Strong on the Individual

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With its intellectual A-list cast sporting two comediennes, multiple Oscar nominees, and a writer-director known for his careful character development founded in realism, Where’d You Go, Bernadette promises to be the perfect choice for filmgoers with discriminating taste (if “discriminating” can still be used in a favorable context) I was a little concerned by the 46% critics’ rating, but the 77% viewer approval (and that A-list cast) gave me hope that the critics had missed the point on this one.

Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) lives with her husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) and teenaged daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) in Seattle, where Elgie works as a software developer for Microsoft and Bernadette is a stay-at-home mom whose eccentric nonconformity drives the other mothers mad at Bee’s tony private school. As the film opens they are planning a family trip to Antarctica, a reward for Bee’s perfect report card, and Bernadette is smiling her agreement while plotting how to avoid going.

The film’s title refers literally to Bernadette’s unexplained absence from home midway through the film, but it also refers figuratively to her lost sense of identity. She is an award-winning architect who has lived for nearly two decades in a peeling, unfinished fixer-upper and uses a virtual assistant in India so she doesn’t have to deal face-to-face with people; a gregarious and affectionate wife who can’t open up to her husband; a homeowner who creates devious acts of microaggression against her neighbors; and a mother who . . . well, mothering seems to be the one things she does joyously and well.

As the film opens they are planning a family trip to Antarctica and Bernadette is smiling her agreement while plotting how to avoid going.

Slowly, gradually, we begin to understand what has made Bernadette so withdrawn, and our sympathy for her deepens. We get it. We even discover that she has a bit in common with Ayn Rand’s architect Howard Roark. But the development is too slow and too gradual to be more than moderately engaging, let alone comedic. Yes, it has deeply ironic moments that cause us to guffaw knowingly, but the pacing is simply too slow, the movie too long, and the delivery too deliberate for most audiences.

Bernadette seems to be delusional or agoraphobic or clinically depressed — or perhaps all three. Blanchett plays them all to perfection, manically discoursing nonstop one moment, retreating into isolation the next, growing loving and affectionate in other scenes. We may not understand her, and we wouldn’t want to live next door to her, but we like her all the same. In sum, she is suffering an identity crisis of enormous proportions.

The film itself suffers from a similar identity crisis. Like its heroine, it pretends to be what others want it to be instead of what it is — a surprisingly upbeat but slow-paced drama about a woman struggling with mental illness and her relationships with the people who love her. Yet if you’ve seen any trailers for the film, you would expect it to be a fast-paced, rollicking, laugh-out-loud comedy. But it’s not, which is probably why critics have given it a pass. It’s as though the marketing team decided to promote what they wanted the film to be, instead of what it is. And that’s a lot of Bernadette’s problem too: she has chosen to suppress what makes her special, including the tragedy in her life, in order to be accepted. And it’s driving her crazy.

Slowly we begin to understand what has made Bernadette so withdrawn, and our sympathy for her deepens. We even discover that she has a bit in common with Ayn Rand’s architect Howard Roark.

Director Richard Linklater deliberately cast against type in order to defy audience expectations and emphasize the message of the film: We can’t really be ourselves when we are trying to satisfy someone else’s expectations. Judy Greer, Kristen Wiig, and Megan Mulally, all titans of smart and sassy comedy, are excellent, but they’re given serious roles, one as a clinical psychologist, one as a former acquaintance, and one as a tight-assed controlling neighbor. And because we expect them to be rollickingly funny, we can’t quite accept them as they are — we make them funny, even when they aren’t. It’s a brilliantly subtle directing decision, but it doesn’t quite work, especially in the face of a marketing campaign that didn’t trust the strategy.

Bernadette failed with the critics for largely the same reason Bernadette fails with her neighbors — it tries to present itself as something it’s not. And it simply isn’t necessary. It doesn’t have to fit a genre. The film has strong characters, strong acting, and a strong message. It may be slow, but that’s OK. My friends don’t have to keep me in stitches all the time, and neither do my movies. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is slow, but it’s worth seeing, and maybe even worth seeing again.

Blinded by the Light is another independent film about discovering and maintaining one’s true identity when others are trying to tell you who you ought to be. Set in the 1980s and inspired by the youthful experiences of writer Javed Khan as a Pakistani growing up in Luton, England, its themes of immigration, racism, culture, and fitting in are as current as yesterday’s Facebook post.

In Springsteen’s music Javed finds his own story: the working-class neighborhood, unemployed father, blue-collar expectations with white-collar dreams, and the raw talent to make them happen.

Javed (Viveik Kalra) lives in a working-class neighborhood in England with his ultratraditional Pakistani family. His father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) left home against his own parents’ wishes in search of a better life for his family in England, but he is extremely traditional in his expectations about family and culture. He controls the money, the social life, and the future plans of his wife and his children. “You will not become British!” he shouts at Javed when Javed asks to attend a neighborhood party. As the film opens they are preparing for their oldest daughter’s marriage to a man she has not yet met. Malik pockets the meager earnings from his hard-working wife and children, commanding respect and control even though he is unemployed himself.

And yet, isn’t “becoming British” – or American, or Texan, or suburban — precisely why immigrants bring their families to a new land? Isn’t it because they like what they have observed and want to take advantage of its success? Yet I see newcomers time and again setting about to change the very culture that attracted them.

At school Javed is picked on and shunned. In the neighborhood he is chased and spat upon. At home he feels isolated and unhappy.

And then he discovers Bruce.

Springsteen may not be the Boss of me, but he certainly became the Boss of his own life, without ever losing sight of his hometown roots.

In Springsteen’s music Javed finds his own story: the working-class neighborhood, unemployed father, blue-collar expectations with white-collar dreams, and the raw talent to make them happen. I’ve never been a big fan of Bruce Springsteen; most of his music is too loud and his raspy voice is too harsh for me. But as The Boss’s lyrics became the soundtrack to Javed’s young life, with key phrases popping onto the screen during key moments, I gained new insights and appreciation for Springsteen as a poet. He may not be the Boss of me, but he certainly became the Boss of his own life, without ever losing sight of his hometown roots.

That’s the key to Javed’s identity too — he discovers how to stand up for himself, follow his own dreams and choose his own path without rejecting his foundation as a Pakistani growing up in working class England. Through the inspiration of Springsteen’s music Javed finds his own voice and a way to embrace both his future and his past.


Editor's Note: Review of "Where’d You Go, Bernadette," directed by Richard Linklater. Annapurna Pictures, 2019, 130 minutes; and "Blinded by the Light," directed by Gurinder Chadha. Bend It Films, Ingenious Media, Levantine Films, Rakija Films, New Line Cinema, Warner Brothers, and a slew of others (Chadha was persistent in getting this film distributed!), 2019, 118 minutes.



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Nuclear Power: Again, Why Not?

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Those who believe that manmade climate change threatens civilization, and even nature itself, with imminent death should be clamoring for more nuclear energy production, which releases no greenhouse gases. I wrote this recently as part of a longish essay about my nonexpert citizen’s skepticism regarding climate change. I speculated that one reason for the fact that there is no closing of the ranks around nuclear energy is that it’s reputed to be dangerous, especially in view of the possibility of radiation leaks. I also argued that, in spite of this ill fame, it’s difficult to find anywhere evidence of much health damage caused by radiation.

This information scarcity makes it difficult to assess the reasonableness of the widespread avoidance of nuclear energy production. Almost everyone who expresses an opinion dislikes it or is mistrustful of it. Voicing the objection that these unfavorable attitudes are not rooted in evidence either raises the eyebrows of disbelief or triggers the silent charge that you have not looked hard enough (which may, of course, be true).

Soon after writing the essay I just mentioned, I read a new book overflowing with anti-nuclear evidence that moved the hand on my clock some — only a little, but enough — to be worth discussing. The book is Kate Brown’s A Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future. In any case, if I don’t discuss it, others will, from a predictably laudatory angle, I would bet.

Brown is an engaging writer, though one with baffling lapses, in several languages.

Brown’s thesis is that the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident released more radioactivity, in more places, for longer than the official sources allow, and that many more people’s health was affected, and much more severely, as well as more lastingly, than is openly acknowledged.

Brown is an engaging writer, though one with baffling lapses, in several languages (“tribunal” for “tribune,” “amass” for “mass,” “bales of hay,” for “bales of wool,” to “curate” for to “examine,” “Judenrein” for “Judenfrei”). Although she is a Soviet expert and a reader of Russian, for several pages (p. 184 and on), she confuses perestroika (“deep societal reform” or “restructuring”) with glasnost (informational “opening,” in the sense of increased transparency). And despite the fact that Brown is a tenacious, assiduous, even a formidable, researcher in the service of her thesis (more on this below), several major defects detract from the persuasiveness of her book.

First, Brown is not a neutral investigator, or even a journalist, but unambiguously an activist who hates nuclear anything. Perhaps as a result, she pretty much treats every dissenting voice as part of a long-lasting conspiracy involving Soviet authorities (national and local — no surprise), major UN agencies, and several US federal agencies, to conceal the scale of the ill effects of radiation exposure, as well as the intensity and duration of such exposure. This is not completely unbelievable. I myself think that the deadly climate change narrative is supported at once by local, national, and international government actors, although not within the context of a conspiracy but of a passively shared perception.

But Brown’s overreliance on a conspiracy explanation ends up undermining the credibility she earns by good archival digging. When she adds the International Red Cross to her already rich mix of plotters, my willingness to suspend disbelief vacillates. I don’t see how it cannot. As she continues, it crashes. The main international organization that cites large numbers of radiation victims following the accident is Greenpeace. But Brown herself honestly describes Greenpeace’s attempt to collect data in the Soviet Union as a fiasco.

