February 11, 2012

1. Hoop Dreams

I strongly recommend a film called Hoop Dreams (1994). It’s a documentary, almost three hours long, about the basketball ambitions of two 14-year-old black boys in the Chicago ghetto. It follows Arthur Agee and William Gates through high school and into college. With respect to basketball, Hoop Dreams is very good, but it’s even better at depicting life in the ghetto: the religion, the schools, the economics, the drugs, the family issues, etc.

Critics raved about Hoop Dreams: Gene Siskel called it the best film of 1994, Roger Ebert called it the best film of the decade, and it was “ranked #1 on the International Documentary Association’s Top 25 Documentaries list, based on polling of members in 2007.”1 Siskel and Ebert were the first people to see the film. Ebert said, “When the movie was over we remained in our seats for a minute or two before speaking. Neither one of us had ever seen anything like it.” Two years ago, Ebert wrote “Today, fifteen years after I first saw it, I believe Hoop Dreams is the great American documentary. No other documentary has ever touched me more deeply.” One critic called it, “A movie not to be missed, one of the most insightful, accurate, affecting, least sentimental, least propagandized treatments of Afro-American family life I’d ever seen.”

It’s also interesting to follow the fortunes of Agee and Gates after the release of the film. Both Agee’s father and his half-brother were murdered, as was Gates’ brother. At last count, Agee has four children, all born out of wedlock, all born to different mothers. Agee seems determined not to have a steady job, but rather to make a living through various schemes that draw on his film celebrity. Meanwhile, Gates is still married to the woman with whom he had a child as a high-school junior; they now have four children. Gates makes a living as a pastor and social worker.

If there’s a villain in Hoop Dreams, it’s the suburban Catholic school, and its hard-nosed basketball coach.

2. Other Movies

A. I recommend Crossing Delancey (1988), about a 33-year-old single Jewish woman in Manhattan. Her grandmother thinks she should be married, and tries to set her up with a man who sells pickles. Meanwhile, she meets well-known writers through her job at a bookstore, and she doesn’t think a pickle-seller is right for her. It’s a tasteful and intelligent movie.

B. I also saw a movie called Of Gods and Men (2010), a French movie with English subtitles. It tells the true story of a small group of French Trappist monks living in Algeria. At first, one is struck by the friendly relations between the monks and the Muslim natives. Later, however, the monks are caught up in the Algerian civil war, a war that lasted from 1992 to 2002, and claimed the lives of more than 150,000 Algerians. The war pitted Islamic fundamentalists against the army. The monks don’t take a vow of silence, like the monks in a film I discussed earlier; instead, they listen to sermons, readings from the Bible, and even tapes of classical music. It’s a sincere, truthful movie, and highly praised by critics.

C. I saw an excellent documentary, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), based on a book of the same name. It describes how Enron, the giant, Houston-based corporation, cultivated the art, not of making money, but of appearing to make money. It also describes how Enron manipulated the California electricity supply, resulting in blackouts for California, and profits for Enron.

D. Also saw an Italian movie called Golden Door (Nuovomondo), about a Sicilian family that emigrates to the U.S. It was released in 2006, and is partly in Italian, partly in English. It deals with the nitty-gritty of emigration; it puts the viewer into the shoes of the average emigrant, the poor, illiterate emigrant.

E. In a recent issue, I discussed Anonymous, a Shakespeare movie directed by Roland Emmerich. Emmerich also produced a Shakespeare documentary called Last Will. & Testament, which will be released soon.

3. Fall River Dreams

Saw an ESPN film, Unguarded, about the basketball player Chris Herren. The most memorable scene was when Herren said that, after he broke free of his addiction to drugs, his wife asked him why his razor and toothbrush were no longer in the shower. He had started using his razor and toothbrush at the sink, because he no longer dreaded seeing himself in the mirror, he had started to like himself. The film ends with Herren shaving at the sink, in front of the mirror.

I give Herren credit for having the candor to discuss this, and for knowing that it was worth discussing; he seems to have a “conversation touch” as well as a “shooting touch,” he knows what’s interesting, what makes a good film or a good book or a good talk.

Another memorable scene was Herren re-visiting his rehab center, standing at a sink full of dishes, saying how he found himself during the long hours that he had spent as the rehab center’s dishwasher. He compared the experience to meditation.

