Ken Burn’s The Civil War and Thinking Critically

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As I have said in prior posts, I’m watching Ken Burns’s The Civil War.  As a point of entry and an overview, I think it is outstanding.  I think it is an extremely well done documentary series that includes an incredible amount of information in an easily understandable way.  It is great TV.  I think it is good history too, as long as you view it as an overview.  One could make a documentary series just about the battle of Gettysburg, or any number of things that this covers.

I can’t help but feel watching parts of it though, that it is sanitized history.  I don’t necessarily mean this as a dig against the series.  When I was a history major in college I realized that the larger the period of time that you covered, the more the class was only going to deal with surface events.  If you took European History you would get names and dates and a couple of overreaching themes.  I took a class on just the years of the Third Reich leading up to World War II, for instance, and you got much deeper into the human mud of what was going on in that time.  So I think that in dealing with a subject as epic as the Civil War, only having eleven and a half hours to tell it, they did about as good as anyone could.

Let me diverge for a minute.  In the TV show Deadwood, which is a western TV show that takes place in the town of Deadwood, there is a scene where the army comes to town.  The commander of the army makes a speech that is the kind of speech you can imagine a commander making.  Meanwhile a deranged looking soldier mutters things like, “We ate our horses.”  In one scene you are getting the noble version of a story and the less noble truth at the same time.

Now before I go any further I want to make something clear.  I am not saying that people shouldn’t believe what they read in history books.  I’m not saying that every event has a conspiracy behind it and that traditional history is a deception.  In fact many history books are brutally honest.  But one should always read history with a critical eye.  Most of the time historians are doing their best to get at the truth.  But everyone has certain biases, only certain information might be available at anytime, or they just might have real world issues like certain time constraints upon their work.  Some people are just better writers than others.  As with most things in life approaching something from multiple viewpoints is the best way to get a well rounded portrait of something.  I read two or three books on Custer last year, I honestly can’t remember, and each book made the picture a little clearer.

But by sanitized history I mean that something paints a narrative that, while telling the truth, doesn’t challenge the existing order of things.  I mean Lee is constantly treated as revered.  It’s always mentioned that he had time for privates, that he was a good man at his core, that he was a brilliant general. But he fought for Virginia because he believed that is where his duty lay.  He let duty lead him to fight on the side of slavery.  Now I understand, and I myself risk simplifying things, that slavery at the start of the war, wasn’t the only thing that people were fighting over.  I also understand that you have to try to look at things in the context of their time.  But at the end of the day he did do just that, he fought on the side that wanted to protect slavery.  And while he was no doubt a brilliant general in a lot of ways, he sent many troops to their slaughter at Gettysburg in a terrible blunder.   Stonewall Jackson, in the book I am reading, is often sweet and good natured in his private life, but could commit acts of war with bloody ferocity.  Both his private kindness and his public savagery were allowed to exist because he, and many in the Civil War, believed they were instruments of God.  Well it would be a an incomplete picture to not present them as complicated, fully realized humans, that had both good and bad qualities, too often often history does not lay it out bare that these people were emotional mutants.  They could play with children and then send those children’s fathers to die for state pride at best, and the right to maintain slavery at worst.  It is true that Grant could also send large numbers of troops to die, but at that point emancipation was on the table, and that was something morally worth fighting for.

I think the show Deadwood, a work of fiction based on reality, does a far better job than a lot of history in terms of exposing the ugliness, and sometimes the human grace, in our past.  I mean these Civil War battles were truly things of the utmost horror.  Thousands of people were often shot down in mere minutes.  These were battles of butchery and savagery.  The documentary series shows dead bodes, and uses words like butchery and savagery, but I don’t think it makes it vivid enough how truly horrible these battles were.  They too often seem like things of the past, safe from the modern world.  These were our ancestors, only two human life spans away, that were dismembering each other in the most horrible ways imaginable.  This wasn’t the middle ages.  There was a scene in the episode last night where white and black Union troops were fighting the Confederates.  The Confederates were saying, if there were captives to take, “Take the whites and kill the niggers.”  That’s somebody’s great great grandpa!  I mean slave owners were selling people’s children off.  People that did that shit helped build this country!  Again, all of this stuff is talked about in the show, but there it seems to be treated almost too reverential at times.  While the show often acknowledges the horrible, it often doesn’t acknowledge the absurd, and these things are often disconnected from our present.

