manolohiro

Diversity in Animation: Big Hero 6 vs. The Book of Life

Two animated features hit theaters this fall starring predominantly minority casts, but only one of them did it right.

Disney’s Big Hero 6 got lots of praise in the media and from reviewers of color for its starring cast: comprised of two Asians, a black guy, Latina and a white guy who’s clearly stoned, the cast of the big-screen adaptation is in some ways an upgrade over some of the goofy stereotypes that featured in the Marvel comic that inspired it.

Unfortunately, beyond the hybridized aesthetic of the movie’s fictional locale, San Fransokyo (topping the Golden Gate bridge with torii was pretty inspired) the movie doesn’t do much to celebrate the diversity of the multicultural starring cast it’s so lauded for. Even reminding people that the story’s protagonist might have been the product of sexual congress between two Asian people was too much to ask: Hiro and his brother, Tadashi, have been parented by a white auntie of undefined relation since the pair’s Japanese parents died (I’ve heard Aunt Cass was originally going to be their mom, but someone along the way got over their heebie-jeebies at the idea of Hiro being 100% Asian). There is a cat adorably named “Mochi”, tho, to ensure you that the writers have at least seen the menu at a sushi restaurant before.

Big Hero 6 has little to offer a generation of American kids with an unprecedented level of literacy vis a vis Japanese culture; kids that have grown up reading and watching art created by Japanese people, with Japanese protagonists set in Japan. Disney’s legendary skittishness is simply out of touch with a generation of young people that doesn’t even perceive a difference between American cartoons and Japanese ones.

Instead of paying any meaningful attention to the cultures of the diverse cast, Big Hero is liberal Democrat utopia where minorities aren’t under-represented in STEM courses and enthusiastically put their eager minds to work building better bombs.  Hiro learns firsthand the difference between “good science” and “bad science” when the nanobots he invents to win a robotics competition are stolen and weaponized by a super-villain, leading to his brother’s death. How does Hiro react to this? By turning the cuddly Baymax — a healthcare robot that used to plod around diagnosing Hiro’s mental health issues — into a walking death drone that shoots its fists off like rockets.

Transmogrifying Tadsahi’s last invention into a death-bot seems like a fucked-up way for Hiro to honor his brother’s legacy, but that kind of flouting of ethics is pretty much the trend in Big Hero– before long each of the four engineering students that help round out the titular “6” are happily turning their school projects into WMDs so they can take down the bad guy (one self-aware moment makes the point when one character’s hideous invention nearly chops a guy’s arm off when trying to execute a high-five). No one bats an eye when Hiro upgrades Baymax’s biometric scanner — once used to spot medical ailments — into a mass-surveillance device. All for the greater good.

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Some of you will insist that expecting a realistic depiction of how young people of color might uniquely react to the weaponization of technologies — after all, we are disproportionately the targets of surveillance and increasingly militarized technology —  is too much to ask of a kids movie adapted from an obscure comicbook. But if the minority characters don’t reflect the values and viewpoints that minorities actually have, then what’s the point?

When people of color demand inclusion and representation, it means creating space for our unique ideas and stories, and the philosophies and themes that leap forward from imaginations shaped by our cultures. Just browning up some of the faces in the background should be the lowest bar to clear at this point.

In contrast to Big Hero 6, The Book of Life is unapologetically Mexican — a not-coincidental outcome of actually being created by Mexicans. In this story, Mexico is literally the center of the universe and mariachis, matadors and mustaches provide the backdrop for a fresh fairytale milieu.

Central to Book is the rivalry between the sensitive, guitar-strumming protagonist Manolo (Diego Luna) and the swashbuckling war hero, Joaquin (Magic Mike) as they both compete for the beautiful Maria’s (Zoe Saldana’s) heart.

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Pressured by his dad to drop the guitar and take up the family’s bull-fighting tradition, Manolo’s angsty journey (he croons a mariachi remix of Radiohead’s “Creep”) is ultimately one of self-actualization. His greatest triumph occurs when he learns to love himself just in time for his previously misunderstood compassion to save the day. Isn’t that a way better message for your kids than another sugared-up videogame punch-fest?

Book’ll indoctrinate your kids by immersing them in the beauty of Mexican folk mythology, realized earnestly by writer-director Jorge R. Gutierrez clearly working from a place of deep familiarity and appreciation of the subject. Even if you don’t know Gutierrez by name, you’ve probably his seen unmistakable designs on shows like Mucha Lucha! and El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera. Book feels like Gutierrez’s grand opus; an entire world (and underworld) built of his imagination and in his inimitable image. As a result, the look and feel of San Angel and the people that populate it—figurines come to life, right down the manly stubble whittled into Manolo’s wooden jawline—help this movie stand out starkly from the other 6,000 computer animated films released every year.

Familiar fairytale trappings get a facelift in Book of Life: the benevolent La Muerte, a slender beauty in rose red and calavera make-up, is a new-school take on the frumpy fairy godmother of Disney yore (she’s already an overnight cosplay favorite). One trusted paradigm gets smashed altogether: unlike the orphaned heroes of most fairy-tale stories, Manolo’s big, colorful family tags along to lend a helping hand.

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This is the practical benefit of making space for real diversity. Book doesn’t shrink away from its cultural points of difference (“What’s with Mexicans and death!?” one of the white students blurts during a break in the story) and instead explores and celebrates them. The concept of death presented in the movie, where the Land of the Dead is a colorful, joyous place where all our old family members are constantly partying, springs from an honest representation of Mexican culture that pre-dates Columbus.

This small window into another culture gives us another view of death–a better one, in my opinion–that is defined by celebration, beauty and joyful remembrance rather than fear and sadness. For sure, I’d rather hang out in Gutierrez’s version of the afterlife than any of those presented in the animated films I grew up on (is anyone else still traumatized by Dog-Satan coming to take Charlie to Hell in All Dogs Go to Heaven?)

Book of Life feels more refreshingly authentic than Big Hero 6 because it actually is, having sprung from the mind of actual people of color (producer Guillermo del Toro signed on after being moved by Gutierrez’s nervous but heartfelt pitch). The movie also features a soundtrack by Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla, who, along with Paul Williams, wrote the beautiful original songs “I Love You Too Much” and “The Apology Song” for the movie.

Besides art director Scott Watanabe, there are few people of color in Big Hero‘s key creative roles. This falls in line with an entrenched Disney tradition of exclusively recruiting white dudes to tell stories about non-white cultures. Little Mermaid alums Musker and Clements were handed the reins for Disney’s first black princess story and the result was a trite, forgettable mess (perhaps more disheartening is that Randy Newman was put in charge of the New Orleans-inspired jazz soundtrack, which I guess is not terribly surprising for a company that engaged Elton John to helm the soundtrack for the Africa-based Lion King. If only there were accomplished black musicians from New Orleans of Africa).

I’ll be really excited when Disney is regularly approaching accomplished artists like Gutierrez, who are under-represented in the mainstream. Consider that Frozen-director Jennifer Lee is the first woman to direct a Disney animated feature—and that worked out pretty well.

Big Hero 6

3stars

1che

The Book of Life

4stars

3ches

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Bent, not Broken: 5 Love Stories for Damaged Romantics

Inspired by my finally getting around to watching the excellent Silver Linings Playbook, here are five of my favorite stories about couples that help each other overcome emotional traumas. We’ve all got all issues and movies like Silver Linings remind us that we’re not just carrying our own baggage, but our partners’ as well. Grab your partner, some popcorn and some Prozac and snuggle up with one of these off-beat romances.

Black Snake Moan (2007)

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If you haven’t seen this movie, chances are you’ve at least cocked an eyebrow at its salacious, grindhouse-style DVD cover, depicting Sam Jackson shackling a partially-nude white woman (Christina Ricci) to himself with a heavy, iron chain. You get everything promised by that cover and a bit more in this movie.

Ricci stars as Rae, a sex addict in rural Mississippi whose only support system is her boyfriend, Ronnie. Possessed of few options for making better lives for lives for themselves, Ronnie (who also suffers panic attacks) joins the military. Ronnie’s departure sends Rae on a drug and alcohol-fueled binge, careening from one reckless sexual encounter to the next, a spiral that ends with her beaten and left for dead by the side of the road. She’s found by an old blues man named Lazarus (a haggard Sam Jack), who chains Rae to his radiator and charges himself with curing the girl of her unholy affliction.

Black Snake Moan is as crass as advertised – you’ll see lots of Ricci’s titties – but it ultimately humanizes the main character by showing the emotional pain her sex addiction causes her. In contradiction to its grindhouse aesthetics, Moan handles Rae’s illness with an empathy and dignity rarely shown in media – her urges strike her with terrifying suddenness in moments of emotional distress, triggering memories of past traumas. Trust me, these scenes won’t titillate you. Moan looks and feels like an exploitation film but its handling of the subject of sex addiction (not to mention it’s racially-charged setting, the rural South) is pretty grown-up.

3stars

2ches

Welcome to the N.H.K (2006)

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22-year old Tatsuhiro Sato is a “hikikomori”; an unemployed recluse that has withdrawn almost completely from the world beyond his front door. Suffering from severe depression and paranoia, Sato believes an agency called the Nihon Hikikomori Yokai (the titular “N.H.K”, a riff on the real-life Japanese network) is at the heart of a conspiracy to turn people into helpless hermits by manipulating the media. During a rare venture outside, Sato is befriended by Misaki, a girl who claims to be working with a charity project to rehabilitate hikikomori. The real reasons for Misaki’s interest in Sato is a mystery, but her obsession with his rehabilitation and her penchant for lying reveal she’s got her own issues.

Adapted from Tatsuhiko Takimoto’s novel of the same name, N.H.K is a dark comedy that treads some bold territory. The show is defined by Sato’s repeated, hopeless attempts to connect to people: along the way he tries to become a hentai game designer, gets lured into a pyramid scheme, accidentally joins a suicide party and becomes obsessed with an MMO. In the meantime, Sato’s paranoid delusions play out in stylized sequences that are both hilarious and at times heart-breakingly authentic. The show will hit close to home with anyone that’s dealt with anxiety and depression.

The 24-episodes maxi-series format gives the story room to delve into a variety of topics. Sato is the main focus of the story,  but the series explores the troubled lives of several of his young friends living in Tokyo, including the hentai-obsessed Yamazaki and the suicidal Hitomi. Hikikomori (“pulling inward, being confined”) is a real-life phenomenon estimated to affect 700,000 people in Japan, though it’s cause is unclear (attempts to cure Sato and the unknown cause of his condition is a running theme in the show). N.H.K tackles the subject of mental health from a variety of angles, making it unlike any other series I’ve ever seen.

