“The Post,” a Review

Recently saw Steven Spielberg’s “The Post.”

Brought back a lot of memories of those hectic days, especially the lies so many Presidents told Americans about the Vietnam War.

Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon. They were all in on it.

We need to be reminded that it was the press which took risks in revealing those lies. And it was the solidarity of the newspapers that challenged the government’s age old threat of “national security.”

First it was “The New York Times.” Then “the Washington Post,” the central subject of this film. Then, other papers chose to reveal what US governments had hid from Americans for years—that the Vietnam War was not only a disaster but unwinnable.

What started out as a military engagement to stop the domino effect of Communism in Southeast Asia ended up being a war to save face, all at the expense of tens of thousands of American soldiers.

The central focus of the film, “The Post” is about the huge pressure “The Washington Post” was under in publishing top secret information, the infamous Pentagon Papers, about the Vietnam War.

In the real time of the film, “The Post” is family-owned paper. After its owner suddenly dies, his wife, the famous Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), decides to go public with the newspaper.

When her editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), has a chance to secretly obtain the same top-secret information about the war that the “New York Times” has, Graham is caught in a multilayered psychological battle—she is a woman in a totally man’s world of journalism and business; she has never really had to make any major business or editorial decisions; she is personal friends of Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense; she abhors conflict; she does not have an assertive personality.

The “New York Times” was already under a court injunction not to publish the material. Because the “Post” had the same source, it, too, would run the risk of a court injunction.

Streep’s portrayal of Graham makes her an easy target for Bradlee, who, as Hanks plays him, has the investigative journalist’s fire-in-the-belly to publish the top-secret information. He does mellow and expresses his sympathy to her over the pressure she is under.

Throughout most of the film, Graham is a passive owner and eventual controlling stockholder of the newspaper. She has never had any kind of business administrative responsibility, having played the role of bourgeois housewife, mother, and societal party-gatherer and dinner arranger.

The climactic moment in the film happens when she decides to risk everything and print the Pentagon Papers. In solidarity with the Post, several US papers also publish the papers. From a dramatic point of view, Graham now comes into her own as a confident newspaper magnate and administrator.

More importantly, Katherine Graham and her editor, Ben Bradlee, end up being on the right side of history in risking their careers and the newspaper to defend the freedom of the press.

The Supreme Court, in a 6-3 vote, decides in favor of the Post. The rest is history.

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Happiness and Grief, Two Sides of the Same Emotional Coin

We had two contrasting topics at an AA meeting this morning—Happiness and Grief, emotions I have struggled with so much of my life.

Today, because of my sobriety, they are emotions I have learned to be comfortable with.

My sobriety has been guided by the 12 steps, sponsors, service, meetings, the stories people share, and the Higher-Power Spirit of my understanding. That Spirit, for me, is the power of transformation I continue to experience in AA.

And that sobriety has given me the kind of happiness I never experienced in my alcoholic drinking days.

It is the kind of happiness I call “chronic happiness.” The kind that makes me smile warmly at a friend’s success, laugh at a corny joke, sit contentedly watching a nostalgic film without getting cynical.

At the same meeting, someone shared their grief, grief jump-started by gut-wrenching trust issues.

I am always amazed how the program is able to absorb those two emotional extremes without telling us that we “must” be at a certain level of happiness protecting us from too much grief.

Or even that grief has a more intense emotional content than happiness, which I believed during my heavy drinking days and much of my early adult life.

Over the many years in the program I have discovered that happiness and grief are two sides of the same emotional coin.

I don’t remember, exactly, how those two emotions completely dovetailed when I got sober. But I do remember one incident, in early recovery, when I totally internalized a deep grief in having hurt my wife by my drinking and recklessness (I vividly remember the feeling of overwhelming grief in that Episcopal Church basement). I realized, then, that I could truly “feel” something for someone.

Once I internalized that deep sadness for another person, happiness began to arrive in small doses. I am convinced that that first experience with grief in the rooms of AA made it possible for me to experience other emotions, especially happiness.  

I find it interesting, even ironic, that happiness often arrives with a tinge of sadness for me, almost as if the fullness of that happiness is too much to bear. Or that feeling of being overwhelmed by an experience. I think that’s what happens when people experience “tears of joy.”

I also found that if I can truly experience happiness, which is a deep form of connectedness to the world, then I know, conversely, I am capable of grief, another form of connectedness to the world.

One is about fullness, the other about absence. And my experience has been that they play off of each other.

And more importantly for me, to experience grief over a broken trust makes it more probable that I will experience happiness, for the kind of hard-hitting grief we’re talking about here often seems to give a deeper texture to happiness.

Finally, happiness and grief seem to juggle my psyche in ways that deceive me into believing that they are totally unrelated, when, in my experience, they are not.

