American Sniper: Divide and Conquer

I want to talk one last time about the controversy surrounding the movie American Sniper, at least until I’ve seen it.  So much of history has been divide and conquer.  You saw this in the South during Reconstruction, where poor blacks and whites were pitted against each other instead of forming a union against the oppressive few.  But it seems like, concerning the movie, you have one side claiming that we shouldn’t make mythical heroes out of trained killers, and the other claiming that we should honor all of our men and women in uniform.  Both arguments can have their valid points, depending on the context and how they are made.  However, why argue over this when both sides should be arguing for peace?  Peace will prevent innocent lives being lost on either side of the divide.  Peace will ensure that our men and women don’t have to kill in our names.  It will also ensure that these men and women don’t come home maimed, psychologically damaged, or worst of all, in body bags.  Yet while our positions harden as insults from both sides reign down, over a fucking movie, the “owners” are planning the next geopolitical move that will lead to more death.

American Sniper, Groupthink, and Freedom From the Tribe

I remember when Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ came out and there was a lot of controversy.  I felt like I had to see it, because it was a big part of the conversation of the country at the time.  I also didn’t want anyone to make up my mind for me. I wanted to be able to decide for myself if it was good or not.  When something takes off there is usually some kind of hive mind that takes over the better senses of a lot of people.  I didn’t like it.  Not because of the violence.  Mel Gibson’s equally violent Apocalypto is one of my favorite films.  I didn’t feel the film was anti-Semitic, as I felt like Gibson was using the crowd, although Jewish in the film, as a wider judgment of people in general.  I also didn’t mind seeing a religious film, even though I’m not religious.  I felt like in dwelling on the death of Jesus and how horribly he was tortured, the general message of Jesus, to love one another, was lost.  There is probably some poor soul in a third world shithole right now this minute that is being barbarized. There is nothing ennobling or unique about cruelty.

Right now American Sniper is taking off in box offices around the country.  The film could be great or it could be terrible.  I have no idea, not having seen it.  I remember there were many on the left, and my politics are left, that were up in arms about Zero Dark Thirty.  I wanted to see it to understand its place in the conversation and to see if there was validity to the claim that it was a pro-torture film.  Maybe I need to see it again, but I didn’t view that movie as pro-torture for reasons that would be too long to go into here.  (And I am one that definitely thinks that it was a disgrace that we tortured people and that torture is a warcrime.)

At some point I’ll see American Sniper and make up my own mind about it.  Even though I know Clint Eastwood is a moderate Republican, I also know that the movies he directs usually have a degree of complexity to them.  He doesn’t strike me as a propagandist.  If I have any problem with what is going on, which isn’t with the movie itself having not seen it, it is the idea that one can’t be critical of soldiers.  Soldiers are just people, same as all of us, and are capable of good and evil and everything in between.  Just because someone signs up for the armed forces doesn’t make them immune to criticism until the end of time.  This sounds like common sense to me, but reading certain comments in the press makes me think that is not so for everyone.  That being said soldiers should be judged differently.  In civilian life killing someone would be murder.  In war, it is part of the job description.  Therefore, what matters is not the act, but the manner and way in which those killings were carried out.  Were innocent people killed?  If so, was it on purpose or a legitimate accident in the fog of war?  Anyone that has read the slightest amount of history or seen any number of war movies knows this.  I would bet any amount of money that most soldiers would tell you the same thing.  So why is it that so many view a criticism of one soldier as an attack on all soldiers?  It’s a tribal thing.  And if freedom means anything it means freedom from the tribe.  Freedom from the kind of group think that is common in more primitive societies.

Thoughts On Mockingjay – Part 1


I just saw a jet black anti-war movie that was actively trying to make the audience use their critical thinking skills.  Surprisingly it was also a tent-pole Hollywood film that was directed at “younger” viewers, even though by now most people know that the series it was from can engage people of any age.  It was the latest in the Hunger Games movies, Mockingjay – Part 1.

I think this is a movie that will have real staying power as every aspect of it is masterfully done, even if some audience members won’t know what to make of it.  (Like the book, this third entry in the series is different in feel than the first two.)  I read some of the audience reviews online and I wasn’t surprised to find many people disappointed as this movie does not jump through the hoops that most have come to expect from modern Hollywood.  This movie is extremely engaging, but it is not light entertainment.  One of my favorite movies is Apocalypto.  Even though that brilliant movie is way more explicitly violent, this movie might be darker.  (And that is saying something!) Other than a few laughs by supporting characters and one early scene of traditional action, this movie never tries to make you feel good about what you are seeing.

