A searing documentary: Ken Burns’ “The VietNam War”

By Caitlin Kelly

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Maybe you know little about the VietNam war — you were too young then, or it didn’t affect you or maybe you didn’t care to learn about it.

This week, a 10-part series on the war has been airing on PBS in the U.S.; you can buy DVDs of the series or download episodes of it on ITunes.

It is unforgettable, moving, appalling, the result of nearly 100 interviews.

Each episode is 90 minutes to two hours long, and features a mixture of interviews with veterans of the war, both South and North Vietnamese and American, including an American doctor who was a prisoner of war, an anti-war protestor, the sister of a soldier killed early on in the conflict, journalists and others.

It is searing, disturbing, deeply sad; I see friends’ reactions on Facebook, left sobbing.

It’s a must-see for anyone who wants to (better) understand a war that lasted just under 20 years, from 1955 to 1975.

From Wikipedia:

Estimates of the number of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed vary from 966,000[30] to 3.8 million.[52] Some 240,000–300,000 Cambodians,[53][54][55] 20,000–62,000 Laotians,[52] and 58,220 U.S. service members also died in the conflict, and a further 1,626 remain missing in action.[A 2]

As someone who was born and raised in Canada, I had little conscious awareness of the war, which ended in my final year of high school. We knew about it, certainly, as Canadian media is forever saturated by all news from the United States, our largest trading partner.

It was a time, as today now feels again, when the country was deeply divided, between those who thought the war still worth fighting — and those staging enormous protests nationwide.

 

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It’s deeply depressing to hear — on audio of the time — the endless lies fed to Americans by their leaders year after year, their broken promises that produced more domestic rage and frustration and more and more dead bodies.

One surprising effect, which I and others felt personally, was draft-dodgers, some of whom were professors in our university, exotic Americans — some 30,000 Americans fled to Canada to escape the draft and (!) 30,000 Canadians apparently volunteered to serve in the war.

One of the best-known songs of the era — written by fellow Canadian Neil Young — commemorates the unimaginable, the shooting deaths of four students at Kent State University in Ohio, shot by National Guardsmen while protesting the war:

“What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?”

The interviews in the film are raw and intimate, shot in tight close-up, as men and women now in their 50s, 60s or beyond recall the most terrifying moments of their lives. There are color images of them, young and strong, wearing camo, a stark contrast to the silk bow-ties and elegant jackets they wear as they recall the war for us.

The noisy, shocking film footage of battles and bombings and napalm, of ambushes and gruesome injuries and rows of dead bodies — both American and Vietnamese — makes looking away both tempting and cowardly.

There is, in Episode Nine, an astounding speech by John Kerry — then returned from the Mekong Delta wearing fatigues (who would later become U.S. Secretary of State.) That same episode includes an interview with photographer Nick Ut, whose image of a young girl who had just been napalmed, Phan Thi Kim Phuc (now living near my hometown, Toronto), remains one of the war’s iconic photos.

One of those famous images shown in the film sits on our living room wall — a signed gift from the late photographer, Bernie Boston, on assignment for the Washington Star.

 

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And we have a friend, a former colleague of my husband, a  “boat person” who fled VietNam after the war as a little boy, and who now works as an art director at The New York Times. He once told us his story, and it was difficult to reconcile the highly successful man we know today with the terrified refugee he was then.

Read the link and you’ll see an echo with the millions of refugees today fleeing in overcrowded boats from Syria and Africa. Plus ça change…

My father, a film-maker, also worked on a television series about the war, The 10,000 Day War,  — it was the first time I knew the name of General William Westmoreland, a key player whom he interviewed.

I Googled that film —– and found that the nearest copy of it to my home is (!) at West Point, the military academy just north of where I live on the Hudson River.

How apt.

 

Do you know much about this war?

 

Do you know anyone who served in the U.S.military in Vietnam?

 

A gorgeous new doc: The Eagle Huntress

By Caitlin Kelly

Imagine being 13  — and wanting to do something that only men have ever done.

Imagine having to climb a terrifyingly steep cliff to capture an eaglet from its nest.

Imagine living in a landscape of such beauty it defies description.

A new documentary, The Eagle Huntress, must be one of the most beautiful films you’ll ever see, filmed in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia and focused on Aisholpan, a young girl — who daubs her nails with purple polish, who lugs cans of fresh milk from her family’s cows, who lives five nights a week in a dormitory at her school.

