The Emotional Frame and the Akedah

The Emotional Frame and the Akedah


Howard Adelman

Today is American Thanksgiving. When President Abraham Lincoln was immersed in writing what would become his famous Gettysburg Address after the American Civil War had dragged on through one of the worst periods in the history of that conflict “of unequaled magnitude and severity,” he issued the proclamation on 3 October 1863 that made the last Thursday in November (contrary to the widely held notion that the holiday is on the third Thursday) a national holiday, a nation-wide day to celebrate and give thanks for the bounty Americans had received and to establish, in the words of the editor Sarah Josepha Hale, “a great Union (my italics) Festival of America.” Americans were asked to remember that extraordinary bounty, a remembrance which “cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.”

Lincoln wanted to remind all his fellow Americans that outside the horrific theatre of the civil war, that conflict had been confined to America and did not turn into an international conflict, that throughout the war, the rule of law had been maintained, the productivity of the country had increased as had the range of human freedom. He attributed that beneficence to the mercy of God. He asked God to extend that mercy, “to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

Six months before that proclamation, in Paris, James Abbott McNeill Whistler exhibited at the Salon des Refusés (the display of art rejected by the Royal Academy but nevertheless held under the sponsorship of Napoleon III) his first famous, indeed, at that time, infamous, “Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl” alongside the even more, perhaps most famous (and scandalous at the time) work by Édouard Manet, “Déjeuner sur l’herbe,” The Luncheon on the Grass. Please view on the internet copies of both paintings, but particularly Whistler’s.

Just as Thanksgiving should be viewed in the context of opposition, opposition between horror and beneficence, contrast between violent conflict and peaceful harmony, so too should both the Whistler and Manet paintings be examined for their tranquil harmony even though Whistler’s red-haired mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, poses on top of a white bear rug with the menacing head of the bear facing us with jaws agape. In the Manet painting as well, one views vibrant oppositions: nude or partially clad women, one in the foreground and one in the back, sitting on the grass or dressing in the background with two fully-dressed men. The great spots of light contrast with both the filtered light in the background and the dark leaves and trees of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.

In both paintings, what stands out most is their stark simplicity. Neither painting has a message. Neither painting is primarily about the subject matter. Though each carefully, indeed brilliantly, simply represents precisely what you see, both have instigated enormous debates about their “meaning.” Though each painting has symbols aplenty, it is the atmosphere, the composition, that is most compelling in each even as the woman in white in Whistler’s painting boldly gazes out directly at the viewer as if confronting the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

That is the way I invite readers to examine the story of the binding of Isaac. Don’t read into it. Read it. Absorb the atmosphere and bracket the powerful, almost overwhelming, interpositions into the text.

As I have written before, the tale begins by referring to the words or narratives that precede it and provide the frame for the story. Those stories were about different sets of emotions. What stands out in the Akedah tale is the seeming absence of emotion. It is a painting of white on white.

Initially, there is a puzzle: “God put Abraham to the test.”  What is that test? In the dominant interpretation, God was either betting, or was behaving as if he were betting, with Satan to demonstrate to everyone, especially his arch enemy, that even if God asked Abraham to make the most extreme sacrifice possible, Abraham would not refrain from doing so. Abraham was God’s loving servant.

But God does not command Abraham to do anything. He requests. He says, “Please.” It is not a test of obedience because no obedience was requested or demanded. Abraham had already said to God when he was called, “Hinaini.” Here I am. I am ready and willing. In what follows, no histrionics take place, never mind extremes of emotion such as fear and trembling. We are shaken up, we shudder as Isaac would soon do, when we suddenly come to a realization that wakes us up to a new reality and a new sense of who we are. There is no shuddering in the entire story. Instead, as God lays out the mission he has set before Abraham, the overwhelming sense we have is of tranquility. An atmosphere of serenity pervades the story and stands in stark contrast to the content.

Do not be distracted by the chatter. What we see before us is simply an apple. It is a fact. God asks Abraham to take his only son whom he loves to Mount Moriah as an offering. The response: no tearing of hair; no guffawing at the sheer absurdity of the request; no challenge to God for seemingly betraying all His promises. You would think that Abraham was simply taking his son on a camping trip. Supplies are organized. Camels are saddled. There is no sense that Abraham is depressed at the request or even saddened by it.

Is what is happening a test of Abraham’s faith in God? Is God’s relationship to Abraham on a parallel with Abimelech, based on a conditional trust and expectations each had of the other? There is no sense that this is a tale about trust and distrust for Abraham. For there are no contingencies introduced which question that trust. For God and Abraham are bound by a covenant. Covenants are not conditional. They are categorical. God’s request is not a categorical order. It is the relationship that is categorical. There is not an iota of distrust suggested in the story even as God’s trust in Abraham is being tested.

Gunther Plaut in his Commentary wrote that the story is about “adherence without faltering, obedience with complete trust.” That is a contradiction. For if Abraham is simply doing what he does to demonstrate absolute obedience, where is there any indication of possible slippage? If Sören Kierkegaard is correct in asserting that Abraham did what he did, “for God’s sake because God required this proof of his faith,” one cannot help noting that if proof was required, where is there any sense of doubt?

We are not reading about a trial. We are not reading about temptation any more than we do when we look at Whistler’s or Manet’s paintings referred to above. For what is apparent in each of those pieces of art is the absolute absence of any eroticism in a situation which on the surface might be read as erotic. What is apparent in the Akedah story is that there is no sign of any slippage in Abraham’s adherence to the covenant. So how can it be a test of trust versus distrust. Just as the scene is totally serene, it also absolutely lacks any display that Abraham is troubled by God’s request.

There is no crying and no raucous laughter. The scene is tranquil. There is no fear and trembling on display nor any anger. There is no sign of distrust or any indication that Abraham’s faith is being tested. Abraham tells his servants to wait for them and “we will go up there and worship and we will return.” This is not a Job story. When Isaac asked, “where is the sheep?” it is just a query about a fact, a necessary fact without which the sacrifice could not be performed.

Nor is there any apprehension. When the ram appears in the thicket, there is no surprise. Suddenly there is action. The two build an altar. Abraham binds his son and the old frail man lays him on the altar, not a child but a grown man. We become incredulous. And then the shock. Abraham raises his knife. There is no real build up to this dramatic moment. God through his angel stops the proceeding. Now there is a command. Do not raise your hand against the boy. God was being tested. Now God knew he did not have to fear that Abraham would withhold his son. The son in that instant became part of the covenant. The ceremony of passing the baton has been completed. There was no need to repeat the circumcision ceremony and even draw a drop of blood.

