The Land Before Time and the Proper Approach to Prejudice

Over the weekend I posted my first video review, of The Land Before Time. I discovered how time-consuming such things are to make, and so I wasn’t able to address everything I wanted to. In particular, I glanced over the film’s approach to prejudice, partly because it’s actually kind of a minor theme compared to its dealings of faith and love (Cera’s the only character who evinces any real bigotry), and partly because it’s not a subject that really interests me that much. Everyone and their dog talks about the evils of prejudice these days; that and global warming constituted the main bulk of my public school education. It’s gotten to the point where I think it actually does more harm than good: people are so sick of being lectured about the evils of racism that they actually start to wonder whether the racists have a point. At least, that’s my experience.

(And for  the record, no, the racists don’t have a point. In the first place, a cursory knowledge of history shows that virtue and excellence are to be found in every race under Heaven. In the second, the Christian faith is clear both in Scripture and Tradition that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, but all are the children of one God, made in His image and likeness. And finally, any differences in accomplishment observable between the children of Europe and the rest of the world are explicable culturally and vanish to the extent that that culture is expanded. That Christendom was long limited to Europe and hence to ‘white people’ is a historical accident brought about by the Muslim conquests).

Anyway, I oppose racism, but I also oppose our chosen method of combating it, which is to view everything through the lens of race and insist that some races are naturally racist and need to own that fact, which will somehow lead to racial harmony. In other words, we fight racism with racism. Call me crazy, but I always thought that would backfire.

(By the way, if whites are ‘born racist’ wouldn’t that, by LGBT logic, mean that racism is okay? I mean, if they can’t help the way they feel, that means there’s nothing morally wrong with it, right?)

What I would propose instead is something more like what’s shown in The Land Before Time, and was a popular notion before critical race theory became the order of the day. Cera’s an unrepentant bigot for most of the film. Littlefoot responds by trying to make friends with her. He doesn’t demand she change before he’ll have anything to do with her; he just tries to be as nice to her as he can, partly because that’s just the kind of person he is, and partly because he recognizes they’re in the same boat together. Even when she’s being a complete jerk, he still shows her kindness, as when she refuses the food they’ve gathered in favor of trying to get her own, and he just tosses her down some anyway.

I’ve always been of the opinion that prejudice and bigotry ought to be met with good-will and, well, tolerance. People don’t change their convictions overnight, and they’re not likely to change if you just arbitrarily demand they do so while constantly insulting them. Instead, it’s best to prove them wrong by your own actions. What changes Cera in the end is the fact that her friends do show her great kindness despite her bad attitude. She sees for herself that she was wrong because her friends have proven her wrong; that they’ll be there for her when she needs them, even if she won’t be there for them.

The point is that you can’t just demand someone change: you have to give them a reason to. Constantly telling someone he’s a horrible person who can never change is unlikely to inspire him to reform.

Advertisements

RIP Haruo Nakajima

MV5BMjE1NzE2NDg0MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTAyMjc0MDE@._V1_

I’ve just learned that Haruo Nakajima, the stuntman and actor who originated the role of Godzilla himself, has passed away at the age of 88 of pneumonia. Now all the major players of that greatest of monster films are gone, with the sole exception of Akira Takarada.

Mr. Nakajima was a stuntman and bit player at Toho studios (he played one of the bandits in Seven Samurai) when he was picked to play the monster in Tomoyuki Tanaka’s massive gamble Godzilla. Since they pretty much had to invent the different special effects techniques as they were making the film, the suit they designed was notoriously difficult to work with. Mr. Nakajima suffered terribly for the role, enduring temperatures up to 140 degrees and often leaving a whole cup of sweat behind him. The suit weighed over 200 pounds and included numerous bits of machinery to operate the mouth and tail. Though a trained athlete and a powerful man, Mr. Nakajima fainted more than once during the shoot.

Yet he returned for twelve films, finally retiring from the role after Godzilla vs. Gigan. In the process, he helped give Godzilla the distinctive personality that made him such a memorable figure on screen. Mr. Nakajima was known as a very good humored, playful man, and that side of him sometimes came across through the mountains of coarse latex. Those who remember Godzilla clapping his hands in mockery of King Kong, or leaping with excitement after sending King Ghidorah packing will see Mr. Nakajima’s personality shining through. At the same time, he could lend remarkable dignity and poignancy to Godzilla’s movements, as seen in the underwater confrontation at the end of the first film, or his interactions with Minya in Son of Godzilla.

Few may know his face or name, but Mr. Nakajima helped create one of the great figures of cinema, and for that he will always be remembered.

