Monthly Archives: February 2017

The Activism Problem: When Passion Is Not Enough

The Women’s March on Washington shook me up.  I somehow felt very guilty for not attending and very glad for keeping my distance at the same time.  The issue of gender equality is one that’s very important to me, and it is a dream of mine to see the feminist movement unite with the movement for secularism, which the march suggested might be in the near future.  For this reason, it would have been nice to be in attendance and lend my support, but a few factors, primarily bad timing and a general lack of information about it beforehand, prevented this.  I think what really held me back, however, was just a general distrust of activism in general.  It’s not that contemporary activism is somehow an impure form of activism that has strayed away from its roots – quite to the contrary, I consider the 2017 Women’s March to be an excellent example of what I call “Classical Activism.”  Still, I strangely find myself in agreement with a sentiment expressed by David Frum on Sam Harris’ podcast recently that this march was both an example of everything wrong with liberal activism today and very inspiring in a positive way, so I want to pick apart what it is about contemporary liberal activism, even when it is supporting the views I hold, that I find so disturbing.

I associate the word activism with many things, but three scenes from popular media come to mind.

The first is the famous scene from the classic film Network in which newscaster Howard Beale urges his viewers to open their windows and let their anger out, screaming that they’re “not gonna take it anymore.”  It’s a touching scene, and it has moved me in ways that few other films have every time I’ve watched it.  For someone who fears apathy as much as I do, seeing people around the country being motivated to feel real passion is somewhat touching.  The problem, of course, is that anger alone isn’t good for much.  It can be a driving force for progress, and I suspect it has been many times, but it can also be a reason for supporting a demagogue (click here for a helpful video about how that works).  Anger must be handled very carefully, or else it can get in the way of good reasoning.

The second scene is lesser-known, and it comes from Mel Brooks.  In High Anxiety, Brooks and Madeline Kahn are trying to sneak a gun onto an airplane.  In order to do so, rather than trying to be as quiet as possible, they assume the identities of a loud, fussy, elderly couple that fills the airport with the sounds of their ranting and yelling and complaining.  Even though Brooks sets off the alarm when he goes through security, they let him pass through without further inspection just so he’ll shut up.  The lesson to be learned here, of course, is that the louder people are, the more others try to ignore them.  I have found that, when the same one person fills my Facebook news feed with political posts (and I must stress again that I’m generally in agreement with the anti-Trump, anti-racist, and anti-sexism posts) I get very annoyed with the person who’s posting about the same topic so relentlessly.  The question that I find myself asking is always the same: whose mind will be changed by this?  I appreciate the passion and the positive values being expressed, and I understand the good intentions, but it is obvious to me that those who disagree with these posts will not be persuaded purely by the intensity of a person’s rage pertaining to a particular subject.  Trump supporters who see people on the left constantly and consistently expressing anger about Trump will only see a steady stream of anger that they want to avoid, and no minds or hearts can be changed by that.

The irony here is that online activism has the problem of being too focused, thus driving people away by failing to present a balanced and comprehensive view of the world, but most activism has the problem of not being focused enough.  This was the criticism raised of the Women’s March on Washington on Sam Harris’ show, and I think it’s very important.  Just as anger must be carefully controlled in order to be helpful rather than dangerous, it must also be carefully focused.  At the Women’s March, the causes for which people were marching varied so greatly that a more apt title would probably have been “The March for People Who Really Hate Trump and Happen to Be Wearing Pink.”  The issues of interest included racial justice, environmental protection, immigration reform, LGBTQ rights, workers’ rights, freedom of religion, and more.  I can only imagine what would happen if one speaker at the event in Washington suddenly shouted to the crowd, “What do we want?” and the crowd had to figure out the answer.

Such an experiment was performed at the 2016 Reason Rally by David Silverman of American Atheists.  He told the crowd of atheists, agnostics, secularists, humanists, and non-theists to shout out whichever of these titles they called themselves, and the response he received was, predictably, a noisy mess of random answers.  “Ladies and gentlemen, when we use euphemisms instead of calling ourselves atheists, we sound to the outside world like that jumbled noise you all just made.”  He then urged the crowd, just once, to chant the word “atheist” all together, and the unifying effect was very powerful.  By this point, I may sound fairly hypocritical and inconsistent since I was proud to be in attendance at this event, but I can easily explain why this is not hypocrisy.  It’s true that I generally do not like group-think and I worry about its effects, so I do have a serious concern that Silverman may have misused it in that instance, which is why I sort of regret complying to his request that day.  However, I understood that this event served the purpose of showing a culture that generally ignored the existence of nice, peaceful, happy, patriotic atheists that there are more of us than they realize, and therefore our views matter.  Everyone knows that there are a lot of women in America, and every knows that most of them have not been big fans of Donald Trump – this surprises no one – so the only time when making a loud noise is actually useful, no matter how unified and focused the noise may be, is when it is a complete surprise from a little dark corner of the culture that needs to simply be noticed.

