The Hours" is expertly edited to establish these constant connections between characters....All three women are planning parties...one character washes her face and in the next cut another face comes into frame...the sound of a dog barking in the Woolf garden reminds us that Mrs. Brown's friend asked her to walk her dog...astute viewers may hear the little boy's name called, and understand his function to the entire story... All three women struggle to share a kiss with another woman, with varying repercussions.

Each period is photographed in a different color scheme with varying sharpness or softness of focus, to easily identify each each sequence, even as we're being reminded of another.

Phillip Glass' score, which pulses and grabs us deeply, also helps to tie together the separate stories and unifies them thematically. It is, to me, one of the most effective uses of movie music to represent the drama that unfolds quietly, but shatters each character inwardly.


This is moviemaking of taste and passion, carefully building scenes to grand perfection. There is not one wasted moment...each piece is perfectly in place...there is suspense, catharsis, and time for contemplation of universal human truths that most of us prefer to ignore. And to those who accept the film's invitation to ponder these characters' mysteries, the experience is stimulating, and oddly comforting.



In terms of my preoccupations and ideas about re-invention, "The Hours" stands as a beacon (the reference to the lighthouse as connected to Virginia Woolf is intended). Virginia Woolf knew that her demons would consume her in the boredom of the suburbs and needed the creative stimulation of city life. Lacking that, she lived vicariously through her characters in "Mrs. Dalloway", and then, "looked life in the face, knew it for what it was, and then put it away." Laura Brown felt that society would not forgive her for breaking free of her role as a wife and mother, but "chose life" for herself, and sacrificed everything to start anew. Clarissa Vaughn had the independence and the means to be happy, and functioned at high levels, but needed a close re-evaluation of her life, saw it clearly for what it was, and accepted it.




A marvel of a film...and I welcome your thoughts, and discussion.










Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Oliver, A New Shelter Pup-- Tuesday Journal


When you spend time in an animal shelter, working with dogs, the events of the world disappear, and what finally matters most are all of the unfortunate animals in your midst.  Even the irrational cruelty of humans, which can be seen in the eager, inquisitive faces of the dogs in your care, is overcome by the immediacy of the need in front of you.  That cruelty is a silent reminder which permeates the atmosphere, a reminder of what makes you come here each week or more.  

You accept the crescendo of barking and baying, the wildness of  pent-up dogs on their walks, the spilled water, the accidents, the snarls, and the signs of abuse, because you are certain that you provide comfort and love to these amusing, playful, confused and frightened animals. 

That may be why I experience an unusual calm after my shift at the Buddy Foundation; for a couple hours I have avoided all the world's nasty politics, the unstable global economy, the danger of tyrants from Iraq to Washington DC, the dispiriting popular culture, and the stress of career.  And it has done some good to help these helpless dogs, all of whom I love like crazy.

And the reward is often a singular and life-affirming encounter with a puppy like Oliver.  A beagle weighing about five pounds, this little guy bonded with me like a duckling for its mother, following me, peeing happily in my presence, climbing on my lap, and sitting quietly in my arms as I carried him out to the yard.

It was immediate love for both of us. The moment I walked in the puppy room, he ran to me and wanted contact, putting his paws on me, licking my face and running around me in that awkward puppy manner.  I don't think my voice has ever been so gentle since we had Maggie.  He ate his food like a trooper, sat with me on the lawn, and made me a present--unfortunately, once we got back inside (!)


Friends have asked me why I have not yet given a loving home to a creature like Oliver.  Just between my readers, and I, I have gone back several times to see a favorite, maybe to convince myself of the rightness our bond; and always, that dog has been adopted. It's bittersweet...you want them all to have good homes, and yet you will miss them.

So why wait so long?  Considering the difficult lives these dogs have had, it is extra important to make a good decision.  With Mark and I in the thick of our careers, we will not take in an animal and leave it alone most of the day.  We must weigh the goodness of having a heart filled with love romping in our home, against realizing the dream of  our finally being able to travel.  We want to be certain of a reliable caregiver when we do go away. 

And there is the pain that lingers from Maggie's departure....Can I endure that intensity of loss again?

But all of this melts away as I look at Oliver's eyes, and feel him breathing in my arms, sitting contented and safe there.  Yes...it will happen some day soon. 

But Oliver is so charming, he will not stay long at the shelter.  For us, it's just too soon, and he will not be ours, I'm afraid.

