Movies in August, 2015 including The Weather Underground, Christo's Valley Curtain, Spy, The Devil-Doll, and The End of the Tour

  1. The Weather Underground at the Flying Squirrel, August 3: Born in 1970, I was barely aware of the Weather Underground when they were active from the tail end of the U.S.–Vietnam War through the early 1980s. They were a radical group most notorious for bombing U.S. targets in retaliation for injustices, starting with the "Days of Rage" designed to "bring the [Vietnam] war home". The film gives voice to the core members alive today. In general, their tone was remorseful about their actions but unashamed of their ideology. Watching it, I observed a couple things. First, when one's country's military is constantly murdering people for political and ideological reasons, it stands to reason that that rationale will steep in the minds of the citizenry—and that is just what happened with the Weather Underground. They felt that the only option was to murder their enemies as that had become the law of the land (much like it is in today's state of constant warfare.) Second, it underscored the absolute lack of a political "far left" (or even a "left" for that matter) today. I could at least look at the actions of the Weather Underground and say, "whoa—those people are way too radical for me." Instead, I am the radical in the room when I say things like, "maybe we should share our wealth instead of hoarding it"—and, call me crazy, but that is not "radical" or "far left" at all.
  2. Christo's Valley Curtain at the Dryden, August 5: I had have been curious about conceptual artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude for some time—especially since visiting The Gates in NYC in 2005. This film is the Maysles' first in of many collaborations with Christo and Jeanne-Claude and I thought it quite exemplary. Its design is an inspiration to many modern documentarians today, splitting between a design timeline, and the days of the installation. The project itself was fascinating, and there are two standout people—both construction workers. One is flabbergasted that someone could conceive of such a project and is amazed by its immense beauty. Another, an iron worker operating the rigging to unfurl the curtain from its suspension cabling, is giddily nervous and waxes poetic, "I'm as nervous as a whore in a field of peckers."
  3. Running Fence at the Dryden, August 5: In some ways I thought this was not as good as "Valley Curtain" but the topic is much more complex. This time the central conflict is getting the legal approval to install a 18-foot-high, 25-mile-long fabric fence across two counties in California and display it for two weeks. I thought the film took some liberties with the timeline to make for a better story as Christo and Jeanne-Claude are initially rebuffed only to convince the effected ranchers individually in a montage, then be approved. However, I think the film is an excellent document of the collaborative and community nature of the duo's work.
  4. Spy at the Cinema, August 9: I read a positive review and convinced Jenn to go too. Indeed, Melissa McCarthy's performance was perfect and the whole film quite hilarious. The story goes that after the identities of their active agents are compromised, a "behind the earpiece" CIA agent Susan (McCarthy) volunteers to go into active duty to thwart an (admittedly ludicrous) plot. I also appreciated that the supporting characters were generally strong, particularly Allison Janney as Susan's wry boss Elaine, and Jason Statham as the ridiculously inappropriate agent Rick Ford. And while there were a few gags that played off McCarthy's average appearance, there were many more that made use of her quick wit and comedic timing.
