Saturday, November 10, 2018

Odds 'n Ends


It has been a long, busy time since I last posted, so I shall resume with a few items which I hope will be of interest to others than myself.

Last Sunday, November 4, was the 100th anniversary of the death of Wilfred Owen, whom I regard as the greatest of the Great War poets, and one of the most important poets of the 20th century. I read back through his wartime works and was as moved as I have been since I discovered him in high school. As I have written here earlier, I consider his poem “Exposure” to be one of the best poems of the last century, and I continue to be in awe of its power and stunning originality. In my centennial rereading of Owen, I came across a poem which I had not really appreciated before. It is entitled “A Terre,” and it is, I think, almost on the level of “Exposure.” Once again Owen shows a mastery of slant rhyme that is unparalleled in English poetry. As in “Exposure,” the near-rhymes of “A Terre” are breathtaking; for example: brutes/brats, hitting/hurting, turn/tan, rut/rot. It is the mark of a true artist that he can get away with such brash irregularities, which would be considered ineptitude in a lesser talent. The message of the poem is jarring – the soldier/speaker has, through severe wounds, become a pathetic artifact of war, and longs only to live a marginal existence, or to become a part of Nature in his death.

Owen’s death, one week before the armistice, was an incalculable loss to poetry. Some romantics argue that it was the war that made him a great poet, and that he probably would not have created at such a lofty level in its aftermath. But I think, and “A Terre” makes clear, that this is nonsense. The wounded soldier himself declares that he would rather be his servant’s slave, or a blackened chimney sweep, or a rat, or a microbe, just to have a chance at life again. That being impossible, he then prays, referencing Shelley, that he may return to Nature as a flower or a plant.

I shall be better off with plants that share
More peaceably the meadow and the shower.
Soft rains will touch me, -- as they could touch once,
And nothing but the sun shall make me ware.
Your guns may crash around me. I’ll not hear;
Or, if I wince, I shall not know I wince.

I wish he had survived, so that we might have seen what sense he would have made of the post-war world, of its frantic festivity, its socialist mania, its shameful appeasement of evil, and its unbending arc towards an even greater war. It is painful to think what Owen would have written about the coming of that war, which made his own seem meager by comparison. I suppose he would have warned us, and, having failed, as Churchill failed, he would have eulogized the tens of millions in advance, and foreshadowed the Holocaust, and wondered in serrated rhymes what the hell his own war had been for.


In reading through my volume of Great War poetry, I was reminded of what a fine, dispassionate poet Isaac Rosenberg was, second only to Owen. His “Break of Day in the Trenches,” is, I think, his best work, and worthy to be put alongside that of his great peer. Siegfried Sassoon was a good poet, though not a great one. “The Redeemer” is, I think, his best poem, and his thinly fictionalized account of the trenches, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, is a very good book. It is one of the great ironies of the war that Wilfred Owen was put in a hospital bed next to Sassoon, who saw his talent and encouraged him to publish.

I find myself struggling with Laurence Binyon’s famous poem “For the Fallen,” which has become a sort of anthem to the dead. Apparently, school children in England are made to memorize its final verse, and it is recited with suitable solemnity on every Remembrance Day. I have two problems with it, however. First is the language. It contains some wonderful lines and images; for example:

There is music in the midst of our desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

And:

At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

The final line never fails to move me:

To the end, to the end, they remain.

But even these stirring lines are very close to becoming maudlin, a fault which Binyon succumbs to at other places in the poem, as in “Solemn the drums thrill,” “They fell with their faces to the foe,” “They sleep beyond England’s foam,” and others. The poem is shot through with clichés, as when Binyon talks about England’s soldiers being “flesh of her flesh…spirit of her spirit,” and when he states that the dead “shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.” This is the sort of commonplace sentiment of which Owen and Rosenberg would not have approved. In general, the poem’s diction is ordinary and, at one moment, downright incompetent: “As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness.”

One wonders why Binyon made this strange gesture. Could he not think of any other adjective? Surely Wilfred Owen would have done something breathlessly original at that moment. To say that stars are starry says nothing, it is redundant and pointless, and marks the poet out, I think, as rather an amateur than an artist.

