Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A

Archive for the ‘Movie’

The Bad Actor Objection

June 02, 2011 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Movie

Have you ever seen the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?  My friend @JamesTulsaALL recommended it. He thought the movie addressed some important issues. He was right.

For those of you who have not seen it. Jimmy Stewart is an attorney who heads out to the wild west to carve out his future. He is robbed and beaten by some thugs. It turns out that those thugs have been tormenting the town. The town sheriff, a bumbling and fearful fool, will do nothing. Stewart, filled with righteous outrage, is determined to use the law to put a stop to those thugs.

Also central to the story is John Wayne. Wayne is the town tough guy. The thugs don’t fuck with him. But he isn’t too inclined to do anything about the thugs fucking with everybody else, at least not until Jimmy Stewart drags him into it. Even though Wayne doesn’t want to get involved and acts like a hard-ass, we are supposed to know that he is really a good guy.

Stewart and Wayne play the liberal and conservative archetypes in that movie. Stewart is the liberal. He is an educated attorney from back east who hasn’t a clue how to fire a gun. He knows what is right and he is going to make sure it happens. Wayne is the conservative. He is tough. He can shoot guns and kick ass. People respect and fear him. The weak (including liberal Jimmy Stewart) need his protection.

Stewart and Wayne are the movie’s heroes. Stewart’s righteous indignation and lawyerly smarts along with Wayne’s brawn and good aim save the day.

The whole movie rests on the premise that an entire town full of people were completely incapable of dealing with a few thugs. The townspeople were, in fact, so pathetic that the best they could do was elect the most chickenshit amongst them for sheriff. You and I are supposed to believe that nothing can ever be accomplished without a hero. We are supposed to believe that we are helpless in the face of anti-social behavior.

I don’t believe that. I don’t have that low of an opinion of you or of me. And I definitely don’t think that we should design our whole society around what some disturbed people might do. Once you stop believing the myth that only a hero/politician/general can save the day, then the whole justification for the authoritarian state comes crumbling down.

At least in the movie, Stewart and Wayne actually did get the job done. In real life, Stewart and Wayne would be conspiring with the evil ranchers and thugs in order to rob us all blind. In the real world, there are no heroes. There is just us.

I will not guarantee that, if we managed to create an anarchist society tomorrow, it would not some day become authoritarian. Maybe some exceptionally bad outside actors would show up and the society would not be able to defend itself. Maybe internal divisions would weaken the community and make it an easier target. Maybe the society would, eventually, build back the kinds of hierarchies we have today. Maybe we would have to go through the whole process over again in 100 years or 50 years or even 10 years.

So what?

Should we not even try? Should we just concede to the people and systems that cause so much misery? “It won’t last forever” is a terrible reason not to pursue something. Nothing lasts forever. We should be trying for the best we can do, for as long as we can do it.

And we cannot fall for the myth that we are helpless in the face of a few bad actors.

Amreeka Through Arab American Eyes

September 11, 2009 By: Mel Category: Movie

It’s not easy being an immigrant.  That is especially true if you are an Arab immigrant to America who arrives during a war against Iraq.

Amreeka is Cherien Dabis’s debut full length film.  Dabis’s personal experiences of living in an Arab family in Ohio, and of discrimination during the first Iraq war, are the basis for much of the movie.

In the post-movie discussion I attended, Dabis said that her goal was to convey the warmth of the Arab American family.  It was a side of Arabs that we Americans just don’t see.  She succeeded.

But this is not a feel good movie, at least not just.  The prejudices of small town America are on full display.  Like Dabis’s father in real life, the doctor in this movie loses clients who no longer want an Arab doctor.  Jobs are hard to come by.  You’ll hear suicide bomber “jokes” and see racial profiling.  And you’ll see people trying to figure out how to fit in when they stand out.

You’ll also see a side to the Israel/Palestine conflict that you don’t normally see.  The family in this movie immigrates from the occupied territories.  The film shows what it is like to spend hours every day trying to get from one place to another.  It shows checkpoints and harassment.  It shows the impossibility of living as a young person in a place with no opportunity.

Everyone should see this movie.  A list of release dates and locations can be found here.

Inglourious Basterds as Self Examination

August 27, 2009 By: Mel Category: Movie, Violence

(Note: I’m going to relate much of the storyline in this post.  While I don’t think that really spoils the movie, if you haven’t seen it yet you might want to wait to read this.)

Quentin Tarantino makes films about film.  He examines, exaggerates, and worships our most iconic film genres.  And in doing so, he examines us.  There is no genre more central to the American mythology than the war movie, particularly the World War II movie.  All the cliches are present.

