Oscars Wrap-Up: Hollywood a White World, but Will Smith Deserves “Best Actor”

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by Danny Stout

Thanks to host Chris Rock and other opinion leaders such as Cheryl Boone Isaacs, President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts, the message is loud and clear: Hollywood does not represent the rich cultural fabric of America, and as Isaacs says, “It’s time to look to the future; every individual must insist on inclusion and equality.” Humor is a powerful tool for broaching touchy subjects; Actor/comedian Kevin Hart made an excuse for not boycotting the Awards: “With my front row seat, I thought I’d be on camera every time they said ‘diversity.’ Didn’t happen.” Rock closed with the invitation: “See you at the BET Awards in a couple of months.”

Best picture went to “Spotlight,” about the The Boston Globe‘s investigative journalism team, the oldest in the nation, in fact, that uncovered child sex abuse in the Boston area by numerous Roman Catholic priests. Alejandro G. Inarritu accepted the best director award for Revenant (See our review), echoing the diversity theme: “In this industry, they don’t listen to you, they look at the color of your skin.”

     Politics has faded in and out of the The Academy Awards show for decades, but this year it was the dominant theme: Leonardo DiCapprioOscars Dicaprio spoke of climate change, “For the voices drowned out by the politics of greed.” Vice President Joseph Biden challenged: “take the pledge” to end campus sexual assault on college campuses. Lady Gaga was joined by approximately thirty survivors of abuse. In my view, our public discourse is enhanced by these voices; it’s an improvement on the excessive fandom displays this event has succumbed to. These actors hear “I love you!” a hundred times daily. They don’t need two more hours of nationally televised idolatry. If the show doesn’t focus on the films, which it doesn’t, the political commentary is preferred to obsequious shots of dresses and innocuous interviews.

     Brie Larson received a well-earned Oscar for Room, a story of a kidnapped mother and son of five that forge an unbreakable bond sustaining them after their transition to freedom. Best Supporting Actor is Mark Rylance Bridge of Bridge of Spies that paid tribute to Steven Spielberg. Alas, Sylvester Stallone the tireless worker of legendary Rocky and Rambo fame is out of his league in today’s film world.

The tribute to the passing of movie greats is always touching. It was particularly difficult to say goodbye to Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek’s Mr. Spock who not only achieved acting fame, but became an American icon.

Most disappointing is Will Smith passed up by the Academy for his role as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian forensic pathologist that protested the excessive brain injuries in professional football, despite aggressive reaction by the National Football League (NFL). While African Americans are often depicted as entertainers and sports figures, Smith’s performance as a gifted doctor is a strong model for young people. Beyond this, his performance was riveting; Smith brought emotional and intellectual depth to the role. It compares if not exceeds the work of the other nominees. Understandably, Will Smith did not attend. With over thirty nominees, and only three of them people of color, the 88th Academy Awards will have an asterisk. Hopefully, that footnote of inequality will be erased in years to come.

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In “Race,” Jesse Owens is Athlete & Nemesis of Hitler

by Danny Stout

The life of Jesse Owens is an inspiring sports story. If lumped together with The Natural, Field of Dreams, or Hoosiers, it holds its own in the sports genre, (i.e., dedication, mental toughness, ultimate victory against the odds). Race, as reflected in the title’s double meaning, is a film that transcends sports, placing the story in the context of American racism and Nazi fascism. Unfortunately, it stretches facts about Owens’ life to the limit. Viewers must decide for themselves whether fudging here and there is ethically justified.

The sports enthusiast will broaden knowledge about one of the greatest Olympic athletes of all time. How he trained, especially the techniques of sprinting he developed, is instructive. Owens was gifted, but knew he needed a mentor. That person was Ohio State University track coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) whose philosophy was purity of sport. Politics and bigotry were “just noise.” “Block it out,” he demanded. All that mattered was the track. At first, Owens bought in: “The ten seconds I’m running is pure freedom. No one can take it away.”

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Owens is remembered for his four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games before Adolf Hitler and his minister of propaganda Josef Goebbels. The Olympics was Germany’s chance to showcase their rising world presence, and prove that Aryan athletes were superior to those of African descent. Owen’s four gold medals spoiled Hitler’s party. At least this is the enduring story that is perpetuated in Race. Hitler refuses to meet with Owens in the film, but eye witnesses saw Hitler shaking his hand. Also omitted is the story in The Baltimore Sun that Hitler sent Owens a signed photo of himself. Race is art, and the creators are free to take liberties. Morally speaking, does the magnitude of Hitler’s catastrophic impact on the world justify embellishing the story for the greater good? As the Third Reich grew in power, Owens became a symbol of defiance that millions rallied around.

Nevertheless, Owens was a complex individual surrounded by myths to keep the anti-Nazi story intact. Missing from Race is his criticism of FDR for not inviting him to the White House, stating that the U.S. president snubbed him, not Hitler. Owens also noted that blacks were able to stay in German hotels with whites, but such was not the case in the U.S.

