• ethics,  film,  politics,  racism

    Voting is Harm Reduction

    Lately, my Beloved and I have been binge watching Call the Midwife, which he is enjoying because of a personal connection to his family history and culture.  I’m enjoying it because I love stories about women interacting with women.  The midwives live in a convent, along with a small order of nuns, who organize the medical practice, and create a loving family of women.  I desperately want to join the sisterhood.  But it is the compassion of the nurses, who are young women that get involved in the lives of their patients, that carry the show along. 

    And it’s amazing how a story set so far away can resonate with us so closely.  One night, the episode was about an elderly woman who had been separated from her five children when she entered a workhouse after she was widowed.  She was never given the fate of her children, who all died of illnesses in the unsanitary conditions of the workhouse.  She is tormented by this all of her life, until the midwife nurse charged with her care follows the parish records and finds the burial place of her youngest child.

    “The Boys’ Workhouse”, Albert Edelfelt (1885)

    In the final scene, the woman bends down and plants her body over the resting place of her child, at peace at last.

    My Beloved turned to me to talk to me about the work houses, public houses that were established for the destitute of the parish to have a place to go.  Families were separated from each other upon entry, kept in separate wings of the work houses with no contact.  Conditions were poor and disease was rampant because of the crowding, although the workers were given a safe place to sleep at night.

    And then we were silent, because the similarity to the news was obvious and painful.  Here we are, nearly a century after the work houses were shut down in the U.K. for their inhumane conditions, living in a country that is currently taking children from their parents in order to disincentivize refugees from central and southern America.

    An inside view of one of the tents we are using to house detained migrant children, 2018

    One father, not understanding what had happened, killed himself.  Other children have been lost, separated from their families and moved into an overwhelmed bureaucracy that is losing records and losing people.  Guards have raped the children, who have been housed in chain cages, on floors without blankets.

    Here, in America, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  Here, we take refugee children and do the same thing that the Victorians did for their poor.  Like in the workhouses, the children are not receiving an education.  They have little in the way of legal representation.  Their environment has been designed to demoralize them.

    They have been taken from their families.

    They have been taken from their families, to punish their parents for seeking our help. 

    The episode was a haunting episode, that has lingered with me since we watched it.  And all I can think, as the midterms approach and I feel so helpless to create actual change, is that voting is harm reduction.

    Voting is harm reduction.

    Voting is harm reduction.

    Voting is harm reduction.

    This administration has actively sought — and continues to seek — to do harm, to the environment, to people fleeing violence and wars that we have instigated, to LGBTQ civil rights, to healthcare, to the rights of women.  And all we seem to be able to do is to try to reduce the onslaught, to speak up and say, no, this is so very wrong.  I have to place my desperate hope on the thought that there are enough people out there that we can make enough of a difference to slow down the harm.

    I have been wrong too many times before.  I envy the faith of the sisters in Call the Midwife, who reach for the humanity in every soul of the parish that they tend.

    But how I want to believe.

  • art,  film

    Movie Review: Les Miserables

        [rating=4] I have been fighting off a pretty intense allergy attack this week that had me home sick from work on Wednesday and working from home on Thursday.  I was so sick, in fact, that I watched a movie without anything in my hands, which is an event that should be marked on the calendar for its rarity.  I had heard good things about the latest rendition of Les Miserables and I really like a lot of the stars, so I rented it, even though I have a love-hate affair with the musical.  The characterization drives me absolutely nuts, because it is so shallow.  Sure, but it’s a musical, you say.

    Watch Camelot, I say, to see how it can be done.

    Let’s start with Marius.  I think we are supposed to like him, but he bothers me.  Aside from hiding his rich family order to better fit in with les pauvres, his treatment of Eponine is so blind as to be offensive.  He’s so unaware of her feelings as to be cruel, asking her to further his liaison with Cosette, who he falls in love with after just one glance.  And Cosette, of course, because cooincidences rule the day (apparently there about five people in all of Victor Hugo’s France), happens to be the young girl that Eponine’s parents abused all of those years; our darling bland Cosette.  Marius is even worse in the novel.

