Monday, December 19, 2011

Wiggle Your Fingers and Repeat After Me: Dreams of an Un-brokered World

When I first heard of the Occupy movement's ritual of repeating a speaker's remarks as a way of orally transmitting the words towards the back of the crowd, I thought of a scene from the Monty Python Movie The Life of Brian. In the movie's comic version of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, by the time the words "Blessed are the peace-makers" reaches the back of the crowd the assertion is transformed into "Blessed are the cheese-makers." "What makes them so special?" asks one incredulous listener.

There are many scholarly ways - as opposed to cinematic ones - to interpret the life of Jesus, but one of the most thought provoking and plausible comes from John Dominic Crossan's book Jesus - A Revolutionary Biography. Crossan, a New Testament scholar, reconstructs the life of Jesus within the context of the social turmoil, shifting politics and agrarian culture of the early first century after his birth.

Crossan examines how Jesus challenged entrenched authority, transgressed the social and moral boundaries of his time by mixing and eating with sinners and outcasts, and why his itinerant preaching was an explicit challenge to the Greco-Roman social system of patronage and clientage. In this pyramid structure of power, those who had no power were clients to the patrons above them. Brokers, not unlike so much of our current political life, operated between the two, ingratiating themselves to those above them and offering their "services" to those below. These highly structured relationships kept society from unraveling, but at the expense of reinforcing attitudes of dependency and domination.

Rather than creating a "healing cult" in his family home and having those ill of body and mind come to him - a common practice at the time for village "healers," Jesus went on the road and to the people. By doing so, he undermined the hierarchy of place by symbolically and programmatically confronting the system of client, patron and broker. Without a fixed location, the sick and ill were not turned into "clients" who were tended to for a price, but brothers and sisters to whom he offered his spiritual and material gifts. This "un-brokered equality" constitutes for Crossan, the Kingdom of Heaven.

Stripped of the explicit religious content and transferred to the United States, these themes have a unique secular resonance. Thomas Jefferson admired the parables of Jesus if not the miracles: He famously constructed his "Jefferson Bible" by extracting the miraculous and keeping the wisdom. His emphasis on individual sovereignty in the radiant opening lines of the Declaration of Independence and his battles with Alexander Hamilton over economic policy owe no small amount to a desire for an un-brokered political and economic life.

In Jefferson's bucolic world, economically independent citizens - prosperous self-reliant planters and yeomen - would be protected from an oppressive and servile wage-labor relationship with urban bosses and remain politically independent. Writing in Notes On The State of Virginia, Jefferson argued that "Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God," and that "Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition." In the last letter that he wrote ten days before he died, Jefferson re-stated the principles that he thought animated the revolution. "The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God."

Historians have poured over Jefferson's personal life and fixated appropriately on his ownership of slaves and his attitudes towards African-Americans. But as Princeton historian Sean Wilentz points out, as illusory as the assumption of individual sovereignty may be in a world of enormous corporate power and government reach, this idea has endured as a key legitimizing principle and core conviction within both liberal and conservative American political traditions.

Debates over group entitlements or government "intervention" into the economy or our personal lives, are invariably bathed in the pervasive light of Jefferson's luminous ideas. In the ongoing Republican primary contests, outside of the specific issues of taxes, job creation or health care, the central philosophical attack on Obama's leadership goes straight to the themes of individual choice and state "coercion."

To the extent that conservatives have an aesthetic and moral critique of modern life, much of it is centered here. Through the inexorable rise of "big government," they argue, we are being turned into a nation of dependent clients. The big patron in this worldview is government itself.

So just as there is a left wing and right wing Jesus, there is a "radical" and "reactionary" Jefferson.

Since their expulsion from the grounds of Los Angeles City Hall, the Occupy movement has also hit the road, moving from support of distressed homeowners, to our major ports and to the U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement offices. Like Jesus' missionaries (Although I'm sure many of them would reject this analogy) they take their face-to-face engagement, elaborate group rituals and grass-roots organizing to the places where suffering exists. They move, heal, and move on.

I'm not sure how to evaluate their ultimate impact or the exact nature of the political message they carry. Defining it in standard political terms might be beside the point. But you have to admire the spirit and tenacity, even if people like me at the back of the crowd may occasionally mistranslate what the speakers at the front are saying. I suspect that they too, dream of an un-brokered world.

Suggested Readings:

John Dominic Crossan - Jesus, A Revolutionary Life
Richard Matthews - The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson
Sean Wilentz - The Rise of American Democracy

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Occupy George Clooney

George Clooney has a terrible sense of timing. The Ides of March is a cynical movie for what I'm sure Clooney regards as a cynical time. His stance is understandable. The movie's corrosive pessimism - is there one person in the movie who retains an ounce of idealism by the end of it? - and bleak view of the internal workings of a Presidential primary campaign, reinforces the commonly held view that no one can be trusted, all politicians are corrupt and that the "mainstream media" is merely the opposite side of the same tarnished coin. It's a movie that the Tea Party should love.

The movie appears - here is the bad timing part - at the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Occupy Wall Street is a romantic, inchoate and multi-faceted but spirited attempt to focus our attention on the deep problems of what political liberals used to write and talk about with frequency - the dirty little secret of economic class in America.

For a good discussion on the "essence" of Occupy Wall Street go to the Symposium in The New Republic at:

While tens of thousands of people are actively trying to sort their way towards an alternative economic program - hopefully one that is eventually coherently articulated and implemented - Clooney has thrown a dark, wet, suffocating blanket over any idea of creative political aspirations.

One of the central problems is that the movie is not really about politics at all. The Ides of March is really about the media. Or more precisely, about what an intelligent Hollywood liberal who comes from a media family (his father was a journalist) thinks his audience would embrace with respect to what politics and the media are "really about."

The film is bookended by the preparation for media events - a televised debate at the beginning of the film and a one-on-one interview at its end. Most of the internal machinations of the campaign directors are determined by what the evening news will say about their respective campaigns. You might be saying to yourself that "This sounds about right to me." If you are saying this, I suggest you volunteer for a political campaign. The candidates you meet will not be saints and they will tend to to bend towards the demands of the media juggernaut. But my sense is that their motivations are not far from those of non-candidates but with slightly and often more than slightly exaggerated egos.

