“The Square”: vicious satire that starts out as a sermon on radical hospitality

This Sunday, I thought that a local church had a special service showing “13th”. a film I’ve already watched twice (Nov. 14, 2016 review — then I later saw the showing is Nov. 19). So I went to the one daily remaining showing of “The Square”, the new “morality play” and vicious (conservative) satire by Swedish director Ruben Ostlund; and, expecting an exploration of Christian personal values about other people, expected that to become my sermon and church, on a lively Sunday morning at Angelika Mosaic in Fairfax VA (there is a church service there in a rented theater).

The title refers to an exhibit in a Stockholm museum, the “X-Royal” (for a reason), a bordered white space you could step onto as a safe space, a “sanctuary of trust and caring”.

The lead is Christian (Claes Bang), an attractive slender married heterosexual man in his 40s with two young daughters, who espouses a Leftist philosophy of ultimate charity for the needy, particularly for street panhandlers.  But like many on the Left, he is not above wielding power for its own sake, especially sexually over women, as shown in one confrontation where one of his partners challenges him about the time he went inside her. The movie starts precariously enough (after an initial anti-establishing shot of a homeless man on the streets of the perfect EU welfare state), as he is about to speak publicly, and another woman toys with his chest hair to attach a microphone.  In this movie, you notice these things.

As far as the space, I’m reminded of a huge maze exhibit at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain in late April, 2001, when I visited.  A young man from Brazil stood behind me in line and said that the whole point of this “sculptor” was to make you wait in line so you can “feel like shit.”

Very early in the film, Christian is robbed of his cell phone, wallet and cufflinks, in what seems like a setup confrontation in the streets.  (As I wrote this an fumbled my own iPhone its flashlight came on for the first time ever.)  Soon Christian is challenged to practice what he preaches. He inveigles his tag team hhsidekick Michael (Christopher Laesso) to support him, ultimately in a bizarre effort to hand deliver a letter to every family in a walkup apartment accusing them of the theft.

The film turns into a 140-minute sequence of skits, often with bizarre rhythmic sound effects, exploring the whole issue of how we personally treat people whom we perceive as weaker than ourselves. There is an experiment where museum visitors are challenged to prove they “trust people” by leaving their phones and wallets out in the open on the Square.

Whatever plot structure there is, gets driven by two attractive young male journalists (Daniel Hallberg and Martin Soder) who, in an early presentation, explain how you make content go viral, not only with original perspective but with some shock effect to get a visitor’s attention. So they come up with a video of a blond little girl holding a cat who gets blown up, with some Arabic warnings at the end. It seems that maybe this was hacked. But I was reminded of LBJ’s 1964 ad challenging Barry Goldwater with a mushroom cloud. That may cost Christian his job, which seems especially timely now.

But near the end there is a skit at a dinner, where attendees are challenged to do with “survival mom” type threats.  A man, his body completely waxed smooth (“thmooth”, he’s in the movie posters), comes into the dinner acting threatening, walking on all fours like a pre-human ape, with props. The guests are challenged to remain calm and inconspicuous so they can let somebody else take the threat (think about Las Vegas and Paddock Oct. 1)   But the scene winds up with attempted rape.

Somewhere in the middle there is a skit about the ALS ice bucket challenge. They have no monopoly on this “chain letter” which doesn’t even need a refrigerator’s ice maker.

Wiki picture of the actual museum in Stockholm.  I visited the city in Aug. 1972,

Picture: Occupy DC, December 2011 (mine).

Name:  “The Square
Director, writer:  Ruben Ostlund
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1  in Swedish, subtitles
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic, Fairfax VA, 2017/11/12, Sunday morning
Length:  142
Rating:  R
Companies:  Magnolia Pictures
Link:  official

(Posted: Sunday, November 12, 2017 at 5:30 PM EST)

Edward Luce’s “The Retreat of Western Liberalism”: a warning to individual elitists (like me): you have everything to lose, by force

Edward Luce’s “The Retreat of Western Liberalism” comes across as a moral lecture about the perils of individual elitism. That’s my gut reaction The book is indeed a warning about how liberal democracy and the world order of the West can die. A lot of the time, the author is talking about whole countries and issues like state formation (the Peace of Westphalia in 1648), which Nicholas Wade also covers (causing some outrage) in “A Troublesome Inheritance” (June 24)– but this time, more from the Left He speculates about the dangerous future Donald Trump can bring, like a war with mainland China in 2018. (We scraped on this with Bill Clinton in 1996 and again with George W. Bush in early 2001.)  I wondered, what about North Korea right now?