Thus, there would be progeny. Thus, there would be freedom from fear. There never was an iota of distrust in Abraham. And suddenly, just as the story lacked any real build-up, the narrative shifts. Children are born. Nations are created. And the foundation of it all is now not justice but mercy. Civil wars are fought over different senses of justice. Thanksgiving is held to celebrate God’s mercy and the bounty He provides. What we just read was a simple story of white on white about the absence of raw and basic emotions. People may read it as a story about obedience and demonstrating one’s faith. People may read it as a story about deep and profound emotional turmoil. People may also widely believe that American Thanksgiving is held on the third Thursday of November. But it is on the fourth.

What matters is not what people widely believe, but the story itself and its context. It is a painting of white on white and a celebration of God’s mercy rather than His judgement.


With the help of Alex Zisman


Weaponizing Refugees Part I

Corporealism XIX: Body Politics in the Middle East

Weaponizing Refugees Part I


Howard Adelman

Today’s blog deals with “the weaponization of refugees.” This is an aside, but is relevant to the point I want to make about Canadian defence and foreign policy and the recent radical shift in Canadian policy where Canada has deliberately accepted a challenge to resettle a significant number of Syrian refugees to help play a part in easing the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East.

In that context and in the context of my writings on the Middle East, I received an e-mail from a CBC researcher/journalist asking if I was available to go on the Current, CBC’s morning current affairs show, on Thursday to discuss General Phillip Breedlove’s contention that the West had to develop a coherent policy about the “weaponization of refugees.” Breedlove is NATO’s top commander in Europe. I was not available because of a prior commitment which I could not change. This blog, hopefully, will serve somewhat as a substitute.

The phrase “weaponization of refugees.” has three different meanings. One interpretation of that phrase is about Daesh sending trained fifth columnists hidden among the refugees flooding into Europe (the returnee problem) as well as recruiting from alienated believers in Islam from among the dispirited refugees as well, presumably, from alienated Islamic youth raised in Europe. A second meaning refers to the militarization of refugees in camps which are used for raids on the country from which they fled.  The camps are used for many purposes, including R&R for militants, before launching another attack. Armed refugee camps usually de-stabilize the country in which they are located as well continue violence along the border of the country from which they fled. Sarah Kenyon Lischer produced an excellent report for the Mellon Foundation on militarized refugee populations using the refugees from former Yugoslavia as a case study.

However, there is another meaning – the use of coerced migration itself  to sow discord among other countries aside from the countries of first asylum. Philip Breedlove issued a warning in his oral testimony before the U.S. Armed Services Senate Committee last week (1 March 2016) claiming that Russia and Syria were using the pressure of massive numbers of refugees to disrupt the West, sow discord and division in Europe and weaken the Western alliance. NATO’s 28 member military defence alliance of Western nations. Given his status, Breedlove’s claim must be granted an initial credence. So his claim cannot be easily discounted as that of a crackpot.

The claim was made in his oral presentation and was not part of his written submission. I believe the written contentions are unassailable. In that written submission, he took up the issue of the first meaning of the “weaponization of refugees”, the seeding of terrorists from the refugee population flooding Europe and the recruitment of new members from susceptible youth. Breedlove pointed to three dangers. First, the threat of recruitment. “There is a concern that criminals, terrorists, foreign fighters and other extremist organizations will recruit from the primarily Muslim populations arriving in Europe, potentially increasing the threat of terrorist attacks.” Second, there is the threat from the backlash. “[L]ocal nationalists opposed to a large-scale influx of foreigners could become increasingly violent, building on the small number of attacks against migrant and refugee housing observed to date.”

Third, there are native-born and/or raised Islamicist extremists who volunteered to serve in Syria and have returned with military experience, training and enhanced ideological beliefs. “Foreign terrorist fighters remain a key concern for EUCOM and our foreign partners. Over 25,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Syria to enlist with Islamist terrorist groups, including at least 4,500 Westerners. Terrorist groups such as ISIL and Syria’s al-Nusra Front (ANF) remain committed to recruiting foreigners, especially Westerners, to participate in the ongoing Syrian conflict. The ability of many of these Europe-originated foreign fighters to return to Europe or the U.S. makes them ideal candidates to conduct or inspire future terrorist attacks.”

However, a main thrust of his oral presentation focused on the third meaning of the “weaponization of refugees.” What were his arguments? At its core, it is simple. Russia in alliance with Syria is deliberately forcing Syrians into becoming refugees. The two countries are doing this with only one single purpose in mind – not to get rid of supporters of the opposition to the Syrian regime, not simply to expunge other minorities at odds with the Alawite-dominated regime, but to weaken Europe, to send massive and continuous waves of refugees fleeing westward. In their desperation for security, for safely, for shelter, for food, for medical treatment, refugees will overwhelm European structures and undermine the European resolve to resist Russia’s geopolitical aims in Eastern Europe, specifically the Donetsk region of the Ukraine and Moldova, as well as in the Middle East. Putin has once again made Russia a power broker in the Middle East. The flow of refugees has been a prime weapon of choice, hence, “the weaponization of refugees.”

The barrel bombs raining down on Syrian cities and towns where the opposition gained some strength is not just intended to degrade that opposition, but to produce a massive exodus. That exodus has a much larger political goal. “These indiscriminate weapons used by both Bashar al-Assad, and the non-precision use of weapons by the Russian forces – I can’t find any other reason for them other than to cause refugees to be on the move and make them someone else’s problem.” As if the use of barrel bombs has only been a recent development in Syria.

According to Breedlove, Russia entered the Syrian theatre with enormous resources this past year, in the fifth year of the Syrian War, not just to buck-up the Assad regime, nor just to secure its naval position in the Mediterranean and its base in Tartus, Syria. (Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, however, on 26 June 2013 had once announced that the base was superfluous to Russian needs and no longer served any strategic military role for Russia.) Refugees flooded Turkey, not just to humiliate Turkey, an old adversary, but to suck in Turkey as an instrument of Russian policy to open the gates between Turkey and the EU in both revenge for the EU’s hard stance against Russia over the Ukraine issue, but also as a long term policy to fundamentally break the back of Europe by setting its path towards unity in a number of areas into reverse gear.

Breedlove went even further. “Russia,” he said, “poses a long term existential [my italics] threat to the United States.” Existential threat!!! One listens to Breedlove’s words and cannot help but think of Abraham Lincoln’s oft quoted famous first public speech at the Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, called, “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” I quote at some length, even if only to read such inspiring rhetoric. Lincoln said:

We [the American People] find ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate. We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them–they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. Theirs was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; ’tis ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.

