Capitalism: A Love Story — The perils of greed and injustice

Film:Capitalism: A Love Story Movie Poster

Capitalism: A Love Story

Starring Michael Moore

Synopsis (From IMDB):

On the 20-year anniversary of his groundbreaking masterpiece Roger & Me, Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story comes home to the issue he’s been examining throughout his career: the disastrous impact of corporate dominance on the everyday lives of Americans (and by default, the rest of the world). But this time the culprit is much bigger than General Motors, and the crime scene far wider than Flint, Michigan. From Middle America, to the halls of power in Washington, to the global financial epicenter in Manhattan, Michael Moore will once again take film goers into uncharted territory. With both humor and outrage, Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story explores a taboo question: What is the price that America pays for its love of capitalism? Years ago, that love seemed so innocent. Today, however, the American dream is looking more like a nightmare as families pay the price with their jobs, their homes and their savings. Moore takes us into the homes of ordinary people whose lives have been turned upside down; and he goes looking for explanations in Washington, DC and elsewhere. What he finds are the all-too-familiar symptoms of a love affair gone astray: lies, abuse, betrayal…and 14,000 jobs being lost every day. Capitalism: A Love Story is both a culmination of Moore’s previous works and a look into what a more hopeful future could look like. It is Michael Moore’s ultimate quest to answer the question he’s posed throughout his illustrious filmmaking career: Who are we and why do we behave the way that we do?

My Thoughts:

I was a little skeptical going into this film because Michael Moore can be a bit of a bully in his films, but I really liked the message of this one.  Michael Moore looks at how capitalism enables greed and the accumulation of wealth into the hands of the few.  Really what this film is about is injustice.  There is a poignant part of the film in which there are protesters who were illegally laid off without notice or backpay and they were holding up signs that said “All religions promote justice”.    But I get ahead of myself.

Moore’s true critique comes in the deregulation of capitalism.  We have had this experiment for a while, but during the first half of the century regulations were put in place to cap greed and to put use wealth to help all of society.  The myth is that those who work hard will make more money, but Moore looked at airline pilots who were on food stamps and others who were clearly working hard but not getting by, versus those in the financial industry who capitalize off the labor of others without adding any value to that labor.

Moore is not criticizing rich people in general.  What he is criticizing is those who get rich at the expense of others, those who are willing to take 10 million dollar bonuses when there are others in their company who are either being laid off or working below the poverty line. And he is criticizing the poor for falling for the American Dream and allowing deregulation in hopes that one day they too will be rich.  And he is criticizing the government for putting the needs and interests of the richest 1% ahead of the rest of the citizens’ needs.

The problem is that with wealth should come responsibility.  There should be gratitude with having material means and stability, and there are some wealthy who practice the virtue of generosity and work to help the poor.

O YE RICH ONES ON EARTH! The poor in the midst are My trust; guard ye My trust, and be not intent only on your own ease. ~Baha’u’llah

or if you prefer sterner language:

O CHILDREN OF DUST!  Tell the rich of the midnight sighing of the poor, lest heedlessness lead them into the path of destruction, and deprive them of the Tree of Wealth.  To give and be generous are attributes of Mine; well is it with him that adorneth himself with My virtues. ~Baha’u’llah

The problem is that poverty leads to instability.  Poverty leads to desperation and raised crime rates.  If we want peace we have to work on ending poverty, on creating jobs and protecting our poor over profits.

“The inordinate disparity between rich and poor, a source of acute suffering, keeps the world in a state of instability, virtually on the brink of war. Few societies have dealt effectively with this situation. The solution calls for the combined application of spiritual, moral and practical approaches. A fresh look at the problem is required, entailing consultation with experts from a wide spectrum of disciplines, devoid of economic and ideological polemics, and involving the people directly affected in the decisions that must urgently be made. It is an issue that is bound up not only with the necessity for eliminating extremes of wealth and poverty but also with those spiritual verities the understanding of which can produce a new universal attitude. Fostering such an attitude is itself a major part of the solution.”
(The Universal House of Justice, 1985 Oct, The Promise of World Peace, p. 3)

In the end this is how we will be judged and how Michael Moore already is judging the American society.  There was a time when we enacted a New Deal, when we championed a Great Society but that is no longer.  Instead the middle class is eroding and poverty rates are increasing as we deal with this economic crisis created by the greed of the financial industry and what is essentially legalized gambling (microtrading).

A democratic society is to be judged not by its success in catering to the needs of its privileged members or even its average ones. Instead, look at how it treats the poor, the disadvantaged, the ill – and the unpopular. ~ Lord Wolf, UK’s Chief Justice

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Amistad — Discovering Truth

Film:

Amistad, 1997Amistad DVD Cover

Starring Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, Morgan Freeman, Stellan Skarsgard, and Anthony Hopkins.

