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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Two films about community: Leave No Trace and Sorry to Bother You

I had taken a break from blogging in order to try to sort out a too-busy life, and find that, as so often is the case, as I return, I am blogging about film.

Recently, I saw Leave No Trace and Sorry to Bother You. Both show bleak worlds and both offer hope through community.

Leave No Trace, directed by Debra Granik of Winter's Bone fame, based on the book My Abandonment by Peter Rock, focuses on a young girl of about 13 named Tom. Tom lives "below the radar" in an Oregon state park with her father, Will. Will, an Iraq war vet, suffers from PTSD. Will is not able to tolerate being around people or living in civilization. As the story opens, the twosome's carefully constructed and sophisticated wilderness life is disrupted when  a ranger spots Tom. This leads to their relocation to a small house on a tree farm. It also has repercussions for other people who had set up a tent/shack village in the woods, as they are bulldozed out of their makeshift homes.

Tom and her father after moving to a small, generic house on the tree logging farm. 

Tom pulls away from her father because she likes living in a house with young people her own age around her. She welcomes the possibility of being part of a larger culture. She leaves the tree farm unwillingly when Will decides that they have to go back to the woods. Later, when Will is badly injured, she finds a small, marginal community near the park where they have been staying in Washington state. A medic sets Will's injured leg, while a local woman lets them live rent free in a small trailer. Once again, Tom enjoys getting involved in the life of the local community. When her father decides he must return to the wilderness, she lets him go, but stays behind in civilization.

Sorry to Bother You, directed by Boots Riley, takes place in a slightly alternative-universe  Oakland, taken out only a few degrees from our own culture. The movie is a Swiftian satire of our culture's obsession with money, violence, and success. In this film, the lead character "Cash" Green is so desperate for a job that he is glad to get work as a telemarketer. He lives in a garage with his girlfriend Detroit, an artist, and is surrounded by a world of poverty and desperation that makes the Leave No Trace universe look prosperous. People are so desperate that they sign lifetime contracts with a company called Worry Free, which gives them room and board in return for their labor. Worry Free ads show people living stacked in bunk beds, where their meals are brought on trays. Cash's uncle, whose garage Cash rents, thinks about joining Worry Free because his house is about to be foreclosed on. The US Congress, consistently shown in cahoots with big industry, passes legislation that deems Worry Free not slavery, though obviously it is. In addition, people enjoy a reality TV show in which other people are beaten up called "I Got the S**t Kicked Out of Me."

To abbreviate the plot, Cash moves up to become a Power Caller because of his "white voice" and ability to telemarket, where one of his clients becomes none other than Worry Free. He is exposed to Worry Free's sociopathic owner, Steve Lift. We see the vast gulf between the haves in the luxury  Power Caller offices upstairs, and the have nots crowded into the bullpen office below. Cash as Power Caller makes enough to pay off his uncle's mortgage, buy a fancy car, and move into a luxury apartment. Meanwhile, a worker name Squeeze organizes the employees downstairs into striking for a living wage.

Cash in the downstairs telemarketing room, before he gets his break.

Sorry to Bother You offers a more expansive worldview than  Leave No Trace. It includes rich and poor, and black, white, Latino, and Asian. Leave No Trace suffers from being an entirely "white world" movie, albeit one that largely deals with a fringe population living on the margins of society. Both movies, however, show the hollowing out of the middle class. Will in Leave No Trace is, of course, an exception, being in the wilderness because of PTSD, but many of the other people in the movie seem to be living either in the Oregon state park's illegal "Hooverville" or the "fringe" community next to the Washington state park because they lack economic resources. That the movie makes no comment on this makes a comment. This is a far cry from the settled suburban white worlds of Leave it to Beaver or even 1987's National Lampoon Family Christmas, in which a boss is vilified for not giving his middle-class workers a substantial Christmas bonus. In the last community in which Tom and Will land, people live close to each other in Rvs or trailers, or in some cases, modest houses. Many seem to be retired people, who we can guess didn't expect to spend their golden years in an Rv.

Sadly, from communities on the margins to people signing up for Worry Free, neither movie world seems too far from reality, and  the two movies together provide an honest commentary on the current state of the United States. Both movies raise the question, which seems to be verboten in our day-to-day discourse: do so many people really have to live so rough (to paraphrase Dickens's Magwitch)  so a few can live obscenely well?

