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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Oscars Blackout Protest: Why It is Morally, Aesthetically, and Strategically Wrong

This article appears in FrontPage Magazine here.

The Oscars Blackout Protest

Why It's Morally, Strategically, and Aesthetically Wrong

It's 1988 and I'm living in Poland. My student dorm is showing Gone with the Wind. These Polish university students were born sometime around 1970, a year of violently suppressed anti-communist protest. Some Poles commemorate 1970 by writing the number "7" in "1970" in the form of a Christian cross. When these students were adolescents, tanks were in their streets, crushing Solidarity and imposing martial law. It is safe to assume that every one has a close relative who has been in a concentration camp, or a deportation train to Siberia, or was merely killed in war. Their ancestors were probably serfs; serfdom ended in Russian Poland in the 1860s. They have nothing in common with the landed, wealthy American slave-owners onscreen. The students are alive with feeling. I hear gasps and sobs.

After the lights come up, I eavesdrop. Gone with the Wind is about them. The war – just like World War II! Sherman's burning of Atlanta – just like the Nazi destruction of Warsaw! Scarlett O'Hara – just like Babcia, who is always first at the food line!

It's 1986. Liz and I are watching The Mission. Robert Bolt wrote the screenplay; he also wrote A Man for All Seasons about the martyrdom of St. Thomas More. The Mission details heroic efforts by Jesuit priests to protect Native Americans from enslavement and genocide. It dramatizes the salvific influence of Christianity on the life of a former slave-trader played by Robert DeNiro.

When the lights come up in the Berkeley, California, theater, my friend Liz is sobbing. Liz is a far-left secular Jewish lesbian. She insists that The Mission is all about how "they" are making war against "us." "It's antisemites against Jews! It's straights against gays! It's real estate tycoons against environmentalists." 

I'm watching White Christmas in Oakland, California's Paramount Theater. The Paramount, built in 1931, is an eye-popping art deco National Historical Landmark. Every inch of every surface is inscribed with some filigree designed to transport the filmgoer to another dimension. This truly is a "dream palace." I'm three feet off the ground with joy. I ask Fran, my companion, why she is so quiet. "No one in the movie is like me," she says. Fran is African American. Our entire conversation, on the ride back to Berkeley, is about this one fact: none of the leads in White Christmas is black; therefore, Fran can't enjoy the movie. Fran, like me, is a graduate student at UC Berkeley.

On January 14, 2016, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced their nominations for the 88th annual Academy Awards. Shortly thereafter, Al Sharpton, Michael Moore, Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett Smith, Reese Witherspoon, Mark Ruffalo, Chelsea Clinton and others protested the absence of African Americans among the nominees. Whoopi Goldberg said, "You get the people with the productions companies to hire. You make a stink all year – not just once a year, but all year!"

Karen Hilfman, in a letter to the LA Times, wrote, "I'm white and I'll be tuning out the Oscars this year. So will everyone in my family. I'm going to urge all my white friends to pass this year too, and if anyone white in the entertainment industry is reading this, I'm asking that you stay home … the persistent lack of award nominees among blacks and other people of color is grievously impactful to them … White people have to fix it. Everyone knows that predominantly white men run the studios, and everyone of good conscience knows that's where the problem starts – created and perpetuated by structural racism and the people who benefit from it … it is a kind of artistic tyranny."

"Crystal," one of my Facebook friends, posted, "The REAL problem is the lack of diversity in Hollywood – a system that prevents diversity … The dominant culture only allows for certain groups of people to star in films … Only white actors are cast in major, Oscar-winning, groundbreaking features."

On January 23, USA Today announced that the Academy was "taking historic steps" "to increase diversity." "The governors committed to doubling the number of women and diverse academy members by 2020." The Academy is also determined to bring in younger members. It will launch an "ambitious, global campaign to identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity." Some seats on the board of governors will be de facto reserved for minorities.

One thing is certain: any Academy Awards won by African Americans in 2017 will be accompanied by an asterisk. The suspicion will be inescapable that they won not because of merit but because of the largesse of publicly shamed white liberals.

The Oscars Blackout protest is wrong. It is factually wrong. It is morally wrong. It is spiritually wrong. It is aesthetically wrong.

In all the brouhaha, headlines, editorials, hashtags and twitter feeds devoted the lack of black nominees, no one has produced a single fact supporting the existence of a "system that prevents diversity." There is not even the suggestion that anyone should investigate anything, or produce any facts.

Every decent person acknowledges, and renounces, the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow. Even so, there are complicated reasons why casting African Americans today presents challenges. In an historical epic, a Saving Private Ryan or a Lincoln, casting black actors is simply hard. Films with modern settings present other challenges. A black antagonist leaves you open to charges of racism. A lovable black character leaves the film open to charges of pandering play of the Magical Negro card. A black female lead with a white male would inspire attacks on the white man as colonial exploiter of the black woman's sexuality. If a white female character gets angry – an Erin Brockovich say – that's okay. If a black female character gets angry, the filmmaker is crucified for resorting to the Angry Black Woman stereotype. In short: there are so many buttons out there that so many grievance mongers are just hoping to see pushed that those casting a film are damned if they do, and damned if they don't. It's perhaps because of these glitches that George Clooney, who is part of the Oscars Blackout protest, "did not prominently feature a person of color in the last four movies he directed."

It's racist, historical revisionism to insist that white Americans have never been open to black cultural products. A critical mass of white Americans have long embraced African Americans in a variety of fields. Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Kanye West, Beyonce Knowles, Whoopi Goldberg, Viola Davis, Michael Jackson, and LeBron James are just a handful of African Americans who have reached their pinnacle of success, appeared on teenage fans' posters and t-shirts, made piles of money and racked up glittering arrays of awards.

Nor is it true that white Americans have embraced African American celebrities only in recent years. George Washington was one of many fans of poet Phyllis Wheatley, an emancipated African American. Eighteenth-century author and escaped slave Frederick Douglass was one of the most famous and respected Americans of his day. Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin not only helped end slavery; it was the single bestselling novel of the nineteenth century and the second bestselling book of any kind, second only to the Bible. The early twentieth century saw the Harlem Renaissance and the centrality of African American musical forms to all American and then British music.

