Sister Novena's PortaPulpit
freedom, liberalism, movies, and truth

Friday, March 19, 2004
Unhappy Anniversary

And so, we enter the second year of the second war in Iraq.

Coalition fatalities: 677*

US armed forces fatalities: 576*

US armed forces combat casualties: 3300*

Total US armed forces casualties: 9000+**

Estimated number of Iraqi civilian fatalities: 10,000***

Iraqi civilian fatalities adjusted to US population: 100,000

Number of terrorist attacks equivalent to those at the World Trade Center and Pentagon required to create 100,000 fatalities: 29

Average number of Coalition deaths per day: 1.85

Average number of Iraqi deaths per day: 27.4

Cost of Iraq war so far: $107 billion and counting****

Weapons of Mass Destruction found: 0

Bush lied US into War.
We can honor those, who've been sacrificed,
If we swear, upon our lives,
Never again, war made from lies.
Never again, war made from lies.

uncredited

*source
**source
***source 1, source 2
****source
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Think this ever happened to Erasmus?

I weep for mankind.

Couple arrested after 'Passion' fight

Statesboro, Georgia (AP) -- A couple who got into a dispute over a theological point after watching "The Passion of the Christ" were arrested after the argument turned violent.

The two left the movie theater debating whether God the Father in the Holy Trinity was human or symbolic, and the argument heated up when they got home, Melissa Davidson said.

(...)

According to a police report, Melissa Davidson suffered injuries on her arm and face, while her husband had a scissors stab wound on his hand and his shirt was ripped off. He also allegedly punched a hole in a wall.

"Really, it was kind of a pitiful thing, to go to a movie like that and fight about it. I think they missed the point," said Gene McDaniel, chief sheriff's deputy.
source

See, I don't think they missed the point. I mean, they missed the point of Jesus, sure, but then so did Mel Gibson...

Seriously, if you produce a religious film that's made up mostly of 100+ minutes of torture and blood and violence and gore, y'know... a few people are gonna get "carried away with the spirit" and start stabbing each other.

I've been waiting for the inevitable rash of Power Rangers-style injuries among children; it never even occured to me to look at the adults.
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Thursday, March 18, 2004
Rant Round-up

My first instinct here is to mention the big blow-up at the Mount Lebanon Hotel in Baghdad yesterday. "Happy anniversary" and all that... find some clever dark irony with which to express my bitterness. But I'm afraid I just haven't been able to muster up any enthusiasm for dark irony today -- regular, unrelated darkness and irony seem to be in plentiful supply at the moment, thus negating any need for me to attempt to produce some more. And frankly, I just don't know what else to say on the subject. Terrorists blew up a hotel, many innocent people were hurt or killed, there was much fire and confusion, and the world moves on.

I spent yesterday evening over at Mat 'n' Heidi's, and we (including, but not limited to, Mat, Morgan, Heidi, Joe, Ken, and myself) sat on the front porch for an hour or two as the evening wound down, attempting to discuss matters of import while tolerating the regular punctuation of FedEx planes passing rather low overhead. We talked about the upcoming election and our hopes and fears for its validity; we talked about conspiracy theories (and not-so-conspiracy theories), the potential for a draft or martial law, the motivation behind Spain's rejection of its pro-Bush government, the likely chances for Bush's other buddies who face an upcoming election, and the imminent demise of "America," by one means or another. (I still favor death by nostalgia, but that's just me.)

It was posited by one that perhaps Bush and al Qaeda have a closer connection than we have been told. A position that, while not my own, was certainly bolstered by the appearance of this:

An unrelated videotape of a man describing himself as al Qaeda's European military spokesman also claimed responsibility for the Madrid bombing, saying it was in retaliation for outgoing Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's domestically-unpopular support for the U.S.-led Iraq war. ...

The statement said it supported President Bush in his reelection campaign, and would prefer him to win in November rather than the Democratic candidate John Kerry, as it was not possible to find a leader "more foolish than you (Bush), who deals with matters by force rather than with wisdom."

In comments addressed to Bush, the group said:

"Kerry will kill our nation while it sleeps because he and the Democrats have the cunning to embellish blasphemy and present it to the Arab and Muslim nation as civilization."

"Because of this we desire you (Bush) to be elected."
source

Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper quoted extensively from the statement, which said the group was planning further attacks, but would not target the US for fear of damaging President George W. Bush's re-election chances.
source

That's right, folks... al Qaeda supports Bush's re-election campaign. Thank you, merciful Allah, for giving us something to throw back in the Republicans' faces when they say that voting for Kerry is the same as voting for bin Laden.

In local news... do y'all remember the Scopes Monkey Trial? Y'know, the one where the first Darren from Bewitched got in trouble for teaching evolution in a rural Tennessee public school in the 20s, and Spencer Tracy managed to kinda-sorta get him off the hook while a few hundred women in gingham dresses waved signs and sang "Old Time Religion?"

