Sunday, December 22, 2019

LOST: It Wasn't Purgatory, episode 13, Hearts and Minds

Stay away from her.
Events: Boone is having a hard time with Shannon and Sayid's budding friendship and expresses discomfort over lying to her about the hunting expeditions (hatch-digging excursions) with John. Through flashbacks we learn that Boone's relationship with Shannon has been put to the test through abuse and money issues, but more importantly, that Boone and Shannon happened to be in Sydney at the same time Sawyer was having his own little run-in with the Australian police. Boone's flashback also shows that the two are step-siblings and that Shannon manipulated Boone into having a fling that she got over but he didn't.

After John decides that Shannon's behavior has too strong a hold over Boone, he knocks him out, ties him up, and smears a botanical paste over his open head wound before leaving him alone in the jungle. Boone awakens to Shannon's screams and sees that she too has been bound. The bellowing black smoke attacks them both, chasing them through the jungle where eventually it seizes Shannon and leaves her to die on near a stream. Boone finds John and accuses him of causing Shannon's death, but John reveals to Boone he hallucinated the whole thing--Shannon is alive and well.

Greater Meaning: While the episode focuses around two of the supporting characters, Boone and Shannon, much effort was spent on John Locke's strategies as a would-be leader. Boone's attention (and devotion) is important to John, who has put the hatch above everything else on the island, even hunting, so John forces a decision on Boone with the help of whatever hallucinogen he smeared on his head. This is similar to what he did with Charlie's heroin addiction; for whatever reason, John Locke has showed a strong, consistent faith that the people he puts in these situations will emerge victorious. Locke's ability to read people seems to be highly developed, and he uses this to his advantage as a leader in a way that Jack does not. Now, on the island, Locke is confident and comfortable with himself where Jack is comfortable only in relation to his medical experience (off-island).

The questions of hunting boar, catching fish, and planting a garden all speak to the group's sustainability and continued survival on the island. It seems now pretty clear that no rescue is coming, so what they do, how they get along, and how they use the island is all the more important, which is something John seems to have embraced from the very beginning. As Jack is reacting, John is planning. Strategizing. The proverbial "hearts and minds" mean more to John than anyone else on the island.

Further Questions: 

1. Is Claire safe?
2. What is inside the hatch?
3. Will Shannon and Sayid hook up?
4. Will Jin and Michael bury the hatchet?
5. Why has Sun been hiding her English from Jin?
6. How did Jin get to be such a good fisherman?
7. Will Boone and John's relationship change?

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Great American Read: 5 and 6, 12 Angry Men

These posts are from a reading list I started in late spring of 2018 and a film list I solicited from readers in January of 2017. I work slow but I'll finish, dammit!

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

This is a story that at its heart is about two things: poverty and books. The protagonist, Francie, lives with her mother, her younger brother, and father in Brooklyn during the early 1900s when times were extremely rough. Dad drinks, money is tight, Mom picks up the slack and gets them all through it by--guess what--READING TO THE KIDS. It's not a pleasant story, it's full of a lot of tragedy and injustice, but the empathy and heart that comes from experiencing such a story is very meaningful. We've all struggled, we've all gone through unpleasant situations, but the sort of struggle author Betty Smith has written about in this novel is something that many times, today anyway, gets written off as laziness, as ignorance, or just failing to lift one's self up "by the bootstraps," as it were. No one in this story is lazy or ignorant; people work hard, people do the best they can and people fail, people die. As with the title of the book, my favorite moments discuss the hopelessness together with the surprising way optimism persists in this young girl's life. Why does the tree keep growing? Read and find out:

When baby Francis is born, Katie frets to her German mother about the poor quality of life that lay ahead, but the new Oma sees hope:

"Excitement came into her voice. 'Already, it is starting---the getting better.' She picked up the baby and held it high in her arms. 'This child was born of parents who can read and write,' she said simply. 'To me, this is a great wonder.'
'Mother, I am young. Mother, I am just eighteen. I am strong. I work hard, Mother. But I do not want this child to grow up just to work hard. What must I do, Mother, what must I do to make a different world for her? How do I start?'
'The secret lies in the reading and the writing. You are able to read. Every day you must read one page from some good book to your child. Every day this must be until the child learns to read. The she must read every day, I know this is the secret.'"

