“Of Men and War”: PTSD therapy at a center in California

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Name: Of Men and War
Director, writer:  Laurent Becue-Renard
Released:  2014
Format:  digital video
When and how viewed:  PBS POV 2016/5/30
Companies: PBS, Kino Lorber, Alice Films
Link: url

Of Men and War”, directed and written by Laurent Becue-Renard, aired Memorial Day on PBS POV, late (after a Ted Talk on the topic, previous post).  The documentary, shot in reality mode with handheld videocams, shows returning veterans (mostly from Afghanistan) living as patients at The Pathway Home,  a new post traumatic stress (PTSD) for returning combat men in Yountville, CA, in Napa County, NE of the Bay Area.  I visited the area most recently in November 1995.

The men are shown in various activities, including playing sandlot baseball, and especially in many group therapy sessions.  One of the veterans has to learn to become a patient.

The men have been socialized to live for the good of the unit in combat, and find the individualism of civilian life stressful.  That is somewhat Sebastian Junger’s theory.  But in the actual therapy sessions, most of the men sounded traumatized by the grotesque injuries that had occurred to other buddies in combat.

In one narrative, a former combat medic describes saving the life of another man with horrific, and permanently disfiguring injuries. Later, the other man says he didn’t want to live.  Yet, a statement like that, unwillingness to accept the necessity of one’s own sacrifice and the support that then must come after it, undermines the resilience of others in the same circumstances, and can undermine the entire military operation.

I can remember that during the Vietnam era some college students said that if they were drafted and maimed, they didn’t want to come back.  I even said that.  But that can be very counter-productive to “solidarity” when that really matters (maybe it didn’t for Vietnam).

A movie for comparison that comes to mind is Fred Zinnemann’s “The Men” (1950) with Lee Marvin (Stanley Kramer, United Artists). Another is Oliver Stone’s “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) for Kramer and WB with Matthew Modine.  Finally, consider Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989), about Ron Kovic played by Tom Cruise (Universal).

Photo by DaringDonnaOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, for Wikipedia attribution

(Published Tuesday, May 31, 2016 at 1 PM EDT)

Sebastian Junger’s “Tribe”: how modern civilization can subvert man’s social nature

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Author: Sebastian Junger
Title, Subtitle: Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging
Publication date 2016
ISBN 978-1-4555-6638-9
Publication: TwelveBooks, 168 pages hardcover, four chapters
Link: Amazon

I met Sebastian Junger at his book-signing party at a Barnes and Noble in downtown Minneapolis in 1998 for his non-fiction epic “A Perfect Storm”.  I remember the book well, most of all the harrowing description of death by drowning.  I would see the film by Wolfgang Petersen (with George Clooney and “Marky” Mark Wahlberg) in 2000, and write a review on AOL’s Moviegrille (at the time, a real innovation, pre social media) that would cause a squabble online over “class warfare”.  I describe the details on my legacy site here.

Junger has definitely led a swashbuckling life, and “paid his dues”, living in war zones (like to make “Restrepo” and “Korengal”) and doing dangerous work (as an arborist, where he was injured, maybe helping to inspire the book “Fire”.  Later he talks about our dependence of people who do manual labor (but my own father used to harp about this in the 1950s).

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging” is brief, in fact it could have been published as another extended Vanity Fair article.  The publisher, “TwelveBooks”, a division of Hatchette, says it picks out just one book a month to publish, the opposite of self-publishing indeed.  Junger’s “Author’s Note” makes some comments about the meticulous fact checking that should be expected of all those who call themselves journalists.

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The media has described the work in terms of the psychological needs of returning combat veterans, who miss the unit cohesion and belonging of combat and military service.  But the book is much broader, in its implications for social stability, and, ultimate, “the ethics of identity” (Appiah, May 27). The title of the second chapter, “War Makes You an Animal”, is indicative of the tone of the book.

Junger’s thesis is that man has evolved wired to live collectively in small groups, or “tribes”, with self-concept and “identity” tied to the group, larger than the self.  The best example of this lifestyle probably was native American tribes before European settlers came.  During the French and Indian Wars (James Fenimore Cooper’s world that gave me a high school term paper), and sometimes other conflicts, Euorpean settlers would “defect” and choose to live in the relative “freedom” of native tribes.  But natives did not want to live in hierarchal European society, so the converse did not happen.

Tribal society was, Junger claims, quite egalitarian.  People accumulated few possessions and money was of little consequence. People slept together in yurts, and Junger makes a point that sleeping alone, in one’s own room, is a European and American invention, facilitated by material wealth and then smaller families.  Forced intimacy was the norm, and the modern concept of “privacy” was unknown until relatively recently (well into the 20th Century), as this panel, “The Birth and Death of Privacy” by Greg Ferenstein shows.

