Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Film Review: BlacKkKlansman (a Spike Lee film)

This film, probably Spike Lee's best work since "She's Gotta Have It" in 1986, is a joyous romp, karmic, powerful, absurd, and also flawed.  It walks a line between terrifying and funny, depicting a story that is based on a true story so implausible that, were there not a book memoir to read, one could dismiss it is a wild flight of fancy. It has beautiful and mesmerizing young actors, fascinating and snappy dialog, and the best actor impersonation of a young David Duke imaginable (compared at the end to the real McCoy).  The main protagonist, Ron Stallworth, is played with gleeful aplomb by John David Washington, who looks (in my opinion) utterly unlike his famous father Denzel, but is just as good an actor.  And Stallworth's sidekick Flip Zimmerman is played by Adam Driver (of Star Wars fame for playing villain Kylo Ren).  Driver's performance also stands out, and its good to see him in a non-villainous role.  The camera loves them both.

As the plot careens towards an inevitable confrontation, there is a lengthy segment that my husband found boring, but I thought was perhaps the high point of the film.  Cutting repeatedly between two groups of people, one all white (a high-level KKK dinner meeting) and the other all black (a Black Power meeting of young people at a collage), we watch as each speaker whips his listeners up into a frenzy of passion.  It's ominous when the white KKK members scream their hatred, and it's also surprisingly worrisome when the young, empassioned blacks wave their fists and scream just as loudly for black empowerment.  Spike Lee was clearly trying to make a point, one I appreciate particularly because just such angry energy scared me away from fully supporting the Black Lives Matter movement for a long time after it first emerged. 

I won't go into the film's faults; you'll see some of them.  But it has so many virtues that I found it overcame its own weaknesses.   And it also has a superb sound track.  Even if you hate the story, you'll love the music, and you'll be amused and worried at the same time.  And, most of it really happened.  It's a great case of truth being stranger than fiction.

I recommend it highly.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Film review: Plant-Pure Nation

I forced myself to sit through a viewing of the film Plant-Pure Nation, directed by (and starring) physician Nelson Campbell, son of T. Colin Campbell of The China Study fame.  I say "forced myself" because Dr. Campbell might have done well to hire a professional to direct this film instead of directing it himself.  Unfortunately, the film alternates between incoherently rambling lectures on the state of food in today's world and the clarity of a gripping story, which is Dr. Campbell's attempt to influence food policy in government.  It's unevenness will prevent many from getting to its really strong and important message, which is, that governmental policy remains bogged down in lobbying efforts by large corporations, so that government at most levels is incapable of making a food policy that is good for people, along with Campbell's call for a grass roots effort strong enough to overcome the corporate lies, the greed, and governmental inertia.

Although often unfocussed, in its moments of highest clarity, this film is riveting.  Especially, the segment where Dr. Campbell worked with a Kentucky legislator to try and obtain recognition for the science behind the benefits of a mostly plant-based, whole foods diet.  The failure of the political process is awful and the reasons for it (lobby interests of industry) are clear to see.  Dr. Campbell's personal perseverance is admirable.

It is a real shame that this film could not have been more professionally vetted, because its subject matter is of life-saving importance to the world.  As it is, I don't think many people will be able to plow through it.  The first gripping segment, in my opinion, was about 30 minutes in.  And from there on, it was up and down.  The case study in North Carolina was absolutely amazing--they found a few dozen people with dire health issues, provided them with three square meals a day (of a healthy, plant-based diet), and scientifically tracked the medical improvements and weight loss of the participants.  The results were compelling. 

For those willing to do the work, Dr. Campbell and his associates are also providing, now via the Plant Pure Nation website, a strong support network so that people can try out a plant-based, whole foods diet and experience the benefits for themselves.  All that is admirable, and they seem to be achieving some degree of success.  I do wish they had hired professionals to edit and polish the film more before releasing it.  It started weakly, had great moments along the way, but also incredibly boring sequences, and it seemed to lack a coherent, over-arching narrative.  I would have redesigned the beginning to get to the point more quickly--that governmental action is nearly impossible, and that a grass roots uprising demanding better use of food to prevent illness is required--and to stay on the message more diligently.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Hell is talking about cultural appropriation, intersectionality, and white privilege

If I wanted to get dreadlocks, I could do that, and I am certain I wouldn't get rich or famous as a result. But apparently, if I did that, a certain number of people would accuse me of "cultural appropriation". Apparently, to such folks, it's my "white privilege" (which I am, per them, too stupid or maybe mean to understand that I have) which prevents me from understanding why they are offended because I wanted to get dreadlocks.  Oh yes, and I can't be a feminist any longer, because black women or Chinese women or whichever other group you want to identify, who are also women, must have it worse. There is a name for that, "intersectionality", which I very much wish I had never encountered, along with "cultural appropriation" and "white privilege".