 

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Authenticity

The Arbitrariness of Life

I am not convinced that it is easy to be who we really are. Our identity scripts seem to have already been written, or are being written, by forces over which we don’t have much control.

No one, to my knowledge, has ever chosen their parents or the color of their eyes inside the womb. And no one would argue with the reality that if someone were born in a New York City condo, they have a better chance of entering Harvard or Yale than someone born in poverty.

And who can say, in middle age, they would have actually gotten married? If the answer is “yes,” who can say they know, for sure, that would be the right answer for them now? And, knowing what I now know, would I marry the person I did when I was in my twenties.

Daily Rituals and Real Intent

On a more general level, how do I know who the real me is?

I get up in the morning, take my meds, go to the bathroom, put the coffee on, cut a banana in a bowl, scan the cereals on top of the refrigerator, choose one that appeals to me that morning and pour my choice into the bowl with the cut-up banana.

That’s my morning ritual. But is that the authentic me?

I can’t do the process of elimination here. My ritual, after all, emanates from no one else but me. Its genuineness can’t be questioned, unless, of course, I wake up resenting it.

Ah, resenting it. There’s the rub.

What if I decided, one morning, that I really don’t like eating breakfast by myself, that I feel the full weight of my aloneness when I first wake up. Or that I’ve really not been true to my feelings of loneliness because I’m too afraid to admit that I don’t have the inner strength to be by myself?

This domestic narrative tells me something: I can exist on two levels.

There’s a repeated action, like washing the car, taking a shower, preparing dinner, driving to work on the Interstate. These repeated actions have a kind of inner strength to survive on their own momentum and energy. And each of these actions contain smaller actions, one leading to another, until they accumulate to a completed act.

And then there’s another kind of inner energy that accompanies these actions. Let’s give them several names: contentment, anger, resentment, frenzy, groundedness, even neutrality.

If I’m feeling content or even neutral in performing my morning ritual, I don’t question the habit I’ve developed. But if I wake up with anxiety about my ritual, maybe, just maybe, I’m in denial about its efficacy.

Maybe I really want to go out for breakfast. Maybe I really want to hang out with people in the morning. Maybe, I’m lonely. But the ritual of eating alone in the morning keeps me tied to a false self, one that is denial of his need to be with others, to be in some kind of community, not to isolate.

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On sale

The rush to win
In the loud clutter
Of things I buy on sale,
Kidding myself, one more time.
That I’ve caught some weary seller
Off guard, before the doors close,
My two twenty dollar bills
Kissing the air between my wallet
And the cashier,
Convinced, in my delusion,
That I have stolen a victory
From another fool.

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“Wind River,” a Review

Movies with a multicultural theme are always difficult to write about without appearing to be a self-taught expert. If you’re a white male writer, it becomes even riskier because, then, the stereotype of the “mansplainer” is a label easily used to discount everything you say.

Well, here goes.

Wind River is a gripping crime thriller that takes place on an Indian Reservation in Wyoming in merciless sub-zero temperatures.

Cory Bannon, a US Fish and Wildlife agent discovers the body of a female Arapaho teenager whom he recognizes as the daughter of a close friend. We find out later that part of Bannon’s life seems to come at him in a surreal rush because he lost his own daughter, Emily, who was of mixed ethnic heritage–her mother is also Arapaho (she and Bannon are currently going through a divorce).

A rooky FBI young woman, Jane Banner, is called in to investigate the homicide. Along with the local tribal police, she and Bannon eventually take the villains down, after, of course, a brutal cops-and-robbers shoot out (about and hour-and-a-half later, in movie time)

For what it’s worth, this is what I discovered about this film

(1) The film takes some risks in giving us portraits of heart-felt grief, both male and female. I might add here, there are some strong male-bonding scenes that are particularly poignant because they cross over ethnic lines.

(2) The male-as-avenger seems to be a stereotype that Hollywood film directors can’t seem to escape.

(3) The film makes some attempt at giving a woman a leading equality role as a police agent fully capable of taking physical and mental control. At the same time, she has a necessary psychological role in identifying with the plight of the young Arpaho woman and her mother.

(4) All the “reservation” social issues come at us as if they were as commonplace as a red-light at a busy city street corner—-drugs and alcohol; the number of  missing  and murdered Native American women; Indian sovereignty;  under-staffed tribal police; poverty; imprisonment as the invevitable fate of many young male Native Americans;  and the relentless brutal winter, not to mention the loss of livestock because of the many wandering predatory animals in search of food.

