Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Brainwashing of My Dad

Year 8, Day 149 - 5/28/16 - Movie #2,348

BEFORE: Matthew Modine carries over to be the co-narrator of this documentary, and (full disclosure) I'm friends with the director, Jen Senko, and also the producer, and also the animator, and quite a few other people in the credits.  Heck, I was a Kickstarter backer of this film, and I've only ever backed, like, three projects on that site.  But when you're friends with indie filmmakers, sometimes you do what you can - and that's how I got a copy of Jen's previous doc, "Vanishing City".  

THE PLOT:  Jen Senko, a documentary filmmaker, looks at the rise of right-wing media through the lens of her WWII vet father who changed from a life-long, nonpolitical Democrat to an angry, right-wing fanatic after his discovery of talk radio on a lengthened commute to work.

AFTER: Now, as someone with friends in high places, I could have gone to the premiere of this film back in March, but I think I was a little busy with the new job, and I turned down the invite.  In a way, I'm glad that I did, because this film has only become more relevant to current events, now that this year's election primaries have taken place.  By taking a look at some notable elections of the past, and detailing the rise of the Fox News channel, the director managed to make a film with some incredible insights into what's going on RIGHT NOW in American politics.  

Consider this: Remember the 1960 election (OK, I don't, I wasn't born yet) when Nixon lost to JFK, partially because Nixon looked all sweaty and shifty-eyed on TV during their debate?  I've heard that many people who listened to the debate on radio scored it for Nixon, but most people who saw him on TV ended up favoring Kennedy.  Suddenly, there was a shift in presidential politics, thanks to TV, and Americans started electing the candidates who looked better on TV.  TV was important, and only became more so as things progressed.  And Nixon's media advisor, Roger Ailes, would go on to become the Chairman and CEO of what channel?  Hint: it's Fox News.  

Fast-forward to the Reagan years - we know now that Reagan's "Supply-side economics" wasn't just a bunch of voodoo, it was a bunch of poo-poo.  But somehow he convinced average Americans that if rich people could pay less taxes, and big business could just get the break that it needed, the results would be better for everyone.  The money would eventually "trickle down" to the poor and the middle-class, so rather than give it to them directly, it made sense to give it to the rich people, so the poor could get it.  Right.  There was something trickling down on the poor people in the 1980's, but it wasn't money.  But there was the President, selling a worthless plan, but repeating the lie enough for people to believe in it.  Did everyone miss the fact that Reagan used to be an actor?  An actor's someone who pretends for a living, right?  Says words that don't need to be true, ring any bells?

Fast-forward to the Clinton years, and Hillary's belief in a "vast, right-wing conspiracy" to take her husband down.  OK, I think Bill had a lot to do with the events that made him lose credibility, but just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean that they AREN'T out to get you.  The simple fact is that conservative people have long held a belief that the media swings to the liberal side, so they felt totally justified in setting up a TV network that would espouse their side of the story, because that would balance the scales.  The only problem becomes, if you try to balance the scales in your favor by stating a bunch of "facts" that aren't really true, citing studies and surveys that are skewed or falsified, you may start out with the best intentions of balancing things, but you end up feeding people a steady diet of lies on a daily basis, and how can that be good for the country.

Quick answer, it's not - spreading mistruths and biased information about certain ethnic groups, or classes of society has brought us to where we are now - a country that's so divided on every issue, everything's either black or white, with no middle ground, that at many times there seem to be two Americas, and if you're not part of one, you must be part of the other.  Can we all just take a minute and realize how stupid it is to say you live in a red state or a blue state, when so many states would more correctly be regarded as purple, once we took everyone's thoughts on complicated issues into account?

But, here's where we are, a nation that's now giving serious consideration to a candidate who, like Nixon, learned to manipulate the media with small, simple sound bites.  And by that, he's saying, "Well, Americans are generally stupid, let me dumb this complicated issue down to a very simple nugget of hatred, that anyone can understand, and by playing on their fears, I'll appeal to Americans' hearts."  Because there's this chemical rush that we humans get, and we can get it from exercise, or from reaching a complicated goal, but the quickest way to get there is through a quick burst of anger, and that's left over from our caveman "fight or flight" days, isn't it?  

And like Reagan, he's trying to sell us a bunch of plans for things that don't make any sense - like a wall on the border that's 1,000 miles long and God-knows how high, one of the biggest construction projects ever proposed, and somehow he's going to make the people who DON'T want it to be there to pay for it.  Just like "Supply-side economics", it's not feasible - it won't work, it can't work, and even if it could, which it can't, its very existence would make the people who put it there not only horrible people, but hypocrites, since that goes against the very principles the U.S.A. was founded on.  But apparently if you repeat the lie enough times, and use colorful language and interesting sound-bites, you can get people to believe in it.  

