Pleasantville

I know this movie was made in the ’90s and I’m just now getting around to watching it. If it hadn’t been for an article in Reason magazine, (January 2010, just now getting around to reading it!) I wouldn’t have even thought of watching the movie. The article was about all the social upheaval in society that we experienced in the 1960s. The beginning of the article talked about this movie and how the critics all missed the point of it. They all thought it was about how the people in the 1950s were living life unaware of all the things we knew about and experienced in the 1990s. As a result they lived such boring lives, everything was in black and white. The writer of the article, Jesse Walker, thought the movie “contrasts the faux ’50s of our TV-fueled nostalgia with the social ferment that was actually taking place while those sanitized shows first aired.” I saw the movie differently.

This movie is about two teenagers from the 1990s who get stuck in a TV show that is set in the 1950s. The people in the town that the show is named for, Pleasantville, are following a script. They don’t seem to have any thoughts or feelings of their own. They could be talking cardboard, it is so unreal. Everything is scripted to be perfect – great bowling scores, the high school basketball team never misses a shot, it never rains, there are no injuries, no houses catch fire. It’s pleasant, but is it perfect? Everything and everyone, including the two new arrivals, is in black and white. It’s only when feelings are acknowledged that they experience colors. Objects and even people change from black and white to color. Some people who don’t want change try to shut down the others. Even change is a new experience and they are fighting it without acknowledging their feelings at first.

Don’t you think this is how life is? If we live by the script – what we think others expect – if we are not honest with ourselves about our wants and our emotions, aren’t we living a shadow life? Don’t all our feelings and thoughts and desires, whether they are right or wrong, need to be acknowledged by us? Not broadcast to the world, but not stuffed down inside of us either. I think some folks call it being authentic. I think it’s the basis for an honestly lived life.

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Government, God and My Happiness

I had a conversation this morning at church with a fellow who thinks a lot like I do about a lot of things pertaining to the way businesses are run and government shenanigans.  We discussed how greed drives corporations and when they go from being privately or employee owned to being publicly owned through stock, it ruins the humanity of the company. We talked about how the tax system is so complicated the head of the IRS won’t even take a chance on preparing his own taxes; he hires someone.  We’ve both seen Food, Inc. and learned why immigration is handled the way it is when we saw the deal the feds cut with the chicken processing plant. (If you have not seen Food, Inc. I highly recommend it.) We talked about regulation on top of regulation and how it’s getting pretty heavy in all areas – all those layers of rules and bureaucracy.

I told my friend that it’s going to crash under it’s own weight. Or, maybe it will just limp along like the Soviet Union did for 70 years. I do what I can to change the direction we’re going, but like I told my friend, if we can’t change it and we have to live with all this nonsense, I can still be happy. I’m a citizen of a great Kingdom and this is not all there is for me.  (The Bible says our life is like a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. James 4:14) My friend sure did agree. It’s so good to know a Christian’s happiness doesn’t have to depend on what the government does.

Bela Fleck

Until recently, the only banjo players I could have named were Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and my Dad. Shows what I knew. Now I know about Bela Fleck and his documentary, “Throw Down Your Heart.”

Bela Fleck is a Grammy Award winning banjo player and has been nominated for Grammy Awards in more categories than any other musician ever. And he made this great documentary because a lot of folks think of the Southern United States and white guys when they think of banjos. The banjo is derived from an African instrument that was brought over here by slaves. Bela Fleck wanted people like me who didn’t know any of this to learn about it, so he went to Africa with his banjo, a fellow who is great at recording live music, and a few camera operators, in search of people to play music with him. They went to Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia and Senegal.

And boy, did they find musicians who were eager to play! It was very interesting to see how the banjo could be played along with things like the finger piano (I didn’t know what that was before seeing this film) and other instruments. There were times I heard some jazz and some blues.

Bela Fleck has even been touring this year with some of the people he met in Africa. I learned that on his website.

Besides enjoying learning about and listening to the music in the documentary, I also learned a bit of African history and tidbits about the culture of some of his hosts. I love seeing how people live in other countries-what they wear, what they eat and how it’s prepared, burial customs-all of it. If you like music, history or anthropology, I think you would probably like “Bela Fleck: Throw Down Your Heart.”

I Finally Watched Birdman of Alcatraz

I’m 53 years old and last night I finally watched Birdman of Alcatraz. The movie was released in 1962. That’s the year I turned six. It must have made quite an impression on folks because people were still talking about it when I was in Jr. High.

In case you aren’t familiar with this older movie, it’s about a man, Robert Stroud, who killed someone and because of that went to federal prison. (It happened in Alaska before it was a state, so there was no state system to deal with such things.) At the beginning of the movie he seems to have no sense of the reality of other people. They are only objects, not beings with thoughts and feelings. In his mind, he’s the only ‘real’ person who exists.

One day he finds a baby bird and begins to care for it in his cell. Eventually, he has lots of birds, other prisoners have birds in their cells, too, and a bunch of these birds get sick. They have a disease that there is no cure for, so Stroud begins to do a lot of reading and experimenting. He finds the cure. Actually, he became a pretty famous ornithologist and even published a couple of books.

What I found so interesting about this movie was that as he cared for the birds, he softened up. Near the end he talks to a young man about hope and life. Wow. What a radical difference from his earlier behavior! And all from tending to little birds? And from reading and learning, too. Education, you know. Hm.

I wondered what the truth was so I looked him up. According to what I read, when the book and movie were made some of the facts were changed, most likely to make the story flow more easily. That’s to be expected.

Some other things were changed, too, though. I noticed that in 1943, after he had his experience tending birds and becoming a self-taught ornithologist, he was evaluated by a psychiatrist who came to the conclusion that he was a psychopath. Now, that sounds like the man at the beginning of the movie. Rather than what he was really like, (there is more about that on the link above) we are given a character that we are supposed to feel sympathy for who never really existed. He never gets parole and, well, gee, he became such a nice guy. Did the author of the book, Thomas E. Gaddis, ever visit Robert Stroud when he was writing the story? I can’t find anything to indicate that he did. If he never spent time talking with him he would have had access to facts about his case, but not to his personality. I wondered how he came to such conclusions about him being a changed man who we are supposed to pity because he’s so misunderstood and mistreated by the system?

Then it dawned on me that this was written back when the popular theory was that criminals were produced as a result of a bad environment and a lack of education. This was the old nature vs. nurture deal with a bit of ‘blank slate’ tossed in. Nurture was winning. It was thought that if the environment was changed and a criminal was educated it would change their whole psyche. Good loving environment + education = good person. I guess Gaddis assumed the theory was correct and came to his own conclusions about a man going from killer to compassionate caring person because of his experiences with the birds and because of the education he gained. What Robert Stroud really was, was a psychopath who was violent his entire life and who also happened to be very intelligent. His IQ was 134. This info didn’t fit the popular theory of the causes and cure for criminal behavior.

You know what? I think this theory is based on a material view of man. I think it’s so weird that at a time when we were in the thick of the Cold War, and we wanted to distinguish ourselves from the atheistic Soviets so we put the words “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance, our prison system was being operated on the premise that man is what he is because of his environment. This view of man denies the spiritual condition of man’s nature and also the remedy that God has provided. How strange.