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Thursday, October 31, 2013

SATAN!!!! And Protestants. And Catholics. And of course some Jews. Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, Admittedly, as an Afterthought.





I'm Catholic. Through Facebook, I've been exposed to some of the inner thought processes of my fellow Christians, Protestants.

There is an aspect of Protestant thought that does not work for me. More times than I am comfortable with, my Protestant friends attribute events and actions to Satan. These haven't been Lutherans or Episcopalians, but rather Protestants based in the Southern US.

We Catholics don't really do this. If someone behaves badly, we say, "Oh, he's weak / mean / deluded / drunk / vengeful." What have you.

For Catholics, if our cars won't start, we think first of a mechanic, rather than Beelzebub under the hood. If the weather turns, we get the rain gear out of the closet, rather than looking for clouds shaped like horns and tail. If someone gets cancer, we phone an oncologist.

The frequent allusions to Satan trouble me. I don't find them helpful or illuminating. They strike me as a bump on the road to solutions, rather than a guidepost on the road to solutions.

I'm mentioning this now because I saw a post attributing the behavior of adults who had been abused as children to Satan. Associating adults who had been abused as children with Satan is a choice I'd avoid. I wouldn't even use the words in the same sentence.

The author of the post was saying that "Many victims of child abuse never leave their victim mode behind. They continue playing the victim, finding comfort in that role because it's all that is familiar. Satan loves to keep people in victim mode."

I found that statement to be without support and potentially harmful. It seemed to me that making an unsupported, negative generalization about an entire group of innocent victims could be rendered bulletproof to critique by attributing the alleged "victim mode" to Satan.

Imagine how this works in a debate. The first debater says, "You are merely saying what you are saying because Satan is making you say it. I am here to save your soul."

And the opponent says, "No, no, YOU are saying what you are saying because Satan is making YOU say it and I am here to save YOUR soul."

And the first debater replies, "No, no, that you disagree is just greater proof that Satan is steering you around. Let me save your soul. Agree with me."

The arrogance of those who invoke Satan to make their points is made clear.

But it's more than a bit spooky, and a bit arrogant, to invoke Satan. It goes against consensus reality. Consensus reality is that reality we can all agree on because we can all see it, hear it, touch it, taste it, smell it, test it, measure it, and name it.

You can't test for Satan. You can't prove Satan. By invoking Satan, you reserve to yourself the right to name a reality that no one else can see. Rather kingly, if not Godlike. Or merely nuts.

I do invoke Satan, but  r a r e l y  and only after much thought. After ten years of study, I concluded that Satan had something to do with the horrors of Hitler / Stalin / Tojo / Auschwitz / Nanking / Kolyma, but that was really only after ten years of study, and I don't bring it up much.

I'm open to being shown to be wrong on this one. Until then, I'm going to continue being glad that I was raised Catholic.


There is a historical reason for this caution in invoking Satan. We are all mindful of what occurred between c. 1400-1700. People decided that some were "witches" -- in league with Satan -- and once you decide that, all normal rules of evidence, rational debate, and decent treatment are called off. After all, your opponent is Satan. If your opponent is Satan, you can treat the human being in question in a horrible way, by burning that person at the stake. We Christians avoid that extreme by insisting on evidence based decisions about our fellow humans.

After I posted this on Facebook, I realized that though I've had Jewish friends all my life, including secular Jews and observant Orthodox Jews, I've never heard a Jewish friend attribute events or actions to Satan. The same is true for Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu friends, but I have spent less time with them, so I feel less confident making the generalization.

Jesus Arm Wrestling Satan
Etienne Dinet Le Messager de Satan
FW Murnau. Faust 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Can Christians Say "Fuck You"?


Can Christians say "Fuck you?"

Serious question.

Sometimes people say things and the most appropriate response is, "I reject every morsel of everything you have just stated on every level, spiritual, grammatical, biological, political, logical, fantastical, present, past and future, sexual, platonic, in black and white and in color, reincarnated and quantum. I reject the polite version and the prison slang version. I reject the nuance, the interpretation, the meaty substance and the shadow of what you have just said. I reject the diet version and the full-fat version, the WASP and the multiculti versions. If you are even thinking about attempting to argue with me, stop, because I will flatten you."

And the short version of that is, "Fuck you."


Can Christians say "Fuck you," and if we can't, what ought we say? 

Confession: I do say "Fuck you."

Another confession: I struggle not to, and most times I win. And I struggle because I'm a Christian and I don't feel I should say it. 

Your thoughts? 





Friday, October 25, 2013

"In the Land of Blue Burqas" by Kate McCord Book Review

In "Land of the Blue Burqas" American aid worker Kate McCord (a protective pseudonym) describes Afghanistan as a country built around hating and destroying female human life, a society not very loving of male humans, either. McCord was in Afghanistan to provide Afghans with necessary skills they lack: literacy, business acumen and health services (86). She lived in Afghanistan for five years, speaking Dari, a local language, and wearing Afghan clothes. Her insights are penetrating, valuable, and politically incorrect.

Afghans are not allowed to know the truth of either Judaism or Christianity. Possession of a bible can get them killed. Afghans, like other Muslims, say they believe in Jesus, but they reject the Jesus of the New Testament and believe in an invented Jesus who never died on a cross, will return with a sword and decapitate Christians (66).

McCord introduces her Afghan interlocutors to the historical Jesus of the New Testament. Jesus astounds Afghans. They are totally unused to wisdom, compassion, and love as attributes of God. When McCord manages to explain Jesus to a group of Afghans, one states, "You have a beautiful God" (118). Two Afghan women, following Christian teaching, pray to forgive men who had violated them (137, 143). One Afghan woman's entire life improves when, with Christian teaching, she learns to be grateful (255). These are the most moving passages in the book.

An Afghan woman must end her friendship with McCord because no good Muslim would marry her four daughters if their mother befriended a Christian (168). Even when, at her own expense, McCord attempts to rescue an unwanted female child from parents who are quite consciously starving their own daughter to death, the parents will not allow McCord to rescue their daughter (281).

After years of her selfless development work in Afghanistan, Afghans still wanted to murder McCord. "We are not Muslims if we allow you to live here." If McCord's Christian example caused Muslims to reject Islam, "we must kill you" (196-7). After five years of work, feeding widows and orphans (290), McCord was forced to leave Afghanistan.

McCord outlines with crystalline clarity why Afghanistan is such a destructive place for women and girls, but for men and boys, too. Afghans have built a spiritual and mental prison camp around rigid worship of an unloving and irrational God. The religious worldview of Afghans creates a tense, grim reality.

Afghans do not say, nor do they believe, that God loves them, or that God is love (105 - 6). In contrast to the Judeo-Christian tradition, Allah is not the "father" of children he loves (242-3). To Afghans, the idea of God as a father is blasphemy.

Afghans pray a prepared script in Arabic – a foreign language they do not understand – five times a day. Prayer as Christians understand it is strange to them. Going to God in one's own language, in one's own spontaneous words, is unacceptable. God does not care about the details of human lives and doesn't want to hear about them in prayer (251- 2). Afghans understand their faith as ordering them to be unrelentingly violent: "In Islam, if anyone insults or hurts you, you must respond with ten times the force" (157).

Reading the Koran in Arabic, which Afghans do not speak or understand, is a magical process. Muslims gain "sawah" heavenly credit deposits – from reading words they don't understand (228). An Afghan who translated the Koran into Dari, the local language, was jailed. Only mullahs or otherwise authorized personnel may write out verses from the Koran (232).

Muslims gain sawah from fasting during Ramadan. If a woman is menstruating, she is unclean; Allah will not accept her prayers or her fast. She must wait till menstruation is done and fast. Older women fast many days to compensate for lost sawah. Otherwise, they may not be able to enter heaven.

Muslims will kill all Jews. Rocks and trees will warn Muslims that Jews are hiding behind them because "even the natural world is against the Jews." Jews are "beyond redemption…even if they convert to Islam, still they cannot be saved…God has ordered the nation of Islam to annihilate the Jews" (66-7). Jews changed the Torah; nothing in it is true (69). During Friday prayer, Muslims pray to convert or kill non-Muslims (75). Afghans describe Americans as "black hearted, evil, and cruel" (13).