Do you remember "Goodbye Mr. Chips"?  Chips, the schoolmaster of a boy's boarding school, is asked if he missed not having children.  His response can be re-written to aptly describe my feelings, about my fulfillment at the shelter....

"...a pity I never had children? But you're wrong...I have...thousands of them....and all boys!"
  
At the Buddy Foundation I have dozens of "children"...all dogs.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

"Do You Have a V-8 Darling, I Am DESPERATE"!--Movies and Smoking, a Sunday Journal

Had Liza Minnelli asked Michael York for a vegetable juice instead of a cigarette in "Cabaret", movie history might have crashed and burned.  Yet Sally Bowles, apparently, was a secret operative for the tobacco industry, "initiating" kids like me into the evils of smoking.

From the SmokeFree Movies Web Site (University of California San Francisco):
...in 2008, after the most comprehensive review of the science to date, the US National Cancer Institute went even further. It concluded:
"The total weight of evidence from cross-sectional, longitudinal, and experimental studies indicates a casual relationship between exposure to depictions of smoking in movies and youth smoking initiation."

Two things here....


First, it's fine to study the effects of movie images on young people.  If research shows that smoking in movies proves detrimental to the health of kids and teens, then it is admirable to make public that research.  I don't call for censorship, but a stronger effort to limit the types of film material that is exposed to younger viewers without adult guidance. 


(The article above goes back to the 1970 ban on TV cigarette advertising, when studies even then showed a correlation between exposure to advertising and an earlier onset of smoking.  The piece goes on to suggest that the tobacco industry turned to Hollywood movies as vehicles for cigarette product placement, which was not outlawed along with the TV ban. Thus, Big Tobacco found a way to work around the ban, and smoking scenes steadily increased into the early 2000's.)

The second point is: of all of the things that should be scrutinized and controlled to protect younger viewers, on-screen smoking would seem to be rather benign as compared to other movie images that may be more dangerous to emulate. We brush off scenes depicting binge drinking, reckless driving, grotesque mistreatment of people, and laugh it off as just the conventions of comedy or horror or action, and should not be taken seriously. 

If we can prove that movie images affect behavior, then critics need to focus a little bit less on the smoking issue and more on the real morbid material.  We may have no idea how silently traumatized kids are at movie images that adults take in stride.  Why not measure and control images of gun use; alcohol consumption; drug use; torture; misogyny; homophobia? Kids are finding and watching this stuff, even with the most restricted ratings.


Come on, what would us young moviegoers (of a certain age) have done had we been denied the pleasures of watching Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Liza Minnelli, Marlene Dietrich, --so many legends --with their cigarettes?   And by the way, to the critics and alarmists on this issue, many of us never took up the habit.

I guess it's okay to depict mutilation, and that sort of thing, as long as the performers aren't lighting up.


Saturday, August 21, 2010

A "Mosque" and Obama's Religion: Coddling the Dangerously Ignorant

I see a connection between the furor over building a Muslim community center (containing a mosque) in lower Manhattan, and the controversy over some polls that show about a fourth of Americans believe Barack Obama is Muslim.

Both of these "news" items were manufactured to distract a willfully uninformed electorate from the lack of solutions our elected "leaders" have to address America's failing economy, education system, and infrastructure.

But that isn't the connection I have in mind.

Simply, we are allowing racism and  ignorance to guide public discourse.

Creating a furor over the proposed cultural center, just because it is sponsored by a Muslim organization (and has a mosque inside of it), belies the carelessness and cynicism of a public that continues to equate a single religion with the terrorist act on September 11, and doing so to perpetuate fear, and sway opinion through self-righteousness. 

This is nothing more than morally bankrupt politicians, who prey on the ignorance of what seems to be an increasingly uneducated public, to garner votes.

Obama's religion is an even bigger So What.  Except that the media, and especially Obama's supporters, are going out of their way to "reassure" people that Obama is "really a Christian"....  The implication here being that he is certainly not one of those nasty Muslims....

Really?  Is it easier, and more politically expedient, for the President's handlers and the media to assuage the uninformed back into their misconceptions, by convincing them that there really isn't a monster under their beds?  Isn't this pandering to the basest, most obvious prejudice?  Or are a sizeable block of voters really that far beyond reason?...Is this the issue that will elect or unseat a politician?

