Remembering the Great War

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As the world prepared to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ending of World War I on November 11, 1918, director Peter Jackson accepted a daunting commission: to create a documentary that would honor the soldiers who fought in the trenches, using the original footage that was filmed 100 years ago.

This would not be a documentary about generals, military strategy, assassinations of obscure archdukes, or theaters of war. Jackson would not interview modern historians about the significance of the war or provide any scripted narration. Instead, Jackson would bring these long-dead soldiers to life by allowing them to tell their own story.

The result is a magnificent piece of work, both in the story it tells and in the technology Jackson used to tell it. This is a film made entirely in the editing room.

This would not be a documentary about generals, military strategy, assassinations of obscure archdukes, or theaters of war.

To create the storyline, Jackson and his team reviewed over 600 hours of interviews with survivors, conducted during various commemorations of the War to End All Wars. Jackson then began selecting portions of the interviews, taking a snippet here and a snippet there, until he was able to cobble together a narrative line that begins with young 16- and 17-year-old boys sneaking off to lie about their ages in order to join the army; follows them into the trenches, villages, and battlefields; and ends with the survivors returning home, many of them injured, many of them “loony” (an earlier term for PTSD), and many of them (according to one of the narrators) facing employment signs that said “Army veterans need not apply.” Their remembrances, told with voices that are cracked with age, are moving and authentic. No historian’s expertise could tell their story better.

Once the storyline had been established, Jackson reviewed 100 hours of footage from the war, selecting the best scenes to match the narration. Much of the footage was third- or fourth-generation, meaning it was a copy of a copy of a copy, each generation becoming less and less crisp. Much of it was either too dark or too light to be viewed clearly. And all of the movements were jerky and unnatural as the filmmakers had to crank the film through the camera by hand, trying to keep it steady at approximately twelve frames per second, which is only half the number of frames per second that we are accustomed to seeing in today’s movies.

And here is where the magic begins. Jackson used computer technology to add frames to the footage, smoothing out the action and making it feel as normal as any film you would see today. Then he colorized the film, using actual uniforms, tanks, and other artifacts from his own considerable collection of WWI memorabilia to help the artists get the colors just right. Next he enlisted professional lipreaders to figure out what the men were saying in the footage, and hired voice actors from the actual regions of each regiment, so the accents would be authentic. He added sound effects made by recording actual tank movements, mortar explosions, bayonet affixions, and other background noises. Finally, he created a natural musical score largely based on whistling and other natural music of the battlefield. The result brings these antique films to life. We simply forget that cameras couldn’t do this 100 years ago.

Jackson brings these long-dead soldiers to life by allowing them to tell their own story.

I’m not usually a fan of colorization; while it does make a film feel more natural for modern viewers, it neutralizes the skillful play of shadow and contrast designed deliberately and carefully by directors of the ’30s and ’40s. They knew what they were doing, and they did it well. However, in this film the colorization is a masterful addition. It brings out details in the film that in black and white were hidden or completely lost. Most notable is the blood; we simply don’t see blood as anything but dirt in black and white.

We also see how terribly young these soldiers were, marching off to war and grinning for the cameras. Although we never know their names, Jackson edits the footage so that several of the men come into view several times, and we begin to identify with them. We see not only the war, but how they lived, what they ate, how they slept, and even how they played. And in many cases, we are seeing them just before they died. It is a sobering, respectful, and impressive film.

They Shall Not Grow Old is neither pro-war nor anti-war; it simply asks us to consider the cost of war — not in the billions of dollars that are spent, but in the millions of lives that are lost. The title of the film is based on a selection from Laurence Binyon’s Ode of Remembrance called “For the Fallen,” which has been used as a tribute to all who die in war:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam.

Lee Teter’s painting “Vietnam Reflections” pays a similar tribute to the fallen, but from a different perspective, that of the grieving survivor. It depicts a man, clearly a veteran though he wears no uniform, mourning at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, where the names of all the fallen are etched on a long, low wall deliberately situated below ground level. His head is bowed in quiet anguish, his arm outstretched and his hand leaning heavily against the wall, willing it to reach inside and touch his comrades on the other side. Unseen by him, because his eyes are closed, several soldiers seem to be standing inside the wall, their reflections ghostly as they reach out, hand to hand, to console the man who, having survived the war, continues to carry its burdens. His guilt is understood by the clothing Teter chose to give him. He is dressed in a business suit; the soldiers wear army fatigues. A briefcase rests on the ground beside the veteran; the soldiers carry field kits. The businessman’s hair is flowing and tinged with gray; theirs is dark and crew cut. The fallen soldiers shall not grow old, start businesses, or have children.

