Wednesday, March 24, 2010

5 Really Depressing Movies

I'm kind of a fan of movies; I don't live and breathe cinema, but I like some of them. In my opinion really well-done science fiction is a slice of heaven. I also love batshit-crazy comedies featuring stupid people doing stupid things, and a really edgy, intelligent psychological thriller. But there's something to be said for gloomy, depressing films, the kind that bum you out to no end and make you feel drained and sad. No one wants a steady diet of them, because real life can be depressing enough, but once in a while they just hit the spot, emotionally speaking.

Thus, I submit to you my choices for the Most Depressing Movies Ever. Your mileage may vary, and I'm sure everyone has their own lists, but these are the ones that really send me into a blue funk, and entertain me along the way. Here they are, in order of less to most depressing:

5. Wings of Desire (1987, directed by Wim Wenders, starring Bruno Ganz). This is the story of an angel who somehow got himself trapped between worlds, heaven and earth, and was condemned to live with one foot in each. Set in Berlin, the Angel plods solemnly through a bleak, sterile urban landscape completely devoid of life, color and vitality. Streets are narrow, dirty and windswept, buildings are plain, drab and faceless, and nighttime scenes are in a black monotone with streetlights futilely trying to pierce the smothering darkness. The isolation and alienation of the Angel is palpable, as is his sense of being everywhere and nowhere at once. A triumph of depicting the numbing austerity of urban life.

4. Trainspotting (1996, directed by Danny Boyle, starring Ewan MacGregor). This movie followed the miserable, stultifying lives of some residents of Edinburgh, Scotland as hopelessness and drug addiction swallow them up and lead them to commit various crimes. It shows how they use any and all means possible, from alcohol to heroin, to try to dull the pain of their wretched existence. They have really awful lives and what's worse, they know they have really awful lives. One of them makes the memorable comment that their country was once taken over by the English, who are a "bunch of wankers," so what does that make them? There is a sequence in the middle of the film where Ewan MacGregor's character undergoes withdrawal from heroin addiction. It is truly horrifying and astonishing, hallucinatory and painful to watch, but a masterful combination of imagery and music. The highlight is a dead baby crawling across the ceiling - really cheesy in terms of special effects but it will gross you out to within an inch of your life. But there are flashes of humor and for this movie, a relatively happy ending, so it does cover all the bases quite well.

3. Wonderland (2003, directed by James Cox, starring Val Kilmer). Wonderland is one of a subgenre of films which I call "L.A. Pathological." These movies are set in an arid, surreal and bleached-out southern California, which extends from south of Santa Barbara to the Mexican border, and east from the coast to the Arizona border. It seems everyone who lives there is a junkie or a hooker, and everywhere the landscape is bleak to the extreme. There is a stifling, suffocating nihilism, and an air of complete, total hopelessness pervades everything. The film, supposedly based on real events, relates the story of the involvement of 70's porn icon John Holmes in the brutal murders of 4 people in an apartment on Wonderland Street. For most of the inhabitants, their idea of planning for the future is wondering where their next drug fix is coming from and whether they're going to be alive 24 hours from now. Even the people who are trying to lead relatively normal lives find themselves being consumed by despair. Other films of this type are The Salton Sea (2002, directed by D. J. Caruso, starring Val Kilmer AGAIN!), a sprawling, repellent story of meth freaks and criminals set near the surreal weirdness of the Salton Sea in California. I have actually been there and it stinks to high heaven and has lots of eccentric people living in their recreational vehicles and is weirder than you can ever imagine. Also Mulholland Drive (2001, David Lynch, Naomi Watts) a claustrophobic, dimly lit and highly disturbing mind-f**k which will leave you reeling and confused like riding on a roller coaster blindfolded.

2. Leaving Las Vegas (1995, directed by Mike Figgis, starring Nicholas Cage).
This movie starts out bleakly and just goes downhill from that point. Loser-in-life Nicholas Cage comes to Las Vegas with the intention of drinking himself to death, which he does, but along the way falls in love with a hooker. She tries her damnedest to save him because in their weird, infinitely dysfunctional way, they have sort of found redemption in each other. She doesn't quite succeed, and this is one of those times when death is a welcome blessing. DO NOT watch this movie in the late evening and then go to bed, you will have a really bad night.

1. Requiem for a Dream (2000, directed by Darren Aronofsky, starring Ellen Burstyn). This story chronicles the disintegration of a family whose matriarch lives in Brighton Beach, New York, and exists in a fantasy world where she tries to recreate happier times. Her husband is dead and her life is lonely, and her feckless son and well-meaning daughter-in-law are trying to deal with their own wretched lives and are not really inclined to help the mother much. Each of them descends into their own hellish, nightmarish cesspool as various schemes to get money for drugs or, in the case of the mother, a spot on a deeply disturbing television contest show, ultimately lead to their degradation and dissolution. Filmed in a very unique style, it mesmerizes you and sucks you into the story. The horror and ugliness are unrelenting, and just when you think it can't get any worse, it of course does. Extremely graphic and unflinching, it is a train wreck of galactic proportions, from which you cannot tear your eyes away. I was still bummed out 2 days after my first viewing, and various scenes from the film haunt my dreams to this day. A truly awful masterpiece.

