Monday, March 30, 2020

System Crasher - a film review

Helena Zengel as Benni
I had a student once who terrified me. Not physically. He presented himself as rather soft-spoken, and to look at him was to see a rather handsome young man, not a bully, not a gangster, not a low-life. What sent chills up my spine was the steady accumulation of evidence that he seemed to be entirely lacking in empathy. He showed no emotion over the suffering of others, no interest in their opinions, no apparent awareness that outside of his totally enclosed world there were others seeking friends and engaging in collaborative efforts to get things done.

He announced once in class, in a complete non sequitur, that his mother had just had another abortion. I said nothing. It could only have been an attention-seeking mechanism. I could have lectured him on the inappropriate nature of that outburst, but, given the shocked reaction of his classmates, that would have been redundant and, I expect, only fueled his craving. I could have asked him to leave the room, but that wouldn’t have cleared the air, either. We moved on to other things without comment.

I ran into him years later, in the subway. He took a seat next to me, asked me if I remembered him. I said of course I did and asked him how he was doing. He was working in a bank and to all appearances he seemed quite normal. Perhaps I was wrong about him, I thought, but there was something in his eyes that kept me from pursuing the conversation. I reached my stop, wished him well, and never saw him again.

The memory of this guy has haunted me ever since. Knowing him forced me to come to terms with the limitations of my talents as a teacher. Since I define education as an interaction with the whole person, I have been called on many times over the years to act as counselor, and in some cases as mentor, as much as instructor. With this guy, I could only hope there were others out there who might perform that service. I was not up to it.

I have been reliving the memory of this student since I happened upon a German movie last night called Systemsprenger - the English title is System Crasher - about a nine-year-old sociopath. Abused as a baby, she explodes into uncontrolled violence anytime anybody touches her face, or randomly when things don’t go her way, and she resists all attempts by the child welfare system to find a place for her. Her mother rejects her because she's afraid of the harm she's almost certain to bring to her younger siblings. The term “system crasher” is not an official one, but it is used informally among child therapists to refer to children who seem to be beyond anyone’s capacity to handle.

People have made movies about monster children before. If it’s fiction, one can expect them to be portrayed as some kind of “bad seed.” With non-fiction, probably in a documentary focusing on one or another social failure: abusive parenting, the lack of public awareness of problem children who get sucked into drugs or are conscripted into gangs. Or the horrors of a foster care system with revolving doors, or some other failure to do right by children requiring special attention. 

Writer and director Nora Fingscheidt took a different tack. She lets the story unfold without villains or judgment, and in the end leaves us hanging. Some things in life, she seems to be saying, remain mysteries. Not all of life's challenges get resolved.

I doubt Ms. Fingscheidt could have made this film in an American context. We don't like stories without resolution, where the bad guy gets away with murder and evil just sits there and stares at you. I’m guessing most Americans who watch the film will find it too frustrating for words. For one thing, the tantrums are endless, and for another, one by one, those who care for the girl - Benni is her name - are drawn in either by the power of her personality or by their natural desire to come to a child’s aid, whereupon they are chewed up and spat out.

This degree of frustration would be simply too much to bear, and folks would, I’m sure, leave the theater in droves, were it not for one of the most astonishingly powerful child acting performances - maybe the most powerful - I’ve ever seen. Benni is played by an 11-year old actor named Helena Zengel. “Helli” might actually carry the film alone, but she gets help from at least two others in the cast, Mrs. Bafané (Gabriela Maria Schmeide), the head of the child welfare office, who collapses in a heap at some point in exhaustion, and Micha (Albrecht Schuch), a guy Mrs. Bafané calls in whose history of rising out of similar abusive childhood conditions would seem to make him the ideal candidate to handle this problem child with some sort of tough love. Together, they give a riveting performance.

Watch it for the acting. And then see if you can escape the nagging question of whether there are children beyond help. And whether medicating children into adulthood is the only path for some extreme cases. Not a theme for the faint of heart. But if you’re up for it, a great example of the power of film to tell an important story.

Nominated for a whole host of international film awards. It has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 96%.

Available on Netflix Streaming

photo credit

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Giant Little Ones - a film review

If you grew up gay in the Pre-Stonewall era, as I did, you probably share my view that the history of gay cinema has moved with remarkable speed from the days of “I thought people like killed themselves” to today, where every soap seems to have a gay character who is witty and clever. It’s tempting to think that the whole question of coming out is oh so yesterday. Been there, done that, who needs another tale of kids of born-agains cowering in the corner.

