The Brain, Explained

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"Don't think, feel!" Bruce Lee's character exhorts his young son in Enter the Dragon (1973) as he teaches him to trust his instincts while learning to fight. By contrast, Ayn Rand favored "Don't feel, think!" when she wrote, "People don't want to think. And the deeper they get into trouble, the less they want to think." Like Plato, Rand proudly privileged reason over emotion. But which is the better approach for making decisions, Lee's feeling intuitively or Rand's thinking rationally?

According to Jonah Lehrer in How We Decide, they're both right. We humans would make better decisions if we understood how the brain reacts to various stimuli. The frontal cortex accesses different tools within its complex regions and uses that knowledge to choose when we should react intuitively and when we should figure things out rationally. Using fascinating real-life stories, studies conducted by respected psychologists and neuroscientists, and an entertainingly accessible style, Lehrer explains how the uniquely human frontal cortex sorts it all out and helps us decide.

For instance, Lehrer considers how quarterback Tom Brady surveys the position and forward direction of 21 moving players on a 5,000-square-yard playing field, anticipates where everyone will be next, and decides where and how fast to throw a football, all in less than two seconds, while other players are bearing down on him. Brainwave studies have shown that there isn't time for him to process the information and make a rational decision. The neural synapses aren't that fast. A quarterback's decision is made intuitively, through the part of the brain controlled by emotion. As Lehrer quotes Brady, "You just feel like you're going to the right place."

Lehrer also demonstrates what causes athletes, performers, public speakers, and everyday humans like you and me to "choke" on tasks for which we are perfectly prepared and skilled. He tells the stories of opera singer Renee Fleming, golfer Jean Van de Velde, and others to demonstrate the point. The problem comes from overthinking a task that the body has learned to perform instinctively. In short, the brain gets in its own way, as the reasoning synapses block the path of the emotional synapses. "A brain that can't feel can't make up its mind," Leher concludes (15).

Of course, mere feeling isn't sufficient for making the right decisions. A potential juror who says, "I can tell if someone's guilty just by looking at him" is more dangerous than a crook with a gun. Lehrer provides equally fascinating examples to demonstrate when the rational part of the brain needs to be in control. For example, he tells the compelling story of firefighters who tried to control a raging forest fire in the Rockies in 1949. When the blaze jumped a gulch and began racing toward them, most of them tapped into their brain's emotional side and tried to outrun the fire.

The captain, however, evaluated the situation rationally. He quickly took into account the dryness of the grass, the speed of the wind driving the fire, the slope of the hill they would have to run, and their unfamiliarity with the terrain on the other side of the crest. While his emotions screamed "Run!" his reason said, "Stop. Build a fire. Destroy the fire's fuel, and then hug the ground while the fire passes over you." He was the only man to survive. None of his young firefighters followed his lead. Today, building a firebreak has become standard training procedure because of this incident. But at the time, Captain Dodge's brain created the escape route entirely on its own.

Modern scientific tools, such as the MRI, electronic probes, and EEG, have made it possible to see exactly what the brain does when faced with a choice, a risk, or a dilemma. "Every feeling," Lehrer writes, "is really a summary of data, a visceral response to all of the information that can't be accessed directly" (23). This means that you and I will make better choices if we understand which parts of the brain to access for different tasks, and how to satisfy or tone down conflicting stimuli.

For example, one study asked subjects to memorize a list and report to someone in a room at the end of a hallway. On the way the subjects passed a table where they were invited to take a snack. Those who had a long message to remember — one that required them to remember seven things — usually chose a piece of chocolate cake, while those who only had one or two things to remember tended to take a piece of fruit. The practical application? When the rational brain is working at capacity (and according to psychologist George Miller's essay, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two," memorizing seven things seems to be the capacity), the emotional brain takes over, and the chocolate cake is irresistible. When the rational brain has less to remember, it can overrule emotion and make a wiser choice. No wonder we overeat and fall prey to other temptations when we have too much to do.

So when should we think rationally, and when should we act impulsively? Lehrer ends his book with several practical suggestions.

First, simple problems require reason. When there are few variables to consider, the brain is able to analyze them rationally and provide a reasonable decision. But when the choice contains many variables — as when one is buying a new house — "sleep on it" and then "go with your gut" really is the best advice. Overthinking often leads to poor decision making.

Second, novel problems also require reason. Before reacting intuitively, make sure the brain has enough past experience to help you make the right decision. Creative solutions to new problems require concrete information and rational analysis.

Third, embrace uncertainty. Too often, Lehrer warns, "You are so confident you're right that you neglect all the evidence that contradicts your conclusion." This is especially true in matters such as politics and investment decisions. He offers two solutions: "always entertain competing hypotheses . . . [and] continually remind yourself of what you don't know" (247). Certainty often leads to blindness.

Fourth, you know more than you know. The conscious brain is often unaware of what the unconscious brain knows. "Emotions have a logic all their own," Lehrer says. "They've managed to turn mistakes into educational events" (248–49). The reason superstars like Tom Brady, Tiger Woods, and Renee Fleming can rely on instinct is that they've been there before. Tom Brady has surveyed thousands of football fields and thrown thousands of passes; Tiger Woods has made thousands of putts; Renee Fleming has sung an aria hundreds of times. For them, the brain knows what to do, and thinking just gets in the way.

Fifth, think about thinking. Before making a decision, Lehrer warns, be aware of the kind of decision it is and the kind of thought process it requires. "You can't avoid loss aversion unless you know that the mind treats losses differently than gains," he explains. Knowing how the brain works will help us make better decisions in everything we do.

How We Decide is a book full of real-life stories, scientific experiments, and practical applications. It will help you understand how you make decisions, and will guide you to make better decisions in the future. Returning to Bruce Lee and Ayn Rand's conflict between thinking and feeling, Lehrer makes a strong case for "Think sometimes, feel sometimes. And make sure you know when to do which."


Editor's Note: Review of "How We Decide," by Jonah Lehrer. First Mariner Books edition, 2010 (Harcourt Brace, 2009), 302 pages.



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Outsourcing: The Inner View

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Many years ago a woman wrote a letter to Ann Landers, asking whether she should go back to school to get a college degree. She worried that it might be a waste of time so late in life, ending her letter with this: “If I go back to college, I’ll be 62 in four years.” I’ve never forgotten Ann’s cogent reply: “And how old will you be in four years if you don’t go back to college?”

We all have choices. We have no control over the amount of time we have in this life, but we do control what we will do during that time. Life is what we make of it. No matter how old we are.