Synopsis (from IMDB):

Amistad is the name of a slave ship traveling from Cuba to the U.S. in 1839. It is carrying a cargo of Africans who have been sold into slavery in Cuba, taken on board, and chained in the cargo hold of the ship. As the ship is crossing from Cuba to the U.S., Cinque, who was a tribal leader in Africa, leads a mutiny and takes over the ship. They continue to sail, hoping to find help when they land. Instead, when they reach the United States, they are imprisoned as runaway slaves. They don’t speak a word of English, and it seems like they are doomed to die for killing their captors when an abolitionist lawyer decides to take their case, arguing that they were free citizens of another country and not slaves at all. The case finally gets to the Supreme Court, where John Quincy Adams makes an impassioned and eloquent plea for their release.

My Thoughts:

This film touches upon many different ethical and spiritual themes. The film centers upon a slave revolt on the Spanish ship “La Amistad” and the subsequent court cases in the United States as the justice system tries to unweave the various crimes from their victims and perpetrators. As for spiritual themes, there is the obvious issue of slavery itself, and the injustice it represents, but there are some other more subtle themes interwoven into this larger one.  The Abolitionists, who serve as advocates for the slaves, are ardent Christians and see slavery as opposed to their faith.  Other Christians come and pray at the prison in which the West Africans are being held.  The faith of the West Africans themselves is in question, though they could be Muslim due to a few shots of them on the boat praying all together in one direction, potentially Mecca.
Throughout the film, each side begins to better understand the other.  At first the West Africans seem wild and violent to the Americans, and even their advocates are at time confused, frustrated, or fearful of their behavior.  The Americans are just as strange to the Africans who cannot understand their language, or customs, and are also confused to see freed American blacks dressed just like those of European heritage.  Throughout the film, the advocates strive to learn the language and to find a translator, and to better understand the West Africans so that they can better serve them.  The West Africans also learn more of the ways of the white people when they are given a Bible.  Through the pictures they see the suffering these people went through as well, and how they revere Christ as in every picture “the sun follows him”.

“When a man turns his face to God he finds sunshine everywhere.  All men are his brothers.  Let not conventionality cause you to seem cold and unsympathetic when you meet strange people from other countries… Let it be seen that you are filled with universal love.” ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

While this may seem over simplified or contrived, I think it is important to think about how people of different cultures learn about one another.  In this age of the Internet, and global tele-communications, it is much easier and more common to interact with people from different places, cultures, and backgrounds.  Two hundred years ago, while there was still cultural interaction for sure, mixing took effort and was not on equal footing.  It took months for ships to cross the ocean, and people were brought over under duress.  The effort of the abolitionists to truly understand the West Africans cannot be taken lightly.  It really was a sign of changing times.
Another interesting dilemma throughout the film was the issue of what was a “win” to the Abolitionists.  The property lawyer argued that he could get the West Africans acquitted for murder of the crew by claiming they were unlawfully acquired property, since in 1839 slaves were no longer supposed to be taken, but had to be born into slavery.  To the Abolitionists this was repugnant since the West Africans were just as human as they were and to use the language of property would be backward.  But what is most important? Noble ideas or action?  If this could save the West Africans from the death penalty, and could allow them to return to Africa is it ok?

“Some men and women glorify in their exalted thoughts, but if these thoughts never reach the plane of action they remain useless: the power of thought is dependent on its manifestation in deeds.” ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

In the end, after taking the case to the Supreme Court and getting a favorable verdict, one of the Christian Abolitionists argued that perhaps it would have been better for the greater Abolitionist cause had the West Africans been put to death, since martyrdom tended to motivate individuals to action and to fight for change.  He pointed to the example of Christ.  While this may be true, it disgusted the other Abolitionist, a freed slave himself, since life itself is sacred and it should be the goal to free these innocent people who were defending themselves, and not to seek the martyrdom of other people.
This film really caused me to grapple with our cultural heritage, as well as how far we’ve come.  The most progressive people in the 1839 case would probably seem pretty backwards now.  It was 5 years that the Báb came heralding in the new age and calling people to unity, and 11 years later that He Himself was martyred.  I can see how humanity so very much needed the message of love and unity He and Bahá’u’lláh after Him, championed.

“Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.  Deal ye one another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship.” ~ Bahá’u’lláh

La Vie en Rose — Crisis and Victory

La Vie en Rose Movie PosterFilm:

La Vie en Rose (French title: La môme), 2007

Starring Marion Cotillard and Gérard Depardieu.

