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October 29, 2007

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The Devil's Playground

Five years after this documentary was released, its topic of concern--the Amish tradition of letting their kids run wild while they decide whether or not to enter the church--has become a staple of lazy writers on primetime dramas. ER and Law and Order, among others, have both featured rumspringa episodes. Typically, these shows use the Amish angle as a big reveal: those kids can't get their parent's permission for an operation, because they've been shunned! (Dun-dun-DUNNNN! cries the dramatic chipmunk from the back of the audience.)

But if memory serves correctly, television writers exploiting this dramatic device rarely allow the religious tendencies to overwhelm the feel-good resolution of their storyline, either because they believe that people couldn't possibly be so terrible or because there's an unspoken prohibition to hinting that radical religious sects really might just be a little crazy. And the Amish kids depicted, as far as I remember, are usually good citizens who have just landed in a tight spot.

What's noteworthy about The Devil's Playground is that it not only inspired these depictions, but that its takeaway message is so far from those heartwarming moments. If there is a subtle way to point out that the Amish are, in some ways, terribly cruel and manipulative of their children in the interest of "religious freedom," Devil's Playground does so, simply by laying out their actions in a dispassionate--even distant--light.

The filmmakers follow a set of Amish youth who, during this traditional ritual, are no longer required to behave according to the dictates of Amish society. So they can own and drive cars, watch TV, drink, and dance, and their parents do little more than register disapproval of this behavior. Unsurprisingly, like the kid you knew in college who was raised a strict Christian and suddenly let free, the Amish kids go completely overboard. One of them, Faron, is even a meth dealer--one that snitches on a couple of other Amish drug dealers to the local police, earning death threats and social ostracism. I never thought I would write the words "Amish drug dealers" except as a joke, but there you go. The police, it must be said, wearily see the Amish teenagers as trouble.

In theory, the Amish say, this period of teenage rebellion is meant to be a taste of the outside world, so that the kids can make a free decision whether or not to go into the church and remove themselves from the wider world. In practice, The Devil's Playground shows a religious culture that stacks the deck against these kids before they can make that choice. Not only are they tossed with little preparation into an exaggeration of normal life, but (one teenager points out) they're forced to stop schooling in the 8th grade, meaning that they would have no real chance of getting a decent job or going to college. They've got no future in anything other than service-industry or manufacturing jobs. What choice do they really have? Is it any wonder that only 10 percent break free?

I always thought of the Amish as cute, bearded people who make chairs and crafts and raise barns for fun. And granted, they're not violent or overtly ill-disposed. But between their regressive sexual politics and this hazing-like parenting ritual, The Devil's Playground presents a picture that's not nearly so adorable. It does so simply and without any malice towards its subjects--I'm sure the Amish who watch it would feel that they're treated fairly--but it's not flattering. And to some extent, it raises the question of what people should be able to excuse with religion. In any other context, when kids are deprived of their education and then abandoned to their own devices to choose between the horns of a dilemma, would we just let it happen?

July 5, 2007

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What better way to celebrate the Fourth of July than with a Michael Moore movie?

Sicko (I will not bow to anyone's ridiculous capitalization schemes) has less Moore, pardon the pun, than previous documentaries, but probably provokes more thought. It is, as the director himself states in the film and several pundits have noticed, as much a movie about who we as Americans want to be as it is about health care. Do we want to be a nation that forces people to choose which finger they can afford to have reattached? Should we be a country that quibbles over health care for 9/11 volunteers, now suffering from pulmonary problems due to the hazardous dust?

It's easy to see this movie from my perspective and say no, we shouldn't be that kind of country. And I think it's remarkably persuasive at making that point, both in showing the advantages of other health care systems and by noting the other areas where America has implemented "socialized" government (education, transit, libraries, etc.)

It's persuasive to me, but I'm practically a socialist already. I don't know how it plays to the kind of people that think the government should be devoted only to invading countries and funding churches. I have a feeling that a lot of people will not be able to see beyond the idea of corporations and economies as the root level of the American system. Many people tend to forget that those corporations and economies are in fact composed of people just like us--or they choose to believe that the people are less important than the economic machines they constitute.