What you are seeing in this fully realized world is a very powerful anti-war movie.  It is also a critique of our media saturated super-capitalistic age of endless war.  Now what this movie does brilliantly is that, even though it is highly critical of the society that we see around us, it never draws conclusions for the viewer.  It is one of those rare movies that makes the viewer do the heavy lifting.

While the movie is extremely anti-war, it is not easily described as a leftwing or rightwing movie.  The hero, as anyone that has seen any of the movies or read the books will know, is a character called Katniss Everdeen that is often seen hunting and comes from a place that resembles Appalachia.  She could easily be from red-state America, except that other aspects of her personality don’t fit neatly into that or any stereotype.  The place where her arch-nemisis President Snow is from is called the Capitol.  As in the books, one could easily view it as being big-government or big-business in the way that it is represented.  But either way, the viewer or reader would be missing the point.  It is simply a place where wealth and power coalesce.  The Capitol is a place where the citizens live lives of deluded splendor that comes at the expense of the other areas that it rules.  These movies are not anti-government or anti-corporations in the modern sense, so much as they are anti abusive power and exploitive wealth.  The people that you root for most of all are ordinary individuals that are caught up in the machinations of an abusive system.  Probably the most one-dimensional character in the movie is President Snow, the leader of the Capitol.  He comes the closest to being a symbol, one that simply uses wealth and power to control others.  He is a facist, a representation of that collusion of business and government.  (So yes, the movie is anti rightwing if the kind of right you are describing is facism, but this is still simplifying things a bit.)

Although I think this movie might be too scary for young kids, I think older kids and young teens should definitely see it.  (Anything that helps kids open up to critical thinking is good.)  It constantly makes you aware of how power uses media to manipulate people.  In this movie, even when Katniss is finally in the hands of the rebels, those that are fighting the Capitol, one is made aware of how even those that are on the right side in war use propaganda to manipulate people for their cause.  Even though there is no doubt that the rebels are on the right side of events, their actions are still treated with suspicion.  You are never allowed to feel completely comfortable when Katniss has to do what the rebels want to further their cause.

The movie is constantly using images that we are all too used to now and makes you question them.  At one point the rebels blow up a damn and it is filmed in a way that could have several interpretations.  Are the rebels representing terrorists or are they patriots fighting for the good of the people?  Again, I think the point of the way scenes like this are filmed is to make YOU think.  Not so that any one conclusion is obvious, but so that you will think when you watch the news, which too often draws easy conclusions.  If modern media simplifies things, this movie creates complexity.

War is never viewed as anything other than horrific.  There is one brief scene where Katniss brings down two enemy fighter planes that are trying to bomb a hospital.  This is as closed to traditional action as the movie gets.  In the rest of the movie war is viewed as an insane force that destroys societies, nature, and human life.

While watching the movie I was reminded of this section of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals that I posted the other day. The person speaking in quotes is the Secretary of War under Lincoln, Edwin M. Stanton:

“Why is it,” he asked, that military generals “are praised and honored instead of being punished as malefactors?”  After all, the work of war is “the making of widows and orphans – the plundering of towns and villages – the exterminating & spoiling of all, making the earth a slaughterhouse.”  Though governments might argue war’s necessity to achieve certain objectives, “how much better might they accomplish their ends by some other means?

There were also scenes in this movie that paid tribute to other great moments of cinema.  There is a point in the movie when Katniss, after suffering so much from the violence around her, can no longer hunt when she comes across a Moose.  This is very much like a classic scene in the movie The Deer Hunter, one of the best anti-war movies of all time.  The final scene Mockingjay Part 1, that I don’t want to give away, reminded me in the way it was shot of a scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  (In the imagery, not necessarily in what it is trying to communicate.)  I’m not trying to say that this movie is the equal of either one of those all-time masterpieces, only that it is full of ideas and imagery that will make you think in multiple ways if you are open to it.

If you want to go to the movies to simply escape and be entertained, this movie might not be for you, although it does create a fully realized world to dive into.  (If you are a fan of the series you will want to see this regardless, even if it becomes your least favorite of the series so far, as it again does not adhere to typical Hollywood formulas.)  But if you want to see a mass-marketed movie that really does have a lot to offer in terms of imagery and ideas, than I think many of you will find it outstanding.  (And trust me, if you think I am overselling the ideas in this movie, go see it and tell me it is just escapism.  You won’t be able to whether you like it or not.)  There is so much more I could discuss about this movie, but ideas are still bouncing around my head and I’m not even sure how I will come down on certain scenes.  It is a subversive movie because it asks the viewer to question what they are seeing in their own life on a daily basis.  I don’t know if this movie is excellent or just really good, but that constant questioning is good enough for me.