Her grandfather and father have long been champion golden eagle-hunters, a sport that requires each hunter to find, capture and train a young eagle to hunt on command. An annual competition, complete with scorecards and stopwatch-wielding judges, determines who gets bragging rights as the best. The event draws men of all ages, and she is the only female.

Imagine the pressure!

Aisholpan is a joy to watch, everything you’d expect of a 13-year-old — and much more. She’s calm, determined, easy-going and brave.

No Ipads or cellphones for her; technology for these ger-dwelling nomads consists of a transistor radio and a portable solar panel.

Her quest to find, train and work with her eagle makes a terrific story, and an unlikely but likeable young heroine, with many obstacles along the way. While the film’s main focus is on the annual competition, it also shows her and her father trudging for miles in bitter cold and through snow so deep their rugged horses struggle to move, determined to have her eagle hunt, capture and kill a fox.

The cinematography is astounding, using everything from a GoPro to drones.

I’ve been wanting to visit Mongolia for years, ever since I did some film research on it. Now I’m even more curious.

Here’s a transcript of an NPR interview with the film’s director, Oxford educated Otto Bell.

Great new film: Certain Women

By Caitlin Kelly

The skies will get you.

Shot in Montana, every frame looks like a painting, with gray clouds and snowy mountains and open fields.

This new film, starring Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart and lesser-known Amy Gladstone, is slow, sad, powerful.

The director, a woman, Kelly Reichardt — who also wrote the screenplay from stories by Maile Meloy — made another film I enjoyed, Wendy and Lucy, which also starred Michelle Williams, about a young woman alone on the road.

The budget was $2 million, pocket change for any Hollywood blockbuster.

I liked so many things about this film:

— Michelle Williams, a movie star whose presence is always quiet and contemplative

— Amy Gladstone is perfectly cast as a lonely, shy ranch hand

— The Montana landscapes and sense of place and distance made me want to hop a plane there immediately

— This entire film focuses on three women and their complex lives. They’re not skinny/gorgeous/wearing expensive clothing. They’re facing a difficult client (one is a small-town lawyer), a difficult husband, a difficult life, a job that’s not what one had hoped for.

It’s how so many of us feel so often in life, swimming against a ferocious current in the only stream we’ve got.

— The actresses look like real women. Stewart’s hair is a mess, her eyes deeply shadowed with exhaustion. Gladstone’s open, hopeful face signals so much of what we feel when we’re so weary of being alone and can’t bear it any longer and there’s no one to love. Dern looks worn out.

Who among us hasn’t looked or felt like this?

— I love the moment when the rancher slides open the barn door every morning, her routine unvaried, her horses and dog her only companions, ever reliant on her skill and attention. You feel both the security of that routine, and its burden.

— There’s no tidy resolution to each of these women’s lives. We dip into their worlds for a while, live in it with them and feel compassion for their challenges, but we leave them behind again in the knowledge they’ll likely be just as challenged the next day. What a concept: real life!

It easily passes the Bechdel test — i.e. it’s focused on women and their ideas and relationships.

Here’s the review from The Guardian.

Here’s a recent profile of Reichardt from The New York Times Magazine.

I admit it: I still like The Breakfast Club

By Caitlin Kelly

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THE BREAKFAST CLUB, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, 1985. ©Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

This can be a real vote-splitter or relationship dealbreaker.

It’s basically a movie about five white kids in suburban Chicago, detained for bad behavior for a full day in their high school library.

Who cares, right?

Made in 1985, it opens and closes with a great tune by Simple Minds, Don’t You (Forget About Me) and was shot in a set in the gym of a high school closed in 1981.

But it’s really about what it feels like to be a teenager — misunderstood or ignored or bullied by your peers and/or teachers. To feel at odds with your parents, whose lofty expectations of success and prowess — you know, living up to your potential — can feel like an elephant sitting on your chest.

The movie was shot within three months for a reputed $1 million, since earning more than $97 million in box-office receipts. I can’t imagine how many residual checks its actors are still receiving, decades later.

It’s also about something that really never changes, no matter where you live or when you grew up — how you can spend four years in high school and walk past the same people for days, weeks and months assuming you have nothing in common, nothing to say to them or vice versa.

The five students are each a “type” — the criminal, the princess, the brain, the recluse and the jock.

I identify most with the brain, the nerdy kid who geeks out over physics and Latin club. Not that I was so smart, but I definitely didn’t fit the other categories.

