Thursday, March 21, 2013

When Leadership Reflects Societies Values (Being There 1979)

77. Being There (1979)

Chauncey Gardner is an up and coming politician.  He has got the support of movers and shakers.  He is becoming a powerful beacon of hope with his analogies of growing gardens and spring.

And he is a complete idiot.

Not in a bad way, mind you.  He is one of the nicest, most polite people you will ever meet (and the most rounded character Peter Sellers ever created).  But he doesn’t know about analogies, economics, politics, or votes.  He has a charming charisma, one that makes you want to think that he is saying more than he is.  He is frankly not suited to rule a household, let alone a country, as wonderful as it is to spend time with him. 
What he really likes to do is watch.  Watch TV.  His whole mindset is passive, allowing the world to pass over him, making no decisions except for the smallest changes that effects his garden, which is his sole responsibility.

And yet as a society it is frequent that we want a charming person to lead us, rather than the smart one.  It is amazing that Being There was release in 1979, a year before Reagan was elected president, who was the most charming affable person anyone could meet, but perhaps not the smartest person to run a country.  I have nothing wrong with the man, but his cabinet was full of people who took advantage of their positions for selfish gain, and caused one difficulty after another.  Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush followed in this model.  Pleasant people, wonderful with a crowd, but not necessary the brilliant leaders the country needed to rule the world.   Who trusted untrustworthy people.  Whose leadership was so weak that almost nothing got done.  Who made deep mistakes and still cannot see what was wrong with them.

Obama, for all his moral problems, at least is a smart, capable politician, a trend away from Chauncey Gardener.   But the trend is set.  Soon we will have another Chauncey Gardner, an incapable leader who is capable at sound bites, broad ideas, and repeating what he’s heard.

What makes Being There so great is that it doesn't smash you over the head like I just did with a political message.  It is clearly a comedy, and while it is not subtle, it doesn't talk about political problems, it just shows them.  And it is truly funny.  It allows the context just soak in, while it puts our affable Chauncey into one outlandish situation after another.  

Being There wouldn't have been made except for Peter Sellers.  He wanted this film made, and he wanted to play the lead.  So it got done, no matter how many strings he had to pull. 

What Connects Revolution and Mental Breakdown? (Fight Club)

78. Fight Club (1999)

Spoilers here.  If you haven’t seen the film, don’t read this analysis.  Instead, go out and see it.

Edward Norton (nameless in the film) has unwittingly got caught up in a club of revolution.  They use creatively destructive means of communicating the degradation of consumerist society.   They are a militia, and they are about to embark on pulling the rug out from under the entire system by erasing the evidence of all financial records, allowing everyone a financial reboot.  This will both be destructive to society and cause a great opportunity for the unprivileged.  This is deeply disturbing to Edward, because he is the IKEA man, who has a love/hate relationship with consumerism, and because his good friend and roommate, Tyler Durdan is the mastermind of this militia.

What is more disturbing, of course, is when Edward finds out that Tyler is actually one of his own personalities and that he, himself, is the mastermind.  His love/hate relationship with consumer society is what is causing the revolution.  And the fact that is mind is malleable enough to create two separate personalities is what caused this destruction.

But isn’t that the case of revolution in general?  To cause the destruction of all we knew, doesn’t it take personalities that are twisted in a certain way to destroy what others hold dear?  It is one thing to talk about revolution in a general sense, but to actually purchase the guns and to enforce one’s vision of society on everyone else, isn’t that at least megalomania, if not psychopathology?  In the movie Carlos, about the real life revolutionary Carlos “the Jackel” it displays him as being on the outside, even within his own movement and less effective as he went on. 

Of course, we have brilliant people at the head of revolutions as well: George Washington, Che Guevara, Simon Bolivar, Vladimir Lenin.  The fact is, if there is a successful revolution, not only does it require megalomania on the part of a revolutionary, but also a deep societal illness that keeps people degraded and crushed, and piles guilt and punishment on the innocent.   When a revolutionary looks sane, like the best solution to societal ills, then the breakdown of society is complete.

Which is scary when Tyler Durdan or V (as in Vendetta) look more and more reasonable. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Five Meditations: Vagabond (1985)

       1. A piece of life
Agnes Varda finds in film a playground of life.  She seems to have ADHD, unable to focus on anything, insisting upon total freedom of mind and thought.  But she knows what she wants to say and continually returns to the themes she is considering, making a whole.  Her narrative might be difficult to follow, but patience gives one the depth that is found in her films.

At one point a character in her film Vagabond (1985) has a near-death experience and she exclaims, “It is true!  As you are dying you see flashes of your life!”  In a sense, this is exactly what the film Vagabond is: flashes of a life in the midst of death, shown right at the beginning of the film.

It is amazing how much of a single life can be contained in just a two hour period:

Judgment and sympathy
Work and irresponsibility
Love and lust and sex and rape
Fear and comfort
Relating and separtation
Connection and misunderstanding
Pogniancy and laughter
And, of course, sorrow and regret.

In the end, it is very disappointing that all life ends in death.  An anticlimax, really.
The memories we have left in the minds of others is all that is left.

