Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Good and Evil in Hollywood

It seems to me that it used to be, in the movies, that the good guys and the bad guys were different.  A distinction was made.  The big final scene: the bad guy has tried to kill the hero but fails and the hero now has the drop on him: the bad guy snarls “Go ahead! Do it!” The hero wants to but can’t do it: “That would make me like you.”  My grandchild-in-law Daniel reminds me that often then the hero would turn away, the bad guy would then go for a gun and the hero would kill him in self-defense, giving us in the audience the satisfaction of seeing the bad guy get killed—but in self-defense.

Is this just me wishing for the old days?  Maybe, but why do today’s movies appear to be determined to make no distinction between good and bad?  In Platoon, the evil sergeant Barnes is lying helpless on the ground and when the kid Chris, who has seen how evil he is, comes upon him, he shoots Barnes like a rabid dog.  In The Untouchables, when Elliot Ness pushes the mobster Nitty off a roof, making himself judge, jury and executioner, he admits to himself that he has become what he has fought.  But he is content.  OK, it is true that Nitty goads Ness to the breaking point...

In crappy exploitation movies in which watching violence is the whole point, these days we get to watch the hero enjoying killing the bad guys. In (was it Schwarzenegger in Raw Deal?)  the hero holds his victim in the air over a cliff and threatens to drop him unless he gives him the information he needs; the terrified man tells him what he wants to know and pleads “You won’t drop me, will you?” and the hero says “I lied,” and drops him. 

At the lowest level, the most morally corrupt movies create bad guys who are so horribly, one-dimensionally inhuman we thirst to see them get what they deserve. The monsters make monsters of us.  Even in The Untouchables we see the standard device of making the bad guy so evil, so despicable that we are all relieved when he is taken out.  In the worst of such movies (say, any by Stevan Segal?), in the first half we are treated to detailed depictions of unspeakable, sadistic acts done by the bad guys who smile while they mutilate and torture their innocent, helpless victims.  In the second half of the movie we then watch detailed depictions of unspeakable, sadistic acts done by the hero on the bad guys.  The hypocrisy of it is numbing.  These movies reflect (and perhaps have encouraged) our cultural hypocrisy of “closure”, that word used these days as a euphemism for revenge. 

Ok, so let’s dismiss the sadism and blood-spatter genre from discussion.  There will always be a market for violence and the morally stunted who pander to it—think of professional wrestling. Still, even respectable Hollywood seems determined to avoid making the good-guys/bad-guys distinction, as if this childishly na├»ve.  Why is this, and is this a culture change from what I remember? 

It might be argued (and is) that this non-distinction is more realistic, because, of course, we are all both good and evil.  Hopefully, most of the time, we know and apply the golden rule and believe in the value of the life every other human being.  But I think we all know, deep inside us there is a snarling, cowardly beast that is afraid of the stronger or stranger and wants to prey on the weak, destroy beauty, inflict pain.  There is a rapist and bully and coward and sadist inside every person, even you and me.  But still—what does it say when the hero figure in a movie is a contract killer, or a drug dealer?

I guess what bugs me is this worry: can our culture, which is smothered in entertainment which simplifies reality into one-dimensional bad guys (let’s not mention video games), can our culture understand this is not reality?  It’s scary when you think of the world view that Hollywood panders to, and the simple fact that people are impressionable and can be easily brought to that world view.  The Patriot gave us an English officer in the Revolution who was a psychotic monster—we conclude he richly deserves everything that the character played by Mel Gibson does to him.  This is called demonizing, a story technique as old as mankind.  But people saturated with this mythology by Hollywood appear not to understand this is unreal!  One day I was talking with a couple of men about “The Patriot” and one of them says, “Well, I don’t blame Mel Gibson (note the failure to distinguish between the actor and the character) doing what he did to the redcoat,  I would have done that--and more!” A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do…

In real life, the difference between the good guys and bad guys is not that the good guys don’t have evil within them.  It is that they have principles that they attempt to follow in spite of their evil instincts.  And real good guys usually follow their principles.  The difference between a thief and an honest person is not that the honest person doesn’t covet others’ money or whatever.  But the honest person is committed to the idea that stealing is wrong--and doesn’t do it.  And--there is no way to sugar-coat this--the goodness of an individual is in the percentages.  We call a person “good” when the percentage is high, when we can count on them to be honest, to be kind, to do the kind and generous thing when other choices are possibile—choices that might have been to a his/her advantage.  And it is a percentage.  Sooner or later everyone, in a moment of weakness and if the temptation is strong, makes a selfish choice.  These we simply have to forgive.

