All About Eve

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In America, the political Left is like a once-beautiful woman who, over the years, has lost her looks in bitter and wasteful living. Nothing remains but her essence, which is evil. She was rotten to the core even when she was young, but then her beauty concealed that, bewitching and bedazzling a great many who couldn’t see past the surface. Now that her looks are gone, only the evil remains: desperately grasping to hold onto the only thing she ever really cared about, which is power.

Hillary Clinton never was a feminist in any true sense of the word. She was, and is, a servant to power. Over the years, she has lost any charm — however slight and shallow — she ever had. Most of what existed in the first place was not her own, but that of her husband. Slick Willie mastered the art of wooing to get what he wanted.

What matters is not women’s equality, racial equality, gay equality, or the equality of any other possible variation of humankind. All that really matters is power.

Third-wave feminism, the name for its present, grotesque incarnation, is actually nothing more than a graphic illustration of how all too many women still don’t get it. Despite their endless prattle about “equality,” they simply can’t understand why, for such a long stretch of human history, women were stuck in second place.

The so-called feminism of today totally subordinates itself to the Left. What matters is not women’s equality, racial equality, gay equality, or the equality of any other possible variation of humankind. All that really matters is power. The Left never takes its eyes off of the prize. And it won’t share that prize with anyone.

What has kept women for so long in second place is our disloyalty to one another. In a strictly superficial sense, leftist feminism pays lip service to an understanding of that. But in its savage treatment of any woman who thinks for herself and refuses to play by its rules, it shows its true colors.

Today’s feminists stand before an audience that is, if not yet invisible, rapidly losing interest and drifting away.

We were never admonished, by our leftist betters, to vote for a candidate who demonstrated any genuine concern for our wellbeing. We were expected, as a matter of course and in a pathetic facsimile of loyalty, to vote blindly for power. And not for women’s empowerment, whatever that actually means anymore, but for the juggernaut of tyranny that is the insatiably power-hungry Left.

A couple of years ago, I got to hold a real Academy Award. Oscar was heavy, coated with gold, and bigger than he seemed in pictures. As I stood there, feeling its heft in my humble hands, all I could think was, “Holy crap, Batman! I’m holding an Oscar!

I was almost instantly reminded of the ambitious ingénue who appears at the end of the classic movie All About Eve. I don’t remember the character’s name — it could have been any of a hundred forgettable names — but she hungered to take her place in the spotlight. As she stood in Eve Harrington’s dressing room, holding the stage star’s Sarah Siddons Award, she fantasized that it was her own, and bowed to her adoring, invisible audience.

Today’s feminists stand before an audience that is, if not yet invisible, rapidly losing interest and drifting away. They cling to a prize that is not their own — and which they can never keep. It will be passed on to “sisters” who do not appreciate what they have done, want the bauble only for the hollow and fleeting satisfaction of holding it for a while, and then will reluctantly pass it on to successors who neither understand them nor appreciate any genuine good theymight have done. Leftist feminism is an endless succession of incarnations, each uglier and wearier than the one before. It may eventually lead to annihilation, but never to Nirvana.




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We Interrupt This Program

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Public Choice

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The Few, the Proud, the Insufferably Entitled

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Students at the University of Oregon have demanded that a quotation by Martin Luther King, Jr., be removed from the wall of their student union building because King’s remarks were not “inclusive” enough. The offending words? “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream . . .”

It seems that King did not acknowledge the LGBT community when he argued for racial equality, and that makes him privileged and insensitive. So, off with his head — and his quotation.

Never mind that King was risking his own life to lead the way for racial equality (a risk that ended in his murder). Never mind that he was a minority voice with no political power save the art of persuasion. Never mind that his dream of his children being judged by the content of their character can include minorities of all kinds, or that the LGBT community and the feminist movements were blazing trails of their own at the time. King is privileged and insensitive for not including them specifically.

When you’re blazing a trail, you cut away the biggest obstacles first, and leave the paving of the road for those who come behind.

