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Strong and Wrong

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When novice, fourteen-year-old ballet dancers at the high school where I used to teach struck a pose both confidently and incorrectly, the dance department head used to praise them in faculty meetings for being “strong and wrong!”

That’s the phrase that came to mind when I saw the new Meryl Streep movie, Florence Foster Jenkins on Friday night, about a wealthy music lover whose passion for singing and classical music was so strong that it blinded her to her own comically imperfect technique.

In contrast, her husband, played by Hugh Grant, has come to terms with the mediocrity of his acting career, but seems to find redemption in perpetuating Jenkin’s dream of herself, literally trashing bad reviews, screening Jenkin’s concert goers and bribing potential critics to ensure that Jenkins sees herself as a true member of the 1940s New York City music elite.

Streep’s performance was predictably on point, and Hugh Grant played the dapper gentleman convincingly, but the real stars of this movie, in my opinion, are Mr. McMoon, Ms. Jenkin’s diminutive, timid accompanist, played by Simon Helberg, and the costume designer, Consolata Boyle. Both McMoon, with his quivering, fluctuating facial expressions, and Boyle, with her quivering star tiaras that jostle in time to Jenkin’s operatic “hah ah has” and nude mesh stomach overlays that display Jenkin’s sizeable midrift, play up the physical comedy that makes this movie so enjoyable.

And yet, as I laughed through it, it struck a deeper chord: how refreshing it is, when some of the most technically astute dancers starve themselves, and many of the writers the public admires end their lives in suicide, when the phrase “tortured artist” is a cliché we take for granted, and when some of my most talented creative writing students warn me at the beginning of the semester that they are perfectionists, that we sometimes need a laugh-out-loud display of really bad art, delivered with great joy, to remind us that good art, while fundamentally challenging, finicky, and demanding, is about joy, too.

When I think about my own singing journey, it amuses me to observe that the work of most of my voice lessons was learning how to relax my throat. Thinking down when you ascend the scale, yawning exercises, and the like — when I practiced them regularly enough, my range went from 2nd suprano to 1st. A pleasant surprise, the notes I could hit, by simply keeping my throat open.

I suppose that this effort — relaxing into the moment, staying open, to joy, among other things — as much as refining technique, is the challenging work of a singer, or any artist. In that sense, Florence Jenkins truly hit a high note. No joke.

Into the Woods

Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 11.27.05 AMOver the holidays I saw the new film version of the musical, Into the Woods, starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, and James Corden, among others. Having just reread the script for The Muny Opera and having assigned it to my Musical Theatre Lit students as one of several options for the 1980s decade, I knew what to expect: beautiful, intricate melodies, a hodge podge of familiar fairytale characters whose worlds collide as part of a rather abstract, original story a giant, a sky-scraping beanstalk. But the truth is, Into the Woods is a distinctly philosophical version of fairytaling — punctuated and enriched by the musicality of Stephen Sondheim, the storyline is a very broad and evocative arch, setting scenes and raising questions that linger well beyond what happens to Cinderella at the stroke of midnight, or the fate of Little Red Ridinghood when she encounters the wolf. Sondheim’s music has a way of pointing out the richness, thematically, that fairytales possess, and so it becomes okay for the plotline to skirt the surface of a variety of famous tales — to sample, so to speak. It’s all in the themes, the potential for allegory. Here are three of my favorite issues raised:

Be Careful What You Wish For

In the opening song, the disparate characters — the Baker, the Baker’s Wife, Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood, Jack — sing overlapplingly of their different reasons for venturing into the woods. It’s a potpourri of fervent wishes: Cinderella wishes to go to the festival, to experience the adulation of a real live prince, Little Red Ridinghood simply wants to make it safely to grandmother’s house, the Baker and his wife long for a child and seek to break the witch’s spell of barrenness by collecting odd items in the forest, Jack needs money and is off to sell his cow, Milky White. But when Cinderella wins the affection of her prince, she repeatedly runs away, evading him, leaving her shoe behind. She finds their interactions mildly disappointing, anti-climactic. We are reminded that longing is a persistent fact of life, no matter how many of our wishes are fulfilled.

