Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Father Like I Wanna

In which Nancy Meyers makes a French-styled film in America

I just watched The Intern (2015), with my incredibly talented, smart, and beautiful wife, and these are my thoughts about it. Written and directed by Nancy Meyers, the film deals with the intersection of work, family, and life satisfaction through two interlocking stories, one dealing with Robert De Niro’s retired widower and newly minted (at the perfect age of seventy) office intern, and the other with Anne Hathaway’s brilliant fashion-start up entrepreneur, whose brand new, rapidly expanding online business is named About the Fit. The interplay of our expectations and the characters’ desires plays out like a French domestic drama, something I highly doubt Meyers gets credit for from critics at large.

While there is a betrayal in the film, it’s not the one I’d imagined from seeing the marketing materials, and the way it unfolds is surprising and unexpected, and avoids the clichéd workplace climbing we’ve come to expect from films that heavily feature office workplaces.

Ultimately the film defies the template we’ve seen in so many movies about modern women, where steep tradeoffs have to be made in order for the leading ladies to have families and careers. Familial satisfaction and the outward ordinances of modern Western-style “success” clash incessantly and demand that we serve two masters simultaneously, but we all know that is impossible. What is needed is balance, and Hathaway’s character finds it, not by denying one side of her heart or the other, but by placing her affection (despite very compelling reasons to reject her husband) where it most belongs: on her family. That emphasis allows her to accept her situation and gives her the courage to stay who she is while finding the beginnings of balance. The film ends on a note of acceptance as Hathaway and De Niro do Tai Chi in the park. Ultimately, life is about the fit.

Oh yeah, and De Niro is hilarious, too.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

George Washington Wrote This Post In 1796, So Why Am I Writing it 220 Years Later?