 Most notable is the blood; we simply don’t see blood as anything but dirt in black and white.

And therein lies the survivor’s grief. “We that are left grow old,” as Binyon says in his poem, but survival is neither a reward nor a relief. It is a burden. Age does weary them, and the years do condemn.

No one knows the true story of war except those who experience it, and even then, it is a private, individual grief that none of them can truly share or understand. Consequently, using the voices of the actual soldiers to tell their story was a brilliant narrative strategy for They Shall Not Grow Old. They speak next to one another, but not in conversation with one another. The viewer remains enveloped in the currency of the story and simply observes their experience without explanation, editorializing, or the distraction of a modern historian’s modern interpretation.

The film is moving and impressive, but you’ll have to find it on Netflix or another platform because its theatrical release was limited to just December 17 and December 27. And that’s a shame, because the moment when Jackson switches from the jerky, original, black and white footage to his colorized and edited version is breathtaking. I’m so glad I got to see it on a full-sized screen. If you do see it, make sure you watch the director’s cut with Peter Jackson’s interview explaining how he did it. It’s like listening to a magician’s reveal.


Editor's Note: Review of "They Shall Not Grow Old," directed by Peter Jackson. WingNut Films, 2018, 99 minutes.



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Presidents Will Be Presidents

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With the passing of former President George H.W. Bush, we’ve heard a multitude of eulogies. Though the media often savaged him when he was president, calling him a wimp and claiming he was out of touch with ordinary Americans, he is now being held up, by his associates and many in the media, as a man of sterling character. And they consider it rude if we disagree.

Particularly after they’ve left office, presidents are reassessed in a kinder light than they merit. It’s great if they were nice to their family, fraternity brothers, or fellow politicians, but what about the people whose lives their administrations affected? Our view of them is often different. How come they do us like they do?

Not only us, but people in other countries. Sometimes especially people in other countries. Do those on the receiving end of bombing raids or drone strikes regard the president who ordered them as a stand-up guy?

It’s great if they were nice to their family, fraternity brothers, or fellow politicians, but what about the people whose lives their administrations affected?

One of the things I most appreciate about libertarian principle is its bedrock-level moral soundness. We don’t believe in hitting people or taking their things. We do believe in behaving ourselves, instead of telling others how to behave, and, whenever possible, in simply minding our own business. This makes those rare libertarians in public life stand-up guys and gals. It also gives the rest of us a reliable yardstick by which to measure them.

By our yardstick, George H.W. Bush was a pretty typical president. He stuck his nose in everybody else’s business. Not content to regulate the lives of those in his own country, or to raise our taxes (after promising he wouldn’t), Bush 41 also wanted to run the show in other countries. From his “New World Order,” no one was exempt. On a person-to-person level, there were plenty of people to whom he wasn’t very nice.

We libertarians are loath to accept the opinions of those for whom political power is the only consideration. What can we do to help change the way elected officials are evaluated? We can tell the truth about who does what to whom. We can call what our elected officials do exactly what it is.

George H.W. Bush was a pretty typical president. He stuck his nose in everybody else’s business.

All presidents in recent memory have ordered military hits on people in other countries. They have dealt death to innocent civilians. If we did that to other human beings, we’d be locked up and possibly even executed. No matter how wonderful someone may be, when that person runs for president, we can reliably predict that if victorious in the election, he or she will become a murderer. By the law binding on the rest of us, the one who orders the hit is guilty of the crime.

I mean to draw a distinction, here, between the sort of killing that defends lives and the sort that results from a war in which we are the aggressors. I’m also letting off the hook people who take the lives of those attempting to take theirs. Nor would I begrudge the right to self-defense to anyone — in or out of uniform.

Libertarians want our presidents (and Congress) to stop killing people who aren’t trying to kill us. We tell the truth about the crimes they commit. For the sake of winning elections, should we do otherwise? If we don’t tell the truth, who will?

No matter how wonderful someone may be, when that person runs for president, we can reliably predict that if victorious in the election, he or she will become a murderer.

Crimes against humanity continue to be committed in our name, and on our dime. We can do little about this except to vote against it. I joined the Libertarian Party because active participation in the party is, I believe, one of the most important ways my voice can be heard. And I’m totally willing to be rude about it. Fake decency and fake civility are vastly worse than fake news.




