Monday, April 30, 2012

The Strange Case of Michael Morton

Sometimes, the trust reads stranger than fiction.
Imagine coming home one day to find your life completely transformed, irreversibly, touched by tragedy.  Your wife has been found dead, savagely beaten to death, in the comfort of the home that the two of you shared together.
Now, imagine the police questioning you for hours and hours, and you assuming that they had their best intentions in mind. You assume that they just want to ask questions to clarify matters, and to eliminate you as a suspect. Now, imagine you sitting in a court room, as the judge announces that you have been found guilty of the murder of your wife. Imagine the first time that the cell door of the prison cell you will be spending possibly the rest of your days slams shut for that first time. The long and lonely night that follows, the period of adjustment to your new, imprisoned life. Imagine the shame of being known to the world as a convicted murderer, and imagine your spirits sinking further and further. You think things cannot be worse, and yet, they get worse. You spend over two decades in jail, and you find out that your own son has changed his last name, to have the least association with you as possible. He is ashamed of you and, sitting here on the wrong side of the prison bars, there is not a damn thing you can do about all of this! You are powerless, and the world that considers you a monster is trying their best for forget you, to bury you prematurely.
This is what actually happened to Michael Morton in real life, way back in 1987. Almost twenty five years have passed, and finally, Michael Morton's name has been cleared. It almost sounds like a Hollywood movie, doesn't it?
The day before his wife was murdered happened to have been his birthday. They went out together, had a good time. Came home. Shared some cookies. Then his wife went to sleep. He had been hoping for a happy ending, like any normal guy, and was extremely disappointed, like any guy would have been. He wrote his wife a note about it, explaining that he was not mad, but that he needed to voice his disappointment about what happened. It was these words that he wrote that largely would convict him, and force the next twenty plus years of his life to be spent locked up behind bars.
Of course, he contested it, but the prosecution laughed at him, almost literally. It had seemed like an open and shut case. The note seemed to provide the motive for the crime, and Mr. Morton was presumed guilty. He was far and away the leading suspect, and the prosecution was able to convince the jury quite easily that Michael Morton had, in fact, killed his wife.
The only thing is that it was not true, and the prosecution knew it. They conveniently left out any evidence that would cast doubt,  serious doubt, that Michael was, in fact, the murderer. They did not include the fingerprints, that did not match. They did not allow the jury to know about the account of a neighbor, who had seen a suspicious individual driving around the house, hovering, acing, waiting. They also ignored a bloody bandana found nearby that would have showed that the husband was not apparently involved. It had his wife Christine's blood and hair on it, but since it was not found on property, the police dismissed it. A neighbor who found it turned it into the police, and that might have put the thoroughness of the investigation into question. So it was not permitted as evidence. Finally, they left out the similarities between this murder and a similar one in the area in 1988 that would suggest striking enough parallels that the same killer would be a real possibility. In fact, it has been determined to have the been the work of the same killer.
Michael Morton kept petitioning to try and get this evidence introduced into a court of law, in order to clear his name and get his freedom back. But the prosecution responded with arrogance, almost literally laughing at him, mocking him. They said they would allow this evidence to be introduced once he admitted to committing the crime. It was a paradox,. The years turned into decades.
Then, it happened. A Texas Court suddenly demanded that this "new" evidence never previously introduced now be permitted, and decades after the fact, Michael Morton's name was finally cleared of the murder.
Williamson County District Attorney James Bradley had long blocked this new evidence from being introduced, but now claims he had done so with honest intentions. He offered a rather lame apology in return for having gone a long way towards ruining this man's life for so long, as well as that of family and friends. One wonders if there is not a case to be made for prison time for the prosecution, who made a poor case by withholding evidence back in 1988 during the trial, and who steadfastly refused to introduce the new evidence, perhaps afraid of having such incompetence exposed and thrown before the public eye. It almost reads like the "Shawshank Redemption".
Michael Morton is now free, but he is staying active with the "Innocence Project", a program designed to help people in similar circumstances to him – wrongly convicted of crimes that they did not commit, and trying desperately to introduce new evidence that would clear their name back into court.
An incredible story, and unbelievable resilience under obviously difficult and trying circumstances by Mr. Morton, who's series of misfortunes are now fully recognized by the public that had once condemned and tried largely to bury the man. Now, he is the poster child for the failures of a flawed law enforcement and legal system that seem suddenly riddled with holes, even gaping holes. 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Movie Review: "The Five Year Engagement"

I had heard about this movie, having seen a preview of it, and automatically assumed it was a chick flick. That, plus the seemingly steady flow of bad reviews, made me a little hesitant to see this movie. I kind of figured that it was a movie that could be seen once it came out on DVD, either perhaps a Redbox rental, as they say, or to borrow it from a friend, if any friend would get it.
But this was actually a pretty funny movie at times, and if you do not just view it as a comedy, pure and simple, but rather as a movie on relationships (but not one that takes itself too seriously), then it is not half bad.
There is a couple that seem happy and ideal for one another, on many levels. Tom, played by Jason Segel, and Violet, played by Emily Blunt, are happily together and engaged, living in San Fransisco and, by all accounts, living a seemingly ideal life. Tom is a cook on the rise, while Violet hopes to get a teaching position at Berkeley, although she has been turned down. It hurts her, but she still seems in relatively high spirits, and manages to more or less get this failure out of her mind. Everything seems perfectly normal and they are on course for a successful relationship, but at their engagement party, Violet's sister, Suzie, played by Alison Brie, meets Tom's loser friend and coworker Alex. It does not seem promising at first, and not much is made of it, until Suzie discovers she is pregnant with Alex's baby. So, this is the first event to kind of steal the thunder from Tom and Violet, and the first of many delays en route to a very long engagement, as the title suggests. For that matter, Suzie and Alex, who seem like a true odd couple destined to fail, actually prove to be surprisingly compatible, and they make it work. For most of the movie, they seem to possess that elusive something that makes a couple work, in comparison to Tom and Violet, who for various reasons, cannot seem to make the relationship work.
The unhappy couple's fortunes take a turn for the worse when Violet actually receives some seemingly good news in the mail: she gets accepted into a university program in Michigan, and her chance at teaching like she wanted to seems to be within her reach. But that would require the couple to be separated, or for Tom to sacrifice his life, with a promising career, in San Fransisco, and to pack his bags for Michigan, which he chooses to do. It is a sacrifice that he feels he is making for love, to make the relationship work. In fact, it is a huge mistake, and Michigan becomes a nightmare for him, and the seeming undoing of once happy relationship.
The relationship is tested in various ways for the rest of the movie, and the couple ultimately has to grow farther apart and ultimately end, and for each to get involved in new relationships that leave them unhappy in ways they hardly could have expected or predicted, for both Tom and Violet to truly appreciate what they once had. Yet, the miscommunication that lingers between the two seems to prevent their outright getting back together.
The ending was a little over the top. But it is a feel good movie, and so perhaps this is to be expected. All in all, not a bad movie. That said, unless you really want to go see this, it might be better to wait until you can rent or borrow this. Not an insult to the movie, but you don't absolutely have to rush out to see this one. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The First Round of the 2012 French Presidential Elections