There is a small band of elite fighters led by a sexy leading man.  There are victims to be saved.  There are beautiful women in danger.  There are good guys and there are bad guys and we all know who is who and who we are supposed to cheer for.

It is a Tarantino movie and so it is, of course, violent and funny.  There are beautifully shot scenes and there is intense dialogue.  But what makes the movie truly interesting are the ways in which Tarantino challenges the genre and the American mythology that goes with it.

Jews are Made Fully (In)human

The movie begins with a beautifully shot scene in the French countryside.  A dairy farmer (brilliantly played by Denis Menochet) and his gorgeous daughters are visited by the Nazis.  As the scene rolls on we discover that the dairy farmer is hiding Jews from his village.  These are the Jews we are expecting, victims hiding in a cellar.

Every war movie needs an elite group of soldiers to follow and this movie is no different.  Except in this movie the elite group is made up of Jews.  The actors who play these soldiers look more like rabbinical school students than warriors who are going to scalp Nazis.  Tarantino’s Jews are heroes, but they are sick, murderous, psychopaths and terrorists as well.

During the holocaust, it was the Nazis who marked Jews so that they could more easily pick them out for destruction.  But I don’t recall seeing a single yellow star in this movie.  In Tarantino’s world, it is the heroes who mark people.

Women Are Smart and Men are Destroyed by Their  Sexism

Like all war movies, most of the central characters are men. Unlike most war movies, the two central women characters are the ones who engineer the ultimate destruction of the bad guys. Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) and Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) both design separate and eventually interconnecting plots to destroy a movie theater filled with Nazis.

Most interestingly, it is men’s continual underestimation of women that causes their own destruction.  The main Nazi villain, Colonol Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) lets Shosanna get away once.  He doesn’t do it out of compassion.  (He has none).  She just isn’t important enough to go after.

Colonol Landa prides himself on being able to read people, break people, and hunt down Jews.  Yet, when he questions Shosanna, he reads nothing.  He does not see that she is a Jew.  He does not see that she is terrified and full of rage.  He just orders the adorable blonde girl some strudel and milk.  And that same blonde girl will engineer the destruction of his people.

When things go wrong for Bridget, there is a stand-off.  The stand-off is between a Nazi soldier and our hero, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt).  The Nazi must decide whether or not to trust Raine (who wants to rescue the injured Bridget).  It never enters the Nazi’s mind that the danger could come from the woman.  He does not live to regret it.

And then there is the scene where Tarantino turns the story of Cinderella on its head.  The man who is coming to find you with that shoe is not a prince, but a psycho.  Sexism destroys the men, but the men still destroy the women.

The Bad Guys are More Human than the Good Guys

We see Nazis playing drinking games and celebrating the birth of a young soldier’s first child.  Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) is a Nazi hero who single-handedly killed hundreds of the enemy and who stars in a movie about his exploits. Yet he is humble and charming. And he is conflicted about having killed so many people.

Our hero, on the other hand, is not conflicted at all.  Raine has completely dehumanized the enemy.  His only mission is to kill Nazis.  He sees the world in black and white, good vs. Nazi.  He doesn’t care for rules.  He experiences no remorse.  He has no desire for diplomacy.  We  never see him being kind.  We hear nothing of his family.  There is nothing to humanize him.  Tarantino relies solely on the likability of Brad Pitt and our willingness to see the world in the same good vs. Nazi terms he does.

The Audience is Put Under the Microscope

Tarantino rubs our willingness to overlook people’s humanity in our faces.  A theater full of Nazis watch their hero as he kills person after person.  The audience cheers and laughs at the carnage.  We are disgusted by them.  And while they sit in the theater cheering, we do the same.

We cheer our heroes as they execute a terrorist plot to kill a theater full of people, not just soldiers but wives and girlfriends and anyone else.  Not only are we, the audience, laughing at merciless violence, we are rooting for men with bombs strapped to their bodies.  We are rooting for suicide bombers.

And when Shosanna shows a moment of empathy, when she recognizes the anguish of her enemy, it is a fatal mistake.  We accept, even expect, that the people who show the least amount of humanity survive, while those who show a moment of it perish.

