An Uncommon Pitch Line

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???????????????????????????????Have a look at the pitch line on this movie. “In the chaos of war, peace can only come from within.” What’s odd about that, you may ask? It is after all a story about a soldier and the psychiatrist who has been assigned to help him recover from Shell Shock. So, the line makes a lot of sense right? Well, yes it does.

Unless of course, you’ve seen the movie.

Because if you’ve seen the movie, then you will likely realize that the premise of the film is actually that the soldier, Sigfried Sassoon is NOT actually suffering from Shell Shock. (Sassoon was in fact a real historical figure, by the way, one well worth knowing about.) He had in fact published an open letter in opposition to the war. As the man was already a highly celebrated war hero and a recipient of the military cross, this posed a bit of an unusual problem for the British high command. You can’t just put a hero in front of a firing squad, can you? So, the British military wasn’t quite sure what to do about this. The solution was to declare him ill and assign a psychiatrist to treat him. By ‘treat’ in this case we mean of course that the psychiatrist in the film was expected to talk Sassoon into going back out to join the fighting. Far from a movie about finding inner peace, this is a film about the misuse of medical science in the politics of war. It is in fact a very bitter tale of a medical practice that wasn’t about finding peace of any kind.

But, hey ad guys! Don’t let that stop you from putting a perfectly vapid cliché on the cover of this wonderful film. Better yet, why don’t you pick a theme that carries forward the very hypocrisy addressed in the movie itself.

Oh Hello Dere!

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(click to embiggen)

(click to embiggen)

So, I opened the door to head off to work earlier today and this fellow was sitting outside. He stayed long enough for me to get my camera and snap a few pics. Being totally free of superstition and all, I immediately decided this fellow was trying to tell me I have been a jack-ass for letting my blog go like this. One of my students ended up giving me a ride. She figured it was the same owl that’d been scaring her dog and said he was probably in town looking for food.

She’s right of course, but I’m going to commence rebloggination anyway.

…starting with this guy.

God, This Movie is Awfully Damned Trite!

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gods-not-dead-prof-and-studentThe most fascinating thing about the movie ‘God is Not Dead’ isn’t the conflict between atheism and Christianity; it’s the tension between narrative and argumentative styles of presentation. The premise for this film is simple enough; an atheist professor demands that his students sign a statement to the effect that God is dead. When a student refuses to do so, the professor commands his to prove that god exists in a series of 3 debates to be held in the first few weeks of class. Failure, it is clear from the outset, will mean an ‘F’ for the class, but the student’s only other option is to sign the statement. This a clash between Christianity and atheism to be sure, but its also a clash that takes the form of a debate, and sort of reasoning that takes place in a debate changes a great deal when it is reframed in narrative form. In God is Not Dead, arguments become a story, and the premises and conclusions of those arguments become events in a storyline.

If the main characters appear as proponents in a debate between a College Professor (Jeffrey Raddison played by Kevin Sorbo) and a college student (Josh Wheaton played by Shane Harper), they are also antagonists in a life or death struggle quite familiar to movie-goers of all faiths and none. Josh is the underdog fighting for his faith; Radisson is a monster who torments his students without mercy. This is David and Goliath to be sure, but this time Goliath wields a grade-book, and David goes to the library. The David and Goliath aspects of the story are not an accident, and the film-makers were clearly trying to make a statement about the treatment of Christians in academia, and the moral vision of these participants overshadows the film’s approach to the debate which is to follow.

The opening scenes of God is Not Dead drive home just how important winning the debate will be to Josh Wheaton. In the event that he loses that debate, Josh will get an ‘F’ in the class, and (as his high-school sweetheart reminds him) that will be the end of long-term career plans. To make matters worse, she regards his willingness to risk his own future as a betrayal of the future they have planned together. She will thus leave him if he goes through with the effort. Josh’s pastor doesn’t help matters much by telling Josh his own actions may be the only exposure his classmates will have to Christianity. So, the stakes are awfully high. Just as David, Josh is fighting not only for his own future, but also for the good of his people (in this case, his classmates). This might seem like a heavy load to put on the shoulders of a college freshmen, but they would be quite familiar to many Christian apologists. This is not just debate over the the truth of a given claim; it is a battle for the souls of all involved.