As for Sicko, if there's one weak point, it's probably Moore's trip to Cuba. He's not a subtle man, but you can see admirable restraint in the rest of the film: in fact, he often frames himself as the ridiculous American, unable to believe that the English, French, and Canadian systems provide such caring service. Moore's awkward bulk becomes a kind of sight gag, as well as a symbol of American prejudices on the issue. Sadly, he abandons that light touch for his jabs at Guantanamo, and the last third of the film suffers a little for it--not enough to falter completely, but enough that you wish he'd just get on with it.

April 16, 2007

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This Film Is Not Yet Rated

The first thing that you take away from This Film Is Not Yet Rated is a genuine distaste for Jack Valenti, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America from 1966 to 2004. The documentary's subject is the troubling mechanics and implications of the MPAA's film rating system, particularly the NC-17 rating when applied to sex and violence. Since he created and strongly advocated for the rating system, Valenti--whose swollen visage at times resembles a grandfatherly pumpkin--is featured prominently in archive footage, bookended by examples that directly undercut his words.

The second thing, oddly, is sympathy for the ratings board. The MPAA insists that its raters (all of whom, it says, are parents of children between the ages of 5 and 17) must remain anonymous to do their jobs well, a fact that galls a number of the interviewed filmmakers like Matt Stone and Kevin Smith. In response, director Kirby Dick hires a private detective to track down the raters and manages to find 11 out of twelve. These parts of the film evoke the most mixed feelings, and seem to have been the most controversial. On the one hand, it's genuinely enjoyable to watch the investigator (a middle-aged lesbian named Becky) as she tracks down the raters using a mix of surveillance and social engineering. On the other hand, it does seem like an invasion of privacy. In the end, for me at least, I think the investigative stunt proves worthwhile, because if these raters are supposed to represent "the public" we should be able to see the sample. Unlike other reviewers, I don't think Dick mocks the subjects--he simply uses them to show that they're not who the MPAA says they are: they're older, mostly White, and probably wealthy, with kids that probably long ago left home.

Not Yet Rated is on more solid ground when it discusses the inconsistencies of the ratings board, particularly when it comes to the differences between sex and violence. Put simply, the board is much more tolerant of violence than sex, and it's far more tolerant of heterosexual sex than homosexual pairings or group sex. Dick illustrates the latter by putting scenes with nearly-identical framing and action next to each other, one gay (NC-17) and one straight (R). It's not convincing on its own, but collectively the evidence shows an agency that's increasingly puritanical about the bedroom, but also increasingly permissive when it comes to violence.

The occassional stunts and gimmicks used throughout Not Yet Rated, as have become traditional in pop-culture documentaries, can be hit or miss. But one of the big hits, and the dramatic climax of the film, comes when Dick submits the documentary itself--including its reveal of rater identities--to the MPAA for a rating, receiving an NC-17 (most likely for the clips shown of sex and violence from other, similarly-rated films). Upon appeal, the draconian nature of the entire process is highlighted (and supported by testimony from other filmmakers). Dick is not allowed to refer to other films that have received ratings by way of comparison, nor is he allowed to know the identities of the members of the appeals board (which, we discover, includes two members of clergy). Repeating her performance from the first ratings board, Becky the detective hunts down the appeals board members despite the best efforts of the MPAA. The result is a checklist of distributors, cinema chain VIPs, and studio executives, confirming the industry's control of its own rating system. Needless to say, the appeal is denied, and the current version of the film is unrated.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated provides few solutions for the problem, other than to advocate for a government-run board, which could be appealed through a standard legal suit and would keep public documentation on its process. I feel that it also draws uncomfortable conclusions about the influence of the media on the populace, a debate that has raged practically since Birth of a Nation. Perhaps it's also cynical to wonder if a government board, particularly given this government, would be any better. But the questions raised by the film are nonetheless thought-provoking, and (especially given how movie ratings are often cited as an example by the gaming and other artistic industries) need to be asked.

