Movie Reviews - 2012 postsMonday June 18, 2012
Movie Review: Prometheus (2012)
The first half of Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus,” a prequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 horror masterpiece “Alien,” raises some fun and intriguing questions. The second half gives us some lame and unsatisfying answers. It’s a smart sci-fi film that gets dumb fast.
In the latter part of the 21st century, archeologists Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) stumble upon 5,000-year-old cave paintings from different parts of the world that include the same image: a giant man pointing to a five-planet solar system that isn’t visible from Earth. This solar system has a planet, or a moon, which is semi-inhabitable for humans, although its atmosphere, we’re told, would be like sucking on an exhaust pipe. Meaning in 2093 we’ll still have cars with internal combustion engines. Bummer.
But, badda-bing badda-boom, a mission to this planet, funded by the Weyland Corporation, is underway. We see the ship, Prometheus, en route, with its 16 human crew members in stasis, while its lone android, David (Michael Fassbender), studies ancient languages, shoots baskets while riding a bicycle, and watches both the dreams of Ms. Shaw and David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.” He styles his hair in the fashion of a young Peter O’Toole and quotes one of the movie’s more famous lines: “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.” Apparently even our robots want to be like movie stars. Or so the movies tell us.
A few months ago, online, I saw a clip from “Prometheus,” in which Weyland Corp. founder Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), in 2023, gives a TED talk. It’s a good clip, although the “talk” doesn’t quite hold together:
So Weyland expounds on “Lawrence” and “not minding”; on the titan Prometheus, who gave us fire (and thus life), and who was punished by the gods by having an eagle rip out his stomach and eat his liver every day for eternity; and by the fact that, in creating androids, in creating life, “We are the Gods now.” But this clip didn’t make the movie. Too bad. The talk doesn’t quite adhere but the scene provides connective tissue for the movie. It lets us know why, for example, David is watching “Lawrence,” and how, for example, the giant men in the cave drawings might be ancient aliens thought to be gods, and how, for example, the legend of Prometheus, with his ripped-out stomach, might be our first “Alien” story. I.e., it wasn’t an eagle ripping into a stomach; it was an alien ripping out of it.
As in “Alien,” as opposed to the optimistic “Star Trek” world, there are class distinctions aboard Prometheus, and, as in any corporation, a battle for power. Who’s in control of the mission? A hologram of a wizened Peter Weyland (Pearce in make-up) tells the crew that the scientists, Shaw and Holloway, are in charge, but the robot-like Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), who, out of stasis, does push-ups while those around her are regurgitating, and who has separate, lavish quarters, obviously objects. Then there’s the captain of the ship, Janek (Idris Elba), but he seems to know his place as employee and glorified chauffeur. “I’m just the captain,” he says more than once with a smile.
There’s also David, who, like almost all androids in sci-fi movies, has ulterior motives.
So they land, quickly find the alien stronghold, along with giant, godlike images of humanoids (thank you, H.R. Giger!), and evidence of a massacre: bodies piled high by a doorway. But they insist on poking stuff, goo and slime, that we know better not to poke. We, viewers of countless “Alien” movies, know what’s going to happen. They don’t.
Well, some do. David, for example. How does he know? Is he literally reading the writing on the walls?
It all comes apart fast—both mission and movie. Two scared scientists who are left behind, the Shaggy and Scooby of the crew, come across a snake-like alien life-form emerging from a blackish goo, and one insists on practically cooing to it. Bad move, Scoob. It, of course, wraps itself around his arm, breaks it, and when the other scientist tries to cut it off, he gets the alien’s acid-blood sprayed in his face. In seconds, both are mangled toast.
Meanwhile, David has mixed some black goo into the drink of Holloway, who, inexplicably, is distraught that in a few hours time in the alien stronghold they didn’t uncover the secret to life. This guy’s a scientist? Doesn’t he know the slow, plodding nature of the discipline? Earlier, Shaw calls the aliens in the cave painting “engineers,” and assumes, without evidence, that they engineered us. When asked why she assumes this, she echoes her father’s comment about why he believes in an afterlife: “It’s what I choose to believe,” she says. She might as well be a Young Earth Creationist.