You will also find people who actually believe in things - who fight to implement policy - who devote tremendous amounts of time and energy to getting things done - and who generally are subject to mostly unflattering portraits in the press - which is part of the job of the press in any democratic society I have to add. We all hope for a little "balance," but nobody makes anyone run for office. You basically put up your hand and say, "Ill give it a try."

The candidate that George Clooney plays in the Ides of March has few redemptive characteristics. He offers a good speech - if you think that giving platitudes a bad name is fine rhetoric. I found the character mostly smug and self-satisfied.

This raises the interesting sociological question of whether our society can actually "produce" candidates who go beyond the limits imposed by the structure (communications, financing, ideological constraints, class transformation and psychological conditioning) of society itself.

Why, for instance, can there never be another Eugene Debs that captures the genuine insurgent spirit of a particular kind of American radicalism? Debs only received six percent of the vote for his best Presidential campaign - the vast majority of Americans preferring to give their votes to candidates like William McKinley, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson - but his influence went far beyond his vote totals. (For a sympathetic portrait of Debs and overall balanced view of the history of the American Left see Michael Kazin's new book, American Dreamers)

As Kazin points out - as does the book The Liberal Hour (about politics and legislative change in the 1960s), you need both dedicated political leaders and movements from below to generate significant political and economic progress.

Clooney doesn't examine these questions and it is perhaps unfair to expect him to. While apparently the play that the movie was based upon was written by a political operative of some kind, the Ides of March strikes me as an "inside look" at a high level campaign produced by someone who has never really been "inside." Imagine being used and trotted around by political campaigns, given "access" to candidates and asked to raise money but never being allowed into the meetings where the crucial decisions are being made. I'm not asking you to shed any tears for George, but this movie might be his poisoned love letter in return for all the favors.

Clooney has done a disservice to the idea that politics can make a difference for anyone other than the political candidates and consultants who make their careers and living through politics. His last "political" movie The American (see my blog below), was also without context - violence without purpose, love without connection. I hope his next movie is not an apocalyptic end-of-the-world drama.

Further Reading:

Michael Kazin - American Dreamers - How the Left Changed a Nation

G. Calvin MacKenzie & Robert Weisbrot - The Liberal Hour - Washington and the Politics of Change in the 1960s

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Casey Candaele talks about Moneyball, Naked Batting Practice and the Spirit of Baseball

My brother Casey played in the major leagues for 9 years - a strong career by any standard. One of my favorite journalism assignments was for the New York Times when they asked me to travel with my brother's team, the Houston Astros, on one of the longest road trips in the history of professional baseball. Available here:

The Republican Party had taken over the Astrodome - the teams home field - for their national convention that year so the team was kicked out. The trip allowed me to view the game from behind the scenes so to speak, with access to the locker room, the opposing teams, the umpires and the coaching staff. I also experienced the tedium of down-time between games with some of baseball's great players; Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and the late Ken Caminiti.

Casey is now a roving coach in the minor leagues with the Texas Rangers. I had a chance to interview Casey just after he had taken some of his young players from the instructional league in Arizona to see the movie Moneyball, staring Brad Pitt as the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team.

Question: Let's get right to the crucial issues that my readers are most interested in Casey. Did you really take batting practice naked when you were with the Astros?

CC: Well, let me explain. We had a very late night game on a Saturday that went 15 innings followed by an early game Sunday the next day. I was sitting at my locker naked before the game on Sunday - kind of tired. The hitting coach came by and asked if anyone wanted to take batting practice in the batting cage in the clubhouse. I was struggling at the plate at the time and I was just sitting at my locker with nothing to do, so I put on my socks and cleats and got my bat, walked to the batting cage and stood in the batters box. The pitcher who was throwing at the time at first refused to pitch to me. He said "I'm not doing this." So I explained to him that I would have better concentration in this state and everything would be fine. While I was hitting, one of the umpires for that day's game came by and he almost fell on the ground. During the game he asked me how batting practice was. I told him it was a freeing experience - very liberating. At any rate, I got a couple of hits that day so I started taking batting practice naked every Sunday. You know how superstitious ballplayers are. One of my teammates Pete Incaviglia filmed it once but I don't know where the tape is, thank goodness. A couple of other guys did it a few times because they saw I was getting some hits, but they didn't believe like I did, so it didn't work for them.

Question: You just went to see Moneyball with some young minor league ballplayer where you are coaching. What was their overall response to the movie?

CC: I think it was good for them because they got to see the inner workings of baseball operations and to see what goes into it. Young players don't usually see that. Some of the players wondered why Billy Beane turned down the $12 million from the Boston Red Sox. But most of their questions were about how involved the team's General Managers get with the process on the field - are they that hands on like Beane was portrayed.

Question: Billy Beane and the people who agreed with his philosophy operated under the assumption that the old way of analyzing ball-players was mostly about a lot of talking and guessing and that they had a more scientific way of going about this. What was your sense of this?

CC: I retired in 2000 so the Moneyball approach started a bit later. The thing that struck me about the movie is that the As were actually pretty good. They had Eric Chavez, a young third baseman who had been playing for a number of years. Miguel Tejada had over 30 home runs and over 100 RBIs that year I think. Jermaine Dye was on that team and had a great year. They also had Terrance Long who was in the running for Rookie of the Year the year before. But most importantly, and this is the film's major problem I think - the A's had a great pitching staff. They had Tim Hudson who led the league in ERA and wins a number of years in a row. They had Mark Mulder who won 19 games and Barry Zito who won 23 and was on top of his game. The pitching was outstanding but the movie doesn't even mention those guys. So this team was not like the Bad News Bears. In terms of the Moneyball philosophy, I guess it makes sense to combine people on the team who can get on base consistently with guys who can drive them in. And as it said at the end of the movie, the Red Sox used this philosophy and went on to win the World Series. The Sox had many great players at the time and they are not a small market team so they spend money. So, I don't think it is a matter of assembling a team of all players that have a high On Base Percentage, which is what the movie portrayed. You have to have some people who can drive those guys in quickly.