Change is a process. You install new carpet and then realize the walls need new paint, which makes the curtains look dingy so you replace those, and before long you have a whole new room of furniture. Yet these same students who are so self-righteously criticizing the leaders of the past have no idea whose rights they are ignoring — or even trampling — today.

It was, in fact, Oregon students who 30 years ago demanded that the university replace its motto, “Leader in the quest for the good life for all men,” with the King quotation, after feminists objected that the motto did not include women. Too bad they didn’t think of the LGBT community back then. (And too bad they didn’t realize that the word “men” originally was inclusive of both genders.) The point is, when you’re blazing a trail, you cut away the biggest obstacles first, and leave the paving of the road for those who come behind. It’s a process, not a destination.

This same criticism is made against the Founding Fathers because they did not address the slavery issue when they declared independence from Great Britain. And yes, they were Founding Fathers. Not a single woman signed the Declaration. But that doesn’t mean women weren’t involved. They were managing family farms, running family businesses, overseeing their children’s education, maintaining home security, and ensuring there would be enough income and capital to allow their husbands to focus on freedom. These were partnerships, even if the women’s names didn’t appear on the documents.

I dream of a time when people will be judged by the culture of their own times, and not by the social progress of the future.

Should they have emancipated the slaves at the same time? From our perspective, of course. But the country wasn’t ready for that much change. Slavery had been an economic institution for millennia, and few people realized that you could persuade people to do the grunt work without a whip, simply by paying them a good wage. It was a revolutionary idea to think that a country could be governed of, by, and for the people without a monarch in charge. To proclaim that everyone had been born with certain inalienable rights took six bloody years to prove. They blazed the trail. Blacks and then women would pave it.

I dream of a time when people will be judged by the culture of their own times, and not by the social progress of the future. I forgive the imperfections of past leaders, because they were blazing new trails for me, cutting through oppressive underbrush and battling archaic beliefs, so that I could travel their broad highways while searching for new trails to blaze.




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Ayn Rand: Champion of the Working Class?

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In his libertarian manifesto For a New Liberty, Murray Rothbard accused Ayn Rand of being a pawn of corporate people profiting from the welfare state. As evidence that she was out of touch with reality, he cited her famous statement that the businessman is America’s most persecuted minority (Mises Institute edition [388], quoting Rand, “America’s Most Persecuted Minority: Big Business” [1962]; reprinted in Rand’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal).

Objectivism, to the extent that the general public knows anything about it, is often regarded as a rightwing position and can be seen as a boon to efforts to push libertarians into the hand of the Tea Party Right. While this belief is ignorant, the masses do not have a detailed and nuanced grasp of the details of libertarian doctrine, nor should we expect them to. Many people merely adopt a false and shallow impression that libertarians are some type of conservatives who are on the far Right, compared to moderate Republicans. Some left-libertarians, such as I, are very frustrated with the tendency of Objectivism to be classified in this way. The truth about Rand (like the truth about all things) is deeper and more surprising than a first impression would allow. Rand should not be considered a member of the Right. In several important ways, indeed, she resembled a populist leftist.

The middle-aged Rand, still fresh from her own experience of poverty, tended to respect working-class folk more than rich people.

To examine the sense in which she was, historically, a friend of the working class and an enemy of the conservative Right, several things come into focus. First, let us consider Rand herself. She was a working-class woman, and quite poor during much of her adult life. It was only with the sale of the movie rights to The Fountainhead, when she was almost 40 years old, that she achieved significant self-made wealth, which was to last and grow for the rest of her life. To say, then, that Ayn Rand hated the working class and loved the rich would be to assume that she hated herself for many years — something absurdly contrary to her fundamentally self-loving and perhaps narcissistic personality.

Second, Rand always had a particular affinity for working-class people who want to earn their wages instead of relying on the welfare state. For example, Rand pushed to have The Fountainhead movie premiere in a working-class area, saying that she knew her “real audience” was there (Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand, Anchor Books edition, 212). When the audience in working-class Southern California applauded the movie at its premier, Rand said, “That’s why I like the common man.” The middle-aged Rand, still fresh from her own experience of poverty, tended to respect working-class folk more than rich people.

