Saturday, August 16, 2014

Ten Films that UUs should Watch: Harold and Maude

An experiment was once done in which a screenwriter submitted a script titled “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” to over two hundred agencies, of which only three considered it “commercially viable”. In fact, the script was a slightly altered version of Casablanca - and not one agent who bothered to read it recognized it as such.

So imagine the response of agents and film producers now if they had read the screenplay for the cult classic Harold and Maude.

Harold Chasen is seventeen years old, living with his wealthy mother in luxurious yet suffocating conformity. Two of his favorite pastimes are staging fake suicides and attending the funerals of total strangers. At one of these funerals, he meets a free-spirited elderly woman named Maude, and they become friends. Maude’s cheerful yet eccentric behavior not only appeals to Harold, but teaches him to embrace life more fully, and in time their friendship becomes a love affair – much to the shock of the more conventional folks around him.

Harold and Maude seems to defy convention by being both dark and light in its comedy, while also mixing in poignant moments in its dialogue and visual symbolism to provide some serious commentary on how our society appears to repress individuality. The character of Maude has been compared to the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, yet I would refute this – Maude may bubble over with youthful exuberance, but she also possesses genuine wisdom and insight, such as in this excerpt:



Not to mention the fact that Harold actually grows as a result of Maude’s encouragement, finally moving beyond his morbid antics into a full embrace of life, still quirky yet very much in tune with his true self, and indeed healing. The ending leaves it open where he’s going, but we feel assured that he’s finally on a path that will lead him forward.

Many have commented that Harold and Maude is deeply existential, with Harold representing alienated nihilism, and Maude the response of living with purpose and free choice. Yet I would contend that it is about how our society ignores, marginalizes and attempts to control those who don’t “fit in” – including and especially youth (Harold) and elders (Maude) – and attempts to address how we might respond. I believe this motif is best expressed in this pivotal scene:



As the above scene shows, there are spiritual consequences to how we deal with difference in our society – and in our UU congregations. How best do we respond to that? This film, I believe, gives us insights into doing so. We need not march in picket lines or steal cars, nor retreat into obsession over the dark side of human nature, but instead embrace with joy our capacity to change and grow each day, and encourage those around us to do the same.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Ten Films that UUs Should Watch: Pleasantville

The best films not only give us great stories conveyed through imagery and dialogue, but they evoke thought and feeling, even making us question ourselves and our surroundings. That is why I love Pleasantville – a delightfully subversive comedy-drama with Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, William H. Macey and Joan Allen.

The film begins in the present day, where twins David and Jennifer (he withdrawn into television, she a shallow social butterfly) are fighting over control of the TV remote, which they break as a result. Enter an elderly and enigmatic repairman, who gives them a strange-looking replacement remote. The twins resume their fight over the new device, only to wind up transported into the black-and-white world of the 1950’s sitcom “Pleasantville” – David is now Bud Parker, and Jennifer assumes the role of Bud’s sister Mary Sue.

While David warns Jennifer not to interfere with the way things are ordered in their new setting, Jennifer pays no heed, introducing sex to the denizens of Pleasantville – first Mary Sue’s boyfriend, then the TV mom Betty Parker. Slowly, the town begins to change as bursts of color appear in various areas, then on the people. Books that once had blank pages now show words and pictures as the twins begin to recall stories and images from their real-world lives. And as all of this happens, the characters go off-script and begin to explore their emotions and desires.

The town’s leading citizens – all male, and led by their mayor “Big Bob” – are deeply concerned over how things have disrupted; it’s bad enough that colors are appearing and rain is falling, but now their wives aren’t making them dinner! So they begin to institute restrictions against anything that goes against the previously “pleasant” order of things, censoring books and music, even (yes, it’s on-the-nose) segregating and attacking the newly “colored” people. When David/Bud and the owner of the local burger joint are put on trial for painting a provocative mural, David begins to show that the changes they are experiencing are not some outward influence, but rooted in their own true selves:



