Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A WISE LOOK AT CIVIL RIGHTS HISTORY IN "SELMA"

[A version of review appears in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2015/jan/13/riveting-and-inspiring/]

I long for more films that attempt to tell the stories of genuine courage and struggle and sacrifice that are the stuff of all the most important gains in civil rights for minorities and women and LGBTQ people and others who are marginalized. Such stories get far less attention than they deserve. But every time a film comes out that purports to deal with such topics, I brace for disappointment. Such films nearly always oversimplify the struggles depicted, so that the villains are cartoonish or the struggles themselves more easily resolved than they ever can be in real life.

What a treat, then, to watch “Selma”—and by a treat, I mean that I was riveted and inspired, and that I wept through most of it. For once, I found an insightful depiction of what working for social justice looks like. And what it looks like is broken bodies, fear, treachery, risk, mistakes, choices between terrible options, and unthinkable sacrifice. And it involves many heroes, not just one.

The film has an interesting back story. It was stalled in development for several years, and several well-known directors signed on and then dropped the project. Its star, David Oyelowo, felt called to play Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. back in 2007, but some of the early directors were not convinced he was right for the role. By the time director Lee Daniels became the fourth director to abandon the project, Oyelowo had been cast, and it was he who convinced the producers to bring on Ava DuVernay as director. She is one of very few women of any color to get the opportunity to helm a major Hollywood studio project and, if there is any justice in Hollywood (dare I hold my breath?) is poised to become the first African-American woman to win an Oscar nod. And she hails from the world of independent film.

I have to believe that DuVernay’s perspective and experiences helped this project. The usual mix of leadership hasn’t been able to pull off a film like this; all the cards of how a Hollywood film gets made are stacked against the necessary clarity of vision. The challenges of telling stories of the Civil Rights Movement include that the work is not finished, but we want to believe that it is. Fifty years after the events depicted in this film, there have not been biopics of black leaders of the movement, and most of the film treatments of the subject have been told from the perspective of white characters. Even non-film celebrations of Dr. King’s legacy tend to focus on him to the exclusion of other leaders and to celebrate his oratory divorced from the context of his words.

But social justice movements are not born of single heroes. They always depend on the actions of scores of brave individuals—real people who alternate between fear and courage, between clarity and confusion—who take courageous action with no hope of recognition and no assurance of success. Leaders work among other leaders, and they make mistakes too. They may neglect their families, or minimize the contributions of marginalized members of their own group. Yet those same leaders also have moments of clarity, and their disagreements may help them to fumble toward bold strategies that succeed despite long odds. Director DuVernay works from a place of understanding these truths, and her position of relative disadvantage as a woman of color working in the film industry can only have helped her to grasp them.

The result is a film that is uncommonly wise. Though it cannot tell all their stories, it recognizes people around Dr. King who contributed to the movement’s shape and strategy (Ralph Abernathy, Diane Nash, James Bevel, Hosea Williams, Andrew Young, John Lewis, Amelia Boynton Robinson) or who laid down their lives or suffered serious injuries in the struggle (Lewis, Robinson, Jimmie Lee Jackson). And in depicting scenes of violence (the bombing of the Birmingham church where four schoolgirls were killed, the unprovoked and brutal violence against black protestors on Bloody Sunday), DuVernay evokes the experiences of scores of individual citizens who sacrificed their bodies and sometimes their lives, all without recognition or reward. She helps you recognize the fear and trauma that these people, their ancestors, and their descendents carry in their bodies. This is their story.

Though the film is not strictly about Dr. King, it depicts him, too, as a flesh-and-blood man gifted with uncommon courage and anointed with the power to inspire, but also as a man whose burdens were too heavy, who was too often away from his family, and who sometimes failed those close to him. The film helps you recognize how remarkable it was for any man, and particularly one so young, to shoulder the weight of responsibility that Dr. King carried, and the burden of that anointing. And by opening with his Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and moving directly into scenes of life-and-death struggle in Alabama that occurred in the three months that followed, the film captures how the life of a great leader is likely to be filled with moments of applause and peril, sometimes in the same week, and how each victory often comes with renewed struggle.

The controversy that has arisen about the film’s historical accuracy reveals some things about the difficulty of telling stories like the ones depicted here. President Johnson’s top domestic aide, Joseph Califano, urged people in a December Washington Post op-ed to boycott the film because it failed to give President Johnson due credit for supporting and even devising the protests in Selma which led to passage of the Voting Rights Act. For the truth, he said, people should read Califano’s own reports. A number of other critics and commentators, even while admiring other aspects of the film, have fallen into line with the view that the film unfairly shorts President Johnson of credit for the strategy employed by Dr. King and other black leaders in Alabama.

I feel like I saw a different film than these critics did. The picture that emerged for me was that Johnson wanted legislation on voting rights, but didn’t think it could be accomplished as quickly as black leaders wanted and was intent on pursuing his Great Society programs first. To suggest that Johnson was the architect of the high-risk, non-violent resistance that ended up being necessary to arouse the momentum for such legislation, especially given that the participants received no federal protection and that the racially-motivated violence against them went entirely without redress, makes no sense and is troubling in ways that Califano and others don’t even appear to notice. At the very least, when a powerful person who is part of the dominant culture demands that only he gets to tell the story, how can we trust the truth of the story he tells? The truth is generally a lot messier, and getting at it always requires making space for more voices.

The voices we can hear in “Selma” have not been given nearly the airing they deserve. A historical film will always reflect some compromises borne of everything from the difficulty of capturing what was true to the challenges of getting a film made at all; the question is only what drives those compromises and how faithfully the film manages to portray what is most deeply true.  In this case, for example, DuVernay could not get rights to Dr. King’s actual speeches (they are held by another studio for another project), so she sought to capture their essence in other ways. Yet in capturing Dr. King’s essence, and in depicting the work and sacrifices of countless others, DuVernay and Oyelowo and so many others involved with this soulful project have managed to keep their eyes on the prize, and have captured what is true more than what is accurate. The result is a transporting vision of what progress looked like in a particular time, with some wisdom for those of us who need it to face the challenges that continue to plague us.