Holloway perks up when Shaw informs him that the DNA she recovered from the site matches human DNA exactly, and the two celebrate the way humans do, with booze and bed, but the next morning his eyes are red and he doesn’t feel himself, and during the mission to the site he bends over and his skin starts breaking apart and he pleads to be killed. Vickers, who doesn’t want to be contaminated, obliges. Everyone, it seems, has their agenda. Hers is staying clean. She seems to know instinctively that there’s bad shit out there.
Back on the ship, just after seeing her lover torched in front of her, Shaw is informed, by David, almost maliciously, that though she thought herself sterile, she is in fact pregnant. Three months along. How is that possible? Oh, we know how it’s possible. And we know it’s not human. At which point we get the film’s best, most harrowing scene: Shaw performing computer-aided self-surgery to remove the alien before it gets all Prometheus on her ass (or stomach). There’s a great tension between a sense of urgency (hers and ours) and the computer’s decided lack of it. Once she survives, freezes the alien life form, and makes her way, stumbling down the hallway with a stapled stomach, I, like most in the audience, realized, “Right. She’s this movie’s Ripley.”
This takes us to the third act, where we discover that a) Peter Weyland is alive and on board, b) Wickers is his daughter, and c) David has uncovered a chamber where a giant humanoid lies in stasis. That’s why Weyland is there. He’s hoping to meet his maker.
He does. Awakened, surrounded by puny humans, the giant humanoid listens as David talks to him in what we assume is his own language. Whatever David says, it enrages the giant, and David loses his head (literally), and Weyland meets his maker (figuratively), and the humanoid, with whom we share DNA, starts up his massive, c-shaped spaceship, still working after all these years, to bring it, and stomach-popping aliens, to Earth.
Apparently the giant humanoids are developing these aliens like weapons of mass destruction for the purpose of... wiping us off earth? So they can populate it? Or something? They’re not our engineers, in other words; they’re our engineers of destruction. “We were so wrong,” Shaw says.
She figures all this out pretty quickly, informs Capt. Janek that he needs to stop the alien ship or “There won’t be any Earth to go back to,” and, amid lines of bravado, which they snort like lines of cocaine, he and his remaining crew perform a kamikaze mission and bring the alien ship down. The crashing ship promptly crushes Vickers, who has jettisoned onto the desolate planet in a desperate attempt to survive, and nearly crushes Shaw, who rolls out of the way in time.
So is she the sole survivor on this desolate planet? Nope. The giant humanoid survives as does one of the stomach-popping aliens; and she gets away from the former by releasing the latter.
So now she’s alone? Nope. David, head removed from body, is still functioning, and he informs her there’s another alien ship, which he can pilot. But she doesn’t want to go back to Earth. She wants to go forward to the planet of the giant humanoid aliens. She wants to learn more. As do we. In this way the prequel sets up a sequel that doesn’t lead to the original. Two stories diverged in a movie, and she, she took the one less traveled by, but we don’t get to see if it makes all the difference for another two years or so. Thanks, Ridley.
Movie Review: Hello I Must Be Going (2012)
I miss the Marx Brothers. I miss their centrality to our culture, as they were central in the 1970s, 40 years after their cinematic heyday, when Epstein and Horshack would imitate Chico and Harpo on “Welcome Back, Kotter,” and everyone from Michael Jackson to Hawkeye Pierce to kids on McDonald’s commercials would imitate Groucho. We could all use a little duck-walking and cigar-waggling and leering now and again. We could all use a little poignant nonsense. Last year I asked a twentysomething colleague how much she knew about the Marx Brothers and she revealed her ignorance with her Google search: March brothers. Chico would be proud.
A long way of saying I went into “Hello I Must Be Going” hoping for some knowing Marxian references beyond the title.