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A question occurs, what about the moochers?  Yes, tribes had ways of chasing out their freeloaders (and in individual cases were capable of great brutality).  There had to be patriarchal elders in charge (often with religious authority).  But, because people usually didn’t have the opportunity to interact with others outside of their tribes, political life was simple, so there was a sense of freedom that supplemented the “belonging”.

As society became more organized (as with the European system of sovereign states, or even entities like Mayan and Inca empires) political life became more complicated, and classes developed.  So someone living in “the commons” could well wonder about his or her assigned station in life, in a way that wouldn’t develop in simpler tribes.  Often, politicians became authoritarian and indeed abused minorities, leading to more modern ideas of struggles over class, race, and gender roles.

Junger spends a lot of attention of the importance of war and conflict in shaping social mores.  Most tribal societies have to deal with external enemies, as well as natural disasters.  Hardship and the need for individual sacrifice is a given.  So it is the long term future of the group that has the highest moral (in Appiah’s terminology) value.  He talks about the eusociality and caring for strangers that the British people developed during the London bombings in 1940, for example.  In this environment, physical cowardice is a moral evil and capital crime.  People have to give up their individualized sense-of-self during conflict, so they often feel less stress personally.  But the stress returns with peace when the standard of living returns and economic inequality (and excessive attachments to private assets) also come back.  But, in the minds of many, modern infrastructure and even “law and order” cannot be counted on forever (that is, is not inherently “sustainable”).  The modern “doomsday prepper” crowd, often associated with supporting the Second Amendment, views self-sufficiency “off the grid” within family groups as a prerequisite for living by anybody.

Family life in tribal societies is certainly embedded deeply in tribal purpose.  Marriage and procreation is viewed as a community matter as well as a private one.  Gender roles are important in more survival-challenged cultures, and the paradox of male warrior culture (and “unit cohesion”) is reinforced. Junger says that simpler cultures generally do make room for less assertive men and more assertive women, which would obviously affect LGBT persons (whom Junger doesn’t directly address).  But we know that the tribal societies of the Islamic world and of much of sub-Saharan Africa are still often very hostile to homosexuals (usually with religious teachings providing the necessary canards).  Russia seems to be trying to reinstall tribal values to rebuild its population and settle its emptied out Siberian lands.

Tribes often require warrior initiation rituals, which modern men might see as humiliating (“hazing”), like the chest work he describes in p. 119.  But “hazing” (like the “tribunals” at William and Mary which I so dangerously skipped in 1961) might be seen as a way for getting young men to accept self-sacrifice when necessary and still perform as fathers later.  I think a curious parallel could be drawn to people allowing themselves to be shaved in public in benefit events showing solidarity with cancer patients on chemotherapy.

Junger has indeed described how humans behave.  Humans are primates, he says, generally wired to live collectively, more like wolves than cats (maybe like lions).  I wondered, what about the Bonobo chimps?  It seems that as technology has advanced and society has become more politically complex, individualism (all the way to Ayn Rand) has become “selected”.  Especially among young men in a wired, global society, individual achievement is rewarded, somewhat at the expense of cohesion with others in a group.  This development may be very hard on those “wired” more conventionally  for group life, putting them at a bigger competitive disadvantage, and complicating the issue of “inequality” further.  The popular “X-Men” comic book and movie franchise  might be a metaphor for the effects of allowing some people to stand out so much.

But, given our cultural anthropology lesson, the next question is, how should this affect policy?  Let’s not forget that in some parts of the world, tribal life invokes horrible practices (try female genital mutilation, for example.)  But let’s accept that some tribal life works.  It’s bad news for introverts. But what “moral” (or plain “ethical”) standards should be expected of the little “x-men” among us (that includes “Little Rubio”, maybe). (That is, after all, the theme of my own 2014 “Do Ask, Do Tell III” book.)   Junger, for example, talks about the draft, although not calling for its reinstatement. He mentions that the all volunteer military attracts recruits who have experienced sexual or familial abuse, disproportionately. He talks about his own draft card, and his father’s idea that he should keep it but leave the country if he had enough moral objection to Vietnam. My own history, of flunking students (exposing men to the military draft after student deferment loss when an assistant graduate algebra instructor, then entering the Army in 1968 with a graduate degree and escaping all exposure to combat myself, then becomes very troubling, something that should never be buried.  So is the earlier history of my clumsiness with the expectations of the male role, and my disinterest in the social experiences that others expected of me, for their collective benefit rather than “mine”, as a conveyor of the family for its own sake. Rather than engage people emotionally in a world where I would inevitably be perceived as “lesser”, I created my own world and propagated it. My doing so does raise moral-level questions.

