Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Tune in for The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, Wednesday, August 22, at 12:45 pm ET, available by clicking here. And, if you don't hear it live, catch it later on demand on the podcast.

Monday, August 20, 2018

‘BlacKkKlansman’ explores creative justice

“BlacKkKlansman” (2018). Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Ryan Eggold, Alec Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Michael Joseph Buscemi, Robert John Burke, Ken Garito, Jasper Pääkkönen, Paul Walter Hauser, Ashlie Atkinson, Frederick Weller, Corey Hawkins, Nicholas Turturro. Director: Spike Lee. Screenplay: Charlie Wachtell, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee. Book: Ron Stallworth, Black Klansman. Web site. Trailer.

Bringing hateful practices to light takes guts. Sometimes it also takes creativity, especially when those vile matters are carefully hidden or carried out by those who operate in the shadows. But, when courage and innovation successfully join forces, the ugly truth can be exposed for all to see, drawing attention to the detestable nature of these concerns, a notion explored in director Spike Lee’s new fact-based film biography, “BlacKkKlansman.”

When Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) joined the Colorado Springs Police Department in 1972 as its first African-American officer, he was initially assigned to the records department, a dead-end job in which he was routinely mistreated by co-workers. That soon changed, however, when the department’s top cop, Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke), tapped Stallworth for an undercover intelligence mission – to attend and gather information about the mood and attitudes of the Black community at a rally featuring Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) (Corey Hawkins), one of the founders of the Black Power movement.

[caption id="attachment_10106" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Undercover detectives Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, right) and his impersonating doppelganger, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, left), seek to infiltrate the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in director Spike Lee’s new fact-based film biography, “BlacKkKlansman.” Photo by David Lee, courtesy of Focus Features.[/caption]

Based on the success of that mission, Stallworth was soon appointed to a full-time position in the intelligence department. While reading a newspaper one day, he came across an ad seeking recruits for the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Acting on an impulse, he responded to the notice, seeking to infiltrate the White supremacist organization. There was just one problem: Given his ethnicity, there was no way he could have any face-to-face contact with any of the Klan’s members. And, because he couldn’t conduct an investigation entirely by phone, he needed to come up with a creative solution to proceed.

To compensate, Stallworth called upon his fellow detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to impersonate him. This was a risky proposition, not only for the potential slip-ups that could undermine their operation, but also because Zimmerman was Jewish, a community the Klan scorned almost as much as it did Blacks. Consequently, they had to get their stories straight, because, if either of them should act or speak inconsistently, their cover would be blown and the investigation compromised.

Nevertheless, despite these possible pitfalls, “the Stallworth brothers” proceeded with their plans. Zimmerman met with the leader of the local Klan chapter, Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), and his radical, hot-headed  lieutenant, Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Pääkkönen). While Walter appeared to trust the newcomer and his motivations, Felix – ever the skeptic – suspected that the new recruit might be either a cop or Jewish (or both). He actively sought to verify Flip’s “sincerity” by trying to force him to prove his intentions, such as coercing him into taking a lie detector test, an incident that seriously tested the viability of the investigation.

[caption id="attachment_10107" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) takes a personal interest in a new recruit for the organization and officiates at his initiation ceremony in the new fact-based film biography, “BlacKkKlansman.” Photo by David Lee, courtesy of Focus Features.[/caption]

Considering the delicate nature of their operation, the detectives obviously needed to progress cautiously. At the same time, though, Stallworth wanted to move things forward aggressively. For instance, given the slow pace of getting “his” membership application approved, Stallworth sought to expedite matters by reaching out to the Klan’s national leader, Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), to see if he could intervene on his behalf. And, after a phone conversation in which he thoroughly charmed the big boss, Stallworth managed to get his request granted. Before long, Flip had his new membership card in hand.

As all this played out, Stallworth also wrestled with striking a balance between his personal feelings and his professional duties. While he naturally wanted to see his fellow African-Americans become empowered and respected, he needed to make sure that his work didn’t turn into a personal vendetta, a significant challenge to be sure.

Avoiding such potential conflicts of interest also became apparent in Stallworth’s budding romance with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), president of the Black student union at Colorado College, which sponsored the Kwame Ture rally where the two first met. Again, Stallworth needed to balance his personal feelings with his professional duties, given that Dumas was a potential contact in an official capacity. What’s more, even though he appreciated Patrice’s passion for her cause, Stallworth also believed that the pursuit of personal empowerment and the need for law and order were not mutually exclusive issues. This is why he kept his profession a secret from Patrice, because he knew that, if he revealed this information to her, considering her disdain for the police, she would drop him in a heartbeat, both as a professional contact and as a would-be romantic partner. This was yet another tightrope to be navigated.

[caption id="attachment_10108" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), head of the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, warmly welcomes a new recruit to his organization, not realizing that he’s dealing with an undercover detective, in director Spike Lee’s new fact-based film biography, “BlacKkKlansman.” Photo by David Lee, courtesy of Focus Features.[/caption]

All of these elements came to a head when Duke announced that he personally planned to visit Colorado Springs to officiate at Flip’s initiation. To complicate matters, this ceremony was scheduled to coincide with a high-profile presentation to the Black student union by Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte), a witness to the historic and horrific 1916 lynching of teenage farmhand Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas. Thus, with the two events running parallel to one another, the fuse was lit. This combination of events carried the potential for explosive consequences, circumstances that could easily plunge the community and its various constituents into peril.

When attempting to snare potential or alleged perpetrators who employ unconventional, underhanded tactics, it often takes comparably unconventional measures to catch them in the act, especially when such bad actors are practiced at skillfully using camouflaged methods to conceal themselves. This requires thinking outside the box, pushing the limits of tried and true methods to accomplish sought-after goals. It’s not always easy, yet it’s a cornerstone principle to achieving success with the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents.

