State of the Union

A Stillborn Child Leads to a Murder Charge—With Threat of Life in Prison

In 2006, 15-year-old Rennie Gibbs became pregnant. She tested positive for marijuana and cocaine during her pregnancy. Her daughter Samiya was born a month premature, with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. An autopsy on the child found traces of a cocaine byproduct, and Rennie was charged with what Mississippi calls “depraved heart murder,” a second-degree murder charge used in cases when an unintended death results from an act “eminently dangerous to others” committed with a “depraved” disregard for human life.* Gibbs’s case has wound its way through the legal system, and it is still unclear whether she will go on trial this spring; but if she does, Gibbs, now 23, will face the threat of life in prison.

These are the facts. Heartbreaking personal stories lie behind them, and broader societal stories as well. The story of Rennie and Samiya Gibbs is a story of a prosecutor with a cavalier approach to evidence; a story of scapegoating and the inability to accept tragedy; a story of the police state created by what Jim Henley calls “the war on some drugs”; and a story, too, about legal attempts to protect the unborn. “We can love them both” is one of the more inspiring slogans of the pro-life movement. What would loving them both look like, for Rennie and Samiya? I’m pretty sure “life in prison” is not the answer.

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All Noir Is Reunion: “Veronica Mars,” The Movie

"Veronica Mars," Warner Bros.
"Veronica Mars," Warner Bros.

When we talk about the TV renaissance, we should talk about “Veronica Mars.” The 2004 “high school noir” show’s extraordinary first season mixed weekly casefiles with a season-long arc—two arcs, actually. Veronica starts the show as a suddenly bereft and embittered California teen: Her best friend has been murdered, her father lost his sheriff’s job when he fingered a local corporate bigwig for the crime, she lost all her friends in the aftermath, and when she tried to show defiance by going to a party where most of the people hated her, she was roofied and raped. Our tiny blonde sleuth spends the first season trying to solve her friend’s murder and her own assault.

Veronica (Kristen Bell) is half Philip Marlowe, half Buffy Summers. But she’s Marlowe without the isolation—her relationships, especially her warm and (mostly) trusting relationship with her father (Enrico Colantoni), are central to her character—and Buffy without the self-pity. She’s a wisecracker whose cynicism covers up a “marshmallow” heart of empathy and longing. The show’s first season explored the spiraling consequences of seemingly minor sins; the callousness and confusion which allow crimes to be committed right under everybody’s noses; and the way kids cope, or fail to cope, with parental legacies of violence and despair.

The next two seasons couldn’t sustain the psychological acuity of the first. Season Two has some great moments (the stadium demolition intercut with gang leader Weevil’s sacramental confession is a highlight for me) but a deep streak of stupidity and caricature; those problems only deepened in Season Three. The show’s final episode is the only good episode in the third season, but it’s pretty great: an achingly sad portrayal of perseverance, defeat, and failure in both the eyes of the world and the court of one’s own conscience. (Uh, spoilers? It’s noir, it doesn’t have a happy ending.)

Veronica’s fans were fierce, and clamored for more Mars. Hence this new movie, in very select theaters (it’s only playing in one location in D.C.) due to a Kickstarter campaign. I don’t really mean it as a criticism when I say that the movie plays as a much longer version of the final episode: In an age of TV that feels like a movie, the “Veronica Mars” movie feels like TV. Read More…

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Coming Out Catholic: The Movie

At the Level Ground film festival the other weekend, I got to see “Desire of the Everlasting Hills,” a truly moving and well-made documentary—and an example of the movement I described in my “Coming Out Christian” piece.

“Desire” lets three gay or same-sex attracted Catholics tell their stories. It’s not confrontational or argumentative; the overall tone is tender and reflective. I saw it twice, and it evoked both laughter and sniffles from the audience.