4stars

3ches

Castaway on the Moon (2009)

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I stumbled across this movie randomly on Netflix and enjoyed it a lot. A product of Korean writer/director Hae-jun Lee, Castaway is the 2nd movie on this list that tackles hikikomori, giving us some idea of the prevalence of the phenomenon throughout Asia and its relevance in the cultural thought-space (the increasing isolation of young people was also a central theme to the 2001 Japanese horror movie Pulse, later adapted for American audiences).

Drowning in debt, Kim Seung-Keun throws himself off a bridge over Seoul’s Han River, only to be washed up onto a small island in the middle of the bay. Seung-Keun becomes a castaway in plain sight: the island is surrounded by the many high rises that dot Seoul’s skyline, but he’s unable to attract help or manufacture a way back to civilization. Finally forced to eke out on an existence on the island, Seung-Keun’s plight catches the interest of Jung-Yeon, a reclusive girl who watches him through binoculars from her high rise apartment. Jung-Yeon sleeps on the floor of her closet and otherwise occupies her time photographing the moon or playing the Second Life-inspired “Cyworld” on her computer. Finding a kindred spirit in Seung-Keun, she considers venturing from her apartment to connect with him.

With Seoul as a backdrop, the concept of feeling both crowded and estranged is a recurring theme as both protagonists are sort of hidden in plain sight of a teeming city. It’s easy to get sucked in by the charming love story that develops between two people the rest of the world has been content to forget about.

3stars

3ches

Garden State (2004)

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Andrew Largeman (“Large” for short) dreams of being on a crashing plane, gazing around apathetically as mayhem occurs all around him. It’s a metaphor for his life: numbed to indifference by the stockpile of anti-depressants that pack his medicine cabinet. Large awakes to the news that his mother has passed away, prompting a journey home to New Jersey that reunites him with high school buddies and his father, a psychiatrist. It’s also the first time in years that Andrew’s been off his anti-depressants, but he still sleepwalks through life, even while experimenting with ecstacy at a party. Andrew runs into Sam, a bubbly pathological liar with epilepsy. Sam’s earnestness encourages Andrew to open up and he begins to experience something real for the first time in years.

Written, directed and lead by Scrubs‘ Zach Braff, folks my age will remember Garden State fondly as a sort of generation-defining movie that was among the first to speak earnestly to an audience of chronically depressed and hyper-medicated 20-somethings. Based on Braff’s own life, the movie holds up better than some will claim. Despite its on-the-nose, college mix-tape soundtrack and an insufferably adorable Natalie Portman, it manages several moments of honesty (one of my favorites is when Andrew hugs Sam’s mother and lingers just a bit too long—a subtle, but moving touch by Braff).

3stars

2ches

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

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Set on the sleepy island of New Penzance in 1960’s New England, young love blossoms between 12-year-old pen pals Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop. Misfits who seem more put-together than the adults around them, orphan Sam’s only family is the Khaki Scout troupe he belongs to while the moody and introverted Suzy longs to escape her broken, yet sterile, household. The two make a secret pact to escape together and hike into the wildnerness to find their Moonrise Kingdom.

Moonrise has the distinctive look and feel of Wes Anderson’s deconstructed Americana and will probably be liked or disliked on those grounds, though it’s probably the most approachable movie in the Anderson catalog. The movie features a class of stars that includes Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand and Anderson regular Bill Murray, but the young actors playing Sam and Suzy carry the movie. Ultimately it’s the simple story of two misfits who find kindred spirits in one another that make the movie so fun and accessible.

4stars

1che

voto

BFC’s Guide to the 2014 California Statewide Propositions

It’s that time again, California citizens! The propositions on this year’s ballot may seem drab, but they could mean big changes for the future of Californians. BFC highlights the 2014 statewide propositions that should make Californians optimistic about going to the polls this November.

Insurance rates, water projects, “rainy day” funds and casinos? Okay, this year’s propositions don’t sound terribly spectacular, but we’ll give you the low-down on a couple worth getting excited about (and one to be wary of).

Prop 45 – Public Notice Required for Insurance Company Rates Initiative
What’s it do? In general, this measure would make it harder for health insurance companies to increase rates by first requiring a handful of actions on the part of insurance providers. These actions include 1) obtaining approval for rate changes from the California Insurance Commissioner 2) providing for public notice of rate changes and subsequent judicial review and 3) providing a sworn statement declaring the accuracy of information justifying rate changes to the Insurance Commissioner. It also prevents insurers from determining eligibility and rates for customers based on lack of prior coverage and credit history.
Yea/Nay? Yea!
What’s so good about it? Simply put, it makes it harder for providers to do what Anthem did in 2010, when thousands of their customers found out that their premiums would randomly increase by 39%. Prop 45 is a step toward ensuring that health insurance remains affordable by protecting policy-holders from random and unjustified rate hikes. Similar restrictions have been in place to regulate auto and homeowner’s insurance providers since 1988 and 35 other states already have laws that require health insurance companies to obtain approval before increasing rates. Don’t be fooled by the spin; this proposition is one of the rare few that actually benefits the vast majority of Californians that are not insurance company executives. It’s a marginal step in making healthcare more accessible for everyone. And that’s good.

Prop 47 – Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative
What’s it do? Basically, it reclassifies most nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, unless the defendant has prior convictions for a violent crime. It would also allow for current inmates to be re-sentenced pending a review of their criminal history. The measure would also utilize savings accrued to invest in a Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund.
Yea/Nay? Yea!
What’s so good about it? This proposition would do a lot to address the issue or prison overcrowding in California caused by mass incarceration of defendants for nonviolent or drug-related offenses. Most of the mainstream coverage of the issue focuses on the fiscal arguments or how the measure would allow police to focus on more dangerous offenders. While those arguments are indeed true and compelling, they barely scratch the surface of what a nightmare California’s bloated and expensive prison system has been since the adoption of more punitive sentencing laws, like the flawed Three Strikes, in the late 80s and early 90s. The problem is so bad, that in February, Gov. Brown requested a 2-year extension on an April 2014 deadline set by the US Supreme Court to relocate at least 7000 inmates to relieve overcrowding and improve health and safety conditions so poor that federal judges found they violated prisoners’ Constitutional rights. This law is the most recent of many attempts to turn back the clock to more sensible and effective law enforcement policy.

Prop 1 – Water Bond
What’s it do? Prop 1 authorizes $7.12 billion in bonds to fund state water supply infrastructure projects, including public water system improvements, surface and groundwater storage, drinking water protection, water recycling and advanced water treatment technology, water supply management and conveyance, wastewater treatment, drought relief, emergency water supplies, and ecosystem and watershed protection and restoration. The 7 billion in bonds will be repaid over the next 40 years from general tax revenue.
Yea/Nay? Nay!
What’s wrong with it? This prop is a Trojan horse: while there is money for some useful projects in this measure, the biggest chunk of change ($2.7 of the 7.12 billion) will be used to build dams and reservoirs. The problem here is that dams have an established history of being terrible for California’s natural environment, depleting fisheries and generally destroying the ecosystems in and around rivers. Of course, this isn’t just a problem in California; the trend nationwide has been to remove dams as we’ve learned more about their environmental impacts and devised better solutions for water supply and storage.

The other issue is dam building doesn’t really address California’s serious water problems and will, in this case, mostly benefit the small number of super-wealthy corporate farms who have laid down serious cash to sponsor the proposition. Prop 1 is a wolf in sheep’s clothing: a special interest project buried under some useful initiatives in order to get California tax payers to foot the bill. Just say no!

The poster below is a pretty good primer on these three propositions that could have a big impact on California’s future; feel free to pass it around. Listen to Che Guebeara: make your voice heard on November 4th.

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landojesus

The Passion of Donovan: The Saga of America’s First Superstar

The people of the Baha’i Faith accept the validity of all religions and see their founders as Manifestations of God, divine messengers sent with a revelation specific for the time and place they rose to prominence. I believe something similar exists in soccer (or football, as some like to call it). Throughout history, avatars have emerged that have forced us to see the game in a different way, pushing it ever forward on its evolutionary path to perfection. The avatars of the Baha’i include Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad, while us devotees of the World’s Game might pay homage to Sindelar, Pele’, Cruyff and Best. I also believe that if football has a God, Landon Donovan is one of its modern prophets.

Donovan is the unexpected product of a soccer culture in its nascent stages, still unspoiled by the corruption that comes with being a billion dollar sports juggernaut. In the US, the working man or woman can still afford to take the family to a Sunday match and you can sit at the pub with some of your favorite players, like fans did in England a century ago. In some ways the US is a football anachronism, hearkening back to a simpler version of the game. Yet it’s also a place where radical ideas like salary caps and a player’s union can thrive. America has a lot to learn about the Beautiful Game but a lot to teach as well. She needed a champion that could do both.

Landon hadn’t grown up dreaming of playing abroad under the bright lights of Europe’s top leagues. When Cobi Jones asked him to reflect on his career accomplishments and the possibility of playing in a fourth World Cup, he answered with his now characteristic insightfulness:

“This is going to sound crazy but the only soccer I watched was when you guys were playing your national team games. I remember you, I remember Alexi…I didn’t know much about the game. There was no MLS. I couldn’t have dreamed of ever playing professionally like that.”

A familiar story for many USMNT diehards. Like Landon, I was on the precipice of puberty when the World Cup arrived on US shores in 1994, setting fire to the lives of a generation of American boys and girls coming of age during a budding new era of US Soccer. For a month or so everyone had fallen in love with the game we were obsessed with; at school, we’d gone from recruiting girls to round out a game of 6-on-6 to having too many kids to play on one stretch of field. In ’94, we were unexposed to the prestige of European club football; the motley crew of characters that made up the US World Cup team was the target of our endless adoration and envy. Their exploits on the biggest stage were, for many, our first introduction to pro soccer. We were profoundly affected by the Cup (a young Donovan attended the Argentina-Romania match and chose Roberto Baggio as his favorite player). In addition to hoping to wear the US shirt ourselves one day, we wanted our countrymen to become as obsessed with this beautiful game as we were. In the midst of the Cup it all seemed possible. It seemed inevitable.

“I was 12 and I didn’t really know a lot about the sport… I went to that game, and it sort of opened my eyes to the bigger world of soccer besides just playing club soccer or playing in my backyard.” — Donovan on watching the World Cup in person in ’94

Baggio’s scuffed penalty shot was still sailing toward the Rose Bowl’s cheap seats when America’s fascination with soccer began to fade as suddenly as it had arrived. Without pro games to watch on TV and proper infrastructure to absorb a multitude of kids with soccer fever, there were few outlets for our pent-up passion. AYSO was a dead-end and youth club soccer was prohibitively expensive for kids in my neighborhood, playing in hand-me-down cleats and cardboard shin-guards. On the schoolyard, we were back to playing co-ed games and being called fags. Later, the scandalous ’98 Cup would make the high of the previous tournament seem like a fluke propped up by childish nostalgia. As the cliché goes, by high school the vast majority of us gave up on our dream of wearing the US shirt: we chose other sports or just became working stiffs, settling for being ambassadors for soccer in much more unspectacular ways. But the conviction of one Landon Donovan would not waver.

