Three brief movie reviews

The Thinker by Rodin

Better late than never. Here are three more films I saw over the last few months that I didn’t remember to review at the time.

Life of Pi

This movie had a lot of buzz even before it was released. Director Ang Lee won Best Director for the movie. This is not surprising if you see the movie because it is an amazingly intimate story of a marooned young man and a tiger adrift together on a boat at sea. Many of the scenes with the tiger were done digitally, only it’s impossible to tell, which speaks volumes about the state of modern CGI today. Presumably the same is true of the other animals in this lifeboat, but it’s sure not big enough to be a Noah’s Ark. The hungry tiger finds the other animals easy meat, and has his eyes on Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) as well.

Pi has a curious tale to tell as an Indian boy, including a story about his unusual name. He is obsessed with religion and seems to move easily from one religion to the other, without being committed to any religion. He also does not believe in animal’s violent nature and is willing to put his life in danger by offering meat to a tiger to prove it, all without protection. This alarms his secular father (Adil Hussein) who tries various things to change his son’s mind, none of which work. His father jumps at the opportunity to take a job in England, but the freighter his family takes capsizes in a storm. Pi is one of the few to survive. His journey with the tiger on a boat quickly takes on metaphysical aspects while also being one of survival. The whole story sounds preposterous which raises the question of whether Pi is telling the truth or not, and whether the truth even matters.

This is the heart of the movie, which is certainly well done and brilliantly directed. Whether you find this idea worthy of pondering in detail for two plus hours depends on your philosophical disposition. The movie tries hard to challenge you to think on whether there is a meaningful difference between reality and allegory. In Pi’s eyes maybe not, and you may walk away from the movie a bit more mystical, if not misty eyed, by seeing the world through Pi’s eyes. At all times he seems half in reality, and half in the spiritual world. I found the movie interesting, but a bit overbearing at times. It is certainly not a product of Hollywood. If nothing else it is refreshing to see yet another talented non-American director bring us a story outside our insular American perspective. Kudos for that.

3.2 on my four-point scale.

The Way Back (2010)

This movie looked very promising from the trailers, but seeing that it was directed by Peter Weir (who I greatly admired for Dead Poets Society) cemented my decision to rent it. If you like real adventure movies (unlike pseudo-adventure movies, such as the Indiana Jones series) it would be hard to top this one. It details the true story of a group of prisoners at a Soviet labor camp in the middle of Siberia who escaped from the camp in the dead of winter and somehow walked more than four thousand miles to freedom.

My God but Siberia is a cold and snowy place in the dead of winter. Hell has to be better because it is at least warm. The conditions in the labor camp are austere, to say the least, the food incredibly bad and it is hundreds of miles from anywhere. Labor consists of working in filthy coal mines, otherwise you spend your life huddled in overcrowded barracks trying to stay warm. Escaping sounds crazy but a group of them with some extra bread, a knife and not much else but their clothes escape and keep heading south sans map and survive by their wits. In such harsh conditions you might expect not all would make it, and they might be imitating Hannibal Lecter when they get hungry enough. Their immediate destination is Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake in southern Siberia. When the survivors finally make it there they cannot stop. They are still escaped convicts. They must keep going south, through Mongolia and its endless deserts, and eventually through the Himalayan Mountains to freedom in northern India. Yes, some do actually make it, and it’s the journey that is worth witnessing. Wier succeeds in making their journey painfully realistic.

For the most part the actors are unknown, but you will recognize Ed Harris as Mr. Smith and Colin Farrell as Valka. Around Lake Baikal they encounter a woman who joins them, Irena (Saoirse Ronan) who is not quite who she seems and has a complex story to tell that slowly unravels. An adventure you will definitely get, but it’s an adventure in grisly survival. You should also glean an appreciation for the enduring human spirit and its determination to live another day. Along the way you will see some of the worst of mankind and some of its best. Mostly what you get is a lot of painful reality and a lot of beautiful if not cruel nature wholly indifferent to human concerns. It’s good stuff, if you have the stomach for a real-life drama, but to not expect any new insights into human behavior. 3.3 on my four-point scale.

Chocolat (2000)

It’s curious that in small French villages everyone speaks English, at least in movies produced elsewhere. At least they usually do it with a French accent. Even today rural France is a pretty conservative place, and it is more so in this somewhat dated movie of village life starring Juliette Binoche as Vianne Rocher, a divorcee who blows into the village where everything revolves around its Catholic church and its obsessively virtuous priest. Vianne’s implicit job is to breathe some life and reality into the stuffy town, and her mechanism is to open a chocolate shop. She compounds her sin by making sure it is open after mass on Sundays, to the great consternation of the village’s devout. Vianne is a mischievous charmer and is quickly perceived by the cleric as a moral threat to the village. Father Henri (Hugo O’Conor) is particularly upset by the woman, as it is Lent and he must fast and yet her chocolate demons are so conveniently across the street. He organizes a moral crusade to castigate her and force her to move elsewhere. Vianne is not easily intimidated, and she has a teenage daughter Anouk to look after as well.