And for that matter, as with any movie that revels in the backstage intrigues at the edges of family-friendly entertainment, it's a lot of fun to watch.

February 19, 2007

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Jesus Camp

My thoughts on Jesus Camp were definitely influenced by reading Bob Altemeyer's work on authoritarianism this weekend. If you haven't taken the time to flip through Altemyer's work, here's a basic summary: Altemeyer's research shows that a healthy portion of people fit into a psychological category he calls "Right-Wing Authoritarians," and these people display tendencies for submission to authority, compartmentalized thinking, heightened prejudice and clannishness, and a greater feeling of fearfulness. These people tend to be conservative, but it is not impossible to have Left-Wing Authoritarians, as Stalinism showed. Authoritarians also tend to be very religious, which makes sense, seeing as how organized religion often stresses submission to a supernatural authority.

Jesus Camp, in many ways, showcases these behaviors. It's actually the story of a camp in the Midwest called "Kids on Fire" that trains evangelical Christian children in zealotry and preparation for the end times. It may sound biased to say that they're being trained as zealots, but the organizer (who apparently fully endorsed the film) directly compares it to Islamic training camps and suicide warriors. There's a fair amount of martial metaphors on display here, and a lot of talk about culture warfare that sometimes becomes alarmingly literal. They are the "Army of God."

The directors have focused on three individuals: the pastor Becky Fischer and camp participants Levi and Rachael. Fischer comes across as surprisingly charming and humble, which can be disarming considering that she spends a fair amount of time making the kids cry and leading them in glossolalia. Levi is about ten, with a long rat-tail haircut, and he hopes to be a youth pastor, while Rachael is a little younger and almost desparately earnest about her faith. Both children, however, give off the vibe that they're robotically repeating the lines they were given in church, prompting my diversion into authoritarianism. And perhaps what the film does best is show how insular their lives really are: they're homeschooled from creationist textbooks, watch only Christian movies and television (Becky berates them about the witchcraft of Harry Potter), and seem to talk about little other than Jesus. Their parents even come with them to the camp (Belle: "Worst summer camp ever."). The evangelicals wear this isolation from the rest of society as a badge of pride, even the children--in one heartbreaking interview, Rachael admits that the other kids at school have teased her, but protests that it's only God whose judgement really matters to her, and (here I paraphrase but only slightly) it won't matter when her schoolmates are in hell.

Where Jesus Camp misses the mark is when it fails to emphasize the influence and extent of the evangelical population. When reading books about the movement (and Belle likes to give me a hard time about the number that I own), it's made clear that the religious far-right is a real threat to the country. Jesus Camp tries to make this point in guest-segments from an Air America radio host, but he's really pretty limp and unconvincing. Belle wasn't even sure whose side he was on until half an hour into the movie. It's only toward the end, when Fischer calls into his radio show and admits that democracy is really something she'd prefer to replace with Jesus, that the film feels really substantial.

There are a few moments of sardonic amusement to be had with the evangelicals, especially former pastor Ted Haggard, who appears momentarily when Levi visits his Colorado Springs mega-church. Even though Levi may be a little brainwashed, he still shows enough signs of being a normal, likeable ten-year-old that Haggard's dismissal of his pastoral ambitions hits a little close to home. I might not empathize with Levi's dreams of preaching, but we've all be talked down to by an authority or role model. Of course, neither Levi nor the filmmakers knew what we know now: that Pastor Ted was secretly visiting a gay prostitute for sex and meth sessions, a fact that would lead to his fall from power when it was exposed to the world, and which lends some extra frisson to Haggard's jibes. Randall Terry Lou Engel, the fanatic who protested outside of Terry Schiavo's hospital room with "LIFE" taped across the lips of his companions, also makes a cameo appearance to teach the kids about the evils of abortion. Then there's the horrified looks of the other children when one admits to having watched the Harry Potter movies at his father's house. Rebellion, for these kids, is a low bar to clear.