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A Newer, Sleeker Santa

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If you’ve had your fill of Christmas movies involving “Bad Santa,” “Bad Moms,” bad romances, bad vacations, bad neighbors, and bad families, move over. I’m with you. And don’t get me started on the pseudo-romantic claptrap that passes for Christmas music these days. If I have to hear one more diva warbling her new rendition of “Silent Night” as though it was the National Anthem at a basketball game or one more ingénue singing that all she wants for Christmas is a new boyfriend, I’ll, I’ll — well let’s put it this way: I’ll deserve that lump of coal in my stocking.

But just when I despaired of ever again seeing a worthy Christmas movie, along came a superb film in the unlikeliest of places: a made-for-Netflix production starring Kurt Russell as that right jolly old elf — only don’t call him “old,” and don’t call him fat!

The film begins with a video montage of joyful Christmases Past enjoyed by Doug (Oliver Hudson) and Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and their two children, Teddy (Judah Lewis) and Kate (Darby Camp). But this is not going to be a joyful Christmas. It’s the first one without Doug, a firefighter who lost his life by saving someone else’s. Kate, 10, still possesses an innocent belief in the magic of Christmas, but Teddy, 15, is at that age when it isn’t cool to believe in anything or like anyone in one’s family, and his cynicism is worsened by the recent loss of his father.

If I have to hear one more diva warbling her new rendition of “Silent Night” or one more ingénue singing that all she wants for Christmas is a new boyfriend, I’ll deserve that lump of coal in my stocking.

When Claire has to work at the hospital on Christmas Eve, Teddy is assigned to watch over his sister, and the Adventures in Babysitting begin. Kate, an avid videographer (as all young women seem to be these days) hatches a plan to catch Santa (Kurt Russell) on film, and through a series of unfortunate events they end upnot only stowing away on Santa’s souped-up sleigh but also causing him to crash the sleigh and lose his hat, his toy bag, and his reindeer. Unless they can fix the sleigh, corral the reindeer, recover the presents, and deliver them before sunrise, Teddy and Kate will have ruined Christmas. For everyone.

Kurt Russell is a delightful Santa. He isn’t all-knowing. He isn’t all-powerful. He isn’t fat (as he tells anyone who’ll listen), and he sings a mean bluesy “Santa Claus is Back in Town” while he’s sitting in a jail cell. In fact, he’s kind of like the perfect dad. Wink wink.

While Santa is busy saving souls and restoring the spirit of Christmas at the police precinct, the kids have to save the reindeer, the presents, the elves — and each other.

Vivacious, 10-year-old Kate has the innocent glow and easy wonder of childhood. Nothing is beyond her ability to believe, so she has nothing to fear — not when she’s clinging to a flying reindeer, not when she’s trapped inside a toy bag, and not even when she’s surrounded by a hoard of creepy elves. She’s sweet, spunky, and endearing.

Unless they can fix the sleigh, corral the reindeer, recover the presents, and deliver them before sunrise, Teddy and Kate will have ruined Christmas. For everyone.

Teddy is endearing too, but for different reasons. He has lost not only his belief in Santa but also his belief in God. He is lost and broken, and you just want to reach out and fix him. On the steps of a church where a choir is singing his father’s favorite hymn, “Oh Christmas Tree,” Teddy questions the meaning of sacrifice. “He had a wife and two kids, and he gave it all up to help some random strangers,” he laments bitterly, remembering how his father lost his life running into a burning house. I couldn’t help but think of Brent Taylor, the National Guardsman who left his wife and seven young children behind in Utah to serve a fourth tour of duty in the Middle East and was killed by an Afghan infiltrator last month. Shouldn’t some choices and responsibilities preclude other choices and responsibilities? When you choose to have children, especially that many children, shouldn’t you give up risky behaviors like skydiving, motorcycle riding, and fighting a war in some random nation on the other side of the world?

Of course, everything turns out right in the end. Christmas isn’t ruined, and we have a touching, sentimental moment to remind us of the true meaning of Christmas. Unfortunately, many a harried mother has been heard to utter those infelicitous words sometime during December: “You’ve ruined Christmas!” (I might have uttered them myself a time or two over the course of producing 45 Christmases for my family.) It stings, and children feel it. Moms feel it even more. But Christmas is a time for binding wounds, not picking at scabs. We all have the power to ruin Christmas, or to save it. The Christmas Chronicles prepares us to understand the truth about Santa — that his helpers don’t all live at the North Pole. They live in every house, every family, and in every heart where love is.