Synopsis (from NetFlix):

In this biopic, director Olivier Dahan creates a loving portrait of legendary Parisian singer Edith Piaf (played by Marion Cotillard in an Oscar-winning performance), whose passion for music saw her through a life filled with tragedy. The film follows the chanteuse from her forlorn childhood in a brothel to her big break at Louis Leplée’s (Gérard Depardieu) nightclub and her premature death at age 47. Sylvie Testud and Pascal Greggory co-star.

My Thoughts:

I love learning, and through this film I felt that I learned a lot.  I had absolutely no idea what this movie was about, even after watching Marion Cotillard accept an Oscar for her performance in it, but decided to check it out.  I am glad I did because it is important to experience and learn about people who have strongly influenced culture beyond one’s own nation.

It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens. ~ Bahá’u’lláh

This film focuses around the life of Edith Piaf, a famous French singer, and her life filled with tragedy and beauty.  She went through more hardships in the first decade of her life than I probably have yet.  Edith was born to a cabaret singing mother, and a father who was serving in the army during World War I.  Her mother was an alcoholic who would often leave her alone, or on the street when she performed.

When he father returned from the war he took Edith away from her mother, and deposited her with her grandmother who was the matron of a brothel.  Edith then lived in the brothel, when she got an infection which left her blind for most of her childhood.  The women of the brothel saved money to take Edith on pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Theresa where they prayed for healing for Edith so that she could regain her sight, which she eventually did, and this incident left her with a life long faith in St. Theresa whom she would pray to when times continued to get rough.

O thou maid-servant of the Blessed Perfection! Be thou not sad, neither be thou unhappy, although the divine tests are violent, yet are they conducive to the life of the soul and the heart. The more often the pure gold is thrown into the furnace of test, the greater will become its purity and brilliancy and it will acquire a new splendor and brightness. I hope that thou art thyself in such a position.

Consider thou the lives of the former sanctified souls; what tests have they not withstood and what persecutions have they not beheld; while they were surrounded with calamities they increased their firmness and while they were overwhelmed with tests they manifested more zeal and courage. Be thou also like unto them. ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
The tests did not end there.  Edith had grown fond of these women, who, despite the infamy of their trade and the desperation that brought them to it, had cared for her and showed her love and compassion.  Then her father returned pulling her away to join him on the road where he worked as a contortionist for the circus.  Again Edith adapted, and grew to like the circus, when her father quit do to an argument with the owner.  Again, Edith was forced to abandon something she loved for a life of a street performer.  This was a theme in her life, loss and abandonment.
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my groaning?  ~Psalms 22:1
However it was through this event that she was able to discover her gift.  When on the street as her Dad performed, one day the crowd wanted the girl in the act.  Not knowing what to do she sang the French national anthem.  Her voice was strong and endearing.  The crowd applauded vigorously and tossed coins her way.  She soon learned to sing for her supper.
Music is God’s gift to man, the only art of Heaven given to earth, the only art of earth we take to Heaven. ~ Walter Savage Landor
It took her 10 more years of singing on the street and in cabarets, getting mixed up with pimps and ruffians, before he luck turned (for a little while at least).  She was discovered by a night club owner, Louis Leplée, who was able to give her a steady paycheck and audience, and save her from a life on the street.  But, like every good thing in Edith’s life it was soon taken away.  Louis Leplée was murdered, most likely from the mafia, and connections Edith had made on the street.  This was a real tragedy for her as Leplée had been her savior of sorts, and unintentionally she had gotten him killed.
O SON OF MAN! Should prosperity befall thee, rejoice not, and should abasement come upon thee, grieve not, for both shall pass away and be no more. ~ Bahá’u’lláh
This would not be the last time she grieved for an untimely death.  Later, once she became even more professionally successful through connections Louis had made for her, her lover died in a plane crash.  Already used to self-medicating through the use of alcohol, this event through her into a life long alcoholism which contributed to a car crash she was in that left her arthritic and in pain, contributing to cycle of addiction.  We find out later that this love of her life, Marcel, shared a name with the only child Edith bore, a daughter named Marcelle, who died at the age of two from Meningitis, back when Edith was still living on the street.
Love consists not in feeling great things but in having great detachment and in suffering for the Beloved. The soul that is attached to anything, however much good there may be in it, will not arrive at the liberty of Divine union. For whether it be a strong wire rope or a slender and delicate thread that holds the bird, it matters not, if it really holds it fast; for until the cord be broken, the bird cannot fly.
~ St. John of the Cross
It was music that was able to get her through the tough times.  Edith loved to bring joy to the faces of the people in the audience.  Her music was also a catharsis as she commissioned ballads that dealt with the suffering she had faced, as well as those to uplift.  Even when she was dying from liver failure, she bolstered up the strength to sing one last time at the Olympia a song which summed up her life, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, translated as No Regrets:
No, nothing at all, I regret nothing at all
Not the good, nor the bad. It is all the same.
No, nothing at all, I have no regrets about anything.
It is paid, wiped away, forgotten.
I am not concerned with the past, with my memories.
I set fire to my pains and pleasures,
I don’t need them anymore.
I have wiped away my loves, and my troubles.
Swept them all away.
I am starting again from zero.

