Sunday, August 18, 2013

Why Elysium is a ridiculous movie, but the first 30 minutes is worth seeing (or, why I hope socialist film is making a comeback)

I saw Elysium about a week ago, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot.  For the first thirty minutes, it’s a devastating film, portraying a world that does not feel too distant from our own: a land where the one percent of the one percent of the one percent (literally) floats above most human miseries, safe in a space station from the chaos below.  Folks down on the ground still work for their distant overlords, but their lives are as bad as any third world ghetto: not enough food, no reliable medical care, and a brutal police force that seems more concerned about bullying civilians that stopping gangs.  In fact, the residents of our future Los Angeles (the year is 2154)  use the Brazilian term, favela, to describe their shanty-towns: full of stolen cars, run by drug lords and crossed via dusty roads.  Spanish is spoken as often as English, and either car designs have stopped changing much or people are driving frames that are about 150 years old (which, given other means of locomotion in very poor parts of the world, might not be out of the realm of possibility). 

What the surface looks like in Elysium
The movie’s plot is pretty stupid, and I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about it.  Matt Damon plays Max, an orphan raised by Spanish-speaking nuns who’s childhood best-friend and first-love, Frey (Alice Braga) manages to get out (not to Elysium though) and become a nurse.  Meanwhile, Max did some time for stealing cars for the local kingpin, Spider, and is trying to get his life back on track and maybe even convince Frey he’s worth another shot.  But then, conflict!  Max gets nuclear radiation poisoning, has five days to live, does a few favors for Spiders, and winds up with information that could literally save everyone on Earth with the push of a button.  Like I said, it’s pretty stupid, and if you’re going for the plot, don’t go.

But the first hour—well, really just the first 30 minutes—is spellbinding.  Director Neil Blomkamp has already proven his ability to portray abject poverty with compassion, even beauty, and yet somehow also without sentimentality.  In his science fiction apartheid parable, District 9, he flipped the typical alien invasion story, portraying  refugee camps full of mysterious aliens who brought terrifyingly powerful weapons without a lot of knowledge of how they worked, or, for that matter, knowledge about much at all.  They were unskilled migrants who just showed up, provoking xenophobic anger from the natives and setting nefarious corporate interests to work, figuring out how to exploit yet another mass of unprotected labor, or, if not labor, then just plain flesh.  Perhaps because that movie’s grand finale is a bit less ridiculous—and also because it’s just a lot funnier—that movie is worth seeing both for the plot and for it’s devastating social conscience.

That conscience is also what makes the first 30 minutes of Elysium so remarkable, given Blomkamp’s unapologetic insistence on throwing our fat American asses right into the deep end of global inequality.  It’s perhaps no coincidence that a director with roots in Africa doesn’t show us the perils of American prisons, the insecurity of inner cities, and the dangers of drugs.  Instead, he shows us the diseases that kill because their easy cures can’t be afforded, the homes made of cardboard, the very real possibility not of our kids being malnourished or diabetic or obese but, simply and slowly just not eating until they die.

That’s not to deny the very real problem of the North American inner-city, and it’s certainly not to claim that all of Africa (or the rest of the developing world) is that poor.  It is to say that such poverty actually exists in the world, with real people dying from it everyday, and it’s not just a welcome relief to have a director talking about something else but it’s also incredibly important for us to be reminded.  Because look, we might not have a magic ship in the sky that immediately cures our cancer, but we do have access to drugs and treatment that keeps us alive, access others lack, and so they die.  It is simply unimaginable to me that people in the United States still want to deny people this basic care, but we’re still a long ways away from having conversations about access to health care for everyone else in the world.