Forty years ago the television miniseries Roots received 37 Emmy Award nominations and won nine. Its finale was the second most watched finale in U.S. television history. Thirty years ago The Cosby Show reigned supreme. TV Guide wrote that The Cosby Show "was TV's biggest hit in the 1980s, and almost single-handedly revived the sitcom genre and NBC's ratings fortunes." Bill Cosby's status as the beloved "America's dad" probably protected him from the numerous rape allegations that have become public knowledge only in recent years.

Show Boat, Imitation of Life, Pinky, Raisin in the Sun, To Kill a Mockingbird, Amistad, The Color Purple, Glory, The Help, Twelve Years a Slave, Dreamgirls, What's Love Got To Do With It, Selma, and The Butler are just a few of the big-budget, star-vehicle, high-box-office, well-reviewed films in the past eighty years that have featured African American stars in a variety of roles and told African American stories. One must also mention lower-budget and independent films like She's Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, Boyz n the Hood, and dozens of others.

Black actors win Academy Awards for the same kinds of roles that white actors win awards for: roles in blockbusters (Hattie McDaniel), roles in technically innovative films (James Baskett), roles involving suffering through great tragedies (Halle Berry), prestige bio-pics (Jamie Foxx) etc.

Pulitzer-Prize and Tony-Award-winning playwright August Wilson, and Pulitzer-Prize, American-Book-Award, and Nobel-Prize-winning Toni Morrison, the proliferation of Black Studies departments, the vaulting of an obscure state senator with no record of accomplishment to the highest office in the land: facts likes these give the lie to Crystal's assertion that there is a "system" of "dominant" whites in the US who disempower African Americans and prevent them from creating art and from having their art purchased and enjoyed by consumers, and honored by the elite.

Movies are an art form, but Hollywood is a business. The color business cares most about is green. If a film, performer, or theme makes money, Hollywood will market it relentlessly and repeatedly. Will Smith has been a bankable star for the past thirty years so Will Smith has been featured in well-reviewed, box office successes like Independence Day, Men in Black, Pursuit of Happyness, I Am Legend, Concussion and Hitch.

Given that the facts do not support the fantasy of a "system" of "dominant" whites who do not allow blacks to make films, to appear in films, to be paid for films, or to win awards for films, one must ask: who is hating on whom here? Seeking an alleged "system" of "dominant" whites, we discover, instead, a conspiracy theory. It is a racist fantasy nurtured in the current American education system. The nightmare figure of this fantasy is the evil and all-powerful white. Whenever anything occurs that involves black people and white people, the white people are powerful, and they are racist, and they destroy. Period. No other interpretation is allowed. In fact, any other interpretation is demonized as racist.

The Oscar Blackout protest is not just wrong because there are no facts to support its premises, and plenty of facts to prove those premises wrong. It's wrong because it is hypocritical, selective outrage.

I conduct an outrage watch on Facebook. My left-leaning friends are quick to outrage, and they burn very hot, for brief periods of time. When, in 2012, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said that he had "binders full of women" – his garbled attempt to explain that he keeps resumes of qualified women whom he hires to top positions – my left-leaning friends metaphorically bled all over their Facebook pages from wounds inflicted in an orgy of self-mutilation. The outrage hemorrhage lasted for days.

After ISIS burned a Jordanian pilot alive, after Muslim migrants committed mass sex assaults on New Year's Eve in European capitals, after two police officers – one Hispanic and one Asian – were shot in the back of the head, my left-leaning Facebook friends did not express outrage. If Spike Lee, Al Sharpton or George Clooney have expressed any solidarity with the above-mentioned atrocity victims, it has not made headlines. That Idris Elba, winner of several Golden Globe and Emmy nominations, was not nominated for an Academy Award this year is not keeping me awake nights. I am outraged that Steve Carell did not receive a nom for his traffic-stopping work in The Big Short but I have not begun a twitter campaign to protest. I've got more important things to do, and Carell will survive.

The assertion that Hollywood is part of some "system" established by the "dominant culture" to "prevent diversity" is not just hogwash because there is no "dominant system" of evil whites plotting to prevent African American achievement. It's also hogwash – and especially ironic – because it relies on utterly absurd assumptions about Hollywood's real history.

As scholar Neal Gabler has pointed out, Hollywood was largely the invention of a handful of Eastern European Jews, who, a century ago, escaped starvation and persecution by immigrating to the US. Secure and prestigious professional fields were less open to Jews. Show business, an insecure, low-prestige industry, was open.

Minsk-born Lazar Meir grew up poor and quit school at age 12 to go to work to support his family. He moved to Hollywood at a time when Jews were denied entrance to many of America's best restaurants, hotels, and country clubs. Ivy League universities like Harvard, Yale and Columbia had strict Jewish quotas, denying educations to figures like Jonas Salk, who would go on to develop the polio vaccine. Meir became Louis B. Mayer, one of the wealthiest and most powerful studio heads in Hollywood history.

As much power as the Hollywood moguls amassed, they were still victimized by bigotry. A 2004 documentary, Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust is an almost unbearable viewing experience. The most powerful Jews in America could not overcome audience resistance to attending to the rise of Nazism and the oncoming Holocaust. To insist that Hollywood filmmakers have the power to sell anything they decide to sell to audiences is demonstrably not true. Hollywood moguls were themselves victims of prejudice – prejudice against Jews. Hollywood power brokers are themselves subject to manipulation – the manipulation of the box office. To accuse them of being part of an undifferentiated "white system" is historical revisionism.

Yes, too often Hollywood marketed offensive and racist images of blacks – and members of every other minority, including Jews. For a recent anti-Semitic character in a big budget, high profile American film, see Watto in Star Wars.

Hollywood's elite, like the rest of us, were sometimes miscreants, sometimes victims, and sometimes heroic. Often, mindful of their own history of oppression, Hollywood moguls supported Civil Rights. Scholar Thomas Cripps explores this history in his Oxford University Press book Making Movies Black: The Hollywood Message Movie from World War II to the Civil Rights Era.

One example of a Jewish filmmaker who advanced civil rights is Michael Roemer. Roemer was a Berlin-born, Jewish Holocaust survivor. He used his own experience of living as a Jew in Nazi Germany when he wrote, produced, and directed Nothing but a Man, a 1964 love story told against the backdrop of Jim Crow. The Washington Post called it "one of the most sensitive films about black life ever made in this country."

Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Theodore Bikel, Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, and Elizabeth Taylor were a few of Hollywood superstars who didn't just sympathize with Civil Rights; they went out of their way to make concrete changes. Charlton Heston, with the authority of an actor who could play Andrew Jackson, Moses and Ben Hur, participated in the 1963 March on Washington. In this YouTube video, he explains his participation and quotes and defers to Harry Belafonte and James Baldwin, who appear with him.