This is the message of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, where a dozen or so fellow travelers have stopped for a while to share their stories, and their lives, to varying degrees. It is a poignant and funny Canterbury tale, Indian style. The young innkeeper, Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), serves as host and philosophical guide. Bubbly and bumbling, he is an optimistic and likeable fatalist. When the travelers express horror at his falling-down hotel, he tells them, “In India we have a saying: everything will be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, it is not the end!”

The best exotic hotel is exotic, but it certainly isn’t best. The phones don't work. The roof has holes. Some rooms don't have doors. The courtyard is cracked. But Sonny doesn't see it as it is; he sees his hotel as it can be. As it will be. Because if it isn't all right now, it just means it isn't the end yet.

The travelers have come to the Marigold Hotel for different reasons, most of them having to do with money.

Douglas and Jean Ainslie (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) invested their retirement funds in their daughter’s startup company, and it didn’t start up. In their native England,they can’t afford more than a cramped bungalow for old folks, so they have come to the Marigold for cheap rent.

Recently widowed, Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) has discovered that her husband mismanaged their money and left her deeply in debt. She embraces the Indian experience, blogging about it for readers back home and finding a job training telephone operators in an outsourced information company (yes, those infernal IT people you reach when your computer is on the fritz. But here they are earnest and likeable — as, I suppose, they really are).

The film gives us an unintentional inside look at socialized medicine, and what we see isn't pretty.

Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) has traded on her good looks all her life. Now those looks aren't so good any more, and she must face the possibility that she has had her final love affair. She is looking for love, but she is also looking for a lasting sugar daddy. She likes nice things.

Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) is an old-school racist, and by that I mean she is confident and self-assured in her belief that everyone around her shares her bigotry, including the people whom she considers inferior. As the film opens she is on a stretcher in a hospital hallway, complaining that she wants a “proper English doctor,” not the black man who has just tried to touch her. Because we understand she is an unhappy product of her cultural upbringing, we cut her some slack and enjoy her crotchety rantings, knowing that she will have a change of heart before the film ends. (And if she doesn’t, it will only be because it isn’t the end yet!)

The film gives us an unintentional inside look at socialized medicine, and what we see isn't pretty: cots in the hallways because there aren't enough examining rooms, months-long waits for necessary surgeries because there aren’t enough surgeons. "Six months!" Muriel exclaims. "At my age I don't even buy green bananas!" (I know, it's an old joke — but it always reminds me of the dear friend who first said it to me — just weeks before he died, as it turned out.) When Muriel’s doctor tells her she can have the needed hip replacement surgery immediately in India, she goes there, then repairs to the Marigold Hotel to recuperate.

Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) is the only character who has come to India for non-financial reasons. He is trying to find the love of his life, whom he met 40 years earlier while stationed in India, and from whom he was forced to part. He spends his days in the registry office, trying to track down the friend, and in the streets, playing cricket with young boys. Through him the characters learn the meaning of true love.

Despite the heat, the unfamiliar foods, the smells, and the “squalor,” as Jean describes it, India is still, in this film, a land of exotic wonder and happy faces. When asked what he likes about it, Graham responds, “The lights, the colors, the vibrancy. The way people see life as a privilege and not as a right.” Camels, elephants, and cows line the roads, along with rickety buses and colorful “tuk-tuks,” the ubiquitous three-wheeled taxis. These folks have “come to a new and different world,” as Evelyn writes in her blog, with voice-over narration. “The challenge is to cope with it. And not just to cope, but to thrive.”

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is filled with similar upbeat aphorisms and quotable quotes. “The person who risks nothing, does nothing. Has nothing,” Evelyn tells her readers.“The only real failure is the failure to try. And the measure of success is how well we cope.”

“Most things don’t work out as expected,” she concludes, “But what happens instead often turns out to be the good stuff.” With an outstanding cast of veteran actors portraying couples in various stages of love and marriage, an important message about taking charge of one’s choices, and a point of view that says old age doesn’t have to be outsourced (but it isn't so bad when it is), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is indeed the “good stuff.”


Editor's Note: Review of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," directed by John Madden. Participant Media/20th Century Fox, 2011, 124 minutes.



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The New Normal

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Science is the inspiration of those techno-libertarians who hold that evolutions in technology will ultimately lead to revolutions in political freedom. A commitment to the virtues of small business and entrepreneurs is a major inspiration for the ideals of free market capitalism. So it is easy to think that libertarians might feel that our values were being mocked by two primetime comedies, The Big Bang Theory and Two Broke Girls — the first of which is about scientists and the second about two poor girls who start a business. Yet these sitcoms are deeply touching, hilarious, and also well-intentioned shows — because the audience laughs with the characters, not at them.

The Big Bang Theory, which premiered in 2007 and has now become ubiquitous, with reruns on TBS and new episodes on CBS, is the story of four scientists (two theoretical physicists, an astrophysicist, and an engineer) who work at Caltech. These four scientists are as close to the stereotypical nerd or geek as you can get. They constantly hang out at the local comic book store, play video games, enjoy Star Trek, can’t get girls to date them, and are beaten up by jocks. They constantly make reference to things that only scientists think about. One of them, for instance, dresses for Hallowe’en as the Doppler effect. The producers try to make the science on the show, of which there is a lot, completely accurate, and some episodes feature inside jokes that only scientists can understand.

The characters’ world is turned upside down when Penny (Kaley Cuoco) moves into the apartment down the hall. Penny is an attractive, normal, “popular” sort of girl, who works as a waitress but dreams of becoming an actress. Leonard (Johnny Galecki), the protagonist, instantly falls in love with her. Much of the comedy in the show’s early years focused on Leonard’s feelings for Penny, and the jokes frequently involved the science nerds being totally ignorant of what Penny takes for granted (e.g., the rules of football, the names of such popular bands as Radiohead), or Penny being ignorant of the world of science and geek culture (e.g., online role playing games, the Klingon language). Leonard eventually started dating Penny, and they had a cute, adorable romance for about one season. But their relationships was sundered by the scheming machinations of Star Trek actor Wil Wheaton (who plays an evil version of himself). Leonard and Penny just recently got back together, which makes the show more enjoyable.

The real comedic gold, however, comes from Leonard’s roommate Sheldon (Jim Parsons, who won an Emmy for the role), a brilliant, supremely arrogant physicist with strong doses of OCD and Asperger’s syndrome. Sheldon constantly, and hilariously, insults everyone around him; at the same time everyone else perpetually makes fun of his arrogance and total disconnect from reality. In one episode Leonard calls Sheldon a sphincter, to which Sheldon replies, “The sphincter? A much maligned muscle; did you know there are over twenty different sphincters in the human body?”, and illustrates with an anatomical drawing from the internet.