The other problem I have with the poem is a larger, contextual one. The early poetry of World War I was as naïve and thoughtlessly patriotic as the young men who went to France in 1914, expecting a short, relatively bloodless war. Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier,” with its famous and fatuous lines: “If I should fall think only this of me;/ That there’s some corner of a foreign field/ That is forever England…” is emblematic of the fact that the men of his generation had no idea of the technological hell into which they were marching. To my mind, Binyon’s poem brings us full circle: it is a deeply romanticized view of the boys who were sent to the slaughter and never returned. Wilfred Owen would have responded to it that, far from being glorious and eternally young, they would much rather have been alive, and have grown old without eulogies and crutches.


As long as we are on the subject of writing, let me indulge myself in the perennial bugaboo of the screenwriter: the free rewrite. In the thirty-or-so years I have worked in Hollywood (or its environs), I have seen the producers’ appetite for free work increase dramatically. It used to be requested, then it was demanded, now it is simply expected. The practice is so pervasive these days, so much a part of the ethos of film making, that not the Writers Guild or even writers themselves challenge it anymore. This year I have done more free work than any in my career; and not just polishes – substantial rewrites and even entire drafts.

Why don’t you just refuse, you ask? The answer is that, more often than not, you have no choice. The four principal tactics the producers use to extort free work from you are: 1) they threaten to cancel the project if you do not agree, 2) they tell you they will not send the script to a director unless you “improve” it, 3) they threaten to fire you and find someone who will gladly do the work for scale or even on spec, 4) they promise to pay you if and when the film’s financing is in place. Of course, if you refuse to work for free, you will be labelled as “not a team player,” and you will not be considered for future jobs.

As I said, this attitude is such standard practice now that no one even bothers to question it, and the union appears to have simply given up trying to deal with it. At the last contract negotiation, for example, the issue of free rewrites was taken off the table at the very first meeting with producers. Yet not a single other employee on the film which you have written, and, in some cases have created, will be asked to work for free, let alone expected to. The Guild has shown itself time after time, year after year, contract after contract, to be incapable of preventing this practice - a practice that reinforces the age-old view of the writer as a necessary nuisance at best, and a sap at worst.

Yet the solution is simple: The Guild should keep a record of the number of writing steps in a member’s contract and compare it with the number of drafts turned in. Any draft submitted that is not compensated should constitute a violation of the Minimum Basic Agreement by which all screenwriters live and work, and timely payment should be demanded, or a penalty will be imposed. That, it seems to me, would solve the problem. If you do work, you get paid; if you do work and you don’t get paid, the employer is penalized. Period.



Friday, February 23, 2018

Hitting the Skids

I recently had occasion to drive down to LA's skid row, which squats literally in the shadow of City Hall. I must say that, outside of the Congo and Haiti, I had never seen anything like it. There are hundreds of people living in tents, cardboard boxes, and sleeping bags on the sidewalks, with all the pathetic panoply of garbage, rats and squalor that one might expect. But it was the sheer sprawl of it, the horrid spectacle adjacent to government buildings and luxury hotels, which stunned me. It is an alien sub-city, a reeking alternative universe of hopelessness the fetid depth of which I had not expected.

Now, I have no rosy illusions about the homeless. Those well-fed, well-housed Hollywood liberals who insist that we are all just one paycheck away from homelessness, and that many if not most of the homeless are down-on-their-luck fathers, mothers, and children, are, as usual, complacently out of touch with reality. That may be true in the Third World, but in Los Angeles, the homeless are, for the most part, chronically broken people - drug addicts, alcoholics, and mentally ill, the inevitable driftwood of humanity on the shores of affluence.

But whoever they are and however they got there, we still have to decide what to do about them. No decent, civilized society would allow so many people to live out their days in such despair. But that we do is a scandal of proportions that dwarf Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Russian collusion. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves, every waking moment of every day; and the fact that the municipal authorities are not merely brands them as heartless incompetents, incapable of even the most rudimentary compassion. Nothing like skid row should be allowed to exist in a city like LA, with its cults of wealth, celebrity, and glamour.

I have recently seen reports of low-cost, small-scale housing invented by very clever architects and students, which could easily be installed (it is pre-fab and does not even have to be constructed) on the many vacant lots in and around skid row. The units are not very expensive and are easily transported, and in some cases can be interlocked to form entire apartment blocks. Alternatively, empty buildings owned by the city and allowed to decay might quickly be converted into shelters for the homeless, at least to get them off the streets and under cover.

Again, I operate under no illusions. What the skid row squatters need in the long run is health care, psychiatric attention, rehabilitation for drugs and alcohol, and psychological and occupational counseling. And all that ought to be possible given the wealth and putative caring of our city's population. But in the short run, we simply must get them off the streets. It is not only a blight on our society, it is a source of disease and crime which must be removed. And that means providing even the most desperately deficient of them the basic rights of a place to live and decent food to eat.