Gender apartheid is absolute in Afghanistan. Women don't go to mosques. McCord knew hundreds of women; none had set foot in a mosque in their adult lives. Women are virtual prisoners in their homes. Afghan men know exactly what heaven will be like. Men will be issued seventy virgins who regain their virginity even after penetration. There will be delicious food (23). Afghan women receive no such promises of heaven (24). Women use no names; only title as "mother of" or "wife of" this or that male, who does have a name.

When asked, "What was the happiest day of your life?" Afghan men often answer with the day they acquired their first wife. When asked "What is the saddest day of your life?" Afghan women often answer, "The day I married my husband" (37). Afghan women say of one man taking many wives, "We hate it" (48).

Following the example of Mohammed, who married his favorite wife, Aisha, when he was over fifty and Aisha was six, men often marry children. Afghan girls are often married off between 11 and 13. Sex is required even of pre-pubescent wives. A mother calls her own twenty-year-old daughter "old and ugly." This twenty-year-old had already been pregnant four times. "A girl is most beautiful at 13 and should be married then" (51).

Any woman who travels anywhere beyond her gate on her own, without a male chaperone, is "unclean" because "the nature of woman is crooked always" (176- 7). If a woman's voice is heard by a man to whom she is not related, he will have to rape her, and it will be her fault. She must be punished (182).

Muslims who do study Western ways in order to advance their own nations must not internalize any Western values, which are all evil. All Christians are evil (189). One student reports, "I will learn English and I will teach infidels to be Muslims" (194).

Again, the insights this book offers are brave and clear. For all that, I cannot recommend this book. It desperately needed editing. It is thuddingly repetitious. Too, McCord's commitment to a bogus anonymity – she provides enough detail to identify herself to anyone who knew her – dulls her accounts.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

I Would Prefer a Dignified Death to a Life As a Hostage in Silence: Afghan Woman Poet

In Afghanistan, many consider poetry a sin. And yet Afghan women are writing poetry, in secret. 

From the BBC:

"When we recite our poems, we remove our pain," says Seeta Habibi, Country Director for the Afghan Women's Writing Project, a group established with the help of writers living in the United States.

"We talk to the paper with our pen and we fight for our rights on paper," she explains. "Someday we hope we will win."

Threats from the Taliban in the west of Afghanistan forced Ms Habibi, the only female journalist in her province, to leave her home.

Karima Shabrang faced a similar fate in her village in the remote northern province of Badakhshan. Local elders condemned her as a bad moral influence for her romantic laments of love and loss.

"They said I should be got rid of. They meant I should be killed," she recalls in the simple mud brick home in the poor suburbs of Kabul where she now lives with two brothers who came to her rescue.

Full story here.


Sunday, October 20, 2013

"The Fifth Estate" Intriguing, Fun, Shallow

Everyone seems to be mad at this movie because everyone who talks about it comes to it with a strong opinion about Julian Assange, and they wanted the film to depict him as a savior or a monster. I didn't have those preconceptions and I enjoyed the film from the opening title sequence. That sequence depicts hands carving hieroglyphics in Ancient Egypt, illuminated manuscripts, the first printing press, newspapers, computers – the myriad ways humans communicate. It's a title sequence Frank Capra would love.

I found "The Fifth Estate" intriguing, fun, and moving. Benedict Cumberbatch is very good as Assange. The movie wants you to be impressed by him at first, but slowly to see his feet of clay, and Cumberbatch does that job. Daniel Bruhl plays Daniel Domscheit Berg, Assange's partner. Bruhl expresses disappointed hero worship very well. Assange is invited to Berg's home for dinner, and he disrespects Berg's polite parents. That intimate, believable scene makes you hate Assange in a way that his secret-releasing shenanigans might not.

"The Fifth Estate" struggles, as all computer-related films do, to depict life on a computer. It creates a fake office with the sky as ceiling where Assange's "volunteers" work. Assange describes his submission process at Wikileaks and pages appear onscreen. These visual flourishes are fun.

The movie is interesting and fast-moving but not very deep. There are very big questions at play here and "The Fifth Estate" does not engage them deeply. Laura Linney plays Sarah, an American agent whose contact, Tarek, is endangered by Assange's revelations. There is some tension as Tarek flees Libya. Will he get out before Assange outs him, or will he and his family be captured and perhaps tortured by their oppressive government?

Perhaps if "The Fifth Estate" had been more art than docudrama it could have gone deeper. Imagine a conversation between Sarah and Assange. One could argue for the importance, both strategic and humanitarian, of state secrets, and the other could argue against. Other questions – aren't secrets inevitable? Accept it: there is stuff you are simply never going to know.

And, in the end, what difference did Assange make? The US is still in Afghanistan. Guantanamo still operates. People will pay more attention to Miley Cyrus twerking than to documents about torture in a Third World nation. Someone said once of the Cambodian genocide that no one will ever read all the documents the Khmer Rouge amassed. No one cares enough to do so.

Laura Linney is every bit the actor that Benedict Cumberbatch is. I'd love to have heard these two characters have this conversation.



Saturday, October 19, 2013

The White Iris Story

Photo by poet Charles Fishman 

My Facebook friend, the poet Charles Fishman, has posted several photographs of white irises on Facebook this fall.

Every time he posts one, I think of the white iris story.

It happened in 1995, a bit less than a year after my father died.

My father and I were not close.

I was an abused kid, and I was not wanted.

***

I had gotten accepted to graduate school at UC Berkeley. After a lifetime of feeling the worthless outsider, I felt I had finally found my niche. I took the GREs – the graduate record examination – and scored in the 97th percentile. Before that I had really thought I was mentally retarded. I'm not; I'm dyslexic. But when you are an abused kid and everyone around you tells you how stupid you are because you are slow to learn to read and write, and reading and writing remain hard for you, you believe "you're stupid / slow / special / different / worthless."

My sister threw a party for my mother's birthday and invited everyone in our family. I was told to come on a given day. I didn't own a car. I arranged a ride. I got all dressed up. I was feeling a bit awkward, as I always do when I am attempting to wear fancy clothes. I was excited to see cousins and relatives I hadn't seen in years. I was honored finally to be invited to my sister's house. I got out of my friend's car and began to walk up her driveway. Her husband stepped out of his front door, walked toward me and said, "Ha, ha, ha. The party was yesterday."

My friend drove me to my mother's house. She was still partying with her sister, who was still in town. I walked into the house, looked at my mother and screamed, "How could you do that to me?"

I saw my father in his favorite, comfortable chair. He was reading the newspaper. There was no way he would have been in on the trick. He didn't have that kind of malice. Had he known, though, I'm not at all sure he would have stopped it.

That's the last time I saw him alive.

***

Just telling that part of the story, the part I just told, above, cost me more emotional pain than I want to feel in a single day.

To continue.

***

I went off to grad school. Got my MA at UC Berkeley. Moved on to IU Bloomington, Indiana, to get my PhD.

My sister phoned my first semester there. She told me that my father was dying, but that I should not return, because no one wanted me around.

The professor I was working for also did not want me to leave. She said that she was about to host an academic conference. She said she needed me to type up the program. She said if I left she'd make me regret it.

I did leave. My father died just as my train was pulling into Penn Station. No one did want me around. My aunt encouraged my mother to beat me at the funeral. I stayed to watch my father interned in the same plot as my brother Phil. Then I left.

My boss did harass me upon my return to Indiana University. Deans on campus asked me to testify against my boss. They labeled my boss "a sociopath" and felt that I would be the best person to put up against her.

In the middle of my testimony against the miscreant professor, my ear began making odd noises, and I began vomiting uncontrollably. I didn't realize it at the time, but my inner ear had burst, perhaps from the stress.

I would spend the next six years chronically ill, lose my life savings, and go deaf in one ear. I have since been operated on in a pro bono surgery by Dr. Richard T Miyamoto, thanks to the intervention of State Senator Vi Simpson's legislative aid, Rick Gudal. At the time, though, all I knew was that I could not stop vomiting, and I was having trouble staying upright

***

I was renting a room in a house. My landlady's stuff was in most of the house; my stuff was in my room. We shared common areas: living room, kitchen, and a landline phone.