I arrived at my Toronto high school halfway through Grade 10, a terrible time to arrive — halfway through the second year?! Even worse, I’d chosen a school in a neighborhood so insular that everyone there had been attending the same schools since their first grade. The lines were well-drawn, the cliques established.

I hadn’t even been in a public school, or in a classroom with boys, since Grade Seven. I had pimples and wore the wrong clothes and was far too confident, (having attended single sex schools and camps where I won every award available.)

I was nicknamed Doglin, barked at in the hallways, a dog bone laid on my desk. It was brutal. I cried every day after school and would crawl into bed with all my clothes on when I got home.

My torturers were all male, a gang of three or four, one a redhead with freckles whose 50s-ish nickname (and this long past the 1950s) was Moose.

I made a few dear friends, which kept me sane, and I made the team, two years in a row, for a high school television quiz show and our team did really well.

It finally got better in my senior year when — yay!!!!! — I even got chosen as prom queen, and will regret forever I have no photo of my gorgeous butter yellow chiffon gown, complete with matching scarf. I’m not sure I ever felt so pretty. Even then, a very long time ago, it cost $125, a bloody fortune.

By the time I graduated, I’d had a really cool boyfriend, sold three photos to a magazine for its cover and another to our school library. I’d rounded up my pals to create a school newspaper that fellow students were glad to have once more.

I still don’t know what turned it all around, but am so glad it had a happy ending.

Then, at our 20th. reunion, I re-met one of my closest friends and we re-ignited our friendship, which has continued on for decades more. We’ve visited their lake-side home in Ontario many times, in every season, and our husbands love spending time together.

Neither of us ever had children.

But our friendship is a joy and a pleasure I thought we’d lost.

How was high school for you?

 

And your favorite films are…?

By Caitlin Kelly

Watch a great movie!
Watch a great movie!

They used to be so long there was an intermission — with a word on-screen saying “Intermission.” One even had an overture, Dr. Zhivago, as if the audience were seated at the opera or a classical concert.

Today we watch movies in the palm of our hands.

My father made documentary films for a living and one feature film, King of the Grizzlies, for Disney. (How do you control a grizzly bear? Jelly donuts and electrical wire lining the path you want him to walk.) So I had been on-set as a little girl and when we went to the movies we usually walked in half-way through. It was years before I saw a film as it was meant to be seen.

You know, from the opening credits.

I also grew up with very little access to television, between boarding school rules and life.

So if I wanted — and who doesn’t? — to disappear visually into another world for a while, movies were it.

The two films then that left the most powerful impression on me were two I still happily re-watch, Dr. Zhivago and 2001.

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Dr. Zhivago, all 3 hours and 20 minutes of it, was directed by the late great British director David Lean (who also directed the classics Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai) and featured Omar Sharif, Geraldine Chaplin (grand-daughter of the great comic Charlie Chaplin), Rod Steiger, Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie.

It’s the eighth-highest grossing film, nominated for 10 Oscars (and won five.)

There isn’t a thing I dislike about this film. I love its specific color palette — grey, black, white, red, lavender and bright yellow. I love the extraordinary panoramas of landscape (Alberta, Finland and Spain subbing for Russia), the music, the underlying love stories.

Despite one online critic calling it “cinematic comfort food” I still think it’s worth a look if you’ve never seen it.

Stanley Kubrick is better known for his films like The Shining, (which I still haven’t seen!), but 2001 is, for me, a 50 year old film that still offers fresh ideas and stunning visuals. One major difference from later films is its pacing — there are long scenes literally silent or without dialogue — the film’s first and last 20 minutes, for example.

I wonder how many of today’s viewers could tolerate that.

Inside the spaceship -- filmed in a British studio
Inside the spaceship — filmed in a British studio

The film posits the existence of a black monolith that reappears after millennia, its role unknown, and focuses on a space mission to Jupiter controlled by the spacecraft’s computer, Hal 9000. I won’t explain the whole thing (the Wikipedia entry is super-detailed) but I never tire of it, especially the final scenes, filled with dazzling color and a trip to the edge of infinity. (It was made in the late 1960s — very much of its times.)

I’m in awe of the many talents and skills it takes to create a film, from the book or musical (or original screenplay) to the Foley artist, (the geniuses who find and create sound effects), to make-up, hair, lighting and cinematography.

While directors (still overwhelmingly male) and actors get 99% of all our attention (except for cinephiles and Oscar night), making a film is truly a team effort.

My dream movie job? Location scout!

