From Gilead to New York to Juffure

It took Nettl, Netflix, and retirement to get me into movies. Until a few years ago I often felt the odd man out, so to speak, when friends asked, “Hey, have you seen ‘suchandsuch’ yet?” I just wasn’t into movies and I couldn’t justify the cost of going to a cinema and spending $20 on snacks that I could buy at any supermarket for much, much less. I mean, seven bucks for popcorn? I can buy a pantry supply for that. And, really. Who can go out to see a movie and not buy popcorn and Twizzlers? Not I.

When HBO first came out, I became a subscriber and an avid movie-watcher, but that was when cable cost me $20 a month. When that expense soared to $100, I knew it was time to cut the cable. But then, miracle of miracles, Netflix burst onto the scene and Nettl and I began watching movies together in the evenings and on weekend afternoons. I can’t say I like most of those I’ve seen. I’m not a fan of gratuitous, pounding, impersonal sex, or of the spurting,  bursting blood bladders and crunching, slurping Foley effects that accompany sensationalized, glorified violence.

I’m rather a prude.

Sometimes, however, I can deal with this trend of sex and violence and, in a few cases I think some of it is important to the story.

Last week, we started watching The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu. Having read Margaret Atwood’s book some years ago and having seen the 1990 version (starring Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, and Robert Duvall, with screenplay by Harold Pinter, no less), I was fully prepared for this remake to be updated for the modern audience, i.e. semi-automatic rifles shooting bullets into chests and soulless sex enacted upon enslaved young women. I was even prepared for public executions as well as the brutality of women’s subjugation to the worst degree, but I wasn’t prepared for the acting and direction to be so damned good. The series is especially poignant as we face the strategic stripping away of our rights as women to govern our own bodies and our dwindling healthcare options during Trump’s “Make America Great Again” regime coupled with the religious right’s agenda to make America a (Christian) theocracy. At a time when merely being a woman is considered a pre-existing condition, this series is about as timely as it gets, and I hope it will be pirated posted on YouTube soon so that more people can watch it.

The only criticism I have about this series is that it’s, well, a series. I find it a little slow. I’ve never been a fan of week-to-week cliffhangers anyway, so that’s probably just my problem. This is a story I think I’d rather binge through over a weekend, but, really, it’s a small complaint. That I’m a fan of Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men, The West Wing) helps. She is totally believable in her role as Offred and she makes it easy to experience simpatico with her character.

A couple of nights ago I sat up watching The Lennon Report, a film I’d not heard of until that afternoon. I’m rather cynical where movies about the Beatles are concerned. They’re usually cornball and badly casted and acted, which is enough, but they’re also often historically inaccurate, taken from some badly written exposé by some non-entity who wants to revise the facts to suit their pathetic need for fame. Everyone has an ax to grind, it seems, especially where John and Yoko are concerned. John is portrayed as either a saint or a prick and Yoko is, well, Yoko is universally hated in these crap films so I avoid Beatles biopics like the plague. When I found The Lennon Report on Amazon (a $2.99 rental fee for SD, $3.99 for HD), I was prepared to hate it. It looked well made, though, so I didn’t mind gambling three bucks.

Wow! Was I moved by this film. The story is taken from eyewitness accounts of people who were at Roosevelt Hospital the night John was shot, including Alan Weiss, a producer at ABC News who’d been brought into the ER after a motorcycle accident. There’s no real violence, but there is blood. A lot of blood and graphic scenes of open chest surgery. One should expect that, though.

Seriously, this is one I want in my library.

Last but certainly not least, I sat up until 3:30 this morning watching the 2016 remake of Alex Haley’s Roots. I don’t care if this story is fact or fiction, if Mr. Haley was telling his family story, or if he plagiarized it from several sources. I don’t freakin’ care. It’s the story of the 12.5 million slaves who were stolen from their country against their will and sent to America and the 10.7 million who survived the Atlantic crossing only to suffer unimaginable brutality and dehumanization. The story needs to be told again and again until we wipe out our despicable racism and bigotry.

This remake is amazing, although it was hard to watch due to the violence. The battle scenes were a little long—today’s films love to show off gym-pumped actors shooting things up—and I found the scenes a bit gratuitous since Haley’s book didn’t dwell on this aspect of life in both the Revolutionary and Civil War eras of the south. As for the rape scenes, I thought they were horrendous, but completely non-gratuitous and not at all titillating. Overall, though, I trusted co-executive producer Levar Burton (who played the role of Kunta Kinte in the original 1977 mini-series) to know what he was doing. If he thought we needed to see it, that was enough for me. It was uncomfortable, and I’m sure that was his intent.

