The Last 10 Movies

A while back I started a blog post, figuring I'd do brief reviews and summaries of the last 10 movies I saw. At the time, I had seen 10 movies in 2013. Well, now that list has grown to 25(ish) films which seems like a nice round number too. I decided to just link to IMDb this time in case you want to find out more information rather than copying-and-pasting the pertinent details. Anyway, here goes:

Rust and Bone at the Cinema, February 14: I don't remember too much about this, except that it had a couple very well-realized, dysfunctional characters trying to maintain a relationship.
Side Effects at the Little Theatre, February 18: I seem to only remember the setup — that a new drug has unexpected side effects — but that there's some kind of twist, and that those side-effects have very little to do with the film. After reading some spoilers I was like, "oh yeah." Eh … it was pretty good.
2013 Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts at the Little Theatre, February 19: Jenn and I went to this one. I have come to refer to the "curse of the Little" that any time something important is happening, something inevitably goes wrong. We were running a little late, but the screening didn't start at the scheduled time. Ten minutes later, they started the originally scheduled movie (Silver Linings Playbook) instead. We all thought it was a trailer, but as the minutes ticked by, we came to realize it was the film. I told the clerk at the concession stand and they stopped it and started the shorts. But it wasn't over: during one of the subtler films, the soundtrack for the movie inexplicably started again. Once again, we had to go tell them. Anyway, the shorts were mostly mediocre. Jenn and I bet on what would win the Oscar — I correctly picked the Disney short (the typical Disney male-skewed story where "anonymous schlub likes skinny doe-eyed girl who naturally likes him back").
Django Unchained at the Cinema, March 17: An entertaining popcorn movie that was fun to watch. It could have been a bit shorter, I think: it's not like there was some kind of historical accuracy that needed to be maintained.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly at the Dryden Theatre, March 22: Really the title says it all. But the cinematography was awesome, the music was wild, and the acting was brilliant.
The Wild World of Looney Tunes at the Dryden, March 23: An astonishingly poor selection of shorts. Did we really need to see two Tasmanian Devil cartoons with nearly the same plot?
The Suitor at the Dryden Theatre, April 2: An entertaining film by Pierre Étaix, although the shorts that preceded his films in this series were often more palatable. The Suitor gets a little tiring after a while, but stays funny and clever.
The Vanishing at the Dryden Theatre, April 4: A really excellent creepy thriller. The abductor is particularly memorable since he's made out to be pretty much a normal guy with a screw loose (albeit a massively important one).
Yoyo at the Dryden Theatre, April 9: A film by Pierre Étaix that acts as a bittersweet postscript to entertainment gone-by. In this case, it's the circus and clowning that is being forgotten, replaced by more modern entertainment like cinema, radio, and television.
The Place Beyond the Pines at the Little Theatre, April 15: I had to see this. I'm from Schenectady where the film was made, and I found out it was filmed in the neighborhood where I was born (Stanford Heights; I was born on Stanford Avenue in Niskayuna). Plus, one of the characters is named Jason. Anyway, the film is excellent: an elegant, long-term story that is brilliantly paced and engaging to watch.
Room 237 at the Dryden Theatre, April 18: I'm a sucker for documentaries about obsession. I assume everyone else can at least comprehend it, but I find it an alluring option in life that I can't quite bring myself to actually engage in. The film is about a small group of people obsessed with The Shining. Some have mapped out the rooms per the camera angles, finding impossible rooms; others perceive themes that may or may not be either intended or even present. Interpreting art is fickle anyway; this film was an enjoyable romp around paths less-travelled.
The Most Fun I've Ever Had With My Pants On at the Cinema, April 19: I got to see this as part of the High Falls Film Festival. I'm glad I did. It's a nice road-trip story with some great cinematography and a nice, gentle character arc.