Mother/Daughter Angst

How many mothers and daughters can relate to the difficulty of letting go, building walls around each other out of a ferocious love. The witch and Rapunzel illustrate this dynamic memorably — Rapunzel is the witch’s daughter, and she remains locked in a tower. When her singing attracts the attention of a prince, the witch, played by Meryl Streep, creates a thicket of thorns that he falls upon, going blind. Rapunzel is infuriated by her mother’s controlling nature, to which the witch responds, “Children Should Listen!” The witch’s pleading, desperate profession of love for her daughter is captivating in this song. It hits at something so essential, so universal: “How do you say to a child who’s in flight/‘Don’t slip away and I won’t hold so tight?’”

It Only Takes a Moment

Sometimes life takes us by surprise, shifting our allegiances or our perspective in the subtlest of ways, the smallest of moments. Emily Blunt’s character, the Baker’s Wife, is in the woods to find hair, gold as corn, a cow, white as snow, a shoe of glass, and a red coat — when assembled, these odds and ends will break the spell that have made her barren. She comes across as a slightly harried, grounded, loyal, ordinary woman. But in the midst of her search, she meets a prince in the forest, and he seduces her. Suddenly she kisses him, taken aback by the swiftness with which she is swept off her feet. Spoiler alert — a few moments later, we find out that she has been trampled by the giant. This magical moment was one of her last. It’s dramatic, the idea that certain people or places can displace us, putting us in touch with feelings and desires we never knew we had, utterly confusing and disorienting us in the midst of pursuing what we think we want.

Into The Woods is most centrally about desire, about the lengths humans will go to satisfy their deepest longings — for love, for children, for adventure or novelty. What a rich metaphor the woods make. They embody the thorniness, the chaos, the unexpected twists and turns of any long-lived pursuit. Every life involves a journey through the wild and unknown, a venture into the woods.

Mark Twain, Mark 8:35

United Nations Photo Operation Lifeline Helps Displaced People in Southern Sudan CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

My friend Heidi, who worked as a nurse in South Sudan and kept a blog about her time there, once wrote about how the Sudanese are a refreshing people to be around — they take it as a matter of fact that life is full of hardships, rather than reacting with a sense of personal insult, as is the norm in America. In a culture seemingly obsessed with cultivating the most convenient, hassle free lifestyle, we Americans seem to only wake up to the natural order of things when the real s#%* hits the fan.

This past weekend I saw The Good Lie, a true story featuring actors from South Sudan, Reese Witherspoon, and Corey Stoll. The contrast between American privilege and the Sudanese values of gratitude and compassion, as well as the struggle to make meaning from suffering, are two themes that resonate throughout. Despite a few convenient, even pat plot twists, the story of the lost boys is truly profound, and profoundly Christian. To the extent that their stories are resolved, each member of the group must come to terms with what they have suffered, what their suffering has cost them, and what they can take forward. Here is a brief summary of the boys’ story, as it is captured in the film:

Ethnic/religious conflict suddenly orphans five young boys and one girl, forcing them to walk hundreds of miles across the desert. Four of the original seven find refuge in Kenya only after being turned away in Ethiopia. The violence they are running from casts a long shadow — there is a harrowing scene in which, after joining up with a long line of fellow refugees, the group’s “chief” finds a bullet near a river. He makes the split decision to cross the river rather than follow its path, even though the children are parched and can’t swim. As one boy panics, running toward the sound of gunfire, the rest tread bravely along a makeshift rope, past floating corpses. The chief finally allows the group to take a rest, but of course the soldiers are close behind. This is when the chief tells “the good lie,” a pivotal point at the center of the unfolding drama.

