Wednesday, November 25, 2009

In time for Thanksgiving - a film review of The Searchers

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, a day filled with symbols of our great American mythology. Our founders, the European settlers, yearned for a new life free from the restrictions of Europe, so they got on those rickety boats and crossed an ocean to reach an unknown land.

The Pilgrims, in their quest for religious freedom, sought Nirvana far from home. The place they landed on was harsh, unforgiving, a landscape that required skill and knowledge in order to survive.

And instrumental to their survival, according to the American mythology, were the inhabitants of the "New World." As we all know, the Pilgrims shared a harvest feast with the Wampanoag Indians in 1621. The modern American Thanksgiving dinner not only gives us the opportunity to give thanks for our blessings, but commemorates the cooperation between Native Americans and foreign born visitors who sought new life in a new world.

Of course, cooperation turned into warfare not long after. Another component of American story is the "cowboys versus Indians" mythology, in which cowboys wrested the land from violent, scalp-taking Indians.

Which brings me to The Searchers, a classic western made by John Ford in 1956.

For me, The Searchers ranks up there as one of the definitive American movies. Our mythology, particularly our Western mythology, focuses on our independence from others. Our heroes seem to need no one. They are self-contained and powerful. They save us from the evils that exist beyond the pale.

With The Searchers, Ford shows us the reality behind the myth. Ethan Edwards, for whatever reason, shunned love, rejected the home. Those early scenes in the film are so powerfully eloquent in visually expressing his love for Martha, and her love for him.

A 47 second scene from early in the movie that visually shows the relationship between Ethan and his sister-in-law:

We'll never know why they never married, but I believe it is because Ethan was not a settled man. Walls could not contain him. And so Martha settled for Ethan's brother.

With this film, did Ford and Wayne endorse Western racism or regret it? To me, it seems clear. The racist shoots people in the back. He's angry. He wants to kill his niece because the Comanches have defiled her. He's nasty to the young man who trails around the west with him in search of the lost white girl. There is far more than regret in John Wayne's portrayal of Ethan - there is condemnation too. It is Marty, tainted with that drop of Indian blood, who provides the moral center of the film. The man not fully white, the man without blood relatives, is the one man in the story who truly understands the value of protecting one's kin.

In a 2001 review of the film, Roger Ebert says, "in The Searchers I think Ford was trying, imperfectly, even nervously, to depict racism that justified genocide."

I disagree. To me, watching John Wayne's extraordinary performance, it was clear that this is a sharply defined portrait of the internal destruction that comes from living under a twisted moral code. Wayne exposes the myth for what it is, a sham. "What do want me to do, draw you a picture?" he screams at Lucy's fiance, when he finally has to reveal what happened to Lucy. The violence he's witnessed has destroyed him.

In The Searchers, we see that the Western hero is not impervious to grief and sorrow, as the myth would lead you to believe. The Western hero is isolated by independence, shut out from the soft, warm intimacies of family life. Is there any other Western that is so framed by the home? Those iconographic opening and closing images of the film are startling - the great, expansive beauty of the west, framed and enclosed by the love of family. Even at the end, Ethan rejects the comfort of love. His love is the land. But his independence is obtained at a very high price.

It is rare that I see a movie that affects me like this one. And while I admire John Wayne for accepting the challenge of playing Ethan Edwards, I do not admire Ethan. He is ambiguous and twisted. His courage is not necessarily the same as heroism. For me, the one flaw of the film is that in the end, his decision to save Debbie instead of kill her is completely unmotivated. The real Ethan Edwards would have shot her.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

When God's Work requires an apology...

In a year that has seen unemployment spike to its highest levels in decades and government debt reach record levels, Goldman Sachs is on track to pay out its highest employee bonuses ever in the firm's history.

All part of "God's work," Lloyd Blankfein suggested in a recent interview with the London Times.

