Friday, July 31, 2015

"Hold Still" by Sally Mann (2015)

I wrote a short piece about a photo of Ms. Mann’s back in 2011. It received thousands of “hits” and dozens of comments. The other day I was at the library; not an unusual occurrence; when I saw that Ms. Mann has a new book out. It’s her memoirs, complete with some of her more well-known photographs and the stories behind them. One of those photos is “Candy Cigarette” which is the one that caught my eye about 4 years ago resulting in my post about it.

The best thing about finding Ms. Mann’s memoirs was learning just how wrong I was in my interpretation of that photo; though I was evidently not alone in what I saw in it. Art is like that; there is always the meaning which the artist has invested in the work; but there is also the response of the person who is viewing that art, or listening to the music created, bringing their own concepts to the work. Both are valid. Still, it is quite the treat to find out how far afield you might be from what the artist; in this case photographer; really had in mind.

Quoting Ms. Mann on the “Candy Cigarette” photo;

“The candy cigarette here was just a candy cigarette, not a metaphor for a life on the streets. Jessie’s vamping was just that, not a predictor of future pathology. Virginia’s back turned to the camera did not mean anything except it was easier to yell at Emmett that way, and the stilts in the background were just stilts, not phallic symbols. All these interpretations of this fictionalized fraction of a second have been posited, as have many more, sometimes to our amusement and sometimes to our distress.

The entire book is readable and illustrated with some of her most interesting photos. If you are unfamiliar with Ms. Mann’s work, then this book is a wonderfully novel way to become so. You will quickly see why she is ranked among the greatest of American photographers.

By the way, I made all the mistakes in my interpretation of “Candy Cigarettes” which Ms. Mann lists except the one about the stilts; which seemed to me to be too thin. At any rate; and for Ms. Mann’s amusement; here is an unapologetic reprise of my post about that photograph;


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

"Camp X-Ray" with Kirsten Stewart and Payman Maadi (2014)

This is a terrible movie. It would have you believe that our soldiers are unthinking and unfeeling automatons, and also that women do not belong in the military. They are too emotional. Those are not my beliefs; but that is the message of this film.

Payman Maadi plays an Islamic man who is abducted from his home in a Muslim country after 9-11. No reason is given. He is a poet and an intellectual- they let you know that. He is transported to Gitmo and is still there 8 years later when Stewart arrives.

Almost immediately we are treated to scenes of the soldiers drunken revelry in their off time; and to some extent this is fairly accurate. Having been to Gitmo several times I can attest to that. But for every soldier or sailor encountered being drunk, there are a half dozen taking college courses and working on furthering their careers.

As far as Stewarts behavior goes; when confronted by the detainees who believe her to be unfit to guard them, she does everything to prove their point. She allows herself to become emotionally involved with Maadi’s character and places herself as well as her teammates in jeopardy as a result.

This film is an attempt to persuade you that all of the detainees in Gitmo were snatched willy nilly from all over the Arab world in a misguided attempt to make ourselves feel better after 9-11. There may be some truth to that, but the majority of detainees were rounded up after intelligence gathering had unearthed their names in terrorist data bases. To be sure, there were some innocents who were caught up in the madness; this can’t be denied. But to paint with such a broad brush is irresponsible and ridiculous.

So, if you are looking for a film to insult your intelligence; as well as reinforce the stereotype of women not being fit to serve in the Armed Forces, and guard prisoners; this film is for you.

Interesting note: People who feel that women should not be serving in the Armed Forces are in agreement with the terrorists who hold women to be second class citizens at best. The soldiers who abuse Ms. Stewart in this film are of the same mind set as the Islamic fundamentalists. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

"The Great Fire" by Lou Ureneck (2015)

I’m not exactly sure why both the media and historians have chosen 2015 to commemorate the Armenian Massacre as the first Genocide of the 20th Century.  The first of the killings began in 1912 as the Ottoman Empire continued to crumble from lack of new lands to conquer and tax. This trend had begun in the 1800’s and by the early part of the 20th Century the Ottoman Empire; as such; was doomed. But the massacres began before 1915 and continued on through 1922 and the events at Smyrna; in present day Izmir. This book is chiefly about the massacre at Smyrna; though the author also does a masterful job of giving the reader the entire historical context which led up to it.