Once a group of people is noticed, of course, making a loud noise serves very little purpose apart from making people want to ignore them, which brings me back to my scenes from popular media.  The third great scene with which I associate activism is, perhaps predictably, from House of Cards.  In the second episode of the first season, a man is found screaming unintelligible nonsense outside of a government building in Washington.  Frank Underwood stares him in the eye and says, “Nobody can hear you.  Nobody cares about you.  Nothing will come of this.”  It’s a very bleak view of politics, as House of Cards usually presents, but it addresses the distance there is between America’s people and its government – particularly when all that the government hears from the people is angry screaming.  At one point in history, a million angry voices may have scared the pants off the president, but today, anyone who holds a significant office is used to hearing millions of screaming voices everyday, and it means nothing to them.

So how does one go about advocating for what is right and true?

I’ve written much of this article while sitting in the basement of the Hornbake Library on the University of Maryland campus, where a statue of Frederick Douglass is displayed prominently on the ground above me.  The kind of activism he did largely consisted of speeches and writings of a logical and persuasive manner rather than yelling about how angry he was, which I think nicely matches that famous quote of his that’s displayed alongside the statue: “Right is of no sex, truth is of no color.”  This reminds me of the important fact that truth and reality have no teams at all.  The current wave of identity politics is demonstrating the kind of tribalism that humans have relied on for millennia, and it’s problematic because it divides people into the left team and the right team, the extreme liberal team and the extreme conservative team.  Any good argument, however, requires that all parties be on the same team, which is the team for truth.  There must be a dedication to working with others, no matter how differently they see things, to understand their perspective as well as possible so that our logical debates can improve, develop, and grow.  At present, our culture is nearing a stalemate because so many of us aim to do nothing more than demonize the enemy and ban all views that sound dangerous, but this does not generate progress.

Angry masses, whether they are so focused that they sound myopic or so unfocused that they sound unintelligible, are not sufficient at generating progress.  I believe compassionate understanding aligned with an unwavering defense of the ultimate authority of reason above all parties, all peoples, all narratives, and all beliefs that has the potential to lead us to a brighter future.  If activism is to ascend beyond mere noise, it must be reformed to align with this principle.  Otherwise, our current cultural clog will remain.

 

Featured image by Mobilus In Mobili, from Flickr

Animal Crackers Review

UPDATE 2017-03-01: I wrote that this was the first Marx Brothers film, but it was not.  Excluding Humor Risk – a silent film that was previewed but never released and is now lost – their first film was The Cocoanuts.

The films of the Marx Brothers are generally divided into about three different eras, and this film, being their first, obviously belongs to the first era.  This was the time when they were essentially just taking their stage plays that had done well on Broadway and putting a camera in front of them.  Consequently, most of Animal Crackers really doesn’t feel like much more than a standard comedy play about an unlikely mix-up – one that could be performed at any high school – and now it has been badly filmed with poor editing and the sound quality one would expect from a studio that had just made its very first sound film a few months prior.  The one thing that keeps this film from feeling too much like the above description is the fact that a few of the characters are played by the Marx Brothers, which changes everything.  While it is apparent that the brothers haven’t quite hit their stride yet, their characters are already reasonably well-defined here, or at last as defined as they would ever be (I’m looking at you, Zeppo).  When the boys are allowed to simply be funny, they generally succeed in this film, but much of the movie drags on and focuses too much on plotlines that Marx Bros. fans don’t really care about.  Not all of the jokes are funny, as Groucho admirably admits to the audience, and the random musical numbers are awkward, slow, and forgettable, but over all, it’s still a pretty fun movie that I would gladly watch again.

Girls in Uniform (1931) Review

Mädchen in Uniform is a 1931 sound film about a girl in a boarding school who finds herself falling in love with one of the women who teaches there (see image below).  This film is highly dramatic, and puts the audience in her shoes as she suffers greatly at the boarding school and (minor spoiler warning) considers committing suicide.  It has an all-female cast and a female director, and it’s based on a play by Christa Winsloe.  Needless to say, this is not a Hollywood movie – it comes from Germany – but it was highly successful internationally.  In part because of the time period in which it debuted, it is considered to be an anti-Nazi film, even though Nazis are (to my memory) never seen nor mentioned.  Welcome to European cinema.