Rest in peace, sir, and many thanks.

MV5BYjkwN2Q4M2ItN2RkNC00ZDkwLWEzYTYtZGYxZmUyNDQ3ZWQ5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTAyNDQ2NjI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1358,1000_AL_

Dunkirk Thoughts

I saw ‘Dunkirk’ over the weekend. Briefly put, my reaction is that I thought it was an amazing film; probably one of Christopher Nolan’s best (which is saying something). It was completely unlike any other war film I’ve seen, punishingly intense, and engaging all the way through.

A few things to note:

  1. Though I thought it was a fantastic film, it’s probably not for everyone. It takes a very stripped-down, intimate approach to the story; the characters, with one or two exceptions, are more archetypes than they are people. The soldier we follow for most of the film is never even named: he’s just ‘the Tommy,’ a typical English soldier trying to find a way to survive. Likewise the non-linear approach to the story may turn some people off, as it can be tricky to keep track of what’s happening when.
  2. The film is entirely about this one crisis in the war. We almost never see the Germans, nor are they mentioned by name. It’s just about the events at Dunkirk.
  3. As with previous films, Mr. Nolan demonstrates that graphic violence is unnecessary. He conveys the horror, intensity, and grim cost of war with hardly a drop of blood on screen. All you need is the right camera angles, music, and sound-effects. It reminds me of classic war films like Sink the Bismarck or The Longest Day, which likewise conveyed the terror and intensity of the modern battlefield with little or no gore.
  4. Even in the midst of this intimate, minimalist approach, Mr. Nolan finds space for scenes of the old-school heroism and honor that also typify war, most notably from an RAF pilot played by Tom Hardy and a British Admiral played by Kenneth Branagh.
  5. The scene where the makeshift flotilla finally arrives nearly brought tears to my eyes, because dear Lord, we feel just what it meant to those soldiers.

In summary, I thought it was a great film, further cementing Mr. Nolan as possibly the best director working today. I highly recommend it, though with the caveat that it’s not for everyone and probably isn’t going to be the film you expect it to be.

Doctor Who and Swiping Male Characters

p04znpm3

You know, I’m not really a big ‘Doctor Who’ fan. I’ve watched several episodes from both the classic and the modern series (Tom Baker’s my favorite), and enjoyed them, but I just haven’t really gotten into it.

That said, I do have an opinion of this ‘making the Doctor a woman’ gimmick. And make no mistake, that’s what it is: a gimmick. It’s not a groundbreaking development, nor a brilliant twist of storytelling, and certainly not an kind of (ugh) great step forward. It’s a gimmick, pure and simple; a way to grab attention, and try to shore up their feminist credentials so that the right kind of people won’t turn on them.

I will say, in their defense, that given the nature of the Doctor, this one makes a little more sense than, say, making Thor a woman (not making that up, by the way; they actually did it) or, God forbid, making James Bond a woman (more on that below). The Doctor of course periodically regenerates into a new body and personality, so you could argue this works given the rules of the story. But…no. Even with a character like the Doctor you need some continuity of personality, so suddenly switching him to being a woman just doesn’t work. You can’t fundamentally alter a character in that way, even one like the Doctor and expect people to be happy about it, especially when it’s accompanied by insulting accusations of misogyny (because the only way the Left knows how to argue is ad hominem).

It’s a similar problem to Ghostbusters: on paper, a new all-female team of Ghostbusters actually isn’t a bad idea. But one, it was so obvious they were doing it as a ‘statement’ rather than because they actually cared about the characters, and two, the execution was horrible beyond belief.

The real problem with this practice of switching a character’s sex in an attempt to be ‘relevant’ or whatever the current term is, is that it’s basically the equivalent of swiping one kid’s toy because another kid is crying that she wants more, when the obvious thing to do would be to just buy her some toys of her own rather than stealing someone else’s. To the fans of the Doctor who have stuck by him all these long years, having him drastically altered in this way to appease non-fans must seem like a complete slap in the face. Now, if they came up with a really cool female Time Lord and gave her a spin-off show, and did it well (that’s really the key to any story: doing it well), the fans would eat it up. It has nothing to do with misogyny: it has everything to do with seeing a beloved character twisted to score political points.

It’s even more galling when you consider that the other kid has lots of toys of her own, but keeps menacing her brother’s.

The days (assuming such days existed: this topic invites selective blindness like few others) of a lack of female heroes is long over. Women headline about half the shows on TV. Wonder Woman just came out and was fantastic. Marvel fans have been clamoring for a Black Widow movie for years. The last two Star Wars films were headed by women. There’s obviously a huge market for well-done female leads, so there’s absolutely no need to co-opt existing male characters.

