Hierarchies of Hate and Healing? Thoughts on “Wind River” from Charlottesville

The following commentary is a Guest Post by Russ Miller, an expert on literature, film, and other things. Russ grew up in the West and currently lives in Virginia.

I live in Charlottesville.  That used to be something I said with no small measure of satisfaction.  It is a gem of a town, tucked into the folds of the genteel Blue Ridge Mountains and warmed by the rational light of the University of Virginia.  Thomas Jefferson, whose Monticello estate is located on the outskirts of town, presides over Charlottesville like a secular saint, setting a tone of enlightenment and “civic republicanism.”  Rich in culture and community, Charlottesville really is a magical place to call home.  It is sophisticated, but on a human scale.   Most American city governments do not have to trouble with maintaining a page at the municipal website entitled “Awards and Recognition.” The recent list of honors bestowed on Charlottesville is as humbling as it is inspiring:

But things have changed.  The rioting in August that left scores injured and one young woman dead now mean that other feelings and more painful impressions stir when I mention my home town.

The events of August 13, 2017, were triggered in part by the City Council’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a prominent park in the city’s historical old town.  The statue will be sold at auction and the park – formerly “Lee Park” – was rechristened “Emancipation Park.”

In the months after these dramatic Council votes, right-wing racist groups converged on Charlottesville, using the Lee statue (awaiting its fate while litigation proceeded) as a platform to express a grotesque mix of race-hatred, revisionist history, scapegoating, and violence.  Suddenly, the word “Charlottesville” has become a talisman for America’s entrenched racism, political dysfunction, and irresolvable division.  In the days after the riots, AlJazeera offered the mocking lament:  “Charlottesville is America everywhere.”

Taylor Sheridan’s well-reviewed new film Wind River quietly slipped into Charlottesville’s cinemas in the days before the riots.  Like Sheridan’s previous scripts, Wind River seeks to mix edge-of-your-seat action/drama with earnest commentary on America’s most desolate corners and hopeless populations.

In Wind River, Sheridan leaves behind the bankrupt dirt-farmers (Hell or Highwater (2016)) and drug dealers (Sicario (2015)) that populate the borderlands of his desperate, parched, and nearly lifeless Desert Southwest.  His new tragic topography is the bone-cracking cold of the impoverished Wind River Indian Reservation in the snow-swept mountain desert of central Wyoming where the latest in a string of murders of young Native American women sets the film’s plot.

The ensuing investigation brings together the wounded and benumbed game-tracker (Jeremy Renner) and the innocent and unsuspecting FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen).  Sheridan wants them to stand-in for Americans’ posture towards the calamity that is devastating the Native American community generally and Native American women more specifically:  those who know something about it are mostly despairing; the rest of us simply have no idea.  When Olsen’s uninitiated agent arrives at the crime scene poorly navigating the snow-slicked roads and woefully under-dressed for a descending blizzard, Renner’s character ushers her into a new kind of nightmare on his growling snowmobile.

The film deserves its positive buzz.  It is well-paced and features a couple of near-perfect episodes of breathtaking cinematic tension.  Sheridan’s script is full of sermonizing but delivers some unforgettable lines that land like punches.  And Renner makes a fair bid for a Best Actor Oscar.  The muted, agonized, and vulnerable manhood that he and the Native American actor Gil Birmingham express in several scenes is hauntingly effective.  Above all, the film succeeds as a “blistering expose of violence against Native American women.”

It is this last feature that created the gnawing link between Wind River and Charlottesville for me.  I fear that the direction I am about to take is dangerous because it risks pitting the victims of unspeakable, historic crimes in an unwinnable contest for “America’s most abused.”  I am sensitive to this risk.  And I want to say as clearly as possible that I am not in the least interested in stirring up some kind of “race to the bottom of American injustice.”  But, upon seeing the film, I could not suppress the chilling realization that, just a few blocks from Charlottesville’s newly renamed Emancipation Park and the disputed statue of Robert E. Lee, another statue stands amidst the traffic at the busy intersection of Main and Ridge streets.  The bronze “Lewis & Clark and Sacagawea Statue” rises above Lewis & Clark Triangle, just a few yards from the front door of Charlottesville’s federal courthouse.

