Archive for April, 2011

Film: Distant Thunder (1973)

April 24, 2011

   I first saw this film over 20 years ago.  Upon seeing it again, I was struck by how starkly it contrasts with the standard industry product.  Just look at how the subjects of GOOD and EVIL are treated in mass entertainment.

   The most obvious conclusion: Evil sells Big.  It seems that audiences love the subject in all its forms.  Serial killers are probably the biggest stars, but rapists, pimps, bankers and child abusers are also big.  If the treatment of pure evil is slick and mature enough — as in The Silence of the Lambs — it will be given an Oscar.

   But Goodness, if treated with honest simplicity, is rarely a best seller.  Somehow, audiences have a hard time accepting virtuous behavior from average people.  They want cartoon superheroes, or else phony feel-good stories about tireless, heroic martyrs who defend the rights of the  same poor dull shlubs who sit in the audience.  The only human flaw of these champions (Al Pacino loves playing these guys) is succumbing to all of the beautiful women who want to sleep with them.  The latest variations are the reverse-gender heroes (Julia Roberts) who sleep with stud-candy blanks, or else “victim-heroes” whose virtue comes from overcoming some personal handicap.

   But what about simple, average people who behave in virtuous ways?  What films do you remember about such people?  Distant Thunder succeeds in its modest terms because it refuses to over-dramatize its central conflict.  It is about the people in a very poor village in India in 1942.  The staple of their diet is rice; they would starve without it.  Self sufficient in so many ways, they depend upon the local rice merchant for survival.  Suddenly, after the Japanese invade Singapore, the cost of rice is pushed beyond what anybody has ever seen in their lifetime.  Starvation and disease overwhelm them, and they are forced to leave their homes to beg for food.

   The filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, remains the most honored from his country.  This is one of his later films, very focused and told in the simplest terms.  No swelling music, no impassioned speeches, very little dramatic action.  The spare violence — a riot at the merchant’s house and an attempted rape — are rather awkwardly staged, and dramatically inconsequential.  What stands out, however, is the wrenching pain of  ordinary people who are forced to make a life-and-death decision: whether to give a precious cup of rice to their neighbors, or else watch them die to protect their own families.

   Distant Thunder is about a specific historical event,  but its universal theme is the existence of goodness as basic to the human character.  We may not agree with that perspective, but we need more films that present it so credibly.


The Multi-Career Worker

April 2, 2011

   When you hear about the kinds of jobs many college graduates are getting today, or the amount of time they have to wait before they are even hired, it presents a confusing picture.  Just what kind of career can young people expect?  I have been an active working adult for many years, but I consider myself fortunate to have started when I did.  In the seventies and eighties, new graduates were offered a choice of careers, and making the choice was enough to settle the question: what kind of work will I be doing for the rest of my life.

   That vision of the future just isn’t there any more, unless you own your own company, or are a practicing service professional with clients.  At one time, simply being hired for a decent job gave you enough peace of mind to allow you to think about starting a family.  That also meant you would buy a home in a community close to your job.  It meant you would choose that community because you liked the lifestyle it offered, including the schools — yes, even before they were born, you planned their lives into young adulthood.

   Of course, this was not necessarily how it turned out, even in the “golden” days.  Companies merged or went under, and workers were suddenly faced with finding a new job after many years.  But the career itself, and your experience in it, counted for something then.  If you were lucky, you could start all over in the same location.  The disruption might not last longer than a few months.

   But the picture has changed.  It is now difficult to imagine that we will ever be that way again.  It seems that there are fewer and fewer employers that offer what were called “white-collar” jobs, at least ones where a person could plan the future with the peace of mind that I once enjoyed.  Instead of the “upwardly mobile” track, we’re seeing young families with a downsized future ahead of them.

   But wait!  I don’t mean to depress you.  This country has been resilient before, and I believe that we will have that confidence again.  It may mean that we will have to change our expectations of a job.  Perhaps young workers will be required to retrain themselves because technology will make career obsolescence faster than ever before.  We can adjust our expectations so that we can prepare ourselves when the times demand it.

   It will take leaders with courage and vision to move our country in that direction.  Pray for that.

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