The writing is usually clever. An instance: Sheldon and Penny are having a fight. Sheldon (threateningly): “You’re playing with forces beyond your ken.” Penny: “Yeah? Well your Ken can kiss my Barbie!” I said “usually.” In a few episodes each season the writing falls flat. This was especially noticeable during the episodes that immediately followed the end of Penny and Leonard’s dating.

But the show is always light-hearted, never serious. It was introduced with the tag line “smart is the new sexy,” yet it never says anything serious about science, or politics, or anything else. The extent of the show’s commentary on religion is Sheldon’s disdain for his Texan Christian mother’s creationism, and Sheldon’s lecturing Penny on the origins of Christmas as a pagan holiday. But the love-hate relationship between Penny, who represents the “normal” popular world, and Leonard, who represents the nerd-geek-science world, is central to the show. Their romance is premised on the idea that the normal, ignorant masses might eventually be able to appreciate the true value of science and technology. The conflict is not precisely between religion and science. It is about the conflict between pop culture and geek culture.

Business doesn’t really look like old rich white men at a corporate board meeting; it looks like two young women in aprons struggling to build a career and reach the middle class.

And, yes, true to its tag line, “The Big Bang Theory” makes it cool to be a geek; it turns smart into sexy. Science has not gotten PR this good since the genre of science fiction was first invented. The show goes a long way toward teaching the public about the details of the type of thinking behind science and what scientists do, so that people won’t just see the magical moving pictures on television and may instead actually get a taste of where the wires and circuit boards inside the TV come from. If Leonard can get Penny to date him, even for a while, then there is hope that all the nerds out there (and the scientific attitude they embody) can find acceptance in this world.

Two Broke Girlsstarted this season, so there is less of a body of work by which to judge it, but every episode I have seen has been hilarious. This show is designed as a microcosm of the Great Recession. Caroline (Beth Behrs), a wealthy heiress and Wharton Business School graduate, is thrust into poverty when her father loses their fortune and goes to jail for running a Madoff-style Ponzi scheme. Caroline is hopelessly naïve about how to cope with low-income life. All she has left is her pet horse. Somehow a Wharton degree does not help her to get a white-collar job. She is taken in by Max (Kat Dennings), a young, snarky, sassy, wisecracking waitress who lives in Brooklyn. Caroline becomes Max’s roommate and gets a job as a waitress at the Brooklyn diner where Max works.

Poverty is the constant undercurrent in the show, which lists an update on the amount of money in the two girls’ bank account at the conclusion of each show (it fluctuates between $200 and $800). But the episodes help the audience, nervous about its own finances, laugh at life and not get beaten down by financial worries. After all, Max and Caroline always find a way to survive. The show is remarkably raunchy (one episode had a running joke about the diner’s horny, seedy chef asking the girls’ Polish friend [Jennifer Coolidge], who runs a cleaning business, to “come to my apartment to clean,” and her replying, “You cannot make me come, I will not come”). Max always has a wise-crack or an insult to shoot at someone. Both actresses are superb in their roles.

What do two broke girls do to cope with the Great Recession? One thing they don’t do is wait around for the welfare state to pay their bills. They start a small business instead. Max bakes cupcakes; Caroline sets up a cupcake business and promotes the sale of cupcakes. Much of the plot involves the girls’ desperate schemes to raise money to fund their cupcake website or find new places to sell their cupcakes. It is just good old-fashioned American effort — people trying to rise from poverty by being productive and selling a product to people who want it.

Unfortunately for the audience’s economic education, nowhere to be seen are New York City health inspectors grading their kitchen, or the IRS auditing their financial records, or any of the goon squad of federal, state, and city bureaucrats who in real life would try to regulate and tax the life out of their startup. The show is not political at all; aside from the implicit feminism of two single girls being very assertive and self-sufficient, it has no explicit message. But the simple yet touching portrayal of two tough, smart-alecky girls, who constantly poke fun at the people around them and use their sense of humor as a way to cope with the sorrows of economic disaster, is an inspiration that everyone stricken by the Great Recession can learn from.

A lot of people are talking about “the new normal” in connection with the Great Recession. But what do The Big Bang Theory and Two Broke Girls say about American mainstream culture? These shows are on CBS, which touts itself as “America’s most-watched network,” not a niche market like Fox Business Network. Both shows have consistently received high ratings (although Two Broke Girls had some unfavorable reviews). A show about nerds coping with the world of pop culture has become a symbol of the world of pop culture assimilating nerd culture. From World of Warcraft to urban fantasy novels such as Harry Potter and Twilight, to the popularization of social media on electronic devices, to the omnipresence of the internet, the technology-obsessed geek world of the techno-libertarian has become, well, how shall I say it . . . normal. And a realization that poverty is the new normal, but it is necessary to take a can-do attitude to rise out of it — that is also catching on.

The libertarian angle is clear: business doesn’t really look like old rich white men at a corporate board meeting; it looks like two young women in aprons struggling to build a career and reach the middle class. Inspired by these two shows, I dare to speculate that if technology continues to evolve and shape the world in which we live, and if prolonged financial desperation forces America to wake up to economic reality and embrace free market principles as the path to recovery, then maybe a few decades from now libertarianism will also be . . . dare I say it? the new normal.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Big Bang Theory," CBS, Thursday, 8:00pm; and "Two Broke Girls," CBS, Monday, 8:30pm.



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Model Citizen

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Bernie Tiede was a model citizen in the small city of Carthage, “behind the Pine Curtain” in eastern Texas, as one resident calls it. As an assistant funeral director, Bernie took gentle care of the deceased. As a member of a local Protestant congregation, he taught Sunday School, sang in the choir, and made people weep with his lovely tenor solos. As an amateur thespian, he directed local musical revivals. As a trusted friend, he escorted a recently widowed curmudgeonly dowager to concerts, dinners, and even trips abroad. He was generous and kind. Everyone loved Bernie. Even after he killed the curmudgeonly dowager. By accident. Oops.

Bernie is a dark, deadpan comedy in the style of the Eugene Levy-Christopher Guest mockumentaries. But this is no mockumentary; the people being interviewed for this film are real citizens of Carthage, Texas, all dolled up for their close-ups and spouting colloquialisms you couldn’t get away with as a scriptwriter. “She had her nose up so high in the air, she would have drowned in a rain storm,” one snippety resident says about Marjorie Nugent, the deceased dowager. Another gives a detailed explanation of the five sections of Texas, ending with “I sort of skipped over the panhandle — but everyone does.” “The Gossips” (as director Richard Linklater affectionately calls them in interviews) do their best to support their friend Bernie and explain his motives. No one could ask for a better jury of his peers.

