Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Sense and Proportion: A Parent's Guide to Film

My sister-in-law related to me an interesting incident that happened to her recently. She teaches singing to kidlets at an elementary school and recently decided to show them West Side Story. While the children were engrossed in the film, another teacher peeked in the room and saw Szilvia’s class raptly watching West Side Story, at which point she apparently flounced down to the head of the after-school program and complained. The children (third graders) could NOT watch this movie! The hero dies at the end! The head of the program came up to tell Szilvia she had to stop showing the movie. Szilvia was dumbfounded, but the piano teacher in the class recovered enough to give the program head what for. “Do you REALIZE this movie is a CLASSIC??” Do you REALIZE it was written by LEONARD BERNSTEIN and STEPHEN SONDHEIM? Do you REALIZE it is based on the most CLASSIC play in the ENGLISH LANGUAGE, written by SHAKESPEARE?”

I think it might have been great to also ask if he realized that the kids were completely enraptured and none of them were shrieking at the door or rocking themselves in a corner. (Make the singing ladies stop… oh please… make them STOP!)

One of my own earliest memories is listening to the West Side Story cast recording of the Broadway show with my Mom. I will always remember the album cover: red, with a dramatic black and white picture of Tony and Maria running down a New York sidewalk. My mother told me the story, and she did not edit the fact that Tony dies at the end, and yet I was unscarred. To my child self West Side Story represented all that was glamorous and sophisticated in life: New York City. Dancing. Twirly Dresses.

Truth is, when it comes to scarring memories of movies from my childhood, others rank significantly higher. Bambi (they shot his mother and burned his m**** f*** HOME!). The Wizard of Oz (freaking flying monkeys! Don’t try to tell me - or at least my five-year-old self - freaking flying monkeys aren’t a sign of the Apocalypse). One excruciatingly early Saturday morning my parents awoke to the sound of me screaming at the top of my lungs. They rushed downstairs to find me watching Lassie, who was in a burning barn, trying to save that idiot accident prone Timmy. I also was not fond of The Three Stooges, or I Love Lucy; Stooges for their unconventional dispute resolution techniques, Lucy just for getting herself into those freaky, humiliating jams. The anxiety of wondering how she was going to extricate herself was just too damn much.

My parents were quick to take dramatic action when something in life upset me. When I flipped out at The Wizard of Oz, they took me out of the theater. When they found me watching Lassie in tears, they turned the TV off. Interestingly enough, they did not sue the movie theater for emotional damages or report the TV station to the FCC. Also interesting, I never needed therapy to recover from seeing The Three Stooges, despite their disturbing, violent, co-dependent relationship.

This nostalgia trip reminded me of another school-related movie memory from my childhood. We were shown a film (a real honest to goodness moving picture show, rather than a filmstrip… BING) about bus safety. This was back in the days when no one thought much about scaring the beejesus out of kids to make a point. They’d only recently stopped teaching us to dive under our desks in the event of a nuclear war. The plot of the film is thus: Kids are acting up on the bus. The bus driver keeps hollering at them to settle down. One kid takes a mouse out of a box and dangles it in the bus driver’s face, the driver screams, faints, and the bus crashes, runs off the side of a bridge, and impacts in an exploding fireball.

Actually, the exploding fireball is probably my imagination, but the rest is '70s educational film gospel. The movie totally and completely freaked me out. (Yes, I was a total wuss when I was a kid, and I was no fun at birthday parties either.) The next year at a new school we were gathered together in the auditorium for movie time, and I recognized the same movie starting. I found a teacher and asked her if I could please sit this one out, since I’d seen it before. I don’t think I admitted that I was terrified, but maybe she could see it in my eyes, so she said sure and excused me to the library. That was it. Kids find their own limits, and they tell you what they are. Reasonable adults respond in a sensible, proportionate manner.

Let us contrast this with another more newsworthy, or certainly more reported, story involving a class, a teacher, and a movie. A substitute teacher in Chicago showed a class full of eighth graders Brokeback Mountain. Now the school board is being sued by the family of one of the students, a twelve-year-old girl, for $500,000 for the ever popular “emotional damages”. The girl has been so traumatized by the experience she has had to undergo psychological counseling.