Well, the good folks who brought you that infamous case (and rather good film) are at it again:

Tenn. County Wants to Charge Homosexuals

Associated Press

DAYTON, Tenn. - The county that was the site of the Scopes "Monkey Trial" over the teaching of evolution is asking lawmakers to amend state law so the county can charge homosexuals with crimes against nature.

The Rhea County commissioners approved the request 8-0 Tuesday.

Commissioner J.C. Fugate, who introduced the measure, also asked the county attorney to find a way to enact an ordinance banning homosexuals from living in the county.

"We need to keep them out of here," Fugate said.

The vote was denounced by Matt Nevels, president of the Chattanooga chapter of Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

"That is the most farfetched idea put forth by any kind of public official," Nevels said. "I'm outraged."

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Texas' sodomy laws as a violation of adults' privacy.

Rhea County is one of the most conservative counties in Tennessee. It holds an annual festival commemorating the 1925 trial at which John T. Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution. The verdict was thrown out on a technicality. The trial became the subject of the play and movie "Inherit the Wind."

In 2002, a federal judge ruled unconstitutional the teaching of a Bible class in the public schools.
source

I fully expect somebody to suggest forcibly sending gays and lesbians to "re-education camps" any day now.

I mean, seriously... "crimes against nature?" Wanting to criminalize homosexuals for even living near you? Are they fucking shitting us?

What is it with some people that they think they own the copyright to God's Rulebook, and are thus absolute, definitive authorities on what "natural" means? Who are they that they think they can dictate to 10% of the populace where they can and cannot live? Granted, I doubt there are many gays and lesbians lining up to live in Dayton fucking Tennessee -- although I would genuinely relish seeing Rhea County suddenly inundated with butch dykes and leather dudes bearing bridal bouquets -- but there are few other instances I can think of in recent history when one group of people decided that the very presence of another group of people was not merely distasteful to them, but criminal and prosecuteable. And most of those instances quickly devolved to mass murder on one level or another.

Which is to say, I disagree with Rhea County commissioners. Strongly.

A friend and associate of mine told us yesterday that he had been grabbed by the lesbian partner of our benefactor church's pastor (take that, Rhea County commissioners) and was asked to be a witness at a wedding ceremony that was taking place upstairs. The couple being married -- congratulations and best wishes to them -- were notable in that one of them had at some point in her personal history once been a man. A lesbian couple, one of them transsexual, were being married by a lesbian pastor. God bless America. Even better, the ceremony was completely legally binding, and the resulting marriage would be recognized as valid by the City of Memphis and the State of Tennessee because -- here comes the good part -- one of the two brides still had a penis.

The religious right: supporting the right of transsexual lesbians to marry since 1984. (At least that's one thing we can agree on.)


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Tuesday, March 16, 2004

One-Stop Shopping on Iraq Lies

Rep. Henry Waxman of California has done the Democratic party, and indeed all honest-thinking people, a great service. He has compiled a detailed report and a searchable database of the Bush administration's lies on Iraq... never be at a loss for incriminating quotes again.

Iraq On The Record: The Bush Administration's Public Statements on Iraq

For example, a quick search on "Donald Rumsfeld" and "Urgent Threat" yielded five results.

"With each passing day, Saddam Hussein advances his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and could pass them along to terrorists. If he is allowed to do so, the result could be the deaths not of 3,000 people, as on September 11th, but of 30,000, or 300,000 or more innocent people."

Source: Donald H. Rumsfeld Delivers Remarks to American Troops, Defense Department (3/20/2003).

Explanation: This statement was misleading because it suggested that Iraq posed an imminent threat despite the fact that the U.S. intelligence community had deep divisions and divergent points of view regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. As Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet noted in February 2004, "Let me be clear: analysts differed on several important aspects of these programs and those debates were spelled out in the Estimate. They never said there was an 'imminent' threat."


Pretty cool, eh?
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Low Visibility

Each year, I have the opportunity to work at a pretty significant documentary film festival in Arkansas, and in the process to steep myself in documentary films for three full weeks. Last year, my prediction to anyone who would listen was that Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans would easily win the Best Documentary Feature category at the Oscars that year.

That, of course, was a few months before the eventual winner, Errol Morris' The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara was released. In my defense, I will say that while boosting Jarecki's film, I was simultaneously recommending strongly to the festival director that Errol Morris was far and away the juiciest score for the 2004 festival guest of honor. (Hopefully next time I make a statement like that, they'll remember how accurate I was this time.)

I've been a student of Morris' work since around 1994, when I first saw an early film of his, Vernon, Florida, in high school. I frequently hold him up (along with Albert Maysles) as one of the leading lights of the documentary film genre, and have been known to coerce people into watching his films, sometimes repeatedly. I have only now finally gotten to see his latest work, and my first thought upon coming out of the theater was this:

I'm not really sure what any of that actually meant.

There are a few things that I should probably point out. The Vietnam war ended, for Americans at least, on April 30, 1975. I was not born until December of that year. Thus, Vietnam is mostly an academic subject for me... until I was in college, I knew it mostly as the subject of movies and as a chapter in high school history books that we never seemed to reach. I have always found it a confusing episode in history, although given the current state of the world, I am more than open to any parallels that might exist between the Vietnam war and the second Iraq war.