Other facts belie the conspiracy theory of evil whites preventing blacks from appearing in films. Technology for the creation and dissemination of art has never been so democratically distributed as it is today. Media's many formats and many audiences have made stars of people who, a few short years ago, would have spent their lives in the same anonymous mass as the rest of us. GloZell Green's video of her attempt to swallowed cinnamon has received forty-seven million hits. That is more than the number of people who bought tickets to see last year's Best Picture Academy Award winning Birdman. Barack Obama held a one-on-one meeting with Green following his 2015 State of the Union address.

The Oscar Blackout protesters are peddling a neurotoxin to African Americans. "You are helpless", they insist. "Organized and all-powerful white supremacists control every detail of life. You can do nothing to create art. Your only hope is to note every moment when white people appear to have more than you. Rage against and envy that greater amount of something. The more angry and destructive the protest, the better. Think Ferguson, think Baltimore. Shame, mock, and vilify whites. Only then can the good things of life be yours." This message ruins lives.

Here's the true message: "Be like Lazar Meir. Don't look for hate, but if you suspect it, work around it. Expand till you achieve your dreams. Life is a crap shoot, but if luck is with you, you can be a star. And you won't need to envy anyone; others will envy you." That message empowers and liberates.  

Indeed, African Americans have long created films, even under the bad old days of Jim Crow. Pioneers include Oscar Micheaux, George Perry Johnson and his brother and Noble, and Melvin Van Peebles. Tyler Perry was a poor black kid in New Orleans who was beaten by his father so badly he attempted suicide; his wrists are still scarred. Perry wrote his own movies and starred in them. In 2011 Forbes named Perry the highest-paid man in show business.  

After Fran told me that there was an impassable barrier between her and White Christmas because it featured no black actors, I reflected. My first realization: White Christmas is art. It is not real life. I thought of my favorite scene in the movie. The four leads sit around a train's dining table, singing about snow. If this film had been real life, we would have had to confront Bing Crosby's alleged physical abuse of his son Gary, his wife's alcoholism, and the fetal alcohol syndrome that damaged Crosby's sons, two of whom committed suicide.

We would have had to confront Rosemary Clooney's abusive marriage to Jose Ferrer. Clooney had a nervous breakdown, lost her career, and gained a massive amount of weight. Vera-Ellen is thought to have been anorexic. Her intense dancing style would eventually give way to crippling arthritis. Danny Kaye was born David Kaminsky. He had to dye his hair, change his name, and fight off Sam Goldwyn's demand that he get a nose job in order that he appear less Jewish.

None of these personal challenges is visible in the "snow" scene. What is on display is pure confection. The four leads, along with the artists behind the camera, through incredibly hard work and talent proven on a thousand stages in a thousand towns, create something divine. We benefit from willingly suspending our disbelief. We don't just ignore Bing's and the rest's real life problems. We forget our own. White Christmas offers us the bliss of a momentary escape into beauty, skill, and grace, and we didn't need to ingest any pharmaceuticals or break any laws to achieve that escape.

No, no one with Fran's skin color was visible in the film. No one vaguely like me was visible in the film, either.

I've always known that women like me don't appear in movies, except to be laughed at or to menace. I am tall and broad. I could never star opposite Bing Crosby; I'm taller than he was. The average American woman now weighs 166 pounds. Vera-Ellen, like Angelina Jolie, probably weighed closer to a hundred pounds. Big, strapping, blue collar women with Eastern European names are not leads in American films. The make-believe world of White Christmas was not a world in which I could appear any more than Fran could.

And yet it never occurred to me to protest Hollywood. I'd feel ashamed. That's not how art works. It doesn't work through threats, intimidation, and boycotts. Art is created by inspiration, sweat, and box office, and all my temper tantrums would not budge any of those.

Hollywood is the dream factory. I don't expect Hollywood films to be mirror reflections of reality any more than I expect my dreams to be. I love looking at Vera-Ellen in White Christmas. Her slim form does not oppress or exclude me. Art invites me to imaginatively participate in Vera-Ellen's body, in Tamil Nadu bronzes of multi-armed Hindu deities, in Fannie Lou Hamer singing "This little light of mine."

Sophisticated consumers of art don't expect Picasso's paintings or Gothic stained glass or Egyptian murals to be photographic doubles of reality; why should Hollywood films? When I listen to jazz, I don't rage against the fact that Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus are not women or not Polish or not white. When I eat brie I don't revile France for producing the world's best cheese.

There is a spiritual rot in the Oscar Blackout protest.

The 2,500 year old Book of Samuel attests to the power of storytelling. King David has sex with Bathsheba, who is married to Uriah. David sends Uriah into battle, where he is killed. The prophet Nathan tells King David a heartrending story about a rich man who steals a poor man's sheep. David vows punishment for such a bad rich man. Nathan says to David, "You are that man!" David suddenly understands the gravity of his sin. Storytelling alone forced a powerful man to confront the truth about himself.

Around the same time that this story was told in Israel, Aesop was telling tales in Greece. An ugly, powerless slave like Aesop could never tell stories with recognizable human characters. He disguised his lessons behind animals: an envious fox, an arrogant lion, a grateful mouse.

Art invites us to transcend every boundary and to expand our humanity. To be fully human is to be able to see yourself in someone utterly other from you – even a lion or a mouse. Those Polish students saw themselves in Gone with the Wind. My friend Liz saw herself in The Mission.

The grievance industry actively resists this power of art.  In 1994 at Oakland, California's Grand Lake Theater, African American high school students laughed during a showing of Schindler's List. That teenagers sometimes behave in ways that shock their elders is nothing new. What is newsworthy is that opinion leaders worked to justify and exploit the teens' laughter. African American journalist and youth mentor Kevin Weston wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the teens laughed because African Americans are "totally invisible" in American film.

Weston quotes Public Enemy: "Burn Hollywood burn I smell a riot going on. First ya guilty now ya gone. I'll check out ya movie but it will take a black one to move me." Hollywood hates and abuses blacks, and renders them "invisible" in film. Hollywood is guilty. Hollywood must burn, as, Weston notes approvingly, LA "burned" during the LA riots. And only "black" art can "move me." "Is Hitler really dead?" Weston asks. "Learn from the students," he says. In other words, blacks in America are living under Hitler-like Hollywood figures, who erase them just as Hitler erased Jews. That is why the teens laughed at Schindler's List.

