Thursday, July 31, 2014

The African Narrative.

In recent days, you have probably heard about the Ebola virus in West Africa.

It has finally become newsworthy; although, the disease has been in Guinea since February. It has not suddenly gotten worse, it has just finally become "interesting" enough to spread awareness on.  It has also exposed, once again, the very disturbing narrative that is often thrust upon Africa--Sub-Saharan Africa in particular.

Before I talk about that, I want to give a bit of a back story. West Africa is a very important place in my life. It is a place where I have spent a lot of time. Sierra Leone, in particular, I consider to be my adopted home--and where I plan on living and working eventually. I have strong connections with many people in Sierra Leone.

This is why I am so grieved to see the same story of Africa again and again.

Sometimes, when I give presentations on Sierra Leone, I will ask for people's ideas about what they think it is like. Common reactions are sick, poor, sad, pain, and helpless.

And, I understand those responses. They are natural, because westerners--white westerners--have been taught to think of an entire continent of diverse people groups and cultures and histories as nothing more than fodder for our colonialist/saviour imaginations. Before I ever went to Sierra Leone, as a well-intentioned, kind-hearted, and unforgivably ignorant young teen, I thought the same thing. Plus, I had world-changing plans to save every poor, starving child by my knowledgeable self.

What I did not consider, before I stepped off the plane and my world view was changed irrevocably forever, was that I was not the superior being coming to rescue some living statistics.

That is the common narrative thrust on Africa: a continent full of living (but mostly dying) statistics. Oh, they have faces--sad, starving faces to use at fundraisers to try and save some of these statistics.

But, here's the thing. That is NOT Africa's narrative. The people of Sierra Leone are not defined by their poverty or their circumstances (and they do not all have the same circumstances either).

They are defined as human beings. People with the same diverse emotions, personalities, abilities, perspectives--with every quality that makes up a person.

The African narrative is made up of every life and every story that every person chooses for their own person.

But, that is not easily definable. It also calls into question why so many people could allow so many other people to live in extreme poverty; often lacking basic human rights like clean water, healthy food, education, and medical care.

This is why the current narrative of the Ebola epidemic so disturbs me. The disease has been spreading in West Africa for months. Steadily, hundreds of people have been dying, yet there was very little awareness or coverage. Suddenly, the coverage is here, but the story has often focused on how it could easily reach Europe or America. I have been hearing and seeing the same refrain: "It's just a plane trip away!"

I want to say, but you are also just a plane trip away from an entire continent of fellow humans.

And, if I were putting it in completely mercenary terms, ignoring Africa doesn't just "hurt" Africa. Ignoring Africa is ignoring millions of strong, resilient people with creativity, ingenuity, and ideas that benefit the whole world.

It disturbs me that people discount this emergency because it is "typical" or "normal" for people to die in Africa. It disturbs me that millions of diverse people are all painted with the same faceless statistics. It disturbs me that people can give no dignity, respect, or empathy to an entire continent of people.

I write these things, neither as the spokesperson for Africa (I am in no way setting myself up as the only perspective), nor as a perfect, selfless human being. I wrote about my previous well-intentioned ignorance. For many people, I know that is the same way.

But, we cannot stay ignorant.

The people of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, and all of Africa deserve our empathy and respect--not because they are "poor and sick," but because they are people.

Get involved:

President Koroma of Sierra Leone has declared August 4th to be National Stay-At-Home Day--dedicated to education, prayer, and reflection. If you can, set aside a moment for prayer or reflection.

Donate to immediate disaster relief:

Samaritan's Purse

Red Cross

Mariatu's Hope (They also provide excellent, long-term hygiene education that helps to prevent things like this from happening.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Art of Love (1965): A Portrait of a Psychopath

Okay. What.

I decided to watch this movie after noting the title on James Garner's IMDb page. It was from the '60s and I had never seen it. EXTRAORDINARY. Then, I saw that it costarred Angie Dickinson (queen of my heart!) and Dick Van Dyke and was some kind of ridiculous, crazy, slightly "edgy" comedy from the 1960s: MY FAVORITE.

Little did I know.

It has never been released on home video, which I thought was a little suspect, but fine. I found it on Youtube, and I was off. It started out typically enough, with some fun animated credits. I also saw that it was written by Carl Reiner and directed by Norman Jewison, which was both exciting and made its lack of video release even more odd.

It all became clear.

This movie is the most brilliantly ridiculous depiction of the quick unraveling of a psychopath ever released in brightly lit comedy form.

The movie appears to follow the conventional nice, ineffectual guy with his charming, jerk friend set-up. (I should start proclaiming spoilers at this point, probably).

Dick Van Dyke is a struggling artist who is told that his paintings would only ever sell if he was dead. James Garner is his writer friend who basically lives off of charming everyone around him into giving him money, food, etc. They get drunk one night and write a suicide note for Van Dyke, joking that his paintings will sell then. Through some Hardcore Shenanigans (TM), an accident happens and everyone including Garner thinks that Van Dyke has committed suicide.

And the jokes are on!

Dick Van Dyke ends up showing back up at his and James Garner's apartment, but by then, Garner has figured out how to make money off of this and he decides to exploit his friend and make him paint and hide off at Ethel Merman's Slightly Racist Nightclub (just one of a popular chain).