One day I felt the vertigo coming on, and I lay down on a couch.
Suddenly I saw complete and total blackness. It wasn't the normal thing one sees when one closes one's eyes: streaks of grey and black, blobs and floaters. It was complete blackness.

From this blackness, my father approached me. I could see his entire form walking toward me.

I saw my arm reaching forward into the blackness, toward my father.

I was about to hand him something. I could see it vividly. It appeared in my vision without anything else: a translucent, ghostly white iris on a completely black background. This image was so stark and powerful it shook me. I handed my father the iris, he disappeared, the waking "dream" ended.

I was very confused. I'm more of a wildflower person, than an aficionado of garden flowers. I associated no garden flowers with my father. I could associate no significant mythology with irises. There were no personal stories attached; no memories; nothing. Yet the image itself was so powerful -- the white of the iris so striking, and the background so relentlessly featureless and black, I couldn't release it.

I called my friend and rabbi, Laurence Skopitz in Rochester, NY. (I'm Catholic, but my Rabbi was a Jew). I asked him: "Do you know of any mythology connected with white irises?"

"No," he said.

Okay, I thought, I'll just forget it.

Then, a couple of weeks later, on a Sunday afternoon, Rabbi Skopitz called me. I picked up the phone, said "Hi," and walked into the living room to sit down. My landlady had left a book on the coffee table.

My Rabbi asked, "Have you figured out what that dream meant?"

At that very moment, I opened up the picture book my landlady had left on the coffee table. I opened to a page that was identical to the vision: a translucent, ghostly white iris on a totally black background. The caption said, "The name of this flower is 'immortality.'"

I gasped.

My Rabbi said, "What? What?"

***

Now, I know what you're thinking -- I had seen this photo, this book, before, and just forgotten it. Sorry -- I'm a PhD and published scholar – I obsessively remember where I see things, pages, books, authors, publishers, so I can exploit them later in my research and writing.

This story is beyond an explanation, for me.
I told this story online back in 1998. One online reader immediately posted, "You're not done yet. Research the folk meaning of the iris."

I went to the Monroe County Public Library and I found a couple of books about flowers and folklore.

One book said, "The iris was the messenger between the living and the dead, especially in those situations where the love was difficult to communicate."



Friday, October 18, 2013

Imagine a Society Where Judy Garland Is Seen As an Evil Whore Who Deserves to be Raped

Judy Garland singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow 
Aretha Franklin 
Maria Callas
Ella Fitzgerald
Edith Piaf
Janka Guzova 
Imagine a society where Judy Garland would be assessed as an evil whore who deserved to be raped. Or Edith Piaf or Maria Callas or Ella Fitzgerald.

Imagine Afghanistan:

"If a woman sings and a man hears her, he will think her voice is beautiful and will lust after her. Maybe he will be on the street separated by the wall or in a neighbor's walled courtyard. Maybe he will never see the woman who sings, but he hears her voice. If that happens, he will want her. It's her fault. She has sinned. She made him want her. The sin is hers. She will be punished. That's why a woman should never sing, even in her own walled courtyard."

The above quote was spoken by a Muslim Afghan woman. She is quoted in "In the Land of the Blue Burqas" by Kate McCord.

From a Muslim website: "It is gravely sinful for women to go out with bare head, hair, arms, and legs, to let their voice be heard by men."

According to this website, every time a woman allows a man to whom she is not related to hear her voice, she sins.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Interrogating Jesus about Baby Hope, Facebook, and Suffering

Watchers in the Night Thomas Blackshear 
NY Daily News front page from 1991, when Baby Hope was first found. 
In 1991, construction workers found the body of a child in an ice chest by the side of New York's Henry Hudson Parkway. She was four years old. She was malnourished. She had been raped before her death. Her body was badly decomposed.

I was abused as a kid. The stories of child abuse that hit the news rivet me. I note and remember children's names and what was done to them. I remember where they were.

I do this because I pray for them. I want to be with them, as it were, as they suffer, even though I will never meet them, even if they are passed away. I say their names as I pray. As I pray, I imagine myself standing next to them as they suffer. I do this because I don't want them to suffer alone.

When I prayed for Baby Hope, I imagined myself inside the ice chest with her. It was horrible.

Police today announced that they have found her killer, and for the first time, they have a name for her. She was Angelica Castillo. Her cousin, Conrado Juarez, thirty years old at the time, held a pillow over her head while he was raping and suffocating her.

From CNN:

"When the girl went motionless … he summoned his sister from another room. It was the sister who told Juarez to get rid of the body and who provided the cooler. He then 'folded the girl in half,' tied her, placed her in a garbage bag inside the cooler and placed soda cans on top of her body … Juarez and his sister hailed a cab to Manhattan, dropped the cooler off in a wooded area near the parkway, and then went their separate ways." Source

Angelica's parents never reported her as missing. The police had no idea who she was.

Again, from CNN:

"Detectives, each year, on the anniversary of the discovery of her body, would canvass nearby neighborhoods, handing out fliers and asking people for information. Who was the girl? Who was her family? Who killed her?"

Apparently this year's manhunt turned up the tip that brought Conrado Juarez to justice.

"The girl was laid to rest in a donated plot, buried in a white dress bought by a detective's wife, with a tombstone paid for by detectives. 'Because we care' is the inscription at the bottom of the tombstone." - CNN

***

Baby Hope's entire life sounds like a slice of hell. Malnourished. Parents who cared so little for her they never reported her missing; they did nothing to protect her from the evil relatives with whom she lived.

Why did Baby Hope have to live a life of nothing but suffering?

Free will. That's one answer to the question of suffering. God allows us free will.

My New Age friends say that Baby Hope chose this life. She learned something, and she taught something, by her suffering and death.

Hinduism says that Baby Hope was atoning for bad deeds in a past life. Reincarnation will provide her with a happier life next time.

I am a Christian, and so I ask Jesus. Why did Baby Hope have to live a life of nothing but suffering?

Mia Farrow said something once about having had polio as a child. She said that she suffered a lot, and that that suffering taught her. She said that though her later life was happy and lucky, she was always aware that someone, somewhere was suffering. That awareness is what drew her to humanitarian work.

Facebook is a slideshow of people's lives. Some people are so lucky, so blessed. In their lives, they experience joy, satisfaction, pleasure. Baby Hope experienced rejection, chaos, abuse and terror, and then she died.

Why, Jesus?

I don't know.

My Catholic friends would say that my looking for an answer I can't find is the "dark night of the soul." Maybe so.

But this next fact is as amazing to me as Baby Hope's biography is bleak: total strangers cared.

Total strangers devoted twenty-two years to searching for Baby Hope's killer.

Total strangers donated a dress to Baby Hope for her internment. Donated a plot and a tombstone. Engraved the words: "Because we care."

More often than not, dead baby girls mean nothing outside of the Judeo-Christian world. In some times and places, not only could you kill your daughter, you were required to. Read the very excellent book "Bare Branches" about female infanticide.

I believe that total strangers cared about a girl they never met because their lives were touched by the teachings of Jesus Christ, in whom there is no male and no female; touched by the heritage of Jewish tradition. In Talmudic commentary on God's creation of Adam, the rabbis say that to save one life is to save the entire world. Historian Rodney Stark attributes the rise of Early Christianity to Christianity's refusal to accept the Pagan world's comfort with female infanticide and a denigration of women that cut women's lives short.

***

So, yesterday was my birthday.

Some dumb part of me always hopes, every year, that someone will notice that it is my birthday, and … do some birthday thing. A present. A cake. A candle.

I spent yesterday as I spend every day, looking for jobs I'll never get, and trying to publish writing that no one will ever read.

I'm going to do a blog post someday on aloneness. It's a big side effect of poverty. When I wasn't so poor, I did have friends.

So around midday I just couldn't hold back the tears any more. I was so wishing someone would notice it was my birthday. I was having a shouting match with God inside my head.

In the middle of that shouting match, I ran down to get the mail, and found a card, and a present, from a man I've known for – what – thirty years. Who, I think, has never remembered my birthday.