Of course, temporary shelters will also harbor various categories of crime, from assault and rape to drug-dealing, and even murder. But the solution to that is to arrest anyone who commits a crime in temporary housing, put them in jail, and then determine whether and what sort of rehabilitation they require. The others, those who simply lack shelter, may find some purpose and motivation in their new homes; temporary housing may become a breeding ground not for crime but for hope.

Surely among the wasteful and fatuous spending that goes on in LA, or any big city, funds can be found to get these people off the streets. Instead of building a new stadium, or new art museum, or new entertainment complex, we ought, as a civilized society, to devote such resources as we can marshal to addressing the shame of skid row, and guaranteeing to what the Gospels call the least of our brethren the fundamental right to dignity and shelter.



Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The power of student protest

I have watched as much of the White House "listening session" with the survivors of school shootings as I could stomach. This carefully orchestrated pantomime of caring and legislative determination should remind us adults, and should teach young people, exactly what we are up against whenever we try to make meaningful change in this democracy these days: Old, tone-deaf professional politicos and bureaucrats who care more about votes than people's lives.

You don't just "listen" after scores of innocents have been shot down in places that ought to be sanctuaries, whether they are schools, churches, or concert venues -- you act. For years during the war on terrorism we have been told "If you see something, say something." The recent mass killing in Florida now adds a dimension to that dictum: If you see something, say something, and if we say something, you damn well better do something. The urging to do something is directed at those who have the power to act: government, law enforcement, and mental health authorities.

When I was in high school and college in the 1960s and '70s, students took to heart their collective responsibility to do something - something about civil rights and the war in Vietnam. They organized, marched, taught, protested, and boycotted until real change became inevitable. Student protests were an integral part of enacting voting rights and other civil rights legislation, in compelling Lyndon Johnson to withdraw from the 1968 election, in forcing an end to the war in Vietnam, and Richard Nixon resigning from office. And, in the era before smart phones and the Internet, they did it all by word of mouth and telephone and the written word.

Now students have social media which they can use as a tool to organize, to protest, and to demand change. We have seen time and again in recent years that rallies and protests can be organized in a matter of days if not hours, given the urgency of the issue. All that is necessary today for large-scale student activism is the leadership and the will to use social media to rally young people behind the cause which concerns them the most right now: school safety.

What I am urging is that students across America rise to the challenge created by the horrific events of recent days and organize a nationwide school boycott. Get on the Internet and use the cellphones which now blunt your waking hours with idiocy and idle chatter, and create a movement to walk out of school and stay out of school until at the very least, local, state, and federal authorities impose a ban on the sale of all military-style weapons, accessories, and ammunition to private citizens. And if they do not, target legislators who vote against such a ban for defeat at the next election. Make it unmistakable to them that guns are no longer a winning issue.

To the students of 2018 I say in a voice from 1968: Don't just march lemming-like into unsecured schools; organize yourselves and walk out and stay out until your schools are safe. Candlelight vigils and White House photo ops will not get it done. The only thing the politicians respond to is well-organized mass protests. Adults won't do it so students must. Demand meaningful gun control, metal detectors in schools, trained security guards, and real enforcement of gun laws and mental health standards. Have the courage and determination to do what my generation of students did: Stop playing the game the adults dictate to you, and take responsibility for changing the world you live in. For all of our sakes. Before it is too late.

Screeners, Part II

Since my last posting on the subject of the "for your consideration" screeners, I have watched two more, so here goes...

Downsizing is the most ridiculous, pointless, and just plain unnecessary film I have seen since the smart-sharks epic, Deep Blue Sea. The premise is silly, the execution is full of contradictions, and the message is so muddled that you can take the film to mean just about anything you want. I won't go into much detail about it, but suffice it to say that the film comes down to a group of five-inch-tall people sailing up a fjord in Norway to join an apocalyptic hippie survivalist cult. If nothing else, Downsizing is a warning shot across the bow of those inclined to take the sustainability craze much too seriously.

