Sunday, November 17, 2019

There is no crisis in reproduction

This is a solid, if longwinded, NYT piece about how there are many countries that have fertility rates below replacement levels. While I'd like to see our species reduce its fertility rates (which I’ll get to in a second), I am also a critic of systems that make it difficult for parents (and unappealing for would-be parents) to have a child. I'd rather we borrow from the Danish model, in which parents are given generous maternity/paternity leave, free health care, free daycare, and affordable college education. So I guess you could say I’m pro-parent and pro-child, but also pro-depopulation.

A discussion on reduced fertility rates is typically framed as a bad thing (as a “crisis in reproduction,” which is a phrase I've plucked from the article). It's seldom framed as a "crisis in overpopulation." In my 36 years, the world population has grown from about 4.5 billion in 1983 to 7.7 billion in 2019. Who knows what it'll be by the time I'm 80. These billions of people over-consume, pollute, change our climate, cause species to go extinct, remove habitat, and generally make the world less beautiful and sustainable. We've done amazing things, too, as a burgeoning species, but our growing numbers threaten the very soils, waters, ecosystems, and climates on which our existence depends.

The earth’s health is affected most by two things: overconsumption and overpopulation. We sometimes acknowledge the first, but it seems almost taboo to criticize the second.

Why are these articles framed as crises: crises for economies and crises for old folks who won’t have enough taxpayers or caregivers to support them? (As harsh as it may sound, I see this as faulty prioritization, as well as infantilization of an age group who might do better to adapt to trying circumstances than we may think.)

In articles such as this one, I’m struck by one consistent and amazing omission: a reduction in the fertility rate is actually good! Why don’t we acknowledge how reduced fertility rates may be a beneficial change our species is in the process of making, or how reduced rates are opportunities that ought to be encouraged and replicated? We seldom hear about the benefits of fewer people on this planet: more resources for each individual; more space to roam; more enchantment in the form of undisturbed natural features and replenished animal populations; a more sustainable planet; a longer habitation on earth for us; not to mention fewer crowds, less smog, replenished fisheries, and less traffic.

Before I die, I hope to see the human population begin to proactively dwindle (and my vision features neither death camps nor forced sterilizations) to a more sustainable level of, say, 1 billion. I don’t know what an appropriate U.S. population would be, but certainly less than 100 million. (It’s 329 million today.)

So, yeah, I don't see a "crisis in reproduction." I see a crisis in how the modern economy and neoliberal governing policies makes life a living hell for parents. And I see a crisis in common sense: in terms of the human population, less ought to be considered more.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Who has less taste: us or the cineplex?

[T]he fact is that the screens in most multiplexes are crowded with franchise pictures. And if you’re going to tell me that it’s simply a matter of supply and demand and giving the people what they want, I’m going to disagree. It’s a chicken-and-egg issue. If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing. — Martin Scorsese

We've been saying forever that "they don't make movies like they used to." That's mopey nostalgic nonsense. There are tons of good movies that come out every year. The problem is that cineplexes force-feed us little other than non-nutritious superhero, animated, and franchise films (with a bad teen smartphone stalker thriller thrown in). When the Scorsese article published eleven days ago, here is what was playing at my old hometown Regal Cinema in Niagara Falls, NY: 

Terminator 6
Maleficent 2
The Joker
Addams Family
Zombieland 2
Arctic Dogs
Black and Blue

As cineplex offerings go, this list could be worse. But of these eleven films, five are part of a franchise. Seven are animated or contain loads of CGI (which doesn’t make a film bad, but there’s a strong likelihood the movie will be an emotionally-uncomplicated visual feast). The Joker is very good. Harriet looks cheesy (but it’s about an important subject). Abominable appears to be a serviceable animation film. The rest are a slightly better than average selection of unchallenging, dumbed-for-the-masses movies, the dietary equivalent of a box of Kraft Mac and Cheese. 

I’m a film snob, but not a complete snob. I love popcorn blockbusters like Avatar, Gravity, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens to name a few. Who doesn’t like Kraft Mac and Cheese? But I know I also need to eat my vegetables.

