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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Why Some Lives Matter and Some Don't: Black Children, White Women, and Selective Outrage

Why Some Lives Matter and Some Don’t:
Black Children, White Women, and Selective Outrage

Our wintry spring has impinged on my work life. Hustling through one nor’easter after another, I’ve not attended to news as much as I usually do. In spite of my relative inattention, two news stories resonated. National Public Radio sounded a familiar drumbeat: “Police shoot unarmed black man, father of two, in his grandmother’s backyard.” I heard those words, all carefully selected, repeated several times throughout the day, with the shrill, persistent urgency of a tornado warning. Tornado warnings demand that you abandon what you are doing and move to a shelter. “Police kill unarmed black man” demands that you abandon your idea of your nation and yourself and move to a new cognitive dwelling, one your betters have constructed for you.

The other news story was not a drumbeat but rather the “ping” of an appliance alerting the user to some minor emergency. I heard this headline three times only. An SUV had plunged over a cliff in northern California. The van’s eight inhabitants were all presumed dead. It was a mystery. This report did not require me to readjust my relationship to the world. I could waltz right past it, and not be inconvenienced by so much as a flicker of sadness for any of the eight departed fellow humans.

I did not stop doing laundry or watching “bomb cyclone” weather reports to turn up the volume and focus my attention. Even though I was using only the cells in my brain devoted to background awareness, those cells determined the following: “The media is lying to me in order to comply with the dictates of Political Correctness. Understanding those dictates, I can fill in the blanks.” Propaganda is so pervasive that my brain, on autopilot, concludes such things. Realizing that gave me an Orwellian feeling.

Powerful people want me to believe that a black man was relaxing in the spring sun, playing on the swing set of that most sacred geography, grandma’s house, when a white policeman drove by, and, aroused to murderous frenzy by his victim’s skin color alone, shot the young father dead in front of his sons. NPR was obsessively repeating the skin color of the dead man: black. NPR did not mention the skin color of the police officer. I concluded that the accused officer was black as well. Had he been white, NPR would have repeated the words “white police officer” as obsessively as it was repeating “black victim.” I also decided that the black man in question was not shot in the daylight, but probably at night, and that he was located in his grandmother’s backyard not as part of a social call, but somehow in relation to an alleged crime.

The fallen death van, at first, seemed unconnected to the shooting headline. I realized, the very first time I heard this headline, that there was nothing mysterious about the death van. Someone had driven that van over the cliff on purpose. What would cause police officers to be so cagey in accounts that they provided to the media, or the media’s handling of such accounts? The person who drove the van, and his or her relationship to the deceased, was protected by political correctness. I wondered if we’d ever learn the truth about that one.

The death van story is probably easier to tell. Jennifer and Sarah Hart were a white, lesbian, married couple who owned a home in Woodland, Washington, close to Portland. In photos, Jennifer and Sarah appear young and attractive, with long hair and high-wattage smiles. One can see them with their six black and brown adopted children, holding signs saying “Free Hugs,” “Embrace the Revolution,” “Love is Always Beautiful,” and wearing eight, matching, Bernie Sanders t-shirts at a Sanders rally. The Associated Press described them as “the Hart Tribe, a free-spirited family of two women and their six adopted children who raised their own food, took spontaneous road trips and traveled to festivals and other events, offering free hugs and promoting unity.” Friends described them “as loving, inspiring parents who promoted social justice and exposed their ‘remarkable children’ to art, music and nature.” Another friend said “They are beautiful examples of opening arms to strangers, helping youth, supporting racial equality … They brought so much joy to the world. They represented a legacy of love." Investigators of their van’s deadly plunge at first said that there was “no evidence and no reason to believe that this was an intentional act.”

News sources now acknowledge that the Harts abused and starved their adopted children. CNN provides a timeline including numerous complaints going back ten years. On March 23, 2018, officials visited the Hart home. The van was discovered on March 26. The Harts responded to notification of this new investigation, evidently, through murder-suicide. Three of the adoptees were found dead in the van; three of the children have still not been found. Devonte Hart is among the missing. Devonte gained international attention when he was photographed at a 2014 Black Lives Matter rally hugging a while police officer. Given what we know now, it is hard to look at this photo and not guess that Devonte might have wished that this white police officer would take him home and rescue him from his abusive parents.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Chappaquiddick 2018 Intelligent, Gripping Docudrama

“Chappaquiddick” immediately does something I never thought it would do. It aroused in me empathy for its main character. Before the film even gets going, it reminds the viewer of something I’d never spent much time thinking about: Ted Kennedy lost four of his siblings when he and they were relatively young. Joseph Kennedy Jr died a hero’s death in WW II when Ted was just a child; Kathleen died four years later in a plane crash. JFK was shot to death in 1963, and Robert was shot to death in 1968, less than a year before the Chappaquiddick incident.