As for inequality, it’s well to note that there are about 1200 voluntary income-sharing “intentional communities” (with limited connection to “the grids”) in the U.S. today; most, but not all, are in rural areas.  In central Virginia, Twin Oaks and Acorn provide typical examples.

Junger correctly observes that our idea of victimhood, and pimping it as a virtue, is indeed shallow.  Sometimes “casualty” is the right word, rather than “victim”.

Junger appeared on Memorial Day, 2016 on a PBS Ted Talk (“War and Peace”) with Adam Driver and others .  Junger talked about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among some soldiers once back in civilian life and away from the bonding of the military environment. He also says (as in the book), that civilian PTSD  actually went down after 9/11.  The PBS full link is here. Included is a song by Rufus Wainwright (from his second opera “Hadrian“), and short films “All Roads Point Home” by Linda Singh, “Talk of War“, and “Bionic Soldier“.  Singh talked about why people (especially women) join the military, and about what military values could offer handling race problems like Ferguson and Baltimore. Later, there was a presentation of non-violent resistance in Mosul, as parents refused to send their kids to an ISIS school but home-schooled them instead;  then there as a presentation showing that rich countries profit from selling arms to people in poor countries, where still most of the slaughter happens; guns are cheaper there than is clean water. The program ended with music for cello and piano, unannounced, but I believe it was by Ravel.

I should mention here that I do recall reading a novel “The Tribe” by Bari Wood, around 1987, about golems that bring retribution in modern day Brooklyn for what happened in the Holocaust.

(Published: Monday, May 30, 2016, at 9 PM EDT)

“X-Men: Apocalypse” a Marvel plot, all right, and a bizarre idea for how the world could end if we are too sinful to notice

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Name: X-Men: Apocalypse
Director, writer:  Bryan Singer    (DGC)
Released:  2016/5
Format:  2.35:1, Imax, 3-D
When and how viewed: AMC Tysons, 3-D, EDS (medium crowd, Sat afternoon, 2016/5/28)
Companies: 20th Century Fox, Marvel Studios, TMG
Link: Franchise site

X-Men: Apocalypse”, directed by Bryan Singer and based on his own story line, based on Marvel’s series, gets pretty far into comic-book stuff indeed.  The plot is a hodge-podge, and the special effects are so off the wall that the whole concept isn’t  very engaging (compared to comics stuff closer to real character and reality, like “Smallville”).

Nevertheless, the 144-minute 3-D film had some concepts related to my own work.  First, let’s summarize the story, Apocalypse, or En Sabar Nur (Oscar Isaac) wants a new world order, after wiping out the old one, and will recruit his young X-Men.  The plan is to disturb the Earth’s magnetic field in such a way that most man made structures with iron in the world implode, but that’s only after tricking all the world’s military weapons to release their nukes into space.  (I’m reminded of the novel “The HAB  Theory” by Allan E. Eckert (1976).  Needless to say, his underlings must rebel.

The ring leader for the good guys is professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), who, from his wheelchair, runs his school for “mutants” in Westchester county.  (“Things are better. The world is better.”)  I thought about the Davidson Academy in Reno, NV for the profoundly gifted, where Taylor Wilson attended.  (One could wonder if Taylor, and perhaps Jack Andraka – already a comic book character on Twitter as a “nano-man” in a space helmet ready for “The Fantastic Voyage” (1966), are the real mutant-heros, or could be cast in a movie like this.)  Magneto is played by Michael Fassbender (of course), and the Beast with his heat vision (more dramatic than young Clark Kent’s in Smallville) by Nicholas Hoult – only the 3-D shades keep his beady eyes from annihilating others.  Jennifer Lawrence is the blue Mystique.

There’s a scene midway where the mutants visit Auschwitz, and destroy it.  The opening chapter of my novel “Angel’s Brother” consists of an encounter between a CIA agent and a gifted college student (not quite a mutant) at the Auschwitz site.  Here there’s a bit of an encounter but not much tension or subtlety. The movie also addresses another concept that my novel manuscript considers:  consolidation of instances of individual consciousness into fewer people (that is, the gifted and chosen “mutants
who are supposed to be better than the rest of us).

There is also a scene going through a tunnel from the Pyramids (after they implode in 3600 BC in an opening scene) to modern day, rather like the subterranean (by “Mobius subway”) migration in my “Epiphany” screenplay  from the angel’s space station on Titan to the “communes” in the rama-cyclinder where the “abductees” are trained before they in turn get to choose who gets to become a future angel.

The music score by John Ottman is post-romantic, and uses the famous Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which it repeats as a kind of “middle section” of a concert overture (ending loudly on one choral shout) played during the closing credits.