Despite inaccuracies, Race has more historical context Race_2016_film_posterthan the average sports film. Businessmen played by Jeremy Irons and William Hurt hold a substantive debate about boycotting the Berlin games. Details about Hitler’s filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) are given. Her technique of digging a hole to shoot up at the subject, thus deifying the Fuhrer, is objected to by Owens when she uses the same technique on him during the broad jump competition. “It’s lying, he reacts,” in Race. Riefensstahl defied Josef Goebbels’ admonition to just sell Germany, though. While Race depicts her as a mere propagandist, Olympia, her actual film depicts athletes of all races, and pioneers a number of sport film techniques including slow motion. It was shown throughout Europe and in Chicago. Capturing Owens’ long jump in a favorable light tends to suggest it was not merely a propaganda film as implied in Race.

Race comes at a time when bigotry remains at the top of the news agenda. It’s a relevant movie that begs the question of how far we’ve come since the 1930’s in terms of civil rights. Owen’s influence on the world stage during the Berlin Olympics may be inflated here, but the question of poetic license filmmakers use in conveying a moral message can only be judged by audience members.

 

“Room” and the Paradox of Isolation

by Danny Stout

Room, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, is two movies in one. Joy “Ma” Newsome (Brie Larson) and her son, five year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay), are kidnapped by Jack’s father, the heartless sociopath “Old Nick,” (Sean Bridgers) and locked in a shed for several years. For Jack, “room” is the only world he knows, and Ma makes the best of his world (e.g., bed, table, refrigerator, chair #1, chair #2, sink, bathtub, toilet, and TV).

The other movie is life outside “room,” which takes every ounce of their love to adjust to. Thus, it is a story of adaptation and transition.

Ma’s initial strategy is to convince Jack that “room” is all there is. The images on TV such as other people, trees, cars, etc. are magic; they’re made up. Jack accepts this explanation, and develops a worldview around it. They read together, laugh, and prepare themselves for periodic visits from mad-at-the-world, Old Nick. Jobless, Joy and Jack are his only possessions of value, but he never stays long, remaining aggressive and dictatorial. This adds to Joy’s depression.

Room, based on the novel of the same name by Emma Donoghue remains true to her psychological study of isolation and later adjustment to freedom. room-review.w529.h352.2xF. Scott Fitzgerald said, “Man can endure anything, once he gets used to it,” and George Bernard Shaw declares, “if you don’t get what you like, you better like what you get.” Given the heavy metal door with computerized lock, Joy accepts her fate at first, but must shield her pains of hope from Jack. In fact, Jack begins to love “room.” Why not? It’s his world, and provides for his needs. When Joy mentions the “other side of these walls.” Jack’s upset: “What is a side?” He lacks the cognitive ability to understand an “outside,” and is frightened by the suggestion that something exists beyond “room.” At his point, Joy realizes the danger in Jack’s limited worldview, and plans their escape.

Disclosing her plan requires a spoiler alert given the suspense element, so suffice it to say they eventually get out. In fact, more than half the movie takes place post-“room.”

Needless to say, it is a rough adjustment. The spatial differences alone have Jack curling into a fetal position afraid to talk to people. room-ROOM_DAY40-0056_rgb_2040.0Joy can’t make sense of the new environment and, like Jack, no longer possesses good communication skills. She’s into herself, drawing resentment from her mother (Joan Allen) who also claims victimization with a daughter missing for seven years. Her father (William H. Macy) is so repulsed by Old Nick, that he refuses to look Jack in the eye; he can’t accept him as his grandson. An old family friend (Sean Bridgers), is the steady hand that guides mother and son back to life beyond “room.”

Mother and son resume their tight bond facing life’s next phase; they deal with frustrations, but also delight in new foods, entertainment, and making friends. Room can be read at several levels; it’s an inspiring mother-son story about overcoming insurmountable odds. At another level, it deals with the Christian paradox of the world that is to be simultaneously embraced and shunned. Perhaps most fascinating is the occasional nostalgia Jack has for “room.” If you could remove Old Nick,  it was a place of safety in a controllable world, and, most importantly, there was constant attention from “Ma.” Some religious groups seek isolation. On the other hand, the world is an infinite source of opportunities for growth; it’s a necessary condition for the Plan of Salvation. It is a thinking person’s movie raising the question, “What should the world be?”

ENCORE REVIEW “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan”

by Dean Duncan

It’s the John Lennon story! This one obviously ended differently, but the sense of dread and impending is very powerful, and in fact makes this much more of a Scorsese picture than you might at first think. That unsettling, threatening something is just as powerful as in his more noted, more typical pictures, maybe even more so. This time it’s not George Wallace’s assailant/Travis Bickle, or Rupert Pupkin, or Joe Pesci (’95). Rather, it’s the entire, insatiable, insane collective. We can dismiss some of his fictional psychopaths as anomalies, or perversions; there’s no such reassurance here. That insatiable collective gives geniuses like Bob Dylan lots to think and talk about, and it does its very effective best to kill them, too.

Actually, that last description mostly applies to the third act of this drama. Before that we’ve got a great character, with a great story, all very modestly and effectively communicated. Scorcese? Is this a/nother sign that the firebrand has grown up, or gentled? Maybe, or it could be that the documentary form allows him to positively subordinate himself to other external or pre-existing realities. Everyone should make one! It must be a relief for an tortured and torturing expressionist like him, and it speaks well for him.