The Girls in the Band at the Little Theatre, April 21: I shortcut the festival this year and hit up this (the Best of the Fest Documentary) along with the next film at the end. The Girls in the Band documents women in 20th century big bands — often added as a novelty, but all with a musical voice and talent separate from and on the same level as the men who so often shunned them.
Margarita at the Little Theatre, April 21: This was the festival's Best of the Fest Narrative — an enjoyable tale about family and immigration. The wit of the film makes it funny, but the humor seems to work unrelated to the seriousness of the issues. Anyway, since it's from a Canadian perspective, the tone is a bit different from what an American film would be about an immigrant nanny losing her job.
Reds at the Dryden, May 1: Oh man, this was awesome. It's so well-paced that the length is no bother at all. It's based on the true story of an American journalist who becomes enamored with Communism, and accurately portrays the multiple facets of it all. Best of all, it came out in 1981, during a resurgence of "Communist threat" and the era of Ronald Reagan and unrestricted greed.
Badlands at the Dryden, May 2: Having been recently introduced to Terrence Malick by Jenn, I was thoroughly impressed by his tale of young infatuation and foolishness. Just a beautiful film about the human condition.
The Fallen Idol at the Dryden, May 8: A brilliantly told tale of marital strife told subtly from the perspective of a child.
Days of Heaven at the Dryden, May 9: Another Malick film about the complexities of relationships. Also very good, but I think I liked Badlands more.
The Rules of the Game at the Dryden, May 29: A cleverly bleak view of the French bourgeoise — especially that they are fraught with a distinct absence of compassion.
The Tree of Life at the Dryden, May 30: A more recent Malick film that takes a nonlinear approach to try to tell the tale of every American upbringing. I think it mostly succeeds — the episodic nature that floats across a whole life gives it a dreamlike quality that let me fit my life into the story, even though almost none of what happens actually applies to me.
Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid at the Dryden, May 31: A technical achievement to place old film clips into a modern film seamlessly, but, like any such attempt, it grows tiring quickly. The biggest problem is that only the simplest, non-specific dialog from another film can be used, so the whole thing comes off pretty flat.
Kon-Tiki at the Little Theatre, June 3: This is the story of the attempt to sail a raft from ancient materials from South American to Polynesia. It felt like the movie tried to include a sample of every conflict, problem, surprise, and reward in the actual journey. As such, I felt it came off very bland.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist at the Cinema, June 16: I thought this was an excellent character-driven tale of a man who can't help but go where he's pushed. I also liked the aspect that it showed the "reverse-angle" view of the "infallible lawman" entertainment popular today where a team of well-funded experts use their technology to find and kill the bad guys. The film is kind of the long way of saying, "things are more complicated than that."
Starbuck at the Cinema, June 16: This one was about the lovable loser who turns his life around. The trouble is, I found the loser to be insufferable. It's one of the few times I left the theater in the middle of the film.
Bury My Heart with Tonawanda at the MAG, June 27: Somewhat well-known local film-goer and filmmaker Adrian Esposito wrote this film about a man with Downs Syndrome in the 1800's who finds help from the local Indians. It's ostensibly a true story and shot around Rochester. The trouble is, the acting and directing were pretty weak, making it feel like a made-for-TV movie. And it was shot on video and either has an overexposed look, or the MAG's projector was not configured properly. The story is pretty solid, if a bit simplistic, and overall it's pretty good.
Iron Man 3 at the Cinema, June 29: Jenn and I went to this ultimate popcorn movie. In all, I had a good time watching it … it was a fun, fluffy story. What I found especially fascinating was to see movie clichés and genre staples played unabashedly straight: with all my cinema nerdery I often see those things dismantled and betrayed, so it's kind of refreshing to see them in their natural environment.