    And poor Cosette.  We’re supposed to pity her because her foster family made her go out in the dark and get water from a well.  In the book there’s a great deal more, but in the musical, she sings a sad song about a castle on a cloud (uhm, yeah), has to get a pail of water in the dark forest, is saved by our hero Jean Valjean, then lives a nice life with her new rich Papa, while Eponine continues to be cursed by her godawful parents.  Beyond that, Cosette is always an angelic blonde.  That is the end of her characterization. I have a hard time understanding why she’s important at all, because she’s one of the most boring characters to have hit the stage in a really long time.  Yet much of the plot revolves around her happiness, which I don’t care at all about.  She won when Jean Valjean showed up in her life.

    Eponine I care about.  Eponine I want to grab by the shoulders and say, “Girlfriend, grow a spine and tell him.  If he says no, he didn’t deserve you.”

    It goes on from there.  Potentially Jean Valjean could be really interesting.  He’s our good guy archetype – the giant man with extraordinary strength and a convict past.  But he’s such a good guy that we find out that he only stole out of desperation to save the life of a child.  That’s what he does. He saves the lives of children.  Even when his inaction and distraction leads to Fantine turning to prostitution and dying of consumption and exposure, we sympathize with him because he regrets it and goes off and saves Cosette.

    Say what?

    The play would be better if we discovered that Jean was a big liar and never had a sister.  Or even if he had a bit on the side.  Something.  Anything!  And then, without any concern at all, he just accepts this stranger that Cosette has fallen in love with and sets her up to marry him, without a single question.  Again…say what?

    One of the best characters is Javert, who is supposed to be the bad guy, or at least as much of a bad guy as a French writer can manage. He is a really sympathetic bad guy, clearly blinded by his own fanaticism, blinded so clearly so that you rather pity him.  Javert has blind faith in the law and it is his entire purpose.  There are no shades of grey in Javert’s world until Jean Valjean goes off and does his angelic good guy thing and saves Javert’s life, which forces Javert to recognize that morality can be ambigious.  Javert’s faith fails him and it actually destroys him.  Now that’s a character I can get into, even if the play gives me nothing other than this one fact about him.  Likewise, the other fanatic, Enjolras who is more brave than wise, but dies keeping his beliefs to the end.

    Tell me that you don’t want to get up on that bridge with him and talk Javert down and give him a hug?

    My problems with the characterization aside, the music is powerful, with a few pearls of lyrics that are well worth sitting through it.  There are a number of songs in the musical where you have opposing characters singing rounds that are pretty amazing.  And this staging of Les Miserables was certainly the best one that I’ve ever seen.  I thought Russell Crowe was a brilliant Javert and from time to time, I even forgot that Hugh Jackman was Australian.  The cast was excellent and the music was well performed, with no weak points at all.  The filming was gorgeous, with an opening scene that I won’t forget for a long time.

  • art,  film

    Movie Review: Beasts of the Southern Wilds

    We watched The Beasts of the Southern Wilds this weekend, which is the tale of a six year old girl coming to terms with her father’s death. Hushpuppy, the narrator, lives with her father in the Bathtub, an area of land that is below the levee of an unspecified metropolis that closely translates into a post-Katrina New Orleans. The people of the Bathtub are the displaced and homeless and they’ve moved into the marshland and formed their own community. The culture is wild and joyful, with huge community parties and people of all races looking out for each other and sharing foods and resources. The message is clear; the Bathtub is utopia. The metropolis is not.

    Aside from the unspecified danger of the metropolis, the biggest problem to Hushpuppy is her father’s health. This is where things get dire. Hushpuppy’s mother disappeared before the story began, leaving behind a trailer filled with clothes. Hushpuppy lives there on her own, while her imperfect father lives in another trailer in spitting distance. But her father disappears for a week and comes home in a hospital gown, which is the first time the viewer and Hushpuppy realize there’s something seriously wrong. He has periods of weakness and seems to be a man with a terminal heart condition. Angry at his own fate, he knows that he must leave her soon and he begins teaching Hushpuppy how to be self-sufficient. Hushpuppy burns down her trailer, fights with him and goes on a hunt for her mother.