Going into this film, I was hopeful -- expectant, even -- that I would find some insight, some kernel of wisdom that might help me comprehend the dangers of our current war. I'm sure, for those who know the material well enough, that those do exist in the film. I, however, managed to find only vague gestures in the general direction of real insight, shadows of some truth that I can only assume is there, but am not personally equipped to perceive as of yet.

What I did come away with is this: war is bad, difficult to control, and inevitably tragic; those who conduct it rarely take responsibility for the destruction they authorize and execute; and the Bush administration almost certainly lacks even the wisdom possessed by the men who brought us Vietnam. Important conclusions? Sure, I guess... although nothing I didn't already know.

So, so much for that.

As a documentary, the thing that most struck me is that Morris seems to have finally met his match in the interview. Morris is highly respected for his ability to wring small truths and telling admissions from his interview subjects, not through the hack's technique of badgering, but through an almost superhuman ability to use the uncomfortable silence to his own benefit. He conducts his interviews through a complex arrangement of monitors, mirrors, and cameras (dubbed "The Interrotron"), which leaves his subjects isolated in a separate room, faced only with a bank of equipment and Morris' face on a video monitor. This seemingly-dehumanizing barrier, however, also permits (actually forces) his subjects to maintain direct eye contact with the viewer at all times, creating a highly sympathetic, human bond between the perceiver and that which is being perceived. It's almost impossible to view one of Morris' subjects as anything other than a living, thinking, feeling human being, exactly like oneself. And this, in turn, leaves the viewer open to ideas and identifications, and thus to the reality of the world in which the subject lives, in a way that is almost the essence of documentary film.

But unlike Morris' past subjects, McNamara has spent the best part of 60 years having his opinions and motivations probed before the public. He knows what's at stake, he knows what the results of any statement can be, and he's nobody's easy mark: this is a man who knows how to deal with a question, and with an uncomfortable silence. Watching the interview unfold, it seemed to me that Morris, for once, was almost intimidated by his subject's control over the situation, and at the very least was deeply respectful of McNamara as a "worthy opponent" if not as an architect of war.

Morris' being slightly at a loss as to how to handle McNamara is evidenced in the film by the unusual (for Morris) inclusion of his own questions in addition to McNamara's answers. Normally, Morris can extract sufficient narrative from his interviewees to enable him to blend into the background as an interviewer; only a few times in the past have we heard his voice intrude onto the soundtrack. Not so this time: Morris is audible, to varying degrees, throughout the film. Furthermore, for the first time that I can ever remember in an Errol Morris documentary, we hear McNamara plainly refuse to broach certain subjects. The fact that Morris includes these refusals in the film again points to his respect for McNamara as a subject: McNamara has the upper hand here, and Morris isn't too ego-driven to admit it.

I have to wonder exactly why Morris decided to take on McNamara as a subject. He lacks the obsessive weirdness of Morris' typical subjects; he's immune to Morris' particular genius as a documentarian; and the obvious subject matter, while particularly interesting at this point in time, is not an easy fit with Morris' filmmaking style. Vietnam -- especially in the context of the Iraq war -- seems to demand judgement, and Morris has never been a judgemental documentarian. He has opinions, certainly, but he strictly refrains from imposing them onto his films... this is one of his major strengths. He allows his subjects to be the flawed human beings they are, and he allows us to appreciate their humanity, where perhaps we were blind to it before. I have heard many others express dismay at Morris' unwillingness to challenge McNamara; my response has been that this is simply not Morris' interest. He lets his subjects speak for themselves, and allows us to make of that what we will.

But at a time when so many human lives are being lost on a daily basis in an active, ongoing war, is the recognition of an elderly engineer of war's humanity really helpful, or even appropriate? On the one hand, I believe that the recognition and acceptance of human frailty is always appropriate. On the other, my anger at this purveyor of war, and at all those who are doing his work today, perceives no justice in the recognition of the humanity of one who has refused to recognize the humanity of so many others. There may be a time for reconciliation and understanding, but right now, I am too frustrated by an ongoing war to accept that this is the right time for this particular film.

Perhaps that's Morris' shortfalling; perhaps it's mine.

Otherwise, Morris' work is, as always, of a high standard. He never ceases to amaze me with his ability to shoot reel-to-reel tape recorders in visually interesting, even beautiful ways... and I say that with tongue only halfway in cheek. He does some amazing work with vintage film, bringing old images up to date by way of interesting visual effects. The Phillip Glass score was perhaps slightly too similar to his score for "Mr. Death," but basically worked. (It's not as if Glass doesn't always sound pretty much the same, in any case.)

The film's Oscar was certainly well deserved; Errol Morris is such an extraordinarily gifted documentarian that even this misfire ranks among the finest documentary work of the year. But for the first time, I find myself thinking that the very quality that I most admire in Morris' work -- his hesitance to take sides -- has gotten in the way of making a really effective film. Hopefully the passage of time will point out the error in my thinking.
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