Friday, July 27, 2012

"Conspiracy" (2001)

On January 20, 1942, a small group of Nazi officials met at a villa near Berlin. Known to history as the Wannsee Conference, the meeting was called by Reinhard Heydrich to solidify control over and ensure support for his plan regarding the "final solution of the Jewish question." It was a key moment in the execution of the Holocaust.

"Conspiracy" is a dramatization of this event. The screenplay was based on the lone surviving copy of the minutes prepared by Heydrich's deputy, Adolf Eichmann, and does its best to be faithful to the actual timing and content of the meeting. This is not a typical war movie, as it is driven entirely by dialogue, mostly of the officials around the conference table. A YouTube user summed it up best: "No blood, no CGI, no make-up effects ... and still a very bone-chilling horror film!"

When my wife and I first saw it, she was disturbed by the way that it humanizes the meeting's participants. They are presented as a variety of personalities, each of them possessing a mixed bag of qualities, ones both admirable and vile. To her, Nazis were inhuman and should be portrayed as such. For me, this depiction is what makes the movie so powerful. It is a reminder that we are all capable of evil.

We tend to label evil acts as senseless, monstrous, incomprehensible. We approach them as if they confuse us. It is our way of pretending that evil is the work of demonic forces, rather than the actions of our fellow human beings. We want to hold evil as far away from us as possible. If it gets too close, if it looks too human, we might have to confront the evil we ourselves have tolerated or even participated in. The scary truth that "Conspiracy" reveals, one we so desperately want to avoid, is that the Holocaust and other genocides were perpetrated by people not so different than us.

Check out this movie on IMDb, Wikipedia, or YouTube.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

God's Plan

"From your perspective, you see love and hate, good and evil, right and wrong. I see what is and what will be, and what I see is love and good, always."

To God, there is meaning and purpose in everything, including tragedy. Whether in the form of a massacre in Colorado or a single death on the streets of Los Angeles, every woe that we experience is part of the grand and beautiful tapestry that is life. This is a difficult truth, which is why we so rarely understand it.

A recent example of our cluelessness in this regard came from George Zimmerman, who in an interview with Fox News on the shooting of Trayvon Martin said, "I feel that it was all God’s plan, and for me to second-guess it or judge it ..."

The key word in the revelation is "perspective." God gets the macro viewpoint; ours is just the micro version. We can glimpse the whole design, but we cannot live within that vision. Our minds are not made to handle it. We need to sort our thoughts and actions into "love and hate, good and evil, right and wrong." Such judgments do not deny the truth of this revelation; they help us to approach it with a sense of humility. Otherwise, we are liable to mistake our pinhole for God's panorama.

Which is exactly what Zimmerman did. In the interview, he said that he does not regret his actions that led to the fatal confrontation, nor would he change them. He is a fool. Regret and shame keep us honest when we replace God's will with our own. Violence is an ugly evil, even if we find ways to justify and excuse it. It always leaves a stain on one's soul. Yes, God's grace will bring glory from the depths of evil. But we also have a role to play. Does God's plan work because of us, or in spite of us?

Friday, July 20, 2012

"About A Boy" (2002)

"No man is an island." A good summary of my last post, and a key theme of our movie for today. "About A Boy" is the story of Will, an enthusiastically shallow bachelor who pretends to have a toddler in order to meet "fabulous, sexy, gorgeous single mums." Instead, he meets Marcus, a boy so weird that even the computer nerds don't want to be his friends. Will decides to mentor Marcus in "the art of being cool," but ultimately it is Marcus who teaches Will that "you're never too old to grow up."

Will's defining moment comes after his scheme has predictably crashed and burned, and he is facing some uncomfortable realizations. "All in all, I had a very full life. It's just that, it didn't mean anything." I imagine we can all relate to his statement. It is so easy to be overwhelmed by the stuff and chatter of modern life. It is so very tempting to ignore the depth of human interconnectedness. "About A Boy" reminds us that the meaning of life can only be found through our relationships.

Check out this movie on IMDb, Wikipedia, or YouTube.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Myth of the Self-Made Man

Summer is the time for TV reruns. The time for sitting through stuff you would never otherwise watch. One Friday night about a month ago, that is what happened to me. My wife was at a conference, nothing on Netflix or Hulu looked appealing, so I ended up watching "Shark Tank" on ABC. What actually drew me in was the announcer's introduction describing the "Sharks" as "self-made filthy-rich investors."