Young Donovan rocks his own "divine ponytail"

Young Donovan rocks his own “divine ponytail”

The young Donovan had to find people to sponsor his youth club career. Landon’s mom, a single mother raising three kids on a teacher’s salary, relied on friends to help drive him to far-away games. Such was the inauspicious path to superstardom in a soccer backwater, but it was a setting no less suitable for the beginning of a hero’s journey than the desolation of the planet Tatooine. Moreover, it was uniquely American, right down to Donovan’s complicated relationship with our beautiful friends to the South. The ’94 Cup inspired other American all-time greats—Clint Dempsey, DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley—but Donovan’s success surpassed our wildest expectations, beginning with the fabled 2002 World Cup run.

He was neither the dashing Beckham or cool, enigmatic Zidane that we might’ve imagined when we dreamed up the USA’s first superstar; the small-statured and soft-spoken Landon would hardly reverse the opinions of the jagoffs that teased us for wearing knee-socks in grade school. But he’d prove to be one of those rare footballers with the ability to move us with his performances. A true artist, he couldn’t mask his pure love of the game, nor did he attempt to. “This is a game I played my whole life and loved,” said a remarkably centered 23-year-old Landon after returning from Leverkusen. “It’s always been my way of expression.” He wore his heart on his sleeve, whether on the field or in front of the camera. Indeed, if he had one failing it’s that he was too much like us, a soccer nerd, blazing uncharted territory and making things up as he went, reflecting our own doubts and vulnerabilities back at us. But it’s for these reasons he’d ultimately prove to be the hero we needed.

“At that point, I didn’t know about the pressures and things involved with taking a penalty kick. You obviously felt bad for the guy, but now, in retrospect, having played in World Cups and playing in games that have some meaning, you realize what that effect must have had on him. I mean, his whole country was depending on him, and he was a star, so you knew it was a devastating moment for him.” — Donovan on watching Baggio in the ’94 Final

Like most artists, Landon is misunderstood in his time and the burden of a nation’s expectations wouldn’t always sit comfortably on his shoulders. He faced doubts about his character and mental fortitude, not unlike his hero, Roberto Baggio another temperamental genius. After suffering a career-threatening injury in 1987, Baggio found solace in Buddhism and credits his conversion with both his recovery and helping him move on after missing the famous penalty in Pasadena. Donovan ended up taking his own spiritual journey, but before that he paid homage to the Italian legend with a heroic team-lifting performance in South Africa, stealing victory in the last minutes as Baggio had against Nigeria and Spain in ’94 when he propelled an otherwise underwhelming Italy into the final. In a field-side interview conducted moments after the US won their World Cup group, Donovan first graciously gave it up to his teammates, before sharing that the goal had been the culmination of four years of hard work. Modeling himself after Kenyan runners, Landon trained by pushing himself to run at 80% of his max heart rate until exhausted, ensuring he’d still be running late in the game when other players were on their last legs. When Landon spurned the gilded promises of Europe many doubted his ambition, but any artist will understand the endless obsession with perfection that drives men like Donovan and Baggio, who remarked “I have never really been satisfied with the easily scored goal.” Donovan’s 2010 performance proved he’d become a fully-fledged Jedi Knight, rebounding from 2006’s handless spiral down the sewers of Cloud City. And even more greatness lay ahead.

But the specter of Baggio would continue to haunt Donovan’s career (and I’m not talking about that missed penalty in the 2009 MLS Cup Final). In 2011, Baggio was interviewed on the subject of his well-documented history of strife with his coaches. In Il Divin Codino’s own words:

“I’ve often wondered why they really wouldn’t consider me, but I never found the real answer. Perhaps they were a bit jealous, as everybody used to love me, even opposing fans. Was I stealing the show, denying them the role of protagonists they were desperately claiming for themselves? Modern football is increasingly dominated by the coaches, their narcissism to put themselves above the team and their players.”

Jurgen Klinsmann came to US Soccer in 2011 with lofty goals. In addition to coaching, he was put in charge of reshaping the US development structure and, more nebulously, fostering a uniquely American footballing philosophy and style of play. Klinsmann had never done either during his career as a coach, but in many ways he was the square-jawed Randian hero some fans and pundits always wanted to see representing US Soccer. By now, games from Europe’s top leagues have been beamed into an unprecedented number of US homes in mesmerizingly slick HD, setting stars in the eyes of a whole new generation of American kids. It was common sense to look to Europe for guidance to get to the next tier and Klinsmann hailed from a legit footballing power—the same country where Landon struggled in two separate adventures. Most importantly, he was a winner, having claimed the sport’s greatest prize in 1990.

Jurgen’s optimism and confidence won us over instantly. And after a somewhat rocky start, he delivered. With Donovan mostly out of the national team picture, the team was carried by the core of Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, all excelling in top European leagues. But it was Klinsmann, Ze Mad Genius that claimed the accolades. His energetic goal celebrations went viral faster than those of the scoring players. Between matches, he confounded fans and media, who endlessly analyzed Jurgenisms like “[Clint Dempsey] hasn’t made shit” and hiring motivational speakers to rip phonebooks in half for the players in camp. Even the now-infamous-enough-for-capitals Straus Article ultimately worked to Jurgen’s advantage. Indeed, the more eccentric the grinning, ageless Klinsmann behaved, the more hooked we were. He was US Soccer’s first star coach.

Still, while Jurgen was certainly eccentric, the job at hand required a true visionary; someone who’d have recognized that the key to unlocking America’s secret had been right in front of us. Jurgen experimented with Mexico-based national team players early on in an effort to infuse more Latin-American flair to the US style, ultimately selecting none of those players for his World Cup squad. But Donovan was already the product of a marriage of those styles. He’d combined the cultured touch, quick passing and combination play he learned while touring SoCal with his Latino teammates as a youth player (becoming fluent in Spanish along the way) with the speed and stamina he developed running cross-country in high school. Landon also beat Klinsmann to the discovery of yoga, having incorporated it into his training regime back in 2006. It provided the first glimpses of Landon’s holistic approach to the game:

“When I finally did yoga for the first time this year, there were chubby guys in the room kicking my ass. Yoga is intense; it’s muscular. Soccer’s a mental game. To keep your concentration, to make the plays, you need equilibrium between the cardiovascular, the muscular, and the mental.”

Initially, Donovan and Klinsmann seemed cut from the same cloth: national team icons with an obsession for fitness and an inclination toward the unconventional. After all, Klinsmann had stuffed Donovan under his wing and flown him to Bayern Munich only a few years ago, placing enough faith in him to start him ahead of Lukas Podolski. With Ze Mad Genius sculpting an attack-minded national team around our hero, the US looked destined to become a world class force. But something deeper was bubbling that would ultimately cause an irreparable rift between the two men. After all, at 30, Landon was no longer a Padawan; he was an accomplished player and living legend in his own right. He had his own philosophy about what it took to achieve greatness and it stood in stark contrast with Klinsmann’s. Jurgen, after all, is no artist, and Donovan’s ideas would test the limits of his imagination.

Though no longer a fixture with the national team for the first time in years, Donovan had been quietly playing the best soccer of his life in MLS. He helped LA win back-to-back MLS Cups and received Player of the Month honors for the 2nd time with Everton. He was the cornerstone of a Galaxy team transitioning from the ironclad defense and countering facilitated by David Beckham’s long passing to a more possessive style built around combination play. The team coalesced around Landon’s playmaking and he finished 2012 with 14 assists, his most in a single season, adding 3 more in the playoffs to secure the Cup. Despite his on-field performances, it’s not hard to imagine that 2012 was a somber year for Landon personally. Having found a home at Everton FC, it’s rumored that Landon’s attempt to secure a permanent transfer was thwarted by MLS over the summer. He was underpaid at Galaxy, making less than David Beckham and new signing Robbie Keane despite being MLS’ best player. Amid waning passion for the game he once loved, Donovan confirmed he’d be extending his off-season to take a sabbatical from soccer. The move conflicted directly with the idea that players must place themselves under constant pressure, the philosophy espoused by Jurgen Klinsmann:

“We don’t have the environment telling them nicely, ‘OK you had a good week, but next week has to be better, and the next week again. [In the US] it’s: ‘Oh, take a week off.’ No, don’t take a week off. If you take a week off as a programmer at Apple, you missed the train, you lost the job. You can’t afford it. There is always another level. If you one day reach the highest level then you’ve got to confirm it, every year.”

Jurgen felt American players were coddled and openly criticized American sports culture in general. As I wrote previously, Donovan proved to be far more the visionary than his coach on this subject as well. It’s fitting that Klinsmann would use Apple as a metaphor for how athletes should be treated in the same year the company made headlines for working the employees in their Shenzen factory so hard they were committing suicide. We know overworking employees and subjecting them to constant stress ultimately hinders their performance; evidence mounts that the same is true for soccer players. The apparently limitless demand for soccer has players engaged in more fixtures than ever and it’s literally breaking them down.

From Ouriel Daskal’s “Injured, Stressed, Depressed and Broke”:

A Swedish 11-year study shows fixture congestion was associated with increased injury rates that’s despite the fact that medical technology and training regimes are better than ever.

Many physicians believe there’s just too much football in one season. “60 games per season are too many games”, says Dr. Stephen Ben-Shoshan is a Senior muskulo-skeletal interventional radiologist, CT & MRI musculo – skeletal imaging diagnostic. “The human body can’t handle that pressure. I see many feet and legs problems in marathon runners and many problems caused by trauma in Rugby. However, footballers seem to suffer from both problems. Traumas and erosion. Footballers are damaged like marathon running Rugby players.

Marco Reus most recently joined Franck Ribery, Radamel Falcao, Theo Walcott, Christian Benteke, Rafael van der Vaart and Alvaro Saborio on the list of star players that will be watching the World Cup from a hospital bed. We’ll be treated to dinged-up versions of Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez and Deigo Costa as well. It’s a trend that’s already rippling down to the youth level, where over-training and fatigue has been cited as the cause of an increase in ACL tears, an injury that haunts players for the rest of their careers. But even that’s not as bad as dying from a spontaneous heart attack, which happens more often in soccer players than other types of athletes. But hey–these guys know what they signed up for. Even if their bodies are being systematically broken down for our viewing pleasure, they’re millionaires, surrounded by fast cars and beautiful women. Their lives must be amazing, right?

One in four professional footballers (more than 25%) said they suffer symptoms of anxiety and depression. That’s according to a new study for the players’ union, FIFPro. The problem was even worse among retired players with 39% saying they were affected by depression and anxiety.