So, I spoke in yesterday's blog about my personal experience last weekend in participating in the first round of this year's French Presidential election, but did not talk about the election results themselves.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the sitting President of the French Republic, received a good news/bad news kind of thing for his chances. He managed to get to the second round, but he did so by coming in second to one of his competitors in the first round – the first incumbent to place so low.
There are a variety of reasons for this, of course. The economy is bad, and people are suffering. Yes, this is not unique to France, as the economy has been more than a little sluggish seemingly the world over for a few years now. But in France, what has irritated people has been, in large part, Sarkozy's attitude and his overall personality. He is a wealthy guy, perhaps a little flashy, with a celebrity wife, and some sex scandals, and he appears to relish his fame. It is a bit similar to a few years ago in the United States, when George Bush was President, and for many people, his mannerisms and everything about him proved irksome to many people.
The man who won the first round, and who is also projected to be the winner in the second round next weekend, is François Hollande, a more or less centrist-left candidate (of the Socialist party). He is not the most exciting man, and does not exactly have an electrifying personality or presence when he gives addresses. Yet, he seems poised to become the first leftist President that France has had in seventeen years, since Francois Mitterand. It remains to be seen whether or not he will actually manage to do it, but his chances are looking promising.
The two official winners were not the only story and, in fact, perhaps not even the main story regarding this first round of the French Presidential election. Perhaps more shocking was the emergence of Marine Le Pen as an evidently serious candidate. She is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the controversial founder and long time leader of the extreme right Front National. Jean-Marie has long been a controversial, and largely discredited, presence in French politics, infamous for strange incidents, like when he declared the Holocaust to have been a detail of history. His political stance was long regarded as not just anti-immigration, but outright xenophobic and racist. Yet, in 2002, he shocked France, and indeed the world, by managing to win enough votes in the first round of the Presidential elections to be the official opposition to Chirac in the second round. He lost the general election in a landslide, yet the fact that he made it so far raised some eyebrows, especially when coupled with the success of other extreme right candidates, most notably Jörg Haider in Austria.
Now, Marine has brought a new, and perhaps seemingly friendlier, less controversial face to the Front National. Their ideas are largely the same, but the language employed is different, the rhetoric perhaps somewhat toned down. She is still the face of extreme right wing politics in France, and she spent much of the past year not only trying to build credibility to the movement she now fronts, but also to be officially recognized as a contender in the French Presidential elections. She was successful and, ultimately, garnered 18% of the vote – a record high for the party. Like her father did ten years ago, her success on the national scale has raised more than a few eyebrows, and seems to prove that she is a factor in national politics.
As such, now Sarkozy, desperate for reelection, has started to pander to this extremist wing, claiming now that they have legitimacy, and that he would, in essence, address their concerns, and listen to them. Marine responded with scorn and ridicule, while many critics to the left were shocked and appalled that Sarkozy would so transparently bend to the far right.
They are now done with almost a full week of campaigning, and there is one week left until the decisive second round now. Sarko, as he is often referred to, is getting increasingly desperate, and it remains to be seen whether his recent action will either hurt or help his chances, or whether instead, perhaps, it will hardly make any difference. Stay tuned until next weekend!

Friday, April 27, 2012

My French Election Day

I participated in my first French elections back in 2005, after a flurry of activity to secure my dual citizenship. At that point, it was somewhat of a novelty, and when I actually went into New York and stepped into the French Embassy, I almost felt like someone was going to force me out of line and tell me that I did not belong, and had no right participating.
Of course that did not happen, but that was how it felt. Like I was an imposter. I felt the same way for the first election that I ever participated here in the United States, way back in 1992. I was young and fresh out of high school, and excited about the prospect that a Democrat, Bill Clinton, would actually attain the White House, after twelve long years of Republican rule. I could not remember any Democrat in the White House. So, I was excited, but being essentially just a kid, it did not feel entirely legitimate, and I got that same sense that people would view me as an imposter. Of course, that goes away with time, and assuming I participate in this year's election, it will have been the sixth Presidential elections, not to mention numerous other "smaller" elections, that I participated in.
The French elections are much rarer, and so not so routine. Yet, they are starting not to be so new, and the novelty has kind of worn off. There is more documentation required, so it feels more like you have to actually prepare for it then American elections, where they barely check anything. I participated in 2005, when the election focused on the European Union and France's role in it. In 2007, the election was for the Presidency directly, and I felt a sense of accomplishment at having participated in that, as well. I particularly appreciate the two rounds, which allows you to vote for your conscience in the first round, and then vote between the two who emerged from that initial round in the second and deciding round.
Now, it is 2012. Another French Presidential election, and my focus was on participating here, as well. This time, it was made even easer. Unlike before, we did not all have to flock to the overcrowded building in New York. Instead, they made a point of spreading the wealth, so to speak, and provided places to vote in a more regional manner. In northern New Jersey, where I presently reside, the venue was in New Milford, at a specialized French school, The French Academy of Bilingual Culture. There are two campuses, and that is the one in New Milford. There is also one in Morris Plains. I will get back to that.
If you are a registered voter, you get a huge packet in the mail, filled with tons of political flyers, as well They explain the party's platform, as well as a bit about the candidate, what their positions are, and how it will help benefit France, and you, the voter, specifically. These things are pretty universal, are they not? Politicians are pretty much the same no matter where you go, and they all seem willing to promise you the world, so long as they get elected into their desired office.
You can vote by mail and, allegedly, you can vote online, as well. Never tried either approach. Perhaps I am just old-fashioned, but there is something to be said about actually going in person. It just seems like the thing to do. At least for me, it does. I know the world is changing, but it seems our priorities are changing along with it. Elections are being cheapened on many levels, and that is sad. When elections become a reflection of the strive towards ultimate comfort and convenience, they can prove both beneficial and sacrificing something by cheapening it. The that they should be considered holidays, and that people have some excused time off from work still appeals to me. People do not take elections seriously enough, and I think we are paying the price for that relative indifference. But anyway, that's just a personal slice of my opinion, and I do not want to go too far with that thought, since that is not what my intentions were in writing this little piece. This is just a nice little blog about my surprisingly pleasant and convenient experience this time voting in the French election. I don't mean, or want, to take it anywhere else right now.
So, usually it would take quite a while, and some significant inconveniences, in order to get to the Big Apple to vote. But with New Milford, it is much less stressful. No tolls, no hassles parking, and no chaos once inside the actual building. No lines to wait through (not that they were even terribly long in New York, but this time, I was literally in and out of the voting process within five minutes. It was amazingly convenient and thorough! Kudos to whoever came up with these changes!
Once outside, I started paying attention to what had largely been ignored (by me) on the way in. It was a bit like a garage sale, with a table selling second hand books, and another serving food, including crepes (among my favorites). So, I got some food, a roast beef sandwich and some crepes, which were delicious.
Then, I meandered to the book table, and looked at some of the children's books, interested in picking something up for my son, Sebastien. I go to Quebec usually at least once a year, and pick him some things while there, usually. But these were cheaper, and the opportunity is rare, so I went ahead and got him three books.
But that was not it, either. I found out about some of the programs, including weekly summer camp programs, that could serve as decent immersion programs for French language for young kids – such as Sebastien. It is not the perfect system, since Sebastien has resisted French quite strongly thus far, and these programs are meant for kids with some background speaking French. Still, nonetheless, it could work, because they do make accommodations. You have to start somewhere, don't you? The director even asked me what he liked, and when I told her that one of the things that he loved was Star Wars, she mentioned that there was going to be one week specifically with a Star Wars theme, and that included making your own lightsaber! When I later mentioned the idea to Sebastien, he grew very excited, and for the first time, learning the French language was not a major obstacle. Is that coercion? Yup, pretty much. But anybody who has raised a kid will likely understand.
So, all in all, a pleasant election day for me this past Saturday, in what will in all probability be the first of three days this year where I participate in voting in a Presidential election. Two rounds for France, and one for the United States, which is still quite far away, in November. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

