SPIDER-MAN UPSTATE

In Spider-Man: Homecoming, the newest addition to the wall climber’s adventures, some changes of minimal significance have been mad.  His boss Iron-Man moves his headquarters from the center of Manhattan to “upstate,” so that his new building looks like so many other corporate headquarters in Westchester.

No longer content with matronly aunts for Peter Parker, the filmmakers have switched to a sexy aunt played by Marisa Tomei.  Now the non-related male characters pay more attention to Peter’s aunt than they do to superheroes.

Much, of course, remains the same.  The new Spidey, played by Tom Holland, is as boyish as Toby Maguire or Andrew Garfield.  In this initial presentation, Peter is only a sophomore in high school, and obviously has much to learn.  His super powers are new, and he is still a geek doing well in school but shy around girls.

So many Hollywood films have too many writers following too many plot lines, and end up messes.  Marvel fares better in Spider-Man and most of its other features.

Interestingly enough, the web swinger is given two potential mentors.  One is Iron Man, played with usual brilliance by Robert Downey, Jr., who guides Spidey along the trials toward the mature and wise exercise of his super powers.

But the Spider lad’s other potential mentor is no less interesting.  He is, in fact, Spidey’s arch-nemesis Vulture, who is engaged in the business of illegally using and selling weapons made from alien materials.  As played by Michael Keaton, Vulture has a mixture of menace and almost paternal interest toward the young super hero that makes their relationship both complex and layered.

If these mentor-protégé relationships do not fully develop as expected in the film, so do many potential relationships fail to develop in real life.  Which leaves me on to the final subject: Spidey’s love life.  This does not turn out well, at least in the new film.  The girl Peter Parker likes presents special problems through her family.

But all is not perhaps lost.  There is one brainy, geeky, grungy girl, played by Disney star Zendaya, who seems to be modelled after Ally Sheedy’s character in Breakfast Club.  This marginal Brainiac, who seems to be genuinely interested in Peter despite all her insults, goes by the name of Michelle.  But in one scene, she says, “My friends call me M.J.”

This has caused considerable excitement and speculation among Marvel fans.  Is this quirky individual none other than Mary Jane, Spider-Man’s main love interest?  Perhaps the sequel will tell us.

With regard to the movie’s ending, Marvel fanatics have come to expect a short scene after the final credits have been given.  On this I say nothing.

 

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ON IMMIGRATION

I’d like to say to say just a few words on the hot button topic of immigration.  It seems that more than enough has already been said on this issue, but immigration is essential to the American experience.  And the current realities of immigration are different than how it’s presented on either side.

Prior to 9/11, immigration was handled by the U.S. Department of the Interior in conjunction with the Department of Justice.  Since 9/11 it’s been handled by Homeland Security, and as with so much else from Homeland Security, what we have is a broken bureaucracy.  Homeland Security can’t give us a coherent or effective security policy.  Nor can it process the many people applying for immigration status.

The people we call Illegal Immigrants are actually Undocumented Immigrants.  Many of them fill out the necessary applications when they come to this country.  But then the government takes away their initial status, and they wait in a limbo for the government to make further decisions.

Probably the most controversial people entering the U.S. now are Latinos and Moslems.  Latinos shouldn’t be so controversial.  They’ve been entering these territories since the times predating the U.S. government.  Many of our southern states were originally Spanish or Mexican provinces.  We need only to look at the Mexican vaqueros, our first cowboys, to realize how long Latinos have been a key presence in our country.

Moslems are probably more controversial.  We hear that many of them are terrorists, and that a Moslem can’t be president or serve on the Supreme Court because a person bound by Sharia law can’t follow the constitution.

All of this sounds eerily similar to things said of the three groups I was born into: the Irish, the Italians and Roman Catholics.  We hear that the Irish are rowdy drunks.  Many people still believe that most Italian-Americans are in the Mob.  And it’s been frequently said that a Catholic president would have direct phone loan in the White House in use for receiving directions from the Pope.

While I’ve heard these comments all my life, I paid far less attention to them as a child.  I grew up in the suburbs.  Many of my friends were Protestants of northern European extraction.  My two paternal grandparents were from Italy.  Three of my maternal great grandparents were born in Ireland.  But I considered myself fully American.

I didn’t know till later that my father, as a child divided people into two groups: the Italiani and the Americani, with himself among the Italiani.  This was because my father chose to speak English all the time, and the fully participate in American society.  His sister remained all her life in Oneida’s Italian-American community, but my father went outside Oneida to serve in the military, attend college and law school, and later become a prosecutor.

So the process repeats itself.  The nation is enriched by the diversity of its immigrants.  But the children and grandchildren of those immigrants will become full homogenized as Americans, and the nation will need new immigrants.

The U.S. must secure its borders.  Not with a wall by Mexico, yet secured nonetheless.

But let’s have a sense of humility.  A number a years ago, I took a trip to New York City with a friend.  Late on a Sunday night, we went to the Empire State Building.  After waiting in the lobby, we took an elevator to the lookout deck a hundred-plus floors up.

Looking out, I could see the rivers surrounding the island of Manhattan.  People from distant countries were there, and as I saw of New Jersey and Brooklyn, I could hear German, French, Italian and Chinese.

I was reminded of the ancient Tower of Babel, where many languages were also heard.  In the great cities of the past, cultures from distant places had also converged.  What we experience is not new.  We are having our time in sun as Babylon, Alexandria and Rome had theirs.