Nothing ever really changes in reference to the Middle East and Islam. The lines change; the names change; but the killings go on. IN this masterfully written account of the Massacre at Smyrna in 1922 author Lou Ureneck does a masterful job at bringing to life one of the most awful historical events of the early 20th century. That he does so in such a way as to leave the reader more informed about the present day political situation in regards to ISIS and ISIL makes the book even more remarkable.

They say that the only thing new is the history you don’t know; and this book serves to prove the point. When the First World War came to an end for most of the world, the Greeks and Turks were still fighting. The Ottoman Empire had been scaled back and the Turks were fighting to keep all of the land that they could. 

Mustapha Kemal; who is known more widely as Ataturk, would become the man who would lead Turkey into the 20th Century and remake the nation as a secular one. That struggle continues today with the Turkish government doing a tightrope walk between the secular principles established by Kemal, and the pull of radical Islam in the form of ISIS.

The Greeks were fighting the Turks for several reasons; chief among them being that King Constantine was deemed at fault for losing the war to the Ottomans and he was also being opposed by Greek Nationalists, who would eventually remove him in the days following the events at Smyrna. 

The heroes of this book are a sickly missionary named Asa Jennings; and 2 feisty young American naval Lt. Commanders named Halsey Powell and J.B. Rhodes. Together these 3 men bucked a callous and unfeeling Admiral named Mark Bristol and essentially formulated their own foreign policy in order to save almost a million people from being slaughtered on the Quay in Smyrna.

Against the wishes of the Turkish government; and under the most severe of conditions; these 3 men organized a relief effort to remove the helpless Armenian Christians to a safer haven. How they did this, in the age before instant communication, is an unbelievable story of human compassion and the will to do what is right.

This book will do more to inform the reader of the current situation in the Middle East than a month of reading today’s newspapers. Between these covers lay the history of the Ottoman Empire and how it has grown and ebbed in the past; providing a window to the present for those who will take the time and thought to make the connections.

The following excerpts are from Ernest Hemingway’s “On the Quay at Smyrna” and are quoted by the author in the book. They will do more to move you than anything I can hope to write. I offer them here as an inducement for you to read this masterfully written account by Mr. Ureneck.

“The strange thing was,” he said, “how they screamed every night at midnight. I do not know why they screamed at that time. We were in the harbor and they were all on the pier and at midnight they started screaming. We used to turn the searchlight on them to quiet them. That always did the trick. We'd run the searchlight up and down over them two or three times and they stopped it.”

“The worst,” he said, “were the women with dead babies. You couldn't get the women to give up their dead babies. They'd have babies dead for six days. Wouldn't give them up. Nothing you could do about it. Had to take them away finally…”

Also consider this quote from page 243 of the text; 

“At 4AM on May 26, 1908, the drill struck oil, and it gushed 50 feet over the rig. A young British Lieutenant who was present, along with 20 rifleman to protect the operation against bandits, sent the news back to the British government in code; “See Pslam 104 Verse 15 third sentence.”  The passage read; “And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face shine…”

“Gusher followed gusher, and the Near East oil industry was born. In 1909, the British syndicate was reformulated under as the Anglo- Persian Oil Company; later to be named BP, British Petroleum.”

“All this, by way of a winding road, led to World War One, the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, Smyrna, and (Admiral) Bristol’s inexcusable response to a humanitarian disaster.”

Friday, July 24, 2015

The 14th Amendment

On February 8, 1861 the seven Southern States announced their secession from the Union they had pledged to join under the Constitution which included Article 1 Section 2; and a 3/5 of a person rule as far as slaves were concerned. This gave the more rural Southern states representation based on a population that included many slaves; whose votes went to their owners under the 3/5 provision. This was of course changed by the 14th Amendment in 1869.

The South violated the Constitution in seceding from the Union by claiming a Right under the 10th Amendment; which gives the States rights over certain issues; or powers; not relegated to the Federal Government. It sounds nice; but seceding violated Article 1 Section 4 which prohibits states from leaving the Union.

The 14th Amendment was, however, enacted under strange circumstances as the South was just getting back on its feet and re-establishing their state legislatures. North Carolina and South Carolina were the last 2 states to ratify the 14th Amendment, and only did so under duress. The 39th Congress made it mandatory for the states to ratify the Amendment as a condition of rejoining the Union. There are parts of the South where Amendment 14 is openly despised, and there has even been talk of trying to abolish it by Amendment, in much the same way as Prohibition; the 18th Amendment; was later repealed by the 21st Amendment.