The movie has occasionally serious undertones, but it is mostly about Vianne’s tweaking the sensibilities of the townspeople, and particularly its priest by having the audacity to be her liberated and secular self. There are a number of great supporting actors in this movie, some of who were just getting fully established in their careers at the time. These include Johnny Depp as the morally dubious Gypsy named Roux, who runs a riverboat that sells dubious goods and seems full of vices. Carrie Anne Moss plays her friend Caroline. One actor who was not just getting established is the wonderful Judy Dench, here portraying Armande, a woman with a horribly abusive husband who feels strangled in her marriage because Catholics aren’t allowed to divorce. Vianne is nice enough to befriend her.

The movie has an impish feel to it and Vianne is its ringmaster. She is charming, disarming, and confident in her supposedly immoral ways and like Roux she seems party Gypsy. She is in town mostly to turn up the soil and see what crawls out, and I think you will enjoy seeing what she unearths. This heartfelt movie has already become something of a foreign film charmer and won plenty of awards. Mostly it is just a movie to sit back and enjoy, full of flawed but very real people mostly bumbling through the roles they were assigned in life but secretly wanting to break free. Vianne is their catalyst.

3.3 out of four-points.

The Catholic Church is easing toward irrelevancy

The Thinker by Rodin

Many of us ex-Catholics tend to share a guilty secret: we still keep up on Vatican news. This is because if you are born a Catholic, whether you like it or not it leaves a big imprint on you. You try to tune out Catholic news and pretend the church’s actions don’t matter, or at least doesn’t affect you. But you can’t help yourself and tune into Vatican news stories, such as the first papal tweet. Being such an enormous institution with about a billion members across the planet, what happens in Rome is bound to make news. So it certainly was newsworthy when recently Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, the first pope to do so since 1415. The pope sites his declining health as a reason to resign. Naturally some Vatican watchers expect there are ulterior motives to this resignation, and coincidentally shortly thereafter an Italian newspaper published a lurid article on alleged gay sex scandals within the Vatican.

And so in mid March the College of Cardinals, 57% of who were appointed by Pope Benedict, will meet in Rome to decide who the next pontiff will be. Upon abdication, Benedict promises to disappear and devote himself wholly to prayer. It’s unclear what he has to pray so much about, and some of us would like to know. From recent statements he suggests shenanigans within the Vatican is much on his mind. Maybe its incestuous nature and intrigues became too much for him. Apparently he could not even trust his own butler, who ratted confidential papers to the press.

It’s hard for us on the outside to get a sense of what is going on inside the Vatican.  Depending on whose rumors you give credence to, it’s either nothing at all and business as usual or the Opus Dei clerics are duking it out the modernists. So far Opus Dei has been winning all the papal elections. That may change but Benedict has hardly proven himself to be a moderate. Betters would be wise to bet on more of the same. In an insular institution like the Catholic Church where those who can vote for pontiff have to be appointed by the pope suggest that creeping modernism will have no home in the Vatican, although gay sex within the Vatican may be as old as Opus Dei.

I ask myself increasingly if any of this really matters. In some ways it certainly does matter. The Catholic Church is a Jekyll and Hyde institution, capable of great Christ-worthy deeds while being guilty of unspeakable atrocities. I have witnessed the power of Catholic charities. Specifically back in the 1980s when we had a foster child, she was being managed through Catholic Charities. They did good work and arguably work that no one else would take on. So many religions talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk. One cannot say that about the Catholic Church, through affiliates like Catholic Charities and the many Catholic hospitals out there.

Then there is the Edward Hyde part of the Catholic Church, proof positive that absolute power corrupts absolutely: children sexually, emotionally and physically abused, sometimes with the cooperation of the state, such as occurred for decades in Ireland at church run laundries. There wayward or suspected wayward women worked as slaves in cloistered workhouses. The reaction to these decades if not centuries of scandals seems to be a watered down set of apologies, but little in the way of actual recompense. The church seemed much more concerned about covering up these abuses so the institution is not sullied than addressing them and preventing them from recurring. Actual restitution if it comes at all comes from civilian courts, and not from the church. And actual prevention might involve empowering the laity to oversee the clerics, something the church is loath to do.

There are lots of reasons for declining church attendance, at least here in the United States. Surely any parent reading about what the Catholic clergy have inflicted on innocent youth should be reticent to place too much trust in their local priest, particularly where accountability mechanisms are so weak. That should explain some of the drop. But much of it can also be explained as the institution has less to offer people that they find of value. It’s hard to put a premium on genuine salvation, but that does not seem to be on the mind as much of Catholics these days, who seem more concerned about getting through this life than some nebulous promise in the next life.

Increasingly Catholics are simply exercising selective deafness, tuning out those edicts they think are silly (such as on premarital sex, birth control and gay marriage) and tuning in those that feel less ephemeral, such as the church’s charitable institutions like Catholic Charities. The church, like most denominations, preaches a one stop shopping method for living and salvation. For the most part these days the laity seems to want their Catholicism a la carte instead. They figure if it works when they go shopping, why can’t it work with religion as well?

