June 8, 2020

On Justice, and the Intimate Connection Between Amy Cooper and George Floyd


George Floyd.  His name has been said around the world for two weeks.  We should continue saying it. George Floyd.

But we also need to say her name.  Amy Cooper.

I haven't been hearing her name much since all of this started.  Maybe people don't want to talk about Amy Cooper.  But her behavior is in many ways responsible for what happened to George Floyd.

Soon after I saw footage of George Floyd being put down like an animal a few miles from where I was sitting, I saw footage of Amy Cooper breathlessly acting out a scene from a horror movie, unknowingly playing the villain and not the victim.  It was too much for a Tuesday morning, and I didn't have a chance to fully process it.  Chaos and fire soon engulfed our city, and then every other city. Troops arrived and circling military helicopters threatened to drown out our backyard chorus of "Happy Birthday" to Naomi on her second birthday.  It was the Twilight Zone, but there was something very familiar and very real about the George Floyd incident.  And it wasn't just Rodney King and the L.A. riots, though that left a deep, indelible impression on me as an 11-year-old, just as this moment will shape the minds and worldview of a new generation.

On a Thursday afternoon in September 2010, David Cornelius Smith was acting strangely at the downtown Minneapolis YMCA.  He was 28 years old, bipolar, homeless, visibly under the influence, and African American.  A staff member called 911 and two white MPD officers responded, isolating Smith in the gymnasium.  They didn't draw their weapons because Smith was unarmed, but when he resisted arrest they tased him twice, cuffed him, positioned him on his stomach in a "prone restraint", and subdued him by kneeling on his upper back for more than four minutes, until he fell silent.  The entire incident was captured on the body camera of one the officers.  The Hennepin County Medical Examiner ruled Smith's death a homicide caused by asphyxia with multiple contributing factors, including cold medicine in his system and a pre-existing heart condition.  A now familiar combination.  This was in Minneapolis, a decade ago. Before Trayvon, Tamir, Michael, Eric, Walter, Sandra, Philando, Botham, Ahmaud.  There were no protests.

The MPD officers who killed David Smith were never charged, and I sat on the grand jury that made that decision.

I share this as a lesson in how the justice system in our country can work, and has worked, and probably still will work for some time.  It's a pessimistic lesson, but it's based on my experience. For four months in 2011, I served on a Hennepin County grand jury, reporting to Government Center every Thursday with 22 other randomly selected residents.  I honestly don't remember if I was the only person of color on the jury, but that's the case for me in most situations in Minnesota, and I take notice when it's not.  We reviewed exclusively cases of first-degree murder.  Thankfully, Hennepin County requires a grand jury to approve their plan to charge you with first-degree murder.  You can't just be arrested and put on trial without at least that measure of due process. However grand juries only return indictments (charges), not verdicts of guilty or innocent.  In short, grand juries say yes, this makes sense, there's enough evidence to charge this person with premeditated murder and put them on trial.

Each week we pored over grisly crime scene and autopsy photos, and heard from witnesses and police about the horrific actions of our fellow residents.  We took brief, solitary lunch breaks to try and clear our heads, because really, who had an appetite.  The victims were often black; the suspects were nearly always black.  About 75% of Hennepin County residents are white (the state as a whole is 84% white).

Grand juries play a different role for police-involved killings.  The government can't simply sweep a fatal police incident under the rug. In these cases, grand juries determine if the county should try one of its own police officers in a criminal trial.  Grand juries are inherently risky for the officers involved, but ironically almost always result in the officers facing no charge at all.  Sometimes grand juries are presented with selective evidence.  Sometimes grand jurors don't understand the difference between manslaughter and murder.  Sometimes the cops simply did nothing wrong under the law.  Unlike a typical jury deliberation, a grand jury decides by simple majority, not by unanimous decision.  Only 12 of the 23 of us needed to agree that a given case was worthy of a criminal trial, and we approved indictments on every single case - except the one police-involved killing presented to us.  The David Smith case.