Here's the intro from that story:

"Number 85 Broad Street, a dull, rust-coloured office block in lower Manhattan, doesn’t look like a place to stop and stare, and that’s just the way the people who work there like it. The men and women who arrive in the watery dawn sunshine, dressed in Wall Street black, clutching black briefcases and BlackBerrys, are very, very private. They walk quickly from their black Lincoln town cars to the lobby, past, well, nothing, really. There’s no name plate on the building, no sign on the front desk and the armed policeman stationed outside isn’t saying who works there.

There’s a good reason for the secrecy. Number 85 Broad Street, New York, NY 10004, is where the money is. All of it.

It’s the site of the best cash-making machine that global capitalism has ever produced, and, some say, a political force more powerful than governments. The people who work behind the brass-trim glass doors make more money than some countries do. They are the rainmakers’ rainmakers, the biggest swinging dicks in the financial jungle."

Not sure which God Blankfein prays to, but it's the rare God that places high value on owning "the biggest swinging dick in the financial jungle." In my Bible, the excessive acquisition of wealth is generally frowned upon. And in the Gospel of Luke, the wealthy end up in hell, actually.

But in Blankfein's mind, the acquisition of record-breaking bonuses is God's work indeed. In fact, as he told the Times, "everyone should be happy."

But they're not - all those many people outside of Number 85 Broad Street. Congress isn't happy. Main Street isn't happy. And now Goldman Sachs shareholders aren't happy.

So what's Blankfein going to do?

Why apologize, of course.

“We participated in things that were clearly wrong and have reason to regret,” Blankfein, 55, said at a conference in New York hosted by the Directorship magazine. “We apologize.”

A bizarre public relations move from a man usually more on top of his game.

But not to worry. The apology is not going to get in the way of the bonus payout. Because as the Goldman Sachs spinmeisters have told us repeatedly over the year, the best and brightest, the brilliant minds who "participated in things that were clearly wrong," will leave Goldman Sachs if they do not get their bonus.

Making some consumers feel like the economy is being held hostage by people who want astronomical sums for screwing up, then maximizing profit to be made from the government's generosity.

There'd be no Goldman Sachs today if not for the government bailout of the financial sector, a bailout that cost billions and added to the nation's debt.

But God works in mysterious ways. The bankers who survived the collapse of the financial sector - not because of their brilliance - but because the feds bailed them out, will be richly rewarded in this year of high unemployment and record government debt.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

November is the cruelest month...

Yes I quibble with Eliot, whose most famous poem, The Wasteland, began with the most famous disparagement of the month of April.

November is the cruelest month in the calendar, bringing with it dead skies, the hint of winter and two of the most vivid memorials to our war dead... Veterans Day and the anniversary of Lincoln's Gettysburg address.

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the day we now know as Veteran's Day, we honor those who sacrificed their lives for the sake of the greater ideal of honor, courage and country.

And on November 19th, 1863, Abraham Lincoln uttered less than 300 words in one of the most famous speeches ever given to honor those who died for their country.

Let us always remember that neither Veteran's Day nor Lincoln's famous speech would have happened were it not for the incredible sacrifices of our soldiers.

I will show you fear in a handful of dust... said Eliot in The Wasteland, a poem both famous and obscure of meaning.

I can only imagine the fear of those men slaughtered at Gettysburg. I can only imagine the fear of our soldiers who are now fighting today in the name of honor, virtue and passionate dedication to our country.

To me, Lincoln was a more gifted poet than Eliot. So I end with his words, said in honor of our soldiers...

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.

It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate...we can not consecrate...we cannot hallow this ground.

The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Our nation has been consecrated by the blood of all those who've died to protect it. We need to remember their sacrifice - we need to make sure that this American ground was not hallowed in vain.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

How's Your Retirement Account Doing?

Schmuck! That's if you're like most Americans and have seen the value of your retirement fund dip alarmingly with the collapse of the economy.

Shoulda been a "top executive!" According to the WSJ, their pensions have risen an average of 19 percent in 2009 - with more than 200 excecs seeing a 50 percent increase in their pension...