Doesn't anyone see that these two "issues" represent a form of sanctioned racism?



Poll Shows More Americans Wrongly Believe Obama Is Muslim




Confusion about the president's beliefs appears to be growing among the population, according to a new poll from the nonpartisan Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The poll found that 18 percent of those surveyed wrongly identified Obama as Muslim, up from 11 percent in March 2009. At the same time, the number of Americans who said they believed, correctly, that Obama is Christian has declined from 48 percent in March 2009 to 34 percent today. But 43 percent of Americans now say they don't know what Obama's religion is at all.
The Pew poll was conducted between July 21 and Aug. 5, before Obama weighed in on the controversial plan to build an Islamic center near the site of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.
The misinformation continues to exist despite the president's own declarations of his Christian faith and the statements of his spiritual advisers.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Blagojevich and the Jury--Tuesday Journal


Disgraced former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich scored a backhanded victory yesterday when a jury failed to agree on 23 of the 24 charges leveled against him in his corruption trial. The only count on which he was convicted, lying to the FBI in 2005, carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

Before the dust had settled on the declaration of a mistrial on the other 23 counts, there were vows of re-trial and appeal.  This time, of course, a retrial would involve taxpayer money rather than private sources of funding.


I say, let's focus on the one conviction, and get him out of the public eye for five years.


Here is a guy who loved fame and celebrity and appearance, and assumed he could coast on charm, while the state of Illinois continued to slide into near-bankruptcy.  (If not for a constitutional guarantee that teacher pensions will be paid, many retired State employees who were mandated into the pension system would lose their main source of income.)  Psychologists have characterized Blagojevich as having a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. 


Hearing him discussed on an NPR panel, I saw the image of Eric Roberts' portrayal of the tacky Paul Snider in "Star-80". Blagojevich killed no one, only slaughtered the already vulnerable reputation of the state of Illinois.



The jury's two-week deliberation in the case was difficult at best.  According to news reports, the jury's lone dissenting voice on some of the counts, (including the charge that Blagojevich attempted to sell the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he was elected to the Presidency) was a "retired woman" who echoed the lackluster opinion heard on some Chicago streets: "He is a sleaze, and he spoke unwisely, but did his actions really constitute a crime?"


(There was no Henry Fonda with the fateful switchblade to sway the last holdout, like in "12 Angry Men".)



On other counts, the jury was more evenly split, but not consistently across the board.

 
To those who have followed the impeachment, indictment, and trial as reported in various media, it appeared that the Prosecution had a solid case against Rod Blagojevich.  The Defense offered a weak case, to say the least, and bragged after the verdict that they in fact offered no defense whatsoever, and the jury still could not agree on any criminal activity.  I don't buy the notion that Blagojevich was simply all bluster, that he was just doing what politicians do everywhere, and that no crimes were committed.


And that leads me to wonder: what type of persons could have had so little knowledge about the events surrounding this case that they would have been deemed "objective" enough to serve on the jury?


The Sixth Amendment provides for "a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed."  Interestingly, while the idea of a "jury of one's peers" has entered the American lore, it is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution.




And so, I struggle with the paradox of our jury system as it is still utilized.  The pervasiveness of news, from the TV to the Cell phone, all but assures that any potential juror who is not familiar with a high profile case such as this one may not have the critical skills necessary to analyze its nuances.  Add to that the complexity of the law, and one wonders if anyone who is not well-versed in legal jargon is equipped to hear such a case.

In addition, jurors are often inconvenienced, separated from job and family, badly compensated for time and effort, and subject to conditions that are uncomfortable. And in a world of rampant corruption, even jurors can't automatically be assumed to be above the fray.


Is this the best way to serve justice? 


While I am not yet a proponent of the idea of Professional Juries, we have come to a tipping point in which technology and the incredible complexity of the world demands that we re-evaluate the manner by which we select jurors, and customize this process based on the specific requirements of the case.  We must keep up with so much in our culture, it seems irrational to let the jury system remain antiquated.  It does no one any good, neither defendant, public, nor juror alike, to ask anyone without the knowledge required to assess a particular case to render a judgment in it.