I can recall Anderson Cooper tweeting that he likes X-Men movies.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Mount Robson, B.C., a location of the film, by Rufus Hawthorne

(Published: Saturday, May 28, 2016 at 11 PM EDT)

“The New Public” chronicles a Brooklyn high school for the arts for inner-city kids

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Name: The New Public
Director, writer:  Jyllian Gunther
Released:  2013
Format:  video film
When and how viewed:  Netflix (Amazon is $2.99)
Companies: Alive Mind, Kino Lorber, Submarine
Link: link

The New Public” (2013), directed by Jyllian Gunther, is another documentary about an education experiment set up to help disadvantaged kids, mostly African-American.

This time the school is BCAM, Brooklyn Community Arts and Media High School , in Bedford-Stuyvesant (“Bed-Stuy”) in Brooklyn NY.  The film traces four years for its first ninth-grade class. The film doesn’t show that much of the music and arts program, instead focusing a lot on a white male English teacher, who explains the meaning of “anaphora”, and later uses two poems by William Blake (“Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience”) to help motivate a student, troubled by more involuntary responsibility at home for younger siblings as well as college application.

The film is shot “as is”, with hand-held video, almost in “Cloverfield” style. Rather than presenting a lot of interviews, the documentary filmmaker presents clips of students and teachers dealing with their interpersonal problems.  One female just doesn’t get math and doesn’t know why she has to pass algebra.  The young man (above) visits his apartment mailbox repeatedly to find rejection letters from colleges, until one day he gets in to a film school in Connecticut, with scholarship.

It takes a right kind of person (like “It Takes a Village”, as per Hillary Clinton) to interact with kids as these teachers do.  One could have to find that activity within one’s calling or identity.  A lot of people talk about progressivity and fight for freedom, like from Internet censorship, but don’t want this kind of interpersonal activity finding them.

A topic that might have been covered more is a nexus between music education and teaching math (as in my drama blog here).

A few films about education of disadvantage children have focused on chess as well as the arts.

A few films about education of disadvantage children have focused on chess as well as the arts, such as “Brooklyn Castle” (2012, by Kelly Dellamaggiore), “Knights of the South Bronx” (2005, by Allen Hughes, and of course the high profile “Pawn Sacrifice” about Bobby Fischer, by Edward Zwick.

The film touched on senior sloughing, so another relation is the Cappies play “Senioritis” (2007).

(Published: Friday, May 26, 2016 at 2:30 PM EDT)

Appiah’s “The Ethics of Identity”

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Author: Kuame Anthony Appiah
Title, Subtitle: The Ethics of Identity
publication date 2005
ISBN 978-0-691-1-13028-6
Publication: Princeton University Press, 358 pages, paper, roman intro 28 pages, six chapters
Link: Amazon


I bought “The Ethics of Identity” (2005) by Kwame Anthony Appiah  on impulse in an independent bookstore (Kammerbooks in Washington DC), as I was trying to judge just what philosophy books really sell in physical stores, especially slightly older ones. I also wanted to find a text that would help me work through the ethics of my own life and second career

The author is a professor of philosophy at New York University, previously Princeton. He was born in London (of mixed race) and raised in Ghana.

I could introduce my own stake in this topic by recounting a day in 2007 when a life insurance agent took me to lunch in Merrifield VA at a Panera Bread. There was no chance I would buy anything.  But I said that my returning to look after her was costing me my “sovereignty”.  Indeed, at age 64 then, my normal “right” to make my own decisions about a lot of normally personal things had been seriously questioned by my circumstances (explained in my DADT III book, Chapter 5).

The book starts with the writings of John Stuart Mill (“On Liberty”) by noting Mill’s statement that “individuality” is “constitutive of the social good.”  The rest of the book revolves around the paradox that an individual’s expression and consciousness is only meaningful relative to a society and social structure in which he or she lives:  by definition, other people must matter.

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The book has a long roman introduction, and six long chapters: “The Ethics of Individuality”; “Autonomy and its Critics”; “The Demands of Identity”; “The Trouble with Culture”; “Soul Making” and “Rooted Cosmipolitanism”.

Appiah gets to the idea of “identity” by exploring the paradox of the life experience of the butler in the novel and film “The Remains of the Day” (novel by Kazuo Ishiguro; 1993 film directed by James Ivory, Columbia Pictures, with Anthony Hopkins as the butler; I recall seeing the film at the Shirlington Theater in Arlington VA that year).  I would say that my own identity is my own universe, which seems very full at any given time;  it has been in retirement that I’ve learned how really “relative” it is.  I could get into the issue of what generates consciousness (“I Am a Strange Loop” by Douglas Hofstadter, 2007).

