More Than One Thing

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lastblackman1.0The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a quiet movie that is playing at only a handful of select theaters. Most critical reviews are focused on its treatment of San Francisco and the woes of long-time residents displaced by gentrification. But I took something else away from the film.

In a scene towards the end of the movie, the main character Jimmie Fails gets up to speak at a showing of his best friend’s improvisational play that has turned into a de facto memorial service for a neighbor recently shot dead. In describing his complicated relationship with the man, Kofi, Jimmie says, “Everybody is not just one thing.” That line stayed with me long after the movie ended.

Everybody is not just one thing. We tend to categorize people and judge them by superficial characteristics: looks, clothing, manner, speech. In Last Black Man, a group of young men in the neighborhood stand around swearing and insulting each other, pushing each other around, acting the tough guy. But when Kofi dies, the most belligerent of the group collapses into the arms of the very same man (Jimmie’s best friend) whom he has relentlessly mocked in the past.

In our increasingly polarized society, we need to remember that people are complex. Take Donald Trump, for instance. I myself have had very little good to say about our current president. And I don’t feel like he’s a good man. But I do not know Donald Trump personally. He may be a loving husband and father. He may be a good friend. His public persona is not the whole of Mr. Trump or of any of us. So it would behoove us to think carefully about labeling and name calling and ascribing hateful titles to people, something that, ironically, Mr. Trump does on a regular basis.

We should also hesitate to paint all members of a group with the same broad brush, whether they be Wall Street bankers or migrants at our border.

All of us are afflicted with the same infuriating, confusing, and glorious infirmity: the human condition. The Last Black Man in San Francisco portrays this reality beautifully. There are no clear villains or heroes in the movie. Instead, we get an up close portrait of a friendship and of the life of two young men navigating the new realities of their beloved city and trying to find their own place in it.

Let’s remember that we are all many things and afford each other the respect deserved by all human beings.

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Falling Star*

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* There are spoilers in this blog post.

It took me a while to get around to seeing the latest iteration of A Star Is Born. I’d seen two of the previous three versions and figured I knew the story backwards and forwards. And I was somewhat right. The Oscar-nominated fourth version doesn’t really break new ground except to give us some beautiful new ballads in the Lady Gaga oeuvre and to make us aware that actor Bradley Cooper has some musical chops.

But as Cooper, who directed, co-wrote, and starred in the film, says in a special features extra, there is something so timeless and powerful about this story of gaining and losing stardom, of love against the odds. In each of the four versions of A Star Is Born, a movie or music star falls in love with an unknown talent, whose star begins to rise as his begins to fall.

The latest version of Star is particularly good at depicting the ruthlessness of the entertainment world, which deprives a person of privacy and is pitiless when that star fumbles. In a chilling scene towards the end of the movie, Ally’s manager tells her addict husband Jack, “We’re not friends,” and goes on to chastise him for jeopardizing Ally’s career and to assure him she’d be better off without him, indirectly impelling Jack to take his own life.

The film also shows that the business side of artistic creation can sometimes be damaging to the art. Jack becomes disgusted with the pop star package Ally has become, with dyed hair and backup dancers and inane songs about sexiness. Although his hurtful criticism is tinged with envy and fueled by alcohol, he does have a point. The Ally he fell in love with, musically and personally, seems compromised by the demands of fame.

Artists often pay a high price for their gifts. Many of our greatest painters, musicians, composers, and writers have been tormented by mental illness or substance addiction. They have often lost any semblance of a family life as they became consumed by both their artistic visions and their demons. Perhaps those demons are what compelled them to become artists in the first place.

In any event, A Star Is Born shows us the high price of stardom, the loneliness of artistic minds, and the choices we make for love. While I’m not sure we needed yet another version of this timeless story, I did enjoy the soulful journey taken by these two characters as portrayed by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.

And I’m still haunted by the lines of the song Ally and Jack sing together:

When the sun goes down
And the band won’t play
I’ll always remember us this way

 

Love, Actually

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Last night my daughters and I watched the movie Love, Actually. This 2003 film has fast become a Christmas classic for many viewers, with its humor and light romantic touch and its climax occurring on Christmas Eve. But the movie is about so much more than romantic love. It is about the enduring bonds of friendship and family, about loss, about bridging gaps between cultures, and about the triumph of love in the midst of life.

The first time I saw Love Actually, I’ll admit I was mostly focused on the couples, or the would-be couples, in the movie. Hugh Grant’s charming turn as a single British prime minister in love with an employee; cuckolded Colin Firth finding romance with his Portuguese maid; a little boy bereft of his mother falling in love with a classmate; wonderful Emma Thompson getting short shrift from her long-time husband, played by the late Alan Rickman. I felt the young man’s pain as he endured the love of his life marrying his own best friend, and the angst of a young woman in love from afar with a coworker but burdened with responsibility for her mentally ill brother.

What I like about the movie is that it is not all “happily ever after” for each romantic pair. And that is because other kinds of love often trump romance. For instance, when the woman and her colleague finally get together, the woman gets a call from her brother, and that familial love continually forces her to sacrifice her own happiness. Likewise, the forlorn member of the love triangle struggles to keep his feelings to himself so as not to harm the friendship he has with her husband. The young boy may be in love with a young girl, but it is the story of him and his stepdad and their growing relationship in the absence of a wife and mother that really takes center stage. And the Emma Thompson character stays with her unfaithful husband (for shame, Alan!) for the sake of their family.

