The Casual Blog

Category: movies

Lincoln, political courage and pragmatism, and the war on drugs

As my Twitter followers (awful expression, sorry) and Facebook friends (also awful) already know, we saw the new movie Lincoln over the holiday, and really liked it. It works like a good old-fashioned Hollywood movie, which is to say it can be enjoyed as pure entertainment, but it does a lot more. It takes on a huge and deeply embarrassing subject, one that we still can barely bring ourselves to acknowledge or discuss a century and half later — American slavery — and contributes meaningfully to the dialog. This is remarkable. Kudos to Steven Spielberg and a great cast (especially Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, and Sally Field) and production team.

The movie reminds us that there are crucial moments when individual courage and moral vision matter. It concerns the last few weeks of the Civil War (1865) when the burning issues of how to stop the carnage and how to stop slavery were both pressing and pulling in opposite directions. About half of the members of Congress thought black people were subhuman and were opposed to recognizing them as in any sense equals. If the war ended, the matter of passing the Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery would become less politically pressing, and could conceivably not happen at all. The President was under great political pressure to end the horrific war, but insisting on abolition of slavery looked likely to prolong it. Resolving this dilemma required both courage and political genius.

David Brooks wrote an interesting column on Lincoln noting that the political solution required the President to act in ways that were, well, ethically questionable. That is, he engaged in tactics that could easily be viewed as bribery and other dishonesty. Brooks suggests that this is characteristic of politics — pure moral vision has to be balanced with pragmatic compromise to get anything done. Is some degree of dishonesty inescapable and even necessary for normal, effective politicians? I truly hope not, but it’s an interesting idea. In any case, the movie makes the case that Lincoln’s ethical compromises were justified.

Another theme of Lincoln is that words matter. The abolitionists, led by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) clearly saw the evil of slavery, and were prone to use language that prevented dialog with those that hated blacks, and also with those that saw slavery as a complex issue. Stevens could verbally disembowel his political opponents, but it just made them more determined to fight abolition. Persuading him to soften the rhetoric was a key part of the strategy for passing the Thirteenth Amendment.

And then there are the iconic words of Lincoln. The movie strains a little to get the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural into the story, but the strain is worth it: these words are among his proudest accomplishments, now with quasi-Consitutional status, and are still inspiring. Listening to them again, I was struck by their chiseled beauty, but also their combination of directness with artful ambiguity. They start with a factual and moral premise that almost all could agree on — many have died, and it cannot be they have died in vain. The concept of equality is discussed, but the in terms that seem classical rather than radical. The idea of full equal rights for slaves is not explicitly mentioned, presumably because it would make political compromise impossible.

Speaking of issues that require some amount of political courage and some amount of pragmatism, here’s one: the war on drugs. There was good news a few weeks back when Colorado and Washington voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use. They expect to regulate and tax it and raise substantial revenue as a result. This seems rational in these tough budgetary times. As I’ve said before, it seems like terrible public policy to put people in prison for smoking marijuana. The drug war costs us more than $76 billion a year, including the costs of police, courts, prison buildings, guards, services, and foregone revenue. At the same time, we create an entire criminal economy that not only corrupts our society but wreaks violence across the globe.

Much of this is to discourage pot smoking. We’ve been trying it for several decades and it hasn’t work! Instead it has destroyed individual lives, families, communities, and governments. No matter how bad an idea you think pot smoking is (and I agree it can be bad for some people), you might still agree that the cost of the drug war is wildly disproportionate to its positive achievements. I”ve thought for a long time that the practical need to address budget woes and the huge economic upside of taxing marijuana might eventually overcome the moralism of those who support the drug war path. The votes in Colorado and Washington suggest on this I might be right.

A sweet but sick dog, a touching movie, and a concert of Renaissance music

Stuart Tiller feeling better

Sally believes that Stuart has the most friends of anyone in our building, and from our elevator rides down to take him out to pee, I’m certain that more people know his name than know mine. He’s a Bassett-Beagle mix, with short legs, long ears, and big brown eyes. He’s nine now, and not as athletic a leaper as he used to be, but he still has a lively step and a perpetually wagging tail. He’s a sweet, curious, affectionate little dog. His three great passions are eating, going for walks, and being petted. Yes, he’s prone to barking loudly when visitors first arrive, but nobody’s perfect.

