Movie review: Obit. (2017)

Obit. takes a look at the world of obituary writers at The New York Times. The documentary delves in their world. Various writers are interviewed and accompanied through their daily tasks.

Rather than a leisurely job of writing about interesting people, obituary writing is a hectic fast-paced job of writing about interesting people. Anyone who had an impact in the world could be fair game for an obituary. And their obituary must go out in a matter of hours, not days or weeks.

For this type of work, people need to be called, facts tracked down, news clips gathered. Yes, news clips. The Times has a department devoted to news clips of people and events. Thousands of drawers in filing cabinets contain files on individual people. A team used to maintain these files. These days one person oversees the department. When a writer is assigned an obituary about a newly deceased person, they wander to the morgue (i.e., morgue file department) to gather information.

Writers search for the odd fact or interesting tidbit that speaks to a narrative that they are crafting about the deceased. On occasion they write advanced obituaries for famous people who may be at the end of their career or life that can be pulled when they die. Usually though the writers are scrambling to gather the facts and craft a narrative in time for the 6 pm newspaper deadline.

Oh yes, and before then they have to check the facts. They must call and track down people to corroborate items. But of course, Murphy’s Law. Mistakes happen. And corrections must appear in the following day’s paper.

The documentary covers some people for whom obituaries were written. Some you may know. Some you may not. Kinzler who saved Skylab. (Did he really or was this a family myth? The answer is the former. He really did save Skylab.) Pete Seeger and the photos they had on file (in the morgue) when he was a small child. The bass player for Bill Haley and the fight to keep in the obituary the fact that his father was a hog butcher. (It helps define his life, the writer argued.) Or Stalin’s daughter and her life as an ex-pat after Stalin’s death.

Why, one writer explains, are women and minorities often missing from obituaries? Obituaries are retrospectives, a reflection of the times 40, 50, or 60 years previously. In the past, the movers and shakers tended to be white men. But now women and minorities who had an impact during the civil and women’s rights movements are now passing away. Equality increases with the passing of time.

Obit. is an interesting look into the obituary department at The New York Times. The writers have the unique opportunity of learning about lots of people who led interesting lives and had an impact on the world. In their role, they occupy a fascinating seat to witness and celebrate the passing of history.

Movie review: Our Little Sister (2016)

What struck me most about Our Little Sister was how much food was involved. As the movie wound through the lives of four sisters, scene after scene depicted them eating and the centrality of food in their lives.

Our Little Sister is not a movie about food—though perhaps it could have been. The movie follows three sisters who live together and experience the death of their long-estranged father At the funeral, they meet their previously unknown half-sister.

The movie is dominated by women. It is a storyline about women and how women are important in each other’s lives. The three sisters bring home their younger sibling to live with them. Respect is shown at the family shrine, where tales about Grandma are shared. Great Auntie appears and even the long-absent mother who abandoned the sisters years earlier reappears in their lives. A woman business owner of a local restaurant frequented by the sisters during their lives is central too—to their lives and the story.

Men fill supporting roles—from the deadbeat father who is also absent in the movie to the erstwhile boyfriends. Men are of little consequence, perhaps reflecting the relationship dynamics that have been playing out in Japanese society for the last several decades.

The sisters dance around painful truths. In essence, they were abandoned by both parents and learned to live together and rely on each other in a house that their mother owned. As adults, they are strong, independent women though one seems to renounce her boyfriend-seeking obsession later in the movie. Family relationships make things difficult and force negotiations about who can discuss who to whom.

The teenage sibling that the three sisters adopt into their home is the product of their father and the woman he abandoned them and their mother for. At the funeral, the young sibling was living with her step-mother, another woman that their father married after things ended between their father and the woman he left his first wife for. (It’s never explicitly stated that the second wife died but assumed since she never appears in the movie or is discussed.)

The younger sibling knew their father in ways that the older sisters didn’t. She had discussions with him and fishing expeditions. The older sisters express an interest in hearing about their father and learning what he was like.

Her presence though is a painful reminder to everyone about how the father failed them, or as the sisters describe it, was “useless”. He was a kind man, to woman after woman after woman, leaving behind broken relationships. The younger sibling reminds everyone, just by her existence, of the painful reality that he left them—the older siblings and the first wife and mother of the older siblings.

Throughout the movie, the sins of the father are manifest. In a scene near the end, the eldest sibling and the youngest are walking to a secluded spot overlooking a bay. The eldest would go here with the father and then later after he left she would go by herself. She screams into the wind about him.

The youngest follows suit but with a twist. Into the wind she screams about her mother, the woman that the father left his wife and daughters for. The pain that the other woman caused, even carried by her daughter, is finally acknowledged. Not only do the siblings need to talk about the father, but they need to talk about the other woman, Suzu’s mother. That fact is finally acknowledged and invited into discussions.

Family relationships can be messy. Our Little Sister shows that, as well as the bonds among women. Men are almost an afterthought but definitely the source of lots of pain.

Roundup: Movies reviewed during 2019

As a final farewell to 2019, I’ve gathered the movies I reviewed in 2019 along with short plot synopses.