So, this story about a classroom debate is really a sort of war-story. And of course it will be told in three acts. It should come as no surprise that the villain will be vanquished in the end, though it may come as a surprise just how completely vanquished (and yes, saved) this villain will be.

The first act of the story is largely about Josh’s decision to accept the debate in the first place. His preparations are unimportant, as is the actual argument he produces when the time comes. Josh begins this first round of battle with an argument to the effect that the Big Bang is consistent with, and even requires, the existence of a creator. Radisson simply tells him that according to Stephen Hawking it doesn’t, going on to ask if Josh thinks himself smarter than Hawking. Thus ends the first debate with an outcome that should surprise no-one. What kind of principle villain gets his ass kicked in the First Act of the story? Certainly not this mean-spirited professor!

Still, the first debate does establish a bit more than the fully expected set-back for our underdog Josh. Already, a few patterns begin to emerge from the vision of academic dialogue presented in this film. Both participants rely heavily on appeal to authority, even to the point of simple quote-mining. Both parties will also spend a significant amount of time on science, and in particular the science of cosmogony. The end result is a rather sophomoric vision of philosophy in which the battling heroes themselves pay homage to their own heroes in lieu of exploring the full arguments, all the while coming across as arm-chair scientists rather than participants in a philosophical exchange. To say that this is an impoverished vision of philosophy would be putting it mildly. To say that it is a vision common among Christian apologists would be putting it closer to the point.

In the second debate, Josh returns with a source describing Hawking’s own arguments on the origins of everything as circular. Pressed upon the matter, he reminds Professor Radisson that Hawking himself has suggested that philosophy is dead. Josh goes on to raise familiar concerns about abiogenesis in evolutionary theory.  Hawking was of course talking about precisely this sort of second-hand science discussion, but most importantly, playing the anti-philosophical card in this scene raises the dramatic significance of the debate. A humiliated Radisson has little to offer in response, opting instead to mock Wheaton after the other students have left the room. It is an angry confrontation, and in his anger Radisson reveals his greatest weakness. Asked by Josh, what happened to make him so angry, Radisson recounts the story of his own mother’s death and the prayers he offered as a twelve year old in the hopes she would live. This is an interesting speech, because it is one of the few times when the professor is allowed to be something other than a foolish caricature. He ties his own pain in the loss of a loved one to the outrage that some divine plan could ever account for it, and for just a brief moment Radisson seems both eloquent and human.

The final debate is all about the argument from evil, the notion that the existence of God as he is commonly envisioned in Christianity cannot be reconciled with the existence of suffering. Both parties advance arguments on the topic, but the most significant feature of this scene is the increasingly emotional tone of the discussion. Josh can feel the threat to his grade and his ambitions and Radisson can feel the growing threat to his own credibility. Their voices grow louder, and their demeanor more intense. As both parties become increasingly excited, Josh asks Radisson in front of the class to explain why he hates God so much knowing that science supports His existence. In the heat of the moment, Professor Radisson answers Josh in precisely those terms, proclaiming that God took everything from him.

One could chase ugly rabbits down so many holes in this film, but that single response from Professor Radisson really is the core message of the film. It is also the most disturbing thing about the film. For all it’s many simplicities and distortions, God is Not Dead is first and foremost a statement to the effect that atheism is really about hatred of God rather than disbelief.It is a statement that arguments against the existence of God (and counters to arguments in favor of His existence) are simply deceitful rationalizations. The argument from evil is, as this film would have it, less an argument about the (in)consistency of someone’s thoughts about God than an expression of hatred aimed directly at God himself.