Third, and perhaps most obvious and also most extremely inconvenient for rightwing libertarians, is the conservative movement’s frequent hatred of Rand, and her counterattacks against that movement during the 1960s. Any disciple of Rand knows what the hateful, anti-Randian sentence “To a gas chamber, go!” means and embodies; for those who don’t, a more extensive knowledge of the history of the libertarian movement is required (for which I recommend Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism, one of the best works on the subject). Rand’s hatred of conservatives is undeniable. The title of her essay “Conservatism: An Obituary” (1962, reprinted in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal) is self-explanatory. If one goes beyond the title to read the text, one sees that Rand held nothing back. She was full of anger. She once said that liberals seek to enslave the body and conservatives seek to enslave the mind, both conceding freedom to that part of human existence which they care about least. This comment is hardly flattering to the Right.

Fourth, and finally, consider Rand’s signature novels themselves. Of course, all her fans have read them, but few have read carefully. In The Fountainhead, Gale Wynand gets rich by pandering to the stupid masses in his newspapers. In Atlas Shrugged, James Taggart, the major villain, is, among many other things, a rich white male businessman who inherited vast wealth and is the CEO of a major railroad. Is this a character created to praise the rich, a character that rich people should love?

Rand would have seen the working class as a place where many potential John Galts exist.

Or did Rand seek to praise productivity and intellect, not the rich as such? Compare James Taggart to his sister Dagny, a hero of the novel. Dagny is a woman who actually runs, not simply pretends to run, a great railroad. Her role in the novel makes it years ahead of its time in terms of gender equality. Let us not forget that Rand was a woman, and, as such, a living embodiment of the freedom of women to pursue careers, a freedom by no means certain for most women in America during Rand’s lifetime. Most people would regard progressive feminism as a leftist element in Rand. The creator of Galt’s Gulch, the Utopia in Atlas Shrugged, is fairly prosperous in the Gulch itself, but in “our world” he is a mere day laborer who lives in poverty — and that’s where he lives during most of the book. It is easy to connect the dots and assume that Rand would have seen the working class as a place where many potential John Galts exist. One of the basic messages of the novel is that our world would condemn all such people to a meager existence.

Murray Rothbard despised the big business Right (at least before his “paleolibertarian” phase); I believe that Rand did as well. Contemporary conservatives may exploit Rand’s ideas, just as they exploit so many other ideas, both economic and philosophical; but that’s no reason for working-class libertarians and left-libertarians not to embrace Rand as one of their own.




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Is He Really She?

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So Bruce Jenner has “always felt like a woman” inside, and ESPN is giving him their “Courage” award for coming out in such a public way. I know you’ve seen his photograph on the cover of Vanity Fair, so fetching with his newly-carved facial structure, his come-hither hair extensions, his pumped-up breasts, and his manly hands and man-parts discreetly hidden behind his back and under his crotch.

“I’ve always felt like a woman.” What exactly does that mean? Does he mean “I know what it feels like to nurture a child and cook a meal and clean a house and bat my eyelashes at a man”? If so — shame on him. That is not what it means to be a woman. And shame on all the pundits and journalists who are falling all over themselves to praise him for thinking that’s what it means, or for letting him get away with making that statement without challenging him to explain what it means.

So Bruce Jenner is the “ideal proportion” for a woman, because he has a man’s skeleton, and thus narrow hips?

Did Jenner feel like a woman in the 1960s when he was training on the boys’ well-funded high school track team, while the girls spent most of their time dressing and showering for P.E. with perhaps 20 minutes spent on the field? Did he feel like a woman during his Olympic glory days, when men’s track and field events were shown during prime time, and women’s track and field events were mentioned in the middle of the sports page somewhere? Did he spend 35 years finding blood in his underwear once a month, and dealing with all the trauma and embarrassment that goes with that? Does he know how it feels to realize your tampon is leaking and you’re sitting down and there is no way to escape without people watching you walk out of the room? How dare he say he knows how it feels to be a woman, after spending 65 years as a man.

