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Category Archives: TV & Movies

Disappearing and Reappearing

Shells, fossils, and china chits with their own submerged existence.

On my way home yesterday, I heard an interesting little spot on PRI’s The World about some 17th-century treasures being found in the drought-lowered Vistula River in Poland. Large pieces of marble sculptures, even fountains, had been looted and loaded onto barges by Swedish invaders, but not all these transports made it back to Sweden. Historical reports show that at least one, perhaps overloaded and too heavy, sank in the Vistula. It waited close to 400 hundred years at the bottom of the river. (Another article from the Irish Times and video from MSNBC here.)

I’m hard pressed to explain why it is that I find such relics of the past so fascinating, but I do. Even when I’ve spent days meandering along lakeshores in Pennsylvania or scrounging around the edges of strip mines in Tennessee, I have always been moved by the bits of water-worn china and glass and by the fossils of creatures long gone. Whether it was a family trip to Chucalissa, a hike through the abandoned homesteads of Cataloochee, or a school trip to Ft. Loudon, I always marveled at the lives people had once led, at how things had changed and how they had stayed the same.

Today, I think one of the things that I appreciate about the recovery of these lost objects in Poland is the way they tell the story of things that existed without public fanfare for so long. They existed just as much at the bottom of the river for the past 350-plus years as they do now that they are at the surface.

One of my colleagues, Pat Rushin, this week also greeted the news that one of his screenplays, The Zero Theorem, is in pre-production with Terry Gilliam (who also directed the recently discussed Brazil). In a sense, this is another hidden treasure finally rising to the surface. This screenplay was written years ago, and was once previously slated for production, and I like thinking about how it had value all the years that it waited for its current attention, and how it will go on having that value long after it is made as a film and does or doesn’t fade from view.

As artists, we have to believe in our work no matter how much attention it gets in any given moment.

And we shouldn’t let attention that we (or others) may get as determinative of our value, even though that is the only measure that is clear and too often, unfortunately, the only measure by which we are judged. The knowledge does not diminish my happiness for Pat’s success, but I try to remember that time hides beauties, time reveals treasures. They exist either way.

The Bureaucracy of Fantasy

Dobrynya Nikitich, a great Russian dragonslayer. Close-up of the painting Bogatyrs (1898) by Viktor Vasnetsov.

When I started drafting this post, I included a long list of my recent encounters with the medical and health insurance bureaucracies. I’ve deleted all those specifics—you don’t need them because you have a list of your own. Everyone does because virtually everyone lives embedded in bureaucracy. There are very few walks of life where a person doesn’t have to deal with red tape and forms on a more or less constant basis.

Just stop and think how many forms you have filled out in the past year, and how much of your life that has taken up. Then add on the time you’ve spent on hold or dealing with some low-level “customer service” rep on the phone or instant messaging, and the sad truth of these many wasted hours comes clear.

As a person with a chronic illness that is likely to shorten my expected lifespan, I have always chafed at this set of circumstances. While I understand the need for much of it—the driver’s licenses, the voter registration cards, the building permits, the medical histories—I have always grown very impatient with needless bureaucratic obstacles.

But today while I was thinking about this issue, I happened upon some good news for me: Life expectancy for those with Type 1 diabetes has improved greatly in the past couple of decades and for those of us born between 1965 and 1980 is only about 4 years shorter than those in the general population. When I was diagnosed in 1972, it was a whopping 15 or 20 years lower than average. Maybe I am no longer justified in my impatience.

It would be fascinating if someone would do a study about what diabetics do with those extra years we now get to live. I suspect that a goodly portion of it will be spent waiting in doctor’s offices, hassling with health insurance providers and third-party billing profiteers, shuttling medical records from one doc to another, and filling out paperwork related to treatments and benefits.

What I also fear—for all of us caught up in this increasingly bureaucratized world—is that we will turn more and more to fantasy as the antidote.

Because even the word “bureaucracy” is really boring, right? Who wants to even discuss the issue when every one of us has some version of it in his or her own life. Who needs more?