(I originally wrote this on December 14, 2012)
The American Revolution was fought not only for the immediate fate of the colonists, but also for the future residents of the country they hoped to carve out from Great Britain. The rebels thought, fought, planned, bled, and died for a future where men were free to govern themselves. In the preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America, it reads,
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
We as the citizens of the United States of America have abdicated our Constitutional rights and responsibilities to govern ourselves by vesting power in the two major political parties.  The rightful rulers of the United States, its people, must break the power of political parties. The unique system of government bequeathed to us from the Founders of our country demands that the power of government be wielded by the people, otherwise there is no reason for the United States to exist.  In the Declaration of Independence it states,
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
This was true in 1776, and it is still true today.  Luckily in order to alter the form our government has taken we do not need to have an armed rebellion, just a little change in our voting habits, because the Democrat and Republican parties are not true representatives of the people who elect them to power. They are not affected by the laws they pass, they are supported by the taxes of the people, even when they are independently wealthy, which most of them are. Both parties refuse to cooperate with one another on specious grounds, which boil down to the often unspoken cliché of the critic; “I wouldn’t have done it that way.”  As both parties tell the Manichaean lie that they are the party of the people, opposing the darkness with the light of rational platforms designed to keep America great, they blame the other side, in an endless cycle of political maneuvering, which has the effect of obscuring the fact that no one on either side is getting done what we the people need to have done on our behalf.  The parties have become a law unto themselves, rather than doing their professed job of representing the best interests of the American people.  Hence, the power of the parties should be shattered by the American people because 1) the system of government we enjoy is rooted in experimentation. 2) We must grow up as a democracy in the 21st century, and 3) all systems run to corruption without constant and perpetual renewal.
The people of the United States have allowed our national interests to be swallowed up by the interests of the political parties, whose central interests are holding on to their supposed power.  We can change this situation, and indeed must, if our country is to flourish. The rebellion against the British monarchy was an experiment in self-government, and was a resounding success.  The democratic republican form of government we enjoy today was made possible by the revolution, which was not a sure thing. Since then, democracy has spread across the globe, and is still growing.  Monarchies still exist, but the power they wielded in times past has been broken. That is the model for what should happen to the major parties in the United States.  The experiment in self-government is by definition open-ended.  It will only fail if we do not live by the principles laid down in our founding documents. We must not abandon the experiment. That being said, the Constitution allows us to modify it as the experiment reveals change is needed.
Part of the problem with the power of the parties, is that we have somehow come to believe that this is the way our government is designed to function.  It is not. The Constitution never so much as mentions political parties, let alone the system as it currently stands today. The Founders were extremely concerned with the concept of unity. In order for the United States to be a workable concept and be able to function with the Constitution, unity was paramount. In 1858 Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”  While Lincoln is referencing the issue of slavery, the principle of his point still stands; divisiveness creates disunion. In his final address to the American people, the first President of the United States, George Washington said, speaking about political combinations, and associations,
They serve to Organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force--to put in the place of the delegated will of the Nation, the will of a party; often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the Community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public Administration the Mirror of the ill concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the Organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common councils and modified by mutual interests.
 We must break the power of parties in the United States by using the power the Constitution grants us: Vote against the parties until they get the message that the representatives we elect represent us, and nothing and no one else.  We can do this by never voting for an incumbent again.  As we do this, a pattern of one-term officeholders will emerge, showing that simply being a Democrat or a Republican is not enough to get anyone elected.  After that, the only thing left for us to judge a candidate’s fitness for office is that candidate’s ideas to improve their country/district/etc.  And that is how it should be.
Our refusal to exercise the power guaranteed us in the Constitution is like the young person who refuses to grow up and take responsibility for his or her own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.  President Barack Obama said in a television interview that, “The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside.” One way to change it is to stop electing politicians to office who will be there for longer than one term.  If Washington is so entrenched with partisanship and corruption that it is not possible for a seeming outsider like Obama to change the culture, then to change it we need to elect a flood of outsiders every two, four and six years, until the statement of Martin Luther King Jr, writing from Birmingham Jail is realized, “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its borders.”  Term limits should be imposed on every elected office in the United States, not by a Constitutional amendment, but by the ballots of the voters each election. We would need more candidates if this were to occur, which would allow ordinary citizens to be elected to office.  The mirror example is when reserve military personnel are called to active duty. Upon their return, they are guaranteed the job they left to serve will be waiting for them. Considering that congress people are not eligible for the congressional pension unless they have served five years, the pension plan would essentially not serve Senators and Representatives any longer, saving the taxpayers’ money.
We say it is too hard to change Washington D.C., but we cannot know that until we have tried.  President Obama himself did not know it could not be done until he was the president for almost four years.  We must use the most fundamental power vested in us by the Constitution to change Washington; namely, the right to vote.  The best part of changing government this way is that we do not have to wait for the government to fix something for us.  It is a false idea that the government is something separate from the people of this country.  That is one of the reasons the power of the parties must be broken; the false duality of government versus the people and/or government serving the people is incorrect.
We are the government of the United States.  We elect representatives to represent us.  Hence, we are the government. As Martin Luther King, Jr, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” We have lost sight of that. And in fact we have lost sight of the power of democracy.  Sometimes when a job seems too hard, we abdicate our power in order to get out of doing it ourselves.  We don’t want to take the responsibility of helping our workplace be an inviting environment, so we put all the blame on our boss, or his or her boss, or the corporate structure of the company.  Which may even be true, but it is not justifiable to solely blame others when we have not done our part yet.  The parties encourage this kind of thinking, all the while giving the excuse, “it’s not our fault, blame them!”  If the United States was a marriage, this kind of thing would be seen for the immature sham it really is.  Imagine two married people both saying to one another, “it’s not my fault, you made this happen!  You got in the way of my dream!”  We would see a problem there.  If two persons both level the same exact charge at each other, then we say it takes two to tango, and that is right. We would tell this couple that they must be more realistic, and must learn to compromise.  If they refused this advice, we would say they need to end their partnership. The fact that the parties constantly blame each other for preventing important legislation being passed is proof of their illegitimacy.  As Washington said, “the common & continual mischiefs of the spirit of Party are sufficient to make it the interest and the duty of a wise People to discourage and restrain it.”
Some say that political reform, revolution and repentance are no guarantees to future progress. They say that if we fix one issue, that creates a myriad of other problems.  Well, then we will fix those problems, and then fix the problems the former solutions created, ad infinitum.  An endless cycle of reform may sound like the worst thing in the world to some, but it is the only thing that will bring continual progress to this great country.  Researchers at The Harvard Business School have recently done studies about what makes people truly happy, and what they have found is that, “it’s simply making progress in meaningful work.” (Amabille and Kramer) That sounds an awful lot like the language of the Declaration of Independence talking about our right to pursue happiness. We have an unalienable right, not to be happy necessarily, but to be able to progress toward happiness and felicity. We must stand up and take our rightful place as the true source of power that allows this great country to exist and thrive. Americans are only exceptional when we actually live the principles our government was founded on. So let us start acting like Americans. And if we have an unending task of checking and balancing the government before us as a people, then the great task of guarding and keeping safe the ongoing evolution of democracy is a cause worthy of giving our time, talents, and our lives to.