In this plot twist, the very topic of debate simply vanishes in front of us, and the story sets all questions of god’s existence aside. Radisson is not really an unbeliever at all; he is a rebellious child (which might help to explain his childish antics). The storyline of the film thus overtakes any effort to address the issues at hand, presenting us with a narrative in which non-believers produce arguments only in the service of venting their own pain. One does not resolve their questions by rational rational argument so much as a kind of spiritual counseling. This counseling is presented still more clearly in one of the films many side-stories, that of a snarky atheist blogger who enjoys poking wholes in religious thought (…hey!). The script-writers must have found it quite amusing to pre-empt a decent portion of their future critics with this particular story-line, but to get back to the point, Amy Ryan (played by Trisha LaFache) learns that she is dying of cancer, a fact which throws quite a curve ball into her life of internet snarketry. When she finds her way backstage at a Christian concert, all of her arguments crumble quite completely as the drummer for the Newsboys suggests that she had actually come to their concert, not to mock them, but so so that they could help her find faith.

…and the subplot ends with a lovely group prayer.

The Newsboys concert fills the final moments of the film with enough exposition to compete with the worst papers from a creative writing workshop. It includes an appearance from Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson who cheers on Josh and invites the concert audience to send out a text telling everyone they know that God is Not Dead. This is a message clearly intended to break through the fourth wall and reach into the lives of audience members in the theaters. So I suppose it is no small wonder that evangelical Christians of all shapes and sizes were indeed pushing this film for awhile. I lost track of the number of people who told me that I really should watch the film, assuring me that even non-believers would find it thoughtful and enjoyable. Most seemed quite prepared to concede the one-sidedness of the story-line, even to accept that Sorbo’s character was a bit over the top (it was in fact, well out of earth orbit). What many of those urging this film on others seem unaware of is just how demeaning the story really is for those of us who don’t believe in God. It isn’t just that this film portrays an atheist in an extraordinarily bad light, or even that portrays academia in general as a place filled with cruel and sadistic professors just looking for an excuse to hurt those of faith. What this film does is to empower a dismissiveness that undermines any subsequent dialogue. It encourages believers to think of atheists (and skeptics in general) as people who do not understand our own motivations. It encourages Christian apologists to think of our words as unworthy of consideration, mere diversions from a spiritual tragedy which they understand and we do not.

It is a deeply dehumanizing vision of atheists that this movie presents. For me at least that vision is a conversation-ender; it is not the opening stages of a promising dialogue. As with so much of what passes for Christian apologetics, what is so unfortunate about this film is the degree to which it poisons its own well. In the end, this film does little to engage those of us who don’t share the Christian faith. It never really takes us seriously to begin with, and it never takes seriously the possibilities of dialogue between believers and non-believers.

Its fans should not be surprised to find many of us will respond in kind.

 

A Troubled Tale of Two Racisms and the Floundering Efforts to Oppose Them

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lThis wasn’t the first time I felt unwelcome at the mutton stand. In fact, it was the second time this server had ignored me while serving other customers. Just like the first instance, I initially assumed it was an accident, or at least that she had some other reasons for avoiding me, but slowly I started to wonder if it was my color. White people were not entirely foreign to these markets, but the vast majority of folks frequenting these stands were certainly Navajo. And it was beginning to look increasingly like this particular woman had no intention of doing business with me at all.

…which really sucked, because these guys made the best roast mutton in Window Rock!

What to do about it? In my younger days, my social tool kit was long on hammers and short on other options. I had enough sense to realize vocal complaints about unfair treatment of a bilagáana might go down poorly, but not enough subtlety to think of alternative ways to address the matter. As it happens, I didn’t need to think of anything to say. The other customers did it for me. A chorus of “He’s next!” greeted the woman’s next efforts to pass me by, some of their voices tinged with a sense of real irritation. I got my roast mutton that day. More than that, I felt a sense of reassurance. Although resentment of whites could be found in many varieties out on the Navajo Nation, so could a certain sense of fairness. On this day that sense of fairness won out and I got my mutton.