No, nothing at all, I have no regrets
Because from today, my life, my happiness, everything,
Starts with you!

Edith may not have always made the best choices.  She was human, and she dealt with a lot of suffering, in mostly two ways- the healthy: music, and the unhealthy: alcohol.  Her alcoholism and addiction to pain medication, was both tragic and yet understandable considering the repeated loss in her life of every person she loved, and both the physical and emotional pain she had to bear.  Her love for music is what kept her alive and kept her from thoughts of suicide, and without music she did not want to live.  She would take shots of painkillers to have the strength to go on stage after the car accident that left her crippled.  The doctors were conflicted knowing that her performing was killing her, but also knowing that it was keeping her spirit alive and giving her the will to go on.  I think there is a lot to learn from here and a lot to think about when we live our own lives, as well as when we see others making choices that perhaps we do not fully understand.  We cannot know fully the suffering others go through, but in Edith’s case, she was able to channel her suffering into her art and bring beauty into the world through her music.


Sunshine Cleaning — Turning Dirty Work into Service

Sunshine Cleaning PosterFilm:

Sunshine Cleaning, 2009

Starring Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin, and Steve Zahn.

Synopsis (From IMDB):

Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) finds herself a single mother attempting to support her son Oscar (Jason Spevack) and her unreliable sister Norah (Emily Blunt) while working a mundane job as a maid. Once the head cheerleader in school with plenty of prospects, Rose now has little to show for her years, and while she still sees the former lead football player (Steve Zahn), it is little more than a despondent affair. When Oscar is expelled from public school, Rose takes a job as a bio-hazard crime-scene cleaner to help pay for a private education, and brings Norah on to help in her steadily growing business. As the sisters work to clean up the messes left behind by the chaotic lives of others, they must learn to reconcile their own differences and overcome a troubled past if they hope to prosper in their newfound venture.

My Thoughts:

I do not know why I have been attracted to watching films which have centered around death lately.  Perhaps that is what life and spirituality are all about: to prepare us for death and encourage us to make the most of the time we have on earth.

Sunshine Cleaning focusses on people who have struggled with making the most out of life.  It is revealed throughout the film that there are actually a lot of unresolved issues as well as grief- burdens that justifiably have weighed on these very real, and very relatable characters- which explain why it has been hard for them to thrive.  This films does an excellent job of feeling real, like you could actually know these people.  They do not have superpowers, they are not uncommenly witty, things do not work out magically for them.  Instead, they are people like you or me who have to struggle with work and with daily life.

Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) immediately captures your heart.  She tries to keep upbeat despite having a lousy job, raising a child alone, and having to care for her quirky father, and her nare-do-well  sister.  She is also having an affair with her (now married) high school sweetheart.  Her self esteem has taken quite a beating and her parental and financial troubles are incredibly stressful, yet she does not give up and strives to remain upbeat even if the smile is strained.

Therefore, strive to show in the human world that women are most capable and efficient, that their hearts are more tender and susceptible than the hearts of men, that they are more philanthropic and responsive toward the needy and suffering, that they are inflexibly opposed to war and are lovers of peace. ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

When an opportunity presents itself Rose decides to start her own business and go into Bio-hazard Crime Scene cleaning.  At first she has no idea what she is doing, but with the help of her sister and a friendly Janitorial Supply Store owner, she is able to build it up.  She decides to call the business “Sunshine Cleaning” which is indicative of her outlook.  Crime scenes are messy.  They are full of blood and often other vile things like rotting food or trash.  People look at what she does as morbid.  Yet Rose looks past that to the good, of being able to help people through a hard time and making the world a little better and easier for them.

“We come into people’s lives when they’ve experienced something profound.  And we help. In some small way, we help.” ~ Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams)

This is really what I would like to focus on, how to Rose this is not just a job, it’s a service.  It is a way she can show people love and compassion.  Crime scenes are not easy deaths.  She cleans up homicides and suicides, and there are people left behind in shock dealing with the tragedy.  This is juxtaposed with her prior job cleaning homes of the privileged, of partying college students.  While is is the same skill set, the same technical job, cleaning the homes of the dead and removing the bio-hazards and evidence of crime takes it to another level.  Any job we do, whether maid, doctor, accountant, or engineer, can be transformed into a spiritual experience when we think of the people we are serving and put them first.  Rose did just that.