Question: There was a scene where the Billy Beane character played by Brad Pitt comes into the locker room where the players are dancing and listening to loud music after losing a game. Pitt swings a bat at the stereo in anger and suggests that the appropriate sound after losing is the sound of silence. It struck me that this scene is one that audiences might embrace because it appeals to a certain misconception about professional athletes that they don't care about wining and losing but only about their own personal situation or about money and so on. What was your experience?

CC: I would certainly never have thought of dancing around the clubhouse after losing 16 games in a row. So I wouldn't be all that surprised if a General Manager or coach would come in and smash something if guys were doing that kind of thing after losing. But in my experience, there was not a party atmosphere after losing games. If the guys on the A's actually did that it's hard to believe. I've never been on a team where if you lose and continue to lose it's accepted by the players. I would not have been happy myself and most of the guys I played with over the years would not have been happy either.

Question: What was realistic about the film?

CC: What was realistic was that Beane made a decision about how to re-create the process of how to win in a small baseball market. In that respect it was unique as they were trying to find a way to compete, and they had a great year. But as I said, they had a really good team those years. They did find three guys that could get on base and they were cheap. The other thing that was realistic was how players got released or cut from a team. It's just straightforward. They call you in and say "We're going to let you go and good luck." That's what happened to me. So I loved that line in the movie where Beane says, "What would you prefer, one bullet to the head or five to the chest and you bleed to death?" That was great.

Question: What makes a good General Manager?

CC: The good ones have no fear. They do what they have to do and what they feel is going to be best for the team regardless of who you are giving up. However, they are also good at keeping the young players that can become major league contributors and they don't give away the future for the present. It's a fine line you have to navigate.

Question: What do you look for in a young player?

CC: Well, I want them to keep their clothes on at practice. Really I just try to develop them into professional players - to enhance their skills and abilities and prepare them for the unique pressures of major league baseball. They have to have the ability to adapt so that is key. And one of the most important things is attitude and make-up, their character and determination. The thing that I look for the most is their passion and desire to play the game. That is a major factor when I work with young players.

Question: What do you miss most about your life as a player?

CC: The friendships and comradery both on and off the field that are created when you are part of a team striving for the same goal.

Question: Who do you pick to win the World Series?

CC: Are you crazy? I'm picking the Rangers.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Help and Magic Trip - Who's Driving the Bus?

Imagine a group of stoned acid-heads arriving on your front doorstep who invite themselves in, commandeer your stereo and start throwing sleeping bags on the floor of your living room. The year was 1964, the acid-heads were Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and his busload of Merry Pranksters and the living room and stereo belonged to young writer Larry McMurtry. The Pranksters stopped at his house in Texas whereupon one of the female freedom fighters who was aboard Kesey's Day-Glo bus Further wandered off into the night only to be arrested by the local constabulary. She was hauled off to a nearby psychiatric ward babbling incoherently to anyone who would listen. From what can be gleaned from the new documentary about this famous cross country escapade, Magic Trip - Ken Kesey's Search for a Cool Place - the freedom he and his bus-mates were fighting for was an inward freedom, a journey towards enlightenment that came from dropping LSD and discovering that the river you are wading in is talking to you and that you and the water are one with the universe.

The movie The Help, also released last week, examines the fight for freedom of an entirely different kind - the struggle for basic human dignity - for recognition of one's humanity - and for the acknowledgment that you have a voice that demands to be heard.

There is a jaunty fun that comes through in The Magic Trip - at least if you are not one of the unfortunate people who had to put up with the incessant talking of Neal Cassady (a brilliant raconteur apparently, but did you have to be high on amphetamines too to get into his "groove?") who drove the bus, sometimes into the mud. The pleasures of the film are the old footage and witnessing some of the sheer mad cocky conceit of it all.

To some people with a particular stance towards the "60s," the unfocused narrative - the bus as a psychic liberated zone - and the band of brothers and sisters ethos will be a nostalgic journey back to a time when the dominant culture was being challenged through high-risk experimentation. The self, as historian Alice Echols points out, was for Kesey and his ilk, the site of the experiment. For a while anyways, the high priests of the drug culture regarded LSD as "revolutionary."

In her survey of the cultural and political tributaries that flowed out of the 60s, Echols concluded - correctly I think - that perhaps the most "far-reaching" social movement that emerged from that period was women's liberation. For her, the Pranksters were engaging in childish antics (during their stop in Arizona they painted "Vote Goldwater for Fun" on the side of the bus) whereas the serious young people and the mature adults who often advised them were the ones who built social movements that had a lasting impact on public policy. The civil rights movement is a clear example.

The Help, while not a movie about building a social movement, does engage the daily indignities suffered by African American maids in Jackson Mississippi during the same time that the Pranksters were driving through the vicinity (they took a southern route on their way to the New York World's Fair). Because it is not about "the movement," about the ways in which African Americans initiated and sustained their own struggles in the south at this time, the movie has been subjected to withering criticism from a number of quarters. The Association of Black Women Historians slammed the film as full of "widespread stereotyping" and a "disappointing resurrection of Mammy," a portrayal of black women as "loyal, and contented caretakers of whites..." While a viewer of The Help might disagree with this characterization - I didn't find the depiction of the maids as "contented," for instance - the relationship between Hollywood and historians has not been a congenial one particularly when the subject matter has been the African American experience.

A few examples of past movies reveal a disturbing pattern. Jacqueline Jones, author of the book Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present, questioned a central plot point in the 1990 film A Long Walk Home. The film stared Whoopi Goldberg as a domestic working for a white family during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The film portrayed the heroic solidarity expressed by a white woman - played by Cissy Spacek who is also in The Help - with the black community in defiance of her family and the local power structure. "No white woman has yet emerged out of the shadows of history as a principled driver during the year-long ordeal," Jones wrote.

Historian William Chafe called the movie Mississippi Burning - about two FBI agents who come to Mississippi to investigate and "solve" the murder of civil rights activists James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman in 1964 as "an atrocious distortion of history."

Academics have pointed out that black 54th Regiment that fought bravely during the Civil War and was portrayed in the movie Glory, was made up of free blacks from the North, not escaped slaves as portrayed in the film. And Donald Bogle, author of the book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks - An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, asks why the movie Driving Miss Daisy left the black chauffer's "other world," his relationships and perspectives when away from Daisy's home, "undramatized."