Insane Violence and The Bible On Film

DF-04525 - Moses (Christian Bale) charges into a fierce battle.

The more I think about Ridley Scott’s Exodus:  Gods and Kings, the more I like it.  It is a ridiculously violent film, an epic spectacle, and the actors find new and entertaining ways to chew up scenery.  (It would have been an even better movie if it had been rated R.  Though to be honest, other than not showing people getting limbs hacked off in battles and nudity, the movie pushes the barriers of PG-13 to the limit.  We’re talking about a movie where scores of people get eaten by crocodiles, so many that the river runs red with blood.)  All of those things that I stated merely make the movie entertaining.  What makes it brilliant is that this is a movie that brings the insanely ridiculous violence of the Old Testament front and center.

One of my favorite quotes is the Hannah Arendt quote, “the horrible can not only be ludicrous, but outright funny.”  The Old Testament is so ingrained in our culture that even though we acknowledge the violence in it, and the fact that much of this violence comes from a wrathful God, that I don’t think it registers with most people in a visceral way how absurd it is.  Floods, plagues, mass murder, and a woman being turned into a pillar of salt are just the tip of the iceberg.  We know this stuff.  Even those like myself, that didn’t grow up going to church, know all of these stories.  But how often do we reflect upon how batshit insane they all are.  Ridley Scott did.  He made a movie out of part of the Old Testament and he put the batshit insane right up front.  No other movie that I can think of takes the violence of the Old Testament and presents it as such a ridiculously depraved spectacle.  Which, whether you believe in the Old Testament or not, is hard to deny.  Like the Hannah Arendt quote above, this movie is often so horribly violent that it becomes a comedy.  Even if Ridley Scott changes some parts of the story, he tries to find natural causes for most of the plagues for instance, he is getting the essence correct.  I mean, he didn’t make up the plague where all of the Egyptian first born children are killed.

A lot of the reviews for this movie have talked about how Scott got this or that wrong, or that he made it too much of a spectacle, or whatever.  No, Ridley Scott basically just showed what was there without all of the self seriousness of most religious films.  Again, I’m not saying that he didn’t take certain artistic liberties with the story, only that he does so in a way which actually highlights things that are already there.  He helps show us a story that we’ve heard a million times in a way that doesn’t allow us to ignore what is going on.  I would imagine that most of those that really didn’t like this movie already have preconceived notions as to what the story is about.  This movie is basically showing us that we are telling millions of children a year a story full of the most depraved violence.  And it has a good laugh at it.  The comedy of the divine.  I mean certain scenes from this could almost be in a Monty Python movie.

This movie does the opposite of what another famously violent religious movie does.  That movie  The Passion of the Christ is also insanely violent, but what it does is actually obscure what is important in the Christ story through that violence.  That movie focuses mostly on the violence that was directed at Christ leading up to his death.  But there is nothing special about his death.  I guarantee that someone is meeting just as horrible a fate as he did in some third world shithole right now.  Christ wasn’t even the only one crucified that day!  This isn’t the fantastic violence of an angry God.  This is an extreme version of the day to day violence of mankind.  In focusing on this kind of violence it actually helps one to ignore what was spectacular about the story of Christ.  The fantastic part of his story is that he rose from the dead.  But that still isn’t what I’m talking about.  Whether or not you believe Christ was the son of God, or that he rose from the dead is still, in my mind, not what is most important in his story.  Christ spent a good deal of his life teaching people what they should be doing.  They should be loving each other and not worrying about earthly possessions and treating the lesser amongst us with kindness.  That is what makes his story exceptional.  And he did that at a time when the world was even more barbaric and depraved than it is now.  Right now someone is probably being executed as we speak, in a horribly painful way, in an Arab country for drawing a comic book about Muhammad or something equally as ridiculous.  So again, dwelling on the whole crucifixion thing, longer than the love and kindness in his teachings, is kind of ass backwards the way I see it.

So you have two violent movies that tell stories from the Bible.  One highlights the absurdity of violence, while the other uses violence to distract from a message of love.  Do you have to guess which one made more money and got more critical acclaim?