But, then, individual identity is mediated by “belonging”, to a group which may or may not be sharply delineated with immutability.

Appiah tends to write “from on high”, as if composing a manifesto; he deals in abstractions and principles.  Occasionally, he comes down to earth to deal with what people really have to do, to step right up.  For example, he mentions filial piety (p. 264) and earlier mentions that sometimes reasonably democratic societies do demand contingent sacrifices, as with conscription.  When he talks about the social development of the “soul” on top of identity, I am reminded of George F. Will’s preachy 1983 book “Statecraft as Soulcraft” (Touchstone) which fit in well wit Reagan’s early years.

His last chapter wraps a lot up, even as he explains that the idea of a “global citizen” is offensive to many groups (as is oversized personal autonomy, in Chapter 2).  But then he distinguishes between moral opprobrium (Scalia) which is universal in nature, and ethical behavior, which is circumstantial depending on one’s own ties.  The whole question of being “cosmopolitan” breaks down the normal conservative expectation that people need to “look after their own” first.  But Appiah emphatically says there is a big difference between public discrimination, and the exercise of discretion and choice in noticing differences in private affairs.  I don’t think Appiah would consider it wrong to refuse to date a member of another race (although I know from personal experience that some people do).

Appiah seems to believe that civilizations will make “moral” judgments about major norms and collective goals; given their reasonableness, how a citizen behaves (expressing her own “identity”, especially globally now in a world much less tribal than in the past) becomes an ethical problem.  Civilization (especially “Western”) has to make moral choices on how to interpret the science on climate change, for example (Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” indeed). Individuals make ethical judgments on their own transportation, mobility and living arrangements (at least I did).  But if a civilization is too far off base (like Nazi Germany), then taking orders is itself a moral as well as ethical problem.

Appial notes the tension in classical liberalism among three triangular pillars:  autonomy, loyalty, and “moral equality” which bears indirectly on personal ethics.  Earlier, he has anticipated his discussion of ethics with an explanation of akrasia.

I’ve often written about the expectations of others, who have sometimes challenged my fantasy life and my “drawing attention” without taking more risks to be in a position to care for others – for not having the down to earth skills to do so – for not finding enough meaning in doing so.  Individual identity depends on groups one “belongs to”, but it also must relate to the individual people in these groups, as with my own father’s dictum about being able to “see people as people.”

The book often mentions society’s treatment of homosexuals, but was written largely before gay marriage had become a reality as it is today.

Other books include Martin Fowler’s “You Always Belonged and You Always Will: A Philosophy of Belonging” (2014), and Paul Rosenfels, “Homosexuality: The Psychology of the Creative Process” (1971).

(Published Thursday, May 26, 2016 at midnight 5/27)

“Killswitch” examines overzealous government copyright enforcement and surveillance on Internet

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Name: Killswitch
Director, writer: Ali Akbarzadeh
Released:  2014
Format:  regular aspect, video film
When and how viewed: 2016/5/25, from distributor site (small $$), Vimeo
Companies: Akorn, CineCities
Link: official site and viewing window

Killswitch”, in 73 minutes, shows us how Internet freedom is attack from established legacy corporate interests and from gratuitous government surveillance and prosecutorial overreach, often as an indirect result of corporate lobbying.  The film summarizes, with some detail in biography, the accomplishments and perils of Aaron Swartz (ending in tragedy) and Edward Snowden, and focuses on three main interview subjects: Lawrence Lessig, Tim Wu, and Peter Ludlow.  It also chronicles the defeat of PIPA and SOPA (Stop On-line Piracy Act of 2011) by Swartz’s activism, which included shutting down Wikipedia and some other free sites for one day in January 2012 to make a point.

The film characterizes “the hacktivist” as a nerd who repurposes the Internet infrastructure for activism. It cites Twitter as the most adopted platform for politics, citing the Arab spring, but neglecting to mention the abuse by ISIS “recruiting”.

The aggressive action by government against some infringers, mostly concerning copyright and “piracy”, has been abetted by the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986.   The Act, as per the film, views violation of a providers TOS (“terms of service”) as a possibly prosecutable crime. (The Act may have been motivated by a sensational Hollywood sci-fi film “War Games” in 1982.)  I can recall a cyberbullying prosecution back around 2007 justified by violation of Myspace’s TOS, in pre-Facebook days.  The government has, most of all in the copyright-related cases, tended to prosecute people to make examples of them (most of all Swartz, by US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who also would be involved in prosecuting Dzhohkar Tsarnaev (the film shows a clip of the Boston Marathon bombing to make an indirect point).  The film notes the career of former Senator Chris Dodd, who went to work for the MPAA.  I’ve always wondered if what Hollywood worries about is not so much direct piracy (really, do  people who can’t afford $15 premium 3-D tickets but watch pirated DVD’s affect their bottom line that much), but “amateur” competition, from films like this one, which can capture not so much consumer dollars as consumer time at home.  (Even Mark Cuban admitted that to me an email about his “Blogmaverick” one time.) The film hints that government harassment is a way to send a message to introverted people (mostly young men) who are “too smart” to deal with other people more conventionally.