Even if he never heard of this practice, Ron Stallworth was a master at this. For instance, his hiring into the Colorado Springs Police Department as a Black applicant – the first person ever to have done so – illustrates his ability to envision outcomes that defied custom. However, this was just the beginning of his string of successes. When he pitched his superiors about transferring into investigative work as a rookie, he was taking on what most everyone saw as a Quixotic task – yet, despite such seemingly long odds, he managed to land an undercover assignment not long thereafter, one that led to the fulfillment of his objective of securing a job as a full-time detective. And then, of course, there was his proposed sting operation for taking on the Klan, something that peers initially scoffed at but that, with a little creativity, flourished and took on a life of its own.

Stallworth wasn’t the only one who succeeded at this. Zimmerman was equally adept at making things work. On numerous occasions in his dealings with Klan members, for example, he was faced with big challenges at passing himself off as one of them. He frequently had to represent himself as something he wasn’t. And, when confronted with circumstances where he had to respond on the fly, he had to act fast – and convincingly – to keep his cover. But, despite the seeming difficulty involved, on some level, he knew he could do this; when he had to think on his feet and come up with outlandish responses on the fly, he always managed to rise to the occasion – and made it look easy.

[caption id="attachment_10109" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Undercover detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, left) and Black Power activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier, right) struggle with uncomfortable personal and professional relations in director Spike Lee’s new fact-based film biography, “BlacKkKlansman.” Photo by David Lee, courtesy of Focus Features.[/caption]

So why did these extraordinary plans work? It was their beliefs – specifically their beliefs in themselves and their abilities to accomplish their goals. Even if Stallworth and Zimmerman didn’t necessarily know how to achieve them when they first started out, they were each able to tap into a wellspring of self-confidence, tremendous faith in their capabilities and an unshakable knowledge that their plans would work.

The beliefs driving such attributes exude personal power. That’s because they’re backed by underlying core notions that they knew their divine collaborator – the Universe, All That Is or whatever you want to call it – would support them in their efforts. This belief foundation thus bolstered their faith in the process and in themselves in their search for success.

It’s also interesting to see how creativity gets put to use in this context. It shows that it can be employed for purposes other than what we typically associate it with. Using it in creating works of art is certainly a lofty pursuit, but infusing it into more practical, everyday matters shows how widely it can be applied. That’s a valuable point to bear in mind when it comes to any kind of problem-solving exercises. And, the more we engage in such practices, the more adept we become at it, improving our overall conscious creation skills. Who would have thought that such creative proficiency could come out of measures not directly related to what we think of as traditional applications?

Most importantly, though, Stallworth and company effectively put the process to use creatively in seeking justice, arguably one of the most noble pursuits to which it can be employed. This calls upon us to overcome our fears, to live courageously and heroically, one of the most significant endeavors we can undertake as conscious creators. Doing so not only helps us not only surmount our own personal challenges, but it also aids our fellow beings, especially those who are persecuted or subjected to discriminatory treatment. Succeeding on this front represents a prime example of living our value fulfillment, the conscious creation principle associated with us being our best, truest selves for betterment of ourselves and the world at large. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine it being put to use for a more important, more impactful application than this.

Director Spike Lee’s latest explores a variety of issues, all of which are just as relevant today as when this story was set. The film examines what it means to be true to one’s feelings, a challenge that can be made especially difficult when potentially conflicting beliefs are involved. This draws attention to the need for striking a balance, one that may not be easy to achieve and almost certainly calls for creative solutions to achieve resolution. Most importantly, though, the picture examines what it means to address the bald-faced prejudice and hate of those who would try to keep others down, making it clear where lines are to be drawn – and what simply won’t be tolerated.

“BlacKkKlansman” is easily one of the filmmaker’s best movies in years. Washington, Driver and Grace excel in their roles, bringing their characters to life with undeniable authenticity, and the period piece production values are top-notch across the board. As with most of Lee’s work, the film admittedly suffers from some occasional issues with choppy storytelling, awkward cinematography and message overkill (problems that always seem to intrude on the filmmaker’s work), yet this latest offering nevertheless serves up a deft mix of suspense, humor and social commentary in a generally well-crafted period piece. It’s good to see the director getting back into good form once again.

The film is already garnering some awards buzz, having taken home some notable trophies. Earlier this year the picture won the Grand Prize of the Jury and Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the Cannes Film Festival. It was also nominated for the Palme d’Or, the Festival’s highest honor. Don’t be surprised if it picks up additional honors as awards season gears up.

The experiences of individuals like Ron Stallworth and his peers offer us an emboldening, inspired example for taking on those who seek to hold us down with intimidation and hate. Their tactics may frighten, but their numbers are often small, far from insurmountable. And, with an effective mix of bravery and inventiveness, these foes can be vanquished. After all, with a bright light squarely shining on them, there’s no place to hide – even under the sheets.

Copyright © 2018, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Generation Wealth" and "BlacKkKlansman," as well as a book award celebration, all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

Friday, August 10, 2018

‘Generation Wealth’ asks us, what do we value?

“Generation Wealth” (2018). Cast: Florian Homm, Tiffany Masters, Eden Wood, Jaqueline Siegel, Cathy Grant, Lauren Greenfield, Limo Bob. Director: Lauren Greenfield. Screenplay: Lauren Greenfield. Web site. Trailer.

In your opinion, what has value? Is it your possessions? Your financial holdings? Your social standing? Your physique? How much sex you have? Or is it something less tangible but more meaningful, such as the love of your life, your family, your friends or your career satisfaction? This question has plagued many of us in recent years, yet rarely are telling answers readily forthcoming. This lack of clarity has caused considerable confusion, often prompting us to seek refuge in surrogate solutions that we hope will provide us answers but that frequently come up short. And it’s a phenomenon that has seemingly spread across the culture – in fact, the globe – like a virus, one that’s growing ever more virulent, a subject explored in the disquieting new documentary, “Generation Wealth.”

Photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has spent much of her career documenting the lives of the affluent, especially their excesses of opulence, something that she has noticed has grown more blatant, if not self-servingly perverse, over the years. In that time, she has observed that, for many of those in money culture, it’s not enough just to have wealth; it has to be boundless, ever-growing, over-the-top wealth or it just isn’t worth talking about. And, to exacerbate matters, this attitude has permeated the culture to the point where it seems that’s what everybody wants, with coming up short almost representing a sign of personal failure.

Given these conditions, Greenfield has often wondered how we got to this point. How has this obsession with unbridled abundance come to color our thinking? Why have we become so preoccupied with the acquisition of money and possessions? And why do many of us feel, even after attaining a substantial degree of prosperity, that it’s perpetually insufficient?

In a similar vein, Greenfield also wondered why she has become so personally fascinated with documenting the trappings of this mindset. Admittedly, she has been around such wealth most of her life, having grown up with well-to-do Hollywood kids who never hesitated to blatantly flaunt their fortunes. And, even though Greenfield was raised in a family where their moderately comfortable standard of living was at least equal to if not better than average, her background paled in comparison to those of most of her peers, something that often prompted feelings of inadequacy or embarrassment. Were her efforts at documenting the lives of the rich and famous an attempt at vicariously living their experiences? And, if so, why was it so important to her in the same way that it seems to be so important to virtually everyone else in contemporary society?

“Generation Wealth” is an attempt to address these issues. This multi-platform project, which includes this film, as well as a book and museum exhibit, seeks to explore the rationale behind this way of life, providing evidence of opulence in the extreme, the personal stories of those who have lived this life-style and commentary from social science observers trying to understand it all. It also probes Greenfield’s personal existence, attempting to reconcile her sensibilities and experiences in connection with the foregoing.

In taking on these challenges, Greenfield combines footage from her previous films and images from her various photographic projects along with the stories of individuals who have experienced both sides of the prosperity coin – those who have amassed wealth and managed to keep it, as well as those who had it and lost it or those who never had it and failed in their attempts to acquire it.

This approach provides a look at those who have sought to become filthy rich in a variety of ways, from hedge fund management to childhood celebrity to pornographic filmmaking. It also examines the myriad ways in which these subjects have sought to put their wealth to use, from building enormous mansions to sculpting the perfect body types to getting plastic surgery for their pets. In illustrating this, Greenfield shows us that, no matter how outrageous we may find some of these expenditures, there are always others that are even more unbelievable, audacious and outlandish, many times far behind anything we can possibly imagine.

[caption id="attachment_10093" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Former hedge fund manager Florian Homm explains the joys and sorrows of excessive wealth in director Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary, “Generation Wealth.” Photo © Lauren Greenfield.[/caption]

What’s most important in all this, though, is understanding why this phenomenon has occurred, a handle that’s a little more difficult to grasp. For those who grew up wealthy, it’s a way of maintaining status and what appear to be feelings of entitlement and superiority, elements that essentially equate to a sense of power and control. For those who grew up lacking, it’s a means to compensate for those long-held feelings of deficiency, something that may cover over old wounds but that ultimately doesn’t provide the fulfillment and satisfaction that they thought it would.

In either case, though, it’s not the money, possessions or status in themselves that is being sought; it’s the intangibles that their seekers believe these things will provide that is the outcome in pursuit. And that’s what’s most crucial in getting to the crux of these quests. Understanding the thoughts, beliefs and intents that make such results possible is at the heart of grasping the message of this film. It’s also the basis for comprehending the functioning of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that explains how such manifestations fundamentally come into being.

As the experiences of the individuals in this film demonstrate, beliefs are extremely powerful forces. They show how the intents they hold transform into tangible, materialized outcomes. But, in attaining the results they seek, it’s not the wealth that brings them what they want; it’s the beliefs that create the wealth that make these manifestations possible.

However, as is apparent throughout the film, the wealthy often come to realize that the physical trappings they acquire are seldom enough. Whether it’s designer handbags in every color, the perfect body, boundless sex or the largest bank accounts imaginable, they all tend to come up short, leading their creators to believe that the only thing that will make their situations better is the acquisition of more of everything. It becomes a trap from which escape is difficult.

Consider the cases of hedge fund manager Florian Homm, VIP party host Tiffany Masters and juvenile beauty pageant queen Evan Wood. All of them amassed seemingly everything they could want in their respective fields of endeavor. Yet, for all they accumulated, they still felt unfulfilled. Indeed, where does one go from up?

[caption id="attachment_10094" align="aligncenter" width="200"]Juvenile beauty pageant queen Evan Wood wants money as big as her surroundings, as detailed in director Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary, “Generation Wealth.” Photo © Lauren Greenfield.[/caption]

This is where an assessment of our beliefs and what we seek to manifest with them becomes critical. When we become one of those persons who has everything, what more is there to acquire? In these circumstances, we place so much emphasis on stockpiling financial resources that we become obsessed with the idea that amassing more is all there is. But, when we think about it, money is nothing more than paper, something in itself of little intrinsic value. It’s what that paper makes possible that has the real value, and, if using it to acquire more tangible goods or thrilling experiences is all that we believe it can do, that outcome will become old rather quickly.

Under such circumstances, perhaps it’s time to change beliefs, to seek the creation of something more meaningful than the acquisition of more stuff. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with having nice things, as an end unto itself it’s rather limiting. And, given that one of conscious creation’s chief aims is to push past the boundaries of limitations, surely there are other more significant aims to be attained than the accumulation of material possessions. Personal fulfillment, interpersonal connections, spiritual development and serving others are just a few examples of other ways in which we can put our beliefs to more effective use. If we were to pursue such outcomes, we might well be surprised at how satisfying we find such creative undertakings.

Still, if these other ventures are so fulfilling, then why aren’t we exploring them more than we do? That’s a hard question to answer, but, if we look back historically, Greenfield observes, we can see a turning point that began in the 1980s, when the new materialism began to gain a significant foothold in the culture and, subsequently, in our individual mindsets. Intangible matters that once gave us a great deal of satisfaction began to be set aside in favor of those of a more tangible nature. And, for those with the means to acquire them in abundance, the concept took off, coming to characterize the nature of the decade and the times that have come since. Instant personal, material gratification became the goal, even if it meant setting aside beliefs related to such matters as integrity, courtesy and civility. But, as we have gradually come to see, such objectives are ultimately unsatisfying ends in themselves. This trend began in America and has since circled the globe, sometimes with perilous and grotesquely inequitable results, as evidenced by the experiences of such nations as Russia, China and Iceland.

