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: 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: Divide and Conquer (2018)

It was with some trepidation that I watched Divide and Conquer. Not due to the quality. (The documentary was outstanding.) But more the subject matter. I was a bit ignorant of Roger Ailes, but I knew enough to know that I would rather not know him more.

The documentary is a fascinating look at his history, both personally and professionally. Interviews with childhood friends and professional colleagues reveal what made him tick. I’ll cut to the chase—though none of this will be surprising—he lived in a world consumed by fear and anger. And paranoia. (His office was built to protect him from bullets and other attacks. I immediately thought of Scott Pruitt from the Trump administration.)

What a sad life to be controlled by fear and anger. Even sadder is that he infected the country with these emotions through the immense control he wielded.

He rose to positions of power with The Mike Douglas Show in the 1960s. After honing his media and manipulation skills there, he moved on to be a self-proclaimed media advisor to Nixon. Arguably, Ailes was the man responsible for getting Nixon elected by controlling and spinning his look on TV.

He continued to work as a political and executive coach for numerous campaigns across the country. Many of the power brokers in Washington, DC owe their political careers to him, including Mitch McConnell. (McConnell is not portrayed as the brightest bulb in this documentary.) Ailes helped the Bush, Reagan, and Trump campaigns.

In the 1990s, he seemingly moved from political coaching to news. He started America’s Talking, a talk show that was presumably a news show. A few years later, NBC sold the show to Gates, thereby creating MSNBC. Ailes was furious. He ultimately got his revenge by creating Fox News with Rupert Murdoch’s backing.

Divide and Conquer then focuses on the power, control, and manipulation that occurred at Fox News. Ailes surrounded himself with men like him. Murdoch protected him, Ailes protected the men he hired. The common thread surrounding them was the blatant abuse of power, sexual harassment of women, and promoting women or giving them jobs in return for sexual favors. It turns out, birds of a feather do flock together.

Various women are interviewed about the sexual improprieties that were rampant at Fox News and committed by Ailes. Some were paid off and silenced through settlements. Former workers at Fox News came forward with allegations. Finally, after decades, the dam broke. Women came forward, including a model (Marsha Callahan) from decades earlier who recounts in the documentary what happened to her, how she had to speak up when women were coming forward, and how her son was proud of her for speaking up and supporting other women. The #MeToo movement in action.

Several women were almost employees but denied employment after they did not welcome Ailes’ advances or agree to his transactional propositions for sex with him and other high-level men in the organization. One woman (Kellie Boyle) recounts that after she did not agree to sleep with Ailes in return for doing business with him, she was blacklisted around town; no one would meet with her or hire her. Her career was ruined. Ailes had that sort of power.

(Side note: It was painful to hear words coming from these women’s mouths that reflected the passive role society teaches women to play. Boyle mentioned that when Ailes propositioned her, she tried to get out of the situation without turning him down right there. Why? She didn’t want to risk offending him. Risk offending him, I thought? What about him just offending you? But I recognized this societal training. Women are taught not to offend and to appear accommodating. I do hope that his indoctrination of women is ending with the current generation of girls. It does no service to girls to teach them to be polite and accommodating, especially when their physical, emotional, or psychological safety is concerned. End of soapbox.)

Ailes was your typical bully, seen clearly when he moved to a small town in New York and preceded to try to bulldoze the town council and influence the elections by flooding them with Republican candidates. He strangely bought the town’s newspaper in 2009. (Well, maybe not so strangely. According to the documentary, Ailes seemed to be in a sad competition with Murdoch. Murdoch bought The Wall Street Journal. Ailes bought the Putnam County Courier and Putnam County News & Recorder.)

In the end, Murdoch didn’t stand by him when the noose tightened around Ailes about the sexual harassment allegations. His career ended with him being locked out of Fox News. Ironically, he was taken down for sex improprieties—Fox News made its name on the sexual improprieties of Bill Clinton in the 1990s. He died a year later from a fall in his house.

Unfortunately, his legacy didn’t die with him. We are stuck dealing with the aftermath of the world that he created. A world of fear, anger, and conspiracy theories. A world of divide and conquer. We are stuck with the political creatures that he created over the last four or five decades. The social and political turmoil in the US has his fingerprints all over them. Divide and Conquer will help you recognize his fingerprints.

Movie review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

The documentary Won’t you Be My Neighbor? covers the TV career of Fred Rogers. Mr. Rogers devoted himself to the early education and development of children. He was a staple in the lives of young children for several decades.

