22 June 2009

get on your bike & ride

An acquaintance recently posted a link, with comments, to facebook, about mag-lev transit. I'm pretty excited by the possibilities of maglev, and mass transit becoming easier, quicker, more extensive and less environmentally hazardous. Maglev evidently is taking off around the world (obviously, in places that are NOT the US), and I feel mildly hopeful. [I also feel a little wistfully pleased - the PeopleMover and monorails at Disneyland were meant to be prototypes for this kind of mass transit...and i guess maybe they are, just 40 years ahead of the rest of us].

Maglev is not the issue here, however.

The acquaintance follows up her maglev ideas with her ideal vision: "Bicycles the rage."

I have nothing against bicycles. In fact, I quite like them. The problem is: I can't ride a bike.
I know HOW, of course. I learned as a little kid, like most american middle-class children, and I have the scars on my knees to prove it. The problem is that both of my knees, but especially my left one, are seriously battered. The orthopaedist I saw two years ago told me I had the knees of a 70-year-old woman. At age 27. I have arthritis, and tendonitis, and no lining in my left knee; the kneecaps don't track properly, either. The motions of going upstairs and riding a bike are probably the most painful things I can do.

Thus: I cannot ride a bike. It's not the kind of thing where I can just play through the pain; the bikeriding produces daylong (or daySlong) pain and discomfort.

This made me think about disability studies. Another acquaintance maintains a children's lit blog; her specialties are Fat Acceptance and Disability Studies. Recently, she wrote about how the able-bodied world doesn't think about all the myriad challenges and obstacles the disabled face on a daily basis. The trend toward bike-riding is one of these.

I don't look particularly gimpy, although I am clearly out of shape. But many times, people have asked me why don't I ride a bike? I am totally committed to clean energy and similar causes, and so I end up around people who think likewise. Many of them ride their bikes every blessed place they can, and some places they can't. I always feel uncomfortable, trying to explain about my knees; I feel like I am offering some kind of weak excuse. I am not visibly prohibited from biking, and the lack of visible incapacitation makes others assume total health and physical well-being.

I am not the only person on this earth for whom biking is simply not feasible. How can we rethink green transportation to include and account for those of us who would like to, but are unable to bike? What are the options, besides diesel buses and gas-powered cars? Maglev is a possibility, but there has to be something that could be as obtainable as a bike [ie, not a Segway, which solves this problem on one level, but is quite costly - several thousands of dollars, it seems, unlike bikes, which can be purchased for $100 or less], and function as a bike, but still be usable by those of us who can't physically command a bicycle.

This post, about maglev and bikes, reminded me quite sharply of the able-bodied prejudice we have in this culture. It's a worthwhile reminder, troubling though it is; we/I need these kinds of issues held up in front of our faces routinely, until we develop the ability to see them on our own.

21 June 2009

Saving Private Ryan, once more into the breach

I've watched this crummy movie three times now this week. THREE TIMES, in about five days. I suspect I have developed an unhealthy obsession, but why not? My brain needs a break from...er...what I usually think about (whatever that is).

Tonight's screening - after I purchased the dvd, for crying out loud, used and cheap, but still paid for with my own money - tonight's screening gave me a rather sharp turn at the end. I watched some of the "special features" at the beginning, old Mr Spielberg being self-important, Stephen Ambrose being likewise self-important. Tom Hanks being NOT self-important [side note: what's WITH him? why is Tom Hanks so...unpretentious, even after all these years?]

We get the usual dribble about Honoring Our Veterans; "this movie is for them," we are told. Salute, salute, cue the fluttering american flag. The old platitude about Everyday Men, The Common Man, stepping up and paying the ultimate sacrifice so We Can Be Free. TWICE, the old (yet true) chestnut, "Freedom is not free" is trotted out.

JC, my historian acquaintance of old, has offered some illumination on some of this re-visioning of WWII. I need more historian acquaintances, I suspect, as well as some film scholars, before I can get my brain around this movie.

