Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Rant – Food For Thought And The American Politics of Hate

I’d like to think I’ve mellowed, but lately I’ve succumbed to the other side of old: disgruntlement. With all this unbridled hate based on skin color and now religion, from so many Americans, I have to hold back a loud screaming, “A pox on all your houses!” Except that some houses are actually worse than others, despite the fact that most of them claim to be God’s house.

Unfortunately God, in all his or her guises, has been imagined re-imagined, co-opted, adopted, politicized, interpreted, and reinterpreted to serve mankind’s baser instincts. The so-called “word” has been translated into so many languages so many times no one really knows what was intended, not even the folks who claim to have heard the word directly from God’s mouth and transcribed it for posterity. Then again, what do we usually think about taking advice from people who hear “voices?”

What’s going on here and around the world really is a battle of the superheroes, each with their bands of often violent followers who demand you believe in their made-up story, not the other guy’s. There has been and will be torture and torment in nearly every land in the world because someone says Mohammed is the greatest, another says Christ, another Buddha, another Ganesha (my personal favorite).  Moses fits in there somehow. And then there’s that whole Zeus-Jupiter dispute, not to mention sun Gods, which kind of makes sense to me. And let me add: I think pantheists are under rated too.

There is enough confusion just in Christian circles. When I was growing up, I was curious about the seeming unexplainable.  A Catholic kid who lived a couple of houses away learned that my family was Lutheran and told me matter-of-factly that I was definitely going to hell. Only Catholics went to heaven.  I told a young friend of mine, an evangelical Christian, what my other friend said and he told me to stay away from Catholics because all Catholic schools had guns in their basements and planned to kill us all when the time was right. In my formative years I went to various churches, places where bodies were dunked in water, eventually sputtering, coughing, choking to the surface suddenly saved or reborn. I could do that at home, in the bathtub, I thought. I’ve always had an independent streak. I could save myself, thank you. I listened to those souls who testified, in a state of mind just short of a voodoo trance.  In high school, a group of us regularly met in a basement to discuss such matters without resolution or agreement, but with mutual respect and the enjoyment of a hearty discussion.  In college, nearly every night of my freshman year, often while playing euchre, was spent discussing the meaning of life, and sorting, with my friends, through various philosophies, Eastern and Western. Despite my focus on theatre and journalism, over the years I took elective courses in Western Philosophy, Buddhism and Hindu. And like most folks of my generation, I dipped into the literature of Hermann Hesse and Carlos Castaneda.

After sitting at a bar in Bloomington, Indiana with still another group of intellectually curious friends, a young man whom I’d never met and never saw again said that everyone searches for an epistemology. I asked about him later and no one in our little group heard from him again.  Perhaps he found his epistemology or perhaps he went off on a search. A third possibility was that he thought the whole idea was foolish and that his comment was far from an endorsement, more of a futile, disappointing observation.

He may have been puzzled at the notion that we need a rulebook at all.  At the time, I thought that by epistemology, he meant people needed a set of rules to live by. Most religions had them, it seemed. That would explain this extraordinary and to me silly dependence on so-called sacred text, no matter in what part of the world, or when it originated. Nearly everyone may be looking for the official rulebook, the one that would guarantee him or her not only an afterlife, but a damn fine one at that.  So imagine if you think you’ve found it and you did your best to live by it, then someone comes along and says you’ve been reading and abiding by the wrong rule book all your life you are going to get pissed. Why not just try to live a good life?  You know how to do that. Do you really need a book to tell you not to do harm to others?

There are more than 4,000 religions on earth, and more than seven billion people, (a few more than can fit in a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco). So maybe we, at least here in the U.S.A., need to listen to our founders who fled religious persecution and wanted religious freedom for all. That’s who we are, as a nation. Work to protect all our freedoms and not be pro one religion and anti-another. So believe what you will, live as you like as best you can in  just manner, and keep your rulebooks to yourself.

Incidentally, “epistemology is the study of knowledge and justified belief,” according to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

I was looking for an epistemology, something that would give meaning to life, but something that also made sense. Whoever he was, he was right, I think.