Let’s start with the teacher. What the hell was she thinking? I am more liberal than the next person, particularly when it comes to movies, but the point of film ratings is to help parents decide what they want their kids to see. No teacher with an ounce of sense could assume that most parents would be totally fine with letting their 12- or 13-year-old kids see an rated R-movie. (Let us put aside the fact that most of them have known how to override the parental control setting on the cable since they helped their parents set it up. We are talking about the sanctity of parental illusion.) Lest one wonder if she was confused about what she was showing this class of 12-year-olds, that perhaps she thought this film was a documentary about sheep farming, she screwed herself out of that excuse when she told the class, “What happens in Ms. Buford’s class stays in Ms. Buford’s class.”

I’ve pondered what might inspire a teacher to do something like this. Maybe she was tired of subbing at that school and was looking for a way never to be invited back. Certainly back in my reference desk working days we had dreams of things we would do on our last day, like answering every inquiry with, “What are you? Stupid?” It’s hard not to imagine an Edna Crabapple announcing that it’s time her class learned what the dating world is really like, starting Brokeback Mountain, and then escaping out the back door to Boca Raton. Truth is, the whole story sounds a lot like an episode of The Simpsons, up to and including the family now suing the school.

I think the teacher was an idiot. I don’t have issues with her being reprimanded or fired. She wasn’t striking a blow for gay rights or freedom of expression, and she has single-handedly justified all the oversensitive schools that have banned the use of film as a teaching tool. But she’s not the only idiot in the story, or even possibly the biggest. That prize goes to the grandfather and guardian of one of the 12-year-old girls in the class who is now suing the school for half a million dollars.

His argument is that he’s tried to protect his granddaughter from being exposed to this sort of lifestyle. Before the movie incident he had complained about books she was being asked to read, and his justification for suing the school is to teach them a lesson. The girl has been so scarred by seeing this film that kids in her class have discovered, no doubt to their delight, that they can get her to freak out just by humming the theme music of the movie. I try to avoid mocking children for their behavior, even if a particular child does appear to be behaving like a ninny, on the assumption that children are products of their environment. If this poor child was so scarred by seeing Brokeback Mountain that she needs therapy, that the mere theme song sends her into paroxysms of hysteria, then the blame can be placed firmly on the doorstep of her grandparents.

I also blame them for her inability to speak up while Ms. Crabapple played the movie. She could have told the teacher she’s sure her parents don’t want her to see this. She could have told the teacher she didn’t want to see this. She could have asked to be excused to the bathroom and declined to come back. I was eight when I approached the teacher and asked if I could be excused from Bus Carnage ’76. My parents raised me to be obedient and respectful to my teachers, but they didn’t teach me to be a passive ninny.

All in all, any common sense or sense of proportion is completely lacking from any of the adults in this story. Sadly I think this story could easily be a parable of life in the Aughts, where Shock and Awe have annihilated Sense or Proportion as desirable traits. Somewhere society got the impression that it is easier to raise children in a sensory deprivation tank than to explain things about society that might be uncomfortable.

When the world inevitably intrudes into this illusory sensory deprivation tank, it is easier to write angry letters or sue someone else then it is to explain to children that shit happens. Bad things happen to good people. People have different opinions but that doesn’t make them evil. You can’t always get what you want. Some cowboys are gay, and Tony dies at the end.

Speaking of signs of the unravling fabric of civilization, I have to say something about the recent "debate" about evolution shown on ABC's Nightline. Actually, I'm not going to discuss the debate, which was so far from newsworthy I imagine Ted Koppel dying just to roll over in his grave. I just have to discuss one moment in the "debate" (I'm sorry, I just can't use the word without adding quotes.) when actor Kirk Cameron help "prove" the fallacy of Darwinism by showing a picture of a duck with an alligator head.