At this point you're supposed to feel bad for poor, confused Dick Van Dyke. He has a cold and is sneezing, he's uncomfortable, everyone thinks he's dead, he has to wear a terrifying disguise. James Garner, of course, is raking in the money, living at the hotel, stealing Dick Van Dyke's fiance from America. The normal stuff. He's playing the lovable jerk.

But, he goes too far. He unleashes the psychopath, formerly known as his best friend and roommate.

Dick Van Dyke goes off the actual deep end as only Dick Van Dyke can.

He literally snaps in an instant. At first he's angry and threatening to kill James Garner, and then, he's just smiling and quietly leaves the room chuckling to himself.


And, not in a normal way.

No. He plants human teeth in the incinerator at their apartment. He cuts open his finger to get blood all over a "murder" knife, and smears it on Garner's coat. He plants a tie a strangulation weapon, and uses elaborate disguises to get the police to track all of this down.

He sees that James Garner has been arrested for murder and laughs maniacally, saying, "Sweet!"

Elke Sommer, who knows the truth, urges him to go to the police. He refuses, saying that he wants him to sweat a little.

He attends the trial in an elaborate disguise. When Garner is convicted and sentenced to the guillotine, he cackles and dances a jig just outside the courtroom. He is urged to save his former friend, and says that he is going to wait until just before the blade drops.

The audience peers into Dick Van Dyke's eyes and is traumatized.

James Garner is sick with fear and proclaiming his innocence like Dr. Richard Kimble. He sits and waits for his execution for a week. Finally, he is led out to his death. Madame Defarge is literally sitting out there knitting and yelling "Guillotine! Guillotine!"

The camera cuts to Dick Van Dyke engaging in a slapstick car chase trying to get to the execution on time. He runs through the streets and bangs into things as only Dick Van Dyke can.

James Garner's hands shake as he attempts to hold a final cigarette. He starts to whimper as only James Garner can.

Dick Van Dyke continues to jump from vehicle to vehicle.

James Garner is strapped into the guillotine. The executioner is frail and old, and sadly whispers about no more capital punishment; his hands quiver as he reaches to drop the blade.

Dick Van Dyke comes crashing in, Garner is released, everyone hugs, Van Dyke goes off to "rescue" Elke Sommer from a life free from psychpaths, and all is well and normal.

Until he is provoked again.

Seriously, everything I wrote above happened in even crazier happenstance. There was literally Madame Defarge randomly popping up places cackling and knitting. There was also the implication that the hilarious art dealer was a Nazi with stole paintings. There was a sight gag of James Garner sawing up and incinerating a mannequin. Carl Reiner showed up as an indifferent French lawyer.

What I'm saying is: good movie? OR BEST MOVIE?

Sunday, July 20, 2014

James Garner.

James Garner has died at the age of 86. 

Soon the many articles and obituaries and remembrances will be coming. They will use words like effortless, charming, and beloved. Certainly, James Garner projected an aura of effortlessness. He was also probably the most charming person to ever exist. And clearly beloved.

However, he was also so much more, and that is why his loss to the film and television world is so--real.

He was immensely talented; perhaps too seemingly effortlessly talented to ever win an Oscar. He was enduring, with memorable roles throughout five decades. He was extraordinarily human and empathetic.

For me, his greatness came from his ability to simultaneously be comfortably endearing and uniquely surprising. Maverick and Rockford are awesome because you genuinely just like them, but they aren't tired cliches or the same thing over and over.

He is one of my favorite actors, and I am always looking for random movies of his to watch--simply because he is so compelling.

He is even compelling enough for me to thoroughly enjoy some random hippie comedy from the late '60s costarring Debbie Reynolds (?!).

Really, any performance is worth watching and enjoying, but I particularly love his film output in the 1960s. A glance at his IMDb page shows an insane amount of incredibly diverse output. Of course, there is The Great Escape, The Children's Hour, The Americanization of Emily, Support Your Local Sheriff!, and Grand Prix.

But, there is also Boy's Night Out (the best); his comedies with Doris Day (my heart); 36 Hours (fascinating and little known); The Wheeler Dealers (a movie built entirely on the realistic premise that James Garner is the most charming human to ever exist); Marlowe (hardcore); Mister Buddwing (randomly great); and my personal choice: Duel at Diablo, which is peculiarly brilliant--and one the most underrated great westerns of all time.

And that doesn't even cover all of his films from that decade!

Support Your Local Sheriff! is an intensely personal favorite. It is absolutely perfect in every conceivable way.

But, anyway.

I don't really know quite what to say except that James Garner's work astounds me. Bret Maverick is perfectly lovely and wonderful, and Jim Rockford is entirely immortal (figuratively and literally [he got beat up a lot]). I remember the first time I did an ill-advised Rockford turn in my car--it was a life experience.

Above, when I wrote that he was comfortably endearing--I'm referring to that fact that people easily form a connection to his characters and by extension, him.We want to hang out with Rockford; SOME of us already pretend that we do. That is a talent. And, he could have simply used that charm and had a long and memorable career. But, he didn't. He was also completely unique and surprising. The diversity of roles exemplified his own ability to create entirely new perspectives.

To be, at the same time, a person capable of expressing deep pain and dark cynicism, but also able to make other people look forward to watching Polaroid commercials is something that is difficult to comprehend.

He was truly a wonderfully brilliant and talented artist and person. He will be missed.


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