If he means, “I know what it feels like to want to put on a dress and heels and makeup” — well, fine. You don’t have to be a woman to do that. Nor do I have to be a man to put on a tuxedo or a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Clothes do not make the man — or the woman. Moreover, I resent Jessica Diehl, who clothed Jenner for the Vanity Fair photo shoot, gushing, “Caitlyn’s proportions are fashion proportions, really. She’s tall, slim, narrow hipped: kind of ideal to dress” (New York Times, June 4, 2015). So Bruce Jenner is the “ideal proportion” for a woman, because he has a man’s skeleton, and thus narrow hips? My wide hips are perfectly proportioned for a real woman. I earned my hips through eight pregnancies, five births, and three miscarriages. Go through that, Bruce Jenner, and then tell me you know how it feels to be a woman. Even my husband doesn’t know how it felt to lose those three babies. Not from a woman’s perspective.

And let’s talk about Jenner’s supposed transformation. He surgically shaped his facial structure, pumped up his breasts with silicone and hormone therapy, and layered on a pound of makeup. But he kept his penis. What kind of woman has a penis? How does Jenner’s lack of commitment and confidence in his choice qualify him for a Courage award?

Bruce Jenner is welcome to mutilate his body any way he wants to, but please don’t make him a role model, and please don’t call him a woman. He can change his face, change his name, and wear all the dresses he wants. He can call himself transgendered. He can change his name to Caitlyn. But he can’t get rid of that Y chromosome. And he will never know what it feels like to be a woman.




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Dear 454729: Welcome to CUNY

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Probably I should save this for a Word Watch column, but here goes. The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, once a distinguished academic institution, has commanded staff to drop “Mr.,” “Ms.,” “Mrs.,” and I suppose “Miss,” when addressing people. Faculty are urged to follow suit. The preferred option is, apparently, to address people as “John Doe” or “Mary Roe,” not as the hated, sexist, “Mr. Doe” and “Ms. Roe.” It is intimated by the administration that federal anti-discrimination laws require this.

Of course, it’s all idiotic. It is also grossly tasteless, despite the pretense that it is intended to "ensure a respectful, welcoming and gender-inclusive learning environment.” “Gender-inclusive” is different from “genderless.” And how do you feel when someone starts a letter with “Mary Roe: Welcome to the fall semester” — let alone “Mary Roe: I am sorry to tell you that your mom has died.” I don’t feel warmly welcomed or deeply respected when strangers can’t come up with a better door opener than “Stephen Cox” when they want to confide their thoughts and feelings to me. Returning to “inclusive”: if inclusivity means not knowing whether someone is a man or a woman, we will have to banish all first names, too. They might give it away. And if you want to be ethnically inclusive as well as gender inclusive, there go the last names. Soon the only way to communicate a respectful welcome will be to address people by numbers.

Invariably, rules intended to remold society come from people whose minds are too small to grasp the real diversity of society, minds with but one idea.

This stuff is hypocritical. Do you think the exalted leaders of the City University of New York have stopped referring to themselves as “Dr.,” despite the class distinction and often the ethnic distinction involved in that? I mean, to call oneself “Dr. Smith” shows that you are better than other people, doesn’t it? And aren’t most people with Ph.D.’s Caucasians? Case closed.

But why is this important? One reason is that laws — while bad enough in themselves — become the basis of decrees, which are ordinarily worse. These decrees proceed from someplace so deep in Cubicle City that no one can tell what perpetrator to fire, supposing that anyone had the power to fire anyone. Invariably, rules intended to remold society come from people whose minds are too small to grasp the real diversity of society, minds with but one idea (in this case the bureaucratic sponsorship of the “transgendered”). Nothing else matters: custom, grace, the real respect owing to the people with whom one wants to communicate, nothing.