To put that into some sort of perspective, the last survey of UK Armed Forces personal said that 19.7% of of the Armed Forces suffered mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.

The physically and mentally grueling lifestyle of soccer players is a health crisis that nobody’s talking about. Taking a sabbatical might have rescued Lionel Messi’s underwhelming, injury-blighted 2013-14 season. And therein lie the implications. If other superstars followed in Donovan’s footsteps we might have a much-needed revolution in world football. Demanding fewer fixtures would actually improve the game for everybody: the last two UEFA Champions League finals featured teams severely handicapped by the loss of star players in Mario Goetze and Diego Costa. Of course the team owners, networks and the various governing bodies that’ve grown fat off of the ever-increasing number of fixtures are less enthusiastic about the prospect of an Occupy FIFA popping off, but is it any less necessary than the one that sprung up in Wall Street and similarly spread to the rest of the world?

The Church of Football desperately needs someone to run the moneychangers out of its temples. Why not a hero from a soccer backwater? A place where the game is still in its adolescence, possessing all the irreverence and radical imagination that comes from being young and an outsider. Sure, the United States is an unwieldy behemoth geo-politically, but we’re bumpkins in soccer, working-class heroes that bounce back no matter how many goals get disallowed. And yet our soccer culture simultaneously reflects the progressivism of college-educated, middle class suburbia: MLS signed it’s first gay player to little hubbub beyond the grousing of Galaxy fans who lost the 2013 MVP in the process and we take extreme pride in the successes enjoyed by our women’s team. Face it: American soccer is radical.

Jurgen Klinsmann, the man hired to bring US Soccer to new frontiers, failed to see any potential in challenging the status quo, at least not in any meaningful way. I mean, sure, Jurgen departed from stodgy old traditions like employing tactics, but he’d prove to be a traditionalist otherwise, particularly on the subjects of attitude and fitness. He lamented the fact that there weren’t enough games in an MLS season and encouraged national team prospects to take off-season loans. He also benched Donovan for going easy in training while suffering with tendonitis in his knee. Possessing limited imagination and few original ideas, Jurgen sees little to work with in the culture we’ve built so far and will set about hastily replacing it with something that looks more like the system that groomed players like him in Germany, whether it’s a sensible fit or not. Donovan specifically came to represent all the peculiarities of American soccer that Klinsmann openly disdained.

While earning his managing credentials, Jurgen Klinsmann attended the John Kreese School of Sports Psychology

While earning his managing credentials, Jurgen Klinsmann attended the John Kreese School of Sports Psychology

But Landon returned from his spiritual journey in terrific form; the sabbatical paid dividends. Combining his cultured playmaking with renewed lethality in front of goal, he tallied 10 goals and 9 assists in 22 matches for his club in 2013. Some would credit Jurgen’s mind games with Donovan’s renewed vigor, but Landon found much more compelling motivation during his time off: self-actualization. He was now a Jedi Master, returning as teacher, rather than student. He was courageously outspoken on the subjects of mental health and therapy, and how they could help others in his profession. He’d also reconciled with his estranged dad, further lessening the need for a surrogate disapproving father-figure in Klinsmann. Again, he’d placed himself in direct opposition to Jurgen’s retrograde motivational tactics and his form was living proof of a better approach to getting the most out of players.

In the summer, his Golden Ball-winning performance captured the Gold Cup trophy (Jurgen’s first and only title as a manager) and dashed all doubts about Landon’s place in the national team. As he always has on the big stage, Landon moved us, stirring up more excitement about going to the World Cup than even the multi-goal victories over Germany and Bosnia-Herzogovina (this Donovan compilation video I made, for example, went from just over 1000 views to 15,000 by the end of the tournament). His renewed exuberance was palpable; now iconic images of Landon donning sunglasses hurled at him by a Salvadorean fan or kneeling in the pouring rain with arms serenely outstretched lead headlines trumpeting our native son’s return.

He went on to secure his place in the national team picture symbolically, clenching the US’s World Cup spot with a goal and assist in what might be the last Dos a Cero of his career. At the close of 2013, Donovan would edge out Clint Dempsey and Wayne Rooney to be the most searched soccer player in America. The enlightened Donovan was once again the face of US Soccer, poised to reveal the final chapter of a uniquely American hero’s story in Brazil on the 20th anniversary of the Cup that sparked his career.

Many USMNT fans’ heart’s sank when the World Cup draw was revealed. I smiled. As you might have guessed, I’m not one to believe in coincidences and the idea of the US facing Ghana, Portugal, and Germany in Brazil…where to start? In addition to the dramatic World Cup history between these teams, there are enough intersecting socio-political storylines in this group to be the subject of its own pages-long essay. You could start with Ghana facing the opportunity to earn symbolic revenge against two former colonizers and, perhaps, the greatest beneficiaries of their resource theft all in one group! Or we could discuss the US occupation of Germany, which allows us to poach dual nationals born to US servicemen for our national team. Why not? With even the Brazilians tearing down the altars they once worshiped before, the stage is set for all manner of iconoclasm. What better stage for Donovan to paint his post-modern masterpiece?

Landon's catharsis in the 2013 Gold Cup

Landon’s catharsis in the 2013 Gold Cup

As in 2010, he’s been gearing up for this moment. He’s bulked up so he can steer the US attack from the center, adding Laudrup-like trick passes, the ability to hold possession under pressure and beating players with skill to his arsenal late in his career. Landon is 32, a legitimate star ripening into a true master. Graduating from attacker, to creator to grand architect…he’s ready to share his story, an opus uniquely American that would be unlike anything seen before; possibly enough to confound our stiff opposition. It’s a story that would have the world powers of the game craning their necks toward the US, where soccer has yet to be marred by lack of competitiveness, match-fixing, doping scandals, overt racism and the corruption of FIFA. Who better to weave this tale than a player who defies the conventional wisdom about what it takes to be a superstar? Donovan didn’t come from any academy, turned his back on Europe and generally just played for the love of the game. Yet he’s reached heights few other stars have: 50+ international goals and assists and 5 World Cup goals. His performance in Brazil would be a gift to the world, a vision of a new way forward for soccer.

But none of that will come to past.

On May 28, the US World Cup roster was announced. Donovan didn’t make the cut. He, along with Clarence Goodson, Brad Evans and a handful of other regulars over the cycle was a casualty of the doomed culture war Klinsmann was losing with his strong-willed American players. Dempsey and Mike Bradley—long the exemplars of Jurgen’s ideal player—were returning to Major League Soccer on huge contracts. Bradley also disagreed publicly with Jurgen’s assessment that lack of belief prevents American players from achieving more in their club careers. The “lack of belief” canard was the cornerstone of Klinsmann’s approach to fixing the US national team, steering it away from a sports culture that, in his eyes, coddled its athletes and produced weak-minded stars. The idea struck a chord with not a few US fans and talking heads, churning up the stereotypical images of soccer moms and half-time juice boxes that feeds much of their self-loathing. In reality, the idea was totally misguided.

A better, more visionary coach could have recognized that it was the incredible mentality and belief of American players that’d gotten them as far as they’d gone in their careers. Without the advantage of academies or even a domestic league to aspire to play for, many American players picked themselves up by their cleat laces, learning on the fly and improvising the rest. Those are incredible lemons with which to make lemonade. But Jurgen is primarily a man-motivator, not a visionary (or much else). To maintain his relevance in the US program, he has to convince us the American mentality is somehow flawed, which makes Jurgen seem kind of like an abusive boyfriend. To that end, he had to cut Donovan, the biggest and most concrete counter-point to Klinsmann’s wayward philosophy. Catching even US Soccer by surprise, he made the cuts hastily, after only 8 days of camp and before the send-off series of friendlies. Having already made up his mind, Jurgen couldn’t risk Landon performing well in the send-off games. He instead awarded spots to three German-American dual-nationals that had played, between them, fewer than 2 competitive games for the United States in the past four years but claimed tickets to Brazil after a mere week of training camp. Months earlier he recruited Berti Vogts, former German national team coach, dismissing assistant coach Martin Vazquez at the proverbial last minute. Klinsmann gave up on his American experiment, and his lack of faith robbed us of all of the chance to present our unique philosophy to the world when it desperately needs it. It would be Klinsmann, after all, that harbored the lack of belief:

“You have to be realistic…to say that [the US] should win the World Cup is just not realistic. If it’s American or not American, I don’t know, you can correct me however you want.”

But there’s hope.

“I want to coach. Not professionally but I want to coach kids…I can help them in bigger ways in life because most kids aren’t going to make it to the level that we’ve made it to. But every kid has the opportunity to be impacted positively and be a better person. Especially with young boys, to be a better person, a better man, a better husband, a better father. Those are things I’m passionate about.” — Donovan on his legacy

Teaching’s in Landon’s blood; both his mom and twin sister are special ed teachers. What if, under Donovan’s guidance, our youth academies end up resembling Buddhist ashrams, instead of the Spartan child factories of Holland or Germany? The idea of US academies turning out world class prospects whose minds and spirits are as rigorously honed as their athleticism and technique brings a smile to my face. For now, a history-changing moment has been averted by hubris and fear, calling up our remembrance of Wallace, McGovern and Gore in 2000. But revolutionary ideas can only be briefly suppressed and someday we’ll bear the fruits of Landon’s unique vision. If the Brazilians shouting “There will be no cup!” isn’t a signal that folks are ready for change, I don’t know what is. We’re in the era of the whistle-blower, the conscientious objector, the striking worker and the revolutionary. It’s a time for role models like Landon, who remain committed to truth, even when it’s unpopular. It’s time for American Soccer to arrive.

Cap

Captain America battles a new Secret Empire in ‘Winter Soldier’

Mass surveillance, drone warfare and a government conspiracy animate the Star-Spangled Avenger’s latest film outing, a modern take on Steve Englehart’s seminal Cap tale from the 1970s. (Contains mild spoilers)

“The opponents to the war were all quite well organized. We wanted to have our say too.”

Those are the words of Joe Simon, who, along with Jack Kirby, wrote and drew the first Captain America comic story in 1941, a year before the Pearl Harbor bombings would spur the U.S. to war. Simon and Kirby, New Yorkers from working class Jewish families, birthed a red, white and blue dynamo that was parachuting behind enemy lines to cold-cock the Fuhrer while the the rest of the country was still wringing its hands over joining the war in Europe. Cap inherited the courage and conviction of his creators, who continued to write and draw Captain America stories while receiving death threats from American Nazi-sympathizers (in 1939, there were enough of them to fill Madison Square Garden for a pro-Nazi rally).

In the early 70’s, Steve Englehart (honorably discharged from the US Army as a conscientious objector) would honor that legacy of brazen candor by authoring the seminal “Secret Empire”, echoing the events of Watergate:

“I was writing a man who believed in America’s highest ideals at a time when America’s President was a crook. I could not ignore that. And so, in the Marvel Universe, which so closely resembled our own, Cap followed a criminal conspiracy into the White House and saw the President commit suicide.”