I have a theory that the rise of genre fiction (and movies and gaming and so on and on) has to do with the concomitant rise of bureaucracy all around us, even through and in us. We are living in ways that it’s truly unacceptable to live—inhuman ways that denigrate us. Not that we are living in squalor—perhaps the trappings of comfort and leisure (the TVs, the cars, the iPads, the flights to Paris) allow those of us in the middle class to ignore these cold wastes of time. After all, desperate living and working conditions, hunger and illiteracy, dysentery and violent repression all continue the world over, and are worse than mere bureaucracy.

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that we don’t answer the bureaucratic inhumanity with the rally or the march or the strike. These methods seem to have lost their effectiveness to a great extent anyway—people march and rally and strike, and the powers that be wait them out. Our “first-world” problems don’t seem to deserve that kind of outcry. When it’s attempted—as in Occupy Wall Street, which I greatly respected as an attempt to bring attention to these and related economic issues—the result is moderate and the fun-poking is huge. The reaction of much of the bureaucratized population to the Occupy movement was “Get a job.” No matter how unjust the implications, that tone has been common.

For the middle class, then, the main protest activity seems to be a retreat into fantasy. Fantasy seems to be something that almost everyone can get behind, no matter one’s political party, no matter one’s income level, no matter one’s level of education. Whether it’s interstellar space exploration or misty dragon-filled castles, whether it’s pretend wars where everyone can be a paintball hero or perfumed spas staffed by buff young men who will oil and rub one’s muscles, whether it’s in book or movie or video game or cosplay form—almost everyone seems more interested in an alternate world than the one we actually live in.

Never in my life have I seen a more prescient film than Brazil. It’s a film I will admit that I didn’t enjoy watching—it’s an ugly film and hard to follow. But the world that it presents—where the only escape from the bureaucracy is in a fantasy where the main character takes on armor and the wings of an angel—seems to me more and more like the world I live in now.

And I think that Brazil anticipates the way in which more and more extreme reliance on bureaucratic thinking about fitting in, strange self-fulfilling forms of meaningless success, pursuit of superficial beauty at any price—these things all lead us not to rethink our own world and its possibilities, but to fall back on hope in the magical.

The real horses are starving due to drought. It’s okay, though, because we can pretend that Dobrynya Nikitich and other dragonslayers will ride in on their beautiful steeds and save the day.

This strategy is fine with the powers that be, with those that impose further and further bureaucratic strictures. It is a great opiate. It lets everyone off the hook. It’s the religion without the requisite belief or morality. Win-win, I guess.

I’m sure that if I can only convince myself I have some angel wings somewhere, those waits in doctors’ offices and on hold won’t bug me so much. Until, of course, the end of the fantasy.

I Am Not a Number!

Re-encountering the bureaucracy after time on one’s own is always a bit of a shock to the system, and one thing it has produced in me the past couple of weeks is a vague nostalgia for episodes of the 1967-68 TV series The Prisoner.

Not that I am a particular devotee. I didn’t watch The Prisoner until I was in college in the early 1980s, and then only in a passel of bodies sprawled together on a mattress in a dorm mate’s room. I didn’t follow it coherently through the entire series, nor did I spend a lot of time in later years looking it up again. In fact, until I sought out video clips for this post, I recalled incorrectly that it was filmed in black-and-white. Probably my friend (if you can call him that) in the dorm only had a black-and-white TV. The guys were all fascinated with it, and we girls were fascinated with the guys.

I wouldn’t really relate to that sense of being trapped in social conformism for decades to come. But I certainly do now, and sometimes Patrick MaGoohan’s voice echoes in my head, shouting, “I am not a number! I am a free man!”

Number Six’s struggle to retain his sense of individuality, and the inevitable white bubbles that would trap and suffocate those who attempted to escape have stuck with me over all these years.

I also have strangely fond memories of one of the first loves of my life, who was part of the gang that sometimes gathered to watch The Prisoner. He had the habit of parting company with the words “Be seeing you”—and I think he learned all of the panache he had from listening to Patrick MaGoohan say this line. In the show it’s a creepy, ambiguous line—a reminder of how undetermined all superficial social interaction is. When we long for someone’s company, it’s a statement that feels like a promise of a future encounter, but it can also indicate a stalker-like Big Brother threat of surveillance. Sometimes in life, as in The Prisoner, it is hard to tell the difference.