Roger Ebert considered this one of the best films he’d ever seen – not just for the stunning cinematography and acting, but as “a social commentary of surprising power.”
The film observes that sometimes pleasant people are pleasant simply because they have never, ever been challenged. That it's scary and dangerous to learn new ways. … Pleasantville is the kind of parable that encourages us to re-evaluate the good old days and take a fresh look at the new world we so easily dismiss as decadent. Yes, we have more problems. But also more solutions, more opportunities and more freedom.
Unitarian Universalists are not immune to this desire to keep things as they are, or to hide their discomfort through a grayscale mask of outwardly pleasant behavior. Yet the values of our faith call us to question and challenge one another, to strive to understand the new and embrace what is good about it, not try to keep things as they are simply because “it’s always been that way.” One of the most paradoxical examples is the ambivalent attitude towards polyamory, with a number of ministers whispering behind the scenes that any discussion of it would somehow jeopardize efforts towards marriage equality. As someone who helped start this effort in Massachusetts in the 1990’s, I remember hearing such arguments back then. Holding off on discussing the subject was expedient at that time, but two decades later, it makes no sense now. The movement for marriage equality has gained its own momentum so that even those who oppose it have all but conceded defeat, and media coverage on polyamory has not only increased but prompted people to ask why we should worry if such arrangements seem to work best for some.

Ultimately, the real question for UUs is what kind of world we wish to live in, and to leave to our children and their children. How do our principles fit with the desperate efforts of Big Bob and his followers to keep things the same? Or perhaps, as the young people of Pleasantville discovered, our faith might – and should – offer something more wondrously liberating …

Starting a New Series: Ten Films that UUs Should Watch

Many of my friends know that I'm a movie buff. Along with appreciating the craft of filmmaking, I also see motion pictures as a rich source of iconic and mythic narrative. And if Unitarian Universalism is to be a "religion for our time" then it makes sense that we turn to film as a source of inspiration, just as we do the diversity of literature.

To that end, I've decided to start a new series of blog posts, each highlighting critically-acclaimed films which I believe are worthy of consideration by UUs -- not just for artistic merit (although that's a major factor for determining them) but the spiritual and/or moral message each one conveys.

The first nine films, in no particular order of importance, will be:
  • Pleasantville
  • Harold and Maude
  • Amélie
  • Babette’s Feast
  • Casablanca
  • Watership Down
  • Only the Lonely
  • The Great Dictator
  • Chocolat
The tenth is actually a trilogy which I strongly recommend be seen as a single epic ... and I won't say which until I do the post, although you're welcome to guess.

I may also have other posts on films later, especially if folks want to make recommendations. But, for now, keep your eyes peeled for this "top ten"!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Thoughts on “50 Shades”

Anyone who’s kept track of my Facebook postings and comments, or talked to me either online or in person, would know that I’m not really a fan of 50 Shades of Grey. The writing is amateurish, the characters are as flat as the pages they’re printed on, and the representation of BDSM is atrocious. It’s because of that last part that I couldn’t get past the scene where Christian shows Ana his dungeon, then presents her with a detailed contract, all before learning (much to his apparent annoyance) that she’s still a virgin. Christian represents the kind of clueless jerk who gets thrown out of BDSM groups.

And yet … there’s no denying that this novel evokes something in people. Set aside for a moment that it’s sold over a hundred million copies worldwide. Groups like Black Rose and The Eulenspiegel Society have seen a marked increase in new members and workshop attendees. Sex educators who previously found their “Kink 101” class offerings had little interest suddenly found that renaming it under the “50 Shades” brand suddenly filled the room. Experts are talking about bondage, role-play and other kinks more openly – and more positively – than ever before.

And that’s just the book. Wait until the movie comes out in February.

Oh, that’s right – we don’t have to wait. There’s already talk about the trailer. Plus there are groups like Morality in Media, and its recent offshoot Pornography Harms, rushing to denounce the film even before they’ve seen it. Not surprising, as their principal ideologue Gail Dines is relentless in her defamatory attacks on BDSM. Come to think of it, Dines is so quick to condemn so many forms of sexual expression and desire, one has to wonder if there’s any she does approve of. But, I digress …

If history is any guide, including and especially the history of human sexual psychology, the motion picture version of this tale will be far greater than that of the written version. The book’s popularity became viral over the Internet. And as clips and still images from the movie are downloaded and shared, they are likely to awaken desires and fantasies in who knows how many more – including many in our UU congregations.

Kinksters are already responding to this. We recognize “50 Shades” as an imperfect vessel, much as the pulp fiction novels and exploitation films were for many gay men and lesbians pre-Stonewall. Neither ignoring its impact, nor lauding it as is, will serve us well – but other options exist. The question for this post, however, is what options make the most sense for Unitarian Universalists, with regard to both public witness and pastoral care.