Another feature of grand juries is that the jurors are allowed to directly question the witnesses.  In the David Smith case, I directly asked the officer who knelt on Smith's back if that was a standard restraint procedure.  If that was the training received by MPD officers.  His answer was essentially yes, that they were authorized to use whatever force necessary if a subject resisted arrest - short of deadly force (i.e., firing their weapon).  Kneeling on a prone subject was not considered deadly force.  The medical examiner presented the autopsy to us in unusually precise detail, carefully pointing out that Smith had a heart abnormality and that the drugs in his system factored into his death.  I was stunned at what was presented to us, but at least 12 of my peers were successfully convinced that the officers did not act with a "depraved heart", and that it would be too hard to prove to a jury that the kneeling alone killed Smith.  It was a simple majority.  Thus, no charges.  This is what typically happens with police-involved killings, often months after the protests end.

Knowing this reality, the county bypasses the grand jury process for high profile cases and simply charges the officers directly.  This is what happened in the George Floyd case, and similar recent cases nationwide, thanks largely to protests and the BLM movement.  But it doesn't change the fact that in the criminal trial, 12 mostly white Hennepin County residents will have to unanimously agree about what happened outside Cup Foods on May 25.  They will have to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Derek Chauvin either intentionally killed George Floyd, or unintentionally did so while committing felony aggravated assault.  Furthermore, they will have to believe there was no other possible reason why Floyd died except Chauvin's knee on his neck.  This may seem obvious on the video, but the law is not obvious, nor sympathetic to the pleas of protestors.  It is ice cold, and it requires evidence that can seem impossible to prove.  Chauvin's lawyers will be prepared, and they will cite Floyd's opioid use and criminal history and heart disease and COVID positivity.  They will exploit lax use-of-force policies and prior successful defense strategies, including the one used in the David Smith case.

I think it's unlikely a jury will find Chauvin guilty of second-degree murder, and even a downgraded conviction of third-degree murder is no sure thing.  The charges against the other three officers are also on shaky legal ground, per my understanding.  I may end up wrong, but this would follow a national trend of acquitting officers in similar cases, including here in neighboring Ramsey County for the death of Philando Castile (Chauvin has hired the lawyer who successfully defended the officer in that case).  The one exception - the only time an on-duty law enforcement officer in Minnesota has ever been held responsible for a death, ever - was the 2019 conviction of Somali-American MPD officer Mohamed Noor. Noor shot and unintentionally killed Justine Damond, a blonde white woman, a few miles west of where George Floyd died.  Noor was sentenced to 12.5 years in prison, and Damond's family won a $20 million settlement in a civil suit against the City of Minneapolis.  But that's another story for another time.

When we talk about #JusticeforGeorgeFloyd, what do we mean?  What does that look like?  Because the criminal justice system, in practice, is not set up to satisfy this completely warranted, quarantine-fueled outrage.  The justice system, as it turns out, doesn't care about our emotions at the end of the day.  If you've served on a jury you should understand this well, but even if you haven't, the evidence is plentiful.  Compare the demographics of your state with the demographics of your state's prison population.  Consider that more than 90% of Minneapolis police officers live outside of Minneapolis, including Derek Chauvin - who owned property and voted in Florida.  If you're a visual learner, watch the Floyd video again and observe Chauvin.  There is an easiness, a sense of security and freedom, that one develops when their habitual actions carry no consequence.

Chauvin and Tuo Thao were the experienced officers that night.  J. Alexander Keung and Thomas Lane were the rookies, having served less than six months as officers.  Keung grew up in predominantly black North Minneapolis, which has a historically complex history with the MPD. Lane had reportedly tutored Somali youth in the city's Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, which has a historically complex history with the MPD.  Chauvin arrived as Lane and Keung struggled to force George Floyd into the squad car, something he'd surely dealt with countless times in his 19 years on the force.  It became Training Day, with Chauvin playing the role of Denzel Washington.  Grab his legs and let me show you how we really police, rookies. "King Kong ain't got nothin' on me."

This sense of impunity is what literally and figuratively fueled the fires that followed.  This sense of impunity is why the Black Lives Matter movement exists.  Because black lives have not mattered.  They have been tolerated.