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Screenplay Reading of Citizens Band

Last year I wrote a screenplay titled "Citizens Band". I thought it was pretty good so I have been fiddling with it. I tried to get friends to read it, but only a couple did, and I got positive feedback from each one. So I continued.

I sent an e-mail to someone I met at a production company but jee never got back to me. That was about three days before the submission date for the BlueCat Screenplay Competition. But I waited because you can submit early and they will review your submission, then you can submit again for the contest and be reviewed again.

I thought the next logical step was to host my own screenplay reading. I sent an e-mail to a major local theater but never heard back. The MuCCC was supportive but alas booked solid for the year. I got started a bit with one person but jee dropped out for jeir own project so I got in touch with Phil Frey of ShakeCo: The Shakespeare Company who agreed to direct the reading.

Over the course of the last few months, I reformatted the script as a stage play (essentially adding a "Narrator" character who speaks the action.) I was looking into having copies printed but it would have cost close to a hundred bucks for 10 copies. Since I already have a [used] HP LaserJet 4000, I finally gave in and bought 3-hole punched paper for it. Unable to find recycled paper, I went with sustainably-grown eucalyptus paper. Over the course of 800 pages or so, it affected the paper feed mechanism and I had to hand-feed the last 40 pages to finish the set. But I digress.

Phil got hold of some actors, and we did a rehearsal on April 13. I was surprised to find so many errors — I thought I had edited pretty well. It was good to hear it out-loud for the first time (although I had to read quite a bit of it myself to fill in for missing actors.) In the end, I changed 45 of the 88 pages. (And I figured out to clean the RF5-2490-000CN Feed Roller [on pages 8-52 and 8-53 of the service manual for those reading at home] with a homemade vinegar-citrus cleaner despite the advice to only use water.)

April 20 was the official reading at the Flying Squirrel. I didn't realize when I scheduled it (I actually didn't have much choice to fit everyone's schedule) but it overlapped the closing night of the High Falls Film Festival which may have prevented a few people from coming. Anyway, I had no idea how many people would show up so I made a lot of food. In the end it was only five people: just a few friends of mine. We were even short on actors and I had to read and my friend Ali read as well. Once again, it was good to hear it out loud and the feedback I got was very valuable even if it was kind of all over the board.

So now I need to go back and edit again. This time, more substantial changes to the structure of the story. One suggestion about gender roles led to a realization to let go of my love for the characters and to make sure their actions are for the interest of each one of them and not due to my love of the outcome. I also want to make some changes to get them on the road quicker (eliminating unnecessary exposition), and I'll move a local party to a destination along the way.

And here I thought it was pretty good already. Well, I still think it's pretty good. I just need to make it excellent.

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Comfort Zone

I managed to get to the Little early enough to get a ticket to see Comfort Zone before it sold out — its solitary screening (for now). It centers around how climate change will affect Rochester. It was made by local filmmakers Dave Danesh, Sean Donnelly, and Kate Kressmann-Kehoe: all are concerned, but each have different perspectives, and their on-camera discussions help us understand where they are coming from.

I thought the film was brutally honest and pulled no punches. I presume the filmmakers used reliable sources — after all it's only pseudo scientists who refute climate change altogether, and only a tiny percentage of legitimate climatologists don't believe it is caused by human CO2 production. In other words, it's peer-reviewed, proven theory that the excessive carbon dioxide produced from the burning of fossil fuels is causing a dramatic change in climate.

The climate of upstate New York will change over the next 50 years to be more like what it is today somewhere between South Carolina and Alabama, depending on how well we change out habits as a species. And that's only if a cataclysmic tipping point is not tripped — one that, say, changes the oceans so they no longer absorb as much CO2, or if the melting permafrost releases it's sequestered methane and, well, snowballs the whole greenhouse effect totally out of control. But assuming we don't have a cataclysmic disaster on our hands, we can expect changes in this area.

For instance, elm trees well all likely die since freezing temperatures over winter help them fight certain kinds of diseases — once hard freezes over winter are gone, so go the elm. Likewise, apples won't produce nearly a much fruit and lilacs will flower less. Numerous plant and animal species will disappear or go extinct entirely. Things are changing; they always change, but this is a lot.

The film, in a way, projects a bleak view of what's to come. But the focus is really on what can be done now to make things less worse, and given the predicted climate change, what is to come and how we should adapt.

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A Face in the Crowd

Now I've never been one to believe the hype that the 1950s was the greatest time in American history. I think it's a shared delusion: "the time I grew up was the best". But A Face on the Crowd really puts the nail in the coffin of the 1950s being a better, simpler time. I had a chance to see it at the screening at the Dryden.