I actually think this is a great documentary series, despite my criticisms above.  My point is not to disparage the show.  I think, again, given the amount of material they had to cover in a given time, they did so in a truly extraordinarily way that is a great overview of this time in history.  But I think one can hold the contradictory opinion of acknowledging someone’s achievement while also criticizing it.  The filmmakers did an outstanding job, but the viewer must now do theirs in thinking critically about the information presented.

John Lydon, Richard III, and the False Choice Between Empathy and Strength

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Those that have been reading along will know that lately I have been fascinated by the career of John Lydon (Johnny Rotten).  I have read his two autobiographies, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs and Anger is an Energy, and I have watched the Sex Pistols documentary The Filth and the Fury.  One of the things that many people don’t get is that Lydon has a great sense of humor and fun.  Although he felt there were important things that needed to be said, he knew how to get a crowd wound up, and he always did things with a sense of fun.  I found it really interesting that his Johnny Rotten persona was partially based on Shakespeare’s Richard III.  Richard is a deformed scheming character that uses his wits to rise to power.  

That led me to wanting to learn more about the play.  Tonight I am watching the Al Pacino documentary Looking for Richard.  This is a documentary where Pacino is trying to figure out how to get the average person to understand and open up to Shakespeare.  The film is scenes of the play intercut with discussions about what the play means and how to perform it.

This little bit of dialog interested me:

First Murderer:

Relent!  Tis cowardly and womanish.

Clarence:

Not to relent is beastly, savage, devilish.

What is happening in that scene is that Richard has sent two murderers to kill a character named Clarence who is in line for the throne.  Clarence is trying to talk the murderers out of killing him.  The above lines are just a very small snippet from the scene.

I want to take them out of context for a moment.  I’ve been thinking lately about how males are given false choices about being macho and being weak.  The murderer says basically that showing mercy is to be weak.  Clarence replies that to murder is to be savage.  So many times in our society men make choices about what to do based upon if people will perceive them to be weak or strong.

Morrissey sang, in the song I Know It’s Over, that it, “takes strength to be gentle and kind.”  Well this is true, so often people send the opposite message.  Why is it that caring about nature and other people is often perceived as being weak?  How many times have you heard someone say, about someone that cares about the environment for instance, that they are some kind of, “faggot hippie.”  Meanwhile, men that rape the earth and exploit other people are often thought of as being strong and powerful, when they are really just giving in to their own ego?

I have seen so many times when males, who are really quite frightened of the world, hide behind a macho exterior.  I remember a gig in a redneck area where almost every single vehicle in the parking lot was a pickup truck.  The males at that show acted very macho.  There was clearly something tribal going on.  They were acting proud and macho, but they were really a part of a herd mentality and were clearly afraid of standing out as individuals.  It doesn’t take any strength to go along with the crowd.

And yes there are plenty of people on the left that subscribe to the herd mentality as well.  When I see a crowd of hipsters or hippies they are basically just wearing a different costume.  They are part of their own little tribe with its own rules.  They may think that they are individuals, but they are no different than a group that is all wearing suits or cowboy hats or whatever.

So many of the problems the world faces right now require cooperation with other people.  Many of our problems require national if not global solutions.  We need to get things done and macho male pride will only get in the way.

It takes strength to be gentle and kind.  It takes strength to be open minded and to be an individual.  It takes strength to stand up to a crowd when they are doing something wrong.  We need to make it more clear in our society that empathy and strength are not opposites.  Males are often taught the opposite of this.  However, if men keep acting this way, and one should mention that women have played their part in allowing this kind of attitude to persist, it will eventually lead to our doom.  The world can no longer bear males that are afraid to look weak in place of the common good.

The above photo is Kevin Spacey as Richard III.

Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys

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I had one of those days where nothing seemed to go right.  I went to walk my dog around the lake and locked my keys in the car and so on.  I decided that it was best if I didn’t leave my house the rest of the day.  I figured if I went out I would end up driving my car into a bridge embankment like an unguided missile.  So tonight I’m staying in and watching the movie 12 Monkeys for the first time in years.  Although I have caught parts of it on TV, I haven’t watched it from start to finish since it was in the movies in 1995 when I was still in high school.  I’ve always been a big Terry Gilliam film, but I remembered this movie as more of a thriller than it being one of his signature pieces.  I thought it was the kind of movie that was totally entertaining, but once you knew the solution to its mysteries, that it didn’t have the multiple watch value of some of his other films.