If you’re yearning for a Christmas movie that isn’t treacly and childish, isn’t cynical and offensive, isn’t about falling in love, and isn’t about dysfunctional families (all families have troubles, but that doesn’t mean they’re “dysfunctional”), this one is for you. It’s witty, sophisticated, adventurous, uplifting, and fun. Better yet, this first-rate, first-run film is available on Netflix in the privacy of your own home. I hope its title, The Christmas Chronicles, suggests another installment next year. Kurt Russell is a Santa to be reckoned with.

Just don’t call him fat.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Christmas Chronicles," directed by Clay Kaytis. Netflix, 2018, 144 minutes.



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Not to Praise, But to Bury

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As another elder statesman dies and the nation is caught in the grip of another bout of panegyrics, it’s worth stepping back to concentrate on the individual lives that they touched during their time in the halls of power. For George Herbert Walker Bush, specifically, that means considering also the plight of Keith Jackson.

In 1989, Jackson was a high school senior in Anacostia, southeast DC, living in one of the worst zip codes in the country. Like many of his peers, Jackson was a low-level drug dealer, one of the smallest cogs in a larger machine, like the Baltimore towers in The Wire. Crucially, he had reached his 18th birthday when the federal government started setting him up for a presidential publicity stunt.

See, George Bush, seemingly desperate to prove he was man enough to live up to his successor, wanted a set piece to kick off his own extension of Reagan’s War on Drugs. So his staff came up with the idea of busting someone for selling crack cocaine—still the drug warrior’s enemy of choice—in the shadow of the White House.

Bush demanded more cops to arrest drug dealers, more prosecutors to seek harsher penalties for them, and more prisons to hold all the extra convicts.

DEA agents offered up Jackson as a patsy. He’d been on their radar for months—so if selling drugs in and of itself was really such a big deal, they could have grabbed him at any point (and then he’d be replaced by another young slinger with no other prospects, and then another, ad infinitum). No, he was only worth it if he could be sacrificed for a higher purpose, like making a weedy, “wimpy” Massachusetts desk-occupier look like a tough guy. That purpose in hand, the undercover DEA agent on Jackson’s case asked him to meet at Lafayette Park, promising an extra premium to lure Jackson to Northwest DC, where black residents of the city almost never went. (As a measure of how stratified and segregated DC society was at the time — not to mention how complete the failure of the educational system — when the undercover DEA agent asked Jackson to meet him in the park across from the White House, Jackson didn’t know where that was until piecing together that it was “where Reagan lives,” and he was hesitant to make the trip because one thing he did know is how much greater the police presence would be in Official DC.)

The purchase took place on September 1, and on September 5 Bush was holding up a plastic baggie of crack cocaine during a White House address, noting that it had been “seized” (not bought) just across the street. He demanded more cops to arrest drug dealers, more prosecutors to seek harsher penalties for them, and more prisons to hold all the extra convicts. He got all of those things, often in connection with mandatory minimum laws that eliminated judicial discretion in sentencing (and which perpetuated a nonsensical divide in sentencing between powdered and crack cocaine, the burden of which fell almost entirely on the black community).

If George Bush ever cared about those whose lives didn’t intersect with his, he certainly never showed it.

Keith Jackson was one of those who fell prey to a mandatory minimum. The DEA arrested him, not at the sale for whatever reason, but immediately after Bush’s speech. After his first two trials ended in hung juries, a third trial saw him convicted and sentenced to a legally-mandated decade in prison without parole. The judge in the case, uncomfortable with the mode of Jackson’s entrapment, urged him to ask the president for a commutation. But Bush had almost immediately washed his hands of the matter: facing criticism from a variety of sources including even those had a stake in the Drug War’s continuance (like the head of the city’s police union), Bush said, “I cannot feel sorry for [Jackson]. I’m sorry, they ought not to be peddling these insidious drugs that ruin the children of this country.” And so, for the crime of selling 2.4 grams of crack cocaine to another consenting adult in a place where there had been no recorded drug busts in the past, Keith Jackson served almost eight years in prison.

What happened to him after that point is not known. One doubts that Bush ever dwelt on Jackson or any other of the thousands affected by yet another surge in the War on Drugs—young men and occasionally women losing their futures to ruthless sentencing guidelines and the economic incentives of incarceration, or often just their lives to police enforcement or to the criminal turf wars that invariably follow the artificial limiting of a highly in-demand substance. Add in the families and communities that depended on this suddenly absent and incarcerated generation, and it’s hundreds of thousands if not millions.