Do people really think life is a competition, where I've had it worse than you is going to make anything better?  How dare people like anything in black culture (unless they are black)?  How dare any white person claim sympathy to the black experience, without first groveling and whining about how they can't possibly begin to imagine it?  How dare a woman complain about not being paid equally for work, or being denied a job because of her gender, when she should just suck it in because a Chinese or black woman has suffered not only that but other injustices too?  Just shut up, all you well intentioned people.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as we all know, and to me, one good version of hell is where we are all forced to talk endlessly about weak and unhelpful phrases such as "cultural appropriation", "white privilege", "male privilege", or "lack of intersectionality".

Reducing cruelty in human life is not a competition of meaningless phrases.  Attempting to be a kind and compassionate human being should not result in a barrage of criticism . I understand we could all be more sensitive and all that, but the accusatory nature of these terms just does not feel helpful. 

There is not a single human being alive today who is not suffering in some way, has not suffered, or will not suffer.  In my opinion, the only way to help each other is compassion, not accusation.  Hence, I really think those phrases above are doing more harm than good. 

These phrases were invented by people who, in my opinion, are suffering.  While I feel for their suffering, I really cannot convince myself that it is a good idea to continue to encourage language that is, in the end, counterproductive to what those people need to have happen in the world.  Which is, that people may sympathize with their plight.

I urge people to stop cooperating with this fuzzy and bad use of language.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Book Review: A Mind of her Own: The Life of Karen Horney

Karen Horney was an M.D. who became one of the earliest practitioners of psychoanalysis in Berlin.  She immigrated to the U.S. in 1932 and joined the New York Psychoanalytic Institute.  In 1942, she made a dramatic walkout from the Institute, followed by many of its members, in protest of its rigid Freudian theory of female development.

Karen Horney published numerous books, and one of the most famous was The Neurotic Personality of Our TIme (1937).  Her books developed a significant lay following, but until the late1980's, her work was largely ignored or denigrated by her peers.  Posthumously, she began getting the recognition from psychologists which, in her lifetime, was withheld or given wrongly to others.  She is now regarded as having been a pioneer in social psychology and female psychological development.

This biography (see it on Amazon) is an ambitious work of history, setting the stage for each new development in Karen's life with great care.  It mercilessly exposes the in-fighting which has haunted Freudian psychoanalysis from its professional beginnings in the 1920's, and it attempts to understand a woman whose life was quite daring in comparison with the norms of her day.  Can you imagine, for example, what it was like to be one of the first women to become a medical doctor, let alone a psychologist, as well as something of a pioneer in, say, owning property or publishing books?

I would have had the author try a little less to get inside her subject's head, but the story is so exhaustively researched and documented that I was willing to put up with that.  I liked that the author did not try to soften the sharp edges of the personality of Karen Horney, who apparently was difficult in some ways as well as brilliant.  And as with all cases of misogyny, the question always arises of how much criticism from others was deserved, vs. how much was a result of professional jealousy intensified and amplified by disrespect of females in professional settings.  These agonizing questions of balance are still highly relevant to women today.

---- FOOTNOTE: I wrote the above review in 1988 for WoNet News, an internet newsgroup, and I'm republishing it here, with a few edits.

Book Review: Outside the Magic Circle: The Autobiography of Virginia Foster Durr

This book (see it on Amazon) speaks strongly to me of events rememberred from my childhood in the South.  It is a biography compiled from interviews taped in the mid-1970's by scholars of oral history.  Its language is rich and free like a spoken conversation, full of anecdotes and amusing descriptions.  It is both social history and the personal story of Virginia Foster Durr's life.  I enjoyed it and recommend it hightly.

Born into a well-off white family in Alabama in 1903, Virginia eventually endured ostracism and defamation for her support of civil rights.  Her interviews provided a vivid account of the paranoia of the McCarthy era and tthe racism and severe economic problems in the South up through the 1960's.

Her influence derived from at least three factors.  One was her husband clifton Durr, who became head of the Federal Communications Commission and later was a leading civil rights lawyer.  Another factor was her sister's marriage to supreme court Justice Hugo Black.  And finally there was her own well-formed mind.  About the importance of her marriage, she said, "It was only after I was safely married that I could really be interested in anything...   Old maids were pitied not just because they had no husband but because a life without a husband meant a life of poverty."

