I left the show a little early to get to the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) for a screening of The Yes Men Fix the World. I had been aware of some of the … umm … pranks? stunts? performance-art pieces? … created by The Yes Men for some time. I had recorded a segment on Democracy Now! back when I had satellite where they had convinced BBC News that they represented Dow Chemical and wanted to help fix the ongoing disaster created by their then-recently-purchased subsidiary, Union Carbide in Bhopal, India in 1984. The movie goes behind the scenes of how they got on the air and announced that in honor of the 20th anniversary of the disaster, Dow was committing billions of dollars (US$12 billion, if I remember correctly [and indeed, upon reviewing my copy of the interview on Democracy Now!, it was]) to help the people and clean up the site. By the end of the day, the hoax was revealed, and the largest complaint was not that Dow didn't step forward and do what was right and just (i.e. commit resources and fix things) but that the hoax cost Dow shareholders US$2 billion.
And that's essentially what The Yes Men are continually asking: why can't we make a world where corporations do the right thing? Their method of asking that question is to enter situations where they present themselves as members of corporations and announce that they are going to do the right thing.
I spent most of the movie saddened that these pranks never seem to have any effect: corporations continue to do the wrong thing, claiming that the increased profits are worth more than any real benefit.
But then I realized that no one person (or even large a group) can instantly make change. Rather, it is through the constant pressure of good that makes the world better. So when I left, I got on my tall bike (which, believe it or not, I made just over 5 years ago) and realized that we all need to make the world a better place. Even little things matter because all there is is little things.
Ali and I went to The Little (240 East Ave.) to see Doubt. It's a fascinating film which, although obviously different from the play (which neither of us saw), is extremely strong. I suppose it could only help that the film was written and directed by the original playwright, John Patrick Shanley. The story primarily follows Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the minister of St. Nicholas in the Bronx in 1964, and Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the principal of the affiliated school. Flynn takes an interest in one of the students: Donald Muller — a black boy in an otherwise all-white school. Sister Aloysius fully believes Flynn molested Donald and intends to ensure he [Flynn — duh] is punished.
The audience is left to their own beliefs to ascertain whether Flynn molested Donald. I found this fascinating, as I maintained his innocence throughout the film but realized afterward that I could experience the film again completely differently by believing he was guilty.
Sister Aloysius is someone who would act to destroy based on their beliefs. I think it's a particular kind of logic that permits this: believing that one's belief alone is more true than having no factual basis — perhaps a manifestation of the nature of faith (although in the case of religious faith, it's more about filling a gap in that which is knowable). The trouble is, there is an element of circular justification: if she succeeds in destroying Flynn's reputation, she feels justified, but by putting her own reputation on the line in making such an accusation, she has no choice but to fight to destroy Flynn's reputation no matter whether he was guilty or not.
Sister James, meanwhile, acts as a foil to Sister Aloysius by believing in the kindness of others. Sister Aloysius' long-time experience as disciplinarian provides her only with evidence of sin and wrongdoing. So is it Sister James' naiveté or Sister Aloysius' limited perspective that is at fault?
For myself, I find that when factual evidence is not available, belief in kindness is the more fruitful path. As is the case with Sister Aloysius, believing more in evil makes you a destructive force in the world whereas believing more in good opens up the possibility of being constructive.
But equally important is that it makes you happier to believe that people are generally kind.
So Untraceable is a film about how the Patriot Act is good and how brainy people in universities are the source of all truly evil enemies. See, the FBI, NSA, and law-enforcement in general are all infallible organizations: when they go after someone, that person is guilty; otherwise, they wouldn't go after them, would they?
This is proven in the introductory sequence of the film where FBI Agent Jennifer Marsh finds someone using stolen credit cards on the Interwebs. She uses credit-card fraud techniques learned from a television commercial and deduces that it isn't the little old lady in the house whose IP address is the source of the transactions, but rather the next-door neighbor using her wireless access point. After all, the guy has guns which means he's a criminal.
Then a tip comes in about a website where someone's letting a kitten die on live-fed video. But the site is [wait for it …]untraceable. The film uses mumbo-techno speak to explain how the site is being redirected from foreign countries and stuff so it can't be traced. Then the guy starts killing people and the mystery is on.
Well, not the real mystery, but the attempt to find who the guy is who's doing all these mean things and why. The real mystery is how this evil, university-educated genius can transport and set up elaborate killing techniques that would make James Bond scriptwriters blush. He has access to all sorts of equipment, drugs, and chemicals that — to the average person — would be all but impossible to get, requiring lots of signatures, picture ID's, and money. It must be that pesky university! But even if we write that off, he is also able to transport his computer rig to anywhere in the city without anyone so much as blinking. Whatever explains these magical powers is probably the same one that lets him move around victims with equal ease and invisibility.
In stark contrast, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was excellent. It's about a guy who was perfectly healthy until a stroke rendered him completely paralyzed except for being able to move and blink his left eye. He starts out feeling trapped, depressed, and annoyed. Once a speech therapist helps him to speak by reading letters to him and blinking when she gets the right one, his imagination and memories come to the forefront and he eventually decides to complete a book contract he had. It's an interesting movie exploring the will to live and the human need to find contentment and happiness in any situation.
I have heard reviews where people talk about it being "amazing" what this man went through, but in a way, it was more a demonstration of necessity than anything. Because of his condition, there was no way for him to kill himself — in fact, it was because of the quality of health care he received that kept him alive at all, so in a way, it wasn't that he was unable to kill himself, but that he was unable to prevent others from keeping him alive.
See, there appears to be a level of personal happiness that is unrelated to one's life condition. If happiness truly were tied to one's life condition, then extremely well-off people would be constantly overjoyed and poor people would beg for brevity in their miserable existences. Clearly, though, this is not true.
But remarkably, it seems to have no limits. It's challenging to imagine a worse fate than being completely paralyzed and kept alive irrelevant to your consent. Yet here was Jean-Dominique Bauby (the character was based on a real person) who lived that very nightmare. His personal disposition — once the trauma of the sudden, dramatic change in his life wore off — seemed to return to a level not dissimilar to himself in his past, fully ambulatory life.
Anyway, there's sort-of a game to see how the Cinema's double-features are related. This one is a tough one. Judging by how I personally felt, I think Untraceable was supposed to be as bad as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was good — that the latter was to cancel out the former, and you were supposed to leave the theater feeling exactly the same as when you went in. In 10 years, I invite you to recall this combination and see which still has relevance.