For viewers who are unfamiliar with the evangelical Christian movement, Jesus Camp may be an eye-opener. But perhaps due to the movie and its buzz a few months back, as well as the increased power and profile of religious leaders within the Republican party, I think it's harder to be blissfully unaware of its subjects, even among urban liberals and heathens. I guess I'm trying to say that I was underwhelmed, but less-obsessed audiences might not be. Regardless of your exposure, it can still be fascinating for outsiders to listen to these believers, who clearly desire nothing more than to be puppets driven by the will of God, without individualism or personal choices.

November 13, 2006

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Review: Long Way Round

When I was in high school, going nuts in a small rural Virginia town, my family used to watch Lonely Planet on the Travel Channel. Our favorites starred a short, gregarious Englishman named Ian, who habitually got drunk on a local beverage. In one South American country, he sat on a park bench with a ranchhand and learned how to pick up women. He would eat anything. Living in the Shenandoah Valley, a place my mother occasionally compares to Communist Russia in terms of accessibility, watching Ian wander around the world in such an infectious good mood was actually a real inspiration for me.

Some of the better aspects that made the Lonely Planet series great are present in Long Way Round. A 7-part series that originally aired on Bravo, it follows Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman as they traveled from London to New York by way of Eastern Europe, Mongolia, Russia, and across the US (i.e., the Long Way Round). It gets off to a slow start as they prepare for the trip, but once the pair starts traveling through the less-developed parts of Europe it becomes more interesting. Perhaps because they're traveling through such backwoods areas, McGregor's fame is basically irrelevant, so he and Boorman (plus their cameraman, Claudio) take part in different cultures unencumbered. One of my favorite moments is a night at a Russian gangster's house, where the host climbs down the stairs to entertain his guests with a guitar in one hand and an AK-47 in the other. They also have prairie oysters in Mongolia, and put up with constant police supervision all through Kazakhstan (quite different from Borat, obviously).

Of course, once they cross into Mongolia and Siberia, the show changes from a mostly feel-good cultural vacation into a harsh slog (for the travelers, not for the viewers), as the motorcycles become bogged down into increasingly boggy and punishing terrain. At points the team has to stop completely as the bikes break, or as the rivers are simply too high to keep going--and at one point on the Road of Bones, even the support team's 4x4s have to be towed across a river crossing by enormous Soviet trucks. Perhaps the best take on this comes from a Russian doctor hired for the trip. "These men, they have families, children," he repeats over and over. "What are you doing this for? Why?"

It's not a question I can answer, because I probably would have given up after the second week. But it makes for pretty good television.

June 13, 2006

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An Inconvenient Truth

Yes, it is basically a movie about Al Gore giving a slideshow. Go ahead, get the jokes out of your system ("Perhaps we could put global warming... in a lock-box.") And then once you're done snickering, go see An Inconvenient Truth. It's really very good, and it's really very important.

The most frustrating thing about the movie is knowing--knowing--that if you try to talk to someone about it (and it really does give you a drive to action, makes you want to save the planet), they're probably going to bring up the same tired objections that all ignorant people use against global warming. "I'm not convinced it's us," they'll say, or "I heard that wasn't solid decided science yet." (Right: because "teach the controversy" has turned out to be such good, ethical advice.) And all those kinds of questions are actually answered by the movie. Gore explains why it is man-made, why there is no scientific controversy, and why we have to make changes now. It is a chilling demonstration, even as he delivers it with wit and good humor.

There are really very small things we can do. Change your light-bulb for one that uses less energy (it'll last longer, too). Move your thermostat up or down by only 2 degrees. There's more good advice at the movie's supporting website, You're helping the planet, and you're lowering your energy bill. You'd honestly have to be malevolent to not support this fight.

I know I'm a soft touch, but I honestly walked out of the theater fired up and looking for ways that I can help. One of them, I hope, is to encourage you to go out and see the movie--but even if you don't (and I understand, money can be tight and it's not out everywhere), just take a look at and see how you can help yourself and the planet at the same time.

July 26, 2005

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Movie Review: Control Room

Compared to Outfoxed, another documentary that covers modern media and propaganda, Control Room is reserved and traditional. It lacks the pop music, open politics, and Powerpoint presentation. For this reason--because Control Room concerns itself with real journalists as they moved through real events--it's a much more persuasive and humanizing effort.