And the stories seem perfectly crafted to disrupt conventional ideas of “ex-gay” narratives. At first Paul seems like your central-casting disco kid, who fled a life of promiscuity. Rilene’s the lonely woman neglected by men, who is seduced at a low point in her life by a predatory lesbian. And Dan had a boyfriend, but began to find himself falling for a woman—his chance to have a “normal” life and a family. So far, so frustrating. But the movie is startlingly well-paced (its “plot twists” got gasps and exclamations) as we learn that these three lives are anything but pious paint-by-numbers cartoons.

There’s so much to say about this film! Director Eric Machiela’s use of nature imagery is perfectly-timed and poignant. (The saccharine piano music is the only major aesthetic flaw.) It opens a bit defensively, with the three subjects talking about how they just want to be known and not judged, but once we settle in to hearing their stories the movie finds its rhythm. I wanted to know so much more about all of them; I wanted to hang out with them. There are tart words from Mother Angelica, “the pirate nun,” and tender memories of the good old nights at Studio 54; there’s fondness for the Church and fury at God; financial upheaval, a miserable peace sign, self-sacrificial gay love, and a Good Friday buzzkill from John Paul II himself.

There are some fascinating theological contrasts: Paul’s most direct experiences of God come when he is being rescued or spared something he expected to be unbearably painful—the most intense example comes when he’s on the way to the doctor to learn his HIV status—whereas both Dan and especially Rilene see God’s hand most clearly in the losses and humiliations of life. (For readers of my AmCon piece: I was struck by how unembarrassed Dan and Rilene were by their own loneliness and suffering. It’s a part of life, to be approached with the same passion and good humor as other parts.) I think this movie would challenge any Christian—no matter their church affiliation or views on sexual ethics. It shows the wild diversity within orthodoxy, the sheer weirdness and unpredictability of faithful Catholic lives.

“Desire” beautifully shows common human experiences such as longing, loneliness, the loss of a loved one, the slow building of a lifelong love, and the attempt to reconcile religious faith and romantic love, experienced from a unique perspective. These stories are as richly textured as a nineteenth-century novel, suffused with hope and mystery, and told just about as well as I can imagine. I’m not sure how to get a copy, but you can try Gorilla Pictures or Level Ground—it’s worth making a real effort to find this thing.

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5 Things the Disease Model Gets Wrong About Addiction

“Use every man after his desert and who shall ‘scape whipping?”

There’s a narrative that comes up whenever addiction is discussed publicly nowadays: the narrative in which the disease of addiction essentially replaces a person’s free will.

The barroom-wisdom version of it is the old line, “First the man takes a drink. Then the drink takes a drink. Then the drink takes the man.” A fairly heartbreaking version of it comes in this interview with author (and father of an addict) David Sheff: “Once I started realizing that my son was not making choices, I went from being angry and judgmental to being able to look at him with compassion: He’s sick; he needs help. It also allowed me to figure out what I needed to do: He’s sick; he needs to be treated.”

This narrative is, to put it mildly, not uncontested. Lots of addicts don’t agree with this description of our problem. Lots of non-addicts also disagree, typically more virulently (but I guess I’m biased), and insist that addicts are doing it on purpose: That’s a narrative I seem to see more on the right than on the left, though these are personal enough matters that ideological categories get blurry. The whole debate over how fully you want to reify the disease metaphor (which is what it is—that’s not bad, metaphors are a normal and poetic part of human understanding) gets tangled up in related debates about Alcoholics Anonymous, metaphors of surrender, treatment and/as/vs. punishment, and the promotion of personal responsibility.

There are five things wrong with an overemphasis on disease at the expense of free will—but the reaction against the disease metaphor often merely serves to strengthen it. First, the five things:

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Dyscommunication: “Tribes” at DC’s Studio Theatre

"Tribes"
"Tribes"

If you couldn’t understand what your family was saying, would you understand them better or worse?

Nina Raines’s ”Tribes” opens with four Britons hurling abuse at each other around the kitchen table. I think it’s supposed to be funny, but it’s mostly just crass and painful: Mom, Dad, brother and sister describing one another’s passions, hopes, beliefs, and sex lives in the most contemptuous terms possible. The fifth member of the family is deaf and yeah, you do feel that perhaps he’s the lucky one.