But just as racism in America was not washed away by Obama’s presidency, coming out can still feel for many gay kids like walking on broken glass. And that means there is still lots to work with for storytellers and filmmakers looking for a tension-filled plot line to build on.

To my endless dismay, the stories with gay themes now coming out faster than I can watch them tend to be badly slapped together. The producers know there’s an audience for them: Netflix has LGBTQ listed among its choices. Prime doesn’t, but watch one and they’ll throw another half dozen gay-themed films your way in their “because you watched…” category. Somebody there is keeping track. But the quality is quite low, and it really feels as if they know they have an audience so desperate for gay-themes films that they’ll watch anything.

Actually, when you come to think of it, “gay-themed” as a category almost begs low quality. It’s not as if we’re dealing with the great moral dilemmas, courage in the face of disaster, heroism in the defense of country, the desperation of a Sophie’s choice. It’s more a question of wanting to see people like ourselves depicted on the screen. Or people we want to be, handsome, talented and smart, winning over the object of our affections, and putting the bully in his place. It’s not that we can’t make excellent gay-themed films. Brokeback Mountain managed to capture the heartbreak of a love the world would not permit. Moonlight tells the story of a kid handicapped by his size, by poverty, by a drug-addicted single parent as well as by his membership in this underclass of untouchables known as homosexuals. And Call Me By Your Name tells another story, at the opposite end of the spectrum, one of the heartbreak of a lost first love. All proof, as far as I’m concerned, that the best gay stories are those who frame one’s sexuality in the larger scheme of things. We know that boy-meets-boy or girl-meets-girl, sparks fly and they live happily ever after isn’t sufficient grit for a good story, but neither, it turns out, are tales of mom and dad coming around. “You’ll always be my son, no matter what” has to be the cliché theme of the day.

And that means the place to go is to the notion that sexuality is fluid, that the best plot lines revolve around the multiple paths to self-discovery. Not that one is gay and the world is all wrong about gay people, but that the path to self-knowledge is a bumpy road and with a little help from one’s friends, one can get by, and perhaps prosper.

Giant Little Ones is a Canadian film that came out in 2018 and just made it to DVD in February. It’s about two boys, Franky and Ballas, best friends and swim team buddies who, like most 17 year-olds are hot on getting laid. Only one night, when they’ve had too much to drink, they end up monkeying around with each other. The question of who’s the monker and who’s the monkee drives the plot line. Franky is the more decent kid, convinced that he’s straight but unafraid to question.  Ballas is more interested in saving his own macho reputation, and throws Franky under the bus. What makes this story worth watching is the way the two boys take it from there. In Call Me By Your Name, the denouement is the scene where the father shows his love for his son by helping him understand that, when your heart is broken, you can dwell on the loss, but you can just as easily focus on the fact that you’re blessed with the capacity to love. A similar scene takes place in Giant Little Ones, when Franky’s gay estranged father uses the opportunity to reconnect with his son.

I’ve given too much away. Sorry. But that’s both the charm and the weakness of the movie, depending on your politics and your understanding of what makes a good story. If this film is any indicator of where LGBT films are going these days, it’s a sign, in my view, that we’re finally coming of age as makers of artistic gay films, which, as I’ve implied, involve getting beyond the less interesting themes of “is he or isn’t he?” and whether the good guys win in the end. If you’re gay and you click on “gay and lesbian” to see others like yourselves on screen, you may want to pass this film up. If you’re fine with just watching the journey, and don’t mind if the story ends before it reaches the destination, this film’s for you.

available on Netflix Streaming and other sources for a small fee.

photo credit

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Bye bye, St. Anthony's

St. Anthony's School, Winsted, Connecticut
Winsted, Connecticut, where I started school in September 1946, was like much of the rest of New England, a town with a mixed population. Because I had a Scottish (i.e., “non-foreign-sounding”) surname, I had entrée into the society of WASPish types, some of whom actually went back all the way to colonial days. If you went to my church and took a seat in the cushioned pews the first thing your eye would settle on would be the Pilgrim Hymnal. The youth group which was my social center through my high school years was called the “Pilgrim Fellowship” and there was no mistaking the heritage I was expected to identify with.