Teachers had a lot to do with Francie's success,

"If all the teachers had been like Miss Bernstone and Mr. Morton, Francie would have known plain what heaven was. But it was just as well. There had to be the dark and muddy waters so that the sun could have something to background its flashing glory."

Yet not all of them made an effort to understand the realities so common in the lives of poor students (one such bristled at the subject of one of Francie's stories that described a character with a drinking problem):

"'Drunkenness is neither truth nor beauty. It's a vice. Drunkards belong in jail, not in stories. And poverty. There is no excuse for that. There's work enough for all who want it. People are poor because they're too lazy to work. There's nothing beautiful about laziness.'
(Imagine Mama lazy!)

This is the first novel on the Great American Read list that I feel should be mandatory reading for both kids and adults. People generally agree that literacy is important; can we make the same statement about empathy for the poor? Or while we're at it, the experiences of poor little girl? Oma was right---many secrets to success lie in reading and writing.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

I didn't know how this was going to go, honestly. I read the story as a kid, probably some arranged or edited version, saw the film, and was full well familiar with the environment of most of Twain's works, which is the openly racist South. Even knowing this beforehand, it's still jarring and uncomfortable to read racist words in dialogues or the descriptions of people first and foremost seen (by the white people) as "others." Did I enjoy the book? Mostly I did. On the surface it's a story about a naughty little boy doing naughty little boy things but there are very serious issues going on, too (murder, framing an innocent, abduction, homelessness) and racism underscores a lot of the events. Tom Sawyer as a character, is not mean or hateful, but this book takes place during a time that was, and there's no way to justify it other than to say that it was written accurately for when it happened in history.

Apart from its historical honesty, the writing is very witty and youthful. Every now and then you get a fun kind of acknowledgement (from Twain about Tom as a little shit of a character, which he is):

"The boy whose history this book relates did not enjoy the prayer . . . "

and often the importance of the natural world. A beetle in church provides entertainment until a dog randomly comes into church and carries it off. Tom knows not only bug and bird species, but how to fish, how to start a campfire, how to survive in the wilderness (but not quite yet how to smoke without throwing up). He has sympathy for an innocent man. He falls in love with Becky Thatcher and impresses her with his artwork. He sympathizes with Huck Finn when his friend realizes his clothes aren't good enough to be a pirate, and so on.

There are many sweet little human moments in this story, and among all the evil and dishonesty, mostly perpetrated by the adults in the town, the overall theme is one of youthful innocence. These moments made me nostalgic for my own childhood---picking dandelions in the ditch of our driveway, hauling barn cats around in wagons, climbing up trees, and running around at night, all with my brother right instep with me--and these moments made the book a worthwhile read.

12 Angry Men

1957: d. Sidney Lumet, starring Martin Basalm, John Fiedler, Lee J. Cobb, E. G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Henry Fonda, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley, George Voskovec, Robert Webber.

1997: d. William Friedkin, starring Courtney B. Vance, Ossie Davis, George C. Scott, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Dorian Harewood, James Gandolfini, Tony Danza, Jack Lemmon, Hume Cronyn, Mykelti Williamson, Edward James Olmos, William Petersen.

The story was originally written by Reginald Rose as a teleplay in 1954 but has since been adapted for theater, film, and television. Many countries (Germany, India, Russia, Lebanon, China, and Sri Lanka) have also released versions of the same story over the years. The premise of the story, twelve male jurors deciding the fate of a young man of an unidentified but different ethnicity, is nearly the same in both American films as are the personalities of the characters themselves. Unlike many other courtroom dramas, all of the time is spent inside the locked jury room with the twelve men while they deliberate, and as the title suggests, there are issues.
"He can't hear you. He never will."