Andy Griffith plays Larry Rhodes: a hard-drinking egomaniac. We're introduced to him by Marcia (Patricia Neal) who finds him in the town jail (for being a drunk). She's there on a visit for her radio show highlighting the common man called "A Face in the Crowd." It turns out the radio audience is charmed by this man who refuses to give a first name, inspiring Marcia to improvise that he's called "Lonesome" Rhodes. And once news the radio station's ratings have improved because of that interview, they snatch him up on his way drifting out of town and give him his own show.

From there he quickly ascends to Nashville then New York and becomes a national TV presence. All the while, he plays up the act of being a simple country boy as he's courted by members of Congress and the wealthy elite to spread their unpopular and self-supporting ideas. None of it matters much to him, as it all serves to fulfill his sociopathic needs, making him a powerful voice: to the people.

The film spares no one. The entire government is predicated on elite like Senator Fuller, who believes his ideas for how "things should be" are so perfect as to usurp the beliefs of the supposed democratic masses. When Lonesome gets to judge a baton-twirling contest, he takes a 17-year-old bride home; all the while, men in the crowd leer like horny wolves at the taut little bodies and maleable young minds dancing before them. All anyone is interested in is jeir own interests: not a soul cares for another human being.

The whole thing comes off as cynical, but I'd say it's just the presentation that is cynical; it portrays an unflinching view of the truth. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the same kind of truth is told, only through a sympathetic lens: all parties are working for things to be as good as they can be, but every person is making compromises to do so.

But the joy of the film, for all its cynicism, is the details. Walter Matthau plays Mel, a writer for Lonesome's TV show. When we meet him in the writer's room, the wit is quick and clever, and the mood is of martyrdom. It's a perspective that shows a certain honesty, and implies the necessity of the environment. By that, I mean that kind of writer of that kind of show needs the alienation and martyrdom to foster the bay of solitude within the tumultuous showbiz ocean that would otherwise serve only as distraction.

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Compliance at the Dryden

The Eastman House calendar had this to say:

The disturbing true story of a prank call delivered to a fast food restaurant comes to life in Craig Zobel's (The Great World of Sound) controversial new film. Night manager Sandra — convinced that the police have fingered one of her employees — falls victim to the persuasive and commanding voice on the phone. Grimly depicting human readiness to obey higher authority, Zobel's provocative film is a sure conversation-starter.

As I've mentioned to people, it was kind of preaching to the converted. In the post-screening discussion, there were skeptics: "people aren't that impressionable," or "I wouldn't do that", or "the filmmaker took liberties as things didn't get that bad". But I was pretty sure things did get that bad (although according to the moderator of the post-film discussion, it was in the worst of the 70 some-odd occurrences, and actually less-severely portrayed on film), people do fall for that, and even I could be manipulated that way. (Although my disdain for claimed "authority" makes me a tad more resistant.)

So let me back up a little.

The perpetrator – in this case, a man calling himself Officer Daniels – was using the known techniques of social engineering to manipulate his victims. It's a technique most frequently used in crimes of technology, and it rarely involves more than a brief conversation. One might call a bank (presumably with what looks like an internal number) for instance, and ask innocently, "oh, is this computer support?", "no, dang. Do you have the number handy?" Then they call that number, jot down the name of the person who answers, and ask, "Jim, hey — is it possible to get my Kindle on the network?", "no, I figured I'd ask anyway." Then jee calls someone else, "hi, this is Jim from computer support. I just,want to take a minute to check your IP address." I think you can see how with a large organization, it's easy to get small pieces of information out of a number of people which, when aggregated, is a tremendous amount of knowledge about the organization as a whole.