Of course there are plenty of traditional Catholics who like the prepackaged solution that the Catholic Church offers. That is the essence of a faith: to accept aspects of beliefs that a rational person might say are ludicrous. As a percent of total Catholics, these traditional Catholics are a declining share of the whole. This suggests, at least for the foreseeable future, that Catholics are likely to decline as a percent of the religious overall. Over a period of decades, particularly here in the United States, more Catholic churches may close due to lack of adherents. Those who remain are more likely to be orthodox but like Hassidic Jews, appear more bizarre to the rest of society.

One of the selling points of Catholicism is its claim to know eternal truths. It offers moral certainty in an uncertain world. And yet real life keeps crashing down on the Catholic Church, as it is an institution managed by flawed people, made worse in its case in that these flawed people are also highly and haughtily insular. While I am convinced that after two millenniums the Catholic Church will likely be around for another millennium, I am convinced its power is waning. It wanes not so much in the size of its congregants, but in its ability to control the behavior of its congregants. On some level it must change so it becomes more relevant to those it preaches to, or it is doomed to drift toward being a sect instead of a denomination.

I will guiltily watch the color of smoke rising from Vatican chimneys next month, but I am wondering when the next papal election comes around after this whether it simply won’t matter to me anymore. It is already mattering to me less than it did when Pope Benedict was elected.

When I cast around looking for beliefs on which to anchor my life, I see the certainty that Catholicism sells as simply false, and worse, dangerously false. There is no certainty about anything in our universe, with the exception of the laws of nature. I think the Buddhists are the only ones who got it right: everything in impermanent. To the extent that we can live a truly happy life, we first have to accept that.

Let’s put Willy Wonka back in the Chocolate Factory, M’kay?

The Thinker by Rodin

Willy, will you just go away?

Pretty much every day one of my Facebook friends, sometimes multiple Facebook friends, is posting a picture of Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder from the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, released in 1971) who is imperiously but smirkily telling me some perceived truth about the universe or human behavior. Willy never makes me laugh. Instead, Willy makes me want to slap his face silly, and I like Gene Wilder. He’s been the star of some of the funniest movies ever made, including The Producers and Young Frankenstein. He has got the crazy, manic but funny guy down cold. In fact, he owns this peculiar market. I’ve seen his Willy Wonka movie and it’s a decent one. It’s not the sort of children’s movie that you usually get in theaters and is delightfully subversive and naughty.

Forty two years later, Willy’s been wonked by pretty much anyone with a cause who wants to lord their superiority over your human weaknesses. Yes, you can create your own on the Willy Wonka Meme Generator site, plus you can view 267 pages of memes others have created by applying subtitles to the same Willy Wonka photo. In fact, I created one of my own to capture how I feel about these memes:

Willy Wonka wants to passive aggressively piss you off
Willy Wonka wants to passive aggressively piss you off

Now granted, I can be imperious too. Unlike some of the posters of these Willy Wonka memes, I am comfortable with the notion that I have imperfections. The impression I get is that many of those posting these Wonka captioned photos are that you want to lord it over us that because you feel you are our better. Only you cannot say so directly, so they let Willy tell you instead in his smirky, smarmy and captioned way. They “Share” it on FB as a joke, you see, but not because they actually mean to point fingers at you personally. Ha ha! It appears to be more likely they have some contempt toward some group not at all like them because they don’t do what they do, and they know better.

You can scan the WW meme site for plenty more of these, but among those that I have seen in Facebook personally are from vegans castigating people for eating meat, gun nuts, anti-gun nuts, Christians, anti-Christians, atheists, Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partiers, very skinny people upset that there are fat people out there without their ability to control portions, drunks, the abstemious — you get the picture. In case you don’t it won’t take you too much viewing of the WW meme site to figure it out. To put it politely, there are people out there with an axe to grind and hurt to inflict, and they are really quite upset and would prefer to hack away but they’re too nice. So they need a passive aggressive solution and use Willy Wonka to speak for them instead.

Which means, of course, that these posters are just as flawed as the people and groups they are indirectly skewering. Which is sort of the point of this post. We all have flaws. None of us are perfect, unless you count sons or prophets of God. So just by posting these Willy Wonka pictures, you are acknowledging a deficiency in yourself that you are probably too blind to see in yourself.

So here’s an idea: just don’t do it. Stop it. Or at least qualify your jabs. “I’m doing this to annoy you and people like you, but I acknowledge that I am not the fount of all wisdom.”

Vegans, acknowledge that you are pretty darn uppity about your eating habits. Acknowledge that being a vegan is not just about what you eat, but it’s an all-consuming lifestyle to you. You want everyone to be a vegan and you secretly think that anyone who is not is at some level indirectly cruel. (BTW, you don’t have to make every other Facebook post more Gospel about why being a vegan is so morally superior. We get it.)

The same goes for the rest of you. Gun nuts: not all of us who are for gun control want to live in a society where only police have guns. We just think that maybe having semi-automatic weapons with extended clips that can fire thirty shots in fifteen seconds is a bit too far when our founding fathers had inaccurate and slow to load rifles that depended on sparks from flint to work. Gun control nuts, acknowledge that there are plenty of responsible gun owners out there who don’t feel the need to turn their basements into arsenals or carry their assault rifles into Safeways in Charlottesville, Virginia. Christians, we unchurched understand you think we are going to Hell. We’ll take our chances. Atheists, as an agnostic I tend to sympathize with you guys, but you are as annoying and dogmatic as a born again Christian.