Preamble.” United States.
Declaration of Independence.” United States.
Washington, George. “Farewell Address.”
Obama, Barack. As qtd in Dwyer, Devin. “Obama Says He Can’t Change Washington From Inside.”  ABC News. ABC News. 20 Sept. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.
King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”. 80 Readings for Composition. Ed. David Munger. n.p. Pearson Longman, 2006. 245-262. Print.
Amabille, Teresa and Steven Kramer. “Do Happier People Work Harder?” The New York Times. The New York Times. 3 Sept. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Operational Cinema: Inglourious Basterds and You

Inglourious Basterds (sic)[1] is a World War II movie written and directed by Quentin Tarantino[2].  The film raises questions of historical accuracy, the validity of revenge, the costs of racism, and the acceptable usage of violence as told in five chapters. The film is long on plot and suffused with themes, so for the purpose of this review only the first chapter, “Once upon a time in … Nazi-occupied France,” will be summarized.
The film opens in the idyllic French cow country during the Nazi occupation of the country. A farmer (Perrier LaPadite) chops wood as a delegation of German military drive up the lane. The delegation is led by Colonel Hans Landa, who has been placed in command of the search for Jews in country. In fact Landa is so good at it he’s been dubbed “The Jew Hunter” by the people of France. Landa says he wants to visit LaPadite’s farm as a simple formality in order to officially close the file on the LaPidite family. What Landa and LaPidite both know, and what the audience gradually learns as LaPidite slowly realizes what already Landa knows, is that there is a Jewish family that has been hiding underneath the kitchen floorboards for the past year[3]. The last Germans who searched the farm didn’t suspect a thing, because they would never hide there themselves. The colonel interrogates the farmer and humbly brags about how he is proud of the nickname the French people have given him, “precisely because I’ve earned it.”[4]  Landa offers terms to LaPidite, who accepting, points out where the Dreyfusses are hiding. The Germans soldiers machine gun the floor, massacring the whole family, except for one teenage girl, who escapes the slaughter and runs out into a field, with Landa trailing her with his pistol, waiting for a sure shot, and right when it appears he has it, he shouts, “Au Revoir, Shosanna!” and drops his pistol to his side as she runs over a hill out of sight. Does he let her go because he can’t make the shot, or to let the infamy of the Jew Hunter circulate even wider? After all, anyone Shosanna would tell the truth of her tale to would obviously be sympathetic to the Jews, and hence would be even more afraid to continue giving aid to them if the Jew Hunter was on the case, just like LaPidite was when he found out who had come to call on him.
Tarantino sets up all of the themes of the film in this first nearly 20 minute scene. All the characters are playing a part throughout, save for the terrified Shosanna as she runs from the massacre of her family.  A theme that is central to nearly every moment, every image, every line of dialog, is that of performance -- of existence as a form of acting, and human identity as both projection and perception.”[5]
The second chapter, called “Inglourious Basterds” deals with a group of Jewish commandos, led by a descendant of Jim Bridger named Aldo Raine, who are dropped behind enemy lines undercover to terrorize the German forces.They are a propaganda unit to counter Goebbels' -- a movie at loose in the world. Forget Dresden, the Basterds are carpet-bombing the Germans with the most powerful weapon of all: fear.[6]” The Basterds, as the Germans call them are guerrilla fighters who kill German squads, but let one survivor go after marking him with a swastika carved into his forehead. The principle reason they give for doing this is that “We like our Nazis in uniform. That way, you can spot ‘em just like that. But you take off that uniform, ain’t nobody gonna know you was a Nazi. And that don’t sit well with us.”[7] This may seem like a simple case of a gruesome revenge fantasy, but many Nazis attempted to flee Germany after the war to avoid being prosecuted for their crimes, and many succeeded with the help of relief organizations as well as churches in escaping from justice and setting themselves up with nice new lives in places like Argentina..[8]
Tarantino never states whether the commandos are religious Jews, or just culturally and ethnically Jewish, but either way the fact that they mark their victims has religious and cultural significance to the Jewish faith. In Leviticus 19: 28 it states, “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh… nor print any marks upon you.” The fact that Jews were tattooed in concentration camps was disrespectful to their religion, to say nothing of their human rights. The act of the Basterds in marking Nazis is evidence of the belief of the soldiers that, in the words of Lt. Raine, “Nazi[s] ain’t got no humanity.”[9] The Basterds’ belief in this idea is shown by the fact that they mark their enemies in a way that is considered an abomination when it is perpetrated against their own people. The question is raised by the scenes of the Basterds killing Nazis simply because they wear a certain uniform, if killing people because of their political persuasions is moral, or not. And that’s a good question. But that’s exactly what wars are all about.