There is no parallel "white system" in America that urges whites to resist the empathy they feel when watching art by or about African Americans. There are no empowered white opinion makers instructing whites not to applaud or tear up while watching Twelve Years a Slave or The Help. There are professors and journalists telling African Americans that they are suckers if they are moved by films like Schindler's List or even White Christmas. That is what is deserving of protest.

African Americans need and deserve art. Just as I lay claim to Johnny Hartman, Frederick Douglass and Zora Neale Hurston, African Americans deserve the Parthenon, The Big Short, and Hokusai's wood block print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa. It is not a "system" of whites who deny African Americans full participation in the world's artistic riches. It is, rather, the grievance industry typified by the Oscars Blackout protest. 

In Search of a Mountain Bluebird by William Joe Lewis

Facebook friend William Joe Lewis set out on January 19, 2016, in an attempt to spot a mountain bluebird in Pennsylvania. Mountain bluebirds are sky-blue birds usually found west of the Mississippi. Through electronic alerts sent out by birders, William heard of one near his home in New Jersey.

William hosts the NEST – Nurture Environmental Stewardship Today Facebook page here.

Tinicum Pennsylvania. Why So Blue?

By William Joe Lewis

January 19, 2016

He set his departure time to be 9:30 am with a 1 hour and 15 minute one way drive. As he made preparations to depart the thought came to mind if there was someone else in the area that would want to go with him? Is there anyone crazy enough about birds that would want to brave the cold to go find a mountain bluebird?

No one seemingly came to mind but he never shied away from a solo trip especially for a life bird. After all he was one of those people. The quiet one that sat at a table in a crowded party only speaking to those that made direct small talk with him.

Making several trips to the car from the house loading the gear, spotting scope and camera bag, had already pushed him past his planned departure time of 9:30 to 10:00 am. He went back to grab the camera in hopes of getting a snapshot of the focus of the hunt- a lone out of place mountain bluebird. In addition to the checklist of digital gear he had to mentally tick off the clothing checklist knowing he would need layers of clothes, to include selecting the right gloves and hat. It was a blustery 27 degree day and he was heading to a field in the corner of Pennsylvania sure to feel even colder in the face of the wind chill.

Once the iPhone map app was set he was off with no second thoughts as to how cold it would be and that he was making the trip alone. The route along the Delaware River and up the valley roads that gave way to open fields of Eastern Pennsylvania was breathtaking. Stone chalets tucked along the mountainside and at each turn of the road he saw houses sprinkled here and there along the water’s edge.

He checked his phone on occasion at a stop sign to see if the original finder of the mountain bluebird had responded to his email hoping for more insight to its whereabouts. Finally as he turned onto Tory road the destination spot ahead he saw a small well-traveled foreign car parked. He eased his car off the road to a nonexistent shoulder and went to put on his winter coat only to find that he had left his binoculars home on the kitchen table. Oh well he thought he had his scope and there was another birder seeking the same prey that he was. And he was an hour away and not going back to get them.

The stranger approached and said he had just got there a few moments before 11 am and his name was Russ. This guy could be his twin if it wasn’t for the 15-20 year difference in age. Full beard, donned a Gore-Tex winter coat, and wore gloves with matching crazy hat. That was the end of the lengthy dialogue. The rest of the words were saved for general logistics question and answers.

“Last time the bird was seen the log says was this morning.”

“Two other guys came and left for coffee not seeing the bird.”

“I drove 5 ½ hours to get here”

“and I drove 1 hour and 15 mins.”

At one point the man left his spotting scope valued at over two thousand dollars behind closest to Russ and walked east down the road a few hundred feet. Only once did the thought enter his mind of whether Russ was trustworthy as he looked over his shoulder towards his scope and the other full bearded loner.

Midway between the 4 hour struggle with the weather and the quested bird hunt our NJ birder asked his newest friend if he wanted coffee as he was running out to get coffee. Russ asked for tea instead.

He traveled backwoods roads and crossed a creek on a one-way bridge while continuing to scan the countryside through the car windows in hopes the two toned blue and white of the mountain bluebird would be seen. Nothing but a redtail hawk and a field of 6 or 7 crows were sighted along the way to the coffee shop.

He had used his IPhone selecting from his apps list Foursquare to locate the nearest coffee shop and he knew he hit the jackpot when he entered the Brig O'Doon Coffee House in Ottsville PA.

Shortly after he arrived back with the coffee and tea and homemade green apple pound cake slices for both himself and Russ did he receive a call from the original birder who first sighted the mountain bluebird. She offered up encouragement as the bird was seen today at 8 am and more details of the most recent location along the field edge and what direction the flock of eastern bluebirds tended to move along the back hedge foraging for cedar berries.

As this lone mountain bluebird was congregating with a large group of eastern bluebirds it would be best to look for the flock of birds. Even with these new pearls of wisdom both Russ and the NJ birder still could not locate the mountain bluebird. A man from New Jersey and a man from Pennsylvania spent four long hours along the roadside of Tinicum Township peering out across the field being greeted only with 15 mile per hour winds. Each would scan the tree line every 10 minutes or when a bird any bird would take to the sky.

Robins, Turkey vultures, bald eagles, various woodpeckers, and even a sole eastern bluebird were seen but no mountain bluebird. The man from New Jersey had a 4 hour window to spend hunting this PA mountain bluebird but the days fruit still went unharvested.

When he left he said good-bye to Russ and wished him good luck and hoped the birding gods would drop the mountain bluebird along the field closest to him. After saying his farewells he thought to himself how strange the encounter was. How few words were spoken but he knew both shared the same passion for birds and the hunt and that there was a deeper shared experience that did not need verbal communicating. The connection the two shared in that time and that place on Earth was a volume in the library of what millions of others today call Birding.

You can read more about mountain bluebirds here.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Having Nothing, Losing Everything: Life Under the Full-Throttle Faucet of Crap

I think this work of art is by Nicola Samori 
I've been wanting to write about stuff that's been going on in my life since 2011. In future posts, I hope to address:

coping mechanisms

what others have done that has helped

what others have done that has hurt

This post is a sketchy preliminary attempt to outline the events that I call the "full-throttle faucet of crap." This post isn't for everybody. I'm not trying for beautiful writing. I discuss dark topics.

Before 2011, I had been alone and poor for a long time. I've written a lot about that in other pieces.