I also read the book Fall River Dreams, which deals with the basketball team at Durfee High School in Fall River, Massachusetts. Herren was the star of that team, so much of the book deals with him. Fall River has been a dying mill town for about 75 years, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to revive it. For many years, Fall River prided itself on its successful basketball teams, but now that tradition has faded.

Like most New England towns, Fall River was originally settled by Protestants, such as the Borden family, whose most famous member, Lizzie Borden, was accused of murdering her step-mother and father. Later, there were some prosperous Jewish businessmen in Fall River. Gradually, however, the Protestants and Jews drifted away. Fall River’s mills were manned largely by Catholics — Irish, French-Canadians, Italians, Portuguese, etc. There were also some Lebanese Christians, such as Skip Karam, the basketball coach. Many immigrants came from Portuguese islands (the Azores).

The decline of Protestant influence in Fall River can be seen as part of a larger trend. In the early days of the U.S., Protestants were in the ascendant. Of the 56 people who signed the Declaration of Independence, 55 were Protestant and 1 was Catholic (Charles Carroll of Maryland). The Supreme Court was entirely Protestant until 1836. Now, however, the Supreme Court has six Catholics, three Jews, and no Protestants.

In recent decades, there has been an influx of Cambodians into Fall River, and of poor black families who have been squeezed out of Boston by rising rents. But the smaller towns of southeastern Massachusetts haven’t attracted Cambodians and blacks, so they remain predominantly white.

While Fall River was traditionally a white city, the same wasn’t true of nearby New Bedford. Being a whaling city, New Bedford became the home of people who worked in the whaling industry, many of whom were non-white (as we see in Moby Dick). And like Nantucket, New Bedford attracted people from the Cape Verde islands, people who were a mix of black-African and white-Portuguese.

I grew up in Westport, Connecticut, an affluent suburb of New York. Westport had large Jewish and Protestant populations, and a Catholic population that was mostly Italian and Irish. I don’t remember any Portuguese in Westport; we used the term “Portuguese” for Nantucket’s Cape Verde population.

4. Moby Dick Marathon

A year ago, I discussed the Moby Dick Marathon — a public reading of Moby Dick that takes place every January at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. I recently attended the 2012 Marathon — or rather, the first couple hours of it. Before the public reading begins, there’s a game called Stump the Scholars, in which the public asks questions of two teams of experts; the teams earn points for answering the questions.

As I entered, they were recruiting people to ask questions, so I decided to ask about synchronicity in Moby Dick. When it was my turn to ask my question, I tried to explain what I meant by synchronicity, I gave some examples of it. I said I had found two examples of synchronicity in Moby Dick, and one example in Melville’s biography; all three of these examples involved animal behavior that was “moving to the same beat” as human behavior.

Synchronicity is a difficult concept to grasp, it may never have been discussed in relation to Melville, and the experts seemed unfamiliar with it. They mentioned various human-animal parallels; one expert spoke about the Grand Armada chapter. I said that these are examples of symbolism, or “linked analogy” (to use Melville’s phrase), but not synchronicity. Synchronicity means two events that occur at the same time (or roughly the same time) and have a similar meaning, but aren’t causally linked.

But one expert mentioned the sharks that appear alongside the whaleboat at the end of the novel; these sharks are one of the two examples of synchronicity that I found in Moby Dick. Nobody mentioned the other example — the hawk removing Ahab’s hat and dropping it in the water.

Two experts found synchronicity in the following passage:

That for six thousand years — and no one knows how many millions of ages before — the great whales should have been spouting all over the sea, and sprinkling and mistifying the gardens of the deep, as with so many sprinkling or mistifying pots; and that for some centuries back, thousands of hunters should have been close by the fountain of the whale, watching these sprinklings and spoutings — that all this should be, and yet, that down to this blessed minute (fifteen and a quarter minutes past one o’clock P. M. of this sixteenth day of December, A. D. 1850), it should still remain a problem, whether these spoutings are, after all, really water, or nothing but vapor — this is surely a noteworthy thing.