A final note: We, in the U.S., are approaching elections to determine who will represent our interests at home and abroad. In the last few days we have experienced a slew of candidates who seek office by tapping into our fear and ignorance about other cultures and religions.  They take advantage of world events, reshape their meaning to ride the fear they have created. They skew statistics and blatantly lie. Some would revisit the tactics of the Nazis used on certain people they considered dangerous or inferior. Some would reinstate pre-Selma voting laws that would prevent certain Americans from voting. Some would deny full rights to minorities based on little more than unverifiable folktales.

Let’s put the bluster of modern–day Mussolinis to rest.  Let’s keep the old-style Klan-inspired segregationists a footnote to history. Let’s ignore those who believe this is a nation that holds a single religious belief.  I don’t regard pride as something to seek, necessarily.  However the United States of America should be proud of being a melting pot of the world. It has been our single, most outstanding accomplishment. It has been the source of our entrepreneurial energy and the inspiration for invention.  With the possible exception of native Americans — and they likely came from somewhere else, only much earlier – we are a nation of immigrants.  Many colors, many languages, many faiths. Let’s not get caught up in the cynical attempts to scare us into hate and discrimination.  

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Film Pairing – Relationships Going Very Wrong

I love movies.  I love things cinematic.  Life intensified, smoothed, edited and made to make sense, when, of course, that’s not life at all.  Here are two films that don’t make sense. But I believe them.  They don’t make sense in the way life doesn’t make sense. They are dark and unhappy. Sometimes that’s the way it is.

Break UpBridget Fonda is trapped in an abusive relationship.  She scrimps, saves, desperately trying to get a little money ahead so she can escape. She lives in a small, narrow world and. as if she has blinders, she can’t figure a way out except through this little passbook savings account. It is her hope, her only tunnel-visioned option. The abuser is killed in an auto accident.  Problem solved? Nope. The evidence points to her as prime suspect. Her instinct is to cash in and run. But the money is gone.  How can that be? Bridget Fonda is excellent. Kiefer Sutherland is effectively understated as the cop.  Steven Weber and Hart Bochner are also featured. The 1998 psychological thriller was directed by Paul Marcus with a well-written screenplay by Anne Amanda Opotowsky.

True Story — It is, apparently. And it is inert, in that it is barely a moving picture. Instead we have two strong actors facing off  – James Franco and Jonah Hill. Hill plays Michael Finkel, a discredited New York Times Reporter and Franco plays a murderer who takes Frankel’s identity to evade capture.  But captured he is and the writer might be too curious about why the murderer chose his identity. The two conspire to write the murderer’s story. Is it a way for both of them to redeem themselves? The 2015 film was directed by Rupert Goold and was based on — what else? — Finkel’s book. Franco’s character is psychopathic, Hill’s obsessive. They mirror each other in their narcissism, providing a double dose of self-absorption, which seems to explain the unavoidable attraction they have for each other.

These are small films, which is to say, minimal action, minimal actual violence no special effects. Just two human relationship stories.  The biggest fear is that what happened in these two movies could happen to us, or someone we love, and that we are too blind or too self-obsessed to see there is something larger out there.

Both are American films. A little Kentucky Bourbon would work as refreshments as youwatch Break Up. There would be nothing wrong with continuing that through True Story. For the non-inbibing, some fruit juice and soda will do fine.  And popcorn.  Why not? Though worth it, True Story is a little slow.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Film Pairing — So So Noir And Not So Noir

I’m not sure you’d call them curiosities. Maybe movies that might have slipped by everyone except the most devout followers of old crime films.

Fred MacMurray And Kim Novak
Pushover — The movie Double Indemnity is regarded as a classic and classic “noir.” Fred MacMurray played his first bad guy and did it well, giving him a whole new life as an actor in1944. In1954, MacMurray essentially reprised his role as a decent guy lured into murder by a twisted, beautiful, evil woman.  In this case we see for the first time in a major role Kim Novak as the Barbara Stanwyck character. Roy Huggins wrote the screenplay, based on two novels, The Nightwatch and Rafferty by Thomas Walsh and Bill S. Ballinger, respectively. For me, the dialogue was the only bright spot in this theft of the classic.  The cinematography, though attempting to create the dark, shadowy mood of most film noir was flat, and the soundtrack was distracting. Richard Quine directed. Philip Carey, Dorothy Malone and E. G. Marshall co-starred.