“Secret Empire” ran through seven issues in 1974, telling the story of Captain America investigating a plot to manipulate the government that leads him to the White House and the President (Nixon isn’t mentioned explicitly). Ending with a disillusioned Steve Rogers hanging up his star-spangled pajamas, “Secret Empire” is considered the defining Captain America story. In the most resonant Cap stories, Steve Rogers wasn’t just defending status quo American exceptionalism, but actively holding America accountable to American ideals, often at the whim of activist creators making conscious political statements. ‘Winter Soldier’ co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (best known for the previous Cap movie and the Narnia films) ably continue the tradition, updating Englehart’s “Secret Empire” story for a generation no less fraught with uncertainty and disillusionment.

A poster for the German American Bund, an American pro-Nazi group

20,000 attended this rally for the German American Bund, just one of the American fascist groups around in 1939

We learn during the 007-style opening action sequence that Steve Rogers is becoming increasingly at odds with his secretive missions and SHIELD’s clandestine agenda. Authoritarian badass and SHIELD commander Nick Fury defends his actions predictably: “freedom” and “transparency” are luxuries enjoyed by denizens of a much safer world, relics of Cap’s bygone past. Things escalate quickly when an assassination attempt on Fury reveals a conspiracy to use SHIELD’s newly-launched “Insight” program, a security initiative involving a network of sub-orbital drones capable of targeting anyone on earth, to establish a new world order. The movie’s big plot twist is an overt reference to the real-life Operation Paperclip, an OSS initiative to swoop in and secretly recruit Nazi scientists while the Victory Day ticker tape was still falling.

The titular “Winter Soldier” is the only name given to a mysterious assassin, “a ghost story”, who has “intervened” from time-to-time since WWII to ensure history plays out to his masters’ dystopian design. The result of a mash-up of Boba Fett’s mystique, Jason Bourne’s moves and Jared Leto’s dreaminess, he’s one of the coolest big-screen villains we’ve seen in awhile. (Fun fact: The character shares a name with the little-known Winter Soldier Investigations, an event sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in the early 70s to publicized atrocities committed during the Vietnam War. When author Ed Brubaker created the character in 2005, he was aware of the event but had borrowed the name from a much earlier Thomas Payne reference).

Under directors Joe and Anthony Russo (The TV sitcom Community is probably their best known work) ‘Winter Soldier’ plays out like out like the lovechild of a Borne-esque espionage thriller and a Raimi superhero romp, with plenty of parkour, Krav Maga, and winged jetpacks to go around. The action in Cap 2 is rib-crackingly real, feeling like it belongs in a Tony Jaa movie rather than an effects-heavy superhero blockbuster. The result is that you’re still engaged by the third act instead of yawning through another CG fight scene. Chris Evans leads a round of solid performances (including the unexpectedly enjoyable Robert Redford) pulling off a yester-yearly kind of earnestness and charm that evades corniness. Perhaps I even imagined a little bit of wistful self-reflection on the Greatest Generation in his performance. “You saved the world,” consoles Peggy Carter, Steve Roger’s best gal, now a grandmother. “We mucked it up.” Captain America punched out the most evil empire on Earth and woke up 60 years later to drones, torture and another depression. Cap helped America win the 20th Century, but somehow the American Dream was lost in the process.

capnomad4

Indeed, the most profound aspect of ‘Winter Soldier’ may be its tacit acknowledgement of the current state of the world as one marked by increasing political, economic, and perhaps most imminently, environmental instability. “The world is at a tipping point!” the monstrous Arnim Zola cackles gleefully. Amidst this storm of chaos, Captain America is a moral lightning rod; a sane voice in a world seemingly gone mad. Our hero doesn’t hesitate to condemn SHIELD’s paranoid militarism for what it is: “This isn’t freedom,” Cap says with square-jawed sureness. “This is fear”. Made up by two Jewish kids to sock Hitler, Cap is our righteous indignation made manifest, but possessing both the courage to speak the truth and the power to be heard. It’s easy to see the appeal.

When Cap finally blows the whistle on the secret plot, he asks average citizens to do what they can to help prevent the launch of the Insight drones. Ultimately, the acts of regular, everyday people — like a technician who refuses to start the launch sequence while threatened at gun point — help save the day (and really, hasn’t that always been the case?). ‘Winter Soldier’ is a worthy entry in the library of relevant, conscious and fun Captain America tales.

3stars

2ches

wh

Why does Hollywood keep blowing up the White House?

Hollywood’s latest blockbusters provide the narrative for America’s never-ending war on terror by perpetuating the irrational fear of random, anti-US terror attacks and foreign invasions. Movie plots inform policy in an era when reality and what is presented as such by the media have become increasingly dissonant.

A terror attack on the White House has been the subject of three high-profile, mainstream films in as many months. There were two in March alone. “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”, the sequel to the movie based on a cartoon based on a toy, centered on the White House being taken over by the fictional terror organization Cobra via the infiltration of a presidential doppelganger. “Olympus Has Fallen” also revolves around a foreign takeover and the destruction of the White House, this time by North Koreans (Olympus, rather serendipitously, was released the same week everyone briefly thought North Korea was going to drop nuclear bombs on the West Coast — an idea that now seems silly in retrospect). Finally, Sony Pictures’ up-coming “White House Down” revisits the subject yet again, with Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum taking the White House back from generic terrorists.

Its not uncommon for the big movie studios to hop on the same trends or “borrow” ideas from each other. Whether by coincidence or not, movies like Olympus and the others are remarkably effective at reinforcing the simplified narrative that drives both American interventionism and the misguided and never-ending War on Terror; a narrative in which America is constantly in danger of being assailed by “random” attacks from “evil” enemies. There is little evidence to suggest this frightening “reality” is anything more than the product of fantastic movie plots, yet it is so widely accepted that it becomes the starting point for all rational discussions about foreign policy and national security. Consider Barack Obama’s defense of the NSA hording phone records of American citizens:

“I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”

Everyone has been drawn into the debate over how much privacy, if any, should be traded for security without ever questioning the basic conceit of the President’s argument: that terror attacks present a constant and severe threat to “100%” national security. There’s good reason to question the validity of this basic assumption. A University of Maryland study found that the U.S. is at a low risk of terror attacks, ranking 41st among 158 countries in likelihood of witnessing a terror attack within its borders (to put that in perspective, Britain is 28th, Israel 20th and Iraq 1st.) One might consider this an indication that our security agencies are doing a good job, but that wouldn’t explain why the FBI is using informants to coax Muslim Americans into terror plots. Since 9-11, the FBI has committed more than half its 8 billion dollar budget to counter-terrorism, an initiative that appears to revolve more around entrapment than preventing credible threats. From The Nation:

“Though relatively few informant-driven investigations have led to the discovery of actual “homegrown” plots, the Muslim community for years has reported instances of people being approached by informants trying to enlist them in violent jihad. At times the informants have been so aggressive they have quickly raised suspicions. At a California mosque in 2010 one FBI informant, Craig Monteilh, advocated violent jihad so vehemently that the mosque’s members sought and received a restraining order against him.”

If the threat of terror is as pervasive as assumed by the President’s argument, why is the FBI working so hard to manufacture threats just so they can take credit for stopping them? In reality, more Americans are likely to die from mass shootings this year, an issue that seems far less urgent to Congress and the President than clamping down on imaginary terror.

Despite little actual evidence that the U.S. is at a particularly high risk of foreign attacks of any kind, it remains one of the most popular subjects of summer blockbusters. While audiences understand these summer blockbusters are sensationalized works of fiction, sheer repetition of certain themes and ideas over time makes them familiar and conventional, especially when they are corroborated by elected officials and an increasingly compliant news media. In this respect, Hollywood’s big-budget features effectively become propaganda, recycling the jingoist narratives that drive U.S. foreign policy. Unfailingly in these films, American military might is depicted as an inherent good and the U.S. government’s role in the radicalization of its current enemies is ignored. Roland Emmerich, director of White House Down, may be able to take credit for inventing the modern formula for summer blockbuster propaganda. Emmerich’s box office smash “Independence Day” (1996) established the template, featuring shock-and-awe style destruction of U.S. monuments (this was the first time Emmerich blew up the White House) and an almost adolescent glorification of the U.S. military. Turning the President into an action hero protagonist is a common theme as well, used both in Independence Day, when the President suited up to lead a squadron of fighter jets against an alien air force and White House Down, in which Jamie Foxx plays an appropriately bookish Obama rip-off who puts down his reading glasses to pick up an assault rifle. Many movies have recycled these themes over the years (Michael Bay has made a career pushing them almost to the point of self-parody with movies like “Armageddon” and “Transformers”) making this sort of propaganda film a staple of summer blockbusters.

This poster campaign for White House Down reminds you that terror attacks can happen at any time

This poster campaign for White House Down eerily reminds you that terror attacks can happen at any time

These movies don’t always limit themselves to working in broad themes, however. Roughly three months before fictional North Koreans attacked the White House in Olympus Has Fallen, they invaded America’s heartland in the 2012 “Red Dawn” remake. By late March, when the news media began to report on North Korean missile threats, there had already been two movies about the subject of a random and unprovoked North Korean invasion within the previous six months. In this case, the news media and Hollywood filmmakers work together (albeit, not necessarily in explicit collusion) to shape a fictional reality in which North Korea is an ever-present nuclear terror, similar to Cold War Russia. Or think back to President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address, during which he spoke matter-of-factly about the U.S. becoming increasingly vulnerable to cyber attacks by foreign enemies:

“We know hackers steal people’s identities and infiltrate private e-mail,” he said. “We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets. Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air traffic control systems.”

Again, most of these assertions were taken as fact, with little scrutiny by the mainstream media. Which enemies are trying to sabotage our power grids? What are their motives? Are Americans really so accustomed to the idea of being the target of unprovoked attacks by foreign evildoers (a concept fostered by fantasy fiction and certainly not a history of actual exposure to such attacks) that no one bothered to question the veracity of this basic claim? Still, a lack of actual evidence did not deter politicians on both sides of the aisle from pushing draconian legislation like CISPA, using the trumped-up threat of cyber attacks as justification for blanket surveillance of web activity. Hollywood’s screenwriters do their part by popularizing the idea in blockbuster movies. The plot of the heavily marketed White House Down centers around the government’s national security infrastructure being disabled by a computer virus, causing all hell to break loose in short order. Complete with a teaser trailer that ironically misinterprets Abraham Lincoln’s prophetic warning about America being destroyed from within, White House Down is primed to build the foundation of Americans’ fear of  a government-crippling cyber attack. Rather importantly, White House Down is unique from the other takeover movies, as its central conflict is borne of the presence of a lurking internal threat, just as the story of the NSA’s radical surveillance of American citizens became national news.