***

Let me start by admitting up front that I could have been wrong about the motivations of the woman who didn’t seem to want to serve me. Perhaps I read the whole thing wrong, and maybe my own behavior had somehow triggered her actions. Hell, maybe I really shouldn’t have been eating there in the first place. All this is quite possible, but I am going to ask you, dear reader, to accept for purposes of argument, that this was an instance of a Navajo woman treating me different (a little bit badly) because of my ethnicity. I think it is also an instance in which the members of her own community found this to be unacceptable behavior.

So here is the question, did I experience racism?

No, that’s not the question.

My real question is how do you go about answering that first question?

It seems to me that at least two radically different approaches to answering that question have become rather common these days, and it is getting more and more difficult for people using these different approaches to talk to each other about the matter. One way of going about it, which I will call the conventional approach (perhaps for no better reason than that it is the approach I grew up with) would be to raise questions about the motives and attitude of the woman who didn’t seem to want to serve me. Granting a certain range of answers about what she had in mind, someone taking this approach would say ‘yes’ I had been subject to racism. Another approach (let’s call it the social constructivist approach) is more common these days in academia and left wing politics in general. From this standpoint, it is best to inquire into the social power of the parties involved and then see how they use that power in respect of one another. Those adopting this approach might also want to expand consideration beyond the mutton stand to the larger patterns of history and contemporary politics. In most cases this approach would lead to an answer of ‘no’ to my first question, or even a ‘hell no’, perhaps with an additional lecture on the privilege of living in a world where slow service at a mutton stand is a moral outrage worthy of remembering nearly two decades later.

***

Okay, so let’s do this…

In the conventional approach, racism is a question of personal judgement and motivation. Racism consists in treating someone different on account of their race, and since all manner of people can do this, anyone can clearly be racist. The possibility of ‘reverse racism’ as it is commonly called is obvious enough with the only real questions being about whether or not this or that particular event illustrates some variety of reverse discrimination. Using this approach (and assuming I wasn’t missing something important), it is quite possible to affirm that I was subjected to racism on that day.

On it’s face, the conventional approach seems a perfectly reasonable take on the subject. People often use it to advance a genuine sense of moral obligation regarding how one ought to treat others, and by people here I do mean all kinds of people. Folks from all sorts of different backgrounds can and do frequently advance the notion that one ought not to treat people differently (or at least badly) on account of their race. This does strike me as a good thing, but the question is whether or not this is an adequate response to the problem of racism.

First and I think foremost, the problem with this approach is that it flattens the significance of discriminatory behavior, putting the denial of a mutton sandwich in much the same boat with minstrel shows, segregated schools, legacy contracts, Japanese internment, involuntary sterilization, lynching. and even the Holocaust. Hell, I  felt a little nausea myself putting my mutton-stand story in the same sentence with all those things, but the absurdity of that comparison is precisely my point. Addressing racism as an issue of personal motivation doesn’t do much to help us understand the difference between petty gestures and genuine atrocities. It isn’t that people can’t understand that there is a difference, but this approach to countering racism creates a fashion of speaking about them which tends to put them all on equal footing, at least for a moment. If we then want to talk about the differences between a simple affront and something that genuinely oppresses whole groups of people, then that talk falls somewhere over and above the problem of racism.

Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that large numbers of people never get out of that fashion of speaking about racism, that large numbers of people never really get the difference between a lynching and an expression of petty personal bias. Indeed, some folks seem prepared to recognize racism only if it is first prefaced with ‘reverse’. Time and again, advocates of social justice find their concerns drowned out by talk of reverse racism and stories in which the under-privileged prove themselves ironically capable of being the bad guys too.

…and in the ultimate poetic injustice, being discriminated against too, becomes the exclusive cultural capital of the privileged.

Don’t laugh. A few pundits have become filthy rich working that very angle.