"I Say GO! You Say NETS!"

I went to the final home game for the New Jersey Nets on Monday evening, against the Philadelphia 76ers. It included a tribute to many former New Jersey Nets players, dating back from the earliest days of the franchise's move to the Garden State, and right up to the 2002 Eastern Conference Championship squad that celebrated a ten year anniversary.
I was amazed to be reminded that the incredible 2002 championship run had reached the ten year anniversary! The very best basketball game I have ever seen, let alone been to, was then. Game 5 of the first round series between the Indiana Pacers and the Nets. New Jersey had not won a playoff series in eighteen years, and the Pacers always were a dangerous team to have to play against. You never knew when Reggie Miller would ignite the team, when he would come alive with an incredible string of three pointers to serve as a dagger in the heart to so many teams. He had one of those nights again that night, but the Nets managed to overcome and persevere, surviving that game in double overtime to clinch the series, and then going on to eventually capture their first ever Eastern Conference Championship, before eventually losing in a sweep to the dynasty Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. I already wrote about
Over the years, I have been to many Nets games. I have seen a number of remarkable players don the Nets uniform, including Jason Kidd, Kerry Kittles, Kenyon martin (K-Mart, as he if often known as), Vince Carter, Derrick Coleman, Kenny Anderson, Chris Morris, Stephon Marbury, Jayson Williams, Keith Van Horn, Deron Williams, Kris Humphries (he of Kardashian Wedding fame, or perhaps rather infamy), Brook Lopez, MarShon Brooks, PJ Brown, Alonzo Mourning, Sasha Vujacic, and one of the most decent and charitable guys to ever play the game, Dikembe Mutombo. Those are some incredible guys to have played for the team over the years! Chuck Daly used to be the head coach, not that long after his successful championship runs with the Detroit Pistons, during their "Bad Boys" days. Byron Scott was coach during their Eastern Conference Championship days in the 2002 & 2003 playoffs. Unfortunately, none of those guys ever won an NBA Championship ring with the New Jersey Nets, although some came much closer than others.
I have also seen some great and memorable visiting teams, as well. The most notable were the Chicago Bulls in April of 1996, as they were en route to an NBA record 72-10 regular season record and a fourth championship in six years. They would go on to win six overall. But I also saw the Lakers in the days of Kobe and Shaq and Phil Jackson, and more recently, saw the Lakers most recent championship squad, as well. The championship Houston Rockets of the mid-90's, the 1999 San Antonio Spurs, the reincarnation of the "Bad Boys" Detroit Pistons in the mid-2000's, the 2008 Boston Celtics, the most recent championship team of that storied squad. I saw some major stars on many of those other teams as well, including Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Hakeem "The Dream" Olijuwon, Robert Horry, Kenny Smith, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, KJ Kevin Johnson, Patrick Ewing, Latrell Sprewell, Karl Malone, John Stockton, David Robinson, Tony Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Antoine Walker. Some of the famous coaches include Larry Brown, Phil Jackson, Greg Popavich, Rudy Tomjanovich, Jerry Sloan, and a number of others, as well. There are probably some players and coaches I am forgetting, to boot! It was often a truly
Perhaps one of the most entertaining aspects was just how far the Nets organization would go to keep the home fans entertained. There were acrobats doing their thing, flips and all sorts. Sexy dancers doing their routines, sometimes shedding some of their clothes. There were always t-shirt giveaways, and there also was always some mascot or another. Hell, in the 1990's, when attendance was very low on average, and the team really had no huge history to fall back on, the gimmicks that they pulled to try and entertain were outright damn comical! I still remember Barney the Purple Dragon getting in a staged, pro wrestling style fight, where he was getting destroyed, only to come back and destroy his opponent, and then dance around arrogantly afterward. Yes, not all of the PR stunts that they pulled were winners, and that one was almost so stupid as to be funny enough to put tears in my eyes. More often than not however, these gimmicks tended to be over the top. The enthusiasm that the PR forced upon people did not match the general indifference with which it was received.
One that I remember particularly fondly was a chant from a guy with a very deep throat, who would shout, "I say go, you says Nets! GO!"
Maybe a few people would respond, "Bets", without much relish.
But the deep voice would not be denied, and he kept the chant going strong. He would repeat, "GO!"
Someone would scratch their head and mutter under their breath, "nets".
The voice would keep going and gong, like the Energizer Bunny, and to the same complete lack of response. It was almost comical, and to me, seemed almost to encapsulate the reality of what the New Jersey Nets were, unfortunately. People just did not get all that fired up, even, really, when they were enjoying their pinnacle of success about ten years ago.
Still, it must be said that it was a privilege to have had such ready access to a professional basketball team, and so close to home! I know that locally, the Knicks are the far more popular team, and traditionally, they are the team that has the richer, fuller history, having won championships and enjoyed far more successful seasons, had bigger stars, etc.. But the Nets represented New Jersey, and they managed to enjoy some good runs at success, as well.
As for the game on Monday, my brother and I mused, on the walk over to the arena from the parking lot, that it would be fitting if the arena were only half full, with a few thousand people showing up. But as it happened, there were a lot of people there, and mostly, it was filled with Nets fans! There were some 76ers fans present, but they were a tiny minority.
Still, that tiny minority got to walk out of the arena happy, because their team finally clinches a playoff berth that evening. They earned it by managing to win big over the Nets. So, while the arena being full maybe was uncharacteristic of the Nets, the fact that they lost, and lost big, was indeed a fitting ending for their time in New Jersey. Not that they were always losers there, but just the majority of the time. The vast majority of the time even, it seemed.
So, Go Nets?
Yup, they're gone. It's official, now.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Movie Review: "Cinderella Man"