The bottom line is there are a lot of hurting people out there, so don’t keep piling it on, m’kay? And let’s put Willy Wonka back into his chocolate factory where he belongs and get him out of our meme generators.

Burning through the seed corn

The Thinker by Rodin

Debt ceiling. Fiscal cliff. Continuing resolutions. Sequestration. So many names but it’s all the same game: it’s Washington’s version of high stakes poker where no one gives an inch until the last minute and maybe not then. This time the game is the sequestration that begins March 1. The prevailing political wisdom is that no one will make a serious effort to stop it. It’s not until we close a few national parks and the lines extend for hours at TSA checkpoints that politicians may get serious and pass something, at least until the next politically designed crisis. That is due to kick in at the end of March when the latest continuing resolution expires.

The sequestration will mandate that all federal agencies including defense take a significant haircut, $1.2 trillion in cuts over ten years, half from defense, half from the rest of government. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are exempt. It’s the discretionary spending that is being cut and it is being cut because it is discretionary, as if it is nice to have spending, not necessary spending.

Quite the opposite is true. Most discretionary spending is really essential spending. Not spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is really nonessential spending. Of course to those who depend on these programs, they are certainly essential spending. In reality, government’s real value comes from discretionary spending. It includes all those services you take for granted but it turns out will really piss you off if canceled or even cut back. Agencies know what to do and will often find the most visible ways to influence Congress and choose to cut these first. It worked during the government shutdown in 1995. Americans get really pissy if they when they are already late for their flight have to wait in long lines to get through security, or their trip to Yellowstone gets canceled or shortened because the park is closed one day a week.

In reality, the threat of sequestration has already thrown a lot of chaos into the economy. Federal spending often sounds so abstract, but federal spending creates and sustains lots of jobs, most of them quite necessary. Defense contractors have already laid off people anticipating sequestration. Uncertainty usually adds to economic fears. That appears to be what is going on right now, and the United States risks going back into recession just because of all the pointless last minute brinkmanship in Washington.

These activities are burning through our seed corn, by which I mean we are hacking away at essential areas of government. Meat processing plants, for example, may have to close one day a week due to lack of federal inspectors. Weather forecast models may need to be turned off, resulting in forecasts with more uncertainty. Applications for new drugs will take longer to get approved, reducing market advantage and causing pointless suffering and maybe preventable deaths. This money does more than buy stuff and create jobs. It allows government to oversee and regulate. It enables an even playing field so competition can thrive. It makes our modern life possible.

The agency I work for is pondering what to do if, as required, it suddenly loses ten percent of its budget. As it is we work off continuing resolutions, so we have little certainty about how much money we will eventually get or how exactly we are supposed to spend it. Tightening the belt is all well and good, but try tightening your financial belt so that suddenly you had to live on ten percent less. If you knew that you would always have to live on ten percent less, you would probably make major financial decisions like move to cheaper housing, buy a used car, etc. But most discretionary spending is in reality fixed costs. The rent to GSA will not go down. The power company will not reduce rates. You can’t order employees to take a ten percent pay cut although with thirty days notice you can furlough them one day a week. What is typically done in these situations is that truly discretionary spending is cut: travel, training and long term investments like contributions to working capital funds and buying computer servers. This sometimes works in the short term, but it cannot be sustained in the long term and doing this is really counterproductive.

We recently got one of these politically inspired directives to cut travel by thirty percent compared to what we spent in 2010. Probably some political appointee figured that it doesn’t look good. In any case, travel is discretionary. In a pinch you can do without it, right? Watching what this is doing inside our agency, you only want to grimace. The effect is to introduce a lot of uncertainty and to cause project schedules to slip. Cutting travel in our case mostly means cutting travel for testing. This will mean that testers will test remotely. So much money is saved. Unfortunately, the real effect is that productivity drops substantially. Bring people together to test and they test collaboratively and more thoroughly and play off testing scenarios against each other. They are also not distracted by normal business because they are testing in their office. We have documented this many times, which is why we budget sufficient money for travel for testing purposes. The likely result will be inferior tests, which will result in an inferior and/or late product. Certainly many meetings can and are held on line. In fact, most of them are. We have tons of these conference calls and Webex meetings, so many that they often consume our calendars. Sometimes you really need to meet face to face to get work done on time and to an acceptable level of quality.

The effect of sequestration on the economy is already well documented: it causes negative GDP and if continued will probably trigger another recession as well as increased unemployment. Inside the government it will cause fear, chaos, uncertainty, hard feelings and most importantly slipped schedules and more inefficiency, not less.

It’s no way to run a railroad or a government. To work efficiently government must run off a plan. This is not a plan unless the plan is to create dysfunction, in which case it’s a great plan. It’s stupid and counterproductive and is degrading the ability of government to simply govern.

Can I kick the DailyKos habit?

The Thinker by Rodin

Some habits are hard to break. Smoking. Drinking. Whoring. Eating dark chocolate. (Okay, I don’t know about the first three.) Another bad habit I have developed is going to snarky political web sites. While there are plenty of them out there, arguably DailyKos.com is the snarkiest of them. I wish I could break my addiction to DailyKos but there I am many times a day, obsessively reading the site.