One of the things this chain of associations led me to is that realization of loneliness in the busy-ness. I think this is the common result of people’s individuality not being recognized and of a lack of trust due to a culture in which everyone is out for “number one.”

Ironically, this is, of course, at the root of the very difference that President Bill Clinton pointed out in his speech last night at the Democratic National Convention–the difference between a “you’re-on-your-own society” and a “we’re-all-in-this-together society,” and it’s one reason why I will vote Democrat in the upcoming election. There is no way that one can truly support democracy without a belief in the value and rights of every individual. This is what democracy is about–collective individualism–not socialism and not the extreme isolationist individualism of the current right-wing. Individuality is only a positive value when everyone has an opportunity and ability to use it, not just the ones in charge who so often try to turn the rest of us into drones.

All too often these days, however, I see a kind of instrumentalism that goes way beyond the Repubicans. I recently started re-reading Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, and early on she mentions both “what it is to approach another person as a soul, rather than as a mere useful instrument or obstacle to one’s own plans” and “the faculties of thought and imagination that make us human and make our relationships rich human relationships, rather than relationships of mere use and manipulation.”

I do believe that the humanities can help us with these endeavors, but not when it becomes a world driven by the old quid pro quo and rampant careerism. The values of the humanities are unfortunately too often betrayed by those in the humanities. I see this very kind of instrumentalism on a daily level even among many of my so-called liberal and progressive colleagues and acquaintances. Too many of us are so busy trying to claw our way to the top of some heap that we lose focus on anything else. It sometimes feels impossible to resist–it’s what we are trained to do by numerous forces in society today. In universities, this creates enormous cognitive dissonance–democratic and critical thinking skills that we believe in except when they apply to the system we’re embedded in. Our work is seldom gauged on its own merits–just by numbers–how many thesis projects you’ve supervised (not how well), how many butts in seats (not whether the students have been engaged or recognized themselves), how many committees you’ve served on (not whether you have created anything meaningful or have merely destroyed work that came before), and most of all how many publications you have (not whether you got them by trading favors, not whether they are of any quality). This is a societal sea-change, and to me it is a fearsome change, an infiltration of everything by those who have a vision of the world as an uncooperative and dog-eat-dog place. Not even progressives are immune.

I long for that kind of community where people recognize each other respectfully as individuals rather than as mere stepping stones on the way to success (or mediocrity, which is usually where this stuff ends up). I give and get some of this recognition in bits and pieces—friends and colleagues for whom I am truly grateful—but there is not nearly enough to go around these days. I know, I know–utopian thinking. Still, I take comfort in repeating the mantra that I am not a number, and I try not to treat others that way either.

Does It Matter Whether a Smile Is Real?

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The relationship of our happiness to our willingness to fake it has been the topic of debate for a long time, and many a bromide supports the idea that it’s a good thing to fake it if need be. Consider these:

Fake it til you make it.

Go through the motions, and the motives will follow.

Keep smiling—it will make people wonder what you’ve been up to.

Keep your chin up!

If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.

If life deals you lemons, make lemonade.

Put on a happy face! (my video selection above, from the film Bye, Bye, Birdie, 1963)

Of course, there are many sources that repeat this general idea endlessly. But there are also sources that report on the nuances and limitations of such ideas, that qualify the findings of all this research that supposedly demands smiling even if you have to fake it.

Follow with me a kind of trajectory:

First, there’s this kind of thing that notes we have plenty of reasons to smile even when we don’t feel like it. Even when you go to a more professional psychology source that cites particular studies, there’s a kind of silly gloss on it all that bugs me. Take the final study noted on the PSYBLOG—the report here ignores the fact that causation has not been established, only the barest correlation. Photos of baseball players over the years show that the ones that smiled more lived longer. What this most likely proves is not that if you smile more, you will live longer, but that if you are healthy, you will smile more.