And now people are seriously considering voting for the man who represents the very worst parts of Nixon and Reagan, the lying liar parts, when in TV and print interviews he's said statements that have conflicted his other statements - he's for gun control, he's against it.  He's pro-abortion, but if the country's against it, maybe we should prosecute women who get abortions. No, wait, we should punish the doctors - heck, we'll punish somebody, does it matter who?  Why do I get the feeling that we're about to find ourselves not knowing which way is up for the next four years?  Anybody who can spin on a dime like this, being put in a position of power, that frightens me quite a lot.  

But let me get back to Frank Senko, a former Kennedy Democrat who became a Reagan Democrat (another incredible coincidence, when people are talking now about possible "Clinton Republicans" and "Trump Democrats").  Jen noticed that after the rise of Limbaugh, and her father's exposure to him during a series of long commutes, that he started spouting different political views, railing against "feminazis" and groups like PETA, when he'd always been kind to animals and even had a bit of a hippie phase when his kids did in the 1970's.  What happened to him, and in fact to other older people around the country, whose adult children weighed in via Skype about similar changes?  

What happened, plain and simple, is that certain news organizations started to drift from merely reporting the news, and turned toward shaping the news - picking key phrases that would scare and rile up the public, and making sure they were repeated each day by a chain of anchors and opinion-givers, like daily mantras.  Because they had the attention of people stuck in traffic jams during drive-time, and they could repeat their lies and fabrications enough for people to start regarding them as facts.  Something happens to people when they get older, they sometimes develop these belief systems that get very rigid, and any information that comes to them and doesn't fit gets rejected - but at the same time they somehow get more gullible, and they fall for telemarketing and internet scams that younger people would just immediately hang up the phone on, or delete from their mailboxes.  

And that's the problem with the internet, it's a free-for-all where everyone can post anything they want, even if it's not true, and there are no repercussions.  Oh, Fox News has fact-checkers, and they may run a retraction or a correction, but only days later, and in very small type, and by then the damage is already done.  Where's the accountability in this country, to make sure that what people say on the magic picture box are genuinely real facts?  It's not just old people any more, I'm seriously worried that as a species, we've forgotten how to hunt, gather, and now fact-check.  Hunting and gathering, I can get - it's much easier to walk to the store and buy a pack of hot dogs than to wander around with a spear looking for them in the wild.  But please, people, if we willingly give up our ability to think, to reason, to doubt what someone is trying to sell us, then we're truly doomed.  

Now, with that said, the director faced a real uphill battle here, and that's not only making people aware of the problem, but making that awareness interesting and not preachy, and that means she had to walk a very fine line.  But this was accomplished best by examining the small, the thoughts and reactions of one man, and how they changed over time, and what made them change.  And by examining the small, we can start to get a grasp on the large, and wonder just how widespread the problem of ignorance and gullibility is.  My fear is that it's much larger than we can imagine.  

I strongly recommend that everyone check this film out (it's on iTunes, Amazon Prime, YouTube and GooglePlay), but more importantly that we all try to get back to a more cynical, but healthier, place where we don't believe everything that we read or hear, and that we set aside time to check so-called "facts" for ourselves, whenever possible.  That goes for everyone, young and old alike.

Also starring Noam Chomsky, Steve Rendall, Jeff Cohen, Eric Boehlert, George Lakoff, Rick Perlstein, Claire Conner, Frank Luntz, David Brock.

RATING: 7 out of 10 dittoheads

Friday, May 27, 2016

Vision Quest

Year 8, Day 148 - 5/27/16 - Movie #2,347

BEFORE: There would have been a great opportunity to link from "Taken 3" to the new "X-Men" movie opening this weekend - that is, if Famke Janssen were still playing the Jean Grey character, which she is not.  "X-Men: Apocalypse" moves forward from the 1970's X-Men seen in "Days of Future Past" to the team of the 1980's, and in this timeline Jean is still a teenager, so Ms. Janssen has apparently aged out of the franchise.  

So, a new linking plan was necessary - Forest Whitaker carries over from "Taken 3", getting 30 years younger in the process himself.  

THE PLOT:  A high school wrestler in Spokane, Washington has trouble focusing on his training regimen when a worldly drifter takes up temporary residence at his home.

AFTER: I recorded this movie to put on a DVD with "Foxcatcher", but at the time I wasn't sure when I'd be able to circle back to the whole wrestling or boxing theme.  I don't think I'll be able to put all the boxing films together again, like I did last year - especially since premium cable is taking its sweet time getting "Southpaw" and "Creed" on the air.  But I do have another boxing film set for next week, so I guess I'm doing some now, some more later. 

Thirty years is a long time, Matthew Modine was 26 when this film was released, where he played a high-school student.  I've had the opportunity to meet him a few times, since he's recorded voices for a few of my boss's short films, and he and his producing partner are exec PRs on the animated feature we're working on now, "Revengeance" (the trailer was released this week on YouTube, please check it out if you get the chance).  Matthew's got a bunch more credits now, like for producing and directing his own short films, and he's got two adult children - hey, a lot happens in 30 years. 