Set aside for a moment what it says about a movement that would send a long-past-his-expiration-date former child sitcom star to make an intellectual argument upon their behalf. I simply must point out, for the sake of my own sanity, that a picture of a duck with an alligator head actually PROVES NATURAL SELECTION more than it proves God is behind the whole thing. You see, there are no ducks with alligator heads. Ducks with alligator heads... crazy... funny... nutty. Wouldn't work in real life. Wouldn't last very long. Their mouths are bigger than their stomachs for one thing, which is never a good survival mechanism. In the process of natural selection, weird creatures that make no sense never make it past the mutant embryo stage.

In fact, the only way a duck with an alligator head could come about would be if some almighty powerful being with sense of the ridiculous created it. That's why I firmly believe that God created the platypus, while leaving natural selection to do the rest. Therefore, to use the same masterful, razor sharp "debating" techniques spouted by Cameron and his sidekick: the only thing that could explain the existance of a duck with an alligator head is some all powerful being making up things just to fuck with our heads. Ducks with alligator heads do not exist. Therefore, an all powerful being that makes up things to fuck with our heads, hides dinosaur bones inside mountains for kicks, and provided us with reason and common sense so that hucksters calling themselves spiritual leaders could label them as sinful, does not exist.

Cogito ergo sum.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Books & Stuff

At the end of April I spent a week away at a training class (Please feel free to call on me for any and all of your interest based negotiation needs. After a week of training I feel like Gandhi.) After returning to the real world, I got very excited about writing a piece on graphic novels. I spent a week putting it together in my spare minutes. It was a beautiful work of art. Seriously Pulitzer Prize winning stuff. Then my computer at work ate it.

I'm not an eejit when it comes to computers. I looked all the obvious and non obvious places, but alas. It seems to have evaporated. I'm not quite ready to give up on it and re-write it (because it will be written my friends, one way or another), and I plan to pester the IT guys good and well tomorrow.

I went to not one but two movies last week, but unfortunately neither of them jazzed me enough to write much about them. They were Miss Potter and The Year of the Dog. Not great. Not bad. Not a complete waste of time, but neither rocked my world either. So, until the fabulous graphic novel article is found or re-written, and/or I see or hear something sock blowing, I thought I'd share with you some of the books I've been reading and enjoying lately.

Boomsday by Christopher Buckley -

Thanks to my high level, perks replete job in public libraries, I often find myself in possession of advance reader copies of books. After doing this job for ten (aack!) or so years, one even finds oneself getting quite blase about them. Oh, wow, another Sophie Kinsella clone about a sassy professional woman approaching 30 or 40 or (god forbid) 50 whose incisive intellect and wit frighten all the men around her to flee from her stupendous size six self to sub-zero sized model/actresses. How unique. Hey, if you want to be really original, why don't you put a picture of expensive Italian 3 inch heels on the cover? No one's ever done that before.

Every once in a while, though, a title comes through that does, in fact, still has what it takes to blow my skirt up. Boomsday by Christopher Buckley falls into that category. I eagerly read anything written by Buckley, and would have read it regardless of topic. But, as it happens, Boomsday is about something I can actually relate to: the culture clash between the Baby Boom generation and all that followed.

Buckley writes satirical novels with outrageous enough plots to be superbly entertaining but with enough true to life details, particularly of the swirling cesspool of Beltway politics, that you almost feel smarter for having read it, despite enjoying yourself fully.

The star of Boomsday is PR executive Cassandra Devine who, in her spare time, runs a blog devoted to agitating young generations against the massive Baby Boomer Social Security debt. Say what? Funny Social Security reform? In a not so subtle homage to Jonathan Swift, whose Modest Proposal suggested that the Irish could simultaneously solve the unemployment and famine problems by selling their children as food, Cassandra proposes that the government offer the ominous hordes of retiring Baby Boomers incentives for killing themselves. Her crazy idea gets the attention of an attention seeking congressman who wants to ride the ensuing publicity storm into the White House.

It's typical Buckley stuff. Funny, irreverent, bi-partisan heckling. It's not quite as good as Thank You For Smoking, or even Florence of Arabia, but it's a great weekend read.