The education of each child is compulsory…. In addition to this wide-spread education each child must be taught a profession, art, or trade, so that every member of the community will be enabled to earn his own livelihood.  Work done in the spirit of service is the highest form of worship…  ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

And she discovered this profession in a time of her own desperation.  Her son was given the ultimatum to go on behavior modifying drugs or be kicked out of school.  She knew that drugging her son was not the answer and wanted to put him in a school that would better cater to his learning differences.  Out of love for him she tried a new job, despite her misgivings, and discovered her love for it and the people she was able to help.

Unfortunately it was almost all taken away from her when there was fire which brunt down a clients house.  Rose had been waiting for the results of her certification exam before purchasing insurance for her business, hoping a good result would lead to lower rates and therefore had no safety net.  She was devastated to watch everything she had worked for, literally, go up in flames.

O SON OF MAN! Should prosperity befall thee, rejoice not, and should abasement come upon thee, grieve not, for both shall pass away and be no more. ~ Bahá’u’lláh

Another thing we learned in this film is the strength of family, because her father ended up sacrificing his own home to help her start a new Crime Scene Cleanup business.  By selling his house he was able to show how much he loved her, how much faith her had in her capacity, and how much he thought her business (and the service it provided)  was worth.

Word must be conjoined with deed. You must love your friend better than yourself; yes, be willing to sacrifice yourself… I desire that you be ready to sacrifice everything for each other, even life itself…   ~’Abdu’l-Bahá

Watching this film made me ask myself: Am I ready to serve?  Am I ready to truly sacrifice?  On this earth we all have a part to play, and what I do know is that I too am not living to my fullest capacity.  I could serve with a pure heart more often, and sacrifice my time, means, and energy more fully, and help to bring a little more love and a little more peace to this world.  So often when we talk about peace we think big, ending wars, but wars are just social ills scaled upward.  In the Lorkowski family there were internal wars that needed a peaceful resolution.  So often when we talk of love we talk of romance, but love is more than that.

I charge you all that each one of you concentrate all the thoughts of your heart on love and unity. When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love.  Thoughts of war bring destruction to all harmony, well-being, restfulness and content. Thoughts of love are constructive of brotherhood, peace, friendship, and happiness. ~’Abdu’l-Bahá

I can do these two things.  I can conquer my thoughts of hate with thoughts of love, and I can overcome thoughts of war with thoughts of peace, and maybe in doing that bit by bit day by day, I like Rose can make the world a little better.

Your Thoughts?

Watchmen — Justice, Accountability, and Distopia

Film:Watchmen Poster

Watchmen, 2009

Starring Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Patrick Wilson.

Synopsis (from IMDB):

In a gritty and alternate 1985 the glory days of costumed vigilantes have been brought to a close by a government crackdown, but after one of the masked veterans is brutally murdered an investigation into the killer is initiated. The reunited heroes set out to prevent their own destruction, but in doing so discover a deeper and far more diabolical plot.

My Thoughts:

I am the type of person that enjoys lighthearted films, films that make me laugh and pick me up, films that inspire.  That being said, sometimes gritty, raw, and dark films can also inspire.  Watchmen is definitely a downer, as one can tell from the opening credits as the heroes fall from favor as society turns against them and they must go into hiding.  But there is a lot we can learn from these dark emotions that Watchmen so artfully invokes.

I have talked about justice before, but this film focuses so heavily on it that I feel it is important to discuss again.  In an ideal society government would function in a way to serve and protect its citizens.  Unfortunately in this universe, during World War II society needed assistance.  The Watchmen formed and were initially heralded as heroes, though soon were villianized as vigilantes.

Much of this had to do with the Watchmen wearing masks.  This anonymity gave the appearance of a lack of accountability as the public rallied crying “Who watches the Watchmen”?

O SON OF BEING! Bring thyself to account each day ere thou art summoned to a reckoning; for death, unheralded, shall come upon thee and thou shalt be called to give account for thy deeds. ~ Bahá’u’lláh

Accountability is important.  Afterall the film, as well as the graphic novel it is based on, showed that there were reasons for the people to be weary of the Watchmen.  They were just people too, afterall, and while some had noble intentions, others, like the Comedian, acted on more base instincts.

But the film does not stop on the surface level of accountability.  As we can see in the current economic crisis, people without masks can be just as wreckless as those who remain hidden.  In the movie this comes to light through the one living Watchman who had “gone public”.  He was viewed honorably and as a hero and a successful businessman, but he turned out to be the most deadly of all, whereas others like Night Owl had a strong moral compass that kept them accountable even masked.