A brief and selected list of my favorites below, which somehow includes no films from the 1930s, ’50s or ’90s.

Some other films I love:

The Devil Wears Prada

So fun! Younger viewers may think the main character is a total bitch. She is, but with a purpose. Older viewers might find her younger assistant a bit whiny, and she is, but she smartens up. I love the snappy dialogue, the astonishing clothes and accessories, the journalistic ambition that underpins the whole thing. Besides, any movie with Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci gets my vote! 2006

Notorious

I mean the 1946 version, starring Cary Grant and Ingmar Bergman, who travels to Brazil to infiltrate a gang of Nazis. That’s enough for me.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Paul Newman and Robert Redford, pure eye candy, play these real-life 19th century bank robbers, and Katharine Ross (better known for her role in The Graduate) plays their sidekick. Gorgeous scenes of galloping across Western landscapes, humor and drama and a final scene that gets me every time, partly because I recognize where it was filmed, with the distinctive twin volcanoes that mark it as Mexico. I was living in Cuernavaca then, where it was partly filmed, so there’s some serious nostalgia in it for me. 1969

Three Days of the Condor

Robert Redford again. Nuff said! OK, it’s about a guy working for the CIA who comes back to work to find all his colleagues have been killed — and has to figure out how and why. 1975

Jason Bourne
Jason Bourne

The Bourne films (Identity, Ultimatum, Supremacy)

Crazy, right?

I love how these films create a world where a solo actor, played by Matt Damon, races across the world fleeing execution by the agency that created him as a murderous monster. These films have it all: fantastic scenery (Thailand, Tangier, Berlin), lots of action and insanely complicated chase and fight scenes, and a love story. Not to mention their pure escapism — Damon never does anything vaguely normal and boring, like laundry or grocery shopping or sitting in a cubicle. Nope, it’s one desperate dash to a plane/boat/train/ferry after another.

Casablanca

If you’ve never seen this one, rent it this very instant! Starring Ingmar Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, it’s a love story complete with Nazis, Paris, trench coats, that song (“Play it, Sam”) and flashes of delicious humor and pathos. 1942

Aguirre, Wrath of God

If you’ve never seen any films by the great German director Werner Herzog, make time to explore a bit of his oeuvre. This 1972 film stars the wild man Klaus Kinski as Aguirre, in one of his five (shouting, screaming, exhausting) collaborations with Herzog. Filmed entirely on the Amazon in Peru, it’s a lush, crazed story of a 16th century conquistador. The final scene is unforgettable.

The Motorcycle Diaries

Based on the true story of Che Guevara’s ride around South America with his best friend, a once-wealthy medical student, it shows his transformation and political awakening. Starring Gabriel Garcia Bernal, this 2004 film is moving, beautiful to watch and a powerful insight into a legendary figure in history.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller

This Western film, made in 1971 by American director Robert Altman, was shot in Vancouver and Squamish, B.C., starring Julie Christie and Warren Beatty.  Although it sounds seedy and weird — a pimp sets up shop in a 1902 town — it’s well worth seeing for the plot, characters, cinematography. The final scene…The soundtrack features another Canadian, Leonard Cohen. In 2010, McCabe & Mrs. Miller was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.

Spotlight

As a career journalist, I love films that explain what we do and why it still matters a great deal. This fantastic 2014 film — partially shot in my hometown, Toronto — details the true story of the Boston Globe’s investigative team, Spotlight, into Catholic priests’ sexual abuses. Starring Mark Ruffalo, Jon Slattery (of Mad Men) and Toronto actress Rachel McAdams, this is a must-see. I blogged about it as well; here’s the post.

Blade Runner

One of those films whose every visual reference — like 2001 — informs many later works that are better-known. Based on a Philip K. Dick story, this futuristic dystopian love story features Harrison Ford, (long before his breakout roles in Star Wars and Indiana Jones) as a “blade runner”, a retired cop charged with running down wayward replicants. Directed by Ridley Scott, (later famous for his Alien films), it’s a cult classic, with all the Scott-isms we’ve come to know and love — sudden terror, lots of bright lights and dripping water, dark crevices filled with menace. 1982

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Rocky Horror Picture Show

Oh, yes!

“It’s just a jump to the left…” This 1975 piece of insanity stars Susan Sarandon as Janet, lost on a dark road with her fiance Brad. Arriving at a castle filled with (at the time wildly transgressive idea) transsexuals and transvestites, they quickly lose all control. It’s a musical with classics like Time Warp. Tim Curry, in corset, plays Frank N. Furter, with sidekicks like Magenta, Riff Raff and Columbia. You either hate it or love it.