I find that I cannot help now (just as while watching the film) pointing out a few of the dozens of contradictions in the story-telling, which involves people voluntarily allowing themselves to be reduced in body size to middle-finger proportions in order to save the planet.  For example: If they can not shrink wedding rings and false teeth, how did they manage to miniaturize TV cameras and construction equipment? If the biospheres in which these action figures live are necessary to their survival, how can there be a tunnel which leads out to the slums? We are told that in the mini-colony there is zero crime; but any time you have desperately poor people living next to very wealthy people, there is bound to be crime. Why and how did those slum dwellers manage the cost of the shrinking process only to live under exactly the same ghetto-ized conditions as when they were full-size? The shrunken yacht on which our heroes travel the fjord leaves a full-sized wake even though it cannot be more than three feet long. And how in God's name did a bunch of five-inch hippies manage to dig an eleven-kilometer-long tunnel and a subterranean biosphere complete with artificial sunlight and sheep? I could go on, but you get the point.

The only thing that makes this nonsense watchable is the performance by Hong Chau, which is wonderful. Though she plays a one-legged Vietnamese dissident who is the lone survivor of refugees smuggled into the U.S. inside a television box (I'm not making this up), she manages to create an entertaining, fully-realized, and moving character.  Her soliloquy on the eight kinds of lovemaking is a real gem embedded in this silliness. As the for the film's message, well, as I said, if you can make it to the end, your guess is as good as mine. With Downsizing, Matt Damon and his Hollywood confreres have gone way too far in their quest to turn us all into miniature lefties; yet they have done us the service of making it clear that they have no idea what they want, what they mean, or what they are talking about. And for that service I suppose we should be grateful.

Now, if there is a film that represents the exact opposite of Downsizing, it is The Florida Project. I knew nothing about it except that Willem Dafoe was getting very good reviews for his performance. On the strength of that I took the time to watch it, and I soon found that there is much more to the film than his brilliant work.

Though the language is off-putting, especially in the mouths of children, it is worth sticking with the film because of its wonderful performances, especially by the children, and its deeply moving and meaningful messages. The world of the strip mall Orlando motels which the children inhabit in poignant counterpoint Disney World, in the shadow of which they live, is its own sort of magic kingdom seen through their eyes. The director, Sean Baker, very skillfully draws us into their fantasy white-trash sub-culture, and despite their crude, foul-mouthed personas, we find ourselves identifying deeply with them. How he got those performances out of those children is in itself a wonder.

The cast, mostly non-professionals, is excellent, especially the two friends-turned-enemies mothers, and I must say that, though Willem Dafoe's part as the purple motel's manager is rather limited, it is one of his strongest performances. Seeming to improvise much of his dialogue, he infuses his character with such nuance and simple humanity that we come to see him as the benevolent gatekeeper of the magic castle and protector of the children. It is a truly virtuoso performance by one of our best actors.

What the film tells us is as complex and troubling as the story itself. There are people who live this way in our country, it reminds us; people who, though crass, irresponsible, and broken are nonetheless capable of  a crude dignity and love. That the main character, six-year-old Moonee, is truly loved by her drug-using, welfare-cheating, tattooed whore of a mother is undeniable. But the most revealing and touching moment comes at the end, when the vividly fantasist  Moonee breaks down into toddler tears, revealing the delicate yet indestructible childhood underneath her potty-mouthed adult persona.

The Florida Project may be difficult to take, but the result, in both film-making achievement and social messaging, makes it well worthwhile. I cannot say that I enjoyed the film, given its raw depiction of children at risk, but I certainly admired it for its artistry and honesty.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Enough

I support the Second Amendment, not because I am a gun fancier or NRA member - I am neither - but because it is an integral part of the Bill of Rights. In my own view, the guarantee to citizens to keep and bear arms is a relic of the 18th Century, appropriate, perhaps even necessary, at a time when the scope and future power of the fledgling federal government were still undetermined. Under those circumstances, it was perhaps wise to ensure that citizens could own firearms for two reasons: first, because there was no federal army, and so the ability to muster militias at short notice (minutemen as they were called), was essential to the national defense; and second, as a final resort of the citizens if the new and evolving federal authority became too oppressive.

In our time, neither of these reasons remains valid. We have a national army, quite a large and powerful one, and, given that, no matter how far the federal authority overreaches, citizens would be helpless to retaliate against it with force. And so, to my mind, the twin rationales for retaining the right to bear arms is academic, a matter for historical scrutiny, not contemporary ardor.

