Wednesday, August 26, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Dead Man Walking (1995)

Years ago, I worked at a video store...back when people had to lead barbaric lives and actually leave their homes to get their entertainment.  One of my co-workers was a young college-age woman who worked at the store during the summers when she wasn't attending a strict Christian college.  I say "strict" because she told me the college made incoming freshmen sign pledges that they wouldn't watch any films rated 'R' or beyond.

Nevermind the fact that the college had no reasonable way to enforce this policy, and should a student be caught watching these evil 'R' movies, I'm sure no one was expelled as that would mean the loss of tuition.  Still, this co-worker, being a devout, obedient Christian, took the pledge seriously and would not watch any rated-R movies.  This obviously made working with her very interesting as she was limited in her film knowledge - a serious detriment when working at a video store.  And, forget about even touching the porno tapes, not even to simply put them back on the shelves when returned to the store.

Of course, this begs the question why she was working at a video store in the first place, but that's another issue altogether.

After closing one night, we got into a discussion along with another co-worker about her college's ban on R-rated films.  She firmly held that it was a Christian's duty to avoid sin and temptation, which included the avoidance of hearing the foul language and seeing the excessive violence and nudity in films.

"That's all well and good," I remember saying to her.  "But, staying away from R-rated films alone isn't going to help with that."

Our discussion then veered into how the rating system worked and how the arbitrary and political nature of the rating process made a film's designation as PG, PG-13, etc. barely a reliable suggestion of its content let alone provide a viable guideline on which to base any belief or policy.  I advocated for an analytical approach via research to educate oneself on a movie's content, rather than dismiss it outright due to the rating that some unknown group of individuals had assigned it.  And, offending her a little, I called her college's No R-movies policy a prime example of "bureaucratic lazy-mindedness" that "stifled critical thinking in an effort to spur mindless adherence to a prescribed dogma rather than a true exploration of spirituality and faith."

Yeah, I wasn't very diplomatic as a young man.

The movie I brought up as support for my ideas was Dead Man Walking.  Rated R due to a brief scene of violence, which included rape and murder, the film takes a long, hard look at the death penalty through the eyes of Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun in Louisiana.  Although the film does ultimately side against the death penalty, it does so by unflinchingly and respectfully considering the nature of violent crime and the effects it has on the families of the victims.  It also provides one of the most positive and compelling portraits of a Christian I have ever seen on film.

In Sister Helen, I got to experience a rare film first: at the height of the conflict, as she stands in a prison just hours before the execution of the young man she is counseling and facing the coldly calculated process of government-sponsored killing, she goes to the bathroom and prays.  No big speech.  No scenes of her barging into some room to confront her adversaries.  She simply finds some privacy and quietly prays for strength to get through the experience and do what is right.

This scene is the culmination of Sister Helen's journey through a minefield of conflict among political ideologies, religious beliefs, and genuine suffering with only her faith and desire to follow the example of Jesus to guide her.  Sister Helen never has a huge epiphany or validation of her faith, but she does find the strength she asks for and is rewarded by being able to see the humanity in an individual whose past actions would label him as a soulless animal.

More importantly, through Sister Helen, the film shows that love doesn't take sides or withhold itself from one in favor of another.  Sister Helen is able to have genuine love for Matthew Poncelet, the young man sentenced to die for his violent actions, as well for the families suffering tremendous pain from the loss of their children.  And, through her, a small glimmer of hope emerges, at least for one of the fathers, of possibly finding a way through the hatred and finally to some peace.

Dead Man Walking accomplishes all this without offering tidy answers to very complicated questions or simple resolutions to dire problems.  The film doesn't merely say that killing is wrong.  Instead, it examines the real causes and ramifications of violence.  And, it suggests that spiritual healing is possible in time through love and support.

The idea that a college would bar its students from seeing such a powerful film that embraces some core Christian values simply because of its rating baffles me to no end.  The point I tried to make to my co-worker was that Dead Man Walking could inspire rich discussion among Christian college students about what it means to live by Christian ideals in the modern world, a major theme explored in the movie.  And, I expressed my dismay that a college, an institution for learning, would deny its students that opportunity.

It was all to no avail.  At least at that time.  She was more interested in an easy road of mindless obedience with no expectation of rational thought or critical thinking.  No doubt the simple and empty platitudes offered by films like God's Not Dead and Heaven Is For Real would be more appealing to her and those like her.  Those movies provide quick, nice little answers to questions about the existence of God and the afterlife.  They don't require any deep thought and certainly don't leave room for the messiness of discussion and debate.  And, above all, they don't suggest that living the principles of a faith, particularly the Christian faith, requires diligence and hard work and sometimes risks.