No Direction Home is a 207-minute movie devoted to the investigation of this ragged, protean, utter phenomenon. It isn’t a second too long. Look at the profitable ways in which they linger. Ask the questions, and explore ano-direction-home-bob-dylan-tyrone-smith-music-art-dream real range of answers to them. Do the secondary characters, the satellites even, the favour of seeing them as more than just satellites. They go way back. Dylan’s ancient associates really register, and give a tremendous sense of context, and mass movement. They all deserve documentaries! (Cf. de Antonio’s Eugene McCarthy movie.) Also, triumphantly, let that archival footage roll! This primary material has a real charge, serving as a powerful index to past realities. More than that, there’s something actually totemic going on. Seem inflated? It’s not, I don’t think. Sacred texts!

Dylan is so smart then, he’s so smart now. He’s elusive. You wonder. Is he just weird? (Then what about that luminously aware, beautifully written and deeply decent autobiog?) His fascinating speech cadences, the amazing sentences and paragraphs that he strings together so effortlessly, come off a bit like William Holden’s narration in Billy Wilder’s mordant, terminal Sunset Boulevard. You wouldn’t normally put these two things together.

They do go together, though, in a way that’s connected to that previous John Lennon comment. No Direction Home ends pretty triumphantly, with that famous incident that took place in Manchester, in 1966. Dylan had played his

American Masters: Bob Dylan
Photo: © Sony

first acoustic set. Then the Hawks—later The Band—come on and plug in, and a big part of the audience starts to boo. Listen carefully. Someone just called Dylan, a Jew, Judas. “I don’t believe you,” says Dylan. “You’re a liar!” Then he turns, and uttering just off-mic a profanity that actually seems kind of apt, urges his companions to play it loud! Boom, a barreling organ sound, and the angry poet stepping to the microphone: “Once upon a time you dressed so fine …”

That’s a good story, and it’s part of the picture. But leading up to that climax we are witness to a terrible escalation of pressure, scrutiny, presumption and hostile disapproval. In D.A. Pennebaker’s 1965 Dylan doc Don’t Look Back,Dylan takes advantage of his stature and celebrity on a couple of occasions, and speaks discourteously, even bullyingly (the Alan Price sequence) to a member of the press, or an importunate fan. He’s so quick, and they’re so slow. He’s so bright, and they’re so dim. He prevails, and they slink off.

No Direction Home shows us the other side of those exchanges, or a context that inflects them in a revealing way. The autobiography details it as well. In addition to the acclaim and adulation, Dylan was criticized, condemned, harangued, harassed, pilloried and vilified. It got to the point that his advocates and detractors were of equal concern. He was in fear for his life! And his family’s safety. And his sanity, maybe.

In the summer of 1966 Dylan had, or allegedly had, a motorcycle accident. He was injured. The accident caused him to withdraw from tour obligations, and from the promotional grind, and from public life entire. It may also had saved his life. Dylan remained a huge cultural force, but never to the extent that he had been in this first, dizzying halcyon period. After the Manchester concert, or the English tour in which it occurred, Dylan disappeared. The film ends there. Another course of action, and it might have ended with Mark David Chapman.

Media Briefs: The Five Worst TV Shows, and More!

The Bachelor. As this merry mockery of courtship and marriage is well into its twentieth season, the show’s incredulity and banality insults even the most ardent fan of light fare reality TV. This season’s bachelor, is 27-year-old Ben Higgins, a software salesman from Indiana. A cadre of gorgeous ladies will vie for Ben’s affection, and even marry if the chemistry’s there. How has the Bachelor survived 20 years? Host Chris Harrison says, “It’s all about love.” Is it an affront to feminism? Harrison replies, “The ratings” say “absolutely not…It’s the most affluent educated audience on television,” he tells CBS News.

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According to a summary of the last episode in Wikipedia Season 20, this is what the “highly educated” audience is treated to:

“Soon, Ben arrives at the mansion, talks to Chris, and the limos arrive. Memorable moments include Lauren B., a flight attendant gives Ben a small wing pin, Jami tells Ben that she is friends with Kaitlyn Bristowe, Lace boldy kisses Ben to be his first of the night, Lauren R. didn’t introduce her name to Ben that immediately stalking him, Shushanna was soon followed and speaks Russian, Leah brings a football to bent Ben with a hike toss, Joelle (self-named “JoJo”) comes out the limo wearing a unicorn mask, Mandi comes out wearing a giant rose above her head…”

If this is what televison’s most affluent, highly educated audience is engaged by (no pun intended), our standards have taken a beating. Using James Twitchell’s “taxonomy of taste,” this show demands a category below, “Low Cult;” it has about the same redeeming value as professional wrestling.

 

American Idol: Final Season. Put this one to bed already, or more appropriately, lower the coffin of what was once an entertaining show deep in the earth. In all fairness, Idol had a deservedly good run, its populist concept of uncovering gifted amateur singers from

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Kansas or North Dakota, and catapulting them to national fame was original. More riveting were the contestants with no discernible talent, but nevertheless convinced themselves they were the next Justin Beiber or Beyonce. Where are the William Hungs and Keith Beukelaers this year? Simon Cowell called the latter the “worst singer in the world.” And, to our disbelief, Keith is devastated when told singing is not for him. According to Cowell, when young people were asked ‘What do you want to be?’ they said things like doctor and lawyer or fireman. Today, it’s ‘being famous.’”