Let’s not pretend that real life is simply made up of the good guys (ourselves, naturally) and Evil Ones.  Sorry, it’s more complicated than that. Each of us has much be forgiven, and each of us has small reason to feel morally superior.  Our only defense can be, do we have a conscience and do we try to follow it? Let’s not delude ourselves that real life is like a Hollywood story. And if we can remember our own failures maybe we will be a little less quick to judge (not to mention blow away) those others.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

An Essay on My father

March 2011

I had a discussion with a friend about my late father, who in my family was always called “Daddy.” This friend told me that he had been acquainted with Daddy when he (the friend) was a teenager. Daddy had a small audio and record store, and he used to go in there and hang around.  I told my friend that that would have been the time when Daddy was most deeply trapped in alcoholism, but my friend said he didn’t observe it. As we talked about Daddy I described how I hated his drinking, and how this sadness was an important part of my memory of him. But then, long after Daddy was gone, I reached the middle age that he was when he began drinking! And as I experienced the grievous “going downhill” that comes to every man I began at least to understand him better.  Now, I told my friend, while my Daddy’s alcoholism is still a memory I no longer despise him for it. I said I also remember that as a father he gave me some precious gifts…but then I stopped speaking; I could not adequately describe them. 

Then, the next day after that conversation, I was reading an essay, and it reminded me of an essay I read in high school that powerfully moved me.  It was “The Lantern Bearers” by Robert Louis Stevenson.  Among other wonders in that essay is the following:

There is one fable that touches very near the quick of life: the fable of the monk who passed into the woods, heard a bird break into song, hearkened for a trill or two, and found himself on his return a stranger at his convent gates; for he had been absent fifty years, and of all his comrades there survived but one to recognise him. It is not only in the woods that this enchanter carols, though perhaps he is native there. He sings in the most doleful places. The miser hears him and chuckles, and the days are moments…All life that is not merely mechanical is spun out of two strands: seeking for that bird and hearing him. And it is just this that makes life so hard to value, and the delight of each [person?] so incommunicable…

Remembering these lines and how strongly they affected me, I had a sudden, clear and intense realization. This describes the gifts my father gave me.  He could hear that bird, and from him I learned to hear it.

So I want to write about Daddy because maybe it will clarify my complex feelings about him and of course about myself.  I want to figure out how to express in words what his gifts were. 

I wonder if any of this will resonate with my siblings. Who knows how we might differ on our evaluations of our father?  Especially my sister, who is much younger and whose experience of him as a daughter must have been different.  Do I judge him too harshly?  “Remember,” I will say to them in my defense, “I was the one who worked for him one-on-one, when he was at his lowest and most pathetic--and he tried every trick to try to get me to become his partner in the business, and I refused (for which I still feel guilty). I knew his (or our) future was not likely to be a good one.”

Of course, part of what makes this judgment of him painful is the certainty that everything we think about our parents, good and bad, we find in ourselves.  In fact it is easier to see in ourselves the defects we discern (and despise) in our parents than it is to see their virtues in ourselves.  And oh, God, this can be painful when we become parents ourselves!  How acutely we realize that the things our children will vividly remember about us may not be the things we would select.

Both our parents are long gone.  Daddy died 23 years ago, Mother 13.  Mother’s memory is special. Daddy was mostly not home when we were small: he was a “traveling man.”  Mother raised us, including discipline, language, ethics, culture (a good bit of Old South but no bigotry or class; we never heard the word “nigger” or “trash”).  I have recently moved back to near where Mother and Daddy lived for 30 years and Mother for 10 more. Routinely when people learn I was my mother’s son they always say “she was a wonderful lady,” and she was.

