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Monday, November 23, 2015

Spotlight: Best Film of 2015


"Spotlight" is the best film of 2015 and I will be disappointed if it does not receive the Academy Award for Best Picture. As good as it is, it is just one step short of greatness.

"Spotlight" depicts Boston Globe reporters investigating priest sex abuse of children. "Spotlight" focuses like a laser on what it is to be a journalist, to consider whether or not to cover a story, to select it, to research it, to uncover piece-by-piece, a full narrative, to publish it and to live with the consequences of publication.

You don't learn about the reporter's personal lives except for what you see incidentally as they work at home. There is no romantic subplot; there are no trumped-up action scenes where a reporter punches a priest. There's actually one of those scenes, no doubt a self-conscious salute to classic newspaper films, where you see newspapers being run through one of those giant machines that rapidly prints, folds, and stacks hard copies.  

I've never seen a film in which I liked these actors more: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Live Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian D'Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, Len Cariou. Lesser known actors in minor roles are every bit as good. There is no Hollywood in these performances. There's no sexy costumes or makeup, no grandstanding for the Academy. The actors are dressed in the workaday attire of newspapermen and women. Much of the film takes place in a grubby shared office full of sloppy manila file folders or in cafes and working class neighborhoods where informants are interviewed. Each performer plays a cog in a giant wheel working to uncover evil. None of them knows about world-shaking scandal still to come, or Pulitzer Prizes. They are just, with a pair of tweezers, turning over one leaf and seeing what lies beneath and adding that to the information already gathered. Even though viewers already know how this story played out in real life, the audience gasps when a discovery is made; the audience fears that a rock will be thrown through a window; the audience fears that judicial complicity will keep the story hidden. I began crying half an hour into the film. I was crying at the end. I made audible "Huh!" noises at especially and outrageously ironic moments, as did others in the audience. We applauded at the film's conclusion.  

The film opens with a child in a police station, accompanied by his parents and a priest. A lawyer enters. Everyone speaks in hushed tones. "I promise this will never happen again." The police are cynical. The lawyer is smooth. The child is crushed. The parents are heartbroken. The priest appears slickly demonic. The scene is anonymous. Events like this were repeated at least a thousand times.

July, 2001. The Boston Globe acquires its first Jewish editor, Martin Baron. The Spotlight team is considering following up a case of priestly sex abuse. Slowly but surely, they discover that there are far more incidences than suspected. They discover not just one bad apple here and there. Rather, Cardinal Law has reassigned abusive priests to new parishes. Baron meets with Law. Law presents Baron with a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

"Spotlight" mentions "Good Germans" – people who kept their eyes closed to the disappearance of their Jewish neighbors, and the sudden appearance of ash falling from the sky. Just so, there were many "Good Bostonians." It's sickening to confront the many who had awareness of priestly sex abuse and did nothing. Targeted kids were powerless and without allies. One had a schizophrenic mother. Some had absentee fathers. Some were gay. Many were from the wrong side of the tracks. After they were abused, some became alcoholics, drug addicts, or suicides. When SNAP activist Phil Saviano is invited to the Boston Globe's office, and he talks about a conspiracy to protect abusive priests that stretches all the way to the Vatican, he comes across as a twitchy, obnoxious, conspiracy theorist raving about Area 51 – someone easy to write off.

The most nauseating reason of all given for ignoring clergy sex abuse: money. The Globe could have covered clergy sex abuse earlier, but it didn't. Over fifty percent of the paper's subscribers are Catholics. Boston is a small town, with a lot of insular Irish Catholics who don't want anyone rocking the boat, or risking various money streams, including the church's significant charity work.

Especially poignant are the scenes where abuse survivors are encouraged to detail what happened to them. "It's not enough to say he molested you. You must give me the clinical details of exactly what happened," reporters insist, to sobbing survivors, who must then re-inhabit their worst memories.

The plot churns forward with the single line of a freight train running on schedule. I was never bored.