I know what it is to lose young siblings when one is young oneself. It’s a pain that receives too little attention. Everyone goes on and on about how hard it is for the parents to lose a child. The brother or sister stands there, ignored, and stumbling through something that the world tells you is not supposed to hurt so much. After my most recent sibling died, I made bad decisions I now regret. This reflection enters into my assessment of Ted Kennedy’s behavior at Chappaquiddick.

The film reminds us, too, that Chappaquiddick was simultaneous with the moon landing. America’s attention was on this fruition of JFK’s call to go to the moon. In the film, Ted is shown as the runt of the litter, not his father’s favorite, and constantly compared, in an unfavorable way, to Jack. The lowest point of his life coincides with a celebration of how inspirational and visionary his brother was. Ted squirms onscreen, and the viewer squirms with him.

“Chappaquiddick” is set in 1969, and the sets, cars, and hairdos are authentic, but the viewer doesn’t get to bask in retro fun as one can in other films. The opening of the film, leading up to the accident, is very grim and sad. The film accepts one theory, that Mary Jo Kopechne did not drown, but rather asphyxiated in an air pocket in the car. The film shows this, and it’s hard to watch.

After the accident, Ted reports to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, and is confronted with a Camelot brain trust, including Robert McNamara and Ted Sorensen, there to help finesse him out of the hell he has gotten himself into. Their Machiavellian machinations and Ted’s fumbling are inadvertently funny.

The onscreen version of events is largely the one told by Joe Gargan, a disaffected Kennedy cousin. The viewer is at times utterly baffled by Kennedy’s behavior. It never even attempts to answer the key question, why did Kennedy not report the accident sooner? His hesitation can’t be explained away as selfish calculation, because Kennedy’s delay damaged him irreparably.

At times the film invites the viewer to feel for Kennedy. Father Joseph, incapacitated by a stroke, unforgettably played by Bruce Dern, is demanding and unloving. He manages, even from his wheelchair, to push Ted around. Ted struggles to do the right thing.

The film could have been deeper had it been more universal. Ted Kennedy is not the only person who has done a very bad thing. We have all done very bad things. The question becomes, how does one continue living after doing a very bad thing? Must a human life be thrown away after a person does a bad thing? Or is there any chance for redemption? The film hints at that theme, but does not develop it. It’s more of a docudrama than a sweeping tragedy.

The second question that is hinted at, but not fully explored by the film. People who want to serve the public must be, to some extent, showmen. They must make rabbits spring from empty hats. One can have all the best ideas in the world, but without charisma, those ideas can never reach fruition.

Ted Kennedy put 47 years into the Senate, making him the fourth-longest continuously serving senator. He had plenty of money. He could have spent his life on beaches and golf courses. Instead he spent it trying to better the lives of those less fortunate than he, through legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act and children’s health insurance. It takes work to pass as much legislation as Kennedy passed. No one can doubt his commitment to service.

So, yes, call his behavior after the accident inexplicable and selfish. But recognize that part of what he and his team were doing was what the public needs in its leaders. We the people want show business, and that Camelot brain trust gave it to us.

Seeking insight into Kennedy’s character, I listened, again, to his eulogy for his brother, Bobby. In this eulogy, Kennedy is stoic. He references idealism, public service, and the Ancient Greeks.

Some obsess on Chappaquiddick. They insist that this event forever damns Ted Kennedy. They refuse to hear of his life of service. It’s no surprise that those who take this position are hostile to Kennedy’s Democratic politics. It’s cheap to exploit Mary Jo Kopechne’s death to agitate against health insurance for poor children and accessibility for handicapped people.

