When drug companies knowingly poison people in order to make a profit and energy companies pollute drinking water in order to save money, these are not really environmental issues. They’re criminal justice issues. Such behavior is not a matter of debate; any sane person would object – wholeheartedly – to this kind of corporate malfeasance. Because there’s no debate there is no political discussion, and because there’s no political discussion there’s no broad theory of how society works and what exactly The East opposes. The only political arguments the movie allows are methodological – is it acceptable to threaten the lives of those who threaten others’? That’s a legitimately complicated question, but less so here because it’s so decontextualized. We have no idea what The East think (other than that corporations are often corrupt and there should probably be a revolution of some kind, although revolution ends up being a minority view even among the radicals), and so we can’t really understand the stakes, or the urgency, or the vision of an alternative. The East’s radicalism is an empty frame; we know its shape but we don’t know what it contains.
[Spoiler Alert: There’s a lot of description of the movie here; if you haven’t watched it yet, you might not want to read this]
Zero Dark Thirty opens with audio clips of emergency calls from September 11th, 2001. The screen is black. The calls are harrowing. The movie then jumps ahead several years and puts us in a CIA “black site,” where a prisoner is being tortured. An agent named Dan is doing most of the torturing, and a novice agent named Maya is watching.
It’s all very matter-of-fact. Dan says, repeatedly, “You lie to me, I hurt you.” And he does. Maya is unnerved at first, and clearly uncomfortable, but she gets over it. When she is finally – briefly – left alone with the prisoner, he tells her, “Your friend is an animal. Please help me.” She just stares blankly and tells him to help himself by telling the truth. After that she shows no compunction about torture in her obsessive hunt for Osama bin Laden. No one in this film does, really. Nor do they justify their participation in torture with long-winded speeches about fighting for democracy, or breaking a few eggs, or ends and means, or truths that you can’t handle. This is not an Aaron Sorkin movie.
Apparently, though, many of Zero Dark Thirty’s critics would prefer an Aaron Sorkin movie. Dan Froomkin wants to know why “nobody in the movie even once expresses any doubt about torture or its efficacy,” and notes the “missed opportunity to discuss the other disturbing elements of the movie,” such as the raid on Bin Laden’s compound in which the SEALs are shown killing unarmed civilians. Jane Mayer, at the New Yorker, similarly laments the lack of “a single scene in which torture is questioned.”
I understand the basic complaint here: difficult subjects call for some sort of commentary. I think it’s odd, for instance, to make a movie set against the backdrop of hydraulic fracturing without making any real comment on the continuing controversy. But “fracking” is little more than a plot device in Promised Land, whereas torture is central to Zero Dark Thirty. I would agree with the film’s critics if Zero Dark Thirty included only a brief, sterilized torture scene that yielded information but no sense of gravity. But that’s not the case. Zero Dark Thirtyspends roughly a fifth of its screentime depicting torture. And it’s rough: the tortured prisoner is strung up for hours; is deprived of sleep for days; is stuffed inside a small box; is stripped nearly naked and led along the floor in a dog collar; and is waterboarded. And this extended sequence, the film makes clear, is just one example of many; Maya searches for clues through stacks of discs on her desk, many of them recording tortured confessions. Torture is not simply an element of the story that goes unaddressed; it is a pivot on which the movie rotates.
The criticism of the film comes from several angles. One is the complaint that the film plays fast and loose with the facts, most consequentially in showing evidence gained from torture playing a key role in locating Osama Bin Laden. Not only journalists but United States Senators have made this point. This is an important debate. On the one hand, the film depicts torture as failing in several instances and shows agents themselves questioning torture’s utility (although not its morality). And the CIA (the real CIA) has essentially admitted that torture did play a small role in the search for bin Laden. On the other hand, as Zero Dark Thirty’s critics have repeatedly pointed out, the movie shows key information arising from torture sessions – if not directly then indirectly – and implies at several points that torture leads to revelation. It’s difficult – but important – to weigh the movie’s depiction of torture as instrumental in finding Osama bin Laden against its focus on torture as central to American operations, a focus that should make audiences very uncomfortable.
Another angle of criticism – more strident, and less justified – is that the film’s style and tone legitimize torture. Presumably, that claim is what led several members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, including Martin Sheen, to call for a boycott. Leading the charge against Zero Dark Thirty from this particular angle is Glenn Greenwald who calls it a “torture-glorifying film.” Greenwald’s argument comes down to what he claims is a simple equation: “There is zero doubt…that the standard viewer will get the message loud and clear: we found and killed bin Laden because we tortured The Terrorists,” he writes. Because the killing of bin Laden is considered a fundamentally good moment in U.S. foreign policy, anything that produced that moment will be considered fundamentally good as well. “For that reason, to depict X as valuable in enabling the killing of bin Laden is – by definition – to glorify X.”