The priestly sex abuse crisis is not a tragedy because the Catholic Church is corrupt. The priestly sex abuse crisis is a tragedy because the Catholic Church is great. The film could have become better than it is had it included this theme. Show Catholics feeding the homeless. Show Catholics recovering from grief with the support of their faith. Show Cardinal Law for what he once was – a courageous hero in the Civil Rights movement, when that meant receiving death threats and alienating the powerful. That something so beautiful is so sullied, along with individual victims' pain, is the heart of this tragedy.

I am a lifelong, church-going Catholic. I present my reasons for being Catholic, in spite of everything, in my book "Save Send Delete." I salute, not boycott, the Globe's reporting, and films like this. Confession and redemption are gifts we shared with the world.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Starbucks Cups, Christmas, and Christians


Hey, Facebook friend.

Starbucks. Christians. Christmas. It's annoying you.

Why are those Christians so thin-skinned and frivolous? Why are they all upset about Starbucks Christmas cups? You posted about this. You.

I'm a Christian. I didn't post about Starbucks cups. You didn't notice.

Here's what I did post about.

I posted about how ISIS has captured Christian women and girls and sold them as sex slaves.

You ignored that post.

I posted about how ISIS lined up 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian men on a beach in Libya and decapitated them on camera. Part of an ongoing war against Christians in Muslim countries.

You ignored that post.

I posted about an American professor named Dr. Mike Adams. He, like many American professors, was an atheist. He was praised and promoted. He converted to Christianity. After that, his career was sabotaged by his Christophobic colleagues and superiors. The anti Christian bigotry he faced was so bad he sued, and won.

You ignored that post.

Let's recap. You are claiming that Christians are frivolous asses because they are paying attention to a coffee cup. The only reason I, a Christian, know about that is because I read about it in your Facebook feed. YOU are the one obsessing about a coffee cup. Frivolous hypocrite much?

And you ignore posts about grotesque and local human rights abuses because they happen to be against Christians, and you don't give a fig about Christians. Bigot, much?

I wish I knew a nicer way to phrase this. But maybe I don't have to worry about that because you probably don't read my posts. Interacting with a real, live Christian would probably feel really icky to you.

Have a nice day.







Sunday, November 8, 2015

Oatmeal and the Meaning of Life


I've been at war with oatmeal all my life.

I eat oatmeal because I'm a good little girl. It is cheaper than packaged cereal, it is whole grain, and it contains no added sugar or salt or fat. It is also diverse, multicultural, and tolerant.

But it always boils over. Makes the pot hard to clean. Makes the cheapo Chinese stove top a mess.

After all the events of the previous years, which got me thinking a lot about my own death, I contemplated how much time and energy I devoted to cleaning boiled-over oatmeal from pots, stovetop, and the underside of the stove. it was my own existential crisis.

I think questions like this are part of the reason that people don't take women's writing seriously. Alexander the Great, a man, wept when he realized that he had no more worlds to conquer. Me, a woman, I wept, metaphorically, over spilled oatmeal.

So today I'm trying something new. I'm using a pot that is so huge I'm hoping the oatmeal won't make it up the sides of the pot.

Working so far.

I found this quote on the web. No idea if it is accurate:


"Adding a starchy substance such as rice or noodles [or oatmeal] to boiling water increases the surface tension of the water. When it's just plain water boiling the surface tension of the water can't hold back the force of the steam rising and the bubbles burst. Starches increase this surface tension making the bubbles more elastic/pliable (essentially creating a foam), thus requiring more force for them to burst. This makes the bubbles last longer which allows them to build up and eventually boil over."

Friday, November 6, 2015

Bliss (Mutluluk) 2007 Turkish Film


"Bliss" (Mutluluk) 2007 is the very best new movie I've seen in years, an enthralling, exquisite, moving, important film. Given current trends, I can't imagine a mainstream American film being this brave, this engaging, and this pertinent. If you are a thinking, feeling movie fan, see "Bliss." You won't regret it.

