Friday, June 9, 2017

Who's the Man?

At about the same time former FBI chief James Comey was calling Donald Trump a liar on national television yesterday when addressing the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Donald Trump was addressing the evangelical community, promising them:

“As long as I’m president, no one is going to stop you from practicing your faith or preaching what is in your heart.”
“And as you know,” he continued, “we’re under siege.”

Can’t argue with that.
We know that Democrats are waiting to pass laws to prevent any American from turning the other cheek and to give their coats (to say nothing of their cloaks) to strangers who ask for them. If they regain power, the first thing Democrats will do is make Islam the national religion and replace the cross on St. Patrick’s Cathedral with a Star of David. Stores will be required to stay open on Christmas and Easter and pot-luck dinners will be allowed only if catered by immigrants.
History books will be rewritten in a way to suggest that the Pilgrims came to America to search for gold for the coffers of Ferdinand and Isabella, and the singing of Amazing Grace will be permitted only behind locked doors in soundproofed rooms.
Evangelicals know who’s on their side. 80% of them voted for the Mango Man in the last election and 75% of them, when polled after his first one hundred days, thought he was doing a great job, as compared with 39% of the population as a whole. They understand that while he is twice divorced and thrice married, and has boasted publicly of being able to grab women by their genitals because he’s a star, that he’s still their representative. He lives in a tower apartment he lines with gold as the embodiment of a man who “lays up for himself treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt and thieves break in and steal,” but their new prosperity gospel, not to be confused with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, allows them therefore to identify him as a smart man. OK, so he sometimes gets prideful, sometimes gives in to wrath, sometimes bears false witness. That doesn’t mean Jerry Falwell couldn’t designate him “the dream president.”
They understand that his plan to throw 20 million Americans off their health insurance plan is actually the Christian thing to do, because it will give them more options to select a better health plan than they have at present.
They know that the separation of church and state is a myth, that America was founded by God-fearing Christians to be a Christian nation and the watering down of the Constitution by those of other faiths or (worse) no faith at all, has to be stopped. And Trump is just the man to do it.
Evangelicals understand that our country was founded by white people from England and other parts of Northern Europe. Of course, laborers who came here from Africa helped build this country, and some people prefer a Bar/Bat Mitzvah over a christening or confuse a quinceanera with a debutante ball, but they should be allowed to do their thing as long as it doesn't interfere with the American way. They should recognize their place in the hierarchy, not get too uppity, and show a little gratitude. Trump understands this and will make sure the government does its duty by its Christian citizens.
Laws requiring Christians to keep their prayers and their religious symbols out of the public sphere, on the flimsy excuse that no one’s religion should dominate, go against the grain of what it means to be a real American. Trump understands that. Born-again Christians of the 700 Club take their cue from their leader, Pat Robertson, who informs them that to be against Trump is to be against God and we would all do well to follow their example.
Trump is rewarding Evangelicals for their support. On May 4, he signed an executive order fostering what he calls “religious liberty.” It allows churches to engage in politics from the pulpit without endangering their tax-exempt status. It also provides relief to people who don’t accept that people can be transgendered or who want to marry a member of their own sex. They no longer have to follow laws requiring them to deal with such people in the same way they deal with their own people.
He understands we are under siege.
He’s the man.

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Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Same Sky - a film review

The Same Sky is a  made-for-TV miniseries in six episodes, a German spy thriller about the “good old days” in Berlin when everybody and his Uncle Otto seemed to be engaged in some kind of espionage. It’s a bit clunky in places, but overall, it’s well done. Good acting. Good tension-filled moments to keep you on the edge of your seat.

It’s told from a German perspective, but that begs the question, which German perspective. The story involves two GDR (East German) families and their struggles to make their way in the police state which confines them, but which also commands their loyalty. But the film's consciousness is very much that of the victorious West, which swallowed up this ideological showpiece of the Warsaw Pact. The German Democratic Republic collapsed of its own weight in the end and it’s a good and proper thing that the stories of its rigidity and oppressive nature are now being told. And I, for one, have no problem with the need to gussy up the details at times to make them digestible to an audience who prefers entertainment to history taken straight.