Second, and possibly fatally for her, Brown straightforwardly imputes increases in mortality and morbidity in the vicinity of Chernobyl to a rise in radioactivity in the region following the reactor’ meltdown. She does this without benefit of baseline estimates regarding either radioactivity or health conditions before the accident. This is a major defect, of course: you may not impute a rise in Y to a rise in X if you cannot demonstrate a rise in X. In a roundabout way, she admits in several places that she cannot demonstrate a rise in radioactivity around Chernobyl or, in fact, anywhere at all, following the accident. She argues — persuasively if you disregard the rest of her book — that hundreds of nuclear weapons tests in the ’50s and ’60s had so overwhelmingly loaded the atmosphere with radioactivity that it may be difficult or impossible to isolate the comparatively modest radioactive emissions from Chernobyl specifically. (See, for example pp. 244–245, for the radioactive saturation following American tests.)

Brown’s overreliance on a conspiracy explanation ends up undermining the credibility she earns by good archival digging.

But it seems to me that if you are unable to measure a rise in X, there is no point in trying to blame it for a rise in Y. And if you believe that X causes Y and you cannot link an actual increase in Y even to an identified increase in X, you may not claim much about anything. Brown thus finds herself in the impossible situation of trying to demonstrate rigorously that something that she argues cannot be assessed (increase in radioactivity) is the cause of something that she loosely measures or that remains unmeasured (rises in illness and in mortality reasonably traceable to radiation exposure).

Third, like many writers with a cause, Brown devotes no attention to possible negative evidence, to evidence against her thesis. She has nothing to say about situations where there should be an excess of pathologies and of mortality — according to her implicit model that enough exposure to radiation must result in noticeable excess morbidity — but none appears. The book is written a little like a scholarly article in which contradiction is pretty much expected, even guaranteed, from other knowledgeable sources, as part of a social process. But for this book, it’s not, for reasons I develop below.

Some of the book’s tangible findings seem defective as soon as you perform a little comparison around them. For example, Brown deals abundantly with rates, including accident rates, of course, before and after the Chernobyl disaster. But she seldom provides absolute numbers, which alone can tell us how much the rates matter. (If I read that the annual rate of suicide among churchgoing southern black grandmothers of five has increased by 100% in one year, I should ask whether it’s gone from 10,000 to 20,000, or from two to four, or even from one to two.) When she does give real numbers, absolute numbers, the effect tends to be underwhelming in ways she does not seem to understand: “eighty new thyroid cancers among 2.5 million Belarusian children . . .” (p. 250). Obviously, that’s hundreds of tragedies for parents and relatives and for the sick children themselves, but it’s not a massive epidemic. Perhaps it’s no more than a counting error.

Here is an indirect but reasonable comparison of orders of magnitude: in 1990, the rate of child mortality for Russia was 2.15% (“Child Mortality,” Max Roser, Our World in Data, May 10, 2019). Applying this rate to Brown’s 2.5 million children gives us a raw number of children’s deaths from all causes of about 54,000. I am sorry, but 80 out of 54,000 is not a big surplus. This comparison assumes that Belarusian children's death rate from all causes after Chernobyl is similar to Russia’s in 1990. This does not seem farfetched. Furthermore, the 80 thyroid cancers Brown reports probably did not all result in deaths, which makes the raw number of 80, blamed on accidental exposure to radioactivity, look even smaller.

When she does give real numbers, absolute numbers, the effect tends to be underwhelming in ways she does not seem to understand.

More strangely, the author treats what I believe is her best causal evidence with near indifference. She mentions in passing two large studies of nuclear plant workers conducted in Europe, in relative openness and under favorable European conditions — studies that convincingly link exposure to radiation to several pathologies (p. 294). To reach skeptics like me, that research should have been presented at the beginning of the book, rather than near the very end. Since it was not, I have to wonder what’s wrong with this research. (It’s probably nothing, but am I expected to confirm the research myself?)

Even the best evidence that Brown collects herself seems relegated to a near afterthought. She reports that the health statistics for areas affected by radiation remain normal-looking until shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the ’90s, when higher figures begin to show up. It’s as if a lid had been removed that constrained the truth. However, there are other possible explanations for this sudden change and its coincidence with the end of Soviet power; Brown spends little time discussing them.

In spite of its serious structural defects, in spite of its inadequate treatment of intriguing data, I am not able to dismiss Manual for Survival . . . not entirely. The main reason is that I am one of those who secretly suspect (against orthodoxy) that a large enough accumulation of anecdotal evidence ceases to be merely anecdotal.

If nothing else, the secretive habits of the Soviet informational first responders at the time pretty much guaranteed that some data were locked up, and others simply not collected.

Brown has performed huge amounts of both field research and archival research, spread over what seems to be 25 years, or even 30 years. Her perseverance is exceptional. Thanks to the quality of her narrative, the reader easily gathers that much of her work was done under adverse conditions, physically and politically. (The thought crossed my mind that I would want Brown on my side in any bar fight.) But, as I said in an opening paragraph, Brown is an activist. She seems to understand the scientific endeavor, but science isn’t her main business. It’s difficult to imagine anyone checking her numerous sources, except perhaps a scholar funded by the nuclear industry. The hire would pretty much have to be a Ukrainian with a very good command of English, because a high proportion of the book references are in Russian, or even in Ukrainian. It’s not going to happen. No one is likely ever to check all her sources — not even a principled sample of her sources, not even a handful.

Yet, I am thinking, a portion of her alarming assertions is probably true, and official sources probably underestimate the health damage caused by the Chernobyl accident. If nothing else, the secretive habits of the Soviet informational first responders at the time pretty much guaranteed that some data were locked up, and others simply not collected. The health lessons that Chernobyl has for today are still necessarily limited. The accident happened in connection with a primitive nuclear technology and under the rule of a political system that was routinely both criminal and mendacious. Since Chernobyl, the nuclear reactor core at Fukushima melted down in the worst possible context of a natural catastrophe. Dissimulation of the health consequences of the Fukushima disaster was unlikely in the relatively open Japanese society. Radiation leaks took place in the midst of a population especially sensitive to such dangers. And yet, not much appears to have happened to anyone’s health that can be linked to radiation.

So, Manual for Survival has moved the needle a little for me — not much, but some. The best way I can express it is this: I would still advocate the replacement of nearly all coal-fueled energy production plants with nuclear plants. I would probably refrain from the same recommendation in connection with relatively clean natural gas plants. That’s because there is no doubt that coal burning pollutes in several ways, irrespective of the reality of the climate change narrative. Natural gas is so clean by contrast that it may not be worth it to take even the slight and poorly demonstrated health risk that may be associated with accidental radiation exposure in order to avoid burning gas.

Her monumental work is largely irrelevant for rationalists, except from a historical viewpoint. It may stand well as another chapter in the sorry history of the Soviet Union.

Of course, if someone whom I thought qualified reviewed Brown’s multiple sources and pronounced them mostly adequate, I would revise my judgment again about the safety of nuclear energy production.

In the end, her monumental work is largely irrelevant for rationalists, except from a historical viewpoint. It may stand well as another chapter in the sorry history of the Soviet Union. The primitive technologies and the incompetent and weak sociopolitical controls of Chernobyl are gone for good. There is a segment in Steven Pinker’s well-documented Enlightenment Now (2018) about both the disadvantages and the overwhelming advantages of nuclear power (pp. 144–150). Why, even climate-change-fixated National Geographic shows a few signs of coming around! Though not many signs: see the short feature on nuclear engineer Leslie Dewan, in the March 2019 issue.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future," by Kate Brown. Norton: New York, 2019. 432 pages.



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Despised, But Not Resisted

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After reviewing Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015), I swore I had seen my last QT film. The acting was stagy, the bloody violence gratuitous, the storyline beyond unbelievable. He hadn’t just “jumped the shark”; he had catapulted the cow jumping over the moon. I was done.

But something about his latest offering, Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, drew me back. The stellar cast, led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, promised committed, unexpected performances. The setting, 1960s southern California, was where and when I grew up, and I was drawn to the nostalgia I would certainly experience. And the story, leading up to the Manson murders, was not only tragic but also somehow romantic in the classical sense — a story of people who captured the interest of the nation when it occurred. Many say the ’60s died that day, along with Sharon Tate and her friends. Yes, I assumed there would be blood (and there is) but at least it wouldn’t be gratuitous this time. And in fact, it doesn’t show up until late in the film. I was willing to give QT another look.

Similar to Tarantino’s breakout Pulp Fiction (1994), Once Upon a Time presents multiple disconnected storylines while foreshadowing an explosive climax. Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) is a TV western star nearing the end of his TV career. Dalton is based not-so-loosely on Clint Eastwood in “Rawhide” or Steve McQueen in “Wanted Dead or Alive.” Like Eastwood, Dalton is encouraged to move to Europe to make spaghetti westerns with a director named Sergio. And like McQueen, he is a bounty hunter in his TV series. Also like McQueen, Dalton carelessly knocks a young girl onto the floor in a movie scene; McQueen is reported to have knocked an actress across the room during a “method acting” improvisation for the great Constantin Stanislavski. After the scene cuts, the little girl tells Dalton, “That’s the best piece of acting I’ve ever seen.” Stanislavski said the same to McQueen after he smacked the young starlet in acting class.

Many say the ’60s died that day, along with Sharon Tate and her friends.

McQueen shows up in the film by the way — played by Damian Lewis, who utterly nails McQueen’s piercing eyes and brooding mouth. The film is full of homages and allusions such as this, and one could enjoy it just looking for the Easter eggs. Tarantino knows his Hollywood trivia! But there is much more to this movie than homage.

Another storyline focuses on Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who works as Dalton’s stunt double and gofer. He drives Dalton around town, grabs him a beer when he’s thirsty, runs his errands, fixes his antennae, listens when he’s despondent, and does it all with that winning Brad Pitt smile. Audiences at the premier in Cannes whistled and clapped when Pitt stripped off his shirt to work on said antennae. At 55, Pitt is still plenty buff. Dalton might be the protagonist, but Booth is clearly the star. Even the way he side-clicks his tongue, signaling to his dog that it’s time for dinner, is gobsmacking.