The only reason, as far as I can see, for trying to swipe male characters and turn them female is because they generally have better name recognition. So, certain people think “everyone knows who James Bond is, so if we turned him into a woman (Jean Bond?) we’d have a ready-made super-popular female icon!”

Except it doesn’t work that way, since male and female characters are typically written and characterized very differently. One of the reason Wonder Woman was such a good film is that she was written as a very feminine character. Yes, she could throw tanks around and engage a dozen men at once, but she was also warm-hearted, kind, and nurturing. Black Widow is an engaging character because she’s not just a deadly spy, but she’s also the nurturing heart of the team; the one who gives them pep talks and warm hugs when they’re feeling down. The contrast between her cold-hearted behavior on the battlefield and her warm-hearted behavior off it is what makes her so much fun to watch.

Black-Widow-e1461822665611

Well, that and the…obvious reasons.

If you tried to write James Bond as a woman, it would be grotesque. No one except an obsessive feminist would want to see a woman act the way Bond acts. He’s fundamentally a male fantasy figure: the cool man of action who sleeps with every beautiful woman he meets, kills bad guys left and right, and defends king and country with his wits and sheer badassery. He works because he speaks to the male psyche. Make him a woman doing more or less the exact same thing, and it would be unbearable. Most women don’t fantasize about acting that way, and most men don’t like seeing women act like that.

Now, if they wanted to make a female equivalent of Bond: a super-competent and alluring female spy who defends queen and country with wit and moxie, and (once again) if they did a good job of it, that would be great. Female spies can be a lot of fun: just think of Honey West, Emma Peel, or, again, Black Widow to name a few. But there’s no need to coopt male characters out of a misguided feminist urge. There are already lots of good female protagonists running around, and nothing at all preventing anyone from making more. But leave established and beloved male characters alone if you don’t mind.

 

Why I Love ‘Independence Day’

x538            When Independence Day came out, it was a huge hit, but ever since then it’s kind of become the poster-child for the big, dumb, CGI-fueled blockbusters of the late 90s. And, yes, in a way it is, but…well, that’s kind of beside the point.

The Story: On July 2nd, a massive alien craft appears in orbit around the earth and sends out an armada of city-sized flying saucers that take up position above several of the world’s major cities, including Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. We then see the unfolding war of the worlds through the eyes of four American men and their families: underachieving New York cable company technician David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), Los Angeles-based Marine pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith), drunken Californian crop duster pilot Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), and the youthful President Whitmore (Bill Pullman).

So, is this movie pretty stupid? Sure. This is light science-fiction pulp, of the kind you might find in Amazing Stories, or in a drive-in theater in the late 1950s, only given a massive budget and an all-star cast. Granted, a lot of those classic films were better than this one (The War of the Worlds in particular does many of the same things while being an overall superior film), but none achieved the same sense of scale and grandeur as this one.

As for me, I’m glad we have it.

This is the movie that Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, or Invasion of the Saucer Men, or those 1940s serials dreamed of being. It’s cheesy pulp sci-fi done as epic: national and world-spanning in scope, drenched in apocalyptic dread and patriotic defiance, with implacably hostile collectivist aliens pitted against scrappy, courageous, freedom-loving humans. This may or may not sound appealing to you, but to the film’s credit is unambiguously knows what it’s trying to be and doesn’t make any apologies for it.

There are a lot of things to like about this movie. In the first place, it’s huge. Four main characters, each one carrying a small cast of supporting characters, a world-spanning plot involving a large-scale alien invasion targeting the major cities of the globe, huge airborne battles…it’s just a grand, glorious spectacle. Yet, amazingly enough, the film still manages to keep the focus largely on the people involved: we see these events through their eyes, and the real story of the film is how it affects them. It’s not done brilliantly, but it works; we very rarely leave the perspective of one of our leads, and then only briefly to illustrate things that they are talking or thinkings about. For instance, late in the film we have a brief glimpse of various armies around the world receiving and responding to the President’s call for a united counter-attack, but we quickly cut back to where the President and his military aids are receiving the answers.

At the same time, though, the four interconnected storylines make the film seem anything but constrained. On the contrary, the multiple-perspective format gives the story an epic feel that few subsequent blockbusters (Armageddon, Transformers, etc.) have successfully imitated. This is in stark contrast with Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which though in some ways a better film was rendered all-but unbearable by the fact that we spent the whole thing welded to three boring and irritating characters.