The exotic thing about this perpetrator is that he would stay on the phone for a long time — not only in the total duration, but with each individual person. One thing he was exploiting was to use an actor as a vetted source. At the start of the most disturbing segment, Sandra hands the phone to her boyfriend with the terse instruction, "this is Officer Daniels. He's a police officer. Do what he says." In that, he used Sandra to artificially create authority in the boyfriend's mind. Imagine if, with no explanation, your significant other handed you a phone and said that? Would your first thought really be, "I'm going to assume this is a stranger and figure it out for myself"? Of course not. Just like when you're introduced with a line, "this is my father", you automatically bestow respect — you don't say, "prove it."

Being part of the labor series, the moderator (whose name I can't remember and can't find off hand) tried to steer the discussion to one that damns the authoritarian hierarchy of low-level jobs, particularly fast-food employers. While I have disdain for that structure, I thought the reason for the behaviors portrayed had much more to do with human nature: it is in our nature as social creatures to want to help one another and that we take shortcuts to validate trust. Without those mechanisms, our society would be in a constant state of deadlock. Authoritarian hierarchy exploits those traits to business advantage, and in that way is a contributing factor to the efficiency by which "Officer Daniels" could dispatch his psychopathic plan.

What is there to thwart this behavior, though? In general, I think it is to respect anonymity of technology. A voice on the phone — just like the letters of a text message or e-mail — are not equivalent to a face-to-face conversation. If we treat indirect communication as an unreliable source, we can help avoid such situations.

It is also important to remember that we grant authority and that it is not bestowed, for the other key piece of the story is "Officer" Daniels' impersonation of a police officer. When authority is granted, there is always an option for independent thought and personal responsibility, but if it's believed to be bestowed, then an officer can bestow authority, and assume responsibility, both of which are but dangerous illusions.

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Thoughts on Ruby Sparks …

With the Dryden closed on Mondays, I have been making a habit of going to the Little for their $5 Monday movies — often to see two films. Tonight I went to see Ruby Sparks. I had seen the trailer and had written it off, but I read an interview with writer-and-star Zoe Kazan which sold the movie on me (but be warned it's full of spoilers.) In short, consider what happens if a woman writes a role for herself as if she were a male writer creating a manic pixie dream girl (MPDG)? It all seems a little more self-aware to me, and I'm interested to see if all that works out. Alternatively, what if a movie centered on a MPDG were able to pass the Bechdel/Wallace test?

The introductory first act introduces us to Calvin, a young writer who met with massive success in his first novel. He lives alone in a fancy house and is trying to follow up with a second work. But it's not going so well. His only company is a scruffy dog who (as he reveals to his therapist) he got as a way to try and meet women, but it's not working. So his therapist suggests he try writing a few paragraphs about meeting a woman who adores his dog. And later while dreaming, he finds such a woman, albeit imaginary.

Enamored by his fantasy, he sets to frantically writing. He confides in his therapist that he's worried that he's falling in love with the character. And then all hell breaks loose when he thinks she's living in his house. She believes fully that the history defined by his writing is her actual life. And then worse: everyone else thinks she's there too, presumably because, well, she is.

But rather than turn into a rehash of Mannequin or Weird Science (yikes: dating myself seriously!) it steers more toward what it's like to be a being who has no idea she was just a fictional construct, centering on the differences with a real person.

And this is what the trailer completely misses: it's sort of a multi-layered writer's movie. I mean, all the characters are fictional constructs, but one is also a fiction-in-a-fiction. And then, while Calvin and Ruby are the most fully-realized characters, how can they coexist with others who are absurdly broad? For instance, when I saw Antonio Banderas as Calvin's stepdad Mort playing the stereotypically over-the-top artist, I thought, "oh my god, it's like he's made of ham." It's interesting to consider how all the characters exist and why they're there, and how fully formed the would believe they are.

The film gets me thinking, what if it were possible to buy, say, a robot girlfriend? What if I could make someone who is exactly what I think I want? Would I even come close to anything desirable? And then I also know it's necessarily a paradox to have free will (a.k.a. intelligence, artificial-or-not) and be manipulable or programmable.

Writing offers an outlet for those dreams of Pygmalion — a way to literally (and literarily) make friends. And Ruby Sparks touches on all the ramifications of that.