Friday, January 2, 2015

"METRO MANILA" REFLECTS RESPECT FOR THE EXPERIENCES AT ITS CENTER

[A version of this review appears in the Portland observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/dec/31/confronting-harsh-realities/]

I saw "Metro Manila" back in February at the Portland International Film Festival and was so blown away by it that I hoped, against hope, that this taut and carefully constructed tale of a Filipino family trying to survive the harsh realities of life in Manila might actually get a U.S. theatrical release, though the commercial prospects for a tale in Tagalog seemed doubtful. My hopes failed to materialize, but the film is now available on Netflix and iTunes and Amazon, and I'm determined that everyone should see it. It's one of the best films I saw in 2014.

You wouldn't necessarily get that from the film's marketing or from reading the reviews. It's marketed as an urban thriller, and that is the focus of the praise it has garnered (which is less than it deserves, in my view). The latter part of the film does indeed turn into an intricately plotted, life-and-death crime story, but the film derives its power from the human story at its center, a story that many critics seem to have dismissed as pedestrian.

Its protagonists are Oscar and Mai, a loving couple with two small daughters who have been eking out a living farming rice in a remote province. When the economics of rice farming become untenable, they quite reasonably decide to move to Manila to find work. They are used to hard work, and both are strong, smart, and determined. But nothing can prepare them for the harshness of life in the city, and the cruelty of the people and circumstances they will encounter there.

There is nothing clichéd about the film's depiction of the couple's circumstances; we are hardly swimming in movies that sink deeply into the harsh realities of life in places like this. The film shows us what kind of people Oscar and Mai are and what fuels their choices. We see how they work together, how they respond to setbacks, how they attend to the needs of their daughters. Their love for each other is simple and specific.

They are duped out of most of their meager savings almost immediately upon arrival in Manila. It is clear that their naïveté is born of lack of experience; no one would expect the harshness of what they encounter. Mai is forced to take a job in a go-go bar, her loveliness her only marketable asset in this place. She stolidly submits to the reality of a situation that she clearly finds repugnant; though Oscar takes it as a mark of his own failure to provide, she tells him, simply, "Sometimes the only thing left to hold onto is the blade of a knife."

After not getting paid for a day of honest manual labor, Oscar appears to luck into a more lucrative and dangerous opportunity: he takes a job driving an armored car through the streets of a city whose extremes of wealth and poverty are far beyond what most Americans can imagine. His seeming benefactor is Ong, who helps him through the application process and takes him on as his partner. But before long the story moves from drama to thriller as the stakes of Oscar's situation escalate, and Oscar soon finds that he must fight past his own revulsion on occasion. Ong, with his fast talk and ready laugh, is Oscar's guide to the ways of this world. His advice to Oscar to "stick your finger down your throat" (mistaking Oscar's despair for physical illness following a night of mandatory hard drinking with his colleagues) feels laden with significance.

I was surprised to learn that the film's director, cinematographer, and screenwriter is a Brit, Sean Ellis, who had never been to the Philippines before visiting with a friend not long before writing the screenplay. He wrote the film in English, and then hired Filipino actors, who translated most of it into Tagalog. It's an interesting and significant choice for the filmmaker to direct the film in a language that he doesn't speak, and it contributes to the sense that the film is sunk into Filipino culture. While that decision may have dimmed the film's commercial prospects, it makes for a much more authentic experience than the usual Hollywood fare.

The choice to shoot in Tagalog also feels more respectful. We in the so-called "first world" don't spend much time thinking about the experiences of people at the margins of our own society, let alone those in parts of the world most harshly affected by globalization and power imbalances. If you added up their numbers, people at the margins far outnumber those whose cultures dominate movie screens and other barometers of attention. This film presents such a visceral look at the realities of life for people like Oscar and Mai that I felt absolutely wrung out after two hours watching it. I also felt a bit ashamed to think of how much stress I experienced merely affording some attention, in the comfort of a movie theater, to experiences that people actually manage to survive, if at all, only at great personal cost.

The filmmaker has made some smart plotting choices that aid reflection on what options really exist for smart and good people like Oscar and Mai. It doesn't seem too much to ask us to reflect on what the stakes truly are for people realistic enough to discern that the survival of everyone they love is not in the cards that life has dealt them.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

"GONE GIRL" GOES DOWN A DREADFUL PATH

[A version of this review appears in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/nov/26/gone-girl-dreadfully-disappoints/]

Writing film criticism is a labor of love for me, with the primary objective of appreciating and bringing attention to films that really deserve an audience. But rarely, I feel the need to call out a film that is particularly terrible, especially if it is garnering a lot of acclaim that I don't think it deserves. So, let's talk about "Gone Girl."

Fair warning, this review will contain spoilers. If you want to judge this film yourself and want the opportunity to be surprised by it, postpone reading this. But I hope you will read it.

Let me start by saying I think this film fails on its own terms. It is supposed to be a suspenseful psychological thriller, and has been lauded as a masterful example of one. I find that baffling. I saw everything coming, except the ending -- and I suspect that is because I didn't think even this dreadful film would stoop so low as to end the way it did. The plotting seemed to me clunky and obvious. I didn't believe a second of it.

That also goes for the psychological aspects of the film. The story involves a really bad -- that is to say, murderous -- marriage between a woman, Amy (played by Rosamund Pike) who is meant to be seriously disturbed (perhaps a psychopath), and a man, Nick (played by Ben Affleck), who does bad things but is not psychologically disturbed. You know, more of a movie Everyman.

As someone whose life has included more than the usual number of encounters with people with personality disorders and who sometimes finds stories about destructive and disturbed people interesting and enlightening, I did not find Amy's behavior and psychology to be remotely believable. I am curious about what anyone with psychological training would say, but I thought her motivations and actions made no sense even for someone who is disturbed. For example, why the attraction to Nick? He is handsome, yes, but with her looks and money she can get any number of handsome men. He is sort of a lunkhead, and not her intellectual equal. He is more lowbrow than she fancies herself to be. Why the obsession that culminates in her locking him into the marriage at the end? I could go on -- but suffice it to say that the film did not convince me that people like Amy exist, or illuminate anything about them if they do.