Top picks are highlighted in yellow. Stinkers are prefixed with *.

  • Taxi to the Dark Side (2007): Searing documentary about the use of torture in the war on terror centered on horrifying kidnapping and torture of Dilawar: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1Qi
  • Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018): Documentary about the life and work the beloved children programming pioneer Fred Rogers: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1Qr
  • Shadow of the Vampire (2000): An imaginative beyond-the-scenes look at the making of Nosferatu: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1R4
  • Pawn Sacrifice (2015): A documentary deep-dive into life of Bobby Fischer and the Cold War as it played out in the world of chess tournaments: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1Rl
  • The Incredibles (2004): Whimsical animation about a family of superheroes and their attempt to integrate into society after the use of superpowers was internationally banned: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1Ru
  • Incredibles 2 (2018): Long-awaited animated sequel to The Incredibles that focuses on reviving the reputation of superheroes and restoring their status in society. Tackles issues of male-female roles in the family, society, and workplace: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1RJ
  • East of Eden (1955): Drama based on John Steinbeck’s novel where a son seeks the approval of his demanding father in Depression era California: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1S4
  • Bill Nye: The Science Guy (2017): Balanced documentary about Bill Nye, a beloved icon in children programming and an advocate of science education: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1Sd
  • We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013): A documentary that provides another look at Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, and their rise and fall: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1Sl
  • The Big Short (2015): An interesting look at the 2008 recession that seeks to educate about the mortgage crisis and financial instruments that helped bring about the crisis: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1Sw
  • Bombshell: the Hedy Lamarr Story (2017): Documentary about the life of Hedy Lamarr, her contributions to technology, and the sad neglect of women in STEM: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1SE
  • The Favourite (2018): A look at 18th century England palace intrigue focused on Queen Anne and her right-hand women attendants: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1SE
  • Divide and Conquer (2018): An enlightening documentary on the life and times of Roger Ailes and the indelible impact he had on news, society, and politics: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1SU
  • The Tailor of Panama (2001): Adaptation of John le Carre novel where British ex-pat in Panama is pulled into a web of deceit to enrich a banished British spy: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1T2
  • The Death of Stalin (2017): Black comedy about the death of Stalin and the immediate aftermath in a top-heavy, consensus-driven hierarchy full of backstabbing and machinations but unable to act decisively: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1T2
  • The Post (2017): Outstanding documentary about the rise of the Washington Post during the tenure of Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee and its biggest test with the Pentagon Papers: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1Tf
  • Columbus (2017): Story on family relationships, life junctures, and architecture based in the small- town architectural mecca of Columbus, Indiana: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1Tn
  • Battle of the Sexes (2017): Drama recounts the rising star of Billy Jean King, the challenge for equal pay in the tennis circuit, and televised match between King and male star Bobbie Riggs: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1TL
  • Jane (2017): Documentary from recently discovered footage of Jane Goodall in the field with chimpanzees in the 1960s: https://wp.me/p3Kx2j-1TW

Movie review: Jane (2017)

So you think you know all about Jane Goodall? Maybe. Maybe not. This documentary uses 100 hours of newly discovered film shot from Jane’s early days studying chimpanzees in Gombe. The film was shot by Hugo van Lawick in the 1960s. Hugo would go on to become Jane’s husband. It is interspersed with more modern film and an interview with Jane herself.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

In 1957, Dr. Louis Leakey thought that the study of chimpanzees could teach us about early man. He was looking for someone not tainted by thinking in the scientific community. He needed someone with an open mind, a love of animals, and a passion for knowledge. Jane had grown up dreaming of living in Africa among animals. She unfortunately was unable to attend university so she had no training and no degree. It was a perfect pairing.

Jane left on a six-month study of chimpanzees in Gombe. She found chimpanzees and tried to get close to them. The first five months went nowhere. At six months, the funding would run out. Thankfully she experienced a break through with the chimpanzees during the last months. The chimpanzees accepted her. Her study and observations went into high gear…and more funding followed.

This was the 1960s though. And she was a young twenty-something. A woman by herself in the wild just would not do. So her mom went with her. Yes, her mom. Her mom seems to be something of an independent woman (where else would Jane have gotten her independence?) who strongly supported and encouraged her daughter. She opened a clinic and provided medicine to African fishermen while Jane conducted her study of the chimpanzees.

Jane’s observation of the chimpanzee stood a lot of assumptions on their head. She countered the beliefs that only humans were rational, only humans had minds, only humans used tools. She disproved all of these and was attacked for it. After she observed chimpanzees fashioning tools to reach termites in order to eat them—and passing this tool-making knowledge on to other chimpanzees—a photographer was sent to capture the chimpanzees and Jane.

At first annoyed that her solitude was disturbed, Jane later found that she and Hugo (the cameraman) seemed to be two peas in a pod. After his assignment ended and he went elsewhere, he proposed and Jane accepted. Jane never dreamt of marriage, but there she was getting married. She never dreamt of having children, but there she was having a child.