So I guess I'd recommend it if you're wanting for that kind of film. I find expectations to be extremely important when it comes to viewing a film, and the trailer does such a poor job of setting those expectations in the "right" direction that I don't recommend the trailer or any single-paragraph summary. And it certainly helps if you also like looking at Zoe Kazan.

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Thoughts on Steve Jobs "Lost Interview"

I decided to check out Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview at the Dryden. I think it was something to do with semi-morbid curiosity, and I feel like I have a connection somehow — what with being 10 years younger, but with a similar hunger for electronics and computers. We had Apple II's in our high school, and I learned machine programming and did some hacking, although my main expertise was with the TRS-80 Model III (and later Color Computer) we had at home. What I mean to say is that the seeds of how we lived our lives were rooted in the same kind of stuff.

Anyway, Robert X. Cringley, "during the making of his TV series Triumph of the Nerds about the birth of the PC, … taped an hour-long interview with Steve Jobs who proved witty, outspoken, and visionary." This was in 1995: 10 years after Jobs was ousted from Apple, during the time when he was developing NeXT computers on his own, a year prior to selling NeXT to Apple (which became the foundation for OS X), and 18 months before returning to Apple to take over as CEO.

From the film, I gather interviews Steve Jobs almost never gave interviews. In fact, I can't recall ever seeing him do one, knowing his presence only from the Apple shareholder meetings he was famous for. So it was a rare treat to see not only the interview, but also getting to see pretty much the whole thing without being edited down for television.

At one point, Jobs says he thinks computers are the greatest invention ever made. I reflexively agreed — I do everything with computers, and my job is centered around them — but I think I also agree more deeply. It's one of only a few tools ever invented that improve upon the qualities of the mind (akin to language, writing, books, etc.) rather than as a tool for saving labor or for improving health and safety. For instance, after the film, I noted that Joseph Fourier developed his Fourier analysis in the 1800's, but at that time, it was little more than theoretical math — worthless to everyday society. But with computers, we exploit it all the time, using it as a foundation for JPEG image compression and MP3's.

Also, I always seem to be surprised that someone had made a claim about the impact and significance of the Internet from its early days, as when Jobs claimed we'd be doing everything on the World Wide Web and the Internet. I remember, though, that it was pretty much obviously a big deal. Heck, even I had my first website sometime in 1996, although I didn't know exactly how it would manifest (nor did anybody else).

Overall I found it to be a fascinating time capsule, well worth seeking out.

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The Fraud that is Truthland

So I heard about this film Truthland which is purported as a response to GasLand by Josh Fox. While I think Gasland barely scratches the surface of the issue of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas extraction (hydrofracking or fracking) — and promotes the most sensational aspects — I think it is overall a service that it raises awareness and encourages people to explore further.

So having "drank the Kool Aid" so-to-speak, I was skeptical of Truthland. I watched the trailer and it looked pretty good. But then I was thinking, "I wonder where the website is hosted" so I looked into it. It came back "clean" in the sense that it wasn't hosted at a gas company like I expected but by Linode.com. But then I thought, "man, that website looks really good". It'd probably be around $5K to $20K to make something that looks that good. That seems kind of unusual for a family to be able to afford (and without even a mention on IMDb.com, much less media attention or even a Kickstarter campaign.)

And then I thought, you know, the footage in the trailer looks really good too — like too good. I mean, I think it's possible that a mom in Pennsylvania knows how to produce a top-notch documentary, but it seemed kind of unlikely. The quality demonstrated in the trailer ain't from some off-the-shelf Canon no matter how much money you spend: shooting obviously included a recording engineer, someone with fill lights and reflectors, a good cinematographer, and at least two cameras. For instance, at about 1:30 in the trailer interviewing Joseph Martin: note the gap between Shelly DePue and Martin where you can see the tree trunk between them, then in the close-up, the camera is to the left of the first and zoomed, obscuring the tree? A digital zoom after-the-fact would show the same angle. Plus there's obviously wireless microphones to record the interview and reflected light to key their faces in the shade of the trees. These are not things the average person thinks of — only an extraordinarily exceptional person would.