 

Fuller House. This series depicting the cast of the original Full House 29 years later, makes absolutely no sense. Young viewers didn’t see the original and older audiences have long gotten past the cheesy jokes. Whoever brought this one up at the board meeting should be fired. The piped-in laughter should be piped-in boos.

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Wheel of Fortune. How has this dreadful game show lasted so long? Is watching Vanna White turn letters worth thirty minutes of our time? Nothing innovative in years. Get me to Jeopardy fast! Or even tic-tac-toe with paper and pencil.

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“Hannity” (on the right) and “Real Time with Bill Maher” (on the left) Sean Hannity is the major news “barker” of TV. His biased direct questions hannity-300x196put guests on edge. He listens for two seconds and then, “Whoof Whoof!” Guest: “My view on that is…” Hannity: “Whoof! Whoof!” He claims to be an “advocacy journalist.” Is that possible? Too slow, “Whoof!” Bill Maher, on the other hand, allows guests to speak, but makes you feel stupid if your opinion separates from his. Exaggerations, violations of fact, it’s all good because “I’m a smart comedian! Smarter than you and you and you! What, you’re religious? Then you’re a bigot! You’re responsible for the Inquisition!”

Bill Maher Performs At The Pearl At The Palms Casino Resort
LAS VEGAS, NV – MARCH 23: Television host and comedian Bill Maher performs at The Pearl concert theater at the Palms Casino Resort on March 23, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by David Becker/WireImage)

 

 

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Umberto Eco, Novelist and Semiotician Dies at 84.

Best known for his novel, ‘The Name of the Rose’ that sold 30 million copies in 44 languages, Professor Eco was bridged the gap between the university and popular culture. He taught at the University of Bologna, Italy’s oldest university. There, he authored 20 nonfiction books, and was considered a leading theorist in semiotics, the study of the relationship between symbols and society. The Name of the Rose was made into a movie starring Sean Connery. The novel, ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ was also a worldwide bestseller.

 

Renowned Chef Jaques Pepin’s Book, The Apprentice

World famous Chef Jaques Pepin appeared on the NPR show, Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me! to discuss his life and new book, The Apprentice. From 1956-59 he cooked for three French presidents including Charles DeGaulle.

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Chef Jacques Pepin was inducted into the French Legion of Honor, his home country’s highest civilian honor, in 2004.

He came to America to learn the language, “But I never did!” he jokingly told the audience. “All I could find in the store was iceberg lettuce. Where are the mushrooms? The beef and lamb here is superb though. And the women.” Pepin also worked for Howard Johnson’s improving the recipe for their famous fried clams. The best hamburgers are made with Jewish brisket. “Don’t press it when cooking,” he says. “Just add iceberg lettuce and onion, nothing else.” When asked what his last meal would be, he said, “I know it will be very long.”

 

Don Hertzfeldt’s “World of Tomorrow” a 2015 Sundance Short Film Claims that a Person’s Soul will Live Beyond Physical Death through Artificial Intelligence

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According to this short documantary, your soul or consciousness can be uploaded as memory into new cloned bodies continuously after your birth body passes. If you can’t afford this, full digital consciousness transfer will enable your mind to be implanted in a robot so that you can still be part of a person’s life after physical death.  There will also be an “outernet” where everyone is connected to the same neural network. View screens allow robots to view all events in history. No where in the film does it explain how “consciousness” can be achieved in a non-living thing.

In the new TV series, “Lucifer,” the bad one is thinking more deeply and thoroughly about what it means to be human.

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The adversary takes a vacation from hell to spend time in LA. His only power is to encourage people to fulfill their desires. And, of course, he focuses on the unsavory ones.  He owns a nightclub and is an extraordinary piano player.  Lucifer feels oddly fulfilled when questioning someone’s motives such as those of a murderer in one case. An angel is sent to retrieve him, but his interaction with humanity is intoxicating. His therapist says, “You’re changing.” The idea of the dark one developing the seeds of a conscience is an interesting plot line. The Jesus figure asks him to return to hell. “You’re time on earth is affecting you.” Unfortunately, the show is in the lowest common denominator genre trying to draw the largest audience possible. Which, of course, means lots of sexual innuendos and stilted dialogue. He’s no saint (duh), but it’s interesting the writers don’t mock religion or God. The issues raised are actually quite interesting.  Hopefully, as the series progresses, it doesn’t turn out to be a downer.

 

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Colorado boldly legalized recreational marijuana over two years ago. The documentary series, High Profits, tells the story of Brian Rogers and Caitlin McGuire owners of the first “weed” store, the Breckenridge Cannabis Club. The community, especially downtown retailers are mostly opposed to the “shop of highs.” Within weeks, they are making $5,000 a day and trending upward; soon it’s more than $40,000. Customers line up outside the doors for the store to open. One customer travels from Mexico City.   Pot paraphernalia stores are popping up on side streets, and citizens are worried that their tidy pristine tourist town will soon be the East Village of Manhattan.

But, the owners have done their homework, (e.g., securing all permits, a dependable supply chain, and marketing plan). The store has the same faux Swiss-style Disneyland architecture as the other businesses; they blend in for the most part. There are problems, though. Taxes are 24%. “Our town is being destroyed!” a resident voices. Another agrees: “They’re parasites!” The City Council votes that the store has to move from Main Street to a less prominent location within a year.