Lloyd Nolan And Mary Beth Hughes
Dressed To Kill  — Not to be confused with an earlier Sherlock Holmes film or the later erotic thriller by Brian DePalma, this is one of the films featuring popular fictional private eye Michael Shayne. The character came to life in 1939 in the first of 50 novels by Davis Dresser under the nom de plume, Brett Halliday. Shayne was so popular in the 1940s and ‘50s, the character was on radio and in comic books and eventually on TV (1960) with Richard Denning as Shayne. There was even a popular Michael Shayne Mystery Magazine featuring short stories. Dressed To Kill was one of seven Shayne films starring Lloyd Nolan.  I wasn’t expecting much. And during the first few minutes I was sure my doubts were justified.  Not so. The 1941 black and white film turned out to be a lot of fun. Shayne comes upon a couple of dead bodies in a hotel room, cons a newspaper and a couple of suspects to pay him to investigate. He continually cons the cops and his supposed bride to be (Mary Beth Hughes) in the kind of well-plotted but slightly silly drama in The Thin Man tradition. Good banter. Interestingly, Richard Burke wrote the novel on which Shayne creator Brett Halliday based the screenplay. It was directed by Eugene J. Forde and also featured William Demarest (later of “My Three Sons” with Fred MacMurray). Actor Hugh Beaumont would go on to play Shayne in a series of even lower budget films in 1946.

I’d go for something light and bubbly as an accompaniment despite the intended serious nature of Pushover. The sassy dialogue of the second light-hearted movie calls for it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Film Pairing — Image, Identity And Illusion

If I had it to do over, I might choose photography, rather than writing. Though the truth is I love being involved in both, even though these two particular films are cautionary tales pointing elsewhere.  The first is a truly American film, and the second truly French. The first has considerably more action.  The second is saturated in suspense. Both fittingly boast fine cinematography.

Jake Gyllenhaal In Nightrawler
Nightcrawler — It doesn’t get any sleazier. Jake Gyllenhaal sees an opportunity to use his lack of character and social conscience to take videos of bloody crime scenes and horrendous accidents to cash in. He gets to the scene first and rearranges things if need be to meet the “if it bleeds, it leads” business model of sensational TV newscasts in L.A.  Gyllenhaal is the hyena-like scavenger, a thief turned entrepreneur who feeds on what’s left of the kill. It’s hard not to imagine the film as an indictment of our culture’s out-of-control greed. Free market gone wild.  You may wish to take a shower after the film is over; but it is magnificently thought provoking. Released in 2014, Nightcrawler was directed by Dan Gilroy.  It won a slew of awards. Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed and Bill Paxton also appear.

Romain Duris in The Big Picture
The Big Picture — This film is a bit more seductive and considerably subtler.  However, like Nightcrawler, the film’s major strength is the performance of the main character.  In this case it is Romain Duris who plays a dissatisfied but successful attorney.   He slyly keeps us in suspense about his true nature. He accidently kills his wife’s lover.  Realizing it would be a slam-dunk murder case for any prosecutor, our man takes off, cleverly taking the identity of the victim, whose passport is easily forged and who is a free-lance photographer often on extended assignments. If our man must go into exile, why not take this opportunity to live out his avocation as well as his childhood dream of becoming a photographer himself?

As the New York Times reviewer suggests the film conjures thoughts of Hitchcock, and Highsmith’s Ripley – though the film, based on Douglas Kennedy’s novel, is very much its own. Directed by Eric Lartigau the film also features Marina Föis, Niels Arestrup, Branka Katic, Catherine Deneuve and Éric Ruf.

Because Nightcrawler is so hard-edged, one might think of having a glass of whiskey on hand.  For The Big Picture, we might look to Paris and/or Belgrade for inspiration. Maybe Rakija, a strong brandy. Serbia is also known for its mineral waters.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Commentary – Claiming American Exceptionalism Leads To Self Deception And Failure

We’re hearing a lot about American Exceptionalism. The original use of the term was based on the unique way the country was formed and the way it evolved.  Today, we are asked to accept that believing that the U.S. is exceptional is somehow akin to both patriotism and superiority. If you don’t believe the U.S. is the best in every way, you are not a good American. Not only are the people who say this in denial; but also by not recognizing the facts, they are damaging our ability to improve and to become the exceptional nation we claim to be.