And then there is Nick, himself. We're meant to believe that he is suave and dashing enough to capture Amy in the first place but then a complete plebeian in who he associates with and how he spends his time and in how he deals with vicious, female-driven media hounds (more on that later). He cheats on Amy with a younger student and lays around the house playing video games and having no ambition. Yet Amy is obsessed with him.

You would think this world filled with diabolical women torturing poor, hapless Nick was dreamed up by a man -- but, as people are quick to point out when I and others criticize this film, the writer of both the screenplay and the best-selling novel on which it is based is a woman, Gillian Flynn, who even describes herself as a feminist.

Flynn has noticed that, despite the acclaim that both the novel and the film have received, both have garnered criticism for being anti-feminist and trading in a host of negative stereotypes about women. She dismisses these criticisms lightly (as in a New York Times interview this month), suggesting that she is actually advancing a more nuanced view of women by creating a really interesting female villain. She suggests in a 2013 interview in The Guardian that her writing seeks to move us (meaning feminists? pop culture generally?) beyond the need for women only to be innately nurturing and to recognize that women, like men, can be pragmatically evil and cunning. Somehow this is going to sharpen our cultural view of women, or make it more sophisticated.

I find Flynn's response to criticism to be self-serving and disingenuous. There is no glut of women heroes in our cultural conversation -- indeed, a recent study found that the top-grossing films feature only 15 percent women protagonists, heroic or otherwise -- and, even if there were a glut of women heroes, its antidote would not be to create more diabolical female villains -- particularly villains that trade in already virulent stereotypes about women as liars and cunning manipulators.

I also think that Flynn shows a remarkable lack of awareness about the implications of the fact that, as an attractive, white, well-educated woman in, by all accounts, a happy straight marriage, she writes from a position of relative social, psychological, and financial safety, about a subject that directly threatens the safety of a staggering number of women who are much less fortunate than she is. Sexual violence and domestic violence toward women is a persistent problem in our society. Abundant evidence suggests that women underreport such crimes and that victims often struggle to be believed when they do report. Yet evidence also suggests that, to an alarming degree, people continue to believe that women regularly lie about both things, despite abundant evidence that false accusations of rape and domestic violence, though they do happen, are relatively rare.
Unlike the world of "Gone Girl," where fooling the trusting police and gullible media with serial false accusations of rape and abuse are Amy's hobby, women at all levels of American culture face the struggle to be believed when they speak up about violence, and those struggles are exaggerated for immigrants, the poor, the disabled, and racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities. As for women in positions of influence, we regularly still encounter people's unconscious fear about our ulterior motives and are treated as threatening when we even so much as ask questions that people don't want to entertain.

Given those realities, it is downright irresponsible to make a major blockbuster which peddles a story -- which it treats as psychologically interesting and believable -- in which a career woman with more economic resources than her husband responds to his infidelity and lack of ambition by devising an elaborate ruse (complete with colorful post-it notes) to (a) fake her own disappearance, (b) make him look like an ass in the media, (c) fake her own death so that he will get the death penalty,(d) then changes her mind witlessly when the husband fake-apologizes in the media, (e) then traps a rich former suitor into rescuing her and tells him a bunch of lies about how her husband abused her, (f) then abuses her own sexual organs so that she can frame the suitor for abusing her after she brutally murders him, (g) then returns to Nick and traps him into staying with her by stealing his stored semen to make a hate child with it.

"Gone Girl" indeed tells that story -- and then makes it even more ludicrous by portraying the media and police as readily accepting all of Amy's accusations even though they are full of holes, and adding enough additional vicious women characters to people a small village. They include two particularly noxious women reporters and several other women who, without knowing Amy, join in her plot against Nick by trapping him into appearing to flirt with them on camera.
As I've said, "Gone Girl" did not convince me that women like Amy exist, or that portraying them advances feminist ideals, or any ideals, for that matter. And we do not live in a world where the response to accusations of sexual assault or domestic violence would be a frenzy of media and police support for the alleged victim.

The fact that feminist criticisms of the film are frequently dismissed as lacking sophistication or as demonstrating an unwillingness to tolerate female villains suggests that we as a culture dramatically underestimate how difficult it is for women to be believed when they report sexual and physical violence, or even for privileged women to carve out a space from which to speak with power without being treated as threatening. Because if we as a culture really understood those realities, we would not view it as playful or even as fair game to trade in the barely hidden fears and prejudices that keep women down, any more than we would view it as playful to make a film about a diabolical welfare-cheating African-American woman too lazy to use her bachelor's degree in accounting to get a job. Please tell me that we would demand that such a film demonstrate an awareness that such a story is highly implausible and promotes dangerous stereotypes. Or don't give Gillian Flynn or director David Fincher the idea to make that film.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

"DEAR WHITE PEOPLE" INVITES HONEST GRAPPLING WITH HARD TRUTH

[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/nov/05/right-kind-discomfort/]

When was the last time you saw a film that challenged your assumptions about identity? Or one that depicted anything like the variety and complexity of identity struggles and micro-aggressions experienced by people outside the dominant culture(s)? Or one that managed both to make you feel understood and to make you squirm?

"Dear White People," the first feature film of writer-director Justin Simien, manages all of those things and more, which is to say that it is quite an achievement. That is not to say that it is exactly fun to watch or even wholly successful -- but even as I write that, I question whether my discomfort with some aspects of the film says more about me than it does about the film. To pitch a film at this level of complexity and to manage to sustain it there is more than most films even aspire to.

Please don't stop reading or decide that this film is not for you. It is for you. No matter who you are, "Dear White People" will repay your investment of time and discomfort, will plant fruitful questions in your brain that deserve your attention, and will sharpen your awareness of things happening all around you. And, as I like to remind myself, what's true is true. The only question is whether you deal with it or it deals with you. And the truth will deal with you, even when the privileges you enjoy insulate you from perceiving it.

The truth in a predominantly white, Ivy League university like the fictional Winchester University -- like most places housing access to privilege -- is a lot more complicated than is depicted in popular culture or even popular parlance. The roving vantage points of the film involve mostly the African-American members of a mixed cast, and the variety among those characters is considerably more than we usually see in films (including in the sort of romantic comedies and romantic thrillers that seem to predominate among the few films with majority-black casts). Chief among the characters here is Sam, whose campus radio program shares the movie's title and who dispenses pitiless jibes at the hypocrisies and micro-aggressions that African-Americans experience in their daily interactions with clueless Caucasians. ("Dear White People, stop touching our hair. Does this look like a petting zoo to you?") Sam's perceptions are sharp and spot-on, but her own behavior frequently verges into unkindness, including to the white boyfriend who she keeps secret from her otherwise all-black social set.