This may sound far-fetched, but it’s really not. The crux of the argument for repeal would be that the states have a right under Article 1, Section 4; which gives the states the right to proscribe the time, place and manner in which to hold elections. That argument would hold that the state legislatures of the South; particularly North Carolina and South Carolina; were mandated to approve the 14th Amendment as a condition to re-join the Union. But a closer inspection of the text reveals that though they have that right, Congress may change or alter that law except for the choosing of Senators. Still, it would be a messy battle with much at stake.

As time went on the 14th Amendment became the “go to place” to fit in every perceived “right” which Americans wanted to include. Although I am in agreement with the issues at hand, I also think the 14th Amendment has become so overburdened that should it ever be repealed or amended it would affect many areas of our society. The 14th Amendment has become the easy path for expanding rights in all sorts of instances.

This sort of overburdening was not begun until after Women’s Suffrage; the 19th Amendment; which could have been added to the 15th Amendment giving the right to Vote to all men of any race. The problem with that would have been the ensuing call for universal suffrage at a time when black men were still routinely barred from voting in the Southern states. The implication of the 19th Amendment was that it had nothing to do with the precedent set up by the 15h Amendment. In other words; blacks were still not going to be able to vote. This is one of the instances in which bundling like-minded legislation would have resulted in a positive change.

Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Act both have their underpinnings in the 14th Amendment, and these protections should have been tacked onto that Amendment; making it stronger.

But the 14th Amendment now holds the Miranda Decision; which should have been founded under the 5th Amendment; the right to have due process; which would include an attorney and the right to remain silent.

Abortion and Same Sex Marriage are both rights which should have been held to exist under the 9th Amendment; “the enumeration of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

This may all seem to be unimportant; and perhaps it is just a “parlor game” which I like to play when I have nothing better to do. But think of it this way; you’re mailing all of your valuables to a new home. Do you put them all in one envelope, or do you break it up into several packages so that you don’t lose it all in one shot? To put it more simply; you just don’t put all your eggs in one basket. This is especially true when there are other baskets lying around, waiting to be used.

Monday, July 20, 2015

"Cinderella Man" with Russell Crowe, Paul Giamatti and Renee Zellweger (2005)

Okay, I’m 10 years behind on this film. I didn’t like the cover. Really, I’m a victim of choosing books and movies by their covers; in spite of the age old adage which advises against the practice. I always like to point out the many wonderful books and movies I have been exposed to using my method; but I sometimes feel that I may be missing out on an equal number of really great books and movies simply because they have lousy covers. The only defense I can give is that I can’t read and watch everything, so I’ll have to stick with my somewhat flawed system.

James Braddock was an American boxer who rose to prominence in the late 1920’s, peaking in 1929 when he was defeated in a fight that would have placed him in position to go for the championship. With that defeat began a 4 year odyssey of day jobs, dock work and even asking former friends and acquaintances for handouts. During this time his family was near starvation as the Great Depression gripped the country. The cities were often hit the hardest, simply because of the amount of people looking for the few jobs that were available.

Renee Zellweger is absolutely perfect as Braddock’s wife; standing by her man when the food is all gone and the power shut off. With 4 kids to provide for she often went hungry herself so that the children could eat. Braddock also skipped meals to help keep the family together, but at one point his wife is forced to send the children to stay with relatives until she and Jim can get the power back on and put some food on the table.

Braddock’s big break comes in the form of an offer to fight Max Baer, the boxing champion who had already killed 2 men in the ring. You know you are down on your luck when your biggest break is fighting someone like Max Baer. To get an idea of how big he was physically, look no further than Jethro on the Beverly Hillbillies. That’s Max Baer, Jr., the son of the legendary fighter.

With no other prospects open to him, Braddock decides to take the fight. His former manager, played with great effect by Paul Giamatti, advances him several hundred dollars to get back in shape for the event. He got the money by hocking all of his furniture.

As the training progresses the press has a wonderful time pitting the two men against one another. Max Baer warns Braddock against fighting him. He even reminds Braddock that he has killed 2 men in the ring already and would love to make Braddock number 3; if only to be able to comfort the widow. (At this point in the film I was ready to fight the son of a bitch myself!)