A society that allows itself to be thus cheapened, bit by bit, day by day, will eventually have no customs, social graces, or respectful gestures to enable differing people to dwell together sociably. It will be a constant, meaningless drama of inflamed sensitivities on the part of some and sullen acquiescence on the part of others.

Libertarians are often remarkable for our lack of intellectual interest in the kinds of daily interaction that make liberty possible. Hayek didn’t suffer from that lack; neither did Mises or Paterson. But for too many of us, nothing bad can happen unless a government agency is directly responsible for making it happen. That leaves the rest of the culture, the culture whose values enable the government to do whatever it does, completely off the hook. You may say, “Well, CUNY is an agency of government,” and it is; but you know, or else should know, that private colleges are almost equally busy coarsening our intellectual and cultural life. We can’t let ourselves off the intellectual hook by imagining that individualism can be robust no matter how debased the surrounding culture may be.




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Sad-Eyed Waifs, Sad-Eyed Wife

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The ’60s were a time of turbulent transition not only in attitudes about war, poverty, and race relations, but also in attitudes about art. If Andy Warhol could paint a reproduction of a soup can or Jackson Pollock could dribble paint on a canvas or Mark Rothko could lavish shades of red on the walls of the Four Seasons and all of them could call it art (and charge lavish prices, I might add), what else might be considered the next great breakthrough in art?

Within this changing atmosphere an artist named Keane became famous for paintings of big-eyed waifs in somber settings. Celebrities scrambled to own the works; museums gladly accepted them; even the United Nations has a Keane in its permanent art collection. In a craze that would be repeated in the 1990s by the wildly popular “cottage art” of Thomas Kinkade, Keane’s waifs began showing up everywhere — in high class galleries, celebrities’ homes (Natalie Wood, Joan Crawford, and Red Skelton are some of the actors who owned original portraits of themselves with the trademark big eyes) as well as on greeting cards, posters, and the bedroom walls of middle class America. I remember copying the big-eyed style when I was in grade school and longing to have a framed waif for my room, just as all my friends did.

But who was this artist named Keane? And what was the real reason for the big-eyed success of this relatively one-dimensional art? These two questions are addressed in the new biopic Big Eyes, which has already received several Golden Globe nominations. The film is based on Margaret Keane’s assertion, upheld in court, that she painted the waifs, while her husband Walter claimed the credit for them. This fine film examines mid-century gender roles while providing insights into issues related to plagiarism, marketing, and art appreciation.

If Joan Crawford has one hanging in her living room and respected museums have them in their collections, then they must be good, and I must have one.

Margaret (Amy Adams) is portrayed as a victim of 1950s biases and cultural restrictions. When she leaves her husbands (two marriages end in divorce) she does so furtively, sneaking away instead of confronting them and facing their problems. “I’ve never acted freely,” she complains at one point. “First I was a daughter, then a wife, then a mother,” thusechoing Nora Helmer’s epiphany at the end of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879). When she applies for a job, the potential employer asks, “Does your husband approve of your working?” Later, when she complains to Walter (Christoph Waltz) about how it makes her feel to see him being praised for the work she has created, he explains with a shrug and a smile, “Sadly, people don’t buy lady art.”

This is Walter’s justification for letting the public assume that he, not his wife, is the “Keane” whose name appears at the bottom of the canvas. If the Keanes want to make a living selling Margaret’s paintings, Walter willhave to be the frontman. The value of art, more than that ofany other commodity or product, lies in the eye of the beholder. Its price is determined not by the cost of the materials or the time and labor that go into its production (indeed, Margaret knocks out one painting in 53 minutes) but purely by supply and demand, or perceived scarcity and perceived desirability. If Joan Crawford has one hanging in her living room and respected museums have them in their collections, then they must be good, and I must have one. In fact, Andy Warhol is quoted (perhaps ironically), “It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.”