How then shall we perform it?–At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?– Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

America has never been really challenged by an existential threat, a threat to its continued existence as a state, by any external power, even in the surprise attack by the Japanese against Pearl Harbour. The threat, whether in the approaching civil war in the mid-nineteenth century, in the rise of McCarthyism and dealing with the communist threat after WWII, and currently in the fear generated by extremist Islamicist terrorists, has never been existential. America’s greatest threats have always come from within.

Breedlove’s claim, though always presented in the most calm and considerate manner, is so hyperbolic that it is hard to offer a dispassionate and detached consideration of his claim that:

  1. Russia and Assad are deliberately producing a mass outflow of refugees;
  2. The sole and overtly intentional objective is to sow discord in Europe;
  3. Weakening Europe in this way poses an existential threat to the S.

“Russia is eager to exert unquestioned influence over its neighbouring states in its buffer zone… so has used military force to violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, Georgia and others, like Moldova.” True enough. Further, Russia exceeded any indication of the extent of its intervention in Syria when Russia indicated that it was only bringing in a few men and some material. Again, true enough, verifying the first rule of war is deception.

The phrase “weaponization of refugees” or “weaponization of mass migration” did not originate with Breedlove, but with Kelly Greenhill, an Associate Professor at Tufts University and a Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He wrote a book called, Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion and Foreign Policy. It is no accident that “weapons of mass migration” resonates so well with “weapons of mass destruction.” For the former is viewed as a developed twenty-first century exacerbation and inflation of a technique the author dates back to WWII and that has been used almost sixty times in the aftermath of that world war.

Essentially, Greenhill argues that engineered forced migration is a strategic tool used by governments to extract concessions from other governments. Turkey when it opened its gates to allow Syrian refugees to flee westward may not have used forced or coerced migration, but it did use induced migration to extract $3.3 billion in refugee aid from the EU as well as a promise by the EU to develop an organized and coordinated resettlement program for some of those refugees.

But was this instrumentalization of migration the Syrian intent? Was this the Russian intent? And was it used, not primarily for blackmail to help out an ostensible partner with a serious domestic problem of crisis proportions, but as a tool of foreign policy to weaken and even undermine an alliance that is viewed as a threat? Was it a primary goal for either party? And to what extent is it a threat to the EU and, by extension, to North America?

Tomorrow: The Response


With the help of Alex Zisman

American Idolatry

American Idolatry


Howard Adelman

Three days ago, we raced across five states of the United States of America. We traveled from the middle of Nebraska across Iowa and Illinois and traversed the upper reaches of Indiana to get to Michigan from where we left the next morning to get home late afternoon on the day before yesterday. Arriving home and settling back in is a process that included dealing with a pile of mail higher than me, a telephone message box that was full, as well as the unloading and unpacking from seven months away. Home is a great place to be after you have been away so long, but it requires a couple of days to make it feel like home again.

I have been wanting to write about the responses to the Iranian Nuclear Framework Agreement for days, especially as optimism has turned to pessimism among my friends. But perhaps today’s blog can be considered a prolegomena to another revisit to the Iranian agreement next week. For all agreements are about some degree of trust, even though they are built on distrust and suspicion. This blog is basically about whether America, not Iran, can be trusted to keep treaties.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei last week said that, “If the other side avoids its amphibology [ambiguity] in the [nuclear] talks, it’ll be an experience showing it’s possible to negotiate with them on other issues.” This response feeds the hopes of those negotiators who believe generally that engagement if possible is a better approach than either coercive diplomacy or coercion through military action and who see this agreement as merely a first step in negotiating with Iran on its support of terrorism and its attitude towards Israel as well as Iran’s goal of becoming a regional power.

But one does not have to be so hopeful about larger accomplishments to support the framework agreement or so pessimistic about those larger goals to undermine it. In fact, the deal may crash, not because of the spoilers on each side or because the negotiations over the next two months will be so difficult and tough. It may be sufficient that each side has to engage in public relations or spin to undermine those spoilers such that the use of these steps in public relations themselves undermine the deal. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has already warned the Americans that the “fact sheet” issued by the American side would complicate how the deal is received in Iran. What each side needs to make the case for the deal domestically is often at total odds with what each side has to do to make the deal with one another.

For years I have been on the side of those scholars of international negotiations that stress that the most important aspect that threatens peace agreements has to do with those spoilers who oppose them. Peace is often not made by peaceniks but by ostensible warriors who agree to smoke a peace pipe. That is why it is so often the case that peace agreements are often made by the most belligerent ones in domestic politics because they do not have spoilers to contend with domestically. Today, however, I will write about the monument on Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota with the famous sculptures of the faces of four American presidents as iconic representatives of the history of America: George Washington (1732-1799), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) and Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt (1858-1919), that we visited the day before our mad dash home. I also want to write about the monument to Chief Crazy Horse subsequently though we saw it just before visiting Mount Rushmore. I will leave the discussion of Iran for now.

Let me begin with one of the observations we made in crossing Nebraska and especially Iowa. The corn fields were tiered. We were curious why this was the case. I looked for an answer when I got to our hotel room and found an article in the April 1917 issue of the American Threshholder, a popular farmer’s magazine a century ago that spread the message of good farming practices while advertising new tractors and threshing machines and taking advantage of the changes in advertising brought about by the invention of the linotype press one hundred and twenty-five years ago almost to the day in 1890. (As you will understand in the follow-up, the reference to advertising is relevant.) The article was the equivalent of today’s blogs with reflections by a very astute observer on raising corn in the Midwest.

His main point was to prove that, contrary to what the cattlemen had argued, farmers could raise corn in the territory west of the Missouri River, given that the land was semi-arid with relatively small amounts of rainfall. For the writer, it was an important lesson learned “when there was no more north to conquer.” He noted that even in 1917 in Montana, there was as much land under cultivation for corn – 18 million acres – as in Iowa and Illinois put together. The author also posed a challenge to the cattlemen with whom the farmers were in contention. And it always seems to have been thus as ironically implied in the song in Oklahoma. Farmers and cowboys should be friends but the never seem to have been.

The challenge was simple. Recognize truly who the Indians were. Contrary to cowboy beliefs, Indians were not savages. They had been settled farmers who raised corn; the white man had learned the techniques of growing corn, including tiered farming, from the Indians. Evidently, constructing the rolling lands into tiers was used to preserve scarce water. Further, the American settlers had learned those methods from the Indian women. “Are you saying,” this early twentieth century blogger argued against the cowboys, “that the white man cannot do what their Indian sisters had already proven could be done?” He reminded those cowboys that a century earlier, the Lewis and Clark expedition, which had opened up the West for Western and northern expansion, had survived partially by the corn they bought from the Indians.