The movies above could lead you to believe that movies have all been dumbed down and that film, as an art form, is dead, but movies are as good as ever. Playing elsewhere are: 1. Parasite, a Korean movie getting rave reviews; 2. The Lighthouse, an interesting-looking drama; 3. The King, a very solid period drama about palace intrigue with a nice dash of action; 4. Tell Me Who I Am, a solid documentary about child abuse; 5. The Laundromat, a well-intentioned flop that nevertheless tried to be interesting and about something important; 6, Dolemite Is my Name, a solid biopic starring Eddie Murphy. Plus Judy, By the Grace of God, Pain and Glory, Motherless Brooklyn, and probably a handful more. What if Regal showed something more like this: 

Terminator 6
The Joker
Zombieland 2
The Lighthouse
The King
Dolemite Is my Name
Tell Me Who I Am

That’s a respectable and hardly pretentious selection—a filet of salmon and a side of broccoli to go with your Mac and Cheese. We could zone out and forget our troubles with Zombieland, see a bit more of the world with Parasite, and grapple with questions of that identity and abuse in Tell Me Who I Am.

A few questions:

Why is Netflix increasingly becoming the platform for character and dialogue driven movies—movies like The Irishman, The King, and Dolemite Is my Name. Are production companies uninterested in movies like The Laundromat because they know cineplexes won’t show them, even though they get directed by renowned filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh and star legends like Meryl Streep? 

And — more significantly — I wonder: Where does good taste comes from? Are cineplex selections so crappy because the movie-going public has no taste and the cineplexes, out of sheer financial viability, must give us what we want? Or is our taste so awful because the cineplex force-feeds us this crap and we’re less exposed to the good stuff? The answer to that is probably more complicated. Enhanced taste likely involves our quality of education as well as the sort of shows, music, books, and movies we’re exposed to from childhood on. It doesn’t all start and end at your local Regal.  

Not to sound melodramatic, but these things really matter. For the health  of our society, we could use more Amour and less Too Fast, Too Furious. This past summer, an Italian study found that children who’d been exposed to low-brow TV had significant lower math and reading scores, and that later in life they were less civically minded and less politically active than peers who grew up exposed to more enriching television programs. I feel like I’m a beneficiary of a good media education. I didn’t grow up in a house with shelves of books or overhear conversations about politics and history. But the local Video Factory and Blockbuster had all the necessary classics, and I ate them up. I had a movie theater about a five minute drive from my house — the Summit 6 — and by the time I graduated from high school, I’d seen almost all of the AFI’s Top-100 (and very nerdy) list of the best movies ever. It was my way of acquiring a bit worldliness and wisdom from a place called Wheatfield.  

But the selection of movies at the Summit 6 was probably just as lousy as it is today at my local Regal, and we moviegoers were probably just as undemanding in our tastes. We can’t hope for the market to educate us: it’ll just keep feeding us as many fructose films as we can take. I suppose the only thing that can be done is to consume well, mock the bad, and give our kids good movie educations from the start. And maybe some future generation will have something better to watch than Terminator 28. 

Sunday, October 20, 2019

"Joker" reviewed

Joker is a very good movie and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is perhaps the finest of his career. Given his CV, that’s saying a lot. The movie made $96 million in its first weekend, breaking the record for movies opening during the month of October. It has an 89 percent audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I find all the fanfare and acclaim encouraging because Joker is not a Star Wars or a comic book movie, even if it does indeed feature an iconic comic book character. (It’s more Taxi Driver than Venom.) It’s serious, it’s got a whiff of indie in it, and the subject matter is timely. It would be great if our blockbusters were more On Golden Pond than Logan, but if we must tell the origin story of a comic book character to get people to watch stories of social significance, then, well, so be it.

It’s amazing that one of the biggest box office hits of the year is actually a sad movie that places your feet in the shoes of the most disadvantaged. You feel the Joker’s loneliness, his rage, his pain. It’s been suggested that the inspiration behind the Joker’s character is a group of men known as “incels.” “Incels,” or “involuntary celibates,” commiserate with one another in the dark corners of the Internet and often digitally terrorize women. Self-avowed incels have committed at least four recent mass shootings, including Californian incel Elliot Rodger in 2014. I’m not sure if the filmmakers consciously decided to tell an “incel” story, but I think the suggestion is more than appropriate, given that the Joker is a lonely and disturbed man who violently responds to the frustrations and injustices that make up his daily existence.