But Luce is at his most powerful when he warns that the kind of globalist liberal fundamentalism that has become fashionable since the 90s can produce a dangerous backlash against individual globalists (me), not just countries. The basic problem is clear enough. Destructive technology has hollowed out the middle class. Superbly gifted young adults do spectacularly well (whether Mark Zuckerberg with Facebook or Jack Andraka and his worldwide book tour based on his science fair medical invention, or perhaps Taylor Wilson if he gets his fusion reactor going). But for the rest of “us”, it is harder to keep up. You have the student loans, the uncontrollable health insurance premiums (and the current debate over “replacing” Obamacare). Eventually this leads to a world where too many people have nothing to lose and everything blows up in revolution. We’ve seen it before. I warn about the same things in my “Do Ask, Do Tell III” book (2014), especially in my “non-fiction Epilogue” chapter.

Luce casts his argument in four extended chapters, like movements of a symphony: “Fusion”, “Reaction” (the slow movement), “Fallout” (the Chinese-sounding scherzo), and “Half Life” (a rather inconclusive finale than ends quietly – I’m reminded of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s Symphony #5 in D “L’allegro ed il Pensieroso”). Of course, the title of the finale is rather telling: society will wind down to a whimper.

I have gotten used to thinking of myself as a “global” citizen, and I’ve seen Facebook friends (especially the childless) brag about the same. There is a dangerous insularity, to say the least, about this. It says, “I am better than (you)” because I am “smarter”, more “independent”, more “self-directed”, and I don’t make the bad choices that make “you” dependent on generosity. Oh, think how that plays out in the health care debate. But in recent year, social media has reversed this attitude somewhat, with the “GoFundMe” culture, where people expect personal interventions from strangers in what used to be a “mind your own business” individualist society (say, pre 9/11). And “disruptive technology” (exacerbated by the financial creativity of the Bush era, pre-2008 which he calls an “Atlantic” phenomenon) is leading the job market into the same place:   a higher percentage of jobs today involve tending to (or selling to) individual consumers or customers than in the past. I lived my I.T. career until after 9/11 sheltered in the world of the “individual contributor”, only to find, after age 58, how pimpy (or pimpled) the job market had become.

Be wary, Luce warns the elitists (like me), you have everything to lose (when others have nothing).

Revolution comes from populism, whether the far left or the alt-right. Populism tends not to care about the truth; it wants things to be better for average Joe’s now. You attract the strong man. You wind up with communism from the Left (like Venezuela right now), or extra-judicial vigilantism on the right (like Duterte in the Philippines). Oh, yes, you get Brexit (Oops? England?) and now Donald Trump, who “talks that way” and constantly threatens to bully the elitist, know-it-all media.

Luce makes some interesting meta-arguments over LGBTQ rights. He notes that progressives today assume marriage equality is an unchallengable postulate, but it’s only been a few years that this has been so. Societies often have differing perspectives about the “moral” place of diversities in their culture because of evolving (or devolving) external influences. Then people forget the past very quickly, or don’t want to be reminded of the past because it could fuel ideology for potential enemies. My own perspective, when I wrote my first DADT book in the 1990s, was centered around libertarian ideas of consent and privacy (especially when there is tension with ideas about cohesion, as in the military). I wanted the freedom to live in my own world of fantasy and upward affiliation, if that worked for me. Yet, I can see how this can lead to a dangerous, “elitist” endgame (like in chess); hence today I have to resist social pressures to actually sell the idea that gender fluidity is good.

The book was available only from third-party resellers and on Kindle when I bought it. That is unusual for new books.

Author: Edward Luce
Title, Subtitle: The Retreat of Western Liberalism
publication date 2017
ISBN 978-0802127396
Publication: Atlantic Monthly Press, 226 pages, 4 chapters, indexed, endnotes
Link: Nation review

(Posted: Thursday, June 29, 2017 at 12 Noon EDT)

“Risk”: Laura Poitras tailgates Julian Assange, with riveting results

Risk” (2017) is the latest historical and biographical film about Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange. Director Laura Poitras provides amazing “live” coverage of events in Assange’s life starting in 2011, when he sits in a home in Norfolk, England with journalist Sarah Harrison and talks to a man about leaked State Department cables.  Assange says “It is not my problem, but I don’t want it to become your problem.”

One of the most revealing monologues comes at almost the end, when Assange is asked whether he engaged or indulged in his style of journalism to gain “power”.  He says that his garden is the whole world, and the only way for him to be effective as a person is to act globally.  That is how I feel about my own writing.

Assange also pontificates, a bit earlier, on taking risks, especially when you need to be able to take someone else’s bullets and survive them.