Totally unexpected.

It's those moments. Those moments when the very thing you think is impossible – that someone might care that it was my birthday – peaks at you. That keep you believing.

I should add that my friend who remembered my birthday is an atheist. God bless him.

It's not the misery of this world that amazes me the most. It's those moments of light.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

"Captain Phillips" 2013 Tom Hanks. Why This Excellent Action Adventure Film Is Not A Ten - How Film Handled Clash of Civilizations


"Captain Phillips" is an excellent action-adventure film. It is riveting, suspenseful, exciting, and very well-made. There are no off moments; no built-in "bathroom breaks." Somali pirates capturing an American ship off the Horn of Africa is a timely and fraught topic.

The film's verisimilitude is so powerful at times I really did drift into thinking that I was watching a documentary. There's a lot of money up on the screen: cargo vessels, beat-up pirate skiffs, ports, open ocean, Navy warships. Even so it was the performances and the pacing that kept my eyes glued to the screen. I found every last character so well played and gripping, right down to the medic who appears toward the end, that I wondered if Director Paul Greenglass had not hired real corpsmen, or real pirates.

Sound is used masterfully. Loud, pulsing music suddenly stops at key moments. Yeah, it's an old trick, but it works especially well here.

This is the kind of film I am grateful to have seen in a theater, and I am eager to recommend to friends. Even though action-adventure is not my genre, I'd re-watch this film, and that is high praise.

This film is so consistently excellent that one must ask why it doesn't raise to the level of a ten-out-of-ten star film. "Captain Phillips" touches on some of the biggest issues of our times: the collision between the First World and the Third World, poverty in Africa, jihad. "Captain Phillips" assiduously avoids addressing any of these issues.

From this film, viewers would never know that the millions of dollars in ship ransom that pirates claim goes to al-Shabaab, the terrorist group that attacked a mall in Kenya. Muse (Barkhad Abdi) offers rationalizations for piracy: Western nations stole Somalia's fish, and piracy is the "tax" for that. Pirates made millions of dollars through piracy. Those millions were not pocketed by the pirates themselves, who work for others. No reference is made to Somalis, in 1993, dragging an American soldier through Mogadishu's streets. Americans were attempting to help Somalis after a famine.

Phillips does mention that his ship, waylaid by pirates, was carrying food aid for hungry Africans.

None of this is gone into in any detail in the script, and it could have been.

Rather, the First World - Third World clash, and the clash of civilizations and religions is communicated solely through images, and, in the absence of a complex script, the images speak very loudly.

Somalia is depicted as a dusty, dry, hellhole. Somalis are depicted as chaotic, unproductive, violent, angry, greedy, and lawless. Somalis are dressed in discarded Western clothing and plastic sandals, or simply barefoot. They live in huts. They only things they possess that give them any power is the guns that they got from Westerners. Somalis hold life cheaply and are ready to kill and die.

Americans are depicted as orderly, disciplined, skilled, courageous, and productive. Americans devote massive amounts of money to saving one life.

When the Somali pirates manage to get their ladder against the Maersk Alabama, the image suggests the pirates as invasive parasites attempting to assault a larger, more successful organism. Whereas the Westerners have built a civilization that creates ships and commerce, the Somalis have created only violence, chaos and greed. They must take guns that they themselves can't manufacture and invade more productive peoples in order to survive. It's an ugly picture, and I can completely understand if Somalis are enraged by this film.

Andrew O'Hehir, Salon's film critic, apparently was enraged by the film, and he lambasted it. It was distressing to O'Hehir to watch "corn-fed, gym-toned" Americans struggle against "malnourished" Africans. That the thin Africans were holding guns to the heads of the Americans did not disturb him. O'Hehir calls the film "unpleasant and uncomfortable." He hated watching American military rescue an American hostage. What a sick dude, you want to say. But his view is all too common.

I greatly enjoyed this movie. It could have been an all-time classic if the script had offered some insight into the issues the images depicted.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

"Walking South" in The Apple Valley Review


Walking South

by Danusha V. Goska

Walking south rapidly on Alameda

avenue of rainbow windsocks and money

enjoying the sweep of the lawns and the houses

I walk to my cheap and noisy apartment

commuting on foot like any peasant.

Like a leopard’s pelt in a swift running river

my body’s a palette, recipient of light shifts

shadows and chill that weren’t here yesterday

when the sun was high at this very same time.

Flanking the avenue, sycamores, like poodles

clipped to survive Berkeley’s stingy dry summers

are shedding new east-leaning shadows upon me.

Undulant splotches swing with my arms.

And suddenly my mood, and the day, are quite different;

suddenly burrow like Persephone or turnips.

Nothing is flippant; three ivy leaves, scarlet;

I’m smelling the mothballs and planning Thanksgiving.

This light is so rich, I must savor, not squander it.

Rescue, a post card, this gold street I scoff at.

My body’s a calendar; the earth charts turns on it.

Winter is stalking this hot August street.

I’m ready to learn to obey winter’s dictates

turn to roots, eat amber fruits, baking and buttering

steaming on silver, studded with spice;

to view naked limbs claw like seasonal hunger

networks of twigs raking brief pewter light

as teachers of clarity, gratitude, and vigor.

When the year has sunk to its cold, dark aphelion

like icicles serrating down from the gables

it snaps, turns back, swings round into spring.

Sometimes I feel young just cause I’m alive, still.

And this street, goddammit, reminds me of someone

who on solstice wore black and a bright cloud

of white hair and spoke of a bitter disdain for winter

though he looked the God of it, I swear.

I wanted to take him into my home, then,

glowing with candles, red velvet, and soup,

and feed him some pumpkin, some cloves, some cinnamon

and tell him old stories and buck him up.

I wanted to make him a lover of winter

which never happened you know, these things go with the seasons

and the houses one lives in,

and how one commutes.

Walking south rapidly on Alameda

to my cheap bright apartment, hot from the sun.

***

My poem "Walking South" appears in the fall issue of the Apple Valley Review, here.


"Save Send Delete" is Perfect for Book Discussion Groups says Wendy Your Librarian


Wendy Your Librarian reviews "Save Send Delete" at Amazon. Wendy's review is visible here.

I am a New Jersey Public Librarian and moderate a monthly book discussion hour. Last month I chose "Save Send Delete" by Danusha V. Goska and by far it produced one of the very best hours we ever shared together. The "I" letter adjectives describing the impact of the book on the group were flying: insightful, informative, intelligent, intimate, interesting, intense, and yes, important. The hour ran into overtime.

I adore the book and have so many pages tabbed with post-its that I could be the book's indexer. Now two months since I have read it I still have it on my nightstand. It is my new "go to" book for when I am having *moments*. Like, pages 102-104 are my reality checks, and, pages 139-141 are there for when I hurt.

Please get your hands on a copy of "Save Send Delete" and let Ms. Goska's profoundly personal treasure benefit you too.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Definitive List of the Top Ten Films of All Time, Part Two

Below is part two of the definitive list of the ten best films of all time.

Part one is
here.

If you disagree with any of my choices of the top ten films of all time, uniformed personnel will arrive at your place shortly with enhanced appreciation techniques to convince you of the right path.

The Definitive List of the Top Ten Films of All Time, Part Two

"The Haunting" 1963 Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn

Directed and produced by Robert Wise. Screenplay by Nelson Gidding based on
a book by Shirley Jackson.

"The Haunting" is regularly named as one of the scariest films ever made, but I've never seen anyone class it among the greatest films ever made. That's an oversight. Pound for pound, "The Haunting" is a better depiction of evil than "Schindler's List."

I saw "The Haunting" as a little kid. I saw it on a small, black-and-white television, in a house full of people. My viewing of it was interrupted by commercials, by family members passing between me and the television screen, and by static when the rooftop antennae shifted in the wind.

For decades, after that one viewing, no matter how old I got, no matter where I was, if I walked into a room and "The Haunting" was playing on TV, or if, while changing channels on a television I accidentally stumbled across a screening of "The Haunting," I would rapidly leave the room and walk outside. I had to get outside, as if the contact with the film was a sticky web that had ensnared me, something sick and palpable that I had to scrape off my person lest it suck me down into something foul.