Earlier this week Stuart got very sick. We’re familiar with bouts of digestive problems when he eats something inedible off the street, but this was different. In the afternoon, he seemed subdued, moving about very slowly with his back arched and his tail down. That night, he woke us in the wee hours with high-pitched whining — a sound he’d never made before. When I got up and knelt beside him to pet him, he suddenly let out a loud bark that sounded like a scream. He seemed to be in agony.

The sweetest dog not feeling at all well

We discussed taking him to the emergency vet and decided to wait until morning. He still seemed to be in pain when we got up, but Sally doubted that the vet would be able to easily diagnose the problem, and might cause additional discomfort from probing and testing. By that evening, he had quit whining and seemed to be out of the crisis. He seems to be most of the way back to normal now.

On the subject of caring for those less fortunate, on Friday night we watched a Netflix move — What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Released in 1993, it stars Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio and Juliette Lewis. Depp plays Gilbert Grape, who lives a hardscrabble life in a small town with his family and is charged with caring for Arnie, his retarded younger brother played by DiCaprio. I missed it when it originally came out, when I think I thought it was about something else. It was surprisingly honest about the deceptions and indignities of small town life, and also about the hates and loves of family life.

DiCaprio, who got an Academy Award nomination, is completely believable, and somehow manages to give the younger Grape a sweetness and inherent dignity beneath the surface of unregulated id. I have a hard time putting to one side his character in Titanic, but this is a reminder that he’s a actor with considerable range.

On Sunday afternoon we went over to Durham to hear a concert by the Tallis Scholars in Duke Chapel. The outstanding group of ten singers and director Peter Phillips did a program of music of William Cornysh and Jean Mouton, court composers of Henry VIII and Francis I respectively. The monarchs met in June 1520 for political discussions and a festival that featured their finest music. In short, it was early Renaissance music. The concert was a time machine that brought to life an ancient world.

The music was gorgeous. The Scholars blended into one extremely subtle instrument. The prevailing mood was more melancholy and introspective than I expected from the description of the Henry-Francis summit, but that was OK. I was happy to hear these great musicians and this rich, almost unknown repertoire. I was also happy to see that several hundred people showed up to hear this out-of-the-mainstream entertainment.

My latest piano lesson, a new Indian restaurant, and some good news in the Sunday Times

At home with Stuart and the Sunday New York Times

On Saturday morning I had my first piano lesson with Olga in several weeks. I played the second Scriabin prelude, Debussy’s Reverie, Chopin’s etude in c minor op. 25, no. 12, and Liszt’s Un Sospiro. We continued to talk about subtle aspects of touch and tone. In slow lyrical passages, she asked me to keep listening closely to tones as they decay all the way to the next note — a more intense kind of listening. She got me focused on my elbow as a tool in shaping a long melodic line. In the etude, she coached me on how to make it really loud and fast. After I played the Liszt for her last time, she was inspired to learn the piece, and this time she taught me some of the tricks she’d developed for the tricky places. By the end, I felt exhausted but inspired.

That night Sally and I had dinner at a new Indian restaurant in our neighborhood called Blue Mango. I usually like Indian food as food, but as a restaurant dining experience is often lackluster. Many dishes that I like arrive in the form of brown goop; the emphasis is not on the presentation. Mantra, another Indian restaurant close to us that opened a few months back, departed from this stereotype and presented food that was pleasant to look at as well as to eat. Blue Mango’s dishes were not as pretty, but the restaurant had a cool vibe, and the food was very tasty. Service was friendly but still getting the kinks out. The veggie samosas were excellent.