As the play moves forward, the younger characters get shades and nuance. (The parents, and especially the cartoonishly self-centered father, remain pretty much the same.) Daniel (Richard Gallagher), the hearing son, shows flashes of haunted vulnerability which reveal a gulf of misery under cover of vituperation. The entire family has raised Billy (James Caverly, who starts off with a beatific smile which is clearly at least partly a mask or role) to read lips rather than to sign. They’ve developed an ideological resistance to anything which smacks of Deaf culture.

They genuinely believe they’re protecting Billy, but they’re also terrified of losing their beloved son and brother to a culture which can promise him a kind of belonging they can’t offer. When that masky smile finally slips and Billy says that they view him as the family mascot, the audience can tell that it’s not true: If anything, he’s the family conscience, the only one they allow to be good, the only one they’ll openly love. Of course, he’s also the only one they never need to listen to.

When the play begins, the family is all trapped together. The hearing children, Daniel and Ruth, have retreated to the family home after a series of romantic and professional defeats in the outside world. (“I feel like a bonsai tree!” Ruth yells, in a line which got big, empathetic laughs.) Billy never left, has never had a job or a girlfriend. One of the major themes of the play is the fact that belonging is rarely chosen; you don’t get to pick the elements which make up your identity, the ties which bind. You can try to leave—and seriously, Daniel at least should do everything in his power to get out of his parents’ house, because they’re actively damaging his psyche; this isn’t a play about the comforts of home—but you will eventually have to return, if only to give an account of yourself.

There are some terrific little moments (the play’s humor eventually does become actually funny), often involving how much impromptu “sign” this resolutely anti-sign-language family uses. There are tough, basically unanswerable questions about how language shapes us and separates us from others: As Billy’s new girlfriend goes deaf, she wonders if she’s losing the ability to understand nuances and ambiguities which can’t be expressed in sign. Read More…

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A Long, Cold Lent: David Adams Richards’s Friends of Meager Fortune

I saved The Friends of Meager Fortune, the second novel I’ve read by Canadian Catholic author David Adams Richards, for the polar vortex. If anything can make Boston in January seem warm, it’s this relentlessly grim tale of the last days of man-and-horse lumbering, with horses crashing through the ice and bloodied hands freezing on the reins.

I’m conflicted about recommending the book. What is good in it is immensely powerful. The story of the doomed love of local failure/hero/failure again Owen Johnson and charity case/outcast Camellia Dupuis is suspenseful and deeply moving. Camellia is a luminous innocent who never becomes cloying. She’s gentle, in a profoundly ungentle world.

Even more moving, though, is the portrayal of the grim, death-shadowed men who work for Owen up on Good Friday Mountain, cutting down logs under shockingly dangerous and miserable conditions. The book would be worth reading just for the depictions of the horses, their pride and suffering, as they work themselves to death under the care of proud and suffering men. The economic suspense (will Johnson’s timber haul fail?) and the suspense of the work itself (who will survive the grim conditions on Good Friday?) are as tense as the romance, and the plot twists in these areas made me gasp several times.

And Richards acidly depicts the gossip and judgment of a small town, the way the gazes of our neighbors can destroy us. Read More…

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Magritte: Horror and Humor at MOMA

RenÈ Magritte, The False Mirror, 1928. wallyg / Flickr
RenÈ Magritte, The False Mirror, 1928. wallyg / Flickr

Rene Magritte made so ridiculously many paintings that creating a manageable exhibit on his work requires some kind of exclusionary mechanism. The Museum of Modern Art has chosen to carve him up chronologically, giving a time-slice of his work from 1926 to 1938. This period includes Magritte’s most evocative and haunting works–but also a raft of punny schlock.

Of course, the popular Magritte is often the punny Magritte (yes, you can see the famous not-a-pipe at the MOMA show); and the horror-laced, otherworldly Magritte was often the result of finding just the right, resonant punchline for an existential joke.