What we have here is a film that is doing a lot of things at once.  On the one hand, it shows what girls are like at their most normal and ordinary through its exceptional realism, while at the same time presenting us with girls who are quite strongly attracted to other females and thus represent a distinct minority of the population.  It relies on elements of German Expressionism in some scenes, particularly in its lighting, but most of it has the style of the New Objectivity movement, which was oppositional to the aforementioned movement.  It is a very personal story about the problems that come with a strict, unfeeling manner of bringing up children that lacks compassion and understanding, yet it can also work as an allegory for the issue of overly strict authoritarian governments.  To me, it is the personal story of living in a strict school that gives the film so much power over me, if only because I’m still rather resentful about the arguably overbearing schooling I received, and the perfect blend of realism and theatricality sells it brilliantly.  I do think that most of the first half of the movie is rather boring, but by the climax, it gets my blood boiling in just the right way – a way so few stories since Carrie have been able to do – and for that I appreciate it greatly.

Top Hat Review

This film was not what I expected it to be, and yet it was only what I expected it to be.  There are some dance numbers in here that are very nice and impressive, and that feel like what I would expect from this duo, but only one or two, and I had already seen one of them.  For some reason I thought there would be a bit more of the two of them dancing and a bit more fun, with less of the two antagonizing each other.  Most of the film, however, is dominated by their bizarre conflict/romance and a cliché story of mistaken identity.  I’m not sure if it seemed as cliché at the time, of course, but it felt very much like it was just repeating the kind of things one finds in the usual comedic plays of someone like Oscar Wilde, or even Shakespeare.  In a way, this makes it a very standard romantic comedy, although it’s still a very smart one, so it serves as a great example of what a serviceable Classical Hollywood romantic comedy feels like (just with more cool dancing).

Of course, don’t think for a second that I don’t really like this movie.  Certain aspects of some of these dance numbers are brilliant, and a lot of the writing of the dialogue is clever too, which was only improved by the strong characterizations these actors brought to their characters, so I can see why this film is so popular.  Perhaps I’ve been a bit too hard on this movie – it did, after all, give us the song “Cheek to Cheek,” which is one of the greatest love songs of all time – but for whatever reason, I just felt like something was missing.  I’m not sure what.  I feel like the movie was somehow not fun enough, even though I enjoyed myself watching it, and Fred Astaire’s character seemed to be having a great deal of fun the whole time.  Still, since this was my first time actually watching an Astaire-Rogers musical in its entirety, I was hoping for something a little more bright and dazzling, but maybe I’ll find that in another one of their films.

What About Bob? Review

I generally try to be a really tough critic.  I never give five stars, and I only give four and a half stars to the movies that grab me in the most intense and personal ways possible or impress me such that I would not object to considering them the greatest films of all time.  Naturally, I try to keep the list of films that get this most esteemed rating as small as possible, with only a few such reviews every year so they only make up about 10% of my reviews.  As I watched What About Bob?, I could tell that this film was in the 4 to 4.5 zone, but I wasn’t sure where, and I regrettably remained unsure even after the film had ended.  Over time, however, I found myself leaning towards 4.5 not only because its particular story and comedy style grab me personally, but because I kept laughing at its comedy after weeks had passed since I watched the film.

I do believe that this film is truly (and perhaps objectively) good, but the reasons why I love it are more subjective.  I have a personal connection to What About Bob? because I love Frank Oz, who directed the film, and I’ve grown fond of his style as a filmmaker and humorist.  He also cast fellow Muppet performer Fran Brill as a fairly significant character in the film, which I greatly appreciate – it’s not every film that pairs Bill Murray with Prairie Dawn.  I also just like comedic stories about craziness, mental illness, anxiety, psychology, and the brain, which is why films like High AnxietySilver Linings PlaybookCrazy People, and Inside Out are among my favorites.  I also like comedy that focuses on the dynamic between characters that each have distinct and understandable personalities, a la the early Harry Potter films and certain Muppet movies.

To be more objective, however, the story is cleverly written, and the performances are absolutely excellent. Richard Dreyfuss in particular clearly had a difficult task in that his character must become progressively and consistently less sane, while staying somewhat relatable during most of the film, and I think he handled it very well, delivering most of the film’s best comedy.  I will say that the extent to which I empathize with Dreyfuss’ character does at times get in the way of the comedy, and it is perhaps a consequence of this that the film’s ending feels a little weak, but overall, What About Bob? offers the high level of cinematic craftsmanship that I’ve come to expect from Frank Oz.  I don’t think this movie gets a lot of credit as one of the greats – although it did make Bravo’s list of the “100 Funniest Movies” and a quote from the film is in my movie quotes daily calendar – but regardless of what anyone else might think of it, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Metropolis Review: Upon Further Consideration…

NOTE: This is an amendment to an earlier review of the same film.