Nonetheless, I support the Second Amendment because, as one of the ten articles of the original Constitution, it represents a foundation stone of our republic, and we weaken it or remove it at our peril. As I listen to the never-ending debate over gun control, I find myself wishing that the anti-gun advocates would simply be honest and declare their desire to repeal the amendment, making gun ownership a crime. That, at least, I could respect for its frankness if not for its foresight. Perhaps we ought to have a national referendum on the question of repeal, and decide once and for all whether the right to own firearms ought to remain enshrined in the Constitution, or be removed from it. If the vote for repeal is indisputable, then the Constitutionally mandated process should begin. Instead, the fruitless arguments continue, as do the mass shootings, and nothing gets done.

There are many people in this country who do not like the Second Amendment and its implications, and would wish to see it weakened to the point where it virtually ceases to exist. To them I say that there are people who dislike other amendments as well; for example, the Fifth, which protects citizens against self-incrimination by guaranteeing the right to refuse to testify, if doing so will inculpate them. I can recall hours and hours of testimony before Congressional committees by known gangsters who routinely invoked the Fifth, waving it smugly in the face of the federal authorities. There were, I am sure, many who wished that the Fifth Amendment could be reduced to ashes or repealed altogether in order to force those monsters to tell the truth. But, as with the Second, retaining the Fifth serves, in the long run, to preserve the integrity of the Constitution itself, thus guaranteeing to all of us the rights envisioned by the Founders.

All that being said, the carnage in our nation has to stop. I do not for a moment believe that any act of Congress can accomplish this, but we can take reasonable steps to reduce the possibility and frequency of it. Even the most hardened NRA member must be shaken by the repeated spectacle of concert-goers running in terror for their lives, and students being forced to flee their classrooms with hands over their heads. Yet I expect that Congress, which Mark Twain called the great benevolent asylum for the helpless, will do nothing or next to nothing. So, what should be done?

I have heard it said repeatedly in the media that the common denominator in the mass shootings is assault weapons. This simply is not true - some involved them; and some, other kinds of weapons. The common denominator seems to be criminal insanity, or just pure evil. On the second point, there is nothing any government institution can do. On the first, the question of mental illness, there is much that can and must be done, but denoting what those steps would be is beyond my expertise.

However, it is undeniable that assault weapons have been used and will no doubt continue to be used by lunatics and demons, which makes it possible for anyone to concoct a remedy. There is no legitimate reason for any private citizen to own a military-style weapon. Period.

It does not matter whether you are a gun enthusiast, a sportsman, or a collector, military weapons should be reserved for the military. As should military-style magazines, military-style accessories, and military-style ammunition. All of these should be off-limits to private citizens, just as grenade launchers and plastic explosives are. Congress should, and by any measure of responsibility must, immediately ban the sale of such weapons to private citizens. And furthermore, given the glut of guns in our society, communities must take steps to encourage the surrender and destruction of them, as some have done in the past, and as other nations have done.

That background checks have consistently failed to prevent mass shootings has become evident, and something must be done to correct this situation. Surely, given the technology that enables the government to tap our phones and collect our emails and text messages, we can devise a system to monitor the profiles and personal histories of people who apply to buy guns. Anyone with a criminal record, a record of anti-social behavior, of violence, and of mental illness ought to be banned automatically and permanently from gun ownership.

Meanwhile, given the perennial ossification of Congress, much can be done on the state level. It makes no sense to enforce strict gun control laws in one state when criminals can merely cross the state line to purchase firearms in another. Surely, the governors can agree in conclave to harmonize their states' gun control laws so that, even in the absence of federal legislation, some uniformity and consensus may be achieved.

Short of divine intervention, evil cannot be stopped, but there are steps any rational society can and must take to curb the wanton violence that stalks our land. I have suggested some; there are doubtless many others which experts can devise. But no amount of compassion and no degree of expertise will have any effect unless those we have elected to represent and protect us take their responsibilities to heart, and put an end to this eternal political paralysis, which may serve their selfish professional interests, but which renders the rest of us vulnerable, and victims.


Saturday, February 17, 2018

Screeners and so on

It's nearly Oscar time, and I've finally gotten around to watching some of those "for your consideration" screeners which I am fortunate enough to receive every year. I won't go into any depth about my reactions to them; I'll just jot down a few observations:

The Shape of Water is in many ways wonderful, and in some, troubling. A great deal could be said about it, as a study in loneliness, an hommage to classic films (especially Creature from the Black Lagoon, which I remember from my childhood), a spy thriller, and an odd and touching romantic comedy. There are moments which are undeniably moving, but the script is uneven - some of it is downright amateurish - and the message is, well, strange. Ultimately, it is a film about cross-species sexuality, which, even twenty years ago would have been taboo, as well as about frustrated gay sex. Indeed, it is only when the character played by Richard Jenkins fails miserably to attract a young counter clerk (who is much younger than he and clearly out of his reach), that he agrees to help Sally Hawkins' character to rescue her swamp-creature lover.