Dalton lives next door to Roman Polanski, who he hopes will notice him and cast him in a movie. Meanwhile, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), Polanski’s pregnant wife, is luminously happy about her breakout role in a Dean Martin movie, The Wrecking Crew. Having started her career in TV shows like “Mister Ed” and “The Beverly Hillbillies,” she is understandably ecstatic to see her name and image on a movie poster. Robbie plays her shy excitement just right — almost embarrassed to look at the poster in the movie theater lobby, wanting to be recognized, finally having to say who she is, then basking in the recognition she has created and positively glowing as she listens to the crowd reacting to her scenes. You can’t help feeling empathy for this pretty girl whose life was cut so gruesomely short, back in 1969.

Tarantino knows his Hollywood trivia! But there is much more to this movie than homage.

And then there’s Charlie Manson (Damon Herriman), who makes a brief appearance at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, looking for its previous resident, Terry Melcher. We see him almost as a shadow, a ghost that hovers and lingers without really touching down. His “family” — Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning, all grown up and sporting a potty mouth); Froggie (Harley Quinn Smith); Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), and Tex (Austin Butler) — provide a constant simmering background to the film and an ongoing foreshadowing of the climax we know is going to come. They dive into dumpsters, thumb rides on street corners, maraud though the town like bandits, and preen like sirens. They are spooky and scary, even without blood. Take a note, QT.

As expected, the stories eventually come together, but in unexpected ways. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

Despite its length and somewhat slow development, this is Tarantino’s best work since Inglourious Basterds. I will probably see it again, next time to focus more on the Hollywood allusions and Easter eggs. And, reluctantly perhaps, I will continue to see and review Tarantino’s movies. He is the most maddening and brilliant of directors. I despise him — but I can’t resist him. Ironically, I think that’s what the “family” said about Manson.


Editor's Note: Review of "Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood," directed by Quentin Tarantino. Sony Pictures, 2019, 161 minutes.



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Stories, Good and Bad

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Steve Almond’s latest book, Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country, is the author’s attempt to sort through America’s flaws, as he perceives them, in order to explain the ascendency of President Donald Trump. The rock that gave credibility to his account — the Trump-Putin collusion — has now eroded to mere talus, and Almond’s book stands before the world as just another silly piece of business from the academic left.

Almond is enough of a socialist to recommend the nationalization of the football industry (and that’s going pretty far). In an interview in The Sun (September 2015) he was questioned about his recently published book, Against Football. At one point, the interviewer, David Cook, asks: “Is there anything that would make football worth watching again for you?” In his reply, Almond describes his “dream” of public ownership of the “football industry.” Thus: “The football industry could benefit our communities rather than billionaire owners and sponsors. What would it be like if the teams were publicly owned and the profits were funneled into the public coffers?” And he asks, “Is that such a crazy idea: that this game might help the people who need help the most?”

Almond’s book stands before the world as just another silly piece of business from the academic left.

Bad Stories is premised on the determinist idea that individual minds develop according to the stories to which they’re exposed. Furthermore, bad stories, the ones he sees as flawed or distorted, function to keep the good stories out of circulation. All this comes very close to the traditional socialist preference for a deterministic theory of human character and conduct. As Robert Owen put it, “A man’s character is created for him.” Owenite socialist experiments in America collapsed, one by one, and yet he kept on preaching the socialist faith, and many others have since joined him in resisting reality.

The Great Enlightenment of the 18th century, with its discovery that man, through reason and experiment, could identify chemical elements and synthesize molecules, led some thinkers to believe that they could, through reason, design an ideal society. Breathing this atmosphere, Owen concluded that the social order was all wrong, as did Fourier and such other extremists as Marx and Sorel. The main obstacle between them and the realization of their collectivist dreams was human experience, which included 35,000 years of trial and error. One product of the centuries of ebb and flow was the rise of Western civilization and its slow and costly march toward personal and economic freedom. And thus emerged free-market capitalism with its built-in pricing system, a wondrous instrument that adjusts production and distribution, according to demand. Under socialism, the free-moving pricing system is replaced by a governing bureaucracy — a nonaccountable realm, as James Q. Wilson described it. However much the socialist may rant about a just distribution of wealth, the pricing system carries with it a justice that sensible humans can truly understand — rewards based on the satisfaction of consumer demand.

It’s this form of justice that the socialist cannot abide, for he cannot control it — cannot channel its rewards to those that he, by heaven, believes are the most deserving. Hayek has warned us that personal freedom has never existed without economic freedom. “Fear not,” the socialist might say, “human nature is malleable. People will adjust to the imposed system.” But have they ever done so? And one might ask — if people are all that malleable, how did the socialists dream up socialism?

Owenite socialist experiments in America collapsed, one by one, and yet he kept on preaching the socialist faith, and many others have since joined him in resisting reality.

But here we have Steve Almond, feeling impelled to explain the rise of Donald Trump. He reveals the many reasons he divines, foremost among them being those “bad stories” that “distort our belief system.” Why does he neglect the individual’s reasoning process and the skepticism it can produce — especially in reflecting on political issues? Are individual Americans mere bots, driven now here, now there, by media prompts? The reasons he deduces for victorious Trumpism often involve a mass response to external influences, and these often trace back to capitalism. Consider this partial list: voter suppression, elections held on Tuesday, a disaffected electorate, hostile feelings for the other party, passions of a small minority, white privilege and the petty bourgeoisie, dehumanization, conservative paranoia, lying Rush Limbaugh and talk radio, thirst for entertainment, the sports brain, racism, opposition to social change, Trump’s unbridled aggression, television, the internet, Russian bots, lack of a Fairness Doctrine, the media’s right-wing conspiracy (a laugher), Vladimir Putin, Albanian hackers, and, of course, the Electoral College.

Almond criticizes the right and the alt-right for their paranoia, never showing, through example, how they demonstrate that quality. But his own apocalyptic predictions evince the paranoia he attributes to Trump supporters. One of his preferred literary works when seeking an analogy for Trumpism is Moby-Dick. The novel reeks with Significance. So great is the reek that I’ve wondered whether Melville was only kidding. One of my teachers in college, Professor E.H. Rosenberry, had similar thoughts — consider his book, Melville and the Comic Spirit.

But to Almond, Captain Ahab is “a parable about our national destiny in which the only bulwark against self-inflicted tyranny is the telling of a story.” (A bulwark? — how about the Constitution?) But Trump is more than an inchoate Ahab — he also resembles Kurtz, the antihero in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Conrad himself was a conservative, loyal to his adopted country, and, according to biographer Jeffrey Meyer, congenitally pessimistic. In Kurtz, we discover a smooth-talking reformer, who seeks to civilize a primitive African tribe. He dreams of a heroic reputation, but is drawn into the very culture he hopes to uplift. “The horror! The horror!” are his last words. Is it Almond, not Trump, who resembles Kurtz? But Almond ventures onward — Trump is also the golden calf prayed to by the Israelites. Indeed, he sees Trump as a packhorse for all the tyrannical vices — a bully, a bullshitter, a hollow entertainer who avoids the issues.

Why does he neglect the individual’s reasoning process and the skepticism it can produce — especially in reflecting on political issues?

What issues? Almond hardly mentions intellectual issues. He never details those Russian-hacker smears he complains of, though he spends a great deal of space on Hillary’s emails. When he does address policy issues, he bases his judgments on the immediate interests of his close acquaintances and a woman he found on Vox.com. He mentions the benefits they derived from Obamacare, for example, or from the Obama “stimulus package.” He overlooks the long-term effects of these “benefits” on the country. He believes the voters should worry more about their personal vulnerabilities than about their grievances. Were this a sound principle, the Pilgrims might have stayed home, along with others who sailed the seas to America. Aggrieved by oppression, they risked a long period of vulnerability at sea — for the promise of freedom.

As Almond sees it, Vladimir Putin is still fighting the Cold War. That we won that war is, to Almond, a bad story, even though the ultimate collapse of the Soviet empire is an established fact, and America can rightly claim to have carried the day. The author disparages Ronald Reagan as “the star of Bedtime for Bonzo napping in the Oval Office.” And yet, crucial steps toward Cold War victory were taken during the Reagan presidency. The Reagan-inspired arms race, Reagan’s frankly anti-Soviet stance, and his close alliance with the Thatcher government, all contributed to the economic failure of the Soviets and the eventual decision by Gorbachev to release the captive nations. At the time, George Kennan and his containment policy got much of the credit, though the policy had led to the squandering of blood and treasure in winless wars. But Reagan’s contribution was enormous. What was his approach to the Cold War? “We win, they lose,” he said — and we won.

Will Trump initiate a period of American decline? Putin hopes so, according to Almond. So far, Trump’s tax cuts have brought a period of prosperity to America and provided a clear lesson: as an economic stimulus, a tax-cut beats the federal printing press every time. Creating inflation to stimulate the economy is the equivalent of a lie — an economic falsehood. But Almond, the socialist, may well see prosperity as decline — as “late-model capitalism.” And consider this claim by the author: “When our president fumes about NFL player protests, or Confederate monuments, or gun rights, he isn’t just ‘shoring up his base.’ He’s doing Putin’s bidding.” This is fanciful nonsense.

Almond, the socialist, may well see prosperity as decline — as “late-model capitalism.”

Donald Trump is proving of little danger to America. And he will likely alert our people to a true danger — the swing among Democrats toward socialism, a system that has created a procession of disasters, especially during the 20th century. Its popularity on campuses is a monument to the corruption bred by left-academics, and the ignorance they cultivate. An extensive literature of liberty exists in the archives of America and the Western world. But one would hardly suspect its existence, if judged by the state of knowledge of the average college student of today. When colleges and universities accept an enormous tuition, yet keep students in ignorance to preserve their leftist sympathies, they perpetrate a fraud.