The in-her-time-prevailing racism of thhe South is vividly captured in this book, as in the following description of one Southern senator: "[He] talked race all the time...he would always go on about the sex thing.  If anything happened to change the Southern system, the white women would just rush to get a black man.  We'd have a race of mulattoes.  He and others like him seemed maniacal on the subject of sex...These men...would get up and make vile speeches about white women of the South and how they were protecting them.  Every black man wanted to rape a white woman and every white woman apparently wanted to be raped...they showed a kind of sickness...I really think those fears came from the fact that the white men of the South had had so many sexual affairs with black women...It's the only thing I can figure out that made them so crazy on the subject."

---- FOOTNOTE: I wrote the above review in 1988 for WoNet News, an internet newsgroup, and I'm republishing it here and now because all its topics are still relevant for women.

Book Review: Mary Baker Eddy by Gillian Gill, 1998

Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910,  founder of the Church of Christ, Scientists; and founder of the Christian Science Monitor newspaper) is possibly the most important person that many people nowadays have never heard of.   This extensive biography was released after a 6-year, mostly successful effort to obtain original materials from the mother church library, with an amount of access to that library unavailable to previous biographers.  The book cannot be described as easy reading.  That is not surprising when one considers the difficulties and unlikely accomplishments of Mrs. Eddy's own life, the controversial press received over the decades by the stable and successful church she founded, and the undeniable biases and polemic of the ten or so earlier biographical works published before Ms. Gill's 712-page tome appeared in 1998.  But I find both the existence of this biography, by a respected feminist scholar, and the apparent facts of Mrs. Eddy's life pretty darned fascinating--and well worth the effort.

With several intervening years, I now have twice read this monster biography (which does not exist on Kindle, but is an economical purchase used).  For the second reading, I was as much intrigued by the careful and helpful notes and appendices as by the text itself.  This additional information was provided, not just to document sources, but to explain to the reader how the author navigated the forest of conflicting and uncertain claims in preceding works and attempted to reconcile them with the extensive new source material.  Ms. Gill's scholarly credentials, her unprecedented access to archives of mother church library (obtained at great effort), and her experienced, confident and relatively neutral voice make this biography worth the substantial effort required to read it.   It is a clear-eyed treatment of Mrs. Eddy's life and works, and I find it interesting in every respect as a work of, not just women's history, but of the nineteenth century as a whole.

Mary Baker Eddy herself broke every rule and expectation ever provided to keep women within bounds.  Married three times, divorced, owning property, earning money, setting herself up as a healer, writing and self-publishing a work of compelling spirituality (which was to be fully underestimated and misunderstood both by the reading public and her later biographers), she was demonized, essentially homeless and very poor for decades, and yet ended her life wealthy and having founded a lasting church and a world-acclaimed, highly professional and successful newspaper (the Christian Science Monitor).

If you think you are a feminist, or know anything about the history of women, this is in my opinion a must-read book.

The first time, I came to this book via a favorable review of it in the New York Times.  Some years later, on a quest of spiritual discovery of my own, I picked up a free edition of Mrs. Eddy's most famous work, Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures.  After working with that for a while, I found things in it that are compellingly compatible with other respected mystics, including Jesus and the teachings of the Buddha as detailed in recent translations of the Pali Canon.  Thus, I came back to this remembered biography, and read it again in much deeper detail.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Book review: "The Bird and The Fish: Memoir of a Temporary Marriage" by Miriam Valmont

The title of this book is a striking image appropriate to its two protagonists.  Imagine a swimming fish looking up to see a bird, and a bird flying low over water looking down to see a fish.  Unable to join each other for more than a brief interval, they must live most of their lives in mutually incompatible mediums.  And yet, they make a concerted effort to see each other quite clearly.

This book is a page-turner--I felt gripped by the story and wanted to know what would happen next--but I could not read it quickly.  I regularly felt a need to step back and mull.  In the end, the narrative held together under constant scrutiny, despite its startling premise which I sometimes wanted to reject, in part because of its unusual delving into the murky waters of the human need for connection and affiliation.

The story is not all about grand themes; it works for me on many levels, exploring differences of nationality, religion, culture, political system, gender, parenting, and aging.  In particular, it challenges the concept of marriage and singleness in American society.  And it deals openly with an aspect of life that we mostly try to ignore--the fleeting temporariness of everything, including life itself.   The surprising thing is that there could be any useful communication at all between our two protagonists, yet their imperfect but determined relationship rang true repeatedly despite all my almost-objections.  I was left understanding that  labels for relationships, intimate or otherwise, may be too simplistic and limiting, and that there can be value in pushing  beyond the simplicities of labels to experience the full richness of life.  It is also a hopeful message, because both protagonists were able to overcome the stereotypical expectations placed upon them while remaining within the plausible and believable.  It is a delicate balancing act that I can only admire.

Read this book.  You may think you don't want to, but you do.  And you won't be sorry.