Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Harvest 2012 photoset

I've had a terrific time in the last two weeks stalking tractors around fields in Central Illinois compiling a Harvest 2012 photo gallery on

The best part was that my sons came with me on the weekend drives in the country, patient while I "see" what I see in the landscapes and jump out of the car on the side of the road to get the pic. One of those stops got a little hectic when I inadvertently left the car in D! I walked toward the cornfield and froze when I heard my 13 year old scream from the front passenger seat. Looking back, I saw the minivan begin to roll towards the busy highway. I ran back across a ditch, yanked the passenger door open, and lunged across my son to throw the gearshift lever toward Park. As I did, the doorframe of the car slammed into my ribs and ejected me from the car. I hit the ground not knowing if I had succeeded or not. I was laying there looking at the rear wheel curving down at me, when suddenly it stopped. We were all safe.

I calmed down my son, found my camera in the grass, and went back and got the pic that I had seen.

There are 150 or so of my best shots from the last two weeks in the gallery. Check it out. Leave me a comment on what you like (or don't).

I see the leaves turning colors. I'm done with tracctors. Fall, it's on...

Sunday, April 1, 2012

October Baby: Post-Abortive Healing in Post Roe America

It's not often that a new movie opening comes to my attention by means of a controversy over its critical reviews, but that is indeed why I decided to trek out of town today to catch an afternoon showing of the new film "October Baby" on one of the 390 screens that it is showing on in America this week.

I first heard of the movie when I read Roger Ebert's two-star review as I was scanning his site. Hmm.

It really caught my attention when I read Brent Bozell's pusback on the criticism on Breitbart's Big Hollywood site.

And it came full circle when I read my friend Nell Minnow's pushback on the pushback on Beliefnet.

You'll notice on the Rotten Tomatoes entry for this movie that there is a critic rating of 24% and an audience rating of 89%. That is a indicator, of course, that there is a controversy. It's been said that the audience disparity doesn't matter because the audience raters are a self selected group. That case was not made however for a similar movie, "Natural Selection" - which I saw and enjoyed at EbertFest 2011 and reviewed here on LCPB. That film had a critic rating of 81% and an audience rating of 88%.  I was thinking of Natural Selection while I was watching October Baby, as both are films are about a woman going on a road trip / faith journey after finding out that much of what they thought they knew about their lives was a lie. The audience rating (and my reaction) was identically favorable to both. The critic rating disparity on these two film says - to me at least - that the cultural left that film critics come monolithically from is fine if that journey is away from faith, not so much if it reaffirms faith. That's just my take.

So, what is October Baby about? Nominally, it is about abortion and adoption.

And therein lies the controversy. Are there any touchier topics in film in America? No. Given 52 million abortions in America since Roe v. Wade in 1973, there is statistically a high probability that any viewer has some personal stake in an abortion story - either their own, their spouse's or significant other's, or a family member or friend. We, myself included, bring our own understanding of that act into the theater and to the movie's treatment of it. Similarly with the related issue of adoption and a search for a birth parent. As an adoptive father myself, can I help but to see this movie somewhat through the vantage point of John Schneider's character of the adoptive father?

Specifically, this movie is about college freshman Hannah's discovery that not only is she adopted, but that her physical ailments are related to that fact that her birth complications were as a result of a failed abortion procedure.

Stop right there. Is this just right-wing ugly propagandist fiction? Does that really happen, babies surviving failed abortions? Well, if you've been tuned into the right-to-life movement in the past couple of decades, as I have, you will recognize this as the true life story of Gianna Jessen. Jessen survived a saline abortion and went on to overcome birth complications of cerebal palsy to become a recording artist and gifted speaker. She is listed in the credits of October Baby as a consultant to the film. That brings veracity to this film.

As Hannah journeys to find the true facts of her birth that her adoptive parents have not shared with her, she tracks down the traumatized nurse who participated in the interrupted abortion - a riveting and healing scene with Jasmine Guy...

Stop right there. More propaganda? Does that happen in real life in America? Traumatized nurses? Again, pro-life folks will recognize that as a parallel to the story of Jill Stanek. Stanek was a pro-choice nurse until she discovered a baby in a closet left to die, a accidental survivor of a failed abortion. Stanek went on to fight for the Born Alive Infant Protection Act in Illinois. Again, Guy's scene and Stanek's real life tale bring veracity to this film.