At the end of the movie, to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” we see love in all its many permutations as loved ones are reunited at Heathrow Airport. Parents and children, lovers, friends – all embrace in the comfort of their love for each other. Each snapshot is strung together on the screen until there is a “wall of love.”

Love, Actually is a cute, clever, but also surprisingly realistic depiction of the ties that bind. What better way to finish out Christmas Day with the family?*

 

*The movie is rated R for nudity, subject matter, and language. So save it for when your little ones are mature enough.

 

 

Race Relations Could Use “Help”

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The other day I turned on my television and saw that the movie The Help was on. Abandoning my chores and plans for the morning, I sat down and sank into this compelling drama about race in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s.

The movie is based upon Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel of the same name, and it chronicles a young white female journalist’s attempt to tell the story of race relations from the perspective of the town’s black maids. Some reviewers criticized the conceit of yet another white character being the “savior” of blacks. Those critics missed the point of The Help.

During the course of interviewing the black character Aibileen, the journalist, nicknamed Skeeter, comes to see the plight of the people who serve her and the other whites in town through one black woman’s eyes. Herself a misfit in a world of strictly proscribed roles for women of any color, Skeeter is first horrified, then determined, not only to tell the story of  the black maids around her, but also to find out the truth about her beloved Constantine, the black nanny who had raised her.

As I watched the story unfold, the many indignities suffered by blacks in the film – separate bathroom facilities, seats on the back of the bus, condescension and threats from their white employers – I had the sense that in many ways we’ve come so far, but in other ways we have a long way to go. In particular, I was struck by how frightened the black characters are about reprisals from whites for standing up for themselves. The entire book Skeeter writes is done under cover of darkness and published anonymously against a backdrop of civil unrest and the murder of black activists. Today this fear plays out in African-American neighborhoods, where young black males are afraid to get on the bad side of a white police officer.

The message of The Help is that the only way to improve race relations is for blacks and whites to know each other, to see each other as fully human and filled with inalienable dignity. The friendship that develops between Skeeter and Aibileen, as well as Aibileen’s sassy friend Minny, is one born of hours sharing food, tea, and stories in Abilene’s kitchen.

Ignorance breeds fear; knowledge brings understanding. Let’s try harder to see things from the other side of the racial divide to bring hope and healing to race relations in America.

 

3D or Not 3D?

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Last night my family went to see the critically acclaimed Disney Pixar animated movie Inside Out at our local movie theater. The film was the usual clever, entertaining, emotionally resonant experience we have come to expect from the makers of Toy Story and Finding Nemo, and of course it made me cry. (See my prior blog post “Cry Baby.”)

Because most of the showings were offered in 3-D, we didn’t really have a choice but to don the annoying glasses and watch random images pop out at us. However, 3-D added absolutely nothing to the movie-going experience.

I have read that films shot in 3-D can give viewers an immersive experience, wherein they feel as if they are in the world created by the filmmakers. Inside Out was not such a film. Yet the growing popularity of 3-D movies, especially in the animated field, often gives viewers no choice but to participate.

3-D movies have been around since the Fifties. They always seemed like a gimmick to me. And I find it frustrating that films in 3-D often cost more per ticket than regular movies. In a time when the movie-going public has increasingly chosen to stay home and watch movies on their huge flat-screen TVs, it seems foolish to be charging even more per ticket to fill up the empty theater seats. At last night’s showing, our family and one other family of five were the only customers.

I say filmmakers reserve the 3-D experience for select movies that can best take advantage of the feeling that the viewer is part of the experience. I for one have no trouble immersing myself in the two-dimensional world of movie storytelling. And I can do so without those pesky glasses.

Snow Job

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I was visiting family in Minneapolis, Minnesota, this past weekend when I learned that the first major snowstorm of the season was headed for the Twin Cities. In Minneapolis, there are two seasons: snow and no snow. So this news came as a warning to Minnesotans that they should bid a fond farewell to their grass and ground cover until next spring.

The snowstorm news also felt apropos as I sat in a movie theater watching Force Majeure, a movie set in the French Alps that features a life-changing avalanche. But Force Majeure is no traditional action thriller. A winner at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, Force Majeure is instead a devastating closeup of a damaged marriage.

In the movie, rather than burying people, the avalanche serves to unearth the discontents of a wealthy Swedish family trying to enjoy a holiday together. It brings up issues of gender roles, freedom and responsibility, and moral values. After the incident, the couple grapples with their shame, disappointment, and fear for the emotional safety of their children.

The term “force majeure” is a legal concept whereby the obligations of both parties to a contract are nullified by, among other things, “acts of God.” In the film, one party temporarily abnegates responsibility in the event of the avalanche.

The snow in Force Majeure is almost another character. The forbidding walls of white loom over the little ski village where the family is staying. Rather than creating a feel of wonder, the Alps possess a smothering claustrophobia that deepens the viewer’s discomfort and even dread.

I have seen reviews of Force Majeure that refer to it as a comedy. True, there are some very funny moments. But the main thrust of the film is dark and serious. I recalled the early years in my own marriage, when the bloom was off the rose and we grappled with our real limitations as partners, parents, and people.

Here in Chicago we are dodging this first big snowstorm of the impending winter. Still, in the oft-quoted line from Game of Thrones, it is all too clear that “winter is coming.”

Since the weather outside is turning frightful, I highly recommend curling up inside and watching a good movie like Force Majeure.