I get purely annoyed by this kind of thing. Partly because few of these sources even acknowledge that there is also plenty of research that shows the opposite—the fact that faking happiness can in itself have a negative impact. Here, a study notes that fake smiles can deepen depression, and here that faking happiness at work over time has negative health consequences.

As an aside, I think that the questionable research about smiling at work and the increased productiveness of employees in a good mood is particularly dangerous. While the Wall Street Journal here gives a well-balanced sense that it’s not a matter of axing the less cheerful, but of businesses actually taking some responsibility to provide resources for good cheer, all too often we see imperatives that become dictatorial and inhumane, as in the situation described here of the enforced-smile McDonald’s counter clerk. Not to mention those hideous hiring tests that seek to classify personalities and refuse jobs to those who aren’t as perky as others, no matter their competence.

All of the articles that I read about negative consequences of faking or that call into question the assertions about the benefits of positivity, of course, have to mention those positivity assertions. There’s an odd unevenness in this regard. The sane side has to acknowledge the overly simplified positivity side, but the positivity side feels no compunction whatsoever to mention the nuances and limitations of this body of research.

In a recent example, Jane Brody wrote a column for the New York Times, “A Richer Life by Seeing the Glass Half Full.” If you read the comments, you will note that there are many who leap to agree and many who bare their teeth and attack the Brody bromides. Yet, when Brody followed up about the responses she received, she acknowledged only the “hundreds of comments from readers who testified to the value of living life as a glass half full.” She doesn’t deign to even acknowledge the other kinds of responses she received.

Don’t we have to know that something is terribly, terribly wrong when professional science journalists won’t even acknowledge that the science is mixed at best on these matters and that there are people who hold different perspectives? It taxes my credulity, especially when even an undergraduate college student can summarize the research so clearly in such a short paper as this one. The student clearly acknowledges there’s only a minor correlation, but even she has wrongly concluded that “smiling can never hurt, so go ahead and try it out!”

And let me observe that people have been trying to prove a stronger correlation and causation since Darwin’s time. They have been unable to demonstrate the facial feedback theory in all these years in spite of overwhelming resources spent toward that end.

However, you can go on to find scientists who are laboring to truly understand emotions in a complex and useful way—and one that won’t be used to hammer people over the head uselessly and cruelly or dismissively. One of these I’ll discuss in my next blog post, but, for now, I invite you to head over to the BBC Spot the Fake Smile test.

If we’re going to be constantly interacting with people who believe that faking their smiles will actually make them happier and that it will earn them our trust, forgiveness, sexual interest, and a whole host of other benefits, then perhaps we want to be more savvy about these fake smiles. I scored 19/20 right, which is evidently quite unusual. Maybe I should publish a paper about the benefits of skepticism: it helps you spot one of those fake cheery people from a mile away. And run like hell away from them and their agendas.

Schizoid About Pets

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Cat Comedy

In my ongoing contemplations of why it is that I am compelled to write about my pets and other animals, even while trying to avoid the slime of sentimentality, I present you with two stories ripped from the headlines and a couple of anecdotes from my own past, plus a question I wish someone could answer.

I had intended to be purely jovial. Rare, I know, but there are genuine moments of silliness and they bear exploring just as much as the tears. At any rate, I heard on NPR’s Marketplace yesterday that the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis is putting on a cat video festival. You can submit a nomination from the official site.

And, of course, video is not the only medium: cats do very well in still photos through such sites as I Can Has Cheezburger? Thus, I chose “The Internet Is Made of Cats” for today’s song, which was suggested by Minnesota Public Radio’s coverage of the upcoming event.

In the Marketplace discussion I first heard about the video festival, Jack Shepherd of Buzzfeed was queried about why cat videos are so popular, especially for people as breaks during a workday at the office. Shepherd notes, “It’s aspirational. You’re sitting at work and what you really want to be doing is at home lying in a sunbeam. And cats have got that figured out.”

