Jesus Christ, It’s 1973

Every year at Easter, I force my little family to sit through yet another screening of Jesus Christ Superstar. I don’t cook a ham, I don’t color eggs, I don’t force anyone to attend church. This is my whole observance of the holiday – contemplation of an early 1970s take on the days leading up to the crucifixion.

Every year, the movie sparks a lot of discussion – what’s up with the people dressed in rags? They’re lepers. Why doesn’t Jesus like swap meets? They’re having their swap meet at the temple, and Christ thinks its inappropriate to have people turning His church into a marketplace. In Phoenix, we had our heads on straight. Our swap meet was the the parking lot of the place that had greyhound racing during the week. Why did people live in the middle of a crappy desert? Most of Israel isn’t a crappy desert. I hear it’s really nice. Is Pontius Pilate the same guy that invented the yoga? Yes.

The thing that came up this year was the fact that Jesus Christ Superstar came out in 1973, a year marked in my mind by the kind of soul-crushing shame that makes me want to dig a pit, fall into it and collapse in on myself as my body digests itself with the acid of horror.

I was 8 years old in 1973. Aware enough to know that I was surrounded by a culture that people would look on for decades as the nadir of human civilization.

New Seekers’ song “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” was not only still on the radio, it had been made into a commercial for Coke so we could hear it that much more often. The song “One Tin Soldier,” which had been used in the film Billy Jack (which I have never seen and about which I have no opinion) was still battering the airwaves with its antiwar bludgeon. The Rolling Stones’ “Angie,” while not a peacenik antiwar protest was nonetheless another giant bummer you couldn’t dance to. They get lost with other agonizing, horrible songs like “Wildfire” and “Run, Joey, Run” that came out while I was still cringing.

The clothes of 1973 were a combination of chunky, greasy, scratchy lumpy miracle fabrics and loud colors that looked good on the idealized anorexic frame of models, but looked horrible on actual parents. Kids were all stuck dressing like Holly Hobbie, a fad so popular that it spawned the “Little House on the Prairie” television series the following year.

In 1973, my mother had a lot of friends who did a lot of drugs and often had nowhere else to go but our house. I can’t count how many times someone at our house broke something, and then went limp with hysterical laughter at the mess they had caused. Or how they would, in their inebriated haze, try to have serious conversations with my siblings and me. They failed to make the slightest bit of sense, although it was apparent that in their minds, they were relating to us at some very deep and spiritual level because they grokked us as human beings. These people are why I never got involved with drugs in any significant way.

But the blind self-absorption wasn’t just my mother’s friends. All over America there was a fascination with the 1920s, especially The Great Gatsby and its cast of characters who spent all their time contemplating themselves and each other. Everyone played backgammon, spending tons of money on little suitcases full of tiny poker chips over which they could pose with drinks and pretend to be intellectual for the benefit of equally drunken pseudointellectual onlookers. And the 1970s was when the adults all decided that sex should be moved out of the dark bedroom and into the living room, dining room or front yard, where we could all see it.

How can you be 8 years old and not be scarred by the skin-peeling embarrassment of it all?

But Jesus Christ Superstar somehow escaped all of it.

As an opera, it’s a story told entirely in song, but no one song tries to contain the whole narrative, so we avoid the whole weepy story ballad agony. The clothes are mainly the kind of clothes that dancers still wear today – close-fitting pants and tops that allow freedom of movement. And the story itself isn’t one that will go out of fashion anytime soon.

So that’s my real celebration of Easter. That Jesus Christ was crucified and died for the sins of 1973, redeeming what would have otherwise been the worst year of all time.

More Than You Can Imagine

Right now, I’m watching The Matrix. Remember The Matrix? Remember Keanu Reeves, turning in a typically obtuse performance that works because the rest of the movie just kind of spins around him? I still like this movie, regardless of whether or not it stands up, especially in light of the two sequels.

There’s a line toward the beginning that I hear in quite a few movies, and every time I hear it, it makes me flinch. Trinity is taking Neo in to see Morpheus, and she exhorts him to “Tell the truth. He knows more than you can imagine.”

Now, given the mental opacity Keanu Reeves displays (although that could just be amazing acting on his part, because I’ve also heard that he’s both very smart and a decent human being), it’s not hard to think that his imagination isn’t quite enough to come up with something as radical as, say, Oreos consisting of vanilla cookies with chocolate frosting between them. So perhaps telling Neo that something is more than he can imagine is not just true, but sort of obvious.

But there’s me. And a ton of people like me. I imagine a million things more fanciful than this every minute of every day. Granted, I haven’t been able to get my ideas the wider audience I personally think they deserve, but that does not mean that my imagination is at all lacking. Frankly, I feel that telling people that they lack imagination is the first step toward turning them into better consumers. If you can’t think for yourself, you’ll buy whatever someone else is selling you.

Don’t buy what someone else is selling you. Think of something better, then go out and make it for yourself.