Were these paintings any good? Not really. They might have seemed haunting and evocative at first glance, but they were kitschy and uninspiring, even eerie, especially as they became mass produced. The real genius behind their popularity and sales was Walter Keane and his marketing strategy. Charming, gregarious, and mendacious, he knew how to stir up interest and create media sensations. In the film he presents celebrity portraits as publicgifts, sends unsolicited paintings to museums, and even convinces the World’s Fair committee to accept a painting of the world’s children (“Tomorrow Forever”) as the official mural of the Fair without even going through a selection committee. Christoph Waltz portrays Walter with gleeful joy and unmitigated enthusiasm. He sees nothing wrong in what he is doing. Art critic John Canaday (Terrence Stamp) is outraged by Keane’s popularity and rabid in his determination to bring down the waifs.

Plagiarism and intellectual property are central issues in this film, but so is the value of marketing. Would Margaret have made any money from her paintings without Walter’s marketing? Can Walter be accused of stealing Margaret’s work if he does it with Margaret’s full knowledge, consent and collaboration? Are they committing fraud against their customers simply because the work was done by Mrs. instead of Mr.? Have the paintings lost their value because they were painted by a woman, or might a new scandal increase their value by giving thema renewed notoriety (just as this film is likely to increase their value again)? Did Jane Eyre become a less significant work when it was discovered that Charlotte Brontë, not Currer Bell, wrote it?

Big Eyes offers a rich but disturbing look at the culture of the 1950s and 1960s — not just the formal culture of art, but the chauvinistic culture of accepted mores and gender roles. The film is a reminder of the many women who have stood silently in the shadows doing a husband’s work, or doing their own work with a masculine pseudonym, in a time when “people didn’t buy lady art” or “lady books” or “lady science.”


Editor's Note: Review of "Big Eyes," directed by Tim Burton. The Weinstein Company, 2014, 104 minutes.



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Film and the Fight for Freedom

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In many works of fiction, the protagonist is an "outsider," either one who literally comes from outside the community or one who resides within the community but nevertheless is an outsider in terms of personal values and behavior. This character allows the reader or the audience to identify with the community and at the same time view the beliefs and values of the community through fresh eyes — often, in so doing, reevaluating ideas and practices that we once took for granted as self-evident and unalienable.

In Wadjda the title character (Waad Mohammed) is this kind of protagonist. She is a 10-year-old girl living within the orthodox community of Saudi Arabia, but she has very unorthodox desires. She does not openly defy the values and practices of her community; indeed, she wears her scarves and abaya as though they were as natural as her hair, and she nods nonchalantly when her mother tells her she is old enough to start covering her face with her ayallah when she goes outside. She attends a religious girls' school and works hard to learn her lessons, which are replete with the acknowledgement that everything is controlled by the goodness of Allah. When one of her pre-pubescent classmates is married over the weekend, Wadjda giggles but is not concerned. These are givens in her community.

But Wadjda has her own values as well. She wears sneakers under her abaya, and inside those shoes her toenails are painted candy-apple blue. She listens to western music on an ancient cassette tape player in her room, and she often wears a t-shirt emblazoned with "I am a great catch" in English (although we never know for sure whether she understands what the words mean). She is attracted to the culture of the West, even though she is immersed in the culture of the Middle East.

Most of all, Wadjda wants to own a bike. She wants to know the freedom of riding faster than she can run, and the satisfaction of racing against her best friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), who happens to be a boy. All the boys have bikes. But nice girls don't ride bicycles. A fall could be dangerous to their virginity — and we know how important that is in Middle Eastern culture. So no one encourages or helps Wadjda in her goal.

"Wadjda" does not ascend a soapbox to make its case; it is a film with a message, but it is not a message film.

Nevertheless, Wadjda is determined to buy the shiny green bike on display at the local sundries store. She becomes an entrepreneur by making bracelets to sell to her friends. She charges acquaintances for running errands and with a determined voice and a winning smile convinces them to pay her extra. She forgoes instant gratification in order to save for her big purchase when she no longer buys treats and trinkets from the corner store when her friends go shopping. Eventually she realizes that she will never save enough money by doing menial tasks, especially when the local store begins selling Chinese-made bracelets at a fraction of the former price.