That’s a pretty mechanistic understanding of movies, not to mention popular opinion, an understanding which leaves no room for interpretation or subjectivity. It’s worth noting, then, that the New York Times’s Frank Bruni disapproves of the film’s opening because torture “immediately follows a bone-chilling, audio-only prologue of the voices of terrified Americans trapped in the towering inferno of the World Trade Center. It’s set up as payback.” For Bruni, the audio clips are played to legitimize the torture that follows. Alex Gibney, on the other hand, writes: “For me, along with the very ending, this was one of the best moments in the film. The juxtaposition of the agony of 9/11 with the payback that followed…perfectly captured a bitter poetic truth about how members of the Bush Administration responded to tragedy.”
Both of these writers criticize Zero Dark Thirty for many of the same reasons that Greenwald does, but they have divergent understandings of what the film’s first five minutes mean. Despite Greenwald’s mathematical claims about the film’s unambiguous meaning, ambiguity is what makes this film work.
Greenwald’s imposition of his own black-and-white view onto a movie that is mostly grey becomes clearest when he describes the CIA agents that are at the center of the story. He calls Maya – played by Jessica Chastain – a “pure, saintly heroine,” and all of the other American characters “heroic, noble, self-sacrificing crusaders devoted to stopping The Terrorists.” The film overall is “the ultimate hagiography” of the CIA. David Clennon, one of the Academy members calling for a boycott, similarly says that the film “makes heroes of Americans who commit the crime of torture.”
It’s hard to imagine a greater misreading of Zero Dark Thirty. Maya is not pure and saintly in any sense. Her character is a cipher; we learn nothing about her backstory, about her family, about her relationships beyond one agency friendship, about her motivation for what she is doing. We don’t even know her last name. She is a nearly robotic agent, fixated on killing bin Laden and apparently interested in nothing else. The other agents and personnel are, if anything, less likable. Maya’s station chief seems to be concerned most of all with his career. One of his supervisors operates largely according to political pressure, and at one point comes into a room full of agents, bangs his fist on the table, and yells, “Find me somebody to kill!” Other than Navy SEAL Team Six (more on them later), there are almost no characters who demonstrate genuine personality, let alone heroism. There is no flag-waving, no trumpet-playing, no fireworks display in Zero Dark Thirty. The final raid is carried out with no soundtrack. When bin Laden is finally killed, it happens so fast that you don’t realize it for several seconds. And the final scene is of Maya alone in an airplane, with no pomp and circumstance and little sense of wrongs having been righted.
The most off-base statement that Greenwald makes, however, is the following:
Other than the last scene in which the bin Laden house is raided, all of the hard-core, bloody violence is carried out by Muslims, with Americans as the victims.
Yes, except for the thirty minutes of torture that open the film, torture carried out by Americans against a Muslim prisoner. In fact, the movie is bookended by scenes of American violence: the opening torture sequence and the final raid by the Navy SEALs. Those SEALs are at times a little too casual and gung ho for me, in a way that would fit better in a Schwarzenegger flick, but when the final raid is conducted it is done seriously, and with considerable collateral damage. The SEALs shoot and kill several unarmed civilians, and show only fleeting concern that they have done so.
Greenwald’s omission of CIA torture from his description of who perpetrates the violence in Zero Dark Thirty is telling, because it is that fact – American responsibility for many of the most troubling actions depicted in the film – that makes Zero Dark Thirty far more complicated than Greenwald allows.
The fact that Zero Dark Thirty puts the implements of torture firmly in American hands points to a larger, more important aspect of the debate this film inspires. Far more important than the question of whether torture works or not is the question of whether, regardless of torture’s utility, the United States should use brutal interrogation methods. The strong argument against torture is that it is immoral in any situation, independent of the results. I think this is probably the position of most critics who rely on the weaker argument – that torture never works. Presumably if it were shown that a program of torture, widespread enough to identify patterns and trends in coerced information, actually did produce reliable results, most critics would not simply say, “Well, in that case….” They would remain morally opposed to torture, because it is immoral on any terms.
If the fundamental immorality of torture is at the center of the discussion, then Zero Dark Thirty becomes a movie that asks whether the rewards of hunting and killing bin Laden were worth the costs. It doesn’t ask this question explicitly at any point, but I think it does implicitly. The ending of the movie, which even Alex Gibney likes so much, is as ambivalent as the ending of The Graduate. (Watch the movie before you dismiss that comparison). In both films, it’s not at all clear what the protagonist is thinking and whether the realization of a long-sought goal is satisfying or empty.
That is the sort of moral terrain that Zero Dark Thirty maps. It is far more uneven than the flat topography that Greenwald describes. There are plenty of reasonable criticisms to make of this movie, but simply calling it “pro-torture” sidelines the difficult question that Zero Dark Thirty suggests: how far are we willing to go in prosecuting the “war on terror,” and at what cost?