Almond’s political ideas are accompanied by a fashionable anti-patriotism. That America is a representative democracy is, to him, a “bad story.” But members of both houses of Congress are elected by the populations of entire states, or of districts within each state — hence we have representative democracy in the legislative branch. The president of the United States is, at present, chosen by electors in each state, the number of each state’s electors being the same as the number of members in its Congressional delegation. The Constitution doesn’t require a direct popular vote for these electors. The system was meant to protect the interests of the less populated states and to produce a careful choice for an office of great potential power. George Washington recognized this power and, after his second term in office, established a precedent by bidding it farewell.

There is something malodorous in the words, something that smacks of mere namecalling.

And yet, Almond views America as “borne [sic] of high ideals and low behaviors, the land of all men are created equal and slave labor. We’ve been engaged in a pitched battle ever since, between greed and generosity, between the comforts of ignorance and the burden of moral knowledge.” This quotation is taken from the final chapter of Bad Stories, one that particularly reveals Almond’s affliction with Trump Derangement. Here, anti-Trumpism reaches the brink of hysteria — environmental protection, civil rights, free trade, public education, health care, are “all heading for bankruptcy.” On the other hand, “the markets for white supremacy, mass shootings, corporate profiteering, and nuclear cataclysm are booming.” And worse, “[Trump’s] aides and allies are mortified by his cognitive deterioration, his inability to read, or concentrate. It becomes more and more obvious that he’s unfit for the office. And yet, the office belongs to him.”

Do Almond’s own words represent a bad story as he defines it — one flawed and distorted? There is something malodorous in the words, something that smacks of mere namecalling. He subjects the man who is now president to an incompetent psychological evaluation. Trump, it seems, “never experienced a sense of being unconditionally loved, what psychologists call attachment. The best he could hope for within his family of origin was to please his domineering father through aggression. Because he never developed an intrinsic sense of self-worth, he can’t protect himself from feelings of inadequacy.” Thus Trump “proved especially captivating to disaffected Americans.” Does this last follow? Or was his appeal simply his departure from the Republican nice-guy-loser pattern — the one pioneered by Tom Dewey and emulated by Messrs. Goldwater, Bush, Dole, McCain, and Romney?

Experience clearly indicates that free-market capitalism is a far more effective system than its rivals. It’s no contest.

Chapter 15 in Bad Stories is entitled “Give Us Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses.” This fragment Almond sees as a “bad story.” It’s taken from a sonnet, “The New Colossus,” by the poet Emma Lazarus (1849–1887), a gifted woman. Her poem has been used and abused in debates over immigration, in particular those involving the Hart-Celler Act of 1965. Mencken wrote that the poet doesn’t deal in truth, but rather “conjures up entrancing impossibilities.” Perhaps the Lazarus poem conjures up a beautiful dream, the kind that guides and inspires the living. It bears a touch of early feminism, which ought to fascinate the present-day advocates. But it also contains, not only an invitation to our shores, but the inspiration to seek freedom wherever it’s dreamed of.

Alas, Almond is an apostle of equal outcomes, rather than freedom. I’m amazed that socialism ended up, not as one of Almond’s bad stories, but as a resuscitated grand scheme, or better, a secular faith. The fall of the Soviets after decades of blood and slave labor — despite the cheerleading from Western intellectuals — the rejection of British socialism with its Control of Engagements Order, the move of Scandinavian countries toward a free-market economy, and, much earlier, the failure of virtually all socialist communities in America, all taken together, suggest that maybe socialism isn’t such a good idea. The mass murders in Cuba, the desperate exits of its citizens, and the impoverishment of Venezuela offer more evidence of its futility.

Have you ever seen a more hysterical sentence?

Still, Almond sees capitalism, personified by Donald Trump, as the great evil. It stands in the way of our solving “crises that are beyond empirical doubt.” In his view, these include “climate change, resource depletion, and inequalities of wealth and opportunity, all of which are triggering mass immigrations, political unrest, and violent extremism.” It follows — to him — that we must reject bad stories (which ones?) and place our faith in “reason and empiricism.” Empiricism? But empiricism is the doctrine that the source of all knowledge is experience. And experience clearly indicates that free-market capitalism is a far more effective system than its rivals. It’s no contest.

Resistance to Almond’s collectivist agenda is reflected not only in “a ruthless free market theology” but also in other reactionary attitudes — a “make believe retreat from globalism, a nostalgia for white hegemony.” Worse yet, “our culture lurches about within the shadow of its own extinction, yet lacks the moral imagination to change its moral destiny.” Still worse, “our style of capitalism has acted as a financial centrifuge, perhaps the most brutal aggregator of wealth in human history, built on a foundation of slave labor and fortified by plunder, imperial warfare, the decimation of the labor movement, the predation of Wall Street, [and] the steady subjugation of oversight to private gain.” Have you ever seen a more hysterical sentence? Or one requiring more determined efforts to trace empirical facts about the world’s greatest multiethnic middle-class society back to its supposed causes in plunder and brutality?All this “resistance,” Almond conjures up with little regard for the reason and empiricism he urges on the rest of us.

It seems fair to remind Almond and his admirers that in its two-and-a-half centuries of existence, the United States of America has freed more people from slavery than any country in history. It has taken in tens of millions of immigrants seeking a better life and, through trade and the simple giving of gifts, has spread its bounty around the world. It has lost hundreds of thousands of its bravest sons in battles against the forces of tyranny — and often restored the war-damaged lands.

It’s the very risks, the adventure, involved in living in a free society that fascinate those whose heroic qualities remain unsuppressed.

Perhaps a touch of the sportsmanship in a “sports-brain” would make Almond a better, more reflective writer, as would a closer look at that “ruthless free-market theology.” A “brutal aggregator of wealth” must operate in a system of voluntary exchange. He doesn’t hide his money in the bathtub. He adds it to the river of capital that flows into financing and investments — creating new businesses, new products, new homes, more jobs, and more opportunities for improving the human condition. Is everyone happy in a free-market economy? No, of course not. Would there be greater happiness under any other economic regime? No again. A system that rewards the takers by plundering the producers will only spread misery in the long term. Frédéric Bastiat understood this, and his plain words might well be put in the hands of college students everywhere. He spoke of the “instinctive struggle of all people toward liberty.” Yes, and the struggle reflects those heroic qualities, which, taken together, represent a wonder of this earth — it’s called the human spirit.

It’s the very risks, the adventure, involved in living in a free society that fascinate those whose heroic qualities remain unsuppressed. But will their spirit roam free, or will it suffocate under a system that forces them to abide by a bureaucratic plan? An enforced equality can only be achieved at the expense of the best — the most creative, the most productive, the most in need of liberty. I see nothing in this that shows “moral imagination,” or that will lead to an improved “moral destiny.” And it may place all of us nearer to extinction.

With the exception of Almond’s personal experiences, which might make a decent book, Bad Stories is of little value as a source of truth. But as an example of the fashionable nonsense that passes for truth among the academic Left, it may be very useful indeed — it may lead some heroic individuals to educate young minds properly.

Useful Reading


Editor's Note: Review of "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," by Steve Almond. Red Hen Press, 2018, 257 pages.



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Only Yesterday

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On July 6, 1957, John Lennon and his skiffle band, the Quarrymen, performed at the Crowning of the Rose Queen parade at Woolton Parish Church in Liverpool. Paul McCartney met Lennon backstage between sets and played a few songs, including a medley of Little Richard songs, on his own guitar. Two weeks later John invited Paul to join his band, and in 1960 they changed their name to the Beatles. Ten years after that the band dissolved. It had been the most prolific and profound decade of music writing, producing over 200 original songs on 13 albums and covering nearly 100 songs written by other artists.

I bring this up because today, as I write, is July 6, the anniversary of Paul’s meeting John, and today I happened to see Yesterday, a whimsical film based on their music.

What if Paul hadn’t attended that Rose Queen parade? What if John had become an artist instead of a musician? What if the Beatles had never existed as a musical group? Would the music still exist somehow? Was it their music, or does it belong to the universe?

Ten years after that the band dissolved. It had been the most prolific and profound decade of music writing.

That’s the theme of Yesterday, Danny Boyle’s delightful story of Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) a mediocre singer-songwriter who wakes up one day after an unexplained global power outage to discover that no one has heard of the Beatles, and none of their songs exist — except in his own memory. A Google search of Beatles produces nothing but a big black stinkbug. A search for John, Paul, George, and Ringo brings up a wiki article on Pope John Paul. Coca-Cola doesn’t exist either, along with several other modern products we take for granted. Jack’s reactions to the loss of these products, and his friends’ reactions to his requests for them, lead to several delightful moments in the movie.

So what would you do if you discovered you were the only repository of some of the greatest music of the 20th century? Jack is like Guy Montag and the educated tramps at the end of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 — he becomes a living songbook, trying to remember and recreate every song in the Beatles lexicon.

Well, OK — he also performs the songs and accepts the accolades for having written them. He isn’t completely motivated by altruism. Or even a little bit. It’s somewhat galling to hear that these new songs are the best he’s ever written, but he gets over it easily enough. Soon he abandons his lifelong manager and almost girlfriend Ellie (Lily James) for a high-powered LA agent played by a deliciously wicked Kate McKinnon (Saturday Night Live’s Hillary Clinton), who openly admits to Jack that he will do all the work while she takes all the money — a clear but subtle reference to “Taxman.”

A Google search for John, Paul, George, and Ringo brings up a wiki article on Pope John Paul.

As familiar as he is with the music, Jack struggles to remember the lyrics. “Yesterday” is easy enough. But what about more complex works, such as “Eleanor Rigby” or “Back in the USSR”? We struggle along with him, wryly learning that we can sing along, but we can’t really sing alone. “When does she do that knitting?” he murmurs to himself as he works on recreating “Eleanor Rigby.” “And where does the rice come in?”