But let's travel back through the mists of time to 1985, when MTV was a new channel, everybody had big hair and some of the boys wore more make-up than the girls.  As far as I can tell, this film was the first sports film that really embraced the music-video culture, since there are lots of shots of Modine as Louden Swain training - sure, by now the montages of Stallone (or whoever) working out to synth music are old hat, but where did that trend start?  Maybe right here.  

There's music from Journey, Sammy Hagar, Foreigner, Quarterflash, REO Speedwagon, Berlin and this crazy newcomer called Madonna - that kid's going places, I tell ya.  I found myself in the unique position today of trying to explain to a younger co-worker why, exactly, Madonna became famous - because it certainly wasn't for such meaningful songs as "Holiday" and "Lucky Star".  I ended up singling out the moment where she appeared on the MTV Video Awards in a lacy wedding dress, writhing on the floor as if she were pleasuring herself - yeah, that was probably it.  

My wife and I play this music trivia game we created, which we call "Butter Zone".  The goal is to find a song which the other person is forced to admit that they know, and you score a point when the other person can't name the singer or band they're hearing.  You can't score a point if the other person doesn't know the song at all, in other words - and it works on the honor system, largely.  There's a perfect "Butter Zone" song on this film's soundtrack, I just KNOW I've heard it on classic rock radio over the years, but I never knew who sang it.  To me, it sounds a lot like a Pink Floyd song, it's got the same driving beat as "Another Brick in the Wall", and it's called "Lunatic Fringe", which calls up images of songs from "Dark Side of the Moon" like "Brain Damage".  And it starts with weird footsteps and ends with police sirens, so it's got that feel like a soundscape stage-play, like so many Pink Floyd songs, like that one with the phone operator trying to make an international call at the end. ("Young Lust")

Over the years I've naturally assumed that it was a Floyd song from an album I just wasn't familiar with, like "Division Bell" or something.  And you can't really search for a song if you don't know its name AND you're not sure what band recorded it - it's not like you can go into a record store and say, "You know, the song with the police sirens at the end, and it's got the background singers going whoa-OH-oh-oh..."  Anyway, the song "Lunatic Fringe" was recorded by the band Red Rider, and written by Tom Cochrane, who would go on to sing "Life Is a Highway" years later.  Give it a listen and maybe you'll hear why I thought it was Pink Floyd.

Anyway, these songs play while our wrestling hero is exercising, trying to lose weight - now, I don't understand much about wrestling, at least not this non-WWE kind, but it seems like Louden's doing pretty well in his weight class, but he feels like it's not enough of a challenge.  So he goes on this "Vision Quest" (the tie-in with Native American culture feels really forced, but at least it produces a cool title for the film...) to drop two weight classes, so he can take on the toughest wrestler at another high-school.  Hey, it's good to have goals, maybe he's just looking for a way to prove himself.

But the story just wouldn't work if he were trying to gain weight.  Because then we wouldn't have the cool training montages, we'd just have Journey songs playing while a guy's sitting in a diner, stuffing his face, am I right?  Meanwhile, he and his father take in this drifter woman, and spending time with her naturally causes an attraction to form, even if she's a couple years older.  Oh, if only there were some form of exercise which she could help him with, that would help him burn some calories!  

And the girl's very important to the plot, also, because without her we might wonder if Louden, umm, plays for the other team.  Remember, it's 1985 and we're still not fully comfortable with that sort of thing.  Just because a guy engages in a sport where there's a lot of physical contact with other men, and his wrestling partner gives him rides home on the back of his motorcycle, and a guy in a hotel room grabbed his junk that one time, that doesn't make him gay, OK?  God, why do you always have to label people like that?  

In addition to being the first movie role for Madonna, it was the first role for Linda Fiorentino, who's not one of my favorite actresses.  Why?  Because she shows NO emotion at all, she delivers every line of dialogue in a flat, dull tone.  Consider that Madonna, in her 30-second appearance as a nightclub singer, displays ten times the emotion that Ms. Fiorentino shows in the entire film.  I'm just sayin'.  I mean, a lot of the dialogue here is extremely simplistic, and it sure isn't helped by flat readings from some of the actors.

Also starring Matthew Modine (last seen in "Jobs"), Linda Fiorentino (last seen in "Unforgettable"), Michael Schoeffling (last seen in "Sixteen Candles"), Ronny Cox (last seen in "Murder at 1600"), Harold Sylvester, Charles Hallahan (last seen in "The Thing"), Daphne Zuniga (last seen in "The Fly II"), Roberts Blossom (last seen in "The Great Gatsby"), J. C. Quinn, Frank Jasper, with cameos from James Gammon (last seen in "Wyatt Earp"), Madonna (last seen in "Evita").  

RATING: 4 out of 10 nosebleeds