Recently, Vulture writer Claude Brodesser-Akner wrote an article posing a terrifying question: “Can the Romantic Comedy Be Saved?” First, who knew the romantic comedy was in peril, and second, why does he spend fifty percent of his article questioning studio executives? In this day and age studio execs are mostly business school graduates, not Creatives who understand the subtle nuance of the Rom-Com Genre. He could have asked a bona fide Romantic Comedy Expert. What makes someone a Romantic Comedy Expert, as opposed to, say, a fan of romantic comedies? I will tell you. An expert never uses the term “chick flick,” as it disparages the genre and is derogatory. She has seen 27 Dresses no fewer than 27 times because it feels like her duty to watch it every time it comes on TBS (and because, James Marsden…duh). An expert hates Hugh Grant and Gerard Butler but loves Colin Firth and believes Tom Hanks is some type of deity. She adores Sleepless in Seattle, tolerates Pretty Woman and knows Larry Crowne is indefensible. So I offer you an expert response to how we as a country can come together and save romantic comedies.
R.I.P. Nora Ephron
Brodesser-Akner cites failing box office numbers and diminishing audiences for the reason why romantic comedies are in peril. The studio executives spend quite a bit of time blaming you, the audience, as well as unwilling actresses. But to get to the heart of what is really wrong with the modern day romantic comedy, we need to go to the late 1980s/early 1990s — The Golden Age of Rom-Com — and look at the Queen of the genre, the late Nora Ephron.
Nora Ephron is to the romantic comedy as John Hughes is to coming-of-age movies. Invariably, when you think of romantic comedies, you’re thinking of one of Ephron’s most famous films: Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally or You’ve Got Mail. Ephron had a knack for writing about the magic of falling in love, the fear that comes with being vulnerable and the clumsiness of the beginning of relationships. Instead of being slick and sexy, her characters often said the wrong things and tripped on their words: they were human. She captured all of the nuances that modern day rom-coms miss. Now characters meet and sleep with each other within twenty minutes of the opening credits and fall instantly in love. Before the first act has concluded they have all this investment, these impossibly high stakes. Then like clockwork, forty minutes before the film ends it all falls apart, but comes back around just in time for boy to chase girl through the streets of Big City A and fix everything. It rings false, yet studio execs keep shoving that same formula at us with different packaging. That is why Ephron’s films and one or two of Gary Marshall’s remain the most beloved of romantic comedies — and why there hasn’t been a truly great romantic comedy since 1998, the year You’ve Got Mail was released.
Indie Is Doing It Right
Though I remain the genre’s biggest fan, it’s a sad fact that the romantic comedy has lost imagination. Two people meeting several times in their lives before they realize they’re meant to be together — that’s creative. A recently widowed father set up by his son on a radio show to meet his soul mate in the style of An Affair to Remember — that’s genius! What isn’t genius is the plot device of two men fighting over the same woman. That same premise has been repackaged in many ways. We loved it most as Bridget Jones’ Diary but really have to draw the line at when it comes to spy vs. spy in This Means War. Studio romantic comedies have started playing to the lowest common denominator. They’ve shamefully bought into the premise that the genre is little more than a date movie and they do not need to try very hard to entertain. They could stand to take a cue from independent filmmakers who are making beautiful forays into the romantic comedy world. (In indie film, they’re called “relationship films.”) Indie filmmakers have the imagination to make a story about a divorce romantic, funny and heartbreaking (Celeste and Jesse Forever). They have the creativity to create a world where a novelist accidentally writes his dream girlfriend “to life” and then must deal with the consequences (Ruby Sparks). I don’t want to say that indie filmmakers are better than studio executives at making solid stories to which people can relate, but they are.
In Living Color
One thing can go the furthest to save The Romantic Comedy from a fate worse than The American Western: Studio executives, producers and casting directors must to begin to acknowledge that people of color have relationships and fall in love. I understand that this is a novel concept as Tyler Perry’s on-going string of misogynistic portrayals of African American women in films like Why Did I Get Married portrays them as nagging, cold, career focused bitches. And we’re hard pressed to find evidence in any film that Latinos or Asians ever fall in love except for maybe Jennifer Lopez, but she’s somehow always cast as an Italian woman. But consider this: The most successful romantic comedy last year was Think Like a Man, which brought in $33 million its first weekend. The film has a predominately African American cast but is technically multi-ethnic. An unnamed studio executive in Brodesser-Akner’s piece dismisses the numbers out of hand because it “never truly broke out beyond its predominantly African-American target audience.” This is grossly inaccurate. Think Like a Man only opened in 2000 theaters its opening weekend. The film brought in $91 million dollars at the box office domestically and the audience breakdown was 37% males and 63% females; 38% were under 30; and 62% were 30 and over, according to market research firm CinemaScore. By these numbers, only black audiences saw Think in the same way that only black people voted for Obama.