The boys and their sister grow into young adults in the refugee camp, waiting over ten years to get out. You get the sense of what a miserable, stagnant, and depressing place a refugee camp is, despite being a safe haven. At last, the group finds their names on the list of the American-bound, greeted by Reese Witherspoon’s blunt, brash character, Carrie at the Kansas City Missouri airport. As she works her local connections to find the men jobs and a chirpy Midwestern mom helps them set up house, they prove to be comically mismatched to America’s tech-heavy, commerce-driven society. The men are charming with their formal, chivalrous, meticulous ways — reminding their American counterparts that the rest of the world is large and far less insular.

For example, Jeremiah’s own experience of hunger has trained him to live by his convictions, and the Bible — he quits his job at a grocery store when caught giving old food away rather than throwing it in the dumpster. Mamere works two jobs while studying to be a doctor, exuding earnestness and thankfulness — it’s during his literature class on Twain’s Huckleberry Finn that he demonstrates his intimate understanding of “good lies,” in which a lie is produced to provide protection for others, and is therefore justified. The youngest brother, Paul, is the only one who openly grapples with being a guest of the United States, admitting to feeling belittled by a people unacquainted with the suffering he narrowly escaped. He gets depressed and smokes pot, until a confrontation with his brothers provides a catharsis of sorts, and things presumably get better. The film ends with one more “good lie,” connected to the first.

I felt very privileged watching The Good Lie. It’s a credit to the filmmakers and the casting directors — USA Today states that the Sudanese were played by actors “with ties to Sudan, a couple having been child soldiers” — that the refugees were not sentimentalized or aggrandized because of the suffering they endured. Viewing their work is a humbling and moving experience that can’t help but leave you wondering…would I tell “a good lie”? And then, close behind, the Gospel of Mark, affirming that the “lost boys of Sudan” are indeed, found:

“For who whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”

 

Musicals, Movies, and Mark Twain: Laughing in the Darkness

Zero_Mostel_-_FiddlerWhen I posed the question to my musical theatre history class, “What do the 1960s make you think of?” I got “hippies, Civil Rights Movement, and WEED.” Okay… fair enough… Now, how to connect that general point of reference to Broadway circa 1964, with its blabbering yentes, shtetls, fathers and daughters arguing about arranged marriages, large bearded men waving their arms, humming “ya dadada”? Enter the documentary, Laughing in the Darkness, which does a pretty great job of it, in fact — managing to trace the sing-songy rhythms and big acting style of Tevye the milkman back to his more sober, historical roots.

I thought I’d share some of the film’s insights here, having recently re-watched it for school. (I discovered it a few years ago at “Chicago’s year-round film festival,” The Music Box Theatre, an independent movie house with an ongoing rotation of indie or foreign films, and more recently, its own production and distribution wing). In addition to tracing Fiddler’s back story, the movie details the winding creative process that characterizes the creation of most musicals – for example, building upon more serious artistic material with a greater bandwidth for complexity, and then, depending on your opinion of musicals, either condensing that material into impressively succinct, musical phrases or watering it down completely.

I’m pretty sure that most skeptics would gain respect for this most middle-school-friendly of performance art forms if they realized how much research and artistic collaboration were distilled into the final, big and flashy product. If the product isn’t always sophisticated, the necessary process of collaboration is. Even the silliest, most superficial-seeming song and dance shows have a sort of hidden, layered intelligence that gets masked by the fact that they look and sound like a musical, the dumb blonde of the dramatic arts. Take a classic Rogers and Hammerstein musical like Oklahoma – do you associate it with a psychologically complex ballet in which the protagonist dreams that one of her suitors rapes her, or do you associate it with ten-year-olds dressed as farmers, bopping to “chicks and ducks and geese better scurry…”? Fiddler on the Roof may be less exuberant, but it too belongs to that oft-produced, often poorly produced category of musicals whose catchy songs and universal themes could easily be mistaken as trite.

Sholem AleichemBut the rambling interior monologue of the character, Tevye, the rhythms of his speech, the ticker tape of his religious and personal doubts, his penetrating but wise-cracking, resigned perspective on his family’s increasingly marginalized existence, all of these elements are pulled directly from the historically based short stories of the first widely read Yiddish author, merchant by day, writer by night, Solomon Rabinowitz. Under the pen name, Sholem Aleichem (Hebrew for “peace be with you”), Rabinowitz wrote about the character, Tevye for over 20 years. He was based on an actual village dairyman of the same name, who, just like the character, had several independent-minded daughters and a penchant for chatting up his neighbors.