We ate early with a view to seeing an 8:00 movie at the Blue Ridge, a second run theatre where tickets cost $2. We who are normally so lucky were not so at the Blue Ridge. Every parking spot in the place was taken. We drove around for 10 minutes looking, and finally came home. We ended up watching Trading Places with Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, which was kind of funny.

Early Sunday morning is the time to get a paper copy of the New York Times and a cup of coffee, and start with the front page. With the sections properly sorted and ready for perusal, I find spending some time with the paper soothing, even when the news of the day involves various disasters. The Times makes mistakes, but it never gives up, and from time to time it is enlightening. Also, it is a sort of barometer of ideas that are getting solidified in public consciousness, and thus a leading indicator of possible social change.

Today I was happy to see a front-page story on solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. Erica Goode writes that the supermax prison model that has grown in the last three decades and kept prisoners in nearly complete isolation has resulted in increased prison violence, increased recidivism, and, for the prisoners, increased mental illness — all at enormous expense to the government (i.e. your and my tax dollars at work). There was an excellent piece on psychological costs of solitary confinement by Atal Gawande in the New Yorker some months back. Anyhow, Goode reports good news: several states have been reducing the numbers of prisoners in solitary confinement. The motivation appears to be more cost savings in tough budget times than humanitarian concerns, but still, progress is progress.

On the cover of the Sunday Review section is a piece by Mark Bittman on the problems of eating chickens, and alternatives to doing so. Bittman asks, “Would I rather eat cruelly raised, polluting, unhealthful chicken, or a plant product that’s nutritionally similar or superior, good enough to fool me and requires no antibiotics, butting off of heads or other nasty things?” Or putting it another way, “If you know that food won’t hurt your body or the environment and it didn’t cause any suffering to an animal, why wouldn’t you choose it?” According to the story, there are new fake chicken products that are perfectly fine. That sounds like good news for the chicken species, and for humans.

Also in the Review section, Tom Friedman writes about the greatest non-natural resource a country can have — a good education system. He cites a recent study comparing the wealth of countries according to their natural resources such as oil and metals and the education level of their citizens. More oil resources do not lead to higher levels of knowledge and skills, but knowledge and skills are tied to countries’ economic success. Friedman is surely right that education should take pride of place as a societal focus.

One story I expected to see in the Review section, but didn’t, was the report earlier in the week that the televangelist Pat Robertson had spoken in favor of legalization of marijuana. My comment on Twitter (see @robtiller) was: Pigs fly! Robertson’s positions are generally consistent with the “conservative” “Christian” “family values” camp, and I would have guessed that even if he privately concluded that prohibition was a failure, he would be the last person to speak out on the subject. But he has acknowledged that the war on drugs has failed, after enormous expenditures and a huge toll of imprisoned victims. He proposes that we treat marijuana like we treat alcohol. It pains me to say so, but for once, I strenuously agree with the man. The important question, though, is will his followers?

Good conversations

One of my favorite movies is My Dinner with Andre. The 1981 movie is about as simple in concept as possible: two old friends have a conversation in a restaurant. It starts out like a typical conversation, though livelier and wittier than most, and gradually begins to soar and swoop. It’s like a duet, or a dance in words. The friends are having fun, but are also creating something. It sets a high bar for a great conversation, but it’s also inspiring. It shows that a good conversation is a work of art.

This week at Red Hat we had a meeting of our entire legal department, including colleagues from our foreign offices. I had five business dinners in a row, not to mention five business lunches and multiple impromptu encounters between meetings. There were plenty of conversations. A number of my colleagues were inspired talkers, and knew a lot about their subjects.

Some of our conversations were fairly ambitious: talking with Monica about European IP law; with Amanda about race in America; with Madeline and Kathal about blogs and the future of literature; with Mei about refusing membership in the Chinese Communist party; with Richard about the future of open source licensing, with Winston about conservative politics; and with Patrick about religion in Utah. There were many good stories: e.g. Eric on playing tennis with Andre Agassi; Emily on working with her personal trainer; and Jean on working as a flight attendant for Singapore Airlines.