The statue is now referred to as the “Lewis & Clark and Sacagawea Statue” because modern sensibilities require us to acknowledge that it prominently features the entwined figures of all three of these protagonists from Lewis & Clark’s “journey of the corps of discovery.”  But the Charles Keck sculpture, commissioned by Paul McIntire, was unveiled in 1919 with the title “Their First View of the Pacific.”  It is fair to assume that the sculptor was not celebrating Sacagawea’s triumph.

McIntire also commissioned Charlottesville’s now-infamous Robert E. Lee statue.  But, where Lee serves as a painful symbol for America’s still-unresolved racist past, the Lewis & Clark and Sacagawea Statue unambiguously depicts and embodies the racist logic of the European genocide against the New World’s Native American occupants.  In the statue Sacagawea crouches, almost animal-like, at the feet of the eponymous Anglo-European conquerors.  Wind River’s poignancy derives from the oppression, and eventual decimation, of Native Americans that flowed inexorably from the westward impulse ignited in America’s breast by Lewis and Clark.  That oppression is anticipated and endorsed – in hardened bronze – in Charlottesville’s “other” statue.

There have been some critical murmurs aimed at the Lewis & Clark Statue over the years.  One result of the criticism was the erection, in 2009, of a small plague at the statue’s base that seeks to contextualize Sacajawea’s role in the Lewis & Clark expedition by acknowledging her “courage and bravery” and her service as “an ambassador, bridging relations among nations.”  This, the plague tells us, “earned her recognition in the chronicles of American History.”

But in the intense, still simmering debates over our civic statuary, the Charlottesville City Council did not seriously consider acting against this explicitly racist monument.  Why is that?

Among all the other confounding complexities that will bedevil our long-overdue reckoning with our dark past, the movie and the statue suggest that we also have to grapple with hierarchies of hate and healing in America.  Despite the current, strong appetite for victories of decency over symbols, some wounds will have to wait, even while some others have contemplated the connection between Native Americans and recent protests.

Glenn Kenny, reviewing Wind River for the NY Times, concluded that the “film’s ultimate statement” involves “an expanded awareness that the justice done by the good guys in this film is not nearly sufficient with respect to the larger injustice done to Native Americans.”  Add that to Charlottesville’s sins, too.

Photos courtesy of Russ Miller. Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The Unsatisfying Ending of Scorsese’s “Silence” That Is Still Perfect

    Martin Scorsese’s movie Silence (2016) received some of the most mixed reviews of the director’s career.  Adam Graham of The Detroit News called it “a slog,” while Calvin Williams of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch called it Scorsese’s “most impassioned” film.  In the middle were reviews like the one from The New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane, calling the movie “strained.”

    The ratings on Rotten Tomatoes shows even more of a divide between critics and regular viewers.  While the movie has a respectable 84% rating from critics, the audience member rating is much lower at 69%.  One of the reasons for the divide may be that audience members were disappointed by the ending.  [Warning: This post contains spoilers about the ending of Silence.]

    I initially felt disappointment at the ending, but the movie stayed with me much longer than most recent movies.  Many decent films like this summer’s Spider Man: Homecoming (2017) provide enjoyment during your viewing.  And then you immediately stop thinking about the movie once it ends.  But Silence lingered in my consciousness.

    The Story

    Silence is based upon 1966 novel Silence by Shūsaku Endō.  Although the book is a novel, it is based on real-life persecution by Christians in Japan in the Seventeenth Century.  The story is loosely inspired by the lives of Cristóvão Ferreira (1580-1650) and Italian Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Chiara (1610-1685).

    For decades, Martin Scorsese wanted to bring the book to the screen, finally achieving that goal in a film he wrote with Jay Cocks.  The movie stars Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano and Ciarán Hinds.

    In the film, two Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Garfield) and Father Garrupe (Driver) leave Portugal in the 1640s to go to Japan to seek their teacher Father Ferreira (Neeson).  Amidst word of persecution of Christians in Japan, they have heard that Father Ferreira has apostasized, i.e., forsaken his faith.