Early on, the film presents another major associate, Jacob Appelbaum, rather handsome (despite the gratuitous upper arm tattoo), and explains his work with the Tor Project.  The film makes the interesting point, however indirectly, that refugees and asylum seekers (in the U.S. or any western country) would need access to TOR to communicate safely with relatives back home, an issue that potential hosts would need to heed.  There are scenes where Appelbaum appears in Cairo, and later in Tunis, training Arab spring activists to use TOR, as authoritarian regimes quickly turn against political change, especially in the Muslim world.

The film concurrently covers the release of Bradley Manning’s leak “Collateral Murder” in Iraq, and covers his court martial, and gender change to Chelsea Manning, and mentions her release from Leavenworth by President Obama just before the end of the film.  As a result particularly of this set of leaks, the US and UK governments start to close in on Assange.  There are accusations of sexual misconduct in Sweden, which may very well be a set-up.  A riveting sequence in the midpoint of the film shows Assange putting on macho-man gay leather drag (including contacts), and driving his motorcycle (left side in the UK) in bike lanes to the Ecuadorian embassy, where he get asylum in 2012.  The rest of the shots of him in the film must be taken in the embassy, even Lady Gaga’s visit.

Poitras herself goes global, interrupting her narrative to show Hong Kong and just a little bit of Edward Snowden (from “Citizenfour”).  Sarah accompanies Snowden to Moscow, where he seeks and is granted asylum from Putin.

The film then covers the leaks during the 2016 US presidential elections and how that probably helped Donald Trump (“I love WikiLeaks”) win the electoral vote.

The US Department of Justice announces it wants to consider prosecuting Assange for espionage and getting extradition from Ecuador.  Under the Trump administration (and in a scene showing FBI offices in New York City), Wikileaks is now painted as a foreign intelligence service (maybe especially for Russia and China) and less a legitimate journalistic group to “keep them honest”.

Laura Poitras says she herself faces constant legal restraints and disruptions in travel from the TSA, as have Appelbaum and perhaps Harrison.  Appelbaum faced sexual misconduct allegations which might well have been trumped up (pun).

Atlantic review is here.

Wikipedia on Sarah Harrison.

My own legacy review of “Collateral Murder” (2010).

Name:  “Risk”
Director, writer:  Laura Poitras
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Landmark West End Cinema, Washington DC, 2017/5/8; theater was showing only this film at frequent intervals
Length:  90
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Madman, Showtime, First Look
Link:  FB

(Posted: Tuesday, May 9, 2017 at 4 PM EDT)

“The Case for Christ”: a journalist (Lee Strobel) becomes Christian after a rigorous “fact check” of the Resurrection

The Case for Christ”, directed by Jon Gunn, is based on journalist Lee Strobel’s own autobiographical book.

Lee (Mike Vogel), a graduate of the University of Missouri journalism school, in 1980 was working as a high profile crime reporter for the Chicago Tribune.  His wife Leslie (Erika Christiansen) congratulates him as a “published author” for “Reckless Homicide? Ford’s Pinto Trial”  (I had owned a Pinto myself in the mid 1970s in New Jersey).  Remember, this was in the days just before the PC (like the TRS80) as available, and writers still used typewriters. Self-proclaimed atheists, they seem to be doing a good job as parents of a young daughter.  Vogel is also working on a complicated story about a shooting of a policeman, with informants and other crooked cops and fall guys – which will turn into a major subplot worthy of the Innocence Project (or maybe of Andrew Jenks’s new series “Unlocking the Truth”, Oct. 29).

One evening at a restaurant, daughter Alison (Haley Rosenwasser) nearly chokes on a cookie in a restaurant. The movie doesn’t explain why the parents didn’t know the Heimlich maneuver (there’s an example of it in my first “Tribunal and Rapture” novel document where a Christ-like young man rescues a child at a Texas barbecue).  But a nurse Alfie (L. Scott Caldwell) appears and saves the child with the maneuver.  Leslie believes, with a little prodding from Alfie, that this is a miracle from God, and begins to attend church and is baptized.

Lee goes on a journalistic voyage to look at the real evidence for Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross and his Resurrection.  One of the most interest aspects of the evidence is the number of eyewitnesses (up to the time of Pentecost), and of the ability to track actual original handwritten documents almost to the time of Pentecost. (The movie points out that the Koran would not be written for another 500 years.)   He e travels to California to talk to a med school professor about the evidence that Christ really died.  In the meantime, his marriage almost falls apart. At times, the film takes on the adventurousness of an Irving Wallace novel (like “The Plot” or “The Prize”).

What he winds up is a journalistic “proof beyond reasonable doubt” based on witness testimony that Jesus rose from the dead.