It may be that this is The Case.  But we thought that about Rodney King.  We thought that about Amadou Diallo, and countless others.  Maybe we even thought that about David Smith, after a civil suit was filed because our grand jury failed to return an indictment. (Smith's family won a $3 million settlement, and assurances that the MPD would review prone restraint policy.)  Sadly, I'm not convinced this is The Case.  I'm not sure if there is a Case.

Of course I fully support the energy pushing for police use-of-force reform, civil rights advocacy, and racial justice.  The response to Floyd's death has been different, and really encouraging in its diversity.  It has filled me with pride as an American, a person of color, a child of immigrants, and a diplomat.  It could be the dawn of a new era.  But yet I think it will still take time to bear fruit, no matter how much money social justice organizations have in their coffers, and probably no matter who holds elected office at the city, state, and federal levels.  That work is necessary, but it likely won't be enough.  George Floyd wasn't the first black man to violently die on camera.  Wasn't even the first one this year. We will be here again.  Hopefully less often if this momentum is sustained.  But we will be here again.

So then what?  Demanding government action is a start, but maybe there's a different way to look at the events of May 25.  Because the problem does not begin with the criminal justice system, even though that’s where it all too often tragically ends.  Because the other viral video from that day was in some ways just as insidious as the George Floyd killing.

Say her name.  Amy Cooper.

Do you know Amy Cooper?  Unlikely. Amy Cooper is a University of Chicago-educated white woman and Obama campaign donor who, until her recent firing, worked for a Manhattan investment firm.  She is in her own words "not a racist", and she's really not, not in the vein of Richard Spencer.  But she has still paid a very public price for her actions.  She's been "canceled" (though she got her dog back) and labeled a “Karen”.  That being the case, and putting aside her true identity, allow me to continue using her name and actions as a generic device.  This is about her, but not really about her.

Do you know Amy Cooper?  Undoubtedly. Amy Cooper could have been holding a BLM sign at a protest in any American city last week, and maybe even donated to the cause.  Amy Cooper could have wept alongside me as we laid flowers at the intersection where George Floyd breathed his last.  Amy Cooper could have frequented the immigrant-owned storefronts on Lake Street, and Amy Cooper could have helped clean up the blocks of rubble after those businesses were burned and looted.  Amy Cooper could have served with me on the grand jury.  Amy Cooper could be my neighbor, or co-worker, or my kids' teacher or coach.  Amy Cooper could be my city council member, mayor, state representative, or governor.  Amy Cooper could be my lifelong friend or even close relative.

Say her name.  Amy Cooper.

Police killings, while seemingly a monthly occurrence, are actually quite rare when compared to Amy Cooper sightings.  I don't live in constant fear of the police because I infrequently interact with them (especially living abroad much of the time).  That's part of my privilege.  But I see and hear Amy Cooper everywhere.  I know Amy Cooper intimately.  My lived experience has been full of interactions with Amy Cooper.  At the store, on the street, in schools, workplaces, in the media.  And while most of the time I see Amy Cooper in others, sometimes I see Amy Cooper when I look in the mirror.

Amy Cooper makes assumptions based on someone's outward appearance - be it skin color, gender, clothing, voice, or attitude.  Amy Cooper claims they don't see color, but needlessly uses terms like "big black guy".  Amy Cooper always speaks first, and usually has the last word. Amy Cooper is quick to offer an opinion but can't be bothered to ask a question, except asking people who look like me where we're "really from."  Amy Cooper hears but doesn't listen.  Amy Cooper never really thought about the damage caused by Chief Wahoo, or Apu, or Long Duk Dong.  Amy Cooper loved Black Panther, but experienced it mostly as entertainment.  Amy Cooper loved Beyonce, back when she released hits they could safely sing in mixed company at weddings and karaoke.  Amy Cooper's friend dressed in blackface at a Halloween party, but that was a long time ago, back before they knew better.  Amy Cooper has kind of forgotten about what happened in Charlottesville on the night of August 11, 2017.  Amy Cooper hopes all of those young men marching in khakis and polo shirts have grown up and forgotten the lies they were fed during their formative years, which were not coincidentally between 2008 and 2016.