It Asks Important Questions

It would be a mistake to read too much into the movie.  We won’t ever know what the maker’s intent was.  Still, the movie left me asking questions:

  • Why do we accept simplistic answers?
  • Why is it so easy to dehumanize people?
  • Why do we accept the idea that recognizing others humanity is dangerous?
  • Is it better to become a monster and live or keep your humanity and die?
  • Why do the most peace loving of us cheer violence?
  • Are any group of people more or less capable of violence?
  • Does “terrorism” depend on which side you’re on?
  • If we had been in Germany, would we have cheered on the soldier?  (Well, I would have been in a concentration camp, but those of you who aren’t Jewish, Gay, Black, Gypsy, disabled….  Do I know anyone who isn’t Jewish, Gay, Black, Gypsy, disabled…?)
  • How much of our support for the Israeli government depends on the myth that Jews aren’t capable of grotesque violence?

American Violet Shows the Violence and Racism of the Drug War

April 20, 2009 By: Mel Category: Drugs, Movie

Based on the true story of Regina Kelly, American Violet portrays the violence, racism, and institutionalized injustices perpetrated by drug warriors.

African American communities in a small Texas town were being terrorized by a drug task force led by the local district attorney. Texas law allowed for people to be indicted based on the word of one confidential informant. Those indicted were picked up in drug sweeps and were pressured to plead guilty.

Dee Roberts (the character based on Regina Kelly) was one of those picked up. Innocent, she refused to plead. She became the lead plaintiff in an ACLU racial bias case against the district attorney and others.

The film is compelling in its own right. More importantly, it conveys the violence, racism, injustice, and institutional bias of our justice system. It does it with accuracy and without getting preachy.

It shows how poor African Americans are easy targets for a monstrous bureaucracy with perverse incentives to keep arrests high. It shows the violence of the drug war, not the violence of cartels and gangs that we normally see in the media, but the everyday violence police perpetrate on communities.

The drug war doesn’t just take the freedom of those convicted. Poor people who are forced to plead guilty become felons who cannot find jobs, cannot receive public assistance, cannot live in public housing, and cannot vote. Children lose their parents. Communities are torn apart.

American Violet is a film everyone needs to see.

What’s Curious About Benjamin Button is Who Takes Care of Him

February 19, 2009 By: Mel Category: Inequality, Movie

Benjamin Button lived free and died young, very young. Here I am less interested in the young than in the free. He worked out on the ocean, traveling from port to port. Later, he hopped on a motorcycle and traveled the world.

The movie makes a point of showing that it is not money that prevents people from being able to do that. Button leaves Daisy all of his money before he takes off on his bike. What the movie does not look at is how an individual is able to pursue their interests so freely when the world is full of people (young and old) requiring care.

As a child, Benjamin’s father walked away from his responsibility to his son. It was a woman who took him in and brought him up. When Benjamin had his own child, he left that child to another woman (the child’s mother) to be cared for. When Benjamin ages, it is Daisy who takes care of him until his death. When Daisy dies in the hospital, it is her daughter and a female nurse that take care of her until her death.

Art imitates life.

Somewhere between 59% and 75% of all family caregivers are women. Even where men are providing family care, it is generally for less time than women. And the women who provide this care often have to juggle work with caring for children and aging parents.

Rich women have the option of pawning off this responsibility to poorer women, women like Queenie. Not only did Queenie take care of Benjamin, she took care of a house full of elderly people. Many of those people never had so much as a visit from their families. Rich women have options for taking care of their children as well. They can hire a nanny or fly in an Au Pair. They can afford expensive daycare.

And while the cost of daycare for a child or the cost of a home health care worker for an aging parent is astronomical, the workers themselves don’t make a living wage. The average nanny or daycare worker makes about $24,000 a year. The median wage of a home health care worker is $9.62 an hour and nearly half are far enough below the poverty line to be eligible for medicaid. Even worse, home health care workers are exempt from basic wage and overtime laws.

I wonder who is taking care of poor people’s children and elderly while they take care of everyone else?

The Wrestler: Selling Sex and Violence

February 09, 2009 By: Mel Category: Movie, Sex, Violence

Randy “the Ram” Robinson sells his body for a living. He is a wrestler. For decades he has been going out into a ring and punishing himself and others for public entertainment.

He is old and broken. He’s living on pain medication and steroids. He’s been punched, kicked, and (in a more gruesome scene) stapled. But even though he has no money, lives in a trailer, and is long past his prime, within his world he receives respect from his fellow wrestlers and admiration from his fans. He’s a legend.

Cassidy also sells her body for a living. She is a stripper. She has also, presumably, been earning money that way for a long time. She is older than your average stripper, but not broken. Yet Cassidy does not get respect or admiration. She is looked down upon. She is dismissed by many of the patrons in her strip club. Even Randy, who treats her decently, seems surprised that she looks “clean” in her street clothes.