Jurors need to have the information and knowledge necessary to accurately hear and interpret specific cases. A balance must be achieved between complete, "objective" ignorance, on one hand, and the attainment of an educational level that allows the juror to remain open-minded, and not unduly swayed by media.  A re-working of the initial survey would be in order.  Maybe we should return to the idea of "a jury of one's peers" in earnest.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Mercy..."Hope"...and Happy Endings...Animal Shorts for Monday

Last weekend, we dodged raindrops while attending Market Days on Chicago's Halsted Street in Boys' Town.   Market Days is an annual summer street festival to draw business into the North Side neighborhood just a few blocks from Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs.

The drive into the city and the inconvenience of the rain were worth the special trip we made to see a couple of specific exhibitors: in addition to the Windy City Gay Chorus (Mark's rehearsals for the Winter Concert begin in September), I found the booth for Mercy for Animals.  It was another in a series of small moments that may change the course of my life.

I discovered that the Chicago headquarters is an unmarked building.  The organization is run from a modest private space. The volunteers at the booth that Sunday morning, Mikael and Sarah, were extremely welcoming, even while it was necessary to grab the upper beams of their tent-booth to prevent it from blowing down in the stormy wind.

They inspired me to new levels of action...I will be out there in the months ahead, distributing information, trying new meatless recipes and promoting them among friends, and staying informed on-line.  I will never carry an undercover camera--I leave that to fellow volunteers of stronger mettle--but I sense a real chance to find a practical way to express this helpless love I feel for these creatures...

This was my first face-to-face contact with volunteers from this group after my eyes were opened a few weeks ago to the indescribable plight of animals in industrial farms. I wrote about and posted a video of the torture of dairy cows, and the images have not left me, nor ceased to make me angry and sad. Some of the literature I received detailed the mistreatment of pigs, chickens, and cattle, along with disturbing photos taken during the groups' undercover investigations.

Their efforts to expose and change these practices is taking hold:

 
"Today great progress was made to lessen the suffering of millions of farmed animals in Ohio – progress that is a direct result of the tireless effort of our volunteers and supporters....Just recently, once it became known that animal advocates had gathered enough signatures to put the initiative on the ballot, animal agriculture finally agreed to discuss meaningful reforms...." 
(Among the recommendations that have been adopted:)
•A moratorium on permits for new battery cage confinement facilities for laying hens.•Regulations regarding the manner in which sick and injured farmed animals can be killed, including a ban on strangulation. •A ban on the transport of downer cows for slaughter. •Enactment of legislation establishing felony-level penalties for cockfighters. •Enactment of legislation cracking down on puppy mills
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On July 11 a giraffe was born in the Topeka Kansas Zoo, her legs turned 180 degrees in the wrong direction.  Veterinarians fitted her with prosthetic hooves, so now she can walk and even gallop like a normal giraffe.  Zoo officials named her "Hope". 

This, to me, is the most noble application of science...

Here's the segment that was broadcast on the "Today" show last week:




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Michael Vick's fighting dogs, many of them injured, aggressive, some frightened (they are known as "pancake dogs" because they fall flat to the floor when a human approaches) are getting a second chance.  Many of them are adoptable as pets; some are working as rehabilitation dogs in hospitals. Some are assisting children by letting the kids read to them.  With patience and care, most of these rescued animals are getting a second chance at a life that dogs deserve.

Here's a brief but moving article from USA Today:

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Is the Blog in Decline?--A Friday Journal


An article in this week's Newsweek was dashing my hopes for the future of blogs.

Almost a year ago I started this blog.

I love books and traditional modes of publishing.  I resisted the idea of a blog (web-log) on philosophical grounds, insisting that like most technology it was a passing fad, and that folks were too impatient for the latest gadget to make blogs work in the long term.  Blogs were for narcissists, I thought, or were too immediate to demand deeper thought, or were published so quickly as to provide little time for fully developed writing.

But after a while, the thought of making immediate connections with readers through my original writing was attractive, and so I decided to at least look into it more.

After inspiration in the form of Arianna Huffington's Book of Blogging, and a few trips to my favorite Huffington Post, I researched and found the easiest and most manageable blog instrument, and got started.



I decided to use the blog as a personal journal, a way to experiment with different forms of writing, to develop pieces on topics I loved, to write outside my comfort zone at times, to have fun with pictures and links, and to make friends and connections.