This, much like “Alexander” was a movie that I had long wanted to see, but somehow, had never quite gotten around to seeing. The opportunity recently arose, and I made a point of finally seeing it.
It is a movie based on the life of boxer James Braddock, who was a promising young boxer on the ride back in the late 1920's, just prior to the Great Depression. He had a couple of tough breaks, including a bad loss inside the ring, and then suffered through a few injuries. Suddenly, his boxing career, seemingly so promising not long beforehand, seemed more a relic of the past, than something that actually had a future.
He had made some money during his boxing career, and although the movie does not go into detail about how it came about that he basically lost it all, we find out that he has little to no money, or anything worth any money to exchange for once he personally gets hit by the Great Depression. With a hand injury that prevents him from being effective in the boxing ring, and also severely restricts him from managing the very few shifts that he is actually selected for in the shipping docks to try and make a few bucks to make ends meet, things grow increasingly desperate. When one of his children gets sick, his wife decides that maybe it is time for the children to find a more suitable place to stay, since neither of them can actually adequately take care of their own kids.
Braddock finds this humiliating, and he goes back to Madison Square Garden, before many of the same people that revoked his boxing license, and he has to beg for money. He meets the payment required to pay the bills, and gets his kids back. He also gets an opportunity at another fight, and you can pretty much guess the rest from there. There is a reason that title of the movie, “Cinderalla Man”, is what it is known as.
He is surprisingly strong, perhaps from the years of lifting at the docks. He is also mentally tough, because he now knows what he is fighting for – his family, his children. His hand and other injuries do not hamper him any longer, and he pulls off upsets, one after the other, until he becomes the number one contender for the title, held by seemingly monstrous Max Baer.
Baer is an absolute beast in the ring, seemngly dispatching contenders in the ring with the same ease that boxing fans in the modern day remember Mike Tyson at his peak knocking out one contender after another. He makes it look easy, makes these titans look like children. So powerful and forboding is he in the ring, that he even has literally killed two men in the ring, hitting them so hard that he knocked their brain loose with the power of his punches, literally. We learn that one of these boxers was very similar in style and size and strength to James Braddock. From that point on, nobody wants the fight to go on, fearing for Braddock's safety. That includes the boxing commission, that includes Max Baer himself. His wife does not want him to fight anymore, and especially does not want him to fight Max Baer, in particular. It becomes a constant source of tension between the couple, but she shows her support in the end.
Of course, the fight goes on, and Braddock, just thankful to have a career, and especially grateful that it is in boxing and with a large purse to boot, shows determination and grit. He takes a beating, but he dishes it out, as well. Baer had expected an easy and decisive fight, but grows frustrated in later rounds, after he has failed to put the older, smaller man down. He loses patience, and makes mistakes, and Braddock makes him pay the price.
Baer gets angrier and angrier, and his punches grow wilder and wilder, intent on doing serious damage with every swing. Intent on the knockout punch, perhaps even the kill shot.
But Braddock is smarter, fights better, shows guts and his trademark determination, and is seemingly soundly beating Baer going into the final round. Baer knows this, and is readying his infamous right arm, looking for the knockout to preserve his world title. Everyone knows what Baer is going to try to do, and everyone also knows what Braddock has to do – stay away from that dangerous right, and basically sit on the lead. Yes, everyone knows this is what Braddock needs to do, except for Braddock himself, who goes to to toe with Baer, and almost pays the price, very nearly getting knocked out, but then dishing out some serious punishment of his own, and seemingly being on the verge of knocking Max Baer out himself just before the ring sounds to end the fight.
The decision takes a long time, and it seems that Braddock is about to get cheated of the big win. But ultimately, he is declared the winner by unanimous decision, and the title is his. The turnaround complete.
This is a good movie overall. A bit too idealistic, but it is a feel good movie, and shows some of the famous desperation of those times – truly hard times, the Great Depression. Braddock is idealized, but this illustrates wonderfully the grit and determination that it takes to rise above obstacles and seemingly impossible odds, in order to achieve what nobody else think you can achieve. A fun and entertaining movie that, despite the obvious violence surrounding what enfolds in the boxing ring throughout, is nonetheless a decent family movie, and recommended!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Government Assistance and Protection: Here and There