When I first watched this movie, it was the Giorgio Moroder version (a soundtrack comprised of ’80s pop that only sometimes fit the scene well).  This is because I had little tolerance for silent cinema at the time, and while I still don’t think I’m very good at watching silent movies, I’m improving.  The main reason why it made sense for me to return to this story is that the version I saw from back in the ’80s was missing so much of the movie – a lot of the film was lost and had yet to be restored.  I didn’t realize that at the time, so I stupidly criticized Lang for the unintelligible plot that the incomplete version had (and felt quite ashamed when I learned within the month or so that followed that I had been so ignorant of such important information).  The current (2010) version is missing only about five minutes, which is why it’s called “The Complete Metropolis” in some editions, and its plot is perfectly understandable and enjoyable.  For this and other reasons, although I’m not changing the four-star rating I gave the film before, I think I appreciate the movie even more than I did years ago.

It is very clear that this is a unique work of art from the very beginning.  The film’s opening – specifically the title card – is in and of itself worthy of praise, and it sets the exciting tone for the epic movie that follows.  The film is structured in three acts, more or less, and the cards that tell us how far we are through the movie help to create the theatrical experience.  The theatrical feeling – that is, the feeling of being at a stage show – makes me wish I could see this in the form of a musical, but I know that it is designed to serve a very different purpose.  Lang is borrowing from theater to appeal to the people who would be too embarrassed to go to a film that didn’t resemble high culture in some way: the upper class.  This project of making cinema something for intelligent and sophisticated audiences was very important to many German filmmakers at the time, and it is apparent in the relentless use of biblical references all throughout the film, even including the obscure Canaanite god “Moloch.”  The protagonist is very much a Christ-like figure, but is also at least as much a Moses (since he is, more or less, the son of Pharaoh).  Nods to the Tower of Babel are also mixed in, with Maria entirely reworking the story to support her thesis – an unsettling use of religion that sort of makes Maria, a very moral character, seem almost like a lying demagogue.

The film has such a strange mix of elements that I love and elements that I find frustratingly disappointing.  The binary between the moral Maria who hasn’t a bad bone in her body (and who seems like she might as well be oblivious to the existence of sex) and the robot Maria who embraces all things sexual and wild is a great setup, but it would have been great for the two of them to have had an encounter.  The protagonist is a fascinating character: he has a number of visions that make him either a madman or a supernatural prophet, and the has his most important vision – a nightmare sequence – after he wakes up, whereas any other film would show him having a nightmare and then waking up.  It is actually this nightmare scene that makes the film work for me; it’s my favorite part of the movie because it builds up to such a satisfying climax of the second act, ending just as perfectly as the second Hunger Games film does.  I can’t help but compare it to the film adaptations of Carrie, which send us into the third act with great anticipation to see how everything’s about to fall to chaos, “B-movie style,” although Lang gives us more hype before act three that makes it all that much better.  The problem is that the third act doesn’t offer quite enough excitement to live up to this hype, instead feeling rather long.  The ending, too, is not as satisfying as it could be, mostly because the message that the film keeps preaching about the heart being a “mediator” isn’t very meaningful (and I think I read somewhere that Lang himself didn’t sincerely believe it).

This issue of the vague thesis brings me to the question of what the heck this movie is supposed to be.  Is it a utopia or a dystopia?  I hear that Hitler loved this movie, but I can’t tell if it promotes fascism, socialism, democracy, or some other form of government entirely.  Somehow this movie is very European and very American.  It may be in black and white, but it is very colorful (although perhaps my memories of the lovely tints in the Moroder version have shaped the way I want to see this version).  I can’t even tell what I’m supposed to think about technology after watching this film.  It almost tries to undercut its every move, and yet it still manages to be a very satisfying experience.  There’s a kind of energy in this film that’s infectious, and it’s the kind of movie that I just want to have on in the background all the time because I enjoy its essence more than anything else about it.  After thinking about all of this, one thing has become more and more clear: this must, indeed, be made into a musical.  Get to it.