Five Reasons Lincoln Was a Great Man


I am slowly making my way through Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, as I have a bunch of books going.  I also just watched the movie Lincoln for the third time last night.  Before that I watched Ken Burn’s The Civil War series.  The more I learn about Lincoln, the more I like him.  Normally I hate questions like if you could go to dinner with anyone living or dead, who would you choose?  I usually feel put on the spot and there are a million ways you could answer that anyway, depending on the conditions.  It’s like someone asking you what your favorite color is.  Well, I like blue, but depending on the context I might also like…

But I have to admit if I were forced to answer a question like that right now I think I would have to say Lincoln.  Unlike many people, the more he is taking off of a pedestal, the more he is humanized, the more unbelievably likable he is.  Here are five reasons, out of many that I could have picked, to explain why I find Lincoln so compelling:

1.  He was extremely interested in the world.  This is someone that had almost no formal education.  However, he would consistently try to push himself to learn more.  Books were his companions.  He loved books and could recite passages from literature and poetry by memory.  He wanted to learn complex geometry at one point.  He simply got a book out, read it, practiced it, and learned it on his own.  Usually the myth of the self-made man is bullshit, as most people have someone that helps them along the way, were born in favorable circumstances, etc.  However, Lincoln was about as close to this archetype as possible.  He was also interested in people and loved to sit around late into the night talking with people about an incredibly wide range of topics.  He was simply someone that loved to learn, push himself, and acquire new skills.

2.  He was humble in victory and gracious in defeat.  While Lincoln was confident in himself, he was never egotistical.  When he would win a case as a lawyer or a political victory, he was quick to give credit to others around him, and he never lorded his victories over his opponents.  When he lost, even when he was smeared by political opponents, Lincoln was quick to forgive.  He was also quick to empathize with others, he tried to understand them, so that he never took it personally when he was attacked.  This was crucial to why he was successful, as he never let petty political rivalries get in the way of his career.

3.  He was good natured.  I cannot think of one story where Lincoln was ever cruel to anyone.  And even though he suffered at times from melancholia, he always told funny stories and tried to put others at ease.  He would make himself the butt of a joke if it could make people smile and make them comfortable.

4.  He was not afraid to change his position if new facts emerged.  If a problem were to arise, Lincoln tried to learn as much about it as he could, often reading late into the night, and would try to reach a conclusion based on the facts.  When he was wrong, which wasn’t much, he would admit it and try to learn from it.  He rarely let preconceived notions of how he viewed the world get in the way of dealing with whatever facts were in front of him.

5.  He was always able to overcome personal setbacks and grief.  He lost the first election that he was in.  When he got his first big case he was snubbed and let go by the two more educated attorneys that were on it.  Instead of going home mad, he stayed in the audience to try and learn as much about the law as possible.  The first person he was ever in love with died.  Two of his children died during his lifetime, one while he was in the White House.  Yet time after time, while being highly skeptical of an afterlife, and full of tremendous grief, he pushed on, able to overcome his own grief to do things for the good of others.  Part of the reason he was a great man wasn’t because he always succeeded.  In fast he faced several serious failures and personal setbacks.  He was a great man because he pushed on in the face of these.

Although I am only about halfway through Goodwin’s book, I can’t recommend it enough.  Spending time with Lincoln is a true pleasure.  The book will teach one an incredible amount about American History.  Also, by examining Lincoln, one can learn a lot about how one should try to live.

Random Thoughts During Exodus: Gods and Kings


Exodus: Gods and Kings Review

About a week ago I stated that a negative review, of which I have linked to above, made me want to go see Ridley Scott’s new movie, Exodus: Gods and Kings.  The reviewer was trying to slag the film, but instead made it sound so over-the-top that it looked like fun.  What follows below is not my own review of the film.  Whether or not you like this movie depends on how much you love batshit insanity, actors that chew up the scenery, and ridiculous spectacle.  I love all those things in films, so I loved this one.  However, if those things aren’t your deal, then you might not like it.  Here are ten thoughts while watching Exodus: Gods and Kings:

(I should add that there are some spoilers, but given that most of you know the story of Moses, I don’t think that this will ruin the movie for you.)

1.  Unless a planet explodes in a sci-fi movie, there have never been more random human and animal deaths onscreen.

2.  God is played as a petulant psychopathic child.  If you think of all the smiting he does in the Old Testament, it is kind of fitting!

3.  You don’t hire Christian Bale unless at some point he is going to scream with incredible intensity.  He delivers, many many times.  At least twice for every dollar that I spent.  I got my money’s worth.  Even when he isn’t screaming, he plays Moses with a quiet intensity that lets you know another insane outburst is coming.