Sam is running for leadership of a residence hall whose traditional status as all-black has been altered due to a change in university housing policy. This is a matter of controversy about which she disagrees with her opponent, her ex-boyfriend Troy, a clean-cut, athletic campus leader who is much easier for majority-culture sensibilities to accept than Sam is. Troy is dating Sofia, the daughter of the white university president, who in turn has edged out Troy's father, the dean of students, in most competitions in their decades-long-rivalry. Sofia's brother, Kurt, is the editor of the college humor magazine and a defiantly politically incorrect provocateur who reserves especially obnoxious taunts for Lionel, a nerdy gay black student who doesn't feel comfortable in any community and whose rangy afro evokes fascination in his white peers and irritation in his black ones. Also in the mix is Coco, a calculating economics major from the South Side of Chicago eager to distance herself from her original name, Colandrea, and its attendant ghetto associations. Coco seeks to forge a reality television career and a more assimilationist identity in direct contrast to Sam.

All of this culminates in a black-ghetto-themed party in Kurt's residence hall where white students don black-face and polyester and gold chains and teeth and other accoutrements of black culture as popularly depicted. (Simien cannily includes with the end credits news articles establishing that such parties have sprung up on actual college campuses across the country.) How the party came to be and how the black characters incite and respond to its elements is where all the disparate plot elements converge.

Everyone is angling. Sam indulges romantic attention from Reggie, a political ally who she apparently sees as a more suitable romantic partner, though her heart doesn't seem to concur. Troy smokes weed several times a day to smooth his struggle to assemble a persona powerful-yet-non-threatening enough to please his father, his white girlfriend, and enough of his peers to fuel his political ambitions. Coco chafes at the sense that, for black men, she is destined to be only a way station to a white girlfriend. Bright and observant Lionel struggles to find a vantage point from which to express himself, but his experience mostly buffets him between bullying and invisibility and exploitation.

Shifting between the half-dozen plot elements, the film's tone often feels self-conscious. But ultimately the complexity serves the film well; Simien is trying to get at themes we resist looking at, and multiple vantage points is a smart way to back us into doing that. The film is pitched at satire, and though the elements sometimes feel a bit too carefully assembled, they are more complex than stereotypes. The film captures the sense that, for African-Americans with a shot at rising, forging an identity is uniquely complicated. Am I black enough? Selling out? Selling short? How hard should I work at being non-threatening to the people with the means to help me rise? What should my agenda be if I succeed? What would success even look like? Is there any point to asking these questions at all? Will I even have any say in the answers once I get there?

As a person of mixed (European and Mexican) heritage, I related to these struggles, both from my own experience and from that of my friends from outside the dominant legal culture trying to make it in the world of law. But I also related to the anxiety evident in the white characters. Even denial (also much in evidence) appears at times to spring from a place of anxiety. I'm one of the good people, right? I get it, right?

"Dear White People" doesn't presume to answer these questions. It is wisely content to pose and play with them. In doing so, it has offered up a collection of characters who, with the exception of Kurt (undeniably a jerk) and Lionel (the most guileless), are by turns unlikable and worthy of compassion. And it has aspired to more than any film I can think of: a conversation about privilege and identity and race that sits with the questions instead of pretending that they have been or can be easily put to rest, by anyone.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

MISFITS AND HIDDEN GIFTS

[A version of this review appears in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/sep/17/misfits-and-hidden-gifts/?page=1]

I went to see the new production of "A Wrinkle In Time" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival mostly because I see all the OSF productions. I vaguely remembered that the book on which it is based meant a lot to me as a young person, but recalled nothing about why. As it turned out, my murky recollection -- aided by some smart choices by director and adaptor Tracy Young, the production's talented designers, and a cast who clearly loves the source material -- all added up to an unexpectedly profound experience for me.

The story, for the uninitiated and the forgetful, involves an awkward adolescent girl, Meg Murry, who is a social misfit and unsuccessful student. Her beloved father, a physicist who had been employed at some top-secret government project, has been missing for more than a year. She and her genius five-year-old brother, Charles Wallace, receive a nighttime visit from a mysterious old woman, Mrs. Whatsit, who tells them and their mother that there are such things as "tesseracts," or wrinkles in time and space that one can travel through. The following day the two children and Meg's schoolmate, Calvin, end up "tessering" -- traveling through such wrinkles -- to combat an evil Black Thing that is threatening the universe, and hoping to find Meg's father.

It's a complex story to depict on stage. The world of the book contains lots of fanciful elements and twists of the rules of time and space that can be difficult to describe, let alone stage. These are not so much problems for a book, whose literary life depends on the imagination of the reader, but bringing the story to life on stage is full of potential for corniness and camp.

But this cannily-designed production manages to strike all the right notes. The book was written in 1962, and the set design incorporates lots of signals of 1960s America, with its relative innocence mixed with paranoia. The design has a sort of handmade feel which suits that time and also the book's demand on imagination; it also captures the sense of a book that was once beloved by now older adults who are sharing it with present-day children and grandchildren. All the child characters are played (quite effectively) by adults, but one child actor appears often on stage, reading or working on her own science experiments. Her presence on stage captures a sense of a mixture of generations who have responded profoundly to this material.

When done well, a minimalist approach to special effects can serve to bring the profundities of a story into bold relief. Somehow the actors seem more vulnerable, awakening audiences to the poignancy of the story. And so it is here; the innocence of Meg and Charles Wallace and Calvin convinces, underlined by various members of the cast frequently reciting lines from the beloved book. The production moves between various levels of realism and stagecraft in a manner that parallels the time-travel of the story, inviting the audience to travel through worlds of imagination and meaning.