Giving up DailyKos is much easier said than done. I go to it all the time, not so much to read comments (who has time for that, although plenty of people do) but to get the political news I care about. Only it’s always delivered in the most ultra-sarcastic of tones. For a site that supposedly celebrates the diversity of people and values skills like critical thinking, it sure paints all Republicans with the same whitewash. Granted that as a class Republicans seem to be all cut from the same cloth. And yet there is variety among Republicans and conservatives. What is almost universal about Republicans in office is they are almost all intensely weird. But arguably they are no weirder than the denizens on DailyKos. Like, um, me? Am I one of the damned?

You have your socially conservative Republicans. You have your fiscally conservative Republicans. You also have your libertarian-leaning Republicans. Of course, most lately you also have your Tea Party Republicans. They are quite a bit different. On DailyKos though they might as well all be wearing identical Ku Klux Klan robes and burning crosses. They are all portrayed as bizarre, which is obvious from the way they are characterized in posts and captions. They are objects for derision and for our entertainment, so weirdly and objectively wrong that they occupy a unique zone of utter wrongness, not even fit for scorn although of course the scorn is ladled out in extremely generous portions.

Birds of a feather, perhaps? DailyKos’s dirty secret is that its denizens are objectively just as weird and bizarrely opinionated, just in the other direction. I don’t hang out much on conservative websites like redstate.org. I doubt though that their arguments get as heated as they do on DailyKos. Few posters will be taking socially conservative positions on DailyKos, mainly because they are not suicidal, but boy they sure do a lot of arguing about nuances on stuff that just does not matter. The really egregious flamers eventually get banned. Arguments can be both enlightening and disagreeable at the same time. Overall they are a passionate bunch, but they can often take great offense over differences in opinion that really are quite minor. So mostly I read the articles and skip the comments. Who needs all that indigestion?

So why do I bother? I bother simply because the site has political news that is very topical. I bother because they raise a ton of money for progressive candidates, and were instrumental in getting candidates like new Senator Elizabeth Warren elected. I visit because they may be super snarky, but they are endlessly reading polls, assessing candidates and digging into dry facts about various politicians’ political war chests. These things matter in the long run. If you are trying to field better progressive candidates you have to know a ton about your candidate, the competition, and the state or district’s demographics. They have done the research, they have some top notch analysts and they endlessly comb the political news of the day for the nuggets that really matter.

Too bad there is so much chaff in the wheat. Today Marco Rubio’s “water” incident is all over DailyKos. In his response to President Obama’s State of the Union speech last night, this rising star of the right drank from a bottle of Poland Springs while water on camera, without using glass and subsequently grimaced. There is today endless hilarity and comments about this on DailyKos, as if it mattered. I guess it gives them something to talk about, even though Obama’s speech was far more relevant and interesting than a minor imaging mistake by a rising Republican star. Yeah, I watched the clip, and then I tuned out the subsequent discussion. It doesn’t matter at all, except to the super politically charged progressives on DailyKos.

I also look and read most of the recommended diaries. Some of them turn out to be piffle, but about fifty percent of the time they are topical and contain relevant news I generally haven’t seen elsewhere first.

For the most part though, DailyKos is a 24 hour a day carnival show for hypercharged progressives that is chock full of snark and antipathy. Yet, I haven’t found a satisfactory alternative. What I want is a site without the snark but with similar content. I need a site like this where Republicans don’t need to be endlessly lampooned and skewered. Most Republicans simply have to open their mouth. It’s usually the same as putting their foot into it anyhow. However, Republicans are not stupid. They just have wildly different opinions and ways of seeing the world than I do. They may be declining as a political party at the moment, but they are generally astute at where they place their time and money. They know how to gerrymander with the best of them. Like it or not many of our most successful people are hard core Republicans. They may have flunked the course on empathy but they have figured out how to succeed financially and professionally. Their perspective is one that I largely don’t share, but it is one worthy of tolerance, especially from a community that calls itself progressive. (I make exceptions for the Todd Akins among them.) It’s not necessary to say they are wrong about something. Usually it’s simply a matter of documenting what they say and do and let the record speak for itself.

Clearly I haven’t found the site I am looking for, although I like sites like ThinkProgress.org somewhat better when it comes to the tone of their material, but not as much when it comes to variety and depth. At some point though I need to go cold turkey and quit DailyKos. Maybe I just need to read real news sites again, like CNN. Too much partisanship and analysis is probably not a good thing. Preaching to the choir can be fun, but like smoking, drinking, whoring and dark chocolate it’s probably not too healthy.

Wait a minute. Dark chocolate is healthy. Pass me another bag of dark chocolate M&Ms.

Three best pictures

The Thinker by Rodin

Want to see a good movie but don’t know which ones to pick? Picking some best pictures that you never got around to seeing may be the way to go, which is what I have been doing. Curiously two of these best pictures had Henry Fonda in them and the first happened to be made in the year I was born.