High Profits is an eight-episode ethnographic film treating us to the first glimpse of a controversial industry unfolding. Perhaps most compelling is what it reveals about the weed culture before legalization. On the street outside the Club, young and old mingle, sharing “smoking stories” uncovering more about a vast culture once hidden. It also raises the potentially deleterious impacts on immature local teens as they grow up with this new element in their local community.

 

 

Harper Lee (1926-2016): A teacher’s tribute

by Kayna Stout

The passing of Harper Lee has brought with it a well spring of memories. In 1995-96, I taught “To Kill a Mockingbird” (TKMB) to 150 ninth graders in Lindon, Utah at Oak Canyon Junior High. It was my first and only year of teaching at a secondary school. And, it was my objective to create 150 new fans of the novel. During our six week unit, I thought of every creative way I could share my enthusiasm for what to me is the greatest American novel ever written.

It just so happened that Brigham Young University was producing the play version of TKAM, which I had seen that semester. The child who played Scout was the spitting image from the movie that starred Gregory Peck as Atticus, Scout’s lawyer father. I tracked her down and discovered she was from Pleasant Grove just a stone’s throw from our school. I asked her and her mother if she could come to my six classes for the day and perform like she did in the play at BYU. For a nine year old, she was amazing in her ability to be in character with overalls and a Southern drawl. I had borrowed from the drama teacher a large black box for her to stand on as she recited line after line from the play and novel we were reading as a class.

My students were spell bound. There was not a single disruption during any of my classes, harper and scoutwhich was a first for me as a novice teacher. By the time fourth period rolled around, the drama teacher had heard what I was doing and asked if she could bring her students for the remainder of the day. Now with 60 students crammed into each class, our young actress was still mesmerizing them all. That’s the power of talent combined with an engrossing story and great dialogue. Harper Lee herself would have been proud at the way we were handling her masterpiece.

I was so intrigued by Lee’s seclusion from the literary world after receiving the Pulitzer Prize that I researched in the BYU library what else she had published. This was pre Internet when you actually had to go to a library to find something. I discovered the article she had written for McCall’s magazine early in her writing career before her fame. I went to the stacks and found it. I made a photocopy to share with the class.

As we progressed in our reading of TKAM to the trial of Tom, I thought of another engaging harper gregory peckactivity for my classes. I divided them into groups of five and provided each with tape recorders. I found quiet places throughout the school where they could turn their portion of the trial into a radio broadcast. I told them to be creative with sound effects and voices. They exceeded my expectations as we listened all together as a class to their radio productions. Another teaching triumph. I felt a kinship with Miss Lee; she was teaching her readers to become more tolerant people, and I was teaching my students to be the same.

We were in this journey together.

I had another surprise guest for my students as we headed toward the Christmas break. My mother-in-law Betty was visiting our family for the holidays and arrived before school was out. She’s from Georgia and has a soft Southern drawl. I convinced her to speak to my class about growing up in the segregated South in the 40’s and 50’s, the decades that followed the events in the novel. She had my Utah students in the palm of her hand. They applauded her at the end of her reminisces as a Southern born and bred girl.

I sent all my students home for the holidays with a chocolate gift I made. I found a candy mold in the shape of a bird probably meant to be a dove, and I wrapped each in cellophane with a red ribbon. As they headed out the door to start their Christmas vacation, I gave each student a chocolate mockingbird. I think Harper Lee would have approved!

When classes got underway again in January, I intrigued my students with a black draped box that resembled the size and shape of a casket. I told them that they would be participating in a funeral for Tom. There’s no funeral for Tom in the novel, but I felt like he deserved one, and asked the students to help me mourn his loss. They wrote down the good things about Tom’s life. I put a photo of a black man on top of the casket. I played a cassette tape of Mahalia Jackson singing with a gospel choir. The students stood by their desks one at a time and read their tributes to Tom. It was emotional and felt real to all of us.

I apologize to Miss Lee for taking creative liberties with her American Classic, but I think she would forgive me, a first year teacher doing her best to teach adolescents about prejudice and compassion. By the end of the six weeks of reading TKAM, I felt like we all knew each other a little better and had grown wiser about the world we inhabit.

As a final assignment, I asked my students to write a letter to Harper Lee telling her what they had learned from her novel. I told them I would mail their letters to her, but I didn’t. I’m sorry, but I was pretty exhausted just surviving my time-crunched life as their ninth grade English teacher. There were other activities and the occasional pop quiz, but all I wanted was to have them love that novel as much as I did and still do. I hope wherever they are now as 35 year olds when they hear the news of Harper Lee’s passing, they will remember that ninth grade teacher who wanted to make the world a better place. Thank you for the memories Miss Harper Lee. I’m glad I still have those letters. They are my connection to that special time and place in my life. Something that means a great deal to me.