It’s not just conscience-pricking that makes the first 30 minutes great.  There’s lots of ways to prick a conscience, and most of them are annoying, sanctimonious, and cloying.  What’s remarkable about District 9 and Elysium is that their presentations of poverty are not cheesy feed-a-kid commercials: they’re real worlds, with decent people trying to make a living, and other people who aren’t so decent, but who still care about somebody else, and then cops who are nearly always mean, but not always, and then kids who try to steal your stuff but then you laugh about it with them, because honestly, what do you have to steal, and then everyone else.  I’m fascinated by the worlds Blomkamp creates, and, especially for Elysium, the rock-em, sock-em adventures distracts from our exploring it.  Frey has a house in what looks to be a lower-middle class suburban neighborhood.   What’s that like?  How do the pretty rich—but not rich enough for Elysium—live?  We see factory owners commuting between the space station and the surface, but we don’t know much about how the world works—either on a global level—there appears to be a one-world government but what that means is unclear—or on a local one.  How does Max get his life back together?  What would have happened if he had just tried a more straightforward unionization effort instead of the ridiculous idea (spoiler) that a reprogrammed computer could change everything?  While machine labor seems to be replacing just about everything—there’s a great scene in which Max’s parole officer is a robot—they clearly still need humans for something. 

Yet what was most exciting about the first 30 minutes was an insistence that good old-fashioned socialist cinema is still around.  In the United States (and in South Africa, I imagine), our class consciousness can too often be clouded by racial kumbayaism: because the U.S.'s many races are getting along a lot better (and they are, though, if you look at 1965, that’s not saying much), clearly class isn’t a problem.  Class and race are too easily conflated, and if we’re making progress on race, then by golly we must be making progress on class too, right?  Yet that’s obviously not the case, as our country’s (and globe’s) rapidly increasingly inequality keeps showing.  Elysium is part of a grand tradition of movies and books (War of the Worlds, Metropolis, among many others) to imagine a future in which the very rich mercilessly dominate the very poor.  Those works warned their audiences about what would happen if the workers of the world did not unite.  It’s a warning we still need.  And what’s nice about Blomkamp’s work (well, District 9 anyways) is that, unlike the terrible socialist realism of the mid-century, it’s actually good.

Yet we can’t be too smug watching the movie.  Like all those intellectuals and petit bourgeoisie and everyone else who’s neither living in a cardboard box nor on a yaught, we’re in a weird class position. The movie’s first thirty minutes was a knock-me-over-moaning punch in the gut, forcing me to think hard about my class privilege and what I can do to change this world.  Compared to that, getting nuked with five days to live is nothing, and unlike Max, there's no button I can push.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Remembering Robert Bellah

In their books, authors can appear wise and kind, with moral courage and keen aesthetic sense.  Yet in person, these same authors often disappoint: they can be lechers or snobs, mean spirits or simple bores.  A gifted writer is not necessarily a good speaker, and neither is a capacious mind necessarily a generous soul.  Margo Rabb wrote about this very problem in a recent New York Times article, and now, as I reflect on Robert Bellah’s death, I’m struck by a quote in the article from one of my favorite writers, George Saunders.  He said, “You can read Mailer or Hemingway and see — or at least I do — that what separated them from greater writers (like Chekhov, say) was a certain failing of kindness or compassion or gentleness — an interest in the little guy, i.e., the nonglamorous little guy, a willingness and ability to look at all of their characters with love.” 

Bellah had this very generosity, this concern for the little guy.  It’s what made him a communist and what made him a Christian.  He shares that move—from radical leftist to radical Christian—with another of my heroes, Dorothy Day.  The two had a lot in common: a gift for writing, a mysticism of quiet wonder, a sense that their lingering questions about community and meaning and God could be answered in a community of fellow travelers who cared about personal relationships and common meals and the idea that small steps like this could change the world.  They were also both brave.  Day stood up to her church and her government, and Bellah stood up to his government too, and the first church of every academic, Harvard University, going into Canadian exile rather than naming names during the McCarthy era.  Yet he eventually found his way back to Harvard, where he got tenure, and besides a brief controversy at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, he finished his life and work at the University of California, Berkeley, where many of my most important teachers and mentors worked with him.

Bellah was an author who lived up to his beautiful books. And the books were beautiful: gracefully written, intellectual without being obtuse, full of moral urgency yet without didacticism or despair.  Newcomers should look especially at his books on America: Habits of the Heart, and its sequel, The Good Society. Look also at his work on civil religion and the relationship between religion and sociology in Beyond Belief and The Broken Covenant.  Here’s how we work, Bellah wanted to say, and he was a talented enough sociologist to convince many of us he was right.  His teacher was Talcott Parsons, who famously attempted an important synthesis of Weber and Durkheim (along with Marx, the two are considered the founders of sociology).  Parsons’s synthesis was criticized and then completely attacked just as Bellah was coming into his own as a scholar.  The tension put Bellah in an odd position as he was in many ways Parsons’s star student. Yet he was also a member of the new guard, and a friend since graduate school to celebrity anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who advocated, with Bellah, a new focus on interpretation in the social sciences, borrowing techniques from literary theory and hermeneutic philosophy.