In spite of the poverty and isolation, I had strong compensatory mechanisms. My own determination, self-discipline, and imagination provided me with strength, security, stability, and, yes, a fair measure of modest joy.

I had hope. Someday I was going to find someone who would love me. I was going to build a family. Someday I'd land the right, fulltime job.

Summer, 2011, I went to Poland, made new friends, and felt new inspiration for work.

I returned to America, and my computer crashed. A computer crash sounds minor, but horror movies don't open with loud screams and buckets 'o blood. They begin with a smiling family driving up to their new home. Only a vague shadow in an upstairs window portends future agonies.

I wanted to apply for a grant. I had promised good people in Poland that I would do this. Suddenly I couldn't even type, and I lost important files.

I needed to spend as little money as possible, and I needed advice. I am computer dependent and computer illiterate. After much scrambling, I bought a new computer. I got it in my apartment, and the "on" switch didn't work. Huh? I phoned Office Depot, and was told they would not replace it. I was astounded. A wrestling match began. Working out such poor customer service – no big deal, right?

But then my apartment manager, normally a cordial lady, entered my apartment and said, "You have to leave right now. You do not have time to pack anything. Get out." Her words were italicized by the surly private security standing beside her. Behind their adamant bodies paraded a mini-Exodus of my neighbors. They all looked so harried their images nearly blurred; I could barely recognize them.

I was wearing shorts and a man's shirt. I threw on sneakers. I left my family photos, my thumb drives, everything I owned.

The Passaic River had entered the apartment complex through the floorboards. I lived upstairs; I thought I would be able to sit out Hurricane Irene.

I walked past the Paterson Falls. I let loose a spontaneous oath so obscene I had never previously spoken it aloud. I had never seen the Falls like that. More Atlantic Ocean than swollen river. Police officers barked clipped, no-backtalk orders, crowds milled, drivers ricocheted off barriers of flooding. I walked through night streets disrupted by water and fear to my workplace, some miles away. I slept on an office floor. Later Charlene, a coworker, took me in. I sat around her condo for days, derailed. I had no idea when I'd be able to return, or what I'd find when I got home. Thank you God, nothing of mine was touched by water or looters. Those on the floors below me lost everything.

Every now and then I'd check email to see if family or friends were asking about me. No. I asked myself if I would be mindful enough to write someone if I saw on the news that their town had all but washed away. Anyway. It's okay. I'm alone. I can deal with it. Someday I will meet someone and it will all be okay.

The next thing was the sexual assault. It's funny; when a woman says "I was sexually assaulted" we have all been trained to regard that as worthy of attention. "My computer crashed" – those words don't get you the same hugs, hysteria, and government funding that sexual assault will. Here's the truth – the computer crash was worse for me than the sexual assault.  

WT, a nice man I know, alerted me that I'd be crossing paths with a scholar with whom he, WT, had worked. WT said, "Introduce yourself. Mention me. Perhaps he can help your career."

I did introduce myself to his colleague. As we spoke, the scholar moved closer and closer to me. He spoke in a more and more intimate, and increasingly disgusting way. I thought, "Wow, he has an unusual interpersonal style." It really never occurred to me to put two and two together till he actually jumped on top of me and his saliva was all over my face as I twisted and turned, dodging his prehensile kiss. A fortuitously passing woman jumped in and pulled. Me pushing and her pulling detached him. The woman shouted at me to run. I did.

I had to shower and check and recheck the lock on my door. I had to go a couple of days of not leaving my apartment and certainly not talking to men. Guys, forgive me. I know most of you are okay, and I know some of you would have punched this scholar had you been on the scene.

I contacted an academic friend. He told me that this particular scholar does this habitually. Said that it had ruined his marriage and damaged his career. Damaged his career? His resume included recent publications, invitations, funding, honors and awards.

In spite of everything, I want to believe in the nobility of academia. The assault rattled me.

Next, the broken arm. Between the break and the ice, I had to stay in my apartment for what felt like forever, but was really just a few months. Good-hearted people, including my boss, brought me food. A coworker, afraid to enter my neighborhood, mailed me food, which someone, possibly a postal worker, stole. Much of my mail, and my neighbors' mail, is stolen. We've petitioned our congressman. Nothing changes.

As with the flood, I scanned email and phone to see if anyone to whom I am related would contact me. I had informed them of the broken arm, and that I couldn't so much as open a can or tie my shoes. I received no reply. Later, one of them said to me, "We knew you were sick and in need. We decided that you don't deserve our help."

When I was still typing with one finger, my book Save Send Delete was published. I was excited.  

The publisher, though, did nothing to promote Save Send Delete. It was all on me. Me with a broken arm, no job, no income, and no contacts.

I paid a publicist a lot of money (for me.) She did nothing except ask for more money.

Professionals get it that publication is a punishing game. Most rejections are exquisitely courteous and classy. "I regret to inform you that your work is not right for me at this time but please do not take this as any reflection on its value. Someone else may feel differently. Good luck!" That's a prototypical rejection.

I bought dozens of copies of my own book and mailed them to Catholic authors and publications, begging for a review. One book reviewer, from the National Catholic Reporter, sent me a condescending, insulting rejection. He had never seen my book. I stared at the computer screen for about ten minutes after receiving his slap-in-the-face email. The worst part is that this happened with a few Catholic gatekeepers, all men, all part of powerful cliques, who went out of their way to talk to me the way a nobleman talks to a peasant.

Without reviews or promotion, Save Send Delete has had almost no sales. But I really didn't have time to devote to that heartbreak.

Here's a funny story about the cancer.

I am a bit obsessive-compulsive. One of my quirks: I buy a new Mary Engelbreit desk calendar every year the day after Christmas, when they go on sale. Right before I buy it, I flip through, to make sure that every date is there. I know calendars conventionally include every date. I just make sure.

December, 2011, I did something different. I bought an Anne Taintor desk calendar, rather than a Mary Engelbreit desk calendar. And, really to break from my routine, I forced myself NOT to check if all the dates were there.

The week that I was diagnosed with cancer was missing from the Anne Taintor calendar. That page with that date was simply not in the book. All subsequent dates were missing, until the week the radiation ended. Then the calendar began again. True fact.  

My first diagnosis gave me very little chance of survival beyond a year. I looked at gray-haired  people, realizing my hair would never go gray. I stood in a grubby bus kiosk on Hamburg Turnpike, facing east, waiting for a bus that comes rarely, goes slowly, takes a circuitous route and is crowded with quarrelsome and malodorous people. I watched light from the sun setting behind me shimmer onto oncoming traffic and glint off of chrome. I wanted to grab others waiting with me at the kiosk and shout at them, "Do you realize how magic every detail of existence is?"

