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Movie Review: Grief is the backdrop for the wonderful film, “The Visitor”

Grief is both the thematic underpinning and the overarching aura in an absorbing, powerful film called “The Visitor.” While this low-key, underplayed film is humanistic and realistic in the extreme, memories of the dead loom over the characters like silent, watchful ghosts. The Visitor was written and directed by Tom McCarthy, who several years back gave us another extraordinary film, “The Station Agent.” Like that earlier film, The Visitor explores issues of identity and place, belonging and connection, but this film also looks at immigration and other post-9/11 issues, and indicts the US government for its arbitrary, callous policies. It is a mark of McCarthy’s mature sensibility that the film makes this indictment quietly and subtly, by engaging us with a charismatic and likable young man living an attractive, authentic life, and then arbitrarily taking that life away from him. This stands in contrast to more traditional “Hollywood” fare, a movie like “Rendition”, which makes its indictment with a bludgeon. And the immigration issues, while crucial to the plot and deeply disturbing, are clearly secondary to the psychological and interpersonal matters this gifted director wants to explore. His vision is psychologically sound, particularly evident in the way he deals with grief.

“The Visitor” revolves around a depressed, middle aged economics professor named Walter Vale, played by the subtle actor who so memorably played the ghostly Fisher patriarch in my favorite television series of all time, “Six Feet Under.” With his hunched shoulders, immobile expression, furrowed brow and everyman face, Richard Jenkins literally inhabits this character. It’s a restrained performance, yet highly effective. While neither the circumstances of Vale’s wife’s death nor when she died are ever specified, it is clear that Vale continues to carry the weight of his grief, and that grief has transformed him into a silent, somber, disaffected man, lonely and isolated, floating through life, or rather going through the motions of his life, teaching his class, attending faculty meetings, pretending to work on a fourth book, and returning every night to his neatly kept suburban home.

It’s not that he isn’t trying to find some avenue back into the world, and some enjoyment or at least engagement in life. He’s been taking piano lessons, but while it is clear here that both he and his wife loved music, she was the pianist, and as the movie opens we find him dismissing his fourth piano teacher, played to spinsterish perfection by veteran actress Marian Seldes. I can’t help mentioning here that Seldes eerily reminded me in this role of my own elderly spinsterish piano teacher of long ago. Her name was Alma Drum, and she used to place a pencil under my hands just the way this one does with Vale. Miss Drum was as petite as she was stern and humorless, with her helmet of gray hair. Miss Drum would by now be about a hundred and thirty years old. (Hmmm, maybe I should meditate on her for a while, and do a post on her.)

We get some sense that Vale must have been something in his heyday, and we find some hope that he can actually make a spiritual comeback when circumstance forces him goes to present a paper at New York University, and he arrives at a Village apartment he and his late wife owned, but he hasn’t been to in years. There he finds a pair of young, undocumented squatters in residence, Tarek, a Syrian musician played with winning charm and charisma by Haaz Slieiman, and his girlfriend Zainab, who is originally from Senegal and makes jewelry which she sells from a table on the street, the character played with with wary fierceness by exotic beauty Danai Guiria. These two freak out when he arrives; they think they were living in the apartment legally, and they offer to leave immediately. Walter agrees, but then realizes the couple has nowhere else to go, and changes his mind, for reasons even he doesn’t quite grasp. They stay, and Walter befriends them, first Tarek, who embodies youth in all its impetuous enthusiasm, and eventually Zainab, who is aloof and wary at first, but who gradually comes around. Now we begin to see some sparks of life in this graying, somber character, as Tarek introduces him to the lively New York City jazz scene, the filmaker here celebrating New York City in all its diversity. Finally, Walter Vale begins to take the first steps out of his isolation, most particularly in a scene of extraordinary power in which the reluctant Vail joins in an African drumming circle in Washington Square Park, a balding white man in a suit amidst the primarily black, hip drummers, dancers, and percussionists.