I think that is a lesson we can all take to heart in our own lives and meditate on the true meaning of accountability.  For those who believe in God,ultimate accountability rests in His hands.  I think Watchmen really plays with the idea of loss of accountability.  This distopia lacked God, it lacked government, it lacked a social contract.  In that system it is little wonder that Ozymandias could see the sacrifice of several million people for peace as valid.  We can see how tragedy can unite people, and through unity peace can be achieved.  Maybe it was valid argument, but Ozymandias does not have the right to make that choice.

How can we build unity?  In a way that does not resort to destruction like it did in Watchmen.  I see this movie, and graphic novel as warning, a look into a world unchecked.  Some people see our world like that, but it does not have to be.  We can make good choices, and keep ourselves accountable.

I think I will end this post with a beautiful story from Persian culture about another Watchman.  I think it has a lot to do with seeing the end in the beginning, which was a theme of this film as well.  Rorschach could see there was something wrong before the others could, but he could not see the end as quickly as he would have liked.  Ozymandias believed the end was just.  Dr. Manhattan withdrew from humanity.  The difference, or perhaps similarity if you share Ozymandias’ point of view, is that the end in this scenario is good.   Perhaps the people should have listened to the Watchman, which watchman is up to you.  Without further ado, the story as recounted by Bahá’u’llá

There was once a lover who had sighed for long years in separation from his beloved, and wasted in the fire of remoteness. From the rule of love, his heart was empty of patience, and his body weary of his spirit; he reckoned life without her as a mockery, and time consumed him away. How many a day he found no rest in longing for her; how many a night the pain of her kept him from sleep; his body was worn to a sigh, his heart’s wound had turned him to a cry of sorrow. He had given a thousand lives for one taste of the cup of her presence, but it availed him not. The doctors knew no cure for him, and companions avoided his company; yea, physicians have no medicine for one sick of love, unless the favor of the beloved one deliver him.

At last, the tree of his longing yielded the fruit of despair, and the fire of his hope fell to ashes. Then one night he could live no more, and he went out of his house and made for the marketplace. On a sudden, a watchman followed

after him. He broke into a run, with the watchman following; then other watchmen came together, and barred every passage to the weary one. And the wretched one cried from his heart, and ran here and there, and moaned to himself: “Surely this watchman is Izrá’íl, my angel of death, following so fast upon me; or he is a tyrant of men, seeking to harm me.” His feet carried him on, the one bleeding with the arrow of love, and his heart lamented. Then he came to a garden wall, and with untold pain he scaled it, for it proved very high; and forgetting his life, he threw himself down to the garden.

And there he beheld his beloved with a lamp in her hand, searching for a ring she had lost. When the heart-surrendered lover looked on his ravishing love, he drew a great breath and raised up his hands in prayer, crying: “O God! Give Thou glory to the watchman, and riches and long life. For the watchman was Gabriel, guiding this poor one; or he was Isráfíl, bringing life to this wretched one!”

Indeed, his words were true, for he had found many a secret justice in this seeming tyranny of the watchman, and seen how many a mercy lay hid behind the veil. Out of wrath, the guard had led him who was athirst in love’s desert to the sea of his loved one, and lit up the dark night of absence with the light of reunion. He had driven one who was afar, into the garden of nearness, had guided an ailing soul to the heart’s physician.

Now if the lover could have looked ahead, he would have blessed the watchman at the start, and prayed on his behalf, and he would have seen that tyranny as justice; but since the end was veiled to him, he moaned and made his plaint in the beginning. Yet those who journey in the garden land of knowledge, because they see the end in the beginning, see peace in war and friendliness in anger.

Victor Victoria — Justice & Gender Roles

Victor Victoria Poster

Film:

Victor Victoria, 1982

Starring Julie Andrews, James Garner, Robert Preston, Leslie Ann Warren, Alex Karras, and John Rhys-Davies.

Synopsis (from NetFlix):

Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews) is a struggling soprano who, with help from a fellow performer (Robert Preston), finally finds success by posing as a male female impersonator. But what will happen when a nightclub owner (James Garner) finds himself attracted to Victoria’s cross-dressing male persona and begins to suspect “Victor” is really a woman? This gender-bending musical comedy received seven Oscar nominations and won for Best Score.

My Thoughts:

Firstly, any film which discusses gender roles and sexuality is bound to be controversial, even if it was made over 25 years ago, so before I go any further I would like to preface that whatever your opinion regarding homosexuality is, as well as of people who hold a different view than your own,  please keep this spiritual guidance in mind before commenting:

1“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.3“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”  ~ Matthew 7:1-5 (New International Version)

and

O SON OF BEING! How couldst thou forget thine own faults and busy thyself with the faults of others? Whoso doeth this is accursed of Me.  ~ Bahá’u’lláh, Arabic Hidden Word #26

When I first heard of this musical I thought it would be a mere comedy of mistaken identity and gender swapping, akin to a Shakespearean Comedy, and while it definitely has that feel and element, it also speaks on a deeper level.  In 1982, when this film came out, the United States had just gone through the Civil Rights movement,  Women’s Rights movement, and the Sexual Revolution.  Thoughts about what true justice meant were circulating around public consciousness, and being wrestled and debated with.  This film comes out of that context.