As one expert astutely observes, such rampant materialism, decadent opulence and unrestrained greed often appear as a society is about to collapse, citing the example of civilizations like Rome. This, of course, naturally begs the question, are we next? If the beliefs that led to Rome’s downfall are indeed not unlike those present in modern American (or even global) culture, this should give us serious food for thought.

Then, again, one might also argue that a significant change could be just what we need to get ourselves onto a new and more rewarding course. After all, given that conscious creation maintains that everything is in a constant state of becoming, these beliefs may be getting put into place now as a means to bring about the fulfillment of such an outcome. It may be a difficult way to achieve such a result, but sometimes drastic measures are called for when instituting sweeping change. If it gets us the result we ultimately want, then this may prove useful in the long run, though the road getting us there could indeed be a bumpy one.

[caption id="attachment_10095" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Limo Bob (center), who holds records for creating the world’s largest stretch limousines, poses with his entourage in director Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary, “Generation Wealth.” Photo © Lauren Greenfield.[/caption]

In the meantime, as this film illustrates, it would be well worth our time to examine our beliefs and how we’re using them to shape the reality we experience. The cautionary tales served up here could provide us with valuable examples of how to adjust our thoughts and intents, to show us better and more gratifying paths, all aimed at helping us realize a new and improved existence.

“Generation Wealth” offers us an intriguing look at how the core values that once defined America (and much of the world) have come to be corrupted by greed, self-importance and instant gratification – and how the unsatisfying results of those dubious qualities never amount to enough. Director Greenfield’s ambitious undertaking covers a lot of ground, but, unfortunately, the film sometimes lacks a coherent approach, one that would have benefited from a little more objectivity and a little less emphasis on the filmmaker’s own story, one that often intrudes too much on the principal narrative. While this noble effort explores some valuable ground both directly and by implication, it could have benefited from some judicious retooling to drive home its contentions more on point.

Value is a nebulous concept that can be difficult to pin down, but there are some aspects of it that clearly seem more readily apparent than others. The trick lies in being able to recognize and then act upon them, first through or beliefs and then through the manifestations we seek to create with them. One can only hope, though, that we come to realize that there’s more meaning to life than using such abilities to get the latest designer purse.

Copyright © 2018, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

‘Tom of Finland’ illustrates the power of being oneself

“Tom of Finland” (2017). Cast: Pekka Strang, Seumas F. Sargent, Lauri Tikanen, Taisto Oksanen, Jessica Grabowsky, Niklas Hogner, Jakob Oftebro, Hayman Maria Buttinger, Manfred Böll, Fabian Puregger. Director: Dome Karukoski. Screenplay: Aleksi Bardy. Story/dialogue: Aleksi Bardy, Dome Karukoski, Mark Alton Brown, Noam Andrews, Kauko Röyhkä, Mia Yiönen, Susana Luoto. Web site. Trailer.

Regrettably, it’s often all too easy to subvert the emergence of our true selves. Whether we doubt our ability to bring it into being, fear the ramifications involved in its expression or allow ourselves to be intimidated into submission, we may find it easier to roll over and let things slide than to act upon our impulses. But where is the satisfaction in that? Can we live with the regrets that are likely to arise late in life when we realize the opportunity we’ve squandered? And, perhaps above all, can we be truly happy with ourselves for acquiescing to such a timid course? Fortunately, we have the choice to pursue a different path, one that is a faithful reflection of our inner being, no matter how trying the circumstances. Sometimes all we need is a little inspiration to steer us in the right direction for pulling it off. Such was the case with an erotic artist who lived on the fringes at a time when his works were considered scandalous, if not pornographic, a story featured in the film biography “Tom of Finland,” available on DVD, Blu-ray disc and video on demand.

After valiantly serving in the Finnish army during World War II, Touko Laaksonen (Pekka Strang) returned home to Helsinki to resume his life. As victors in the war, one would think that these heroes of the homeland would be accorded honors and recognition for their service. But, for some, like Touko, new struggles emerged, some of which were just as difficult to deal with as those they faced during the war – and all of which were eminently more personal.

Touko’s challenge was learning how to clandestinely live as a gay man in a society vehemently opposed to such “aberrational” behavior. In those days, men were expected to get married and have families, and those who strayed from that course were subject to severe persecution from the authorities. Even possessing artwork or periodicals containing references to such “subversive” acts could result in prosecution.

For someone like Touko, who had just returned from conditions where he was constantly surrounded by virile young men, adjusting to the prevailing social expectations was virtually impossible. He knew he was gay and was supremely frustrated that he could not openly act upon it for fear of reprisals. Such frustration was exacerbated by the constant pressure to conform placed upon him by others like his sister, Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), with whom he shared close living quarters. And whatever opportunities came along that might have allowed him to be himself were fleeting and fraught with complications. He simply couldn’t be who he wanted to be, and it tore him up.

Homoerotic artist Touko Laaksonen (Pekka Strang), better known as Tom of Finland, made a name for himself as a gay icon after years of struggling to gain recognition, a challenge depicted in the film biography “Tom of Finland,” available on DVD, Blu-ray disc and video on demand. Photo by Josef Persson, courtesy of Kino Lorber.[/caption]

To cope, Touko needed an outlet for his pent-up feelings, and he found it through a somewhat unexpected channel. As a skilled advertising illustrator, Touko already possessed the talent of an accomplished commercial artist, so he decided to employ this ability to express his repressed erotic urges. He initially drew images for his own amusement, eventually showing them to a few close male confidantes. But, given the potentially harsh penalties he faced for possessing such images, he had to keep his artwork tightly under wraps to avoid getting caught.