  5. Terminator: Genisys at the Cinema, August 9: I figured I'd give this a shot although Jenn left after just a few minutes. I've seen the "Terminator" films so this one seemed like a kind of boring rehash … and it's full of flaws … but it was entertaining enough that I stayed to the end. I thought it rather funny that, with The Terminator being released in 1984, I remember thinking Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor was an adult woman, while in this 2015 film, Emilia Clarke's Sarah Connor was just a girl even though both actors were 28 years old as of each film's release date. (And funny enough, Clarke was born exactly 2 years after the release of the earlier film.) It also kind of bugged me that Hamilton's feathered 1980s hairdo wasn't replicated, but I guess it would have been kind of distracting. Umm, yeah, anyway, the film is kind of meh. Stuff happens … there's inexplicable time travel … there's an inexplicable countdown … there's an inexplicably powerful enemy … a whole lot of inexplicable stuff, actually.
  6. The Devil-Doll at the Dryden, August 18: Jenn had already seen this, although not on the big screen in a long time. I admired the commitment to special effects of dogs and people shrunk to doll-size, and to be honest, the plot was rather tense (if flawed and absurd—science fiction aside.) Although characters and goals get dumped along the way, the central plot is that of Paul (played perfectly by Lionel Barrymore) who escapes from prison to exact revenge on his former partners who set him up 17 years prior.
  7. Islands at the Dryden, August 19: Jenn and I went to see these further collaborations between filmmaking brothers Albert Maysles and David Maysles, and artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Islands documents the "Surrounded Islands" project around six islands in the Biscayne Bay near Miami, Florida in 1983. With nearly the same structure as Running Fence, the artists are met with resistance, then acceptance following a montage of community outreach. I thought the resulting project was the least interesting I had seen, and long shots of its completion were made less appealing by a banal soundtrack.
  8. Christo in Paris at the Dryden, August 19: Although tired, Jenn stayed through this—partly because of better music. It documents the intertwined lives of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and "The Pont Neuf Wrapped" project, surrounding the oldest and most famous bridge in Paris. This later film recycles a fair amount of footage from Islands as it had meandered into this concurrent project as well. Perhaps most fascinating was the opinionated French debates of artistic merit on the pedestrian ways across the bridge at the completion of the project. And the politicking of then-mayor Jacques Chirac.
  9. The End of the Tour at the Little, August 23: Neither Jenn nor I knew much about author David Foster Wallace aside from an excerpt from a commencement speech on BrainPickings. Jason Segel admirably plays the part of Wallace (or at least makes for a character that embodies every letter of the script) and comes off as a likable misfit, too beautiful for this world. Jesse Eisenberg, meanwhile, fills the role of Rolling Stone interviewer as an everyman, clumsily hiding his jealousy.
  10. Umbrellas at the Dryden, August 26: I convinced Jenn to see this Maysles brothers film again showing the work of Christo and Jean-Claude. The artists installed thousands of large umbrellas—yellow ones in California and blue ones in Japan—for a temporary exhibition. I guess I continue to be fascinated by these artists as their work stands in such contrast to nearly any other artist I've heard of—both in scale and in its temporary nature.
  11. People Places Things at the Cinema, August 28: Jenn and I skipped the first feature and caught this film we had a passing interest in seeing. It's about a man who is shocked by the breakup with his longtime girlfriend and how he deals with it. Unfortunately he's a bit of a Mary Sue as he's got a consistently well-meaning, kind, and naïve perspective throughout, played against a half-dozen comparatively undeveloped characters—mostly women, although "Gary" is the biggest milquetoast pushover of them all. In all it's got a fair number of amusing moments, so it was mildly entertaining to watch.