Amy Cooper is Minnesota Nice.  Amy Cooper takes pride in Minnesota wild rice but doesn’t talk about Little Earth.  Amy Cooper has used marijuana recreationally for years, but tunes out statistics about racial disparities in drug arrests.  Amy Cooper subconsciously acts differently when they hear an accent or reads a name they can't pronounce.  Amy Cooper gets uncomfortable in those situations, and so Amy Cooper surrounds themselves with people who think, look, and live like them.  Amy Cooper carefully chooses their friends, neighborhood, kids' school, news sources, and social media followers.  Amy Cooper lives each day mostly unaware of their privilege - based on their physical appearance, gender, education level, job, religion, or nationality.  But when they are aware of it, sometimes Amy Cooper abuses that privilege with devastating effect.  On a 911 call to the NYPD, for instance.

Amy Cooper is a virus, one similar to COVID-19.  A highly contagious, highly unstable virus of fear and ignorance that feeds on unconscious biases, learned prejudices, and blatant stereotyping.  Amy Cooper attacks the brain indiscriminately, but manifests itself outwardly with exacting discrimination.  Like COVID-19, the test is extremely uncomfortable, and few volunteer for it.  Like COVID-19, Amy Cooper is usually asymptomatic, and difficult to diagnose depending on the exact moment.  But also like COVID-19, we know Amy Cooper is everywhere, a constant threat under the surface.  Amy Cooper results in social distancing, sometimes deliberately to cross the street, but most of the time subconsciously.  There is no vaccine against Amy Cooper, and masks only make matters worse.  No one is immune from Amy Cooper, but like COVID-19, Amy Cooper disproportionately ravages minority communities.  In the worst circumstances, for high-risk individuals like George Floyd and Christian Cooper, Amy Cooper can be deadly.  Amy Cooper causes upper respiratory distress, in the form of a knee to the neck.  There aren't enough ventilators.

Understand how prevalent Amy Cooper is and you understand what many people of color mean when we talk about the "other" pandemic.  One that has lasted much longer than six months, and one that can't be solved by quarantine.

We have to take advantage of this groundswell of genuine desire for change, and use it to advocate for reforms that could save a life like George Floyd's, or David Smith's.  Unchecked police brutality must stop.  But there are deeper knowledge gaps, attitudes, and behaviors in our homes and communities that have kept us from acting as that necessary check on police brutality, or on the achievement gap, or on glaring health care and home ownership disparities.  Attitudes and behaviors that we don't see, or don't want to see, but that have to be faced head on.  It is painful, exhausting work, but we have to do it.  We have to do it because this country's racial and ethnic makeup is changing rapidly, and forever.  Many people are processing that for the first time, and are not reacting well.  Others are ready and willing to prepare for it, and that gives me hope.

The journey ahead is overwhelming, but every little bit counts.  I am not an expert in this. I don't have a list of books or businesses or movies (well, maybe movies) to recommend, but those lists are out there and they are an excellent first step if knowledge is lacking (and it is for everyone, from every background).  And while we can do some of that in the safety of groups, we have to adjust attitudes and behaviors individually, and intentionally.

It requires being very, very vulnerable.  It requires patience and forgiveness.  A lot can be done with positive reinforcement, if that's the easiest place to start.  But eventually it may mean initiating an awkward, uncomfortable conversation, or speaking up when your heart begins racing or you feel that butterfly in your stomach.  That is a reaction to something, and it's probably something we should act on more often.  This is how I feel writing these words.  It will be risky, but we have much to lose - some people much more so than others.  Most importantly, we need to do this all with humility, and without judgement.

We should honor the memory of George Floyd.  We should remember David Smith.  We must condemn Derek Chauvin and the MPD culture that enabled his actions.  What will we do about Amy Cooper?


January 1, 2014

http://www.joylesscreatures.com/

Greetings. After a rather long hiatus, I'm pleased to ease back into the movie writing practice as a contributor to Twin Cities movie magazine Joyless Creatures. Until or unless I decide to restart things more regularly here, please head over to JC, and/or follow me on Twitter. Thank you!