The documentary starts with Fred Rogers dipping into the new medium of television with The Children’s Corner, a program run out of Pittsburgh. Rogers was dismayed at what TV offered children—slap stick comedy and pies in faces. Instead, he wanted to explore how television could be used to enrich children’s lives. During these early days, he developed the various puppets and their personas that would live on in the future children programming that he did.

On the side, Rogers attended seminary but sought the world of children as his mission area. After several years, he started the program he is best known for and that informs the title of the documentary: Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The neighborhood was depicted as a safe place and Mr. Rogers as a welcoming adult. (The title of the documentary comes from a line in the opening song to the show.)

In the era in which the show aired, children were still to be seen and not heard. They were treated as non-entities, non-beings with no feelings or thoughts of their own. Rogers rejected that view. He treated each child as important. He talked to them directly and he listened. Mr. Rogers was everything that adults weren’t. He was patient. He spoke slowly. He explained things. He waited for children to ask all sorts of questions. And then he answered them.

He realized that children take in everything around them. When the world ignored children in times of tragedy, he reached out to them. He knew they were affected by events and needed to be talked to, listened to, and reassured.

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood started around the time that Robert Kennedy was assassinated. It was understandably a time that rocked the nation, but children were left out, trying to make sense of what happened on their own. Instead, Mr. Rogers, through the use of his puppet Daniel Striped Tiger asked drew them into the conversation. Daniel asked about the meaning of assassination. An actor on the show took his question and feelings seriously. Daniel was allowed to talk about the feelings he had—and told that he could talk or ask questions at any time. This was kind, caring reassurance for kids who felt that something terrible had happened but they didn’t understand or knew how to process it.

In 1969, Mr. Rogers ended up in a Senate hearing concerning funding for PBS. PBS was about to get its funding slashed and no one who had appeared in front of the Senate was able to convince the panel to do otherwise. The documentary shows Mr. Rogers patiently talking to the Senator in charge of the funding who listened and credited Mr. Rogers with earning PBS $20 million that day. The funding for PBS was saved, thanks to Mr. Rogers patient explanations and listening.

The neighborhood was a safe place for children and in some ways a progressive place. During times of segregation, the neighborhood had a black police officer who would stop to visit with Mr. Rogers. On one occasion, they cooled off their feet in a children’s swimming pool, sharing a towel to dry them with Mr. Rogers helping dry the policeman’s feet—a nod to Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. This scene was a direct response to the attempts and pushbacks to integrate swimming pools.

All was not completely rosy. Mr. Rogers was not always as progressive as I would have liked. The documentary recounts how he warned this same actor, who was seen at a gay bar, that he could never go to a gay bar again and continue to work on the show. The reason: sponsors would pull out. In the late sixties/seventies, the US was not prepared for openly gay actors—and neither sadly was Mr. Rogers.

Mr. Rogers tried to take his philosophy of building relationships through communication and listening to an adult audience. He took a hiatus from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to record 20 episodes of Old Friends…New Friends. But the show did not take off. I never heard of this program and would love to see it.

It is sad to think that Mr. Rogers’ approach with children that met universal needs of acceptance was not something that adults responded to. Perhaps adults are too used to a hectic fast-paced world to be able to slow down to Mr. Rogers’ speed. Mr. Rogers did not talk or move at a mile a minute. He realized the power of slowness and even silence, how it allows for listening, understanding, and mindfulness of life.

He returned to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with themed episodes. He was distraught by the way children were tricked by advertising and marketing—child died trying to fly like Superman does. Mr. Rogers started by discussing superheroes and then make believe, conflict, death, divorce—any issue that affects children where they need to be heard and need to understand what is happening.

He came back again after 9/11, unsure what message to bring, but if the nation needed words from anyone, it was Mr. Rogers. He was the one who listened and reassured us when we were kids. Now we are adults but our world was rocked in ways we hadn’t experienced before.

The documentary stresses how Mr. Rogers was the same on screen or off. He was the real McCoy—a genuine caring individual who took the time to listen to everyone he met. By example, he showed us all how to interact with each other and how to act in what may be uncomfortable situations. He touched so many lives. The documentary includes interviews of his two sons and his wife. As one son mentioned, it was hard having the second Christ as a father.

The little things made me smile. I loved Mr. Rogers using his puppets to interact with groups of kids. Daniel Striped Tiger in particular was his alter ego and allowed him to reach out further to kids than he could as himself. Daniel gave the kids love and acceptance and they gave him love back. (It would have been awesome to hug Daniel Striped Tiger!)

I also loved learning about the significance of 143. Mr. Rogers was an avid swimmer and would weigh himself after each swim, smiling when he saw 143 on the scale (his consistent weight for most of his life). Why would 143 cause delight? As Daniel Striped Tiger explained, 1 is the number of letters in I, 4 the number of letters in the word love, and 3 the number of letters in you: I love you. His weight was God’s or the universe’s way of saying I love you to Mr. Rogers.