This movie doesn’t glamorize violence, though it does have something to say about why some violence happens. And critics (I think wrongly) have scorned the movie because it humanizes a common and unquestioned villain—the disaffected white man. Some critics refuse to watch it, and goad others not to watch it, perhaps because swapping fury with pity and reexamining long-held beliefs and reshaping long-drawn identities are unpleasant contortions for one’s psyche to endure. In a viral tweet that got 55K likes and 16K retweets, Rachel Miller writes, 

I don't want to watch a movie that shows us the trauma that drove the Joker insane. I don't want to watch a well-intentioned but unstable man get bullied until he turns into a mass murderer. I don't want to watch a man get rejected by women as an excuse for his future of domestic abuse. I don't want to be shown what a poor, unfortunate underdog this man was who was sadly forced by circumstances… to take up a life of crime. I don't want to have sympathy for a man best known for his robbery, murder and arguable rape shoved down my throat for two hours. I don't want this to be sold as a relatable story that can happen to anyone with a bad enough day, and I don't want to be around any of the lonely white boys who relate to it… I don't know if there ever is a good time for a movie that paints mass murder as the logical conclusion of a socially isolated debatably neurodivergent white man being failed by the system, but I feel as though this is not fucking it.

CNN writer Jeff Yang says Joker is an “insidious validation of the white-male resentment.” The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, doing his best to find racial themes where there aren’t any, says “Joker is an intensely racialized movie” suffering from “obliviousness.” More Twitter: David Lo Pun-ch Nazis warns that Joker looks like “a sympathetic tale of a ‘wronged by society’ white dude and their entitlement to violence.” Hilary gro writes “is it really the best thing to keep making movies that portray disaffected white men doing violence as sympathetic?” (Credit to Alex Abad-Santos at Vox for the Twitter research.)

It’s as if these critics and tweeters are saying, “I don’t want to watch something that may get me to think about a group of people in a more compassionate and nuanced way.” Perhaps I’m being a little unfair: to give them the benefit of the doubt, the critics may simply be saying that the trajectory to violence in Joker is not in accord with up-to-date psychological research and the movie is therefore unenlightening, even counterproductive. If that’s the case, fair enough. But I disagree. The other thing about these tweets that amazes me is how incels (or “lonely white boy[s]” “white dude[s],” or “disaffected white men”) are almost universally mocked and ridiculed, and their misfortunes dismissed. I don’t want to sound alt-right or a member of men’s-rights group, but I want to push back against the trend of using the term “white man” as a pejorative. The term, slowly approaching the synonymity of “Nazi,” is bandied about by normally-thoughtful people with a carefreeness and nonchalance that is as troubling as it is unexamined. (I’ve had several conversations with people who, with startling casualness, condemned the “straight, white, male” identity to someone who is, well, a straight, white male.) Has it not occurred to these folks that one can be both a white, straight, man AND downtrodden? That we’re not all sexist ass-grabbing bosses or racist planet-ending CEOs? That we’re not all doing well?

Joker gives us a face to all the men (and women, too, but allow me to continue focusing on men) who are struggling. Cultural expectations of masculinity demand that men share less with one another. Men have fewer friends, and they experience more emotional isolation (which, research shows, is as detrimental to one’s health as smoking). In the U.K., 18 percent of men say that they don’t have a close friend and 35 percent report feeling lonely at least once a week. Twice as many men die of drug overdoses than women. Between 1999 and 2010 in the U.S., the rate of suicide among men in their fifties rose by 50 percent, which some analysts say has as much to do with isolation as economic anxieties. (This isn’t to say that other demographic groups have it easier, but allow me to continue to exclusively speak for a demographic that we dare not speak of with pity or compassion.) Perhaps next time we mock or ridicule incels or non-thriving white men, we should at least take a moment to reflect on how our society also leaves many of them behind, how our culture sometimes deprives them of essential human nutrients, and how the absence of these things can drive a person mad. After a school shooting, it feels good and reassuring to hurriedly channel our grief into an easy and accessible emotion — righteous anger — rather than doing the work to scrutinize our atomized, competitive, and lonesome society for manufacturing so much despair. Instead, we call them cowards, and losers, and hateful, and move on.