Perhaps they found synchronicity here because the author takes the unusual step of mentioning the exact day and time when he’s writing. They both seemed convinced that the above passage treats whale spoutings as a symbol for writing, a symbol for an author spouting ink. I told them that I didn’t see this symbolism; sometimes a hat is just a hat, and sometimes a discussion of whale anatomy is just a discussion of whale anatomy. Melville had a keen interest in whale anatomy, and was evidently puzzled by the fact that people couldn’t decide whether whales spouted water or vapor. Why should we suppose that Melville is using spouting as a symbol for writing? Is there any evidence to support that interpretation?

I said that it seemed to me that the experts were reading something into the paragraph — something that wasn’t really there. I kept saying, “I don’t see it, I just don’t see it,” to which they responded, “it’s there, it’s definitely there,” without providing any evidence, or giving any reasons. Melville had a keen interest in whale anatomy, but he also had a penchant for symbols and allegories, so it isn’t easy to draw the line, it isn’t easy to say what’s anatomy and what’s symbolism. I think academics are too prone to find symbols because symbols are material for interpretations, essays, etc., whereas anatomy doesn’t offer as much material for interpretations/essays.

D. H. Lawrence and other critics have argued that the greatness of Melville is in his pure descriptions, and the weakness of Melville is in his allegory and philosophizing. My view of the above passage — that it should be taken at face value, that it isn’t meant to symbolize something else — may reflect better on Melville than the contrary view.

5. Miscellaneous

A. Among today’s high-school students, there’s a deplorable ignorance of the basic facts of history. I think all high-school students should be required to pass a test on the six wives of Henry VIII, and the three wives of Newt Gingrich.

B. The New York Times reports that Australian universities are teaching alternative medicine, provoking a storm of protest from those who believe in conventional medicine and “hard science.” One person said, “We’ve been concerned for a long time that in this most scientific of all ages, pseudoscience seems to be flourishing.” While defenders of hard science and narrow thinking are losing ground in Australia, things are different in Britain, where the government recently withdrew funding for alternative-medicine courses.

C. A recent New York Times article discusses the dramatic decrease in New York City’s crime rate. It mentions a book by Franklin Zimring called The City That Became Safe. Zimring downplays the importance of stopping “little crimes,” like jumping subway turnstiles and urinating in public:

Nothing really seems to account for New York’s [reduction in crime] other than increases in police resources and strategies focused on serious crime, and not, according to Mr. Zimring, the often mythologized “quality of life,” or so-called “broken windows” strategies that concentrate on, say, public prostitution or gambling.

The article praises the “CompStat” system, which maps crime, and discusses crime data with local officers: “In CompStat sessions, local commanders must go into granular detail about recent crimes and face tough but fair-minded questioning from bosses.”

6. Turkey

There has been talk lately that, as a result of the uprisings in the Arab world, Turkey is becoming more influential in the region. Instead of focusing on Europe, and trying to become a member of the European Union, Turkey is focusing on the Islamic world. Turkey is becoming more Islamic itself, moving away from the secular approach that it took in the past.

Turkey’s brand of Islam might be called “Islam without bombs.” It isn’t as extreme, as anti-Western as Iranian Shiism and Saudi Wahhabism. A few months ago, when Turkey’s leader, Recep Erdogan, visited Egypt, he was greeted by the Muslim Brotherhood, but “upset his pious hosts by preaching about the importance of a secular government that provides freedom of religion.”2

Turkey spawned the Gulen Movement, which has set up high schools in the Islamic world. The Gulen Movement is inspired by Sufi Islam, and has the broad-minded attitude characteristic of Sufism.3 (In an earlier issue, I discussed how Islamic extremists regarded Sufis as heretics, and were bombing Sufi shrines.)

The Economist described the Gülen movement as a Turkish-based movement which sounds more reasonable than most of its rivals, and which is vying to be recognized as the world’s leading Muslim network. It stated that Gülen has won praise from non-Muslim quarters with its belief in science, inter-faith dialog and multi-party democracy.... [Gulen represents] a gentler approach to Islam that could help reduce the influence of extremism.4

© L. James Hammond 2012
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1. Wikipedia back
2. New York Times, 1/14/12, “The Empires Strike Back,” by Soner Cagaptay back
3. New York Times, 1/14/12, “The Empires Strike Back,” by Soner Cagaptay back
4. Wikipedia back