The morality tales in TKAM resonate with LDS beliefs. The equality of all God’s children is a thread that runs through both the novel and the Book of Mormon. For example, 2 Nephi 26:33 could have been said by Atticus just as well as Nephi states, “… He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female … all are alike unto God both Jew and Gentile.” And I believe Atticus would have encouraged his children to raise their voices to a Mormon hymn such as “Do What is Right.” He exemplified the lyrics to this beloved hymn when he guarded Tom in jail against an angry mob. There are even echoes of Joseph Smith’s unjust imprisonment. These themes of equality, justice and standing up for what’s right are what make TKAM feel so familiar to an LDS reader. If it’s been awhile since reading it, doing so will honor the author for sharing it with us.

 

 

Susan Jacoby’s new book,”Strange Gods: A secular history of conversion

by Danny Stout

According to Susan Jacoby, there are reasons for religious conversion beyond spiritual ones. In a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, she says, “I wanted to see how much of conversion is forced, through family, or through the social or economic gains.”

Her 2008 book about anti-intellectualism, The Age of American Unreason, was a New York Times best seller. Jacobi is an atheist and secular humanist; her goal isn’t to push an atheist agenda nor discredit believers. She does, however, feel that secularists have been ignored and mistreated as exemplified by the fact that political candidates do not recognize, and therefore ignore “secular voters.”

Unlike the new atheism that takes an incendiary stance toward religion, attributing many of life’s ills to denominations, Jacoby’s book is refreshingly tolerant while retaining her defense of secularism. Works such as The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris

and Richard Dawkins’ fiery The God Delusion, argue that religion diverts the individual from sec book imagethe scientific worldview, therefore delaying social and cultural advancement. One should actively campaign against it. The late public intellectual Christopher Hitchens strongly advocated this position. Jacobi, on the other hand, respects religionists that find peace and truth in their convictions; she is critical, though, of proselyting and the implication that secularists have an inferior position. Atheism is not a religion; it lacks rituals. It shouldn’t be looked at as an inferior religion, she says.

Governmental adoption of religious slogans such as “In God we trust,” are not egalitarian, and indicate that religions are too close to the state. On NPR she quoted presidential candidate Ted Cruz: “Nobody should be president that doesn’t begin the day on his knees.” Such a statement ignores secular values, Jacobi insists. President Jimmy Carter is a devout Baptist, but respects secular people.

Perhaps a more dominant theme in Strange Gods, is that religious conversion is complex and pragmatic, a result of many factors none of which have to be belief-centered. Her father was a secular Jew that converted to Catholicism. When Jacobi asked him why he didn’t raise her as a Jew, he said, “If you didn’t get something in life, I didn’t want it because you were a Jew.” His own conversion was about accommodation and acceptance by the larger society. Her point is that religionists and secularists may have more in common than we think.

“My family is genuinely an American story. Jews migrated, converted to Lutheranism and Susan Jacobymy German uncle converted to Episcopalianism. Some stayed as Jews. Some married Irish Catholics. My mother was Irish Catholic.” If you join a religion that claims absolute truth, dissent is difficult, “so you stay,” she says. In less rigid faith communities, people move around. Half the U.S. population has changed religion at least one or more time, Jacoby asserts.

Her family members are generally accepting of conversion if it solves a problem. Her mother thought Catholicism was the answer to her husband’s gambling, and it helped. President George W. Bush sought out Evangelicalism to deal with his drinking problem. He also had success.

Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion is a plea for mutual respect between believers and secularists. Jacobi’s argument that secularists are second-class citizens is convincing. Bernie Sanders is a secular Jew, she points out. He says, “I feel culturally Jewish.” He is openly secular, but Jacobi laments many understand what that means. It’s even worse that few care.

The book ends on an optimistic note. There is a changing, more positive reaction to secularists, she believes. “I can say I’m an atheist without shame.” Her message for religionists, and that would include Latter-day Saints, is that if one is commanded to love all people, this should also apply to secularists.

“Harlan County USA:” A review of an influential documentary on its 40th anniversary

Editor’s note: This is the first of many “anniversary reviews” of great films of the past. Here, Dean Duncan reviews Harlan County, USA, winner of an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1977. Sight and Sound magazine ranks Harlan County, USA 24th on its “Greatest Documentaries of All Time” list.

by Dean Duncan

Deepest, darkest Kentucky: generational poverty, generations of social inequality and economic disadvantage, hardship rooted down in the very bedrock. “Why don’t they just move?” asks one of our documentary film students. Someone asks that one every time. This next is not inevitable, though it’s very, very likely. The person who asks that question is almost always a prosperous political conservative, or at least the child of prosperous political conservatives.

“What if they don’t want to move?” answers one of our more sensitive, still ideologically undecided students. (She is also, often, the product of prosperous political conservatives.) harlan-county-usaThat question always comes up too. Though that first youth hasn’t thought it through this far, his question is like telling the abused child or altar boy that he can leave if he objects so much. Can he? If the abused and the brutalized can just leave, how come they hardly ever do? And just as importantly, leaving doesn’t quite address the underlying problem, does it?

And the second student? Her eyes are opened, her heart is rent—it’s usually a young woman—and she might not yet be asking the most fundamental question.

“What if they can’t move?”

These practically archetypal exchanges contain three great and terrible things. Here is the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, as it were. Here is something like unto a primal scene, featuring the proliferation of want and ignorance, cruelty and injustice. I have been so fortunate, and with others in such privation!