But then Tarek is arrested for no wrongdoing while with Walter in the subway, imprisoned in the kind of unnamed, unidentified detention center we’ve been hearing a lot about lately, this one somewhere in Queens. The arrest and the imprisonment are both arbitrary and capricious, a disturbing reminder that human rights are being violated every day in this country. Continue reading

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Political Surprise: Dreams From My Father: Barack Obama is a real person and a real writer

For many months I’ve resisted the urge to read either of Senator Obama’s books, particularly the first, “Dreams from My Father,” the memoir written before he became a political candidate. Why? Because I had thrown in my hat, such as it is, with Senator Clinton, and was afraid that I would be so moved by Senator Obama’s memoir that it would undermine my support of Senator Clinton.

Fifteen years ago on the eve of publication of my second novel, in response to a moment in which I expressed grave self-doubt, an editor at Dutton named Michaela Hamilton kindly reassured me that I was a “real writer.” I think I suspected that I would find in Senator Obama’s memoir akind of kindred spirit, a “real writer”, to use Michaela’s words, someone to whom the “‘real writer” in me could truly relate, someone who understands what it takes to search one’s own soul honestly and carefully and accurately, and put that search on the page. Now that I’ve finally read the book, I find that my concerns were well founded. I have discovered not only a “real writer,” but someone who by breadth and depth and force of his personality and background, and by brilliance, honesty, clear thinking, and sheer talent, has rendered my past support of Senator Clinton, an admirable person in many respects, irrelevant.

The memoir is remarkable, and not only because it was written by a politician. The man is a real person–authentic, self-aware, probing, searching, honest with himself and with us, willing to be vulnerable, and most important, able to offer us a big piece of his interior life on his journey of self-discovery, not some made-up, faux patriotic, self-serving, self-deluding version of his interior life, but the real thing. Given the ghost-written pabulum served up by so many other politicians, “Dreams From My Father” is a revelation, a call to action, a sanctuary of hope that this man really can begin to build bridges across cultures and countries, and change the world. At the risk of sounding like I’ve bought into a cult of personality, I’ll say that I believe the country and the world needs such a man. How refreshing and different and hopeful it would be to have him as President.

What politician has ever, or would ever write these words?

“Sometimes I would find myself talking to Ray about white folks this or white folks that, and I would suddenly remember my mother’s smile and the words that I spoke would seem awkward and false. Or I would be helping Gramps dry the dishes after dinner and Toot would come into say she was going to sleep, and those same words–white folks–would flash in my head like a bright neon sign, and I would suddenly grow quiet, as if I had secrets to keep.”

Or report the following outburst out of the mouth of a young friend, chastising the future candidate for sucking up:

…All that stuff about ‘Yes, Miss Snooty Bitch, I just find this novel so engaging, if I can just have one more day for that paper, I’ll kiss your white ass.’ It’s their world, all right? They own it, and we in it. So just get the fuck outta my face.”

Or present us with this wonderful paragraph?

Three o’clock in the morning. The moon-washed streets empty, the growl of a car picking up speed down a distant road. The revelers would be tucked away by now, paired off or alone, in deep, beer-heavy sleep, Hasan at his new lady’s place–don’t stay up, he had said with a wink. And now just the two of us to wait for the sunrise, me and Billie Holiday, her voice warbling through the darkened room, reaching toward me like a lover.”

The contrast with other “political” memoirs is, of course, astounding. I won’t dwell on that, however, except to point out the most compelling disparity, the one between this man, Barack Obama, and our current President, George Bush, who is revealed in Scott McClellan’s new book, “What Happened.” Continue reading

Parental Grief in China. A call to action for its citizens?

After the devastating earthquake in China, the world was witness to horrifying scenes of parental loss. A May 28th Times article with a headline, PARENTS’ GRIEF TURNS TO RAGE AT CHINESE OFFICIALS, pointed out:

Bereaved parents whose children were crushed to death in their classrooms during the earthquake in Sichuan Province have turned mourning ceremonies into protests in recent days, forcing officials to address growing political repercussions over shoddy construction of public schools.

It seems parents who lost their children were doubly enraged at the Chinese government. Mourning the loss of their only children, these parents first blamed the government for limiting them to one child, and secondly, were enraged at the shoddy construction of their children’s schools, which were reduced to rubble amidst other buildings that remained standing.