Only in Hollywood is segregation still legal. Studio executives would be wise to start diversifying their casts when it comes to romantic comedies, and I don’t mean token characters. I mean real people with real roles. Look what it’s done for television. Bonus points if you have an interracial couple. Double bonus if you stop calling films with predominantly African American casts “urban.”
Save the romantic comedy by making smart films about real people in real relationships with a couple of laughs in between. Until you can figure it out, I’ll still be watching — but I’m probably the only one.
It has been years since history and Hollywood have had as much to say to each other – at least publicly – as they have in the last few weeks with the release and reception of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Historical movies are always closely scrutinized by scholars, regardless of the topic; if someone ever finds reason to make a biopic of Calvin Coolidge – a president famous only for being dull – we’ll hear from the Coolidge experts. Spielberg’s movie on the other hand is almost designed to raise the collective antennae of all American historians: it takes place during the most-written-about event in U.S. history, depicts the most beloved president, and concerns the most difficult topic in the American past.
There are two main criticisms of Lincoln, one more widely discussed than the other. The primary criticism, articulated by Kate Masur in The New York Times, Aaron Bady at Jacobin, and Cory Robin on his own blog, is that Lincoln pays little or no attention to black agency – or black people, really – in depicting the passage of the 13th Amendment. All three writers point to the missing story of how African Americans were pivotal in putting slavery at the center of the Civil War and in putting the end of slavery at the center of Washington politics, a story that scholars have been piecing together and relating for decades. This critique is not just an important one; it is the important one in terms of the distance between Lincoln and the scholarly interpretation of the events the movie depicts. Spielberg’s film makes almost no effort to show African American participation in the long struggle to end slavery, despite the centrality of that fact in recent historiography on the Civil War period.
The critique is not without its own critics, though, summarized nicely in a roundtable discussion at The Atlantic organized by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The debate here is one of expectations rather than facts; Coates and New York Times film critic A.O. Scott don’t disagree with Masur but question whether she’s asking for too much from Hollywood. Given the constraints of big-budget movie making and history-as-entertainment, they suggest, the little ways in which Lincoln improves on earlier films about the Civil War era are worth celebrating. We’re moving slowly, but in the right direction, and we ought to appreciate that.
“Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good,” in other words. And that aphorism-for-our-times not only applies to the critical reception of Lincoln, but to the story that Lincoln tries to tell. Lincoln writer Tony Kushner has, in fact, made the explicit comparison of the story of the thirteenth amendment’s passage to the first Barack Obama administration. The film shows Lincoln as the great compromiser of Civil War and Reconstruction period, steering a course between the rock of House Democrats and the hard place of radical Republicans. The amendment runs the gauntlet of the House of Representatives only because the most staunch advocates of racial equality sacrifice principle to pragmatism. Radicalism is avoided; moderation is rewarded.
This is the second criticism of Lincoln: that it is an unapologetic argument for the prudence of middle-of-the-road politics over the recklessness of radical change, for seeking compromise over sticking to principle, for the supposedly “serious” politics of the people in power over the naïve demands of the people out of it. Aaron Bady lays the case out better than anyone, and it’s hard to argue with, given – as Bady points out – Kushner’s antiquated and reactionary views about Reconstruction.
I think Bady’s right, and that his criticisms are crucial. But I also think that his take is not the only way to view Lincoln, and that he overstates his critique. Movies are not made by one person, and regardless of what Kushner’s or Spielberg’s particular intentions were it’s not only possible to read the movie in a different way but hard not to. Some of the things Bady writes off as incidental are what make Lincoln more nuanced than he allows. Thaddeus Stevens, for instance, the radical foil to Lincoln’s fence-sitting, is for Bady saved from being a complete caricature “only because [Tommy] Lee Jones brings too much gravitas to the part.” This was not likely an accident; no filmmaker makes casting decisions lightly, much less with someone like Jones, the only actor in the film other than Sally Field with the star power and charisma to match Day-Lewis’s (Hal Holbrook barely gets any screen time). But it would be hard to call Stevens a caricature even if he were played by some frumpy unknown from central casting, given that the movie pays him more close attention and allows him more depth than any other character not named “Lincoln.”
Bady accuses the film of reproducing “the usual hagiography of Lincoln.” That also seems like an odd charge. Yes, Lincoln is larger-than-life and in the spotlight the entire time, and given the usual Spielberg treatment. But Lincoln is also a president who admits to stretching the law beyond its limits in order to get what he wants; who seriously considers prolonging the war and letting thousands more die in order to give his legislation a better chance of passing; who has his secretary of state twist arms and dangle political favors in exchange for votes; and who at one point, fed up with the debate among his cabinet members, stands up imperiously and yells “I am clothed in immense power,” and so shut up and do what I say. This is all to say nothing of the way the president treats his family, which is far from flattering.