Some reviews make "Bliss" sound like a National Geographic documentary about exotic foreigners, or an essay about honor killing, or a stab at Muslim-Western clashes, or a slide show of exotic Turkish locales. "Bliss" is none of those things. It is a movie-movie, a film that sucked me into its world and made me forget my surroundings; "Bliss" made me love and care about the characters onscreen from its opening shots. I was, at times, on the edge of my seat; I cried; I shouted at the screen; my palms sweat. After the film was over, I couldn't stop thinking about it. I wanted to grab all my movie fan friends and demand that they see it and that we sit up all night talking about it.

That I loved the characters is testimony to how powerful this film is. Cemal (Murat Han), the main character, is a returning Turkish solider who's been off fighting terrorists. (The terrorists in question may be Kurds pressing for an independent Kurdish state, but the film never names them.) Cemal broods much, smiles little, carries a gun, suffers from PTSD, and is plagued by nightmares. He slavishly accepts, from his father, the all-powerful headman of his village, the job of honor killing his distant cousin, Meryem (Ozgu Namal), a naïve village girl who has been raped. Cemal is a genuinely scary guy. He curses at Meryem, denouncing her as a "whore" and a "bitch." He slaps her. In some very tense scenes, he reveals himself quite ready to, and capable of, killing several people. And yet "Bliss" made me love Cemal, care about his fate, and see the world through his eyes. In fact, when Cemal fails at his first attempt to kill Meryem, and squats in shame, I felt sorry for him. That is powerful filmmaking. Murat Han is completely natural in the role. You never catch him acting. He just is Cemal.

Ozgu Namal, as Meryem, gives an equally miraculous performance. Again, I felt, when watching this, as if I were watching real people. I've lived in pre-modern, traditional villages, and Namal and the other actors expertly capture the cringing, downtrodden posture that subservient people assume in the presence of their superiors in the village hierarchy. Men like Cemal cast their eyes down and say "Yes, sir," when ordered around by the village headman; girls like Meryem, with no status whatsoever, cringe at all times, scuttling through life, struggling to assure their continued existence by continuously pleasing those above them – and those above them include everyone. Meryem cringes and looks away and plasters herself to a train seat when handing Cemal a pita bread sandwich she has made for him; he must eat and be satisfied before she can eat. Even when she gets a fish bone stuck in her throat her hands flutter and her eyes grow wide with anxiety as Cemal tries to keep her from choking – ironic given that his job is to kill her. She doesn't want to demand too much. Her body language says, "Don't worry; I'll just choke to death. I don't want to be a bother." Namal conveys the complex inner life of a girl who has been denied any identity or individuality by her crushing, loveless surroundings. In one scene, she talks about her relationship with her grandmother, and it is so poignant only a stonehearted filmgoer could avoid crying.

But Turkey is not just traditional villages; it also has a coast where Western tourists and modernized Turks lounge in bikinis. Cemal and Meryem encounter Irfan (Talat Bulut), a renegade professor cruising the coast in his yacht. Irfan smiles and enjoys life; his hair is snowy white. He is bright opposite to brooding, dark, Cemal. But Irfan's life isn't perfect, either. He doesn't quite know how to fit his modern, sunny mentality into traditional Turkish culture.

All scenes, even lighthearted ones, are shadowed by menace. The law is ironclad: Meryem must be killed by a member of her family. She has been raped; she is "tainted," as Cemal puts it. There is a knife, a gun, a pair of strangling hands, hiding around every corner of every shot, even those on the professor's yacht. You know that no matter how far Meryem gets from her village, she is not going to find safety within the confines of this world, or this movie.

Because this film caused me to care so much about Cemal, Meryem, and Irfan, I struggled with the questions they faced. How can a raped girl survive in a traditional Muslim village? If she escapes her village, where can she make a life for herself? Can she, ever? Can a girl who has been trained to cringe and serve and hide behind her veil ever fit in with Westernized Turkish girls, who, clad only in bikinis, visit Prof. Irfan's yacht? And what about Cemal? Will he always only be a man who responds with frightening rage when asked to set a table because that is "women's work," who feels duty-bound to beat down any woman who questions his absolute, masculine authority? And who is to say which world is better, the village, with its tradition, or the professor's world, where he does seem truly without anchors?