    Thus begins their journey, which ultimately ends up focusing more on Father Rodrigues.  With him, we see horrible acts done by the Japanese to get Christians to reject their faith by trampling (stepping upon) religious images.

    The film is enthralling, for its illustration of some of the horrors of torture, both physical and mental.  While much of the focus remains on Rodrigues, we are surprised by the intelligence of the Japanese characters trying to do what they think necessary to protect their country.  Thus, even while the film focuses on a personal journey of faith, the movie also raises questions about colonialism, with the white priests going to a foreign country to impose their beliefs.

    Without spoiling more of the movie than necessary for this discussion, the movie raises questions about faith.  Does one maintain their faith if they believe they must surrender that faith to preserve the teachings of that faith?

    Ultimately, we see some who have given up that faith to save other lives.  There is no flicker of hope, except for a final scene of one of the characters, years in the future, dying and being cremated.  At his cremation, hidden from the view of everyone, his hands hold a small cross that his wife put there (Scorsese added this scene, which was not in the book).

    Why the Ending is Unsatisfying to Many of Us

    We are not used to seeing movies featuring a main character who is so utterly defeated.  The American Biblical scholar Walter Wink wrote about how movies and TV shows follow a traditional trajectory to teach us to embrace violence. Generally, we see the “hero” beaten repeatedly to the point where we root for the hero to rise and use violence against the enemy.  When the hero does, we feel satisfaction in the Myth of Redemptive Violence. (For more on Wink’s argument, see our posts on redemptive violence in Westerns.)

    Having been conditioned by movies about retribution, a viewer watching Silence and the horrors it portrays expects that one of the characters will fine a way to defeat his tormentors.  We expect a heroic act to solve the dilemma.  Instead, we only see a failed heroic act by another character.

    So, we wait for something.  Even after the main character has apostasized, we wait for some resolution, at least an escape from a life without one’s core beliefs.  But it does not come.  We only get a flicker of rebellion after death, and that flicker is far from satisfying.

    Why the Ending is Perfect

    Yet, it is that unsatisfying ending that is perfect.  Had the story ended with a happy victory, we might forget the underlying questions the film asks.

    Like the characters in the film, we are asked to struggle with the definition of faith in an unwinnable situation.  Is it better to be a martyr (or to make others become martyrs in your place) or to surrender?  It is like Star Trek‘s Kobayashi Maru no-win situation training exercise, but without a loophole for James T. Kirk to find.

    Others have written more eloquently about the questions asked by the movie and novel.  For example, Amy Welborn in The Catholic World Report notes that the story “is not only [about] the struggle to come to an understanding of faith and ourselves, but what happens after that. How do we live?”

    The movie’s spiritual advisor Reverend James Martin has explained, “This isn’t the fake spirituality of ‘If you believe in God, everything turns out great.’ This movie says you can believe in God but bad things might still happen. And then it asks, what do you do with that faith?”

    So ultimately, it is in the unsatisfactory ending that the movie gives us the gift of questions to ponder.  If one of the main characters were a super hero who saved everyone and themselves, the movie would spend less time in our consciousness than the popcorn stays in our stomach.  So, we continue to ponder the questions Scorsese wants us to consider.  Why was God silent? What would I have done?  How do you make such choices?

     

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The Wizard of Oz Opens: August 25, 1939

    One of the most beloved movies of all time, The Wizard of Oz, opened in theaters on August 25, 1939.  Looking back, the film was not as big of a hit as you might expect.  The movie, which cost $2.8 million to make, at first made only around $3 million at the box office.

    The movie’s popularity started to soar after its initial television broadcast in November 1956 when around 45 million people tuned in to watch it.  Subsequently, from 1959 until 1991, TV showed the movie once a year.

    So, of course many of us of a certain age know the movie from television and annual viewings.  I still remember when we bought our first color television set.  My most lasting memory of that TV is when we watched The Wizard of Oz, a movie we’d already seen numerous times in black and white.  But the first year when we watched it on our color TV, we were shocked when the movie changed from black and white in the Kansas scenes to glorious Technicolor in the Oz scenes.