It sounds like there’s a but in here somewhere. There isn’t. Who doesn’t love a good romp through spy-vs.-spy territory. And it’s not as if the GDR doesn’t have it coming. All I would ask is that the stories be told in a way that goes beyond winners and losers, between good guys and bad guys. Happily, The Same Sky succeeds in this. The lead character, GDR soldier Lars Weber (Tom Schilling) is sent to the West to seduce women working against the interests of his country, and might well be portrayed melodramatically twirling his moustache. Instead, there are moments when you hold your breath hoping he doesn’t get caught as he plants listening devices in the home of his chosen victim’s family. That suggests good writing, directing and acting.

Lars has been groomed to work his way into the lives of women in West Berlin working with the Western Occupation Forces and romance them out of their secrets. He takes aim at one vulnerable woman and when that fails, without skipping a beat, he launches into the seduction of a second. It’s an ambitious plot line which stretches credulity at times, but spy drama fans should for the most part be able to generate the requisite suspension of disbelief.

There are two subplots. One is the grooming of a young girl for the Olympic Swimming team, and the family drama that ensues over how far she is being pushed. The second involves the efforts of a gay man to find a way across the Berlin Wall. The plots are standard ones, in other words and so are the expected reactions. Toss in doubts on the part of fanatic cold warriors, to make them more complex characters, and you have all the ingredients for a cookie-cutter standard Cold War drama.

What saved the film for me from becoming lost in cliches was the absolute howler it contains. From 1963 to 1965 I worked at a listening station on top of Devil’s Mountain in Berlin, listening to the conversations first of Russian soldiers stationed in the East, and later to German Communist Party officials performing the mundane tasks of running the country. Although the site grew in size and importance after my time (and the setting of The Same Sky is a full decade or more after my time), unless I am badly misinformed, I doubt it ever quite achieved the status of pulsating heart of the battle between East and West, as it is portrayed in the film. Both of Lars Weber’s intended victims work at Devil’s Mountain, and many scenes take place there, with large numbers of high ranking officers walking around and discussing foreign policy. I call that howler material because the site, when I knew it, was little more than a listening post maintained by low ranking soldiers whose real challenge was avoiding pathological boredom. But one takes liberties for the sake of art. (And yes, I’m being sarcastic.)

The inflation of Teufelsberg (Devil’s Mountain)’s importance was not the only howler. Lars’s training involves learning how to seduce a woman. Look in her left eye, he is told, because women are all about emotion and the left eye is the key to the right brain where emotions are located. If she looks down after you catch her eye, she’s interested. If she looks back after first looking away, you’ve hooked her.

Also a bit troubling is the ease with which Lars seems to work his way into the lives of his victims. There is the question of his origins, for example. He claims friends and family in Düsseldorf and Frankfurt, even though he has never been to those places. It is unlikely, it seems to me, he would never run into anybody who might question his knowledge of street names or other facts about those places, or somebody who might detect his actual origins in his speech patterns. On the other hand, considering the fact that East German spies must have done this very thing – impersonate West Germans – maybe the question should be how were so many able to pull it all off?

The story worked, however, proof being I'm replaying the events of the binge over and over in my head and feeling frustration that they have only produced one season, so far. A second season is apparently at least a year off.  Since there is a second season, though, it's too soon to declare this is just another soap opera masquerading as a thriller, as I did a couple times when Lars' first victim's son began turning into a Baader-Meinhof gang type. (Is that where they are going with this, touching all historical bases?)   

