Monday, January 26, 2015

Ambivalent About American Sniper #AmericanSniper

I like World War II movies. It is not only a fascinating time in world history, but I also like having an obvious bad guy. The Nazis are clearly the bad guys in any WW II film. Rooting for The Allies and against The Axis is obvious. War films based in different eras are more problematic and usually contain multitude of questions about US involvement in the conflict. The best example of this is the American involvement in the Vietnam War. The makers of some of my favorite Vietnam War films The Deer Hunter, Platoon, and Apocalypse Now obviously understood this. The "bad" guy is not obvious, it actually could be us. The struggle that goes on in the war also happens within the characters of the films. Are they the "good" guy? Or are they just trying to survive and protect their friends in the madness of war?

I saw American Sniper last night and there is no such nuance in this film which is not the only problem I have with the film, but perhaps the biggest problem I had with it. Even though we are the invading force in Iraq, a sovereign nation that had no connection with the 9/11 attacks and had no weapons of mass-destruction, yet this film presents us with a clear "good" guy vs. "bad" guy mentality. This may work with a movie about comic book heroes or even WW II, but not about a largely contentious war like the most recent war in Iraq. Who exactly is the "bad" guy ... the woman who is throwing a grenade at an invading force or the sniper that guns her down?   Chris Kyle, the American Sniper of the film and book, called this woman in the book, his first kill, a "savage." Sorry, but I don't think it is that easy. Reality is much more complex than that and I questioned the sanity and morality of any society that will place Kyle in the lofty caste of hero.

This is not a very good film. However much respect I have for Clint Eastwood as a film maker, I wonder what he saw in this story. The story is simple. Kyle signs up to be a Navy Seal, goes to basic training, does four tours of duty in Iraq as a sniper. He kills a bunch of people, has a little bit of difficulty dealing with readjusting to life in America but does okay a short time later. End of story. Not a lot of growth here and nothing very interesting. Most of the film is Kyle going from situation to situation killing people. Occasionally he has a conversation with one of his cohorts or wife, but nothing too introspective. If you like seeing people killed on film, this is the movie for you. If you like character development and reflection on the world, you might want to skip this one.  This is melodrama with all the savages being Iraqi with the Americans doing no wrong. You want to see bullshit melodrama, I suggest Birth of a Nation. At least that film has an excuse for its b.s., it is old and its audience didn't know any better. We should. File this film under right wing propaganda.

I find myself alienated with general society sometimes. This is clearly one of those times. This is the number one film at the box office and was nominated for best picture of the year by the Academy and yet, I was bored. Half way through the film, I could tell it was going nowhere. I considered leaving to go home to watch The Walking Dead again. Even the walking dead have more depth than the characters in this film. Spoiler: when Kyle finally kills the enemy sniper, there were a handful of cheers in the theater (of about 100 people). I felt odd because I wasn't cheering for Kyle. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't cheering for the Iraqi sniper either. I felt apathetic, ambivalence. I just didn't care. I was glad because it meant the film would be done soon. I just got a little bit more pissed off that my tax dollars were spent invading a country rather than repairing bridges, educating the young or helping hurricane victims. I'd consider rooting for the Iraqi sniper because at least he was defending his home but I just didn't care. There are no heroes in this film, just a lot of one dimension characters who think they are heroes and I find this film's popularity to be very scary.

Friday, January 9, 2015

I Am Charlie, We Are All Charlie #jesuischarlie

In the age of social media, freedom of expression couldn't be more important. We are not only consumers of media anymore but we are the media. In a world where you get shot or put on a hit list, if your cartoon offends a certain group or your novel offense that same group, no one is safe. If you say something in your Facebook status or Twitter that gets the wrong group of people angry, it could be the end for you. Many people respond by being quiet for fear of offending. I think this is the wrong approach. My immediate response makes me want to Photoshop pictures of their prophet doing perverted things with squirrels. I am grateful that I restrain myself mostly.

I know that most of Islamic people are not insane murderers but are just like everyone else ... just trying to figure things out. I am sure if I had Internet access when I was a teenager, lacking self control, I'd be posting whatever came to my mind.  Now I am a bit more reserved. I got somewhat depressed on Monday night after watching this week's PBS show Frontline on the National Rifle Association. It kept me awake. I then got up for work, read my news feed over coffee and heard about shootings in France. My frustration and fatigue turned to anger. Someone on Facebook shared an image that really captured what I was feeling:

I don't know who created it and I assume they don't mind me sharing it here because I think it is genius. It is a bullet going through a pencil plus a pencil sharpener equals two pencils. This is how I react to senseless violence.  Cartoonists being killed due to their biting satire just makes me want to write ... scream first but then write. I don't want to just write but to be provocative, to offend, to write something that will metaphorically slap them in the face. I want to stand by Charlie Hebdo. I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo until the shooting but now I am enthralled. The shooters want to intimidate us, sure, that worked to a certain extent. They certainly stopped these particular cartoonists from producing any more. But we are hydra-like. You cut off one head, two will grow in its place. Their aversion to satire is only going to produce more. We'll have more security and we'll be a little bit more freaked out, but we won't stop satirizing. Not even close.

The founders of America knew something that is lost on the violent sects of the Muslim faith. Criticism makes you stronger. Freedom of speech is something we take for granted in modern America. The basic idea is that we want all the ideas out there, even ideas that are diametrically opposed to our own. In each criticism, even the unfair ones, there is a kernel of truth. In this maelstrom of competing ideas somewhere is truth.  When an organization dogmatically follows an ancient book and follow it literally, growth isn't exactly their forte.

My feelings about religion have been well documented in this blog. I am not going to rehash it only to say it seems that the world would be a better place without it. People have different ideas about the nature of humanity and origins of the universe. This is a wonderful thing, yet something seems to get lost when we institutionalize it. An idea that begins as a thing of beauty is set in immovable stone in the halls of an institution and then it dies from lack of growth. It is from that point the ideas of   us and them are formed.  The Us is those who embrace the idea and Them is those that don't. When the us is threatened by the them, you often have violence.

Religion has done some good for humanity. Even a staunch atheist like me acknowledges this. In the Dark Ages, before we had any institutions, religion provided structure and a moral code. Now that we have many other institutions that provide what religion used to, do we still need religion? Spiritual beliefs are so personal that most people have their own regardless of what their church what their church has to say about it. Most church goers cite social connection as their biggest reason to be in a church. I get that. I joined a Unitarian Universalist church a few years ago. I loved the community but all that religion was just too much for me. Even with all the loose rules of a liberal theology, the group think was too much for me, but I really miss the fellowship over coffee sometimes.  I can't imagine those folks wanting to behead anyone. They'd have to discuss it for a decade and then form some committees, nothing would ever happen.

Perhaps the Muslim religion is too young of a religion. I have been told that Christianity was around the same age that Islam is now when Christianity performed all their violent deeds. So the religion just needs to mature. In an era of nuclear and chemical weapons, I just hope humanity survives their ascent into adulthood. Until then, I intend to support anyone's right to express themselves regardless of how wrong or offensive they are. It is wrong and offensive not to.