I agree, but would like to also add another reason: I believe that the easy home video has finally given people an effective way to share how great cats are. Cat relationships tend to be much more private than dog ones. Dogs go out on walks, car rides, to visit friends, to romp on the beach, and so forth. They generally enjoy being out in the world, and people long have used them as conversation objects in parks and on sidewalks. We have showed off our love of dogs easily and eagerly.

But cats are different. Many of even the cutest and most loving cats hide when strangers come into the house, and few enjoy the spectacle of a walk on a leash in a public place. (Granted, there are some notable exceptions, but few.) It may have taken the internet video for us to get a real, culture-wide understanding of the delights of cat companionship.

Cat videos are, then, a great example of a paradigm change fostered by a particular technology. In this case, I think it’s a wonderful paradigm shift, as I’m all for a wider understanding of the beauty, humor, and wonderfulness of cats.

Dog Tragedy

Unfortunately, news this week had a tragic downside, too, in the pet world. Lennox the dog was executed in Belfast, Ireland, after a long, but unsuccessful legal battle by his family to keep him alive. By all accounts, this is one of the stupidest instances of animal cruelty I’ve ever heard of, and I’ve heard of plenty. The Belfast City Council and its “animal services” staff clearly had some dictatorial ego problem and continued to insist this dog was a danger in spite of much evidence to the contrary and in spite of offers from both of the Animal Planet dog behavioral show experts Cesar Milan and Victoria Stilwell to rehome the dog in the U.S.

The Council’s continued insistence that Lennox was “dangerous” and “unpredictable,” in fact, is so unbelievable as to call into question the integrity of any process it oversees. All the numerous photos of Lennox with the Council dog handler and even this one video in which they try to elicit aggressive behavior show a well-behaved dog. They have continued a policy of secrecy and have never released any video or evidence of Lennox behaving aggressively, which means there likely is none. I mean, if they could have released a video showing this dog being aggressive for five seconds, it would have instantly quieted the furor.

Dogs, of course, are put to death all the time, and pit bulls, who are often trained to fight and bred for that purpose, are some of the most common. I understand this—and I even agree that death is better than them suffering a fighting life. I understand that even though many of these dogs might be re-trained and salvaged, animal rescue organizations don’t have the necessary resources to do so. I also fully understand that dogs who are actually aggressive and pose a threat should be destroyed.

However, Lennox was a family pet, who had lived for five years without ever showing any signs of aggression to anyone. He was seized because Northern Ireland has a law against the existence of “pit-bull type” breeds. The Dog Wardens Department had measured him and deemed him a “pit-bull type,” though later DNA testing would demonstrate that he had no pit bull genes at all, but was rather an American Bulldog-Labrador mix. The dog had been previously neutered, licensed, vaccinated, and microchipped and was kept in a secure fenced enclosure with two other dogs with whom he lived peacefully.

He was taken from his family (including a young girl with health problems, whose reaction is discussed here) and incarcerated in a small, concrete, windowless cage. It must have been like arriving in hell. The family was not allowed to see him, not even to say good-bye. One of the photos accompanying this article shows major hair loss indicating the poor health of Lennox after months in confinement and suggests that the dog was in such bad condition that these official and legal animal abusers feared the consequences of the dog being seen before they killed it. Perhaps the so-called responsible apparatchiks who had “cared” for this dog had even driven it to aggressive behavior in order to justify themselves or had actually killed it long ago.

If I lived in Belfast, I would be calling for a major overturning of government. Yes, based on the case of a dog and what has apparently been the Belfast City Council’s flagrant lying, callousness, and cruelty in dealing both with the dog and the humans that loved it.

This story breaks my heart, and it outrages me near to violence. Animal and child abuse are the only things that ever really get at me in that way, but they do.

Stella at the poison house, right where I would later threaten to punch the landlord in the face, 1988.

My Own Love and Rage

I recall my own physical rage when, years ago, my landlord flooded my apartment with paint remover. It was sheer chance that my cats, Cassie and Stella, survived. I had not been warned that the man was having the paint removed from the bricks on the front of the house, but I happened to be home on that weekday morning, preparing to leave on a trip. As I packed my bag, what I thought was water began streaming down the walls under the window wells in my half-basement apartment. I thought someone was washing those windows. But when I ran out to tell them they were causing flooding, I found a man in a space suit with a high-powered hose.