In The Help, it has been frequently pointed out that it is the plucky white journalist who initiates the primary action not the African American maids. It's fair and important to ask where are the Fannie Lou Hamer's, the Anne Moody's, the Diane Nash's who far from being inert, challenged the legal structure and the Klan in the years before and during the time the movie is set and who did not have to be encouraged by a white college grad to do so.

Nash, to use one example, was arrested on trumped up charges in Jackson while pregnant in 1962. She stood before the judge and told him that if her child was born in jail it did not matter as every child in Mississippi was already in prison. How many film goers will know that in 1955 - eight years before the setting for The Help - ten thousand African Americans gathered in Mound Byour, Mississippi to declare their determination to vote? Or that in 1963, 85,000 black Mississippians cast "freedom ballots" to assert their democratic rights. This in a state where over 600 blacks were lynched between 1880 and 1940.

The Help, while it emotionally leads you by the nose, does have the strength of looking closely at the lives and work of a group of dignified women.

This brings us back to Alice Echols and the Magic Trip. Echols refers to Kesey and company as sexist but coed. There is valuable film footage and a glimpse into the incipient counter-culture belief that in order to save your soul you had to resist a life of alienated labor and social convention. But a question arises about Magic Trip that is the same question that can be directed at The Help. Who is doing the initiating? Who is in the driver's seat? On Kesey's bus at least, women didn't get close to the steering wheel.

Further Reading:

Donald Bogle - Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks - An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films

Mark C. Carnes, Ed. - Past Imperfect - History According to the Movies

Alice Echols - Shaky Ground - The Sixties and Its Aftershocks

David Halberstan - The Children (for background on Diane Nash)

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Better Life - Moving Millions and California Dreaming

It's a good week to take in the movie A Better Life, an earnest story about an undocumented immigrant father, his Americanized and troubled son, and a pick-up truck. The reason the truck plays such a large roll in the movie is that it is so meaningful. The truck is a source of transportation and livelihood, a symbol of pride and independence. It is also a source of trouble. Luis, the father in the film, is undocumented and therefore not licensed to drive. One misstep and your life and family are transformed - and not for the better.

It's a particularly good week to see this movie as Governor Jerry Brown signed the first part of the California Dream Act, a bill that gives undocumented students the right to apply for and receive higher education financial aid. (Full disclosure - I have been documenting on film the organizing and passing of this bill for the past year as a consultant to the bill's author Assemblyman Gil Cedillo)

A Better Life is about ethnicity and class (It seems to be noisier in working-class and poor neighborhoods judging from the opening of the film) and about the often arbitrary but historically dense creation of our borders and laws.

The great virtue of the film is that it portrays the lives of people who literally live on the margins of our society and in an increasing number of states are social pariahs and political scapegoats. While immigrants are involved in some of the most intimate aspects of our lives - taking care of our children (particularly in upper-middle class neighborhoods) cooking our food and doing the heavy lifting of low-skilled labor - their stories are not often the center of commercial films.

Luis, the son in the movie, is a teenager caught in transition as all teenagers are. Tatted-up gang-bangers compete with his father for his loyalty. His high school looks more like a prison than a place of learning. And the values he has assimilated through the flotsam of American consumer culture are not ennobling.

A Better Life is about individuals making individual choices. In this respect it is a requirement for dramatic tension. But these individual choices take place within a broader context of course. For a fascinating account of the forces that drive immigration purchase Jeffrey Kaye's book Moving Millions - How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration.

Kaye points out that today, one in thirty-five people in the world live in a country that is not the country of their birth. Why this is the case is the subject of his book. This global phenomena is often regarded as a local issue, providing a wedge for political debate. Kaye points to the more complex nature of the dynamics that impact and drive migrant workers.

They are caught up (and "caught" is the correct word as they have no power over the economic reality that impacts them) in global labor supply chains, trade policies, trans-national business decisions and overall inequality. While politicians advocate for higher border-fences, multi-national corporations and their political hired-hands make the decisions that structure and determine the lives of millions. The young man parking your car at a downtown restaurant, is doing so because the price of Mexican corn dropped due to provisions of NAFTA.

The next time someone suggests to you that "You can do anything you want if you try hard enough," suggest that they pick up Kaye's book. He thinks and writes historically, sociologically, politically and economically - the way that good journalists should - detailing the ways in which most people in the world are not masters of their own fate.

And for some interesting facts about the lives of day laborers in Los Angeles check here:

While it is not necessarily troubling for this film - all films require some central and personal focus - there is no recognition in A Better Life that there is a thriving Latino Middle-Class in Los Angeles - or that there is a Latino Mayor for that matter. We see the barrios and taco trucks but not La Serenata, a high end Mexican Restaurant in East Los Angeles and Santa Monica.

And Peter Schrag, another journalist who has written thoughtfully about immigration, outlines a potentially redemptive economic future driven largely by immigrants.

With the Federal Government in a political stalemate, there is not much hope for comprehensive immigration reform. If they can't agree on extending the debt ceiling, can anyone imagine a sensible approach to immigration? So we default to the state level. And this week's move by Governor Brown is one success that opens up the political space for others.

Lets work towards an environment where losing one's truck does not lead to deportation, economic devastation and the sundering of families.


Jeffrey Kaye - Moving Millions - How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration

Peter Schrag - Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Malick's Trees, Darwin's Worms, Freud's Illusions & Emerson's Spiritual Self-Reliance

What does a tragic and senseless death do to us? How do we go forward from it? What questions does the needless death of a son or daughter raise about justice, nature, God and our capacity to even conceive of a redemptive universe? For all of the visual poetry, philosophic musings and oedipal triangles expressed throughout Terrence Malick's long anticipated film The Tree of Life, the emotional core is the dialectic of life and death - the origins of the cosmos set beside the imperative of human suffering. The Tree of Life is rooted in the fact of death - the fact that creates the fictions in this film.