There you have it, my list of (actually more than) 5 really depressing films. Honorable mention to There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Day-Lewis) an extraordinarily detailed smorgasbord of all that is wrong with humanity, and Crash (1996, directed by David Cronenberg), not the one with Sandra Bullock, but with James Spader who gets involved with a group of people who get sexually aroused by automobile crashes. I had to sit through that movie at least twice before I could even begin to wrap my brain around such a concept. Then there's the grandaddy of all depressing films, Eraserhead (1976, David Lynch, Jack Nance) an Alice-in-Wonderland-on-bad-LSD trip down the rabbit hole to hell. After you watch one of these movies you will want to take a long hot bath and hug a fluffy bunny. See! Getting horribly depressed can be fun!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Apocalypse Deferred

Personal note: Exactly one year ago this day I wrote the first entry in my new blog. In it I took Meghan McCain to task for being, well, Meghan McCain. Writing "Careless Whispers" has been a supremely interesting experience for me and I've enjoyed it very much. When I wrote my first entry I thought I would run out of things to say after like 5 posts but now, after 73 posts, I feel I'm just hitting my stride. Sometime this summer I will be posting my 100th entry and will take a look back then. But until that time, I thank everyone for reading my blog and the great feedback you have provided. You would do me a great honor if you continue to read my ramblings.

After more than a year of bickering and fighting, including a summer full of testy town hall meetings, innumerable marches and protests, the highly entertaining spectacle of insanely misspelled signs and endless commentary and disinformation campaigns, health care reform became law of the land when an obviously pleased Barack Obama signed the bill in a jubilant ceremony at the White House. As we are constantly reminded, the fight is not yet over and the Republicans are girding their wrinkled, pasty loins for an Armageddon scenario of plans to "repeal" the law and poke holes in the federal requirements under the guise of "states rights."

I suppose we can't expect the Republicans to do anything else, but graceful losers they are not. In fact on Sunday night when the House of Representatives was taking their final ratification votes the Repubs had to hide behind unborn babies and try to get the whole bill referred back to committee (e.g., killed) for not "protecting the unborn." This was preceded earlier in the afternoon by opponents screaming racist and homophobic slurs to members of Congress and even spitting at one of them. Such a lovely example to show the world. The attempt to use the abortion issue for their own nefarious purposes stunk to high heaven of back-against-the-wall desperation and scorched-earth policy - they were prepared to do anything, no matter how ridiculous or cowardly, to try to scuttle all the effort to reach this point. Luckily, it did not work, but it did result in the hilariously surrealistic scene of Rep. Bart Stupak, a staunch anti-abortionist and until then the darling of the Republican opposition for nearly torpedoing the whole bill over abortion funding, being called a "baby killer" by some misinformed moron from Texas.

So the legal challenges are only just starting, and we are going to hear about attempts to derail health care reform far into the foreseeable future. The task of carrying out reform has just begun and it's not going to be pretty or pleasant, despite all the other extremely pressing matters we must address as a nation. But probably the most important task that remains to be done is to get Rush Limbaugh out of the country, because he promised on his radio program in a very public fashion to leave the country if health care reform passes. I strongly believe we should hold him to that promise and get his big fat obnoxious ass out of the country and over to some other country we really hate, like North Korea. After all, if they threw his flabby bulk into a big stew pot and cooked him up, he could feed all of Pyongyang for over a year.

The Republicans are spitting mad and all look like they took a huge crap in their Depends and can't find anyone to change them. They are vowing revenge in the midterm elections and while that is not a threat to take lightly, so much can happen in six months and once the American people get to see that health care really will make many lives better, their attitudes will soften and maybe they'll see that it was a good idea after all. But history was truly made last Sunday, March 21, 2010, and we will be looking back on that date for many, many years to come.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Countdown To History

It's been pretty tough these past couple of days not to hear the phrase "make or break" if you watched, read or listened to any sort of news coverage about the health care reform bill. It all comes down to the next couple of Congressional votes, the MSM (mainstream media) would have you believe. Although the news media have a very long tradition of exaggeration and making mountains out of molehills, in this case it seems to be warranted.

The stakes in this long, acrimonious battle could not be higher. President Obama has made health care reform the centerpiece of his young administration, and has basically bet everything on getting the bill passed. The rest of his presidency and its legacy hang in the balance. The Republicans have fought him every step of the way, goose-stepping as a unified block in perfect lockstep behind their leadership. They say they are so concerned about the country and health care reform is so horrible, but it's painfully transparent to anyone that they could not give a crap about what's best for this country; they only care about embarrassing Obama and turning his administration into a failure because he is African-American.