Here’s an “if/only” thought: What if the United States had a little more patience and a lot more common sense? Instead of enacting elaborate democratization schemes that attempt the impossible task of imposing democracy at the muzzle of guns and tanks, what if we just “helped along” the righteous indignation of people who are victims of their own government in ways that matter to THEM? Abstract concepts and philosophies mean nothing to people when their babies are being killed. Human beings will eventually rise up naturally (perhaps with a little subtle, smart help) against whomever is killing them and their children. They will object to being killed whether the instrument of death is their own government treachery, or the United States government, however benign its motives, in its misguided wars.

The “resource curse” theory, according to Wikipedia, suggests that “states whose sole source of wealth derives from abundant natural resources, such as oil, often fail to democratize because the well-being of the elite depends more on the direct control of the resource than on the popular support.” This may be true. It is certainly true in the case of Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive regimes in the world and a so-called ally of the United States. But the answer is still that you can’t impose democracy at the muzzle of a gun.

The “Have You No Shame” Factor

When I put my Bruisedmuse into the blogosphere a few weeks ago, allowing that I am an admitted left leaner, I swore I’d try to be as “fair and balanced,” as I could, to borrow a phrase from Fox News, which I think should be renamed The Doublethink Network (see my posts on doublethink). I tried in one post to differentiate between outrages of tactics and outrages of policy, and admitted that tactical outrages come from all sides in politics, in greater or lesser degree. My knowledge of psychology leads me to allow, for example, that possibly the catastrophic blunders of the Bush administration were not made by inherently evil men, but only (mostly) misguided ones who believe themselves patriotic Americans, acting in the best interests of the country. (I’m willing to hear arguments that this is not the case.)

However there have been a few days when I couldn’t help but think that the comments by at least SOME on the right wing really, REALLY have to call into question their very HUMANITY. This is the “Have you no shame” factor. You know it has happened when a wave of righteous nausea comes over you and you feel as if someone has punched you in the stomach.

Today is such a day. The issue over which I’m in a stew involves the so-called gaffe by Senator Obama, who after a year and a half of campaigning mentioned that his uncle was one of those who liberated Auschwitz. The point of the story was about treating veterans right, and Senator Obama said-I’m paraphrasing here–that family lore has it that his uncle spent six months in the attic when he got back from the War, presumably suffering PTSD or some other disorder that might understandably come from having seen that place.

The fair and balanced network, FOX NEWS, then “interviewed” Karl Rove and others for their comments on this “developing story,” while the following screed crawled across the bottom of the screen: OBAMA MISSPEAKS: SAYS HIS UNCLE LIBERATED AUSCHWITZ and OBAMA’S GAFF ABOUT UNCLE’S SERVICE RECEIVES MINIMAL PRESS. (I refuse to give Fox even a link on my blog.)

Like the minimal press of Fox News? What do you call Fox News? The Bruisedmuse?

Menachem Rosensaft wrote a brilliant piece on the Huff Post today that captures the “have you no shame” factor here. Quoting a bit of Rosensaft:

It started yesterday when the RNC put out a statement slamming Obama for referring to Auschwitz as he related a family story on Memorial Day. Instead of merely asking for clarification, the RNC smeared Obama’s “dubious claim,” and suggested — tongue in cheek — that perhaps Obama’s uncle “was serving in the Red Army.” They went on to say that the story raised questions “about his judgment and his readiness to lead as commander in chief.”

And what is the “dubious claim” that raises such questions?

Rosensaft goes on:

It turns out that Obama’s great uncle — the brother of the grandmother who largely raised him — served in the 89th Infantry Division of the United States Army, which liberated Ohrdruf, part of Buchenwald. But astonishingly, that only served to fan the flames for those on the right who saw an attempt to use the heroic service of Obama’s uncle against him. In their breathless attempt to damage Obama, Fox News has stooped to a level that is truly depressing.

This morning on the program “Fox and Friends,” one of the hosts said: “It wasn’t Auschwitz. It was a labor camp called Buchenwald.” Just in case the point was missed, she repeated. “It wasn’t Auschwitz, it was a labor camp. You would think you would want to be as specific as possible if you are telling one of these anecdotes.” Meanwhile, a news “crawl” at the bottom of the screen reinforced, in bold letters, that this was “a work camp, rather than an extermination camp.”