But if Bush ever cared about those whose lives didn’t intersect with his, he certainly never showed it, as the Iraqi people had ample opportunity to learn. In the rush to war with one-time American ally (indeed, almost appointee) Saddam Hussein over the invasion of Kuwait, Bush infamously allowed himself to be swayed by the testimony of a supposed refugee of the conflict, known only as Nayirah, who spoke of Iraqi soldiers raiding Kuwaiti hospitals, pulling prematurely born infants out of incubators and tossing them aside to die. By the time it was discovered that Nayirah was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S., and the entire thing had been organized by an American PR firm in the employ of the Kuwaiti government, the war was already over — though its repercussions will persist long after our lifetimes.

Between his year directing the CIA and his time as vice president, he was involved in some of the most notorious operations run through the US government: Operation Condor, the School of the Americas, the Iran-Contra affair.

An estimated 100,000 Iraqi soldiers and an unknown number of civilians were killed in that first Gulf War, with the particular highlight of the Highway of Death, in which American forces blockaded and massacred retreating Iraqi forces, as well as any civilians unfortunate enough to be within cluster bomb range. Content with this level of slaughter, Bush called off hostilities the next day—a point in his favor, perhaps, when compared to those overseeing the unceasing carnage of today’s forever wars. But Bush hardly had clean hands before this, having already orchestrated an illegal invasion of Panama. Between his year directing the CIA and his time as vice president, he was involved in some of the most notorious operations run through the US government: Operation Condor, the School of the Americas, the Iran-Contra affair; it will be decades though, if ever, before we learn just how deeply he was implicated.

There’s much else to dislike about the elder Bush and the legacy he is leaving behind, in particular his enablement of many awful people. You can draw a direct line from his campaign manager Lee Atwater and his infamous Willie Horton ad to the race-baiting scare tactics used by Donald Trump. A look at Bush’s administrative appointees reveals many of the big names—Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld — who would go on to botch the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, all the while pushing for ever more wars on ever more fronts. (Which is not even to mention his son who, in signing off on Gulf War Redux, committed what is thus far the greatest geopolitical blunder of the century.) You could talk also about his surrender to the tax-and-spenders on budget issues, or to the Religious Right about gay rights. You could also give him credit where it’s due: for handling the end of the Cold War with flexibility and grace, for committing himself to promoting volunteerism and community service, for not following in the footsteps of his father, Prescott Bush, and signing on to any half-baked fascist coups against the US government.

All this, at least the good stuff, or the bad stuff that various media figures want to recast as good, will be gone over ad infinitum. But when you see the footage of his funerals, when you take in the official outpouring of grief that is increasingly mandatory on such occasions, when above all you hear anyone talking about how George H.W. Bush advocated for a “kinder, gentler conservatism,” spare a thought for Keith Jackson. It’s more than Bush ever did.



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Plus Ça Change

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Día de los Vivos

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Looking for a new holiday film and you’ve had it with watching scripted Hollywood families bicker around the dining table? Pixar’s Coco is one of the best films of the season. Never mind that it’s animated. Grab yourself a niece or a nephew (or just rustle up the courage to go to a “kid movie” without a kid) and enjoy. This film has it all: gorgeous animation, witty characters, wonderful music, rich cultural heritage, and a profound story about life, loss, family, and forgiveness.

The story centers on 12-year-old Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) who lives with his parents, his overbearing Abuelita (Renee Victor), and his sweet doddering great-grandmother Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia). Miguel is a typical Mexican boy in a not-so-typical Mexican family where music has been banned from the home and the mere sight of a guitar engenders shrieks of anger. But Miguel loves music. He has been surreptitiously learning to play the guitar by watching videos of Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), “the greatest musician of all time,” whose statue stands in the town plaza. Miguel wants to enter the town talent contest, but Abuelita forbids it. When Miguel shouts that he hates his family and wishes he weren’t part of them, it sets off a chain of events that will teach him the importance of family, tradition, and remembering the dead.

This film has it all: gorgeous animation, witty characters, wonderful music, rich cultural heritage, and a profound story about life, loss, family, and forgiveness.

Coco is set on Día de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead — when Mexicans honor their departed ancestors with a three-day fiesta of reminiscing, singing, feasting, and decorating graves. Families build small altars with photographs of their ancestors and offer incense, fruits, nuts, and candies, plus toys for relatives who died as children and tequila for the adults. Traditions include eating muertos (the bread of the dead) and sugar-candy skulls, hanging cardboard skeletons and colorful tissue paper decorations, and planting yellow marigolds. It is thought that the pungent fragrance of marigolds will attract the souls of the dead.