(5) There is a strong message in the film about the Native American ability to endure hardship. Bannon makes the point to Banner, early in the film, that the young female victim probably ran much beyond any normal human being’s ability to endure the sub-freezing weather in spite of having been brutally raped.  And it is clear, in the final poignant scene of the film, that the young women’s father and mother will eventually survive.

Have to admit I was hooked, particularly at the breath-taking visuals. There may be some criticism, however, about the violence. It is very, very graphic, although I’m not quite sure it was gratuitous given the frontier setting of the film in the wintry Wyoming wilderness and the painful reality of so many Native American women murdered and missing.  

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“Middletown” at the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario

So, what is small town America really like?

If we listen to Sinclair Lewis, it is an inferno of conformity and class provincialism, not to mention the hypocrisy so blatantly embodied in Elmer Gantry, the itinerant preacher, who mesmerized his small-town believers while acting out his lust on any willing or paid-for victim.

Gantry is reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor’s small-town Bible salesman in “Good Country People,” who carries around a fake Bible that is actually a hallowed-out box containing condoms and a bottle of whiskey.

Thornton Wilder might have a slightly different perspective. “Our Town” has a cast of characters living and dying normal lives in a small New Hampshire town. Some die before their time like Emily Webb during her second pregnancy. Some die in the war. Some die of natural causes. Some die by suicide.

But everybody in the queue of life, eventually dies. There is no question that, at some point, all the characters will be laid to rest in the town cemetery.

We are given a small-town consolation by Emily who, after she dies, chooses to return to life at 12. She is overwhelmed by the reality that there are so many chances we miss in taking in the beauty of our daily lives, including her mother’s morning coffee.

Walter Eno’s “Middletown,” is another painterly-like portrait of small-town American life.

The town may be a prototype of that life. But its stark, over-the-top realism leads me to believe it’s more like “Our Town” on steroids. And the playwright’s heightened language, especially the dark comic lines, too often overwhelm the energy required to be ready for the next edgy line. The linguistic brilliance is there but the humanity of the characters gets lost in the verbal pyrotechnics.

Eno’s small town characters are clearly evident– a cop, a tour guide and a couple of tourists, a librarian, a mechanic, a landscaper, two doctors, a hospital janitor, a suicidal drifter, a woman whose husband is always out of town, and an astronaut, the hometown hero.

Each one has their individual identities. Mrs Swanson and John Dodge are the centripetal characters keeping the play’s center around the themes of life and death.

Swanson has just arrived in the town with her husband who is always out of town, except, apparently, the one time that she becomes pregnant, giving birth to the child as the play ends.

John Dodge is the town drifter, a Jack-of-all-trades who occupies his time with small jobs, hobbies, and hanging out in the library looking for books on gravity. At the end of the play, suffice it to say he is on a downward cycle.

The local cop seems to have a sado-masochistic edge on his night rounds when he starts to choke an alcoholic mechanic, who does community service at the local hospital by entertaining children. The hospital doctor gives Mrs Swanson some clichéd advice about starting out with simple words to her new baby and then fills in with Farmers Almanac-like predictions of what to expect after the pregnancy; two tourists have a lot of questions about a local landmark; an astronaut gives gives his star-studded description of what the earth looks like from the moon; and a librarian fills us in on the local history and engages a number of characters coming into the library.

Eno also creates fictional characters who hang out during the intermission.

Swanson and Dodge appear to be Eno’s manifestations of Eros (new life) and Thanatos (death). And Middletown is everything in between, what ever form it takes—-in a library, on the street, in front of an emergency room, from the moon, inside of someone’s home.

For a brief moment, Eno suggests Swanson and Dodge just may find in each other some redemption from their profound loneliness. Swanson at least has a new life to nurture. But the awkward intimacy between them never blossoms.

There you have it, friends, small town America seen through the artistic lenses of Sinclair Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Thornton Wilder, and Walter Eno.

I found it somewhat difficult to sit through so much of the dark sarcasm and cynicism of Eno’s language. It had too much of a sit-com sensibility trying to be Beckett, in my judgment.

But kudos to the cast and to the production at the Shaw Festival on Niagara on the Lake. I would see it again. It will be up and running for the rest of the season.

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The Moon

 

It is round
It arrives
It shines
It reflects
It is the sun’s stepchild,
It comes out
It stares without blinking
It draws us to it
It approves.

It hangs out in cemeteries
It sometimes sleeps in a cradle
It watches without judgment
It hides
It is silent
It is still
It waits for brides to stop dancing,
It wonders

It is the desert’s flashlight
It is the night’s open eye
It sleeps.
It whispers to werewolves
and drunks
It blushes
It caresses schizophrenics

It permits
It reveals
It sings the same song to all
first-time lovers
It cannot hear politicians
It stays when relatives leave
It holds the gun to your head,
Makes incisions that don’t hurt.