Both kinksters and UUs affirm and value diversity, including how people find love and pleasure. Those of us drawn to those forms identified as “kinky” have cultivated means to fulfill such desires with full consent and minimal risk of harm. Yet as the actions and words of people like Professor Dines remind us, there are people who are quick to condemn without understanding. Given our principles and core values, and the lessons of history, which course makes sense for us? I would hope our principle of truth-seeking would lead us to engage in dialogue and cooperate with those seeking to educate and promote greater awareness, amongst ourselves and with the wider world.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Dubious Boast

I’ve heard many a UU minister, educator and lay leader say it. I’ve heard my own minister say it. I had an ex-girlfriend who said it. And not only does it sound like they’re somehow bragging, not only has it become tiresome to hear, but I’ve seriously wondered about what value there is to it:

"I don’t watch television."

There are, of course, some mitigated variants to this boast: "I only watch PBS" comes to mind, as does "I only watch the news" and "I only watch public affairs television." I confess that I understand the motivation behind such a boast, as much of the medium has been reduced to drivel. But the anthropologist in me sees how dubious it is for members of a faith seeking to both enlarge their circle and change the world for the better to shun a primary source of knowledge and insight. And so, this post is devoted to why UUs, especially UU leaders, ought to stop bragging about their avoidance of TV, and how and why they should revise their viewing habits.

First, let’s start with a perception problem that Unitarian Universalists have been suffering for decades: We come across as elitist snobs. It’s one things to have two or three times the active vocabulary of the average American, to recite famous quotes or passages from memory, or to learn and use another language (which, tragically, too few Americans bother to do these days). But a good command of language also means an ability to get your point across clearly. Expanding one’s vocabulary doesn’t mean discarding simpler words and more commonly used phrases – it means adding to them and building upon them. Likewise, the medium of television provides us with a cultural vocabulary that is broadly used and understood. And if we want to both draw people in from that wider culture, and help them find ways to change and influence it, then we need to draw on the same symbols, tropes and memes that permeate and influence their lives.

That leads me to my second point: Avoiding things doesn’t necessarily change them. The genres of science fiction and Westerns, for example, did not improve because people stayed away. They improved because more people became engaged in insisting upon and even recommending changes for the better. From my vantage point, Unitarian Universalists are very good at coming up with grand visions of a better world, and then ranting about how reality falls short – but we ourselves often fall short of finding and implementing practical steps between the two, including and especially in our own congregations and movement. I believe that the manner in which so many UUs have disengaged themselves from popular culture is a big reason for this. Whether it’s to personally purify themselves, or as a form of protest, I don’t see it working. If you want to change the world, you have to get involved in it, if nothing else but to learn how things work so you’re able to tweak them in the right direction.

Lastly, and the biggest reason I find this boast so dubious: Our core values demand that we engage instead of avoid. Our twin traditions were founded on the fearless pursuit of the truth. It’s led us to evolve into a broad and progressive movement devoted to love and justice. How does avoiding a major element for the culture we seek to change honor that essential element of our heritage? I think of my own conundrum addressing the issues surrounding pornography – as a civil libertarian, I oppose censorship of any material simply because it has sexually explicit content, yet my aesthetic and political sensibilities find it hard to defend the vast majority of images and practices connected to the porn industry. But I must also ask myself how I might offer any insightful critique, or otherwise help to make positive changes, unless I do the responsible truthseeking needed to understand and engage.

So please don’t tell me whether you watch television, or what you limit yourself to watching. That tells me very little. Speak to me instead of how you watch television, and what you do with what you see.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Checking One's Privilege: A Response to Tal Fortgang

The written rant of a conservative Princeton undergrad is being bandied about the Internet, and so I thought I would respond ...

Like Tal Fortgang, I am white, cisgender male, heterosexual, and raised in a home many in America would call "middle-class". Like him, I also had family members who fled persecution in Europe; my great-grandfather fled Czarist Russia, and was only able to do so by posing as a German student who had lost his identity papers. Like him, I was constantly told that working hard and playing "by the rules" would bring anyone where they wanted to be.

Unlike him, I realize that message ain't necessarily so. Even if an employer doesn't use any slurs, they're more likely to hire me than a woman, or anyone with more melanin in their skin, or an accent in their voice. I'm more likely to get better service in a restaurant or a store, to have a credit application approved, or accepted as a tenant by most landlords.

A raw example of privilege happened to me several years ago here in Boston. Several of us stopped at a subway station when we heard a woman crying for help, and saw her on the ground and a man over her beating her. One man ran down to try to chase the assailant away, while I notified a transit worker of what was happening. Within two minutes, transit police had rushed in. They arrested the assailant, and the African-American gentleman who had rushed up to stop him, but they merely took me aside to get my statement. Even after I told the cops: "Hey, that guy was trying to help," they still had him put his hands against the wall so they could frisk him.

