Fahrenheit 9/11

On November 9, 2002, I began my essay on Bowling for Columbine: White Men with Guns 



“The massacre of April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado affected our national psyche very deeply. Eric Harris’ and Dylan Klebold’s actions that day remain mysteriously or at best unsatisfactorily unexplained by a hodgepodge of accusations and ideas. I found Michael Moore’s haunting, ironic, and pseudo- documentary as a means to explore and examine the culture that would allow the killing of one’s fellow students, teachers and themselves to make sense.”

The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, affected our national psyche very deeply. Osama Bin Laden’s actions that day remain mysteriously or at best unexplained by a hodgepodge of accusations and ideas. In Fahrenheit 9/11 Moore spends most of the documentary drawing a web of connections between the Bush family’s financial activities and the Saudi’s and then the industrial/financial beneficiaries of this war – of all war. And he returns to his native Michigan to show how the poor are being recruited to fight this war – all war.

The US invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, continues to affect our nation’s psyche very deeply. President George W. Bush’s decisions, rationale and actions that day remain mysteriously or at best unexplained by a hodgepodge of conflicting statements and lack of transparency. I found Michael Moore’s satirical, cynical and chilling psuedo-documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 a means to look at the tragedy of the war in Iraq from a perspective that the US news media is just getting around to, and very tentatively at that.

Let me tell you about my experience of going to see this film today. I went to a multiplex that sits at a cross-section of racial and social diversity here in Los Angeles. Everyone came to the 2:00pm showing in theater 15. African-Americans, Asians, Caucasians, Latinos; men and women; all age groups, cultures and classes. When I go to the theater to review movies, I always go during the week, and during the day. Hardly anyone is there. Today, the theater was almost full. It took me more than five minutes to get out of the parking garage after… at 4:00pm. This was a first for me.

Three elderly folks sat next to me and I chatted with one of the women. I asked if she came with Moore’s vision already, and she said, “Yes.”

I have never been to a political rally, but I was at one today. Moore’s editing and ability to find Bush at his fumbling and ridiculous worst made people laugh and then cheer – not from humor but because the alternative would have been to cry.

Before leaving the theater, I turned to the older lady next to me and asked her, “What did you think?” “It broke my heart.” She put her face into her hands, crying.

As I neared the exit door, I asked two young African American males what they thought of the film. “We work for that guy.” “Who, Michael Moore?” “No, Bush. We work for Homeland Security. They have us doing b.s.” (quote.) “So, will you really go to vote in November?” “Who, for Bush? Not for him, man.” I responded, “No, will you actually go out and vote, as an American?” “Heck, yeah!”

Coming out of theater 15, the line for the next showing of F 9/11 was queing up – roped off to contain the growing numbers. Tuesday afternoon at 4:00pm.

As I neared the parking garage, I overheard two young men and a young woman talking. One man said, “Who am I going to vote for? Not Bush.” The other said, “Yeah, but not Kerry either.” The first man said, “Well, there’s always Nader.”

Will this be our voting decision process in November?

Before I left the theater, I turned once again to the older lady, and extended my hand. “I am a Catholic sister. I think what we need to do is pray very hard.” She took my hand and sqeezed it and said, “I’m a Methodist. And yes, let us pray together.”

I don’t know what else I can say. Once you know Moore’s style, you have to decide if you believe him or not. Sure, he pulls some slight-of-hand with the editing, but little in the film surprised me. What was revealing were the connections between Bush and the Saudi’s and oil. If what Moore says is true, is true, then Houston,we, as moral, ethical, caring human beings, have a bigger problem than we ever imagined.

Last Friday, on The Today Show, Matt or Katie asked the White House Communications man if he was going to see F 9/11. He replied no, that if he wanted to see fiction he’d go see Shrek 2.

I think some folks may be in denial.

What really troubled me in the film, however, was the nihilistic attitude toward war. In one scene (it looked unedited), Bush is on the golf course and he says about the war, “We have to stop the terrorism…” Then he picks up his golf club and says almost without missing a breath, “Now watch this drive!” The juxtaposition of our young men and women dying in Iraq, as well as the Iraqi women and children makes for strong viewing. In this scene in particular, Bush seems to convict himself without help from anyone else.