Holidays in Hell by P.J. O'Rourke

I found Holidays in Hell at the local used bookstore and, after purchasing, discovered that it was inscribed:

To Bart, Good luck with the article (just make it up!) P.J. O'Rourke, Dec 1, 1989

Dunno who this Bart is, but I'm flattered to think that P.J. won't mind me taking the inscription as my own.

Reading Holidays in Hell is a nostalgia trip, or perhaps an acid flashback, depending on your point of view. The book, first published in 1989, is a collection of essays O'Rourke wrote during the '80s about various parts of the globe, near and far, and the various messes these parts managed to get themselves into, with and without U.S. help. During the time O'Rourke wrote the pieces in Holiday in Hell, the Axis of Evil was Russia-Iran-Russia, with Libya, China and possibly Korea waiting in the wings. George the Pere was the only Bush worth worrying about, and he wasn't even running things yet. Ah, the good old days.

We revisit some almost forgotten classic global shitstorms of yore. Anyone remember the U.S. bombing Libya? Anyone? Muammar al-Gaddafi? If you find yourself thinking, huh, whatever DID happen to that dude, well, I'll tell you. He's still running Libya, although apparently in a way that is now acceptable to the U.S., unlike the 80s when he ran around privatizing U.S. air force bases and nationalizing Libyan oil, pretty much the opposite of what the U.S. had in mind.

We visit cheerful global outposts like post-Marcos Phillipines, Contra-ville Nicaragua, North Korea when Pappy Il-Jung was still in charge and Epcot Center. Along the way O'Rourke drops his trademark acidicisms like "Is Nicaragua a Bulgaria with marimba bands, or just a misunderstood Massachusetts with Cuban military advisors?" He visits some places, like still Communist Poland and still Apartheid South Africa, which one can confidently think, wow, things sure have improved. Other places he visits, like Lebanon, Korea and Palestine, make one feel the wheels of progress grinding ever backwards.

O'Rourke is unapologetically crotchety and conservative, though it's the old school conservatism one hardly sees anymore, at least in avowed conservatives. Reporting on the momentous occasion of Gorbechov's visit to the United States in 1987, P.J. comments on the irony of the American left's love fest for Gorby:

"This is a bit of a mystery since Communists and Republicans both hate liberals. Regan believes that liberals should be deported to Russia, and Gorbachev believes they should be sent to Siberia. The two sides are in perfect agreement on this point."

My favorite essay in Holidays in Hell is "Among the Euro Weenies", detailing a month in 1986 when O'Rourke was stranded in Europe while trying, unsuccessfully, to fly to Libya just as the U.S. began it's bombing campaign. Instead of getting to hang out with his reporter buddies in a war zone, O'Rourke must spend a month in various European countries arguing with airline representatives and catching endless flack from Europeans for the bombing campaign. Although this took place mere months after the Russians almost successfully poisoned all of Europe with Chernobyl, the streets of most European cities were filled with protesters against the United States, and most conversations O'Rourke had were with people accusing him of unhealthy affection for John Wayne and American Imperialism; wanting to build McDonald's everywhere and itching to start World War III. (Never mind the fact that World War III would be antithetical to McDonald's plan to take over the world's food supply.)

I enjoyed this article because, in fact, it absolutely mirrored my own experience while traveling in Europe in 1992. At that time, all were in uproar over Gulf War, the first. McDonald's seem to be a particular bone of contention with many Europeans, which actually led to one of my most satisfying experiences. My friend and I were visiting a friend of hers and his brother, for the sake of jingoistic stereotyping, let's call them Hans and Franz. Hans was a lovely man and a gracious host, but Franz had United States issues. Many of these issues could be traced to his year as an exchange student at the University of Louisiana which happened to coincide with the shooting of Yoshihiro Hattori, a Japanese exchange student, by an overzealous homeowner. So, you know, a kinder person might cut him some slack, but by that point I'd been in Europe seven months and had spent seven months politely smiling while perfect strangers screamed at me about American foreign policy.