Like Tevye, Rabinowitz grew up in an insular, rural, Yiddish speaking village (a shtetl) inside the Russian Pale, which was a sectioned-off area for Jewish residents, designated by the Czar. Also like Tevye, mass acts of violence (pogroms) against the Jewish population forced Rabinowitz to migrate, and eventually he found his way to America. By the time he reached the U.S. around 1916, he was considered a world famous Yiddish storyteller, hailed by the Jewish immigrant population in New York as the Jewish “Mark Twain.” Despite being a 47-year-old Russian immigrant who wrote strictly in Yiddish, his stories captured something essential about the American spirit – the tension between old and new, the challenge of preserving one’s heritage within a changing culture, the generation gap between old and young, each progressive in their own way.

Fanny briceThe New York City that Solomon Rabinowitz, aka Sholem Aleichem walked into resembled the song from Spamalot, “You won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews.” Yes, the turn of the 20th century was the gestation period for what eventually became the American musical, spearheaded by Jewish writers and actors: Florenz Ziegfeld, Israel Baline Irving Berlin, Fania Borach Fanny Brice, to name a few.  On some level, a Jewish “sound” – Jewish humor, patterns of speech — were woven into the fabric of the earliest show tunes, from Irving Berlin drawing on the melodies of his rabbi/cantor father to Fanny Brice’s comical Jewish impersonations. Same with Fiddler, about 50 years later, in which lyricist Sheldon Harnick tweaked a lot of Rabinowitz’s original language — for example, “If I were a Rothschild” into “If I were a rich man…”

Sholem_Aleichem_funeralIt turns out that Rabinowitz wasn’t so successful in the states — his foray into playwriting was a huge disappointment and he ended up returning to Western Europe, selling the rights to his stories and travelling from shtetl to shtetl, reciting his works for an adoring following, everyday villagers like those he grew up with. He ended his life in a state of poverty, near-homelessness, and chronic disease, continuing to write, despite the difficulty of holding a pen. World War I forced him back to the states, this time for good. When he died in 1916, 200,000 people attended his funeral, drawing unprecedented attention to the influence and power of the Jewish American community.

Mark_Twain_by_AF_BradleyThe phrase, “laughing in the darkness” refers to the author’s belief that even the most terrible, unspeakable of circumstances contain humor – not as a form of escape, but as an alternate way of appreciating the irony and injustice of a situation. It reminds me of the Oscar Wilde quote, “Life is a comedy to those who think, and a tragedy to those who feel.” The comparison to Mark Twain is apt – as Twain did with American literature, Rabinowitz’s stories, and later, Fiddler on the Roof, use a sense of humor to satirize the injustices and hypocrisy that men are capable of, capture the distinctive, everyday speech of Jewish characters, and create a widespread, popular work based on Jewish culture.

Fast forward to the 1960s, when Fiddler opened. It seems that even in that hairy, free-loving, hippie-driven heyday, America was still coping with Mark Twain-esque, Solomon Rabinowitz-esque questions: how much change can we accept as progressive without losing ourselves? What happens when children exercise the freedom that their parents have given them? Is it possible to laugh through the darkness?

Fiddler_on_the_roof_poster(Food for thought, for the next time you sit through through “Tradition!” “To Life!” or “The Bottle Dance”… I’m sure it will happen soon enough…)

[Photo credits: “Zero Mostel,” Wikipedia Commons, “Sholem Aleichem,” Wikipedia Commons, “Fanny Brice,” License, ky_olsen, CC BY 2.0, “Sholem Aleichem Funeral,” Wikimedia Commons, “Mark Twain by AF Bradley,” Wikimedia Commons]