"The Haunting" didn't just scare me. It invited me to the dark side and I had no life-jacket or rappelling ropes to ensure that I'd get back if I tipped over the edge.

When I was well into adulthood, and I had faced many of life's evils head-on – this was when I was in grad school, my most malevolent exposure to the dark side – I decided it was time to take the bull by the horns. I had to re-watch "The Haunting" and figure out what this film had done that had scared me so much.

It scared me yet again. Suddenly I realized why.

On the surface, "The Haunting" is a by-the-numbers scary movie. You have a big, old house. You have a defenseless, blonde female. You have ghosts. But that is just the surface. It's what's beneath the surface that makes this movie one of the best ever made.

SPOILERS! I'm going to reveal, here, the ending of "The Haunting" and what I think "The Haunting" is all about, and it *isn't* about ghosts.

"The Haunting" is based on a novel by Shirley Jackson. Jackson is the brilliant author who gave us "The Lottery," a classic short story. If you haven't already read it, you can read it
here. "The Haunting of Hill House" is a very well regarded novel. Here's the opening paragraph:

"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."

Of this opening, Stephen King wrote, "I think there are few if any descriptive passages in the English language that are any finer than this; it is the sort of quiet epiphany every writer hopes for: words that somehow transcend the sum of the parts."
Paula Guran wrote, "The genius of Jackson's fiction is primarily rooted in this discovery of the quiet evil that pervades ordinary life. Her fictional darkness stems from the seemingly mundane."

Robert Wise, who directed and produced "The Haunting," respected the source material and worked hard to honor it.

The plot is simple. Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), who looks like a poor man's Clark Gable, is a paranormal investigator. He recruits a psychic, Theo (Claire Boom) and Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), a woman to whom odd things happen, to help him investigate Hill House, which is said to be haunted. Eleanor develops a crush on Dr. Markway, but he is married. His wife, Grace, shows up, and Eleanor is crushed.

Weird occurrences at the house ratchet up. These weird events could be evidence of ghosts, or they could be evidence that Eleanor is losing her mind. Eleanor runs out of the house, gets into a car, and drives. She nearly collides with Grace. She swerves, hits a tree, and is killed. Eleanor may have lost her mind, or she may have been taken over by malevolent, supernatural forces.

It's Eleanor's characterization and story arch that make "The Haunting" an irreplaceable classic.

Eleanor is a woman without a place. She's not a bad person. She's just a bit odd. She doesn't fit in. She isn't ugly, merely mousy. She's in her thirties, but she has the long, straight hair of a schoolgirl. She isn't cruel, merely awkward. She's never had her own life. She shuttered herself up to take care of her invalid mother. In spite of her self-sacrifice, her mother died.

People are supposed to see what others see. Eleanor sees things that no one else sees. She has paranormal experiences. She doesn't want to have them; they just happen to her.

People don't like Eleanor. They want her to disappear. They do not invite her into their communities. She is kept apart, sleeping on the couch in her married sister's apartment. Eleanor has no friends, no husband, no career.

Eleanor is not a sentimentalist's version of an outsider. She's no saint. Early in the film she's shown being cranky and a bit weird. Her one endearing quality is her insistence on soldiering on in spite of her crappy life, and her hope that her life could get better. Being invited to the investigation of Hill House is a promising adventure for her. Your heart breaks for her as she dreams of new horizons that cloud up and betray her.

Eleanor is especially pathetic as a woman alone. Women are supposed to be beautiful, and Eleanor is klutzy and mousy. Women are supposed to be nurturers of new life and Eleanor nurtured a dying old woman, whom she let die. Women are supposed to be loved by men, but no man has ever loved Eleanor. She is constantly contrasted with women who have a place in the world: her sister, who has a husband; Grace, the wife of the man she develops a crush on; Theo, a chic and independent lesbian.

At first, Eleanor bravely resists the house's seductive evil. One of the film's most famous and most terrifying scenes depicts Eleanor, alone in bed, suddenly beset by supernatural sounds. Eleanor is terrified. Her face breaks out in a sweat. She begs Theo to hold her hand.

She hears a child crying. She knows the house is the ultimate evil – a force that abuses children. Eleanor wants to resist this sickeningly evil force. We hear her inner monologue. She vows that she will stop this abuse of children. She condemns "this filthy house" and says she is putting up with it only for the sake of Dr. Markway. She struggles, she struggles so hard, this shy and reclusive woman says to herself, "I will open my mouth. I will yell." She does yell. She rises up and yells, "Stop it!" – Stop abusing that child!

Her shout wakens Theo. Theo is across the room. Eleanor had not been holding Theo's hand after all. Eleanor had been holding the hand of the evil house she can never escape, no matter how hard she tries.

"The Haunting"'s most famous effect is a loud banging on doors. This banging is the opposite of the knocking that Jesus describes. "Behold, I stand at the door and knock," Jesus says. The knocking in "The Haunting" is not coming from Jesus, but from the dark side.

Why can't Eleanor escape evil Hill House? Why can't she just walk away from the darkness banging on that door?

Eleanor's loneliness and awkwardness make her easy pickings for the dark side. She is flattered that Hill House so persistently invites her. She surrenders because evil is the only thing that has ever paid any attention to her at all. Evil gains its strength from Eleanor's surrender. Without Eleanor willing herself to the dark side, willing herself there with despair at her difference and loneliness, evil has no power. It's just a bunch of scary sounds and ominous shadows. When Eleanor gives in to evil, she gives evil her skin, muscles, and breath. Evil gains power from Eleanor's despair.

Evil does not keep its promise. The film ends with the line, "We who walk here, walk alone." Eleanor is still alone.

To me, that is gut-churningly terrifying. Eleanor's story could be the story of some loser joining the Hitler Youth, or Judas, or an overwhelmed mother who gives in to her sense of overwhelm and kills her own kids, or any number of other real-world horrors. Shirley Jackson tells this age-old story of the banality of evil as a ghost story, and the lessons about evil reach an audience who would never pick up Hannah Arendt.

We tend to think of evil as a word that is written only in capital letters, as an entity encountered only in exotic and dramatic locales like the Nuremberg Rally. Evil is found in small things, like feeling left out, like our tendency to marginalize odd people, like loneliness. Evil is found in our surrender to despair when we feel sad and alone.

There's a little bit of author Shirley Jackson in her fictional character, Eleanor. Jackson was a tremendously gifted writer, but, after her early death, her husband, Edgar Hyman, complained that she had not received the recognition she so deserved. It was hard for Jackson to be different. She drank, smoked, overate, and took drugs. She was agoraphobic, once not leaving her house for almost three months. She died of a heart attack at age 48. Edgar Hyman wrote:

"If the source of her images was personal or neurotic, she transformed those images into meaningful general symbols; if she used the resources of supernatural terror, it was to provide metaphors for the all-too-real terrors of the natural...

For all her popularity, Shirley Jackson won surprisingly little recognition. She received no awards or prizes, grants or fellowships; her name was often omitted from lists on which it clearly belonged, or which it should have led. She saw those honors go to inferior writers, without bitterness...I think that the future will find her powerful visions of suffering and inhumanity increasingly significant and meaningful."

There's a fine essay about Shirley Jackson by Paula Guran
here.

There's more about the house that was used as Hill House
here and here



***




"The Bitter Tea of General Yen" 1933. Barbara Stanwyck, Nils Asther, Walter Connolly, Toshia Mori. Directed by Frank Capra. Based on a book by Grace Zaring Stone.

No. "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" is NOT one of the ten best films ever made.

Why am I listing it?

Because, it me, TBToGY epitomizes the magic of movies.

I was living in Berkeley, California. The UC Theater on University Avenue was a vintage movie house, built in 1917. 
Werner Herzog ate his shoe in that theater. The UC Theater was a favorite site of audience-participation showings of "Rocky Horror."

One cloudy fall day they were showing "The Bitter Tea of General Yen." I was excited because it was a Golden Era Hollywood film that I'd never heard of. When you watch as many Golden Age movies as I do, it's hard to find worthy films you've never heard of.