I got a few. The film’s protagonist, Amy, (Melanie Lynskey), three-months divorced from her entertainment-attorney husband in Manhattan, and now living with her parents in Westport, Conn., used to watch the Marx Brothers with her father when she was a kid. Now she’s watching them again. We see clips from “Duck Soup” and “Animal Crackers,” with Groucho singing the title song, the absurdity of which I’ve always liked. I laughed out loud when I heard this again:
I’ll do anything you say!
I’ll even stay!
But I must be....going
It’s one of the few times I laughed out loud at this April-June romantic comedy.
The movie opens with Amy getting up at noon, slumping off to the kitchen for crackers, and then returning to her room to watch “One Day at a Time” reruns on TV. Her mother, Ruth (Blythe Danner), half encourages her, half chastises her to get moving again. She tries to buck her up but brings her down in the peculiar way of mothers. She talks about a friend’s daughter who is now apparently on anti-depressants, or depressaunts as she calls them, Frenchifying the word, legitimizing it, and implies that maybe this is the path for Amy. “Amy, you haven’t left the house in three months,” she says, seeming concerned. Then her real concern emerges. Important guests are arriving for an important dinner. “Honey, I need you to shape up a little. Get something nice to wear.”
To be honest, I only had so much sympathy for Amy. Her circumstances are tough but not that tough. She’s had heartache but no more than the rest of us. She’s been lying around for three months, wasting her life, wasting her parents’ time and money. At some point, you need to look for something to do and do it. You need to find a place, and a talent with which you can make money, or for which someone will pay you, and then do that. Or you do the thing that makes you money and then you do the other thing that fulfills you, which is what most of us do. It can be hard, particularly in our current culture and economy, but Amy and I are still living in America in the 21st century. The luck heaped upon us is still overwhelming.
At the dinner party, which involves a potential client for her lawyer-father Stan (John Rubenstein), the son of that client, 19-year-old Jeremy (Christopher Abbott of HBO’s “Girls”), is the only other person at the table, besides Amy, who looks uncomfortable with the glib, wine-infused conversation. Occasionally he’ll make eyes at her. Eventually he follows her into another room and makes a pass.
Thus every road back to wholeness begins with the distraction of romance.
At some point, fairly early in the movie, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if she wound up where she started: groaning at the start of the day and watching tired re-runs on TV?” I thought: Why does she have to realize her self-worth? What is it about her self that’s worthy? That she’s nice? That she takes photos of rivers? She was going to publish a book of her river photos once. Apparently she got distracted by her attorney husband. What was she doing all the time she was married anyway? Was she working? Where? How did she fill her days?
In “Hello I Must Be Going,” written by first-time screenwriter Sarah Koskoff and directed by third-time director Todd Louiso, Amy never finds a job, or a purpose, but she finds enough value in herself to demand alimony from her ex. That’s her big self-esteem moment. Then she and her mother travel the world together. She’ll take pictures of her mother. And, one assumes, rivers.
Groucho: Do you suppose I could buy back my introduction to you?
Amy: slowly dying on her road to self-esteem.
Movie Review: Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Wes Anderson’s latest film, “Moonrise Kingdom,” opens with a painting of a house, shifts to a close-up of a dollhouse, then moves onto the activities within the house, the actual house where the painting is hung and the dollhouse is located, the several-storied, precariously placed home of the Bishops, Walt and Laura (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), who live on the northern, Summers End portion of New Penzance Island off the coast of New England in early September 1965. Yet in true Wes Anderson fashion, the actual house seems like a dollhouse. It’s a plaything. There’s an unreality to it, a right-angled, two-dimensionality. Walt and Laura are always in different rooms, the three boys play board games on the floor, while eldest child Suzy (Kara Hayward), on the cusp of adolescence, walks around in short skirts and white knee socks and reads her books (“The Francine Odysseys,” “Disappearance of the Sixth Grade,” “The Girl from Jupiter”), and from the top floor scans the horizon with a pair of binoculars as if she’s in a crow’s nest. Which, in a way, she is. She feels at sea. She’s searching for land.