Linklater has carefully crafted a combination documentary and fictional bio-flick about this famous (at least behind the Pine Curtain) case. He interviewed dozens of people who knew Bernie Tiede, and then used their stories to write a script about it. Jack Black is perfect as Bernie, inhabiting the role with a distinct waddle, a beneficent smile, and a sincerity that invites endearment. You just want to reach out and hug him, or be hugged by him. Early in the film we join Bernie in his car as he drives through the town, singing a country hymn about his walk with Jesus. That long cut, interspersed with occasional interviews, tells us everything we need to know about his personality.

Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) is the kind of nasty, critical, overbearing old woman whom everyone wants to avoid. Her own grandchildren haven’t seen her in four years, and for good reason. At first she is charmed by Bernie’s attention and becomes charming as a result, but eventually she reverts to type, assailing Bernie, too, with her browbeating and criticism. MacLaine is wonderful in this role, tapping into her ingénue days to charm Bernie and then digging deep into her nastiness. But she never revels in the role or tries to steal a scene — she is convincingly Marjorie throughout. Wisely, MacLaine has resisted the Hollywood collagen-botox mania, so she can still move her face. She doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, but she doesn’t need it. Her body language and facial expressions tell us what Marjorie is thinking and feeling without words.

Bernie is one of those unexpected little gems that surprise and delight us in every scene, despite its macabre subject matter. It asks us to sympathize with someone who should be utterly unsympathetic — and we do. Linklater’s melding of actors and townspeople is brilliant — actors could never have convinced audiences to empathize with Bernie, but these real residents who know and love him do. Moreover, the actors seem to have taken their cues from the interviews, matching their cadences and movements to the local residents. The result is a seamless blending of fact and fiction. Matthew McConnaughey is particularly good as Danny Buck, the preening peacock of a prosecutor. The film is a delightful piece of work, with a delightful protagonist. Too bad about Marjorie. Oops.

The film also inadvertently highlights a growing problem with the criminal justice system: the tendency for prosecutors to overcharge, with the hope of forcing a plea bargain. Let’s suppose a young man gets into a fight, and someone ends up dead. The fight may have been premeditated, but the killing was not. The prosecutor charges him with first degree murder and scares the bejeezus out of him with the maximum sentence of 25 to life. A plea bargain to manslaughter would get him a sentence of 8–10 years. Frightened about the potential risk of a jury trial, he takes the deal.

But what if he isn’t guilty at all? What if he has been wrongly accused? He already doesn’t trust the system; after all, they got the wrong man, and he knows it. Nevertheless, facing a potential sentence of 25 to life, and knowing that juries are wont to convict poor kids like him who have been assigned an overworked public defender, he might be convinced to plead out. If he does go to trial, he’s facing the higher charge of first degree, even though the prosecutor knows it should be manslaughter or, at most, second degree murder.

Any film that causes us to take a closer look at the criminal justice system is a good film in my book. And Bernie is a very good film. Don’t miss it!


Editor's Note: Review of "Bernie," directed by Richard Linklater. Millennium Entertainment (2011), 104 minutes.



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Broadway Is Back!

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Once in a decade a show comes to Broadway that redefines what we mean by "Broadway musical." Once is the show of this decade. It has choreography without dance, show-stopping music without belting, laughter without jokes, central figures without names, and a love story without a single kiss. Once you've seen Once, you will have a completely different idea of what a Broadway musical can be.

Once upon a time in Dublin, a guy met a girl. The guy was a busker, the girl was a Czech immigrant. Once upon a time his music soared, but as this show begins, he has given up on music, and given up on life as well. He is headed for the bridge over troubled waters when the girl stops him and tells him that his music has value. What she means is that his life has value. Once she comes into his life, his life changes. For once, and always.

Onceis based on an independent film of the same name whose central song, "Falling Slowly," won the Academy Award for Best Song in 2007. Those who saw the award show will remember the humble, unbridled joy of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who wrote the music and directed and starred in the film, as they accepted the Oscar. They were so overjoyed that host Jon Stewart brought Marketa back out after the commercial break to finish her speech, which had been cut off by a thoughtless timekeeper. Class act, Jon.

As good as Hansard and Irglova were in the film, however, they can't hold a candle to the performances of Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti as the guy and girl onstage in the Broadway production of Once. Milioti is particularly earnest and charming as the girl, who elicits gales of laughter from the audience even when she is simply reminding the guy, "I am serious. I'm Czech." Tiny but powerful, she seems to personify the word "hope."

The score by Hansard and Irglova is pure Irish folk, but this is no "Riverdance." The songs convey a deep, plaintive resonance that matches the plaintive, unrequited longing of the guy and the girl. Unlike typical Broadway shows in which people suddenly break into song in the middle of a conversation, the music here is an integral part of the story. Characters sing because that's what they are doing — on a street corner, in a recording studio, at a pub or a family gathering. Music is as natural to them as speaking or breathing, and as essential. In this show, music doesn't interrupt the flow of the story; it is the story.

The music is played onstage by a crew of talented "buskers" who weave seamlessly into roles as minor characters in the story and back out again as street musicians performing at a pub or on a sidewalk. The effect is mesmerizing. It's intensified by the fact that the set is an active onstage pub where audience members can buy drinks and mill around with the musicians before the show and during intermission. Everything else is created through imagination — a chair becomes a living room; two tables create a bedroom; several tables become an apartment. All of this occurs in the blink of an eye and the whirl of a table as the busker-musicians act in carefully choreographed unison to move the furnishings and props on and off stage. There is no dancing in this show, but there is some stunning choreography.

The dialogue is modern Irish too, and by that I mean it is peppered with the f-word. But the way they use it, as an adjective and an interjection, is somehow gentle and not at all offensive. It is just part of the Irish accent, as anyone knows who has spent much time in Ireland recently. They use it almost caressingly, with a soft vowel to match their soft personalities.

Once a Broadway musical had to end with a wedding. In fact, it would often end with two or three weddings, as the oft-mismatched couples in the story finally sorted themselves out into appropriate pairings. Audiences sighed with cathartic relief and left the theater smiling. But life isn't a fairy tale, and relationships more often end in the reality of unrequited love; the mismatched couples are already matched with someone else, and those previous entanglements simply won't be sorted out. What resonates in Once is that the relationship between the guy and the girl celebrates a true love that transcends romance. It is deep, whole, and pure. Like the music.

Eleven Tony nominations. Every one of them richly deserved. If you are in New York this year, even once, don't miss the chance to see Once.

Once,directed by John Tiffany. Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, New York City. Discount tickets usually available through broadwaybox.com.




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Move Away from the Window!