Bady is especially concerned, I think, with pulling back the curtain to show what the Great Oz is up to. But the intent of the filmmakers does not always determine the meaning of a film, and that is especially true here. If Spielberg’s and Kushner’s intention was to make a film that champions moderation and compromise over principle, Lincoln becomes all the more interesting as a movie that demonstrates just how difficult it is to make that argument convincingly. There are probably few movies more at odds with their own score; anybody paying attention will find it jarring to listen to John Williams’s triumphal crescendo at the moment that Stevens declares that he does not, in fact, believe all people are equal. If Spielberg honestly intended the moment to be a heroic one, he failed to make it so, and that failure leaves the audience with conflicted sentiments about the democratic process.
That’s Stevens’s most cynical moment, but not his only one. My personal favorite is the private conversation between the congressman and Lincoln, in which the president makes the standard “But what the people want…” argument, and Stevens replies that he doesn’t actually give a shit about “the people.” Lincoln does not object. He can’t – he has already tried to bargain for the support of several constituents and hired political operatives to buy off House votes. The exchange is actually sort of quaint; one assumes that congresspeople today never actually bring up “the people” in serious conversation unless the cameras are rolling.
If this is all a justification for moderation and for the Obama Administration, it’s one that Barack Obama would probably not be thrilled about. The movie portrays Washington , D.C. as largely divorced from the electorate, let alone the non-voting public; as a place that subordinates principle to cold, political calculations; and as a world where rules exist only for those without the power to break them. What’s so odd about the debate over Lincoln is that, in at least one sense, its critics want a more triumphal tale than the movie is willing to give: Masur, Robin, and Bady would like to hear more about how Washington, D.C. responded to the influence of the most marginalized Americans. That is a profoundly important story, but it’s not the one that Lincoln – whether by design or by accident – set out to tell.
The Bechdel Test, sometimes called the Mo Movie Measure or Bechdel Rule, is a simple test to determine if a movie is free from gender bias. It names the following three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man. While not the first web zine to take on the meme, Dog Park is the first to have me as the guide!
It is almost unfair to Bechdel Test Les Miserables. The Bechdel test is about exposing the lack of strong women in cinema and calling filmmakers to the mat for not writing women as three dimensional characters, but as fluff or filler screeching across screen, stalking men, fighting for a man’s attention and not really having lives of their own. A great case in point is the 1939 film The Women, starring Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer and boasts an all female cast. The film spends nearly two hours talking about nothing but men. I’m not joking. If you think I’m lying, they astonishingly made a remake in 2008 with Eva Mendes and Meg Ryan that falls into the same horrible trap of being a movie starring women that is about men. So the Bechdel test is not without merit at working to keep Hollywood in check. But Les Miserables is the story of three incredible women and that Valjean guy, why run the Bechdel on it? Because it’s the most recent film I’ve seen, okay? Spoilers ahead, proceed with caution.
Les Mis, originally a novel by Victor Hugo, then a Broadway Musical composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg; and now an epic film directed by Tom Hooper, begins in France in 1815 and spans nearly 20 years. The film stars Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfriend, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen. There are even Black extras, you guys! The plot is too long to go into here, so read the synopsis. There is amazing singing, brilliant performances by Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks who plays Éponine, comic relief provided by hyphenates with no hyphens — Bonham Carter and Baron Cohen — and unintentional laughter by the horrible singing of Russell Crowe. A story of “the people,” revolution, love (requited unrequited) and redemption, you would have to be some type of uber conservative Republican not to want to see this film. But this blog is not Gushing over Les Mis, it is Bechdel Testing Les Mis. So let’s do that.
Fantine, portrayed by Anne Hathaway, is the story’s badass. She is written as a strong woman working as hard as she can to provide for her daughter who is being cared for by two innkeepers in another town. She works in a factory owned by Jean Valjean (Jackman), but soon loses her job and is turned onto the street to make money in the oldest profession. The good women at Bitch Flicks raised a question that bothered me during this entire film. Though Anne was impressive as Fantine, I couldn’t figure out why this woman needed to be so waiflike. Hathaway dieted down to almost nothing to portray a woman who needed to maintain her strength to work in a factory to provide for her child. Her thinness made an ordinarily strong character seem fairly weak and victim-like, save the scene when she delivers the song that will win her an Academy Award. But it did make me wonder how a woman so frail got strength to kick the crap out of a man attempting to assault her on the street.
The scene in which Fantine is slut-shamed by her horrific co-workers is one of the scenes with the most women in the film. This is a powerful scene for every woman involved. Fantine is put into a difficult position, needing to fight for her right to work, just as the other women are fighting for their right to be horrible and selfish. As a chorus they move the story forward and give us much needed background information.