It was varied and fun, and I felt grateful to be associated with a group of such interesting and stimulating people. But as Myra and I discussed, socializing in large doses is depleting. I felt really tired and ready to relax when we finished our meetings Friday afternoon. When I got home, I did some yoga, and then played some Chopin and Debussy. It always amazes me how half an hour of immersion in making music can refresh the mind and produce great happiness.

Sally mixed us basil gimlets (one of her signature drinks) and cooked a tofu curry while we listened to a Pandora mix of contemporary Indian music. At dinner we talked about some big subjects, including global warming and species extinction, which we both worry about. The topics are, of course, anxiety producing and sometimes depressing, and depression may lead towards hopelessness. And loneliness. These issues can be friend repellents: who wants to be with a depressing person who makes you depressed? This is another reason it is good to have a committed loving partner: you can talk about serious things.

We also talked about art and science. Recently I read The Wild Life in Our Bodies, by Rob Dunn (a professor at N.C. State), which discusses evolution of humans as a story that cannot be understood without appreciating our symbiotic microbes (fact: they’re more numerous in our body than human cells), parasitic worms (which may prevent disease), our former prey and predators, and other aspects of the natural world. The book is uneven, but the vision is sweeping and fascinating. It is my latest piece of evidence for the theory that scientific intuition and artistic intuition are very much alike, and they can be thrilling in much the same way.

The Black Swan — a ballet fan’s take

On Saturday night Sally and I did dinner and a movie — Tom Yum Thai and The Black Swan. I had the tofu spicy noodles, which were tasty (medium spicy means spicy!). We were looking forward to and slightly dreading The Black Swan, but for ballet fans, it’s hard to avoid it. Hollywood makes about one big ballet movie a generation, so this may be it for a while.

There were several things about the movie I liked. Natalie Portman as the rising ballerina has a porcelain mixture of delicate fragility and surprising power. She is convincing as a normal, if unusually hardworking and talented, young woman. But little by little, the mask slips, and we realize she is laboring hard to portray normality, and she’s becoming deranged. She has a lot of close-ups, and her fleeting micro expressions and larger meltdowns convey an interior tempest. Watching her is at first just fun, and then, increasingly, excruciating, but never boring. It’s an impressive performance.

The movie got a lot of little things about ballet right or at least close, from the dancer’s preparation of toe shoes to costuming details. It’s not a bad introduction to what happens behind the curtain leading up to and during a production. It also conveyed the unusual combination of camaraderie and intense competition among dancers.

I also liked one of the central themes: that dancing is more than the steps. Ballet is full of paradoxes. To fulfill the basic demands of the form is tremendously difficult. Mastering the vocabulary of movements require tremendous physical ability plus years of training, and the enormous technical demands are complicated by the need to assimilate generations of custom and tradition. To be even adequate as a dancer requires an extraordinary human. But the technical achievement alone is not the real point. A true artist is not simply going through a predetermined set of movements. A great ballet performance explores and communicates difficult-to-reach emotions. This does not always happen, but when it does, it is sublime.

The Black Swan in effect said this, although it will probably not convince ballet skeptics that it really happens. The dancing in the movie does not look hokey, which is good. But it never seems transcendent. This is problematic for the story line, which concerns transcendence. But the failure of the dancing to catch fire didn’t disappoint me greatly. It is, after all, a movie. To see real ballet, you need to go to the ballet.

My bigger problem with the movie was that it organized itself around the stereotype that the quest for beauty is a dangerous obsession, and the artist is a sort of madman/woman. As with all stereotypes, there’s a grain of truth in the mad artist story, but great art does not at all depend on sickness. It is fundamentally healthy and life affirming. Mental illnesses of an artist are real problems for the artist. Of course, a movie about a well-balanced young woman pursuing dancing greatness in a calm and well balanced manner would have had less kick. And probably zero box office.

But it’s disturbing to think that a lot of people will take away the idea that great ballerinas must be crazy or that there’s something basically sick about the art. It’s also unfortunate that there are a few scenes of gore in the movie that will disgust some audience members and overwhelm all their other impressions. For those with reasonably a reasonably strong tolerance for suspense and gore, though, The Black Swan is worth seeing. I’m not sure how I’ll feel about the movie as time goes by, but it certainly transported me out of my usual world and into another one.