Victoria Grant is an amazing operatic soprano, yet due to the poor economy she is unable to find work in Paris during the 1930s.  She is so down on her luck she even auditions for a burlesque theater, insisting that she has a legitimate voice but the manager replies:

I’m looking for something
a little more illegitimate.

Victoria: I’m sure that with a little practice l…
Manager: Lady. That’s like a nun saying, with practice, she’d be a streetwalker.

However, Victoria is hungry and is about to be evicted so she is willing to compromise her virtue.  Toddy, a Gay nightclub performer, shows her kindness and as a result comes up with the idea that she should pretend to be a drag queen. Victoria is initially skeptical:

Victoria: Toddy, I don’t know how to act like a man.
Toddy: Contrary to the popular conception of how a man acts… there are different men who act in different ways.
Victoria: I mean, as opposed to the way women act.
Toddy: I am personally acquainted with at least a dozen men who act exactly like women…and vice versa.
Victoria: But there are some things that are naturally masculine.
Toddy: Name one.
Victoria: Peeing standing up.

This is interesting to me because it is true that society has carved out roles for men and roles for women and those who do not fit into those roles can feel excluded, or worse yet have assumptions made about them.  We should love all people and should not try to constrain people unnecessarily and unequally (clearly there are some social constraints that are necessary, like punishing theft or murder, but they should be applied across the board, regardless of gender or creed.  The constraints I am talking about here are things like not allowing certain people to pursue a profession based on their gender, class, or creed.)

Apparently there is no market for a woman with amazing musical talent, but there is a market for a man who can impersonate a woman with amazing musical talent.  However there is no man, so now a woman must pretend to be a man, who is pretending to be a woman.

This amuses me.  Truly, it is all about perception.  It should not matter if it is a man or a woman, we are equal in the sight of God, yet for the audience it does.  Perhaps because a man should not naturally be able to sing that high, or perhaps because it forces them to wonder about gender roles.

Victoria ends up being wildly successful but is conflicted when she begins to develop feelings for a man.  If she were to pursue the relationship it would either out her as a woman, or cause people to think that the man was gay.  Eventually they get together clandestinely but it soon becomes a problem:

Victoria: I mean, a woman pretending to be man pretending to be…

King: Well, you can stop pretending.

Victoria: And do what?

King: Be yourself.


Victoria: But, you see, I don’t think I want to. I’m a big star now. I’m a success… And something more. I find it all really fascinating. There are things available to me as a man…that I could never have as a woman. I’m emancipated.

Victoria: Would it be fair for me to ask you to give up your job?

King: lt’d be ridiculous.

Victoria: But you expect me to give up mine.

King: There’s a difference, for Christ’s sake!

Victoria: Right, but there shouldn’t be.

King: Well, look, I’m not the one pretending to be someone else.

I think there are two very different and equally important spiritual truths in this conversation that need to be teased out.  Both Victoria and King have valid points.  Victoria has experienced injustice.  Despite her talent and hard work, as a woman she was not able to find employment.  Also, once she got used to pretending to be a man she realized how much more freedom this lifestyle afforded her (this is the 1930s).  Victoria shouldn’t have to pretend to be a man to get work, she shouldn’t have to pretend to be a man to be respected, yet this was the case.

O SON OF SPIRIT! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes. ~ Bahá’u’lláh, Arabic Hidden Word #2

King is right though about her pretend game.  In the end she is lying, to herself and to the world.  What starts as innocent deception can cause a lot of emotional and social turmoil.  As much as we want to correct injustice we cannot do so by being unjust ourselves.

Truthfulness is the foundation of all human virtues. Without truthfulness progress and success, in all the worlds of God, are impossible for any soul. ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

The ending of the film was a bit confusing and unsatisfying, personally, because it did not resolve these problems.  Instead it seemed that Victoria chose to be with King and to give up her career, but maybe she will be able to continue singing now that people love her.  After all they clapped before she “revealed” she was a “man” so hopefully they would still enjoy the beautiful music despite the vessel it is in.

The Visitor — Unity amid Diversity

Film:The Visitor Movie Poster

The Visitor, 2007

Starring Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira, and Hiam Abbass.

Synopsis (from NetFlix):

Widowed professor Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins, in an Oscar-nominated role) discovers an immigrant couple, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira), squatting in his Manhattan flat and becomes wrapped up in their lives when Tarek is thrown into a detention center. A wonderful Hiam Abbass co-stars as Tarek’s mother, who forges an unlikely connection with Walter. Director Thomas McCarthy’s indie drama was nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards.