Braddock wins the brutal fight in a match which stuns both the spectators and especially the press; which had been openly scornful of Braddock’s attempt at a comeback. The fight sequences are staged extremely well, with both fighters pummeling like pistons in an effort to bring the other one down. Although Braddock doesn’t knock Baer out, he has clearly taxed the other man to a draw, making him the winner over the arrogant “Champ.” (I was actually cheering at the end of the fight when he defeats Baer.)

A great screenplay by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman; from the story by Mr. Hollingsworth; this film was done very well by one of the best directors of our time, Opie Taylor; I mean Ron Howard. I doubt if anyone else missed this film, but if you did, it’s not too late. And aside from seeing a great movie, you will save me the dubious distinction of having been the last person to see it…

Friday, July 17, 2015

"Go Set a Watchman" by Harper Lee (2015)

I have been waiting for this book since 1966 when I first read “To Kill a Mockingbird”. I was 12 years old and found the book in the school library. The title intrigued me, and the book became a lifelong friend. I had not yet seen the movie and had only just taken my first trip down south with my family. The South was still the south of Jim Crow; though in its dying day at the time.

Here is the short version: Scout comes home and finds the idyllic town changed; it is charged with a racism she never saw in her sepia toned memory. The dichotomy of the Southerner at the time of this novel was that of Christian values versus Anglo-Saxon supremacy. You can throw in the Civil War if you’d like, though I doubt it would make much difference. This was a dying culture which; after almost 100 years; was still advocating gradualism at a time when the people affected were demanding change “now”.

Scout discovers her father is human and has a need of being able to control that change in society which; though inevitable; could be delayed under the guise of Christianity and Gradualism, much to Scout’s dismay. The conflict which ensues takes her back through some of her own memories; as well as new discoveries. Just as she is about to leave Maycomb for good her Uncle Jack has a final confrontation with her in which he sets her straight on the history and experience of Civil Rights as he sees it. He is surprisingly adept at turning Scout’s mind around about leaving the South forever. He feels that to truly change the place she needs to come home and lead by example.

The dialogue in some spots is over emoted; but the messages on both sides of the issue are clearly stated. And the dilemma of the Southerner of Scout’s generation is laid bare; were the sepia toned memories just that? Or were things really better for everyone concerned when the lines of demarcation were more clearly defined? And, finally, is there really a middle ground to this issue at all?

Well worth the wait and thanks to Sue for buying this for me at lunchtime on Tuesday when it was released. Now, my more detailed analysis;

I have been waiting for this book since 1966 when I first read “To Kill a Mockingbird”. I was 12 years old and found the book in the school library. The title intrigued me, and the book became a lifelong friend. I had not yet seen the movie and had only just taken my first trip down south with my family. The South was still the south of Jim Crow; though in its dying day at the time.

Marja Mills book “The Mockingbirds Next Door” is almost a pre-requisite if you are to get the full benefit of this book. That book, written with the help and consent of Ms. Lee and her older sister Alice, chronicled the real life of the 2 sisters who lived in a modest house; eschewing many modern conveniences, and choosing mostly to communicate by fax machine, even with their neighbors and closest friends. An understanding of the iconic author’s day to day life in her later years will go a long way towards understanding the full scope of this book. In addition you will see Scout as Jean Louise; and vice versa.

To begin with the reader must be familiar with the title’s origin in Scripture. It appears in Isaiah 21:6 which reads “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”

There is an article on Alabama.com by Wayne Flynt, a friend of Harper Lee and the Baptist minister who appears in Marja Mills book; his take on the title, from his view as a Baptist minister; is that “Go Set a Watchman’ means, ‘Somebody needs to be the moral compass of this town. ‘Isaiah was a prophet. God had set him as a watchman over Israel. It’s really God speaking to the Hebrews, saying what you need to do is set a watchman, to set you straight, to keep you on the right path. What more elegant title could there be?”

The intent of the title is to set the tone of the 1950’s against the more sepia like era of the 1930’s, when everybody had a defined place in the local social structure. The upheaval of the Civil Rights movement threatened to knock many Christians off the true path; hence the reminder to set a watchman against that occurrence. Now that we understand that we can deal with the book itself.