Now, if in the fifties, when Creature from the Black Lagoon came out, someone had suggested that the young woman, instead of being reduced to helpless screeching by the thing, had actually fallen in love and had sex with it, well, I suppose the sixties era of free love would have been unnecessary. That the film is essentially about sexuality is indicated by the young monster-seductress's opening scene, in which she masturbates in the tub as part of her mute morning ritual. The idea of cross-species attraction was implicit in the film The Arrival, but in Shape of Water it is made explicit, which is, I guess, an index of how far we have come in our search for a solution to societal isolation.

But beyond that, the film takes one more step in the direction of the utter demolition of convention: The mute woman is murdered by the villain (Michael Shannon, a very good actor, who in this case does everything but twirl his mustache), but the creature pulls her into a river where, through some miraculous power it possesses, manages to resurrect her. Quite apart from the fact that, even if she could be resuscitated, she could hardly survive under water, this ascribes to the swamp thing a power formerly reserved solely to the Messiah.

Just two more notes: The sudden appearance of a thirties dance/musical number was for me the low point of the film; just silly and unnecessary. But, on the other hand, at least we now know the real cure for baldness.

Phantom Thread was another odd foray into sexual relations. I won't say much about it except to offer my opinion that Daniel Day-Lewis was not needed in this film. Any of a host of other fine British actors would have done just as well, which is saying something about the script, since Day-Lewis is, in my view, the finest film actor of our time. He wasn't given much to do, and I kept waiting for that burst of anguished rage which he does like no one since Olivier's Lear. When it finally came, it was so delayed and so punctual that it had little impact.

Again, the film ultimately (and I mean after quite a long preface) is about another bizarre sexual relationship. When we finally reach the climax, as it were, it seems that the relationship at the center of the film depends entirely upon... food poisoning. Now, this is not an evocation of the age-old theme of the love-death since nobody actually dies. But whether it is a metaphor for delayed orgasm or it is just plain weird, I really didn't care, having sat through two hours of elitist dressmaking to get to it. Talk about an anti-climax. A final note: the score, which was a mish-mash of classical music and annoying piano tinkling, was intrusive and dreadful.

About Mudbound I will say even less. It was an awful, dreary, depressing indictment of race relations in the Deep South during World War II (as if we needed another one). The script was vastly overdone, continually reaching for a profound poetry which it consistently missed by a considerable chalk. And the climactic scene, which does not bear description here, was horribly explicit, excessively violent, and completely unnecessary. For me, the question which the film raised has nothing to do with man's inhumanity to man or America's perennial race problem, so much as: Knowing what he does about the condition of black people in Mississippi, why didn't the young army veteran go somewhere else when he was demobilized? Vermont, or Massachusetts, or Canada. Anywhere where he might not be reduced to the very muteness of the star-crossed lover in Shape of Water?

Lady Bird was, I felt, an honest and convincingly-written examination of the angst of the teenage years. Well, directed and very well acted, it deserves the attention it has received. There was, however, one major loose thread in my view. After Lady Bird falls impetuously in love with her young drama club colleague and then finds him making out with another boy in the men's room, she is revolted and horribly hurt. Then, she surrenders her virginity to an uncaring lout, which proves another form of disillusionment with sex and the male. And so, when it is time for the prom, to which she has been so looking forward, she abandons her "popular" friends and goes instead with her former best girlfriend. At which point, shouldn't she be considering lesbianism? I expected her to, but nothing more was done with this. Again, a rather odd excursion into the murky swamp waters of sexuality.

For me, the weakest part of the film was the coda. By every standard of drama and audience expectation, the film ought to have ended at the airport when, freed from the awful prospect of UC Davis, young Lady Bird sets off to college in New York. Instead, her mother, who has vehemently opposed the plan, misses the opportunity to tell her goodbye. That she could have done and should have done seems a no-brainer. Instead, the film lurches into a fragmented and makeshift ex-post facto, which struck me as arbitrary, and unworthy of an otherwise endearing film.