    Arching through the story is a metaphor that begins in the classroom, where Hushpuppy learns about the aurochs and misunderstands them to be large and dangerous beasts that died in the Ice Age. They become her metaphor for her father’s illness. They narrate her feelings and add to the fantastical quality of the world, but the world is already fantastical enough that they fit well within it.

    Beasts of the Southern Wilds is what I like best in a movie; creative and well written. It also has some beautiful lines, excellent performances and stunning landscapes. There are moments of brilliant comedy and more than one line spoken from the mouth of a babe that rings so true that it made me shiver. It was originally a play called “Juicy and Delicious” by Lucy Alibar. I came away wanting more – I wanted to see the play. Definitely recommended.

    An interview with Lucy Alibar

  • cooking,  family,  film

    Waiting for the rain

    We are due, within minutes, another epic flash-flood rainstorm here on Long Island, which will be the second in as many weeks. Last week’s rainstorm rained ten inches in one day, which is an awful lot of rain, but particularly when you live four feet above sea level, as it has absolutely nowhere to go. Also much of what is dropping down on your head just came from the ocean. Some of it straight into my dining room, which was unfortunate.

    But fortunately I live with someone who knows what to do about that. In fact, at this point, *I* know what to do about it. The house has been filled with drips and leaks that we’ve been slowly plugging up as we go, which is probably what I get for buying a 90 year old house.

    So I’ve taken measures to keep the rain on the outside of the house and we’ll see how it goes.

    It’s otherwise been a very quiet weekend, which was just what the doctor ordered. I’ve watched three entire movies while not actually doing something with my hands, which is a serious indication of how exhausted I’ve been lately. We went on Friday and saw One Day (likable, not challenging, lame ending). Then, as our hippy rightfully is fed up with movies that always have to end with a romantic ending, he picked out a couple to watch that were not uplifting, but were very, very good. We started with Boys Don’t Cry, which….just has to be seen, but not with children. Then we followed up with Skin, which at least ended with some happy music. Also very good. Go see it. In fact, skip right past basically anything in the movie theaters to see it.

    I mean, it was One Day or Conan the Barbarian.

    I did pick up the kid from the airport today, so my little family is almost nearly reunited. Himself is still in Ireland for another week, but the house is slowly filling up. On Tuesday, I’ll be picking up a cousin from the airport (I really should have priority parking at JFK by now, as this will be my fifth visit in a month), which I’m really looking forward to. This is the last visit for the summer, which must mean that things are winding down. The season change is upon us, so I grabbed up all the tomatoes I could handle and made sauce to freeze. That’s what August is, isn’t it? Frozen tomato sauce?

    The rain has finally hit us, which is a great relief for the humidity and my sinuses, which have been awaiting this storm via giant headache. It is now the absolute best kind of summer day, as I never feel as fantastic as I do the day *after* a killer sinus headache. Nothing but blue skies tomorrow.

  • art,  culture,  film

    Catching the Thieves

    I don’t often sit down to watch a movie, but when I have been watching movies lately, they’ve been from the In Technicolor! era. Recent watches have been For Love of Ivy, Arsenic and Old Lace, Sunset Boulevard and Mogambo. Tonight I’m watching To Catch a Thief. I’ve been enjoying the conventions of older movies, which seem to be much closer to their theatrical origins. The zoom-ins to newspapers that further the plot and the music (which seems to be the same in every movie) that point out when the romantic leads encounter each other are endearing. The clothes where men always wore suits and women were always in absolutely gorgeous ball gowns always make me wonder if that’s how it really was or if it’s just a Hollywood convention. Part of me appreciates a more formal world, even while I’m laughing at the sudden bursts of passion that cause Clark Gable to go marching over to a leading lady and push his face forcefully against hers. Is that a kiss? If so, I hope never to have one. Sorry Clark.