Bridesmaids

Too funny. 2011

The Heat

Even funnier, pairing Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock. A 2013 buddy cop movie, it should be stupid but is funny as hell and occasionally even moving. 2013

Which films do you love most and why?

 

 

The boundaries of journalism

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom
The New York Times newsroom

I recently watched two terrific films — one a feature, one a documentary — that raise interesting questions about when, how, why and where we, (I’ve been a journalist for 30 years) decide we see a story and decide we want to tell it.

Must tell it.

The feature, based on real life, is called True Story, and is quite extraordinary. I remember, even 13 years ago when it happened, the downfall of a then Golden Boy of journalism, Mike Finkel.

It’s a very rare journalist who gets to write a story, let alone multiple pieces all-expense paid to travel to some distant country to do original reporting, for The New York Times Magazine. It’s considered a real pinnacle for ambitious writers — and one I have yet to scale, even as I enviously read friends’ work being published there.

What Finkel did, combining several characters to make one more compelling, is completely taboo in news journalism, which is mean to rely wholly on verifiable, truthful fact.

But the pressures to stay well-paid and widely admired and respected by editors with the power to make or break our careers? Relentless. It’s only worse now in an age of social media, as my friend Karen Ho knows — her recent Toronto Life story about a murder-for-hire has won huge attention and kudos from the toughest editors in the business.

Yet she’s still working, for the moment, for a small and remote news outlet.

Ambition is crucial for a successful journalism career. But so are rigorous fact-checking and tight ethical boundaries — as the editors of Rolling Stone have also learned after the fiasco of a story about rape at the University of Virginia that rapidly fell apart and has resulted in firings and lawsuits.

In “True Story”, which features a chilling performance by James Franco as Christian Longo, who murdered his entire family, the mutual manipulation is quite amazing to see. (Another fine film examining this issue is Capote, starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as author Truman Capote.)

One of the many issues I found so compelling about TS is how it lays bare the ravening ego of a writer who’s fallen from grace — and how desperate he was to redeem himself professionally. Like throwing meat to the lions, he calls every editor he knows, all of whom now worry that he’ll just lie to them as well.

It’s also a painfully truthful film for anyone who’s still lusting to reach the higher rungs of the ladder of writing success — which is almost everyone!

You’ve just won a Pulitzer? Your best friend has a Neiman. You won a Neiman? Your college room-mate won a MacArthur “genius” grant or your former intern won a high six-figure advance/Hollywood contract/three-book deal/NYT best-seller list.

It’s a world of insecurity, self-doubt and perpetual status anxiety.

Yet — without credibility — even the most talented and hardworking journalist has nothing.

The documentary, The Wolfpack, is an astounding film, about six brothers — wearing dark sunglasses, waist-length glossy black hair and some very sharp suits — who grew up sequestered in one of the world’s largest cities, Manhattan. The Angulo brothers (they also have a sister) were essentially held hostage by their father, the only person with keys to the door of their huge apartment in a public housing project on the Lower East Side.

The pathology of his marriage to their mother, a gentle, soft-spoken Midwestern woman, is equally mysterious. Only one moment, and it’s brief, hints at even darker issues.

Darker than keeping your seven children locked up for decades?

As one of them tells film-maker Crystal Moselle, they’d leave their home maybe nine times a year — or one year, not at all.

The men are funny, engaging, stylish and blessed with extraordinary imaginations and empathy. It’s hard to even imagine their life before Moselle discovered them, and their story, on a city sidewalk.

From a recent review:

The Wolfpack is mesmerizing but not because it has stunning cinematography or dazzling effects: the footage is grainy, resembling home movies. Moselle’s camera is surprisingly non-judgemental, especially considering that the film’s subject matter screams “child abuse” and “domestic violence.”

Nevertheless, I couldn’t look away, and each cut felt like a cliffhanger, leaving me with questions that I had faith the filmmaker would answer (or at the very least, acknowledge). However, the documentary leaves many questions unanswered, and I couldn’t help but wonder why this family would volunteer to put their life on display considering the legal and moral questions the film was bound to raise.

In a press release, Moselle claims that she never felt the need to intervene, and that she sincerely believed that the children were well cared for. Perhaps the idea that all is well in the Angulo household is more clear to her than to the average viewer — she did spend years with the family — but a little on-camera reassurance (perhaps by a lawyer) would’ve made me feel slightly less uneasy.