A Quiet Place: A Praise Song to Parenting; Not Very Scary

“A Quiet Place” has received very enthusiastic reviews. I thought it was merely okay. I was not scared for one second, and one goes to films like this to be frightened. “A Quiet Place” is a praise song to parents and parenting, and that may be why the film was not able to work its magic on me.

Monsters stalk the land, in the case, a rural corn farm in upstate New York. Few survivors remain. The Abbott family – a mother, father, and three children – are eking out their existence the only way they can: quietly. The monsters are blind and hunt by sound.

The word “abbot” means “father.” Remember Jesus calling his father “abba.” “A Quiet Place” is a praise song to John Krasinski’s role as Lee Abbott, the father in this film, and to fathers in general. Lee does everything for his family, and I do mean everything. If you want to see a movie that deeply respects fathers and fatherhood, go see “A Quiet Place.”

Evelyn Abbott is very maternal. Her status as a mother is emphasized in the most biological of ways. Regan Abbott is their deaf daughter. Just like Regan in “King Lear,” this Regan has daddy issues. The family drama plays out with monsters arriving every now and then to attempt to eat someone.

The film is a series of set pieces, showing a survivalist family trying to outwit fate with jerry-rigged gizmos. Just imagine what a Mr Fixit Dad would do to your home and property if he were trying to defeat blind monsters that hear well. I wish more use had been made of duct tape, every do-it-yourselfer’s best friend.

Quite a few of the set-pieces are rather sadistic. The filmmakers do whatever it takes to place each character in unique peril, pain, and agony. One scene was highly reminiscent of a frequently repeated motif, involving sound and those humans most likely to make noise, from Holocaust movies. I was alienated by this sadism. It began to feel manipulative and, at one point at least, completely unbelievable.

Isle of Dogs 2018: Cute but Cold and Insubstantial, Unnecessarily Convoluted and Violent

“Isle of Dogs” is cute, as its trailer promises, but it is cold and insubstantial. There’s a scene on the eponymous Isle of Dogs where the main characters stumble upon the canine skeleton of a beloved household pet who starved to death in a locked cage. I love dogs and just the thought of that scene should reduce me to tears. I felt nothing, and that was my reaction to the entire movie. I didn’t laugh or cry. I just didn’t care. Cute dog puppets? Check. Anything else? Not much.

I did love the taiko drum soundtrack, and hope to buy it. But taiko drumming has nothing to do with dogs. I also really liked the voice talent, including Bryan Cranston, who is just terrific and memorable as the voice of a tough stray dog, Jeff Goldblum, F. Murray Abraham, and Edward Norton.

The plot is unnecessarily convoluted and violent, and told rather than shown. There is endless voiceover narration. “And then this happened and then this happened and then this happened.” Everything is so exaggerated and divorced from any real dogginess that I could not relate.

Paul, Apostle of Christ 2018: So Bad It Insults Its Christian Audience

“Paul, Apostle of Christ” is one of the worst movies I have ever seen in a theater. I’m a Christian, I love movies, and I adore Jim Caviezel. It’s a sin to tell a lie, so I must tell you that this film is so bad I have to wonder if someone decided that Christian movie fans are so desperate that we will support badly-made films. Movies offer many features: soundtrack, script, costumes, setting, star-power. If you are in a not-great movie, often you can focus on one aspect if another aspect is lacking. Nothing in “Paul, Apostle of Christ” works.

The script is barely there. Paul languishes in a Roman dungeon. Romans torture Christians. Christians wonder how they should respond. Paul and Luke chat about the old days. And that’s about it. At one point, a lovable Christian is sent on a mission, and given all the attention being paid to him, you *know* he’s not coming back. The foreshadowing is painfully obvious.

Paul’s captor, Olivier Martinez, has a French accent so thick you could spread it on brioche. Every time he opens his mouth you have to struggle to understand what he is saying, and to stifle a giggle. No one else in this film has a French accent.

The film was shot in Malta, among ancient ruins that look like ancient ruins. The marble is overrun with ivy and foliage growing out of cracks. People in Ancient Rome did not live in “ancient” Rome, they lived in a Rome that was modern at the time. The ruined look of the place takes the viewer out of the picture.

Rembrandt, Bach, and Cecil B. DeMille gave us rousing and inspirational art that treated Biblical themes. We need to embrace that full-blooded tradition and jettison false piety, which makes for bad art.