Batman is Always Beginning

Batman.

He carries the burden and responsibility of no other super hero: He is fully human.

No super powers. No space family. No radioactive accidents.

He saw his parents murdered in the street and he had a traumatic childhood interaction with a swarm of bats (I wish I could get his Essay on Childhood). He has unlimited financial resources and terrific intelligence. Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman is a personal choice. He is a super hero like no other — at his core, he’s one of us, and that means that we get a little freaky when we fear some storyteller or director might “get it wrong” when it comes to interpreting the Dark Knight.

Affleck will be fine. Keaton was fine, Clooney maybe wasn’t so fine, but Bale is very good and on and on and so forth. Someone out there thinks Clooney was the best Batman ever. Someone thinks that because Clooney showed him or her something in the character that they’d never seen before, something they needed to see and that they admire.

We need Batman to be right because we need to be assured that we are what we hope we are. The abnormal rage over Affleck-as-Batman points to our profound disappointment in the actor’s squandered potential after Good Will Hunting. Yes, he’s made up for it, and yes, apparently we’re still mad at him about it. Affleck pricks that place where we have to think about making dumb choices and appearing foolish. And we don’t want any of that mojo on us, er, I mean on Batman. Because, you know, Batman is us at our highest potential to overcome and fight and defeat evil. You don’t just hand that off as a plum to the hunk du jour without incurring some questions.

Some say they can see Affleck as Bruce Wayne but not as Batman, to which my friend Jennifer replied, “If you can imagine Ben as Bruce Wayne but not Batman, that only lends credibility to the choice. Because nobody suspects Bruce Wayne of being Batman – it’s too far fetched to consider.”

That’s something to consider.

Outside the Law: Persistent Memories of “The Star Chamber”

“Disgusted with criminals escaping the judicial system via technicalities, an idealistic young judge investigates an alternative method for punishing the guilty.” — IMDB, The Star Chamber, 1983

I saw The Star Chamber a long time ago, but the thing I remember most is being perfectly caught in the moral dilemma from the story’s first minutes. (Michael Douglas is above-average as usual; Hal Holbrook is amazing.)

Have we all not been there on some level?

You are doing what the system tells you is right. You follow the rules of the system, with the presumption that somewhere in all of your effort is justice. That outcome may not be obvious, but you just have to believe that following an agreed upon protocol is better than going rogue and making up your own rules.

It has to be. If it’s not, how are we to live?

If you are not familiar with The Star Chamber plot, you can read a good summary on Wikipedia. A young, idealistic judge who believes two child killers have been released on a legal technicality is recruited into a secret society of judges whose members order hits on criminals who “fall through the cracks” in the system. It is hard not to pull for this illegal but satisfying attempt to make bad men pay for their egregious crimes against humanity. You know from the beginning, however, that there is no way, no matter how much you want it to, that this can ever work.

It’s a classic tale of becoming the very thing you are trying to eradicate.

The writing is on the wall, but I still get drawn into this idea, the idea that we can fight a broken system by refusing to play by its rules. Beyond that refusal, we can create alternative systems that punish the corruption of the others. It all should work as long as no one screws up.

The thing I keep coming back to in these stories, the fictional ones and the ones I live in my own life, is the terrible mistake of believing that human beings can ever be part of something that isn’t flawed. It’s just the way we are. We want to be good, we want justice, we seek the right, but so often we are left bleeding from the shards of an imperfect world no matter how hard we try to fix things. It’s such an ancient understanding it fuels most creation myths, and yet somehow we struggle to accept what we know and have known since human beings started taking a look at ourselves.

There is no end to the debate over government vs. private business when it comes to which system offers the most ethical environment for decision-making. Government and public systems are fraught with rules and regs that often paralyze action and lead to limp results; by the time you schlog through all of the dos and do nots, you almost forget why you wanted to do anything in the first place. Private business can be efficient, but the efficiency can leave gaping holes in thoughtful processes, and cuts the time often needed to review a decision for consequences.

In The Star Chamber, a hit is ordered on presumed killers, only for the judges to learn the men were not in fact responsible for the death that prompted the order. That’s not a problem, they reason. We know they are bad men. They did something. If they are not to die for this crime, they surely deserve to die for other sins.

While my personal ethical lapses may seem minor compared to those in the movie, I know that they often trend around the same kind of thinking. This whole situation is wrong! It’s so messed up. Anything I do to fix some of this mess must be better than living with this broken situation.