Which brings me to Dunkirk, which I saw in the theater, twice. And I must say, much as I admired it the first time, I appreciated it even more the second. It is a brilliant piece of storytelling, which is odd since the script is rather poor, but it has been a long time since I felt that a film taught me something new about structure and interwoven story lines. Despite the rather threadbare script, which is punctuated by Kenneth Branagh gazing significantly out over the Channel and telling us, not once but twice, that he can almost see home, I found the film so compelling, so utterly riveting, that it was almost difficult to watch. It was rather like the first excruciating half-hour of Saving Private Ryan, continuing uninterrupted for two hours.

Added to the powerful impact and artistry of the film is that it is virtually silent, and has no clear main character. It is not a story of relationships so much as of events, which is very hard to pull off in a fictional narrative (even in historical fiction). And yet the events are so brilliantly orchestrated and so inherently dramatic, that one scarcely notices the lack of conventional character interplay. One further note:  I am not a fan of musical scores in films; I think this is an archaic left-over from the accompaniment to silent movies. However, since Dunkirk is essentially a silent film, the score was necessary and, I thought, absolutely brilliant.

Since I am on the subject of movies, I suppose I ought to comment on the "#me-too" phenom that is sweeping Hollywood. As someone who has written a good deal about priest sexual abuse of children, I am, of course, heartily sympathetic with all those young men and women who have been exploited and assaulted in their quest for a career in films. However, I find the sudden excrescence of empathy on the part of celebrities who ought to have known better, and, I am quite sure, did know better, to be yet another iteration of Hollywood hypocrisy.

I can confidently say that everybody knew that Harvey Weinstein was a brute and a beast, and yet many of the leaders of this black-gowned, breast-beating movement worked closely with him, sometimes over periods of years, turning a blind eye to what anyone who was not blinded by ambition could see. I never worked with Weinstein himself, though I was given chances to do so, and I declined because I, like everyone else, knew his reputation for mistreating his employees. But many people, including some whom I know personally, did not scruple to work with him, hoping to feed at the trough, no matter how ugly and fetid it was.

Having said that, I should like to make a further point: Abuse, not only sexual, but moral, and psychological, is endemic to the Hollywood film business, as, indeed, it is to the Catholic Church. This, I think, will be true in any institution in which the young and hopeful are beholden to the powerful and unrestrained. And while we must take the accusers seriously and hear them out without prejudice, we must remember that our system of justice is based on the principle that one is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

As we reexamine our societal attitudes toward the abuse of power in the workplace, we must keep in mind the Duke rape case and the University of Virginia scandal, in which the accusations proved to be false. Weinstein aside, you cannot accuse, try, and condemn someone in the media, ruining his or her reputation and terminating his or her career based on accusations alone. Now, in cases where multiple accusers have come forward telling essentially the same story, we are entitled to draw our own conclusions, and action must be taken to stop the abuse. But where the evidence is thinner, where there may be ulterior motives in play, we must rely on the courts to make the determination of guilt or innocence, lest we do a damning disservice to those at the center or even on the periphery of the accusations.

That this is a real danger has recently been proved by the suicide of a prominent producer whose name was indirectly linked to Weinstein, and who, apparently, was guiltless of any wrongdoing. Yet, having been dragged through the swamp, she could no longer bear the burden of shame. And that, in itself, is a terrible shame.









Monday, November 20, 2017

To exist or not to exist

I have been struggling recently with Wittgenstein, which is about as fun as a struggle gets. Somehow I had missed him in my education, and when recently I came across his theories about language, I was, as we used to day in the counter-culture sixties, blown away. If I am understanding correctly what he thought, is it very similar to what I've been thinking for years.

Now before I get into the question of being and existence as I find it in his writings, I should mention what an absolutely fascinating person Wittgenstein was. A prodigy born into a very wealthy Viennese family, he had no patience for school, and he found his way into math, and then into philosophy by accident. He never finished college, never got a degree, yet when he began studying with Bertrand Russel at Cambridge, they gave him a PhD in recognition of how absolutely brilliant he was. He was a decorated soldier on the Russian Front in World War I, a high school teacher known for his harsh treatment of his pupils, and an early aeronautical engineer. Wittgenstein renounced his considerable inheritance and lived in a small wooden cabin which he built for himself in Norway. He quit academia to work as a volunteer nurse during World War II, considered becoming a psychiatrist, lived in isolation in Ireland, and designed and built his sister's house. It is clear that he was tormented by sexual misgivings; he apparently was homosexual, but abstained for fear of social disapprobation. He died of cancer in 1951, at the age of 62, having published only one small book in his lifetime, in which he claimed that, through a logical analysis of language, he had solved all the problems of philosophy.