Talking Documentaries: The Island President

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 4.08.13 PMI watched a wonderful documentary a few weeks ago that I hope you’ll consider watching if you have some spare vacation time this week. In The Island President, award-winning cinematographer and director Jon Shenk profiles the urgent environmental agenda of the lowest lying country on Earth: the Maldives, a constellation of 1200 islands scattered below India. A three meter rise in sea level would be enough to obliterate the country’s pristine beaches and Sunni Muslim population. In 2008, the Maldives transitioned from a brutal dictatorship to a democratic government under the leadership of Mohammed Nasheed, and a fascinating parallel is drawn between Nasheed’s rise to the presidency, overcoming a relentless military regime, and his next epic political battle: fighting the imminent threat of climate change.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 3.59.39 PMThe movie opens with a panoramic view of the Indian ocean, featuring the graceful underwater waves of a coral reef, large circles of land that dissolve into water, a streak of uninterrupted sky, the overlapping of blues, greens, and turquoises from all sides. Such beauty is juxtaposed with a brief history of former President Gayoom’s repressive regime, during which Nasheed and other outspoken government critics were imprisoned and tortured where upscale resorts now stand. After being repeatedly imprisoned, Nasheed went into exile to continue his reform efforts. When the 2004 tsunami hit, decimating whole islands and reducing GDP by 50 percent, he decided to return to the Maldives. In the words of one government official, his much anticipated return would either result in his death or his becoming president. The latter ended up happening. Within weeks of reclaiming his country, Nasheed realized that the most urgent political issues facing the Maldives all revolved around climate change. Beaches were washing away, the fishing industry had stalled, and rising sea levels threatened to take an entire republic — in essence, a civilization — off the map in the foreseeable future. Nasheed’s response was to take the global lead on reducing carbon emissions, vowing that the Maldives would become carbon neutral by 2019.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 4.22.48 PMAfter reconstructing this recent history, the film shifts its focus to Nasheed’s efforts to persuade world leaders that in his words, the “annihilation” of the Maldives is an equally urgent global issue. The camera follows Nasheed’s meetings with the British parliament to his dealings at a New York climate conference — his first trip to the U.S. — capturing many snapshots of the developed and developing world’s complacency. Meanwhile, he adopts strong rhetoric: “if you don’t protect the Maldives today, you cannot protect London tomorrow.” It’s very compelling to watch Nasheed’s team move with heightened awareness of their own mortality through a political process that is as murky and unsympathetic as a tsunami itself. For example, a British journalist cheerfully observes in a radio interview that “you really like a fight, don’t you,” to which Nasheed laughs and points out that he’s fighting for his country’s existence. Another scene shows Nasheed lobbying a British politician who smiles nervously and states that supporting democracy in a Muslim country must be an important priority. During a review of global warming statistics for the Copenhagen summit, Nasheed’s audacity is replaced by a grave silence, but he quickly resolves to enlist the support of India, China, Brazil, and other rapidly developing economies the only way he knows how: by presenting the issue in a “green ribbon cutting” format, in other words, a PR opportunity.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 4.28.48 PMYou grow to love this lithe island president, wading into the ocean in a business suit to film public service announcements, conducting underwater cabinet meetings to expose the decrepit state of coral reefs, awkwardly but good-naturedly choking down a hamburger at an American sports bar after a disappointing first day at the New York conference, agreeing wholeheartedly with the London Times headline, “Global Warming like Nazi Invasion.” The Minister of Housing & Environment, Mohamed Aslam, effectively summarizes the unique political situation, or more accurately, apolitical situation of the Maldives: “I don’t even like the word negotiate. With climate, there’s nothing to negotiate.” But of course, the negotiations in Copenhagen are everything, and Nasheed reveals his underlying shrewdness when he makes major concessions to China with the aim of maintaining his country’s VIP status as a climate game-changer. To the disappointment of his delegation, his outspoken idealism gives way to a more calculated approach toward a less tangible outcome: maintaining influence in future talks.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 4.13.52 PMSadly, Nasheed’s voice is silenced by something far more blunt than the complications of international diplomacy. As noted in the closing credits, he was ousted from power in February 2012 by forces loyal to the former dictator — once again, a reminder that the health of our planet is inextricably linked to that seemingly “dirty” word, politics. In the meantime, I’m inspired to be a little nicer to my patch of the planet this new year.