Vogel would eventually become a pastor and major best-selling author of Christian books. ‘

Had I lived at the time of Christ and been one of the 500 witnesses, the experience would have defined my own intellectual world.  That still fits in to my modern idea of cosmology.

The movie seems to be more about whether faith must become personal.  But what I find difficult is the faith required to accept the vulnerability involved in really serving other people with their “real needs” and letting them be important.  That takes real hands on skill, not intellect.  It gets personal.  It’s more subtle than the collective faith you see in praise services.

But what I want to see is someone live up to the ideal that Christ created – whether another young Clark Kent (even “alien”) or a filmmaker like the second (reincarnated) Danny of “Judas Kiss”.

Name:  “The Case for Christ
Director, writer:  Joe Gunn, Lee Strobel
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Potomac Yards, Alexandria VA, fair crowd
Length:  111
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  PureFlix
Link:  official

(Posted: Friday, April 14, 2017 at 11:30 PM EDT)

 

“Unlocking the Truth”: Ryan Ferguson, wrongfully convicted himself, leads an MTV series on the issue

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I’m usually not as interested in whole (television) series for important content as films, because a viewer has to commit so much time to one topic.

Nevertheless, I see that Andrew Jenks, who has directed at least three of his own documentary films, including “Dream / Killer” about the wrongful conviction of Ryan Ferguson  , has worked as executive producer  for the new Amazon series on the issue, “Unlocking the Truth”, with episodes directed by Adam Kassen.

In fact, the series stars Ryan Ferguson and Eva Nagao as journalists investigating other wrongful conviction cases.

I watched the first two episodes yesterday ($2.99 each on Amazon).

The pilot, “Gates of Hell”, starts with Ryan’s account of his own sudden arrest while driving from college in Kansas City in March 2004.  A high school companion had “dreamed” that he and Ryan had committed a murder while drunk in Columbia, MO.  The episode shows Ryan being interrogated by police, who have a political motivation to get a conviction even with no physical evidence.   The episode then breaking recounts his father’s and family’s efforts to get the conviction overturned.

Ferguson says, this can happen to anybody.  I recall that about 15 years ago ABC 20/20 presented another case in Illinois about murder during sleepwalking recalled by a dream.

The episode then moves to another case in Missouri, that of Michael Politte, convicted for murdering his mother when he was 14 in December 1998.

In reviewing a series like this, I probably don’t want to get into “speculation” as to other suspects myself (as no one else has been convicted), but MTV goes into an alternate theory here   which is covered in the video.

The second episode “Ain’t No Change in the House of Pain” continues the Politte case and introduces the 1995 beating of Jill Marker in Winston-Salem NC, leaving her in a coma, and severely disabled even today, with defendant Kalvin Michael Smith, as explained on MTV here.

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Many of the scenes show Ryan and Eva interviewing other witnesses.  It’s odd to see a “television’ series shot in 2.35:1.

It’s great to see Ryan (his fitness site, which should please “Blogtyrant”) become a journalist (like Clark Kent) after ten years in prison, years taken away from him by force.

Ryan’s story has also been covered on NBC Dateline.  The “Innocence Project” has produced some important films through CourtTV, such as “The Exonerated“.

Picture: Not on the Missouri side, but Lawrence Kansas and KU, where I went to graduate school in the 1960s. Second picture: Linville, NC.

(Posted: Oct. 29, 2016, 11:15 AM EDT)

“Extremis”, end-of-life care; “Conflict”, photographers explain their calling in filming war

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Today, two more major documentaries on Netflix.

Extremis”, by Dan Krauss, 24 minutes, f/8 filmworks, records in real time the agonizing end-of-life decisions for several patients at end of life (I think in Chicago).  One is a homeless man, and two are African-American women surrounded by family, and one is a 38-year-old white woman.

The film is shot in Highland Hospital (Rochester, NY). It starts with a doctor trying to get a patient to write down what bothers her because she can’t talk over intubation. As the film progresses, the cases involve whether to keep patients intubated with breathing tubes.  Patients might linger for six months, into a vegetative state, or might live a day or two breathing on their own with family around them (in two cases).

Capital Hospice writes that it is important for family members to stay at the bedside of loved ones even when they are unconscious while passing away naturally.  There is more indirect evidence than ever that the soul gradually stays around before merging into an afterlife.  I’m not sure I could say I complied with that.

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Conflict” (35 min, Ridflix), directed by Nick Fitzhugh, seems to be a “mini-mini-series” of reports from six conflict journalists about their work.   There is some interchangeability between the concept of “journalist” and “photographer”.