My memory, as usual, was wrong.  The movie is another one of his sic-fi movies, as is The Zero Theorem that I just reviewed.  And although at the foreground of this movie is a highly entertaining mystery thriller, in the background is many of the themes that Gilliam delves into in other works.  In a world that is absurd, who is really crazy, and who is really insane?    Are those that believe put their faith in the order of the world, an order that was constructed by man, any more sane than those that question things?  The normal world, or sane one, is one that tortures animals, heavily medicates people that are outside of that norm, and that plays games with nature.

Gilliam, as usual, does an excellent job at creating an imagined future.  He does this by creating a future that looks lived in.  Even though this movie came out in 1995, his vision of the future doesn’t seem dated.  It is a future created by someone with a boundless imagination and true artistic ability.  It has an element of steampunk in its look.

However, most of the film takes place in 1990 and 1996.  He takes what was then roughly the present and disorients the viewer to it by using the weird angles and wide angle lenses that give the his films a distinctive look.  This not only helps to mirror the insanity of its characters, but also allows the viewer to view the everyday with a fresh perspective.  It is like we are seeing things that we see every day for the first time. Another way that he exposes the absurdity of our world is by combining things that exist in reality in unique ways.  Pink flamingos fly through a northeastern city.  In a hallway in the mental hospital early in the film a janitor stands on stilts.  All of these things exist in our world, but the way they are combined makes you realize the strangeness that is lurking just below the surface of our world.

Although I felt The Zero Theorem had more to say, and was therefor for me a better film, this movie is actually more accessible.  The narrative takes less work for the viewer.  Both are brilliant films, but in different ways.  The Zero Theorem and his movie Brazil are more heady and full of ideas, but 12 Monkeys has a more compelling narrative.  It really depends on what kind of scene you want to get into.  For the first time Gilliam viewer or the more casual movie fan I would probably recommend something like 12 Monkeys.  If someone was looking for a stranger and more intellectual, if you enjoy surrealism and philosophical underpinnings, then I would probably steer someone to Brazil or The Zero Theorem.  

The Zero Theorem Review

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Terry Gilliam’s latest movie is one of his masterpieces.  The Zero Theorem, staring Christoph Waltz, is a subversive science fiction movie that uses the future to show us our present.  It is full of ideas, great performances, and is a visual wonder.

The movie follows Q, someone that works a mundane office job, as he tries to solve the zero theorem, which is a mathematical equation that will prove that life is meaningless.  Q is a damaged individual that takes no joy out of life.  He is an introvert that tries as much as possible to avoid human communication.  He wants to work from home, so that he has even less contact with others.  He unwillingly goes to a party at his supervisor’s house.  There he meets the boss of his company who grants his wish to work from home as long as he will work on the theorem.  At the party he also meets a young and beautiful woman that shows interest in him.

Q spends his days waiting for a phone call that he believes will give him the meaning of his life.  Much of the film deals in symbolism like this.  The phone call represents anything outside of ourselves that we believe will give us the answer to life’s mystery.  The dialog in the film, like the film itself, jumps back and forth between the absurdly comic and of a more philosophical nature.  However, just because the film deals heavily in symbolism, does not mean that the main characters are not three dimensional or that the world is not fully realized.

Visually the film is an absolute masterpiece, both for the cinematography, the realization of the world that the characters in habited, and the sheer amount of ideas that are on the screen.  In Q’s house there is a crucifixion where Jesus’s head is replaced by a camera that watches Q’s every move.  In his office he is working on what looks like an absurd video game with a video game controller replacing the typical office keyboard.  I have worked several office jobs in the last ten years and working on a meaningless video game is not too far from the truth of what a great deal of office work is like.

The colors explode on screen.  Every scene looks like it was carefully orchestrated.  Every nook and cranny of the film looks like it had thought put into it.