I watch the movie, with subtitles on for most of it. That opening sequence on D-Day still works like a doozy. I keep flashing back to The Thin Red Line (also a War Is Hell WWII movie, but one I've seen a couple of times, once for a grad film class). Why anyone on this earth would get on one of those damn amphibious landing crafts is beyond me.

Spielberg seems to want us to read his movie as part homage, part memoriam, part reminder, part lesson. We are supposed, I think, to come away from the movie thinking: Gosh, war is awful! The ultimate sacrifice was paid [passive voice required] so I could enjoy the freedoms I have today! We should learn so we never repeat this kind of terrible thing.

Which sounds great, except clearly no one took away that last message from the film (witness American politics, post 1998; we've got TWO WARS! going on!]

Tonight, it occurs to me, at the (weak) end of the movie, with stupid Matt Damon in his old-man makeup, weeping unconvincingly at Tom Hanks' character's grace - perhaps Private Ryan is US? Perhaps Pvt Ryan is the "reader in the text," the analog for us, the viewers. Instead of understanding him - and the mission undertaken in the film to "save" him - literally, as a pretty darn FUBAR exercise - why not read him metaphorically? Make that leap across time, and say: instead of Pvt Ryan having to justify his existence, why not make it be you and me and everyone else having to justify our existence? Tom Hanks and Giovanni Ribisi DIED so we could Be Free. But more seriously, thousands of poor kids and jerky dudes and completely inoffensive, benign people, died - evidently willingly - in WWII. And we need to earn it. We need to replace Private Ryan with our own image, and say: "Earn this. Earn it," every damn day of our lives.

except this formula, this reading of the film, suddenly makes me feel perilously close to some kind of christ-like pattern of dying for others' sins.

But then what do we do with that hideous, ratty Judas, dumb weak old Upham? Normally, I am a sucker for the meek among us, but Upham is beyond the pale. I want to shoot him in the face at the end of the movie. or sooner, really. I am unclear why HE isn't the one who gets killed, instead of Giovanni Ribisi (whose character is a medic. and medics, I learn by googling, were not combatants. they had a gun or knife for immediate self-defence, but did not carry weapons for warfare. And intentionally firing on a medic was a violation of the Geneva Conventions. I got interested in this medic business not because of my inexplicable lust for Giovanni Ribisi, but because my own grandfather was, in fact, a medic in the Pacific, on Guam. Google tells me that medics were frequently conscientious objectors. The scenes of Wade (Ribisi's character) walking with his hands folded together, unarmed, while everyone else has guns out at the ready, are kind of striking once you notice them).

And the Jesus-analogy doesn't work anyway, because - well, I refuse UTTERLY to read Tom Hanks as a christ figure, ever. And war is NOT an act of God.

But the result is the same. They died so we can live. Earn it.

I feel EVEN MORE confused about this movie than I did yesterday.

Saving Private Ryan

[Originally written: 16 June 2009)]
Now: I've seen Saving Private Ryan before, I think maybe even in the theatre when it was a new film (1998). And in my memory, it was a good movie, brutal and horrifying, but still ultimately consolatory.

Now, after 7 years of graduate study, I have a very different response (though I still have a wild, fierce crush on Giovanni Ribisi in the movie - I swooned for him then, I swoon for him now).

First things first: Saving Pvt Ryan is a very, very well-made movie. Great acting, good casting. Intriguing characters (Jackson, the god-made, Scripture-quoting "instrument of warfare" sniper may be my favorite character). A reasonable premise - the 8-man squad sent out into german-infested, snarled France in search of Pvt Ryan, the youngest of four brothers, the other three of whom have been killed in action within a week of each other. Mission: Get Pvt Ryan home, alive, to his bereft mother.

Tom Hanks is fantastic, as he always is, and darling Giovanni Ribisi is also good. The whole crew of supporting soldiers are great.
Steven Spielberg knows how to make a movie - he knows how to set a shot and create tension and all that. There are some glorious visual moments in that film, including the horrific, nauseating first 24 minutes of Omaha Beach action, filmed primarily with a handheld, and correspondingly choppy, disorienting, terrifying. It creates, visually, a snippet of a sense of what that nightmare must have been like.