The NSA surveillance issue is a bit of a different beast.  Here the film takes the position that the government is collecting so much information that it really can’t see the real threats, missing 9/11 and the Boston Marathon incident.

The name of the film suggests another concept not covered: the idea of an “Internet kill switch”, which a president could try to pull in a national security emergency.  I think there are real concerns that Donald Trump in particular might use such a facility, particularly to shut down user generated “amateur” content that doesn’t pay for itself.

The film does not seem to be available on Amazon or Netflix, but can be watched on Vimeo from the Website for $5 by credit card or Paypal.  The technical production values are quite impressive.

Related films include “The Internet’s Own Boy” (2014, Brian Knappenberger), “Deep Web” (2015, Alex Winter), “Citizenfour” (2014, Laura Poitras)  and “The Thread” (2015, Greg Barker), and Glenn Greenwald’s book “No Place to Hide” (2014).

(Reviewed: Wednesday, May 25, 2016 at 67 PM EDT)

“Catching the Sun” documents shifting to solar energy, especially in CA and in China

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Name: Catching the Sun
Director, writer:  Shalina Kantayyi
Released:  2015
Format:  film, normal aspect, 72 min
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play
Companies: 7th Empire Media
Link: official site

I spent a night in a motel in Richmond CA the first night of a trip in February 2002, shortly after “retiring” (at age 58, from my last “real job”), and remember penciling out some plans before parking the rent car and taking the Bart to San Francisco for the evening.  All of this shows in the early scenes of “Catching the Sun” , by Shalina Kantayya.

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The film starts with graphic scenes from the Chevron refinery fire in August 2012, which caused extreme disruption to residents, who were told not to use electricity even when it was on.  Soon we get to know the family of Paul Mudrow, whose house is under-water (or was caught in the 2007 subprime mess), who takes up training to become a solar panel installer.  Yes, you have to become a climber, which my own mother used to say I am not. Eventually, we see him interview for the job.

The film then shows us a solar entrepreneur in Wuxi, China, on the Pacific coast a few hundred miles north of Shanghai.  It amazes me how many multi-million-pop cities that I have not heard of exist in China.  The movie does not explain China’s lack of progress in the horrific air pollution of many of its big cities (especially Beijing itself).  Then we meet a Green Tea Coalition activist, who says she is normally a conservative Republican. We also learn that in Germany, 75% of the power is generated from renewable sources, to be 100% by 2022. We also see a little bit about India’s solar industry.

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Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Richmond CA refinery by Nickols Kolb, under CCSA 3.0

Wkipedia attribution link for picture of Wuxi by DizzyNN under CCSA 4.0 International.

As a counterweight, I’ll add a YouTube video from 2013 of Taylor Wilson’s Ted Talk from Long Beach, CA where he proposes (at age 18) a plan to decentralize the major US power grids (make them more secure, indirectly) with small fission reactors.  I’ll come back to this later on my news blog.

(Published Monday, May 23, 2016 at 8 PM EDT)

“The Lobster”: satire on the idea that single and childless people can bring down a nation

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Name: The Lobster
Director, writer:  Yorgos Lanthimos with Ethymis Filippou
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1 film
When and how viewed: Angelika Mosaic, Fairfax VA, Sat PM, 2016/5/21, moderate audience
Companies: A24
Link: Official site

The Lobster” is vicious satire, of on the basic tenets of most authoritarian cultures: every adult should be married and raise kids, or else he (especially) becomes a dangerous parasite on “the people.”

The title is about as symbolic as “Grapes of Wrath” (in an “I Love Lucy” episode).  When asked what kind of animal he wants to become if he fails to find a romantic partner in the 45 days allowed at this luxury hotel, David, the protagonist, says, indeed, that crustacean, because it has blue blood and lives a century – hope it doesn’t wind up in a supermarket to be boiled alive.

Now David, plays by Colin Farrell, looks uncouth enough.  He has a moderate pot belly, hanging over the belt, kept in place by a padlock.

You get the picture.  The “patients” have been swept off the streets in a dystopian future (ok, “Hunger Games”), set in Ireland, were fascism has recaptured the entire West. Men wandering in public are confronted by police to prove they are married, just like women in Muslim countries must be covered. Chronic delinquents are sent to the hotel.