Here are some facts about Buchenwald, which is one of the most notorious Nazi concentration camps. At this “work camp,” prisoners were often worked, starved, tortured, or beaten to death. Sometimes they were simply murdered. Roughly 250,000 people were imprisoned there between 1937 and 1945, many of them Jews. Over 50,000 people lost their lives.

At Nuremberg, the world was shocked to learn that some of Buchenwald’s victims were skinned, and the human skin was then used to make lampshades, book covers, and other keepsakes. Buchenwald was also a site for the infamous Nazi “medical experiments” on prisoners, which were often nothing more than crude and horrific forms of torture.

To take just one anecdote about the “work” done at Buchenwald, prisoners had to build the camp road, and camp guards used to shoot those who were not carrying stones that were heavy enough. In the final days before liberation, some 10,000 prisoners from Auschwitz and Gross-Rossen were marched to Buchenwald, adding to the horrific scene that awaited American troops.

The big gaffe is that it was his GREAT uncle and it was Buchenwald, not Auschwitz? And this raises questions about his readiness to lead? Excuse me? On what planet do these people live?

I would just like to point out a few of the other occasions on which I have felt the “have you no shame” factor in my gut:

  • When Rush Limbaugh accused Michael J. Fox of faking Parkinson’s symptoms
  • When the United States Congress rushed in to stop the removal of Terry Shiavo’s feeding tube
  • When Rush Limbaugh and others accused Cindy Sheehan not only of being nuts but of making up her son’s death in Iraq.

We live in a country in which an increasingly uneducated public is increasingly incapable of the critical thinking and reality testing that are CRUCIAL to the continuation of democracy, as Al Gore says in his book, The Assault on Reason. It’s as if every version of reality is being given equal weight and succor, to a chorus of okays and hallalulah’s by opinion leaders and the mainstream press. As an example of the failure of much of the public to accept (or learn) any reasonable version of reality, I quote Newsweek:

Asked to name Obama’s faith, 58 percent of participants said Christian (the correct answer), compared with 11 percent who answered Muslim, 22 percent who did not know and 9 percent who said something else.

Some semblance of HUMANITY, however, should at least be a minimum requirement for being allowed to pontificate (with crawls yet) in either the American mainstream media or the United States Congress.

Recount: A Movie Review, more on Doublethink

On Sunday evening, like millions of others, I squirmed and suffered through “Recount,” HBO’s dramatization of the battle for the 2000 election, Bush v. Gore. I suffered not because the movie was dull or one-sided, and I definitely recognize that “Recount” was one-sided, though not egregiously or inaccurately or offensively so. (I’m sure my friends on the right were GREATLY offended.) Though I certainly don’t agree that there is an overall or general “liberal bias” in the media (for a great book on this subject check out Eric Alterman’s “What Liberal Media: The Truth about Bias and the News), I do agree with the great film blogger Chuck Tryon who pointed out in his post on the film on Monday that:

It’s difficult to watch the film without being acutely aware , to borrow from Leonard Cohen, that the the good guys lost.

Indeed, I found the film quite lively and even suspenseful, given the predetermined outcome. As a suspense writer, I certainly know that narrative drive and suspense can be produced with out resorting to obvious questions of “who done it, or “who’s going to get it.” (I wish ALL suspense writers knew this, but we’ll leave that aside for the moment.)

In any case, “Recount” was worth watching if only to see the performance of the amazing Laura Dern as Katherine Harris, she of the pursed mouth and “awesome cougar tits” (Check out this Wonkette link to vote on who has better tits, Laura Dern or Katherine Harris). Harris seemed plenty nutty back in the Bush v. Gore day, circa 2000, but went on in history to prove herself one of the great nuts of all time when she ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate on the “win back America for God” ticket.

Tryon goes on to say:

But while the film acknowledges many of the troubling problems that cast doubt on the legitimacy of Florida’s vote–the illegitimate purging of thousands of names from voter rolls, the divergent standards used to identify the “intent” of voters, the problem of political appointees overseeing election results, “Recount” is forced to stop short of asking some of the more troubling questions about how elections are conducted and how they are covered.