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Horror has been a staple of filmmaking since the earliest days of cinema, when the Lumiere brothers (perhaps unintentionally) terrified audiences with the sight of a train seeming to rush straight toward them (1896) and when Lon Chaney made audiences shudder as the first creepy Phantom of the Opera (1925).

The best horror films of the ’50s and the ’60s — such films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) and I Saw What You Did (1965) relied on psychological tension rather than blood and gore to develop an overwhelming sense of dread and fear. In fact, Hitchcock deliberately filmed Psycho in black and white to reduce the vividness of the blood one sees in the famous shower scene. Then along came Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and the bloodfest was on.

Humans seem drawn to the cathartic effect of intense fear followed by a flood of relief — especially when that fear remains within the safety of a darkened theater. Once we could go home laughing merrily, knowing that the vampire had been vanquished with a silver bullet or the devil had been destroyed. Then the unvanquishable villain was introduced — Rosemary decided not to kill her devil baby (1968); Freddy Krueger refused to stay dead. Chainsaws and meat hooks increased the gore and reduced the catharsis.

Just when it seemed that the genre had completely saturated itself with mindless gore and predictable stereotypes, Scream appeared (1996) and iconized the genre, adding a new stock character (the likeable nerd) who explained the "rules" of horror movies to his terrorized friends while they were being terrorized. Acting as the chorus in a Greek play, this character participated in the drama and simultaneously narrated it, providing a bridge between the people on-screen and the people in the seats.

Randy (the Greek chorus): "There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie! For instance, Number One: You can never have sex. (Crowd moans and cheers.) Sex equals death, OK? Number Two: You can never drink or do drugs. (Crowd moans and cheers.) No, it's the sin factor, it's a sin, it's an extension of Number One! And Number Three: Never, ever, ever, under any circumstances, say 'I'll be right back,' 'cause you won't be back."

Stu: "I'm gettin' another beer, you want one?"

Randy: "Yeah, sure."

Stu: "I'll be right back!!!!"

This insider narration turned the story into a kind of film class and elevated the Scream franchise intellectually above typical slasher films. Yes, it still had buckets of blood, but it also challenged viewers to consider the film as an artform with distinct features and expectations. As audience members we were drawn into the film with a knowing nod of our heads. Yes, we too were intellectually superior to these knuckleheads who don’t know enough to stay together, look behind the door, and MOVE AWAY FROM THE WINDOW, IDIOT!

The Cabin in the Woodstakes this insider narration a step further, suggesting that, if there are rules, then there must be rulemakers. Rules like "the slut dies first" and "the virgin makes it out alive" aren't just the observations of classroom teachers of literary criticism; in The Cabin in the Woods the rules are positively diabolic. Two distinct storylines develop side by side, one scary and intense, the other droll and detached. Throughout the film, just when the tension seems almost unbearable, “reality” intrudes, reminding the audience that this isn't real — or is it?

It all lends the film a bizarre sense of humor and camp, as zombies with buzzsaws (and even a crazed unicorn!) terrorize the quintet of beautiful, robust teens who just want a quiet weekend of beer, weed, and sex at an idyllic cabin in the lovely woods. There are watchers in these woods, watchers who are intentionally controlling the action, for reasons that don't become apparent until late in the film.

As horror films go, this one is pretty basic, but the framing device of having a story within a story sets it apart and gives the audience something meaty to consider.Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are particularly amusing as the bland, unemotional, white-shirted IT men-behind-the-scenes in the external frame story.

Despite its campiness (and it does have moments of delicious humor) and its intimations of mythic significance, The Cabin in the Woods is still a horror film at heart. If you go, expect to see throat stabbings, arm hackings, blood spewings, and lots of eerie music to pump up your heart and curl your toes. So don’t go alone. Stay together. And MOVE AWAY FROM THE WINDOW!!!


Editor's Note: Review of "The Cabin in the Woods," directed by Drew Goddard. MGM/United Artists, 2011, 95 minutes.



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What Not to Do About Bullying

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The Weinstein Brothers are champions at using controversy to garner publicity for their films. Recently they used that skill to the hilt to stir up public interest in their documentary Bully, an intimate look at the problem of bullying in public schools. First they inserted enough explicit language to earn an R rating. Then they complained vociferously to the rating board that the R would prevent the most important audience from seeing the film. The controversy was reported in the media, and reviewers like me sat up and took notice. I viewed Bully the day it opened, fully expecting it to knock Hunger Games off its throne as the most talked-about film of the season.

Katniss Everdeen need not worry; she still owns the throne. Bully is a good documentary. It might even be an important documentary. Those who have experienced any form of bullying will probably find it a very moving documentary. But I don't think anyone is going to be flocking to see it, regardless of the rating. It will probably end up in many school libraries, however, and many students will see it in their social studies classes for years to come.

The film follows the stories of five students from four states (Georgia, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Mississippi) who have experienced bullying for a variety of reasons. One is small for his age. Another suffers the physical effects of a premature birth. Yet another is a lesbian. Two have committed suicide, and are represented by interviews with their parents and in clips from home movies. The filmmakers were able to get surprisingly candid scenes of students abusing these kids on the bus, in the cafeteria, and in the hallways, as well as candid scenes of administrators, teachers, and parents — people who often make fools of themselves as they discuss the problem. I often thought to myself, "Didn't they realize they were being filmed?" I applaud the filmmakers' ability to elicit such open, unabashed realism. No one in this film was on his best behavior.

Except, perhaps, for the school administrators. They fairly glow in their obvious attempt to put their best feet forward and shine for the cameras. The principal at Alex's school stands in the hallway as the students arrive from the bus. One boy comes to her with his hand on his head and reports, "A kid slammed my head into a nail!" The principal puts on her sweetest, most understanding voice and says, "I'll bet you didn't like that, did you?" Another boy walks past, visibly upset, and she says to the camera, "He's such an unhappy child." In another scene she forces two older boys to shake hands as a way to resolve what seems to be a longstanding battle. The bully extends his hand, but when the victim of his bullying is reluctant to do so, she chastises him, saying that he is now the bully and that it's his fault. "Why don't you just get along?" she coos after the bully leaves. "He was willing to shake your hand. I think the two of you could be friends." The boy, nervous and confused, responds, "The cops told us to stay apart." This principal hasn't a clue. Not a clue.

When are parents going to wake up and realize that the public school system itself is broken beyond repair?