It’s the boundary between voyeurism and value, between finding and telling an astonishing story and feeling squeamish knowing — as we do — that “astonishing” often means “bizarre” or “terrifying”.

One of my first national magazine stories
One of my first national magazine stories

Those of you working in journalism may have already heard this:

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
Janet Malcolm

I sometimes wonder how much of that is true.

But what if you hate the characters — a la “Gone Girl”?

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Ben Affleck as Nick in the 2014 film, Gone Girl
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne in the 2014 film, Gone Girl

Have any of you seen the new film “Gone Girl”?

Or read that best-selling book by Gillian Flynn?

Some readers loathed “Gone Girl” once they realize what appalling people Nick and Amy really are. We discussed it in our small book club and I was the only person to have any feeling for these two, and only really because both are such deeply damaged people.

But I came home from the film, which is 2.5 hours, worn out from how terrifyingly toxic Amy became on screen, played by Rosamund Pike, a British actress who usually plays gorgeous, flirty ingenues (as in “An Education.”) Not here!

Have you watched the Emmy-nominated Netflix series “House of Cards”? It stars Robin Wright, as a tall, lean, stiletto-strutting, icy, power-mad NGO director, Claire Underwood. She lives in a red brick townhouse in D.C. with her husband, Francis, whose own ambitions are jaw-dropping, and which — over the first two seasons — ultimately prove successful.

I watched House of Cards again recently, after binge-watching it in one bleary-eyed weekend a few months ago. It’s a real struggle to find even one character you’d choose to spend five minutes with, let alone marry, have an affair with, promote or manage. I can think of only two, really: Adam Galloway, a talented New York-based photographer and Freddy, whose hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint is Frank’s secret escape hatch. Both are used whenever helpful to Claire and Frank, and their essential humanity and warmth offer a needed counterpoint to their nastiness.

house-of-cards

So, what’s the appeal? Some people like to hate-watch, eagerly awaiting the downfall, literally, of that scheming, ruthless young reporter, Zoe Barnes, or the drunk young congressman, Pete Russo, or the naive NGO director Claire hires, then soon screws over.

I can’t think of many books I’ve read where I’ve been able to sympathize with or remain compelled by a difficult, nasty, ruthless character — and there are plenty out there!

Oddly, perhaps, one of my husband’s favorite books, and mine, is non-fiction, “My War Gone By, I Miss it So,” by British journalist Anthony Loyd, who spends much of his time in that narrative addicted to heroin — but the rest of it covering war, and doing so brilliantly.

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I also loved, (and these are very dark books!), the Patrick Melrose novels, whose characters are almost all truly horrible. They’re written by Edward St. Aubyn, also British, and offer some of the most powerful and best writing I’ve read in ages. He, too, was addicted to heroin, and one book in the series — impossibly grim — details his life in those years.

Can you read or watch — or enjoy — fictional or non-fictional characters who disgust and repel you?

Should the media transmit gory/grisly images? (None here!)

By Caitlin Kelly

On Twitter, I found this powerful blog post, by an Australian blogger. She has a tough copyright demand, so you’ll have to visit her site.

Her argument? Seeing bloody and graphic images can be deeply upsetting to many viewers.

I agree.

Something soothing and lovely instead!
Something soothing and lovely instead!

But it’s a difficult balance for journalists and editors.

After Malaysia Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, I tweeted my outrage constantly — at major news outlets like Reuters and The Economist. I loathed the details and images they used that I found prurient and titillating.

I was shouting at the moon, as no one with authority would likely read them and certainly not re-think their editorial decisions.

As someone who has been working in the media for 30 years, I have a mixture of feelings about this.

On one hand, I think people need to understand what a crazy/violent world we live in and address that. If we censor the worst atrocities, how can we raise true awareness and spur action to resolve them?

On the other…many of these images are gratuitous, prurient and deeply disturbing.

I argued with some random woman on Twitter about the wisdom of showing pictures of luggage and toys that fell from the sky with MH 17.

They “humanize” the victims, she said.

Bullshit, I said. We know perfectly well they were human!

And yet…without truthful images of what war and famine and terrorism inflicts, do we know the full story?

I also fear, very seriously, for the journalists and editors, (my husband is a career New York Times photographer and photo editor and many of our friends work in the industry), who process these images.

Those who spend a lot of time in and around physical and emotional violence can end up with a very real form of PTSD called secondary trauma.