Except it never, ever works that way. Ever. Not in the long run.

Prayers today for the family and friends of the slain U.S. Ambassador in Libya.

Prayers for my friend who is in the middle of an election year mess at work.

Prayers for my country as we continue to grieve and seek justice over a decade after the terrorist attacks.

Just….prayers for all of us.

(You can view one of the better movie clips available online here: http://www.artistdirect.com/video/star-chamber/55261)

Scarletts and Melanies

A friend of mine recently mused, “In this life there are Scarletts, and there are Melanies.” What followed was the predictable rush of women to assert that they were Scarletts, they had gumption, they were independent, and one may fairly assume that they were captivatingly gorgeous as well……..

But my friend and I got into a side conversation about Miss Melly, a character who as I grow older I find all the more incredible and in fact the true heroine of Gone with the Wind. (I noticed right away that my friend never judged one or the other, but it was immediately assumed she was lifting up Scarlett as cooler and more preferable.)

If you recall, Melanie’s portrayal as “mealy mouthed” and basically a big loser comes only from Scarlett, her chief rival for Ashley Wilkes’ love. If you discount Scarlett’s obvious bias against her and just judge her on the merits of her actions and her approach to life, she is a complete rock star.

She is incredibly kind. She never has a bad word to say about anyone, and in fact rushes to Scarlett’s public defense, calling her “sister,” when anyone else would have let her crumble under the much-deserved public scorn she heaps upon herself. She knocks out a Civil War childbirth with no medical help. She is able to talk Rhett, rendered incoherent and insane with grief, off the proverbial ledge when his child dies. I have some vague recollection of her dragging a sword to Scarlett’s rescue when she can barely walk herself. There is more, but these are my favorite memories of Miss Melly in Gone With the Wind…….

I don’t need to tell you what a repulsive person Scarlett O’Hara is. Yes, she is stubborn. She is a fighter and a survivor. But she wouldn’t know love or friendship if they slapped her in the face, and unless someone is serving her in the manner she wants to be served and worshipped, she has no use for them.

So yes, I think I might want a Scarlett if I need someone to do absolutely anything necessary to never be hungry again. But I want a Melanie beside me in life for the long haul.

Thankfully, I have many.

This post first appeared on the original Esse Diem on October 30, 2009.  I am grateful to my friend Em B who recently asked, “Are you a Ginger or a Mary Ann?”  It reminded me that I’ve always wanted to re-post this here. 

Black Swan: Truth or No Consequences

Black Swan is a visually gorgeous and psychologically probing film.  It secures the archetypal female psyche for the viewer and vivisects it on-screen.  This painful and nearly surgical opening of classic female struggles and vulnerabilities make it disturbing and raw over and above any particular plot or character complexities.

I don’t agree with much of the film’s interpretation in other reviews, as most reviewers tend to just accept the two lead dancers’ characters as apples-to-apples stand ins for the plot of Swan Lake.  I didn’t see a lot of simple good and evil.  I did see a lot of complex desire and confusion.  There is a difference between fictional animals and  “real” women.

Note: I wouldn’t call this a “spoiler alert” exactly, but if you plan to see the film and want to go with a clean slate, you might read this post afterward.

Last year’s post What DO Women Want? looked at researchers’ conclusions that, at least when it comes to turn-ons, women want to be wanted; but that conversation was only about one area — albeit a significant area — of female desire, namely sexuality.  Black Swan climbs much higher up the totem pole of wants, and uses the juxtaposition of characters Nina and Lily to illustrate the depth of female longing for freedom from consequence.

Certainly, every person spends moments or even huge chunks of time wishing for the freedom to just do what he or she wants to do without having to worry about what comes next.  “Personal responsibility” is a modern catch term, and there are raging debates about and private businesses built on the idea that we can all make happen whatever we want to have happen.  Black Swan carves out something more refined, stripped down, and basic.  Via the culture of professional ballet, the film is a sharply crystallized reminder that women tend to bear a uniquely warped burden of perceived responsibility for everything in their worlds.

There is a fair amount of cliche, but that is exacerbated if you believe the main characters are truly light and dark.  The character of Lily is not “the dark side.”  I suggest the character does not even exist outside of Nina’s hallucinations.  The dead giveaway is her enormous back tattoo — does anyone seriously think a professional dancer would be allowed onstage with something like that in the New York City Ballet?  There are plenty of other signs.  Lily stays up all night clubbing, bedding strangers, taking recreational drugs, and drinking the night before she is on stage.  She doesn’t warm up before she dances.  She smokes.  She eats cheeseburgers.  She’s never really worried about anything, ever.  She leads an entirely stress-free existence.  She makes friends, ignores authority, and generally thinks life is a blast.