Magritte is a horror artist in part because he has such an up-front sense of humor: Both the horror and the humor are about incongruities and displacement. The one with the giant egg in a cage is almost the same joke as the one with the tattered boots turning into feet, and it may be only a matter of personal taste that I find the cage-egg shticky and formulaic whereas the grimy, fleshy boot-feet are troubling and sad. The opening wall caption notes his self-proclaimed ambition to make “everyday objects shriek aloud,” which reminds me of the Jack Handey line about the screaming trees. Lots of Magritte’s work has this funny-creepy edge: the eye in the pancake; the cute doughy-faced moppet in lace collar and cuffs, eating a bird.

Some of my own favorites are in this show. 1927′s “The secret double,” a woman with a strip ripped or broken off of her face, revealing mysterious gray sleigh bells on ropy stalks, is an extraordinary image of the unknowable consciousness hidden behind an ordinary face. Magritte at his best often creates a hushed atmosphere, like a velvet curtain coming down over the mind–curtains appear at the edges of many of his dreamscape works. “Entr’acte,” with its bizarrely connected limbs stretching and holding one another, and “The muscles of the sky,” in which sharply defined blue-gray coils of sky spill out onto a wooden platform, never become less striking for me. Looking at them, and at “The Finery of the Storm” with its person-sized snowflakey paper cutouts ranged in front of a turbulent sea, I feel like I’m standing at the edge of an abyss: quiet, held in suspense, full of surprises.

Magritte has a lot of recurring tricks, and I love most of them: all that sky-blue, and the occasional judicious use of creepy salmon pink; the touchable textures, furry or grainy or polished; the vaguely human “bilboquets” and Martian-ship sleigh bells. He can evoke fairy tales, as in “The Healer,” and his illustrations of the fraught interactions of men and women are phenomenal: “The titanic days” and “The rape” for violence against women, but also “The lovers” for a mysterious, teasing sexiness. (The sheets covering their heads don’t only hide them from one another, but also suggest smooth, sensual textures and, of course, bed.)

His word trick I don’t love. This is the thing where he paints some melty, curvy object, and then sticks an unrelated word into it; or he paints e.g. a fire and labels it “l’oiseau.” One of these is interesting. Two or three: Okay, he needs to get something out of his system. Ten? Ten is too many. Some of them have enough sensuality in the shapes and textures to get me past the one-trick pony of it all, but most of them seem like paintings you “get” rather than paintings you’re absorbed by. And the MOMA show includes a lot of them.

In all other respects the show is thoughtful. Not too many captions (some of which have a dry humor: “Le Chant de l’orage is the second of three paintings Magritte produced in response to what he saw as the problem of rain”), a nice winding path in which every work gets enough space to capture the viewer, and some fun photographs of Magritte and his paintings, including one where he mimics the crime-fiction villain Fantomas. The show runs through January 12, 2014.


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The Giraffe Trick: Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty”

In decadent Rome, an aging art critic rides the success of his one, long-ago novel, and wonders if there’s more to life than having the best conga line in the Eternal City. He watches young nuns playing in a hedge maze, drifts into and through relationships with damaged women, and does a lot of eloquent smoking.

The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino’s update of/homage to La Dolce Vita, offers a lot of expected pleasures. Our antihero, Jep Gambarella (Toni Servillo), sometimes seems to be genuinely having fun, and at those points I tended to have fun right along with him. The camera swoons and swoops. The art and landscape of Rome look glorious–the many different, clashing landscapes, nuns scuttling past a satyr, neon lights and ancient stones. The satire of terrible performance art probably goes on too long (I would’ve cut the on-the-nose sequence with the man whose father photographed him every day of his life, and the knife thrower) but it ranges from acidic to surprisingly thought-provoking, disturbing, and nuanced.

Jep is a critic in the worst way: somebody who makes his living off of art. It’s a job which breeds cynicism. And Rome is famously a city of cynics.

