Thursday, December 23, 2010

Permission to Pledge

Recently Massachusetts, in it's infinite thoughtfulness and wisdom, decided that kids in their schools would need to have permission slips signed by their parents in order to say the pledge of allegiance.

I think this is patently ridiculous, so I put the article on facebook.

Here are three responses from three very left of center folks, one a long ago friend who seems like a nice enough guy, the second an occasional poker player in my home game and the last guy someone I knew once in 6th grade.

Response 1:

"So what? We didn't say a pledge of allegiance. It's a stupid idea anyway. Being compelled to recite a text by rote like a drone which has the gall to mention "Liberty" is a joke."

Response 2:

"Why is this even a bad thing? I vividly remember being uncomfortable as an elementary school kid saying the pledge, because I didn't know exactly how I felt about God (still don't, really) and the way the pledge is worded felt like an ominous blood oath. If you're not feeling it, the recitation feels heavy. All the while, it does nothing to enhance the quality of education, reeks of faux-Patriotism/unnecessary religious overtones, and is a relic of days when we used to search under the bed for Communists among us."

Response 3:

"It's part of the state-worship programming juggernaut. I think they should cut-out the middle: "I pledge allegiance to... liberty and justice for all." At least we don't make kids salute anymore since the nazis copied us... (and then he posted a link to an article about the writer of the pledge. I knew about this guy, and he's pretty interesting.)

The first responder is reasonable, though misguided, as is the second, but the third one is pretty much in his own little world. He believes the United States should be dissolved and that anarchy is the way to go. Seriously, that's actually what he believes.

Whatever. I don't know these guys very well, but I felt compelled to respond.

Shortly after, I deleted my response, as deep down I do know them well enough to know that they are both too far gone to ever get why saying the pledge is important. When the hammer of truth comes down, things can get very nasty and very personal very quickly; so I'd much rather avoid that with these men that are in the end, fellow travelers just trying to get by.

But I was impressed enough with my own response to re-print it here.


Did it ever dawn on either of you that the main reason most Americans want to say the pledge of allegiance, and raise their kids to do so as well, is because we don't have to?

A permission slip to say the pledge, is very misguided.

If anything it will only serve to ostracize the kids whose parents are so full of decadent self loathing and so absent of faith and hope as to tell them that the pledge of allegiance is wrong or wrong headed.

And Frank, I know I sound like a broken record, but you can stop with the state-worship dogma shtick. I get what you are saying, but you couldn't be more off base on this.

We are free in this country, not because we worship the state - but because we answer to a higher power and a natural law that dictates that all men are CREATED equal. It is not men or government we pledge to, but to providence and the promise of liberty. The God given right to pursue happiness and be free. America is far and away the closest thing we have to making this fundamental truth a reality.

By the way, I really enjoyed the Bellamy article, though I've read most of the same on Wikipedia before - and I find it deliciously ironic that the pledge's less than ideal origins transformed into something that speaks plainly and earnestly to the love of freedom. Very much opposite of what Bellamy was trying to achieve if this article is to be entirely taken at it's word.

We are also certainly free to say no to liberty, to push for a totalitarian state or an anarchist's fantasy - but those who do, do so only because they are allowed to by the greatest country on God's green earth and the men and women who fight and die for them against the forces of evil across the globe.

They fight because they believe in faith and freedom. Not a dictator (Chavez, Castro) or a government (China) or because of fear (Iran, North Korea).

As an American exceptionalist, I was thrilled when my 5 year old came back 2 weeks into kindergarten with the pledge memorized - not because I want her to fall in line like a good little drone, but because I know she will grow to understand the meaning behind the words, and what makes them so powerful.

It's easy to be dismissive and guilt ridden about America when you grow up in it and reap the benefits. I have traveled to 29 countries and been knee deep in some of the worst poverty on the planet - my eyes have been opened to not only how good we have it (health, wealth and stuff) but how we are truly touched by God to be a beacon of hope to the downtrodden and oppressed.

Friday, December 10, 2010

A Tale of Two Charlies

Recently my little girl, 6 years old and as smart and sweet as they come, watched the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie at her YMCA after school care. I know this because she was singing the Oompa-Loompa song from her car seat when I picked her up that day.