It's clear that health care in this country is horribly dysfunctional and keeping the status quo would be disastrous. Every year over 45,000 people die in this country from lack of adequate health care. If that number of people died in terrorist attacks each year Congress would be apoplectic with outrage and you could be sure the legislation would be pouring out of Washington. The present system works best in keeping the health care insurance providers in business, and has allowed them the latitude to do unbelievable things, such as increasing insurance premiums for their members as much as 40% while racking up multi-billion dollar profits. Do the Republicans not see anything wrong with the insurance companies making enormous profits while costs to working people go through the roof? What if these profits went to actually caring for sick people instead of lining the pockets of insurance executives?

At any rate, the Democrats are scrambling for votes in the House of Representatives to pass the revised health care legislation and refer it to the Senate, where only a 51-vote majority will be required to send it to Obama's desk for signature. The Dems are cautiously optimistic they will have the votes later this week. The Republicans are engaging in a full-court press, pulling out all the stops trying to keep the 37 Democrats who originally voted "no" on their side. Some Republicans have threatened "civil disobedience" in the halls of Congress to get their point across, which is reminiscent of the "Tea Party tantrums" we were witnessing last summer, where petulant, confused old people stood up with their hilariously misspelled signs to "keep the government out of my Medicare."

Conservative talk radio has switched over to 24-hour Armageddon mode. Yesterday I had to take an extended drive into the southeast hinterlands, and to amuse myself I tuned in to Glenn Beck on the radio. Yes, I do listen to conservative talk radio on occasion just to get some idea of how crazy these people actually are, and Beck always comes through in spectacular fashion. He was making all sorts of dire predictions in very somber, sonorous tones that we will "not recognize this country" in five years if health care reform passes. Well, I'm pretty sure the country will be recognizable; what I'm hoping is that the health care system will be completely different. It's always an experience listening to these kind of shows - the hosts do every ridiculous thing possible to make their points to a gullible audience. They make loopy, elliptical connections between unrelated events in the past and in the future, they engage in hyperbole, fear-mongering and wild exaggeration at every turn. They appeal to the prejudices and ignorance of the public, as they always do, to panic people into a stampede and make them think Al-Qaeda is ready to march down Pennsylvania Avenue and set up a nuclear-weapons farmers' market on the White House lawn.

Beck did make a hysterical statement which almost caused me to drive off the road. Someone on his show brought up the argument that providing health care for all citizens is a moral obligation of the government. Not so, Beck replied; that's not the job of the government, that's the job of the churches, to take care of moral issues like that, because we have something called separation of church and state in this country!! EXCUSE ME??? Conservatives invoking separation of church and state like they actually believe it?? That sounds like something right out of the current Alice in Wonderland movie. Conservatives don't have the slightest problem with government interference in moral issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, but they do have an issue with government getting involved in universal health care. Just another example of how conservatives pick and choose their moral arguments and talk out of both sides of their mouths at once, as it suits them. For them, morality is completely subjective and situational, and changes about as frequently as the wind direction. They use it and abuse it any way they see fit, to bolster their ridiculous, idiotic and ironically, their morally bankrupt arguments.

The health care reform battle will run right down to the wire, and every vote will be in play until the very end. The Republicans are increasingly desperate and the Democrats increasingly confident in the final outcome, but it is not yet a done deal. Democrats have a long and rich history of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, so I'm certainly not taking anything for granted. It will be interesting to see where we'll be a week from now. So much is on the line right now, and what happens in the next couple of days will resonate far into the future.

It's an exciting, scary and exhilarating time. The old Yiddish curse of "may you live in interesting times" seems ever so applicable.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Amazing Ms. Kirby

At the end of last year, right after Christmas, a foster bunny came to stay with me for a while. Kirby is a brown and black Holland lop mix, weighing not much more than three pounds when she got here. That didn't include the weight of the splint and bandages which wrapped her left hind leg.

Kirby had suffered some sort of terrible trauma or accident. I was told when she was turned over to the vet she was dragging her leg behind her. I saw the x-rays, and they were quite startling. Her tiny little thigh bone was broken in three places. The first break was below the hip joint. Then there were two bone fragments completely detached, floating free, and then the knee joint.

Normally a compound fracture such as that would have resulted in a leg amputation. But luckily the veterinarian, Dr. Donald Holmes of Pecan Grove Animal Hospital in Tempe, is one of the best in the region when it comes to broken bones. He inserted a long, thin metal rod through all the pieces and reconnected the fragments with Kirby's knee and hip joint. He told me he was very pleased with how the different bone pieces aligned and came together. There was some hope after all that her leg could be saved.