Winter’s Bone, a beautiful, powerful meth movie

Some years back I developed the view that the age of written fiction was almost over and being replaced by the age of cinema fiction. Would people continue to take on the hard work of reading a book if they could have same experience without so much effort? The experiences aren’t perfect substitutes, of course, but there’s overlap. I’m not so worried now about written fiction, which is diminished as a cultural force but still around. But it does worry me that cinema seems less vital and ambitious in recent times. Could the age of cinema be ending? What comes next? The age of YouTube? At any rate, I haven’t been tempted to go out to many movies this year, and haven’t seen many new ones that I really cared about on the small screen.

Winter’s Bone is a notable exception. We saw it on DVD Friday night, and it was great. The subject matter didn’t sound particularly promising — hardscrabble life in rural Missouri — but the movie manages to combine gritty realism with a dreamlike quality. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is an understated tour de force. She plays Ree, a 17-year-old whose father has disappeared, whose mother has advanced dementia, and whose younger brother and sister are completely dependent on her. Then she is informed that their cabin will be foreclosed on because her father jumped bail, and sets out to find him.

The land and culture reminded me of my own ancestral roots in southern Appalachia. Just as in southwestern Virginia, along with the poverty, there were aspects of the Ozarks countryside that were beautiful and touching. The scene where working people gathered in a home to make traditional music with guitars, fiddle and banjo reminded me of sounds I heard in bits and pieces as a child when we visited grandparents. The music reaffirmed that the possibility of community still exists.

But a central part of the story of Winter’s Bone is about the breakdown of community and the tragic social effects of methamphetamine. Ree’s father was a cooker, and everyone connected with him is also connected directly or indirectly to the meth business. Most of them are angry, paranoid, depressed, violent people. Their family lives are unhappy, and their communities are fractured. But they have not lost all dignity.

The depiction of meth culture seemed realistic and unsensational, and consistent with a book I read a few months back, Nick Reding’s Methland, a non-fiction account of the effects of meth in small town America. Reding makes the case that meth has devastated parts of rural and small town America. He does a good job tying together the sociology with the biology, history, and economics, and tells some good, and sad, stories. Although the successive waves of official and popular drug scare stories (such as the dangers of marijuana, which never killed anyone) might make one skeptical that meth is exceptionally dangerous, Reding has evidence that it is, both to individual addicts and to communities.

Winter’s Bone tends to confirm that view, but it isn’t making an argument. It’s like other great fiction, in that it reveals a side of life that we couldn’t learn about through any other medium, and one that changes, at least a little, how we look at the world around us.

About cross-dressing for entertainment

We’ve been on a documentary kick recently, and saw a good one from Netflicks on demand last week. Pageant is behind-the-scenes view of  the Miss Gay America pageant, a contest for female impersonators. We meet and follow the paths of five or so contenders for the throne.

At first blush, the subject matter sounded a bit off putting.  Why would a male want to dress as a female?  Of those who would, who would want to go as public as possible with it?  I’d never given much thought to the subject of cross-dressing, but vaguely thought of it as a somewhat bizarre subculture. Plainly, cross-dressing violates a fairly powerful taboo. Again, without thinking much about it, I’d considered it as a little sad.

Pageant made me think in a completely new way. The contestants vary considerably in their looks, smarts, and manners, but they’re all completely sane and highly sociable. They’re all nice. And they’re all incredibly gifted in a particular way: transforming their appearance from male to female. The transformations are truly uncanny. Watching the various stages – choosing clothes, practicing movements, applying makeup (lots!) — it’s impossible not to respect their craft. These are very creative people with great eyes and imaginations. Artists, in an unusual form.

The Miss Gay America pageant followed the traditional Miss America format, with separate contests for evening ware, judges’ questions, and talent (lip synching, dancing, ventriloquism, etc.). The top contenders were professional drag show entertainers, and they were very polished, elegant, and funny.