I could tell that the movie had fascinated her, as we talked and laughed about the great scenes and songs.

As with most of the great movies of my childhood, I had hoped to introduce my kid to the book first - I have "The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe", "A Wrinkle in Time", "The Mouse and the Motorcycle" and more than a few others, lined up for her on the shelf, to read to her in the very near future.

The book "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" sits there as well, it is one of my absolute all time favorites. Roald Dahl was a genius, and his children's books are a whole other level of greatness beyond most children's literature. The stories are dark, a bit twisted and yet thoroughly infused with a surprisingly righteous morality that sucker punches kids under the tasty guise of the macabre and surreal.

So I had missed my chance with Charlie, but I was delighted that my little Natalie embraced the film. If I remember correct, she watched it again that night at home on DVD (or it might have been the next Saturday morning).

I myself, love the movie. Gene Wilder is beyond brilliant. The film has heart, vividly drawn characters and a surprisingly good story structure that pays off handsomely in the final act. It also benefits tremendously from the warm glow of nostalgia that I attach to it - I was ten or so when I saw it for the first time, and I loved catching it on television thereafter (in those pre-VHS days) and even got to see it on the big screen at the UC Theater in Berkeley more than once.

And yet...

As with most movie adaptions, the film really does suffer in comparison to the brilliance of the book. The movie has it's dark moments. The book is dark, period. Sinister even. Willy Wonka is a bit of a scamp in the movie, in the book he starts out that way but the reader quickly realizes that Willy is out for blood.

The book also conveys, in a way that most movies simply can't, a thoroughly realized world. A hyper-reality that exists on it's own, not a pale imitation of our own world.

The movie is also dated. Most prominently it suffers from pacing problems, as well as a couple of very unfortunate choices that almost derail the movie before it has a chance to start. The "Candy Man" musical number comes off as creepy, forced and under produced. "Cheer Up Charlie" is simply a dreadful and morose song, sung by a fairly untalented actress/singer who, like Charlie in the movie, looks like she just came straight from the commissary.

Most obvious of all, and this has no real bearing on the ultimate worth of the movie - is the production value in general. Pre-factory everything looks great, the city of Prague is certainly unique enough - but once inside you can really see the seams and lack of resources that the film makers had to deal with. Granted, there is a lot of talent and creativity at play, and because you care about the characters you can forgive a lot - but really, it is pretty cheesy and ultimately doesn't even approach what I had in my imagination when I read the book. In simpler terms, the production design is dated and inadequate at bringing Dahl's world to life.

So when I heard Tim Burton was remaking the movie, I was anxious to see it.

At the risk of comparing apples to oranges, I have to go out on a limb and say that I vastly prefer the new movie to the old one.

I know I'm in the minority on this one.

But frame for frame, the new movie gets everything right about what makes the book so great. You enter the world, you believe it. It's not just the production value, which is about a million times more impressive than the previous film, but you really feel wrapped up in what Roald Dahl brought to bear in the book.

Charlie is skinny. He looks malnourished.

Everyone is odd. Off. Grandpa Joe is both scary, creepy, silly and endearing. He's not a double chinned Broadway crooner.

The town does not exist in our world. Charlie's house looks like it should have fallen over years ago, and yet it remains at a 45 degree angle.

When characters talk about something interesting - as when Willy gives us the Oompa-Loompa's origin story - we go there. He doesn't just talk about it. We see Oompa-Loompa land! This is what the book is like. Think it. Go there.

To me, this movie gets it - gets what Dahl was trying to share with us in a way the old movie doesn't even approach.

It's a world of wonder, of the bizarre, and there are also sinister things at play if you don't stay on the straight and narrow.

These new rotten kids are 100 times more intriguing than the original gang (with the possible exception of Veruca, who is so brilliantly drawn up in the book that it would have been impossible even then for casting agents and writers to screw it up).

Augustus is truly abhorrent and fascinating in a car wreck sort of way.

Violet is a revelation, as is her amazingly disturbing mother - characterized a bit different from the book, but incredibly compelling and hard to turn away from.