It shaped up into a journal I have grown fond of, and I have worked hard at it, and provided the best writing I was capable of creating, and tried to do even better.   I confirmed that while writing is my great love, editing is my passion, and I labored for hours on many pieces to get just the exact right word, the perfect rhythm, and went over and over some pieces even after they were "published".  I am thrilled that I have actual followers who comment...and I have learned much from fellow web-loggers.

I felt that I was taking the first step in a concerted effort to reinvent myself, stay relevant, and more completely develop my love (and modest talent) for writing, especially my beloved film essays, and sentimental pieces about dogs and animals.

Now, according to Newsweek, "Amateur blogs, the original embodiment of Web democracy, are showing signs of decline......about 95% of blogs are launched and quickly abandoned.  A recent Pew study found that blogging has withered as a pastime, with the number of 18- to 24-year-olds who identify themselves as bloggers declining by half between 2006 and 2009."

So now the pride of my re-invention process was about to reveal me to be a dinosaur!!

I refuse to believe it...and so should all devoted bloggers everywhere.

For a guy like me whose interests are broad and who moves quickly between them, blogging has helped me prove my devotion to a purely creative activity on a regular basis.  My portfolio is on line for the whole world to see.  It's not as glamorous as being on-stage basking in the applause of an audience, but it is just as exhausting sometimes!  And a comment to me is like a standing ovation.

The Newsweek piece hit me at first as particularly discouraging, in an odd way vindicating my original disdain for the form as too temporary, not fit for perseverance, and doomed to the scrap heap of past technologies.

But there is so much that is exciting on my fellow blogger's sites, so much dynamic discourse, experiment, and dissent, that I conclude that this form is not going to go away entirely. 



Maybe there is a place for a new kind of hybrid shop....in which readers may browse blogs the same way they browse books in a bookstore....a new industry of blog-publishers who can fashion "book-covers" for thousands of blogs, with some kind of flash drive contained within, so a reader may "purchase" the blog, and once loaded into a computer or reader, it keeps getting updated as the blogger keeps writing. 

This will satisfy those who, blessedly, care to browse, and hold the work in one's hands, even sample a bit, and purchase it in a public shop, with the welcome distraction and potential human contact inherent in the best bookstore experience....

Anyway, until I find a way to make that naive dream a reality, I for one will keep going here....

Thursday, August 12, 2010

"Inception" and the "Generation Gap"--Wednesday Journal




Tonight I'm catching up with a story I read last week, written by Patrick Goldstein, "INCEPTION Reveals Generation Gap" (August 4, Tribune Newspapers).

Goldstein maintains that the film "Inception" divides audiences young and old, and he unwittingly maintains that young people may have a special ability to understand the film while older viewers are too quick to dismiss it because their age makes them less able to penetrate its density. 

While I enjoyed the article for trying to make sense of this sudden "Inception" phenomenon, I found it to be a surprisingly simple-minded argument, one that ignores the fact that practically all popular arts, especially music and film,
have appealed to specific generations.  But what is new is not always groundbreaking or visionary, or what's "hip" will not always endure for decades, or mark significant strides in the art form.  The work that initially divides the public, but endures for generations, often has resonance beyond the work itself.

It's no surprise that "Inception" is hugely popular with young people, especially gamers.

More and more, contemporary motion pictures blur the line between the conventional drama and the video game.  Plots have given way to a dense interactive visual experience.  There is less reliance on location shooting,  outdoors or on sets, so that these films have an artificial surface sheen, an  industrial color scheme, with the visual sense of comic books or music videos.  There's an overabundance of sweeping "camera" movement that is becoming a cliche.

The writing in these films serves primarily as exposition, necessary only to establish the ground rules of the action; otherwise there is little need for dialogue.  Images are edited for pure sensation rather than dramatic movement, giving viewers the adrenaline rush of an amusement park ride (and often the residual nausea).  All is enhanced by music that functions more as a sound effect, and sound that is designed for maximum distraction.  Actors, when not used as "templates" for the technology of motion capture (introduced in "Avatar"), are secondary to the computer-generated special effects, explosions and cacophony.

"Inception",  like Christpher Nolan's previous "Dark Knight", "The Matrix", and countless knock-offs in between, looks  as though it could have been created completely within a computer.  Instead of offering a wider view of the world, with attitudes to challenge our own, with characters that can put us in touch with our own human condition and with ideas that could enhance, even change, our way of seeing reality, contemporary movies are imploding, reducing the world to the mundane experience of staring at a computer screen or smart phone, with no attention paid to human interaction, love and sexuality, violence in society, or a broader world-view.