You will spend quite a bit of time rooting the lovelorn Éponine and she will break your heart. I want to call her a feminist, but I realize that 98% of her actions are motivated by her obsession with a man, which automatically tosses her out of the feminist category and almost derails Les Mis’ Bechdel standing. But let’s cut her some slack, even cool girls get the blues. She is brave, independent, courageous and smart. Because of her motivations, she never has a conversation with another woman. Her mother, Mme Thénardier, played by Helena Bonham Carter, talks at her, and she has several near misses with Cosette, her childhood friend and story counterpart.
A word about Cosette. Amanda Seyfried has a lovely voice and I’m sure that she is a nice enough person, but Cosette is everything that is wrong with the world. She is not to be trusted. We hate Cosette and she is not strong, she is weak and fluttery and makes us want to throw up. Cosette speaks to the Mme Thénardier character about fetching a pail of water.
1. It has to have at least two women in it: Les Miserables has four supporting women and features a bevy of women in featured choral roles.
2. Who talk to each other: These women talk to each other often. They sing and talk. It’s delightful.
3. About something besides a man: Only the lovelorn Éponine sings about a man, but to herself – so it’s ok.
Points for casting African American extras.
Sniffle score: 5 – Take Kleenex. If not for you for the person sobbing in the corner of the theater (it’s probably me).
While not the best performance of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables I’ve ever heard, if you aren’t moved to tears by Eddie Redmayne’s performance, there may not be hope for you.
I’ve always been the type of person that was socially conscious. I got it from my father, who got it from his parents, who most likely got it from their parents. But they weren’t activists. I was always disappointed that neither of my parents marched on Washington or took on the man by sitting at lunch counters or being Freedom Riders. I remember hearing Tom Hayden say once that there was this national misconception that people who weren’t around in the ’60s seemed to think that those ten years were just about marching and fighting and protest, but there were regular people, folks who just wanted to live their lives, just as there are today. There were people who were just working to get by. For most of my life I was socially conscious, doing what I could for others, volunteering when I could, but mostly I just wanted to live my life. Everyone that becomes “engaged” in the world of activism has a moment that pushes them into action. For me it was the time period of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard and the 1999 shootings at Columbine.
I am extremely lucky that I came of age politically in the wake of those events because I had just moved from uber conservative Indiana to Chicago to attend college with many like-minded young adults. I was able to feed off of them and a few hippies-turned-professors, and they served as mentors guiding me on my journey to becoming an angry little activist, helping me channel energy into various forms of positive expression.
That solid mentor or support group is what two boyhood friends from Midland, Texas desperately needed as they found their footing before the 2008 Republican National Convention. The mentor they found ended up costing them more than they could have imagined. Better This World takes a look at the case of David McKay (22) and Bradley Crowder (23), who are accused of domestic terrorism thanks to FBI informant and former radical leader and activist Brandon Darby. The filmmakers originally set out to follow Darby as well as Crowder and McKay but upon learning that their side would also be told, Brandon Darby dropped out of the filming process, leaving the filmmakers scrambling to put their film together without his voice. By using interview footage, radio interviews and an actor for voiceover, what they were able to do to capture his story turns out to be creative and a refreshing take on documentary narrative.
Brandon Darby is integral to the story because he serves as David and Matt’s ever important guide on their way through activism. A long time radical activist, Darby mentors them and helps them plan for the events that unfold at the 2008 RNC. He encourages them to take the actions that eventually get them both charged as terrorists and lands McKay in federal prison for four years and Crowder for two. Darby gives the guys the idea to make Molotov cocktails and tries to get them to throw them at a nearby police station. The two young men flatly refuse several times out of fear of what the repercussions of their actions might be. But Darby continues to harass the young men well into the early morning hours, pushing them to use the explosives. Neither Crowder nor McKay ever used any of the Molotov cocktails that were made. No one was killed, injured or harmed in any way. In November of this year a drunk driver was also given four years in prison for killing a jogger. That’s justice.
Some call what the FBI orchestrated with the assistance of Brandon Darby “entrapment,” others say he exposed the willingness of two would-be terrorists, I think it’s absolutely terrifying. These were kids with something important to say, looking to a mentor to help them express themselves. If you have ever been inspired to act, if you have ever wanted to fight the establishment, if you have ever seen an injustice in the world and thought, “That’s complete bullshit — we have to change that!,” then you must see this film before you become the establishment and decide that these kids got what was coming to them. Because it’s only a miracle that what happened to these two young men hasn’t happened to you.
In case you’re interested, Brandon Darby is now a regular writer for Breitbart and does not like it when people on Twitter call him a douchebag or a coward. He is also quite proud of his work as an informant.
The Bechdel Test, sometimes called the Mo Movie Measure or Bechdel Rule, is a simple test to determine if a movie is free from gender bias. It names the following three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man. While not the first web zine to take on the meme, Dog Park is the first to have me as the guide! So hold on ladies and gents, as we take our first film out for the Bechdel Test.