On the other side of the island, with equal right-angled, two-dimensional precision, Scout Master Ward (Ed Norton) of Camp Ivanhoe rises with the morning, chastises his khaki scouts for minor infractions, then sits down to breakfast, with everyone on one side of the picnic table as if it’s a painting of the Last Supper. But one scout, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), is missing. In his tent, behind a poster, Ward finds a perfectly cut hole. “Jiminy Cricket,” he says, confused and slightly hurt, “he flew the coop.”
The two stories are not unrelated. Sam, with his Barry Goldwater glasses and Davy Crocket coonskin cap (he’s like the mid-1950s), is off to retrieve Suzy, with her miniskirts and raccoon eye makeup (she’s like the mid-1960s), whom he met the year before at a church production of “Noah’s Flood”; and the two, both of whom still have one foot firmly planted in childhood, are running off together to create their own, better world.
Unfortunately, we’re informed by the narrator of the film (Bob Balaban, clad in a Zissou-like red stocking cap) that one of the worst storms of the decade is only three days away. Will the kids be found in time? Will they survive the storm? Is another flood on the way?
During their footloose period, Sam and Suzy fend off an attack from the other khaki scouts, get into their first squabble, make up, read novels, paint, swim, dance to French music, and learn to French kiss. When they’re discovered in a secluded cove, which, in a later watercolor Sam names “Moonrise Kingdom,” they’ve created their own, better world: a world of art and young love.
Exclusion as problem; inclusion as solution
Five years ago, I wrote a piece for MSNBC, “Wes Anderson’s Bruised Souls,” in which I stated the lesson implicit in Anderson’s movies:
Exclusion isn’t necessarily the problem but inclusion is almost always the solution.
I was thinking of Max Fischer in “Rushmore,” and Royal Tenenbaum in “The Royal Tenenbaums”: misfits who don’t mind their misfit status but who must accept their enemies (Herman Blume, Dr. Peter Flynn, Magnus Buchan, Henry Sherman) in order to find final redemption.
For Sam and Suzy, though, exclusion is part of the problem. Neither has friends. Sam is an orphan who lives with uncaring foster parents at a kind of orphan farm. When he goes missing they not only don’t care, they don’t want him back. At Camp Ivanhoe, the other kids, led by the handsome but mean-spirited Redford (Lucas Hedges), don’t like him. This bothers Sam, despite his deadpan expression, more than it ever bothered Max. Max had his crew but Sam is all alone. Near the end of the movie, he confronts Redford, who has, in the interim, been abandoned by his compatriots—who now gather around Sam as the beginning of his amateurish crew—and we get this exchange:
Sam: Why didn’t you like me?
Redford: Why should I? No one else does.
In a typical Wes Anderson story, Redford (and, please, is there a Sundance-related anecdote to that name?) is the enemy Sam must forgive to find redemption. Here, Redford remains an outsider. He knows no forgiveness. Sam has to forgive no one.
Inclusion, however, is still the solution; it’s just not up to Sam and Suzy to provide it. It’s up to the others to include Sam and Suzy. For the first time in a Wes Anderson movie, the world actually adapts to the misfits rather than vice-versa. It makes a place for them. Sam is adopted by Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the law enforcement officer on the island, who abandons his affair with Laura Bishop, the realization of which had sent Suzy into the morally ambiguous world of adulthood in the first place, and Sam winds up wearing the same kinds of nerdy clothes as Captain Sharp. (Compare with: the Zissou crew; and Chas and his boys in “Tenenbaums.” Anderson loves his misfits but he loves them more in uniform and at attention.) The real family sucks but the extended family is glorious.
Question: is this a less-profound message than the one found in Anderson’s earlier films? Max and Royal and Mr. Fox all revel in their differences but still grow to accept others; they became more expansive and open. Sam remains the same; it’s the world that becomes more expansive and accommodating. The lesson feels both Pollyannaish and passive. It feels like a step back.