I suffered it, briefly, after writing my first book, Blown Away: American Women and Guns, which steeped me for two years in stories of death, injury, suicide, fear and violence by and against women. I spoke to 104 men, women and teens, some of whom described tremendous horror, one of whom sent me a photo of the man she had shot, lying in her front yard.

I had nightmares, and off-loaded some of that mental darkness onto two professionals.

Today — a full decade after its publication — I have a very limited appetite for images of death, horror or gore. I don’t watch vampire or zombie shows and there an entire genres of film and books and videos I just won’t face.

Reality was quite enough, thanks!

The week of MH 17, we attended a small dinner party, with seven career journalists at the table. We all had decades of experience, had worked globally, had few illusions left about our world. We talked about this and could not come to any agreement about how much is too much.

We also agreed that it has had an effect (how could it not?) on our own souls and psyches. Some people become callous. cold, bitter and cynical. Some lose all perspective because such violence is “normal.” Others (rarely), leave the business or leave that sort of work — as Kelly McEevers, NPR’s Mideast correspondent did — burned out from too much of it.

Her husband, writer Nathan Deuel, wrote a book about what it was like to watch her go off and report, leaving him and their infant daughter to do so.

She did an hour-long radio documentary about her decision to leave; it’s here:

I have a lot of friends in this field who can push back. I wish I were one of them. Rather than argue with Anna, I crumbled. At that point in 2012 I was sleeping just a few hours a night. I had unexplained migraines. I was a bear to live with. So instead of yelling at her, I just sat down on the sidewalk and cried.

By the time you see media images, you — civilians, non-media folk — are only seeing the least-offensive/frightening/disgusting of it most of the time, no matter how rough.

We’ve sifted out the worst.

We’ve seen and heard the stuff of indelible and unforgettable nightmares.

What images should we show you — the public — and which do we withhold?

When and why?

What do you think?

 

 

Why “I hated it” doesn’t count as cultural criticism

By Caitlin Kelly

Early this week, a Broadside reader — thank you!! — generously gave me a ticket to see Elena’s Aria, a work from 1984 by Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker at the Lincoln Center Festival, an annual event.

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The auditorium was packed and I saw many dancers sitting around me, some leaning forward in their seats. The piece was an hour and 45 minutes in length, with no intermission and if you left, you would not be re-admitted.

Commit or else!

I didn’t hate it, but it was a challenging piece in a number of ways:

— It was really long

— It was very repetitive

— Much of it was performed in silence

— Much of it seemed to focus more on movement than pure dance

— It included black and white vintage film footage of buildings being dynamited to shards

I was very curious to read the New York Times’ review:

Made in 1984, it was her first dance to use spoken text and film. The program note describes it as a result of self-questioning, a search for a way forward. And on Sunday at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, when it was performed in New York for the first time since 1987, that’s what it looked like: the work of a young artist who has hit an aesthetic wall and hasn’t yet discovered how to get past it…the overall impression of the work is less of emotional implosion than of expanding boredom. At the end, the women, seated in chairs, cross their legs and run their hands through their hair as part of a Mozart piano sonata plays…As drama, the dance cuts off empathy, but as these women fidget, you know exactly how they feel.

I’m glad I saw it, even if I didn’t love it. I was around the same as the choreographer in 1984 and, like her, had had some terrific early professional success. I remembered what that felt like.

I remember 1984.

I’ve only walked out of one play, as its themes were simply too painful for me personally. And I walked out of the terrifying film The Exorcist as I couldn’t take it.

Generally, I stick around. (Not a boring or poorly-done book. That takes up too much time!)

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One reason is that I know what it takes to create a work of art or literature or dance or theater — usually years of training and rehearsal and guts and time and money and ideas and financial backing. Even if the result is atrocious, and it can be, it’s also the result, in many cases, of tremendous effort.

I don’t need to love everything I read, hear, see or listen to as long as there are some useful or intriguing ideas within it. Nor does it have to be quick or short.

It just has to make me think.

How about you?

How do you respond to art or cultural works that make you uneasy, uncomfortable or bored?

It may be creative, but, hell yes, it’s still work!

By Caitlin Kelly

Time to let go, at last

Did any of you catch this recent interesting piece in The New York Times?