But Daddy is more complicated than that, and a more difficult memory.  A bright, vain, talented, charming man.  As a child I worshipped him, was ecstatic when he was home.  But I have no childhood memories of real one-on-one interaction with him.  We did family things and we had fun. But it was only when we boys became useful to him—able to go “on the road” with him and help him in his work—that we became persons for him.  But that was glorious!  Daddy was an “organ man” in the days when all organs were pipe organs.  He sold them, installed them, maintained them, played them—quite well, I believe.  We boys would take turns going on the road with him when school would allow.  We got to stay in motels!  We got to eat in restaurants every day!  He paid us a dollar every day! And he was a gentle boss and taught us a broad range of useful skills, though he was not patient.

Lurking in Daddy’s mental world were his parents, especially his father, who died when Daddy was 15.  Somehow this person was always present with Daddy.  Grandfather was apparently something of a celebrity preacher in the old Southern Presbyterian Church, an evangelist and quite a pulpiteer and Presence. I have met ancient ladies in south Georgia who, with a certain twinkle in the eye, remember him very well as a young minister. I imagine him having the same charm and intelligence as Daddy but also a greater substance, and charisma.  A tough father to live up to, especially since he died before Daddy got to be a man in his own right!  

Grandmother was apparently something of a spoiled southern gentlewoman.  This I gather from some family sources, though I remember her as an entirely satisfactory grandmother. As a relatively young widow with two teenagers she favored Daddy shamelessly over his older sister generating, I surmise, a young man with an immense sense of entitlement and certainty of success later in life.  He would take after his distinguished and admired and prematurely taken father!  He was president of his high school junior and senior classes!  He was voted Most Likely to Succeed. 

But he didn’t.  He didn’t finish college, I’m not sure why. He never Made it Big, as they used to say, either in his business or as a musician. His failure (as he saw it), was for him an acute source of shame, a loss of manhood.  Wasn’t Daddy in that generation, the generation growing up in the Depression, for whom “success” meant, simply, acquiring so much wealth you were secure? I remember him talking wistfully about how he wished he could be a “six-figure man”--and how he would rage when passed by a Cadillac (“Bastard thinks he owns the road!”).  And so he drank. On the road with him I would sadly (and angrily) observe how we would quit earlier and earlier in the day so we could get back to the motel and he could have his first vodka.

You know--this “failure” wasn’t for lack of hard work or ability.  Musicians seldom get rich, of course, and “organ men” were working in a field similar to the proverbial manufacture of buggy whips. With the relentless advance of electronic organs (oh how he hated them!) real pipe organs have become a rare niche market.  All the classical “electro-mechanical” American organ companies he worked for are now out of business including Aeolian-Skinner, arguably the greatest of all American organ builders.  With Aeolian-Skinner Daddy had a few years of real success.

But he was not a good businessman.  Daddy was an artist and an “idea man,” good at the big picture and the long view, deeply expert (and certain) about the music and esthetics and proper sound and acoustics of the organ and its proper installation.  But he was not one for the “details” of business   Maybe if he could have found a partner with an obsession to maintain accounts and time lines and cash flow they might have done well.  But none of us children fit that description, we are all like him! His oft-repeated dream of a “Wauchope & Sons” firm was no doubt a recipe for disaster, Big Thinkers trying to work together.  Also, I think, he was not an extrovert and I think at some very deep level not confident, thus not well equipped to deal with church Worship Committees and Ministers of Music.

And so I watched him slowly become more and more dependent on that first drink of the day, and its successors.  He was never mean or vicious, certainly never violent.  He never raised a hand to any of us in his life. 

But he could hear that caroler in the woods!  I mean literally too.  How vividly I remember, once, I was probably 18 and with him camping in the woods (camping is a big tradition in our family).  By evening he had as usual sunk into an alcoholic stupor, in a chair by the fire, me putting on wood and feeling alone and depressed. 