Eventually he pulls it together. (Father McKenzie, not Eleanor, does the darning, not knitting. And it’s “a” wedding, not “her” wedding — a significant difference for a song about loneliness. Such is the weakness of memory.)

So while Jack doesn’t actually write the songs he claims as his own, he does exert tremendous effort and labor to recreate the songs. And even then, he doesn’t quite get it right. As he accompanies himself on guitar or keyboard, some of the melodies and harmonies are a little off — intentionally so, I’m sure, to remind us how memory works — or doesn’t. Jack performs the songs as a solo act, and while I liked some of his modernized arrangements, especially his passionate version of “Help,” I missed the harmonies. All of this emphasizes how complex the Beatles’ recordings were, how deceptively simple their harmonies seemed, and how tight they really were, often trading off the melody as they sang.

It’s somewhat galling to hear that these new songs are the best he’s ever written, but he gets over it easily enough.

Boyle’s admiration for the music is apparent in subtle ways — a familiar flute riff in the background in one scene, a whimsical tuba in another, the tornadic crescendo rising to a climax from A Day in the Life as Jack flies into the air during an accident that occurs when the lights go out. Jack is “the lucky man who made the grade” — the chosen one who will “fill the holes” in the music.

So here are the questions I came away with after watching this well-written and solidly acted film:

  • Were the Beatles great because of their music, or was their music great because of the Beatles?
  • Would the Beatles have been so profoundly influential if their later, more experimental works had come first, the way Jack presents them, before their bouncy love songs had cemented their popularity?
  • In short, was the phenomenon of the Beatles as important to their lasting influence as the music itself, or does the music stand on its own?

Another question is whether the Beatles would have been as successful today. The music industry is profoundly different today from what it was 50 years ago. Music is sold (or stolen) piecemeal on iTunes or YouTube and other sites. Musicians make their money on concert tickets and merchandise sales, not music royalties.

Could the Beatles have written more than 200 songs and produced 13 albums if they had been on the road month in and month out? How would the piecemeal nature of today’s music sales have affected their creativity?

The ’60s were a magical time for music, and Boyle suggests through this film that there was something mystical about it as well.

There really wasn’t a “B side” to a Beatles record; nearly all their songs were hits. Their albums were carefully curated so that each track complemented the others. Rubber Soul has a personality distinct from Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s was organized and performed as though it were an actual concert. Fans waited months for the next album to emerge and bought all of them eagerly, listening to each track in the order that was intended. By contrast, Jack feeds his audience all the songs at once, as he remembers them, almost the way we binge on Netflix series, glutting ourselves greedily and then looking around for more, sad that we didn’t savor what we had. As a viewer I couldn’t help but wonder what was going to happen when Jack ran out of songs. By contrast, the ’60s were a magical time for music, and Boyle suggests through this film that there was something mystical about it as well.

Yesterday asks us to consider these questions, but only in passing. The story stands on its own, with a delightful cast of main and supporting characters (Jack’s parents are a hoot!), a sweet love story, and a nostalgic soundtrack. Skip Spider-man’s Homecoming this week and enjoy a little homecoming of your own, reminiscing with the music of Yesterday.


Editor's Note: Review of "Yesterday," directed by Danny Boyle. Universal Pictures, 2019, 116 minutes.



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Endgame: the Biggest Superhero Show

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Avengers: Endgame may not be the best movie of 2019, but it certainly is the biggest. Clocking in at 3 hours and 1 minute, it’s the longest studio release since the epics of the 1960s. And grossing an astounding $1.2 billion dollars worldwide in its first weekend, it is the biggest financial success in Hollywood history, breaking six box office records so far. At the cineplex where I saw the film with my grandson, it was being shown every half hour, 35 screenings in a single day, beginning at 8:30 on a Sunday morning. We felt lucky to snag three seats together in the neck-craning third row — and we bought them in advance. My grandson was already seeing it for the second time. I might see it again too.

So what’s the attraction of Endgame? It’s just another superhero movie in a long line of superhero movies, right? Is it really that special?

For many, "Infinity War" and "Endgame" marked the movie event of the decade. Super fans rewatched a dozen films or more in preparation for the release of both films.

Well, yes and no. Several factors make this film quite special, while others caused me to cringe in disbelief. I lost interest long ago in the superhero genre, yet I felt duty bound as a movie reviewer to see this one, and found elements that gave it a spiritual and literary gravitas I wasn’t expecting. Since there are hundreds of traditional movie reviews praising this film, I want to step away from the traditional and focus on my experience and reaction watching it, and I can’t do that without talking about significant elements of the plot. So if you want to see the film without the spoilers, you’d better stop reading and save this review for after you’ve seen the movie.

First, the basic plot. Endgame is the culmination of 22 separate superhero films based on Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics, featuring Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Spider-Man (played by numerous actors over the series, and in this one by Tom Holland), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Antman (Paul Rudd), Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), the Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and the entire Guardians of the Galaxy contingent, along with numerous side characters from each domain.

The characters have been crossing into one another’s universes over the past several installments, finally culminating in the ultimate Showdown with Evil in the two-part finale that includes Infinity War (2018) and Endgame, the current film. For many, these two films marked the movie event of the decade. Super fans rewatched a dozen films or more in preparation for the release of both films. While listening to a call-in radio show last week I heard a woman ask whether she could honorably get out of going to a hospice retreat with a friend who is dying of cancer, because she already had tickets to see this movie with her family. (The radio host wisely advised the woman to skip the movie and assist the friend.) Some theaters scheduled marathon showings for fans who wanted to watch the earlier films in the series together. I didn’t bother to “prepare,” yet I still enjoyed the two films just fine by accepting the fact that I didn’t know every backstory or reference, and that was OK.

What I like about this movie is how it taps into deep mythological archetypes and also introduces a new concept about time travel.

In Episode One of the finale (Infinity War), super villain Thanos (Josh Brolin) wants to gain possession of six powerful stones that will allow him to vaporize half the population of the universe with the snap of his gauntleted fingers. He thinks this will make the universe a better place by reducing overpopulation. (Here is the first of many conundrums; what kind of evil superpower is motivated by the desire to make the world a better place? But that’s the way it is.) His plan shares nothing with the parlor game of imagining a lifeboat with too many people onboard and arguing about who deserves to stay in the lifeboat and who needs to be thrown overboard so the others will have enough food and water to survive; his plan is a seemingly fair, unbiased, randomly selected annihilation. And he succeeds, in a particularly moving ending to Episode One, as half our favorite characters are vaporized into tiny particles of flame.

Episode Two (Endgame) begins with the vaporization of a family on a picnic, reminding us that it isn’t just the Avengers who have lost half their numbers; nearly everyone in the universe has suffered the loss of a loved one. Now the remaining Avengers must wage another battle to regain the stones so they can reverse the process and bring back the people who have been annihilated. This is pretty iconic good-versus-evil, science-versus-nature stuff, with mechanized robot-warriors on the evil side, and flesh-and-blood (or wood-and-sap) superheroes on the other.

What I like about this movie is how it taps into deep mythological archetypes and also introduces a new concept about time travel. One of the accepted rules of the time-travel genre is that anything you do while traveling in the past will change the future. Thus Marty McFly in Back to the Future returns to his original present and discovers that his family has changed. His father is successful, his mother is slender, his siblings are happy, and his old nemesis is washing Marty’s car. Only Marty remembers the former timeline, because only he has lived the “new past.” This occurs in most time-travel movies; only the person who went into the past remembers the old present. It always makes me a little sad that those who remained behind don’t realize the dreariness or danger they’ve escaped. In Endgame it’s explained that they can’t change the past because what they are doing actually occurs in the present. What they’re changing is the future, which is true of all our choices. Thanos will still have vaporized everyone, but now everyone will be able to come back. I like that concept because all of them realize the fate they’ve escaped and appreciate the sacrifice of those who fought for them.

Then Thanos returns and another epic battle ensues — just as Satan will, according to the book of Revelation.

What I like even more are the biblical and mythological allusions in this story. At the end of Infinity War, two biblical allusions appear in the sudden and random vaporizing of half the population. The first is a reference to the rapture at the end of the world, when, according to Matthew 24:40, “Two men will be working together in the field; one will be taken, the other left.” That’s exactly how the vaporizing feels. The other is a reference to the destroying angel taking the firstborn of every household in Egypt that marked the beginning of the Israelite Exodus into the wilderness. And another reference to the Exodus is seen when Thanos observes, “As long as there are those who remember what was, there will be those who resist,” echoing God’s decision to make all the Israelites who remembered Egypt wander in the wilderness until they died before the others were allowed into the Promised Land. In yet another scene, Dr. Strange holds back a towering flood of water, just as Moses held back the water in The Ten Commandments. (Okay, that was Charlton Heston. But he was portraying Moses.)

Thanos succeeds initially in Infinity War, but he is killed in an early battle of Endgame. For five years, the remaining residents of the earth enjoy a fairly idyllic life. They marry, start families, work the fields, study, produce, and live in peace. Then Thanos returns and another epic battle ensues — just as Satan will, according to the book of Revelation, be bound for 1,000 years of peace and then unleashed to gather his armies for a final epic battle. And when the final battle occurs in Endgame, the Avengers are joined by the resurrected beings who had been vaporized, just as in the battle of Armageddon — according to some interpretations — Christ will be joined by the resurrected dead. It’s a powerful scene in the movie, met with thunderous cheers from the audience, and made more powerful by the archetypal allusion.

Other references to redemption occur as well. Bruce Banner learns to embrace his inner Hulk, who now lives peacefully on the outside. We see a virtual resurrection of the late Stan Lee, who created the Marvel universe and died in 2018, de-aged and in his prime for his final cameo appearance in a Marvel movie. “Hey, man! Make love, not war!” he calls, as he drives out of sight. Robert Downey, Jr., who plays Iron Man (my favorite of the Avengers because he is an inventor, a businessman, and a reluctant superhero) has also experienced a kind of redemption in his life, having overcome his nearly debilitating addictions 20 years ago to become one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood. His career was dead, and it has roared back to life.