The way we habitually think and talk about these matters betrays a deep and venerable ambivalence. On one hand, art is imagined to exist in a realm of value that lies beyond and beneath mere economic considerations. The old phrase “starving artist” gestures toward an image that is both romantic and pathetic, of a person too pure, and also just too impractical, to make it in the world. When that person ceases to starve, he or she can always be labeled a sellout. You’re not supposed to be in it for the money.

On the other hand, money is now an important measure — maybe the supreme measure — of artistic accomplishment. Box office grosses have long since become part of the everyday language of cinephilia, as moviegoers absorb the conventional wisdom, once confined mainly to accountants and trade papers, about which movies are breaking out, breaking even or falling short. Multimillion-dollar sales of paintings by hot new or revered old artists are front-page news. To be a mainstream rapper is to have sold a lot of recordings on which you boast about how much money you have made selling your recordings…

This is something I think about a lot.

My father, still alive at 85, was a respected maker of films and network television, as was my stepmother. My mother worked as a journalist.

It never occurred to me that “artist” and “starving” belonged in the same sentence. Nor should they!

This notion that being creative means penury or 1%-land is absurd. We don’t expect or require this of others — the middling executive, the stalled lawyer, the so-so administrator. The world is filled with people doing their best and never hitting the heights, nor surviving on ramen in a group squat.

More, from the Times’ piece:

Inexpensive goods carry hidden costs, and those costs are frequently borne by exploited, underpaid workers. This is true of our clothes and our food, and it is no less true of those products we turn to for meaning, pleasure and diversion. We will no doubt continue to indulge all kinds of romantic conceits about artists: myths about the singularity of genius or the equal distribution of talent; clichés about flaky, privileged weirdos; inspiring tales of dreamers who persevered. But we also need to remember, with all the political consequences that this understanding entails, that they are just doing their jobs.

I’ve been writing for a living — sometimes for a nice wage, sometimes for a much-less-amusing one — since I left university. But I’ve never cracked that sexy glass ceiling of the six-figure income.

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Talent and hard work, prizes and fellowships — got ’em. There are few direct correlations between the standard metrics and creative success, let alone buckets ‘o cash. Your ability to schmooze, to accept and perform work you find creatively grotesque, to suck up abusive client behaviors — these, too, factor considerably into who will (quickest) ascend the greasy pole of fame and fortune.

The creative life is one that many mythologize or fantasize about: waking up at noon to daub a canvas or noodle about with your screenplay. How lovely, how freeing to flee the grim confines of cube-world and the predations of The Man.

Snort!

Every time I put on a pair of shoes, or eat a meal, I touch the direct reflection of talent and hard work — it produced the income that keeps me housed, fed, clothed and will fund my retirement.

Making art — of any kind — in no way excuses the artist from the costly necessities of life, no matter how cool or offbeat our lives and work may appear to others choosing a different vocational path.

One of my favorite books is The Creative Habit, by American choreographer Twyla Tharp, who has made her career by — as she eloquently puts it — walking into an empty studio and making a dance.

In the end, there is no ideal condition for creativity. What works for one person is useless for another. The only criterion is this: Make it easy on yourself. Find a working environment where the prospect of wrestling with your muse doesn’t scare you, doesn’t shut you down. It should make you want to be there, and once you find it, stick with it. To get the creative habit, you need a working environment that’s habit-forming. All preferred working states, no matter how eccentric, have one thing in common: When you enter into them, they compel you to get started.”
Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life

Creative work absolutely is work, even if/when it doesn’t earn enough to buy you a house or a shiny new car — or any car, ever — or the plaudits of The Right People.

And holding fast to principle — creating something you imagine to be of lasting cultural worth, not merely sating contemporary appetites or shoveling cash at your expenses — remains a difficult challenge for many artists faced with the same costs of heat, fuel, clothing, food and housing as the rest of the workforce.

Jose and I recently saw this terrific 1987 play, The Substance of Fire, about a New York City family-run publishing house and its internal battle over this issue.

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Here’s a post I wrote about this in 2011, which was chosen for Freshly Pressed.

I ask whether we should focus on being productive (look what I made!) or creative (which might be publicly inaudible and invisible for months or years, producing no income):

I’m not persuaded one can be both all the time.

We all need time to think, reflect, ponder, meander, take some detours, some of which — being immediately unproductive — lead into dead ends, some of which lead us off into totally new and hugely profitable (financially or creatively) directions.

Shutting down the production line for a while — silence! solitude! no immediate income! I’m wasting time! — can feel terrifying.

It’s absolutely necessary.

Do you work full-time in a creative field?

How’s it going?

How do you measure your success?

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