We learn about how this works “on the outside” in the 118-minute film’s second act, set in the woods, run by the rebels, who, while providing relief from the 45-day rule, enforce their own brutal kind of discipline.  OK, choose between fascism and communism.  The irony is, of course, is that Dave finds love, of sorts, with the “Short Sighted Woman” (Rachel Weisz), and the movie tells us its backstory with their clandestine trips to the “city”.  To cement their love, in the end, David must mutilate himself in one of the most unthinkable, grating ways imaginable (and it’s not what you first expect).

The Spa rules are a bit mixed.  Homosexual couples are actually allowed (but bisexuality and transgender is not). Masturbation is forbidden.  When a relatively attractive straight couple (both tend to have nosebleeds) marries, the Hotel will supervise them to make sure they consummate the marriage.  If they don’t make it, then an “OPC” (one of “other people’s children”) will be assigned to them as an adoptee.

Throughout the movie, the dialogue is cleverly worded, perhaps tastelessly, as it tries to anticipate how an autistic person (or someone with Asperger’s) would say something.  From a “mental health” viewpoint, the film mixes up the ideas of Asperger’s with schizoid personality.

The film has other odd effects, with tranquilizer guns, as if to make political statements about weapons, and sometimes seems to be recreating Stephen King ideas (like in “The Shining”, 1981).  You have to applaud Olivia Colman for her chilling performance as the hotel manager.

The music score uses string quartet music by Beethoven (#7), Scnittke, Britten (#1), and Shostakovich (#8, with the famous three-chord motive) very chillingly.

The official site claims that it determines “your second chance animal”.  I’m rather reminded of the afterlife promised in Michael Anderson’s “Logan’s Run” (1976).

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The movie certainly caused me to recreate my own days at NIH as a patient at NIH in 1962, and of my expulsion from William and Mary in 1961, when the Dean learned that, as an only child, I would probably not carry on the family lineage, and he had to tell my parents.  That pretty much explains Vladimir Putin’s attitude in underpopulated dystopian Russia today.

The distributor, A24, is getting a reputation for releasing edgy sci-fi films and social experiments.

Wikipedia attribution link for Irish scenery typical of the movie by Joebater, under CCSA 3.0.

I have a brief review on imdb of the movie here.

This is a good place to mention “The Bachelor” (1999, New Line), directed by Gary Senyor and Roy Cooper Mengure, based on the 1925 play “Seven Chances” by Jean Havez.  The comedy film plays on the idea of the “dead hand”, an idea from Victorian English novels that doesn’t have much currency now.  Chris O’Donnell plays the heir who will lose his unearned fortune if he doesn’t get married by age 30, as I remember.  Though the subject of cash cow comedy, the idea really isn’t funny in real life.

(Published: Saturday, May 21, 2016 at 8:45 PM EDT)

“Money Monster”: a finance entertainment show host is held hostage, with a twist

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Name: Money Monster
Director, writer:  Jodie Foster
Released:  2016/5
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Common, afternoon, 2016/5/20 (Friday), light attendance
Companies: Sony Tri-Star, Smokehouse
Link: Official site

Money Monster” sounds like a takeoff on Jim Cramer’s “Mad Money”.  But what happens in the movie would be pretty much off the charts, even if tantalizing to people in bars all over NYC watching the hostage drama unfold.

Lee Gates (a charismatic George Clooney) is pulling out all the stops on his stock market show, when a young, irate investor Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell) sneaks onto the stage with two packages, and, at gunpoint, forces Gates to put on a suicide bomber vest.

At first, Kyle sounds like a nutcase.  True, he got shafted by one of Gates’s tips on a mining company, but it sounds like he and his pregnant girl friend had intended to get by with a “flipping houses” mentality we have seen on “Dr. Phil”.

But then, the film (maybe cheating on the “omniscient observer” idea) starts showing us clues:  programmers in South Korea, hackers in Iceland, and mining workers in South Africa.  It gets interesting how Gates and Burdwell start to bond (to the consternation of set director Patty Fenn – Julia Roberts) against a common enemy, rogue investor Walt Camby (Dominic West).  Without giving away too much, let’s say that the moral concept is akin to the movie “Blood Diamond” (or a new book “Blood Oil” by Leif Wenar, which I will read and review later).  Call it “blood platinum” if that makes sense.  (It reminds me if the lithium mines in the movie “Salero”, here May 10).  At the end, we regret a tragedy.

The film does not have the wry cynicism of Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” (2015).