Kirby had to wear her splint and bandages for at least four weeks, but to watch her move around and even run, you would never had known anything had happened to her. From the very start, she acted like there was nothing wrong at all, and to her the splint and bandage weren't even there. Always happy and very active, she never let anything come between her and a good time. Her spirit is absolutely indomitable, and she continually amazed me with her energy and activity. Here was a bunny who would not allow herself to be slowed down one iota by a slight inconvenience like a compound fracture.

Now, three months later, the bandages and the splint are gone, but Kirby is still with me. Also still here is her incredible energy and spirit. It is quite impressive to see her run and even jump. Her leg did not heal perfectly straight, the bottom part of her left foot noticeably turns in toward her body, but like everything else that has gone before, she could not care less about that. She is an extremely happy, active and friendly little girl who knows her name and comes when you call her. She loves any and all treats and her daily green vegetables. Every time I walk by her cage she puts her paws up on the bars and greets me.

Like all of the rabbits I have had the privilege of knowing, her spirit and courage are truly impressive, and the strength of her will to live her life to the fullest, in the present, and with no regrets, is inspiring. Human beings can truly learn so much from these amazing little creatures when it comes to accepting and overcoming adversity.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Texas-Sized Disgrace

There's been a disturbing story going around lately about, of all things, the Texas Board of Education. It seems this august body of elected officials is in charge of determining the content of textbooks used in their schools. The Board has been overrun by Christian conservatives, and they outnumber the normal board members nearly two-to-one. The leader of the conservative faction, a dentist by the name of Dr. Don McLeroy, has used the majority to pass over 100 amendments to the 120-page curriculum standards which affect what is taught in history, economics and civics.

McLeroy is a self-described "orthodox conservative Christian" who feels he is on a mission to rid the Texas school system of the tired old threat of "liberal bias." He is one of those people who believes the earth is less than 10,000 years old. He does not believe in the validity of the fossil record or the carbon-dating process which determines the age of rocks, or the dinosaurs which lived 65 million years ago, or the two-billion-year-old rocks you can find in Greenland. He does believe there was once a Garden of Eden and a snake who hoodwinked Eve into munching on a Red Delicious.

While he's pretty clear on believing certain things that happened thousands of years ago, he seems to have a bit of a problem with more recent events. For instance, instead of students learning about Chicano labor leader and activist Cesar Chavez, McLeroy and his ilk have decided they will learn about the puckered, skeletal Phyllis Schlafly, who headed the ultra-conservative Eagle Forum in the eighties. To counter the nonviolent approach and civil-rights accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, students will now be instructed in the violent philosophies of the Black Panthers.

There's more: students will read less about Franklin Roosevelt and more about senile, Alzheimer's-addled buffoon Ronald Reagan. One of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, has been replaced on a list of influential 18th and 19th century writers by the likes of St. Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, who both lived long before the 18th century. Jefferson, despite his place of honor in this country's history, is a favorite target of conservatives because he coined the phrase "separation between church and state." Also, the American economic system is referred to as the "free enterprise system," because "capitalism" sounds too much like that other terrible "ism" - "socialism" - and the vast majority of Texans can't tell the difference between the two anyway.

The revisionist history goes on and on. One would be inclined to dismiss this blatant, unconscionable whitewashing of the facts as just the regular, outrageous level of stupidity and ignorance associated with the state of Texas. After all, everything is bigger in Texas except people's brains. But because of quirks in the educational system this is a much bigger deal than one realizes. Texas is such a huge market for textbooks that their standards are incorporated into the books and then sold to schools all over the country. So students everywhere may be exposed to the ignorance, biases and prejudices of the crotchety, crusty conservatives on the Texas Board of Education.

This is such a cowardly, underhanded thing, even for conservatives. We're all used to hearing about conservatives advancing their agenda by any illegal and immoral way possible, such as election theft, falsifying votes, attack ads on the media, and just out-and-out bald-faced lying about everything they don't agree with. But to poison the textbooks school children use to learn with their toxic blend of stupidity and lies, is a new low even for them. And McLeroy does not feel the least twinge of guilt from misusing the educational system to force his bigotry down the throats of children across the country.

Now obviously a system which allows and indeed propagates such insanity beyond the borders of Texas is tragically, profoundly broken. Nobody cares if children in Texas grow up to be total idiots because after all, it's Texas, and that's more or less their destiny. But when it starts to contaminate other areas of the country, well that's a problem. The textbook publishers couldn't care less if the content of their books is dangerously skewed and biased, they're just out to make money. One can only hope with all the other ways to get information in the modern world, such as through the internet, teachers won't have to rely entirely on the contents of a textbook to teach students what they need to know to make intelligent, informed choices as adults. But because of Mr. McLeroy and the Texas Board of Education, they are getting sabotaged from the very start with a massive, early dose of stupidity.