    Actors, is there a name for this old style of acting? The conventions are hilarious.

    Of course, the films that I’m watching are the ones that have survived through the years and have made it to DVD. I never studied film in school, other than one art history class that was a survey of Korean film. (A class in which I learned that Attack the Gas Station! is actually a remake.) I know very little about cinematography or film history. But still, I find I’m enjoying the look back at, what is to me, a very foreign time and place. It’s similar to when I watch foreign movies, where I only understand the cultural references because I’ve studied the time and place. And yet, I’ve been picking these movies because I want to understand the references of my own culture. Grace Kelly, Clark Gable, Sidney Poitier, Gloria Swanson, Ava Gardner — all names I’ve known for years without faces. And now I’ve got the reference.

  • art,  film

    Ninja Assassin: Five Lessons for Girl Ninjas

    Last Thursday night, I sat down with my little family and watched Ninja Assassin, which was precisely as good as you’d imagine it to be.  (A coworker wonders why they cast a Korean pop star as the awesomest ninja of all; I wonder why we cast American actors as South Africans.  But neither here nor there.)

    But this movie drew on so many How Not to Make a Feminist Film tropes that I just couldn’t stop laughing.  So, young women, if you want to know what it’s really like to be a professional (ninja or otherwise), let’s watch this movie for some lessons.

    Lesson One: You might have good ideas, but your boss will only listen to them if he’s attracted to you.  He’ll even tell you so, at which point you will blush and lower your head, while prettily thinking about how much you’d like to stick a knife in his guts for belittling you, if only you didn’t need to pay your mortgage.  Except in real life, your boss probably won’t look like a movie star.  Sorry.

    Lesson Two: Even if you are kidnapped as a child and raised in the super secret ninja assassin school, you will be the one person not hardened by years of psychological abuse.  Girls are made of sugar and spice.

    Lesson Three: Even though you’re an okay ninja (for a girl), having been raised to be one from birth and all, you’re going to be the one who just can’t hack it.  So you’ll run away, get caught and be murdered.  This is absolutely critical so that you can be avenged by our hero, who we know is worth cheering for because he didn’t just like, forget you existed after watching you get murdered, because he’s a super special dude.  You’ve served your purposes…and with about six lines of dialogue!

    Lesson Four: If you’re an extra and you have boobs, you’re also going to be murdered.  Because only real big jerks murder women, children or kittens.  So it helps prove that the baddie is a real baddie with an absolute minimum of creativity.  Next time, bring kittens.

    Lesson Five: Women are inherently good.  Of the two, count ’em, two women in Ninja Assassin that actually get to speak, both are recognized for being “different” and “special”.  That’s what happens when you can only hire two women for the fifty roles in your movie.  Being average is something that can only be achieved by people in greater numbers.

    On one hand, Ninja Assassin was awesome in fulfilling the ketchup blood spewing quotient– so don’t accuse me of having a dislike for the genre.  I like watching the human body being pushed to extremes and doing it gracefully and beautifully.  Martial arts films tend to be pretty awesome that way.  But for the love of all that’s badass and ninja, give me a little original plot, would you?

  • art,  feminism,  film

    Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

    Warning: I will spoil the plot. You may not want to read further.

    I watched Perfume: The Story of a Murderer the other night, after renting it because Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman are in it and it looked like it would have an interesting plot.

    And, well, yes, if horrific means interesting, it certainly does. I am a little dismayed because, on top of having such talent in the cast, it won a whole bunch of awards.

    I think I was just unable to discount the fact that murdering women for beauty is really never okay. You have to buy into that concept to understand the main character of the movie, which was just too hard for me to do. I couldn’t understand him or relate to him and as a result, the movie bored the heck out of me. I also was really, really disturbed that the response of a crowd to the fact that the main character had a perfume made out of the essence of twelve beautiful women was to have a massive orgy.

    Really?!? And this movie won awards? I really don’t grok the world.