So she does what every good entrepreneur must do: she uses her savings as seed money to capitalize a larger business venture. Lured by the prize money of 1,000 riyals, she decides to enter the school's Quran recitation contest (sort of like a spelling bee or Geography Bowl). But since she has never been a good student of the Quran, she invests all her savings to purchase "capital goods": an expensive electronic study aid. It is a big risk, but it is the only way that she can turn her 80 riyals into the 800 riyals she needs to purchase the bike.

Wadja's mother (Reem Abdullah) is also an entrepreneur of sorts who understands that success requires taking risks. (Significantly, she has no name in the film except "Mother.") Her mother-in-law is shopping for a second wife for her husband, and she is determined to thwart that plan by showing everyone in the community that she is beautiful and desirable so that no other woman would be willing to become a second wife to her. To do this, she decides to invest her money in a stunning red dress to wear to a relative's upcoming wedding. This will remind everyone, including her husband, that she is not an old woman to be set aside and replaced. She is still beautiful, sexy, and valuable — not the kind of woman that another woman would want to compete with as second wife. She also makes it clear to her husband that she will no longer live with him connubially if he takes another wife. Like Wadjda, she risks everything to accomplish her goal.

As with the best of outsider fiction, Wadjda does not ascend a soapbox to make its case; it is a film with a message, but it is not a message film. In fact, it is more about following one's dreams and making things happen than it is about the evils of a particular culture. Writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour presents the Saudi culture respectfully and matter-of-factly, without exaggeration or overt criticism. The film is subtly nuanced and carefully crafted not to offend; in fact, a true believer in the Saudi way of life could view this film as an example of what happens to women who rebel. No men ever step in to exert authority over the women. No overt abuse occurs. No legal authorities step in to limit these women's rights.

In fact, most of the rules are applied by other women. They simply accept the cultural mores regarding gender and enforce the rules themselves. The bike shop owner (a man) has no problem selling a bike to a girl; the men who see Wadjda and the other girls in public do not tell them to withdraw. In fact, it does not even seem to be against the law for girls to ride a bike; it simply isn't done, and it is the women, not the men, who enforce this cultural taboo. Moreover, Wadjda's father seems to be a very loving and affectionate man who is somewhat trapped by the culture himself.

Nevertheless, it took great courage to make this film in Saudi Arabia. There is no doubt that Al-Mansour expects her audience to open their eyes and see the hypocrisy and injustice that the characters themselves seem to overlook. Nineteenth-century writers and dramatists such as Jane Austen and Henrik Ibsen opened the eyes of their audiences in similar ways. They presented the current culture as it was, creating a setting in which the audience felt comfortable and at home. Then they skillfully allowed an outsider protagonist to lead the audience into discovering the hypocrisy and injustice of the culture in which they felt so comfortable. Why should Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) and Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility), two of Jane Austen's most beloved characters, have fewer opportunities for happiness in marriage simply because their fathers did not inherit the family wealth? Why should Nora (Ibsen's proactive protagonist in A Doll's House), be forced to hide in the attic, earning money by copying documents, simply because she is a married woman and doesn't have her husband's consent to work?(Writers today take it another step and challenge the Victorian idea that marriage is the key to happiness.)

Works of fiction still have the power to influence their culture by shining subtle lights back upon itself. They have more power to change a cultural mindset than all the "pinprick" assaults and direct attacks of war will ever have. Film has the power to change minds and hearts, and Wadjda is an instance. It presents one of the spunkiest and most charming protagonists to come along in quite a while. Instinctively, without even knowing it, she is a libertarian through and through. Wadjda is a film that will warm your heart even as it breaks it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Wadjda," written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour. Highlook Communications and Razor Film Produktion (2012), 98 minutes. (In Arabic with English subtitles. But don't let that hold you back.)



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Atlas Huh?

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Cloud Atlas is an ambitious project, encompassing half a dozen story lines spanning hundreds of years but played by the same actors.