Give me someplace flat
Let me admit, first, that I’m always excited by a new Wes Anderson film. His movies, full of color and quirks and small joys, are uniquely his. At the same time, as I leave the theater and work through what I’ve just seen, I’m invariably disappointed. He has a love of flatness—in character, in cinematography—that I find visually interesting but intellectually stagnant.
When Laura Bishop, for example, searches for Suzy in their home, she calls with her bullhorn to her left, then straight up to Walt on the second floor. Everything is at a 90-degree angle. When Sam outruns the other boys in a clearing, he doesn’t trace a serpentine path. He heads straight out, makes a sharp right, makes another sharp right, then another. Rather than cut corners and catch him, they all follow haplessly behind. His characters can’t cut corners. They’re condemned to right angles.
In this way, his moviemaking accentuates the flatness of the screen by employing head-on shots and profiles and right angles. A Wes Anderson movie using 3-D technology would be an interesting experiment. Would we even be able to tell?
At the same time, what does this two-dimensionality mean? Is Anderson attempting to make a movie seem like a book? Because he loves books? Because his characters love books?
His characters are similarly flat. There’s a deadpan rigidity to them. Anderson needs particularly good actors to bring them to life. Gene Hackman is the classic example. Ed Norton is now another. There’s a sweetness to Scout Master Ward that comes through as he loses, first, one Khaki Scout, then his whole troop, then his commission. As he sinks, as he loses everything, his humanity grows. As a result, he, and not Sam, the protagonist, learns the Wes Anderson lesson in “Moonrise Kingdom”: in losing the world, he gains the world. Sam? He’s too busy creating his own perfect world, which, by its very nature, will be temporary, and as precarious as a big treehouse atop a tall, thin tree.
Maybe this is the key to understanding Wes Anderson. With each film, Anderson, like so many of his characters, creates his own perfect world; then he presses it flat, as if in the pages of a book, to preserve it and keep it for as long as possible.
Movie Review: The Revolutionary (2012)
WARNING: GANG OF SPOILERS
“You missed it.”
That’s what Ben Bradlee tells Woodward and Bernstein after reading one of their early Watergate stories in “All the President’s Men,” and that’s what I thought leaving the world premiere of “The Revolutionary,” a documentary, locally produced, about 91-year-old local Sidney Rittenberg, who, as a high-ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party from 1946 to 1980, was once called “The most important foreigner in China since Marco Polo.”
Rittenberg was a labor lefty out of Charleston, South Carolina in the 1930s, when everyone in labor was a lefty, before the politics of resentment meant resenting those with less rather than more; and then, like everyone else, he was drafted after Pearl Harbor. Unlike everyone else, he was taught Chinese and sent to China. After the war, Chinese party leaders asked him to stay. “We need an engineer to help us build a bridge from the Chinese people to the American people,” they said. He asked to be a member of the party. He stayed. He felt content. “I’m doing what I should be doing,” he felt.
He had his own long march to Yan’an in 1946, where he met Mao Zedong for the first time. “It’s like a picture out of history,” he remembers thinking, “and I’m now part of that history.”
This is big for Sidney Rittenberg: being part of history.
He’s told Mao wants to spend two days talking about America but we don’t get that conversation. He says Mao wanted good relations with the U.S. because he didn’t want to be dependent on the U.S.S.R. He says the U.S. was thinking ideologically here and Mao wasn’t.
There’s a nice interlude about the Hollywood movies Mao, Zhou Enlai and other party leaders watched each week. Laurel and Hardy movies were favorites.
Then Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang are driven to Taiwan, the Communists come to power, and, when the dust clears, Rittenberg, a man who had Mao’s ear, is suddenly imprisoned as a capitalist spy. He winds up in Beijing Prison No. 2, in solitary confinement, for six years. His Chinese wife divorces him. He nearly goes insane. “Every day,” he says. “you’re sitting there with your own potential madness sitting across from you. Watching you. And you know it’s either you or him.” He was finally released, he believes, “Because Josef Stalin did the best thing he ever did in his life: He died.”