Carrie (1976) Review

MINOR SPOILER WARNING

This is one review that I didn’t think I’d ever be writing.  Some readers may recall the first time I reviewed a Carrie adaptation – when I saw the 2013 Carrie movie – at which point I decided that the original Brian de Palma film was not for me. I was in a place in life when I wanted to see the story taken very seriously, and I didn’t want it to be too fun, too silly, too campy – with the possible exception of the ending. For anyone with any familiarity with the Stephen King story, the ending is the part where, no matter how serious and dramatic the adaptation has been up until this point, the viewers had better throw their hands in the air and get ready to ride this roller-coaster down into the pits of Hades, laughing and screaming all the way. Still, this is one of the very few stories for which I feel it is best for a film to do as good of a job as possible at making everything seem very real, believable, and even mundane for the first two acts – employing an almost Our Town-like structure in saving the fantastic elements for the ending.  Much to my surprise, this movie mostly sticks to this form, offering much more realism than I would have expected.  The fact that so much of de Palma’s film makes it feel like these could be real people in a real high school assuages most of the concerns I had about about watching this movie, but the parts that are over-the-top and expressionistic are the kind of fun ’70s cult horror moments that my recent fascination with this sub-genre has made me crave.

When I wrote the review for the 2013 movie, I was in a different place in life.  I wanted to approach this story as seriously as possible and find in it something that could be used to express to the older generations why it is that so many teenagers suffer from depression and anxiety these days.  The 1976 film doesn’t work for that, but it might have served that purpose back in its day, leading me to suspect that – in general – the best version of Carrie is whichever one best expresses the anxieties to the viewers in its time.  The film I watched first may have been best for 2013 (at least for teenage viewers) while the 1976 film was probably best for the 1970s – each feels very much like a reflection of its time.  That’s why the ’76 version needs to be approached differently now – it’s a time-capsule, and the fashions of the era have not aged well.  As I’d initially feared, much of it is comical, but even some of the cheesiest moments with John Travolta feel they could have happened back then.  That being said, part of why I loved this movie so much is the stuff that doesn’t feel normal at all.  I watched this movie specifically because I wanted to see more of the kind of thing Brian de Palma did with Phantom of the Paradise, so I wanted to laugh, to feel confused, to have fun, and to cheer as the style got very expressionistic and experimental.  I came into this movie with the goal of seeing weird little kinks like sped-up dialogue to get us through a scene faster and a split-screen effect that shows two aspects of the same action – and I kind of wanted everything to be a joke.

Still, while that may seem like the exact opposite of what I wanted from this story when I watched the 2013 film, there are some things that I would’ve had to admit are perfect here even if I’d watched this movie back in the summer of 2015.  Julianne Moore may be a great actress, but the mother in this film is obviously superior, making the character seem believably uncanny for most of the film and then delightfully creepy in the end.  Even the Carrie in this film, whom I’d suspected I would have a hard time taking seriously with her acting style and her accent, is generally as relatable, likable, and believable as I’d like, and is exactly as scary as one would hope by the end.  The final scene is absolutely perfect and gave me a bigger scare than anything I’ve seen on screen in a long time – in a good way.  Even the colors, which I thought would detract from the reality of the world, actually make sense because they come from the lights at the prom, so the parts that feel theatrical still feel plausible and very much at home here.  Then, of course, there is the visual poetry in the resemblance between Carrie’s mother and the creepy Jesus figure, which may not have much of a deep meaning in this story, but it’s a heck of a cherry on top.

It’s also worth making it clear that most of the things critics complained about in the 2013 film aren’t very different from the 1976 film that is so critically revered.  The Carrie in this movie is just as pretty as Chloe Grace Moretz, and it actually seems less plausible that Sissy Spacek would have been considered too strange-looking to be one of the popular girls.  Critics complained that the 2013 film isn’t scary enough, but this film isn’t much scarier, and that’s not really the point of the story anyway.  Critics argued that the Moretz film lacked a build-up to the finale that the story requires, but I felt the build-up about equally across each film – although that may have been because I already knew the story before watching either movie.  I will concede that the critics are right in pointing out that, in comparison to de Palma’s work, Kimberly Peirce’s film didn’t seem to do much with the story that stood out – she didn’t get very playful, and one could call her work rather boring – but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing if the aim is making everything feel normal for most of the film (again, I refer to Our Town).  With that said, however, it is the Brian de Palma film that must go down in history as a classic because it manages to be such a great and important drama while being a bundle of fun and laughter.  As far as I’m concerned, while it may not be the kind of horror that most people are used to, this is the ultimate horror classic (excluding horror comedies like Gremlins) and I love it just the way it is.