The leads here, meanwhile, are all charismatic and likable (though some might find Jeff Goldblum’s stammering speaking style annoying), as are most of the supporting characters. They’re not especially original, but they’re pleasant enough company. I particularly like Robert Loggia as the President’s right-hand general and Judd Hirsch as Goldblum’s father.

More than that, though, it’s just a really good story and well-done adventure. It’s grand and epic, but also keeps focused. Appropriate for a film about the Fourth of July, the theme is pitting freedom and the American way of life against the encroaching forces of collectivist aliens backed with all-powerful technology. When, after the opening salvos, we see the Statue of Liberty lying broken in New York harbor we understand what the battle is really about.

The film’s theme plays out in the lives of its characters, who all start off having forgotten what’s really important, which they rediscover throughout the film, even as they have to defend the American way of life from the implacable hostility of the alien menace. Levinson and his wife have divorced due to their divergent career paths, with her working on the White House staff while he wastes his talents at a dead-end cable job. Whitmore’s caught up in politics and has lost his authority. Hiller dithers about marrying his girlfriend for fear of how it will affect his career. And Casse is a drunken wreck who can barely take care of his family. All the characters are then forced to reexamine their lives and ‘re-center’ on what really matters: family, faith, and country.

The four leads provide an interesting cross-section of American society about the mid-nineties: blue collar, white collar, military, politics; Black, White, Jewish; married, unmarried, widowed, divorced. The film is thus about as representative of the American way of life of the time as could be asked for. We see that the characters in the opening don’t appreciate what they have in that way of life, being lost amid their petty concerns and self-destructive behavior. It’s only when their world is threatened that they begin to re-orientate their lives around the values they’ve neglected for so long, and it is this that gives them the power to strike back.

On the other hand, the aliens prove to be the reverse of those values; they’re a kind of hive-mind, with little or no individual personality, each subject to the collective. They have no home and no land of their own: they simply move from planet to planet taking whatever they need like locusts and moving on when they’re done. When asked if there’s any possibility of the two species co-existing, they bluntly respond that there can be no peace between them.

In this context, it’s significant that the film explicitly describes the aliens as having bodies ‘just as frail as ours.’ All men, and aliens, are created equal; the aliens just have better technology that allows them to impose their will upon the earth. Once mankind figures out a way around that technology, the fight becomes more even.

The specifics of that method have justly been called out as ridiculous, but, again, that’s not really the point. All they needed was a semi-plausible excuse to bring down the alien shields, and a computer virus works as well as any other (the fact that the aliens were previously established to have been using the Earth’s satellites in their attack lends it just enough pseudo-validity to work in context). The important thing was how the idea was given (amid a heart-to-heart between Levinson and his father about the need to go on hoping) and what it leads to (a last-ditch battle for freedom).

I could go on about it, but suffice to say, I think it’s a really good movie. Yes, it’s kinda stupid, yes it’s cheesy and overblown, but at the end of the day it succeeds in being exactly what it sets out to be, which is a big-budget, large-scale version of a classic sci-fi b-movie. It has pleasant characters, great visuals, and tells a simple, but solid story. All in all, it’s one of my favorites.

Shared Universe Thoughts

Expanding on what I said below on The Mummy, I would be all in favor of a new Universal Horror shared universe, but only if it were actually horror. You know, creeping dread, unsettling suggestions, icy fingers down your spine…any of this sound at all familiar? Then you could build up to having big set-pieces where the monsters run amok with each other, but always grounded in more immediate horror. Dracula isn’t scary when he’s wiping out armies single-handedly; he’s scary when he’s lurking about outside someone’s house, calling them to come embrace their own destruction.

Interestingly enough, I think Freddy vs. Jason (odd how often I return to that film) did this pretty well; the film is fast-paced and basically a comic book, but to their credit the filmmakers actually took their time and at least tried to scare us in the film’s early stages. Like when you see Jason is hanging about outside 1428 Elm…then one of the characters discovers the back door open. We know perfectly well what he’s capable of, but we’re not sure what he’s going to do here. Or the scene at the police station, where the heroine suddenly finds herself all alone, with a lot of ‘Missing Child’ posters. In other words, though the point of the film is the big, action-packed set piece, the filmmakers never forgot that this is first and foremost supposed to be a horror film and did their best to scare people as well and entertain them.