These Mexican traditions are presented in a surfeit of rich colors and sounds as Miguel is mystically transported across the marigold bridge between the land of the living and the land of the dead. On the other side he discovers a land not unlike his own — the same town plaza, the same town heroes, the same kinds of holiday preparations being made by families who just happen to be dead. There’s even a very funny scene with TSA agents deciding who can and can’t cross the bridge, and a skeletonized Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) who is in charge of the art design for the big Sunrise Concert that coincides with the town fiesta on the living side of the bridge. Miguel is befriended by Hector (Gael García Bernal), a delightfully comical skeleton, who helps Miguel in his search for his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz, who seems to hold the key to Miguel’s return home.

All of this serves to make death seem like a transition to something familiar, so it isn’t scary at all, even for the young children who accompanied me. In fact, it makes death somehow comforting and even joyful when one considers the family reunions that await on the other side of the bridge. “Coco,” in fact, is the diminutive form of the common name “Socorro,” which means “to succor, aid, or comfort,” and this film offers much comfort about dying. It even suggests what happens to our pets when they die.

There’s even a skeletonized Frida Kahlo, who is in charge of the art design for the big Sunrise Concert that coincides with the town fiesta on the living side of the bridge.

Moreover, many of the characters in Coco need comfort and aid. Miguel is far from home and at odds with his family on both sides of the bridge. Abuelita needs to face the true source of her pain and let go of her bitterness toward music. Her grandmother, Miguel’s departed Mama Imelda (Alana Ubach), must also overcome her bitterness toward her late husband — a bitterness that has followed her into the next life. Miguel’s new friend Hector is in danger of “fading away” because almost no one remembers him. Miguel learns to succor them all.

The marigold bridge becomes a powerful symbol of family connection, as Miguel learns to bridge the gap not only with his dead ancestors, but with his living family members as well.

It might be a little risky amid today’s rampant accusations of cultural appropriation for a company directed mostly by white males to release a movie set in Mexico focusing on intimate Mexican traditions and beliefs. The humor, accents, costumes, and traditions could have gone awry, veering into the realm of stereotype. But there is an authenticity in Coco that transcends political correctness and simply feels right. The characters are voiced almost entirely by Chicano actors, and background conversations and idiomatic phrases are presented in Spanish without subtitles, contributing to the cultural authenticity. The musical score is presented as a natural part of the story when Miguel, Ernesto, Frida and others sing and perform in public, so the story isn’t superimposed on a European or American musical genre. The vivid colors and family dynamic are simply the flavor of Mexico, without caricature or disrespect. It’s just about perfect.

All of this serves to make death seem like a transition to something familiar, so it isn’t scary at all, even for young children.

One thing that is definitely not perfect is the 21-minute animated short that accompanies most screenings of Coco. Based on the characters in Disney’s 2013 megahit, Frozen, “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” tells the story of the orphaned Princesses Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) searching for Christmas traditions they can adopt, now that they are living together again in the castle. The characters are flat, the situations are corny, and the premise — that you can somehow create instant traditions by copying others — completely misses the point of what a tradition is. At 21 minutes it’s three times too long, and its production values are so weak that you might be tempted to go home before the feature film actually begins. I recommend a trip to the snack bar after you find your seats.

Families are the oldest and simplest of social communities, yet they can often be the most complex to navigate. They are a topic that Disney has explored in numerous animated classics, from the competitive and vengeful stepmothers in Snow White, Cinderella, and Tangled to the trauma of maternal separation in Dumbo and Bambi to the teenage rebellion in The Little Mermaid and The Lion King to the complete redefinition of family in Jungle Book and Tarzan. The ability to address serious issues within the framework of kid-friendly animated films has been Disney’s forte for nearly a century, and it’s the reason Disney films continue to attract generation after generation of viewers, especially through its new partnership with Pixar.

Coco is among the best of these films, for so many reasons. I expect that many families will pull it out to view again when a beloved great-grandmother crosses over the marigold bridge — or even when a pet passes on, no matter what their literal beliefs about the afterlife. As Howard Canaan writes in Tales of Magic from Around the World: “Myths express not historical or factual truth, but inner or spiritual truth.” And the truth is, we will be happier if we give up our grudges, embrace the beauty in our lives, remember those who came before us, and recognize the individuality in each human being. Coco makes this point magically.