I made out my will. I realized that I would never find love. My writing would never be published in any significant way.

For years I had been lugging around a library of books about Poland and Eastern Europe. Three very large and heavy cardboard boxes held photocopies of hundreds of scholarly articles.

I would die soon, and Polonia – the international community of Polish people – had shown zero interest in my work, for which I had sacrificed everything. I would never find a teaching job where I could apply what I had learned. My advisor in grad school had been correct. "What you are working on is controversial. It will cause you nothing but trouble. You'll never publish and you'll never find a job. Write about Africa. You lived in Africa. That will get you a job. Forget about Poland." If only I had listened. I gave away my mini library of Polish books; many went to Kim W, a young artist and writer. Those three cardboard boxes full of articles that I had lugged and cherished even when I was homeless: I dumped them into a paper recycling bin.

The soundtrack of these disposals: the thud of clods on a coffin. You are worthless. Your work is worthless. All those years of sacrifice are worthless. All those hours in the library, at the computer, researching, seeking elusive publication. You are already dead, nobody cares, and you failed.

Afterwards, as I lay in the hospital bed, the surgeon said, "Who told you that you have cancer?" He said it was small, and not the kind it had first been diagnosed as. The lab had made a mistake. He had removed much more than he actually needed to. He had gotten it all, and my chances of long term survival were good, as long as I avoided route 80 at rush hour, ha ha ha.

Next: Sandy. If you live in New York or New Jersey you don't even have to say "Hurricane Sandy." Just "Sandy" is fine. We were without electricity for two weeks. It was dark and cold and our water ran brown. My stove is electric. No hot food. No refrigerator – no cold food. No heat. No hot bath or shower. I was still feeling the aftereffects of radiation. Shivering alone in a dark apartment for two weeks, fighting nausea and fatigue. No computer and not enough light to read. My workplace shut down.

Unsolicited advice: MP, a Facebook friend, told me to make myself some hot tea. I wanted to smack her. Did she want me to set my furniture alight?

Unsolicited advice: "Leave your dark and cold apartment. Go stay with a friend." I was surrounded by people whose Volkswagen hoods were festooned with large oak trees, by people who couldn't flush their toilets, by people with two feet of water in their living rooms, by streets bridged by live wires, by long lines for gasoline. In any case I didn't own a car.  

There was a crack in the loneliness. Two real, live people entered my life – not just internet friends, but flesh and blood. They told me that they loved me. I opened up, hoped, and trusted.

I had been a loooong time.

Ted said "I love you." He said "I'll never leave you."

I felt as if he and I were part of one organism. I felt as if we had a bond that transcended time. Love? I fall in love once a week; more if I go to the movies. Trust is huge. I trusted him. It was as if my soul transformed from a coffin-sized Manhattan studio apartment into a sunshot prairie, strewn with flowers.

When I was getting to feel connected, and cozy, and hopeful, after I dismantled my mechanisms for surviving, and finding joy in, my alone life, they both went their ways. 

Her? We'd go to lunch, and she'd spend the time looking at her cell phone. I'd try to talk to her about him – I desperately needed to talk about him – and she'd say "You can talk to me about anything but him." Eventually she told me that she and her husband had talked it over and they didn't want to be "enmeshed" with me. "Enmeshed." She and her husband. Wow.

For my own heart's and sanity's sake, I talked about him, as anonymously as I could, on Facebook.

I said that I had loved someone who became a different person. I said how hard it was to hear him tell me, virtually in every communication, every look, every gesture, that he was in pain, and close to death. To jump in and try to save. And to be told, "Your love is not enough. I'm still in pain. I'm still on the threshold of death."

I received a private message. "Please read Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder."

Reading that book, I stopped highlighting because I was highlighting almost every sentence on every page.

I crashed through floors of a structure that was falling apart.

First I fell through the floor when I realized that he didn't love me anymore. Then I fell through the floor of maybe he never loved me. Then I fell through the floor of maybe it was all a manifestation of BPD.

It was a physical experience each time. Not just mental. Not just emotional. I felt new physical pain. My body changed. What I wanted to eat changed. How I slept changed.

The last floor: falling out of love with him. That was worse than realizing that he no longer loved me. It was a biochemical change. It was an amputation, a disease. I wouldn't wish it on anyone.

Next. Being diagnosed with a chronic illness, one that is quite vanilla if cared for, but that kills if not.

Next. Obamacare. I have not told *anyone* about it in detail, for several reasons. To tell is to relive. I don't want to relive any of these moments.

These moments: I walk out of the clinic I must go to. I am in a distant, unfamiliar, high-crime neighborhood. I am aghast that it takes them hours and hours over the course of months to do what it would take a private doctor a few hours in a few days to accomplish. I am so rattled I vomit uncontrollably in a grotty parking garage.

These moments: I have been turned down for Obamacare. I know the turndown is a clerical error. I phone the people in charge and tell them, and they acknowledge that it's a clerical error, but they can do nothing about it – "Fixing your problem is above my paygrade. I just do what they tell me and push the papers along." This goes on for months, during which I qualify for no health care whatsoever, including the follow up cancer care I had been receiving, and partially paying for, before the onset of Obamacare.

These moments: I phone several doctors, specialists, and clinics who had been willing to see me before Obamacare, and who accepted a reduced rate from me out of pocket. "No more. Nothing for you. You now have Obamacare. They pay for everything."

These moments: going to bed every night crying, waking up every morning terrified, because you have tried everything you can to get the cancer follow-up and chronic health care maintenance you need, and nothing has worked, and you feel your previous good health slipping away – you see it in the mirror as symptom by symptom eats away at you – and you can do nothing about it.

These moments: anyone who goes public with a complaint about Obamacare is chewed up and spat out by politicians and the media. And liberal friends unfriend you on Facebook.

The next event. I live in public housing. Someone received a bucketload of graft. Though my apartment had been in perfect working order, it had to be "renovated" – in order to justify lots of tax dollars flowing to the "renovators."