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Paul Chappell at the Interfaith Chapel

I was inspired to see what Captain Paul K. Chappell will discuss had to say in a discussion titled Why Peace is Possible and How We Can Achieve It. I heard rumors that — as a graduate of West Point and having served in the army — he had concluded that it was possible to redirect the efforts of the U.S. military toward true peacekeeping rather than the delusion of using war. He spoke at The Interfaith Chapel at the University of Rochester (Wilson Blvd.) and the lecture was recorded by C-SPAN. (If I hear about a link to the recording I'll note it here.) I was quite inspired indeed.

Chappell grew up being taught that world peace is a "naïve idea". Central to the argument is that human beings are naturally violent. But is that true?

According to him, the greatest problem of every army is getting soldiers to be willing to die, and it's even hard to get people to fight. An effective technique is to instill the notion of a "band of brothers" so everything becomes self-defense. For instance, West Point teaches to treat your fellow soldiers as your family.

Second, no war has ever been fought for money or oil — at least not officially. In fact, people desire peace so much that every leader claims to be "fighting for peace". War is traumatizing because people are naturally peaceful.

An army study conducted in World War II (specifically Combat Neuroses: Development of Combat Exhaustion by Roy L. Swank, M.D.; Walter E. Marchand, M.D.) showed that after 60 days of sustained day and night combat, 98% of soldiers become psychiatric casualties (the 2% that can go on indefinitely already aggressive sociopaths).

Chappell spoke about how reading On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society gave him new hope for peace. Like other animals, humans have an innate aversion to killing one's own kind. All of military history supports this and uses three techniques to thwart this instinct:

  1. Create psychological distance such as derogatory name-calling — everything from "barbarian" (which comes from Greek interpretation of foreign language sounding like "bar bar bar") to a more subtle term like "illegal alien".
  2. Create a moral distance by declaring your enemy to be evil.
  3. Create mechanical distance (physical distance). For instance, the Nazis switched to gas chambers because shooting was too traumatic for the soldiers — they were protecting the executioner from psychological damage.

Chappell asks, "why would this be necessary if humans were naturally violent? If we are not naturally violent, why is there so much war?"

We're told we need war to stop war, violence to stop violence violence. Most soldiers want peace but that is not the means they are taught to use.

Chappell notes that at West Point he learned that the nature of war is drastically changing. It's now about "winning hearts and changing minds". This leads most directly from media coverage, since "collateral damage" is no longer acceptable: you can't kill any civilians. Yet, historically, the most people killed in past war were civilians.

So how do you win hearts and change minds? The masters of this were peaceful like Ghandi: someone able to transform an enemy into a friend; someone actively waging peace. This includes peace marches such as were used for civil rights or for attaining voting rights. (From Chappell's example, consider that prior to the 1830's, only a small percentage of tax paying people could actually vote, and it was through peaceful protest that we now take for granted that "no taxation without representation" is the bedrock of our country.) These peace movements of our country should be taught in schools as being at least as important as the wars.

Waging war or waging peace share many needs: people, strategy, unity, tactics, and winning hearts and changing minds. However, Chappell points out that there are tremendous differences as well:

  • Peace has truth on its side, war has myth.
  • War is about killing people versus peace which is about making a friend.
  • All war is based on deception. (He pointed out that in all cultures, the fundamental behavior of the "devil" is that of a deceiver.)
  • The people who perpetuate war control lots of wealth and power — just as the enemies of the civil rights did.

So what does being "pro-military but against war" look like? Well, pretty much like Star Trek in a lot of ways. For instance, what if the army was chartered with disaster relief and we had the worldwide reputation of arriving to help then leaving?

Chappell said that Eisenhower was the first to ask why the Middle East dislikes the U.S. He found it was because our policies block democracy and instead support or install dictatorships — they are angry that we don't live up to our ideals. As such, we need to hold our politicians accountable to change foreign policy so it is in line with the ideals we profess.

Chappell concluded by saying that war is not inevitable, and world peace is possible. Consider that 200 years ago, the only democracy in the world was America and even it was only fractionally so. And we don't need to convince everyone — for instance, the Civil Rights movement succeeded with only 1% of the population actively participating.

During the question-and-answer, some evocative questions were asked.

First off, can the world be united? Chappell noted that in the United States, we have moved from state-identity to national-identity. And consider Europe: can you imagine Germany declaring war on France today? This progress can be expanded to all nations.

I asked about how, prior to the Iraq war, 250,000 people marched to protest it yet it happened anyway, so is protesting dead? He said that people romanticized the past: while the Vietnam War was being debated, it was not uncommon for students to try and attack peace protesters. To my specific example, he said that the government learned how to defuse protest from what happened in Vietnam: to avoid risk of a draft, they censor the media by embedding journalists in military units, privatize the military, and by propagandizing "if you don't support the war you don't support the troops". As such, protest needs to evolve too.