September 1, 2011

Graduation

I didn't start this blog with a bang, and I won't bother trying to end it with one. So, I won't. End it, I mean - at least not permanently. But it's been clear to anyone visiting on a regular basis over the last four years that Getafilm has been limping along for about 18 months, and it's time to acknowledge that I'm either not willing or not able to focus on watching and writing as much as I'd like to at this time in my life.

It's been interesting for me to ponder: is it because I'm unwilling or because I'm unable, and how long does a season in life last? Fortunately I don't need to determine all of that. I don't have to pull the plug or delete everything I've written. I can just turn the lights off in this room and come back if and when I feel like it - the door will be closed but it won't be locked.

To entertain the masses that are sure to continue to flock here on a daily basis, I've tagged several dozen of the 625 archived posts here as my personal favorites, based on the writing, the discussion in the comments, or for an entirely personal reason.

I'll also leave four lessons I've learned, perhaps one for each year of writing to date:

1. Virtual relationships are real relationships. I stopped paying attention to my site traffic a couple of years ago, but the latest data shows that about 170,000 unique visitors have checked in from 193 countries and territories. If you're impressed, you're merely uninformed: popular blogs and websites will rack up those numbers in a morning, while it's taken me years. But what I value much more than the hits (I've never profited a dime from traffic) are the relationships - even friendships - I've developed with some of those visitors who have taken the time to engage with this blog. Some of them I've met, others I hope to one day meet; making friends with strangers has never been so easy.

2. Don't treat a hobby like a job (especially if you already have a job). I almost learned this the hard way as there were times Getafilm actually threatened to damage my relationship with film. As any amateur blogger can tell you, the pressure (entirely self-created) to post something on a regular basis can be overwhelming. Fortunately I gave up that concern some time ago, and have since enjoyed not writing as much as I've enjoyed writing. Why I devoted thought and digital space here to movies like Elegy, Margot at the Wedding, Observe and Report, and Semi-Pro, I have no idea. By far my favorite writing is found in my "Taking It Home" reviews: not only did those get to the heart of my relationship to film, but they were also done on my own time and under no pressure. I never started blogging with the idea that I would become a full time film critic, and, although I'm glad for the opportunity to write freelance reviews when asked, I'm perfectly at peace as an amateur, independent writer.

3. Nothing improves your writing like writing (and reading the writing of others). This should go without saying, but if you are reading this as a beginning blogger or a potential blogger or writer of any kind, I can't overstate how helpful it can be to write on a regular basis. And also read the writing of others (see my blogroll for a few of my inspirations). Putting words to a page forces you to distill and organize your thoughts, helps you form persuasive and well-reasoned arguments, and, perhaps most importantly for any writer, improves the economy and efficiency of your expression (at least for most people - you can tell it's still not my greatest strength).

4. Maintain perspective. This is basically an extension of #2 and should be true about anything in life, but it's worth repeating. People start blogging because they have creative energy they're trying to channel in some way, but it would stand to reason they have interests in life entirely unrelated to their blog. I know that's true for me, at least. I'm passionately interested in film, but also in quite a number of other things to which I'd like to focus my limited free time and energy. So, I don't see this hiatus or hibernation as a departure from film and writing (I'm actually hoping to watch more movies than I have been recently), but an indefinite break to give myself an opportunity to breathe without the weight of the blog, reflect, and maybe pursue some of my other interests. But it's not necessarily the end - I might feel compelled to write about a movie I see next month, or next year, or maybe not until next decade.

Until whenever that may be, thank you for reading. I have learned more about film, writing, history and culture in this little corner of the internet than I ever could have hoped. You've helped me earn a four-year degree in movie blogging, and am going to enjoy my graduation and relax for a bit...

August 29, 2011

Taking It Home: A Better Life

The grass is always greener, except when it's not.

I had the opportunity recently to observe removal hearings at a federal immigration court. The calendar moved in quick succession (5-10 minutes per case) and included the first appearances by respondents accused of being in the United States illegally. These were not detainees or, depending on your definition, even criminals, but they were nonetheless up against the law on this day.

Some had been in the country for less than a year, others had been here for decades. Maybe they hopped the border themselves, or through the help of a mule, or maybe they just overstayed their originally legal visas. They didn't explain how or why they came, only that they wanted to stay, for the welfare of themselves (in the case of asylum-seekers) or the welfare of others, such as children or spouses. Each story was different, and yet they were all identical, in that they portrayed lives lived in two places at once - here and abroad, above ground and underground, in comfortable peace and in extreme danger.