The United States was the most wasteful society that ever existed, and for a long, long time, it remained militantly so. Nobody could tell Americans anything, because if anyone dared criticize any aspects of the society, the response would be flaunting the enormous and unprecedented power and wealth that the young nation had produced. The message between the lines was clear: we're better than you, so sit down, take some notes, and learn from us.
That is a privilege that Americans got a little too used to, and which they now have to adapt to having lost. No longer is the country the young and vibrant place that it once was. Many other countries have more or less caught up with the individual wealth of Americans in terms of living conditions, and some have even moved past it. Australians have larger homes on average, and they have adequate healthcare for their people, as well as a month and a half worth of vacation time. It is seen as a sunny paradise and place that is filled with natural wonders and immense beauty, to boot, and is an enviable model for the rest of the world.
Australia's not quite neighbors, New Zealand, have also produced a decent standard of living for themselves. Yes, famously, this is a tiny country, and there are more sheep than people here. It is also a country that has been very blessed with tremendous natural beauty, attracting such epic movie franchises like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings to film in their country for some amazing scenes in natural beauty that nowhere else in the world can perhaps compare to. It was the first country with a mixed economy to try what Americans often derisively label “socialized medicine”, and they have many government programs, like all other industrialized nations, that provide their citizens with significant benefits that assist them in their living conditions.
Canada does not have the sunny paradise image, but there is plenty of natural beauty that the country has in abundance, and the living standards are on average higher in recent years than they have been for their southern neighbors. Canadians have wealth, even tremendous wealth, in places, much like exists in the United States. But they do not have such extreme polarities between rich and poor. They do not have slums and broken down inner cities like their American counterparts. Canadian cities tend to be much cleaner and safer, and reflect a rich mosaic of cultural diversity. They also have adequate healthcare for all, despite imperfections in their system.
Scandinavian countries have reached the very highest standards of living in the world, and remained there perennially now for many years. These are countries that have, like Canada, also been blessed with incredible wild beauty and open spaces and, also like Canada, have surpassed Americans in terms of living standards. They also have a good healthcare system that covers everyone, and enjoy much more vacation time than Americans. There are government assistance programs that would surely shock and appall Americans, and the system of justice and prisons is a radical departure in their approach than what we Americans have seen.
These are smaller countries, but there might be a point about that which needs to be made: these Scandinavian countries, as well as Canada and Australia, do not have the same weight of high expectations and the burden of carrying the weight of their history like Americans do, and this has been freeing to them, I think. They have been willing and able to learn from the examples of other countries, and to benefit from this. They have been cast in the shadows often times. Australia is half a world away from almost everybody else in the world, of course. Canada is overshadowed by their much larger, more powerful, and more famous neighbor, to the point that former Prime Minister Trudeau compared it to sleeping next to an elephant, where every little noise made by the larger neighbor grabs your attention, by necessity. Similarly, the Scandinavian countries are smaller, and often the forgotten part of Europe, in the shadow of the larger – and warmer – countries to the south. Yet, each of these nations have learned to make do on their own, and quietly have raised their living standards to such an extent that they have become the envy of other nations – including those much larger nations. Maybe it helps that they do not carry the same arrogance of the larger nations, who have histories and traditions that they feel attached to, and feel the need to continue along. Even when it perhaps does not serve in their best interests anymore.
Other countries have certain advantages over the United States as well, and much of it has to do with the dreaded government assistance programs that Americans have such an irrational phobia about. I already mentioned that Australia has six weeks vacation, but so do Germans. France has five weeks vacation, and the French also enjoy affordable childcare, as well as a healthcare system that goes far towards meeting the needs of it's citizens in a timely and affordable manner. Great Britain also has an affordable healthcare system for it's citizens, with strong price control measures that keep medicine and treatment at affordable rates for it's citizens. In fact, healthcare is pretty universally viewed as a right, not a privilege for those who can afford it, in almost every industrialized country – with one notable exception. That would be right here in the United States. I wrote a rather impassioned blog entry about that very topic called “The Criminalization of Affordable Healthcare in America” (April 6, 2012), because providing your citizens affordable healthcare has long been viewed by me as the truest measuring stick of how generous a country you are. Say what you want to disagree with me if you will, but the fact that the United States has simply failed to provide that for it's citizens, I think, speaks volumes about the way it treats those who are less fortunate. For a country that is often viewed as very religious, this contradiction is hard for me to swallow, and I say that as an American.
But it is not just restricted to healthcare. In other countries, they have higher minimum wages, more vacation time, more affordable options for childcare and education assistance, not to mention a higher quality of education. This is because these are higher priorities in those nations, and they recognize the necessity of providing that for their citizens. Governments are seen, rightly, as representatives of the people, and they do a bit more than we do here to provide assistance for their people. Even in private enterprise, their seems to be a focus on friendlier accessibility to things for the common folk, such as good public transportation, like they have in Europe and Japan. They protect their citizens against pollution and environmental degradation far more than Americans tend to, because they do not equate government prevention of corporate irresponsibility and reckless plundering of resources as somehow limiting “freedom”. What kind of “freedom” is that, in any case? How much “freedom” did the people of Love Canal or Rocky Flats, or Times Beach have? Famously, in Hinkley, California,the residents there were powerless to fight the criminal actions of a powerful local company before Erin Brockovich met with her incredible success in forcing corporate PSE&G to stop hiding behind their well-funded legal team and to take ownership of their irresponsible actions and provide some compensation for those affected. That was made into a feel good movie, of course, which really just illustrates how rare a triumph that was. In fact, things like that seem to be happening all of the time, yet rarely does it end on such a bright and positive note, with Julia Roberts in the starring role. I used to work for a few days at a site that was affected like that. It was Pepe Field in Boonton, and Drew Chemicals had generously provided this slot of land for the township, being praised for their generosity, until it was discovered that they had been illegally dumping chemicals there. Suddenly, there were concerns about health and cancer rates, and there were houses on stilts, much like you might see at a beach. Yet, even that seemed to have a happy ending, thanks largely to the EPA's Superfund activity there. But when Americans tak about blaoted government and wasteful spending, many would not hesitate to view these things as perfect examples. That is a dangerous road we are traveling, if we continue down that path.
I am not saying that government is the cure all, by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I think I tend to be more skeptical of government than most, and feel that they are public servants, and are owed nothing. There should be strong and sharp public scrutiny of all government officials and agencies, and they should be held accountable for their actions in ways that they simply are not right at the moment. That is another discussion.
But governments are the common person's best tool to keep other strong institutions in heck, in a de facto system of checks and balances that allow people to live their own lives. Reagan famously cited government as being the problem, and it sounds great in speeches, and he is often quoted to the present day. However, he seemed a lot less critical of private and corporate irresponsibility, and in this day and age, we cannot afford to focus on the image and ideal words that Reagan represented, when the reality is that those very policies of weakening government that Reagan initiated have directly led to a lower standard of living for the American people. Much like with McCarthyism and Cold War extremity, we have to get over our phobias and look at the whole picture, or we will figuratively and, increasingly, literally be impoverished for our own blindness and arrogance. In fact, we already have been. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Elections 2012, Here and There