It is natural that the audience that feels most comfortable with "Inception", a film that replicates the use of a computer, would be the demographic that spends a lot of time looking at a digital screen;  mostly younger people.  The film was also heavily marketed on-line, creating a strong desire among the computer-age demographic to see it, and (so as not to feel left out) to champion it.

While "Inception" certainly was elaborate, and held a certain fascination if only in concept, the film itself would not seem to inspire long-term loyalty except among the most rabid fans and techno-geeks.

I was most interested in Golstein's remarks on films that connected with young people and created heated debates between critics and filmgoers across the generational divide.  Movies like "The Wild Bunch", "Clockwork Orange", "Taxi Driver", "Bonnie Clyde", were both products of a cultural revolution as well as change agents in the culture.  They were threatening to older viewers, and connected with young people because they used the new freedoms from censorship to attempt a more honest portayal of life than was ever possible before in the cinema.  Movies were no longer "safe" entertainment.

I did take exception to Goldstein's comparison of "Inception" to breakthrough films like "2001" or "Bonnie and Clyde" that divided critics--and generations--in the past.  Here's why I think there's a huge difference between the enthusiasm for those classics and the flash-in-the-pan that is "Inception":

Then, as now, the country was divided.  But unlike today, society was newly, dangerously divided along generational as well as ideological lines, moreso even than today.  Films like "Bonnie and Clyde" were brave in their attempt to portray in fictional terms the conflicts that erupted around us, to comment on and  make sense of  difficult contemporary issues, and to become part of the cultural conversation. 

Pictures like the ones Goldstien cites, like  "Bonnie and Clyde" "The Wild Bunch", films by Bergman and Godard, were inspired by or  outraged over issues that were changing the world: Our attitudes toward sexuality and morality; the effects of violence in our culture and the tensions that saw its rise; the morality of war in Southeast Asia and the alienation of young people against the hawkishness of their elders; the rumblings in the streets as civil rights issues exploded; the political corruption that resulted in riots at our conventions ;  the role of art in society and the flouting of traditions to shake up our perceptions, to remind us of the difficulties outside the theater rather than placate us; the meaning of "being human" and the lacerating self-reflection that stirred debate and conversation from the dorm room to the coffee house.

Young people were more passionate about these issues and changing them, so they embraced these films in a special way, not just because the visuals were "cool", or the plots doubled back on themselves.

Inception", on the other hand, exists so much within its own self-contained, sexless, colorless closed system, that any attempt to penetrate it to bring some light into our own world's struggle is futile.  "Inception" has no interest in politics, gender, world events, nothing whatsoever beyond the video-game boundaries it has constructed.  (Maybe that would have been enough if the film were singularly beautiful...and I don't believe it is.)

Thus, to viewers who love film and regard movies as an original frame on the world, the film industry's pandering to a demographic whose world goes little beyond its text or Facebook or gaming screens, is a little disconcerting.  For supposedly thoughtful critics to attempt to add undeserved importance to a faddish puzzle like "Inception" is short-sighted.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Animal Triumphs and Odd Stories....Monday Journal #2

--A few months ago at the Buddy Foundation, where I volunteer in the Dog area, feeding, walking and loving the dogs, we took in a black Pit Bull named Duchess, who had been terribly abused. 

As I spent time with her and she grew accustomed to me enough to look forward to my weekly visits, romping in the yard, sitting quietly or chewing a toy, I developed a fondness for this dog, a sweet and gentle creature who harbored no anger at her horrible mistreatment.  She forgave her tormentor through me, I guess, and treated me like a member of her pack.

Well, Duchess was adopted last week!  In a way, I wish I could have taken her myself.  But now I am happy that she found a caring couple of souls with a big yard and bigger hearts to show this terrific little animal the sweet life she deserves.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *   
Last week I read an item about a man who found out he had diabetes---in the most bizarre way I have ever heard.  Diabetics are prone to numbness in the legs and feet due to vascular disease, and small injuries often become serious enough to warrant amputation. 


A man in Michigan had fallen asleep after having had a little too much alcohol, and when he awoke, his big toe was gone...and he discovered that it had been consumed by his Jack Russell Terrier.

A kind of jaw-dropper, any way you slice it......