This is an astonishing affront after the brilliant success of "Black Panther" in 2018, and serves to highlight the self-righteous hypocrisy of Hollywood liberals.

Perhaps it was the serendipity of Endgame’s opening just a few days after Easter that caused me to see Christian archetypes in the film. The ultimate hero in the story willingly sacrifices his own life to reverse the deaths of those who were vaporized, saying, “If we don’t take that stone, billions of people stay dead.” He willingly trades his life for the lives of his friends — and everyone else. Like Jesus, he dies when his heart literally breaks. His last words are “I am . . . [his name],” I AM being a name of God, applied by Christ to himself. By contrast, the character’s father tells him, “The greater good has seldom outweighed my self-interest,” but I like to think that self-interest and concern for others are not mutually exclusive. In fact, each of us acting in our own self-interest while respecting the rights and property of others is probably the fastest way to the greater good. So I like this too.

My biggest beef with Avengers: Endgame is that the Black Panther universe is shoved to the back of the bus. Its citizens don’t show up until the third hour of the film; they literally stand at the back of the Avengers group in a significant funeral scene; and the token non-BP black Avengers, War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie), play secondary roles throughout the battles. Even Okoye [Danai Gurira], who survives the Thanos vaporization in Infinity War and thus ought to be fighting alongside the Avengers throughout the movie, makes only a token appearance in the first two-thirds of Endgame (to report on an earthquake under the sea). This is an astonishing affront after the brilliant success of Black Panther in 2018, and serves to highlight the self-righteous hypocrisy of Hollywood liberals. What were they thinking?

My second beef is actually a chortle at Hollywood do-gooders who couldn’t quite figure out what was evil in Thanos’s plan, whose goal is actually to remove one of their pet peeves — the overpopulation that is supposedly destroying the planet. One would almost expect them to see this save-the-planet-by-eliminating-the-humans tactic as a good thing. (Indeed, many historians argue that the plague produced an economic boon in the Middle Ages by reducing unemployment.) And in fact, Captain America comments to Black Widow at one point, “I saw a pod of whales when I was coming in, over the bridge . . . Fewer ships, cleaner weather.” What a good guy that Thanos is!

I wanted to see more of how the loss of half the population of earth affected trade, manufacturing and production, but everything was presented in a very hodge-podge way.

Nevertheless, the film gives us only a glimpse of life after near-annihilation, and it is glaringly inconsistent with the “liberals’” worldview. The reduction in population seems to have resulted in a dystopian future; five years later, cars are still abandoned where they were left by their drivers when they were vaporized, and our heroes are living an agrarian life in the woods. Okay, that makes sense. If we lose the people who run the factories, drive the trucks, service the power grid, and pump the oil, life is going to become pretty bleak, I think. At least back-to-basics. I wanted to see more of how the loss of half the population of earth affected trade, manufacturing and production, but everything was presented in a very hodge-podge way.

An example: despite their agrarian existence, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is making Tony Stark and their daughter peanut butter sandwiches on something that looks suspiciously like factory-produced Wonder Bread. Who’s manufacturing that soft, squishy, sliced bread with its pure white center and thin tan crust? For that matter, who’s manufacturing the peanut butter? Who’s making their daughter’s machine-knit sweater, her jersey-knit leggings, and her cute little pink tennis shoes? Evidently the Gen-Xers and Millennials who run Hollywood these days don’t understand where products come from, besides the store (or Amazon). Meanwhile, the Internet works, the computer and communications systems work, kids are taking selfies on their cell phones, and somehow food supplies are getting to the diner everyone patronizes. I wanted to give everyone in Hollywood a copy of “I, Pencil.”

Despite such inconsistencies in the setting and plot, not to mention the ideas, and despite my not having watched at least half of the films leading up to this denouement, I have to admit I was moved by the story. I think it was largely because I watched it with my own set of tropes and understandings about good and evil, sacrifice and redemption, resurrection and restoration. The relationships are well portrayed, and I bought into the battle, although I would have liked a clearer philosophical conflict than “Please don’t kill everyone.” I appreciated the fact that some characters changed and chose their own paths. Like my grandson, I will probably see Endgame again.


Editor's Note: Review of "Avengers: Endgame," directed by Joe and Anthony Russo. Marvel Studios, 2019,181 minutes.



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“Pro-Choice” or “Pro-Life”?

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“‘Non-profit’ is a tax status, not a business model,” Planned Parenthood chief Cheryl (Robia Scott) barks at clinic director Abby (Ashley Bratcher) in the movie Unplanned, when Abby objects to Cheryl’s insistence that her clinics double their number of abortions in the coming months. Abortion services have become big business for the NPO, and Cheryl wants to increase profits even more. But Abby’s motive for joining Planned Parenthood was to reduce the number of abortions by reducing the number of unplanned and unwanted pregnancies through PP’s reproductive counseling and free birth control.

Unplanned is based on the memoir Unplanned: The Dramatic True Story of a Former Planned Parenthood Leader’s Eye Opening Journey across the Life Line, the true story of Abby Johnson’s journey from becoming one of the youngest ever clinic directors at Planned Parenthood to becoming staunchly pro-life. Surprisingly, the film does not preach or condemn; it simply shows one woman’s experience with the procedure, both as a patient and as a practitioner, and asks us to walk around in her literally bloodstained sneakers for a while.

First, the technical review: in terms of its production values, Unplanned is good, but it isn’t great. The acting is a bit self-conscious, particularly in the secondary characters. The perky character is a little too perky as she sits crosslegged on the breakroom counter; the morose character is a bit too morose; the sparkly little toddler a little too sparkly. The villainess who runs Planned Parenthood is cartoonishly icy. Most of the women are wearing newscaster makeup. And, at one hour, fifty minutes, the entire movie is a little too long.

The villainess who runs Planned Parenthood is cartoonishly icy. Most of the women are wearing newscaster makeup.

But these are piddling complaints. As a whole, the film works, and works well. It is emotionally disturbing, visually powerful, and ultimately a celebration of persuasion over force. And, in contrast to the supporting actors, Ashley Bratcher is thoroughly convincing as Abby.

Despite the fact that Abby’s parents, husband, friends and church community are strongly pro-life and share their views with her, none of them shun her, shame her, or offer ultimatums. They use persuasion and patience, act for themselves according to their own conscience, and allow her the same right to make her own choices. They do not withhold their love from her, even when they disagree with her.

This, to me, is what being “pro-choice” really means (or ought to).

Protestors Shawn (Jared Lotz) and Marilisa (Emma Elle Roberts) of the pro-life organization 40 Days for Life condemn the actions of other pro-life activists who jeer aggressively and crudely as patients and workers arrive at the clinic. Instead, they befriend Abby during the eight years they spend on opposite sides of the clinic fence and act with patience, persistence, and kindness.

Abby’s parents, husband, friends and church community do not withhold their love from her, even when they disagree with her.

As a result, Abby doesn’t have to fight with them, and she doesn’t have to overcome the obstacle of “I told you so” when she does decide to resign from the clinic. We are able to empathize with her experience and follow her gradual change of heart, even if we don’t completely agree with her — on either side of her journey.

The film is disturbing emotionally, but it contains not a single word of profanity, nor any nudity, sexual encounters, illegal substance abuse, guns or weapons (unless you count the medical vacuum aspirator). There is blood in a clinical setting and in a realistic bathroom miscarriage. Yet the film received an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. I find it grossly ironic that a child under the age of 17 cannot view this movie about abortion without the presence of a parent or guardian, but she can get an abortion without her parents’ knowledge or consent. Could it be that the MPAA sides with Planned Parenthood on wanting to prevent young girls from seeing another perspective on abortion besides the one that is carefully crafted and presented by PP?

This is a hard film to watch and a harder film to review. While I wish abortion was never needed, I understand the difficult circumstances women sometimes find themselves in. Unless (or until) it can be definitively determined that life begins at conception, I would not overturn Roe v. Wade.

It’s personal.

So where should a good libertarian stand on the issue of abortion?

Many offer the private property argument to side with the woman’s right to choose what she does with her own body. If the fetus is an uninvited and unwanted trespasser, then she has the right to reject it from her property — her womb. The fetus’s right to live stops at the woman’s right to privacy and her right not to provide free housing for nine months — housing which puts her own life, happiness, and future at risk.

This is a hard film to watch and a harder film to review.

Others might counter with the life-or-death survival argument — a person who normally respects private property has the right to break into a stranger’s cabin in the woods in order to avoid freezing to death, or to commandeer a car in order to get a heart-attack victim to a hospital. Similarly, a fetus has the right to remain in a womb because it will die if it is kicked out. Whose rights have priority — the property owner, or the person who will die without protection?

I don’t think the government should be involved in this very difficult, very personal medical decision. My focus has always been to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place, through proper use of both self-control and birth control. But if a pregnancy does need to be terminated, it should be decided between the woman, her doctor, and her conscience. She shouldn’t have to add hiding from the government to her list of stressors.

That’s Abby’s argument too, at first. She genuinely believes that the fetus is just tissue — well-formed tissue, but non-viable, non-living tissue nonetheless. I think a lot of people have felt this way.

But modern technology makes that argument harder to support. For a long time, it seemed as though life began sometime after the first trimester, when the embryo grew from being a blob of cells with the potential for life to a living being who kicked and moved. They called it “quickening,” and it seemed to happen at about the fourth month of pregnancy. Thus first-trimester abortion seemed justifiable. Now, through high-tech ultrasound, 3D imaging, and other modern devices, we can see that a baby is much more developed at a much earlier stage. It “quickens” long before we can feel it moving. It’s real. It’s alive. It just needs time to grow. The argument that “it’s just a blob of tissue” becomes harder to make.