That is one thing. The second is that here is every person’s necessary, exhilarating call to citizenship and activism. There is work to do! Third? Here also is the exhausted despair that seems always to lie at the end of that citizen’s road. So much sorrow, so much to do. So impossible!

And yet… The awesome Barbara Kopple, this film’s creator—its angelic Minister, really—may well be politically this or that. And make no doubt that politics are very harlan-county-usa-2important, because it is in the midst of our political activity that we evaluate, diagnose, prioritize,  and apply the correct physic to our social ills. But the vividness and ardour of the lives that Kopple portrays here, the depth of their difficulties, the principalities that are arrayed against them ultimately takes Harlan County, USA far outside of the realms of mere partisanship. And in fact, isn’t that true whether there’s a film or not? Doesn’t it apply whenever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy? Come on, Christians: we’re talking about discipleship here, about moral/ethical necessity! At some point your strident ideological sentiments become plain indecent.

The beautifully vivid characters that populate this blasted landscape provide the affluent viewer with real and salutary challenge. Like the raw music on the soundtrack, they are unapologetically themselves, warts and all. They are admirably resolute, eventually even magisterial (the lady with the barettes!). But they are not statues, and it is to her credit that Kopple includes their unsympathetic moments as well. They have a habit of scoffing at their foes in an unkind manner. Their lack of education and opportunity, alas, leads often to pettiness and ill manners. (And what, you might ask, is the excuse of the well-favoured?)

Here is the terrible and wonderful thing at once, the moral substance and weight of Kopple’s film. It’s shared by Robert Flaherty’s residential method, or the voluntary extended term of the service performed by the sons of Mosiah (cf. The Book of Mormon, Alma 17-26). When you stay you move from first impressions—terrible teeth, or the even the overly-idealized the-common-man’s-the-noblest-work-of-God (Burns, pub. 1786)—to impatience, and eventually to the complete picture, and finally to a hard won and immoveable regard.

And then, of course, it’s reality once again, and the general entropic flow of things. After all of the strikers’ progress, and our own empathetic advancement, it ends up that the union is run by gangsters. They are deposed and replaced, after a mighty battle. And then the almost certainly superior new regime lets our protagonists down as well, just as much or even more. And who can say, given that the needs of the few don’t always coincide with the well-being of the many, that they were wrong?

Untidily and appropriately, Harlan County ends with the actual who-knows muddle of history and actuality. Sometimes the best you can do still leads only to tangles, or worse. What’s the solution? What’s the point?! As the film concludes Kopple engages an elderly miner in a brief conversation, just as he prepares to go below once more. There’s a huge chaw in his cheek, and he observes with resigned good humour that it’s unlikely he’ll ever be able to retire. This is where this whole struggle started, isn’t it? And this is where it has ended, in the exact same dispiritingly inequitable place.

“Have a safe day,” she says.

“The Witch,” A psychological thriller set in Puritan New England

by Danny Stout

Although considered a horror film, The Witch is more accurately a portraiture of a Puritan family and their obsessions with sin and punishment. The witch character, while important, mainly serves to underscore the perils of religious fanaticism in early New England. Director Robert Eggers captures with precision, Puritan life down to the minutest detail. Period dialect, mannerisms, folkways, agricultural methods, and clothing combine to transport the viewer to seventeenth century Massachusetts like few films before it. Authenticity, then, creates a context for a scary chilling ride that satisfies both fans of the genre as well as anyone after a good story. In the vein of the novel The Scarlet Letter and play, The Crucible, The Witch pursues psychological questions at a level exceeding typical horror films. This is further enhanced by the dark-forest aesthetic with bare branches and eternal overcast skies. It was an award-winner at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

William (Ralph Ineson) announces in a Puritan meeting house, that his family, displeased with the sins of the congregation, plan a more righteous life away from the village.witch image “Then begone with all of you!” the minister shouts. Soon William, his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), older teen daughter Thomison (Anya Taylor-Joy), younger teen Caleb, and younger twins Mercy and Jonas establish a small farm with a house and stables. Katherine gives birth to a new member of the tightly knit clan. For a short time spirits are high, and things go well.

The good times never roll too far, however, when every event in life is seen as either reward or punishment. The solution to all difficulty is to repent of sin, and any accomplishment must be attributed to God. These are untenable standards even for the devout, and tension is inevitable. When some of the crops fail, Katherine blames William and his many sins. Conceding he’s the cause, he confesses to selling Katherine’s silver chalice for tools and farm supplies. A gift from her parents, Katherine is so irate she’s convinced the Devil occupies their household. When William speaks of forgiveness as taught by the Good Book, Katherine will have none of it. They’re headed, she believes, for a long period of castigation. Such talk unnerves the children.

Giving away more dilutes the unease that’s a necessary Witch Hunt, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1650-300condition for effect. Suffice it to say there is death, illness, accusation, and a witch. Or is the witch a product of the imagination of someone so ridden with guilt that it becomes psychoses? For all that was said earlier about history and aesthetics, this is a “scary” film if such is defined by progressive fright toward a climactic moment. Moody scenes deliver optimal tension. The Witch employs understated horror much like The Innocents, based on the novel, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, or The Village directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Such an approach can be more effective than overt imagery.