*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *
I saw a sobering report last week about seven puppies who died in the cargo hold of an American Airlines flight out of Tulsa.  In reading several articles about this tragic event, I was surprised by how many animals perish this way.  More than that, I was surprised that animals are allowed to be transported like this at all.

When Maggie was still with us and we traveled, we made sure that some kind soul would stay with her, and allow her her routine in her own home. That's my rationale, too, for offering my services as an in-home pet-sitter.  I could not leave my special friend behind in a boarding cage.  And if we had to travel with her for any reason, we would take her in the car with us.  Although she was fidgety sometimes, she still was reassured by our presence, and we could see to her needs.

Maggie's presence is still felt strongly in our home.  The love I still have for her is expressing itself in a variety of ways, through volunteering at the shelter, reading articles about animal care or unusual incidents, or in making gradual contact with organizations like Mercy for Animals.  I took a big step this weekend by meeting with volunteers of this organization at a Chicago Market Days festival.  I will report on this in an upcoming post this week.  

Meanwhile, greetings to Mikael and Sarah.  

First the Soldiers, Now Their Families: The Don't Ask Don't Tell Repeal "Survey"

Sunday, August 15, is the deadline for Active-Duty Military Personnel to complete the survey about gays in the military that was distributed after the House voted to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell. (The complete survey can be found here.)

Soon thereafter, family members of Military Personnel will also be surveyed.

All of this is overkill, and it's offensive. 

As I wrote soon after the House vote included a provision for the pentagon to complete a "comprehensive study" on the effects of DADT vs. allowing gays to serve openly, this is a stall tactic, designed to give members of congress who oppose the repeal a way to excuse their lack of support.  Meanwhile, gays who "come out" are still being discharged.

The survey does not ask the respondents if they themselves are gay. It asks nothing about whether the discharge of over ten thousand openly gay service people has harmed unit efficiency or morale.

The idea of a survey in itself is offensive.  This policy could have been ordered to be repealed, just as a racially segregated military was ordered decades ago.  A survey about attitudes toward serving with any other ethnic or religious group would not be tolerated. And, as if they understood the outright waste of time and money of the survey, the response rate as of two weeks ago was only ten per cent.

Here is a sample of the questions in the early part of the survey, which appers to be relatively objective:




Throughout this survey, "gay or lesbian" and "homosexual" are used interchangeably.
Do you currently serve with a male or female Service member you believe to be homosexual?


Yes


No


In answering the next few questions, think about all of the units you have served with during your military career.


In your career, have you ever worked in a unit with a leader you believed to be homosexual?


Yes


No


In your career, have you ever worked in a unit with a coworker you believed to be homosexual?


Yes


No
 
Among all the factors that affect a unit’s performance, how much did the unit members’ belief that this coworker was gay or



lesbian affect the unit’s performance?


A lot


Some


A little


Not at all


No basis to judge

But by the time the following questions are posed, it is apparent that the whole slant of the survey is to stigmatize the idea of "homosexuals" as members of a unit: 

If Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is repealed and you are assigned to share a room, berth or field tent with someone you believe to be a gay or lesbian Service member, which are you most likely to do? Mark 1.


Take no action


Discuss how we expect each other to behave and conduct ourselves while sharing a room, berth or field tent


Talk to a chaplain, mentor, or leader about how to handle the situation


Talk to a leader to see if I have other options


Something else


Don't know


If you selected 'Something else', please specify below:






If a wartime situation made it necessary for you to share a room, berth or field tent with someone you believe to be a gay
or lesbian Service member, which are you most likely to do? Mark 1.


Take no action


Discuss how we expect each other to behave and conduct ourselves while sharing a room, berth or field tent


Talk to a chaplain, mentor, or leader about how to handle the situation


Talk to a leader to see if I have other options

No one asked any Active Duty member or their families what they would be likely to do if a wartime situation made it necessary to kill someone....or risk being mutilated or killed...or witness the fatal wounding of a friend.....  Apparently, serving with openly gay personnel is so much worse, so much more stressful, that for the first time in its history, military brass is afraid to give a simple order.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Prop-8 Struck Down In California--Weekend Journal


I am reminded of the final line in Part 1 of "Angels in America", delivered by the Angel as s/he descends on Prior Walter in visitation:


"The great work begins."