Editor's Note: Review of "Coco," directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina. Pixar, 2017, 109 minutes.



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Now and Ever Shall Be

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Job Faire

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Nathaniel Branden, R.I.P.

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On February 22, a memorial will be held in Los Angeles for Nathaniel Branden. Branden (1930–2014), a close associate of Ayn Rand during the writing and initial success of Atlas Shrugged, remained a brilliant interpreter of her philosophy and a strong influence on libertarians and individualists. He was also a controversial and perennially interesting personality.

Old friends of Rand and Branden have had much to say about him. Liberty asked two younger friends to comment, the writers Garin Hovannisian and Alec Mouhibian.

Garin:

A half century ago, when he was a student at UCLA, Nathaniel Branden wrote a letter to Ayn Rand. Many years later, when I was a student at UCLA, I wrote a letter to Nathaniel Branden.

I had discovered Objectivism through my friend Alec Mouhibian. In high school we had read most of Rand's writings. We had read Branden’s writings, too. We had become good disciples, I think, although there are some reports of our arrogance from those years. In the tenth grade we published a political newsletter called "A Dose of Sense."

It was Nathaniel Branden's essay "The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand" (and later Barbara Branden’s book The Passion of Ayn Rand) that had alerted us to the possible excesses of our passion. Nathaniel had raised important questions: was there a “principle of benevolence” in addition to the “virtue of selfishness” praised by Rand? Were we guilty, in our endless debates with classmates and teachers, of an “appalling moralism”? Had we become bad and unkind people?

There is a time in life when one is certain of things and then there is a time when one is not, and for me and Alec the transition between those times was marked by Nathaniel Branden and his essay. That is why I had written to him. It was one of the last letters I wrote to anyone from my college e-mail address: rational@ucla.edu.

The following week Nathaniel took me out for a cheeseburger. Some time later, Alec met him, too. And then we met together. I will let Alec finish the story here and to tell you who Nathaniel was for us.

Alec:

When I first met Nathaniel Branden, a full decade ago, I had a good sense of how Ayn Rand felt when he walked into her home for the first time in 1950. What a day that must have been for her! Some writers, if they are lucky, get to see their creations come to life on a movie screen. Rand’s highly idealized, very unrealistic hero stepped right out of the pages of The Fountainhead and through her front door, destined to convert the peculiar genius of her stories into a cultural force that would never die. That is what Rand thought, during the next 20 years of her life, until her disastrous break with him over matters that had little to do with culture.

He cofounded the Objectivist movement. He inspired the self-esteem movement in psychology. He spent a great deal of time apologizing for both.

One must talk of movements in a memorial of Nathaniel Branden. He cofounded the Objectivist movement. He inspired the self-esteem movement in psychology. He spent a great deal of time apologizing for both. (Movements tend to call for that.) His work with Rand, and his reflections on it, were also vital to the modern libertarian movement. His essay, “The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand,” offered all aspiring martyrs for liberty a priceless, personal account of how a passion for ideas can become a slavery to ideas, if one forgets the more mysterious values of human life.

Like so many people over the years, I had a strong desire to meet Nathaniel Branden, and in 2004, at the age of 19, I was lucky enough to get the chance. I was introduced by my comrade Garin Hovannisian, who had written about Nathaniel and subsequently met him for a cheeseburger. I showed up at his front door without a cheeseburger, but with many, many questions to ask. I asked him about Rand, of course, and I asked him about Iraq, torture, the meaning of death. We even discussed some dark subjects, like self-esteem and sex.

There is a reason the Q&A sessions after Nathaniel’s public talks invariably set off a stampede to the microphone, with brutal consequences for anyone in the audience who had forgotten to wear steel boots. Nathaniel loved a good question; his joyful lucidity brought light to almost any subject, big or small. I asked him everything on my mind that afternoon. Most of all I longed to know, not disinterestedly, how he had recovered from that glorious time when he once knew everything. Our conversation itself was his answer, not that I fully appreciated this at the time. We parted on warm terms.

Who was Nathaniel Branden? Objectivist, psychologist, therapist, or God forbid, “public intellectual” — none of these labels, in my view, measure up. Ideologues, even good ones, tend to be transparent and predictable, whereas Nathaniel remained a mystery to adversaries and admirers alike. I myself have tritely attempted to liken him to a character in a novel, for I believe that a profound love of liberty, and that elusive ideal of objectivity, were alive and pure in his soul. One of the last times I saw him was at a screening of the first Atlas Shrugged movie. Barbara Branden, his former wife and eternal friend, was also present, and there was nothing trite at all about how exhilarated they were by the long-delayed illustration of their early intellectual dreams. The poem had survived.