12 Angry Men (1957)

This early film by director Sidney Lumet helped earn him a reputation that extended to many more movies and TV shows that he would direct over subsequent decades, such as Serpico (1973). 12 Angry Men is a film chock full of well-known actors as well as many established character actors of the time. It includes Henry Fonda, who specializes in playing even-tempered men, and he is perfect here for his role as Juror #8. Some even temper is much needed on this all male jury as it is asked to decide whether an 18-year-old man should be convicted and likely executed for killing his father. It’s understandable that these men would be angry, as they are locked up in a hot and stuffy jury room and Henry Fonda is the only one of them who thinks there is reasonable doubt that this man killed his father. One juror is pissed because he thinks he won’t make his ballgame tonight.

It turns out the men are not so much angry as hurt. Almost all of them bring their prejudices into the jury room, but none more so than Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb), who kicked his sixteen-year-old son out of the house and channels his anger on the young man he must render a verdict on. Each juror is a study of a complex man in microcosm, including Juror #5 (Jack Klugman, who recently passed away) who grew up in the tenements, to the seemingly imperturbable Juror #4 (E. G. Marshall) who seems incapable of sweating, to Juror #11 (George Voskovec), who has felt the pain of discrimination from being in the minority. Overseeing the zoo is the affable Juror #1 (Martin Balsam), who really looks like he wants to be somewhere else. Slowly Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) is able to convince others there is sufficient reasonable doubt in this case to acquit the accused, but in this case acquittal requires reaching each man as a person, not always easy to do with such a prejudiced group of men.

What makes this movie memorable is how well it is acted, something you did not see much of in 1957, as well as its raw honesty, an even rarer commodity in a time when movies were heavily sanitized for family viewing. It becomes an intimate study in human psychology and persuasion. The film is relatively short (1:37) and in black and white but hard to forget. Today it would probably not merit Best Picture but for its time it was raw, realistic and honest moviemaking. 3.3 on my four-point scale.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

I am not much for westerns, but how can one resist a movie claimed by many to be the best western ever made? This movie may live up to that claim, not just for its acting and finely drawn characters, but primarily because it feels faithful to the west as it actually was, not the one we imagine on reruns of Gunsmoke or Bonanza. The real west included lots of Hispanics and Indians. Working on the railroads meant there was lots of Irishmen and in town the Chinese were running the laundries. The railroad is central to this western because Brett McBain built a ranch called Sweetwater on what turns out to be the only watering station near the planned railroad route in this part of Arizona. This means that Sweetwater is an excellent investment.

The movie takes established characters and puts them in unconventional parts. Henry Fonda, almost always given good guy roles, plays the convincing bad guy Frank. And bad guy he certainly is. He is supposed to persuade McBain to leave Sweetwater so the railroad can get his property at a bargain basement price. Instead Frank kills him and his whole family. He missed his recently acquired wife from New Orleans who arrives just in time to see the whole family laid out for display in the front yard. Jill is played by Claudia Cardinale, and one thing Jill has learned from her bawdy New Orleans upbringing is not to be easily intimidated by evil men. It helps of course to have a good guy on your side, but you would not expect him to be Charles Bronson, whose harmonica precedes him and gives him his name. Harmonica is really out to avenge the death of his father by Frank’s hands when he was still a boy. As with 12 Angry Men, the cast is populated by popular actors of the time, including Jason Robards as Cheyenne and Jack Elam as the gunslinger Snaky.

What viewers get is not so much a shoot ’em up Western, although there is the requisite amount of gun violence but a tense character drama principally between Cheyenne, Frank and Harmonica, with Cheyenne’s relationship with Jill helping to break up the tension. You also get glorious music by Ennio Morricone. This western has style, grit and authenticity as well as memorable acting, but does move a bit slowly. It’s no particular surprise it was singled out for the best picture award with its combination of scenery, authenticity and first class acting. 3.4 out of four stars.

Schindler’s List (1993)

This was an easy movie to skip for two decades given its grim focus on the Holocaust. Despite this, it is also easy to see how it won best picture because of how horrifyingly accurately the Holocaust was rendered and because of Liam Neeson’s faithful portrayal of Oskar Schindler.

Schindler used his fortune made in part by manufacturing items with slave labor to rescue some small percentage of Jews from Nazi extermination. Neeson plays Schindler almost reflexively, and it’s a tough role to carry off, as it requires someone who is a steely businessman, comfortable schmoozing with the Nazi power structure and yet at his core a humane person. Working for slave wages sounds terrible, but it was better for the Jews than the alternative of living in concentration camps.

Schindler finds it necessary to have his business follow the concentration camps since he depends on the cheap labor to make a profit, but also because he feels loyal to his Jewish bookkeeper Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) who is forced to go to a concentration camp. It’s easy enough to see the crematories at work from his factories or find the white ash of incinerated Jews on the grounds of extermination camps. Working for Schindler buys, at least for a time, some reasonable odds at avoiding extermination. As much as he can he protects those who work for him, but he mostly depends on Stern to keep the business afloat.