(Published: Friday, May 20, 2016, 7 PM EDT)

“Requiem for the American Dream” is Noam Chomsky’s best interview film

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Name: Requiem for the American Dream
Director, writer:  by Peter G. Hutchinson, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott
Released:  2015
Format:  video or film, standard
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play, 2016/5/18
Companies: Gravitas Venturas
Site: Link

Requiem for the American Dream” (2015), directed by Peter G. Hutchinson, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott, is the best Chomsky interview film so far.  The film, stitched together from four recent interviews with Chomsky’s “ten points” (below), has plenty of interesting animation and a lot of interesting archival historical footage that is shown while he talks.  Most of the time, the view has something other than Chomsky to watch.

My own introduction to Chomsky came while I lived in Minneapolis. Late nights, I would pass Shinders book store on Hennepin on the way to the Saloon, in the months after 9/11.  I often saw paperbacks by Chomsky on right wing conspiracies in the stacks.

The title of the film tells us the theme: most average Americans have had most of their opportunity taken away from them by the wealthy and powerful. Chomsky calls our system now a “plutonomy”, extracting from a “precariat”, or “precarious proletariat” (and my first unpublished novel, after all, had been titled “The Proles”).  The plutonomy undermines democracy deliberately because it sees the “precariat” a threat that could rise up and expropriate, pretty much according to Marxist theory.

Let’s run through the ten methods that the ruling class uses.

(1)    “Reduce democracy”, the basic idea.

(2)    “Shape ideology”.  Donald Trump is trying to do that.

(3)    “Redesign economy”, particularly through “fincialization”, as explained in the book “Makers and Takers” by Rana Faroohar May 14 here. Sometimes Chomsky suggests that things are much more unequal know than ever before because of this process, but at other times, he admits that inequality and labor exploitation were pretty awful in past generations (slavery, the sweatshops of the industrial revolution).  Indeed they were. The 50s and 60s are a bit of a “golden age”, but not really, given the need for the Civil Rights movement, and then Vietnam.

(4)    “Shift burden”, particularly to workers, whose jobs become more precarious even if management says the issues are still mostly job performance.

(5)    “Attack solidarity”.  This sounds like something about labor unions, but that comes up later. This is more about social solidarity.  Michael Moore often criticizes the attitude “I got mine”.  There are questions like, why should I pay school taxes if I don’t have kids?  Chomsky talks about the proposals to privatize social security here and sees it as a wealth-sharing, whereas most of us feel we paid for our own benefits with our own FICA taxes, a point he doesn’t mention.

(6)    “Run the regulators”. This would seem to refer to loosening of financial regulations, that allow crashes (we didn’t have any in the 50s or 60s – the crashes really started with the savings and loan in the late 1980s, but the biggest was the 2008 crash, followed by the “too big to fail” idea.

(7)    “Engineer elections”, with more and more money for campaigns.

(8)    “Keep the Rabble in Line”.  Here Chomsky talks about unions, saying people don’t have sufficient right to organize (solidarity again).  He seems to be referring to “right to work” laws.  But there is also a problem in non-union salaried environments, where people with fewer responsibilities (often the childless) can work for less, or work free overtime, and lowball the system.

(9)    “Manufacture consent”, where he talks about public relations companies and consumerism, especially now online.

(10) “Marginalize populations”.  Here he says that free speech is not itself in the Bill of Rights (what about the First Amendment?) and didn’t come into serious consideration until the 1960s.  He says that the plutonomy tries to restrict the number of people who have influence, but totally misses the contributions of the “Fifth Estate”.

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In the end, Chomsky says that the ruling elite doesn’t like to see  ordinary people talking about “class”.  Indeed, “class” has something to do with what people you have some control over, at least indirectly.

Chomsky is indeed talking about how the “overlords” (to use a term of Arthur C. Clarke, as if we approached a “Childhood’s End”) manipulate classes of people, as if this were the main moral concern of the day.  Yet, at the same time, he says, “this is a free country”, as if to say that is pretty unusual in history as a whole.  My own writing inverts all this, and asks how the “man in the middle” (me) is supposed to behave, as if this is the moral question.  Maybe it’s like former Libertarian Party candidate Harry Browne’s titling a book “How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World” back in the 90s (1998, Liamworks, which I read after hearing Browne speak at a LPVA convention in 1996).  I indeed grew up with a certain class consciousness, and the idea that if I made good enough grades, I could move into the “good clothes” class and live off the real labor of “The Proles” (link). It sounds like a boorish, snooty, snarky idea. It brings up the idea of personal “rightsizing”, so far an essentially spiritual idea having to do with personal karma.  It would mean learning to walking the shoes of others whom you have depended on without feeling you are brought low yourself.  You have to deal with it.

Some good collateral reading would be Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believers: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements” (1951).

(Published: Wednesday, May 18, 2016 at 10:30 EDT)