I have been blessed with a functioning-enough brain and okay-enough looks to have done okay in the dating department, but I’ve tasted enough loneliness and social invisibility to be able to comprehend, and thus sympathize with, men who are more substantially deprived. Most of us, though, would rather joke about how such a person can’t get a date, how they just need to hit the gym, or how, as white men, they have outsized notions of privilege. We’re trained to think, “Too bad! Buck Up. Your kind has had its advantages for long enough” (which is an unfair abstraction to impose on an individual who may not have, thus far, ever experienced any of these advantages). It’s as if we believe that a shoulder to cry on, a hug, and sexual attention are luxuries to be fought over in the marketplace of intimacy, not vital human needs to be generously dispersed in the human community. “Joker,” in this way, is doing something that ought not need doing: It provides a compelling portrait of an oppressed person who our society doesn’t want to see and who our society definitely doesn’t want to call oppressed.

I’m guessing that, regardless of our demographic (though maybe not so much the seriously-well-off), we’ve all felt oppressed by an unfair world. Sometimes it feels as if the whole world has turned against you. Movies like I, Daniel Blake or Falling Down capture this. We’ve all been there. A small medical procedure ends up costing you thousands. Your landlord doubles your rent. You’re trying to sort out a bill over the phone and the call drops after having been on hold for half an hour. Your car is making a funny noise. You’re paying too much for your phone bill. The cable company increases its rates yet again. You live with a daily onslaught of unforeseen and outrageous bills, taxes, and fees. The U.K., where I live now, has it’s share of problems, but at least here in Scotland we have free health care, a year’s worth of mostly-paid maternity leave, free undergraduate education, and the right to roam. Sometimes I think what passes for normal in the U.S. is borderline inhumane, and enough to drive us all mad. I still have one foot in North America, though. Just last week, I transferred a large sum of money from my U.S. bank to my U.K. bank, and my U.S. bank (Citizens Bank) unknowingly gave me an unfairly low currency exchange rate, stealing $1,000 from me. Later on, I called to inquire about the rate and they said I should have asked for a higher exchange rate. How the fuck am I supposed to know that I can haggle about a currency rate? Shouldn’t my bank try to help me? How can something so unjust exist? Has the world gone fucking crazy? It’s moments like these (and I feel comfortable saying this because I assume we’ve all felt this way) when we just want to blow the whole world up. We want to give expression to our rage. We want to punish the unfairness of the system. We want to push over a shelf in a supermarket, heave a brick through a bank’s glass wall, or just violently explode. It’s always just a passing thought, to be drowned beneath a beer, drained into the sewers of our psyche, or maybe, hopefully, cancelled out and forgotten by the good deed of someone else. But we get these thoughts when our rage reaches a rolling boil, and it’s then when I think I can begin to understand why those with fewer psychological resources commit atrocities. It’s partly because atrocities have been committed on them.

And (spoilers here) this brings me to my sole criticism of Joker. Society indiscriminately tortured the Joker, but the writers didn’t have the courage to let the Joker indiscriminately get his revenge on society. When the Joker kills the show host, played by Robert De Niro, he’s surgically seeking revenge, expressing his rage by discarding just a few bad apples. What really needs to happen, for complete catharsis (for both the audience and the Joker) is for him to take aim at the audience, who represents the greater society. We need the Joker to be more like Carrie, who, in a fit of rage in the 1976 movie, burns alive her allies as well as her enemies. In that movie, it feels weirdly right and good and true because we’ve all been in that mental space before. And such a scene serves an important warning to us all: treat one of us without dignity and we may all pay. In its final act, Joker, though a mostly-bold and ultimately good movie about how indignities lead to violence, pulled a punch.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Movie reviews from this week

I had a nice 5-for-5 movie binge this week. Rapid-fire reviews….