In reading this essay, I was reminded of a number of observations:

–          The American practice of continuing to use the term Indians, both by native peoples as well as non-natives, contrasts with the Canadian practice that has replaced the term “Indians” with “aboriginal peoples”

–          The American stress was on expansion through settlements combined with the exercise of power

–          Farming was carried out by women in Indian societies as the men hunted and trained to be warriors

–          When we visited the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn where General George Armstrong Custer made his last stand, when the American cavalry first attacked the Indian encampment, they slew women, children and old men as the warriors slipped out of the village into the surrounding forests to be able to regroup later and prepare to counter attack

–          The first casualty that really alerted the Indian encampment was the killing of a young Indian boy; the second was the killing of an Indian woman who had been picking turnips – it was these two killings, and not the famous use of the Indians’ early warning systems, that really woke up the camp to the fact that the camp was under attack by the U.S. cavalry.

–          Runs the Enemy, an Indian chief, was smoking his pipe in his teepee when, “Bullets sounded like hail on tepees and tree tops” as reported by a Hunkpapa warrior. The family of Chief Gall – his two wives and three children – were all killed in the attack

–          The determination that led to the slaughter of every last man under Custer’s immediate command was a result, not only of the determination of the Sioux and Cheyenne to preserve their lands and their way of life as promised, but because of the fury that fired them up when they learned that the American cavalry had so wantonly slaughtered women and children

As one last final point to drive his message home, the author pointed out that the early fur traders had founded a distillery on the Yellowstone River using corn raised by Indians.

All of this is but background to discuss my observations after visiting both the monuments to the presidents at Mount Rushmore and the monument to Crazy Horse 17 miles away in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We were especially pleased that we had seen the latter monument before visiting Mount Rushmore. Let me signal my main general observation. We loved our visit to the monument to Crazy Horse in spite of all the reservations and issues the monument raised. We spent four hours there. We were totally disappointed and put off by our visit to Mount Rushmore. We spent less than an hour there. This was in spite of the fact that I was enthusiastic about the latter visit and had been looking forward to it, and only learned about the monument of Crazy Horse en route (revealing my ignorance of the American west) and we decided to make a side trip to see the monument to Crazy Horse before visiting Mount Rushmore.

To readers unfamiliar with American monuments, especially non-Americans, I only knew of Mount Rushmore because of the important role it played in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, North by Northwest. (More on this in a subsequent blog when I combine film analysis with social observation.) Carved right into the Black Hills of South Dakota, considered sacred to many Sioux people, the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, dynamited and drilled tons of rock to create huge iconic faces of the four former American presidents, except they do not appear in the order in which they served. Theodore Roosevelt looks out from a position further back between Jefferson and Lincoln.

The monument evidently receives three million visitors a year. As the promotional material advertises, “Today visitors come to appreciate this colossal man-made creation, learn about the design and construction process, appreciate its significance as a symbol of the American history of ‘monumental’ leaders (my italics), and to learn about the natural and cultural history of the Black Hills region.” I came away with a very different response. I was both disappointed and very critical of American egoism and insensitivity.

The Black Hills in Sioux culture was the place where the spirit of their ancestors abided. White men scarred the landscape to create a tourist attraction. Further, they did so by boasting that the four figures selected represented different ideals of American development. Washington stands for independence from foreign rule and there are no notes that I read about George Washington’s speculation in land in the Indian territories. Those lands had been recognized by Great Britain as belonging exclusively to Indians “in perpetuity”. They were to be reserved for the Indian peoples.

Washington was motivated to fight the British much more, in my understanding, not primarily because of unfair taxes, but because of restrictions on American expansionism that Great Britain’s treaties with the Indians imposed on American settlers. The fight over taxes that continues until today was just a cover for a much different imperial agenda. Washington at the age of 17 worked as a surveyor for the Ohio Company. That experience aroused his covetous desire for the land across the Allegheny mountains. After all, Washington embodied the opportunistic and visionary businessman as well as a military commander and democratic leader. At the time of his death, Washington owned fifty thousand acres of western land worth then a half million dollars. No other Virginian had been so active in lobbying and working to acquire the West for the expansion of settlements.

American expansionism was built upon a foundation of disrespect for international treaties and a belief in territorial acquisition as much if not more than a resentment of inherited aristocratic authority. As a result, the native Shawnee and Delaware Indians were pushed off their land. “If he (Washington) was at all restless, the form it took was in a determined quest to gain vast tracts of western land that he considered his both by right of discovery as a surveyor and right of conquest as the Virginian who had held on to the frontier backcountry through years of bloody battles and raids. Here his appetite was unquenchable.” Washington matured as a rapacious frontiersman, though, when he retired from his political and military career, as an elder statesman and patrician, he urged Congress to treat Indians more humanely in contrast to his early contempt for Indians as savages who threatened white settlement.

Washington led the faction that believed that the only way to defend against that savagery of Indians was through offence and carrying the battle into Indian territory. The British House of Commons had passed the Quebec Act which expanded the borders of the Quebec colony to include the West south to the Ohio River, thereby denying the “rights of freeborn Englishmen” (Washington) to acquire western lands across the Ohio River. Further, the rights of a freeborn Englishman meant the right of possessive individualism.  “No country ever was or ever will be settled without some indulgences. What inducements do men have to explore uninhabited wilds but the prospect of getting good lands? Would any man waste his time, expose his fortune, nay his life in such a search if he was to share the good and the bad with those who come after him? Surely not.” These words of Washington should have been etched in the stone at Mount Rushmore, but that would not enhance the propagandist vision that Americans have of themselves.

At Mount Rushmore, Thomas Jefferson is not celebrated for his contributions to American democracy and universal human rights, but as an iconic representative of expansionism. After all, Jefferson had written James Monroe (author of the doctrine of America’s manifest destiny) that “it is impossible not to look forward to distant times when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits, and cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent.” His acquisition of the western territories of the Mississippi valley in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 doubled the size of America.

At Mount Rushmore, Abraham Lincoln is not celebrated for his contribution to the emancipation of Blacks from slavery and especially not for his personal humility, but for his preservation of the union and his willingness to use coercive force to achieve that goal. Further, in the quest for unity as an ultimate value, the Lincoln administration had introduced the equivalent of a loyalty oath. Trustworthiness and loyalty to the union became the key criterion for government workers rather than “civil service”.

Theodore Roosevelt, the least visually correct image of his actual visage and with only a hint of his pince-nez as he lurks in the background, is celebrated, not for his belief in the power of America or his open imperial advocacy of expansionism or even for his love of the natural environment, but ironically for his defense of individual rights, but as those rights had evolved into an ideal of the freedom to exercise individual will with the fewest constraints possible on the individual by the state. Yet this colossus was created through federal patronage while the monument to Crazy Horse was created on the libertarian idea of refusing any aid from government.