Then, in the dusk, back in trees, a wood thrush began singing.  This is the most beautiful birdsong in the South, a series of rich flutelike notes (as Peterson says, listen for ee-o-lay). Daddy’s head jerked up and I saw him listening, listening with an intense concentration.  Was I touched by this? Yes and no.  The horrible contrast between the deep noble spirit and the wretched self-hatred!  I was suddenly furious, outraged, and I jumped to my feet and began haranguing him and crying uncontrollably at the same time.  I told him how much we all loved him and none of his family thought he’s a failure and how could he waste himself the way he did? I probably hammered away at him for 15 minutes. All the time he just covered his face and hung his head.

So the memory of his drinking still hurts.  But still! Daddy’s love for that woodland caroler become expressed in gifts to his children. I can now describe three things Daddy gave me (and I believe all my siblings), in spite of all his failures (and especially those in his own mind).

The First Gift: how to be an enthusiast.  
Oh, haven’t all we children inherited this?  If I mention the woods and all its joys, shortwave radio, gourmet food, woodcraft, making tapes of classical music (I finally, with great difficulty have thrown them all out), can we not all remember the relish with which he swarmed all over these things?  There was not enough money around to become a true connoisseur of anything, of course, and these enthusiasms waxed and waned.  But what a lust he had for his enthusiasms, and how like him we all are!  Is this not a quest for The Caroler? Is this not a great gift? Though overdoing it can be too expensive or impractical, (Daddy once bought a fantastic new Buick, hydroglide, hardtop convertible with no prior discussion with mother and little money). For us children it can be a real irritation to our spouses.  But isn’t this infinitely preferable to an inclination to boredom? And none of us children are ever bored because we constantly (some might say incessantly) make our own entertainment.

The Second Gift: how to enjoy your work
Daddy gave me a deep conviction that if it is possible, one ought to do work one enjoys.  He loved his work, either as organist or “organ man,” even while hating that it did not translate into more money than it did.  I think all of us siblings learned from him to love what we do even if it is not exactly what we think we would like to do. It also means (and I think we may have gotten this more from our mother) that the work needs to be something constructive and compassionate—work that is, if you will, part of the solution to the human condition instead of part of the problem, pretentious as that sounds.  This also means that if the work is not innately compassionate (like my brothers’ teaching or my sister’s social science) we will attempt to do it in such a way that it still satisfies that need.

The Third Gift--a love of music.
Consider these four scenes:

1. It is Sunday morning and the service at Trinity Methodist Church, Atlanta, is over and Daddy cranks up the big Austin for the postlude and plays some showpiece (e.g. the “Toccata” from the Widor Organ Symphony).  We three boys are about 5 to 7, Barbara isn’t born yet.  We are allowed at last to jump up from the front pew where we have been trapped under the strict eye of our mother up in the choir, and to rush up to the organ console to watch Daddy work the three manuals and pistons and the pedals. It is a huge church with a soaring gothic ceiling and the organ is magnificent, roaring and dancing.
So--we are all musicians today, we can’t help it.

2. It is Christmas Eve and the family is gathered around the fireplace in the house in Florida. Barbara is very young, our ages about 2 to 12. It is a Daddy-enforced tradition (or at least we are still young enough that we will do anything he asks) that we listen to the Messiah, all 15 or so 78 rpm records: the Royal Phil., Huddersfield Chorus, William Warfield the bass (“Why do the nations so furiously rage together”)! And we all do love it so, because Daddy loves it so, and as the Huddersfield belts out “Wonderful! Counselor! Mighty God!” tears stream down Daddy’s cheeks in the firelight.  More than Fifty years ago and I can see it like yesterday.  And so a lump forms in my throat every time I hear “The Messiah.”

3. I am about 14 years old, in the coils of adolescence and not an aficionado of any particular kind of music.  I like the pop of the time (early rock) but only to the extent that peer pressure passes for a real preference.  Then one day I happen to hear an orchestra on the radio playing a piece of classical music and suddenly--how wonderful, how exciting, how brilliant it is!  It is a piece Daddy used to play (those 78’s again) and I remember it vividly (but have no idea what it is).  In fact it is the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony).  I’ve never looked back. Classical music is one of the most important sources of joy and soul in my life.