But, those two movies are rated PG.  So that must make them good films.


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Quiz Show (1994)

There is a moment in Robert Redford's Quiz Show when after listening to the stumbling confession and rationalizations of his son, a man finally says, "Your name is mine," with such stern conviction that it brings silence to the scene as well as to anyone watching it.

The man is famed poet and literary scholar, Mark Van Doren (as played by Paul Scofield), and the son is Charles Van Doren (as played by Ralph Fiennes), a key figure in the infamous scandal surrounding the 1950s game show "Twenty One."  The scene is the moment Charles finally admits to his father that he was complicit in rigging the game show and begins to ramble on nervously.  He quotes a line from Shakespeare: "An ill-favored thing, sir, but mine own," in an effort to clarify and maybe justify his choices.  But, the elder Van Doren's response crushingly dismantles any self-delusion Charles still clings to and in that moment completely defeats his son in a way only a parent could - with disappointment and shame.

Moments like this one are what elevate this historical drama into an emotionally powerful story about morality and the price of innocence.  The film depicts Charles Van Doren as a young man seeking to step out of the long shadow of his gifted father and find a way to cast his own.  He is seduced by the producers of "Twenty One" with the promise of fame and fortune, and ultimately he pays a high price for his part in the deception.  However, the film only seeks to make Van Doren sympathetic, not exonerate him from his guilt.  In fact, Quiz Show makes a point of showing everyone's culpability in the scandal: Van Doren, the producers, previous contestants, the government, and even the American public.  It is an indictment of not only television and those who control it but the audience who so willingly accepts what they see on it.

That's a very grand notion for which the film aspires.  And, Quiz Show, under Redford's assured direction, makes all its points admirably.  But, the real power of the film are those moments of quiet interaction between various characters, particularly those between Charles, who can't quite bring himself to tell the whole truth, and his father, a man who wants to believe the best about his son.  There is such real pain and heartbreak in those scenes that the statement, "It's only television," a phrase uttered repeatedly throughout the film, seems empty and almost vile when it is finally said for the last time.

When watching these quiet moments in the film, I think of those who wax nostalgic about the good old days while lamenting the current state of affairs.  I am reminded that things like the Red Scare as well as the quiz show scandal still happened in the 1950s, that the decade was in reality just a huge, shiny stone covering a slimy underneath.  Things weren't better back than - they just looked better and no one talked about anything else.  Redford knows this and makes sure it is the foundation on which the film builds.


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

What-to-Watch-Wednesday - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

A while back, I wrote a blog about the nature of memory and its affect on us over time,  I'm still uncertain if I had anything worthwhile to say on the topic, but I continue to be fascinated by it just the same.  I suppose that's why Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind resonates with me so strongly.  Memory is the central focus of the film, which explores the pain of heartbreak sustained through memories and the lengths to which people might go to be rid of them.

The basic plot is simple enough: Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) meet, fall in love, start a relationship, and break up.  Clementine seeks out the services of Lacuna, a business run by a Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) who has developed a procedure through which people can have memories erased.  When Joel finds out Clementine has erased him from her memory, he is devastated and decides to have the same procedure done.

Having no memory of the other person, Joel and Clementine eventually meet each other again and re-discover the things they loved about one another.  However, the film isn't about the reconciliation of a great love affair - that would be too simplistic and trite.  Instead, the movie, via the characters, ponders greater philosophical ideas, like how much do our memories make us who we are?  Or, if we lose our memories, are we given a fresh start or are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes?  And, given full knowledge about a person, would you still enter into a relationship with him/her?

None of these are simple questions to answer, but they are extremely interesting to ponder as the narrative of the film weaves in and out of Joel's past, present, and eventually his memories.  The most exciting moments of the film take place in Joel's mind as he realizes, while dreaming, that he is undergoing the Lacuna procedure, regrets it, and fights desperately to retain his memories of Clementine - sometimes to comical effect, sometimes to tragic.

When I re-watched the film last night, something else struck me.  For those of us who don't have the Lacuna procedure, what should we do with our memories of past relationships?  Should we focus on the good so as not to breed resentment?  Should we focus on the bad so as not to repeat the same mistakes?  Or, should we just concentrate on the things we can change and try to move on as best we can, however feebly?  None of those are particularly attractive choices, but they seem to be the only choices we have.  At least until someone actually comes up with a real-life Lacuna procedure.


Thursday, August 6, 2015

Go Set a Watchman - How One Should Read This Controversial Book and Why Comic Book Readers Might Get It

I don't normally write book reviews.  I don't know why as I feel just as strongly about the books I read and form as clear opinions on them as I do films.  I have just never felt the need to add my voice to the countless others offering thoughts and opinions about whichever book they've just read.  Oh, I do have an account with Goodreads, and I update it with some frequency.  But, a starred-rating and a quick blurb hardly amount to more than fleeting impressions.  