The political message of Mount Rushmore comes across clearly before you come close to the platform to observe the faces as you proceed to the viewing platform along a wide pathway to pomposity and imperial ambition bordered by pillars with the flags of each of the states. The monument is a dedication to what I would consider false advertising about those presidents, to the art of capitalist “realism,” the American counterpart to the iconic figures of Soviet socialist realism with the same artistic virtues of the worship of the colossal using iconic abstraction for ostensible virtues that ought to be considered vices. Mount Rushmore is propaganda and idolatry at its worst, representing humans as embodying abstract ideas, though there is acknowledgement that everyone has not been pleased with the decision to make the carvings. The monument to Crazy Horse, as I hope to write about, is a direct challenge to American iconography. Given the values that have emerged in the aftermath of post WWII America, it is no surprise that there have been no monetary allocations since 1941 to ensure the completion of the sculptures. The abstract iconic faces will presumably never have bodies.

As one Black visitor wrote as a response to visiting Mount Rushmore, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image!!! Being a Black American I find Mt Rushmore to be another insult to minorities everywhere. Four slave owners (sic!) being recognized for what? Some people just don’t get it and unfortunately it’s the people who are making decisions about America. We (Americans) are slowly being taken apart and if America does not wake up WE are headed [for] destruction. Funny thing is all WE have to do is treat everyone with respect. Make sure that everyone is treated the same regardless of their ethnicity and culture. Unfortunately, America still refuses to respect all people and until that happens, America will continue to fall. America is the best country, WE just have very poor leadership, and it started with those four individuals on MT Rushmore!!!!”


The Oscars

The Oscars 2013


Howard Adelman

I am writing my reflections on the academy awards, not to comment on the vote or to suggest why another film should have been awarded the Oscar for best score or best costuming or best director or why one actor was better than another. Rather I want to use the academy awards as a set of indicators to try to sense the zeitgeist of America today. This is particularly appropriate this year since so many of the films that have been nominated in the various categories are reflections of sentiments and predispositions in the land of the free and the home of the brave. What is the fashion of the moment, not in the sense of a fad, but as a phenomenological window into the shifting character of America? As Georg Wilhelm Hegel wrote, "No man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of a time is also his own spirit." And the representatives of our age who specialize in representation offer an ideal window into that spirit.

Of course it is a great conceit to suggest that Academy members do not cast their votes based on the skills and creativity of its members in the various categories, but those skills were so much in evidence in almost all the films nominated that it is not too far fetched to suggest that in at least some of the categories underlying collective beliefs could have served as tipping the voting scales in one direction or another. Underlying assumptions that permeate an age may even influence us to ignore prudence and fall in love with flying and with romantic love itself, the real secular religion of our age.

Notice the total and absolute absence of any film set in business. There are no Greed is Good films. The only movie set in the business world is Paperman, that won an Oscar for best animated short film, and it was about a bored and unhappy office employee who ignores his boss and runs off to seek romantic happiness. Paperman was based on John Kahrs’ using a traditional animation style in a unique way by marrying it to modern technology for the purposes of inversion to convert 3D into 2d pencil drawings.

The romantic story is also an inversion for it begins as a romance when a lonely young office worker falls for a beautiful girl on his morning commute to the office when one of the papers that is blown away by the wind into his face belongs to a beautiful woman and then one of his papers blows into her face and is marked by the lipstick on her lips. He retrieves the paper and is mesmerized by the iconic red lip marks so that he misses the train with the woman on it. The love of his life is presumably lost forever. He magically re-discovers that she works in a skyscraper opposite his own office. In a comic series of reversals he tries to get her attention by making paper airplanes and trying to reach her and when he runs out of paper he uses the lipstick-marked one only to see that presumably fail too. He ignores his boss, flies down to the street only to be covered in an alley with the paper planes he already flew. But in the magic of movies, the lipstick-marked paper airplane pursues the girl, catches her and in the end unites them both. It is a romantic innovative delight and obeisance to the virtues of perseverance, the magic of romance and the delight of the chase.

America stands torn between opposing squadrons of economic liberals and conservatives, community conservatives and individualistic liberals so that individualists per se are on both sides of the divide but in opposite camps, while those liberals who believe in caring and sharing are at odds with those with whom they share a sense of community because the conservative communitarians are guided more by a sense of respect for authority, tradition and values centred in the traditional family to which they have pledged their fealty. Through it all we want to tease out the cunning of reason.

Does the cunning of reason get expressed as community conservative values favouring tradition, loyalty and authority rooted in solid middle class families or are the virtues celebrated caring and sharing in a large communal sense as in Beasts of the Southern Wild or in the offbeat comedy, Silver Linings Playbook which won an Oscar for best supporting actress for Jennifer Lawrence playing the role of a sex-addicted and blunt talking and quirky widow, hardly the consummate virtues as a model for community conservatism? But she is not an acquisitive individual but an idiosyncratic one who falls in love with a bi-polar former teacher (Bradley Cooper) who has just been released from a psychiatric hospital.

David Russell’s adapted script (and direction) of Silver Lining Playbook that was tops in the Spirit Awards did not win an Oscar for best film or best direction or best adapted screenplay. The film is a reflection of the central character, Pat’s, refrain who keeps repeating that all you have to do is get in the right frame of mind and anything’s possible and we cannot get caught up in the poison of negativity. It is the same message as the equally engaging, warm and funny drama, Beasts of the Southern Wild, but Silver Linings Playbook is a romantic comedy and not a dark comedy seen through the fantasy of a child’s eyes. It was not the illusion of love viewed through rose clouded glasses that wins out but love that is the product of struggle, conflict and tension and rooted in a mixture of madness and reality. But it is love nevertheless.

In the category of original screenplays, in contention were Amour, Django Unchained, Flight, Moonrise Kingdom and Zero Dark Thirty. Though I saw Flight and appreciated John Gatins excellent script, as well as Denzel Washington’s acting, and although the script was also authentic and reflective of Gatin’s own struggles with drugs and alcohol, I did not believe authenticity reflected our age or America’s sense of either its ideals or what it was prepared to do.

Django Unchained was hailed as leading in a tight three way race and was expected to win over Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty and Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola’s Moonrise Kingdom. My film-mad son, Gabriel, was rooting for Tarantino’s script to win. I did think that its theme about a freed black slave (Jamie Foxx) who by sheer grit self-discipline, a good tutor, Dr. King Schultz played by Oscar winner Christoph Waltz, and unflagging determination, who transforms himself into a bounty hunter, did somehow mirror the quest to kill terrorists by using navy Seals and was not too far fetched an analogy. Drango delivers revenge on Calvin Candle played so brilliantly by Leonardo DiCaprio, and rescues his beloved, Broomhilda played by Kerry Washington who speaks fluent German.