Both movies depict community as the answer. Some of the loveliest scenes in Leave No Trace show Tom learning bee keeping skills with a quiet, gentle mentor, who encourages her to let the bees get to know her and to herself become part of a broader ecology. There are also beautiful moments of community get togethers outside with music and food. Likewise, in Sorry to Bother You, strength and integrity come from people sticking together in community. The characters may have horrible jobs, but they don't lose their sense of self or their dignity--that is, except for Cash when he becomes a Power Seller and is humiliated by being expected, for example, to "rap" at a white party.

Tom makes friends in her Washington state community. Her new friends look like real people, not Hollywood actors. 

Detroit, Cash's girlfriend, is one of the strongest characters in the movie. She wants to raise consciousness with her art. She leaves Cash when he continues to break the striking workers' picket line. She also, ala Yoko Ono, allows people to throw objects at her almost naked body in an installation piece meant to raise awareness of exploitation of Africans: she is willing to suffer pain to do this.  As with Yoko Ono having her suit snipped off, people are willing to act aggressively against her once given "permission."

Detroit, an artist, often wears her art as earrings. She is a center of decency in the film. 

Cash has to decide whether we will stay with his massively high paying job trying to sell Worry Free globally or return to his coworkers, friends, and roots. He will have to give up pay that allows him to help his relatives while living in luxury, but he will escape a cruel, sterile world of sycophancy. This choice seems very real as the "middle ground" disappears in our society and perhaps others.

Sorry to Bother You  shows the solidarity of the striking workers and the strong, authentic friendships between the movie's main characters. It can be easy to ridicule the values of friendship and community, but each film shows them to provide nurture, joy, and power. In her good mental health, Tom knows she has to choose community over isolation, as does Cash. Community is threat to a monetized world because it offers people security and self worth.  We wish Will could find his way to it--and one can't help but wonder if Will represents, albeit in different form, all the people who isolate themselves from human contact behind video games or computer screens (though computers are also a good way to find community).

I was surprised by my 23-year-old son's reaction that Sorry to Bother You was "radical." To me, it simply seemed to be speaking truth to power. Both movies remind us that this country needs to get on a better footing and that people coming together non-exploitatively is a way to do it.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Phantom Thread: Male Wet Dream

I saw Phantom Thread last weekend, Daniel Day-Lewis's supposed last film, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. The acting is good, the sets and gowns are beautiful (Daniel Day-Lewis plays a fashion designer in 1950s France), and the music is lovely. The movie has a lyrical, genteel, rarified atmosphere, a window into a gracious world. It has just been nominated for a raft of Oscars, including best picture, best actor, best director, and best supporting actress. 

In this film, Woodcock takes up with a young waitress named Alma (Vicki Krieps). He lives with his sister, Cyril (Leslie Manville). He also makes beautiful gowns for wealthy clients. 

Note the possessive hold on her neck-- and the age difference. 

Woodcock  is so sensitive and his life so rarified that when Alma butters her toast or pours water too loudly, our designer's fragile nerves and concentration are shattered. The movie has  a comic edge (or the audience invented one), because people kept laughing at how over-the-top it all was.

She's his doll. 

As usual (when will I learn?), I was aghast at the way women and their relationships with a male were portrayed. This was another Dr Zhivago, a male wet dream, only without the pesky bother of a communist revolution to disturb Woodcock's gracious lifestyle. Woodcock is adored by the two women in his life—the masculinely named and largely desexed (despite lipstick and pearls) practical mother figure Cyril, and Woodcock’s love interest, Alma. They both live to serve him. Their world revolves around his. As in Dr. Zhivago, these adoring women get along  together… because what could be more important than uniting so as to in every way serve and service the creative genius male? Lives of their own: nyet. Who would want that? Their devotion is utter and unstinting.

Alma's brain is conveniently missing from this photo but not her breasts or her buttocks--or the male gaze.