There is a stark philosophical and psychological dualism stated at the beginning of the film as we are introduced to a 1950s family in suburban Texas. We must, the mother of a family of three boys insists in voice-over narrative, choose the path of nature or grace. Nature "wants to please itself and lord it over others," she tells her boys and us. Grace, in contrast, is the way of love, acceptance and spiritual surrender.

I'm not exactly sure what Malick means by "nature," in the context of the film. Is it what we commonly refer to as "human nature" or is he referring to the natural world? But one reasonable view of nature - and this was Darwin's view - is that nature neither "wants" anything nor "lords if over" anyone. Malick turns this understanding of nature upside down. Darwin's sober stoicism towards the natural world is, of course, one of the reasons why his theories were considered blasphemous in religious quarters.

Adam Gopnik, in his fine book on Darwin and Lincoln, Angels and Ages, points out that one of the disturbing implications of Darwin's point of view was that he regarded the "wedge of death" - the ubiquitous pain and suffering in the natural and human worlds - as in some sense creative but not justified by any transcendent plan or purpose. "It wasn't that suffering [In Darwin's scheme] was for your own good or for the good of the species; suffering just was," Gopnik writes.

In voice over and imagery, Malick explores the "religious" themes of redemption, the emergence of conscience, the role of "God" or "the father" in both the family and natural world. "Lord - where were you?" "Who are we to you?" the narrator asks. "Is there nothing that does not pass away?"

As for mothers, the mother of this film is ethereal and mostly passive in the face of a confused but authoritarian husband and father who believes that life isn't fair so you must take what you can when you can. He teaches his sons to steel themselves against life's outrages and that compassion is for suckers.

The other mother of course is mother earth. In one of Malick's origin images a meteor impregnates the earth thereby initiating the journey through geologic time. Malick seems to view nature as a substitute for God, the beauty and bounty of the natural world as the transcendent spirit in earthly form. There is even a scene depicting an anthropomorphic dinosaur sparing the life of a wounded kin through what looks like an act of empathy - the beginning of conscience or morality. Again, this is contrary to Darwin's sense of "origins" and his description of nature's stark and inexorable logic.

Darwin was not immune from feelings of "awe" and emotional exaltation at the sublime beauty of the forests "un-defaced by the hand of man" that he observed during the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle. But he also wrote, after the senseless death of his beloved ten year old daughter Annie, that there was "a dreadful but quiet war of organic beings going on in the peaceful woods...where we behold the face of nature bright with gladness but cannot forget that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects and seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life." Malick's picture of nature embraces the "gladness" while largely ignoring the terror of the dying bird.

Adam Phillips' book on Darwin and Freud (Darwin's Worms) asks the right kinds of challenging questions about our social, political and religious lives. He points out that both Darwin and Freud saw themselves as revealing the truth about nature and that "nature was what truth was about." How do we take justice seriously if we take nature seriously?

After Darwin and Freud, Phillips contends, one couldn't believe in nature in the way that one could believe in God. By declaring the death of immortality they urged us to surrender the consolations of religious illusions and ideas of utopian justice for the more limited goals of advancing our capacity to reason and painstakingly improving the human community.

At the end of the movie the mother lets go of the grief over the death of one of her children. She makes an offering to Nature? to God? - with the words, "I give him to you. I give you my son." During the same sequence another of her sons, now an adult played by Sean Penn, walks along an ocean shore surrounded by what look like acquaintances and relatives who have died but have regained both bodily strength and emotional contentment - the absence of strife and pain.

With this coda, the film loses its philosophical and psychological weight. The gravity of the intimate details of the 1950s family story with all of its conflict, repression and ultimate breakdown (did the father ever go have a drink with the guys from work or tell a good joke?) is reconciled through a mystical harmony and transformed consciousness - what Freud called the unbounded "oceanic" feeling of unity with the external world.

Malick has been called a Transcendentalist filmmaker, like Emerson, determined to explore solitary artistic and spiritual paths, and like Thoreau, drawn to the sensuality and power of the natural world. Thoreau took his council at Walden Pond and Emerson wrote that "Heaven walks among triple or tenfold disguises." Malick attempts to unveil or immerse us in those disguises.

Literary critic Irving Howe has argued that in order to understand America and our literature, we cannot evade dealing with Emerson as a guiding spirit of a particular type of individualism. He also points out that it was Emerson's critic and contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne, who observed that Emerson and his Concord neighbors were deluded by the notion that through an "exercise of spirit" they could raise themselves to a new state of being. For Hawthorne, there was no easy escape from history, nature and the community's incessant demands. The "heavy luggage" of intellectual pride, guilt and community obligation could not easily be tossed into the baggage car of the Celestial Railroad and forgotten.

Here is a Hawthorne character in The House of the Seven Gables:

After such wrong as [Clifford] had suffered, there is not reparation...
No great mistake, whether acted or endured, in our mortal sphere, is ever
really set right.

Nature would not provide Emerson's compensatory balance. It is the "invariable inopportunity of death" that renders reparation impossible.

There is an Emersonian devotion to inwardness in Malick's work. The use of gnomic voice-over narrative in all of his films is an expression of it. And his non-doctrinaire version of "belief," for all of its obscure imagery, is a good fit for our time. In a democratic and egalitarian world, one belief is as good as another and there is no need for the rigorous behavioral sacrifices or devotion to "scripture" required of believers in an earlier and more demanding religious world. Through our free-floating religious energies, we are all the interpreters of our own spiritual universe - Emersonian self-reliance without Emerson's intellectual depth and hard-edged self-doubt.

Howe views Emerson - and I think this view can be applied to Malick - as collapsing "the distinction between religious and secular, so that the exaltations of the one might be summoned for the needs of the other." In this grief stricken movie, grief becomes a source of secular wisdom and spiritual redemption.

Freud wrote in The Future of An Illusion, his 1927 booklet about the psychological sources of religious belief - that "Men cannot remain children forever; they must in the end go out into the hostile life." By rejecting the infantile wish for a protective father in the sky to replace the father we experienced in childhood, we are able to mourn our loss and go forward to engage the adult challenges that face us. For Freud, good mourning releases the energies for good living.

Freud criticized as "irreligious in the truest sense of the word" those who would pitifully substitute for the mighty personality of the biblical God, a shadowy and abstract principle or hide him in the misty forests of pantheism. Freud even regarded Yoga and other Eastern practices as a life sacrificing and narcissistic withdrawal from social conflicts - a futile search for happiness through "quietness."