The issue in this film is that we are actually shown the faces of the Nazis.  We see how good they are at their jobs, we hear of their bravery in battle, we see the pride  and love they have for their children, and are even shown one Nazi’s tears of joy when commended by the Fuhrer. Shorn of context, these characterizations make us admire and sympathize with these characters. Interestingly, we are never shown anything of the concentration camps, and they are never even brought up! But we know they were there. We know what happened there. We know that they killed millions of undesirables purely for the sake of furthering their power.
Subtextual criticism is brought up in the film itself by film critic-turned-secret agent Archie Hicox, so it is safe to say this is a movie that openly invites audiences to bring subtext into the theatre with them. Does bravery in battle matter when one’s moral bravery has been abandoned? Does it matter that young Sgt. Wilhelm is a proud and loving new father, eager to share his favorite movies with his new baby boy? Does he deserve to live in a time of war when he has signed up with the Nazis? If one makes quality films but does it for the glory of racist fascists, should one take pride in the work?  So the question remains, is what the Basterds do up close and personal worse then what regular soldiers do in battle from the safe distance of a foxhole?
In the next chapter we see the decadence of the lifestyle of the Nazi high command when the escaped Shosanna has lunch with a German war hero (Fredrick Zoller), Joseph Goebbels, his mistress, and some SS officers who interview her in order to determine if the cinema she owns would be a proper place to host Goebbels latest masterpiece starring Zoller. The pampered poodles of Goebbels’ mistress sit at the table with the Nazi entourage. Tarantino lingers on lavish close-ups of delicious looking strudel and crème. Why? To show that these people have the will to power to have the best of everything, but instead of obtaining it and sharing the surplus with the people of the world, they waste it all in conquering, subjugating, and destroying their fellow man. Landa even describes the strudel as, “Not so terrible.”![10]
The last two chapters deal with a plot hatched by the American OSS and the British SOE, to assassinate the German high command (Hitler, Goebbels, Hermann Goring, and Martin Bormann) at Shosanna’s cinema during a gala premiere using the Basterds as the operatives. Shosanna has also decided to blow up her theatre to create her own oven to roast the Nazis. The two overlapping plots to kill Hitler[11] dovetail and intertwine in the last chapter as plot complications force the Basterds to improvise, to disastrous results, which leads Landa to detect their plot. Landa is a self serving piece of human trash, with no real loyalty to the Nazi party he has sworn to serve, so he makes a deal to let the bombs blow as long as history is rewritten to state he was a double agent for the allies the entire time. The deal is struck, so the Basterds’ bombs go off, as well as Shosanna’s undiscovered plot to set the theatre ablaze, but not before Shosanna is murdered by the previously thought of as nice Nazi Zoller., and the Basterds left at the cinema by Landa wreck vengeance on Hitler by machine-gunning him to death.
With the death of Hitler in the film, we see we’ve not been in our reality, but watching an alternate history. We should have know this the whole time. Movies are not reality. Tarantino never lets us forget we’re watching a movie, a hallmark of French New Wave cinema[12]as he uses chapter headings,  repurposed film score from classic films, voice-overs, constant references to characters watching movies, split screen, and ‘80’s rock songs as score. Tarantino’s intention is unclear here, but that is a hallmark of art films, where the director gives just so much, and leaves the rest up to the audience. The trailers for Inglourious Basterds promised a thrilling revenge commando movie, but what Tarantino made is a European art house movie about the actions taken on all sides during World War II. The film poses many questions, some extremely uncomfortable, about our moral logic, our duty to our beliefs, and the toll of war on societies[13]. The film is a masterpiece, and will stand the test of time. It is also fun. As Tarantino said,
Holocaust movies always have Jews as victims. We’ve seen that story before. I want to see something different. Let’s see Germans that are scared of Jews. Let’s not have everything build up to a big misery, let’s actually take the fun of action-movie cinema and apply it to this situation.[14]