Maybe I'd rather discuss a novel than write about it.  As paradoxical as that seems.

Anyway, here I am writing away about Harper Lee's newly published Go Set a Watchman.  I just finished it the other day, and I am set to discuss it at a book club meeting at the end of the month.  Still, I feel compelled to write down some thoughts about it and put them out there in the internet ether.

Before I begin though, let me say that this isn't going to be a discussion on whether or not the novel should have been published.  In case you've been living under a rock for the last year, there has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the publication of this "new" work by Lee.  Accusations of opportunistic greed, elder abuse, and media manipulation have come to the foreground following the announcement of the novel's release.  

All of it, part of it, or none of it may be true, although the State of Alabama found no evidence of elder abuse and stated that Harper Lee appears able to make coherent decisions about her written works.  Regardless, the events surrounding the novel's publication shouldn't be a factor when reviewing the work because there are too many unknown variables to form any sort of rational opinion.  

Besides, since when did publication become a key ingredient in how good or bad a work of literature is other than to simply offer a means through which the work can be read?  If we are to start down that track, then I take great offense at the publishers who decided to subject us to the Twilight books and that Fifty Shades of Grey tripe.  Now they were just out for the money, all by exploiting the desires and daydreams of bored housewives and silly teenage girls.

So, for me, the only question that remains is whether or not GSaW is a worthwhile read.  And, the best answer I can come up with is that it depends on how you approach the book.

If you're caught up in the publication controversy, don't read it.  Not because the book pales in comparison to To Kill a Mockingbird, but because you wouldn't be satisfied with GSaW even if it blew TKaM out of the literary water.  As it turns out, GSaW is nowhere near the equal of TKaM, and its flaws would only turn your skepticism into bitter resentment.

If you're set to read a direct sequel to TKaM, I would strongly caution you to put that notion out of your mind.  This is not a sequel, although GSaW does feature a grown-up Scout Finch as well as older versions of familiar TKaM characters.  It does take place chronologically after the time TKaM was set.  But, it isn't a sequel.  There are too many factual differences to call it such.  For instance, in GSaW, it is mentioned briefly that Atticus once defended a young black man from rape charges...and won.  That alone should tell you that GSaW isn't meant as a follow-up.

However, most of you probably already know that GSaW is actually the first draft that Lee wrote.  What you may not know is that the manuscript was read by editor, Tay Hohoff, who guided Lee over the course of three years in fashioning GSaW into what would become one of the greatest literary masterpieces of the 20th Century.  The differences between the two books stem from Lee making numerous revisions over a few years with Hohoff's guidance.  Those years of hard work resulted in the novel most of us have cherished for a long time.

So, what to make of Go Set a Watchman.

The way I see it, there are only two ways to view the novel.  The first is through the lens of an academic by treating the novel for what it is: a first draft.  In that sense, GSaW takes on a greater significance in that one can see the burgeoning elements of a great novel in it and can do a direct comparison to the final result.  Indeed, the best portions of GSaW are the flashback sequences from Scout's youth, and it is easy to see why that nostalgic look back became the focus of TKaM.

Personally, I am fascinated that when she sat down to write the novel, this story of disillusionment set in the then present day of the Civil Rights movement was the one Lee originally wanted to tell.  The flashbacks were meant to simply supply the background to help explain the turmoil felt by the adult Jean Louise as she gradually becomes disconnected from her father, her family, and the community in which she grew up.  The childhood scenes are clear and precise and ring with a sense of universal truth.  The present day scenes are muddled and confused.  It feels as though Lee was conflicted, like her main character, as she wrote them and yet had an inspired clarity when crafting the flashbacks.

Why that is, who can say?  Although Lee has stated that elements of TKaM are taken from her own life, I'm not interested in doing a biographical analysis of it or GSaW.  It's enough for me to know that Lee seemed to struggle with writing the adult Jean Louise while the childhood of young Scout seemed to come more easily to her.  Hohoff recognized this apparently and wisely pushed Lee in that direction.

The other way one can read this book is to view the events of GSaW as taking place in an alternate reality or parallel universe, a concept that any long-time comic book reader can easily understand.  If you read comics for more than a decade or so, you become well acquainted with differing versions of favorite characters, alternate histories, and a variety of interpretations as new writers and artists take over a series.  As confusing and convoluted as it can become, you just have to go with it if you are going to get any lasting enjoyment out of your reading.