One feature which distinguishes TV serials from ordinary films is that there is plenty of time to speculate where the filmmakers intend to take the story in the future. Is this a story for old Cold Warriors or will its appeal cross generational lines? Will they design the tale for a new generation who might be wondering what all the fuss was about? Will they get philosophical, in other words, or will they avoid all the heavy stuff and stay at the level of the spy chase? The challenge of The Same Sky will be whether the characters will hold their fascination a year from now when the story picks up again. Will the gay character fly away in his air balloon? Will Klara's body be allowed to begin menstruation once she wins the Olympic battle? Will Lars decide he's too much in love with the woman he’s seducing to break her heart? Will he decide there's no there there back in the GDR? I have to admit they’ve got me hooked and I want answers to those questions. I’m coming back for more.

There are better films. Goodbye Lenin has a great deal more heart. The Tunnel is a much better escape thriller. The Lives of Others has much more power and credibility. But just as any Russian can tell you, there’s always another World War II story to tell. And for those of us who lived through the Cold War, that applies to that time, as well. When I learned that Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks were going to do Bridge of Spies about the exchange of downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers for Russian spy Rudolf Abel, wild horses couldn’t have kept me away. That’s probably true for any tale from the time of the Berlin Wall.


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Friday, June 2, 2017

The Keepers - a film review

On May 19, Netflix began streaming its latest catnip for bingewatchers, a seven-hour documentary series called The Keepers. It’s about a priest who abuses a young boy. His mother informs the archbishop. The archbishop moves the priest to another school down the road where he begins abusing girls. Lots of them. He is aided by cops whom he lets in to share in the girls’ sexual favors. A nun finds out and ends up dead. The murder is never solved and the priest is never punished. Oh, and one more thing. We're never quite sure this is actually what happened.

Why, you have to ask yourself, would anybody in their right mind want to see such a nightmarish view of the dark side of life?  Besides the ugliness of the story, many people will assume it's beating a dead horse and turn away. The priest abuse phenomenon is very old news by now. And the story has already been brilliantly captured in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight. What is anybody going to add?

That was my approach going in. I had a “show me” attitude and stopped for a while after the first hour until a friend encouraged me to keep going. I’m glad I did.

One takes in a story, whether in book form or in film, for its content and/or for the way it’s told. Sometimes a story is too big to fit in a single narrative. I believe the child abuse story is one such topic. Spotlight told of abuses in the Boston archdiocese from a reporter’s perspective. The Keepers takes place in Baltimore, this time from the victims’ perspective. It brings home the fact that it’s a much bigger story than Spotlight was able to capture, good as it was. Like any wholesale quest for justice – the struggle by black people for equality, the insistence we not forget the victims of the Holocaust, the effort to root out sexism and homophobia – it’s far too soon to call an end to the telling of Roman Catholic cover-up stories. The struggle goes on.

Producer/director Ryan White (The Case Against 8) and his crew track the efforts of two victims, Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, to determine whether their abuser, a truly sinister priest named Father Joseph Maskell, is also the killer of their teacher, Sister Cathy Cesnik. Maskell had the motive, if Sister Cathy was on his trail, but was he responsible? And if he was, he certainly didn't work alone. What comes with this quest is insight into how secrecy is maintained through fear and shame, how the church, the police and the courts can on occasion not only fail to protect the innocent, but actually collude with criminals to do harm. It's about how we as a society can make it possible for somebody to get away with murder.

Because the victims took twenty years before they could begin to recover from the trauma of what happened to them, the facts had scattered and many were lost. Getting beyond the walls of silence required a willpower that crossed over into obsession. The filmmakers saw an opportunity to milk the many twists and turns in the discovery process. They knew they had a detective story of the first order, and calculated it would take seven hours to tell. I imagine if one is looking for ways to find fault with the documentary, length is likely to be at the top of the list. I, for one, found the length actually worked to an advantage. You have time to get to know the characters and come to root for them.

