I saw Nebraska over the weekend and now I'm going to once again play amateur film critic. Just a brief recommendation, really. No spoilers.
It's directed by the great Alexander Payne. He is pretty selective in terms of directing and has only done a few films since 2000. But one of those films is Sideways - which I trust you have all seen at least once - and that alone should be enough for you to give anything he does a chance.
I really loved this movie. I realize that it's become sort of culturally polarizing and accusations of condescension abound. This is probably unavoidable any time sophisticated filmmakers venture into small-town America. For what it's worth, I don't think the film's approach is even remotely condescending. Payne was born and raised in Omaha. The casting director, John Jackson, spent months finding authentic people (as in non-actors) to play all the background roles. Good old-fashioned American values can be seen in their most endearing manifestation in the fictional town of Hawthorne, even while the portrayal remains grounded and realistic, with an ethical undercurrent that is hardly unimpeachable.
But it's for good reason that these fading values are still glorified and small-town life is still idealized. There is just something universally appealing about Hawthorne, its inhabitants, and their ways. Family, community, optimism, honesty, pride, perseverance, unpretentiousness, solidarity - and the challenge of living up to these ideals in hard times.
Bruce Dern won Best Actor at Cannes for his ornery portrayal of Woody Grant. Woody, living in Montana with his wife, Kate, who dwells on the edge of sanity (played hilariously by June Squibb), receives notice in the mail that he has won some bogus sweepstakes and that $1 million awaits him in Lincoln, Nebraska. So, off he goes. First, by foot, then, by car, when his younger son, David, whose life is going nowhere fast, decides to give in and take him.
Dern's Woody is an unusually engrossing character. We deeply want to believe there is a humanity to him, but he is beyond stubborn ("like a mule" in Kate's words) and refuses to ever let his guard down, making us wonder if maybe he really is just an irredeemable old misanthrope. By the end, though, the nature of Woody's character and what drives him is clear enough.
Will Forte turns in a surprising and understated performance as David; he and Dern share a lot of screen time and they have tremendous chemistry. The main characters are all superbly portrayed and they all have more depth to them than meets the eye. I really appreciated the background players, though - from the woman who has run the local paper seemingly forever and has a heart of gold, to the old man who derives happiness from literally sitting by the side of the road all day and watching cars (occasionally) drive by. They will make you smile.
Nebraska (which, I should add, is black and white) does what a great movie should do, which is take you through the full range of emotions, and make you think about what it means to be human. The themes are deep: culture, family, commitment, the passage of time. It will make you happy, and sad, and some blend of both. It's also a very funny movie that will make you laugh, out loud, repeatedly. Just amazingly good, on all levels, and the best movie I've seen in a long time. Props to everyone involved in making it, including rookie screenwriter Rob Nelson. Go see it.
|Liar and Mormon bishop David Musselman|
Greetings. I'm finishing a piece on religion and poverty that will hopefully appear somewhere in the next week or so. But I wanted to comment on this story because it seems primed to make the rounds on Facebook and Twitter, where thousands or millions of people will no doubt express mindless approval, before passing it along to other people who will also express mindless approval. Which is a shame, because this is actually a really shitty story, featuring a really shitty person. Here is the gist:
A Mormon bishop who wanted to teach his flock a lesson about charity went to the extreme and enlisted a Hollywood-style makeup artist to transform him into a scruffy vagrant who then panhandled outside his church.
David Musselman, 45, said he knew some of his congregants would be kind and some might be mean, "but what surprised me the most was the reaction of indifference."
"The majority of the people just ignored me and went to great lengths not to make eye contact," Musselman, the bishop of Taylorsville Fourth Ward in a suburb of Salt Lake City, told NBC News on Friday.Let's get a few things straight here.
The LDS Church has tens of billions of dollars in assets. A 2012 analysis of the church's finances found that it earns $7 billion annually from tithing. Where does it all go?
Concerned or disgruntled current and former Mormons complain that the church spends too much on real estate and for-profit ventures, neglecting charity work.