After watching it, I read one review—in the New York Times—glowing. No questioning of, say, a 60-something marrying a 20-something. It was all “love.” No mention of emotional abuse or Stockholm syndrome. No questioning of the state of mind of the young woman who would stay with this fussy, tantruming, emotionally abusive older man. All that misbehavior, I imagine, is supposed to be amusing and endearing--or the trials of the misunderstood artist. The review praises Alma for standing up to Woodhouse and forcing him toward change. Well, not really. She only stands up to him in minor ways against his whims within the context of a life that is utterly conformed to his own and utterly about servicing him. She goes to a party on New Year's Eve without him! Horrors! Her biggest, most audacious act of rebellion, which I won’t give away, is meant to purify him, to allow her to take care of him so he can be strong again. In other words, it is all about him. Him, him, him, him.

A.O. Scott, the male New York Times critic never questions this or even seems to notice. I wonder if other critics do? He goes far as to pose the question, non-ironically: "Is Alma a feminist heroine?" The short answer: No. And No. A base requirement for being a feminist heroine is having a life and identity separate from a male. Perhaps that bears repeating: A base requirement for being a feminist heroine is having a life and identity separate from a male.

Scott describes the movie as a "wrenching tale of woman's love for a man and a man's love for his work."  This is the definition of an anti-feminist film in a nutshell: Men work. Women adore the men who work. However, when Scott likens it to "refined Gothic nightmare in the manner of Henry James," he strikes closer to the truth, though I am sure he does not know of what he speaketh: James, to put it mildly, was no lover of women. As Jane Austen's  Emma would say, Good God!

One might argue that Anderson is merely reflecting the mores of the 1950s, but that would be false. Outside of the window dressing of clothing (not even fashion), this film has nothing to do with the historical reality of the 1950s. You wouldn't know, for example, that France was still reeling from the aftermath of World War II. This is an entirely mythic universe, divorced from real history. 

Since the movie has been highly praised (it has a 90% favorable rating from critics) and is now nominated for many important Oscars, it may be important to stand up and ask what exactly is being portrayed here and to announce as loudly as possible that, despite some feeble challenges from Alma, this is not a feminist film but one likely to carry forward damaging stereotypes about women. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A New Year: 2018, A blog of books, creativity and cats

As we all know, we live in what are called "interesting times." My friend Ellen Moody has blogged aptly on them at and naturally, they frame our thoughts as well as what we might be able to accomplish as the year unfolds.

Nevertheless, I will blog on the light, bright, and sparkling as we enter a New Year: on books, creativity, and cats.

Nancy on the Trollope list recommended an out-of-print Christmas book I had never heard of, published in 1928, called "The Goldfish Under the Pond," by Christopher Morley, a prolific and once well-known author. Thanks to the internet, I was able to buy a copy easily and inexpensively. It duly arrived, and I most enjoyed this original and humane children's book.

The story is told from the point-of-view of a compassionate dog named Frisky who wants to warm up a goldfish he thinks is freezing under the ice of a pond on Christmas Eve

A page from the book showing illustrations and some social history--apparently, in 1928, children were already wearing bunny slippers, a perennial favorite. The book reads as very old-fashioned, even though written in the 1920s: two maids even come down from the attic to witness the mayhem Frisky has caused. 

I am also reading Virginia Woolf's only book-length biography, of her friend the artist (and Quaker born) Roger Fry, and Jonathan Franzen's Purity. 
A relaxed Roger Fry in a Bloomsbury home.

Roger Fry's "Barns and pond, Charleston." Charleston was the home of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf's sister and Fry's lover.

Naturally, the year couldn't go by without a full immersion Jane Austen. Amid much scholarly reading for a paper published in Rhizomes--and, of course, the novels themselves--I was thoughtfully gifted with a Christmas volume, The Prayers of Jane Austen, and, earlier in the year, had a chance to read a book of delightful Maggie Lane essays called On the Sofa with Jane Austen.

The prayer book brings up questions, because I can't believe Austen wrote any of these three prayers, and, as I understand, scholars rightly question the attribution, something the book fails to address. These wooden prayers have not one micron of her wit--and Austen was at her wittiest when dealing with moral issues. Also, the lavish illustrations don't connect in a direct way with the novels--for example, the one below doesn't  depict any scene I can remember:

In contrast, I can highly recommend Lane's solid book of essays on the details of Regency life--any hardcore reader will instantly identify the scene pictured below in the book:

On the Sofa with Jane Austen: a book you can have faith in.