From the outset, Touko distinguished himself by the kinds of men he drew. His illustrations drew heavily from his days in the military, typically featuring hyper-masculine images of uber-handsome men blessed with rippling muscles, striking physiques, classic square-jawed looks and seething levels of testosterone. His figures generally sported working class trappings, such as the uniforms of sailors and policemen, leather biker jackets, and construction worker outfits. He truly created a style all his own.

However, given Finland’s parochial laws governing the dissemination and possession of such materials, what was Touko to do with them? Continue to draw them only for his own entertainment? He clearly had a valuable commodity on his hands but no readily available market – at least in Finland. But outside his country was another story.

With the emerging gay liberation movement in nations other than his homeland, such as the U.S., ample opportunity awaited the undiscovered artist. He began submitting his work to American beefcake magazines, which published everything they could get their hands on. And, to add further mystique to his persona (and additional protection for his identity at home), Touko adopted the pseudonym Tom of Finland, a name that would become synonymous with his signature style of art.

Touko’s initial success was nothing compared to what would follow. As his works were circulated ever more widely, he developed quite a loyal fan base, especially by a pair of well-connected entrepreneurial Americans, Doug (Seumas F. Sargent) and Jack (Jakob Oftebro), who sought to promote Touko so that he received the recognition they thought he deserved. And, upon a trip to the U.S., an astonished Touko discovered the icon status he had unknowingly attained among his many American followers. Touko, as Tom, had at last made it.

Over time, the professional success Touko achieved was quietly matched personally, too. When a boarder, Veli (Lauri Tikanen), moved into the home he shared with his sister, Touko found a love interest. Even though he initially had something of a rivalry with Kaija in vying for Veli’s affections, that artificial opposition quickly evaporated when the truth of the parties’ sexual orientation emerged. Touko had found the love of his life.

Gay artist Touko Laaksonen (Pekka Strang, right), better known as Tom of Finland, and his sister, Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky, center), both unwittingly vie for the affections of their new boarder, Veli (Lauri Tikanen, left), in the film biography of the iconic illustrator, “Tom of Finland.” Photo by Josef Persson, courtesy of Kino Lorber.[/caption]

However, despite Touko’s hard-fought victories in the three decades since the end of the war, some of his biggest challenges were still ahead of him in the late ʼ70s and early ʼ80s. Personally there was Veli’s failing health, as well as the demise of his friend Jack, developments that greatly saddened the artist. But an even bigger setback began to arise professionally in the wake of the emerging AIDS crisis: Critics contended that Touko’s unabashedly provocative homoerotic drawings helped promote the promiscuity that led to the spread of the fatal disease among gay men, a backlash that threatened his livelihood. But even those who were willing to overlook the social responsibility aspect of his work were often critical of his illustrations, suggesting that his drawings were nothing more than pornography masquerading as art.

As someone used to addressing challenges, though, Touko soldiered on. With a strong support network and an army of ardent “Tom men” staunchly behind him, Touko kept fighting the good fight, taking on challengers who sought to silence an artist who had become a gay folk hero. Unlike in the past, this time the veteran illustrator would not be silenced.

Regardless of what one might think of Touko’s art, attitude and sensibilities, there’s no denying that he was someone who clearly knew what he was. And, even though prevailing social conditions forced him to stay underground for many years, he never denied who he was to himself. He was steeped in his beliefs about his nature and never stopped seeking ways to express it, even in the face of potentially harsh consequences.

This is a textbook example of someone who has a firm grasp on his aptitude for the conscious creation process, the means by which we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. The challenge for Touko was figuring out how to devise beliefs that overcame the obstacles that stood in his way.

Of course, some would argue that, if he was so adept at manifesting his existence, then why did he create a reality with such inherent roadblocks to fulfillment? As in all instances, his reasons were his own and not for us to judge, but it’s possible to speculate about some of the rationale behind these materializations.

For instance, one of the primary aims of conscious creation is teaching us how to overcome limitations. Given the time frame and social conditions under which Touko lived, he had ample opportunity to tackle this life lesson. What’s more, considering that he was not alone in his struggle, he became something of a champion for others enduring similar circumstances. Like the good soldier he was during the war, Touko became a fervent combatant in his battle against prejudice and inequality. As his artwork gained international recognition, the impact of his efforts extended beyond Finland’s borders, too, helping to promote the cause of gay rights far and wide.

In taking on these challenges, Touko also addressed another of conscious creation’s key aims – that of overcoming fears and living heroically. If we’re ever to get past the hindrances that stand in our way, we need to move beyond whatever fears block us, for they will surely prevent us from manifesting what we seek to create. Given the circumstances under which Touko operated, one might easily assume that fear would be a readily present component of his existence. However, he was determined not to let it stand in his way. Perhaps the wartime experience he created for himself gave him an opportunity to learn the basic skill of how to vanquish fears that can pose hurdles to attaining the success we seek in fulfilling our aspirations, regardless of the arena of manifestation involved. Or maybe he was just proficient at formulating beliefs that kept fears at bay in the conscious creation process. Whatever the source, however, he dismissed this element in keeping him from ultimately getting what he wanted.

Homoerotic artist Touko Laaksonen, better known as Tom of Finland, drew characters he was readily able to envision, such as his prototypical leather man, Kake (Niklas Hogner), a capability depicted in the illustrator’s film biography, “Tom of Finland.” Photo by Josef Persson, courtesy of Kino Lorber.[/caption]

Touko was also creative, in the truest sense of the word, in reaching his objectives. Even though he was, for all practical purposes, caught up in a “battle” to achieve respect and recognition for himself and his community, he didn’t resort to using the typical means one might associate with attaining victory in a conflict. The “arms” he took up weren’t weapons in the classical sense; rather, he used an unconventional weapon – art. Granted, it was a formidable, in-your-face kind of art, but it was intrinsically nonviolent, designed perhaps to provoke one’s outlook and sensibilities but by no means intended to cause physical harm. Indeed, attaining victory without ever firing a short, so to speak, is certainly the sweetest victory of all.