Another man, who would later explain he was the space man’s assistant, ran forward and warned me back. He told me that the substance would take the skin off my bare feet. When I told him that the substance was flooding my apartment, he admitted to me that legally my landlord was required to notify me, but said that since they were almost finished they would just go ahead and complete their job.

I ran back around the house to my rear door, grabbed up my cats, and put them in their carriers as far from the mess as I could. My next act was to put on my shoes because, by then, the brute petrochemical smell of the paint remover made its unhealthiness clear and it was pouring across my floors as well as down my walls. The removal assistant came around and began helping me move furniture and other belongings out of its path, though it was too late for one desk of papers and numerous pots and pans hanging on the wall in my kitchen.

Then I called my landlord. He refused over the phone to interrupt his workday, but soon enough he stood angrily at my back door to inform me how selfish I was to bother him.

I am pretty sure that I have never at any other time in my life been so angry. I got right up in front of this man, who was several inches taller than me, and told him that if he didn’t get out of my face I would punch him. Though not much of a fighter, I had my right fist clenched tight. He left.

Soon enough, my boyfriend arrived to take me to the airport. I explained to him that he would have to keep Cassie and Stella for the weekend at his apartment. Fortunately, he was glad to do so, and off we went. I would have to deal with the mess when I returned, but at least my cats would be safe. I trembled at what might have happened had the timing been a little different. I loved these cats so much, and they had brought so much joy to my life.

Cassie happy on her new porch, 1992.

Schizoid and Sociopathic Human Behavior

The accumulation of these stories suggests to me something very odd about the human psyche, and that’s the lack of empathy that so many people have.

My idiotic landlord had a cat himself, but couldn’t understand why I would be upset that he’d nearly poisoned mine. Certainly at least some members of the Belfast City Council have pets. And yet, they have no sympathy for pets that they do not know. In fact, they have no sympathy for even the humans who love pets besides their own. The Belfast City Council insists that it acts to protect people when, in fact, it harms people as well as animals in its myopic behavior.

There are also many people who just claim not to like animals. I have often wondered at the cavalier running down of dogs or cats by some supposedly perfectly responsible people. One of my worst moments as a teacher came once when a student in a creative writing class noted that his father hated cats and would often attempt to hit them when driving in his car. I told the student that his father was clearly an asshole, and that we weren’t going to consider him in our conversation. But maybe we should have because there’s an enormous issue here.

If his father hated cats or just didn’t care about the animals he might run over, that’s bad enough, but clearly he didn’t even care about the people who do care about the animals. That is human-aggressive and sociopathic behavior.

Why, I ask you, do we find it so acceptable to live with these people? And how many of them are the same people who circulate cat videos from youtube, never making a connection between the two unreconcilable contradictions in their behavior? How can such love for animals and such hate for them co-exist so close together? Are humans expressing their emotions for each other through these innocent animals? Or is it about something else? Why? Not only why cat videos? But why dog murder? What do these two phenomena have to do with each other?

Little Murders

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I happened to mention to someone yesterday that I had written my previous post about dog poop, and that person exclaimed, “Oh, like Elliott Gould in Little Murders. He plays a photographer who has made dog poop his subject.”

I had never seen Little Murders, a 1971 satirical film directed by Alan Arkin and adapted by Jules Feiffer from his original play. The movie featured cameos for Donald Sutherland and Alan Arkin and starred Elliott Gould and Marcia Rodd as Alfred and Patsy, a pair of mis-matched lovers. When I looked it up, I just had to watch the whole thing, and it’s all available on YouTube, albeit in 16 installments.

The installment I’ve included above occurs early on in the film and features Albert meeting Patsy’s family and explaining his career choice to them. It’s a great little mini-commentary on the commercial art world. It also distills the main conflict of the first half of the movie—the fact that Alfred is a devoted “apatheist,” whereas Patsy wants to inspire him to feel again and to “fight” against a world gone sour. It’s a classic “optimist” vs. “pessimist” argument, and makes fun of both extremes. It is striking, however, that, at least for the first half of the film, Alfred, though the pessimist, seems more at peace and more sanguine than the passionate, smiling Patsy, who spends a lot of time yelling and pushing at him.