Another school administrator tries to whitewash the issue. "Is it an ongoing problem in our school?" she asks rhetorically. "No it is not," she answers herself, vigorously nodding her head as she says it. I would love to have an expert explain that body language! Another administrator offers a similarly Pollyannish response when parents complain about the abuse their son is experiencing on the bus. First she says, "Buses are notorious for abuse," and offers, "I can put him on another bus" — rather than trying to solve the problem. The mother suggests (wisely, I might add), "When I was a kid the bus driver pulled over and wouldn't take anyone home until everyone settled down." Isn't that kind of an obvious policy? But the principal simply says, "I've ridden Bus 54, and they were good as gold." Several of us in the audience laughed out loud at that idiotic response. Well, duh! You were on the bus! Of course they behaved!

The film does a fine job of revealing the problems experienced in the communities it covers, but it offers few satisfying solutions. Devon, who was bullied for four years, says in an interview, "I stood up for myself, and they leave me alone now." But when Ja'Maya tries this technique, she ends up in juvenile jail for several months. Alex simply gives into the abuse, acknowledging sadly, "At least it's attention. I don't mind it that much." His story is perhaps the saddest, because he feels so lonely in addition to being bullied. He just wants a friend. Telling school authorities and the police also accomplishes little. When a vice principal asks one of the bullied boys why he didn't speak up sooner, he responds, "Because you didn't do anything about it last year when I told you that X sat on my head."

Only one family makes what I consider the right choice: they take their daughter out of school and teach her at home. Why would any thinking, caring parent subject a child to this kind of torture day after day? When are parents going to wake up and realize that the public school system itself is broken beyond repair?

While Bully is a good movie, it is hardly a great one. My biggest complaint is that its scope is so limited. These children all lived in similar small towns in the South or Midwest, and all seemed to come from similar poor socioeconomic backgrounds. That is hardly a representative sampling. An estimated 13 million children experience bullying every year, representing every region of the country, every size of community, and every socioeconomic group. Moreover, children used to find a safe haven after school hours. But bullying has left the schoolground and now occurs increasingly at home, especially through the internet. Children simply can't get away from the painful words and public gossip. None of this is highlighted in the film. Nevertheless, I consider Bully must-see viewing for anyone who has a child attending a public school.

What made me saddest as I watched this film was not the funeral of little Ty, one of the boys who committed suicide, or even watching a boy ram Alex's head against the back of a bus seat. It wasn't hearing Alex's principal say, "Boys will be boys." It was the sight of Alex's own mother browbeating and chastising him for not telling her that he was being bullied at school, followed by his sister joking that she's embarrassed at school because none of her friends like him. He's surrounded by bullies at school, and by well-intentioned bullies at home. I just wanted to wrap my arms around that little boy and whisk him away from all of them. All of them.


Editor's Note: Review of "Bully," directed by Lee Hirsch. Weinstein Bros., 2011, 99 minutes.



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Swimming Against the Tide

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At the beginning of the First World War, Robert Frost wrote in Mending Wall (1914), “Good fences make good neighbors” — suggesting metaphorically that borders and boundaries help to prevent war and aggression. But in that same poem he acknowledged,

Something there is that doesn’t like a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Nature herself, he said, works to break down manmade walls through the simple power of water finding cracks and breaking rocks. Nature doesn’t like boundaries.

Borders are good when borders are necessary. They are preferable to war. But more than a century earlier, weary from the destruction and expense of war, Benjamin Franklin recommended wise foreign policy when he wrote: “The system of America is commerce with all and war with none.”

Business brings people together. I may not like your politics, your religion, your clothing, or your neighborhood, but if you produce something I want and I produce something you want, and if we have a justice system that protects our right to property, we will manage to get along, if only for the benefit of mutual exchange. War and aggression may provide short-term solutions to shortages, and walls may keep aggressors at bay. But commerce and free trade promote lasting relationships that increase prosperity and living standards for all. Understanding this simple fact could solve many of the current problems in the Middle East.

Commerce vs war. That's what I thought my review would emphasize when I headed out to see Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, an indie flick about a British fisheries expert (Ewan McGregor) who is hired to create a salmon fishery in Yemen. What a great a new industry for an emerging nation, I thought. This is the way to be good neighbors and promote peace and prosperity — through commerce! Who needs war?

Sigh. This is what happens when I start writing my review before seeing the movie. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is not about commercial fishing at all, but about a wealthy sheik (Amr Waked) who loves salmon fishing at his massive estate in Scotland and is willing to spend £50 million or more to be able to fish in Yemen. He isn’t interested in creating jobs and industry; he just wants to fish in his own backyard. Sheesh!

Nevertheless, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a wonderful little film, one that is well worth seeing. Salmon fishing is actually a metaphor for the uphill relationships presented in this funny romantic drama, which follows two couples who become unintentionally entwined. The fisheries expert, Dr. Alfred Jones, is the very prim and proper husband of Mary Jones (Rachael Stirling), a financial analyst who seems more committed to her job than to her marriage. Meanwhile, the sheik’s consultant in the project, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), who entices Dr. Jones with a money-is-no-object offer, is in love with a soldier (Tom Mison) who has suddenly been deployed to the Middle East.

Encouraging them in the fishing project is Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), the Prime Minister’s press secretary, who seizes this “goodwill” story as an opportunity to counteract some bad war-related publicity coming out of the Middle East. (Chillingly, Maxwell uses her access to high-security government search engines to scan through private emails for references to the Middle East. And they pop right up on her screen, including the "private" communication to Jones from the sheik's representative, requesting a salmon fishery in Yemen. Yikes!) Normally so drab and serious in her roles, Thomas displays an unexpected talent for humor in this film. With her delightfully droll delivery; she effortlessly steals every scene. And that is no easy theft, for a film in which every actor is so adept at displaying that bemused, self-effacing kind of British humor that always seems to say, “Oh, did I do something funny?” The film is simply charming, through and through.

One of the sheik's chief concerns when Jones and Co. are ready to transfer the salmon to Yemen is whether farm-bred fish that have never seen a river will run, or whether they will just swim passively in circles. This underscores the film’s theme: do people who have been domesticated to the point of emasculation still have the instinct to know when they have been set free? Alfred Jones proclaims, “It’s in the very core of their being to run. Even if they never have. Even if their parents never did!” He’s talking about himself, of course, although he doesn’t know it. Juxtaposed against this hopeful declaration is his wife Mary’s cutting remark, “It’s in your DNA to return to a dry, dull, pedestrian life.” Where is his true home? And how much effort will it take to find it? That's what the film asks its viewers.

Ultimately this is a film about swimming against the tide. As Dr. Jones deliberates on whether to accept the whimsical challenge of bringing salmon to a desert, we see an overhead shot of him hurrying along a crowded sidewalk within a school of gray-suited businessmen. Suddenly he turns and makes his way through the crowd in the opposite direction, to tell Harriet that he accepts the offer. He is swimming upstream (yes, to spawn!), and we know that he will be caught before the film is over.