That’s really the big problem with most of the shared universe films that are trying to ape Marvel: they’re in such a rush to cash in that they throw everything they have in at once. Marvel took its time: it had five films under its belt laying the foundation before The Avengers, any one of which could more or less stand on its own (except Iron Man 2, which was of course a sequel). The DC films jumped immediately into bringing Batman and Wonder Woman into things (not to mention Doomsday and the Death of Superman a mere two films in), while Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman all had cameos, then they backfilled some of the villains in Suicide Squad with Joker, Harley, Deadshot, Killer Croc, and so on. The fact that almost all these characters fell flat only adds to the sense of desperation. Meanwhile, the horror films seem so desperate to be a tentpole franchise that they’re throwing in all this stupid CG action that neither works as horror (half the movies that come out have some major landmark destroyed in almost the same fashion: it’s not scary) nor, from the looks of it, as pulpy adventure (as in the Stephan Summer Mummy movies).

Actually, the only such shared universe that seems to be working is the kaiju-verse, and surprise! They took their time, with standalone Godzilla and Kong films before the two are scheduled to meet in the big crossover event. Moreover, the standalone films don’t seem like they’re just there to set up a big crossover; they actually feel like real films that someone wanted to make for their own sake.

Anyway, no one’s touching Marvel’s achievement for a long time to come, and DC’s failures only make Marvel’s triumph that much more impressive. Now if they could only do something about fixing their comics department, and by ‘fixing’ I mean ‘cleaning house with a flamethrower.’

So…What Do I Get for my Income Tax?

A scene from the 1938 Frank Capra classic (pardon my repetition) You Can’t Take it With You. 

The sad thing is, the things listed here would actually be worth paying for. I’d kill to have my income tax only go to pay for battleships and government salaries.

The clip is also interesting for featuring a really incredible set of star-power packed into five minutes of film. That the legendary Lionel Barrymore as Grandpa Vanderhof, the all-but-immortal Charles Lane (who was still making films in the 1990s) as the IRS man, James Stewart as young Kirby, and the inimitable Jean Arthur as Alice. Meanwhile, in the background, you can see character actors Ann Miller, Spring Byington, Samuel S. Hinds, and Halliwell Hobbs.

Amazingly enough, that doesn’t even come close to exhausting the familiar faces in this film: Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (most famous for the Jack Benny Program, and probably the premier Black comedian of the time) is on hand as the shiftless boyfriend of the family maid, hamtastic character actor Mischa Auer is a mad Russian ballet teacher, Edward Arnold is Kirby senior (giving the stand-out performance of the film), Donald Meek is another house guest, and H.B. Warner (one day to be Mr. Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life) shows up as a ruined businessman. And all directed by one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

Of course, the real point of the above scene is that Grandpa doesn’t need anything from the government. In fact, they don’t need anything from anyone. Interestingly, part of the reason they don’t need anything is because they have the right to private property; Grandpa owns the house in New York City that they live in (truly the past is another country) and can basically do what he likes with it. If he wants to invite any interesting stranger to come and stay, and if they happen to stay for decades on end, well, what of it? It’s his house.

This is a frequent theme in Capra’s works; skepticism of the rich is blended with a strong regard for property rights, because, in Capra’s view, the right to own property ensures individual liberty. The Vanderhof family can do as they like and ask nothing from anyone because they own their own house.

Owning their own property also allows them to be charitable and contribute to society. The Vanderhof’s aren’t idle bums; they (in Grandpa’s words) “Toil a little, spin a little, and have a barrel of laughs.” Everyone produces something, and no one asks for charity (well, except for Rochester’s character, who’s a lovable bum…but so is Micha Auer’s character).

This calls to mind Ephesians 4:28 “He that stole, let him now steal no more; but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have something to give to him that suffereth need,” which brings me to the other reason the Vanderhof’s don’t need anything from the government: faith and family. They support each other, and God supports all of them. Grandpa makes this explicit right off the bat when asked who takes care of them; “The same one who takes care of the lilies of the field,” and further emphasized by the scenes of him offering grace that bookend the story.

Personally, I’m very skeptical of Chesterton’s notion of ‘Distributism.’ Brilliant as he was, he had a glaring blind spot as far as economics were concerned (something he shared with many other brilliant men, including Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. It seems the qualities that make for philosophical genius tend to create gaps as far as economics are concerned). However, as an ideal for individuals, a self-sufficient household that asks nothing and produces worthwhile goods to support itself is something worth striving for. It is a very Christian and Biblical notion; each family supporting itself and providing charity to those in need from its own property, bound together by shared faith and love.

Property, faith, and family are the trinity that allows for individual liberty. In our world, we’ve largely lost all three to the extent that we hardly know what we have lost.