Darwin, along with Freud a "master of retrospect," was obsessed with the majestic and life creating activities of worms (his first and last books were about the usefulness of worms) and preferred to look at the things that were on and under the shifting ground. Gopnik suggests that Darwin found the evidence which reinforced his theories in "the homely, the overlooked, the undervalued." He practiced the skill of "learning from the low."

After his daughter's death, according to Gopnik, Darwin abandoned any remaining remnants of Christian faith. "Serenity could only be found in the contemplation of the vast indifference of the universe," Gopnik writes. Annie was taken for no good reason and was gone for good. Darwin went back to studying and writing about his beloved worms.

Malick tries to have it three ways. The close feel of his Texas family grounded in its special place and time offers its own epiphanies about frustrated desires and misguided parents. Nature is a place where a worn down world can be revived. And finally, Malick turns our gaze upwards to the mysteries of the heavens in an attempt to, in Emerson's words, "love God without mediator or veil."

There is a tragic humanism that comes through in the film. The Tree of Life is the story of birth and death, love and hatred and a democratic stance seems to bracket the Christian mysticism. In the last scene Penn's character is at least surrounded by the multitudes, all walking on the same level ground. But when Penn was down on his knees caressing the feet of an Angel? Jesus? the Lord Himself or Herself in disguise? - I was reminded of Darwin's worms, slowly burrowing their way through the earth beneath Penn's feet, helping to create the "entangled bank" of existence that makes up the grandeur of life.

We can't seem to, as the German poet Heinrich Heine suggested we do, Leave heaven to the angels and the sparrows.


The Future of an Illusion - Sigmund Freud

Angels and Ages - A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln & Modern Life - Adam Gopnik

The American Newness - Culture and Politics in the Age of Emerson - Irving Howe

Darwin's Worms - On Life Stories and Death Stories - Adam Phillips

Monday, April 25, 2011

Limitless - The Problems and Advantages of Being Un-balanced

Eddie Morra (played by Bradley Cooper) is a struggling writer who wanders the streets of Manhattan like Dostoyevsky's Underground Man, resentfully bumping into strangers in his path. He is a sick and unattractive man who has no understanding of his illness. But Eddie's sorry condition is nothing that a new pill cannot cure.

Apparently we all know that "we only use 20% of our brain." It's a fatuous but pervasive conceit and it is the central premise of Limitless. The black-market pill in question - which turbo-charges the brain into full usage mode - is Eddie's instant access to the contagious state of excess and also his pharmacological key to success.

After popping a few pills Eddie cannot be stopped. He completes what he calls his "utopian" novel (more likely dystopian as I don't think there has been a straightforward utopian novel that has sold well in the United States since Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward from 1888) in four days. He learns to play the piano in three. And verbal acquisition becomes so easy that within a week he can say, "Would you like to come home with me," in six different languages. Eddie demonstrates real ambition by cleaning his bachelor apartment all by himself.

If, as psychoanalyst Adam Phillips observes, developing an excessive appetite is a self-cure for feelings of helplessness, we also know that the price of excess is a painful comedown. It is Eddie's crash that condenses the metaphors. Are Eddie's inevitable troubles with gangsters and Wall Street sharks (is there a clear difference?) a cautionary tale about how the dream of power can turn you into a vampire? Is the film a post-modernist take on how a presumably stable personality can be expanded, multiplied or even obliterated? Or is the deeper subtext a concern over our economic fears about the Chinese "overtaking us" if we don't get smarter real fast? If removing teacher seniority rules won't redeem our educational system, then better chemistry might. (One of the languages Eddie learns in a day is Chinese)

Eddie's new life becomes a blur of agitation and turbulence, a feeling that he has to "constantly move forward," but with all of his thoughts and knowledge "organized and available." This sensibility of being organized, calculating, having access to critical knowledge that will ensure a "limitless horizon" of never ending profit, is inseparable from the rise of the finance capitalism from which we are attempting to recover. Eddie's personal dilemmas take on the shape of his, and our, social surroundings.

Marshall Berman, in his book about the experience of modernity All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, (A line from Marx's Communist Manifesto that describes both the creative and destructive dynamics of capitalism) writes that "psychic dizziness and drunkenness, expansion of experiential possibilities and destruction of moral boundaries and personal bonds, self-enlargement and self-derangement, phantoms in the street and in the soul - is the atmosphere in which the modern sensibility is born." Eddie loses his moral boundaries and personal bonds in the streets of Manhattan, the city that Berman calls a "forest of symbols," where new meanings about our political and social lives are constantly springing up.

In a way, Limitless is an exploration of a particular view of what we commonly refer to as "human nature" - about what we would become if our intellectual and social powers were unfettered. If free markets create free people, which corporate funded "think tanks" tell us is the case, then our current economic model of freedom merely reflects the avarice and competitiveness that are part of an unalterable human condition.

Terry Eagleton, in his new book Why Marx Was Right, challenges this orthodoxy by examining Marx's complex views on "human nature." For Marx, our powers, capabilities and desires are shaped, restrained or liberated by the material conditions that we are born into. Marx writes in Volume I of Capital of "human nature in general and modified in each historical epoch."

Eagleton points out that our potential solidarity and empathy with each other and with different cultures and peoples has a "foundation in our bodies." "Because of the nature of our material bodies, we are needy, laboring, sociable, sexual, communicative, self-expressive animals who need one another to survive, but who come to find a fulfillment in that companionship over and above its social usefulness." We identify with others due to our similar physical needs and limits, our strengths and our vulnerabilities. These constraints - part of what Marx called our "species being," have a permanence that is both inevitable and desirable.

Both a realist and a visionary, Marx looked at the ravages of capitalism in England and imagined a potentially different future that might emerge from the transformative energies that capitalism had unleashed. His ideas were tragic - Shakespeare was one of his favorite authors - but not pessimistic.