If Parsons’s fusion of Weber and Durkheim was conservative, focused on structural stability instead of change, then Bellah’s was reformist, describing how our symbols work and also how that work works to either bring us together or pull us apart.  Unlike his teacher, Bellah was more indebted to Durkheim’s later work on religion than his earlier work on social structures, and it was this focus on meaning that influenced a generation of cultural sociologists.  Perhaps most important was his essay, “Civil Religion in America,” which showed not only the late Durkheimian basis of our national life but also the Weberian contingency of our connections. 

Amidst a new generation—led by the world systems theory of Immanuel Wallerstein—who insisted that economics and power were the only ways to understand sociology, Bellah insisted that meanings were more than just superstructure.  His sociology was neither quantitative nor especially variable-driven, which made him less popular as his field moved towards scientisism.  Yet it also made his work an early prophecy of a post-positivist future.  Along with a scattered few colleagues across the country, he was a voice crying out in the wilderness, making straight the way of culture.  Jeffrey Alexander, one of Bellah's most successful students, is not exaggerating when he says that "There is a sense in which every contemporary sociologist is Bellah’s child, niece, or nephew." 

Besides showing how we work, Bellah wanted to show us why that question mattered and how, by asking that question, we are able to imagine other ways we could live, ways that might provide greater justice, or compassion, or community.  That focus on community was not only theoretical. From everything I have heard, Bellah took his relationships very seriously—with his students, his colleagues, his friends, his family, and his wife of many years.  He was a remarkably happy man—I thought of Aquinas’s adage that “joy is the noblest virtue” when I met him—and the smile that you see on the cover of the Robert Bellah reader was surely not a pose.  I get the sense that’s often just how he looked.  I was lucky enough to be at a dinner for him after a talk he gave at Yale, and a former student of his asked him about his experience of graduate school.  “I really enjoyed it,” he said.  What about being a junior professor? “I enjoyed that too!” he said, smiling.  The former student asked him, “Was there ever a period of life you didn’t enjoy?” He smiled and paused thoughtfully.  “Well, my wife died recently, and that was simply a fact I had to endure.  But, basically, I enjoy life.”

I barely knew this man, and I had only managed to finagle my way into this dinner because I knew the organizers and I had recently written a review of Bellah’s last book, on the relationship between evolution and religion.  The book is an incredible achievement, not least for finally bringing Bellah back to his early interest in East Asia and evolution. As I describe in the review, I was struck by the intellectual breadth, the ethical sensibility and, the exuberant excitement in the many ways we've found to be human.  He didn't deny that we all might destroy ourselves, a worry Bellah had for some time.  Yet it was his deep appreciation for everything human culture can achieve that made his worries matter: for all the evil we can do, you got the sense from Bellah that it's good we're still here, and we should think hard about how to get better at it.

Unlike the authors Margo Rabb mentioned, I was struck by how similar Bellah's person was to his written work: the same optimism, the same combination of intellectual luminosity and straightforward, exuberant joy.  I’ve rarely met someone about whom I immediately thought, here is how I should live. Which is not to argue that I have anywhere near Bellah’s mind—or, for that matter, his soul.  But still, it’s nice to know that real people like him existed.  Even if for a time.

When we talked at that dinner, I told Bellah about a poet whose work I love, Marie Howe.  He hadn’t heard of her, and so I e-mailed a poem she wrote about her brother’s death, "What the Living Do." Here is what Bellah wrote in response: “Thanks so much--this is quite lovely.  Perhaps you know that I lost my wife of 61 years in 2010.  Anyway the poem strikes home and I want to read more of her.”  As I look over the poem myself, I find myself weirdly thinking of Bob Bellah, despite not having had more than two e-mails and four hours with him.  Nonetheless, to quote the poem’s last lines:

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass, say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep 

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless:
 I am living. I remember you.