Workmen constructed a staircase from the street to my window. There have been three murders right outside my door in the past five years. Anyone could walk up those steps and enter my apartment. Workmen built a hut outside my window. They peered in at me and made nasty comments in Spanish. They were out there for months. My refrigerator, which worked just fine, my toilet, ditto, my stove, ditto, my cupboards, ditto, my windows, ditto, were all ripped out and replaced with "improvements." The new, improved cupboards are so poorly made they splinter into my fingertips. The new faucet trickles. The new windows open a fraction of the previous ones. For six months everything in my apartment was coated with the fine dust of ground bricks. It's been two years, and my apartment still smells toxic.

And then. Two of my siblings had previously died young. I sat beside my brother Mike's hospital bed. Phil was killed.

I felt for my sister the degree, although not the kind, of passion you feel for someone with whom you are in love. My sister's diagnosis suggested she'd have eighteen months to live; she died a bit before the two year mark. Three different health care facilities. Times I'd walk out of the room sure I'd never see her alive again, but did. Begging God to take me not her. God, audibly, saying, "No."

Anyone who has taken care of a loved one knows. She was, unquestionably, the superior one. Prettier, smarter, etc-ier. And taller. Two inches taller than I.

The day I realized I was taller than she. I don't know how that happened. I don't know how her illness made her shorter. Just one more detail to cry about.

I was rubbing her feet when she died.

No, our relationship was not perfect, but in spite of everything – and that "everything" was vast – she and I were connected. When I was in my early teens and she left home to dorm at school, I would think something, and write it down in a letter, and receive a letter from her that crossed mine in the mail, and she had been thinking the exact same thing at the same time. We would report these thoughts to each other using the same vocabulary.  

I miss her ravenously. I know "ravenous" is not a word you are supposed to use to talk about missing someone. I say, out loud, maybe three times a week – it just pops out of my mouth – "Antoinette, come back." I know that's wrong. Knowing that it is wrong does not stop me from saying it.

A month after she died I was atypically invited to a family event, one for which I should have a spectacular gift. Lacking funds, I put together a collection of family memorabilia. My siblings and parents gone, no kids of my own, I wanted to pass on stories, people, rhythms, scents.

Antoinette and I did that for each other. In any given conversation, we might harken back to Grandma, whom I never met, or our Polish grandmother, whom I did, or this or that uncle or aunt, and tell a snippet of a tale about them.

So, I gathered all these artefacts together and gave them as a gift to the recipient.

And I got an email from two of her allies. The first: a WASPy matriarch from a comfortable white suburb, telling me that giving this girl a collection of family memorabilia was a horrible thing to do. Why hadn't I spent a lot of money on a gift, as she had spent on hers?

And then I got an email from a sex worker. You've hit some kind of a bottom when a sex worker upbraids your gift as distasteful. "Hit some kind of a bottom" is more of a pun than I was shooting for.

I realized … all those stories I heard from my mother about the Old Country. Me, Antoinette, Mike, Daddy … Our dogs, Artie, Benjie, Lady and Tramp. The night Phil was killed. Antoinette had had a premonition. When I tried to retell her story, I always got the details wrong, and I had to check back with her to tell it right. Now I no longer could. The story would continue to be told, but in disintegrating format. Still standing, like a dead tree, never to live in anyone else's memory, never to be talked about, eventually to topple and splinter. My great, great grandmother – the stories I knew about her, and wanted to pass on … disappearing.

I felt a sharp pain in my chest. I had to struggle for breath. That pain remained, and that struggle for breath continued, for three months. One day in late summer I realized it had finally gone, and I could breathe freely again. 

I wanted to do so much more when I sat down to write this. I wanted to write about things that people have done that have been helpful to me during this challenging time. I wanted to write about my own coping mechanisms. This has gotten to be very long. Maybe in future posts. 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

"The Big Short" 2015 Masterful Filmmaking; Hope It Wins Best Picture

I walked out of "The Big Short" experiencing that unique high I get from an excellent movie. As much as I loved "Spotlight," I really want to see "The Big Short" win the 2016 best picture Academy Award.

I don't know anything about money and I rarely see movies built around finance. "The Big Short" is all about men's cut-throat competition with each other in a world as testosterone-fueled as the military or professional sports. Its virtuosic filmmaking is what glued me to the screen, ready to learn, laugh, and, yes, cry.

A barefoot man in a t-shirt is pouring his heart out, in an utterly unselfconscious way, to another man, who is wearing a suit. At the end of the conversation, the man in the suit timidly asks, "So, do I get the job?" It's a surprising and very funny moment. It tells us about the childlike soul and lack of social skills of the casually dressed man. It's quick and it doesn't beat you over the head. Either you caught the depth and the humor in the scene, or you didn't.

Next, we are in a support group of some kind. A member is sharing a personal heartache. Another man bursts into the room. He is talking loudly. He drowns out the first man. Everyone stares at him in anger and disgust. The rude, oblivious man makes himself a cup of coffee, and then uses his cell phone and leaves the room. He is one of the most insensitive, obnoxious people you've ever seen. The movie tells you his backstory, and it's so complex, and so heartbreaking, that you fall in love with this character.

"The Big Short" seduced me through terrific writing that captured characters in quick, deft strokes, and made me care about those people, people who are human just as I am human, and, through my caring about their humanity, made me care about their very alien world. I have no money and don't understand how it works. They play with billions of dollars before breakfast and then go to strip clubs. Masterful filmmaking.

The supernova cast puts the story across. Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Marisa Tomei, and every secondary actor is superb, like Jeremy Strong as Vinny Daniel. The one performance that made me sit up and want to shout, "Hold everything!" is Steve Carell as Mark Baum. If you cherish the experience of being so moved by art that it changes how you view a person and how you view the world, you will want to go to see "The Big Short" just so you can see Steve Carell's performance.

"Mark Baum" is a fictional hedge fund manager inspired by a real person, Steve Eisman. In the film, something tragic happens in Baum's life. That event is fictional. It didn't happen to Steve Eisman.

This is what is not depicted in the movie, at the request of the Eisman family. The real life hedge fund manager Steve Eisman had felt that he had an angel on his shoulder that looked out for him. He felt that nothing bad ever happened to him because of this angel. This is what common mortals like us assume about the superrich – the Richard Cory fallacy. One night, a nurse hired to look after Eisman's newborn son, Max, rolled over on top of Max in her sleep. Max was smothered to death. Eisman changed after that.

That's the character Steve Carell plays in the movie – a man touched by tragedy. He is the moral gravitational center of "The Big Short."