It is a film of love and redemption, revenge on evil-doers and triumph of the good through disciplined and targeted violence. The dentist, played by Christoph Waltz as a replay with variations of the character he played in his Oscar award winning smirking Nazi SS-Satndartenfährer Hans Landa in Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglorious Basterds. Unlike Lincoln, he is an authentic German (Austrian) anti-racist who offers brilliant comic relief while, at the same, serving as the Greek chorus and telling Django the original German legend of Broomhilda.

The dialogue has its usual brisk crisp punctuation that also delights and entertains, but I questioned whether the marriage of the comic and sombre revenge drama, however entertaining, reflected our time. The parallels were too direct and overdrawn without any of the subtle twists and inversions of the original Norse sage or even Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen with its deeper tale of fratricide and betrayal. But the Academy did choose Django Unchained for best original screenplay. It told me that revenge for 9/11 was still on the American mind and that their president, who was not himself descended from slaves, but identified with the majority of Americans who were, was the perfect leader to deliver that revenge. I thought that Michelle Obama presenting the introduction to the selection of best picture could not have been more appropriate.

Why did Lincoln win Daniel Day-Lewis an Oscar? It was simply a case of the best man lead actor winning though the fact that Lincoln is Barack Obama’s favourite president may have helped. Lincoln, whichalso won for production design, was a film of sacrifice, of Lincoln’s life, of the 600,000 soldiers, 1 of 4 Confederates and 1 of 19 Yankees, who died not counting the hundreds of thousands who were maimed for life, of the suffering of the Blacks that stand in the background of the film. Lincoln not only sacrifices his life but his principles as he wallows in the muck of politics and payoffs to pass the 13th Emancipation amendment that made slavery unconstitutional and would free the slaves before the confederate states surrendered and rejoined the union, a principle that Lincoln thought was just and ripe even though he personally did not subscribe to the equality of Negroes, only their right to be treated equally before the law. As his law partner William Henderson wrote, Lincoln was "humble, tender, forbearing, sympathetic to suffering, kind, sensitive, tolerant; broadening, deepening and widening his whole nature; making him the noblest and loveliest character since Jesus Christ…I believe that Lincoln was God’s chosen one.” Lincoln is played as a Christ figure with many human failings as described by the priest in Life of Pi. Of course, Stephen Spielberg has a long record of making movies based on the core Christian myth. But this was more historically accurate than the portrait of Oscar Schindler in Schindler’s List.

That is how Daniel Day Lewis portrayed him – as cantankerous and surly but humble and affable, stooped with the weight of all those dead soldiers on his back but stooping even further into buying votes to ensure the Thirteenth Constitutional Amendment on outlawing slavery is past. Lincoln is full of homey and long-winded boring stories but is always tolerant and kind. That Lincoln was nominated for twelve academy awards but only won two while Argo won the Oscar for best picture, best director for Ang Lee, best editing and best adapted screenplay based on the Chris Terrio script adaptation of Joshua Bearman’s magazine article, "The Great Escape" which, instead of a Canadian caper, took the incidental use of a film crew to tell a CIA spy drama of escape from Iran.

Argo is a great juxtaposition to Zero Dark Thirty which is also a CIA story but of revenge against a terrorist escapee rather than a humiliating tale of American hostages escaping from Khomeini’s tyrannical terrorist fanatical Iran regime. While the killing of bin Laden was a high point in Obama’s presidency, the hostage crisis was the final nail in the coffin of the Carter presidency and was probably the lowest point in the sense of American confidence since WWII. So instead of Canadians appearing as the heroes hiding the hostages and getting them out with Canadian passports, the hero is Tony Mendez, a Vietnam vet and an expert on graphics, identity transformation with a record of helping friendly assets escape danger undetected. Though Bearman does mention that the group of non-hostages was split between John Sheardon’s personal residence and the Canadian embassy represented by Ambassador, Ken Taylor, the Canadians are relegated to the background and the fore story is a CIA/Hollywood marriage of individual risk and daring-do based on identity transformation, including the transformation of the historical narrative into a fictional tale of a spirit renewed and recovered. It is your archetypal Hollywood narcissistic tale of self-love in the service of a liberal cause of rescue but not revenge or prevention.

The cover tale, of course, was ironic, a fictional Irish-Hollywood crew planning an epic film that might appeal to the Iranian regime in desperate need of hard dollars and in the story he had to develop an air tight exfiltration mission. Mendez with two Hollywood costume specialists created a fake Hollywood production company with fake business cards and identities for a location-scouting party and even a Hollywood address for their invented studios in the old China Syndrome set. So Hollywood is enlisted to create a fake story to create a fake story about a great escape. How Hollywood! The schlockmeister feelies of fantasy partner with ingeniously clever and wheelies of the CIA to save the world, or, at least six Americans

If Moonrise Kingdom had won then so would subtlety, nuance, gentle satire and the childhood vision (also captured in Beasts of the Southern Wild). Recall the opening when the ten-year old Lionel on a rainy day ascends the steps of a very dated house with old pictures of sailboats and battleships to put an old fashioned record on a turntable and listen with his siblings as Benjamin Britten teaches Lionel, his two younger brothers, Murray and Rudy, and his older sister, Suzy, how an orchestral composition is brought together and integrated, though Suzy sets herself apart and immerses herself a book, Shelly and the Secret Universe. We quickly enter a Peter Pan universe.

Like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Moonrise is narrated, but not by a five year old butt by a fifty year old long-haired surveyor whom we first meet wearing boots and a parka to shield himself from the wind and rain. He introduces us to the island of New Penzance and we immediately think of the comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance, which was subtitled, "The Slave of Duty" and is the story of a boy, Frederic, slightly older than Lionel, who was apprenticed to bleeding heart pirates and, when released by the pirates, meets beautiful women for the first time and falls in love with Mabel. We can then expect a similar love story and a parallel rescue as Major-General Stanley, Mabel’s father, rescues Frederic and Mabel. The names of the characters – dimwitted Captain Sharp, Scout Master Ward, who is the worst warden of any troop imaginable, and Sam’s foster father, Chesterfield Billingsley who is unwilling to take the escaped Sam back, as well as Lazy-Eye and Snoopy. The film is a cross between Cinderella and the Seven Dwarfs and neither it nor Beasts of the Southern Wild won a single Oscar. This simply indicated that Hollywood is still married to the traditional fables of America captured by Argo rather than the humorous satirical takes on the American fable or the down and dirty Bathtub of America reaching up to metaphysical and metaphorical heights. America wanted its fables clean and traditional and uncontaminated by either dirt or satire.