America, Fuck Yeah!

Unfortunately, the un-reality that forms the basis of U.S. counter-terrorist efforts hampers the ability to address real terror. Though they have been sold to the American public as necessary evils, does anyone actually believe that mass surveillance of Americans and proactive drone strikes are actually reducing the risk of terror attacks? Demonstrably, they are not. Instead, I urge Americans to pay more attention to  how the government’s vast, Batman-like surveillance network has already been used, mainly to spy on whistle-blowers and the press. Still, the Mainstream Left is willing to defend the government’s need to take these draconian steps, without having a clear understanding of how they actually reduce the threat of terror.

When Americans stop believing in the sensational plots that provide the basis for both action movies and foreign policy, a real conversation about the U.S. government’s bull-in-a-china-shop interventionism in the Middle East and how it is probably the greatest source of regional instability and future anti-U.S. terror attacks.  However you feel about their tactics, Americans can no longer afford to naively believe that terrorists are random evil guys that hate America because we have Disneyworld and let women drive cars.

160212T.landon-donovan

Why more athletes should be taking steps to preserve their mental health

American soccer star Landon Donovan earned scorn for taking a self-imposed sabbatical at the beginning of the 2013 MLS season, but he’s far ahead of his contemporaries in understanding the effects of mental health on performance.

Donovan is one of my favorite athletes, precisely because of how unconventional he is. In the spectrum of professional athletes, Landon has always been a bit of an odd duck and the source of speculation and curiosity among both the sports press and fans. A good portion of that attention comes from the fact that Landon has borne on his shoulders the hopes and dreams of American soccer fans since his dynamic debut at the 2002 World Cup at the tender age of 20. He was named the “Best Young Player” of that tournament, during which the US national team had one of its best performances at a World Cup. Since then, in the eyes of fans, the media, and soccer’s governing bodies in the US, Landon’s success as a player has been intrinsically linked to the growth and success of soccer domestically and America’s arrival as a world footballing power on the global stage. Needless to say, that’s a little bit of pressure.

Donovan’s choice to play in the US, for example, earned him constant derision from fans who doubted his ability to cut it in Europe’s top leagues. Landon also took an unfair share of the blame for an aging US team’s early exit from the 2006 World Cup. Failure to deliver on the unrealistic expectations of American fans — self-conscious about our relative lack of status in the footballing world, something Donovan’s emergence was supposed to reverse — earned him the pejorative nickname “Landycakes” among detractors. His talent was obvious; it was Landon’s conviction and toughness that was in question, despite his record-breaking performances for the national team.

Under the circumstances, the guy can hardly be blamed for getting a little burnt out on the sport from time-to-time. Soccer players in general have grueling lifestyles. The sport is played in two 45-minute halves without breaks, during which many players cover 8-10 kilometers a game. It’s not uncommon for players to play all year round–for their club during the regular season and for their national team during international engagements. Landon, in fact, has more miles on his tires than most players. He started 2011, for instance, playing on loan at the Liverpool-based club Everton FC before reporting to the Galaxy for his MLS season duties and breaking again in the summer to help lead the national team to the final of the Gold Cup. And those are only the physical pressures, to say nothing of the mental stress players are put under to achieve. Still, when Donovan began to hint at retirement early last year, saying that his heart wasn’t in the game anymore, it aroused anew the chorus of detractors that had long cast doubts on his fortitude.

“I was pretty burned out,” Donovan said, when reflecting on his time off. The type of job burnout he’s describing is a real phenomenon that affects millions of people. Though we don’t normally think of playing sports as a traditional job, pro athletes are no less subject to the same pressures and institutional issues of other types of work. According to WorkplaceIssues.Com, factors like an inability to balance work and social life, lack of positive reinforcement, unrealistic expectations and a feeling of loss of autonomy can contribute to burnout stress resulting in a “lack of enthusiasm and pride in your work”. Donovan understood that a break to sort his head out was crucial to maintaining his performance levels in the long run.

Landon still brings it on the field, despite his wavering conviction for the game

The sensitive, soft-spoken and remarkably candid Donovan was always going to stick out like a sore thumb in the realm of pro sports where it’s still not okay to talk about your feelings. We expect our athletes to be alpha males, both physically and emotionally invulnerable. Both fans and team owners are complicit in treating athletes like machines or superheroes instead of human beings, to the point that even awareness about physical disorders comes slowly. Rising star-turned-commentator Taylor Twellman was sidelined permanently due to multiple concussions, the long-term risks of which are only beginning to be understood by sports doctors. Or consider some fan reactions to propositions to make gridiron football marginally less lethal to its players. But Landon has an insight into the issue of mental health that is far ahead of most of his contemporaries, in and out of the sports world:

“We have a sort of stigma that being in a difficult mental place is not acceptable. We should ‘pull ourselves up by the bootstraps’ and ‘fight through it,’ and all this, and it’s a little peculiar to me, that whole idea, that if someone’s physically hurt, we’re OK with letting them take the time they need to come back, but if someone’s in a difficult time mentally, we’re not OK with letting them take the time they need to come back.”

Donovan’s exhibiting a pretty sophisticated perspective on mental health issues here, perhaps one inherited from his mother, a former special ed teacher. Protecting the mental health of players doesn’t just preserve their ability to perform–it could save lives. The murder-suicide involving 25-year-old NFL linebacker Jovan Belcher, who shot his wife to death before turning the gun on himself, left his closest friends and teammates both shocked and grieved. Prior to his death, Belcher had been in contact with a 24-hour hotline for athletes seeking help with personal and mental health issues, an initiative started by the NFL after the 2011 suicide of Junior Seau. Mere weeks later, the Newtown massacre demonstrated that the systemic failure to identify and treat people suffering from poor mental health is a national crisis.

The stigma Landon describes discourages sufferers from seeking the help they need, sometimes until it’s too late. It also affects how we treat and deal with patients once their needs are identified. Many were quick to write off Belcher and Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, as monsters, a viewpoint that fails to attempt to understand — and prevent — future tragedies. Donovan himself, while given the benefit of the doubt by his teammates and the majority of fans, had to be institutionally punished for taking a mental leave. He was denied a call up to the U.S. National Team for crucial World Cup qualifying games and permanently lost the Galaxy captaincy to Robbie Keane, who filled the role in his absence. While these actions may not be “official” punishments, they are symbolic gestures meant to send a clear message about how athletes in leadership roles are expected to act. While Donovan’s bosses tacitly accepted his need for a mental leave, he is now being treated as an unfit leader, which wouldn’t have happened if he’d be sidelined by a physical injury. Landon’s willingness to speak openly about his mental health is, in fact, incredible courageous and he has paid for it by being ironically stigmatized as mentally weak.

It is increasingly becoming conventional wisdom in the business world that taking steps to improve mental health and reduce job burnout and stress improves employee performance and reduces absenteeism.  Managers who take such steps tend to be more successful leaders also (which is just one of the factors that  explains why one study found that women were more effective business leaders). It’s not hard to imagine these benefits being applied to professional sports. Maybe someday leaders like Landon will be the norm in the sports world:

“…If you’re really at a place where you’re struggling mentally, we need to be more compassionate and understanding of people in all walks of life and understand that they might need time away, too.”

side-effects-film

Does ‘Side Effects’ ring true with ever-growing number of Depressed Americans?

With 1 in 10 Americans seeking treatment for depression, anxiety and other psychological disorders, users of drugs like Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft are almost as ubiquitous as the ads for them. Side Effects seeks to capitalize on our familiarity with prescription drugs and their dizzyingly long lists of side effects, both of which have become staples of American popular culture. Director Steven Soderbergh explores the topic cogently and does a great job of using the subject to build drama and suspense, but the twist in the final act will leave some underwhelmed.

Side Effects tells the story of Emily Taylor (played by Rooney Mara), a young wife who attempts suicide by driving her SUV into a wall the day her husband (a Wall Street trader, played by Channing Tatum) is released from prison. Emily is treated for depression by her new psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who puts her on an experimental new anti-depressant called “Ablixa”. Banks keeps Emily on the drug even after she reports bouts of sleepwalking. When Emily stabs her husband to death in an Ablixa-induced sleepwalking episode, Banks must choose between letting his patient take the fall for murder or coming clean about his questionable diagnosis.

 This premise is pretty engaging and writer Scott Z. Burns handles the subject matter in a way that will resonate honestly with the record number of Americans on anti-depressants and the people that’re close to them. For example, the first drug Emily’s prescribed gives her nausea and kills her sex drive–side effects that put a strain on her relationship and ultimately make her depression worse. This is actually pretty similar to the stressful “trial-and-error” approach to medication patients suffering with psychological disorders sometimes go through when seeking treatment. (Emily apparently has very good health insurance; the cost of treatment and medication for mental health is an issue that’s likely to compound the anxiety of real-life patients with non-comprehensive or non-existent health coverage).

Emily (Rooney Mara) is given drugs to “keep her brain from telling her she’s unhappy” but, like many real-life patients, is never treated for to root causes of her depression

Side Effects is also punctuated with critiques of the Pharmaceutical Industrial Complex at the heart of the American “healthcare” system. In an early scene, Dr. Banks and his colleagues attend a dinner paid for by a pharmaceutical rep where they discuss “gifts” they’ve received from drug companies, including World Series tickets and trips to Hawaii. You get the impression from this candid conversation between professionals that what doctors prescribe to patients has more to do with which drug company’s sales reps get to them first and make the best offer, which is not far off from how it works in real-life. The money and perks doctors receive from “consulting” with big pharmaceutical companies make patient fees look like small potatoes. It’s ultimately Banks’ desire to get into the big money game of psychiatric consulting that sets up the central conflict of the story.

Warning! Spoilers to follow!

The most interesting part of Side Effects is when Dr. Banks finds himself at the center of a moral conflict: does he sell out his patient and save his practice or put everything on the line by coming clean, a move that could put him in the crosshairs of the pharmaceutical giants? Unfortunately, the film’s final twist unravels this conflict far too conveniently. Banks discovers that Emily’s symptoms were concocted as part of a scheme hatched with her previous psychiatrist, Dr. Siebert (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) to somehow profit from killing Ablixa stock. This convoluted twist–which involves the revelation that Emily seduced Siebert and became an expert in Wall Street derivatives from overhearing her husband talk about them–isn’t just implausible, it retreats from the much more compelling conflict raised in the earlier acts. Before the twist, Emily and Dr. Banks are both victims of a healthcare industry that generates tons of money for big drug companies, but ties the hands of providers and jeopardizes patient outcomes. After the twist, Emily’s simply a manipulative, gold-digging, lesbian bitch and we can go back to not really caring about any of the intrinsic problems of for-profit healthcare regimes.