Veruca is note perfect, and I'd say just as good as the girl in the first movie (I'll concede that the first time around her writing was better). Best of all is her dad who absolutely brings it, in a nuanced performance that perfectly conveys the helplessness of a powerful man in the grips of a demon child of his own making.

Finally, the most sinister of all, Mike TeeVee, who this time is truly given justice as the worst of the worst. Mike in my mind is one of the most brilliantly ahead of his time characters ever put down on paper in a book. He is heartless cynicism personified. He is jaded, he is bored. He is everything that is wrong with the last 3 generations of kids. He is a future serial killer because he has lost his ability to empathize or even sympathize with anyone.

When we see the rotten kids at the end of the movie - probably the most singular important scene in the story (and inexplicably omitted from the first movie) - Mike TeeVee is the only kid who is physically deformed beyond repair and will have to live the rest of his life as a freak in society. This is no accident by Dahl, there is a message here. Consequence for a cruel little boy.

And then there is Willy Wonka.

In the new movie, let's just say they go off on a tangent. Or two or three.

We get far, far, far more information on who Willy is. Is it necessary? Probably not. Does it work? Absolutely. It brings a real emotional resonance to this strange little man - who is played as even more of a freak than he is in the book. He is creepy, he is reclusive, he is deranged and damaged. And yet, in the end, he is redeemed. This movie, even more-so than the misnamed original film that was actually called "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" really is about Willy. His journey, his path to Charlie, and the recovery of his humanity through a child.

And Charlie himself, is fully realized in this film - you really get that he is impoverished and humbled by his circumstance. Deep down, like another certain bespectacled wizard of recent lore, he is heroic and one step from greatness - simply because he is genuine and thoroughly infused with love for his family and even for his mere existence. "And you, why you're just happy to be here." Willy perfectly observes of Charlie at their first meeting. In this scene, and in many others, there is a lot more going on beneath the surface. It's what I loved about the book, and it's what I love about this movie.

Deep themes, brought to vivid life by the genius of Tim Burton.

It's something that most of Burton's critics miss. He is truly a master of the silent movie. For him Dialogue is merely a secondary tool and bringing characters and stories to life - it is the flair of the visual and of the performance (a subtle look, an inner turmoil) that elevates Burtons work to a primal place unmatched by most other film makers. His movies tap into the deep and dark places of our subconscious. Critics, self-aware and jaded, don't get it. Audiences do. Witness his recent "Alice in Wonderland" a positively outstanding and ravishing work of art that also happened to make a billion (with a "B") dollars on it's first theatrical run.

Burton was the perfect choice to bring Dahl's masterpiece to life and I think he did so brilliantly.

Detractors of the new movie point out that R. Dahl himself wrote the screenplay of the first movie. I like to point out, that he actually wrote the first draft and was disgusted at the final product, even trying to have his name removed at one point. Furthermore, his granddaughter I believe, was a consultant on the new film and has been quoted endlessly how her grandpa assuredly would have looked more favorably upon this newest incarnation of his work.

A perfect example of this is the Oompa-Loompa songs. Which film would you guess has the original Dahl lyrics? If you guessed the first one, you guessed wrong.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of these book "purists" who thinks a film has to slavishly adhere to it's source. The first two Harry Potter movies are fairly dreadful because of this impulse. A movie has to be a good movie, first and foremost - faithful to the book second. But in this case, so much of what was great about the book was left out of the first movie. I'm just so happy and relieved to see that this new product recaptured so much of what was great on the printed page.

In any event, as I've said, I still think there is real merit in both movies. I'd even concede that the first movie probably works better on a simpler story telling and heart strings level. It is more mainstream and more effective at delivering Dahl's message of hope tempered by consequence which is universal to all children and children at heart.

I popped in the new movie the other night for Natalie to watch. She dug it, though she was a little scared at first. Once I assured her that this movie was the exact same story, and even less scary in parts (no chicken getting it's head chopped off) she happily settled in.

I really tried to not tip my hand that I like the new movie more, I just told her that I liked them both. So does she. But I think she might be leaning more towards the new one, because she's asked to see it again more than once.