16 January 2015

Movie Review:  Selma

Ecclesiastes tells us that "for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven" (3:1, NRSV).   Ava DuVernay's film Selma is made for this American moment, a strange season of nominal economic recovery and 'winding down' of wars, when much public discussion is occurring over persistent racial inequities, but nobody wants to admit culpability for treading their little cogs in the grand machine that perpetuates them.

David Oyelowo's Martin Luther King is a fully human theologian and self-questioning activist.  We see about a year of his life unfold and are left to fill in his youthful past as well as his predetermined future with our own knowledge -- a wisely chosen narrative frame.  The only haloed martyrs in this film are the girls whose church was blown up by white supremacists, and even they seem pretty ordinary.

The questions of legacy and agency are the main drivers of this movie.  Who is to blame (is God to blame?) for the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, asks a wrenching passage in the midsection of the film.  The sudden extinction of this young Army man's life stirred questions in me about the point of similar extinctions in the ongoing non-war US occupation of Afghanistan.  Is George Wallace a depraved political mastermind or a fourth-rate song and dance man who happened to be born at the right time to head the forces of "segregation now and forever"?  The movie doesn't decide for us.  The portraits of Confederate generals and slave-owning presidents that loom over many of the quieter scenes remind us that white supremacy has been cooking for a long time - and that yes, some of those white Freedom Riders probably underestimated how hot the oven was.

The inclusion of Bayard Rustin and Andrew Young as strong, although minor, characters, is certainly matter for praise.

5 out of 5 stars.

12 January 2015

Dear concerned liberals of Madison,

While you wait for the Supreme Court to regain its reason and reverse itself on Citizens United, and the aurea aetas of Walter Cronkite to return, consider supporting Christopher Daly's candidacy for mayor.

This young man has true civic-mindedness and appears quite committed to running a low-budget, non-corporatized campaign -- you know, the thing you are always bemoaning the death of in today's politics.  Some of his ideas may be unworkable.  He may even be kind of naive.  However, he is a college graduate and has a job.   Is this not all you would expect from your child?

08 January 2015


On May 31, 2009, Dr. George Tiller was fatally shot in the head while serving as an usher at his Lutheran church in Wichita, Kansas.  His murderer, Scott Roeder, was an anti-abortion campaigner with ties to a group calling itself The Army of God.

Assaults on the right of women to make choices about their own bodies are an assault on my freedom too.

28 December 2014

"For reasons that remain unclear"

Maybe in 2015 we can all stop pretending that the American news media has been racially enlightened ever since World War II, that Martin Luther King was welcomed with open arms by sage white liberals just waiting for the right black man to put the capstone on their steady and unflagging efforts to elevate black achievers in all fields of art and science; maybe, just maybe, we could let go of the thought that none of our grandparents who may have worked for Life magazine or anchored radio news were actually racist, only those other white people who had never read Kerouac or Ginsberg.

Jesus Christ, the New York Times pisses me off sometimes.

05 September 2014

This editorial from the New York Times is a hallmark of the kind of twisted thinking that can only be generated by liberal imperialists.

Plenty of the online commenters appear to see how absurd the argument here is.  (Thanks to "iona" for bluntly summing up the course of US intervention in Afghanistan:  "...we only make things worse because we are there to support either thug and get those pipelines built.")  Others, like "MR, a rank-and-file do-gooder in Afghanistan," completely avoid engaging the question of why the US must prolong its occupation / donation of money and blood, and give vent to their deep sadness over what the Afghan people have had to endure in the past two, or three, or hundred decades.

Sorry, MR and comrades, but empathy alone does not make a foreign policy.  And as for the Times editorial board:  to recommend an undemocratic "power-sharing deal" because you think it might prevent factional violence is something (I sincerely hope) you would never dream of doing in the United States, or Canada, or Japan.  The difference between this kind of machination and simply choosing maharajas to rule in place of the Empress Queen, as the British Empire commonly did for large swathes of India, is toilet-paper thin.

24 August 2014

I appreciate very much this homage to Diana Wynne Jones, and I want to add a personal reflection on the power of Miyazaki's film version of Howl's Moving Castle

I saw this movie in a cheap theater on a rainy summer night in 2005 maybe a week before I left this country for Britain, where I would end up spending almost two years working and learning.  One way to describe its impact on me would be to say it unleashed my inner child, although I think the story is absolutely made for adult consumption and cogitation too. 

It is no easy task to translate a fantasy novel onto film, and the fact that this film immediately felt so British to me, and kept popping into my daydreams and even my soberer thoughts while in Britain is a testament to Miyazaki's mastery of his medium and cultural sensitivity.  The lumbering, hissing, stomping yet kindly old moving castle of the title is the perfect embodiment of a country where trainspotting was invented.  The bucolic green landscapes, homely cottages, and sheep flocks that Miyazaki's team drew so lovingly (and in such careful contrast to the bustling industrial cities where the story is propelled forward) seem, to a student of Blake and Wordsworth, entirely familiar -- and appropriately fragile, as the specters of militarism and nationalism are shown to be creeping through this fictional society.  War-worship is hardly just a Japanese problem.

"There is never a moment when Jones’s characters seem to exist to satisfy or defy a stereotype, which means that there is space for them to exist in wonderful, human imperfection."  Very true.  As I got to know many many people in Britain, in all their imperfect beauty (sadly I have fallen out of touch with most of them), I think the forgiving spirit of Jones's writing -- communicated to me somehow through the film -- sat beside me and brought me to enter fully into the life of this other country where I did not grow up.

23 August 2014

'Sblood, there The Dish goes again with bad poetry offerings on a weekend.  Today it's Samuel Daniel, who "was educated at Magdalen Hall, Oxford and made his early living mostly as tutor to the children of exceptionally well-placed people—among them, the sister of Sir Philip Sidney, Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke"--surely making him a possible candidate for THE REAL SHAKESPEARE. 

Chastity and beauty, which were deadly foes,
Live reconciled friends within her brow;
And had she pity to conjoin with those,
Then who had heard the plaints I utter now?

All I can think of after reading this is facial-hair lice (and an extremely jealous misogynist lover).  I hope this awful "To Delia" isn't going to displace Shakespeare's Sonnet 147 in any high school English curricula.

My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
Th’ uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed:
    For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
    Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.