It is my privilege to be a dual citizen to both the United States and France, and it was my privilege to participate in my second ever Presidential election for France this past Saturday. I will write about this later, in another blog. Of course, this was just the first round, and the second round is in a couple of weeks. I intend to participate in that as well, of course. Because I believe that citizenship requires certain responsibilities, and that includes voting. That may seem a hopelessly old-fashioned value (it seems I hold a lot of those, according to some people), but it just seems to me that you are required, on some level, to contribute in some way to helping advance the nation, and to make it a better place. Voting really is a minor inconvenience, after all.
Yet, in many countries, and particularly in the United States, it is all too often taken for granted. People have fought and died for that privilege in some places. I still remember the first elections in South Africa back in 1994, when blacks first got the chance to vote in a real and free election after decades of white minority rule. The lines were incredibly long, and the image of whites and blacks and other races standing in line together, all of them waiting for the opportunity to make their voices heard, proved a powerful statement. Even in the United States, people have struggled to practice their right to a vote. In the South, not all that long ago, very few blacks were allowed this right that they were legally entitled to. And let's remember that in 2000, there were all sorts of voting irregularities that led to apparently thousands of voters not being able to vote on that fateful election day in November of 2000, when Bush ended up "winning" the election despite not having a majority because he had a majority of a few hundred votes in Florida, and that after all of those strange and disturbing things that seemed to get in the way of a truly fair election, and all of it seemingly mysteriously favoring Bush, who's brother just happened to be governor of that state at the time. We all remember the eight long years that followed, right?
It just seems to me that if you do not actually participate in elections for no better reason than you simply do not want to, for whatever reason, then you forfeit any legitimacy in complaints about how bad things are, or how screwed up the nation is. If you make minimal effort to try and change such things and making your voice heard in an election, then why should you be taken seriously when you want to have your voice heard in a complaining session?
Now, I understand that there is a lot of discontent – and legitimate discontent at that – regarding elections these days. We are often left with "choices" that make it feel suspiciously that we have no choice at all, and especially here in the United States. We live in a country where the conventional wisdom is that one party ruled by money poses as a two party system, which itself is limiting, and this is what is accepted as diverse enough political range to suitably represent a nation of over 300 million. Yes, that seems like a ridiculous notion to me, and the fact that the two parties are so eerily similar on so many issues, and that they rather suspiciously agree with each other on so many damn issues, really irks me. A lot is made about the differences between the two, but really, all I personally see are the similarities. Much is made of their points of contention, but these are few, and relatively minor. In fact, they seem to be two branches of the same party, for all intents and purposes. There is the conservative branch, which tend to be the Democrats. In most other Western countries, this would be the conservative party. Then, there is the radically conservative branch, which tend to be the Republicans.
They agree on the bulk of issues, and perhaps vary in their dialogue and the scale to which they see things, and how far they seem willing to go to implement their world view. But they essentially seem to agree on the same basic principles, and have now for a long, long time. I remember Bill Clinton being called "Republican Light". Now, President Obama, who seemed a beacon of hope for liberals starving for a President of their very own for decades now, has proven to be, predictably, a huge disappointment. He quietly signed the NDAA into law, citing regrets in his announcement that he was signing it into law, which effectively eliminates habeas corpus. This, after he explicitly and adamantly voices his disapproval of the measure. His administration has been defining and redefining the environmental policy for years now, and it is election year now, and not seen as prudent to try and aggressively pursue a measure that many – although nowhere near a  majority – of Americans view with a high degree of skepticism. So, three years and change have passed, and he has given us next to nothing in terms of a coherent and competent environmental policy. Just some talk, and some measures designed to look good, while already lax environmental regulations remain suspiciously lax. This was similar to the Clinton years, when the most impressive and sweeping environmental legislation came in the final 72 hours of the eight years of Clinton's White House rule, knowing full well that Bush would waste no time in getting rid of these changes. It was all window dressing. Clinton was infamous for such things, and in that regard, he seemed to represent the Democrats very much. He held up a pen before Congress, saying it would be the pen that he would use to veto any healthcare measures passed by Congress that did not meet his own basic requirements. Sounded great at the time. But his measures were compromised and not met, ultimately. Same with his policy on gays in the military. Same with his stance on a whole wide range of issues that I have not yet mentioned. He was good with speeches, fine, and spoke of his record in a very impressive manner, making it seem like his Presidency was truly beneficial for the country. He spoke about having reduced the national debt by 60%, and technically, it was true. Sounds great in speeches, where he poses as a scholarly and serious figure. But what he does not tell you is that those debts were paid by taking out other loans, which is similar to paying off credit cards by transferring the balance to other credit cards. Yes, you can take credit for having paid them, and it sounds great. But the debt is still there, and you still need to pay it. Very politically savvy, but not what is best for the country.
Obama seems to be following in those footsteps. He comes across as serious minded, even intellectual at times (like Clinton). He talks about principles and responsible leadership. Yet, what leadership he shows is strictly and exclusively politically profitable. He has shown an unwillingness to take any real political chances in favor of what is best for the country. Like Clinton, he had very clear and definitive ideas for healthcare reform, and like Clinton, he had to water down those proposals, and pass something that was quite compromised form what he had wanted. Amazingly, that passed through Congress, so he was able to sign it into law, although the Supreme Court reviewed it and may, or may not, have struck it down as unconstitutional. The decision has yet to be publicized, and will be made public in June. If it passes, it will wipe out Obama's single most successful legislative success, and the health care issue overall, which has been dragging on and on in this country, will remain severely, even criminally, flawed. It will be flawed anyway is it is allowed to stand, because his stance, which did not really go far enough to begin with, was quite watered down by the time it actually passed Congress. A tiny but very vocal minority voiced their displeasure and slapped a Hitler moustache on the image of Obama, and they got all the press, and this fueled the impetus to challenge the healthcare bill, derisively labeled as "Obamacare".
So his seeming biggest success was riddled with failures. He has also failed to make the case for a change from disastrous Bush policies, most notably the tax breaks for the richest and most privileged of Americans. It helped to bankrupt the nation not long ago, yet Obama, whatever opinions he may have voiced at whatever time, nonetheless signed them back into law. It was claimed as a political move, and that this was a battle he would fight at another time, when the political climate was more conducive. Right.
He claimed to be against the concentration camps and detainment, and would close Gitmo. Somehow, that also has not happened on his watch. In fact, he has in some respects gone farther with sweeping Presidential powers of detainment than Bush ever got. Amazing, isn't it?
You can bet that he will be posing as the liberal candidate in the upcoming election, though. Never mind that he is conservative, even perhaps alarmingly conservative. He will be officially be seen as the 'liberal" option in the upcoming November election.
So, what about France, or elsewhere in Europe? Is it any different? Is it, perhaps, even any better?
Well, there are similarities to here, as well. Remember in recent American election, how the names of the two major candidates were combined, to illustrate the lack of differences between them? There was Bore and Gush in 2000, there was little to distinguish Kerry and Bush in 2004, and now, already, the two candidates have been lumped into one with "Obamney". Well, in 2002, France's two seeming major candidates, Chirac and Jospin, were similarly labeled "Chispan" and "Jorac" by many. They took minimal political chances, and tried each to appear as the centrist candidate with the most widespread appeal.
There are differences, and some of these I personally prefer. I like the idea of a 1st round and 2nd round, for example. You can vote your conscience in the 1st round, and wait to see who emerges in the deciding second round, where you vote for one of the two remaining candidates – whichever one appeals to you most or, perhaps as the case may be, offends you the least..  I certainly prefer that, and wish that Americans would implement this change. But when has America ever not been stuck up enough to actually learn from the examples of others? One of the problems with a superiority complex is a refusal to see anyone else, or their approach or their ideas, as legitimate. This is to the impoverishment of the nation as a whole, and nothing will ever change in the United States, as long as they continue to believe that they are superior to everyone else, and the example of others cannot teach Americans anything.
I don't know what exactly will happen in the French elections next month, or even in the American elections later this year. But I do know that, despite my complaints in this post, I do intend to participate. No, I did not vote for either Sarkozy or Hollande, although I will have to choose between the two in the second round, which I fully intend to participate in. Since there is no option of a real 1st round here in the United States, I can guarantee that I will not be voting for either major party in the elections here later on. Some people would claim that I am throwing away my vote. I have heard that many times. But I myself wonder how they think that they themselves are not throwing away their vote when they are choosing the same old same old, time and time again, and how perplexed they are when there never seems to be a viable other option. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Movie Review: Alexander (2004)