See it, and draw your own conclusions. Now is the time for critical thinking, for inquiry. And Moore’s work deserves it as much as the mainstream media.

But then compare them and see what you come up with.

While you’re at it, read A Terrible Love of War by James Hillman, 2004, Penguin.

Is war, like the market, relentless and uncontrollable? Have we no choice?

We always have a choice.



Thank you for your comments

I would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to post a comment to my random thoughts about the movies I have seen. I appreciate the additional depth or perspective that you have added – as well as the kind words.

Tomorrow I am off to see Fahrenheit 9/11.

If you’d like to check out my essay on Bowling for Columbine, visit http://www.daughtersofstpaul.com/mediastudies/reviews/filmbowling4columbine.html



The Terminal

From the trailers, I knew The Terminal was a movie I wanted to see. A traveler asks the stranded traveler Viktor Navorsky (Tom Hanks), “Do you ever feel like you live at the airport?” Viktor’s been there about six months, sleeping at Gate 67 when this happens. I travel a lot, so this little exchange made me laugh.

Viktor is from a small Eastern European country near Russia. While he is on his way to New York’s JFK airport, his country has a revolution, he gets no visa and his passport is confiscated by the head of federal airport security, Frank Dixon (Stanly Tucci). Dixon thinks it will only be a day or so before Navorsky can get things straightened out; it takes nine months. So Viktor camps out at a gate that is being remodeled; gets airplane food by making friends with an airport worker, and works for more money than Dixon makes by doing construction and getting paid under the table. Navorsky also has a can of Planter’s Peanuts that everyone wants to know the contents of.

One day a beautiful flight attendant, Ameilia, slips and falls on the wet floor. They become friends (Catherine Zeta-Jones). She is involved with a married man; her whole life has been a chain of relationships with married men. Navorsky falls for her and no matter what she tells him, maintains deep resepct for her.

The Terminal is about people who are stuck: stuck in an airport, stuck in a job, stuck in relationships – all searching for freedom. Navorsky makes several friends, and he is willing to forego getting out of the terminal and into Manhattan to keep his new friends out of trouble. When Dixon is being assessed for a promotion, he is unkind to Navorsky who manages to have many photocopies of his hand made while Dixon is tormenting him. His hand becomes like a flag of freedom to the normally unseen airport workers.

The Terminal is a feel-good movie about a man who goes on a journey to fulfill his father’s dream. It reminded me of those nice Hollywood films of the 50’s that promoted community and family. The only unfulfilled part of the movie for me was that Amelia is the only person who does not get unstuck. She does a kind thing for Navorsky that moves the action along, but she, the main female character, remains trapped and never achieves the freedom that lies just beyond the terminal.

A nice film, yes. But once again, it is the story of the (white) male that is offered to us as the example of universal human experience (although many cultures are represented in the film playing key roles – all but two are male.)

Pieces of April

As you can tell, I continue to add to my 2003 movie list with Pieces of April. What a wonderful, small film and an immediate classic to me. I am a real softie when it comes to Thanksgiving (my favorite holiday) and food/family movies that lay out a large canvas for viewers to draw out images of their own family memories, the dilemmas that beset us all and the love, hope and reconciliation that emerges from the simplicity of breaking bread together – or in this case, a communal turkey.

April is into goth and shares an scummy apartment with her very good African-American boyfriend, Bobby, in lower Manhattan. April has invited her estranged family, her Mom, Joy (Patricia Clarkson), Dad (Oliver Platt), teen brother Timmy and teen sister Beth. On Thanksgiving morning, Joy is dressed and in the car, ready to go before anyone else is up. Joy has breast cancer. On the way out of town they stop to pick up grandma who has dementia. As they depart, April and Bobby stuff the turkey (very funny) and Bobby heads out to buy a new suit jacket to welcome April’s family. April puts up homemade decorations.