It is no wonder that persons of color and their political allies often want to do away with this fashion of speaking about racism altogether. The conventional approach to racism is, as many seem to suggest, a well far too poisoned with all this talk of reverse discrimination to be of any real use for understanding the larger issues of oppression and injustice  in the world today. So, many of those interested in such issues have chosen to define racism as something that requires not merely prejudice but the social capital to put that prejudice into play with real and devastating consequences. Racism is from this point of view an expression of power, not merely an individual act, whatever its motivation. This is what I mean by a Social Constructivist approach. It’s a clunky phrase, and a grad-school cliché, but what the hell!?! It works.

It isn’t that people advocating the social constructivist approach don’t think minorities can be jerks; but they don’t see the myriad stories minority jerkitry as a meaningful part of the story of racism. From this standpoint, my mutton-stand story is simple a non-starter. The problem isn’t just the scale of harm (or the lack thereof); such stories are from this point of view a genuine distraction from the central issues of oppression that should be the focus of concerns about racism. It’s easy enough to get the problem with such stories in this kind of loose narrative; the problem comes in when people start trying to explain why such stories are as a matter of principle unimportant to the issue of racism.

Often folks taking the constructivist approach will say something to the effect that racism is about power and since minorities don’t have the power, they can’t be racist. This has always struck me as a terrible oversimplification, and I could only wish it were a straw man, or that its use were limited to less educated circles. But it isn’t.

To me, the core problem here is that the argument uses an awfully ham-handed sense of social power. We can talk of people having more or less power, but the notion that whites have all the power and minorities absolutely none of it is bordering caricature. For one thing, it doesn’t take a lot of power to hurt someone, and it is one of the perversities of racism that it may from time to time offer those whom it keeps from real opportunity the consolation of petty revenge against some unlucky fellow. Whether it is a personal punch in the mouth, a petty decision by a  boss, or a politician playing to his own base, there are plenty of persons of color quite capable of harming those of another ethnicity. One must also consider the possibilities of scape-goating other minorities, or even minority groups within their own community. And finally, there is no reason to expect that racism must always mean hurting those belonging to the race that someone hates. Often as not resentments directed at whole groups of other people precedes a shot to one’s own foot, so to speak. The kind of social power which makes racism a problem simply doesn’t rest only at one end of the spectrum, even if acknowledging that fact let’s an unwelcome foot in the door. Acknowledging the possibility that someone other than a white person might have the means to hurt people on the basis of race should not be difficult, but in short-hand politics, it seems many are happy to simply discount that possibility.

…which is definitely taking liberties with the facts.

It isn’t that an emphasis on social power means abrogation of minority responsibility to others, and I don’t think many people mean to suggest that; it’s that one of the aims of an emphasis on the social construction of power is to put harm to the underprivileged back in the center-spot of opposition to racism.

***

All of this leaves us with one very big problem as I see it. Speaking of racism as something that is by definition an expression of the privileged cuts so far against conventional approaches to the subject that it amounts to quitting the field in a sense, abandoning the larger public discourse. Unless I am underestimating the extent to which social construction has reached the popular consciousness, that approach (with its complete disclaimer of the possibilities of minority racism) is a bit too foreign for most people to comprehend. The reasons for such an approach are well known in academia, and in many circles of left-wing politics, but they aren’t sufficiently well known to guide public perceptions. So while those adopting a social constructivist approach can talk in limited circles as though only the ignorant or malicious would even think of describing racism as something a minority could do, large parts of the public take it for granted that it most certainly is, and that lunacy or at least dishonesty are the only reasons anyone would deny it.

The notion that minorities simply cannot be racist leaves a silence in the space where one would normally raise questions about rude, cruel, or even genuinely harmful actions by minorities. Often, advocates of the social constructivist approach will concede that sundry examples of such behavior are terrible; they might even suggest alternative words to describe them. I hear it time and again, the notion that racism just isn’t the right word for it, but what that word would be isn’t so clear. So, the more reasonable folks taking the social constructivist approach are not really trying to insulate minorities from criticism, but they are working hard to ensure that criticism is divorced from an important source of moral value, opposition to racism. Arguably, what is lost in this approach is simply too valuable, and like it or not, there are legitimate reasons for addressing questions about racially motivated behavior by minorities, reasons that cannot be reduced to the effort to drown pro-minority politics in a deluge of petty complaints by the well privileged.