Nathaniel loved a good question; his joyful lucidity brought light to almost any subject, big or small.

When news of Nathaniel’s final illness began to surface, Stephen Cox, a longtime friend of his, wrote this about the ever-surprising question of influence: “We literally do not know what we are doing.” An unexpected epitaph for a man dedicated to rationality, and also a perfect one. Nathaniel Branden was ultimately a monk of the mind, whose thoughts, like the prayers of a religious monk, performed wonders far beyond what anyone could track.




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Die Nasty

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Statist “progressives” are obsessed with wealth and power. I think that back in the ’80s, they must have been sucked into their TV sets, and they’ve been trapped ever since in an endless episode of Dynasty. This must be why they have no idea what the real world is like.

Oliver, a friend of mine who’s about to retire, will need to go on working — just to survive — until he dies. He can’t disclose to the government that he’ll still be earning money, or he’ll lose the Social Security he paid for with money he might otherwise have invested. Without it, he can’t make enough money, at any job that will still have him, while living on Social Security alone would reduce him to poverty. When I complain about this to people with standard-issue leftist views, all they do is rant about the greedy rich and the big corporations — as if Oliver didn’t exist.

On both the Left and the Right, statists seem to get their view of the world from soap operas.

Another friend, Kevin, keeps bees and chickens at the home he shares with his life partner, on a spacious property in a semi-rural area. The city, or county, or whoever hands down such edicts, does not permit him to have enough bees or chickens to make a living selling honey and eggs. So he must return to an office cubicle — to spend the rest of his life working for big corporations and the rich.

How does any of this make sense? I mention my second friend to people who care so much about “the working class”. And I get blank stares and silence. Then they launch into yet another diatribe about “social justice.”

I’m beginning to think that they live on a different planet. A good name for it would be Die Nasty. And that’s definitely the way a whole lot of us are going to die, if “progressives” keep showing us their compassion.

The first requirement of honest politics, it seems to me, is that they apply to real people, here on earth. On both the Left and the Right, statists seem to get their view of the world from soap operas. They ignore those of us who actually exist. Stereotypical, one-dimensional characters are all that interest them.

I’m much more concerned about actual human beings. Oliver would love to spend his golden years camping and fishing, and God knows he’s worked hard enough to earn it. Kevin’s farmette is within a stone’s throw of the zoo. He loves getting up to the crow of the rooster and the roar of the lions, and tending to the living things that flourish in his care. But although the American Dream looks different to each of us, for many it’s been preempted by a nightmare.

Were I to appeal to one of my own favorite fictional characters, Sherlock Holmes, he would quickly collar the culprit. “Tell me, my dear Lori,” I hear him muse, as he puffs on his pipe and plays the violin, “who really benefits from this mad scheme?”

I don’t need Doctor Watson to help me find the answer. It is elementary, indeed. The statist Left is the only sector of our society that gets anything out of the equation. “Splendid!” Holmes would declare. “And there is . . . do you not agree . . . a terrible beauty to it all.”

I suppose there is. Leftists keep making the very problems they purport to solve even worse than ever, thereby assuring that they themselves will keep being needed to save the day. Only day after day goes by, and no matter how many years pass, the problems remain. We keep getting more and more desperate for a solution, and far too many of us continue to call upon our “progressive” heroes to help.

The only people who might hold the statist Left responsible for keeping its promises are those who support it.

Both Oliver and Kevin are diehard progressives. They persist, against all evidence to the contrary, in thinking that their saviors will come through for them. Racial tensions soar into the stratosphere, the battle of the sexes goes thermonuclear, and gay activists snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by attacking religious freedom just as same-sex marriage is gaining ground. Still, the faithful keep faith. If I were to tell my friends that government is making their lives miserable, they would quickly protest that — oh, no! — government is noble, and has We the People’s best interests at heart.

The only people who might hold the statist Left responsible for keeping its promises are those who support it. I have stopped, because I no longer believe in statism at all. I, too, will have to work for the rest of my life, because Obama and Company have robbed me of the chance that I might ever retire. I still believe in progress, but I refuse to accept the silly mummery that claims to promote it as any substitute for the real thing.

Real people need real solutions. It would help if more of us got a clue. Where is Sherlock Holmes when we need him?




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