[1] The title is purposefully misspelled. The only clue the film offers for this is a shot where Lt. Raine sets his rifle against a rock and we catch a fleeting glimpse of the words “inglourious basterds” carved into the rifle stock.
[2] Film is the most collaborative medium of all the arts, but for the sake of space as well as style, I will leave out mention in the body of the review of the contributions of the cinematographer Robert Richardson, editor Sally Menke (1953-2010), and other essential personnel.
[3] Doris L. Bergen, War & Genocide (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 185. Most of the Jews that were hidden in Europe were children, because it was easier to hide and explain them than adults. Boys were riskier to hide than girls as few European Christians circumcised their boys, and the Jew hunters of the time would routinely ask men and boys to pull down their pants to determine if they were Jews.
[4] Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds (New York: Weinstein Books, 2009), 11.
[5] Jim Emerson. Inglourious Basterds: Real or Ficticious, it Doesn’t Matter. Scanners With Jim Emerson. September 1, 2009. http://www.rogerebert.com/scanners/inglourious-basterds-real-or-fictitious-it-doesnt-matter.
[6] Jim Emerson. Some Ways to Watch Inglourious Basterds (Sic). Scanners With Jim Emerson. August 25, 2009. http://www.rogerebert.com/scanners/some-ways-to-watch-inglourious-basterds-sic.
[7] Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds, 37.
[8] Gerald Steinacher, Nazis On The Run (New York: Oxford University Press Inc, 2011), 286-289. Shockingly, two large organizations that helped former Nazis flee justice were the Catholic Church, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
[9] Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds, 19.
[10] Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds, 66.
[11] Roger Morehouse, Killing Hitler (New York: Bantam Books, 2006), 322. There were many, many plots in real life to kill Hitler, a majority of which were plotted by members of the German military, but something always seemed to go wrong at the last second and Hitler walked away from them all. But not in this film.
[12] Aaron Koehler,” C’est Si Bon! French New Wave Cinema & Its Impact on Contemporary Film” (ENG 122-316, Community College of Aurora, 2013). Rough draft in my possession.
[13] The author has seen the film a total of four times.  On August 22, 2009, September 18, 2009 (both in movie theaters), December 25, 2009, and May 8, 2013 (on home video), and these and other themes, far too many to address in this essay constantly well up and present themselves with the smallest bit of intellectual effort on the part of the author.
[14] Jeffrey Goldberg, “Hollywood’s Jewish Avenger,” The Atlantic, September 1, 2009. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/09/hollywoods-jewish-avenger/307619/?single_page=true