Indeed, this point gets at why I was squirming. I squirmed through “Recount” simply because as this interminable primary season grinds to an end (some kind of end, PLEASE!) I couldn’t help but wonder what we have done in the interim to address these myriad election irregularities.

One of my all time favorite literary moments is in Anna Quindlan’s novel, “One True Thing,” when the protagonist, Ellen Gulden, asks her dying mother why she stayed with her philandering father all these years, and her mother says (paraphrasing here) that she sometimes plans to leave him but every morning she gets up and puts the coffee on and begins her day. In other words: INERTIA.

No, I am not making some subtle comment on Hillary Clinton’s reasons for staying (with her philandering husband, I’m not talking here about staying the race), although inertia probably applies, but it is and has always been my contention that about 95% of life is conducted according to the dictates of inertia.

You could probably fill Yankee Stadium with all the reports that have been written just in the last few years by well meaning committees on various pressing subjects. Inertia rules the day. Is there any reason to suspect that anything at all has been done to address the election irregularities revealed by Bush v. Gore, problems like unequal protection, purged voter rolls, wildly uneven standards, elections overseen by political appointees, and so much else?

Just thinking about inertia in the face of all that as we move into general election season is enough to make me squirm.

I also found myself squirming to have to watch Republicans in action vs. Dems in action. How organized and single minded Repubs are. How able to stick to their talking points. Oh, that Baker–so poised, so sure. A brilliant performance by Tom Wilkenson.

I’m sure other smarter folk than I have pointed this out, but Democrats seem constantly undone by their own philosophy of liberalism. You can see this play out in the Democratic primary/caucus mess that has led to the Clinton/Obama situation in which we find ourselves now, the arcane and uneven rules by which in some states there is a winner-take-all and in other states proportional allocation. Democrats are so busy worrying about being fair that they often cut off their noses to spite their faces. We’re so busy allowing a broad selection of all points of view as all good liberals should (see the discussion of the word “liberal” below) that the Republicans with their authoritarian nature and single minded devotion to message run over Democrats time and time again. I’m not sure what the answer is, because I would not have us become what we rail against, but still…

And speaking of Orwellian doublethink, according to my trusty Shorter Oxford, which is hardly short, the word “liberal” means:

directed to a general broadening of the mind free in giving; generous; open handed; unprejudiced, open-minded esp. free from bigotry or unreasonable rprejedice in favor of traditional opinions or established institutions, open to the reception of new ideas; favorable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms; in politics favoring free trade and gradual political and social reform that tends towrd individual freedom or democracy.

I don’t think most Americans would claim to be proud of being narrow-minded, and so the reason for a general acceptance of the world “liberal” as a derogatory epithet has to lie elsewhere. Here too I think inertia plays a role. Most people are too busy or simply don’t care. It is a psychological truth that when one side yells louder and more often, absent any coherent and equal countervailing message, the louder, more frequent message is most often absorbed.

Dems, are you listening?

Thoughts Out There: Say What? Who’s the Elitist?

According to Wikipedia, George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty Four defined “doublethink” as …

The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them . . . . To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth

Evidence that we are living inside a doublethought world is now everywhere, no more need even to hide it. During the last presidential election cycle we had a substantial portion of the population believing that candidate John Kerry, a genuine war hero, was actually the traitor in the race, while the deserter George Bush was the patriot. Now we seem to have a substantial portion of the population believing that candidate Barack Obama, the African American son of a single mother, is the elitist in the race, while John McCain, whose family’s storied history, according to Salon, stretches back to Carroll County, Miss., where McCain’s great-great grandfather William Alexander McCain owned a plantation, and owned 52 slaves, is actually the  …er, what? Man of the people?

How can this be?