I went to the matinee.

I was entranced.

Before I left the theater, I had the usher stamp my hand. The UC Theater had a rubber stamp they would use. If you wanted to leave the theater and get some Thai food at the restaurant next door and come back to catch the second of a double feature, you could do so.

I walked the two miles back to my rented room and told my housemates about this fabulous film I had just seen, an unknown classic, "The Bitter Tea of General Yen." I said I couldn't wait to re-watch it at the evening showing. I said I really wanted to see, again, the sparkly red dress that Barbara Stanwyck wore when she finally succumbed to her illicit passion for General Yen. I was careful not to wash my hands.

When I got back to the theater and sat down to re-watch the film, I realized that Barbara Stanwyck could not have been wearing a red dress; the film was in black-and-white. That's movie magic.

There's a reason I'd never heard of "The Bitter Tea of General Yen." "Yen" is one of those transgressive works of art that steps on everybody's toes, right and left, American and Asian, libertine and prude. It is a perverse film. That's part of why I love it.

"Bitter Tea" opens, as all perverse films should, at a missionary party. It's the Chinese Civil War. A bunch of white Americans are celebrating in an American-style living room. China looms outside, in the dark. There are a couple of blank-faced Chinese domestic servants; Capra uses their faces to full effect.

The missionaries are celebrating the anticipated arrival of Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck), the fiancée of Dr. Robert Strike. She's from a fine, old Puritan family and she has never been to China before.

Megan Davis arrives, but her paths cross with a callous Chinese warlord, General Yen (Nils Asther). In a crowd, Megan is hit on the head by a disgruntled coolie. She passes out. Yen kidnaps Megan as his sexual hostage. He drugs her and transports her via his own troop train. His stated goal is to "convert a missionary."

Yen never uses force on Megan; in fact he never touches her until a relatively chaste embrace toward the end of the film. Yen wants to convert Megan to loving him, and to respecting his culture, for which she had expressed some contempt. He attempts to seduce her with kind words, poetry, cherry blossoms, costly jade, and his luxurious mansion, where he offers her servants, silks, jewels, cosmetics, perfume, and fine food. Yen says to Megan, "You have the true missionary spirit. There are times when I would like to laugh at you, but there are also times when I find you admirable."

Megan resists. She is a captive. She wants to escape. She's afraid of being raped. She is horrified that even as Yen is attempting to seduce her, executions of his enemies continue apace in another portion of his compound, shootings Megan can hear. Megan, full of hate, says, "You yellow swine."

She protests, "It's pretty hard to become acquainted with a man who ruthlessly slaughters helpless prisoners in one move, and in the next shows such a tender reverence for the beauty of the moon. The subtlety of you Orientals is very much overestimated."

Megan attempts to teach General Yen Christian ways. She beseeches him to show kindness to his concubine, Mah-Li (Toshia Mori). He does so. After he gives Mah-Li a little leeway, Mah-Li uses that leeway to sabotage him. Mah-Li's actions tear the rug out from under Yen. His troops rebel; his wealth and power evaporate.

Only after she has, inadvertently, destroyed Yen does Megan realize that she can no longer resist her attraction to him. She dresses in the silks Yen had given her, Asian costume she had previously spurned. She goes to his side and plumps his pillows as she had seen Mah-Li do. She embraces Yen.

It's too late. Yen, ruined by his love for a Christian woman, has planned his suicide. Yen is about to consume the bitter tea that will kill him.

"Silk. China gave the world silk," he says, enigmatically. Yen slumps on his throne, dead, even as Megan kneels at his feet and presses his lifeless hand to her lips.

Later, Megan is seen escaping on a boat. Jones (Walter Connolly), an American businessman in China, tells her that she may encounter Yen in another life. "Maybe he's the wind that's pushing that sail. Maybe he's the wind that's playing around in your hair."

How did this movie so entrance me?

I have no interest in China. Nils Asther is an aloof, not very erotic presence. The make-up used to alter the appearance of his eyes is obvious and grotesque. Yen is a perverse, sadistic figure.

Barbara Stanwyck is not a favorite star. I don't have sexual fantasies of being kidnapped and seduced by a warlord. The plot here is pure fantasy, weak and silly. I can never believe that one move by Mah-Li could reduce a warlord to suicide.

What gets me is the filmmaker's craft that turned a flimsy, ridiculous rape and miscegenation fantasy into a walk into someone else's dream, a dream that becomes your own.

"The Bitter Tea of General Yen" takes place in China, but it is the product of a Hollywood studio. No scenes were shot in China and a Swede and a Japanese play the two main Chinese characters, Yen and Mah-Li.

Yet TBToGY evokes China with a sharp poignancy. It's a China brought to life through will and hocus pocus, Joseph Walker's exquisite cinematography, and magical suggestion. It's a sleeping child's dream of China. The film is a sparkler that goes off in your imagination. I feel that if Frank Capra directed, and Joseph Walker did the cinematography, they could use flashlights and bedsheets to turn my apartment into China.

There's a relatively unimportant scene at the opening missionary party. One of the missionaries announces that he's been in China for fifty years. He tells a horrifying story of Mongolian bandits crucifying members of a caravan. Capra's filming of this throwaway scene exemplifies why I worship this movie. Capra uses his camera to make me, or you – the viewer – a celebrant at the party, and a listener to the story.

He could have handled that scene the way a hundred other directors would have – just flatfootedly slapped the images up on the screen the way a baker slaps icing on a cake with a spatula. Just let the images provide the kind of boring exposition the story requiers to get going, but that viewers feel no need or desire to pay much attention to after they've assimilated the necessary background.

But Capra uses his camera the way Rembrandt used a brush. He doesn't just create explanatory images that provide atmosphere and exposition. He lavishes as much of his art on a throwaway scene as on a heavy plot point. He finds the unique beauty and life in the common. He sucks you in. Every time I watch "Bitter Tea," I pay as much attention to this scene as to more important ones, and I derive as much delight.

In one scene, Megan is shown waking up from being drugged. She looks around and slowly realizes that she is in a train compartment with General Yen and his concubine. General Yen is seated across from her. Beyond a door with a window in it, troops carouse. The sound from the troops is muffled. Lighting is provided by visible lamps that cast realistic shadows.

Megan is lying down, too sleepy to stand. She sees Yen, a man she had crossed paths with, seated across from her. She doesn't yet know what's going on, but she sees him staring at her intently. Megan watches as Mah-Li plumps Yen's pillows, puts out his cigarette, and puts his feet up. Megan's hand travels down her body, and she grabs a blanket and pulls it over herself.

This scene is quiet – almost nothing is said – and yet it evokes much. It is one of the most erotic scenes I've ever seen in a film, and yet everyone is fully clothed and there is virtually no touching. Capra uses light, shadow, the muffled sound of the troops, the "movement" of the "train" to create sensations in the viewer.

The scene in "Bitter Tea of General Yen" that anyone who talks about the movie talks about is the scene where Megan dreams of General Yen raping her.

Megan is sleeping in the elaborate bedroom in which Yen has ensconced her. She dreams that her door is forced open. General Yen approaches her to rape her. But he doesn't look as he looks in real life. His Chinese features are exaggerated. He moves in a creepy, cringing fashion. His fingernails are long and pointed. He fondles her breasts.

A new man breaks into her room. He is dressed as Dr. Strike, her American fiancee. Megan is happy. She will be rescued! The man in Strike's clothing punches Yen. The man then embraces Megan. He reveals himself to be … not her fiancee, Strike, at all, but General Yen. Megan is ecstatic. She melts into bliss. The camera follows her face through her slack-jawed, smokey-eyed orgasm.

But the scene that really throws me is when Megan attempts to convert Yen to Christianity. Megan's voice deepens and flutters. She is throwing all her passion into this attempt. It's obvious that her religiosity is sublimated sexuality. She wants Yen and she knows it's wrong – he's a sadist, cold, her sexual kidnapper, and Chinese. So rather than seduce him, or succumb to his seduction, she tries to convert him.

Yen asks her why she should care about a Chinese person.

She says that all humans are the same.

He asks if she really believes that and he touches her hand.