The artwork itself not only confronted the mainstream social opposition, but it also took on those in the gay community who held a different (and much more limited) impression of what constituted an acceptable standard of beauty. Those who believed that a less “rugged,” more “refined” image of gay male masculinity had their views more than a little challenged by Touko’s raw, earthier sketches. For those whose attraction to such images had been effectively squelched by a lack of available material suddenly had their needs met – and in ample magnitude.

On some level, Touko knew there was a following for his kind of artwork waiting to be tapped. What’s more, he readily knew how to bring it into being. His time in the military, for example, provided him with abundant inspiration for the characters he would eventually draw. He was able to envision his models with ease, as depicted in several scenes in the film in which he effortlessly pictured several of them come to life, such as his fantasy cop (Fabian Puregger) and his prototypical leather man, Kake (Niklas Hogner). Again, he knew what he wanted, and he handily brought it into being – just what conscious creation is all about.

Although Touko used his metaphysical skills in ways far different from how many of us might employ them, his wherewithal and dexterity in this area are indisputable. Those who question the relevance of someone who practices conscious creation to achieve ends such as these may unexpectedly find their eyes pried open when they scrutinize the aptitude involved. In this way, we could all learn a lot from Tom of Finland in learning how to express – and be – ourselves.

As biopics go, “Tom of Finland” adequately examines the life of its subject, with fine performances, effective period re-creations, and insightful explorations of the social and metaphysical considerations in question. However, despite these strengths, the narrative appears to have some unexplained gaps in the timeline of Touko’s story, with a few sequences that also go on longer than they probably should have. Also, given the highly provocative nature of Touko’s artwork, the film is surprisingly “tame” in its tone. Nevertheless, these shortcomings aside, the picture shows what’s possible when we put our minds (and beliefs) to what we want to achieve, no matter what the area of creation.

Being oneself can be quite challenging, but it can also be immensely satisfying and empowering. By allowing our true selves to come into existence, we can fulfill our destiny and contribute to the mosaic panorama of creation. It would indeed be sad if we missed the chance to make our mark, no matter how outlandish or even marginal our contribution may be seen. If we indeed succeed at this task, we can take comfort that we’ve met our goal and, one would hope, helped to make the world a richer, fuller and more inclusive place.

Copyright © 2018, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Personal reinvention probed in ‘He Won’t Get Far on Foot’

“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” (2018). Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Jack Black, Rooney Mara, Carrie Brownstein, Tony Greenhand, Beth Ditto, Mark Webber, Ronnie Adrian, Kim Gordon, Udo Kier. Director: Gus Van Sant. Screenplay: Gus Van Sant. Story: John Callahan, Gus Van Sant, Jack Gibson and William Andrew Eatman. Book: John Callahan, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. Web site. Trailer.

We’ve all heard about the metaphorical notion of making lemonade when life unexpectedly hands us those tart little yellow orbs. The process is seldom easy, either, particularly when we’re deluged with vast quantities of lemons or when their juices are especially sour. But it’s indeed possible to turn things around, provided we apply ourselves to see that life can still have meaning when everything appears potentially lost. So it was for a recovering alcoholic paraplegic seeking to pick up the pieces of his life in the new fact-based biopic, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.”

For years, John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) lived to drink. He held down various mundane jobs to acquire the cash he needed for his frequent trips to the liquor store. And, by night, he routinely sought out invitations to parties at which he would binge well on into the wee hours.

Alcoholic John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) spends years living to drink in director Gus Van Sant’s new biopic, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.” Photo by Scott Patrick Green, courtesy of Amazon Studios.[/caption]

But that all changed one fateful night when John left one party to attend another bash with a new drinking buddy, Dexter (Jack Black). On their way to the event, the duo stopped for multiple rounds of shots at a bar, followed by an impromptu visit to an amusement park (surely the ideal place to go after hours of imbibing). However, having worn themselves out with drinking (and “purging”) all evening long, John and Dexter weren’t in the best of shape when they finally started making their way to their destination. Dexter was behind the wheel, but he was soon overcome by the alcohol, falling asleep and crashing his car. He managed to walk away from the accident with only a few scratches, but John was left paralyzed from his injuries. Now what?

Waking up immobilized in a hospital, John was forced into coming to grips with his new reality. Faced with circumstances unlike anything he had ever encountered, he now had to make plans for what to do for the rest of his life. But what would that involve?

John’s most immediate priorities were attending to his injuries and learning how to adapt to his new physical condition, a process that, though challenging, seemed to go better than what one might have expected. However, the emotional side of his ordeal was another story. Fortunately, John had a supportive team of caregivers working with him, most notably a kindly therapist, Annu (Rooney Mara), with whom he developed a professional relationship that had decidedly personal overtones. He also began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at which he met a sponsor, Donnie Green (Jonah Hill), who welcomed John into his group therapy circle, albeit with hefty doses of tough love. And it’s there where the real work began.

Drinking buddies John (Joaquin Phoenix, right) and Dexter (Jack Black, left) meet at a party and set off on a fateful, tragedy-ridden evening in the new film biography, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.” Photo by Scott Patrick Green, courtesy of Amazon Studios.[/caption]

John struggled with staying sober, largely because group therapy forced him into some difficult personal work – discovering why he began drinking to the point of incoherence in the first place, a practice that started in his teens. But, despite this arduous task, answers started coming to him as he worked his way through the program’s 12 steps. He gradually began recognizing and dealing with his personal demons, making it possible for him to remain free of drink.

One of the most important steps of this process, though, was figuring out what to do with himself going forward. Having retained partial movement in his arms, John discovered a knack for drawing, particularly cartooning. He had a distinctive style, to which he added his singularly outrageous wit, a scathing sense of humor that took no prisoners and frequently caused offense. However, many found his sketches refreshing, hilarious and insightful, qualities that soon earned him widespread recognition and publication in numerous high-profile periodicals. The lemonade was at last flowing.