If a pregnancy does need to be terminated, a woman shouldn't have to add hiding from the government to her list of stressors.

What about a woman’s right to privacy and property, to choose what she will do with her own body? What about the potentially destructive impact the birth of a baby might have on her financial, professional, personal life? It’s a fair question, with no easy answer. It brings us back to that original question: when does life begin? If preemies born as early as 26 weeks of gestation can survive and thrive through modern neonatal care, it might mean that a 26-week fetus’s right to life will have to be protected, regardless of inconvenience to the woman. If it can be determined scientifically that a fetus feels pain, or that it can think and react beyond mere reflex, as Abby Johnson believes she observed, we might have to ban the procedure altogether. At that point only the self-defense argument — my physical life is threatened by this pregnancy, and I have a right to protect myself from it — would justify abortion in the third trimester.

As I said, it’s personal. Intensely so. Unplanned is a film worth seeing, no matter on which side of the clinic fence you’re standing.


Editor's Note: Review of "Unplanned," directed by Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon. Pure Fix Entertainment, 110 minutes.



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Somebody’s Favorite

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In the wake of last year’s militant #MeToo movement, when actresses haughtily proclaimed, “We will no longer be pressured into trading sex for jobs” (and bullied other actresses into wearing black at the event to show their solidarity), the Academy this year has bizarrely honored The Favourite with ten Oscar nominations, tying Roma for first place in number and confirming once and for all (as if there were any doubt) that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has zero credibility and doesn’t know what the hell it is doing.

Loosely based on the reign of Queen Anne and her relationships with Sarah Churchill,Duchess of Marlborough, and a servant named Abigail (eventually Lady Masham), the film suggests that the silly and childlike Anne made all of her decisions based on which woman’s tongue pleased her best — and I don’t mean by talking. The film fairly drips with transactional sex, from stagecoach wanking to arranged marriages to child trafficking to extortionate sex to withholding of affection for political positioning to ordinary prostitution. We even see ducks mating.

A young social climber, formerly an aristocrat but working now as a servant, worms her way cunningly — or in this case, cunnilingually — into the favor of Queen Anne.

Despite its praise from a supposedly “woke” Hollywood culture, the film’s theme is simply appalling. Yet Rachel Weisz, who plays Sarah Marlborough, called the film “a funnier, sex-driven All About Eve.” In that film, an established star (Margo Channing) befriends an aspiring actress (Eve Harrington), only to see her try to usurp her position in the theater. Similarly, in The Favourite, a young social climber, Abigail (Emma Stone), formerly an aristocrat but working now as a servant, worms her way cunningly — or in this case, cunnilingually — into the favor of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) by befriending and then pushing aside the queen’s long-standing confidante and advisor, Lady Churchill (Weisz), simultaneously finagling a financially and socially beneficial marriage to regain her aristocratic status.

Don’t misunderstand my objection — I enjoy a good bedroom farce, with doors slamming, lovers hiding, comic timing, and double entendres galore. But this is different. The Favourite doesn’t just joke about sex; it celebrates the use of sex to gain political power, and hypocritically undermines everything these same preening, moralizing Hollywood hotshots stood up for just last year.

It also seems to justify rape, as long as it’s funny and as long as the women are in charge. When Lord Masham enters Abigail’s servant quarters without being invited, she asks him, “Are you here to seduce me or to rape me?” He responds, “I’m a gentleman.” “To rape me, then,” she deadpans, and the audience chuckles.

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I thought rape had ceased to be funny, even in the movies. And nary a trigger warning in the trailers. Tsk, tsk.

All I’m asking is that the Academy pick a side and stick with it. Or admit that it really has no backbone or underlying moral principles whatsoever, and quit pretending to have the upper hand on social morality.

I enjoy a good bedroom farce, with doors slamming, lovers hiding, comic timing, and double entendres galore. But this is different.

So why the accolades for The Favourite? It’s all in the technique (to mimic Lady Abigail to Lord Masham on their wedding night as she turns her back and offers him her hand — you get the idea). First are the obvious awards: all three women have been nominated, and all three deliver stellar performances. Weisz and Stone are deliciously nasty to one another and grovel appropriately, if disgustingly, for Anne’s sexual attention. Colman’s Queen Anne is gouty, needy, dumpy, screechy, and even develops a convincing stroke midway through. She’s amazing. Nominations for the Big Three — Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay — bring the tally to six.

Of course, any time you make a “costume drama,” you can expect to see a nomination for Best Costume Design, and in this case, it is well deserved. The early 18th century is not a common era for filmmaking, so costume designer Sandy Powell couldn’t just rent the costumes from a local supplier; most of them had to be made specifically for this film. And they are spectacular. The opulent textures and colors, and especially the tailoring details of the pockets, lace, and scarves are stunning, although the fabrics — including recycled denim and a chenille blanket — are far from authentic. The massive 18th-century wigs are impressive too, and even more impressive because, due to budget restraints, Powell often took the wigs apart after they were used in one scene and remade them for another. Interestingly, Lady Sarah is often dressed in men’s fashions. It prompts the question: can a woman only be powerful if she’s manly?

The opulent costumes fit perfectly within the opulent production design, also nominated for an Oscar, as it demonstrates the aristocratic decadence of the time. England is at war with France, and Queen Anne keeps threatening to double the taxes, but her courtiers are fiddling while the figurative fires burn. We see duck races inside the castle. Live pigeons, used for skeet shooting overlooking the sumptuous lawns. Exotic pineapples, imported from who knows where. A naked courtier being pummeled with blood oranges in one of the palace salons, just for fun.

Weisz and Stone are deliciously nasty to one another and grovel appropriately, if disgustingly, for Anne’s sexual attention.

Lord Harley (Nicholas Hoult) says, “A man’s dignity is the one thing that keeps him from running amok,” but we don’t see much that inspires dignity among these characters. In one scene, Queen Anne’s cheeks are painted with heart-shaped rouge, and in a later scene she murmurs distractedly, “Off with her head. Off with her head!” It does feel as though we have fallen through the looking-glass.

Adding to that looking-glass sensation is the bizarre use of fisheye lenses and dizzying panorama shots of interiors that create distorted scenes, almost as though we are looking through a giant peephole. And to a certain extent, we are. Screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara based their characterization on letters between Queen Anne and Lady Churchill that indicate an intimately affectionate friendship and chose to play up the lesbian angle as the driving force in their characters and in their politics. All three important women in this filmwere married, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate heterosexual preference, especially in court marriages.

Still, the sexual relationship between Anne and Sarah — if indeed it existed — was intended to be private and, I hope, loving and intimate and true. The fisheye lenses and peephole angles reinforce that sense of peeking in on something we aren’t supposed to see — and that we might have a distorted impression of what really happened. Although Abigail did eventually take Sarah’s place as the Queen’s Mistress of the Robes, there is no historicalindication that Abigail used sex to win the Queen’s affection. Sarah and Anne did indeed have a falling out, possibly over money for building Blenheim Palace, and the Marlboroughs were banished to the continent. Abigail then became the “queen’s favorite,” or personal lady-in-waiting. After Queen Anne’s death the Marlboroughs returned to England and finished building Blenheim. That’s what we know.

In a later scene the queen murmurs distractedly, “Off with her head. Off with her head!” It does feel as though we have fallen through the looking-glass.

The Favourite opened with a limited run in November to a dismal $442,000 box office its first weekend. Trailers had been somewhat misleading, suggesting that the story was a more audience-friendly knock-down, drag-out catfight between two ladies-in-waiting, not a fairly graphic lesbian love triangle. Either way, it didn’t do well at first. After its Oscar nominations, however, it returned to theaters and as of January 31 had grossed over $42 million worldwide, from an audience of mostly bewildered moviegoers. That’s the power of an Oscar nomination.

Liberty readers might well enjoy The Favourite, depending on where they stand on the situations I’ve described. It’s bizarre in many ways, but it’s also witty, opulent, and well-acted. It presents three powerful women controlling the throne and politics of England in their own womanly way, especially Lady Sarah, who evidently really did have the queen’s ear from their childhood and ruled from Anne’s shoulder until the war with France ended. All three women use their sex for trade, but they do it willingly and deliberately, from a position of power rather than victimhood. Is it possible —even probable — that women in Hollywood have been doing the same thing for over a century, and only cried “outrage!” (and somehow managed to blame Republicans) after they were caught?

The Favourite might even turn out to be your favorite, even though it isn’t mine.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Favourite," directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Element Pictures, 2018, 119 minutes.



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How Less Becomes More

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Roma is perhaps the most unusual and unexpected Oscar contender for Best Picture of 2018. It’s filmed in black and white, spoken in Spanish with English subtitles, and told with very little storyline, no musical soundtrack, and no well-known actors. It’s set in the 1970s but feels more like the 1940s or ’50s. And it moves as slowly as a sloth. The Cannes Film Festival rejected it because it was made for Netflix instead of theatrical release. Netflix! It was available for free on the Internet before it went into a few art theaters. Nevertheless, like Italy’s Life Is Beautiful (1997), it has been nominated for both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture.

Unlike Life Is Beautiful, Roma does not have a strong, charismatic protagonist or a compelling conflict. It simply presents a dreary year in the dreary life of a young Mexican working girl. It is the most personal film Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, 2013) has ever made, told as a series of vignettes that come directly from Cuarón’s childhood memories and filmed by Cuarón himself. It is dedicated to Libo, a servant in his childhood home on whom the film is based. Cuarón said of the film, “It’s an intimate portrait of the women who raised me in recognition of love as a mystery that transcends space, memory and time.”

Cuarón uses this subtle method to tell his audience, “Don’t you dare say, ‘I know how she feels.’”