Which is beside the point, really, although it makes a nice introduction. Outfoxed set out to highlight the bias and manipulation of the Fox news network, and used a similarly over-the-top presentation to make its point. It had a nice, blunt thesis statement. In contrast, it's harder to isolate the thesis of Control Room, assuming it has one. The documentary follows producers and reporters from Al Jazeera, the world's most controversial Arab news network, through the first months of the Iraq war.

The title of Control Room could refer to the actual booth where much of the footage takes place, as the producers splice together footage from the war, talk shows, and press conferences to create the channel's coverage. I have a feeling, however, that it actually refers to the power relationships that take place on and off camera through the news. Al Jazeera is introduced as a network that isn't completely objective, but attempts to spread journalism and freedom of speech through the Middle East. Because of those efforts, it was banned from several countries for criticizing their regimes.

When the war breaks out, however, Control Room follows several staff members to US Central Command. Simultaneously, we watch the Al Jazeera command room staff coordinate their coverage from correspondents in Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra (they were not embedded with the US military). The relationship between the network and the military staff is contentious and wary. The Arab reporters are obviously critical of US actions, while the military's relationship with all the media makes their intentions clear: ranging somewhere between controlled information to outright propaganda.

This could be reduced to a shouting match and press clippings, like a culturally-charged Odd Couple. Indeed, the first meeting of reporter Hassan Ibrahim and Marine Corps Lt. Josh Rushing indicates it might be headed in that direction, as they try to sort out where the bias lies and whether America's aggression is justified. Fortunately, the documentary quickly moves past the justification for war and instead concentrates on the difficult work of warzone reporting.

Al Jazeera draws a lot of flack from the US government for its stance on war reporting--showing the gory details as well as the policy side. Clips of Donald Rumsfeld accusing the network of lies and manipulation rank high on the irony meter, while the producers argue that they are trying to portray war's "human cost." One of the most compelling figures is Rushing, who begins the movie as a PR flack but quickly begins to empathize with Al Jazeera's choices. After the video of captured and executed Marines is shown on Arab television, Rushing is first upset, but then compares those casualties with the Iraqi casualties that were typically broadcast. He's disturbed by his own lack of empathy for "the enemy," and it's a painful moment for soldier and viewer alike.

It's startling to see the war's narrative documented so clearly as the Pentagon feeds it to the waiting reporters at CentCom--and it's not just Al Jazeera's reporters that are upset by it. CNN correspondent Tom Mintier is astonished by the audacity of the military at spinning the Jessica Lynch story as opposed to the storming of Baghdad. Although the documentary doesn't hammer the point home, it's disturbing to remember just how prominent that story was, even over the skepticism of the reporters themselves. Dissatisfaction between the media and the military is palpable--however, you can't help but feel frustrated as the US journalists refuse to challenge the government story. Al Jazeera has its own problems finding good coverage, as producer Samir Khader is shown rejecting crackpots that his own well-meaning but ethically-inexperienced staff has cued up for interviews. Although Al Jazeera is extremely skeptical of the US war narrative (like the demolition of Saddam's statue), they struggle to find a balance between that skepticism and good reporting.

The real emotional center of the movie is the bombing of several Arab news correspondents who were stationed in Baghdad. The US military claims it was accidental, but the network staff are clearly shaken and not convinced. The insinuations of Donald Rumsfeld begin to seem more sinister, and the excuses offered are shaky. Khader is most visibly affected, as he considers the station's options. "We're just a little tiny network," he says. What can they do?

In the end, Control Room should give both journalists and ordinary citizens a lot to think about. Unlike Outfoxed or Farenheit 9/11, it doesn't shout a message, but it is no less incendiary. Its focus on an Arab news network also contains real implications for US networks, where they are getting their stories, and what we should believe. It's a bleak picture of war and freedom of press that I can highly recommend. Control Room makes me wonder about the bubble that our media have created for us, and hope that eventually it will be popped.

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