I'd seen both of these years ago, and I remembered the lone juror (#8 Fonda/Lemmon) holding out among all the others who were so immediately convinced the kid was guilty. What struck me this time around were the standout differences between the eighth juror and the rest of the crew. #8 is one of two men (the other, #12) whose profession would have required a college education but this isn't the only reason he's interesting. He asks questions, is honest and self-aware, and he explains things very exactly and specifically. An architect would have to be both creative and scientific, and #8 is both of these things, almost teacher-like. He seems to have a greater understanding of the importance of the legal system, the jury's duty as citizens, and an overall worldly kind of approach to right and wrong. This kind of attitude stands in direct contrast to that of many of the other jurors', who are very rigid and defined (at least at first) in their behaviors.

"You oughta have more respect."

While these characters initially come off a little caricatured, it's still kind of exciting to see how they navigate through the whole procedure and how #8 eventually gets through to each man. I gave the 1957 cast nicknames (nerd, ranter, poor guy, old guy, full racist, dumb guy, etc.) and they mostly held true for the 1997 cast as well, but there were some updates in characters and with the writing that blurred the lines a little more. In any case, both casts were quite skilled, and seeing them interact was pretty fun. I personally enjoyed Fonda's easygoing calmness in the first film and the late great James Gandolfini as #6, a kind of early, wise-cracking working man Tony Soprano in the second.

Is any of this outdated? In some ways, yes. Race relations have changed slightly for the better, and juries are rarely made only of men anymore, but there's no denying that the core system that continues to divide everyone and push an us vs. them mentality continues to be old, white, and male. That said, the issues of truth (who's telling it?) and laziness (who's got time for all this?) will keep these films relevant, probably forever no matter who sits in the jury box.

"Assumed? Brother, I've seen all kinds of dishonesty in my day, but this little display takes the cake. Y'all come in here with your hearts bleedin' all over the floor about slum kids and injustice, you listen to some fairy tales, suddenly you start gettin' through to some of these old ladies... well, you're not getting through to me, I've had enough! WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH YOU GUYS? You all know he's guilty. He's got to burn! You're letting him slip through our fingers."

Friday, December 20, 2019

LOST: It Wasn't Purgatory, episode 12, Whatever the Case May Be

What's inside, Freckles?
Events: On the island, Kate and Sawyer find a hidden waterfall and underneath it, the bodies of several passengers of Flight 815. Under one of the airline seats is a metal case, which Kate asks Sawyer to help her retrieve. When they are unable to open it, Kate blows off the suitcase, pretending she has no interest in it any longer but Sawyer knows she's bluffing. In flashbacks we see that Kate was involved in a bank robbery, where she used a hot-headed love interest to get inside the bank's vault in order to obtain . . . the very contents that are locked in the case. After trying on two separate occasions to get the case out of Sawyer's hands and failing, Kate recruits Jack's help yet does not disclose why she wants the case, claiming interest in the guns and ammunition that are locked inside, instead. Like Sawyer, Jack sees through Kate's ruse, and becomes disgusted when she repeatedly refuses to tell him the truth about what's in the case, which ends up being a small toy airplane.

Charlie continues to worry about Claire and blame himself, but Rose, who has also lost someone on the island, encourages him to have faith. After being deemed, "useless," by Boone, Shannon attempts to translate Rousseau's markings in French on the documents Sayid took from her hideaway.

Greater Meaning: Kate and Sawyer's swim in the waterfall suggests an escape from the rest of the island, or could even have some Garden of Eden connotations, but nothing evil happens, they just find more dead people and the hidden case. Sawyer doesn't care exactly about the contents of the case, but rather the contents' significance to Kate and furthermore, her desire to lay her hands on them. Jack shares this interest but only because he wants the truth from Kate, and in this way, Sawyer and Jack's mutual desire of Kate seems to be equally strong but for opposite reasons. Sawyer wants the case to prove Kate's badness (to match his own therefore proving them equally matched) while Jack wants the case (or Kate's honesty about it) to prove her virtue. Jack already knows Kate is flawed, criminal even, after the business with the marshal became known, but he holds her to higher moral standards nonetheless, like Sawyer, on equal footing with himself. In the end Kate provides both men with what they're seeking---the toy plane belonged to a man she "killed," which she admitted honestly to Jack, who didn't believe her. Who this man is, how he died, and why all have yet
to be revealed.