The strongest statement may come from Peter Moeller, who goes first, reporting from South Sudan.  Moeller says it is ironic that one the world’s youngest nations has the same hyperindividualistic position on self-defense (and “take care of your own first”) as the world’s leading democracy.  He says he is a conflict photographer and not a combat journalist for its own sake. He says that journalism should be service, and should be personal.  His message to his subject is “let me represent you.”  That sounds like something said in a sermon by youth at a local Presbyterian church here in northern Virginia back in 2012, almost the same speech.  (That church actually has an indirect ministry in that country.)  He also says that war is quiet, that it slowly eats lives away.

The next journalist is Jiao Silva, from South Africa, who reports first on the post-Apartheid violence in Johannesberg  (“Jo-berg”) and then from Kandahar in Afghanistan.  If I follow right, he is the person who loses both legs in combat and walks out in the last scene, long pants, on prosthetics.

The next journalist, Donna Ferrato, reports on domestic violence from New York City.  She gets into situations where she needs to intervene physically.  She encounters husbands who think they “own” their wives.  So some of the rest of us think we’re better than that.

There follows Nicole Tung, who, based in NYC, travels to Syria and crosses illegally from Turkey.  She loses two male reporter friends, the second of whom is beheaded publicly by ISIS.

Robin Hammond reports on the internal violence in the Congo, which, as Anthony Bourdain had explained in a CNN “Parts Unknown”, is indirectly a result of colonialism.  He notes the unfairness of life, and says “ignorance is not an alibi for inaction”, a aphorism that motivates his work.  He thinks he really makes a difference.

But Eros Hoagland, reporting from Mexico and Central America, sees his own profession as a bit of a spectator sport, that could get him killed.  He says, “we fear wolves because we never see them.” True, he rails against corruption in Central America as the reason why drug cartels run the countries.  But he says, if you want to help people, become a doctor and go overseas to poor countries.  I’m reminded of the doctors (and even one journalist) who got Ebola in Liberia and fortunately all recovered with intensive care back in the US or in Britain.

YouTube  preview link is here but disables embedding.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture from Syria-Turkey border by Kevorkmail, CCSA 3.0.

(Published: Friday, September 16, 2016 at 10:15 PM EDT)

“Following Shepard”: a curious little novel about the aftermath of the Matthew Shepard tragedy

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Author: Bob Grannan
Title, Subtitle: Following Shepard
publication date 2016
ISBN 978-069255652-0
Publication: Amazon Digital Services, 106 pages, paper, 27 chapters
Link: author

Following Shepard”, by Ohio journalist Bob Grannan, is an odd-little novella (103 pages) combining many important themes:  journalistic objectivity and ethics, with gay values, and gay bashing tragedy.

The setup is that a reporter, usually writing in first person and present tense, is enlisted by a young gay man Eirinn Galagher to track another friend, Seth McCam, leading a caravan of twelve students across the country in 1999.

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It isn’t hard to guess from the title that the novel deals with the aftermath of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in October 1998 near Laramie, Wyoming. In time, the group reproduces the tragedy, so to speak, among many more people before a little march on Washington.   It may be too much of a spoiler to reveal the consequences for the group.

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Grannan’s comments on journalism do get interesting. On p. 33, he discusses an incident in Sudan in 1993 involving a journalist reporting on a starving child and confronted with the dilemma of whether to intervene.  Another theme among several characters (including parents of the characters) is keeping personal diaries or journals in the days before online blogging was possible.  I have a sense that some people know who they are when they start, as children, start creating content that can be shown to others.

He also notes “gay values” in places:  being flabby is more acceptable among straight men (who may believe women don’t care about how they look – when they do) than among gay men.  All of this in a backdrop of the hypocrisy of Irish Catholic moralizing.  Remember how in 1986 the Vatican had penned a letter claiming that male homosexuality is still some kind of “objective disorder”.  It seems, in Catholic and other religious theology, to require a rite of psychological and religious passage to welcome the idea of dedication to raising kids (your family) for the next generation. At one point, the writer, in first person, characterizes himself (as a fictive person) as non-white and from Iran, but normally people in Iran are Caucasian.

The book was available at OurWrite DC in Washington DC August 6.

The book, curiously, has page numbers printed with odd numbered pages on the back side of a sheet, something I have never seen before,

I visited Laramie in August 1994, after spending the night in Cheyenne.  Earlier that Saturday, I had made the decision to write my first “Do Ask, Do Tell” book.

The important film for comparison is “Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine” (Michele Josue), and the well known play is “The Laramie Project” (Moises Kaufman).

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Lake Marie and Snowy Mountains near Laramie, by Photomnt, public domain.

(Published: Monday, August 15, 2016 at 7 PM EDT)