Little Murders is set in the time it was made—the early nineteen-seventies—when New York really seemed to be at low ebb. The dark atmosphere that can’t keep Patsy from waking up with a smile is filled with random murders (including that of one of her brothers), assaults in the street (Alfred is regularly beat up), power black-outs, frequent threatening anonymous phone calls, and the constant wailing of sirens. Patsy has to take Alfred out to the country to teach him to have fun.

But it’s also a time of social upheaval. When Patsy and Alfred decide to marry, they have to cast about to find a minister who will agree not to mention God in the ceremony, and it ends up taking place in a broken-down shell of a church with sitar music as accompaniment and the “outing” of Patsy’s brother, Kenny, as gay. Donald Sutherland, as the minister, delivers a hilarious talk about marriage, which I include below to honor my recent anniversary.

After that, the film takes a darker turn. It becomes the kind of comedy that doesn’t make you laugh. It’s funny, but painfully so. I won’t include any spoilers, but the latter part of the film (segment 14) includes a speech by Patsy’s father that seems more relevant today than ever, at least because of the contrast between how it must have been received then and how we live now. It’s a speech about how crazy the world has gotten and how he wants his freedom back—through the use of video surveillance and a system of fences around the block and IDs required for passage in and out (we didn’t really have the term “gated communities” back then). At the time, I’m sure that struck everyone as hilarious—to invoke security measures as a return to freedom—so it struck me now that now we actually live in that very state. We have given up our privacy for our safety and can no longer think of the possibility as humorous and far-fetched. It’s reality.

No doubt that’s a sad trade. Little Murders, however, notes other trades we’ve been willing to make. The characters in the film in the end are all corrupted by the violence around them, and the satire points to the absurdity of “fighting” in order to be happy, perhaps even of a certain kind of limited happiness (as expressed by Patsy’s mother at the very end). It doesn’t provide any easy answers to the conundrum, and this is one reason why it is such a fine piece of satire, which, in spite of its obvious time-limitations, still has a lot to offer.

Maurice Sendak

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Over the past few days, Maurice Sendak’s name and many accolades in his honor have been on the air and in print due to his death on Tuesday at the age of 83. I don’t have much to add to those surveys of his life and career, so I will link to a few of them below.

But I can add that, though I hadn’t dwelled on Sendak in years, he was a great influence on me, and I was in the very large camp of enthusiasts about his work. The New York Times obituary notes that his “books were essential ingredients of childhood for the generation born after 1960 or thereabouts, and in turn for their children,” and I was one of those children (born exactly in 1960). For many long years–long after I moved on from story-hour childhood–I had a Sendak poster on my wall—the one with Max swinging from the trees with his monster friends. I still have it tucked away somewhere, those nightmares and dreams of childhood put away but not forgotten.

It strikes me, too, that Sendak was a person after my own heart and in keeping with the themes of this blog. He was indeed a Joyous Crybaby, one who brought the sorrows of children into the light and made it okay, even imperative, to acknowledge them. It’s hard to imagine how it is that so many children have loved this quality in his work for so many years and yet so many adults have grown up to retreat into a hyper-cheerful denial with their memories of childhood’s insights buried all too far in the closet. Sendak believed in the “rightness of children’s perceptions,” and he has often noted how the demons of his own childhood—the Great Depression, World War II and the Holocaust, the kidnapping of the Lindberg baby, and his own experience of measles, pneumonia, and scarlet fever at a young age—did not go unnoticed in his own psyche. If, as Sendak’s work has always asserted, children can and do face the demons in their world, shouldn’t adults be able to acknowledge their existence, too?

Sendak was a touchstone of genuine emotion. He will be sorely missed.

Washington Post (contains numerous good links to other commentary)

New York Times

NPR’s Fresh Air