The story centers on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), one of two full-time domestic servants working in the home of a middle-class family in Roma, a neighborhood in Mexico City. Cleo and Sofia (Marina de Tavira) share a small room where they also do the ironing after the regular workday is done. They chatter together congenially throughout the day, and the children in the family seem to genuinely love Cleo; one of the boys (perhaps representing Cuarón himself) holds her hand affectionately when she kneels on the floor beside the couch to watch TV with the family after dinner (until the mother absently sends her away to fulfill another duty.)

But while Cleo is the subject of the movie, she is not our POV — we don’t see the story through her eyes. Instead, Cuarón uses wide angles so that we observe her only in her interactions with other people. This technique objectifies her to a large degree. Since we don’t see what she is seeing, we also don’t see any eye contact from others looking at her. Consequently, we can feel sympathy toward her, but it’s difficult to feel empathy. Cuarón uses this subtle method to tell his audience, “Don’t you dare say, ‘I know how she feels.’” We don’t. At best we can observe what she experiences, and think of how we might feel ourselves.

So why does this film merit ten Oscar nominations, and why does director Guillermo del Toro call it one of his top five favorite films of all time? The key is not in the two Best Picture nominations, but in the eight other categories. Most significant is the cinematography. Cuarón often uses award-winning Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to shoot his films, but this time he chose to handle the camera himself in order to keep the film as personal and true to his intent as possible. The result is often dreamy and reflective. Indeed, reflection is a recurring theme throughout the film. It begins with water washing repeatedly over a brick sidewalk, almost like waves, reflecting the sky, the trees, a building, and even an airplane flying across its reflected surface. Reflections are often seen in windows, cabinets, the table Cleo is polishing, the car fender as the man of the house parks in the narrow garage.

Avaricio is brilliant in her outward restraint and inner passion; the devastatingly authentic hospital scene may have earned her an Oscar by itself.

Nominations for sound editing and sound mixing are equally impressive, especially considering the lack of music. Instead, the sounds are entirely natural — the wash of water against the bricks, the bickering of birds in the trees, the sounds of dogs barking and people conversing in the distance. And the acting! So natural, and so introspective. With very little dialogue, Avaricio and de Tavira, nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, portray the unspoken thoughts and desires of the two young servants. The hospital scene is devastatingly authentic; here Avaricio is brilliant in her outward restraint and inner passion. The moment was filmed in one take and may have earned her an Oscar by itself.

The lack of a traditional storyline and a traditional soundtrack makes the film seem slow, even plodding at first. We meet the servants, the family, the dog, but nothing much happens — until Cleo goes to the movies with a friend on her day off and ends up going off with a blind date instead — probably her first date ever. There we begin to see how her past, her class, and her future blend into a kind of inescapable destiny. The vignettes become compelling, and in the end, we can’t stop thinking about this young girl who has had so few choices in her life. We realize that she has had no control over the biggest factor determining her options — the circumstances of her birth — and thus no real control over any aspect of her life, beyond how dedicated she will be as a servant. It’s almost as though she were born dead — a metaphor that becomes significant at one point in the film.

Roma ends mostly as it begins, because Cleo’s life will end mostly as it began. Many important events have occurred during the year, politically and historically as well as within the family, but these events really haven’t affected Cleo personally. She is loved and appreciated by the family members, but she still lives in the small room above the garage that she shares with Sofia. She will never truly belong to this family she serves. But in making this film about his beloved nanny Libo, Cuarón gives her a place at last.


Editor's Note: Review of "Roma," directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Netflix, 2018, 135 minutes.



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Glorious Beale Street

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“Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city,” James Baldwin wrote in the 1974 novel on which Barry Jenkins’ film If Beale Street Could Talk is based. It refers to an area of Memphis important to African-Americans, designated by an act of Congress as “the Home of the Blues.”

In the 1860s black traveling musicians began performing there; they eventually developed a genre known as Memphis Blues, led by such legends as B.B. King, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Rosco Gordon, Memphis Minnie, Albert King, and Rufus Thomas. B.B. King was once billed as “the Beale Street Blues Boy.”

An astute real estate developer, Thomas Church, became the first black millionaire in the South after he bought land along Beale Street following a devastating yellow fever epidemic. The famous Church Park, a cultural and recreational center where blues musicians gathered, is named for him, not for a religious organization.

By the 1960s Beale Street had fallen on hard times. Many businesses had closed, and a disastrous urban renewal program had torn down many of the historic buildings.

In 1869 a congregation of freed slaves began building the Beale Street Baptist Church. Besides the congregation, it housed the newspaper offices of civil rights journalist Ida B. Wells. Such notables as Ulysses S. Grant and Teddy Roosevelt spoke there, while Booker T. Washington, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR spoke at the 2,000-seat auditorium in Church Park.

However, by the 1960s Beale Street had fallen on hard times. Many businesses had closed, and a disastrous urban renewal program had torn down many of the historic buildings and the neighborhoods surrounding it instead of renewing them. In April 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated not far from Beale Street.

Eventually the neighborhood was restored by the racially diverse Beale Street Development Corporation, and the area is now a popular tourist destination featuring the Beale Street Music Festival in early May each year. Beale Street’s development is tightly controlled by the city of Memphis, the BSDC, and a management company.

In so many ways, the story of Beale Street is an apt metaphor for the African-American experience — artistically gifted, entrepreneurially astute, politically active, brought down by neglect and resentment, and then restored by a consortium of well-intentioned but often misguided do-gooders who have changed the essence of what it once was.

In one particularly beautiful scene, the smoke from Fonny's cigarette swirls around a sculpture and jazz music swirls around the scene as he coaxes the wood into submission to his art.

Beale Street is also an apt metaphor for the characters in Jenkins’ movie If Beale Street Could Talk. A love story at heart, the film uses flashbacks to show how Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) grew up as childhood friends, fell in love as teenagers, planned a future that included marriage and family, and saw their plans destroyed when Fonny was falsely accused of a heinous crime.

Although the movie takes place in Harlem, the characters represent different aspects of the Beale Street story. Fonny is an artist with big dreams. In one particularly beautiful scene, the smoke from his cigarette swirls around a sculpture and jazz music swirls around the scene as he coaxes the wood into submission to his art. Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King), works tirelessly against injustice, and Tish’s sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) is a rising activist who tells Tish at one point, “Unbow your head, sister, and do not be ashamed.”

Tish and Fonny’s fathers (Colman Domingo and Michael Beach) are both hardworking entrepreneurs. (Well, OK, they aren’t entirely legal, but they justify their black-market business by saying, “I never met a white man who didn’t lie and steal.” And in truth, Fonny is in jail because false witnesses have been suborned against him.) Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) represents the church in the black community — moral and austere. And of course the urban renewal board is represented by the overzealous justice system that intends to clean up Harlem by putting the young black men in jail — whether they’re guilty or not.

Jazz and the blues also play central roles in this film. The soundtrack, mostly performed as string adagios, is bluesy, haunting, and full of despair, an emotion created by the close, discordant, unresolved harmonies and the deep, slow vibration of the bow across the bass strings. At the end, the credits roll to the sound of Billy Preston and Joseph Green’s slow, jazzy, plaintive “My Country ’tis of Thee.” If ever there was a time for singing the Beale Street blues, this is it.

OK, they aren’t entirely legal, but they justify their black-market business by saying, “I never met a white man who didn’t lie and steal.”

Although Baldwin describes the young lovers in his novel as plain and unattractive, Jenkins chose to cast his Tish and Fonny with two astonishingly beautiful young actors. KiKi Layne radiates wide-eyed innocence mingled with tough determination, and Stephan James is not only handsome but also blessed with kind eyes and a warm smile. Who wouldn’t be drawn to them? Studies show that we trust and like attractive people more readily than ugly people, and clearly Jenkins was not going to take any chance that the audience might not sympathize with his protagonists. Mind you, I’m not complaining about the casting; it was a pleasure watching these two fall in love on screen.

We don’t learn the nature of the crime with which Fonny has been charged until 45 minutes into the movie, although we learn in the first five minutes that he is in jail. Jenkins also softens the scene of the first sexual encounter between the two by having Fonny gently cover Tish’s naked breasts with a blanket in a gesture that is both protective and romantic. It subtly tells us that Fonny could not have done what he is charged with; he just isn’t that kind of guy.

Sadly, under our flawed, overcrowded, injustice system, it doesn’t much matter whether a person is guilty or innocent, especially if the person is poor or black. Most never go to trial. In fact, according to legal scholar William J. Stuntz, an astounding 94% of state felony convictions and 97% of federal convictions stem from plea bargains. If you can’t afford bail, you’ll sit in jail, waiting for your day in court, often for months and sometimes for years. So you take the deal and the record, just to get out of jail and back to your life. As Tish says to the audience in voiceover narration, “I hope that no one has to talk to anyone they love through a glass.”

Faced with the prospect of 30-to-life for a trial conviction versus 8-to-10 for a plea deal, even an innocent person is likely to take the deal.

Moreover, plea bargains have now become the safer bet in a legal system where freedom hangs on how a jury interprets the evidence and the defendant. Faced with the prospect of 30-to-life for a trial conviction versus 8-to-10 for a plea deal, even an innocent person is likely to take the deal. The deadly “to life” tacked on to many sentences today is especially chilling for the innocent; how can you convince the parole board of your remorse for a crime you did not commit?

The routine indeterminate sentencing of “to life,” which is bad for many reasons, was created three generations ago by liberal reformers. Its heyday is long past and needs to be eliminated, along with mandatory sentencing and three-strikes rules, to allow judges to judge and prisoners to have hope.

If Beale Street Could Talk presents a powerful story of love, loss, and loyalty. Baldwin’s 1974 portrayal of the injustice of our court system is just as true today. Barry Jenkins’ film version is not completely true to the novel, nor should it be — film is a visual and aural genre and needs to be adapted accordingly. The film is beautiful to watch, even though it is heartbreaking to comprehend.


Editor's Note: Review of "If Beale Street Could Talk," directed by Barry Jenkins. Annapurna, 2018, 119 minutes.



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