For the 4th of July, I wrote about the American Dream, and a recent Time magazine cover story on the subject. One of the great themes of this dream was highlighted by a quote in that article: "We are a nation of self-made men." America is the land where desire and work ethic alone can create success, where I am truly the master of my destiny. It is a powerful myth. It is also a complete and utter fantasy.

None of us are self-made. It is a ludicrous idea. We all have parents, relatives, friends, teachers, mentors, and even rivals who shape us while we are young. Our desire and work ethic do not just spontaneously spring up out of thin air, they are molded by our experiences. We receive help from others at every stage of our life's journey. These "Sharks" all had employees, suppliers, and especially customers who were integral to their business success. None of them did it entirely on their own.

Perhaps the "filthy-rich" part of the "Shark Tank" intro is unwittingly insightful. There is, after all, something quite "filthy" about the self-made myth. It lets us turn a blind eye to our dependency on others, and our corresponding obligation towards them. It allows us to pretend that life is not a cosmic lottery, and that we are in control of the results. Most importantly, we get to ignore the fact that we are creations of someone greater, and that all we have is a gift to be shared, not property to be owned.

Friday, July 13, 2012

"Outcasts" (2011)

One of the things my wife and I have really enjoyed about Netflix is the exposure to British TV shows. One in particular kept hanging around as a recommendation, a sci-fi drama set on a distant planet that is being colonized by refugees from an Earth that has been devastated by nuclear war. It sort of seemed interesting, but never enough to start watching, until about a month ago. I'm grateful that I gave it a chance.

"Outcasts" only lasted for one season on the BBC. Apparently it was too much drama and not enough sci-fi to keep the ratings up. It did not help that so many of the main characters were just unlikable, so you were kind of rooting for them to get beaten or killed. But they were very human characters; the kind of people you would expect to find in such circumstances. And the story seemed more than plausible. It felt almost inevitable somehow. As if this was our future unfolding on the screen.

The final episode ended with a great cliffhanger. One of the best I've ever watched. It makes you want to scream at the BBC for not giving you another season. And yet it also leaves you with a deep and powerful question to ponder. A question you know the "right" answer to, but an answer you're not sure is correct after all.

Why does the human species deserve to live?

This a classic science fiction question that has come up in countless movies and TV shows. But the way "Outcasts" does it, it's like a gauntlet being thrown down by the universe. You're the center of creation? You're the apex of intelligent life? Just who the hell do you think you are? We are an arrogant and childish species, playing with the forces of nature like an overgrown toddler sticking a fork into an electrical socket just to see what happens. Perhaps it would be good for the stupid talking monkeys to get knocked down a peg or two. Sometimes the truth hurts.

Notions of Armageddon will be in the air as we get closer to December 21st and the whole Mayan Calendar circus. Yes, that "prophecy" is a farce. But we can still use it as an opportunity to do some necessary soul searching. Why do we deserve to live? Something tells me that if we don't come up with a damn good answer, we may regret it in the future. By the way, I didn't plan to publish this post on a Friday the 13th, but maybe it's the universe's way of firing off a funny little warning shot across the bow.

Check out this TV show on BBC One, IMDb, Wikipedia, or YouTube.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Plague On Both Your Houses

Three weeks ago, I wrote about the silliness of the U.S. Catholic bishops' "Fortnight for Freedom" campaign. Today, I get to write about the equally ridiculous efforts of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who placed a full-page advertisement in the Los Angeles Times proclaiming "It’s Time to Quit the Catholic Church."

I'm not sure what bothered me more, the arrogance or the ignorance of the FFRF ad. They seemed so enchanted by their nontheist viewpoint, that it did not occur to them that even "liberal" and "nominal" Catholics see themselves as belonging to something grander than a political club. It was an overly condescending way to conduct outreach to "wayward" religious practitioners, especially their failure to use words like "God" or "faith" even once. But maybe they don't care if their ad falls on deaf ears.