So way at the bottom of the page are two links: one to Energy In Depth, and the other to The Independent Petroleum Association of America. Well gee, that seems weird. Most documentaries give thanks to friends and relatives who ponied up the thousands of dollars it would take to shoot it, but this one cites a couple industry groups.

So I Googled it and a few links down is Fracking Industry's Answer to "Gasland": Devised by Astroturf Lobbying Group and Political Ad Agency. And that pretty much puts a lock on it. I don't mean to just make an ad hominem fallacy of it all: there is big money at stake, and the central deception (that this started from DePue wanting to find the truth) calls into question everything that is said. And if everything that's said can't be believed, why say it at all?

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God Bless America at the Dryden

Curiosity got the best of me, I guess, and I headed to the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see God Bless America. It's billed as a black comedy "revenge fantasy" although I think the philosophy runs deeper than that. Yes, it's a story that threads the needle of disbelief so we can have a "hero" who takes it upon himself to successfully go on a killing spree of people who, well, annoy him — "revenge fantasy".

Early on, Frank meets up with Roxy — a disaffected teen who hungrily insists on joining him. The mechanics of the plot force the revenge killings to continue unabated, but there's bound to be at least one that's just a little too close to the viewer's own behavior. That, and as Frank and Roxy discuss their guidelines of who to kill, it's clear that it's all way too subjective: each individual has jeir own set of behaviors that jee deems wholly intolerable.

But there is one common thread in it all — one thing that I think everyone can agree on: those people are most responsible for irresponsible and immoral behavior today. You know who they are.

See, the thing we all have in common is the "problem" is with "others", not ourselves. And if we identify some behavior that is part of the problem, we are certainly not the worst offender: we have a plausible justification for our behavior.

So that leads me to three questions: how can I tell if it's me?, are you sure things are bad?, and why am I even thinking about this?

One thought experiment is to ask, "if everyone in the whole world behaved as I do, would that be okay?"

  • If everyone in the whole world used 4,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity in a year, would that be okay? Hrmm … probably not.
  • If everyone in the world didn't own a car, would that be okay? That would probably improve things a bit.

Another experiment is to think of how complicated an explanation is necessary to defend your argument. I mean, I don't even see a need to justify holding the door for someone behind me. Or how about, "the other day this guy just walked out into the crosswalk and he almost got himself killed — I mean, what was he thinking? Didn't he know to look both ways before crossing the street? It's not like I could have stopped to wait for him because I was in a hurry because my presence is critical at my destination." And don't you think it's more consistent and straightforward to think that greed is more to blame for the problems in the world than some convoluted logic that somehow leads to homosexuality?

But a lot of times we should step back and think, "are things that bad?" I remember going on the highway with my parents in the 1970's. When traffic was moderately heavy, the whole highway stunk of gasoline, oil, and smoke. I mean stunk — like if you spilled some gas in your garage, only it was hot in the summer and the vapor just lingered there making everyone just a little queasy. But you can barely smell them now (except on a steep race track like the steep grades on I-70 west of Denver) even though there are literally twice as many cars now as in 1972.

And finally, what's the deal with finding someone to blame anyway? Why is our culture so hell-bent on doing that? It seems entirely counterproductive: it's so bad to be "ruining the world" that we are compelled to create convoluted explanations for our own behavior rather than just going, "yeah, that thing I'm doing is doing more harm than good so I'm going to change it."

See, the only way God Bless America makes any sense is if we are fully committed to shame so we feel absolutely justified in targeting someone else to blame.

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Thoughts on Heist: Who Stole the American Dream?

I decided to head to The Little (240 East Ave.) to see Heist: Who Stole the American Dream? Filmmaker Frances Causey, and author David Cay Johnston were there to discuss the film with moderator Julie Philipp.