However. For all its good points, this is still a movie about War Is Hell. this is okay, because War IS, in fact, Hell. But at the end, we're left bereft, grieving and puzzled. Tom Hanks has died, holding the bridge...which is rescued by air power just when all hope is lost (the Americans have retreated to their "alamo," 5 of the 8 of our squad are dead, one of the eight has pissed his pants and sobbed in a paralysis of fear that causes one of his mates to be killed, Tom Hanks is on his way out). The deux ex machina of the planes comes a little too late for OUR heroes - Hanks & Co. Private Ryan (the perennially annoying matt damon) is saved, clutching at Hanks as he expires, his last words to Ryan: "Earn this. Earn this."

Six men die to save one man's life.

The movie narrativizes the question of what is one life worth, but I think it fucks up the answer. the final scene, of an old Ryan at the D-Day cemetery, at Hanks' grave, betrays the entire movie. He asks his wife to tell him he's been a good man, that he's led a good life. She says: "You are," puzzled, and walks away.

Surrounded by those endless lines of white, white crosses and markers topped by stars of david, old Pvt Ryan has lived while the rest have died, some FOR AND BECAUSE OF HIM. And the best he can come up with is; "tell me i'm a good man"?
and his wife can't even convincingly tell him that he is?

Edward Burns, looking dapper and dashing as a smartass from Brooklyn (no stereotypes here, no way!), is the wet blanket of the squad. From the get-go, he questions the mission. He asks someone to clarify the math - 8 men, risking their lives, for 1 guy? There's a serious moment when Hanks explains how he views losing men in his command: for every guy who dies, 2 or 3 or 10 or 100 are saved.

But the math for Private Ryan does NOT operate like that. Six men die. One is saved. The weakling translator, the one who pisses himself with fear and huddles on a staircase, draped in ammo (desperately needed by his squadmates) and holding a loaded rifle, while six steps above him one of his mates is fighting, then losing, his life - this translator, Upham, does not redeem himself much. Or really, at all. His paralyzing fear is believable, may be even authentic, but the man is a gross liability, and indirectly causes the death of at least one of his friends. There's nothing in the movie to tell us what we should do with Upham.

so what's the message here? War Is Hell, and no amount of tricksy mathematical rationalizing can conceal that? Except then how do you couple that with the late-90s huzzah for the Greatest Generation, for Spielberg's own interest in the Holocaust (which, ostensibly, this hellish war was ending)? As I watched, I thought: Thank god for the holocaust.
Not that I am glad it happened, at ALL. but because without that massively important moral and ethical underpinning, WWII is just another bloody fuck-up, like WWI. But that moral and ethical underpinning wasn't really the issue at the time, and the extent, the degree, of the Holocaust wasn't widely known. So what in the bloody hell were those poor, poor young men fighting for?

Saving Pvt Ryan wants us to feel like there is something noble we can take away from war and death and horror. But it fails, utterly, to provide this in anything more than a fakey, superficial way. Every act of kindness or mercy comes back to haunt and kill the men who commit them. the math is ultimately minus 6, plus 1 - this is fuzzy math of the worst kind.

And that opening scene, of the amphibious vehicles dropping their ramps on the beach - those poor, poor young men shot flat dead before they even take a step forward. This should teach us something, and the something isn't some vague lesson about Heroism and Bravery. Or even that War Is Hell but Sometimes Brings Out The Best in Us.

what i wonder, after watching this movie, is how anyone who believes in ANY kind of god or higher power, can believe that we are put on this earth to rain sharps of metal into each other's bodies; how can we believe that we are here to butcher and rip and shred and kill each other?

I wrote, in my conference paper, about the Mister Rogers' Neighborhood episodes in 1967-68 that deal with war in the neighborhood of make-believe. And Mr Rogers says, after that war is over, "Isn't Peace wonderful?" and it is. Peace is wonderful. and war is not noble, it is not great, it does not make men out of boys. what it does is make corpses out of boys.