There were no tears or emotional speeches or really any kind of the desperation I might have expected in such an environment. Names were replaced by case numbers, legal jargon was interspersed with yes or no questions interpreted in different languages, and future dates and years were planned ahead matter-of-factly (cases are so backlogged that follow-up hearings were being scheduled on this day for mid-2014). It was, in other words, devastating in its banality.

The same can be said for A Better Life, although it unfortunately dips its toes into schmaltz every 15-20 minutes. So many recent movies have been made about immigration, and so many of those movies have told the same story (except Sean Baker's singular Take Out), that it was a little disappointing to watch A Better Life drive down that heavily-trafficked road and pass up possible detours to new cinematic territory. It's predictable and occasionally pedantic, and to be perfectly honest it's hard to defend as a "good movie".

But my measure of quality here has always considered social importance above cinematic artistry, and to that end A Better Life is as good if not better than most films I've seen this year. And it's not as if it's "bad" even on traditional cinematic terms; it transcends most of its flaws thanks to lived-in performances and a steady grounding in reality. Its characters are familiar not only from other movies, but from your daily bus commute or restaurant meal or hotel stay. (Perhaps the most conspicuous characteristic of undocumented immigrants, on screen and on the street, is their stoic work ethic.)

So if immigration-themed films are a dime a dozen, why do they keep being produced? First and most obviously, because immigration - both legal and illegal - is an issue facing not only every state and community in the United States, but nearly every country on earth. And it will continue to be a relevant social issue until, perhaps generations from now, the world will be so globalized that borders will be virtual and national identities will be nominal.

Until that time, if and when it does come (certainly not in our lifetimes), immigration movies will continue to portray undocumented immigrants in a sympathetic light, simply by virtue of their often narrow focus on the hard luck and difficult struggles these characters face every day. We don't see them as job takers or drug smugglers or fraudulent voters, but as honest workers, family members, and people of high moral character. Which the majority of them are, as I saw in court and as I see everyday when I look in the mirror (as a U.S.-born child of naturalized immigrants from two countries).

Secondly, the movies often strive to portray one of the unappreciated realities of this issue: it's not about the immigrants at all, but about their families, both now and for generations to come. Any emotion tied into these stories is related to these family bonds; I can't think of a moving illegal immigration film about a loner character whose family ties are not central to the story (though Sugar and Lorna's Silence come pretty close). So, as filmmakers continue to try to emotionally engage us about immigration, it will be an exercise in who can tell the most compelling story in the most unique way (Ramin Bahrani is among the new pioneers I admire).

And lastly, what of cinematic musings on immigration policies and politics? Put simply, I'd suggest that films about immigration are films about failed immigration policies (and documentaries like 9500 Liberty approach them head-on). The vast majority of these movies posit that current policies are either unfair or irrelevant, and that no matter what the politicians decide, illegal entry across borders will continue, and the stories we see on screen will continue to play out in real time all around us. There will be consequences for everyone involved, and there are no easy answers.

But as I've said before I think the purpose of these films, and all thoughtful films for that matter, is not to set forth policy but to initiate a conversation about it, or, in the case of A Better Life, serve as a conventional yet compassionate reminder of the importance of an issue.

What did you take home?

August 13, 2011

300 Words About: Stevie


As Steve James' excellent The Interrupters made its way around theaters this summer, I caught up recently with Stevie, his deeply personal documentary from 2002 (and only his second documentary at the time, the first being of course Hoop Dreams). Stevie is the worst possible testimonial for the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America youth mentoring program that you might ever see. It's also a perfect example of why programs like it are so important.