The movie parallels the family journey and April’s around the apartment house to find ovens that work. They have to stop the car often when Joy gets sick. The family tries to recall good times with April, but can remember only her sins. The closer they get, even Joy becomes convinced it’s not going to work. They cannot believe April can pull off a Thanksgiving dinner.

To tell you more might spoil this little film that is not afraid to show what love means. A gem.

I can even forgive Katie Holmes all those years she played the whiney Joey on Dawson’s Creek.

To End All Wars

To End All Wars was released straight to DVD last week. It is a harrowing and inspirational “true” story, based on a book and the experiences of Ernest Gordon, of the 69th Scottish Regiment, who later became the Chaplain of Princeton University, about the World War II prisoner of war story depicted in Bridge Over the River Kwai.

I must admit that I began to watch this film with prejudice. The last thing I wanted to see was another movie glorifying war. This story, however, told of how prisoners of war banned together to create a jungle university (and an orchestra – reminded me of Paradise Road a little) to help themselves to survive the horror of the Japanese prison camp and forced labor to build a railway through the Burmese jungle.

It’s also about the great contradictions they faced and the moral and ethical decisions: if we work hard, are we collaborating with the enemy? Is one human life only worth the value of a feather, as the Japanese emperor believed?

After they had been taken captive and imprisoned in the camp, the men begin talking about what they will do after the war. One says teaching and the leader of the Regiment syas, “Prepare for the next war.”

There’s a lot of philosophy and commentary going on in this film that is worth talking about in the light of current and ongoing events.

Did World War II teach us nothing about peace?

Kiefer Sutherland plays the only Yankee in the camp and when he gets into trading on the black market; the Scots look down on him. When a shovel goes missing, and the Japanese threaten that the whole camp will be punished, he steps up and takes the punishment, and ends up crippled for life. When the prisoner’s commanding officer dies, the Robert Carlysle character takes his place. While most of the men are studying justice as taught by Plato, Shakespeare’s Henry V and the New Testament, he is plotting escape and other ways to get the Japanese. When his insurrection fails, another soldier steps in to die in his place. How does a man live with that kind of self-sacrifice?

Nevil Shute wrote a wonderful book called A Town Like Alice (also available on video as a mini-series starring Bryan Brown.) It’s a very involved tale, based on true events. I had never understood emotionally what Christ’s crucifixion must have been like until I saw this film – the Japanese crucify him for stealing some pedigreed chickens from the commander of a camp to feed hungry women and children. Now in the film To End All Wars, another man is crucified for the sake of all, and once again, what we saw so graphically in The Passion of the Christ earlier this year, a film helps us understand the lengths to which people will go to imitate Christ and live what it means to be human and humane and in relationship with people, even one’s enemies.

The film is obviously meant “to teach” about Christianity, but I was willing to let it go because I thought the film explored love and reconciliation in a credible dramatic style that worked for me.

Although it is Gordon’s story, Robert Carlysle as the Major, shows the inner struggle of conscience the best. What do you do when someone has laid down his life for you because of your stupidity and stubborness? How do you live with that? The hero story, and how to live with the consequences of one’s choices, are paralled in the characters. The film also shows that some people really cannot learn from their mistakes.

It is very graphic and moving. The final scene shows documentary footage of Gordon and one of the guards he befriended meeting together many years later at the memorial for the victims of the Burmese railroad construction during World War II.

Now that we have a film like this, we need to ask ourselves what it means in the face of war today, in Iraq and elsewhere. If you are in a reflective mood, willing to be challenged and inspired, then this is a good rental.

Have we learned anything at all?

The Stepford Wives

When Johanna gets fired from her job as the president of a television network, she and her husband Walter, move with their kids to Connecticut. As they take the exit from the parkway to Stepford, we get to see the signs that say “Wrong Way”.

You can say that again.

The thing about The Stepford Wives is that there are parts that are done well (the whole preamble when Johanna presents the reality show to the affiliates and one of the contestants takes revenge) is quite a good look at the possible consequences of reality TV production.

To me, the entire theme of the film is who is a human being and what are our responsibilities toward one another?