She recoils. The touch of a "yellow swine" is disgusting to her.

He sees through her hypocrisy and denounces her for it.

Yes, "Bitter Tea" is pure pulpy fantasy, but I've never seen a better depiction of desperate, caged human emotions.

You can see why "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" upsets everybody. It was the first film shown at Radio City Music Hall. It was quickly withdrawn.

Scientific Racism dominated thought and culture in the US at the time that "Bitter Tea" was released. American scientists, journalists, and indeed politicians and law declared not only Chinese people to be an inferior race apart, but also Italians like Capra (and Bohunks like me).

It simply was not acceptable to depict a white girl even imagining intimate contact with a Chinese man, even if that Chinese man were played by Nils Asther, a Swede. The suggestion was so abhorrent that the Chinese man who provided imaginary satisfaction to Megan had to die at the end of the movie.

Today, "Bitter Tea" offends the Politically Correct. The film certainly depicts "Orientals" as other – as different than whites. General Yen callously kills his enemies. He kidnaps a woman he wants, though he never touches her without her permission. He mistreats Mah-Li. Mah-Li is a conniver. The missionary tells the story of the Mongolian bandits crucifying merchants. The Politically Correct will not allow you to watch "Bitter Tea" without their warning labels attached.

In addition to the heart, imagination, and craft onscreen, it is the quiet, harmless perversity and transgression of "Bitter Tea" that make me love it as much as I do. 



***



"It Happened One Night" 1934 Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, directed by Frank Capra, produced by Frank Capra and Harry Cohn, Screenplay by Robert Riskin

Was there anything anything like "It Happened One Night" before "It Happened One Night"?

No.

A thousand films since "It Happened One Night" have tried to recreate its magic. Has any superseded it?

No.

"It Happened One Night" was sui generis when it first appeared. It sprang fully grown from Frank Capra's divine Sicilian head. Hollywood had produced nothing else quite like it.

Before "It Happened One Night" there were glamorous romances involving Garbo and Gilbert, Valentino and Swanson, coarser, pratfall comedies, and stylized depictions of average Joes, like Chaplin's Little Tramp and the Gish sisters doe-eyed waifs. There was never a naturalistic combination of the cozily every day, sophisticated wit, the sublime, and the genuinely human before Capra.

You see working class women in their intimate garments lining up outside to use a communal shower; you see an heiress in a form-fitting lamé gown; you get a lesson in dunking donuts, road thieves and hitchhiking.

Frank Capra managed to take the lumpen stuff of day-to-day Depression-era life in the US and make it dance a ballet that's laugh-out-loud funny, black-tie-sophisticated, and straight-from-the-heart real. With all that, "It Happened One Night" is never anything but highly intelligent, and very loving. "It Happened One Night" is as fresh today as rain on your face. There are moments of pathos – when the jobless single mother passes out and her son tries to revive her – and moments of deep, romantic eroticism – when Peter describes the island he wants to share with his beloved. This all happens, believably, in roadside hotels and on night buses. The miracle is it all feels real. You totally believe that a woman could get on a night bus and meet a dynamic hunk of charmed masculinity like Clark Gable.

The sets are shaky and drab, when they are not open roads, streams and fields. Columbia was not a rich studio. Claudette Colbert wears the same unadorned, working-girl's dress through much of the film. Out of so much nothing – nothing but his stars' tremendous charisma and his own God given heart, wit and smarts – Capra created a deathless classic and the role model for an entire genre, the romantic comedy.

***

"The Apartment" 1960 Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray. Directed and produced by Billy Wilder; written by Billy Wilder and IAL Diamond.

I wrote about "The Apartment" in my book "Bieganski." You can read that portion of the book
here.


***


"All About Eve" 1950 Bette Davis, Celeste Holm, Anne Baxter, Gary Merrill, George Sanders, Hugh Marlowe. Directed and written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck.

Literate script, literate script, literate script. Sample lines from "All About Eve":

"What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end."

"You're maudlin and full of self-pity. You're magnificent!"

"The cynicism you refer to, I acquired the day I discovered I was different from little boys!"

"The bed looks like a dead animal act."

"You can always put that award where your heart ought to be."

"I shall never understand the weird process by which a body with a voice suddenly fancies itself as a mind."

"Don't cry. Just score it as an incomplete forward pass."

"You're too short for that gesture."

"When we get home you're going to get into one of those girdles and act for two and a half hours."

"I couldn't get into the girdle in two and a half hours."

"Outside of a bee hive Margo, your behavior would not be considered either queenly or motherly."

"There isn't a playwright in the world who could make me believe this would happen between two adult people."

"You won't bore him long; you won't get a chance to talk."

"Remind me to tell you about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke."

"Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!"

"***

No, this isn't really my list of my own personal favorite films of all time. If it were, it would have included "Jane Eyre" 1944, "Airplane," "North and South" 2004, "My Dinner with Andre," "300" 2006, "Charade" 1963, "Man of Marble" and "Man of Iron," and "Besieged" 1998. 

***

Why are most of the films on my list old? Where are the newer films that deserve to be on an all-time ten best list?

Hey, you tell me.

For this list I stuck with American films. If I had included foreign films, I would have included Oliver Hirschbigel's masterpiece "Downfall." My review of that film is
here.

Another recent, amazing film is the 2007 Turkish film "Bliss" review
here.

"The Apartment" 1960 Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine


I'm blogging the definitive list of the top ten films ever made. One of those films is Billy Wilder's 1960 film "The Apartment." I wrote about "The Apartment" in my book "Bieganski." I'll repost those comments here. For the purposes of the book, I focused on the treatment of Fran Kubelik, the Bohunk character in "The Apartment."

The Apartment


The Apartment
won the best picture Oscar of 1960; Oscars also went to Billy Wilder for his direction and Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond for their screenplay. Bosley Crowther called it a " ... gleeful, tender, and even sentimental film," and praised its "ingenious" direction, "splendid" performances, and "action and dialogue tumbling with wit" (Crowther 1960). The New York Times named it one of the year's top ten.

The Apartment opens with a crisp aerial view of Manhattan's skyscrapers. In a voice-over, Jack Lemmon, as the movie's hero, C. C. Baxter, recites statistics: if all the citizens of New York were laid end to end they would reach Karachi. The narrator knows things like this because he crunches numbers for an insurance company. The camera cuts to Baxter's desk, one of hundreds in a starkly lit office, beehive-like in its uniformity and buzz. We soon discover what sets Baxter apart in this dizzying series of images of an imperial, dehumanizing, gray flannel America: he allows higher-ups to conduct illicit sexual liaisons in his one-bedroom bachelor apartment. This boy is going places.

In exchange for his compliance, Baxter's superiors put in a good word for him with the powerful Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Sheldrake, when promoting Baxter, puts an end to the other men's shenanigans, only to reserve Baxter's apartment for his affair with Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine; "Kubelik" is a Czech name) an elevator operator. A series of alternately melancholy, comic, and near tragic scenes follow, centering on Baxter's brokering of his apartment for professional advancement, and the erosive effect this has on his humanity. Fran, depressed by her affair with Sheldrake, attempts suicide in the apartment; Baxter nurses her. A neighbor, Dr. Dreyfus, helps Baxter rescue Fran. Cabby Karl Matushka, Fran's brother-in-law, arrives to punch Baxter out. Eventually Fran and Baxter come to understand that they love each other, and unite, happily, leaving Sheldrake and the rat race behind them.

Fran Kubelik and Karl Matushka bear certain superficial similarities to the Bohunks described so far. They do blue-collar work; they abjure socially coded displays meant to impress as intelligence. Their physicality, in the form of Fran's sexual surrender and Matushka's violence, is essential to their characters. There is a world of difference, though, between the Bohunks of The Apartment and of the three previously discussed films.