What it forces both creators and fans to do though is recognize essential traits that long-time characters possess that are immutable and have sustained the appeal of the characters.  And, once those traits are recognized, the remaining space is open for development, change, or interpretation.  You need only look at a brief history of Superman to know that the Superman from 1938 is not the same Superman from 2015 - he doesn't even look the same - but many traits have persisted through the years.

So I reread portions of GSaW with this mindset, concentrating on the characterization of Atticus, which has been a focal point for much of the controversy surrounding GSaW since its publication for its alleged depiction of Atticus as a racist.  So, I have to ask myself, is this first-draft version of Atticus so different from the TKaM version?  What essential qualities make Atticus recognizable and endearing to readers?  Of course, the cultural view of Atticus is also greatly influenced by the movie adaptation and, more specifically, Gregory Peck's performance, but even the film version carries over certain character traits with some sentimental altruism thrown in for good measure.

Thanks largely to the film, Atticus has become a bastion of racial equality, but the novel doesn't necessarily highlight that notion so much as it does Atticus' ability to understand people, all people, and his willingness to treat everyone with respect and dignity.  These qualities are certainly companions to racial equality, but they are most definitely not the same thing.  If you reduce Atticus to those two essential traits (his ability to understand people and a desire to treat them with respect), then the Atticus of GSaW is not so far removed from the one in TKaM.  It's just that you have two similar men living in very different times, and their reactions to those times are vastly different as a result.

The GSaW Atticus offers a complex view of race relations in the 1950s south.  It isn't really fair to call him a racist as the connotation implies that he is running around in a sheet and hood, burning crosses.  He does take issue with the actions of the NAACP, and he does patiently sit through a speech given about white supremacy and inherent negro inferiority.  But, those aren't really out of step with Atticus' essential traits.  His issues with the NAACP's pushing its political agenda stem from his understanding that people need to experience social change in a slow, steady fashion in order for it to be real and lasting, and his patience with a racist speech is in line with his belief about respecting all people.

That isn't to say that the GSaW Atticus is completely correct.  His beliefs are at best racially one-sided and even condescending.  But, I would argue this depiction to be more realistic of what a southern man of his education and social standing would have believed, and it would stand to reason that the next generation, as represented by Jean Louise, would rail against those ingrained racist beliefs.  If TKaM is about how two children get to witness their father's nobility in the face of great evil, GSaW is about how Jean Louise finally sees her father as human and fallible.

However, I don't wish to make this blog entry about my literary analysis of both versions of Atticus Finch.  What I do want to get across is that by viewing GSaW as a new interpretation or alternate version of the character, one is forced to find the connective tissue between the two versions and, in doing so, perhaps a deeper understanding of what Lee was trying to do with the character.  One doesn't have to devalue the other, and they can in fact enhance each other.

I certainly wouldn't call reading Go Set a Watchman a powerful experience, at least not compared to the experience I had reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time, but I am glad I finally got to read it if just for the further light it sheds on the novel that ultimately resulted from it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Mr. Holland's Opus (1995)

Mr. Holland's Opus is the Rocky for teachers, and it skirts just this side of being too saccharine, too precious.  And, it works.  Even when it seems to be veering towards melodramatic schlock, it manages to sidestep becoming a weepy, cloying mess.  So, at the risk of having to turn in my Man Card, I must admit to having some genuine emotional reactions to key scenes in this film, reactions that have evolved over the years as I've been able to experience some of those moments in my own life as a teacher.

There's the joy of reaching a seemingly lost student and the heartbreak when his life takes a sudden, tragic turn.  There's the emerging radiance of a student who finally accomplishes a difficult task through hard work, perseverance, and the right amount of encouragement.  And there is the suffocating constriction of politics and bureaucracy that threaten to choke those moments of real joy.  All of these are part and parcel in the long-time career of a dedicated teacher.

The movie knows this and wisely incorporates these events, investing them with deep feeling but with no melodrama.  And, Mr. Holland's life as a teacher rings true from beginning to end.

As contrast, we are also shown Holland's personal life, which begins to languish as his professional one picks up steam.  His marriage becomes strained when he is at a loss on how to relate to his deaf son since music is such a vital part of his own life.  But, these problems become entwined in the fabric of Holland's existence as he makes choices that close doors while opening others.

All the elements work in this movie.  The lead performances are superb, and the supporting cast is topnotch with a few early performances by actors who went on to notable careers.  And, I could talk more extensively about my favorite moments in this movie, but it would spoil the journey of seeing how those moments come about.

I will say that Mr. Holland's Opus does have a happy ending.  That isn't a spoiler because the real joy of this film is how Mr. Holland earns and finally reaches it.


The Unending Joke - Examining the Over-Extended Significance of a Good Comic Book Story

It needs to be said right off the bat (no pun intended) that Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's The Killing Joke is a work of superb craft...