Once again we are involved in a debate about the "limits" of the free market - about how best to restrain the worst excesses of our economic structure. But if being "limitless" is a problem and Limitless the film is a cautionary tale about how the individual cannot outrun the system itself - then what problems are derived from accepting too easily the limits of our political aspirations? Isn't extreme caution and a firm belief in the adage that "You can't change human nature," a bedrock assumption of the conservative worldview - a political acquiescence? How often do you hear the cynical adage that "nothing fundamentally changes" in this world? We have become the unconscious guardians of the status quo.

At least Limitless engages some of these questions albeit elliptically. Eddie, like "Fast" Eddie Felson of Paul Newman's The Hustler (which the movie obliquely references), is always on the edge of disintegration, unbalanced and hurtling forward at a dizzy pace. In that state, you forget where you began and you eliminate your desired end by focusing solely on the means.

Dostoevsky questioned in Notes From the Underground, whether the transformative energies of the urban world could ever be a source of nourishment - a home rather than a prison. Man needs to build, he wrote. But perhaps ..."he only likes that edifice from a distance and not at all at close range, perhaps he only likes to build it and does not want to live in it."

Eddie creates worlds he doesn't want to live in. He moves from novelist to day-trader to King of the stock market to mergers and acquisitions and ends up in a fortress-like home where he doesn't even unpack his bags. His plan to finally arrive at the life he has longed for - one of opulence and freedom - becomes elusive and distant, a central discord of the modern temperament.

The literary critic Frank Kermode argues that we need meaningful beginnings and endings to make sense of our lives, even if those beginnings and endings are fictions. It seems that movies require these types of beginnings and endings as well. Eddie is an exhausting character and the people around him end up as exhausted survivors of his ambition. There is no elaborate beginning to the movie except a vision of Eddie balanced on the edge of an abyss, the type of imbalance that always captures our attention. As for an adequate ending, there is none. Eddie's last word in the movie is consistent with the ethos of the film. With a triumphant idiot's grin he simply asks his girlfriend the question "What?" Not, What is to be done? What's it all about? What, me worry? Since there is no positive meaning to invest in - neither tragedy or its overcoming - at the end of the movie I'm guessing you probably won't care.

Further Reading:

Marshall Berman - All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

Terry Eagleton - Why Marx Was Right

Frank Kermode - The Sense of an Ending

Adam Phillips - On Balance

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Company Men - The Visible Injuries of Class

Company Men follows the adult lives of three upper-middle class men who lose their high flying corporate jobs amidst the wreckage of our recent economic meltdown. These guys are way upper-middle class. They drive Porsches, belong to country clubs, sequester private jets for spousal shopping trips and send their kids on senior class trips to Italy. How big of an understatement is it to observe that their dilemmas are not ones that most Americans can "relate" to?

The protagonists - played by Tommy Lee Jones, Ben Affleck and Chris Cooper - have all the signifiers of success. I remember numerous conversations from college - and later as well - about how the things we own can begin to possess us, how the quest for money, power and prestige often become a futile attempt to make ourselves materially and psychologically invulnerable. These were of course, what we might call "youthful" conversations. But they were discussions derived from serious reading about, and observing how the consumer society we were inheriting shaped how we might be forced to live, how the appetite for things might spoil other appetites.

There is a version of this accumulation story that even regards the obsession with money as a kind of perversion, a desire that destroys or undermines other more refined or exalted desires. In psychoanalyst Adam Phillip's understanding, our primary desire as Westerners is to escape the death of desire. We strive to avoid the fear of there being nothing or no-one that we want. It is one of the virtues of Company Men that it at least recognizes our ambivalence about money and ambition. As a culture we seem to admire people who acknowledge their own ambition and are successful at accumulating wealth, while remaining suspicious of the ways in which those same ambitions can get individually and socially out of control.

While watching Company Men I thought of one of my favorite books from college - The Hidden Injuries of Class by sociologists Richard Sennet and Jonathan Cobb. In the introduction of the book they recount the story of a number of successful mid-level managers who had worked their way out of their working-class family backgrounds (away from people who "worked with their hands," as one remarked) into white collar positions. One man, Frank Rissarro, talks with barely concealed anguish about the psychological wounds that accompanied his own upward movement. "These jobs aren't real work," Rissarro tells Sennet and Cobb, "It's just pushing papers."

Sennet and Cobb question what the drive for upward mobility means in a country where class is structured as a system for limiting freedom and for defining success. For many of the people they interviewed, moving into an "educated position" was a weapon of self used to capture respect from a society that places a psychic premium on the assumed "freedom," "creativity" and "independence" of the educated and technically advanced strata.

The accumulation of cultural assets - advanced education, higher economic status - Sennet and Cobb suggest, can cover up a good deal of anxiety and shame that many working-class people associate with being brought up in "arbitrary" and "chaotic" surroundings. To be "educated," according to many of the people they interviewed, is tantamount to being in control of your passions and can help remove you from the humiliation of daily domination. But guilt is the price they pay for "leaving their class behind." Risarro, by his own admission, speaks of gaining respect from the community while at the same time losing respect for himself. He feels his white collar work as a loan officer in a bank is not as "real" as the work his father did. Despite his relentless struggle to obtain the "badges of ability" and legitimacy, Risarro still feels lost.

This kind of nostalgia and guilt are at the emotional center of Company Men. When Ben Affleck's character Bobby loses his job and has to "lower" himself by working as a carpenter, he gets a lesson in blue-collar manliness - or at least a Hollywood version of it. Construction workers throw footballs during their leisure time rather than hitting balls at a golf driving range. They drink beer not scotch. They protect you even when you don't deserve it as opposed to stabbing you in the back. And they construct homes rather than manage the In and Out box at the office.

Towards the end of the movie Tommy Lee Jones (Gene in the movie) looks back on his own upward movement through the shipbuilding company, which has evolved from Gloucester Shipping to the diversified and multi-national GTX. Sounding like Frank Risarro, he laments the passing of the good old days when he could weld a beautiful seam along the inside of a ship's hull at a time when America "used to build things and people knew who they were." It's a common, popular and non-partisan sentiment.