Of course, because I can't remember facts, I'm heading to Heist's Official Website with this outline of the central point:

Beginning with background on the New Deal, HEIST explores how Franklin Delano Roosevelt's progressive policies were derailed by Ronald Reagan and subsequent presidential administrations, benefiting only the wealthiest investors and CEOs. HEIST exposes the full story: how corporate leaders worked with elected officials of both major political parties to create the largest transfer of wealth in history, looting the economy to create a gap between rich and poor previously seen only in impoverished colonial nations. The film is structured as a political thriller, showing the shift from FDR's New Deal reforms to an ideology where the free market reigns. It reveals the impact of the infamous Powell memo of 1971 entitled "Attack on American Free Enterprise System," which was a call to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for American business to defend its interests against criticisms of unregulated capitalism. The Powell Memo and the 1000 page Mandate for Leadership document published in 1980 by the conservative Heritage Foundation, which were written to promote business interests and deregulation, serve as the starting points of the story to show the roots of the class warfare unleashed by big business, and how wealth in the U.S. was transferred from workers to corporate interests over decades of policy shifts.

I walked in there brimming with confirmation bias. The facts presented in the film and the theories behind them fit exactly with my own experience and observation of corporate expansion of scale and power, the behavior of the media, the exploitation of journalistic standards, government, and taxation — pretty much everything.

The other day I was in a restaurant with a TV on some news network, and the on-screen personality was presenting — as news — changes to the contract plans of one of the cell phone companies. To me, this was just the flat-out reading of a press-release generated by that company. I argue this isn't news (but I think I'm more likely to get people to agree that it's the reading of a press release so I'll stop while I'm ahead). This doesn't violate journalistic standards per se — where the goal is to accurately represent statements from an individual or organization. But there's something there that misses the spirit of journalism … perhaps the spirit that journalists are the watchdogs of democracy rather than the lapdogs of the aristocracy [a phrasing that is not exactly right, but far too clever for me to omit].

Heist, however, confirms my suspicions. One of the goals of the 1971 Powell memo was to control the media in exactly this way. Modern journalists don't just go out and pick their own stories: morning e-mails outline the stories they are to cover. Those e-mails are sent by the managers which are driven by their managers, and so on, until you get to realize that there are only a half-dozen media companies making these decisions. A few years ago, I recall watching the nightly news and flipping between channels — horrified that every single story was being reported on the other stations in exactly the same order. The simplest explanation was that the schedule for all three stations came from the same source.

I thought Heist presented a solid case, but it's also affirming what I believe already, so how can I be confident that the theory it presents is an accurate one? I was thinking that people bring their own biases, and they're more likely to be swayed by something that agrees with their established ideas than by something that does not. So why would someone be influenced by this film? I muddled my way through asking a question of the panel and got most of it across.

Frances Causey made a point to say that she had been a journalist at CNN, but left to work on more in-depth projects like this one. She said she spent an extraordinary amount of effort confirming that every fact — especially the most sensational ones — were verifiable and accurate.

What's omitted in all the discussion, though, is the underlying theory. I'm going to take as given that the facts are true, and the sequence of events is as depicted (i.e. corporations are using the 1971 Powell memo as a playbook). But Heist answers the question, "is this good?" with a resounding "no." In fact, it basically presumes that this is not good.

Individually, I think this kind of world sucks. I hate having to constantly be an outsider simply because I observe the world directly and draw my own conclusions.

Working outward, I also think that centralized power and wealth creates an inhospitable society for people to live. I think the core argument opposing that opinion is that the system we have at present provides slightly less than what people want, and that encourages them to work more and work harder, propelling progress. It doesn't actually let people starve (for the most part) but it does ensure people are in a constant state of indebtedness.

What I mean that it's inhospitable is that it could be much better. If all the wealth and power tied up in making more wealth and power were instead used to foster individual household energy independence, health care for all, true theoretical scientific research, elevating everyone's education, and so forth, I think we'd be far better off.

There is a fear — and rightfully so — that this may lead to a bunch of idle hands that become the devil's playthings, but it's entirely possible to get back to some of the good parts of the 1950's: particularly the possibility of income from a 25th percentile individual providing all that's needed to raise a family. Is it not absurd that two college graduates must both be employed to earn a decent living?

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