But somewhere around the three-quarters point of the movie, something unexpected occurs. “The Saint” comes to Rome from Africa. This tiny old lady is a Mother Teresa caricature, surrounded by sycophants and bandwagoners, sitting propped up at the dinner table practically drooling, looking like humid death.

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Material Madchen: “The Artificial Silk Girl”

I picked up Irmgard Keun’s 1932 novel The Artificial Silk Girl at the Neue Galerie in New York, basically on a whim. It promised to be a dizzying tour of Weimar Berlin, last call before Hell and all that, from the perspective of a young, single woman whom the introduction compares to Madonna’s “Material Girl.”

Certainly our heroine, Doris, is materialistic in a certain sense. She pays her bills by dating men. Her closest relationship is with her stolen fur coat. (The letter she writes to the coat’s rightful owner is a terrific, tilt-a-whirl study in ambivalent amends.) But she isn’t hard-headed; her desires are a collage of sentiment and hunger. She maintains her girlish figure easily, since throughout most of the novel she can’t actually afford food. She writes her hopes and dreams in the notebook she’s covered with little paper doves:

I’m going to be a star, and then everything I do will be right–I’ll never have to be careful about what I do or say. I don’t have to calculate my words or my actions–I can just be drunk–nothing can happen to me anymore, no loss, no disdain, because I’m a star.

Kathie von Ankum’s translation is full of sharp, funny cockeyed lines, usually describing men—”his usual politics is blonde,” for example. But Doris goes through some truly rough times, and the most memorable sections of the book are its most poignant. This book made me choke up over a dead goldfish: “Put him back in the water!”, this universal human desire to reverse the irreversible. There are parts of this book which sound like Walker Percy:

So they have courses teaching you foreign languages and ballroom dancing and etiquette and cooking. But there are no classes to learn how to be by yourself in a furnished room with chipped dishes, or how to be alone in general without any words of concern or familiar sounds.

I don’t really like him all that much, but I’m with him, because every human being is like a stove for my heart that is homesick but not always longing for my parents’ house, but for a real home–those are the thoughts I’m turning over in my mind. What am I doing wrong?

Perhaps I don’t deserve better.

The future does hang over this book, and thin acrid drifts of it waft through the novel here and there: Doris ruminates on being asked whether she’s a Jew; she gets caught up in the ecstasy of a political rally. Berlin is filled with the desperately poor, especially veterans. It’s a city of people who have slipped down many rungs of life’s ladder, and Doris begins to feel herself slipping too.

I ended this book loving poor Doris, and Keun seems to love her too. She strains to come up with some kind of demi-happy ending for her heroine, Doris who believes that “it is particularly those things you have stolen with your own hands that you love the most”; but she can’t quite reach happiness, and settles for chastening.


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Disorientation: “Sense of Place” at the Sackler Gallery

Cherry Blossoms, Moriyama Daido, S2012.10
Cherry Blossoms, Moriyama Daido, S2012.10

Now that the shutdown is over, I can tell you about a small but punchy photography exhibit at the Sackler.

“Sense of Place,” which runs through November 11, disrupts many of the cliches of East vs. West. In these tired oppositions, Europe is a clash of swords and horses; China, Japan, or any other part of the undifferentiated East is a lone monk crossing a quiet pond. The West is the land of change and history, the East is the land where life is as fleeting and yet eternal as the seasons.

Well, there is a lone man crossing a quiet pond in “Sense of Place.” Hai Bo’s image is gentle, sad and misty, as a bridge arches in graceful curves over the placid water. But this is only the first in a series of three images. The bridge is destroyed. The man is left wandering in a foggy forest, and then abandoned among concrete structures under a blank white sky. In just three photographs we’ve entered the modern world: a world of industrialization and rapid change. Despite the exhibit’s title, time rather than place is the major theme of the small show—it takes up only two rooms—and the emphasis is on the aftermath of distinctly twentieth-century destruction in China, Japan, Iran, and Vietnam.

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