It belonged to the man I killed!
In addition to Kate's obsession over the toy plane, two other mysteries continue to build throughout the episode: Sayid's attempts with Shannon to decipher Rousseau's papers and John and Boone's daily digs in the jungle under the guise of looking for Claire. Where will these mysteries lead? Both relate directly to the island, itself, but what do they mean?

Further Questions:

1. Is Claire safe (again!)?
2. Is Rose's husband alive, and if so, why is Rose so certain?
3. Who did Kate kill?
4. What is the significance of the toy plane?
5. Is Rousseau crazy?
6. Is Kate dangerous?

Sunday, December 15, 2019

On Humanity and the Ideology of Baby Yoda

"It's so vulnerable! We have to protect it!"
"I love how it's learning as it goes along."
"I would die for it."

These are a few of the comments about Baby Yoda that have been made by fully grown adults popping up on my socials the last few weeks together with stickers of its face, handmade crocheted and knitted toys, and a few hundred memes. People are excited over the green humanoid creature that's been stealing every scene of the new hit show, The Mandalorian---it's small and cute, it controls The Force, and it's a character within an otherwise well-written, beautifully aesthetic collection of television episodes.

Why such a strong response? It's small and vulnerable, yes, its eyes are large and inviting almost like those of a quiet puppy or tiny infant. Young creatures are designed to look this way to ensure survival, the more adorable the creature, the stronger the reaction is to protect it, right? Mothers in nature don't necessarily need this kind of encouragement, we tend to instinctively nurture our own vulnerable offspring as well as anyone else's who may need it. We see a need (someone's sick, someone's hurt, someone needs support), we respond to it. In this narrative, a cute, vulnerable creature is in danger and the viewers, like the Mandalorian bounty hunter, feel an overwhelming need to respond (he uses his cleverness and combat skills, we become dedicated watchers and theory-makers). We don't know yet how it will end, but we're invested, no question, because we need to know Baby Yoda will be okay.

What does ideology have to do with it? A lot. This story begins, as many adventures do, with a tough guy. Before we even meet Baby Yoda we are introduced to its protector, Dyn Jarren (or Mando, as he is commonly known), in a John Ford western-inspired tavern doorway. Mando embodies a very masculine bounty hunter---he's a skilled fighter, he's cunning, he keeps his conversations short and direct---the quintessential "Man With No Name," in a galaxy far, far away. Through flashbacks we learn that Mando was orphaned as a child, which plays directly into the role he eventually takes when he discovers Baby Yoda, his intended bounty, and eschews his professional duties to become its protector.

To recap: A tough guy defied his orders, risking personal injury and loss of income to keep a young creature safe. A tough guy drew the line and did the right thing. A tough guy showed compassion.

Look at how the canonical helmet and armor of Mandalorian bounty hunters play into the ideas of traditional, masculine attributes. Mando's armor, a physical, beskar iron barrier between him and the world, ensures his protection from gunfire and potential lightsaber assaults but also serves to keep him mentally isolated as well. No facial expressions are known, and the tone of his voice betrays little. We see his human face in his own memories of his parents, but never as an adult. Will we? Might he eventually show his face to the young creature who sought out physical contact when it was first discovered?

The ideas here are big ones---should men have to hide their experiences, their feelings behind metal? Can nurturing be part of being masculine? Can we change how we think about all this? Worth mentioning also is the fact that the helmet does allow for virtually anyone to be behind it, and the fact that Baby Yoda itself is not any identifiable human culture or ethnicity. These characters are unique and specific but are also widely inclusive. The right and wrong being posited by Mando's actions and decisions can apply to anyone, anywhere. What if Baby Yoda is bigger than just a baby creature? What if the idea of protection and devotion to the vulnerable had to be shown to us in such a way where a person in armor decided to preserve that idea because the importance of this kind of thinking has been lost?

I think Baby Yoda is humanity and we are all Mando. Will we do the right thing? Every day we have this kind of power. We can act with compassion and kindness, nurture and help each other, or we can follow what's been laid down by people who want to divide us and keep us retreating behind suits of armor they've convinced us we need. We are a brighter, stronger humanity when we react with love. Difference, struggle, and upset will always be parts of the human experience, but if we focus on supporting one another, humanity will always prevail, together.