Judge Vaughn's ruling effectively overturning the ban on gay marriage in California is the end of a trial, but the beginning of a struggle that could decide the future for same-sex couples for generations.


With the confirmation of Elena Kagan to the US Supreme Court, the split along ideological lines would seem to be intact. 


And therein lies an insidious irony:


Conservatives argue that Judge Vaughn should have recused himself because, as a gay man, the judgment he rendered could not be impartial.  They also insist that Supreme Court Justices be completely impartial, with no opinions whatsoever; and so they refused to support Kagan's nomination on the basis of potential "activism" and "bias" in her court decisions.  The irony here is that the SCOTUS is a partisan as ever; there is so little expectation that the current Justices will rule in a case except according to party lines, that most assume that the Gay Marriage appeal to the Court will be decided by the swing vote of one judge: Anthony Kennedy.


Although I believe Judge Vaughn's decision is a milestone, and will be a necessary and measured piece of thinking during the appeal, I remain, as always, cautious.


Just as the House of Representatives' vote to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell has not yet stopped military discharges (Lt. Dan Choi is the latest high-profile victim), there is no guarantee that the nation's highest court will overcome its ideological blinders in the gay Marriage case.  Ideally ( and idealistically) however,  the court has a duty to protect the Civil Rights of citizens beyond the irrational thinking and superstition of the electorate, the "tyranny of the majority".  This is not an issue to be decided in the voting booth. 






As far as the Executive Branch, Mr. Obama has a tricky line to walk.  A large segment of voters who supported Prop. 8 are the same minority voters the President needs to have any hope of winning a second term.  He is inextricably linked to these voters, and they represent a voting block larger than the gay and lesbian constituents who nevertheless fought hard to elect him.  It's unfortunate, but Obama is doing the politically expedient thing by keeping his response to the California trial muted. 


It's no wonder many of Obama's gay supporters feel confused and betrayed:

Asked for White House reaction to Wednesday’s ruling, spokesman Ben Labolt pointed out that President Barack Obama has publicly opposed the same-sex marriage ban “because it is divisive and discriminatory.” However, he said the President “will continue to promote equality for LGBT Americans.”
Nevertheless, Obama has also publicly opposed same-sex marriage, and a White House aide said the president’s position has not changed.
“He supports civil unions, doesn’t personally support gay marriage though he supports repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, and has opposed divisive and discriminatory initiatives like Prop. 8 in other states,” said the official, who asked not to be named.
It's unfortunate, to say the least, that Mr. Obama may not have to do much more for gay and lesbian constituents except ride out the present controversies over gay marriage, DADT and Employment Non-Discrimination with empty promises and platitudes.  Because in 2012, what other choice will we have?  Mr. Obama knows that, and sadly, so may we.


But it need not be so.  We can be aggressive, be more vocal...keep on writing....gathering....marching....

We can't rest satisfied simply because "it could be worse".  Gotta push a little....



Friday, August 6, 2010

Movies That make Me Cry...Inspired by Andrew at "Encore's World of Film.."


I follow some interesting and wonderful blogs that I am happy to showcase here.  One that captured my attention in a big way was a 30-day Movie Meme offered by Andrew at Encore's World of Film and Television. 

Topic #6 is Movies That Always Make You Cry.

As someone who gives himself freely and unashamedly to my emotions watching movies, this post is irresistable..

So before I plunge in to other topics that are crying out for me to discuss, I will take a little side trip of the heart,  and copy my own list of tear-jerkers, which also appears in the Comment (Walking in the Park) section of Andrew's post.

I liked Andrew's choices, especially THE HOURS, which has special resonance. 
Lots of movies make me cry. The biggest tear-wringers are these:


THE YEARLING (1946)..tearing up now just thinking about it! A boy loses his pet fawn, and childhood ends.


THE RED BALLOON (1956) Yes, a 30-minute children's film with no dialog, but the final image packs a wallop..




BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S (1961) Two people in love and a nameless cat in the rain, and "Moon River"...













SOPHIE'S CHOICE (1982)..We can't help but grieve for this woman...








HARRY AND TONTO (1974)...A lovely meditation on one's final years, and the bonds between man and animal.

 
A ROOM WITH A VIEW (1986)..Tears of nostalgia and joy!




BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005)..This most of all..my own heart exposed on the screen...an astonishing portrait of helpless regret.



Better stop here....before I start to wallow....