The Five Year Engagement is not a new film, but it is relatively new to DVD, which is how I viewed it several weeks ago. It stars a few people in Hollywood whom I happen to find very funny, among them Emily Blunt, Alison Brie, Jason Segel and Chris Pratt. Written by Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel, this film suffered what I like to call “funny film studio marketing”: Because the cast is made up primarily of comedians, the studio wanted you to believe you would be bent over howling the entire time at the shenanigans of Segel and Pratt. “Five year engagement, eh? I bet that Pratt figures out all sorts of ways to keep Segel from getting married so they can stay bachelors and go out and get tail! And then just like a woman Emily Blunt listens to her nagging sister about how to drag him down the aisle, and finally five years later, she wears him out!” That’s at least what this 30 second TV spot would seem to suggest.
What that horrible spot fails to communicate, however, is that Blunt has applied to several post-doctoral psychology programs and that after being rejected by her first choice, a school in San Francisco where they live, she gets accepted to a school in Michigan. The couple decides they will postpone their wedding and make the move. It’s a pretty fantastic flip for a romantic comedy to look at a wedding and relationship through the eyes of a couple pursuing their careers, and to show the woman’s interest prevail. Their wedding continues to be postponed as Blunt’s character is offered a position at the school in Michigan and Segel must again delay his aspirations as a chef. Their relationship deteriorates as Segel becomes increasingly unhappy as he has not only sacrificed his career, but is beginning to realize the sacrifices they’ve both made in terms of their relationship. We also see, maybe for the first time ever in a romantic comedy, a couple with real fear and insecurity surrounding commitment and marriage. Their relationship gets messy and falls apart. I like this Hollywood trend of reality in relationships. As long as the couple gets back together in the end; I’m looking at you, Celeste and Jesse.
1. It has to have at least two women in it: The Five Year Engagement stars two women and co-stars at least four to five others who are complete characters.
2. Who talk to each other: There is no shortage of woman-to-woman conversation.
3. About something besides a man: As an academic Blunt has several conversations with her female classmate, played by Mindy Kaling, about psychological tests and exams. Also Brie and Blunt talk about motherhood.
Points for casting a brown lady in a non-stereotypical role. Mindy Kaling plays a post-doctoral psychology fellow.
Sniffle score: 1.5 – while not especially difficult to do, it made me cry – though I’m not entirely sure it is supposed to.
Got a movie you think we should put through the Bechdel Test? Let us know in the comments!
In May of 1990, Earth First! organizer Judi Bari and her fellow activist Darryl Cherney were preparing for the biggest demonstration they’d ever mobilized: a convergence of thousands of eco-warriors from all over the country on an expanse of California old growth redwoods targeted by the timber industry for clear cut. They were calling the event “Redwood Summer,” after the Civil Rights Movement’s Freedom Summer of 1964.
Redwood Summer took place, but without Bari. Instead of standing on the front lines of a massive battle against the destruction of the Headwaters Forest in Humboldt County, she spent the next several months recovering from a car bomb blast that had crippled her body and nearly took her life. At the same time, she was fending off accusations from the Oakland Police and the FBI that she was an eco-terrorist responsible for her own permanent and life-changing injuries.
Cherney and Bari were both in the car when the bomb went off. They were heading out from Oakland to a concert and rally at UC Santa Cruz in Bari’s Subaru station wagon. The explosive device was hidden under the driver’s seat and had nails strapped to it to maximize its lethal potential. The blast shattered Bari’s pelvis and damaged her spinal cord. Cherney also sustained injuries, and both were sent to Oakland’s Highland Hospital, where they were summarily arrested for bombing themselves. FBI agents, who had shown up at the crime scene within minutes of the explosion, had joined the Oakland Police in hastily declaring that the evidence pointed to Bari and Cherney being eco-terrorists who were transporting explosives that they had accidentally set off.
The accusation made no sense on a number of levels. Earth First! was a non-violent movement, and Bari had personally led the charge to stop activists from employing the tactic of “tree spiking,” the only technique used by forest defenders that held real potential for physical injury to anyone other than the activists themselves. And the FBI’s factual claims ranged from dubious to outright false. Investigators claimed that the bomb had been placed in the back seat of the vehicle, in clear view; photos of the damage plainly show that it was stowed under the driver’s seat. The FBI claimed that the nails attached to the bombs, which had torn through Bari’s body, matched nails in the trunk of Bari’s car; they clearly did not. The bomb had been rigged with a motion-triggered detonator and a timer, which were set—not a likely scenario for two individuals who were neither suicidal nor stupid beyond belief.
Seven weeks later, the Alameda County District Attorney announced that there was insufficient evidence to pursue charges. But the damage to the reputations of Bari, Earth First! and the environmental movement at large had already been done. The smear campaign by local and federal law enforcement had transformed Earth First! into a menace in the public imagination, and paved the way for decades of easy conflation of environmental direct action and “eco-terrorism.”