When Jean Finch returns home from New York City to the small town of Maycomb she is almost immediately aware of a sea change in the attitudes of the white residents towards the town’s Negro population. She is taken aback by this; after all she was raised, like so many others of her generation; by a “colored” woman whom she had always considered to be a surrogate mother. Her own mother passed away before she was old enough to remember. Indeed it was the reliable Calpurnia who ushered the confused Jean Louise into womanhood; making up for the lack of a mother to impart that information which is so necessary for a daughter to know.

To further confuse; make that infuriate her; is that both her intended fiancĂ©e Hank, and her father, Atticus; whom she idolizes; have both become involved with the White Citizen’s Council in a quest to thwart the advance of the NAACP and the Civil Rights Movement in their town. Scout is appalled at what she sees while looking on at a meeting of the group in the very courthouse where Atticus had so eloquently defended Tom Robinson for a crime he did not commit in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” She cannot reconcile the man she knew then with the man she sees before her now.

Complicating the situation is the drunken driving accident by one of the Calpurnia’s children; which kills a white man. Mr. Finch has been asked to defend him. His partner Hank; the prospective son-in law; refuses the case in Atticus’ name, but Atticus takes the case anyway. His motive, however, is suspect to Jean Louise when she hears him state that if he doesn’t take it and plead guilty, then some NAACP attorneys will show up to defend him, bringing change; and possibly even violence; to the town. He is also an adherent of White Supremacy, which makes his daughter despise him even more.

It is interesting to note that Jean Louise; early on in the book; faces the dichotomy which is inherent in most Southerners of her era; a total distrust of everything from Washington, D.C. In Jean Louise’s case this distrust begins early on in the narrative; before she learns of her father’s racist attitudes.

She remembers the patch of earth by the school where she used to play a game called “Tip Top”. That area was paved over by a WPA project and resulted in so many skinned knees that the children were forced to play elsewhere. This, she says, was her first taste of that resistance to change. To put it more plainly; she is saying that not only had the federal government changed the rules; but also the game. This metaphor comes back to haunt her later on when she is forced to deal with her Uncle Jack who just may be the real hero of this story.

But it is how her father and the citizens of Maycomb handle that change is what drives her distaste for them. Even reliable Calpurnia, who raised Jean Louise and her brother Jem, has changed. She now admits to having hated the system under which she so faithfully served the Finch’s; calling into question whether that love which Jean Louise perceived was real.  And if it wasn’t; then the question arises, what is real and what is not? What is right and what is wrong? Remember, this was supposed to be a relaxing summer trip home…

As she comes close to the verge of leaving Maycomb for good it is her beloved Uncle Jack; lost in his own world of reverie; who saves the day and makes her understand that we are all bigots in our own ways. He also makes her realize that the only way to change Maycomb for the better might be if she came home to live there, leading by quiet example rather than urging sudden change from afar. (Uncle Jack also imparts a secret to Jean Louise which will surprise the reader; I know it did me!)

This book was written before “To Kill a Mockingbird” and in some ways is its polar opposite. The sepia toned Maycomb of that book is a child’s view of life in the Jim Crow south. “Go Set a Watchman” is a mature; though sometimes jarring; look at the realities beyond the rosy pictures we all tend to paint of our own, sometimes flawed lives.

For the review of the Marja Mills book "The Mockingbird Next Door" see the following link;

http://robertwilliamsofbrooklyn.blogspot.com/2015/02/the-mockingbird-next-door-by-marja.html

Monday, July 13, 2015

"Now and Then" by Joseph Heller (1998)

I’ve been re-reading some of my favorite books in the past few weeks. In “thinning out the herd” of the books which I have accumulated over the past years I ran across this book about growing up in Brooklyn’s Coney Island area during the Great Depression.

The book is filled with everything good about that experience. The walks to and from school, the street games played by all kids, the foods in the area around the Boardwalk, the subway, the stores; it’s all written in a wonderfully engaging style.

Joseph Heller is the author who bought us the sensational novel of wartime futility “Catch 22”. He had a unique insight into that subject as he served in the Second World War under similar circumstances to those in his iconic novel. That experience is also briefly covered here as well as the author's childhood years.

But the real joy of this book; at least for those who grow there; are his recollections of Brooklyn in what Woody Allen would later refer to as “Radio Days.” If you have parents, or even grandparents who grew up in Brooklyn during the Depression, then this book is a unique look into the world they inhabited and an insight into just who they were as people. And that's a key to who we, as their children; and later, their grandchildren; became.