So, yes, this movie is not exactly new. It came out in 2004, and right now, it is obviously 2012. I have had eight years to see this movie, and yet never actually did until just recently. But it was enough to leave an impression.
Let me say outright, I try and be careful with such movies that purport to be based upon history. As a history major, it is hard for me to accept that people can take such liberties with what happened, and bend it whichever way that they want to, making it instead what they want it to be, or making it mere entertainment.
That said, it is also interesting, admittedly. It has an amazing, and star-studded cast that includes Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, Val Kilmer, and the star, Colin Farrell. They are all capable actors, and delivered fairly strongly in their various roles. Farrell may have been a bit over the top in his dramaticism, yet he took a big risk with this role, and so should be given credit. Some other big-time actors specifically declined this role, due to some frontal nudity (very little of it) and some scenes  of homosexuality, which while increasingly accepted among major movies and actors, was still a bit of a risk for a sex figure.
I rather enjoyed visiting ancient Greece/Macedonia on the big screen – at least according to Oliver Stone, that is. The fictional Alexander, played by Colin Farrell, was almost a sex symbol who lived a wild and dramatic life, and at least in this particular movie, seemed to prefer and love men over women. Farrell plays his role well, although one wonders if the real life Alexander was anywhere near as dramatic as Farrell's depiction in this movie.
Angelina Jolie was a bit over the top in her deviousness, as well, matching Farrell's over the top drama. Val Kilmer was quite decent in his role as King Phillip II, the father of Alexander, and his predecessor to the throne.
As usual, Anthony Hopkins delivers strongly in his role, which was a more or less reduced one of a general, Ptolemy, who fought alongside Alexander on his campaigns, and is shown essentially doing dictation that focuses on Alexander's life and times, and the glorious campaigns and surprising contradictions that he brings to light. Oliver Stone gives himself an out in the movie vis-à-vis any potential historical accuracies, when Hopkins' character, the older version of Ptolemy, says towards the end of the movie to throw away this story, and not to allow the great Alexander to be remembered in this light.
On paper, the list of accomplishments, if you will, of the real life Alexander were considerable. He ascended to the Macedonian throne, his father had created the League of Corninth, in which member states agreed not to fight amongst one another. This alliance was deemed a triumph, and thus allowed Alexander's father, King Phillip II, to wage the war that Alexander would eventually take over and gain immortality with. Alexander was never defeated on the battlefield, and essentially built an empire that stretched from Macedonia in eastern Europe, through the Middle East and Persia, and all the way to parts of India. At the time, it was almost the entire known world that he had managed to conquer. With all of the imagery and epic mythology of ancient Greece, Alexander is a leader who seems to stand on mythical ground. That he essentially marched through the known world, taking over one land after another and winning one battle after another, makes him perhaps the most ideal historical political figure in Greek history to focus such a movie on.
Plus, the drama that is known of his personal life does indeed make for an interesting tale in history, and so it is not surprising
Whether riddled with historical inaccuracies or not, it is, in the end, just a movie, and meant to be entertaining. It succeeds in this, as well as in focusing on an important and memorable chapter in history, when one man came as close as anyone had gotten, or perhaps even would get, to conquering the world. It also offers a glimpse of the ancient Greek world in a different light than what is often offered. This is a very colorful film, and thus we can better imagine the ancient Greek world in all of it's splendor, rather than mere white washed architecture, crumbling ruins of palaces and temples that once were, or through marble statues of white, and perhaps some vases an artifacts, often illustrating some epic events in ancient Greek mythology.
Here is an interpretation of Greece that offers a glimpse into it's richness of color on an everyday level. It delves into some of the finer aspects of Greco culture, such as it's famous mythology, but it also briefly hints at some of the smaller, more puzzling and perhaps troubling aspects, such as the tendency towards taking sexual advantage over young men.
It also documents the actual battles and victories of Alexander on the field, and tries to convey his military genius, the different approach and tactics that he took, and his relative fearlessness.
A movie that still felt new to me, although it is now eight years old, and a movie that, having seen it now, I wonder why it took me so long to finally make the time or effort to see it. Not a movie for historical accuracy necessarily, but it has some historical relevance, and is nonetheless undeniably entertaining. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five"