It is Wittgenstein's writings about the relationship of language to existence that I find so absorbing. It is not too much to say that he believed that most of the problems of philosophy were caused by fundamental misunderstandings about the role of logic in language, and that once these are properly resolved, most philosophical propositions can be seen as linguistic nonsense. But it is the specific idea of the relation between being and existence which intrigues me. Wittgenstein argues that being and existence are not coextensive (as I had thought), not interchangeable terms, but that it is possible to posit being without existence. For example, it is possible for you to imagine a unicorn; even to describe it in detail, with its horn, its silky mane, and sparkling blue eyes. But unicorns do not exist in the world. However, Wittgenstein maintains, the fact that we can imagine unicorns in such detail means that they have some form of being -- being without existence. The same would be true of angels. Our culture has believed in the existence of angels from a very early date -- the Old Testament is full of them, and the history of Western art is ornamented with very precise images of their appearance. Yet, angels do not exist in the world; they are what Wittgenstein would label as being without existence. In other words, he argues that the fact that we can imagine a thing means that it has some form of being, even though it lacks existence.

As I said, I have been struggling with this idea recently, since the ultimate form of being without existence would be God. I do not believe that God has an objective existence any more than angels or unicorns. Yet volumes have been written about God, and Michelangelo imagined God quite clearly, and depicted Him with great power and detail on the Sistine ceiling. So Wittgenstein would say that this fact invests God with being, though not with existence. Yet in thinking about this proposition, it seems to me that Wittgenstein has it backwards; the question is not being without existence, but existence without being.

The key to this distinction, I think, lies in an element that forms part of every being-without-existence proposition; namely, imagination. When we imagine a unicorn, it does not acquire being thereby; it acquires existence in the imagination. Though it exists quite clearly in our imaginations, it lacks being in the world in an objective sense. The same would be true of angels: they can be and have been imagined many times in our culture, but their existence is confined to imagination and imaginative expressions. They thereby have existence in the mind, but not being in the world. This is also true of God. We can imagine God, depict God, write about and praise God and create religions to adore Him, but God remains a product of the mind (and perhaps also of the heart and soul), but God is without being in the world.

The question then becomes: how genuine, how meaningful is existence without being? Samuel Beckett said in Waiting for Godot that life has meaning with which we have the power to invest it. In the same way, concepts of existence without being have meaning to the extent that we invest them with meaning. No right-thinking person would claim meaning for the existence of unicorns, a few might claim it for the existence of angels, and most of the people of the world would claim meaning for the concept of God even in the absence of the being of God. This, of course, is the importance of the incarnation of God in Christ: it gave to the existence of God in the mind an objective being in the world. You might say that all of Christianity is founded on this single idea. That is the true brilliance of the Gospels: that they are accounts of the coming into being of the idea of the existence of God.

And yet, if we deny the divinity of Christ (which I think is essential to an understanding of his teachings), God remains, like the other examples, as existence without being. And so I am left to conclude that existence without being is possible, though being without existence is not, since that which has being exists even independent of the mind; it remains only for the mind to discover its existence. But what effect this has on the meaning of non-being existence I have not yet decided. It seems to me that, while you cannot invest existence in the mind with any form of being in the world (as Wittgenstein seems to suggest), it is possible to invest it with meaning. Or, to put it another way, a thing does not need to possess being in order to be meaningful. Thus the paradigm becomes, not existence to being with meaning; but existence to meaning without being. That which exists in the mind or imagination may have meaning even though it lacks being. Which is to say that if you imagine something, it need not be real, but it can be meaningful. As in the case of God.

What is the meaning of the imagined existence of God? Ethics; that is, the implications of that existence for our lives. This is as much as saying that if God did not exist, we would have to imagine Him, since we must have a system of ethical principles to guide our lives, and to distinguish right from wrong. The relationship, then, of the imagined existence of God and ethics is one of necessity. If we did not have a concept of God, it would not be possible to make moral decisions about behavior. This is the meaning of the existence of God as that term is generally understood. Thus ethics becomes a matter of necessity applied to life through the imaginative existence of a divine being, which, nonetheless, has no being. There is thus a dynamic interplay among existence, being, necessity, and ethics which, I think, is the basis for all civilized societies. When God is taken out of the equation, that is, when it is forbidden to imagine the existence of God, as in atheist societies, then something else must replace God in the dynamic chain. And that something is the state, or the idea of the collective welfare, or the cult of the leader, who becomes, in effect, divine.