Best of all, because I had not recalled much beyond that this particular book had meant much to me as a child, the production set me on a search for what had appealed to me then. The obvious answer -- and the one reached for by so many critics -- is that the story makes a hero of an awkward adolescent, and sets her on a voyage of self-acceptance and discovery of her hidden gifts. That is, of course, true. I indeed felt myself awkward and ugly and a lonely misfit, like so many children, and must have connected to the hope that I too might possess hidden gifts.

But there is so much more here. This is a story of the power of outsiders. The three main children are staked at various points on the spectrum of outsiders -- the social misfit, the misunderstood genius, and the person whose capacity to blend in comes at the expense of his essential self, who then remains imprisoned in loneliness. This story profoundly illustrates the pressures most humans feel to conform to norms that squash the deep truths of their being, and how it is that outsiders make the best containers for the most challenging truths. Reflecting on my own experience of childhood and my current experience of adulthood as I watched this story gave me a balanced set of reasons to weep--at how this story must have resounded for me then and how it encourages me now. And that is reason enough to stage this inspiring bit of theater.

[A song that has captured my imagination recently plays with similar themes:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPt0LkdM8Bc.]

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

"CALVARY" GRASPS FOR A WORLD BEYOND FAIRNESS

[A version of this review appears in the Portland Observer here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/aug/20/calvary-grasps-world-beyond-fairness/]

In the opening scene of "Calvary" (my favorite film so far this year), a priest, Father James Lavelle, awaits the confession of one of his parishioners. Instead he receives a death sentence. The speaker informs the priest that he was raped by a priest for five years as a child; the perpetrator is now dead, so he intends to kill Father James. "I'm going to kill you 'cause you've done nothing wrong, I'm going to kill you 'cause you're innocent." He will give the priest a week to get his affairs in order.

The rest of the film reveals how this priest spends the next seven days leading up to his date with his would-be killer. He believes he knows who has made the threat -- but we don't. So we watch him going about his priestly duties, visiting the sick and the (possibly) penitent, attempting to intervene in a domestic violence situation, visiting with his wounded daughter Fiona and the local bishop. The ending of the story is less important than how this minister lives his life.

How should a person of genuine faith respond to a death threat? The question resounds for me in both its literal and metaphorical senses. Should he report the threat to the police? Obtain a gun for protection? Leave town? How Father James responds is profoundly instructive.

He shows up. Often his job is to be present when people are struggling or suffering, and to remain attentive to what he might do. One of his first lines of the film is "I'm here to listen to whatever you have to say," and he often expresses a commitment to "try my best to help you." But that doesn't mean offering platitudes or cheap solutions out of the typical religious toolkit. Sometimes it means just sitting with a person's dilemma, and offering a way to wrestle with it honestly. For example, an angry and awkward young man tells the priest that he is considering joining the military, and Father James engages him on the shallowness of his thinking about violence. "The commandment, 'thou shalt not kill' doesn't have an asterisk beside it, referring you to the bottom of the page, where there's a list of instances where it is okay to kill people," he explains. "What about self-defense?" the young man asks. "Well, that's a tricky one, alright," Father James responds. Of course, the priest is the only one facing a threat.

He listens. Again, watch that opening scene. Father James listens, intently. When the congregant criticizes him for his reaction to the revelation about sexual abuse, Father James considers, then apologizes. In scene after scene, you can see him working at remaining open to what may be happening in each interaction. That doesn't mean he always responds in a way the speaker wants to hear, but generally he works to remain open and engaged.

He is courageous. He doesn't shy away from the hard questions. During the visit from Fiona, who has recently failed in an attempt to kill herself, he gently pursues her with questions that will move them past her despair and defensiveness. He hangs in there as she expresses sorrow and anger for the ways he abandoned her for the priesthood after her mother died, and as she struggles with the ultimate questions of faith. In other scenes, he attempts to intervene in a troubled marriage where a cheating wife is getting beaten, even though the wife, husband, and lover all are hostile and unrepentant.

He is discerning. Nearly all the members of his community are responding to their own brokenness or doubt with anger, or treachery, or hostility. Father James is generally onto them, but doesn't overreact. A local atheist doctor who has seen too much of the dark side of humanity brazenly snorts cocaine around the priest and tries to provoke him with a story of a botched operation that left a young child blind, deaf, and paralyzed. A financier keeps turning up and cynically offering the church money to assuage guilt he doesn't even feel for his sins, and keeps emphasizing how much his possessions cost and how little they mean to him. Father James also visits a vile serial killer in prison who taunts him with the revelation that he felt like God as he took the lives of his victims. Father James sees the hostility and dishonesty of these men for what it is, and sometimes responds with appropriate revulsion. Often he will ask a person, "Why am I here?" when it is clear that he is being toyed with. But generally he manages to keep open a space to respond in genuine love if ever the person comes around to being able to accept it.

His actions communicate his belief that no one is a lost cause. Not the doctor, despite his taunts. Nor the financier, even after he pisses on a painting to prove the already obvious point that nothing means anything to him. Nor the serial killer, who Father James continues to visit even while aware enough of the man's history to know when the man is manipulating him. The unrepentant wife seems bent on communicating that she is a lost cause, and even says so at one point, but Father James corrects her. And to the male prostitute who assumes a manufactured accent and a flamboyant, nearly assaultive bravado, Father James finally asks, without irony, "Do you need help?  Are you okay?"

He has integrity. Perhaps the hardest person for Father James to tolerate is his co-pastor, a facile priest who preens and judges and utters not a single word of authentic truth in the entire film. Fiona observes wryly that the co-pastor is "the future of the priesthood," and one might fear that is the case, though history does not lack for similar examples, and not just in Catholicism. At one point Father James cries out in exasperation, "Why are you a priest?" The question wounds the co-pastor, who later remarks that he didn't realize Father James hated him that much. Father James, who has spent the past week with a murderer and a thief and a prostitute and two adulterers, responds, "I don't hate you at all. It's just that you have no integrity. That's the worst thing I could say about anybody."

Indeed. And though by this point Father James' own flaws are more evident, it is clear that he does have integrity. He is engaged in a struggle for truth, including a struggle for the truth in himself, right until the end of the film and even in his moments of fear when his life hangs in the balance.