American Factory (available on Netflix) is a documentary that juxtaposes U.S. and Chinese working cultures. My dad, who’s been a factory worker in the U.K./U.S. for over fifty years, watched the movie and said the depiction of the Americans’ inferior work ethic is accurate. And while I was impressed with the efficiency and dedication of the Chinese workers, I found something disturbing in how the Chinese have normalized work as the principal component of their lives, seemingly prioritizing it over family, leisure, religion, or individual pursuits. The most striking scene was when the Chinese factory workers lined up for attendance and yelled out their work-number in sequence, as if they were soldiers. I asked my dad if his coworkers would ever do such a thing and he laughed and said, “that’s unAmerican.” This Chinese company (an automotive glass manufacturer) seems to have managed to persuade their employees that they’re working not just for themselves, but for the company and their country. The Chinese workers seem to have bought into this and they’re consequently driven by a higher purpose to sacrifice and work harder. The Americans, on the other hand, are only in it for the paycheck and probably half-resent having to spend forty hours a week doing mostly monotonous labor. The Chinese way is kind of creepy, but wouldn’t it be nice if we felt a little pride in our company and what we made? Have American factory workers ever felt this way (perhaps toward companies that provided good wages and benefits)? Or was it always about making a living? I’ve had a knee-jerk sense of resentment for every corporation I’ve worked for (Tops Supermarkets, Home Depot…), and I’m wondering if this is an unhealthy and irrational compulsion, or the trait of a people who are enlightened enough to know better than to buy into a company’s self-serving propaganda. There’s probably a good and ideal middle ground in which (with fair wages and benefits) we can be proud of our company without weirdly weaving it into our identities or allowing it to dominate our lives.

Fahrenheit 11/9 (Netflix). When I think back on this movie, it seems as if it was about everything and nothing. It doesn’t have anything new to say, but, as with all of Moore’s movies, I was entertained and disturbed (and my blood intermittently boiled) from start to finish.

Fatal Attraction. I watched this because it was featured on “The Rewatchables” podcast. The chemistry between the Michael Douglass-Glenn Close (and Michael Douglass-Anne Archer) characters was riveting, and I was entertained and horrified throughout. The subject is timeless: the temptation to philander and the fear of the consequences. The ending, though, was too commercial, and I don’t think the original and deleted ending (with Glenn Close committing suicide) would have been any better. It was a good movie that never found a good conclusion.

Mother! (Netflix). I’ve read that the movie is a metaphor for climate change. I’m not going to pretend to know exactly what it was about and what everything is meant to symbolize (the strange crystal in the writing den?), but the movie was like a disturbing dream, and if a movie sufficiently disturbs me, that’s usually enough for me to give it a thumbs up.

Once upon a Time in Hollywood. I’d more or less given up on Tarantino. I found Django and Hateful Eight too tedious and verbose. (Tarantino’s dialogue veers into zones of the eye-rolling surreal at times.) And I also have a strong distaste for Hollywood movies about Hollywood. But I loved this movie. I didn’t know where it was going and I didn’t know what it was (a modern-day Western) until it was over and done with.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Fall 2019 speaking tour schedule

Thur. Sept. 5 - Kenyon College (Gambier, OH), 7 p.m., Community Foundation Theater in the Gund Gallery, 101 1/2 College Drive, Gambier, Ohio 43022

Fri. Sept 6 - St. Edward High School (Lakewood, OH)

Mon. Sept. 9 - High Point University (High Point, NC), noon

Tue. Sept. 10 - Hampden-Sydney College (Hampden-Sydney, VA), 7:30 p.m., Gilmer Hall 019

Thur. Sept. 12 - Virginia Wesleyan University (Norfolk, VA), 11 a.m., Blocker Hall Auditorium

Mon. Sept. 16 - University of Scranton (Scranton, PA), 6 p.m., Moskovitz Theatre

Tue. Sept. 17 - West Chester University (West Chester, PA), 5:30 p.m., Sykes Student Union Theater 

Wed. Sept 18 - Muhlenberg College (Allentown, PA), 7:30 p.m. The Event Space

Fri. Sept. 20 - Donnelly College (Kansas City, KS), 2 p.m., Events Center (reservation required)

Mon. Sept. 23 - Franklin and Marshall College (Lancaster, PA),  7 p.m., Life Sciences and Philosophy Building 142

Tue. Sept. 24 - Haverford / Bryn Mawr College (Haverford, PA), 6:30 p.m., Dalton Room 300

Wed. Sept. 25 - Iona College (New Rochelle, NY) 

Fri. Sept. 27 - Phillips Exeter Academy (Exeter, NH)

Mon. Sept. 30 - University of New Hampshire (Durham, NH)

Tue. Oct. 1 - Endicott College (Beverly, MA)

Wed. Oct. 2 - Skidmore College (Saratoga Springs, NY) 

Thur. Oct. 3 - Middlebury College (Middlebury, VT), 12:30 p.m., The Franklin Environmental Center at Hillcrest, The Orchard (Room 103)

Fri. Oct. 4 - University of Albany (Albany, NY)