Post-Sundance Wrap-Up

I’m home and have already done my headlong dive back into my daily life, but a part of my mind is still chewing over the last week. Here’s what I’ve been thinking:

We saw quite a few of the award winners – The Square, which won Audience Award: World Cinema: Documentary, American Promise, which won U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Achievement in Filmmaking, Upstream Color, which won U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Sound Design, Computer Chess, which won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, and The Date, which won the Short Film Jury Award: International Fiction.

The last time the Pirate and I went to Sundance in 2007, the impression I came away with was that we had seen a lot of movies about touching sweetness in the face of adversity. The Pool, about a pair of Indian boys who want to better themselves, Eagle vs. Shark, about Jemaine Clement being hideously awkward and Loren Horsley liking him anyway, Once, about a pair of singer-songwriters in Ireland. Every one of those movies was tender and sweet and, despite the problems the characters faced, nobody turned bitter or remained angry.

In contrast, it seems that this was the Sundance of “why is this still going on?” I personally saw a lot of emphasis on race and racial inequality, and I can only think it’s an outcome of the fact that, since the election of an African-American president, there has been an upsurge of overt racism in this country and filmmakers are trying hard to bring that fact to light so that it can be addressed. There were themes of poverty, political disenfranchisement, powerlessness and fear that seem to be products of the climate we’ve lived in since the 2008 collapse of the housing market and the subsequent financial crisis.

The last thing I’m thinking is that the visual theme of this Sundance was arrows. Before every movie, where you would normally see commercials or previews in another venue, there was a sort of screen-saver-y thing of arrows. They came in from different directions, they contained stills from this year’s films, they had a cute video of arrows representing fish and water and rain and trees and mountains blah blah. But it was jangly and loud and rough-looking and I wasn’t impressed. I contrast it with the 2007 visual theme of flames. The screen-saver-y thing then was a complex animation of little people with flames for heads in a little village, creating things and interacting. It was complex and engaging and I looked forward to seeing it again at every film. Step it up, Sundance. You can do better next time.

 

Film #10: Fruitvale

The Pirate and I had tickets to the Grand Jury Prize winner for the Dramatic competition, and the winner this year was the film Fruitvale, about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, an African-American man who was shot by BART officers at the Fruitvale station on New Year’s Day 2008.

If we had actually gone to the film, it would just be starting now, and we’d be sitting in the dark of the balcony at the Eccles Theatre holding hands and staring ahead into the darkness. Except that, the last time I went to a film in the Eccles Theater, day before yesterday, I stared into the darkness, and the darkness entered my eyes and my heart and hurt me.

I live in the United States. I’m a graduate-school educated, above-average-earning woman born of a mixed-race family. I’ve experienced a whole lot of ugliness in my lifetime, and I’ve heard firsthand accounts of a whole lot more. I don’t need to be told again and again that people of color are wonderful, human, flawed, vital, important people at the centers of their own social circles. Nobody should need to be told that, because all human beings are those things.

I also don’t need to be told that people of color are routinely discriminated against, brutalized, stripped of their rights and their dignity, systematically excluded and otherwise made to feel less in our society. I’ve lived with that too, and understand how profoundly that affects people in every facet of their lives.

I know a few people who use social media primarily as a conduit for forwarding platitudes. Endless pictures of cute animals with endearing sayings, proverbs, and quotes from people like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. I don’t discount anything that those men might have said, but I don’t have patience for people who are willing to quote their words to others, but ignore them in their own lives. They’re the same to me as all those folks who go to church on Sunday and act like assholes the rest of the time.

In the same way I don’t need to keep having Gandhi quoted at me, I don’t need to be reminded of the plight of people of color. It’s not that I stop caring – just the opposite.  Because I can’t stop caring, it rubs me emotionally raw and hurts me more than it does some other people.

The upshot is that I hope whoever got our tickets (we walked over to Eccles about an hour and a half before the film was to start and sold our tickets to one of the many guys hanging around outside the theater asking for them) enjoys and appreciates the film. I hope it makes them think about how they are in life and what they could be doing to foster more peaceful discussion and less fear and mistrust. I hope that they start looking at every person they pass in the street as a human being as worthy of love and respect as themselves.

Film #9: Blackfish

Blackfish begins and ends with the killing of the trainer Dawn Brancheau by the orca Tilikum at Sea World Orlando in 2010. The rest of the film traces Tilikum’s history with Sea World, highlighting the corporate practices at the park and the experiences of former orca trainers to call attention to the injustice of keeping creatures whom some scientists claim have more emotional intelligence than humans as performing prisoners.

Overall score: 4 out of 4

I have to preface by saying that, while I’m completely sympathetic to animal rights causes, they’re not the thing that moves me.