I did not see the original Stepford Wives film (one of m my younger sisters saw it when she was ten years old and she said it terrified her), but I just read the book by Ira Levin. In an afterword, Peter Straub writes that almost everyone misses the satire aspect of the book – the satire on men rather than feminism or the feminist movement. Actually, so did I. But the book did not seem like a horror movie to me, more like a philosophical fable with an open ending.

This new film version was like a mixture between The Truman Show, The Matrix Goes to Connecticut and The Manchurian Candidate (the old one since the new version is not out yet.)

It had its moments, but it got kind of preachy in the end, and any idea that the film might have been bearing witness to was lost. Yes, instead of feminism it’s more about gay rights. But one theme or idea that it had, about expecting perfection in human relationships, is worth exploring.

In the RSV translation of Matthew 5:48, Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.”

This has always been a troublesome and frustrating saying to me because human perfection is impossible.

However, the Jerusalem Bible translates this citation as “Put no bounds to your love as your heavenly father puts no bounds to his.”

Now, this makes sense to me, and I think The Stepford Wives may have been trying to make this point. But it didn’t do it so well. Love is what matters, and supporting one another with dignity and respect.

The robot dog could have added more of a sci-fi dimension. I would have liked that. If the filmmakers had stayed closer to the original story it would have been a better film because it would have had a focus.

Are there any original ideas out there???


Starksy and Hutch

Still making up some movies from earlier this year that I missed in theaters. I saw this one on the plane yesterday from LA to Chicago.

Someone once told me that every laugh in a film costs a million dollars.

If that’s true, then Starsky and Hutch must have been a really low budget movie.

OK, I laughed when he shot the donkey and when the car missed the boat (literally).

Because it was the airplane version of the film, maybe they cut out something that would have contributed to the creative level of the film – this proving once again that it’s not fair to judge a film by the jet version.




Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

In the third installment of the very exciting and lucrative Harry Potter film franchise, we have a dark fantasy horror film for the adolescents among us – and maybe us as well. 

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is directed by Alfonso Cuaron (E tu mama tambien; Great Expectations, A Little Princess) since Chris Columbus signed off, and I think he respects the films and the books very much. True, I have only read the first volume and half of the second, but we get the idea of how the books have been interpreted for the screen.

This film is more linear than the others, I think. Easier to follow.

Harry, Ron and Hermione meet at some kind of road house before going back to school, and they are no longer kids. They are very definitely teenagers, though they aren’t into music yet. Harry is standing up for himself to his obnoxious relatives even more than before. Mr. Weasley gives Harry an ominous warning about an escaped criminal, Serius Black, whose image in the wanted posters keeps taunting us – he is a murderer and he is looking for Harry.

Back at Hogwart’s, there are new teachers, Prof. Lupin (note the root of that name; it’s important!), Prof. Sybil Trelawney (Emma Thompson, an eccentric almost blind teacher of clairvoyance) and even the children’s gamekeeper friend Hagrid gets a teaching post. But there is menace in the air, and Dementors, creatures who cannot tell the difference between the good guys and the bad ones, faceless beings that suck the very soul out of their victims, guard the gates of the school so Serius cannot get in.

The story is about discovering Serius’ relationship with Harry and what other characters have to do with the life and murder of Harry’s parents. Friendship is a major theme of the story as is love and sacrifice for others.

The special effects are wonderful, though, dark and scary. There is a Big Bird here that reminded me of a fantasy version of a velociraptor from Jurassic Park … he plays an important part in the story. I noticed the kids in the theater couldn’t sit still or stop talking (I always like to observe how audience’s react to films…) -different behavior from the other films. I think it’s too intense for young children, in general. Parents, of course, know their children best and can judge what is appropriate or not for their ages (or whether they want to spend their time following their kids in and out of the theater.)

The controversy about the occult vis-a-vis fantasy will arise again from this film. As one educational expert put it, in the universe created by myth, the occult is about a malevolent worldview that wants to take control of the world and shape it in its own image; there are no caring people or sense of community or love; but fantasy is about a benevolent worldview, and where children are concerned, there are caring adults, and people learn pro-social lessons about life.