Steve James was a Big Brother to Stevie Fielding in the mid-1980's. At the time, little Stevie was an awkward preteen living with his grandparents in rural Southern Illinois - he was a little odd and had a troubled family history, but was generally harmless. James had a relatively normal mentor-mentee relationship with Stevie for a few years, and then returned in the mid-90's (perhaps encouraged by the recent success of Hoop Dreams) to see what Stevie was up to as an adult. What he found was troubling: Stevie was well on his way down a self-destructive path, with an extensive criminal record and no clear direction in his life. Devastated by Stevie's situation and perhaps feeling guilty for not keeping closer tabs on his "little brother", James recommitted himself to helping Stevie at least stay out of legal trouble, if not actually become a contributing member of society.

And this is where Stevie lays bare the profound challenge facing mentors in a program like Big Brother Big Sisters, or for that matter parents, teachers, or any adult nobly attempting to better a young person's life. I felt pangs of guilt for past students that I had "let go" during my teaching years, or for that matter anyone in my life with whom I've had a mentoring-type relationship. Were there too many other opposing factors and influences to outweigh my efforts? Did I do as much as I could to make a difference? Did it even matter?

Stevie is not meant to be an examination of guilt or regret, and, refreshingly, James does not frame it as a naive "agenda" documentary or bookend it with tidy steps that can be followed to make the world a better place. He instead asks raw, honest, heartbreaking questions - and doesn't provide any easy answers - about what happens when the best intentions are left unrealized. And the horror doesn't end on the screen, either, as Stevie's current situation is as disturbing as anything from the film's footage, which is now more than a decade old.

They say "the road to hell is paved with good intentions", and critics of mentoring programs for troubled youth could use Stevie as Exhibit A in their case against program efficacy. But to watch Stevie is to understand a different reason why these programs exist: not to "save lives", but to connect lives that wouldn't otherwise be connected. To strip away the social barriers that keep us apart and put us (the privileged) face-to-face with the experience of the marginalized majority around us. The reason I appreciate James so much as a filmmaker is because he doesn't wield his camera as a weapon of scrutiny and all-knowing judgment. Instead he uses it as a mirror, reflecting back on us images of ourselves that we can't or don't want to see. What happens after that is for us to figure out.

July 28, 2011

Getafilm Gallimaufry: Midnight in Paris, X-Men: First Class, The Tree of Life, Super 8

Midnight in Paris (A)

Having never been to Paris, I've enjoyed exploring the city's iconic setting in various films, from The 400 Blows (which I saw recently for the first time) to Amelie, Band of Outsiders, Ronin, Before Sunset, 2 Days in Paris, and even European Vacation and Ratatouille, to name just a few. I can see why it makes for such an enchanting setting for movies, and Midnight in Paris hit all the right notes for me again. The smells and spells of the city were a terrific complement to a dream-like fantasy story. Owen Wilson played essentially the same version of the same character he's played in every movie from You, Me, and Dupree to Shanghai Knights, and while I wouldn't have expected that character to fit here, it was a near perfect fit for the quirkiness of the narrative. I didn't buy the chemistry between his character and Marion Cotillard's, but then Midnight in Paris is not a love story between characters but between a director, a city, and his cultural and literary influences. I like that Woody Allen doesn't go to really any length to explain why particular characters are where they are, when they are. The charm of this movie is easy to succumb to, and that it's Allen's highest-grossing film to date speaks to the appeal for mature, original, simple cinema in the midst of the year-round blockbuster bonanza.


X Men: First Class (B+)


Here's a movie for which I couldn't explain my interest ahead of time, other than that some aspect of the original X-Men movie and the story has always intrigued me. It involves the fact that this series is set in the real world and involves real people and places, unlike Batman, for example (why the endless fawning over and praise of that story, I still don't know). You could say Watchmen is also set in the real world, and while those graphic novels may well be interesting (I haven't read them and hated the movie), I still find X-Men to be among the most socially relevant comic book series around. Mutants are, of course, a metaphor for any marginalized minority group in history, which makes the films both relatable and actually much more emotional than Spider-Man or, good grief, The Green Hornet. Lending to the realism in this latest film is the excellent acting from Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, and Jennifer Lawrence. Casting seasoned dramatic actors in comic book movie doesn't always work (Ed Norton as The Incredible Hulk?), but it definitely did in First Class, and if the cast stays on for the next installment, I'll follow along as well.