To restore their souls, Gene and Bobby go back to their entrepreneurial roots, setting up a new company in the abandoned shipyards of Boston. Tossed out as used up garbage by the corporate beast, they intend to remake themselves by re-discovering their roots - in a way by re-enacting their childhoods when pleasure was taken in the mere sensual thrill of building. In their new entrepreneurial utopia start-up capital is readily available and the other cast-offs from GTX are ready to do battle with the Chinese and South Koreans, the countries where shipbuilding migrated decades ago. Bobby intends to "talk to the unions" about getting a deal on shipbuilding labor.

Company Men captures the ethos of corporate liberalism quite well - good intentions sidetracked by the crushing demands of the now global "market." Bobby's wife even uses One Earth re-usable grocery bags (you have to look closely) to lower the family's formidable carbon footprint.

During the week I saw the movie the Labor Department sent out their yearly statistics on union membership. In the private sector, union membership is now below seven percent. All those unionized Boston shipbuilders went to work for Wal-Mart or were otherwise "re-trained" for lower paying jobs a long time ago.

We need utopias, even entrepreneurial ones. The lure of imagined futures have always been with us. Perhaps the enviable life has replaced any clear idea of the good life or the good society. Have the futures we now imagine been shrunken into insignificance by our lowered expectations? Is the question whether Obama can win again in 2012 the most important political question we can ask? Company Men's heart is in the right place and there is an explicit critique of corporate logic in the story line. What it lacks is a deeper impulse to transcend the society that exists and to show us, as literary critic Georg Lukacs argues, "human conflicts in all their complexity and completeness."

I wonder what the language and imagery of a good society would be if it was free of the obsession with our rather narrow definitions of success? If we didn't love money and the things that money can buy, what other objects and goals would we pursue that might offer a satisfying substitute? Is there a filmmaker out there who is able to give us a glimpse?

Further Readings:

The Hidden Injuries of Class - Richard Sennett & Jonathan Cobb

Going Sane, Maps of Happiness - Adam Phillips

Studies in European Realism - Georg Lukacs

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

True Grit - Dry Bones Rattling

Mattie Ross, the 14 year old protagonist of the Coen brother's film True Grit, would have made an excellent community organizer. In her attempt to bring her father's killer to justice she exudes commitment, focus, strength of personality and faith in her mission.

It might seem like a stretch to tease out the theme of community organizing from a western whose tag line in marketing materials is "Retribution," rather than justice, but the filmmakers drop enough hints along the way to open up some interesting interpretive possibilities.

A fascinating sequence occurs at the beginning of the movie just after Mattie arrives in Fort Smith, Arkansas, the place of her father's murder. She proceeds to the undertakers to retrieve her father's body. Having no place to stay she asks the undertaker if she can stay in his workspace. He asks her why she would want to stay amongst all of the dead bodies, as outside in the street three men are about to be hanged and will be joining Mattie's dead and embalmed father in the same room.

The hangings, which Mattie quickly moves outside to watch, have all of the characteristics of a sacrificial ritual. The community has turned up in their Sunday best to watch the proceedings. From the scaffold one of the men points out that in the audience there are worse men than him, a clear indication that he is dying as a stand-in for others. A second man asks that his own sins not be held against his remaining family. And the third, a Native American, is muzzled before he can speak a final word, a visual acknowledgement that retribution and persecution are often not far from one another.

At nightfall Mattie returns to the undertakers where he offers her a coffin for sleeping in if she desires. Mattie stays the evening and we don't see her again until the next day.

Mattie has clearly visited the valley of the dead as an almost mythological preparation for her impending journey, or recognition that death will be part of that journey. At a boarding house she finds on her second day in town she makes this idea explicit, stating to the women who runs it that she felt like the biblical prophet Ezekiel who famously walked in the valley of the dead and dry bones.

Prophets in the ancient biblical tradition - who could be both male and female in contrast to the all male priesthood - were intermediaries between God and the people. They often were itinerants who moved from place to place and spoke of the themes of exile, return and re-building. According to my New Oxford Annotated Bible, the prophetic task largely concerned issues of the restoration of the community and its institutions. Like Ezekiel, Mattie arrives in a spiritually dead community full of sickness and injustice, and breathes life into a spiritually dead and unjust man - Rooster Cogburn. Her task - like all good organizers - is to help others to initiate the difficult journey of change and to restore some vitality (in this case the rule of law) to communal institutions.

It is not surprising that Mark Warren, in his book on community organizing, titled the work Dry Bones Rattling, a reference to Ezekiel and the creative spark that brings "a community in ruins," to life. Warren's study of the Industrial Areas Foundation - the organization founded by Saul Alinsky - points to the power of biblical and spiritual references in providing a thematic unity to the organizing process.

And Marshall Ganz, who ran organizing training for Barack Obama's presidential campaign and teaches leadership development and organizing at Harvard, uses the story of David and Goliath as a touchstone for creative organizing principles.

David, in Ganz's viewing of the story, has all the attributes of a successful organizer and leader. David's first key act was to commit, to show the courage to get on the path. He knew his strengths and resources - a slingshot and five smooth stones. He engaged in an ongoing creative process where he learned as he went forward - that he was weakened rather than strengthened by heavy armor. And he understood that power can make you stupid - ask Goliath.

Mattie Ross displays many of David's skills and is finally the person with true Grit. And she inspires the best in others as well. By insisting that the killer of her father be brought back to Fort Smith for trial rather than to Texas for a reward, she intuits that this is the only way that some form of social equilibrium can be established in society. When she eventually kills the man she is after - that final act of retribution - she suffers her own fall and loss.

True Grit begins with the images of communal sacrifice and ends with Rooster willing to sacrifice himself to save Mattie - one man's spiritual progress. In Rene Girard's theory of the foundations of sacrifice, the tensions of society are often visited upon the vulnerable scapegoat thereby avoiding the deeper problems that exist. Real sacrifice is eventually transformed into ritual - real blood becomes symbolic blood.

At the end of the movie Mattie visits a replica of the time of her youth - the Wild West Show that re-enacts an old west just as it is exiting the historical stage. The Wild West Show was full of whooping and hollering and simulated blood - a cultural ritual without the dying. Sounds like the movies to me.

Further Reading:

Why David Sometimes Wins - Marshall Ganz

The Scapegoat - Rene Girard

Dry Bones Rattling - Mark Warren