To be fair, Fortgang is correct in his caution about making assumptions regarding people's background. Where he gets it wrong is assuming that others are not making those very same assumptions, even subconsciously, and setting others back as a result. My father demonstrated some awareness of this, when he told me why he decided not to attend Princeton - a classmate of his, whom he admitted had done measurably better academically, had been denied admittance, and the only difference between them was that his classmate had an obviously Jewish name.

Unearned privilege exists, regardless of whether folks like Fortgang want to believe it. Yes, you may have worked hard to get where you are, but we must also be mindful that many individuals have worked just as hard and yet still been denied the chance to get there as well, simply because of their race or gender or some other "other-ness" about them. Denying that fact won't make it go away, nor will trying to put a spin on it diminish the damage it causes. By the same token, guilt and blanket assumptions will do no good, either. We need to confront the fact, and find constructive ways to dismantle this reality, even if it means that those of us with such privilege make use of it to educate others and make what changes are necessary.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

When a Word Becomes Useless

For me, language is a spiritual thing. There is something grand about how we bestow meaning to certain sounds and symbols, to the point that they seem to take on a life of their own. And when a word is misused or abused to the point of losing its meaning, that seems to me practically sacrilegious.

To that end, I've decided to abandon the use of a particular verb and its derivative forms. What makes it unusual is how common they are to English speakers. Yet I fear they've become too common, dare I say "dead common." The verb in question is can, or perhaps more specifically, its negating counterpart cannot and the contraction can't.

Some of you may have grown up experiencing an exchange such as this:
"Mom, can I go out and play?"
"Well, you may go out and play … "
Both my parents did something like that to convey that "can" and "could" referred to ability, while "may" and "might" referred to permission. Anyone is able to have a cookie, but we're not always allowed to.

Unfortunately, not only has this distinction been lost on many, it has grown worse. "Can" and "cannot" have also been conflated with "want to" and "don’t want to". I've heard people who were perfectly capable of sending an email, or saying a few words to the right person, and with no impediment in terms of supervisory permission, still insist that they "can't" do so. The only reasons I'm able to see for their "can't" are that they are not willing to do so, due to being either unmotivated, uncomfortable, or some combination thereof.

It is at once confusing, exasperating and infuriating, especially for someone like me who takes language – and clarity in language use – as seriously as I do. Imagine the sentence: "We can't issue such a clarifying memo." Now imagine it's possible meanings to include:
  • We're not able to do that.
  • We need explicit permission before we can do that.
  • We have been explicitly prohibited from doing that.
  • We're not in the mood to do that.
  • We have bad feelings about doing that.
That leaves those on the receiving end of that "can't” statement to deduce which meaning it is, based on contextual facts:
  • The person or group saying "can't" has computers and printers and email access, and people who know how to use them, and even a proposed draft for the memo, so they are certainly able to print and distribute it.
  • The person has sufficient authority in the organization, and the organization has made no explicit rule prohibiting such a statement, so it has nothing to do with permission.
  • Therefore, we can only conclude that the person is unwilling to do so, despite indicating a willingness to do so beforehand, which … well, you get the idea.
There seems also a power dynamic to the continual misuse of "can't" with regard to their respective work within an organization. Those at the bottom seem split between saying they're unable and forbidden, in keeping with the lack of authority given to them. Those in the middle appear to utilize it more to voice their own fears and frustrations, having been given limited authority and even less clarity regarding the scope of their roles. And for those at the top, "You/they can't" often means the subject of the sentence are prohibited, while "I can't" is more about the person in charge being unwilling.

What to do about such conundrums? Well, transforming organizations and social interactions is not within my purview, but one thing within my power is to at least attempt to abandon my own usage of "can" and "cannot/can't" (and their simple past-tense forms "could/couldn’t") in favor of more precise references to ability, permission and willingness. At least my own speech and correspondence will be less vague.

As for others, the best recourse that comes to mind is, whenever they use these words, to insist on clarification: "Are you saying you're unable, unwilling, or forbidden? If unable, how so? If forbidden, by whom? And if unwilling, to what degree and for what reason?"

As an officer of my congregation, and as the spokesperson for a constituent group within Unitarian Universalism, I am often in the position of having to advocate and negotiate on behalf of others. That, in my mind, requires clarity in my expression. I hope those with whom I attempt to communicate in these contexts realize, see and do likewise.