In the end, denying the possibility of minority racism does not just silence those milking the reverse-racism angle for more than its worth, it also silences people with real concerns and sincere questions about ethnic relations. All too often, the right wing pundits are happy to fill that silence with the suggestion that lefties are just bigots in their on right and that this whole fashion of speaking is just another attack on white people. That may seem a cop-out to many advocates of the constructivist approach, but unfortunately the cop-out is mutual. An awful lot of folks are finding more and more ways to avoid talk to each other about this subject, and even to find ways of speaking really loudly while not really talking to each other about it.

It is extremely important to make a strong case for the significance of social power in the history and politics of racism, but that case poorly served by word games. As certain voices work very hard to ensure the public can’t tell the difference between affirmative action and Jim Crow, a large part of the public is unsure what to make of the issues. The difference must be explained, and yes, perhaps explained again, because those working reverse-racism molehills into great mountains will go right on doing so. They aren’t the  least bit phased to find that lefty scholars have adopted a way of speaking about the issue that side-steps their own gambit.

Far from it.

***

So, was I exposed to racism on that day so many years ago? Meh, …who cares? My real point is that I hear and read people talking about such questions in two very different ways, and more and more I meet people who seem completely incapable of bridging the gap between those ways of speaking.

It’s a problem.

***

Roast Mutton provided by a review of Sacred Hogan.

 

Requiem for Great Movie Villain: Damning Ms. Travers!

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saving-mr-banks-570My family moved to Southern California when I was eight. This meant exposure to new hazards; the high traffic of a city, the threat of earth quakes, and (worst of all) visitors. I used to hate it when people would come to visit us, because that always meant a trip to Disneyland. I used to beg my father to let me stay home, and the answer was usually ‘no’. I would explain to the guests that Knots Berry Farm was way better or that a trip to Universal Studios might be more fun. But no! They always wanted to go to Disneyland. It just went without saying that a trip out our way included a visit to Disneyland.

I hated Disneyland!

I didn’t have the word for it at the time, but what bothered me about Disney was the condescension. Disney wasn’t really made for kids; I understood that much. Disney was an elaborate fantasy for adults, a fantasy in which innocent children could be made happy with an over-abundance of simplicity, cuteness, and a spoon full of sugar. It is a fantasy in which children sit without guile or guilt and lap up harmless happiness without a care in the world. The obvious counterpart to Disney seemed to be Loony-Tunes where I could watch Bugz Bunny drive someone nuts or contemplate the never-ending battle between a coyote and a fast running bird. Knots Berry Farm had rides, real rides, and my comic books had gun-fights and explosions. But Disney? At least in its 1970s version, Disney seemed to think a smiling mouse was all I wanted in the world.

…and it just wasn’t.

I couldn’t help noticing that an awful lot of the tall people I knew seemed to think that damned mouse would make me happy, or at least they wanted to think that. And I couldn’t help thinking they expected me to smile when I saw him. the fantasy Disney sells has never been the mouse, the duck, or even the goofy dog. It has always been the smile of children, children who want nothing more than mice, and ducks and cute dogs. But I was never that innocent, and neither were my classmates at school. I didn’t just resent the whole charade, I regarded it as a threat of sorts, an attack on something deep inside me, something I didn’t want to give up. So, a visit to Disneyland wasn’t just boring, it was an assault on every fiber of my being.

I really hated that damned mouse!

So, perhaps you can understand the joy with which I beheld the entrance of P.L. Travers onto the scene in Saving Mr. Banks. She was rude, she was mean, and she was arrogant. Watching the opening scenes of this film was for me a bit like watching Godzilla cut loose in Tokyo and cheering him on the whole time. …or her on, as the case may be.