Editor's Note: Review of "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen," directed by Halle Lasstrom. Lionsgate, 2011, 107 minutes.



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Teenage Wasteland

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Author Shirley Jackson was doing errands in her Vermont village, pushing her daughter in a baby stroller, when the germ of her alarming short story "The Lottery" (1948) came into her mind. Two hours later, it was written. Three weeks after that, it was published in The New Yorker. All that summer long she received critical letters from horrified readers. And for the past 50 years it has been anthologized and discussed as one of the most chilling and profound American short stories of the 20th century.

I mention this at the beginning of my review of The Hunger Games because there are many similarities in the two stories’ themes. Set in a seemingly ordinary rural community, "The Lottery" is about the not-so-ordinary ritual of selecting one person each year to be stoned to death as the community scapegoat. "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon," one village elder remarks as the community gathers for the stoning ritual.

In Hunger Games, set in a dystopian future, one boy and one girl from each of 12 "districts" is selected, also by lottery, to be sent to the municipal capital to participate in a televised gladiator-like fight to the death. In this case, the purpose is not to appease the god of the harvest but to control the masses through a combination of fear and hope. They have been convinced by government propaganda that the Games will purge them of violence, prevent the ravages of war, and increase productivity. But really the Games are designed to make everyone complacent and obedient.

The Hunger Games, based on the popular trilogy by Suzanne Collins, opened to eager crowds who couldn't wait to see it. My local theater offered the midnight screening in a whopping 18 of its 20 screens, and avid crowds were lining up at 6 pm. Many of them were mothers with children. You might wonder: Why would any parents allow their children to read a book or watch a movie in which children must kill children? For that matter, why would anyone but a pervert want to watch 24 children fight it out in a kill-or-be-killed arena? What is The Hunger Games’ appeal?

In this case, the purpose is not to appease the god of the harvest but to control the masses through a combination of fear and hope.

Obviously, there is more to these books than the competition. In responding to initial criticism of "The Lottery," Jackson wrote, "I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives." Reading the Hunger Games trilogy, one can't help but see this same theme and message about pointless violence and general inhumanity. Collins uses violence to make a plea for nonviolence.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Everdeen), the likable 16-year-old heroine, is the virtual breadwinner for her widowed mother and 12-year-old sister, Primrose (Willow Shields). Noble and resourceful, Katniss is accustomed to taking risks and making sacrifices for her family. She regularly slips out beyond the district perimeter to hunt for game (a capital offense), which she trades for other goods. She is a generous and honorable young woman who instinctively rebels against tyranny and injustice, but who would never hurt anyone intentionally. Nevertheless, when Katniss impulsively volunteers to take her sister's place when Primrose's name is called as a contestant, she understands that she will have to use her hunting skills to kill other children in order to survive the Games. 

Many who have not read Collins’ books have expressed shock and dismay that she would have children aged 12–18 engaged in her fictional battle. But despite the gruesome subject, there is nothing gratuitously violent or graphic in these books, or in the movie. They are tense and exciting, and they are made more so by the underlying hint of metaphorical truth. Is it such a stretch to imagine a society that would send its children to die in battle while adults stay home and watch it on TV? For over a decade the American government drafted 18-year-olds to fight a war far from home that had very little to do with our own security. Like the children in The Hunger Games, these teens had no voice in the matter; until 1971, they weren't allowed to vote in federal elections. Even with an "all-volunteer army," most of today's recruits are still barely out of their teens.

Similarly, in The Hunger Games wealthy families can protect their children by paying poorer families to take their spots in the drawings in exchange for money or food. As a result, Katniss' name is written on at least a dozen cards in the drawing, and her friend Gale's is written on 42. This is clearly a reminder that the children of wealthier families were able to avoid the draft during the Vietnam era by going to college, while children of poorer families could not afford that option.

Like Jackson, Collins clearly intended to demonstrate the dehumanizing effect of war. Unfortunately, the film's producers seem to have lacked the courage to make this same point on screen. Perhaps worried about the R-rating that a true adaptation would have earned, the film version softens the hunt by stereotyping the characters into two distinct types. Katniss never kills anyone except as a reflex, and always in self-defense. The people she does kill are carefully presented as nasty bullies and gang members, thereby justifying her actions, because she is ridding the world of bad guys.

Moreover, actress Jennifer Lawrence is 21, not 16, largely negating the effect of children being forced to kill children. This creation of good guys and bad guys destroys the message about the brutalizing nature of war, and blunts the powerful idea that these are children who might otherwise have played together and become friends had they not been forced into battle by their government.

Is it such a stretch to imagine a society that would send its children to die in battle while adults stay home and watch it on TV?

Similarly, Haymitch, the battle mentor from District 12 (Woody Harrelson) is presented as a detached, antisocial drunk. He is a former winner in the Hunger Games and thus has been assigned to help prepare Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the boy from her district, for the battle. What's missing from the movie is the reason Haymitch drinks: in order for him to win the Hunger Games, 23 children had to die, many of them at his own hand. In war, no one emerges unscathed. Not even the victor.

Just before Katniss leaves for battle, her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) suggests that they sneak away into the forbidden woods to live off the land by themselves (just as Equality 7-2521 does in Ayn Rand's Anthem). “What if people stopped watching?" he adds, as another suggestion, referring to the audiences riveted to their television sets during the Games. "Wouldn't they have to stop the Games?"

Knowing that he has little chance of survival, Peeta says, "I keep wishing I could think of a way for me to show them that they don't own me. If I'm gonna die, I wanna still be me." That spirit of individuality and self-determination is bright throughout the book, and in the movie as well. The many suggestions of resistance in these books, and in the film, make them well worth reading and viewing, even though the filmmakers have pulled much of the punch from their version of the story.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Hunger Games," directed by Gary Ross. Lionsgate, 2012, 142 minutes.



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Who Axed the Lorax?

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It’s no secret that Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) leaned a little to the Left. His delightful, whimsical books often had an underlying tone that was anti-war, anti-tyrant, and anti-pollution. Or, to spin it more favorably, he wanted peace, freedom, and cleanliness.

Seuss' The Lorax (1971) made a strong case for cleaning up the environment. It tells the story of a zealous young businessman, the Once-ler, who comes across a pristine forest of “Truffula Trees” and immediately begins chopping them down to use their silky leaves to make “thneeds” (the Seussian equivalent of an all-purpose Widget). His irresponsible use of natural resources damages crops, dirties the air, and mucks up the water, causing the original inhabitants — the bear-like Barbaloots, birds, and fish — to move away in search of cleaner climes.