In a later question, Chappell was asked what techniques should we use? He said we have lost our way to positive change. Consider how the Tea Party movement called attention to issues that were the same everyone cares about, but liberals were too busy calling them stupid. Remember to never demonize your opponent: identify with your opponent. In many cases the problem will boil down to hatred and ignorance. Remember that the government retains control of people by dividing them. So start with common ground and don't reinforce divisiveness.

In another question, someone asked, given that peace is an active task, what would non-violent passion look like? Chappell said it's easy today to isolate yourself today in peer groups and reinforce demonization of others. To be passionate is to defeat ignorance and to defeat hatred.

Another question had to do with conscientious objection: that by paying taxes, we are actively participating in and supporting war. To that, he said we should focus on how war makes us less safe, and how preparation for war is economically destructive. Consider Eisenhower's "Cross of Iron" speech where, in the central argument against "the way of fear and force", and what would be the worst- and best-case scenarios, he says:

The worst is atomic war.

The best would be this: a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealth and the labor of all peoples; a wasting of strength that defies the American system or the Soviet system or any system to achieve true abundance and happiness for the peoples of this earth.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms in not spending money alone.

It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.

It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.

It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.

It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.

We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat.

We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.

This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

Chappell echoed this, reiterating that our infrastructure is hurting because of war. He suggested we seek out the works of Douglas MacArthur and President Eisenhower as he had.

The concluding question asked if peace is based in truth, yet battle and conflict is a fact of nature, how can we be truthful? Chappell said the language of "waging peace" is accurate. We are trying to defeat ignorance and hatred, but the person is not the enemy. So ask yourself: how can I most effectively attack ignorance and hatred without hurting the person?

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Hearts and Minds at the Dryden and a philosophy of good government

I headed to the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see Hearts and Minds. I really wasn't prepared for it at all. I watched in horror as the war in Iraq played out before me. I mean, if someone were to take the footage from this film, edit it together exactly the same way and release it today, people would definitely complain that it tries to make Iraq look like Vietnam. The only trouble is, this was made in 1974 as a postmortem documentation of the Vietnam War.

So here's the play book to be used by leadership:

  1. Fabricate a "threat" to America.
  2. Identify a place where a quasi-rational claim can be made that the area is imminently threatened. Be sure to pick one where the language and culture are very different from English-speaking, Christian Americans.
  3. Declare war on the "threat" and engage in combat in the selected area.
  4. Align all dissent with support of the "threat". Any disagreement with the position of the military and its hopeful outlook is "dissent".
  5. Declare the enemy to be less-than-human.
  6. Make claims that the enemy does not respect life which gives them a tactical advantage.
  7. Continuously claim that great progress is being made. Produce no undisputed facts.
  8. Attempt to fine-tune military tactics and technology in an attempt to defeat an enemy who will never stop trying to defend their homeland against an enemy invader.
  9. Ponder whether America chose the right allies and neglect that America's actions are the wrong side.
  10. Establish a "democratically elected" government — one that specifically supports the United States policies. Remove any government or authorities who disagree with U.S. policy.
  11. Support troops that align under the new government and migrate military control of the region to them.
  12. Disengage U.S. military involvement in the region.
  13. Make claims ex post facto that all success was as a direct result of action taken, and certainly not a result of the United States leaving the region.

In Vietnam the "threat" was Communism — a holdover from the 1950's and even called the "Red Threat". People were (and are) taught that Communism is a threat to freedom. In reality it competes with Capitalism as an economic system, but no more a threat to freedom than Capitalism is. The theory is (see above) that Communists are less than human — they act like hornets: their individuality is crushed by the goals of the collective so much that they don't even fear death. They use lies and any immoral tactic necessary to recruit new members.

In Iraq, the "threat" is terrorism. We're taught that terrorism is a threat to freedom. In reality, the tactics to stop terrorism are the threat to freedom: undocumented police searches, torture, secret arrests, and the suppression of free speech. The theory is (see above) that terrorists are less than human — they act like hornets: their individuality is crushed by the goals of the collective so much that they don't even fear death. They use lies and any immoral tactic necessary to recruit new members.