It’s difficult to pin this character as evil, unless you frame her persona as an extreme repression of someone else’s psyche.  Nina starts to interpret Lily as evil (“She’s after me!”) because she, Nina, is so far locked outside of her own sense of balance.  She’s operating in a world where she doesn’t know how to relax, even a tiny bit.  When she tries it, she’s tipped so far out of whack that she (if we are to believe hallucinations) attacks her mother, mutilates herself, stabs Lily, and generally loses her mind.  It is Nina’s unbalanced life that is the dark side.

Women still tend to be socialized to believe that we are responsible for an obscene amount of things that either don’t matter or that we never had anything to do with anyway.  Should I have eaten that cookie?  Did I hurt his feelings?  Oh, I couldn’t cheer her up.  Is my child smart?  I don’t work out enough.  That was the wrong thing to wear.  I should give more of my time.  I should give more of my money.

Maybe if I just…….

Black Swan is brilliantly constructed because it’s impossible for me to win the argument that Lily isn’t real, just as Nina can’t prove what she thinks is real.  The film perfectly puts me or you or anyone viewing it in the same position as Nina.  I can’t “prove” it via words on a page or screen.  But I know that most women struggle to put their lives in a healthy balance, to know what their own dreams are vs. the dreams they are living for others, and to spend just one full day not worrying about how they could have made life easier or better for someone else.

Oh yeah.  And to eat a big juicy cheeseburger and not care.

Images credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Mr. Blankenship? The call’s for you.

When I heard the news that Rolling Stone was profiling Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, it seemed like a gift from God.  Finally, the nation and the world would get a look at what West Virginia has been battling for decades.

Bring it on.

I started taking Rolling Stone magazine in my early teens.  My friend Joanna gave it to me as a gift for my birthday, and continued it for a few years before I picked it up on my own.  It’s been several years since I subscribed, but I still buy it from the stand from time to time.  Honestly, it was Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous that brought me back, and I’m grateful.  If you haven’t seen the movie, you really owe it to yourself.  Frances McDormand, Billy Crudup, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kate Hudson. Anna Paquin – wow.  The writing is great and the performances genuine.  I’d pay full price in the theater again just to hear Frances tell Billy over a pay phone, “Russell, it’s not too late to become a person of substance.”

What RS does better than anyone is deliver profiles of famous people that reveal the human being submerged in the image.  After reading such a piece, I traditionally need to spend a few days shaking off the unpleasant feeling that everything I’ve read prior about the featured person is obscenely incomplete and unfair.  I’m not saying RS writers don’t have agendas, because everyone does whether they acknowledge it or not; but profiles in Rolling Stone are difficult to categorize as manipulative.  When one reviews the sequence and elements of the story, rarely if ever will much emerge beyond undisputed facts and the verbatim reflections of the people directly involved in the story.  I find RS writers often surprise themselves with the degree of empathy and connection they build with people who, profiled differently and in ways less complete, are not hard to despise.  The profile of Blankenship met all of my expectations in this regard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are stories about Blankenship’s childhood, youth, and young adulthood.  His now infamous “investment” in (then) West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Spike Maynard is reviewed, and lest you forget how bad that smelled you can catch another nauseating whiff here.    Blankenship’s memos directing miners to ignore safety violations, his crushing of the United Mine Workers in 1985, and his swanky mansion with its own water supply piped in are all presented and chronologically explained.  I knew most of these things, but something about having it all recounted as event after event pulls together a story most of us have been trying not to put together.  It’s just too awful.

If one wanted to dismiss much of said story as “just business”  (which I hear all the time), it is still impossible not to be jarred by the consolidation of immoral corporate conduct that has had such devastating and irreparable consequences to so many people.  I don’t toss around the word “evil,” but a better word is hard to find.  I try not to describe human beings as evil, but there are actions that are driven by a system of rewards I think reasonably could be termed evil.  Consider:

During the 198os, the company (Massey Energy) injected more than 1.4 billion gallons of slurry underground — seven times the amount of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico during the BP disaster this spring.  According to the lawsuit, Massey knew the ground was cracked, which would allow the toxic waste to leach into nearby drinking water.  But injecting the slurry underground saved Massey millions of dollars a year.  “The BP oil spill was an accident.  This was an intentional environmental catastrophe.” (p. 88)