We all have heard about how terrible war is. We all know and understand, at least in theory, that it is nothing to be trifled with, and that the worst, the very worst and ugliest chapters in human history have always been attached to war, because war permits things that could never happen under more normal times.
There are many ways that an author can write an anti-war novel, and many of them have come to attain the status of classics. War is something that humanity always seems to engage in, and the level of destructiveness has just gone up and up and up as we improved our technological capacity. What had once been limited and regional wars became unlimited “total” wars on a global level. In the most recent global war, there were two atomic bombs dropped in Japan that horrified the world. Forgotten, or at least in the shadow, of all of that destruction that marked the true beginning of the “Atomic Age”, were the firebombings in Japan and Germany that actually killed more people than either of the two more famous bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Kurt Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Germany during the single biggest overnight mass killing, and he tried to take a different approach to war than the popular portrayals of war that was shown in movies and television at the time. The wife of a friend took exception to what she assumed was going to be another war book that glorified the macho male role of the war, so Vonnegut promised to call the book “The Children's Crusade”, to show that most of those fighting on both sides were basically just boys. He wrote about being a prisoner of war in Dresden on the night when it was firebombed by the Allies. Dresden was an “open city”, meaning it had no military value, posing no military threat. So it had been largely left alone throughout the war. Yet, in one February night in 1945, when it was clear that Germany was close to collapsing in defeat, Dresden was bombed like no other city had been bombed before. Statistically, it ended up being the single biggest overnight massacre in history.
Vonnegut himself survived because he was being held as a prisoner of war, and so they were by slaughterhouses (his was Slaughterhouse-5, which is where the book gets it's name from) that had underground storage shelters. It was one of the few areas that actually managed to survive the bombing. The rest of the city was completely decimated.
The prisoners of war had survived, and they were utilized in the clean up effort, as much to clean up the mess that their fellow Allies had caused – much like the Allies would force Germans to visit the death camps – as to be helpful and pick up bodies and begin the clean up process. In the process of that, one American soldier was caught with some personal belongings from dead Germans that he picked up, and was thus summarily executed. The irony of that captured Kurt Vonnegut, and so he added that in the book.
In fact, much of the book is likely quite autobiographical, although of course, he also had to make it different.
The main character of the book is Billy Pilgrim, and his plight is a strange one. He has, as Vonnegut says, become “unstuck in time”. So one moment, he is giving a speech presentation before a crowded room of people, the next he is back in Germany , being taken prisoner following his capture during the Battle of the Bulge, and then he is a little boy being thrown into a swimming pool and almost drowning. Next, he is at his home, with a wife and kid and a life that he has built in the post-war years.
            It is funny how much you forget about when you reread a book that you have not read in a long time. Such was the case with both Slaughterhouse-Five and Johnny Got His Gun, both of which I had assumed that I had read well, but which, as it turns out, I had to questions this time around, since there was either so much that I had missed, or simply could not remember.
Slaughterhouse-Five was Kurt Vonnegut's breakout book based upon his experiences as a prisoner of war in Germany, posted in Dresden when the city was firebombed, thus making him one of the few survivors of what was, ultimately, the greatest overnight massacre in European history.
Of course, it would not be a Vonnegut novel if it was not a little bit stranger than that, and so there is some time travel in there, and Vonnegut keeps you guessing as to whether this really is a form of time travel, where the main character, Billy Pilgrim, gets "unstuck in time", or whether all of this is merely in his head, and there might not be something wrong with him.
This is an anti-war novel, and Vonnegut is strongly effective in his humanist language. He vividly describes the feeling of being underneath Dresden on the night of the infamous bombing, and how strangely alien the landscape of the previously enchanted city looked like otherwise. He was quite taken with the beauty of the city prior to it's destruction. But when he visited it decades later, he claimed that it lacked character, so new was the architecture and all else.  Dresden had been an "open city" of no real military value throughout the Second World War, and thus had been spared the relentless bombing that many other German cities had to endure. The sirens would sound, but it had become a routine for the people of Dresden, who knew that these were false alarms. But all of that changed one night in February of 1945, when the outcome of the war was largely determined already. Dresden was firebombed, and well over 130,000 people were killed overnight. The fire that took over the city was so powerful and took up so much oxygen, that those who had not been burned by it were deprived of the oxygen required to breathe. Hardly anyone survived.
Obviously, this is not a war novel in the traditional sense. In fact, the full title of the book is "Slaughterhouse –Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty Dance With Death" is meant to evoke the truth that the soldiers on both sides were really just children yet. As monumental as the events were, and as much as they changed our world and our maps, the actual combatants were fresh-faced youth, predominately. This is not a macho war novel, and John Wayne would not be suitable in a movie version of this work to portray the soldier depicted in this story.
Vonnegut just takes a different approach. At one point, Billy Pilgrim is at home, watching a video of a war movie, and he watches it several times through. He watches it to the end, and then rewinds the tape, and watches the war unfold backwards. Watches the destruction and death reverse themselves, watches all-consuming fires suddenly sucked up, and a peaceful landscape prevails. He watches women in factories "touchingly" taking apart weapons. Again, it is a different kind of a war novel. One that nobody but Vonnegut could have written. It seems such a simple idea when you read it, but nobody else thought to write such a "war novel" prior to Vonnegut.
Famously, this work immortalized the words, "So it goes.", which the author uses repeatedly, to strong effect. This is a literary device that, when overdone or misused, can grow tiresome or very repetitive. Yet, Vonnegut is able to make it work, and to strong effect, systematically punctuating death and suffering with these three words. It is unconventional, yes. But if anything, it enhances the work.
This work also differs from many macho-minded war novels and movies and stories by not automatically portraying good guys and bad guys. Germans are not viewed as evil, and Americans are not systematically viewed as good. They are all systematically viewed as all-too human, soldiers and civilians alike, and that is what makes the story of the burning down of Dresden all the more tragic. These are real people that the reader can surely identify with, even granting the reality of distance and time and circumstances and nationalities. Portrayed are actually ordinary, everyday people caught up in a whirlwind not of their own creation. Yet they pay the price anyway. So it goes…

Friday, April 20, 2012

Movie Review: "Blue Like Jazz"

Donald Miller wrote a book of the same name, about his experiences as a Southern Baptist from Texas who loses his faith and then runs off to a radically different setting at Reed University in the Pacific Northwest. His father, who has fallen outside of the fundamentalist Christian faith circle, has enrolled him in a free-thinking university, and urges Don not just to settle for the Southern Baptist university that he has been planning to attend. When Don finds himself and his faith in complete crisis, he quite rashly decides to go ahead to the university of his father's choice.
It takes a breaking point, and it comes early in the movie, when he is about to set forth on a new life. The local youth pastor forces Don to wear a traditional Roman warrior costume, to reinforce his faith, knowing some will laugh, but that he will proudly remain a Southern Baptist. Then, there is a piñata in the shape of a cross that descends from above, and Don is given a good whack at it. The children down below are showered with goodies from the cross, obviously symbolic. But when Don finds out that his mom and this same youth pastor, who is married, are having an affair together, Don reaches his breaking point, and this serves as the catalyst for his trek to a whole new world and way of thinking.
Donald first shows his ability to open up his previously narrow world by truly listening, for the first time, to his dad's old records, which represent subversive elements of music. Perhaps jazz might seem surprising to some here, given the legendary excesses and protests of rock n' roll, but jazz remains viewed as "dangerous" and "subversive" by many, and that was the traditional view, as well. So, it makes sense.
Yet, that will seem mild compared to what Don is eventually exposed to. He meets "The Pope", a viciously anti-faithful figure who mocks the Church and the faith of believers relentlessly. There is a lesbian who Don quickly befriends, and who challenges Don's own notions of traditional gender roles. There is a Russian who, no matter what Don does, despises him. Then there is the girl who represents faith itself, Penney. She seems to continually attract Don, yet they go back and forth. Her faith is a bit different, a bit more subtle, and literally a prettier and kinder faith, than the one that Don has grown up under.
That the unquestioned faith of evangelists is a trap, in essence, and perhaps best represents the failings and contradictions of narrow-minded faith, as is often the stereotype, particularly for the South, and most especially for Texas, the land of the "faithful" such as George W. Bush and Rick Perry.
Ultimately, Don chooses faith, but a different kind of faith. His book is often seen as one of the catalysts for the "Emergent Church" movement, a faith that breaks out of the traditionally close-minded approach of strict fire and brimstone, intolerant version of  Christianity for which the South, in particular, has become famous.
This movie is one of increasingly many attempts to show that Christianity can be something different, can be beautiful, but that it tends to be more of an individual thing, in this case. It cannot be represented in automatic like-mindedness, or rather close-mindedness. It is not best suited for mega-churches, and has little place in the political forum, where the fire and brimstone versions of faith seem to make appearances time and again.
Ultimately, this movie does not really show the alternative as it does criticize the faith that Don belonged to. Yet, there are definitely some very interesting and provocative discussions and pointed questions, and humor runs throughout the movie, quite effectively. It is a good movie worth seeing, if one is so inclined. But remember, this is not a feel good movie, or a traditional Christian movie, by any stretch. It is designed to challenge and poke fun provocatively, and comes recommended, but with the realization that it is not for everyone.