John’s experience provides a prime example of illustrating how our reality comes into being through the conscious creation process, the means by which we manifest our existence through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. But, given the tragedy and challenges he went through, one can’t help but wonder why anyone would create what he did.

After a tragic accident, recovering alcoholic paraplegic John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix, left) joins Alcoholic Anonymous under the sponsorship of fellow member, Donnie Green (Jonah Hill, right) in the inspiring new biopic, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.” Photo by Scott Patrick Green, courtesy of Amazon Studios.[/caption]

For much of his life, John was a sleepwalker, paying little conscious (or conscientious) attention to his life and why it was materializing as it did. In essence, he was purposely numbing himself through his binging, putting off dealing with who he was and the nature of his experience. Getting his next drink is all that mattered. Seeking an outcome with no disregard for the fallout or the process of getting there is the antithesis of conscious creation, a practice known as un-conscious creation or creation by default.

However, as the years went by, John clearly could not continue as he had been. The prospect of alcohol-related illnesses and other associated perils, for example, loomed large unless he got sober. He had to stop, and then he had to figure out why he started, both of which had their roots in his beliefs about himself and about life.

For various reasons, Callahan had never taken the time to address these issues. The difficulty involved was more than he could bear, so, rather than address his challenges, he chose to defer doing so by escaping into inebriation, supported by beliefs that made this outcome possible. On some level, though, he knew he could not stay on that course – and hence needed to create circumstances that would get him unstuck.

Kindly therapist Annu (Rooney Mara) does her best to bring hope and encouragement to a newly paralyzed paraplegic patient in director Gus Van Sant’s latest offering, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.” Photo by Scott Patrick Green, courtesy of Amazon Studios.[/caption]

Many of us would probably look upon John’s “solution” to this dilemma as somewhat drastic. However, it’s also apparent that he was not getting the message about the need to make a change when it came to him in a less dramatic fashion. As much as we might disagree with his decision, he needed to create sweeping change in his life that would undeniably force him in a new direction. And, by being immobilized, he now had no other distractions to keep him from setting about the task of sorting out his life and beliefs.

In unraveling how he got to the point he was at, Callahan first had to come to understand how his beliefs shaped his existence. In essence, he had to become “conscious” of the conscious creation process. And, with the acquisition of such awareness, he then had an opportunity to see how to apply the technique in manifesting the reality he experienced. This was true for seeing both how he got to where he was, as well as to project where he wanted to go from there.

Realizing that he was still capable of making a contribution to existence despite his paralysis, John tapped into his cartooning abilities, a skill brought to life by beliefs that made the emergence of this talent possible. Even though his style did not appeal to everyone, on some level, he knew that there were those he would appreciate it, a belief that brought him the success he attained. But the accolades he achieved represented something larger than just his abilities as an illustrator; they were evidence of his worth as a human being, something that for years had been buried under a belief-based unwillingness to recognize said fact (not to mention a pile of empty liquor bottles).

Callahan’s story is truly inspiring, detailing the remarkable efforts he made to get clean and to build a life and career for himself in the wake of a horrendous tragedy. He shows us that we really can turn things around if we put our minds to it, tasking though the process may be. However, the potential rewards that come from such ventures are immeasurable, proving that we have worth and are capable of making tremendous contributions professionally, personally and, above all, courageously.

As film biographies go, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” is generally well made and features excellent performances by Phoenix, Hill and Black. Director Gus Van Sant’s latest sports a wicked sense of humor and more than its share of heartfelt moments. Unfortunately, it has something of a tendency to lose its way in the second half, particularly when it comes to addressing Callahan’s efforts at working his way through the 12 steps. While the overall direction of the story is apparent, the script meanders somewhat at a time when the focus should be clearer and more direct. See this one for the performances, its wit and its inventive animation, but try not to be too let down by some of the lapses in the narrative.

Navigating the shoals of our existence can undoubtedly be troublesome. But it is possible to maneuver our way through as long as we make a concerted effort to stay the course. John Callahan shows us how to take the wheel, even when such an endeavor seems impossible – and how to make some of the sweetest lemonade possible.

Copyright © 2018, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

‘Eighth Grade’ plumbs the problem solving process

“Eighth Grade” (2018). Cast: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Daniel Zolghadri, Fred Hechinger, Imani Lewis, Luke Prael, Catherine Oliviere, Nora Mullins, Missy Yager, Greg Crowe, Natalie Carter. Director: Bo Burnham. Screenplay: Bo Burnham. Web site. Trailer.

Try to think of a time in your life when you felt like you were perpetually confused. For some of us, that might come at almost any age. But, for those lacking the benefit of life experience, it most likely occurred at a time when we were still finding our way in the world – not when we were so young that we didn’t consciously think about such things but at a slightly later stage in our development when we earnestly began trying to understand our place in the realm of existence. If most of us were to apply that standard, that incessantly awkward, unceasingly confounding time probably came in our early teens, a time when we were no longer children but not quite adults, a time aptly depicted in writer-director Bo Burnham’s debut feature, the delightful and edgy new comedy-drama, “Eighth Grade.”

Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) walks through life lost. The 13-year-old is on the verge of completing middle school and preparing for high school. She desperately seeks to carve out a niche for herself, but her efforts never quite seem to work out the way she would like. As a sensitive but shy wallflower type, Kayla bravely tries to put herself out there, pursuing such undertakings as recording heartfelt but nervously meandering advice videos for her own online TV channel. She forces herself to try and make friends with others, but she’s often met with disdain from the supposedly cool kids, who constantly look down on her, or indifference from the junior high hunks, who only self-servingly see her as a prospect for a quick score. And, to complicate matters, she must also contend with the stress-inducing anxieties of “the new normal,” such as participating in active shooter drills at school, something those of us a little further on in years never had to deal with when we were that age. What’s a contemporary girl to do?