Perhaps it is all just political theater: the "Fortnight," the ad, the lawsuits, the "war on women." I can't help but wonder if the Notre Dame lawsuit is the obligatory mea culpa for allowing President Obama to give their commencement address in 2009. It's all so silly, except that it's not. As David Lazarus wrote three months ago in the L.A. Times, "Healthcare reform isn't an abstract legal issue. It isn't a political game. It's a very real concern for millions of Americans, in some cases a life-or-death matter."

We play the games because that is easier than the truth. We should have celebrated a Fortnight for Universal Health Care and placed ads demanding that we quit for-profit medicine, but god forbid we place humanity above the almighty dollar. That would be dirty European socialism! So instead, we bandage up the system, and the insurance companies laugh all the way to the bank. Why? Because the default American attitude is "Me, Not We." That was the answer offered nearly five years ago in a Commonweal article by Gordon Marino about "what ails our health-care system."
We Americans adore terms like “personal dreams” and “freedom.” Though we don’t often explore what we might mean by freedom, it seems that, for us, being free mainly amounts to having disposable income and the freedom to spend it. We don’t seem overly concerned about, say, being free from the painful idea that our brothers and sisters might be sick or have sick children they can’t afford to care for. Europeans have had plenty of chances to vote down universal health care. They don’t because they would rather do with a little less in their pockets than be haunted by the idea of their fellow citizens being sick and without access to medical care. The doctor will tell you that it is better to know what ails you than to be in the dark, better to know ourselves than to kid ourselves. And the truth about ourselves is that whatever our other virtues, we as a people are not overly empathetic.
Now that's an ugly truth!

Friday, July 6, 2012

"In Search of America" (2002)

The opening quote of my last post came from an interview that Peter Jennings did to promote his project "In Search of America": "a journey through the United States, and into the great themes of American identity." This work produced both a book and a six-part TV series for ABC News. This post will focus on the latter.

The series introduces us to a fascinating group of individuals representing the variety of American life. Each episode explores a different aspect of our society, through the experience of a particular community or institution. What I love most are the unspoken questions we are left to struggle with at the end of each story.

"Call of the Wild" focuses on the re-introduction of wolves to the Idaho wilderness, and asks: How do we balance local and national needs, desires, and perspectives? When conflicts arise between national and local values, which should take precedence?

"The Stage" focuses on a high school play in Boulder, Colorado, and asks: What does freedom of expression mean to you? What is your voice? Do you use it?

"Homeland" focuses on illegal immigrants in Salt Lake City, Utah, and asks: Who is an American? Is the American Dream for all human beings or just U.S. citizens?

"God's Country" focuses on the faith and values of Aiken, South Carolina, and asks: What role should religion play in American civic life, especially in communities where there is vast consensus for a specific belief or idea? Given our spiritual diversity, how should we determine our common moral standards?

"Headquarters" focuses on the snack food company Frito-Lay, and asks: Is American business a righteous activity? What limits should there be on the pursuit of profit? How should we relate to foreign cultures? What is our place within the global community?

"The Great Divide" focuses on the issue of race in Gary, Indiana, and asks: What is the legacy of slavery and what does it say about the American experience? Is there still a racial divide in America? If so, can we ever remove it?

As a whole, the series both celebrates the American experiment and challenges us to explore a central question: "What does it mean to be an American today?"

Learn more about the overall project at C-SPAN or the Charlie Rose Show. Check out the TV series on IMDb or Amazon.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The American Dream

Americans do not form a race, in the way that the Germans or the Japanese do; they form a people, united around a set of ideas and ideals.
Peter Jennings, Reader's Digest, October 2002
Behold the strength and weakness of American identity; the reason for our success on the global stage and the source of our cultural dysfunction. We may be one people, but we are rarely united. Our political battles are far more than policy disagreements; they are conflicts over who we are and who we should be.

At the heart of our national soul lies "the American Dream." A recent Time magazine cover story chronicled the history of this idea, and examined whether it has a viable future. The article framed this dream in economic terms, but is that the best definition? Does "a better, richer, and happier life" simply equate to home ownership and middle-class status for all? Is our dream really just about money?

How do you define prosperity, happiness, comfort, freedom, and all the other ideals we claim as intrinsic to the American way of life? What is your dream? What is your neighbor's dream? And how will you respond if it does not match your own?