So I started theorizing on what goes wrong — how did we get here again? I think the crux of it is that we supposedly have a representative government but that representation has failed. We expect our representatives to listen to the will of the people and to lead based on that will. We expect our leaders to find solutions that make everyone happy — to unify these United States rather than to divide them.

I spent the better part of my free time trying to develop a graph to represent the whole thing, mostly erroneously trying to represent population in some proportional way and also to present the data in a logarithmic fashion. But the gist is this: assuming that people are free to organize in protest of the government, the measure of "good leadership" is that few people choose to organize in protest.

Chart showing percentage of actively protesting people.

The numbers in parentheses represent a population based on 300 million people — approximately the population of the United States in 2007. The goal of leadership should be to keep the percentage of people actively protesting as low as possible, and divided in support/opposition of an issue as balanced as possible. The ideal is zero, but if that cannot be attained, then equal numbers on either side should be the goal. This is represented by the outer ring with green toward the bottom "zero" point and orange indicating a problem.

The inner colored ring indicates likely types of problems. The yellow area between 0.01% and 0.04% is a danger zone for a politician, for between 0.04% and 0.6% is when their approval ratings will begin to drop. Between 0.6% and 10% is an increasing risk of revolution (in the case of activity on one side of an issue) or civil war (in the case that both sides are equally ired.) The red area above 10% pretty much guarantees violence.

Let me qualify this that it's just speculation. I'm no expert in politics or leadership. I was just picking numbers out that "sounded good." However, the I feel the underlying theory is valid: that the goal of leadership should be to minimize the need for protest. And that's something else that I should reiterate: this chart is about the number of people actively protesting — that is, picket-signs in hand, involved in a march or other form of public dissent.

Now there's three cases that a leader will typically be looking at: virtually no protest, protest that is lopsided, and protest that is strong but balanced. If there is little protest, then that's a sign of a "good job" and the leader should look to fix other more controversial issues.

In the case of a lopsided protest — where there is a significant population that is protesting one side but very few on the other side — then there are several possibilities. One is that the protesting side is vehement about one facet of the issue, and in that case, the leader should have the wherewithal to re-frame to defuse its antagonistic component. Another is that the leadership is not representing the will of the people — and in that case, the leader should adjust their position and policies to be more accommodating of the protesters.

In the case of a balanced, strong protest, it's the leader's role to act as diplomat. They should consider whether another option — outside the spectrum of the opposing poles — could resolve strife. If they are unable to accomplish that, then there is the likelihood of bloodshed and the possibility of full-blown civil war.

So back to Iraq — if I recall correctly, protests against the war — the largest protests — are in the range of 200,000 to 500,000 people. In that range, we're talking about 0.08% to 0.2% of the population. I am not aware of protests to support the war although there are typically a small number of protesters against the anti-war movement — a bit derivative, but (again, if I recall correctly) typically a small number. Perhaps 2,000 to 10,000 at most — 0.001% to 0.004% or so.

In this case, I think it's the responsibility of our leadership to either (a) re-frame the war to make it amenable to anti-war protests or (b) to change policy to balance opposing factions. It's clear that their efforts are squarely in re-framing the war: that it's a war for freedom, or peace, or against terrorism — but the anti-war movement is not buying into it. This opposition is simply against the war. And in that case, the move should be to get out of it.

So then, imagine more generally if we actually had balanced leadership. Imagine if people had to protest in the streets to favor a war rather than to protest only to oppose it. Imagine if our country believed in peace so much that our leaders insisted that the people ordered them to start a war. Imagine if war was not the default action but the exceptional action — a complete reversal of our current policies.

But then again, what do I know about leadership? I can't understand why anyone would resort to war when diplomacy and peace are alternatives. I guess I can't stop believing in the ideal of "good leadership" — where the seemingly miraculous solution that appeals to everyone is commonplace and war is seen as the pathetic, stupid cop-out that it is.

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