The premise for this film is well known. It takes its inspiration from Walt Disney’s efforts to persuade P.L. Travers, the author behind Mary Poppins, to grant him the rights to make a movie out of her work. To say that Travers was not so keen to see her darker, edgier character made into Disney pap would be something of an understatement. And of course the clash of creative visions here makes for an interesting story-line, a chance to watch two great artists battle over the shape of a creation yet to come.

Some might consider this movie a comedy. I consider it a tragedy, but for now I am getting ahead of myself. The P.L. Travers of Saving Mr. Banks is a terribly difficult woman. She is rude; she is unreasonable, and she is terribly British. …I know, she’s supposed to be an Aussie, but she seems to have gone full-limey well before the opening scenes of this movie begin to unfold. We will of course come to like her, but only after we have first come to regard her as something of a problem.And she is a problem, of course, because if she wins, then Mary Poppins never makes its way onto the screen. We never get that spoon full of sugar, dance with penguins, or sing supercali-whatever. For those of us who enjoyed Mary Poppins (and yes, I did) the prospect of a win for Ms. Travers is a counter-factual horror-story, a genuine case of a woman whose will deprives us of something we value.

Which makes her the perfect villain!

saving-mr-banks-screenshot-mickey-mouseUnfortunately, this power of great villain is undercut from the beginning. It is her publicist who introduces Ms. Travers to us, and through him we first come to realize just how unreasonable she can be. As we meet her, the woman is broke, and yet she will not do the one thing that can save her from economic misfortune. She will not sell the movie rights of her work to Disney. It’s a condescending twist, enabling us to see in Ms. Banks an irrational woman bent on her own self-destruction. What will follow is of course a story of more reasonable people saving her from herself, and in the process giving the world the joy that we have all come to know as Mary Poppins. And of course this movie takes great pains to help us understand this poor, troubled woman, giving us flashbacks aplenty from her difficult childhood in the hopes that we will understand why she grew up to be such an odd and unreasonable person. It is a terribly sympathetic vision, but is also a disrespectful vision, one which asks us to excuse her eccentricities when we should be celebrating them.

More to the point, the movie never really confronts us with the possibility that P.L. Travers may have been right about her own character, that Mary Poppins may have been more interesting, more challenging, and more enriching without the spoonful of sugar that Disney poured into it. It is Travers’ vision which the movie problematizes, so to speak, and so it is her vision which will break in the end.

Dammit anyhow!

To be sure, Travers is set free for a time in this film, allowed to be herself, and that is the moment when I love her, when she is terrible. Addressed on a first name basis by everyone from her driver to Walt Disney himself, Travers balks at the effrontery, and I can’t help but think she is right. Who the Hell are these people to get so familiar so quickly? I smile as she rejects the table of sweets brought to her on the first day, all bundled in Disney iconography. I cheer as she proclaims that there will be no music and no animation, and for just a moment I could almost hope she will win that battle. I stand with Travers as she hands out a harsh sermon on the difference between Dick Van Dyke and the true acting greats of her era. And I could not be more on Travers’ side when she first enters a hotel room to find it filled with stuffed Disney toys. There is a detail here that I don’t wish to spool, but what she does with that damned mouse is perfect in my opinion, and what she says to him even more so.

It’s fricking perfect!

But of course, this will ultimately, become a sad tale of seduction, and the monstrous Travers who threatens all our childhood happiness will be tamed in good time. We all know that Mary Poppins was made into a movie, and we all know that Dick van Dyke appeared in it. We also know that it contained some very catchy songs, and that it even had some clever animation. We know the movie was just the sort of bright-smiling Disney production that Travers spends her opening scenes railing against.

Some of us even know that P.L. Travers was never quite happy with the final product, but of course that is not the story that Saving Ms. Banks chooses to tell us. In this film, she is slowly convinced by Disney, and I want to cry. From the very first sign of weakness, a tapping toe, to the frightening moment when Travers comes to love her stuffed Mouse, I am horrified. This is supposed to be a heart-warming story in which a cranky eccentric is shown her own human side, and we are supposed to lover for it. But for me, this is a terrible tale of an artist broken on a wheel of insipid sweetness. Trust me, Walt tells Travers, and we are supposed to hope that she does. I could almost pray that she doesn’t.