Stop again. Why do none of the reviews that I have read talk about the real life stories of Gianna Jessen - the survivor of a failed abortion? Or about Jill Stanek and other real life nurses who have been traumatized by participating in abortion procedures? Those are relevant topics in a movie like this. Why? Because, I think, they are taboo subjects in the "abortion rights" circles that critics travel in. Can't admit that there are failed abortions and maimed survivors, or that there are traumatized nurses. That's why.

Hannah journeys on. Does she find her birth mother? Does she find the truth? And does the truth bring healing? Yes. Not just to Hannah, but to her adoptive parents, and to the nurse, and to her birth mother.

And how is the tone of the film? Is it ugly and hateful? Is it how it was described by the NYT film critic:

"But not even a dewy heroine and a youth-friendly vibe can disguise the essential ugliness at its core: like the bloodied placards brandished by demonstrators outside women’s health clinics, the film communicates in the language of guilt and fear."

No, it is not. It communicates in the language of a Christian film, in the language of forgiveness. Hannah is the aggrieved party in the story of her life. And forgiveness is essential to healing. And not just for herself.


I said earlier, that the movie is nominally about abortion. But not just about abortion like you think it is about abortion. Like most critics saw it, as anti-abortion propaganda. It's not just about the "choice" to abort. It's about everyone involved living with that choice. Again, those in the pro-life movement will recognize what this movie is about: post-abortion healing. It's a topic often discussed in the right-to-life movement.

I said this topic is often personal, right? Well, that thought takes me back to the mid-1990s and a visit I made to Chicago. I was flirting at the time with a ministry ordination. Not to preach, but as a deacon in compassionate ministries. In that context I attended the National Right to Life Convention for a few days. The keynote speaker at that convention was someone I mentioned earlier in this article - Brent Bozell. One of the topics that Bozell spoke on that night, and the main purpose for my attendance at the conference, was the topic of post-abortion healing. In the wake of that conference I gave my one and only sermon from my church's puplit, a sermon titled "The Church's Compassionate Response to Abortion". Yes, our church has a doctrine. Yes, our church opposes the practice of abortion. Yes, also, our church is compassionately involved in post-abortion healing. That sermon led me into actual post-abortion counseling situations. I am attuned to it when I see it. And I see it and Hannah and the nurse and in the mother, all of who have a need to address the past. The nurse, who said she needed to tell her truth, has a valid story to tell.

Is October Baby a good film, as a film? Yes, it is. It has a high production value, at least equal to the well-received Natural Selection. It has gorgeous photography. It has competent and sometimes inspired acting. It has all of the plot elements of an engaging film: a discovery, a road trip, a budding romance, conflict and resolution. It treats both faith and angst respectfully. It has a supportive message soundtrack ripped right from the Contemporary Christian radio station that I listen to daily.

It is a good film. And it is a film with a point of view, and a valid message that is a needed - but often missing - component of the abortion debate in this country. That message is not a hateful or oppressive message about banning abortion. That message is about the very real topic of post-abortion healing.

If you didn't get that from the movie, stay for the credits. You'll see a very moving testimony from one of the actresses in the film, who literally found her own post-abortion healing through her scenes. And you'll see a link to a post-abortion counseling ministry that has partnered with the producers. Powerful emotional stuff. I was deeply moved. Which is what a good film does.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

In Defense of Pleasantness

A well written film review can be as thought provoking as the film itself originally was. That is the case every day with film critic Roger Ebert, and often with reviews by Ebert’s cast of Far Flung Correspondents (FFC). That was certainly the case recently when I read an excellent analysis of the 1998 film "Pleasantville" by FFC Olivia Collette of Montreal. Olivia's piece is a good read - go read it! Olivia’s analysis inspired me to head down to Family Video, find the rental, and then spend another two hours with one of my favorite films.

Pleasantville is a first rate film in every regard. It has a stellar cast with Toby Maguire and Reese Witherspoon as the teen central characters, William Macy and Joan Allen as the perfect 50’s sitcom parents, J.T. Walsh as the bulwark against change, and the inspired casting of Don Knotts to tie us older viewers back into that era of sitcoms that we watched every day after school when there were only four channels.