There is nothing subversive or socialistic about this charming little story. Libertarians, in fact, should welcome a story that privileges property rights (the critters, after all, were there first) and individual responsibility (the book ends with “unless someone like you / cares a whole awful lot, / nothing is going to get better. / It’s not.”) Basically Dr. Seuss is saying, “Play nice. If you make a mess, clean it up. If someone was there first, wait your turn. Be responsible for your actions.”

Now Disney Studios has turned this gentle story about personal responsibility into a diatribe against individuality, free markets, and the entire capitalist system, with its animated version of the tale. They call it Dr. Seuss's The Lorax, but that's a misnomer. This is Hollywood's The Lorax, through and through. And it's an insidious shadow of the original story. The only thing missing from this indoctrination piece is a Five Year Plan.

In this movie, private ownership is bad. Very bad. Even if you provide a comfortable standard of living.

The film version begins 50 years after the books ends, in the community of Thneedville, which is run by a crony capitalist named O’Hare (Rob Riggle). The new story is reminiscent of The Truman Show (1998); the residents of Thneedville live inside a bubble city, oblivious to the desolation and pollution that exist just outside their city walls and ceiling. Inside, "everything was plastic and fake and they liked it that way." Somehow, they manage to enjoy a happy middle class standard of living, despite the fact that no vegetation exists and no one seems to work or produce anything. This is probably the most puzzling part of the film: if life is so bad, why does it seem so good? Apparently, ignorance really is bliss.

O’Hare controls the town, although he doesn’t seem to be an elected official. (We can’t have a government figure as a bad guy in the new Disney universe!) Apparently O’Hare simply owns the town, as well as everyone and everything in it. In this movie, private ownership is bad. Very bad. Even if you provide a comfortable standard of living.

When a pretty young girl named Audrey (Taylor Swift) yearns to see a real tree, a lovestruck young boy named Ted (Zac Efron) determines to find one for her. That means going outside the town's bubble to the desolate place where trees used to grow. There he meets the Once-ler (Ed Helms), who tells Ted the sad story of how capitalism, greed, and materialism led to environmental destruction.

What follows should be a textbook example of how the free market works to provide jobs, goods, and higher standards of living. Fifty years earlier, the Once-ler had an idea for a versatile invention: a "Thneed" made from the renewable leaves of the Truffula tree. At first no one is interested in Once-ler's invention, but when they see one on the head of a stylish young beauty, everyone has to have one. This is Say's Law in action: supply creates its own demand. Consider the fact that no one demanded a handheld device that could store 5,000 songs until Apple invented the iPod. Then everyone had to have one. Similarly, Once-ler's Thneed creates its own demand. To keep up with production he enlists his family members and pays the Barbaloots to harvest the Truffula leaves, using marshmallows as money.

But in this bizarro world, the free market becomes a tool of destruction. The product Once-ler has invented is clearly an unnecessary accessory (in the eyes of the filmmakers), and as we all know from studying Chairman Mao, if it isn't fundamentally functional, no one should have it. The "money" Once-ler pays the critters (marshmallows) become a seductive drug that saps their will and good sense. He doesn't pay them for doing an honest day's work; he bribes them to stay out of his way. Once-ler's family members turn out to be vile, redneck imbeciles who treat everyone with contempt — including Once-ler. Impatient to reach the treetops, Once-ler speeds up the harvesting process by cutting down the trees, cutting off his supply as well.

The film completely ignores the principle of property rights. The trees and the land on which they grow belong to the critters and the Lorax. Without their permission, Once-ler has no right to take the tree silk, to build a factory on their land, or to cut down their trees. But in a film whose point is that everyone (and thus no one) owns the land, this would sidetrack the communal message.

The fact is that people take care of property that belongs to them, and they tend not to take care of property that belongs to someone else. When loggers were awarded grants to cut trees on national land, they chopped indiscriminate swathes through forest after forest. But when they were allowed to own the land, they became tree growers as well as tree cutters. In fact, most of the deforestation in the United States took place nearly 200 years ago. Since then, forest cover has increased steadily, partly because national forests are protected, but also because companies replant what they harvest.

Perhaps the most insidious scene of the movie is the lively, jivey, upbeat song, "How bad can I be?" Dressed in a money-green suit, the Once-ler sings joyfully and mischievously, "How bad can I be? I'm just doing what comes naturally / How bad can I be? I'm just following my destiny / . . . All the customers are buying . . . And the money's multiplying . . . And the PR people are lying . . . And the lawyers are denying. . . . Who cares if a few trees are dying? How bad can I be? / A portion of proceeds go to charity." The song is bouncy and catchy and chillingly fun. The message is clear: humans are naturally bad, and their badness has to be governed. Even when they do something good, such as giving to charity, they must have a devious, ulterior motive.

As we all know from studying Chairman Mao, if a product isn't fundamentally functional, no one should have it.

Ironically, the film ends on what really does come naturally: operating the invisible hand of the free market. After telling Ted his story, the now repentant Once-ler assigns him the task of taking the final Truffula seed and planting it in the center of town where all will see it and want a tree of their own. Again, if that isn't Say's Law in action, I don't know what is: supply creates its own demand.

Seuss' book ends here, with a gentle reminder to be responsible for your own little piece of the earth. Disney keeps going, however. O'Hare and his henchmen follow Ted on a frolicking chase through town. Why must they stop the tree planting? Because trees will produce oxygen, and oxygen will clean up the air, and clean air will destroy O'Hare's bottled air business. As always, the greedy capitalist destroys the planet for his own gain.

What has happened to a country — and a movie studio — that once praised the virtue of lemonade stands and paper routes? Hollywood — center of one of the nation’s largest capitalist businesses — has long been disdainful toward business and capitalism. But with the G-rated Dr. Seuss's The Lorax, even Hollywood has hit new lows. The Loraxis a pleasant, entertaining movie with a vile message. When I asked my 8-year-old grandson whether he liked it, he smiled brightly and nodded his head. He loves Dr. Seuss! Then he added, "But it's all propaganda!" A smart cookie, that grandson of mine. His parents have taught him well. But he's just as attracted to fluff as those critters were attracted to marshmallows.

Since this is a movie about the bottom line, here is the bottom line from this movie: money is bad. Homes, food, and entertainment are good. But where do homes, food, and entertainment come from if we don't earn money? The government, of course. And how do we get people to work and produce without money? Mandatory volunteerism, I guess. Hmmmm. Hard work. No money. Food and shelter provided. . . .Wasn't that called communism in the last century? And slavery in the century before that?

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.


Editor's Note: Review of "Dr. Seuss's The Lorax," directed by Chris Renaud. Disney Studios, 2012, 86 minutes.



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