Granted, it’s a little harsh to expect a Spring thriller like this to seriously take on the myriad problems with the Pharmaceutical Industry, but several relevant ethical issues are haphazardly swept away when the twist is revealed, leaving the viewer a little dissatisfied. Probably worse, the movie backpedals with a twist that’s both highly contrived and does a lot to undermine earlier work done to build sympathy for the protagonist and, by extension, real-life depression sufferers. Side Effects is enjoyable but forgettable. Ultimately evading the complex implications introduced in its early acts, it leaves you feeling like it was probably a much more interesting film at some point in its early conception.

2stars

1che

aidguywithgun

Surreal New Marines Ad: ‘Toward the Sound of Chaos’

As the 10-year anniversary of the Iraq War sparks somber reflection among Americans, the Marines pimp good, old-fashioned American interventionism with a troubling new recruitment video. Ominously titled “Toward the Sound of Chaos”, the ad plays like the trailer to an awesome Roland Emmerich movie, with marines rushing bravely toward some unknown danger in treacherous foreign lands. Check out these screenshots:

Don’t worry, the Marines are coming!

We even brought helicopters.

And we got these…fucking boat-tank things

Wait, those boxes say “Aid” on them. For a second there I totally thought we were invading someone. Carry on.

The video is punctuated by a haunting voice over:

“Marines move toward the sounds of tyranny, injustice and despair — with the courage and resolve to silence them. By ending conflict, instilling order and helping those who can’t help themselves, Marines face down the threats of our time.”

If you believe the ad, the US Marines are a militarized police force with global jurisdiction. It also conflates the deliverance of foreign aid with military invasion, as though the former should have anything to do with the latter. Admittedly, the “boxes o’ Aid” are my favorite part of this ad. They remind me of bags with big dollar signs on them or the energon cubes from Transformers — they perfectly emphasize the child-like perception of war at the heart of the belief in the superheroism of the US armed forces. The ad also reminds me a little of this Nazi propaganda video cheering on the Russian invasion. Let’s take a closer look:

The Marines video (left) and a Nazi propaganda film for the war with Russia (right).
You can see both videos fetishize their nation’s military might and make spectacle of massive weapons of war.

Both videos attempt to depict their invasionary forces as emissaries of peace, freedom and goodwill (the gunner on the left has a box of “Aid” behind him; an odd juxtaposition)

Maybe the video is trying to renew faith in the US armed services as a global force for good at a time when Americans are collectively reflecting on the horrible aftermath of the Iraq War, an effort the majority of Americans believe was a mistake. It’s now obvious to all but the most self-deluded that the invasion of Iraq has left both countries worse off and in need of serious healing. Hopefully, coming to terms with the abject realities of our recent foreign policy will separate Americans from the fairy-tale version of our armed services depicted in videos like this one.

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SNL’s Hugo Chavez parody showcases liberal cowardace

Justin Timberlake celebrated his fifth time hosting SNL last weekend by opening the show with a sketch parodying late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Playing Elton John, Timberlake rattled off “hilarious” facts about the late president to the tune of “Candle in the Wind”. The sketch poked fun at Chavez for brandishing pistols at a press conference, increasing his country’s kidnapping rate and having a parrot with a beret. Since the clever writers at SNL apparently limited their research about Chavez to Wikipedia, here are some more “facts” left out of their sketch lampooning President Chavez:

  • Venezuela has about five times the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia. In 2001, President Chavez signed a law establishing government ownership of the oil stock, using the revenue from oil sales to reduce extreme poverty and enact social programs in his country.
  • Hugo Chavez was kidnapped at gun-point as part of a coup orchestrated by U.S. oil companies, angry over their loss of carte blanche access to Venezuelan oil because of Chavez’ new law. He was returned when armed Venezuelans angrily stormed the capital on their leader’s behalf.
  • President Chavez offered to donate 120 rescue personnel and 50 tons of food to Katrina victims during the recovery of that disaster. George W. Bush (who hated Chavez because of the treatment of his oil cronies) refused the offer. Through Citgo, his nation also donated millions to build community centers and co-ops in the South Bronx (way to be grateful, New Yorkers).

Hugo Chavez wasn’t a perfect man, but he deserves more nuanced remembrance than that afforded by this silly sketch. I’m a little disappointed (though not terribly surprised) that a show like SNL would so enthusiastically adopt the false narrative of Chavez as a crazy dictator and the failure of Venezuela as socialist state. Like Castro before him, the only reason the U.S. government hated Chavez was because he closed his borders to American companies that were making a killing from exploiting his people. You know–like WalMart and Apple are currently doing? Moreover, it requires a little hubris and a lot of naivete to throw out statistics about Venezeula’s murder and kidnapping rates as evidence of the failures of socialism when you hail from a capitalist nation with rampant gun violence, overflowing prisons, record-breaking wealth inequality and flying death robots. Still, even a super-liberal like Bill Maher had to back down from the meek suggestion that the Venezuelan president might not be have been totally evil on his show over the weekend, going on to staunchly reaffirm his belief in capitalism.

Comedians like Maher and shows like SNL are supposed to use humor and pastiche to deconstruct the bullshit our politicians say. Granted, the target demographic for SNL didn’t live through the coup in Iran or the Bay of Pigs debacle, but the farcical Iraq War should be fresh in everyone’s mind; fresh enough to raise suspicions any time the U.S. government starts picking fights with leaders of oil rich countries that don’t play ball. We’re all aware of how the collective willingness of the mainstream media to unquestioningly corroborate White House claims about Saddam’s secret, super-villain arsenal lead to the Iraq War folly and yet, as evidenced here, many on the Mainstream Left are still willing to regurgitate this kind of rhetoric.

This is representative of a larger problem in the Mainstream Left. As I wrote previously, though Liberals/Democrats are far apart from Republicans on subjects like gay marriage and rape, they are just as delusional in their belief in the infallibility of capitalism. The American liberal’s imagination is limited by an inability to conceive of alternatives to capitalism, so the best their leadership can manage is placing incremental road blocks between Republicans and their radical privatization efforts. This is precisely why the mainstream media perpetually demonizes socialist nations and their leaders. If the American Left knew, for instance, how co-ops in Venezuela transformed that country, some of those ideas might to appeal to some of us or at least broaden the discussion. Many Americans are already turning to local food co-ops due to demand for healthy, organic food. This is socialism in its purest form, without the dictatorship and violent purges that animate the American psyche whenever the scary “S”-word is uttered. And it works.

SNL could’ve gotten bonus points by dropping one or two positive facts about Chavez during their parody. Anyone can make fun of Sarah Palin; a sketch that challenged the chorus of voices reminding us how scary and evil Chavez was would’ve been truly subversive. Congratulations on being mediocre, SNL.

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The Oscars snub Marxist ‘Cloud Atlas’, affirms the Randian ‘Django’

This year the Academy tried desperately to appear relevant, showcasing the juvenile sexism and folksy Irish-Catholic racism that made host Seth MacFarlane a pop culture phenom and awarding Quentin Tarantino a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for the hyper-violent Django Unchained. But, as usual, there was little room at the Oscars for work that really pushes the envelope.

A movie like Django probably couldn’t have been made by anyone else, but that says more about the state of current media than the merits of the film or its director. The fact that only Quentin Tarantino could make an exploitation movie that chronicles the violent exploits of a runaway black slave underscores the lack of real diversity in mainstream art. It’s even more problematic when you realize that Django adheres to several racist film tropes in its narrative. The titular character really has little agency for an action film hero, relying heavily on the providence of his white mentor for his freedom, training and the plan to save his wife. In fact, Django is the most forgettable character in his own movie, leaving the Oscar-winning lead Jamie Foxx with little to do while Waltz and DiCaprio (who plays the villainous slave-owner, Monsieur Candie) chew scenery.

Django’s certainly no Spartacus–a populist hero that everyone can get behind–but he’s not even a Beatrix Kiddo. Can you name another exploitation film in which the hero doesn’t get to take out the principle villain himself? Django, instead, kills Candie’s Uncle Tom servant, Stephen in the final act–Tarantino’s way of saying that the blacks are their own worst enemy, a view of racism that belies his arrogant naiveté about the subject.

As Omali Yeshitela at Black Agenda Report points out in a review, Tarantino’s movie doesn’t really prompt any discourse about past or current racism or force us to think differently about race dynamics, which is probably why the Academy felt so comfortable with it. It’s like the bullets from Django’s six-shooter were mowing down evil rednecks and the collective responsibility for slavery and its outcomes at the same time. Consider, by contrast, the 1975 film Mandingo, from which Tarantino heavily borrowed. Mandingo has an unfair reputation as an exploitation film for its frank depiction of nudity and violence but, unlike Tarantino’s Django or true exploitation flicks, these elements have a purpose in Mandingo beyond sensationalism and titilation (there’s an early scene where the lead’s genitals are inspected on the auctioning block or a particularly gruesome and uncomfortable mandingo fight, for instance). More than anything, though, it was the tastefully-shot love scene between the slave Ganymede and the plantation owner’s white wife that earned Mandingo the most scorn among audiences and critics (the movie was almost universally panned in the US). Django, entertaining as it was, seems juvenile and passé by comparison.

It’s great that the Academy recognized movies within non-white leads like Life of Pi and Flight, but they are still exceptions that prove the rule. While discussing his interracial kiss in the movie Flight, Denzel Washington commented on the fact that love scenes between black men and white women are still problematic in Hollywood, more than 30 years after Mandingo was ripped from box offices. Washington is one of the few non-whites that can lead a mainstream dramatic picture, yet he wasn’t recognized by the Academy until he played a role that conformed with white expectations and preferences about how blacks ought to behave.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of this year’s Oscars is that Cloud Atlas didn’t receive a single nomination. Though rated highly overall, Atlas proved to be one of those movies that critics either loved or reviled, but you’d think it would’ve at least snatched up a nomination in one of the technical categories like visual effects or make-up. Maybe it was the subject matter of Cloud Atlas that the Academy found so objectionable.  Atlas is decidedly Marxist, as each story it tells links the varying forms class struggle has taken over the course of human history. Power differentials and their resulting abuses are at the heart of each tale–whether its between a mentor and student or an investigative journalist and the corporate owners of a nuclear plant–as is the underlying theme of fundamental connectedness between humans, further solidifying the movie’s Marxist’s credentials. This is a stark contrast to the Randian Django, an “exceptional” negro that doesn’t really include his fellow slaves in his uprising (he also fails to pay forward the good will done to him in this regard). I imagine after riding off, Django attended a Ron Paul rally where he encouraged slaves to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, like he did.