The real P.L. Travers did cry at the premier of Mary Poppins, but not because she found the film so moving. Watching her vanquished once again in this new film, I can’t help but feel that same sense of nausea that Disney used to bring me as a child. That damned mouse took something important from the real P.L. Travers, and in this story, he is taking it from her again.

…and now he wants her to smile about it.

I know Why the Scaped Goat Bleats

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god-not-allowed-in-schoolsWhat’s the best part about using a graduation to preach the word of God? I imagine you are thinking that the best part about talking about God might be spreading the good word, right? Well you’d be wrong about that. Very wrong. The best part about talking about God on a public occasion is hope that it will piss off the atheists.

Just ask Joe the Plumber!

…and dozens of people taking advantage of the occasion to tweet about how this speech pissed off atheists over the last day or so. The anger of atheists plays a prominent role in most of these narratives. It isn’t the blessings of God or even those of a theocracy-Friendly SCOTUS that these people want to talk about; it’s the anger of atheists. Which is kind of flattering if you think about it. The most important part of addressing God is, for some believers anyway, what it will mean to us non-believers.

It’s almost as though the real point of the exercise has less to do with the Old Man Himself than it does with us lowly nay-sayers.

…in much the same way that the best part of prayer is not the talking to god part. Frequently, it’s the irritation inflicted on unbelievers when you say to them; “I will pray for you.” I mean prayer is hit or miss anyway, or just miss, but what the Hell, that look on the other guy’s face when you dismiss him with that special condescending note, it’s just pure gold. The good guy in the sky may or may not bring you a puppy, but if you address him on the right occasion (or at least threaten to), you can sure count on getting under someone’s skin.

Am I right?

Could it be that the best part of waving a flag is the hope that it will make some lefty uncomfortable?

Maybe the best part of printing God on your money is the hope that it will give someone conflicted emotions about his pocketbook?

Do you ever get the impression the best part of a really cool thing is the part where it pisses someone else off? And do you ever wonder if maybe that really cool thing might not be so cool after all, if it didn’t piss off that other guy? Cause maybe it’s really pissing that other guy off that’s the really cool part of the cool thing after all, and if we take that away, maybe the cool thing just becomes too damned dull to bother with.

…which is how God in the schools used to be, at least until someone made him a rebel.

Do you guys know that all the troubles in America began when God was chased out of the schools? Seriously, I’ve been hearing this one since I was a kid, so I’m guessing you heard it too. Now, a smart person might wonder how a god could be kicked out of the schools, but a smarter person would just peel a potato for Jesus and plop it in the stew. I mean, why ruin a good story? The bad guys chased Jesus out of homeroom, and then guns and drugs and teen pregnancy came in to take his place. Hell if only the Prince of Peace were still allowed in math class, no-one would shoot anyone there anymore.

Nope!

Of course, every good story needs a villain. Every rebel needs a tyrant, and every free spirit needs a stuffy old codger to make her inner beatnik shine. Even God, it would seem, needs a brutal oppressor, and that’s why the Devil gave us teachers, and atheists. They come together in the schools, or at least in evangelical stories about the schools, and the wonderful thing is that we can all identify with God on this one. We’ve all got that image in our minds somewhere, the horrible ruler-wielding fiend who made it his job to fill misery with a whole company of children from his own classrooms. Well now that guy is torturing God too, just like he did in our own eighth-grade science class, and all we have to do is pray to god to piss him off and all the people like him. And thus prayer becomes a supreme act of rebellion, a grand middle finger held high at the demons of our own childhood and those of human history too, or at least the evangelical version of it.

It’s a good story, or at least a compelling one, this Bible-wielding rebel theme.

The problem of course is that some of these rebels aren’t rebels. Some of them have authority, and some of them are celebrating the use and abuse of authority. They just don’t want the responsibility that goes with it. But what the Hell! WWJT?

Who would Jesus troll?

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