All thoughtful film viewers might want to spend some time researching the meaning of metaphor, analogy, myth, and fairytale because we live in a visual story-telling culture. We use stories to figure out the meaning of life.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was a little slow getting off the ground, but the last 45 minutes or so were complex enough to be pretty interesting … and scary!

I Am Not Scared (Io non ho paura)

I Am Not Scared (Io non ho paura) is a film about the time  when a child is transformed from a playmate into a moral being, and awakened to the darkness of adult choices and his own. The beauty is both boys in the story become aware of what it means to try and save someone, and to be saved. To become aware that we are our brother’s keeper.

It is 1978 and Michele (mee-kel-lay)lives in a remote and impoverished village in Southern Italy with his little sister, mother and itinerant father. He and his friends discover an abandoned farmhouse one day. Michele makes his own discovery – a pit covered with tin and straw. From his perch he sees a foot and it moves. It is a young boy.

He returns over and over again during this incredibly hot and golden summer, arcross the waving fields of wheat, and never says anything about this boy – who is 10 years old, like himself. Yet, he befriends him and brings him food and water. The boy is shackled to the wall, and practically blinded from sores and darkness. When a friend of Michele’s father comes to visit, Michele senses menace. He overhears a newscast about a kidnapped boy with a plea from the boys mother. He listens to his parents, neighbors and this friend talk. Slowly he puts everything together and realizes the growing danger surrounding him.

Michele turns into a hero and places himself in harm’s way for the sake of the innocent boy.

I Am Not Scared is a completely different kind of film because everything is told from Michele’s perspective. We want him to call the police, to do something, but it does not occur to him because he does not understand – at first. This is a fine and in its own way a satisfying film about the possibilities for heroism and generosity in children as they grow up in that “inbetween” time just before adolescence. What is disappointing is the adult behavior. Although we never find out the reason for the kidnapping, this is not what the film is about. It is about humanity, the good, the bad and the ugly. The good endures.

I am familiar with another film by this director, Gabriele Salvatores. He made a film called Denti that was in competition for the 2000 Venice Film Festival – I was on the Catholic jury so I saw it there. Again, a film the likes of which I have never seen. A man has such horrible teeth that he goes through anything and everything to have an acceptable smile. If you have spent any time in a dentist’s chair, you might be able to imagine how this film can make you feel. The dentists of the world could have sued Salvatores for this…

Perhaps this is Gabriele Salvatores’ gift: he can make you feel a movie in ways that I seldom experience. There is great depth in I Am Not Scared (I wish they had translated it: I am not afraid…)

The Lovely Bones: A Novel

People have asked me what I thought of Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel, and until now I have only been able to say that I hadn’t read it.

I finished it over Memorial Day weekend. So many emotions… terror, loss, chaos, distance – and a whole rethinking of what heaven means to me.

When 14 year old Susie disappears, we discover what happened to her becasue she narrates it from heaven – a “place” that is different for everyone. She even has an intake counselor who was also murdered…

Susie tells the story of her rape, murder and how her body was cut up and disposed of by her murderer. From above, and then in a chapter reminiscent of the film Ghost, Susie  inhabits the body of a friend, to see what making love us like, before she goes to heaven forever.

Truth be told, I liked Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town better because it was about death and loss, from the side of life and afterlife. It too offered an opportunity to examine what the next life might be like.

The Lovely Bones is very contemporary and we are spared no details as the family tries to adjust, as the case grows cold, of the father’s unrelenting search for his daughter’s murderer.

I just don’t think that Susie’s heaven does it for me, though the struggle of the family seems realistic and concludes in a mostly satisfying way. Like The Sixth Sense, souls who in life were murdered or put to death for no reason, are in a “place” until someone redeems them – a place of waiting for justice. The book ends, but there is no real sense of justice for Susie because the crime is never really solved.

What will heaven be like? “In my Father’s house there are many mansions,” Jesus told us. “If it were not so, I would not have told you.”

Whatever these mansions might be like is no matter, as long as we can linger in the presence of transcendent, eternal love. The Lovely Bones did not quite do it for me. Is this the heaven of citizens of the West in the 21st century? I hope for more.

January 2010: A note about the film: ditto.