My best friend in high school was Tom D’Amore. He lived with his Italian immigrant family, including one maternal and one paternal grandparent, who came down to the table each day and fiercely refused to talk to each other. Tommy and I hung out after school most days together and I was often at their table at mealtimes, marveling at the passion, the cacophony, the broad reaches across the table and the high volume verbal exchanges, and wishing that the atmosphere of my more austere German/Scottish home could be more like theirs. My growing up was all about either/or categories: waspish or immigrant, Italian or Northern European, Catholic or Protestant. The nuances were swept under the rug, the fact that with a German-born mother I too was an immigrant - and, for that matter, my paternal grandfather was born in Kirkconnel, Scotland - and the fact that, with factory workers for parents, I wasn’t really a part of the ruling class of waspish “real New Englanders,” except by racist implication.

In the 1940s and 50s, the term “melting pot” still applied. There were two public elementary schools, one at each end of Main Street. Both fed into a single middle school, so eventually every public school kid could, at least theoretically, get to know every other public school kid in town. The rich kids and the poor kids, the ones with Anglo-Saxon names and the ones with names like Centrella or Martinelli.

Main Street was dotted with stone churches. My own, the First Church (Baptist and Congregational) was at the east end and the Second Congregational Church was at the west end. In between were the Methodist and Episcopal churches and a church that stood on a hill and dominated the entire downtown space, St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church. And St. Joseph Parish supported its own Catholic parochial school. Originally named St. Joseph School, its name was changed to St. Anthony School because William L. Gilbert, when he left money for the formation of the local high school, specified that no children from St. Joseph would be allowed to attend. Or so the story goes. I’ve hunted all morning for confirmation of what may be my first encounter with an urban legend, and cannot find any. If someone can dig out the facts for me and add them to the commentary, I would be grateful.

In any case, just as the kids from the two public elementary schools funneled together into the public middle school, the kids from the middle school funneled together with the kids from St. Anthony's into the high school, and although a second high school was eventually built, in my day, at least, I could say with some justification that the name of every kid in Winsted was familiar to me. Family names, at least.

The rivalries that may have existed among the adults were softened as the kids made friends across these identity barriers. I balked once when looking at the St. Anthony textbooks of the D’Amore kids and noted that they portrayed “Catholic countries” in a better light than “Protestant countries,” but I found it more amusing than offensive. Bizarre, rather than wrong. I sympathized with my friend Camille, who had nothing good to say about the nuns who pushed her around rudely during her first communion at St. Joseph’s because she was a “public school girl” and who resented the way the priests would visit her home to determine how much the family might contribute to church coffers every year. It wasn’t till much later that I came to cultivate a laser-beam loathing for the Roman Catholic Church as a major part of the locus of homophobia that poisoned the self-image of many of my gay friends and led in some cases to suicide.

St. Anthony’s was the model in my imagination for the Catholic school portrayed in one of the wittiest plays of all time, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it all for you, which came out in 1979 (and was later made into a movie starring Diane Keaton in 2001). Sister Mary Ignatius stood in front of the class in her traditional habit, channeled violence into her pointer stick, which she slapped against the blackboard and scared the bejeezus out of her students. The play offended the hell out of traditional Catholics and some tried to have it banned, but most of us who saw the play performed laughed till we cried. Take that, you goddam Catholic indoctrination machine, said the little voice in my head. Die, sucker die. There was some real hatred and resentment developed by the time I grew up and left Winsted for greener pastures.

So you can imagine my mixed feelings at reading the other morning that St. Anthony’s School, after educating/indoctrinating (you choose) kids as the longest functioning parochial school in the Hartford Archdiocese would be going out of business at the end of the current school year. The negative reaction to Roman Catholicism in America, exacerbated, and no doubt primarily brought on, by the disgust over the way it responded to the child abuse crisis in the church, has found its way into my home town. Not only are Catholic churches closing right and left. So are the schools.

I’d need to go into deep meditation to find out how I feel about this. Up here at the surface all I know is that the part of me that once raged at the church as an institution wants to go out and dance in the street. But another part of me, the one that has let go of the rage and has come to sympathize with the good Catholic folk who simply want their kids to be raised with high standards and look to the church to provide them, is washed over with sadness.

Mostly, though, it has little to do with religion. It has much more to do with the fact that I don’t like anybody messing with my historical memories. The older I get, the more I want history, or my childhood construction of it, to remain untouched by the ravages of time.

But the Buddhists are right. The only truth you can ever count on is that everything changes. Nothing ever remains the same.