Also news in the WSJ, the private sector shed more than 200,000 jobs in October and big bonuses are back for Wall Street bankers...

The yin and yang of life in America.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Ayn Rand's Greatest Defender?

Ayn Rand is all the rage these days (and unbeknownst to me, has apparently been all the rage in certain circles since her career as an author began), with current interest jacked up thanks to the publication of Anne Heller's biography of Rand.

In catching up with my reading this weekend, I noticed Newsweek had a review of Rand cleverly called "Atlas Hugged." As I read it, I found myself irritated by some of the thoughts of the reviewer, who found The Fountainhead "a stunning evocation of the individual and what he can achieve when unhindered by government or society."

The reviewer pulls a quote from The Fountainhead to support the assertion, a claim by Roark:

"I do not recognize anyone's right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim, how large their number or how great their need... I recognize no obligations toward men except one: to respect their freedom and to take no part in a slave society."

As a working mother, I find such sentiments to be appallingly unrealistic - in all honesty, once one becomes a parent one is engulfed by responsibility toward others - one's children. To pound one's chest and brag about having no obligations at all in life except oneself - well good luck and all, but one needs relationships in life in order to survive. Show me a man who lives as independently as Howard Roark and I'll show you a Travis Bickle.

I wondered who was so inordinately drawn toward this rather heartless and impossible ideal. And then discovered that the reviewer is none other than Mark Sanford, the disgraced governor of South Carolina, the man who vanished over Father's Day weekend so he could hang with his mistress instead of his children.

I suppose that such a man would be a fan of Rand. That such a man as Sanford would love an author whose books proclaimed the primacy of self-obsession.

I read The Fountainhead a million years ago - it was not a book that changed my life or offered me a phenomenal new philosophy to follow. In truth, I thought the book highly unrealistic. I don't know a person alive who could live as isolated a life as Roark did. We're not built for isolation - rugged independence is the American myth, not the reality of our culture. There is not one CEO who could go it all alone, without any support or alliances - or without a fabulous admin assistant to schedule the CEO's life and act as the keeper of the gate.

I've yet to read Atlas Shrugged, apparently the book that replaced the Bible over on Wall Street. I started it, but it's lengthy; my life is full; the demands of my own personal schedule meant I had to return the book to the library before I could finish it. I WILL finish it... some day.

The capitalists have it hard in Atlas Shrugged - the dreck also known as the laboring class throws up millions of obstacles in the way of progress, damn them! And then there are the wives of the capitalists and the mothers of the capitalists and the "friends" of the capitalists. Life sucks when you just want to work all the time and exploit labor to get ahead. No one "gets" you!

But in Atlas Shrugged, the capitalists overcame the obstacles set in play by all those collectivist types. Heroes, those capitalists, every last one of them! The saviors of America. Saviors we could use today, of course.

Today, in Mark Sanford's eyes, there is only one enemy to blame for our current malaise and that is government itself. Strange that a governor, a person actively engaged in the workings of government, feels government is the problem. He might want to think about a new career, come to think of it. Governors who loathe government are best suited for careers outside of government. He might just want to go with that particular flow...

Anyway, back to Rand. Back to Sanford's review of Rand. Here's what he has to say:

"As Rand shows in [Atlas Shrugged], when the government is deprived of the free market's best minds, it staggers toward collapse."

Sanford seems to have forgotten that the best minds of the free market (Goldman Sachs power structure) tend to end up in government - and precisely at the moment our economy was collapsing, a great free market mind - Henry Paulson - was leading the Treasury, and apparently listening intently to what another great free market mind - Lloyd Blankfein - had to say.

Sanford points out a major flaw in Rand's thinking: "She believed that man is perfectible – a view she shared with the Soviet collectivists she hated."

As Sanford himself knows all too well, man is inordinately flawed. And so, too, is Rand's philosophy. A society filled with people who believe they're beholden to no one is dangerous, not empowering. And if a man like Mark Sanford, who so clearly lacks ethical standards, is so inspired by Rand, we should question the source of his inspiration.