Proportional Outrage in the Presidential Election

RJ Eskow, in a May 18 Huffington Post piece, used the term “selective outrage” in connection with Hillary Clinton’s tactics during this endless Democratic primary battle. While the accusation is ITSELF selective outrage, it is actually an accurate term for the way the spinners in our society disingenuously and selectively take note of some outrages at the expense of other outrages. Outrages abound in politics, and selective spinners on all sides focus only on those outrages that seem helpful to their own cause or candidate. I would, however, like to propose a different term that may be more useful in selecting our next President, or perhaps in analyzing how this should be done: PROPORTIONAL OUTRAGE. I touched on this idea in another context when talking about grief in my last post. I said that the “inoculation” effect of big time grief has helped me keep whatever trauma I’ve faced since the loss of my child in perspective. In other words, a strong sense of proportion keeps hysteria in check.

In the political arena, we unfortunately find an appalling lack of proportionality. Certainly one of the most disturbing bits of information to come down the pike in an era of disturbing information is that the latest polls show that a large proportion of Obama supporters say they won’t EVER support Hillary, and a similar percentage of Hillary supporters say they won’t EVER support Obama. Even scarier is the news that in certain quarters of Camp Hillary, they’re planning to actively work against Obama, should he be the candidate. I can only hope that this is all just talk in the heat of the moment, and that when the time comes, they will come to their senses.

To help them, I’d like to remind them that whatever offenses or outrages either or both of the Democratic candidates may have committed against one another, they are small potatoes compared to the big outrages committed by Republican George Bush and his outlaw Administration, outrages that with only few exceptions have been consistently seconded and supported by John McCain, who for all this talk of distancing, has agreed with George Bush 95% of the time. Taking this country to war under false pretenses, ruining our good name and reputation around the world, torturing people and holding them indefinitely without charges like the torturers all over the word do, squandering the good will we might have used to good purpose after September 11, 2001–these are some of the very BIG outrages of this (Republican) administration. These are outrages of policy. Outrages of tactics (which are used to greater and lesser degree on all sides) are ALWAYS small potatoes compared to outrages of policy. Tactical outrages affect only individuals, whereas policy outrages affect millions. Tactical outrages may be difficult for candidates to handle, or may upset their supporters, or arguably speak to character issues, but outrages of policy get people killed and maimed. And I haven’t even mentioned the Republican party’s ECONOMIC outrages of policy, which have ruined millions of lives.

This morning before the rain came, I got in a walk with my pooch, Molly, and was thrilled to run into some friends who have in the past self-identified as “staunch Republicans.” Surprise, surprise. They both told me that they will probably support Barack Obama in the general election. Asked their reasons, they both mentioned how impressive and smart Obama seems, and how he managed to keep mostly to the issues, rising above all the negative partisan attacks. One of also them said, “McCain is a war monger.” Yes. Indeed. In my view, this is the main reason to support the Democrat, whomever it may be. The policy differences between Hillary and Obama are miniscule. The policy differences between either Democrat and McCain/Bush are HUGE. l can only hope that Hillary and Obama supporters who claim they won’t support the other Democratic candidate will join with these two “staunch Republicans” and millions of other who understand proportional outrage, and will make the right choice for the country in the end–the Democrat, whomever it is.

We can all honor Senator McCain’s service to our country, but Senator McCain has learned the wrong lessons from his experiences. Senator McCain is a Bush clone, no matter how much lip service he pays to distancing himself from Bush. We saw this in stark relief during the recent, disgraceful “appeasement” episode. Winston Churchill said “It’s always better to jaw, jaw than to war, war.” Jaw, jawing, which involves having a dialogue, is NOT the same thing as appeasing, which involves substantive concessions, and it is proportionally OUTRAGEOUS that George Bush, whose own surrogates at this point are doing plenty of talking with whomever will talk to them, would equate the two in so sensitive a setting as the Israeli Knesset. It is OUTRAGEOUS that the so called straight-talking McCain would second such a misrepresentation, and further, try to distract the American public by calling Barack Obama naive for understanding the difference.

The Republican attack machine and its surrogates are already gearing up to throw everything they can dig up or make up at Obama, in an effort to distract Americans from the proportional outrage they should rightly feel at the Republican party for getting us into this mess, but with current polls showing that 81 per cent of the public believes the country is on the wrong track, and with McCain having sided with Bush 95% of the time, the country WILL make the right choice this time.