This film deals with the question of faith in a challenging way, which also involves dealing with the question of fairness. Father James is an innocent man facing a threat of death that is wholly unjustified. The question of the unfairness of life hangs over nearly every scene of the film. Much of what troubles these characters is life's unfairness -- the doctor who has seen a patient killed by a drunk driver and a child's life ruined by an anesthesiologist's error; the sex abuse victim for whom there will be no justice; the prostitute who has spent his life as a play-thing; Fiona, who has struggled with experiences of abandonment.

The film places an answer to these questions in the mouth of a young Frenchwoman whose husband is killed by that drunk driver. Father James comes to perform the last rites, and learns that the couple loved each other very much and had a good life together. He tells her that performing the last rites is never easy but that some cases certainly seem less unfair than hers. When a person dies so young, people often lose their faith, he says.

That isn't much faith to lose, she remarks. And he allows that for most people, faith amounts merely to fear of death, which is easy to lose. The woman remarks that what happened to her is not "unfair; it is just what happened." She notes that some people don't live good lives, and never experience love. "That is unfair," she says.

Having just lost someone under circumstances even more unfair than an accident caused by a drunk driver, I struggle with the woman's statement. But perhaps that struggle has integrity. Late in the film she and Father James encounter one another again and, deep in her grief, she remarks, "At times I think I cannot go on. But I will go on." In the view of this film, and in my own view, that's faith.

Monday, August 18, 2014

FOR ANYONE TROUBLED BY MY RELATIONSHIP WITH STAN


Someone communicated to me recently that several couples whom Stan counseled are "disillusioned" to learn that Stan had a relationship with me while he was still married and was warning them of "such relationships."  If that is really true and not just a way of repackaging judgment into something that will more clearly occupy the moral high ground, I would like to suggest that such suffering has a remedy.
I am quite certain that Stan did not warn of relationships like ours.  As I have expressed, we did not have an affair.  Explaining why that is the case and why our relationship did not threaten Stan's marriage is not something I can do on the internet.  But if you are genuinely struggling with how to put those pieces together, I sympathize--though shunning me will not assist you in resolving that struggle.  You simply lack the information necessary to draw any conclusions.

Truth is often way more difficult that we think.  All of us have had experiences where we are certain that we have all the information we need to make a judgment, only to learn later that we were lacking key facts that change the picture entirely.  I have a good deal of information that most people who are judging this situation don't have and couldn't imagine.  Ignoring that fact doesn't make it any less true.
Stan was who you thought he was. As I expressed at his memorial:

"He was indeed a person of fierce integrity.  He loved God with all his heart.  He loved you with all his heart.  He was a complex man, and a courageous man who worked hard to create space for all of the truth, not just the parts that fit into the dominant paradigm.  He was out of the box himself and he responded lovingly to the parts of you that could not be easily catalogued or categorized.  So perhaps it's not surprising that some of his own relationships simply didn't fit into any familiar boxes."
For the many of you who know me and have been cared for by me, I also am the person you thought I was back when you respected me.  I did ministry alongside Stan for nearly 20 years at great personal cost and out of a deep sense of calling.  I am still that person.  The conclusion that you have reason to be disillusioned depends on a conclusion that both of us lack integrity or a moral compass.  You really don't have a basis for that conclusion without talking to me.

The truth is just more complex than such judgments about our integrity allow.
Stan also really loved me.  That is not because I am a manipulative, selfish, conniving woman who tricked him into betraying his marriage vows.  I am not such a person.  And Stan was no fool.  That story doesn't square with what you knew of him.

I don't expect that you would be able to put the whole picture together yourself.  But if you are honestly struggling with how to put the picture together, concluding that Stan failed you or that I failed you without talking to me is not a principled shortcut.  And doing that may well lead you to suffer disillusionment unnecessarily.  I encourage you not to let your faith depend on such flimsy evidence.
Although I am suffering, I am committed to helping people to keep and build on the comfort and the teaching that Stan offered to them.  That means that if you approach me with sincere questions rather than judgment and condemnation, I will sit with you and do my best to help you make sense of your experience.  That's not an offer to defend myself to you.  It's an offer to help you understand the truth.  I will do that for Stan, and for you.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

THE RHYTHM OF THE DISENFRANCHISED

[A version of this review appears in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/aug/06/right-kind-reverence/]

A biopic about James Brown surely presents challenges. It is hard to imagine capturing Brown's extraordinary gifts as one of the founding fathers of funk music without devolving into mimicry. Fortunately, for the most part, "Get On Up," the long-awaited biopic about the Godfather of Soul, avoids those pitfalls and inspires the right kind of reverence and enthusiasm for a musical genius whose influence can't be overstated.

First and foremost, this film gets the musical performances right. None other than Mick Jagger produced the musical tracks for the film by re-mixing Brown's original multi-track recordings; and the remarkable Chadwick Boseman, seen as Jackie Robinson in "42," positively channels Brown's musical vibe.

The film stages key performances in Brown's musical evolution, including a dazzling 1962 Apollo Theater concert; a 1964 performance on the T.A.M.I. show in which Brown famously upstaged The Rolling Stones; a historic concert at Boston Garden shortly after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination; and a 1971 concert at the Olympic theater in Paris. The presentations are thrilling to watch, capturing the innovation and care that went into each elaborate show, with a huge and talented band, energetic choreography, and of course Brown himself, whose physicality and vocals grabbed audiences by the lapels. Boseman's performance (building on Brown's own vocals), and the elaborate restaging of those iconic show-stopping concerts, makes you feel you are there.

The sheer energy marshaled for each performance is astounding and, seen from this distance, Brown's profound influence on popular music becomes undeniable, no explanation necessary. He was so original -- and so black -- that you sense he claimed an audience, in a time when audiences were not used to hearing acts remotely like him, by the sheer force of his will and ego. His influence is everywhere -- on Jagger, Michael Jackson, Prince, Lady Gaga, Jay Z, Bruno Mars, and Justin Timberlake. Jagger has spoken admiringly not only of Brown's complex moves but also "his whole persona" and "the way he worked the audience, the way he works so hard himself, the way he put all his energy into it."