4.  I don’t think that a river full of giant crocodiles eating thousands of people is in the Bible, but it sure is an entertaining addition.

5.  I know some people were complaining that most of the main characters were cast as white.  However, there is really no male in the film that doesn’t resort to senseless bloodshed at some point, not even God, especially not God, so maybe it’s best to sit this one out on the protest front.

6.  Do people really believe that this story happened?  If so they have lost their minds.  This story is about as realistic as Conan the Barbarian.

7.  The Hebrews cannot fight the Egyptians face to face because they lack superior numbers.  Because of this they resort to attacking the Egyptian people by blowing up their food supply, etc.  In a sense the Hebrews are “terrorizing” the Egyptian populace.

8.  Moses gets a victory bang at the end when he is reunited with his hot wife.

9.  Why would anyone want to worship a god that kills every first born child, including many babies?  Even Moses ain’t down with that.

10.  Is someone cooking a dog in the background?

Extra credit:  The sharks eating a dead horse in the Red Sea after the big action sequence is over was totally unnecessary, and yet totally welcome.

My friends and I were laughing the entire way through this movie, but more with it than at it.  I got the sense Ridley Scott, who is a really intelligent guy, knew what he was doing.  This movie, as insane as it was, was not without ideas.  If you really think about many of the stories in the Old Testament, you can’t deny that they are full of completely insane over-the-top violence.  Even if the movie changed certain things, which it most certainly did, it did do a great job of showing that aspect of the Bible.  If you want to see a movie that doesn’t neglect Old Testament vengeance, game on!

2001: A Space Odyssey, I’m Not a Man, and the Power of Suspense

Two nights ago, when I was writing a blog about my favorite albums of 2014, I happened to watch Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time.  I realized it was a glaring omission in my film education and decided to correct it.  It was every bit as astounding as I had heard it was throughout the years.  Every single shot seemed perfectly orchestrated.  It was pregnant with ideas.  However, there is so much written about the film that I don’t feel like I can comment on it too deeply having only seen it one time.  I do just want to add that I can’t understand why special effects of 1968 look much better than many of the special effects in modern cinema.

However, although I was not high at that present time, my mind was operating like it was, pulling two different things together that had nothing to do with each other.  If you go to my blog where I picked songs from my favorite albums of the year, you will hear the Morrissey song I’m Not a Man.

Songs From My Favorite Albums of 2014

That song begins with about a minute and a half of eerie white noise.  While this space of sound makes complete sense, at least to me, in the context of the record, I understand how when hearing the track by itself it could seem a bit strange.

While watching 2001: A Space Odyssey I was taken by how the very first thing that takes place is a few minutes of eerie ambient music while the screen is entirely black.  This happens before you even see the studio logo.  At first I was thinking my TV wasn’t working as it seemed to go on longer than it should.  Once I realized what was happening I thought about how disorienting this must have been at concert volume in a real theater.

However, concerning the movie, I feel like this did two different things:  First, it creates a sense of the uncanny in a viewer before the film even begins.  This is a feeling, that uncanniness, that keeps rearing its head throughout the film, brought to a head in the final section.  It also cleared out my mind and got my attention so that when the first real image did appear, it was incredibly powerful.  By taking away something that we are expecting the imagination begins to fill in what isn’t there.  It sets a mood so that what comes after it is even more visceral than what follows would be on its own.

I think the same thing is achieved with the eerie noise at the beginning of I’m Not a Man.  It creates a degree of suspense as you wait for the song to begin.  You expect something epic to arrive, and although the song does eventually get there, the tinkling keyboard and sweet melody that begins it comes as a surprise.  The craft of the melody and chord progression, while having a power of their own, seem even more powerful when compared to the absence of form that comes before it.  I once read that, although Morrissey’s lyrics are very intelligent, that he doesn’t care if people think so long as they feel something and that he is perfectly fine if they feel uncomfortable.  The song is about how the macho male that society so often celebrates is actually one of the things that has caused so much pain and destruction in the world.  This is a topic that is sure to make some uncomfortable, and the beginning noise highlights that emotion while also contrasting the melody that follows.  Because the piece of music is not any one thing emotionally when the intro and the proper song are combined, it creates complex feelings in the listener.  This is the difference between something that is art and something that is mere pop music, even if the melody of the proper song itself is as catchy and singable as any true pop song.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how space (Not to be confused with the kind of space in the title of the film!) and emptiness are as an important a part of art as anything else.  This movie and song show how by withholding something one can create suspense and complexity.