The more surprising thing was how passionate they were about their art. In the behind-the-scenes interviews, we learned that most had spent years working on their personas and acts.  Some had spent many thousands of dollars on their wardrobes, and it didn’t look like any of them were getting rich. One noted that cross dressing is not a good way to get a date with a gay guy, who generally prefer guys who look like guys. From what we could see, these people just love what they do. And, although the film made little of this, they plainly have a lot of courage. The mainstream society isn’t about to get comfortable with what they do. Some people are violently opposed.

In the end, I found the stories in Pageant inspiring.  It’s a good reminder that some people who are really unusual like being unusual.  There are a lot of different ideas of fun and of beauty.  It makes the world interesting.

Happiness, stress, spring, and Precious

What makes us happy?  Happiness studies were the subject of a piece by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker last week .  It included a comparison between the reported happiness of lottery winners and paraplegic accident victims.  The lottery winners reported less pleasure in their daily activities than the victims.  Studies have shown rising income levels in the US have not resulted in increased rates of reported happiness. Citizens of some low-GDP countries report that they are far happier.

It was such a stressful week at work that I found myself thinking about the stress.  In the course of each day, I felt a satisfied sense of accomplishment — numerous goals met, and at least two days’ worth of work done.  But I had the sensation that the queue of undone work did not at all diminish.  It was the problem Sisyphus had with the rock.  In many ways, my job is great:  intellectually challenging, stimulating, varied, intelligent and good-humored colleagues, with a company that has a meaningful mission that’s consistent with my ethics and ideals, and I could go on.  But I had a minor epiphany on the downside.  My feeling of stress is not caused by the actual work I’m doing at a particular moment.  I usually enjoy the challenge at hand.  The stress comes from the sense of the huge pile of work yet to be done.  That pile is looming, full of  unknown challenges.  In the pile there could be something that suddenly and violently changes things — in effect an IED.  This is, obviously, in part a problem that my mind makes up for itself, and there are surely better ways to think about the pile.

Yesterday the pear trees on my way to work were suddenly covered with their white blossoms, and today the high was in the 70s.  Spring has sprung.  Sally and I ate out in the neighborhood last night at the Red Room, a neo-tapas place.  I had a new species of drink that was delicious — blueberry sangria.  My veggie paella was good, and our waitress was friendly and efficient (and, interestingly, obviously pregnant).  A DJ provided a fun electronica/techno sound track which was emphatic but not too loud for us to talk.  On the walk home, there were crowds of young people circulating among the various bars and restaurants, some eating outside.

During my drive to work this week, I heard the end of an interview with a British writer whose name I missed (his new book is about London and religious extremism).  He recounted a dialog in his book between two people who said they liked to read.  One said he read to escape, and the other said he read for the opposite reason:  to dig into reality.  He explained that in everyday life, people don’t ordinarily have the time to really think carefully about their perceptions and feelings, the social time with others to discuss them, and the verbal skills  to articulate them.  Writers of books do such things.  Of course, not all do, and probably only a small minority do.  But the books that interest me are exactly those the British writer described:  those that tell me something meaningful about reality that couldn’t be discovered any other way.

I don’t set the bar as high for movies.  I don’t mind a good 2 hour escapist movie, but I’m happy when they do more.  Sally and I recently saw one that qualifies as much more — Precious.  The setup sounds unbearably grim:  the story of a morbidly obese, illiterate, sixteen year old, pregnant African American on welfare with one baby already (and it gets worse — I don’t want to be a spoiler) who’s detested by her mother and ridiculed by most everyone else.  It takes place in Harlem in the 1980s, and it was a gritty urban environment.  But the movie was exceptional in showing the teenager’s inner life — her powerful fantasies, but also her courageous grappling with her reality.  It made me recognize that my assumptions about such people and situations don’t have much experiential basis, and should not be firmly fixed.   It also showed an unexpected oblique angle on the beauty of everyday life.