    Back in 1939, The Wizard of Oz was already on its way to becoming a classic.  The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, losing to another classic, Gone With the Wind.  Still, the movie with the munchkins won the Best Song Oscar for “Over the Rainbow.”  And Judy Garland won a special award at the Oscars for Best Juvenile Performer.

    Yet, back in 1939, viewers could not have foreseen how pervasive the movie would become in our lives, or the different ways we would be able to view it.  Other generations first saw The Wizard of Oz on videotape, on DVD, on Blu-ray, and streaming on the Internet.  The film has stood the test of time even as the technology has repeatedly changed.

    The movie works on a number of levels too.  On the one hand, it is a delightful musical fantasy for children.  But adults enjoy it too, both for nostalgia about their youths and to think about underlying meanings behind the story.

    Symbolism in The Wizard of Oz

    Of the many theories about the meaning of The Wizard of Oz, the most well-known is that L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a symbolic political story about the fall of the Populist Movement in the United States.  Under this reading, Dorothy represents the common folk, the Scarecrow represents the farmers, the Tin Man represents the industrial worker, and the Cowardly Lion represents politician William Jennings Bryan.  The Yellow Brick Road symbolizes the gold standard and the green of Oz represents the dollar.

    There are competing theories too.  These include theories about religious or atheist allegories.

    Additionally, author Salman Rushdie has surmised that the story is really about the inadequacies of adults.  In this delightful audio from a 2008 BBC Radio 4 program, Rushdie discusses the movie. Historian David Powell and The New Yorker theater critic John Lahr (the son of Burt Lahr who played the Cowardly Lion) join him.

    No matter theory you subscribe too, there is one certainty about The Wizard of Oz.  We will continue to watch the movie no matter how movie-viewing technology changes in the future.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Trailer for Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water”

    Director Guillermo del Toro’s amazing visual style is on display in the trailer for his upcoming film, The Shape of Water.  The film, set during the Cold War in 1963, tells the story of a woman working at a government facility.  She discovers an intelligent sea creature that is being held for experiments.  From the trailer, it looks like a magical and suspenseful story.

    Sally Hawkins stars in the movie, which was written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor.  Other actors in the film include Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Lauren Lee Smith, and Michael Stuhlbarg. Doug Jones, who played Abe Sapien in the Hellboy films, plays the creature in The Shape of Water.

    If you have enjoyed del Toro’s work in films like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and Hellboy (2004), you will not want to miss The Shape of Water.  Check out the trailer.

    The Shape of Water hits theaters on December 8, 2017.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Death in Movies That Remind Us to Enjoy Life

    A past post discussed cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker and his Pulitzer-prize winning book, Denial of Death.  Here, we consider two movie scenes connected to themes from that book.

    As discussed previously, Becker’s book addresses how human beings are unique animals.  Our intelligence allows us to realize we are going to one day die.

    That knowledge of infinite death is overwhelming, so human beings adapt various ways of suppressing the knowledge.  We buy material things, we follow sports teams, and we join clubs.  Also, we attach ourselves to groups, cultural items, strong political leaders, and things that appear to give us a subconscious feeling of immortality.

    Becker argued that some of the ways we suppress our subconscious fears of death are unhealthy.  He reasoned that a better way to live is with conscious understanding of our situation.  In Denial of Death, he wrote that whatever humans do “has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation, of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything.”

    Some songs illustrate an aspect of this point:  if you consciously realize your days are numbered, you may better evaluate and spend your time on what is important in your life.  Two movie scenes illustrate a similar point.

    In Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams plays a teacher at an all-boys school.  In this scene, he attempts to get the students to confront their own mortality, hoping that if they realize their time is precious, they will better use the time they have.

    Woody Allen has often discussed how Becker’s work has influenced his movies. In Annie Hall, there is a scene in a book store where Alvy (Woody Allen) gives Becker’s Denial of Death to Annie (Diane Keaton).

    But another Allen movie sums up an aspect of Becker’s book in song. In this scene from Woody Allen’s musical, Everyone Says I Love You, the guest of honor at a funeral reminds the attendees of the fleeting nature of life.


    So go enjoy yourself. Carpe diem. It’s later than you think.

    What is your favorite movie about death? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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