No expense is spared to accurately depict Nazi Germany and the concentration camps where Jews and many other persecuted minorities were exterminated. The movie is uncomfortably intimate in its depiction of hell on earth. It’s amazing that director Steven Spielberg was able to coax the voluminous extras to perform in some of these scenes, such as women marching naked into mass shower stalls. Perhaps the most horrifying character is Amon Goeth, who runs the local concentration camp and shoots Jews for sport from his house while keeping a Jewish mistress he clearly cares for.

It is deeply disturbing to see such inhumanity toward man on such a scale. Yet there is not an off note in the entire movie, which is completely convincing. The hardest part is simply finishing the movie, which is worth the journey to your queasy stomach. It is hard to imagine how this movie could not have won Best Picture. 3.5 out of four stars.

Thoughts on the Civil War

The Thinker by Rodin

Mission accomplished! I have now completed reading a comprehensive history of the Civil War, specifically Shelby Foote’s massive three-volume, 2,968 page, 1.2 million word tome, The Civil War: A Narrative. This war is now about a hundred and fifty years in our past. It remains a source of considerable interest, at least to a small subset of Americans into history, primarily because it happened right around us instead of in some distant land. As a percent of our population killed or injured in a war, the Civil War is unlikely to ever be exceeded unless there is a nuclear war. It touched pretty much everyone in our nation.

This post is not so much a review of these books, which are well written and meticulously researched by Foote, as it is to provide some of my thoughts and observations about the Civil War, particularly things that surprised me or are simply not well known to those with only a casual knowledge of the conflict.

One of the primary lessons I took away from these books is that effective leadership and passion can surmount seemingly impossible odds. At the beginning of the war, most Confederates who graduated from West Point realized that the South could not win the war. At best Confederates held out hope that the Union would simply tire of the conflict and sue for peace. This was not an unrealistic expectation, but Abraham Lincoln was not an ordinary president. He ineffectively but doggedly continued to pursue the war. The North had all the odds in their favor, principally the resources, money and population. However, the South had leadership and passion, and this combination of forces prolonged the war and gave hope to a weary South. The South succeeded for so long, particularly in the first half of the war, primarily because of the brilliant General Robert E. Lee of Virginia and the many talented commanders who worked under him such as General Stonewall Jackson. However, they were also blessed by a series of ineffectual Union generals, most of whom did not deserve their rank. The Confederate Army proved amazingly agile and determined. Time and again this gave them the upper hand, often with half the army that the Union had at its disposal. They were the Spartans of this war. They depended on wile and guts and mostly it worked.

I knew the Civil War was bloody but I did not appreciate just how bloody it was until I read these books. Its bloody battle at Gettysburg gets a disproportionate amount of the press, but there are other battles that were arguably equally as bloody and in many ways far more horrifying. Two of General Grant’s early battles here in Virginia stand out in my mind, battles I had not even known about but whose descriptions by Foote had me wondering if any battle preceding it had ever been so nasty and bloody. I speak of The Battle of the Wilderness followed by The Battle of Cold Harbor. In some way these battles were reckless. Grant chose to throw massive amounts of Union troops into these battles, at a huge cost and for no appreciable gain.

In any war there are battles that turned out to be game changers. In the western theater, it turned out to be the Battle of Shiloh that brought Grant into prominence and was the first step in eventually bringing the Mississippi River under Union control and thus Balkanizing the South. In the east, arguably it occurred in Georgia at The Battle of Chickamauga. It was in some ways the straw the broke the Confederacy’s back. The Battle of Gettysburg is notable not just for being the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, but also for being the first major victory by the Union Army, although it was arguably a pyrrhic victory.

One of the great strengths of Foote’s books is not so much the meticulous documentation of the battles themselves, but it allows the reader to get an intimate understanding of the men who were central to the whole conflict, and the various tensions that existed between them. There were plenty of third rate generals, mostly on the Union side. Arguably the Confederacy had some as well including Beauregard and Johnston. In some ways Johnston and the Union general McClellan were two peas from the same pod: hesitant to engage, quick to withdraw and ready to blame others for delays and when problems emerged. Both were very popular with their men, perhaps because of these deficiencies. There were also notable generals who arguably deserve more attention than they got, Union general Thomas, for instance, arguably the most effective general of the war in that he never really lost a battle, although he was often slow in starting them (such as the Battle of Nashville, the last major battle of the war.)

One thing that struck me was just how undeveloped the United States was at this period of history. Roads were bad and largely impassible during the wet season. They weren’t paved but some of them were planked, so armies often hoofed it over muddy fields, trailing wagons by the thousands and cannons across frequently difficult terrain. Bridges were constantly being blown up and rebuilt. Railroads were the primary means of quickly moving soldiers and supplies, which made them very strategic. An occupying army’s first job was often to tear up railroad track. When you don’t have much in the way of roads, cavalry becomes vital. Toward the end of the war Union general Sheridan showed that the Union could have an effective cavalry, but mostly this was an area wherein the South excelled, principally J.E.B. Stuart in Virginia and Bedford Forrest in the south.

As with any good history, you will learn little nuggets that are just fascinating but not widely known. There was a battle in New Mexico, and some Confederates briefly occupied a town in Vermont. The Confederate Army briefly occupied part of Washington D.C. One assault on a Confederate ship took place off the coast of Brazil, and was arguably illegal under international law. Another took place off the coast of England in international waters with most Britons cheering for the Confederates. Months after the Confederates has surrendered, a rouge Confederate naval ship was attacking whalers in the Bearing Sea.