2. Double Helix
Freedom and faithfulness seem to never be found at the same place and time.
We all desire freedom:
Freedom from bosses, from lovers, from commitments, from boredom, from demands
Yet we also need security:
Houses, warmth, peace, safety, regular meals, people we trust

In order to reach a balance of freedom and security, we must have faithfulness:
The keeping of promises
Unspoken agreements
Work for each other
Unbroken trust

Those who deny this balance, who insist on either complete freedom or complete security, are both the object of envy and scorn.

3. Trust
Means being taken advantage of
Means hoping instead of requiring
Means walking away when you want to control
Means allowing another to grow at their own speed
Means relying on God, less so on others

4. Speedy Compassion
“I’m too busy to be compassionate”
Compassion requires less time than consideration
The thought to pick up socks for the needy when buying clothes
The thought to keep breakfast bars in one’s car
The thought to give away clothes instead of throwing
The thought to speak a kind word instead of harsh
The thought to step toward instead of away
The thought to smile and listen instead of turn away and ignore

But speedy compassion changes no one
It is only love in the short term
Opportunity for change only occurs in long words:
(Long in time, not letters)

Opportunity is found in creating new contexts
in which another might thrive.
Opportunity is found in seeing the positive change
  (and diminishing the enduring negatives)
Opportunity is found in the trusting, sacrificial welcome

5.  Lost Hope
There were two characters who could have changed the end of Mona, wanderer, without roof, without law.
One is the Tunisian who truly loved Mona, and gently prodded her to a secure life of work and care.  But his concern about the opinion of others was stronger than his love of this woman.  The shot of his face, deep with regret brought a tear to my eye.

The second is the arborist, the professor, who truly appreciated Mona’s company.  After spending two days with her, appreciating each other’s company, enjoying each other’s vibrancy, the professor dropped Mona off, away from her home.  She could appreciate, but she could not trust.  She also regretted her action, realizing at the end of her life, that this relationship was essential, not passing.

Without trust there is no community.  Without community, there is no life.

If you would like to find out more about Steve's community of the homeless and the mentally ill, check out Nowhere To Lay His Head, the website of Anawim located in Portland, Oregon, USA.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Christian Endurance: Hunger (2008)

(This is a review/sermon from 2010, reposted from another of my blogs, Steve Kimes, Anawim, esq.)

Hunger is the story of Bobby Sands, an Irish Republican put in prison for political violence against the British. While in prison, he leads protests, demanding to be treated as political prisoners—POWs— instead of just criminals. As the British refuse, he and his co-prisoners suffer the filthiest existence at their own hands. And then they endure forced bathings and the most inhumane searches. Finally, Bobby Sands decides on a hunger strike, for him and his comrades. And the horror of that fast is depicted gruesomely.

Obviously, this is not a movie for everyone. By the end of this film I began to wonder why I was putting myself through this torturous movie. Then I wondered why the director put in all of this amazing effort, with some of the greatest filmmaking talent ever, to put us through this experience with Bobby. It seems that Bobby is going through some of the most terrible self-torture, and for what? Political recognition? For the recognition of human rights, most of which were in their grasp at any point? To make some petty point?

But I realized that this was not a political film. The director depicts the suffering of the guards as well as the prisoners. The fact how everyone’s life involved was simply miserable because of this system, because of the determination of these men.

Finally, I realized what the movie is about. Endurance. It doesn’t matter what Bobby Sands was fighting for, or what methods he used. The point is simple—he was willing to go to whatever extent to obtain his goals. He had the steadfastness to put his body through any degradation, to suffer whatever the cost, to go through any pain or mutilation in order to achieve his goals. The ethic nature of the goals weren’t significant. But his determination was.

And, honestly, that’s what makes any cause great. Not the rightness of the cause, but the stark determination of the promoters of the cause. This is what made the civil rights movement great, as well as the Indian freedom protests—they were willing to suffer all, while not causing the suffering of anyone. This is what made the early Anabaptists great, the early Franciscans, the first century church. They all promoted their cause to the death, while never harming another.

I am ashamed of our modern day church. How little determination we have. How we speak so much about “balance” and “cycles”, as if the main text of Scripture we should be living out is not the Sermon on the Mount, but Ecclesiastes 3. We speak of the “discipline” of rest, but the fact is our lives are full of rest and we do little work for those who honestly need it. Pastors are the ultimate compromisers, seeking salaries and retirements and office hours, instead of trusting and giving. 

I know true endurance. I once lived it. For fifteen years, I worked hard for the people on the street until my body, slowly but decidedly gave up on me—until my stress levels exploded. Surely, people would say, that is the need for balance. And I will say, no one’s body is meant to endure terrible stress for twelve or fifteen years. We just can’t keep doing it. Even Jesus only dealt with daily suffering for three years or so. 

And this kind of endurance isn’t for everyone. It is a saintly life to support the spiritual athletes and soldiers—those who lay down their lives for the cause. But, honestly, we are in a time of the church where those who are willing to lay their lives down for the gospel are few. Very few. 

What is the task? To love others, even if it means our own death.
What is the cost? Our lives, our sanity, our family, our “balance.
Who is willing to endure?

Who is willing to endure?