Marriage and motherhood threw her a curveball. Reflecting the times, wives and mothers took second tier to their husbands’ careers. Jane was no exception. She took what turned out to be a hiatus from studying chimps to go to the Serengeti with Hugo. She wrote books and he filmed. Later she raised her son in Africa until he was school-age and then sent him to England to live with her mother while he attended school.

Although disruptive to her career, motherhood for Jane was informed by her earlier observations of an infant-mother relationship (the chimpanzees Flo and Flint). In turn, her own motherhood informed her observations of the chimpanzees.

The film shows fun times with chimpanzees. The observers became close to the chimps, touching and even grooming them. Later though this community of chimpanzees suffered a polio epidemic. It was excruciating to hear about and witness—I cannot imagine the pain that Jane might have felt as she watched what happened to the chimpanzees that she had grown to known quite well.

Some of the chimpanzees suffered paralyzed limbs. Others were not affected. One in particular was euthanized to end his suffering. This was a case of the human observer interfering in the so-called normal course of nature. But Jane could not watch a chimpanzee basically die through starvation because he could not move to feed or care for himself.

The film portrays other emotional moments with the tribe. When Flo, the elder female chimpanzee whom Jane had observed over the years, died, her teenage son Flint was so distraught. He stopped eating and within 3 weeks died himself. Heartbreak seems to not just be a human trait.

Flo’s death had other consequences that deeply affected the tribe. Some split into a separate tribe and moved south. They became strangers to the original tribe. The result? When the groups interacted again, there was warfare. The southern group was obliterated. Suddenly another assumption was destroyed: chimpanzees are not the mostly docile bunch Jane and others thought they were. (Granted, she recognized that they killed other primate babies…which was a consideration when raising her own son in Africa).

Jane helped me understand more fully Goodall’s life and the important observations that she made that contributed to our understanding about ourselves and mankind. Jane never stopped doing the work that Dr. Leakey first set out to do: study chimpanzees to better understand early man. Her observations debunked so many erroneous ideas (only humans are rational, have minds, use tools, conduct warfare) and led to better understandings of ourselves (mother-infant relationships).

In many ways, Jane is a role model, a woman who lived her dreams. She tried to combined career, marriage, and motherhood, but her life again reveals how hard that is—she had to put her own research on hold and the marriage ultimately ended. Her life story is both the sad reflection of the societal limitations on women and the ways that women can and cannot overcome them.

Movie review: Battle of the Sexes (2017)

My timing of watching this movie was perfect, though not intentional—a few days after the anniversary of the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobbie Riggs that took place on September 21, 1973.

Movies that depict an historical event where the end result is well known can go horribly awry or lead up in anticipation to a critical moment. Battle of the Sexes is more the latter. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat when watching the actual tennis match—the match seemed to be beside the point. But the events leading up to the match unfolded in a way that kept my attention.

What was amazing to me was watching a twenty-something woman so self-possessed and strong-willed to be able to go up against the established tennis tournament and a middle-aged male tennis superstar. Not that Billie Jean isn’t portrayed as having some doubts, but the movie shows her of having the stamina and will that I do not quite remember having in my twenties. Sure, all twenty-somethings have the strength that comes from naivete concerning how the world works—the young take on the world in ways that older generations do not. The latter are often too beaten down to fight against the way of the world or are too complicit in it to attack it.

The movie covers the period of time that spans when Billie Jean started a rival women’s tennis tournament circuit to the match against Bobbie Riggs. In between we see her struggle in her personal life and with her personal identity. Although not too far removed in time, Billie Jean came of age and rose as a star tennis player in a world that did not respect or reward female tennis players (or women in general). The language used about and to women in the movie is a stunning reminder of how much things have changed in less than 50 years.

The crap that women put up with so that we enjoy a better world is humbling. I am not sure that I would have had the inner strength to put up with what women in the 1970s (not to mention earlier eras) did. To constantly struggle is exhausting. But either you struggle against a system, or you submit and let it destroy you.

It was satisfying to see women form a rival tennis tournament when the official tennis organization would not take their demands for equal pay seriously. I am sure what they went through was no bed of roses. They had no idea of the outcome of their endeavors or that they weren’t ending their careers. But bless them for their struggle.

It was even more satisfying to see Billie Jean go up against the arrogant Bobbie Riggs….and win. The outcome was less than certain at the time, even though there was a 25+ year gap in their ages. It’s hard to imagine a 55-year-old man as being at the height of his athletic prowess, but that is what the male establishment decided to throw against women who dared to question their place and financial position in the world. ­

From the vantage point of several decades later, it seems odd that such a battle needed to take place. My reaction though is telling about how far we have come. Watch the movie for the great acting as well as the snapshot of the era that it depicts. And then see for yourself if you are not impressed by what women went through to move the ball forward.

Thank you, Billie Jean and team mates. You fought for women to be taken seriously and compensated equal to men. Without your struggles, I would be unable to watch Battle of the Sexes and marvel at the progress made. Much still needs to be done, but we wouldn’t be where we are without you.