The Tree of Life (B+)

Up until a few years ago, I had no idea Terrence Malick was so revered by 25-40 year old male movie buffs. Among my peers in the blogging world, Malick's The New World was far and away considered the best film of the last decade. I remember quite well seeing it in the theater and shrugging my shoulders on the way out, so the devout praise for the film has always escaped me. Not baffled me, because I didn't think it was bad, but escaped me, because...I don't know, maybe I just didn't get it, or know what I should have been watching for, or have enough patience and thought to consider its deeper meanings. I never did give it a second watch, but needless to say the hype around that film made me quite anxious to have a third shot at understanding Malick (I'd previously seen The Thin Red Line). My verdict on The Tree of Life? A visually captivating and ambitious meditation on the meaning of life and nature of family, but a somewhat emotionally dull one at that. Really the only emotion I felt, other than an utter sense of awe at the cinematography and visual effects, was an unnerving fear. Brad Pitt's character was terrifying and his presence was palpable even when he wasn't on screen - maybe that was the point (Sean Penn, meanwhile, seemed absent even when he was on screen). The father-son relationship is one of about a million things that Malick lays out for interpretation and analysis. Over the next few years, as that is sure to play out again online, at least I won't be as confused. And besides, I'd much rather people spend years discussing a film like The Tree of Life than a film like The Dark Knight. (That's two digs now at TDK, if you're keeping score at home.)

Super 8 (C+)

When is a remake not actually a remake? When everything about the new movie is identical to a previous movie, other than a few plot devices. Of course we know by now that Super 8 is J.J. Abrams' homage to the films of Steven Spielberg, but instead of being merely influenced by Spielberg's films (E.T. being the easiest comparison), Super 8 plays like a lesser version of one. Sillier dialogue, a plodding pace, and hardly a speck of originality (to say nothing of logical gaps - how did the camera and the car and the kamikaze teacher come out of the train crash essentially unscathed?). Watching Super 8, I felt like I'd seen it before: the rowdy dining room table, the same-looking alien with the same-sounding guttural growls and high-pitched chirps, the placid suburban neighborhood predictably thrown into chaos. Of course I realize that this criticism, besides making me come off as a total grouch, can also be applied to countless movies. Filmmakers are influenced by filmmakers throughout history, and I expect my issues with Super 8, rather than being based on the movie's own merit, actually just stem from my nostalgia for "the real thing" - Spielberg's films.

July 11, 2011

"Location: MN" - This Weekend @ the Walker

For better or worse, the most iconic Minnesota movie scene that ever was.

If there is anything Minnesotans love more than Minnesota (a big "if"), it's movies about Minnesota. Movies that show us who we really are (Fargo), who we really aren't (Fargo), and who we desperately fear the rest of the world thinks we are (Fargo). That fear being unsubstantiated, of course, because the rest of the world pays no attention to us in the first place (perhaps the greatest horror of all). I digress.

It ain't Hollywood by any stretch of the imagination, but a number of excellent films have been written, produced, and filmed here, and this weekend's showcase at the Walker Art Center, Location: MN, is a rare opportunity to go out and explore the state by going in to a dark and comfortably air conditioned theater. Keep in mind these are only movies filmed in Minnesota, not movies written by Minnesotans (Gran Torino), or written by "Minnesotans" (Juno), or set in Minnesota but filmed elsewhere (Juno, again).

Despite this filtering of the list, there are a handful of movies whose exclusion I find curious, even if somewhat obvious considering the artistic reputation the Walker needs to uphold. I mean, it would be audacious to justify including The Mighty Ducks, or Jingle All the Way, or Grumpy (and Grumpier) Old Men, or Drop Dead Gorgeous, or New in Town, or Little Big League. (Actually a bizarro series featuring those films and others could do decent business here, but the Walker isn't the likely setting for it.)

But what about more acclaimed films like North Country, Untamed Heart, A Prairie Home Companion (my allergy to Garrison Keillor notwithstanding), or A Serious Man? Or what about some of the little indie films that didn't make big splashes but still floated out beyond the local festival circuit, like Into Temptation or Stuck Between Stations?

And, most importantly, what about my favorite - and the most culturally accurate - Minnesota movie of all time: Aurora Borealis (add it)?

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