It is an innovative film, complete with an “a-ha" moment when, after you acclimate to the black-and-white portion of the film, Technicolor reemerges with a splash in just a key element of the frame. One flower. red, in a background of black and white. One awakened teen, framed against her disapproving elders. It’s powerfully effective, and it was the first time I had seen that particular effect.

Pleasantville is also a substantial political film, one with a point of view. Maybe it is just that it’s a combative election year, and I tend to see even entertainment through a political filter. Maybe. Although, I remember seeing it as political back when I saw it in theatrical release in 1998. Pleasantville contains a strong dose of the political and cultural divide between American liberal and conservative worldviews, and being a Hollywood product it takes a side with the liberal worldview. I’ll come back to that thought.

"Up until now everything around here has been, well, pleasant. Recently certain things have become unpleasant." Big Bob – Mayor of Pleasantville

That observation from the affable Big Bob is both an understatement and the source of much of the dramatic tension of the movie.

Olivia does an excellent job descriptively recapping the story of David and Jennifer, who find themselves transported as Bud and Mary Sue into the 1950's setting of David's favorite TV escape called Pleasantville. Dramatic tensions – the clash between pleasantness and unpleasant change - ensue from their transference of their knowledge of what lies outside Pleasantville to the innocent denizens within. “How did you know about the fire?” the awestruck teens ask Bud. Well, because Bud and Mary Sue are gifted with knowledge that the others don’t have. Not just sexual knowledge, although that is the vehicle for illustrating that change is coming to Pleasantville. We watch amused as the previously chaste Lover’s Lane becomes a row of cars with teenage limbs spilling out of backseats.

I like Olivia’s exploration of the moral themes of free will, the Garden, and the tree of knowledge in Pleasantville. It’s not just sex that turns the teens, and later the more liberated elders, from black and white to Technicolor. It is AWARENESS. An awakening, whether to sex, or to art, or to injustice. It's an attractive tale in that who doesn't want to be awake? To be cool? To be technicolor in a black and white landscape. Olivia notes Jennifer / Mary Sue’s observation that "these people don't want to be geeks. They want to be attractive. They just don't know how." I saw in this dialogue snippet the writer peeking through – offering a metaphor for how liberals secretly view conservatives. They don’t want to be conservative, they just don’t know any better.

I like how the film explores the time in American history when Pleasantville is set when some didn’t know any better, or didn’t act any better. That was the period of segregation, which is a stain on the American conscience. It does so through the clever use of the phrase “colored” that was prominent in the time of segregation. Two clever moments stand out. First, as more of the residents are turning Technicolor and order is threatened, a store owner posts a sign in his window warning “no coloreds”.

Likewise, as Bud goes on trial in front of Big Bob and the Chamber of Commerce, the citizens that have turned Technicolor are all sitting in the balcony of the courtroom while the main floor has all of the grayscale (white) citizens. This is an iconic image of the time of segregation, powerfully replicated. Whites on the main floor, coloreds segregated upstairs. Injustice! We – liberals and conservatives alike – have a moment of common understanding in that moment of injustice and inhumanity.

There is, however, a partisan setup to this dramatic moment. In the buildup to the courtroom scene, in a frenzy of activity about 1:30 into the film, the producers give us a fevered vision of conservatism run amok. There is, first and foremost, the fascist imagery of the Chamber of Commerce logo shining above Mayor Big Bob’s head. Two white clenched hands. Very authoritarian.

There is a book burning scene going on in the town square, as Skip tries to tear one of Mary Sue’s new found books out of her hands to throw on the fire.

And finally there is the meeting for "ALL TRUE CITIZENS" that results in the publication of a Code of Conduct, fresh out of the bad old days of McCarthyism.

Perhaps I am too sensitive to this, as a Tea Party type and a political conservative who has values at odds with much of Hollywood’s product. But, as I watch those scenes I do not just see excellent dramatic fiction. I see a political clash of worldviews. I know from my interactions in the political blogosphere that this is how many liberals see conservatives even now in 2012. Perhaps even more so in 2012. Many believe that we are crypto-Nazis, coveting facist logos like Big Bob’s. That we are reactionaries who, if you gave us half a chance, would leap at the chance for book burning and censorship codes.