A more far-seeing man, or a man less enamored of China and/or communism, might have left Communist China at this point, but Rittenberg was not that man. He went to work for Radio Beijing, got remarried, had four kids—who mostly go unmentioned. We hear from his wife briefly in the doc.
That may be the doc’s biggest problem. Except for a minute’s worth of monologue from Wang Yulin, his second and current wife, this is a single-source news story. It’s just Rittenberg talking in a chair, or in front of his book shelf, or at other strategic points in his home in the Pacific Northwest. Every once in a while the camera pans over a period photo or a propaganda poster. But we get no footage from China, no supplementary interviews with people who knew him, no references to the newspapers of the day. Did Rittenberg’s defection, such as it was (he never renounced U.S. citizenship), make the newspapers back home? He’s not mentioned in The New York Times, for example, until Linda Charlton does a write-up upon his return in 1980: ‘Son of America’ Is Home to Tell About Chinese In-Laws. (But I had to look that up after the screening.) Did the Charleston papers write about him when he was in China? Did The Daily Worker? Did the CIA?
If Rittenberg was a wiser, more insightful man, the single-source issue wouldn’t be such an issue. He says of Mao, “He was a great hero and a great criminal all rolled into one,” which feels true to me, but of his own life, at least as relayed in this doc, there’s an odd disconnect. He, or documentarians Lucy Ostrander, Irv Drasnin and Don Sellers, can’t seem to connect the fragments of his life into a narrative that makes much sense.
As a foreigner in Communist China, which became increasingly xenophobic as the Great Leap Forward leads to the Cultural Revolution, he seems self-deluded or myopic. When he’s put into solitary confinement again in 1967, he concocts his own Confucian saying: “Man who climbs out on limb should listen carefully for sound of saw.” He says he couldn’t hear the sound of the saw until it was too late. But he could never hear the sound of the saw. That’s his problem.
He remained in solitary until 1977.
What was the appeal? That’s what I still don’t get. Was it the communism? Was it China itself? Was it both? Was it being part of history? Does he regret those days? Is he a communist now? A socialist? A capitalist? Is he capitalist now the way that China is capitalist now? What happened to his four kids when he was in solitary and Wang Yulin was being reeducated? Did they become members of the Red Guard? Did they denounce their parents? Were they denounced themselves for being half-American?
I’m also not a fan of the narration, performed by Irv Drasnin, a former news correspondent, because his voice has the deep, faux authority of a former news correspondent. At times it reminded me of the narration in those 1950s Disney nature films that we were forced to watch in elementary school. It’s a voice both deep and cloying. It has all the answers and it’s there to tell us the way the world works. It grates.
The story of Sidney Rittenberg and his time in China is a good story. I hope someday a documentarian will be engineer enough to build a bridge between it and an audience.
Movie Review: The Revisionaries (2012)
Don McLeroy, the Bryan, Tex., dentist and young-Earth creationist who served on the Texas State Board of Education from 1998 to 2010, including a stint as its controversial chair from 2007 to 2009, is a genial, garrulous boob. Bald, moustached, and portly, he has a “gee whiz” quality to him. His face often resolves itself into a self-satisfied smile after he makes what he thinks is a telling point at BOE meetings, but mostly his smile is open and unaffected. He tends to preach his creationist doctrine to those who can’t answer back—dental patients with tubes in their mouths; Sunday School kids at Grace Bible Church—and he’s pretty darn enthusiastic about it. “Were there dinosaurs on the Ark?” he asks the kids, then answers his own question. “Sure there were!” He’s the kind of man who likes to answer his own questions.
He’s also the man most responsible for the recent rightward shift in our nation’s textbooks—and he’s pretty darn enthusiastic about it.
“We want to make sure our children are taught good, solid American history,” he says to a phalanx of reporters during Scott Thurman’s documentary, “The Revisionaries.” He believes that evolution is bunk, that the Earth is 10,000 years old, and that history and science experts don’t know what they’re talking about. “Somebody’s gotta stand up to experts!” he says during a speech at a Texas Tea Party convention. To applause.