Penzance, we are told, has no roads but is a bucolic place of old growth forest but about to be hit three days hence by a powerful storm. So Django Unchained is a comic western adaptation of a Norse fable via an opera which wins two Oscars for best adapted screenplay and best supporting actor while Moonrise Kingdom is a fairy tale adaptation of a comic opera set in the pastel gentle and innocent colours of the sixties rather than the jangled screaming colours of the tie-dye generation of Haight-Ashbury. It is a period of scouts and honour codes, of boy bonding and innocent pursuits disrupted, but some of those innocent pursuits. such as building rockets, are very ominous. It is a brilliant twist to replace soft-hearted pirates with an inept scout troop trying to find the escaped Sam Shakusky and is a delightful and light-hearted send-up of conservative communitarians in America but not a film ready to win an Oscar.

I’ve already written about Amour and Zero Dark Thirty and was surprised to see the latter lose out in the editing category to Argo though it won for its sound editing. Amour is so realistic and finely tuned and deservedly won the Oscar for best foreign film, while Zero Dark Thirty has all the impressions and cleverness of reality while essentially telling a gangster revenge film in a spy motif. So Academy members had a real choice: the dark critical comic book drama (Django Unchained); the light gentle satire (Moonrise Kingdom), harsh self-destructive realism and the inevitable destructiveness of death wearing down an unforgettable tale of love (Amour); and a mythological version of the reality that is the most dominant political narrative of our age (Argo).

Only Lincolncould have challenged Argo. Les Miserables, Life of Pi and Zero Dark Thirty never had a chance for best picture though he categories in which they won were very revealing.

Beasts of the Southern Wild has a script by the young director, Benh Zeitlin written with Lucy Aliba, a close friend since the two were twelve years old. The film script is an adaptation of her play Juicy and Delicious which was an autobiographical look at her own troubled relationship with her own father who was seriously ill but "broke sh’t" when he was angry. The film, though its very authentic harsh and simple language was easily the most poetic script of all the choices, including Life of Pi which was adapted by David Magee from Saskatoon’s Yann Martel’s novel that has already sold nine million copies. Further, it had the most metaphysical message about the interconnectedness of all of nature and even the extinct animals from the past that haunt the film and makes sense of Hush Puppie’s wish for cohesiveness. The portrait by Quvenzhané Wallis was simply amazing and evidently the language used by the father was a direct replication of the words used by Lucy Alibar’s father. It is a film about becoming unmoored in a radically more profound way than the American escapees in Iran, unmoored by a drunken and sick father and unmoored by nature.

Life of Pi won Oscars for visual effects (Vancouver-based Gaillaume Rocheron), cinematography (Claudio Miranda), best score (Michael Miranda) and best director, Ang Lee. It is an adventure fable and not a projection from life into a metaphysical realm. But it is also a film about unmooring, for instead of being located in Bathtub outside the levees of New Orleans, it is a story of a character stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger. The film begins in a magical fairy tale world of the widest imaginable cluster of animals in contrast to the extinct aurochs that haunt Beasts of the Southern Wild and the wild carnivorous devouring of shell fish and animals. In the Life of Pi the fiercest cat in the animal kingdom is a kitten. While the latter looks at the world through the fantasy imaginings of a young child, Life of Pi turns a fable into a zoo story that starts with animals in captivity but is also awash in water. Water, the symbol for constant change, is always about to overwhelm, the struggle for survival. Diving in a pool in Life of Pi is but an adumbration of Pi’s underwater life journey. Pi is not named after the famous abstract mathematical formula representing the ratio of the diameter of any circle to its circumference that is an irrational number which has no end, but after the most beautiful swimming pool in the world, Piscine Molitor and later the most defined and smallest world of all, a life raft. If Beasts of the Southern Wild has a collection of the ugly leftovers, misfits and discards of the beautiful world, the Piscine Molitor swimming pool in its sparkling magnificence is an idealized picture of the beautiful society. It is not hard to understand why Hollywood loved the film and favoured it over its dystopic closest and more profound and psychologically authentic closest rival.

If Beasts of the Southern Wild is about community and connectedness, Life of Pi is about the purification of the individual soul. If Beasts of the Southern Wild always portray a community of those with virtually nothing engaged in continuing mutual support with the dictum to never cry and feel pity, Life of Pi shifts quickly to bullying and humiliating Pi in Montreal. Both films are narrated, Beasts of the Southern Wild by a five year old child telling her current story and the adult Pi telling a retrospective story. Beasts of the Southern Wild is infused with a Spinozist pantheistic metaphysics while Life of Pi has a Christian frame. Early in the film Pi asks the priest why God would send his own son to suffer for the sins of ordinary people and the priest smiles down at Pi that it was because God transformed himself into a human to be more approachable and accessible. Pi is puzzled. Why would the innocent be sacrificed to atone for the sins of the guilty? That could be asked of any of the movies. But as I wrote above, only Lincolnand, as we shall see, Les Misérables picks up on the Christian theme though Christoph Waltz sacrifices himself for Django but without any allusion to Christianity.

We find sacrifice but without resurrection. Not entirely. In the documentary category, two wonderful documentaries about the absence of resurrection were ignored. Rabbi Dow Marmur wrote that, "Prime Minister Netanyahu and his supporters received an unexpected gift from Hollywood: neither of the two Israeli documentaries [Broken Camera and The Gatekeepers]got an Oscar. Both are highly critical of Israeli government policies." Marmur continued and added, "the films testify to the country’s commitment to democracy that allows such open and explicit criticism of its government to be exposed to international scrutiny." But Hollywood ignored them in favour of a feel good film, Searching for Sugar Man, about a musician who, unbeknownst to himself, became a famous star in boycotted apartheid South Africa, and the process of his resurrection from obscurity.

The evening was dedicated to musicals, but only Les Misérables was nominated in the musical category. Anne Hathaway, as expected, won for her portrayal of Fantine, the prostitute whose daughter, Cosette, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) adopts. The film won for cinematography, make up and hairstyling, and sound mixing though I was surprised Anna Karenina beat it for costume design. I have not read Hugo’s classic since high school over sixty years ago but its Christian theme from below in contrast to Stephen Spielberg’s preference for Christians who come from the top down or even from outer space, did not seem to be its primary appeal. Hollywood, though, always loves a noble and beautiful whore. But the real Christian is Jean Valjean, a hard working stevadore arrested for a stolen piece of bread and pursued for the rest of his life by the determined and unremitting Javert played by Russell Crowe even though, after being born again through the efforts of the saintly Bishop Myriel, he lives the rest of his life as the suffering Christ figure until he dies as a sacrificial lamb in the revolution. In this case, persistence and determination are villainous rather than heroic as when Maya in Zero Dark Thirty shares those same characteristics. Both characters are bent on revenge and their own deep sense of justice and upholding the rule of law, at least as they see it. Les Misérables is an uplifting sentimental tearjerker that is just so beautifully produced but it is still a story of class warfare and that rarely plays well with Americans.