Teenager Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) seeks to make a name for herself by recording advice videos for her own online TV channel in the delightful and edgy new comedy-drama, “Eighth Grade.” Photo by Linda Kallerus, courtesy of A24.[/caption]

“Eighth Grade” follows Kayla through the trials and tribulations of navigating this reality, as seen through such incidents as her reluctant attendance at a birthday party for a severe, cliquey diva (Catherine Oliviere) and her first time in the back seat of a car with a boy (Daniel Zolghadri), one whose intentions are less than honorable. Viewers witness her various ways of coping, from proactive steps, like making lists of what she hopes to achieve, to desperate measures, such as unwittingly succumbing to a bout of hyperventilation. She’s obviously doing the best she can under the circumstances, but it’s far from easy, especially since she lacks the experience to know how to respond.

This is not to say that Kayla’s all on her own. She has a staunch supporter in her father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), a somewhat goofy, always well-meaning, supremely loving single parent who’s awed by her moxie and her willingness to put her feet to the fire, a courageous streak that she doesn’t always recognize in herself but that make it easy for dad to give her a long leash. She also befriends an older peer, Olivia (Emily Robinson), a bubbly mentor whom she meets while attending a high school orientation program. But, again, given Kayla’s inexperience in knowing who to trust and what advice to embrace, she often founders about, trying to figure out what to do and which guidance she should take to heart.

Insecure teen Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher, left) shares a moment with her somewhat goofy but ever-supportive father, Mark (Josh Hamilton, right), in writer-director Bo Burnham’s debut feature, “Eighth Grade.” Photo by Linda Kallerus, courtesy of A24.[/caption]

One can’t help but feel for Kayla. Those of us a little long in the tooth know what it means to go through such ordeals. Even though some of them may seem comparatively trivial to those of us who left such problems behind long ago, we may nevertheless have sweat bullets about them when we went through them, even if we have subsequently lost sight of how truly traumatizing they can be. Kayla’s story reminds us of the anguish our younger kindreds can experience as they work their way through their own personal learning curves – and of the need to show them compassion during such a crucially formative transition.

When we go through adolescence, most of us probably ask ourselves, “Why must it be so difficult?” That’s a reasonable inquiry, even if we subsequently discover that the issues we face at that time of life often pale by comparison to those we must address later on. However, were it not for those early life challenges, would we be adequately prepared for tackling those problems that we’re presented with down the road? In essence, we’re subjected to – or, more precisely, we allow ourselves, albeit unwittingly, to be subjected to – those circumstances to hone our problem solving skills.

This is all made possible by the beliefs we hold about our existence, the building blocks that shape our reality through the conscious creation process, the means by which we bring our world into being. We may not always be aware of what beliefs we hold or why we maintain them (as is the case with Kayla and her peers), but we can rest assured there are often valid reasons behind them in aiding our personal growth and development.

Geeky teen Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher, left) makes a new friend in her bubbly mentor, Olivia (Emily Robinson, right), at a high school orientation program in the new comedy-drama, “Eighth Grade.” Photo by Linda Kallerus, courtesy of A24.[/caption]

As conscious creation practitioners are well aware, pushing past limitations is one of the chief aims of this philosophy, and what better way to achieve this task than by problem solving. The creation of challenges forces us to look for inventive ways to resolve them, and those that we manifest during our teen years provide us with a suitable proving ground to test our skills. Given the general lack of life experience many of us have when moving into such uncharted waters, the tasks at hand might seem daunting, perhaps even insurmountable. However, under these circumstances, it also becomes readily apparent that they aren’t going away, either, so we’re usually pushed into dealing with them, no matter what.

These are the conditions that bring out the creative problem solvers in us. We have to come up with solutions, because the problems simply won’t let us get away from them. As a consequence, we implement our innovative selves to come up with ways to address these issues. Such experiences usually prove invaluable, because not only do they resolve the challenges at hand, but they also give us an opportunity to develop a basic skill that we can adapt and apply to other issues that arise down the road. This enables us to formulate increasingly sophisticated, insightful and creative beliefs for materializing all manner of solutions and manifestations aimed at realizing the satisfaction and fulfillment we seek out of life. And to think it all begins with something as simple as figuring out how to cope with the world-weary trials and tribulations of adolescence.

Thirteen-year-old Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher, center) nervously seeks to make friends with a group of older peers (from left, Fred Hechinger, Daniel Zolghadri, Emily Robinson, Imani Lewis) in the delightful and edgy new comedy-drama, “Eighth Grade.” Photo courtesy of A24.[/caption]

Thanks to the film’s masterfully written script, “Eighth Grade” effectively embodies a certain universality of what it’s like to go through that stage of life. What’s more, given its contemporary time frame, it also captures the ever-changing unease that all of us may experience these days, regardless of our age, as we attempt to cope with the constantly shifting sands of prevailing conditions beneath our feet. Considering the foregoing, these twin truths give us pause to contemplate what it must be like for someone Kayla’s age to be experiencing them simultaneously, a prospect many of us probably wouldn’t envy once we think about it.

Burnham’s initial feature effort is a flat-out winner. Despite a slight tendency toward being episodic, this insightful look at growing up at an ungainly time in one’s life at an unnerving time in history wins the day with incisive humor and an ever-present though reluctantly acknowledged edginess that speaks plainly to viewers of any age. Newcomer Fisher delivers a knock-out performance as a 13-year-old playing a 13-year-old, backed by a terrific ensemble of supporting characters who help to bring out the best in her portrayal. In all, you won’t regret your time at the theater with this one.

Finding our way in life can be challenging at any age but especially so when we lack the wits to know what to do – and discovering that the only effective way to amass those coping mechanisms is to go through the experiences that provide them, difficult though they may be. We can only hope we succeed in our efforts.

Copyright © 2018, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Eighth Grade" and "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot," as well as a magazine article preview, are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Environmentalism and the Pulpit

I’m thrilled to announce the publication of my new magazine article, “Environmental Activism and the Pulpit Join forces on the Big Screen,” found in the latest issue of Up Words magazine. Find out how to access the entire issue at the publication’s Facebook page by clicking here.