So how did McLeroy, and the people of Bryan, Tex., who kept voting him into office, get to decide the standards for our nation’s textbooks?
Basically: Publishers craft their textbooks to the standards of the biggest buyers, and Texas is currently the biggest buyer. According to a University of Texas study, between 45 and 85 percent of classrooms use Texas state textbooks.
“The Revisionaries” is mostly a character study. If you come in knowing, as I did, something of the power and the cultural make-up of the Texas SBOE, you come away knowing faces, and places, and a little more about the debate itself.
You learn there are 15 board members. They sit in high-backed chairs. There are two black members and one Hispanic member but the board is mostly dominated by white conservative Christians like McLeroy and Cynthia Dunbar, a lawyer and teacher at Pat Robertson’s Regent University, who believes, among other things, 1) the founding fathers created a Christian nation; 2) government should be guided by the Bible; 3) public education is a “deceptive tool of perversion”; and 4) the establishment of public schools is unconstitutional. And she’s helping decide on the standards for those public schools.
There are progressives, or at least non-reactionaries, such as Ron Wetherington, a professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University (i.e., an expert), and Kathy Miller, the no-nonsense president of the Texas Freedom Network, an organization fighting religious-right initiatives. They have their say. But every progressive step forwards seems to involve two culturally conservative steps back.
The doc opens with a SBOE debate on whether to continue talking about “strengths and weaknesses” of the theory of evolution. It’s voted down but a moment later a new amendment is added to include “all sides” of the debate, which, from a scientific perspective, is meaningless. But that passes.
In 2009, the Texas legislature removes McLeroy from his post as chair of the SBOE. Yay! But this simply frees him to offer amendment after amendment to the social studies standards. Boo! We get a flurry of them: that Margaret Sanger, the birth-control pioneer, be included because she “and her followers promoted eugenics”; that language be inserted about Ronald Reagan’s “leadership in restoring national confidence” in the 1980s. At one point, in a laugh-out loud moment, McLeroy suggests eliminating the phrase “hip-hop” and inserting the words “country music.”
Unfortunately, too much of this debate is without context. What do the textbooks say now? What did they say 10 years ago? Twenty? What did they say when I was growing up? I seem to remember, as I got older, learning that what I’d learned in, say, elementary school, was a simplification or outright fabrication: George Washington and the cherry tree and Abe Lincoln walking a mile in the snow and the sole heroism of Paul Revere’s ride. How necessary are these simplifications? Is there a danger in them? There’s something to be said for learning the standards before taking apart the standards, but are our textbooks ultimately too anodyne to foster curiosity and a thirst for true knowledge? Do they instead foster a desire for myth and absolutes? Is that the good, solid American history McLeroy wants taught?
The great unspoken in the doc is that textbooks have always been dull beasts. I was a kid who actually liked school, but even I groaned with boredom when textbooks were opened. How do we make sure our kids don’t groan with boredom?
Also unspoken: What McLeroy wants to do with the science standards is the opposite of what he wants to do with the social studies standards. He wants to foster doubt about the theory of evolution, and he wants to foster certainty about American exceptionalism. Can’t someone ask which he prefers: doubt or certainty? Can’t someone suggest that we do to Ronald Reagan what he wants to do to Charles Darwin? Talk about “strengths and weaknesses”? Give “all sides”?
Moot point: By the end of the doc, McLeroy is gone, at least from the SBOE, because he finally loses an election by 400-some votes; but he keeps popping up elsewhere: on “The Colbert Report,” in the pages of USA Today. And others have picked up his SBOE mantle and are carrying it forward. To where? That’s the key. In 2000, then-presidential candidate George W. Bush, a product of Texas public schools, asked, “Is our children learning?” Now we have to ask, “What is they learning?”
“The amount of power I have,” McLeroy says at one point, referring to his chairmanship of the Texas State Board of Education, “boggles my mind.”