At times I felt I was losing control of some of the many subplots. There are times when just as you think you’ve got something figured out a new character is introduced, and the surprises make for some good cliff-hangers at the end of each episode. You suspect you’re being manipulated by one unbelievable revelation after another, but you gradually come to accept that if the story were more densely packed, it might have less power to grab hold of you. A clever story-telling device used in the film is getting you to allow the narrative to proceed on the basis of certain unproven assumptions, and then revealing to you at a later time that there is actual evidence for those assumptions, before you can complain that you are being jerked around. The documentary is well crafted, in other words.

Without revealing any more of the film’s secrets (I realize I’ve already given away much of the suspense), what The Keepers does well is illustrate the difference between actual guilt and legal guilt. We are witness to the many ways the church uses legal loopholes (like the statute of limitations) and the powers that be, specifically the church working in collusion with the state (determining which cases will be worked on and brought to court), have you over a barrel when it is in their interest to do so. And when the individuals playing the role of district attorney, cop or bishop place self-interest over a sense of professional responsibility.

The real value of The Keepers is its contribution to the argument that just as traffic lights only work if people are willing to stop for them, the institutions of democracy work only when we keep those with authority over us in under constant surveillance. Power corrupts, as we know, and hypocrisy and deception go hand in hand with power.  We have paid the price of assuming the church, by virtue of its claims to righteousness, is any less susceptible to those temptations.

Many of us have never questioned before what the child abuse story says about morality in the church. As a kid, I picked up the notion somehow that Christ was what I would later come to think of as a Kantian. You don’t lie, you don’t cheat, you don’t steal. Period.  No need to split hairs. Just do the right thing. Don’t bop people on the head.  If somebody needs a jacket you should maybe even give him your coat, as well. Feed the hungry. Heal the sick. Be good.

Growing up involves recognizing that most Christians aren’t followers of those Christian notions, however, and when it comes to the larger Christian institutions, there’s barely a trace of such extreme generosity, and sometimes precious little compassion. In recent years, the Roman Catholic Church’s moral code has been all about self-preservation. They have lied, cheated, and even committed violence to protect the good name of the church. Pure utilitarian reasoning. Better to forget about those sorry kids who happen to fall into the hands of sicko priests and avoid scandal. Shut the kids up, pay them off, move the priest to a new location and hope for the best.

It has never been the sick priests of the church who have been the problem, as I see it, but the institutional values, the urge to prioritize the illusion that the church is free of error over the health and well-being of its members.  Keeping the church going has to be the highest priority, according to utilitarian Catholics. It’s bigger than any single individual.

I do believe there is a direct connection between the sex scandals and the choice of making morality all about what is curiously conceived of as “sexual purity” rather than about such things as deceit and violence, but mostly I don’t think anybody should be surprised that when you have hundreds of thousands of men in close proximity to children, statistically you are going to have a bad apple here and there. Priests are human and human beings are not all they should be all the time.The problem has always been what to do when you do find a bad apple such as a child molester. What has brought down the church in recent years is this inclination to bury scandal, and throw the victims, overwhelmingly women and children, to the wolves.

Not my idea of what Jesus would do, in other words, but what the princes of the church (the medieval rank still applies to this day) need to do to keep the status quo and the illusion of righteousness. What will people think? Got to hide the bad apples.

Despite the difficulty of getting accurate figures on such a taboo topic, one research study done by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2004 for the United States Conference of Catholic bishops, came up with a figure of over 4000 priests and over 10,000 victims, in the last half of the twentieth century. And that is clearly but the tip of the iceberg. Just recently, Pope Francis’s office revealed that they had a backlog of 2000 cases. 

The problems of sexual abuse and other wrongs that spin off from that (lying, intimidating, preying on the vulnerable, violence) are still front and center, in other words. The Keepers brings home in spades the challenge of addressing human weakness and folly. See it and marvel at how the code of silence can permit the truly evil to flourish within the bosom of the church. Or at how willing some of us are to look away from anything we don’t want to see. Or at the astonishing ease with which some of us allow ourselves to become victims.

Or, if you’re into detective stories, watch this one unfold, and marvel at what one can do if one is working with an indefatigable need for justice.

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