All told, Jeff Goodell’s portrait of Blankenship is something that will linger in the reader’s mind for a long time.  It resonates with the old saying, “Man is not punished for sin, but by sin.”  Goodell is certainly not out to paint Blankenship as a hero, but there is a surprising degree of pain in his conclusion that “the dark lord of coal country” did not make choices that could have lifted him up as a visionary with the potential to lead his people out of darkness.  Blankenship was a local boy with street cred in Appalachia.  Goodell believes Blankenship could have been a voice of reason and sanity about coal’s future, about energy transition and business ethics.  Goodell makes the case that he could have saved lives — hundreds of lives if not more.

I think Goodell’s conclusion is romantic, and fails to take into account the fact that Blankenship rose to power and influence based on a ruthless and cold profits-only mentality for which he was richly rewarded.  It seems slightly flawed to ask why Blankenship didn’t use his power for good when in fact he would have had no power at all with Massey if it were not for his utter disregard for human life and health, both now and in the future.

Still, it is impossible to know.  Nothing scrapes at the human heart like lost potential and doors that are forever closed.  RS has a small collage of photographs of Blankenship over the years on page 86.  Perhaps it’s the Christmas season, but when I look at the yawning canyon between the handsome senior class president and the bloated and dead-eyed coal baron 40 years later, it breaks my heart.

I wonder what Frances would say to Don on a pay phone?

Image credits: Think Progress (miners sign), The Consumerist (pay ‘phone), Almost Famous (Frances McDormand)

Following the publication of the December 9 issue of Rolling Stone, Massey Energy announced Don Blankenship’s retirement as Chief Executive Officer.

I Want to Be a Shepherd

I’ve mentioned here before my utter love of the film Good Will Hunting.  Most of that love is connected to the depth of acting performance by Robin Williams, but the character of Will, the plot line, and the dialogue are major drivers of my adoration as well. 

Some of the dialogue is heavy and deep, and some is just snappy and delivered with spot-on timing.  It’s interesting how even the silly lines will crop up for me as I interpret and consider the characters and plot of my life.  There is a pivotal scene in the film where Sean (Robin Williams) is pressing Will (Matt Damon) to connect with himself on a level deeper than any he previously has allowed.  Will’s entire persona is a mask, an armor against the vulnerability of life alone, truly alone and exposed as someone no one understands, loves, or cares about in any regard.  As long as that person is not exposed, he preserves his illusion that he is alone by choice, and that he does not care what anyone thinks of him.

After multiple generous attempts to pry some genuine self-examination from Will, Sean tries again.  “What do you want to be?  What do you want to do with your life?”  Will says with false sincerity, “I want to be a shepherd.  I want to get some sheep and tend to them.”  Finally at the end of his tolerance rope, Sean kicks Will out of the therapy session and directs him not to come back.  The scene ends with what I am sure must be a highlight of Williams’ legendary ad-lib tradition, when Will drops a “F*ck you” to which Sean replies seamlessly as he closes the door in Will’s face, “You’re the shepherd.”

This is all preamble to an epiphany I had listening to a friend’s teenage son bemoan the hard choices of adolescent social life.  In a half-hearted defense of some peers who harshly criticized one another online he said, “It’s just the way it is.  You all don’t understand.  You’re either a wolf or you’re a lamb.”  The implicit judgement was clear:  Only an idiot would be a lamb by choice.  It’s best to take others down first and establish oneself as a wolf not to be messed with, rather than to take a placid and passive approach to negotiating relationships and reputations.  One travels that route at his or her own peril.

Many people see the world this way, and frankly for good reason.  They have not been presented with many other choices, and the adolescent world is notorious for exacerbating these human tendencies.  I think it must be because I know the adult leadership in the mix so well that Will’s choice, facetious as it is in the film, popped into my mind.  There is another choice, and it is a genuine choice. 

We can be wolves, we can be sheep, or we can be shepherds.

The image of The Good Shepherd is sacred in my faith tradition.  My parents made a point of making sure I understood — really understood via trips to a Pocahontas County farm on an annual basis growing up — what it means to be a shepherd.  Sheep, God bless them, are about as impossible to manage and care for as livestock comes.  If you’ve been around sheep to any extent, you know what I’m saying.  They are darling, and hopelessly dense and reactionary.  They get a lot of nasty stuff stuck to them as they bumble around, and they can’t clean themselves.  They have no idea how to take care of themselves at all.  They are nearly defenseless against predators and they couldn’t find their way home with a compass, a map, and a flashlight.  This is for starters.