My Thoughts (warning… after paragraph one there be spoilers):

First of all, wow.  When I finished watching this movie I wanted to run and hug every member of my family.  Unfortunately nobody was home.  This movie does not sugar coat.  I would still call it a “feel good” movie, despite it’s painfully realistic ending, and highly recommend it to all who have not seen it.  It is an example of when art can transcend and speak to the soul, at least for me.  And with that, onto the content and discussion.

The film opens with scenes from Walter’s (Richard Jenkins) life.  It becomes pretty clear early on that he is a sad and isolated person, a widower who has not gotten over his wife’s death and has been living much of his life on auto-pilot.  I think this can happen to a lot of us, especially in grief.  Depression runs rampant in America as we all struggle to connect, to find our place and purpose in life.  It can be overwhelming to feel so alone.

He strives to learn the piano, which we discover later was his late wife’s instrument.  Music is his way of reaching out and trying to stay connected, and when he fails to perfect the piano his hope seems lost.  People often talk about the power of music, and it is true that it can uplift us.

We, verily, have made music as a ladder for your souls, a means whereby they may be lifted up unto the realm on high…  ~Bahá’u’lláh

The trajectory of his life changes as he is forced to go to New York for a conference.  It turns out Walter has kept an apartment there.  Presumably it is where he and his wife used to live, so he cannot bear to part with it but also has not lived there in a while due to the memories.  When he arrives he discovers a couple living there, unaware that he owned the place.  Zainab, from Senegal, and Tarik, from Syria, are a French speaking, Muslim couple who happen to also be illegal immigrants.

Walter initially kicks them out, but his heart warms when he realizes they have no place to go, so he allows them to stay.  Perhaps it was compassion, perhaps it was curiosity, or perhaps it was his soul crying out to end his lonliness.  This choice turns out to change his life, or rather to reawaken him.

I would like to pause here and talk about how amazing this premise is.  It really brings me hope.  Here are people from three continents, working and living together, to break through cultural barriers to learn about one another and the grow and share.  I find that absolutely beautiful.  New York City has often been described as the capital of the world, and the most diverse place on earth, but I think that all throughout the world more mixing is taking place.  Just look at the President of the United States.  Barack Obama is not just the first Black US President, but he is the first mixed-race US President, with a family that spans from Kansas, to Hawaii, to Kenya, and Indonesia.

Tarik takes the time to show Walter how to drum.  Tarik has taken an African drum and Middle Eastern musical influences and brought them together with jazz into a band.  He shows Walter this style, and slowly but surely coaxes him through it.  Walter loves it.  He may not be able to connect to the piano the way his wife had, but he can drum and through the music a smile is brought back to his face, and courage to his heart.

Unfortunately, after Tarik took Walter to a drum circle in Washington Park, he was stopped in the Subway and taken into custody for being Syrian.  Tarik was sent to a detention center waiting deportation.  Neither Zainab nor Tarik’s mother Moona could visit because their status was also in jeopardy. Walter takes it on as his duty to visit Tarik, being the only one who can.  Tarik opened his heart to Walter and shared his music, and Walter wanted to show love in return.

This is where the movie gets pretty sad.  Despite Tarik having applied for asylum due to persecution, it was not granted.  Everyone had to wait, and despite lawyers and appeals, it was to no avail: Tarik was deported.  Walter, however, was changed, and the film ends with him performing the drums in the subway, the way Tarik wished he had been able to do.

This film really plays with the notions of citizenship and of justice.  In this global world people strive to make new homes in new places.  Immigration is a controversial issue in America, and land born of immigrants.  If there were not global inequalities and injustices people would not become desparate enough to leave their home and family to come to NYC.  Walter had been a professor of Economics, studying Development in Third-World/non-Western/Developing countries, yet he had no solution.  This is more than just an economic, but a spiritual issue.

It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth  is but one country, and mankind its citizens.  ~ Bahá’u’lláh

Or as The Bible put it in Leviticus, and reaffirmed by Jesus Christ in Matthew:

Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.

In this modern world, with global travel and the internet, everyone has become our neighbors.  We may not be able to solve the large problems, after all the security became tight in response to terrorism, but we can work on the small ones.  Tarik did by helping Walter through a difficult time, and through showing love and compassion.  Walter did the same by trying his best to support Tarik, even if all he could do was visit.

There are small things we can all do, whether it is visiting a neighbor, or trying to learn more about other cultures and peoples, that can help the world through this time of transition.  We are no longer tribes, or even countries, but the world as one, and this film tried to wrestle with a topic we are all wrestling with in one way or another.

Your thoughts?