Foote’s history overall is quite engaging, although some shopworn terms (“butternut soldiers”) get endlessly repeated. It would be hard not to do this with so many battles to document, and even with three thousand pages some of them get just a casual mention. Overall the Civil War was intense, bloody, and often reckless and much of it seems unbelievable. It seems crazy that so many people would fight in such a bloody, intense and disruptive war.

It is also a war that is still underway, just being battled now in generally nonviolent ways, such as in voter suppression or gerrymandering. The reluctance of many Americans to embrace any gun control at all does not have its roots so much in the Second Amendment, but in the Civil War, and the ability of a gun to foment insurrection against the established government. I hope I am wrong, but a new Civil War may be in our future.

Aging gratefully

The Thinker by Rodin

Another birthday rolled around yesterday. For once the first of February felt like it should: bitterly cold and snowing. I am not much on celebrating birthdays, which is probably why I scheduled an outpatient procedure on my birthday. Specifically, I had a colonoscopy, a distasteful but necessary procedure for us insured humans age fifty plus. This being my second time, I knew what to expect. When I had my last one at age fifty, I could get it done in a local surgical center. This time, because I was subsequently diagnosed with sleep apnea, it meant going to the hospital instead. It also meant arising at three a.m. to down a second dose of medicine guaranteed to empty your digestive track, not to mention spending the day before at home on a liquid only diet, trying to make a bottle of white grape juice substitute for solid food.

Happily the procedure went well. One reason I was repeating it after only five years instead of the normal ten years is because polyps run on my mother’s side of the family. She never had a colonoscopy and as a result due to a huge polyp had to have part of her large intestine removed. Sure enough, yesterday my gastroenterologist found a polyp, but it was easily sliced off and removed. By ten a.m. I was home eating solid food none the worse for the experience but with lovely color photos of my large intestine showing the emerging polyp.

That’s kind of how it should go at age 56. You have given up chasing immortality and have made peace with conforming to the practices of modern medical science instead. Few men or women my age can credibly claim they have the strength and stamina they had when they were in their 20s. Perhaps I could get the illusion of it if, like some foolish and better moneyed people my age, I ingested steroids and got shots of HGH (human growth hormone). Along with the HGH, regular injections of testosterone probably would make me feel manlier. Marketers think they know what I need and lately it’s been testosterone supplements. I can rarely go to a web site without seeing ads telling me about the benefits of testosterone therapy. I remain skeptical. Estrogen replacement therapy for women has proven to have more minuses than pluses for most women. I doubt testosterone supplements and shots are without serious risks as well. Perhaps it will keep my hairline from receding, or suddenly make me attractive to women half my age, but I doubt that is worth any of the potential complications.

Or perhaps I should do what has worked so well for my father, age 86, still reasonably healthy and walking around. Perhaps I should simply give up on the silly pseudo science, ignore the multitudes of marketers of immortality and pragmatically get regular exercise and regular checkups instead. My father has been battling precancerous melanomas for decades, but he is still alive. This is thanks to regular trips to the dermatologist, which often results in skin removal or replacement. It doesn’t appear that I have inherited that particular condition, but it does look like I have my mother’s tendency toward polyps in the large intestine, so I best better bear the indignity of these colonoscopies every five years.

I also inherited her family’s tendency toward tallness, narrow throats and a large uvula, all of which contribute toward a tendency to snore and which eventually lead to a diagnosis of sleep apnea. For a whole year now I have been sleeping with the aid of a BPAP machine. It regularly fills my lungs with air, even when my body would prefer to stop breathing for a while. For a month or two using the machine was more torture than restful until I figured out how to put the mask on properly so it did not hiss at me during the night. Now the BPAP allows me to get genuinely restful sleep, and many nights I sleep like a baby. Waking rested gives me more energy than any shot of testosterone is likely to provide.

Maybe there is something unmanly about depending on regular checkups and medical science. Real men in their fifties, if you believe the ads, are supposed to be climbing mountains, roping steer, running marathons and bedding women in their twenties. What most real men my age are doing appears to be quite the opposite, at least according to my observations: eating too much crap and limiting their exercise to changing cable channels with their remote controls. I confess to eating too much crap myself, but I also eat plenty of healthy food, and since 1981 I have been getting regular aerobic exercise. My health is obviously not perfect, but it is better than most men my age. I can’t seem to go see any physician without getting blood drawn, so I have constant opportunities to tweak Vitamin D deficiencies, check my cholesterol or measure my triglycerides.

So at age 56 I remain a work in progress. I am realistic enough to know I won’t live forever but stubborn enough to insist that as much as feasible I will enjoy those years that remain. If that means sleeping with a BPAP machine for the rest of my life or having to endure the indignity of having my colon probed every five years, so be it. At least I am still here, in reasonably good health, and with (I hope, no guarantees) much more good life ahead of me. My testosterone levels may be receding like my hairline, but with luck the next thirty years of my life will be happier years with less heartache and struggle.

I’ll keep my physician on speed dial to make it so.