4. My brother Doug, a southern boy (but a cultured southern boy) from a little town in the southern Appalachians is graduating from the hallowed Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and we are there to see his graduation recital.  The climax: a piece written by Doug for trombone (his instrument) and organ. Doug had wanted to put a dedication to his father in the program but some bureaucrat in the Institute had said it wasn’t done, so Doug just steps to the front of the stage and announces his dedication; Daddy dissolves in a flood of emotion and the audience enjoys it immensely.  It is surely one of the proudest moments of Daddy’s life.  Doug’s playing makes me cry to this day.

Amazing.  Three extraordinary gifts from a man I had gotten used to thinking of first as an alcoholic.  I think my memory of him will not now be the same.  And I should say that Daddy did eventually quit drinking and smoking and had about ten years of a better life, with some measure of peace, and taking great pleasure in his children as adults, and his grandchildren.  He also told me that I had made the right choice about the organ business.

Well.  Isn’t every relationship, especially our closest ones, a mixture of things we love about the other and things we dislike, maybe even hate?  Aren’t all relationships that last and deepen and become, almost, the greatest part of who we are, still this mixture? But we learn, or else, to cherish what we love and overlook what we dislike.  Hopefully while the Other One is still with us.

Friday, March 11, 2011

I Have These Essays...

For a year or so I have been working on a set of essays about all sorts of things. Some are only titles at this point. One is finished--or at least I'm almost satisfied with it. I want to work on these and maybe if I go public that will force me to make progress on them.

Here's the list:

An Essay on My Father
He was a handsome and intelligent and talented man, and an alcoholic. This essay helped me sort out and acknowledge what I owed him, after years of mainly remembering his weaknesses.

An Essay on My Mother
A saint--but all I have so far is a title. Want to give her equal time, but too big a subject, can't get it started.

On the Pleasures of Adult Children
When Mary and I married she had three teenage daughters standing next to her at the altar, and I had three small boys next to me. Everyone cried, it was obviously an answer to many prayers. We'd have been crying too had we known what hell it would be to force all those personalities (actually only five of them, one daughter was on her own) together into one involuntary "family." In contrast, they now give us great joy...

Where is HL Mencken when we need him?
Looks like Mencken's "ignoramuses" are on the rise. We have politicians who believe climate warming is a UN conspiracy, that evolution is a humanist conspiracy, that if we can scale government power to 1890 levels everything will be OK again. This is just ignorance, so Mencken's term appears to apply...

Why Is It so Ugly: The Politics of Hate
My theory: we’re getting older as a nation (a fact) and so turning into a collection of fearful grumps…
And we have the internet as amplifier: the morons now all have a soapbox, and the stuff that gets forwarded to cascade all over the web is whatever catches your attention, whatever is cleverest, inflammatory, hateful.

Good and Evil in Hollywood
In my memory it used to be, in the movies, that the good guys and the bad guys were different...

It is morning.  A fine spring day.  In my nightshirt I take a cup of coffee out on the deck and watch a band of bright yellow sunlight in the top of the trees widen downward  into the understory.  I can hear Mary’s Falls splashing down the hill. A pileated woodpecker is making a racket up the hill (often heard, seldom seen, the owls too). As I move to a part of the deck under which a pair of phoebes have their nest, they zip out to the trees twittering. I have dreamed about this moment for 40 years...

The Liberal Conundrum

There is hardly anyone left in the educated community of the world who hasn't become convinced that some form of capitalism with its power to unleash creativity and innovation and self-serving ambition must be allowed to happen.  But how do we help those who are not ambitious, innovative, energetic, smart--or just unlucky?  They must be saved from their natural fate, because they are, as Jesus said, our neighbors…but how?

On Prejudice
Progressives rightly point out that prujudice is wrong, unfair, cruel. But it is also a completely natural and evolved response, and must be attacked as such...

The problem of being Presbyterian
We are modern Christians, and for many if not most Christians, that is an oxymoron...

That's the list though I hope there will be more. As I get them drafted I will bring them here.