Many Bohunks did work with their bodies, live in poverty, lack education, and sense that they were different and despised. That sense contributed to a discomfort that outsiders often read as irrational hostility or anti-cultural clannishness (Novak Guns xv, xvi). As we have seen, writers, producers and directors may, in getting these surface ethnographic details right, get the inner men and women wrong. Fran Kubelik and Karl Matushka, however, communicate to the attentive viewer that the circumstances of their lives do not define them, and that their manifest traits are their best option for dealing with the world as it has been presented to them, rather than evidence of inferior blood. Further, Fran, Matushka, and the Jewish Doctor Dreyfus are allowed eyes and mouths. They are allowed subjectivity. They are allowed to see and comment on the others who see and comment on them; they are allowed to implicate those they see and those who see them. Thus, they are as human as the viewer; it is possible to identify with them. Matushka, Fran and Dr. Dreyfus are allowed to present the very qualities Baxter's slice of America needs to save its own soul.

Fran disparages her own intelligence. She announces that she wanted to be a typist, but, "I flunked the typing test. I can't spell." Fran, though, is not as dumb as she protests, and one suspects that she is presenting the face that she needs to in order to survive her fate. In working her miserable job she shows a graciousness and dignity the white-collar workers lack; Baxter crosses hierarchical lines in order to point this out to her. While dealing with the wandering hands of executive Mr. Kirkibee in no uncertain terms, Fran brandishes a rapier wit that defuses what might otherwise be a precarious situation for a woman in her relatively powerless position. She identifies herself as a "happy idiot" to Sheldrake during a painful moment, communicating that she knows more about what's really going on than he does, but that she is powerless to make Sheldrake, the powerful one, understand; therefore, it is to her temporary strategic advantage to play the role assigned her. When she has finally gained the insight she needs to break free from Sheldrake's power, she tells him, "I'd spell it out for you, only I can't spell." With this sentence she rejects the cold profit-and-loss logic of Sheldrake's world and acknowledges the superiority of her kind of Bohunk logic, in which an unemployed shnook like Baxter is a better match for her than a wealthy and newly divorced executive like Sheldrake.

Matushka advertises his low intellectual status through his job: cabby, and his non-standard speech: "My sister-in-law she runs", and, "on account of", flat vowels and dropping of "R's." Matushka's broad shoulders, athletic stance, and slight stoop offer an obvious visual contrast when he enters a glass-walled office of unmuscled, suited executives. He wears a hip-length leather jacket and leather gloves; other than his rugged, angry face, no humanizing flesh is revealed. That Matushka's personality is no one-dimensional stereotype, but that it is Slavic, multi-layered, potentially confusing to Westerners, and possessed of gender-crossing maternal, as well as stereotypically macho qualities, is hinted at in his last name. "Matushka," or "little mother" is of course, one name of the traditional Russian doll, aka "matryoshka," that stacks one within the other. In any case, Baxter's fellow executives immediately size Matushka up as a threat and sic him on Baxter to avenge Baxter's revoking of their apartment privileges.

When he arrives at the apartment, Matushka's mere presence agitates Baxter into a comic tailspin of faux macho, expressed in the only form available to him: self-incriminatory verbosity. He, in shirt and tie, prattles on and on, while Matushka glares at him, arms crossed, silent, his sheer physicality statement enough. When he doesn't like what he thinks he sees, Matushka punches Baxter to the ground. As he watches Baxter silently, menacingly, he radiates the presence not of a man who can't speak, but who disdains the feeble verbal efforts at self-aggrandizement and female-disparaging male bonding that Baxter produces as if they were Madison Avenue jingles. Matushka looks like a working man who's been lied to before, who knows when he's being lied to, and who will use what power he has, his body, to articulately and efficiently say what needs to be said when he needs to say it. His aware and communicative silence, apparently, says much to the better-educated, white-collar Baxter; it is what drives Baxter into his verbal tailspin. Unlike Stanley Kowalski, who affects elite speech when trying to coax ownership of Belle Reve, Matushka is too intelligent, dignified and self-satisfied to ape the vocabulary of another class. Rather, Matushka's very silence and physicality present the world through his eyes, and his class superiors as they look to him – that is, inferior.

The sexual exploitation of Fran's working class, Bohunk body by an upper class WASP, and her own self-deprecation of her mind, could render a woman who is only her physicality. We are told in so many words, however, that Fran is the decent one. While higher ups carouse at a Christmas party, Fran is shown sober, dignified, and apart. Fran resists the rush and anonymity of elevator traffic to take note of Baxter's elevator courtesies. She gives him a flower for his lapel on an important day; she gently requests that Baxter not speak indiscreetly of her to other men in the office. Fran's body is sturdy like Stanley Kowalski's and other Bohunks: "I never catch colds." But she is self-aware and witty about this: "If the average New Yorker catches two and a half colds a year and I don't catch any, some poor slob is getting five!" Her genuine love for Sheldrake, combined with the disempowered's wistful, wishful ability to see the reality she needs rather than the harsh, hopeless truth that confronts her, are what make the affair possible for her. Even so, she is never seen unclothed while with her married lover; she never kisses or embraces him; she attempts to end the affair and only continues because of his calculated seduction. Like Baxter, she temporarily trades the commodity over which she has power to a cold, powerful WASP's empty promises. Fran feels deep grief and disgust when her fantasy weakens and reality becomes evident. She persists in using a mirror broken during a fight with Sheldrake. "It makes me look the way I feel."

Even Fran and Matushka's relative poverty are positively valued. Baxter moves and lives in a frigid, amoral vacuum, where he can do what he wants because nobody cares. The poorer Fran, by contrast, must live in the same domestic arrangement as Blanche du Bois: with her sister and brother-in-law. This domestic setting is not a prelude to degradation and rape but to caring and protection of honor. Matushka goes to Fran's workplace to check on her when she doesn't come home; he travels to Baxter's apartment, collects her, and punishes the man whom he believes hurt her.

In fact, it is Baxter's world, a WASP one of hypocrisy, anomie, and pointless dog-eat-dog competition, which must change. It is in the eyes of Bohunks and Jews that Baxter is informed that there is something wrong with his life. Protesting suspicious goings on in Baxter's apartment, Jewish neighbor Dr. Dreyfus warns Baxter that he won't live long, and exhorts him to become a "mensch." (The uncommon name "Dreyfus," of course, because of the historical Alfred Dreyfus, will always be associated with the outraged society-correcting cry, "I accuse!") In Fran's broken mirror, Baxter sees the painful ridiculousness of his splintered reflection, as he models his newly-purchased bowler, the power hat he had bought to celebrate his hard-earned promotion. It is at that moment that he confronts the compromises he and others make to achieve "success." Baxter's moment of truth, when he finally takes a stand for himself and for what he is discovering he believes, is made clear by Fran's irrational Bohunk sentiment and inspired by love for Fran. For the first time in nearly two hours of acting like a compromised doormat, Baxter says a firm "No" to a demand for his apartment. He takes this stand because he knows that Sheldrake wants to bring Fran there. When Sheldrake threatens to fire him for this, Baxter says, "I'm just following Doctor's orders. I've decided to become a mensch. The old payola won't work anymore." The necessary ingredients for Baxter's redemption, and, by extension, his glass-and-steel America, are Ashkenazi philosophy and Bohunk love. In a baton-passing gesture, Baxter pauses in his escape to place his power hat atop the head of an African American janitor.

This is a complex and sympathetic portrayal of Bohunks; how did it come about? Billy Wilder was a Jew from Sucha, Poland. Fran Kubelik's cinematic older sister is Sugar Kowalczyk, the sweet, sexy, conniving but self-advertised dumb blonde played by Marilyn Monroe in Wilder's 1959 hit, "Some Like it Hot." Wilder's depiction of loving Bohunk women brings to mind Noble Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, through whose works parade a series of such Bohunk heroines: Wanda in The Slave, Jadwiga in Enemies, a Love Story, and Tekla, in Shosha of whom Singer wrote:

These are the real people, the ones who keep the world going, I thought. They serve as proof that the cabalists are right ... An indifferent God, a mad God, couldn't have created Tekla ... .Her cheeks were the color of ripe apples. She gave forth a vigor rooted in the earth, in the sun, in the whole universe. She didn't want to better the world as did Dora; she didn't require roles and reviews as did Betty; she didn't seek thrills as did Celia. She wanted to give, not take. If the Polish people had produced even one Tekla, they had surely accomplished their mission. (Singer 1982, 325)