The film was chock full of former Sea World trainers, talking about their own experiences of the park’s policies and procedures. I was surprised that none of the trainers was selected on the basis of their knowledge of marine biology or animal psychology. The prerequisites for the job seemed to include physical energy and stamina, and how the applicants looked in a wetsuit.

The trainers were encouraged to form emotional attachments to their designated animals, and incidents where orcas injured or killed trainers were hushed up such that trainers in other Sea World parks heard nothing about it. Those incidents where trainers did hear about the deaths, they were told that the deaths were due to trainer error, even when videos clearly showed otherwise.

Orca experts also weighed in, talking about the differences between orca sociality and behavior in the wild and sociality and behavior in captivity. They talked about the problems of holding 15′ long animals who, in the wild, would be roaming a hundred miles of day in tanks that were perhaps only a few hundred feet long.

It was hard to see the problems and consequences of orcas in captivity without thinking about the problems and consequences of the very large population that the United States holds in prison. The U.S. holds a larger percentage of its population in prison than any other country in the world, and sees nothing wrong with keeping other human beings in tiny cells with very little stimulation for years at a time. Why should we see anything wrong with doing the same to other intelligent creatures?

Blackfish was an intriguing and thought-provoking film, but at the end of the day, I still see my own duty in helping my fellow human beings. I feel that only by helping other humans fully realize their humanity can they begin to look around and exercise that humanity by showing compassion to other kinds of life.

Film #8: The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete

The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete follows two boys who, after the older boy’s mother is taken by the police, are left to fend for themselves in the projects for an entire summer.

Overall score: 4 out of 4

When the Pirate and I first looked at the catalog copy for this film, it looked a lot like Tekkonkinkreet, a manga we both loved about two orphan boys who fend for themselves in a weird futuristic fictional city Treasure Town. We were very, very wrong.

First of all, I’ve heard this story before. In December of 2007, This American Life aired a segment called Boy Interrupted about a boy who, at the age of 15, was left alone for five months while his mother was in the hospital. “Defeat” took his story, and amped it up considerably, first making the mother a heroin addicted prostitute, then adding a 9-year-old Korean boy with a mother who was not only a junkie prostitute, but an abuser as well.

There are certain things I can’t watch: torture, abuse, privation, humiliation. I especially can’t watch innocents undergo sustained abuse. By halfway through this film, I was crying and mouthing the words “I want to go home now” over and over.

To spend two full hours watching two boys undergo disappointment, humiliation, neglect, assault, starvation and abandonment is more than I can take, but I’m shocked at the review given it by Salt Lake Magazine’s Dan Nailen, who ended his review with “By the time The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete started answering those questions, I had stopped caring.” I guess that’s the problem that makes me weep. Yes, this is a movie. But as the TAL episode shows, it’s also real. And there are millions of other people in similarly harsh, desperate circumstances that don’t just have to sweat them out for a few months, but have to live them for YEARS. I’m willing to bet that Dan Nailen never even started caring about any of them.

I’m fortunate in that I have enough money to do pretty much whatever I want, including coming out to spend a week at Sundance. The problem is that I don’t have quite enough money to solve anyone’s large-scale problems, and the people that do have that kind of cash don’t feel any pressing need to help anyone else. But just because I’m no longer poor (and I say “no longer” because I grew up government-cheese-and-horsemeat poor) doesn’t mean that I don’t remember what desperation, shame and hopelessness feel like.

I’m happy for Dan Nailen that he never experienced that kind of life, but I’m sad for him and anyone like him who look at “Defeat” and see nothing more than a movie they didn’t like.

Film #7: Computer Chess

Computer Chess covered a computer chess tournament in 1980. Several teams with their own software programs must first compete against each other, then the winner will play a human chess master.

Overall rating: 3 out of 4

The first thing I loved was the fact that 98% of this film was shot to look like early, black-and-white videotape: jumpy and low-contrast. Although some of the time characters from the film are addressing the camera directly, speaking to the man holding the gigantic, clunky video camera, at other times we see the cameraman in the room, holding the camera itself.

I thought at first this would just be a dry, straight look at the world of nerd culture back when I was a teenager, but that impression was overturned about ten minutes into the film when the camera alights on a man who says that he’s come just to watch because he thinks that “this whole thing” is going to be like World War III. The next man on camera mocks him, but when the chess master, who serves as master of ceremonies for the tournament between the computer programs, also mentions World War III, we see the original commenter light up with recognition.

The film keeps going back and forth between the dry, ultra-nerdiness of the computer chess competition and the wackiness going on elsewhere in the hotel – giant herds of those ugly, squash-faced cats wandering around, one competitor who didn’t get a room and is trying to sleep in the rooms of the competition, a marriage encounter group doing embarrassing 70s encounter group things – so that it’s hard to tell what’s more unlikely: the hermetically sealed, dusty atmosphere of the tournament, or the weird, surreal messiness of the rest of life in the hotel.

I would agree with the program director who introduced the film: this one does have the feeling of a cult classic.