Without honest reflection, without critical analysis we cannot see our failures and therefore cannot correct them.

I think the U.S.A. will be regarded as having been among the great civilizations. There is little doubt about our considerable influence in the world because of the size of our economy, the power of our military, and the leadership we’ve shown in new technology.  Whether these are the criteria we should use in an evaluation of our achievements as an exceptional nation or not depends on what we do with those attributes. But the “I am the greatest” as a working title only mimics Mohammed Ali, who actually proved it, and the P.T. Barnum of our time, Donald Trump, who thinks because he said it, it is true.  Our country’s exceptionalism can only be known when all the facts are in and analyzed. And it can be realized only when we do what we need to do to actually make us exceptional where it counts.  We are not there.

Here’s where we stand:

1. United Kingdom
2. Switzerland
3. Sweden
4. Australia
5. Germany & Netherlands (tied)
7. New Zealand & Norway (tied)
9. France
10. Canada
11. United States

“It’s fairly well accepted that the U.S. is the most expensive healthcare system in the world, but many continue to falsely assume that we pay more for healthcare because we get better health (or better health outcomes). The evidence, however, clearly doesn’t support that view.” From Forbes Magazine (2014).

However with what has been derisively called “Obamacare,” the U.S. is showing signs of moving up in the health category. A complete single payer or extension of Medicare would do more to make the U.S. “exceptional” in this area.  An examination of the health care systems of the top performers would be helpful.

Homicides per 100,000 (2011)

1, Japan                        .03
2. Denmark                  .08
3. Germany                  .8
4. Italy                         .9
5. Netherlands             .9
6. Sweden                    .9
7. United Kingdom    1.0
8. Australia                 1.1
9. Canada                   1.5
10. France                  1.8
11. Norway                2.3
12. United States       4.7

Number Incarcerated (2013)

1. Norway                                   3,575
2. Denmark                                 3,820
3. Sweden                                   6,364
4. Netherlands                           13,749
5. Australia                                29,383
6. Canada                                   38,691
7. Germany                                64,379
8. Italy                                        64,873
9. France                                    67,977
10. Japan                                    68,873
11. United Kingdom                  84,066
12. United States                   2,234,751

Wealth: Income Equality After Taxes

1.  Netherlands
2.  Norway
3.  Sweden
4.  Denmark
5.  Germany
6.  Japan
7.  France
8.  Canada
9.  Italy
10. Australia
11. United Kingdom
12. United States

Military Spending – (USA TODAY) 2014
Percent of GNP

1. Saudi Arabia          10.0
2, Russia                       4.5
3. United States            3.5
4. France                       2.2
5. China                        2.1                

Per Capita

1.  Saudi Arabia         $2,747
2. United States           1,891
3. France                        964
4.  Russia                        593
5.  China                         155

Education  — Overall rankings  (OECD, 2015)
Rankings based on math and science at age 15

1. Singapore

2. Hong Kong

3. South Korea

4. Japan
4. Taiwan

6. Finland

7. Estonia

8. Switzerland

9. Netherlands

10. Canada

11. Poland

12. Vietnam

“The results from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) … show that teenagers in the U.S. slipped from 25th to 31st in math since 2009; from 20th to 24th in science; and from 11th to 21st in reading, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which gathers and analyzes the data in the U.S.” — The Wall Street Journal

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see that where health and education are strong, crime and punishment are low. Inequality of income also appears to relate to the quality of life of a country.  The U.S. needs to address these areas.  That means establishing a better, more inclusive health care system, creating less of an income gap (higher minimum wage), and making sure most of our children have access to a full education.  How do we pay for this?  Take a look at our budget.  In what area might we be overspending? And when multi-multi-millionaire hedge-fund managers are taxed less than a schoolteacher or factory worker, we are not treating our citizens fairly. Those who take advantage of bad tax policy inhibit the county from building roads and schools, taking care of those who have slipped through the safety net, supporting our soldiers wounded in action, helping communities suffering from a natural disaster, and preparing our children for a future where education is essential for the economic survival of all of us, not to mention the exceptional status we seek.

We have the natural and human resources to be an exceptional nation.  We simply need to use them and use them wisely.

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