The film is like our world, but on steroids.  If the capitalism that runs our country is allowed to continue one can imagine that this is what our world will turn into.  Commercials follow Q down the street as he commutes to work.  The party scene, with its garish colors and cartoonish behavior, looks like a modern nightclub taken to its logical conclusion.  The characters work ridiculous jobs that bring no meaning to their lives.  Terry Gilliam is showing us the absurdity of our world.  He is just pushing things a little further so that the everyday becomes new again.

Even though this film is very subversive, it is not without heart.  I don’t want to spoil the ending, but the film is not without some small sliver of hope.  Gilliam knows what is important despite how much we get wrong.

If you are a fan of Gilliam’s work than I highly recommend this film.  if you don’t know any of his work, but are willing to try something that will make you think, then give this film a try.  Some critics have described this film as Gilliam-lite, but I don’t agree.  This is a unique filmmaker operating at the height of his powers.  This is like a modern update of his masterpiece Brazil.   While Brazil dealt with a dreamer in the middle of a  bureaucracy, this movie imagines a future where corporations run everything.

On a personal note I watched this movie the night of the election.  Feeling somewhat depressed I decided to watch something else other then the returns.  It was one of those instances where art makes one feel less alone.  I thought, “Thank god someone understands what is going on.”  Gilliam is a tremendous filmmaker and we are lucky to have him amongst us.  He is one of those rare souls that uses his imagination to paint the world as it truly is.

The Filth and the Fury and Fake Outrage

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Just watched Julian Temple’s The Filth and the Fury.  It is a documentary about the Sex Pistols.  I felt it was well done.  Having just read both of John Lydon’s (Johnny Rotten) books, I felt that it got the gist of what he tried to communicate in Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, which was his book on those times.  Obviously no film could get the detail of a book, but I thought most of the important points were hit.  The film was also excellently done from a visual standpoint.  It had great archival film of those times, mixed in with multimedia clips of different cartoons and movies.

Anyway, this isn’t a review of that film.  What was interesting was how many of the same types of people that opposed the Sex Pistols are still plaguing society today.  There is still the conservative religious types that would rather do anything than look at reality.  One of the things that gets lost a lot in all of the circus and myth of the Sex Pistols is how Johnny Rotten was really class conscious.  He really cared about those that were being oppressed economically.  Meanwhile you had the preachers, the conservative members of government, the business class, and what have you, that were on TV condemning the Sex Pistols.  Those people look really silly in hindsight, but there modern counterparts are still out there raising the flags of fake outrage.  Instead of being offended that certain people live in squalor, that young men and women are going to fight in wars of empire, that people can’t pay their rent, they will do their best to destroy anyone that shines a light upon the truth of the situation.  They’ll either do that or generate some fake outrage on some kind of cultural thing that is really just distracting people from what is really going on.  It’s the same cheap trick that is being done over and over again.  When will people learn?

Openly Gay War Hero Helped Defeat Hitler

Alan Turing Movie Starring Benedict Cumberbatch

Read this article this weekend in the New York Times.  It is a new movie coming out about the war hero Alan Turing and it stars Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbath.  Turing cracked the German’s Enigma code, thus helping to win World War II.  He was also openly gay at a time when it was not excepted.  Despite being essential to the war effort Turing was eventually tried and convicted on charges of indecency.

When Republicans, who now control the House and the Senate, start up with their homophobic nonsense, remember that we might not have even won World War II, if it weren’t for an openly gay man.

The Films of Terry Gilliam

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The Films of Terry Gilliam

I often mention the films of Terry Gilliam.  He is one of my favorite directors.  The above link is to a retrospective of his work.  For those of you that are not overtly aware of his films, this is an excellent place to get an overview.  I agree with the retrospective that The Brother’s Grimm, while having some things to recommend it, is his weakest film.  Visually the film still has many Gilliam hallmarks, but the script is the most generic of his movies.  Tideland is one of my favorite of his films, but it is also one of the most challenging, and it is best if you become accustomed to his style before watching that. I believe the themes of that film are easier to understand once you have some insight into the way Gilliam sees the world.  Jabberwocky, his first movie outside of Monty Python, while worth checking out, feels to me as if Gilliam was still finding his voice, as later films are more substantial.  So if you haven’t seen any of Gilliam’s films, I would check those three out later for the reasons stated above.  Otherwise read the captions and dive in where you please.  Gilliam is one of the true visionaries of the medium.