I hated hearing about how he came under attack in later years. His message that all have value, all are special, was perverted. Critics blamed him for creating generations of adults that feel entitled. But his message wasn’t that people were special and therefore entitled. His message was that everyone had inherent value just because they are themselves, a very Christian message.

I hated too his feeling of being overwhelmed by 9/11 and not knowing how to calm the world. It was painful to see him film his last episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (good thing I was long past childhood when that happened in 2000). And of course, it was hard dealing with his death in 2003.

Thank God for Mr. Rogers and the gifts he shared with the world. He knew that everyone longs to be loved. And he set out to teach children to love themselves and their community. We are richer for Mr. Rogers. We could use him right about now.

Movie review: Saving Capitalism (2017)

Robert Reich is one of those sane voices in the wilderness. As an economist and former Secretary of Labor, he has some well-educated opinions about how the economy can work best for the average American.

Saving Capitalism, a Netflix original, is a documentary inspired by his book of the same title. The documentary shows Reich going from book signing to book signing, meeting to meeting. In between, he explains his background and his perspective on the economy through the decades. Reich is pretty good about trying to explain economic concepts in laymen’s terms. (He shares excellent tidbits through videos and tweets on Twitter.)

Reich is an unabashed Democrat and firm believer in capitalism. But he gets it. He gets that people are angry and frustrated. He gets that people are screaming to be heard but no one is listening. He gets the feeling that the system is rigged.

It is, he says. It only works for a few. And then he explains why. Along the way, he debunks myths that we have been told about the capitalist system.

Free markets. There is no such thing, though for several decades some people have liked to pretend there is. Any capitalist system plays by rules, rules surrounding property, monopoly, contracts, bankruptcy, and enforcement. The role of government is to set these rules. So the question is not do rules exist but rather how should the rules be set and who should they benefit.

The rules are not set in stone. They are not inherently set a certain way. The rules are man-made and can be changed to reflect our values as a society. (Clearly, our values are at a really low point right now.) The rules do not have to rig the system against us. We can change them so that capitalism works for all of us.

Reich actually predicted the anger and frustration that we see today back in the early 1990s when he was Secretary of Labor. The feeling that things weren’t working for average Americans started with the Powell memo of 1971. The Powell memo advocated for the flood of lobbying we see today from corporations.

With money comes power. With power comes influence over the rules of the game. As corporations started to pour money into politics, their power over the rules grew and then they were able to change the rules to benefit themselves more. The vicious cycle continued, ramping up further with Citizens United.

Reich also reviews corporate welfare, what it is, how much it is, and how insidious it is. Corporate welfare includes subsidies to industries and tax breaks. Rather than be an easy beast to tame, it has invaded the tax code, appropriations, and trade deals. Good luck rooting it out!

Reich argues too that the 2008 financial disaster was not an aberration, but rather the logical consequence of deregulation that started under Reagan. The late 1990s saw the rise of derivatives and the successful defeat of their regulation. Then the 1933 Glass-Segall law that was enacted following the 1929 stock market crash was repealed because, well, that was no longer necessary, regulation hampers profits, etc., etc.

To those who scream for no government involvement, Reich points out that government is always involved in capitalism. Government either prevents disaster with regulation and oversight or steps in to clean up a mess made through a lack of regulation and oversight. Which do we prefer?

With Citizen United, we see even more money from corporations and the super wealthy flowing into government. With it comes more power and influence for the corporations and the super wealthy—and less for us average Americans. With this trend comes more general anger, frustration, and delusion in the system.

…which explains the rise of populism. We are suffering through the ascendency of authoritarian populism, when the populace has decided to put its faith in a strong man to save the system and to save us. (Never mind that our current strong man—Trump—is one of the wealthy who is amassing more power, more influence, and more money at the expense of most Americans.)

The other kind of populism is reform populism, where the people channel their anger and frustration to reform the system. (Although he never mentions him by name, Sanders is the clear unnamed elephant in the room.)

The pendulum swings, Reich reminds us, and history repeats itself. We are back in the corruption of the Gilded Age of the 1880s and 1890s. The message is that things will get better if we organize, rise up, and become active citizens again. Society as a whole will progress. As I watched photographs of individuals suffering through the effects of the Gilded Age, I couldn’t help but think of the horrible suffering that individuals must go through before we average Americans get to the other side of a better world.

Which do we prefer? Government that prevents disaster with regulation and oversight or government that steps in to clean up a mess made through a lack of regulation and oversight. I vote for the former.