While The Witch can be experienced at the horror film level alone, there is commentary about Puritan life and the deleterious impacts of fanaticism. The topic is universally relevant; the dangers of hyper-zealotry exist in all faith communities. Given the number of Mormon descendants of Puritan heritage, the movie is particularly poignant. In the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Jaroldeen Edwards argues that early Mormon settlements reflected “…the independence and vigor of western frontiersmanship, and New England Puritanism.”

One example is the Puritan Old Ship Meeting House, now simply the Old Ship Church. It’s a plain structure: no stained glass, statuary, or paintings; such things would replace God, they believed. The building closely resembles the simplicity of LDS chapels, surely a vestige of New England theology.

Thankfully, Church leaders renounce Puritanical practice in its various forms. Unfortunately, it occasionally emerges requiring good Latter-day Saints to speak out against such behaviors. A professor colleague at BYU related a story about his grandmother’s friend in the 1950’s. that had a child out of wedlock. When asked, along with the father, to confess before the entire congregation, she refused, moving elsewhere. It only happened for a time, she said, before the public practice ended. Today, we all hear comments such as, “He will never be a Bishop, he was disfellowshipped,” or “She made bad decisions that will follow her the rest of her life.”

Viewing the film, I wondered how Christians could lose sight of the principle of forgiveness to the point of overlooking Christian love. Compassion is a necessary condition for the Plan of Salvation. This film, in an almost ethnographic sense, depicts family members letting compassion slip away. Film can teach by demonstrating the opposite of a principle. As the credits came up at the end, I realized how much I value true Christianity and the need for daily forgiveness of family, friends, and all people.

“Hail Caesar!” A perplexingly entertaining film from the Coen Brothers

by Danny Stout

Joel and Ethan Coen, the critically lauded and chided filmmakers known for their eclectic blend of serious drama and brainy comedy, notably the award-winning, The Big Lebowski,No Country for Old Men, Fargo, and Burn After Reading, deliver another gem of movie-viewing bliss and complexity with Hail Caesar!

The Coens take us behind stage of the 1940’s golden era film industry with protagonist movie executive the “fixerEddie Mannix, an actual character played by Josh Brolin, that frenetically solves problems, pulls strings, keeps scandal out of the press, and deals with an aggressively demanding boss calling him all day. Hail-Caesar-(2016)-posterHe loves the pronto pace of each day interrupted only for regular visits to the Catholic confessional where he discloses, despite more serious picadillos, that he “smoked another cigarette,” against his vow to quit.

As a powerful film mogul, his ultimate project is Hail Caesar, what he considers  the greatest depiction of Jesus on the silver screen. The gravity of greatness is so strong that it pulls him into a conference room with religious leaders given an advance copy of the script. One of the more humorous scenes, they argue about the nature of God while Mannix’s face feigns bewilderment, “Oh really?” he asks befuddled. But, caught up in their role in making “a picture,” they agree the movie’s portrayal of Jesus is fine. This meeting, his regular confessions, and references to the “League of Decency,” a Catholic movie censor, underline how powerful religion had over Hollywood. The League of Decency advocated rules such as couples sleeping apart and no chest hair on Tarzan.

Then, Maxim deals with the kidnapping of Hail Caesar’s leading man, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a Roman general-type character. A group of Communist Hollywood movie writers, demand $100,000 for Whitlock’s release to compensate for their low par from a greedy capitalist film industry. No problem, as Maxim picks up the phone. “I need some petty cash,” he says to the accountant, and poof! another problem solved.

Just two more minor details and he can call it a day. A news reporter threatens to expose a scandal involving a director. That’s easy; he has even juicier aspersions to cast over the writer’s head. Check that one off the list. But, then there’s a dicier conundrum. Popular actress DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant, Mannix calls the lawyers. The baby will be put in foster care, and she can adopt it later without disclosing she’s the mother. Done. What a day!

Similar to Fargo and The Big Lebowski, the Coens throw a lot at us. Plot development is replete with abundant twists and turns that raise infinite social and psychological dilemmas. In a Coen Brothers interview on the The Big Lebowski DVD, they don’t expect the audience to figure the nuances of the plot, they say. Complexity is a device to draw the reaction, “What the…?”

Hail coen bros 2 Such is the case with Hail Caesar. On the one hand, it seems to celebrate the passing of a restrictive era of film. On the other, the synchronised swimming and dancing scenes are magically evocative of everything wonderful about movies of that age. Yet, one gets the feeling that great old movies are the exception rather than the rule. How could they not be given the constraints on the industry at that time.

The filmmakers give us plenty of fodder and say, “Take it from here.” You can choose one thing and simplify the story, or take days trying to figure the whole thing out, and that’s OK too. According to Manohla Dargis of The New York Times “it has more going on than there might seem, including in its wrangling over God and ideology, art and entertainment.”

Nevertheless, at a general level, most will leave the theater entertained, but mulling over the hierarchy of power in the film industry, and censorship by religious groups, directly then, and indirectly now.

Against other Coen Brothers work, it Hail Caesar probably falls somewhere in the middle. It doesn’t evoke the imagination and creativity of the big pictures, Fargo and The Big Lebowski, but the concept and writing exceed that of The Ladykillers and Inside Llewyn Davis. While not their greatest film, it rises to their standard of healthy confusion, and unexpected scenes of grand entertainment.