[Photos: “Maldives Sunset,” Sarah Ackerman’s photostream under CC BY 2.0, “Maldives from the air 1,” Commonwealth Secretariat’s photostream, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, “Maldives Underwater Cabinet Meeting,” Divers Association of Maldives’ photo stream, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, “Island President,” humanrightsfilmfestival’s photo stream, CC BY-NC 2.0]

Growing Up Is Hard To Do

“When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.” ― William Shakespeare, King Lear

Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 1.58.18 PMIn the case of Blue Jasmine, directed by Woody Allen and starring Cate Blanchett, this “great stage of fools” involves frequent crying, flamboyant crying, on park benches, while mumbling to strangers, in vodka-gulping gasps, punctuated by dripping mascara
Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 2.05.03 PMand sweat-soaked armpits, in melodramatic fashion, or behind mammoth sunglasses, clutching a bulging Louis Vuitton bag to tragic effect.
Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 2.04.08 PMThis is a movie that honors the deep vein of folly, ineptness, coming-up-shortness that runs through life. In being so over-the-top, Jasmine’s blues are not a bore, in fact, just the opposite — Cate Blanchett’s acting chops breathe eloquent life into a well-documented universal truth, from Shakespeare to the Bible, how foolish  mere mortals are…

Oh-so-blue Jasmine is a former Manhattan socialite who moves to San Francisco to live with her sister in the wake of her investment banker husband’s downfall. She is hanging by a thread, and we hang right alongside her. I was content to watch the antics of one, martini-guzzling, zanex-popping title character and her open-hearted, scattered brained sister with the name “Ginger” to match (as someone actually named Ginger, I invite you to notice my eyes rolling). What is so engrossing about Jasmine’s pathetic plight?

It’s a vicious cycle of sympathy, ridicule, lack of redemption, and more sympathy. You can see the character, “Ginger” (played by actress Sally Hawkins) riding the same waves of disgust and compassion for her sister. The more we sympathize with Jasmine’s determination to carry on, the more we recognize her accountability, the more we see her self-deprecating awareness of past mistakes, and her tragic, stubborn inability to change course.

This cycle harks back to A Streetcar Named Named Desire. Both protaganists — Blue Jasmine, Blanche DuBois — muster sympathy and ridicule in an unpredictable, fitful pattern. Actress Cate Blanchett played Blanche Dubois at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and excels at the “woman on the verge” rhythms. Ben Brantley’s praise of Streetcar could easily be applied to Blanchett’s performance as Jasmine.
Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 9.40.25 PMSpeaking of life “as a great stage of fools,” I saw the next installment in the Up Series, 56 Up. Can you imagine having your life edited into a movie every seven years? Beginning in 1964, the Up Series documents the lives of a group of British school children. As the subjects get older and more reflective, the strange, Truman Show effect of the series becomes a major talking point. Many are eager to speak candidly about the burden of the Up Series on their unfolding sense of identity. This is another movie that deals with baggage, not too far from Jasmine and her cumbersome set of designer luggage.Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 10.03.11 PMOne of the sadder stories is that of Neil Hughes. Now a district councillor in rural England, he is depicted at age seven as an exuberant, smiling kid, playfully dodging director Michael Apted’s questions. In his twenties, he is homeless, wandering rural Scotland. He fidgets nervously when Michael answers pointed questions about his mental health. In 56 Up, he says that viewers have treated him with tremendous generosity, but at the same time, people who say “they know exactly what he feels like” are mistaken.

Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 10.07.45 PMEngineering professor Nick Hitchon puts it less defensively: “It’s not an absolutely accurate picture of me, but it’s a picture of somebody.” It’s a collective picture of human striving, a group of “somebodies” discovering happiness, seeking purpose, and coping with challenges. It depicts the universal drama of life, and the vitality of the project seems to draw back participants, reluctant but curious each go-around.

Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 10.02.14 PMSuzy, a wife and mother with an upper-middle class upbringing, admits to having a “ridiculous loyalty to the series.” In 21 Up, she states that “she was pressurized into doing it by her parents.” At age 56, Suzy says that she hasn’t had a distinguished career, but she “feels fulfilled.” When asked about the next installment, she smirks, saying “it’s like reading a bad book. I’ll still read it. I’ll still see it through.”
Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 10.09.50 PM
That’s the spirit. Some solid advice for Jasmine, Blanche, and other femme fatales.

[Photos: taken from Netflix]

A Place At The Table

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 3.18.13 PMI recently watched A Place At The Table, a follow-up documentary to the critically acclaimed Food Inc. This next installation puts a human, American face on food insecurity, piecing together the different causes and manifestations of hunger in the United States.

Sadly, the terms food desert and food insecurity are familiar to most people now. Nonetheless, the filmmakers document the wide-ranging extent of these realities to set the scene: convenience stores are the closest thing to grocery stores in parts of West Philly and rural Mississippi. The source of tomorrow’s meal worries a single mother with a full time job and an extended family living together in rural Colorado. I was surprised to learn the extent to which federal agricultural legislation perpetuates this cycle of hunger.

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 3.20.54 PMThe face of hunger takes many forms: Barbie is a single mother living in Philadelphia. She is shown boiling spaghetti with her two, pre-school age children, explaining that she has recently been laid off and is supporting her family on food stamps. On public transportation, it takes Barbie a total of two hours to buy fresh groceries. She describes her own vivid memories of sphagettios and ramen noodles, and her determination to prevent these memories for her children.

Meanwhile, a mild mannered second grader named Tremonica climbs onto the examining table of a local clinic in rural Mississippi. The lack of accessible, healthy food is affecting her weight. Her teacher is later shown exhibiting “a honeydew melon,” inviting her students to call out adjectives. Tremonica is shown cautiously biting into a juicy slice.

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 3.21.28 PMRosie is a sixth grader living in rural Colorado. It recently came to her teacher’s attention that Rosie’s academic and behavior struggles were caused by hunger. Rosie says that she sometimes sees a banana in place of her teacher. She seems sensitive, excitable, and lonely. Members of her extended family juggle various part-time jobs; they share a messy household. She gives the cameras a tour, complaining about the clutter, then shares her getaway spot in the woods.

How did we mire ourselves in a situation where “honeydew melon” is a novelty and factory-made spaghettios are spilling off our shelves? It’s not that I have disdain for spaghettios. On the other hand, I can’t tolerate people who only eat organic, grass fed chicken.

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 5.24.29 PMEssentially, our government subsidizes food that is making us sick. By allowing packaged foods to be made very cheaply from refined, processed corn products and strong arming independent-minded farmers, the government makes really nasty, unhealthy, artificial junk available to the poor and limits the availability of fresh produce. In addition to being cheap, this food is very addictive from a biological standpoint. The corruption aspect lies in the fact that most food industry regulators started their careers as agribusiness leaders, CEOs of highly centralized, heavily subsidized farm-to-factory companies.

According to this film, the power of food and agricultural lobbyists rivals that of the NRA. Really, now? The manufacturers of food — basic sustenance — qualify as a “special interest group”?

The film shows a clear cause-and-effect relationship between money, fear, and the U.S. government’s perpetuation of food-related health issues. This is demonstrated by a grieving mother who has lobbied Congress about food safety laws ever since her son’s fatal E. Coli poisoning. After several years, her efforts have not yielded any concrete results. Bound by legal concerns, she minces words with the filmmakers, but her reticence speaks volumes about the power of agribusiness. Meanwhile, a pediatrician and a group of women activists lobby Congress for school lunch funds. Congress “does not have the funds” to spend more than $1.00 per lunch.

The filmmakers also make a compelling argument that food pantries are not a substitute for systemic change to agricultural laws. To do so, the issue needs to have more prominence during election season. In the meantime, you can donate or learn more here:

[Flickr photos by Bread for the World’s photo stream and tpmartins photostream]

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