It isn’t as though Randy wasn’t also selling sex. He has coked up sex in a public bathroom with some girl who remembered his hot poster on her brother’s wall. He does all the things a stripper would do to keep up appearances. He works out. He bleaches his hair. He hits the tanning bed and shaves all his body hair off.

Strippers and other sex workers are seen as beneath other people, even by (perhaps especially by) supposedly feminist women. I went out with some women from my work the other day. They were relating a story about how they had some drinks with a couple the night before. The husband was an attorney for the Department of Justice. The wife was a stripper.

One of my coworkers seemed quite proud of herself for treating stripping as though it was just another occupation – at least to the stripper’s face. She didn’t believe that the couple was really husband and wife, because she didn’t believe an attorney with the DOJ would be married to a stripper.

The implication is that a stripper is “below” a DOJ attorney in our societal hierarchy. It’s a pretty outrageous statement when you think about it. We recently learned that members of the justice department wrote memos justifying torture.

And we know that the justice department illegally fired attorneys for their political affiliation. Yet I am supposed to believe that former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, a man who had to resign due to criminal allegations, is somehow “above” a stripper?

There is a hilarious line in one of Chris Rock’s stand-ups about a father’s job being to keep his daughter off the pole. Is stripping really the worst thing that could happen to someone? Would you rather have your daughter writing memos condoning torture? Would you rather have your daughter beaten up every night in a ring?

Why is the way Randy “the Ram” sold himself more acceptable? Why is selling violence (with a little sex on the side) more respectable than selling sex? Why is sex dirtier than violence?

Revolutionary Road and the American Dream/Nightmare

January 11, 2009 By: Mel Category: Movie

If you haven’t yet seen revolutionary road, go. It’s a phenomenal movie.

Spoiler Alert!!

The movie follows a couple (Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio) who are falling into the suburban abyss – house, car, two kids, job he hates, housework all day for her. For a moment, it looks like they are going to break away and do something extraordinary. For a moment it looks like they might question the rules and be “unrealistic.”

They plan to take off to Paris where she will get a job and he will figure out what he wants to do with his life. Their friends and neighbors are shocked. They want to see them fail. People who are too afraid to try something new, who are willing to live miserable, fearful lives always want to see you fail. You escaping is an indictment of their life.

The plan falls apart. They do not go to Paris. The hope and joy they had for a few brief moments dissipates. It dissipates, in part, because Kate Winslet gets knocked up (more on that later). The bigger reason that it dissipates is the dual trap of fear and success.

Leonardo’s character is offered a promotion. He is offered more money and more prestige. He’s offered a version of success that is socially acceptable, that meets the expectations his father had for him. His ego gets in the way. He is not strong enough to pursue what would make him happy, rather than admired.

I know so many people who complain about their lives. Yet, year in and year out, they continue living a life they hate in large part because they have been seduced by the money, prestige and admiration their position provides.

Is it really better to be a miserable lawyer or CEO or director of widgets? What if you could be a happier (if poorer and less envied) writer, bartender, or carpenter?

The other part of the equation is fear. It’s scary to not follow all the rules. If you set out on a path not trodden by a million others, you are likely to fall down a few times. My favorite character in the movie is the (supposedly) mentally ill son of the neighbor. He is considered crazy because he refuses to play the game, because he tells the brutal truth. He is the movie’s bullshit detector. He calls Leonardo out for being scared. “The hopeless emptiness is comfy,” he says.

In the end, Leonardo gives up pursuing joy and resigns himself to the socially acceptable life. Kate Winslet succumbs to despair. She gives herself an abortion. She bleeds out and dies.

What is interesting about how the movie handles the abortion issue is that it does not explicitly talk about the illegality of it (although it is implied), nor does it talk about religion. The movie directly confronts only the idea that a woman who would want an abortion (or simply wouldn’t want a child) is damaged, selfish, unloving, hateful, difficult, unmotherly, evil…

Leonardo may be miserable, but he has perks. He has the prestige of his job. He has the girl he is screwing on the side. He has his ways of getting off. Kate stays in the house all day cleaning. Sex last two seconds. Even when she has an affair, she gets no sexual satisfaction. She never gets to experience any joy. She’s thwarted at every turn. And if she tries to break out, to live, she has to deal with the guilt of having internalized the labels of damaged, selfish, unloving, hateful, difficult, unmotherly, evil…

The movie ends with the couples neighbors in denial. One neighbor simply decides to never speak of them again. The other rewrite history in her own mind and claims that they were always difficult people.

I wonder if there are people out there who are really happy with their unquestioned, safe, suburban lives. I hope so. There are so many people out there living that way.