If Les Misérables is about class warfare, the Bond series in its fiftieth year has always been about class in a stylistic more than a social or economic sense. Daniel Craig plays Bond when he is ready to retire in Skyfall, has lost his panache and daring-do and, like Denzel Washington in Flight, has retreated from taking risks and seeks obscurity only to be drawn back by M (no longer played by Judi Dench but by Ralph Fiennes) to deal with horrific terrorists led by a rogue agent played by Javier Barden as Raoul Silva who was once abandoned by M to be broken physically and psychologically. The film won for the most original score and tied with Zero Dark Thirty for sound editing. Adele Adkins sings "Skyfall" that she wrote with Paul Epworth and it won an Oscar. The lyrics are worth reprinting:

This is the end
Hold your breath and count to ten
Feel the earth move and then
Hear my heart burst again

For this is the end
I’ve drowned and dreamt this moment
So overdue I owe them
Swept away, I’m stolen

Let the sky fall
When it crumbles
We will stand tall
Face it all together

Let the sky fall
When it crumbles
We will stand tall
Face it all together
At skyfall
That skyfall

Skyfall is where we start
A thousand miles and poles apart
Where worlds collide and days are dark
You may have my number, you can take my name
But you’ll never have my heart

Let the sky fall (let the sky fall)
When it crumbles (when it crumbles)
We will stand tall (we will stand tall)
Face it all together

Let the sky fall (let the sky fall)
When it crumbles (when it crumbles)
We will stand tall (we will stand tall)
Face it all together
At skyfall

(Let the sky fall
When it crumbles
We will stand tall)

Where you go I go
What you see I see
I know I’d never be me
Without the security
Of your loving arms
Keeping me from harm
Put your hand in my hand
And we’ll stand

Let the sky fall (let the sky fall)
When it crumbles (when it crumbles)
We will stand tall (we will stand tall)
Face it all together

Let the sky fall (let the sky fall)
When it crumbles (when it crumbles)
We will stand tall (we will stand tall)
Face it all together
At skyfall

Let the sky fall
We will stand tall
At skyfall

The lyrics were as appropriate for to Beasts of the Southern Wild with the words: drowned, the sky is falling, the end is coming, and swept away, where worlds collide and days are dark and skyfall itself suggesting the end of the world. These terms are counterpoised to standing tall at skyfall where we stand together, stand tall and face it all — together.

Curfew written and directed by Shawn Christensen that won the Oscar best Live Action short film is about Richie (Christansen) who, when we first meet him, is in a real bathtub not the Bathtub of Beasts of the Southern Wild. Unlike the latter, which urges everyone never to give up, Ritchie is slicing his wrists in that bathtub. Ritchie is asked by his estranged sister, Maggie (Kim Allen) to look after her daughter, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek) for a few hours. Unlike Beasts of the Southern Wild, Hush Puppy is unable to save her father but Sophia as an energetic and boisterous ball of energy who is quick witted, a vital spirit and metaphysical observer of chaos who connects with Richie, turns him around. But both Beasts of the Southern Wild and Curfew are about sharing and caring as is Silver Linings Playbook.

Sean Fine and Andrea Nix, who were nominated before for an Oscar for their 2007 film War/Dance about child soldiers in Uganda, made the Oscar award winning coming of age documentary short Inocente about the indominatable determination of this fifteen year old artist who rejoices in colour rather than her dark past. Like many of the films from Argo to Life of Pi to Beasts of the Southern Wild, it is a film of homelessness, of a child this time but like Silver Linings Playbook see technicolour and not just silver linings in life’s little joyful moments.

Brave won for best animated feature and is about an indefatigable determined young girl, Princess Merida, who is a skilled archer and refuses to follow the rules of the male dominated system and marry the chosen son in accordance with clan system. It is precisely the same theme as Zero Dark Thirty. Both have to undo a spell that clouds the society and keeps putting up obstacles.

So what can we read of the American zeitgeist through the pictures American and the world watch, most of which are reflections of how America sees it self these days and projects that self on the screen? Review the themes. Though romantic love remains the secular religion of modernity, it is a theme in only a few of the movies: Les Misérables, Django Unchained, Paperman, Silver Linings Playbook, rather surprising for Hollywood. In fact sharing and caring are more frequent themes than romantic love and that is even true of the romantic comedy, Silver Linings Playbook. This is characteristic of the love portrayed in Amour, Les Misérables (who misled us in describing the French as the epitome of lovers), and the daughter-father relationship in Beauty of the Southern Wild, the uncle-niece relationship in Brave as well as the love relationship between Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln) and Sally Fields (Lincoln’s wife), and between Tommy Lee Jones (The radical abolitionist, Thadeus Stevens) and his black wife or mistress.

Traditional Christian themes remain a strong suit but in some very unusual and non-traditional contexts. It is certainly a theme in Les Misérables, but in a leftist class context, in Lincoln but in sacrificing himself for a large historical transformation, emancipating the slaves, rather than for saving individual souls, in Life of Pi but in a context which has more to do with the purification of the soul in Hinduism than traditional Christianity. Sacrifice detached from Christianity is more common: Amour, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Beauty of the Southern Wild, Les Misérables and Django Unchained. Except for the most famous adventure comic of all time, the Bond movies, redemption itself is rare. One quarter of Americans may be evangelical Christians but you would never know that from what Hollywood produces and distributes.

Two motifs do stand out: the creative importance of the imagination and fantasy, and unmooring, though an older theme of identity transformation is used as a superficial cover-up in Argo. Unmooring is the flavour of the day in: Life of Pi, Skyfall, Flight, Sikver Lining Playbook, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Inocente, Fantasy and the imagination are critical tools of salvation in Life of Pi, Moonrise Kingdom and Beauty of the Southern Wild. And if you want to celebrate certain virtues, Hollywood seems to have placed a huge value of perseverance: Paperman, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Beauty of the Southern Wild, Les Misérables, Django Unchained and Brave. Optimism was the other principle virtue I noticed: Beauty of the Southern Wild, Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained.

It was a wonderful year to see Hollywood reflecting itself in all its reflected glory.

Academy Awards.2013.doc