The Mormon church has no hospitals and only a handful of primary schools. Its university system is limited to widely respected Brigham Young, which has campuses in Utah, Idaho and Hawaii, and LDS Business College.Along with "real estate and for-profit ventures," this money also (still) goes to lobbying against gay people. It had appeared that the church was trying to rein in its rabid hatred of gays after suffering some bad PR, but the prospect of Those People enjoying equal rights was evidently too much to bear, and now the lobbying is right back in full force.
So, if you're David Musselman, a local leader of this morally bankrupt institution, and you're apparently concerned about the homeless, what do you do? You could go rogue, aim up, question your church's leaders, rally your congregation around the idea that LDS funds should be redirected from real estate and anti-gay lobbying to helping the homeless. This would be quite admirable.
That's not what he did, though. No, this condescending prick thought the best way to approach the problem of indifference to the plight of the homeless was to deceive and humiliate his "flock" by wearing a costume and exposing the commoners' alleged lack of empathy. One obvious reason this is problematic is because it's dishonest. The people of that congregation trust Musselman, probably as much as anyone else in their lives, and he just showed that this trust is meaningless to him. (Granted, a bishop lies for a living, but still.)
Musselman lamented that some members of the congregation "felt horrible," but thought it was worth it, because shaming them "had the effect [he] hoped it would have." The flock should have told Musselman to go fuck himself. These people, who supposedly needed to be taught a lesson in empathy, gave the liar who they thought was a homeless person $20 and some food. "Dozens" of people interacted with him. This is what they're supposed to feel ashamed about?
Moral of the story is don't lie to people in an attempt to shame them. And don't think you have any right to lecture working people about their alleged indifference to the homeless when your fantastically wealthy church doesn't even make a pretense of giving a shit about the homeless. Please don't Like or share or tweet this story (like you did last time even though that story was a hoax).
Okay, I admit that I've made fun of Joan Walsh for regularly writing about her own writing, but I just want to offer a few thoughts about my recent experience as the target of a prolonged Two-Minute Hate and address the (extremely limited) substantive criticism. I think it's justified in this case. This is all I'll say about it and then I'm moving on.
My piece in Salon seems to have, shall we say, hit a nerve. The barrage of hate directed at me over the past week honestly doesn't bother me much. It comes with the territory of contrarian political writing. What does bother me, though, is the extent to which the argument I was trying to advance in the piece was just flatly ignored. I was making a political and cultural argument. My argument, simply stated, is that when people believe that virtually everything they cherish in life is owed to the sacrifice of the military, they will feel boundlessly thankful, which naturally precludes any kind of critical thought about the military and what it's actually doing in the world. That's it. I'm arguing that limitless gratitude and skeptical thinking are, almost by definition, mutually exclusive. Any time someone feels excessively, irrationally appreciative, to the point of worship or near-worship -- whether it's toward a god, a cult leader, a charismatic politician, or the military -- it becomes virtually impossible to critically question the object of this appreciation. This is just a reality of human nature.
This argument, which is not an emotional one, nevertheless produced an unhinged display of emotional hysteria. Yes, the piece came out on Veterans Day, and it had an admittedly inflammatory title. But thinking adults, with some modicum of emotional maturity, should be able to get past a holiday and a title. I don't think this is asking too much.
To the extent that people did manage to actually read the piece, overwhelmingly, they intentionally misread it and saw what they wanted to see. And what they wanted to see, of course, was an attack on The Troops. I did not attack The Troops and no serious reading of what I wrote would suggest otherwise. This is the only line in the piece that is remotely, theoretically critical of The Troops themselves:
Americans of conscience who do not “support” the troops, particularly those who volunteer to fight in wars of aggression, are not allowed a seat at the table in this paradigm.
This caused a lot of fury; much of my hate mail mentioned this line specifically. I stand by this line but I recognize that this is a very complicated moral question that involves many factors. I don't think The Troop who wanted to participate in the aggressive attack on Iraq, voluntarily enlisted, and got his wish is necessarily a monster, but I definitely don't think he is exempt from moral judgment, just by virtue of being one of The Troops. The belief in this country that The Troops themselves are forever beyond reproach is sacred but very misguided. Had I explored this question in greater depth, the hysteria would have been much worse, no doubt. The fact that we can't have a rational discussion about these matters is deeply unhealthy.