"The Big Short" knows that it is selling something few viewers will want to buy. The 2008 economic crisis was caused by very complicated financial manipulations. Many people, including me, don't understand it. Too, people want to lay the blame on their villains of choice. Left-wingers want to blame greedy Wall Street oligarchs. Right-wingers want to blame Democratic politicians who won votes by making unfulfillable promises and greedy, lazy borrowers.

"The Big Short" addresses the difficulty of its subject matter by occasionally reverting to docudrama mode. It breaks the fourth wall. Ryan Gosling plays Jared Vennet, a character based on Greg Lippman, aka "Patient Zero," that is, the first person who saw the crisis coming and figured out how to capitalize on it. Gosling is a supremely charismatic actor. He turns to the audience and explains what is going on onscreen. Because this is a Hollywood movie and not a science class documentary, he uses stars like Selena Gomez and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain to educate the audience in what all this financial mumbo jumbo means. For example, Bourdain, in a restaurant kitchen, says, "What if I buy too much fish. I chop it up and resell it as fish stew. It's not old fish; it's new stew." That's how wheelers and dealers resold bad mortgages.

Too, the characters onscreen are often confused by what is going on in their own financial world. Steve Carell as Mark Baum is one of those confused figures. He needs other characters to explain to him. Gosling explains by bringing wooden blocks to a meeting. The blocks represent "tranches," or financial products. As each tranche is pulled away, the entire structure becomes weaker, and collapses.

"The Big Short" is intriguing enough that it made me want to read about the 2008 financial crisis. It's easy to find articles online, like one by Michael Grunwald at Politico, stating that the film is incorrect in its depiction of that crisis. Even if Grunwald is correct, that the movie made me want to read more about the crisis is testimony to its achievement. 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

"The Revenant" 2015. I Laughed Out Loud at this Bloated, Pretentious Gore-fest

I laughed out loud several times while watching "The Revenant," a bloated, bigoted, pretentious, boring, gore-fest that begs to be parodied. "The Revenant" is so over-the-top, so ham-handed, I never, for one second, forgot that I was watching celebrated actor Leonardo DiCaprio straining toward his inevitable Academy Award nomination.

I never forgot that his nemesis was played by Tom Hardy, who was struggling to avoid being pigeon-holed as a pretty boy with bee-stung lips by playing an unrecognizable psycho villain. Director Alejandro Inarritu's didactic hand was all over everything. Normally I'm very squeamish and have to close my eyes during violent or gory scenes. There's as much blood in "The Revenant" as in a Quentin Tarantino movie. I didn't have to close my eyes once. In fact I laughed out loud over and over.

DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a real frontiersman (1780-1833). The movie version of Glass was married to a Native American woman and had a son by her. The real Hugh Glass was not. There is a skirmish between white Americans and Indians in the Louisiana Purchase. The whites leave the scene on foot. Glass is attacked by a grizzly bear. He is badly wounded. The party's commander leaves Fitzgerald behind with Glass. This makes no sense whatsoever. Fitzgerald has telegraphed that he is an unhinged, hostile, and aggressive bully who has openly threatened Glass. No sooner does the commander leave but Fitzgerald kills Glass' son and leaves Glass in a shallow grave, even though he is still alive.

Glass arises from his shallow grave and starts chasing Fitzgerald across what looks like the Grand Tetons. In fact the film was shot in Canada, the US, and Argentina. For many long stretches of the film it feels as if the whole point of the exercise is a long slog to find the most picturesque spot in which to bite off a live fish's head. Many shots consist of nothing more than DiCaprio, in heavy "I've been attacked by a grizzly" prosthetic makeup, staring into the camera, which was probably an inch away from his face, grimacing and grunting. If you don't like the sound of DiCaprio grunting, don't go see this film. All this grimacing and grunting builds up to the inevitable showdown between Glass and Fitzgerald. Cue the spurting blood.

Little of this is plausible. Glass is frequently seen standing in or walking through water and surrounded by snow and ice. Hypothermia would surely kill any human who attempted any similar stunt. The grizzly bear attack is plainly CGI. There is a much better grizzly bear attack in the 2009 romantic comedy "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" That film used a real bear, not computer-generated pixels.

"The Revenants"'s director, Alejandro Inarritu, was recently interviewed on NPR. He whined about how very, very hard it is for him, a Mexican, to live in the racist United States. He's a Hollywood millionaire. He won multiple Academy Awards for "Birdman," a movie few people saw and fewer people liked. Inarritu is very Caucasian in appearance. But oh boo hoo he has to live in the horrible, racist United States as a Mexican!

Inarritu also whined about the evils of colonialism, which he hoped to highlight in his movie. Because, you know, it's really a bad thing when men hurt, punch, knife, shoot arrows and bullets into, rape and stab others. But, it's a really wonderful thing when Inarritu makes a film showing all these actions in gory, graphic detail, and makes a bucket-load of money marketing those very violent images. Nothing like sincerity and purity of artistic intention.

"The Revenant" is overtly anti-Christian. Tom Hardy's psychopathic Fitzgerald is the one kind of interesting character in the movie, He is just about the only one who talks. DiCaprio mostly just grunts and grimaces. Though the characters are slogging through the high Rockies, Hardy has Fitzgerald speak in a British-actor-working-under-a-Mexican-director's movie-version of a Southern accent. Southerners should sue Hollywood – why are psychopathic bad guys so often Southern? Even in the Grand Tetons? Anyway. Hardy speaks in this nearly indecipherable faux Southern accent. He's a mean, weird, unmotivated, hostile villain. He talks about God and Jesus constantly. The message is very clear. The white man's God is evil.

A character named "Toussaint" rapes an Indian woman. "Toussaint," of course, means "all saints." I wonder what Inarritu thinks of what Comanche used to do to white women captives. Google it. And don't blame me if what you discover gives you nightmares.

Glass gets through his travails through repeated visions of his Indian wife, who was, of course, murdered by evil white men. In one vision, Glass sees his son in a destroyed Christian church. There are paintings of Mary and Jesus, distorted by decay. Trees grow in the church. Trees are sacred, see. The church was just evil brought by the white man to hurt the Indians.

At a key moment in the film, a key character makes a profound decision based on whispered Indian wisdom.

Yes, not only are Native Americans spiritual and loving, they also know how to use combs. In "The Revenant" the Native Americans have groomed hair, while the whites all have stringy hair hanging in their eyes. Frontiersman needed their eyes – certainly to aim their rifles – and combs are easy to make. The unrealistic hair is just more evidence of the director's heavy-handed strain that took me right out of the movie.