Rather uniquely, the characters in Cloud Atlas reclaim their identities through courageous acts of dissent rather than action-violence

Atlas also explores institutions of systematic oppression, from slavery in the 19th century South Pacific, to a futuristic Korea where customers are waited on by clone-servants of a lower caste, to a modern-day nursing home where the patient is abused by a tyrannical head nurse. The commonality in each case is that these systems of abuse are conventional and uncontroversial within the societies they exist in, mirroring the real way institutionalized oppression is usually so embedded in the society and its norms that it is simply taken for granted. This point is illustrated perfectly in the scene where Sonmi-451, the clone-server played by Doona Bae, discovers the plant where clones like her are recycled. With brutal efficiency, the carcasses are shuffled around on conveyors and chopped apart by mechanical arms like neat clockwork. Here Atlas captures the true nature of oppressive systems in a way that eludes Django. Slavery wasn’t just practiced by fat, stupid hillbillies and wealthy sadist–it was the clockwork of the South.

The story of adapting David Mitchell’s novel for the big screen is also one of power differentials and systematic oppression. Every major Hollywood studio passed on funding Cloud Atlas. It’s an independent film (albeit, one of the most expensive ones) made mostly with money from foreign investors and the directors themselves. Unsure of how to market the movie, Warner’s bungled the distribution leading to an opening weekend flop. Atlas’ creative team endured all of that only to be torn to shreds by baffled critics and elbowed out of the big awards ceremonies. By squelching Cloud Atlas and movies like it, the Academy has made itself precisely what the movie vilifies.

Django Unchained

3stars

1che

Cloud Atlas

4stars

4ches

croods edit

New Animated Feature Casually Perpetuates Myth of Prehistoric White People

Dreamworks’ new animated movie The Croods is the latest in a line of films and TV shows (both animated and live-action) that depict a somewhat colloquialized version of humankind’s prehistory. Posters for The Croods invite you to “Meet the First Modern Family”, positioning the movie as a new-school Flintstones. To the chagrin of Creationists, The Croods grasps for more historical accuracy than its predecessor; there are no dinosaurs to accompany the humans in this movie. However, DreamWorks’ new film dutifully embraces a myth just as disconnected from science fact: that the earliest humans were white.

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It’s widely known that the prevailing theory about mankind’s origins places the cradle of civilization firmly in Africa, particularly near modern-day Ethiopia. The results of recent studies have cemented the long-standing theory that the earliest homo sapiens evolved solely in Africa around 200,000 years ago, before spreading to the Near East and South Asia. Homo sapiens did not reach Europe until about 45,000 years ago, after they’d settled in Asia and Australia. Homo sapiens evolved specific traits–such as lighter skin in Europe and East Asia–as they adapted to their new environments over the course of millenia. In other words, the first humans were, in fact, dark-skinned–a fact consistently ignored by popular depictions of early humankind. In fact, white skin is a relatively new trend, developing around 5,500 years ago.

It’s likely that the characters in The Croods, The Flintstones and most popular fictional accounts of prehistory are actually supposed to be Neanderthals. Short, barrel-chested, with wide noses and flat skulls, the Neanderthal is the inspiration for the caveman archetype popularized in media. Often conflated with early homo sapiens, the extinct Neanderthals were actually kissing cousins that populated Europe before modern humans arrived there. However, the development of dark skin in humans coincides with the loss of dense body hair about 1.2 million years ago, before the first Neanderthals. Basically, even Neanderthals had a dark-skinned ancestor. At this point in human history, light-skinned humans were probably pretty rare and certainly none looked like modern-day Europeans as often depicted.

caveman
Everyone is familiar with this popular depiction of Earth’s first humans, accurate or not

The convenient omission of these details about the first humans and their civilizations reveals an ethnocentric bias that places whites at the center of human history and development. While we can argue that a movie like The Croods should not be burdened with providing an accurate, academic view of the prehistoric era, movies and popular culture do inform our understanding, often to a much greater extent than science fact. Even though we may know on some level that the first humans were not white, it’s easy to imagine that they were because our collective consciousness has been inundated with images of white cavemen since before we can remember. It’s comparatively difficult to imagine early humans that were dark-skinned and what their lives might’ve been like because we’ve seen it so rarely in media. As a result, we tend to both inaccurately “naturalize” the presence of white Europeans in all phases of early history and overstate the importance of white European contributions to human development.

Case in point, the plot of The Croods centers around the arrival of an outsider (white) who has “invented” fire. The earliest evidence of controlled fire was found pretty recently in South Africa, where scientists speculate early humans used it to cook. Prior to this, evidence of fire being used by genetic ancestors to humans was found somewhat recently in Israel and attributed to recent migrants from Africa. Early humans in Europe didn’t regularly use fire for warmth until much later. This is not the only case where contributions other cultures have made to human development have either been omitted, downplayed or co-opted by depictions of history that have a strong pro-Western bias. For example, the Chinese beat the West to the invention of paper, print and cast iron (by almost 1000 years, in the last case).

I’m not insisting that the characters in The Croods should look like modern-day blacks, but they certainly shouldn’t look like modern-day whites, either. It’s important for both whites and non-whites to have a realistic impression of human history, not one that redoubles White Hegemony by focusing solely on the progress of European Whites. Though depictions of early humans are more even-handed today than in Ray Harryhausen’s One Million Years B.C., all-white prehistoric societies in media are still common. The recent Jack Black comedy Year One is curiously absent of people of color, even though a good portion of it takes place in the Biblical Near East. Roland Emmerich’s prehistoric 10,000 B.C. actually subverts the trope and makes the case for diversity among ancient humans. Sure, the main characters are attractive whites with dreadlocks a la Encino Man, but other races do appear prominently in the movie and even the main tribe.

Art that depicts mankind’s prehistory accurately builds more honest understanding of our world and gives us the ability to perceive it in an appropriate and informed context. A movie depicting dark-skinned people harnessing fire or non-whites forming the first civilizations might help us realize that the current cultural and economic dominance enjoyed by European whites is a unique and relatively new trend in the scope of overall human development, not something pre-destined by a mythical legacy of white dominance or ascendency that reaches back to the days of early mankind.

zombiebait

The Trouble With Zombies: Exploring Geek Culture’s most troubling themes

For nearly a decade, popular culture has been overrun with zombie fiction. Movies like the Dawn of the Dead remake, 28 Days Later and the parody Shaun of the Dead helped bring zombies out of the niche of geek culture and properly into the mainstream in the early 00s. Quite appropriately, the zombie love affair spread like an infestation to every segment of the media, from movies, video games, comicbooks, film and even zombified remakes of Jane Austen classics. If sheer zombie fatigue isn’t enough reason to relegate zombies back to the cultural niche they occupied for years, maybe this is:

This masterpiece is what you get if you shell out extra cash to buy the “Live Bait” edition of Deep Silver’s new Dead Island videogame. Amid backlash, the publisher has released an apology, stressing how committed they are to ensuring nothing like this ever happens again. But how could it have happened in the first place?

Maybe the answer lies in the internet responses from angry gamers who, like the guys at Deep Silver apparently, can’t even understand what’s so disturbing about a statue like this to begin with. Most of them think the statue violates some abstract feminist cause or the sensibilities of the politically correct, overlooking that the frequency of sexual violence in our culture is a practical issue that women in our society are forced to deal with. This is easy to overlook if you don’t know any women—but not being raped, murdered and chopped up is actually a serious, practical concern for a lot of them, to the point that it’s understandable they’d find a statue like this disturbing. Of course, you don’t have to be female to understand what’s weird or creepy about this bonus collectable. I struggle to get into the mind of the gamer who’d want a butchered woman’s torso sitting next to the subwoofer in his entertainment center—probably because I’m not Jack the Ripper.

The fact that the statue exists is bizarre enough; but it’s the idea that so many defenders of the statue around the Web don’t even understand what’s wrong with it that is really disturbing. This isn’t surprising when you observe the prevalence of sexualized violence in male-oriented geek staples like horror films, comics and videogames. Ranging from subtly titillating to actually kind of creepy, images of women in sexy danger are so commonplace in geek culture that the audience doesn’t even perceive them anymore. For those accustomed to this norm, the displeasure over this collectable must seem strange. It’s easy to become desensitized to images of women in peril if you grew up strictly consuming superheroes, science-fiction and fantasy, fiction genres in which Princess Leia’s golden slave bikini and Wonder Woman’s bondage games are part of their respective iconographies.

Bell Hooks posited that sexualized violence, what she called “pugilistic eroticism” in her critique of Hip Hop, was a reaction to feminism; a desire to reduce women to roles the male audience was more comfortable with, namely victims and sex objects. This might be pretty on-the-nose for the guys at Deep Silver, who got in hot water previously when gamers discovered code hidden in the game referring to a “Feminist Bitch” mode of play, but it also explains a larger fascination with rape that has become a focal point of Right-wing American politics recently. This unlikely cross-section between gamers, gangster rappers and the Tea Party shows how universal and conventional misogynist themes are in media.

While violence and gore have always been part of the fun of zombie movies, the best ones were also telling us something. George Romero, father of the modern zombie movie, served up a critique of consumerism in the classic 1974 Dawn of the Dead. From the shopping mall-turned-fortress that is raided by the survivors holding up there to the zombies themselves, who lumber along in their single-minded and unquenchable hunger, Dawn is acknowledged by many as a veiled criticism of consumer culture. The more recent 28 Days Later raised the question of humanity when the surviving protagonists seek shelter with a group of soldiers in a military base only to find they are worse monsters than the zombies outside. Romero questioned our humanity directly in the final scene of Diary of the Dead (2007), in which some drunks string a zombified woman to a tree and use her for target practice. “Are we worth saving?” the protagonist reflects right before the credits roll.

In games like Dead Island (so violent it’s been banned in Germany) you’re supposed to revel in destroying zombies in the most gruesome or hilarious ways you can come up with. The fetishization of zombie-gore, which has manifest itself in pop culture even before Deep Silver’s unfortunate statue, forces me to wonder if we haven’t missed the forest for the trees.

When horror movies, superheroes and other staples of geek culture occupied the margins where they could embrace their real deviance, they often served as camp, absurdist critiques of mainstream culture and art. Now that geek culture has become the mainstream, its sub-cultural and counter-cultural relevance is in question. Mainstream proliferation of geek fare has only redoubled geek culture’s more problematic themes, particularly objectification of women and problem-solving violence. A new sub-cultural movement is sorely needed; particularly one that undermines geek culture’s problematic themes and the hegemony they reinforce (arguably, this may have already happened with manga and anime). Culture informs and, ideally, ours should teach us how to be more sensitive and humane individuals.

In the meantime, it’s not, necessarily, that zombie movies need to go; both long time fans and newer mainstream audiences need to be better at parsing and interpreting geek culture’s implicit messages. Understanding that, the concentration and homogeneity of modern mass media (not to mention its sheer expedience and willingness to grasp for lowest denominator) makes cultural literacy both more necessary and more difficult to obtain than ever.