Perhaps channeling Austen, creativity was much on my mind as I entered the Christmas/holiday season, and after much thought, I asked for watercolors. Those, too, duly arrived, thanks to the ever wonderful Roger. I have enjoyed my one foray into getting to know my colors and brushes and am hoping I have time for this hobby. Books, naturally, drove me over the line as I wavered between desire and despair that I would ever have time to do this. I found myself wanted to paint scenes from my favorite books--and that tipped the scales. The question will become, as the busy-ness heats up, will I find time? And why are we Westerners so obsessed with this issue?

A full array of brushes and paints.

And even an easel. Perhaps I can set up by the lake when the weather is good.

As serendipity would have it, my 96 year old mother-in-law has also been painting in watercolors and one of hers won an award and earned a newspaper article. What encourages me to think she is happy in her assisted living home is that this painting and another she had framed, a whimsical, lopsided, smiling jack-o-lantern, both look happy.

My mother-in-law's award-winning landscape. Not bad for age 96!

On New Year's Eve, we decided to eschew the champagne and the ball dropping watched on a computer screen. We drank a glass of chardonnay and timed the New Year for ourselves after watching a quirky film called Colossal. These were small gestures against convention, but they felt like a creative start to what I hope will be a creative new year for all of us.

Like elsewhere, it has been very very cold, and snow covers our yard.  Seasonal, but ... brrr. We are glad to have Nick with us, glad Sophie is in the relatively warm Austin, and we hope Will is surviving in the arctic temperatures in Vermont with his girlfriend, Liv.

We can't start the New Year without mentioning Andre, our elderly cat, who has bounced back from a period of not feeling well at all.

He's old, but the baby in him never dies.

 Happy New Year to all. 

Monday, December 25, 2017

Dreams of Christmas

Ellen in a recent blog ( likened Christmas to a dream, and I believe that gets at the heart of what Christmas is: a dreamscape.

Christmas, as we know, has long become a domestic holiday. We spend it inside our homes. Whether it has snowed or if your area of the country never sees snow, a hush falls over the world as for one day most businesses close and commerce stills. We have, for a moment, the time to stop, reflect, and dream. 

In The Poetics of Space, Bachelard connects the dream to the house:
the house shelters day­ dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace. Thought and experience are not the only things that sanction human values. The values that belong to daydreaming mark humanity in its depths.

Christmas dreams of a better world, at least in the wisps and fragments of reverie. 

The consumerism at the heart of the modern Christmas is distorted, but it is the distortion of a dream--the dream of what the world could be if people acted with the material generosity to each other all the time.

Christmas may accentuate social isolation and family dysfunction, but central to it is a dream of community and family in shalom order and the home as haven. I did appreciate this Christmas card from friend Sherri Morgan:

Yet Christmas speaks as well to something deeper.

I find myself drawn this year to stories that are not Christmas stories but seem like Christmas stories to me because they touch deeply on the Christmas dream. This year I have been revisiting Peter Pan, a story that opens with domestic whimsy and humor  about the intrusion of the dreams of childhood into the intensely  domestic space of the Edwardian London townhouse. Peter Pan is openly the symbol of  imagination, imagination unfettered by rational adult constraints. This seems at the heart of Christmas.

I reread too part of The Sign of the Twisted Candles, a Nancy Drew mystery, but intensely a domestic drama of  interiors and a dream of righting the wrong in a domestic space that has been invaded by evil. Protecting the innocent and vulnerable, the very elderly and the young, is at the heart of this children's mystery and the Christmas dream.

At Christmas, we decorate the prosaic pine tree. We make the ordinary beautiful.

I came across this in the New York Times, and it has helped guide my days recently and bring a touch of joy centrally to them:

Each morning I write the words “I Will Feel Great About Today If I …” on a notepad. This is NOT a “to do” list. It is purely about creating the “reward” you describe: feeling great.
George Eliot puts this a different way: “The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice.”

It helps me to think of Christmas as a dream and a choice. The dream imagines a world of peace and goodwill, of gift-giving, community, healing, harmony and generosity. This is both a secular and a Christian dream, the dream of all tears being wiped away. If it is not here, we can start to dream it into being. We also have the political choice: we could, if we wanted, make a better world much more of a reality than it is right now.