The story concept reminded me of an engagement video I saw recently in which a young man induced his friends to create a dance video for his girlfriend. As the romantic pair walked along a path together toward a beach, friends danced for them and then ran ahead to appear in the next scene of the video. It looked as though hundreds of people were involved, but they were actually the same friends appearing over and over, with the entire crowd gathering at the beach for the final chorus. In Cloud Atlas the 6 billion people who live on earth today are an accumulation of all the people who have ever lived, reincarnated to return and play out yet another scene in earth's continuing saga.

But at nearly three hours, Cloud Atlas is overlong and often hard to follow. As with another "Atlas” film that was released this month, viewers who have read the book before seeing the film enjoy a distinct advantage. The opening scenes jump from character to character and scene to scene with virtually no exposition. And because there are so many disparate scenes, the result is disjointed and incoherent.

Early in the film a bombastic author, Dermot Hoggins (Tom Hanks), complains about a critic who has written a poor review of his book, Knuckle Sandwich. The critic has called it "flat and inane beyond belief." I considered it a brave move on the part of the scriptwriter to include that phrase from Cloud Atlas in its book form, since it invites the same critical assessment of the film itself — which is, for the most part, flat and inane beyond belief. It tries to be profound, with high-sounding quotable quotes. But most of it amounts to philosophical mumbo jumbo on par with "it takes a village." Here is just a sampling:

This world spins from the same twine that twists our hearts.

Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb we are bound to others.

Knowledge is a mirror. For the first time in my life I was allowed to see who I am, and who I could become.

You have to do what you can't not do.

Only those who have been deprived of freedom have the barest inkling of what it is.

To know thyself is only possible through the eyes of the other.

Something as important as this [a musical piece called "The Cloud Atlas Sextet"] cannot be described as yours or mine, but ours. (Shades of "You didn't build that" . . .)

The philosophy behind the film is that "death is just a door to another room" where one encounters many of the same souls one knew in a previous lifetime, but in different guises and with different purposes and relationships. But this is no Somewhere in Time, where two people who have fallen in love in the past fall in love with each other again in the future; instead, the characters switch roles entirely, playing significant characters in one scenario and minor parts in another.

Tom Hanks, for instance, plays a murderous antagonist in two scenarios, a classic protagonist in two others, a minor character in a fifth, and a woman in a sixth. Although he does fall in love with characters played by the same actress (Halle Berry) in two of his scenarios, he does not have meaningful relationships with her in the others. In other words, the film does not seem to imply, as other reincarnation films have, that finding one's soul mate across the eternities is the main purpose of life.

The controlling theme in these stories is not just the idea of finding the same lover in different lifetimes, but of fighting against tyranny in every age. In each scenario someone brave is needed to stand up against evil groups. This might seem a libertarian theme. But the cosmic conflict between "rebel good" and "societal evil" lends Cloud Atlas an undeserved gravitas, since the film never fully or accurately identifies the underlying philosophies or actions that lead to tyranny. In one scene, for example, the protagonist sneers at her society's rule that "the first catechism is to honor thy consumer," an obvious dig at free market principles, not tyranny. (And apparently no one knows what a “catechism” is.)

Despite its philosophical inanity, Cloud Atlas can be admired and even enjoyed artistically. The film is worth seeing for the disguises alone; they are stunning, and will surely garner Oscar nominations for costume and makeup. And halfway through, the stories and characters begin to sort themselves out enough to become compelling and empathetic. The acting is superb on all counts. This is a tour de force for Tom Hanks, who revels in his makeup and accents, although there is an unfortunate hint of Forrest Gump in one of his characters. Halle Berry is gorgeous, as always, and so, for that matter, is James Sturgess. It is a pleasant surprise to see Hugh Grant outside the familiar romantic comedies where he has been most comfortable. Moreover, the music, cinematography, and special effects are splendid. Be sure to stay for the credits, where you may be surprised to see which actors played which characters.


Editor's Note: Review of "Cloud Atlas," directed by Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Twyker. Warner Brothers, 2012, 164 minutes.



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