On a personal note, I was pleased that white slave owners’ names weren’t changed like they were in the mini-series, even if it revealed that my ancestors were part of it all. Dr. William Waller is the brother my family came from. In the mini-series the name was changed to Dr. Reynolds. Why, I don’t know. After reading the book back in 1978, I wrote a letter to Alex Haley to express the emotional turmoil I felt being related to his family’s owners, as well as to his family (rape was widespread on the plantations because white slave owners believed they held rights over the black women. The scums), and he wrote a very nice letter to me in return in which he said he’d met many, many fine Wallers, one who was a very good friend of his. As I look back on it now, I’m not at all ashamed that I sought absolution from Mr. Haley. We all need to feel shame over slavery and to ask forgiveness, at the very least.

I have to admit I wept over the new series just as much as I did the original. It’s a must-see and I believe both it and Shindler’s List should be required high school viewing for all students.

I didn’t set out to write reviews of these films, I only wanted to share with you the emotional ride I’ve been on the past couple of weeks. I hope I’ve piqued your interest on at least one of these excellent films.

Have a great week!

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Scattered Moments

One night in 1961, the Beatles played a gig where only 18 people attended, proving that even the Beatles had slow nights.
Building London’s Tower Bridge in 1889.
Glen & Ronnie (Christopher) Walken working in the family bakery in Queens in 1953.
The ice berg that sank Titanic.
Oil derricks on Venice Beach in 1920.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the woman who invented rock & roll. Women never get the credit they deserve.
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Flogging Plutarch

Much how I felt reading Plutarch.

Back, back, back, way back, in my high school freshman honors English Lit class, our teacher (who’d just arrived from pre-Summer of Love San Francisco) swathed our 15 year-old brains with classical music from then underground FM radio as a backdrop to the classical titles we were expected to read in class. These included Homer’s Odyssey, a small selection of the Poems of Ovid, Volume I of Plutarch’s Lives, and a poet of our own choosing. I chose the decidedly unclassical Jack Kerouac. It was 1965, after all, and I’d been drawn to the Beat authors, painters, and musicians since I was about 12.

Plutarch was difficult for me, but I got through it with Mrs. Ware’s accompanying mini-history lessons to explain who these people were. I think it was her class that sparked my interest in history, and I chose to read Plutarch’s second volume over the following summer vacation. Imagine that. Mod little me sunbathing in our back yard in my Hawaiian two-piece bathing suit and my perfect Pattie Boyd flip, listening to the Beatles and the Beach Boys on KRLA while reading Plutarch. Or trying to. Fortunately, my mother had raised me not to give up on a book however difficult, but to keep a notebook and a dictionary at hand, and to boldly annotate the margins. Predictably, I never checked Volume III out of our library, and soon, 1967 happened and I turned my attention to reading the popular books of the era: Brave New World, Siddhartha, and literally everything by Richard  Brautigan.

pattie boyd flip
The Pattie Boyd flip.

It has been 51 years since Mrs. Ware prised my eyes, ears, and mind open so I recently decided to give Plutarch another go. A free eBook is a free eBook, after all, and I decided, with both anticipation and trepidation, to flog through Volume III. I have to say Plutarch was much easier reading for me than he was in 1965. The vocabulary wasn’t an issue and the names were much easier to pronounce. Still, sitting down to read it felt like a chore compared to my accompanying reads, The Letters of Pliny the Younger and Stephen Fry’s Moab is My Washpot. Unexpectedly, I found the lessons in each of these books to be basically the same. Biographies, memoirs, and letters are interesting enough, but these books explore the moral and ethical characters of the authors and the people around them. What helped me most was my love of ancient and classical history. When I was younger I couldn’t put faces to Plutarch’s strange names. They weren’t people. Now, after a lifetime of autodidactic education, assigning humanity to these names was automatic.

This is where formal history education goes wrong, I think. Young people are given a string of dates and events (usually wars), and are expected to learn memorize what they’ll need to pass the standardized tests. A good teacher will go beyond wars and the events that led up to wars while an excellent teacher will help the students to see these events—and other events having nothing at all to do with war—as made up of not just the powers that be—the warlords and the generals—but the innocent populace as well. Pompeii is attractive to young minds, not because of the politics or customs at the time of the eruption, but because of the casts of the victims. History comes home to them. “This could happen to me.” Let’s face it. While we’re between the ages of birth and 30, everything is about “me”. If young people aren’t introduced to people like themselves, their families and their friends, if they can’t make an emotional connection between people of the past and themselves, history becomes a hollow recitation of dates and events that are quickly forgotten once the test is over. Worse, they’re uninspired to ever again open a book about the past. “I haven’t cracked a book since school!” is probably the saddest statement I’ve ever heard, especially when it’s nearly always said with a pride that baffles me.

I finished Volume III last night and am wondering what to read next from the ancient world. I like having several books going at any given time and there’s a vacancy that needs to be filled. I’m thinking of delving into Ovid again.

So thank you, Mrs. Ware, for giving me the time machine that continues to take me places where I meet people I wouldn’t have otherwise ever known existed. Would that there were more teachers like you!

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