It grieves like an old man
It cries for limping dogs
It is never jealous your friends,
It won’t say goodbye.

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“Maudie,” a Review

Maudie is a tour de force of acting by Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke.

Hawkins plays the quirky Novia Scotia self taught artist, Maud Lewis. Hawke plays her social isolationist employer, her Benedict-like rival, and her eventual lover and husband, Everett Lewis.

I loved the intimacy of the film, which at times, becomes almost claustrophobic inside a small rural house with a one room kitchen/dining/ art space room, and a miniature bedroom in the attic (the claustrophobic feel of the film is relieved by the beautiful coastal waters, the icy winter scenes, the open landscapes, and the village homes in the small town).

Maud is hired by Everett as a live-in housekeeper. After a volatile beginning in their relationship, they settle into a kind of uneasy routine as Maud begins to take on the traditional duties of a wife and to gradually change the home’s physical environment with her painted images on the walls.

Over time, one of the locals, a wealthy New Yorker, recognizes Maud’s talent as a painter. Maud’s reputation begins to spread and Everett struggles to accept the public spotlight that her talent brings

Two things struck me about this intimate film.

For one, Maud’s severe rheumatoid arthritis makes her a physical oddity in the village. Her own angular, shy, downcast facial mannerisms and her under-the-breath sarcasm, however, begin to take on a force of their own. She never loses those idiosyncrasies as a character. In fact, they are what make her such a draw as a screen presence.

Maud’s persona, initially, poses a threat to Everett, who, from the beginning, resents what he sees as her invasion of his territory, both physical and emotional. He sees himself as a life-long bachelor and patriarch. Over time, she wins him over.

The tension between Maud and Everett could easily be described as a kind of Beatrice-and-Benedict “battle of the sexes” prototype. But Maud’s gentle quirkiness and Everett’s persona as a hard-edged social misanthrope give this film a much different, even more modern feel than Shakespeare’s classic sexual rivalry.

Secondly, I also loved the small-world intimacy of the film. The setting is in a small Novia Scotia village (I understand, for whatever reason the film was shot in Newfoundland and Labrador). It becomes smaller inside Everett’s home. The initial conflict between Maud and Everett is kept within a very small physical range (It seldom moves outside the home).

And the main love-story’s development is held within a very tight circle of activity —-eating soup together, killing a chicken, initiating sex, putting in a screen door, small-framed shots of Maud painting, the close-ups of Everett’s emotional reactions (fear, rage, hurt, grief, confusion). Not to mention, of course, the fact that Maud and Everett, themselves, have their own kind of psychological insularity as social rebels, (even “misfits,” by the town’s standards).

I would add, by the way, that Maud’s paintings add to the small cosmos of the characters’ worlds. They are either miniature post-card sized prints or on small wood frames.

The environment in the cramped spaces of the home may have been the determining factor here for the kinds of paintings she produced. And I would not call any of the images she painted on the walls of the small home, by any stretch of the imagination, frescoes—-a more traditional venue for large, epic-like images on urban or industrial walls.

To avoid any “spoiler alert,” I’ll skip over any hints about the ending.

Check it out. It’s a refreshing antidote to the prototypical Hollywood romance.

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Moksha

Moksha is a Hindu word meaning “liberation” or “release.” I thought it appropriate for a poem about an older woman looking for a job. I don’t know about your town, but in my town, ageism is alive and well.  

Moksha

Looking out the bedroom window
At the breeze exhaling
Its frantic breath
Through backyard trees,
Leaves, like nervous
Bristles on a paint brush,
In a mad rush to finish
Another clumsy scene,
A cradle’s fast rocking
To the aching pulse of
Of Irene’s second month
Without work,
The restlessness of
Nothing to do,
Her mind rambling
Through stammering resentments
Of being too old,
Age arriving without warning
Or a reservation,
Legs hesitant to finish a stride,
Release denied, payments overdue,
The sun descending into
A crying child’s surrender
To reluctant dreams.

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“Dunkirk,” a Review

Epic and Intimate Film

So, my friends, movie ads promoting Dunkirk claim that it’s both epic and intimate.

Ok, I get the epic sweep of the movie with the horrific bombing scenes, the spine-tingling rescues, the vast lines of soldiers on Dunkirk beach completely defenseless against German planes, the claustrophobic scenes of soldiers trapped inside flooding gun-boats and sinking rescue ships.

The movie as an “intimate” portrayal of war? I am hazarding a guess here: maybe the intimacy of the movie was the existential fear an audience felt for the six or seven characters who were, literally, given more characterization time than anyone else in the film.

In a sense we befriend them, on a somewhat personal level, certainly more than just seeing the epic, detached shots of soldiers on the beach.

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