It’s important to understand the nature of sheep if you want to really understand the nature of a shepherd.  Sheep need a lot of help, and they will never stop needing help.  Somewhere along the line someone decided they were worth it, and that the effort required to help them along was important.  I think of that when I am presented with false choices about lambs and wolves.

It’s a dangerous job.  It’s an exhausting job.  It’s a thankless job.  But when the flock is all accounted for, and the fire burns low and a friend is on watch, I’m not sure there’s a better rest to be had.

I want to be a shepherd.

Image credit: Silver Valley Stories

How D’Ya Like Them Apples? IQ and Education

Someone asked me last week if I think the bell curve of intelligence quotient scores is even across political parties and political positions.  Without hesitation I said yes.  I don’t see any reasonable explanation for why IQ scores would necessary correlate to a person’s political opinions.  I do think, though, that the likelihood that our nation can even out with some moderate positioning on a range of issues is hampered by our struggles with educational attainment rates and public education dynamics in general.

How can we ever expect to communicate with each other to achieve more balanced and reasoned understanding when test scores and drop out rates indicate we are failing to establish even basic language skills?  And if we never leave the communities where we grew up to learn in an environment with a diverse representation of people from around the country and even the world, how can we develop appreciation for diversity and what people different from ourselves have to teach us?

In the midst of my pondering, I turned to Will.  Will always helps me figure things out.

Good Will Hunting is a favorite film in our house.  We ping back to it often, from personal reasons to conceptual storytelling to a love of Robin Williams in dramatic roles.  A quote that gets a lot of play on a regular basis is, “How d’ya like them apples?”

Photo credit: E. Gaucher

If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll recall Will (Matt Damon) is trying to get the attention and admiration of Sklyar (Minnie Driver) in a bar frequented by Harvard University students.  An arrogant pretty-boy tries to embarrass him by asking him questions about books he’s sure Will has never heard of, let alone read.  Much to his dismay, Will knows the books.  Very well.  Well enough to end up humiliating the other guy, and well enough to get Sklyar’s phone number on a cocktail napkin before she leaves.  Outside the bar, Will knocks on the glass to get stuck-up’s attention.  “Do you like apples?” Will asks.  “What?”  the guy insides replies.  “I said, do you like apples?”  The guy shrugs and nods, confused.  Will slams the napkin with the newly inked phone number up on the glass and into his face.  “Well, I got her number.  How d’ya like them apples?”

The scene is a classic illustration of the disconnect between education and intelligence.  The entire movie pivots around questions of what it means to know anything.  In the apples scene, Will comes out on top.  He has exposed himself to great works of art, and he has a photographic memory that allows him to regurgitate on cue lengthy analyses of everything from sculpture to political theory.  What’s brewing underneath his cocky persona, however, is anything but educated.  We find out later in the story that he has, for good reasons, completely isolated himself from real life experience.  He lives in his head with the thoughts and lives of others running roughshod over his courage to engage life on his own terms, and to have a true education.

Sean (Robin Williams) nails him on it with this memorable monologue:

So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny… on every art book ever written. Michelangelo? You know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations. Him and the pope. Sexual orientation. The whole works, right? I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling. Seeing that. If I ask you about women, you’ll probably give me a syllabus of your personal favorites…… But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman… and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. I ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right? “Once more into the breach, dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap… and watched him gasp his last breath lookin’ to you for help. You don’t know about real loss, ’cause that only occurs when you love something more than you love yourself. I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much. I look at you. I don’t see an intelligent, confident man. I see a cocky, scared sh*tless kid. But you’re a genius, Will. No one denies that.

Will is a smart kid.  Smarter than smart.  But he is lashing out with information as a weapon rather than being willing to let other people teach him anything, and rather than allowing himself to be vulnerable to the many possibilities that he doesn’t know nearly as much as he thinks he does about what life is really about.

Intelligence can be a wonderful thing, and fortunately we know now that there is more than one way to measure it.  Intelligence of any kind, however, requires the humility and depth that only participating in a shared environment of respect for real learning can deliver.  It starts in school, but it hardly ends there.

Actually, if you do it right, it never ends. And that mindset is the one that has the unique power to moderate the sound and fury of today’s political climate, regardless of what else a person believes.