Even after Bari and Cherney were vindicated, the FBI, which had been infiltrating and spying on Earth First! for years, did little to nothing to find the real culprits. Bari filed a civil lawsuit against the FBI and the Oakland Police Department in 1991, alleging that officers and agents knew that she and Cherney were innocent, and had arrested them as part of a misinformation campaign to discredit Earth First!. (Some believe the FBI’s complicity in the bombing went further still.) The suit was still wending its way through the courts when Bari died of breast cancer in 1997. In 2004, the FBI and the Oakland Police agreed to a combined $4 million payment to Cherney and the Bari estate to settle the suit.
Now, 22 years after the attack, the case of who bombed Judy Bari is still unsolved, and Darryl Cherney is still looking for answers. Last month, Cherney, who is on tour with a new documentary film on the subject, announced a $50,000 reward “for information leading to the identification, arrest, prosecution and incarceration of the person or persons responsible for the attempted assassination of Judi Bari by placing a bomb under the seat of her car.”
“The person who bombed us will be found,” Cherney wrote in an email for this article. “I have dedicated a portion of my life to finding those responsible. While this may offer a small piece of the puzzle, it could be a key piece that helps us recognize the bigger picture as to what is wrong with this country and, as importantly, how we can make it right. While people are dismayed that Obama is authorizing extrajudicial killings of American citizens, our case shows this is nothing new. The tragic history of the American Indian Movement, the Black Panthers and the American labor movement prove that U.S. government-sanctioned domestic assassinations has a long story that needs to be put to and end. If the $50,000 reward can bring to light the FBI’s complicity in the attempted assassination of Judi Bari, it is a small price to pay.”
If you have information pertaining to the bombing of Judi Bari, contact Cherney.
It’s that time of year again. The time of year when every blog and news site rolls out a list of holiday movies, books, CDs and recipes to enjoy with your family! But what about the Grinch? What is he supposed to do while sitting around waiting for his heart to grow two sizes — count his nose hairs? It may be that the majority of the world enjoys making merry during the holiday season, but we cannot overlook the misanthrope. There are some of us who loathe the holidays. The only thing I hate more than garish lights, jingling bells and jolly fat guy in a cheap red suit with a raggedy beard are holiday lists that end with Home Alone, A Christmas Carol and Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas. You can pretend to disagree with me, but I know I’m not alone. So I present to you a series of Holiday lists for us, the Holiday Misanthropes.
Week One: Movies.
The Diving Bell and The Butterfly (2007) - Director: Julian Schnabel
The true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby who suffers a stroke and has to live with an almost totally paralyzed body (locked-in syndrome) with the exception of his left eye. I agree this sounds awful. But you’re missing the bright side. He never has to speak to anyone ever again. Yes, sure it is very tragic and he feels trapped inside his own body, but, when he’s exhausted of everyone he merely has to close his eye, and all of those annoying people go away. Win.
The Decalogue (1988) - Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski
The Decalogue is a ten part series originally produced for Polish television. Krzysztof Kieślowski tells the story of the tenants in a housing project in 1980s Poland. Little kids drown, husbands die in comas, women are stalked and a prosecutor fails to save a possibly innocent man from dying on death row. It beautifully illustrates the uselessness of life over the course of ten hours. If you haven’t got ten hours to spare you can cheat and watch A Short Film About Love or A Short Film About Killing, but you’re only cheating yourself.
Dancer in the Dark (2000) - Director: Lars von Trier
Don’t let the fact that Dancer in the Dark is a musical turn you off. There is a pretty sad death at the end. In fact the entire film is full of sadness and squalor. Lars von Trier had the brilliant idea to cast Björk as this tiny elf who moves to the U.S. with her son. They’re pretty poor and they work in a factory with down on her luck Catherine Deneuve. Yes there is lots of singing. But it’s Danish and it’s von Trier and as I’ve promised you there is a very sad death at the end. Also you’ve seen this, right?
Tokyo Story (1953) - Director: Yasujirô Ozu
Tokyo Story tells the tale of an old couple that decides to visit their children in the city. They soon find out that their children are too busy to visit with them. The children spend time pushing them from house to house until they lose track of their parents. While I can’t really fault the kids for not wanting to be bothered with their old parents who sort of just drop in unannounced, this actually might make a misanthrope with parents a little sad. Keep a phone close to give them a call when the film is finished.
The Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969) - Director: Sydney Pollack
Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, dance marathon. Do I have to say more? Ok – so, a bunch of people participate in this dance marathon during The Great Depression to win $1500. It’s pretty nuts. But the guy running the marathon is crooked and is pretty much never going to let any of these people win. The marathon goes on for weeks. That’s right, weeks. People are dropping all over the place. Jane Fonda is amazing and grumpy as always, and Red Buttons is pretty incredible. The sad thing is, this could totally happen today.
**For the traditionalist
Just for fun, watch It’s A Wonderful Life, but turn it off 15 minutes before the end. It’s a much better movie