Excluding the ad hominem attacks, and the DOOLITTLE HATES THE TROOPS nonsense, what's left of the backlash is basically this idea that my argument is naive, that I must be unaware of how many Bad Guys are out there, ready and willing to raid our country, rape our women, and smash our freedom. Do I really think we don't need any kind of military? And, relatedly, do I not remember a little thing called World War II? This is more or less the criticism put forth by writers from National Review and the American Spectator.
Insofar as it has enabled people to focus on these red herrings, and ignore the central argument of the piece, I regret the single line about "freedom" being in no way dependent on the "size, scope, or even the existence" of the military. It spawned a thoroughly silly discussion based not on the actual, existing military of 2013 -- the most expansive and powerful in human history -- but rather on some fantastical hypothetical in which the military is abolished in its entirety.
I can't imagine anything more boring than a debate over whether the military can be chopped by 80%, or 90%, or 100% before "freedom" is actually threatened. It's stupid, and a distraction, and if I can bring it to an end by conceding the absurdly obvious and trivial point that societies need some kind of organized force to repel potential invasions, then fine, I concede.
While I'm at it, I will concede that "freedom," as I understand the term, was genuinely threatened in the 1940s. To everyone who accused me of disrespecting the soldiers who landed in Normandy (or, even more ridiculously, veterans of the Civil War and the Revolutionary War), fuck you. I have nothing but respect for the people who stood up to fight Hitler (as well as the conscientious objectors). I don't agree with any of America's wars since 1945 but I don't see any way American involvement in World War II could have been avoided.
Let's return to reality, though. World War II concluded almost 70 years ago. There has been nothing remotely resembling an external threat to Americans' freedom in decades. What has the American military been doing over the course of this time? Reading the criticism of my piece, one would think the military has settled into a purely defensive posture, admirably defending the homeland from any potential threats to Americans' freedom. Even if we grant that this is one component of what the military is doing, to look at the scope of activity of the United States military in 2013, and emphasize this component, is risible.
Let's not pretend that the endlessly repeated mantra that the military is defending freedom is constrained to the narrow confines of protecting the homeland. Has it not been repeated ad nauseum for the last decade that American Troops are "over there" -- in Afghanistan or in Iraq -- defending freedom?
Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, and this is really the crucial point. Declaring that the American Troops who invaded Iraq, for example, were somehow "defending freedom," is propaganda in its purest form. It's a transparent attempt to conflate patriotism and militarism and preempt any kind of honest dissent or skepticism. It cannot be believed by a thinking person. We cannot even dream of seriously subverting militarism and empire until the realization that this line is, in fact, nothing more than propaganda further penetrates the American psyche. There is evidently a lot of work to do on this front.
As LarryM, a commenter at Salon and veteran of Vietnam pointed out, the military "exists to protect our interests," not our "freedom" (in the same comment, he called those who think the military's primary function is to protect freedom "ignorant of history or delusional"). Another commenter, Xpat_Lib, also a veteran of Vietnam, agreed that "our military is there to protect American INTERESTS around the world" and argued that everything else is "secondary to that goal." A third Vietnam vet, with the handle taosword, added that he wants people who thank him for his service to know they "have been brainwashed" and that it's "mostly all a big scam." (I don't seem to be able to link to these comments.)
Commenter AnCap_Ollie, who identifies as "a Major that has served in the Marine Corps for the past 19 years," opined that the "culture of military worship has reached the point of absurdity." Aside from the comments on Salon, I heard from a number of veterans by email who made a similar point. They didn't ask to be worshiped or endlessly thanked, and they are hardly clueless to the fact that the raison d'être of the American military is to protect the perceived interests of the United States Government, not some abstract concept of "freedom" that is fed to the rubes here at home to keep their flags waving and their critical thinking faculties turned off. To the extent that the military does, in some vaguely identifiable, limited way, protect "freedom," it's purely incidental. This is hardly some elusive truth, but generations of Americans have simply deluded themselves, swallowing nationalist doctrine that is manifestly propagandistic. It's 2013, information is everywhere, and, in the face of all reason, the culture of mindless, uncritical worship of all things military endures. Thinking citizens are morally and intellectually obliged to smash this ongoing national trance.