The music does the best talking here. The film captures how much care went into each performance; how controlling Brown was of every aspect of the arrangements; how hard he was on his side men; the sheer ego it took to create his high-energy shows. In one pivotal scene, he insists on a rhythmic change that one of his side men protests "doesn't work musically," and Brown makes the inarguable case that "if it sound good and it feel good, then it's musical." It doesn't matter whether this scene ever actually happened, because it convincingly captures what Brown was about, and how he brought up everyone's game and created one new thing after another.

The film doesn't skimp on what a hard man Brown was to live with. It opens with and frequently returns to an incident in the '80s when, high on PCP, he brandished a gun at a group of strangers and led police on a high-speed chase that landed him in prison. A scene in which he punches his second wife establishes that such violence was not an isolated incident, though I understand the criticism that the film gives that well-documented aspect of Brown's history short shrift. But incidents of Brown's bad behavior are sprinkled through the film and they needn't be explained and aren't excused. That isn't the point of the film, nor should it be.

The seeds of Brown's musical genius, his ego, his frequent violence, and his antisocial behavior are evident in his childhood of extreme poverty, domestic abuse, and abandonment by his parents. He lived his early years hungry and abused in a shack in South Carolina, then spent much of his childhood in a brothel in Augusta, Georgia, and was in prison by the age of 16 for theft of a suit. The film wisely doesn't lay on those connections too thickly; it shuffles the time sequence, returns to certain pivotal scenes (like the PCP-fueled arrest from the '80s) a handful of times, and then lets them go. The effect is to toss up those disparate elements of Brown's life and to suggest the connections between them but not push the point too hard.

The same is true for his musical influences. The film depicts signs of a rhythmic drive early in childhood, and also a scene when he walks into a revival meeting as a child and is drawn into the music that absorbs all the participants. The vibe is perfect -- a preacher with an elaborate hairstyle and everyone in white suits and dresses, worshipping with their whole bodies. The scene has a mythical quality that captures the sense of such a meeting but also the sense of how it might be remembered by a child.
Occasionally the shuffling between time periods can be disconcerting, as can instances when Brown speaks directly to the camera. I'm not sure those risks always pay off. But, in the end, most of it does. The elements of Brown's history, his hardships, and his foibles -- they are all here, and all must be functioning somehow to drive the man. For the most part, the film wisely backs off from wrapping it up too neatly.
And a certain truth emerges. As Brown himself puts it, "Nobody helped James Brown" as a young person. Nobody taught him the rules, though his experience taught him the rules weren't in his favor. His tremendous drive pulled him out of his dire circumstances, and taught him to listen to the drumbeat that he could hear, undistracted by attachment to anyone else's idea of how music should sound or how things should go. His was the rhythm, and the genius, of the disenfranchised. This film makes you feel it.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

THE SWEET ACHE OF "BOYHOOD"

[A version of this review appears in the Portland Observer, here:  http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/jul/30/real-life-drama/]

The concept behind Richard Linklater's new film, "Boyhood," seems so obvious when you hear it that you wonder why it has never been done before. Filmed over 12 actual years, the film follows the fictional story of a boy's childhood -- ages 6 to 18 -- with the same actors playing the boy, his older sister, and his divorced parents. Far from a gimmick, the result, in director Linklater's capable hands, is a revelation. Never has a film so poignantly captured the sweet ache of family life, of parenting, and of the passing of childhood.

The story is deceptively simple. It follows the lives of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his frequently annoying older sister Samantha (Linklater's daughter Lorelei), and their parents through moves, marriages, and divorces, and the dramas, big and small, of everyday life. And it is, quite literally, the story of Mason's coming-of-age.

Coming-of-age stories are nothing new. Generally they focus on a pivotal event or a life-changing summer. But if you think about it, most people's lives don't contain that type of dramatic arc. The changes come incrementally -- little shifts occur in attitude and perspective, or trust is built or lost in an accumulation of small incidents. Kids take risks all the time -- it's a wonder any of us survive childhood -- but most people survive just fine. So, though there are moments in this film where the audience is primed for a major dramatic turn (particularly a scene where a middle-school-aged Mason is drinking with his friends and there are weapons around), those moments mostly play out in the same understated way that most people's lives do. You don't miss that movie-dramatic arc either -- this story makes you care, and wonder, like you would in real life.

It strikes me that Linklater's method may have yielded a sort of spiritual process for capturing the soul of growing up. He started with the outlines of a story and with two carefully chosen kids, and when filming began there wasn't a complete script. Instead, Linklater checked in with Coltrane and the rest of the cast each year, assessed where Coltrane was emotionally and experientially, and then wrote the screenplay for that segment, informed by the truth of the cast's own lives. The physical and emotional development of the characters connected with the physical and emotional development of the cast, and the filming involved no exterior judgment of the product -- as Linklater puts it, for years it was all process, no product.

The result plays more like real life than any non-documentary feature I can remember. The drama of the lives of the family members is made up of small moments: Samantha deliberately annoying her brother with a Britney Spears song; Mason eavesdropping on mom arguing with her boyfriend; the two kids competing for the attention of their wayward dad after a long absence; Mason perusing a lingerie catalog with his pals; the accumulation of signs that the kids' new stepdad has a drinking problem; a fishing trip between Mason and his dad in which you hear Mason's voice changing; and a laconic adolescent Mason being lectured by a series of adults.

Never have movie children looked and sounded more like actual kids. Unlike the usual well-scrubbed and articulate movie children, these kids sometimes look as though their clothes don't fit quite right, or they have bad haircuts or acne. They are cute kids, but the kind of cute kids you might actually meet. And they are sometimes maddening -- sulky and uncommunicative, or self-absorbed. Their conversations with their peers sound like these kids overestimate what they know, and you cringe with recognition as you watch them overshoot which experiences they are ready for.

The parents, too, look familiar. They are by turns beleaguered, or lazy, or harried; they miss the strain their choices put on the children. Mom (Patricia Arquette) presents a combination of attentive and blind that is rarely depicted so accurately; she loves and listens to her kids, but seems to have a knack for picking men who will and do jeopardize their well-being. And dad (Ethan Hawke) seems at times to be playing at parenthood, yet you see how his intentions toward his kids nudge him to grow up himself.