I should mention here that I've always been liberal. For the first presidential election in which I was eligible to vote, I walked two miles along a grassy highway median to vote for Dukakis. I'd decided that if George I had been re-elected in the '92 elections, I wasn't going to return to the United States. I wasn't a fan, but months of abuse from perfect strangers about forty years of U.S. foreign policy would be enough to make Barbra Streisand re-consider her party affiliation.

Anywho, Franz made all the usual whines about the evil US. During dinner out one evening a small child at a table next to us made a comment which made Hans laugh. Loosely translated what he said was "But grandma, television without a VCR is like television without cable". We all laughed, except Franz who grumbled "You see? THIS is what America has done to us." Without much thought I shot back "Well you didn't have to BUY it. Besides, I think if you look on the back of your TV, it was probably made in Japan." At that point, it was game on between me and Franz.

One day Hans & Franz took us sightseeing in a beautiful town called Trier. It was just around Christmas, Christmas Eve, or the day after, which meant that many things were closed. At a certain point, my friend and I decided that we were cold and hungry and would like to stop for a nosh, which we suggested to our escorts. Perhaps enraged at our desire to deviate from the day's scheduled activities, Franz snapped "I suppose you wish to go to McDonald's" with as much disdain as an angry German can muster. Uh, no. We just want to stop somewhere heated for a coffee, for chrissake.

We walked block after block past shops and cafes closed for the holiday, at which point we rounded a corner and, behold, the only place open on this day of days, this manger for lost souls, packed to the gills with people lining up out the door, was a McDonald's. In the words of Nelson Munz: "HA HA!" I've never been so happy to see a McDonald's in my life, before or since.

My point, and I do have one, is that reading P.J.'s essay made me realize that apparently, regardless of what may be happening in the world, Europeans are never so happy as when they are miserable about U.S. foreign policy. As someone who likes Europe and Europeans, it seems clear that our best course of action as a country is to continue pissing them off every way possible. In fact, it seems very likely that we will continue to piss them off, regardless of what we do.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Wars by Max Brooks

In 1984 historian Studs Terkel published The Good War: An Oral History of World War II. A collection of firsthand accounts of World War II from a broad cross section of American society, The Good War offers real insight into the war and its impact at home and abroad. It reveals some of the ugly truths about the war which history has tended to polish over, such as the massive racism facing many soldiers within the armed forces, and, in general effectively shows that while nations may wage wars, they are ultimately fought by individuals.

I will be the first person to admit how utterly bizarre it is that a book about the world under siege by zombies reminds me of nothing so much as The Good War, but there it is. The similarity is, I'm sure, not a mistake. Max Brooks has created a story told entirely through "interviews" with people from all over the world recounting their experiences with the horrible time when the earth was overrun by a nasty virus which transformed victims into the living evil dead. The conceit of the book is complete and seamless, from the introduction explaining the genesis of the book during the author's research for the United Nations' Postwar Commission Report to the grave review bites on the back discussing the importance of the work for future generations understanding of this horrible time.

Lest I make this book sound like some kind of tedious homework assignment, let me assure you that it is a (sorry, pun intended) scrumptious treat. The "realism" only adds to the creepy, compelling story tracing the plague's odd genesis (accidental or engineered?) in rural China to its terrifying spread to almost every continent, decimating populations, destroying civil order and unity and basically grossing everybody out. The zombies are perfect zombies: they're slow moving, lumbering, moaning, rotting corpses whose success lie in their overwhelming numbers, rather than any sort of tactical skills. They can't climb and have the ill luck of freezing in the winter, but they remain animated underwater, so don't try escaping by diving into the pool.

When it comes to understanding history, governments and military, Brooks has the details right. The world does not unite in face of this threat, but fractures. State of the art military weaponry fail spectacularly. The only way to kill these bastards is bashing their brains out, one at a time. To complete the verisimilitude there is even a website which allows visitors to measure their likelihood of survival during a zombie invasion. Mine is an uninspiring 36%, although reading the book I'm surprised it's not lower. Clearly I need to take up some kind of sword training, and perhaps move to a tree house.