But, is that reality? Who are today’s censors worthy of those fevered scenes in Pleasantville? I would argue that it is not found in conservative circles, but in the American left. Who are today’s censors, if not those who chased Glen Beck off of TV and are salivating this week at the chance of chasing conservative radio icon Rush Limbaugh off of America’s airwaves? Witness America’s liberal foundations pouring millions of dollars into the thought censors at Media Matters For America with the sole purpose of silencing Fox News. Where are the codes of conduct more draconian than the Speech Codes on America’s university campuses – where liberals dominate the faculty and administration?

The other political clash of liberal/conservative worldviews that I reacted to in Pleasantville is in what I see its stereotypical Hollywood attack on the nuclear family. That attack is not just an overt attack, as it is with the development of Joan Allen’s character. Hey bored housewives, wake up (and turn Technicolor!). Leave your stodgy and demanding husbands! There is liberation out there, and a better way! That kind of overt attack on the nuclear family is not limited to liberal dramatic fiction, by the way. I was stunned this week to read a featured article in the Huffington Post – on the Divorce page – from a link titled “Why I walked away from my perfect marriage!”. This was, naturally – on a unabashedly liberal forum – portrayed as a good thing.

No, the attack on the attack on the nuclear family is not just expressed in mockery and in subversion to a better, cooler, Technicolor way. It is also subtle. It’s found in the oft-repeated aside that the nuclear family is a fantasy that never really existed anyway. The ideal of the nuclear family, it is asserted, is as fake as the phony sitcoms like Pleasantville.

Oh, but they did exist. They existed in the American Midwest that I know. They existed in my family and in families that I grew up around. My family, while certainly not perfect, was a nuclear family. My parents raised 4 kids in their 50 year marriage. My in-laws, also married 50 years, also raised 4 kids in a lifestyle as close to a Pleasantville sitcom as I’ve ever seen. All of the children from those two nuclear families are each married once for periods of 25 to 40 years each. and we face difficult challenges like everyone. But, we draw strength from the nuclear family. Sure, it isn’t exactly like the Pleasantville families. It’s more accurately depicted in the O’Brien family in the excellent movie “The Tree of Life”. But, to say that the nuclear family never really existed is to mock that, and I react viscerally to that suggestion in a film.

It’s a touchy subject to discuss Hollywood’s attack and mockery of the nuclear family. It can be interpretated in the reverse as my attacking the non-nuclear family. Which, I wouldn’t do. The NNF can, and does, produce terrific people. It’s just that it’s an empirically harder struggle to do so. If I had a wish for children, I would wish for them that they had the opportunity to grow up in a nuclear family. The movie Pleasantville, ironically, validates that in two ways.

First, in the dramatic twist of the film, Reese Witherspoon’s character opts not to return to 1998 and resume her life as Jennifer when the TV repair guy comes back. She opts instead to stay in the conservative environs of Pleasantville as Mary Sue. She’s had an epiphany, an awakening, of her own and is rejecting her modern chaotic promiscuous life. “I’ve tried the slut thing, David. It got old”. (Does she share that epiphany with the newly active kids out at the formerly chaste Lover’s Lane?)

It validates the nuclear family of Pleasantville by contrast as Toby Maguire returns to 1998 as David and finds his mother crying at the kitchen table, where she is unsuccessfully trying to date at age 40. “Where’s my perfect house? Where’s my perfect car?” It’s the wrong question in 1998 and 2012. Where’s your family? I see her at that table, sad and unsatisfied, and I have to ask the question: What was so wrong with pleasant?

We wrap up our time in Pleasantville with William Macy and Joan Allen sitting side by side on a park bench, both now in Technicolor, and smiling blissfully. “Where is all of this heading?”, one asks. “I don’t know”, says the other.

Well, I have an idea where it’s all heading. We get a clue from the choice of song they selected to take us into the credits. I recognized it immediately. It’s “Across the Universe” by the Beatles. The Beatles. Ah, yes. We’re headed to the 60s and 70s. To political upheaval. To cultural revolution. Away from the nuclear family as an ideal. Away from Pleasantville.