The flexibility and trust involved in Linklater's process yields an authenticity that couldn't be arrived at any other way. It reminded me of the quality of conversation that becomes possible when you make a habit of showing up over and over again; you may not ever have the silver bullet revelation that explains the arc of a relationship, but you will share plenty of small moments that will yield glimmers of the soul of the other. Linklater and his cast have constructed a container for something ineffable: and rich.

The tenderness here will make you weep for your own childhood, or that of your children. It will nudge you to reflect on your own efforts to explain something difficult to a child, or to answer questions for which you don't have answers, or don't trust the answers. It will remind you of just how darling an awkward adolescent can be.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

HOW IT FEELS TO BE A PROBLEM

I've been thinking a lot recently about a quote from W.E.B. DuBois's famous book on the experience of being a black man in America, "The Souls of Black Folk":

"Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy, by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it.  All, nevertheless, flutter around it.  They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town, or I fought at Mechanicsville, or Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil?  At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require.  To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem?  I answer seldom a word."

DuBois captures so elegantly the experience of being "other," of being a trigger for the discomfort of others. 

I have many experiences in my life of being the "other," of feeling myself the outsider.  But never more than in the nearly four months that have passed since I lost my life partner, Stan Thornburg.

As I have written ( http://opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com/2014/05/complicated-grief.html ), Stan and I loved each other deeply for 30 years, and for the last 19 years we privately related to each other as life partners.  Stan remained in his marriage for complicated reasons (though he was long separated and nearly divorced from his wife when he died), but we functioned as partners.  Most people who knew us knew we shared some kind of special connection, but the true extent of it was closeted while Stan was alive.

The morning after Stan died, I realized that I had no more will to keep our relationship in the closet.  I had never wanted that to begin with, and I was facing not only the loss of him but the loss of our hopes to finally live together in a marriage.  The chasm of my grief was deep, and I could not bear the thought of facing it alone and in secret.  The closet is no place for joy, and it is definitely no place for a grief this big.

It came to me as an insight that it was up to me to model for people how to think about our relationship.  Stan had done some work to lay the groundwork too (though not as much as I wish he had):  he had left specific instructions that I should have the place of prominence at his memorial, and he had spoken to varying degrees to family members and others close to him about my importance to him.  He had been living with me for a year-and-a-half during which I supported him and cared for him under extremely difficult circumstances. 

So I was very clear from the beginning of my grief journey that I had lost my life partner.  I have persisted in speaking from that experience. 

And I have been met mostly with silence so absolute that it can only be described as shunning.

Not from Stan's daughter or from my own circle of friends.  Though my family of origin does not function as a haven for me, I do have many people out there who care for me and who express their concern with love.  I am grateful for that.  But very few of those who have reached out to me are part of the community that Stan and I served together and for whose sake we sacrificed our desire to be together as a couple.  Actually, the closer people are to Stan and the church community, the less likely it is that I have heard from them AT ALL in the nearly four months since Stan died.  Even people that I would typically hear from, who previously often commented on things I post on Facebook or communicated with me in other casual ways, have stopped communicating with me even in those ways.

I am left to speculate about the reasons, since I am so cut-off.  But my strong instinct is that I am a problem for that community.  And I am the kind of problem that people would prefer to ignore.

There is no box in which to put my relationship with Stan.  He was a pastor whom they respected, and he was in a marriage.  I expect that it is difficult for some to understand how it can be okay that Stan and I were partners.  I imagine many of these people deeply wish I would shut up about my relationship with him.  (In fact, a couple of people have anonymously written to me telling me so.)  It is simpler to just ignore me--in fact, often that happened in terms of my role in Stan's ministry while Stan was alive.  I actually have a lot of experience with being overlooked on that score.

The lurking question that DuBois identifies--How does it feel to be a problem?-- isn't actually being asked in my case.  No one evinces curiosity about how it feels to me to be a problem.  Their silence tells me they just wish I would go away.

Nevertheless, I undertake to describe what is like to be a problem.  As I have all along, I describe my experience because I need to, but also because it feels important to do so. 

It is like being erased.  I have just lost the person I talked to every day, the person who knew me so well that every conversation was a continuation of a longer and ongoing conversation.  We shared a long history of working together on each other's projects.  We talked through Stan's sermons and articles, and my speeches and articles.  I edited his work.  He helped me strategize about my work with minority lawyers and law students.  I understood more deeply than anyone the things he was proud of, the writing projects he still wanted to do, the hopes he still carried.  And hardly anyone wants to know.  Hardly anyone even acknowledges that I have lost anything at all.

I worked alongside Stan as a minister for 19 years.  We knew and worked with many of the same families.  We spent evenings at their homes, or played cards with them at church retreats.  I played music with them and took their kids on trips to Ashland.  And now these same people, the ones who have the best basis for appreciating what we meant to each other and the depth of loss that I must be carrying, don't communicate with me at all.  If they see me in person or my name on a Facebook dialogue, they may not acknowledge me, or they may say an awkward hello but not acknowledge that I am grieving.

I know that my very existence is a problem.  It would be easier for the community if I had never spoken up about the depth of my relationship with Stan.  Perhaps many feel ready to judge that there was something wrong with what occurred between us.  Perhaps some think I am lying.  I don't know because they are not asking me.  And I don't know how they can judge without hearing my story--or really, without walking in my shoes.

I don't have any regrets, nor any shame.  I do walk in my shoes, and I know that the deep connection that Stan and I shared saved both our lives.  I knew then and I know now that the community that we served (and for whose sake we sacrificed) benefitted a great deal from the love that grew between us.  As time went on, nearly every sermon or speech that either of us gave and every moment either of us spent listening and caring and being deeply present with others reflected work we did together. 

So, I am suffering more than the terrible loss of the one I loved most.  I am suffering the pain of being erased. 

I realize there are lots of possible reasons for silence.  Perhaps you feel awkward.  Perhaps you are angry with me, or with Stan.  Perhaps you feel guilty for not saying something sooner.

My guess, though, is that if you decide now or at any future moment to express sincere concern for me, you will be met with the gratitude and relief that most grieving people express when someone acknowledges and expresses sorrow about the fact that the lonely journey they are making must indeed be a painful one.  As I understand better than I ever did before, grief is a lonely journey for everyone.  Just not this profoundly lonely.