With protecting our security, we must always remember our place in history.  We must lealways keep in mind that our time here is short, and that whether or not we were born here, we are always, in some aspect, immigrants passing through a strange land.

Thank you.

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ISLANDS

The falcon women of my life

Were all born on islands:

My wife Oahu, in the hospital

Known for Pearl Harbor,

My mother the Long Island of Hurricanes,

One grandmother, the policeman’s daughter,

Staten Island,

The other Sicily,

Where Aetna rocked her childhood,

Two great grandmothers in Ireland,

Where one’s house was burned down.

 

And I, who have spent so much time

On continents, would be lost for following

The sea, but islands give me bearings.

 

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BERLIN 1989

Did you think history would cease

then?  Not noticing flooded wastelands

in the not distant landscape, you commandeered

new wreckage by pulling down

more walls.

 

Now like mammals after dinosaurs,

eyes of Socialist discussion peer out

from behind rocks.

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MAMET IS RIGHT, UP TO A POINT

A recent controversy arose when playwright David Mamet threatened to fine  Outvisable Theatre of Detroit in the event that talkbacks were held after performances of his play Oleanna.  Such a measure by Mamet was heavyhanded, as is so much that Mamet does.  It may also be self-defeating, in that such restrictions may dampen the enthusiasm of theatre companies interested in doing productions of Mamet’s work.

Nevertheless, talkbacks after theatre performances are a form of demagoguery.  They come from the institution of play readings.  Readings, which have been prevalent in recent decades, have had a mixed legacy.  They were instituted for the purported purpose of improving plays, but they have most often weakened them, helping to remove what was most original about them.  Contrary to making plays more producible, they have often had the effect of making them unworkable.

Usually it is not the most perceptive person in the audience who does the most talking.  Often it is the least perceptive.  This tends to shut down the critical responses of other people, which is particularly damaging in the theatre.

The theatre exists to make us think, and talkbacks actually have a chilling effect on the thinking that should follow a play’s performance.  For people tend to accept the opinion of the fool who did the most talking, or otherwise refrain from looking into the matter further.

In our current society, we are encouraged to voice our opinions immediately.  Little room is given for the listening, learning and reflection that should go into an opinion before it is expressed.

We would do better to institute the practice of the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who had his students remain silent throughout their first year at his school.

 

 

 

 

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SKEPTICISM

They say that there are matters of faith, and matters of science.  Science necessarily involves skepticism.  Tenants, or theories, of science have to be tested.  It is healthy and ultimately productive to dispute well-accepted theories.

Why, then is so much faith given to the theories circulating now?  If one part of a theory is proven correct, why do we so unconditionally accept the whole package that comes with it?

Here are some cultural cows that I struggle with.

  1. GLOBAL WARMING

A few years ago, there was much talk of global warming.  A number of scientists and would-be scientists were glibly saying that ozone depletion was causing this warming, and they went on to closely predict how and when the earth’s current cities would be overtaken by water.

Since then, the conversation has gone to the vaguer term of Climate Change.

It’s clear that climate exchange exists.  Throughout the earth’s long history, the climate has warmed and cooled numerous times.  What we do not know is the extent to which humans contribute to the current climate change.

Nevertheless, we do know that our recklessness and greed are adversely affecting the planet, and compromising its future.  Environmental protections are needed.  The Environmental Protection Agency should remain in full force.

  1. ATTENTION DEFICIT DISORDER

This has become the coverall diagnosis for any child not performing up to social expectations.  The reality is that the very existence of ADD is disputed in the scientific community.

It’s clear that the symptoms of this so-called disorder do exist.  But they can come from a wide variety of different sources.  Persons with serious mental illnesses now go undetected for years because they’ve been misdiagnosed with ADD or ADHD.

Yet the doctors will quickly prescribe Adderall or another widely used drug.
These drugs are now prescribed simply to enhance academic performance, a practice causing long-lasting addictions.

This medical sloppiness will go down in the Hall of Shame with the 18th century practice of bloodletting.

  1. EVOLUTION

While certain religious groups will argue that dinosaurs never existed, proof of evolution is everywhere.  We have witnessed evolution occurring in our brief human history: the evolution of horses from dog-sized beings to magnificent creatures, and the evolution of dogs from wolves.  Even within our lifetimes, over the last century, we’ve seen the further evolution of humans into taller and longer-living creatures.

We still don’t know, however, how exactly evolution occurred, and there is still considerable room for interpretation.  The evolutionary theory of random selection suggested by some biologists is an interpretation I’ve never bought into.

  1. THE ASTEROID

The reality is that dinosaurs did not quite go extinct.  Some evolved into other creatures such as mammals.  And dinosaurs have down into our world in the birds that surround us everywhere.  The robins and cardinals that serenade us from the trees and ledges near our windows boast the bright plumage, quick movements and lilting songs developed by late dinosaurs.

The giant creatures of the Jurassic period did, of course, become extinct.  But there is still not enough information for us to believe the theory pushed at us by large cliques of scientists: that the dinosaurs perished from an asteroid hitting the earth.

We still have viable alternate theories.  It’s highly possible that the mass extinction was caused by disease.  Or by a significant decline in the once-abundant food supply.  It’s significant to me that Robert Bakker, the bearded cowboy who revolutionized paleontology, disputes the asteroid theory.

Why cover our ignorance in the unconditional acceptance of the hypotheses in circulation?

AFTERDOUBTS

So I have spent my entire life throwing dirt at the otherwise uncontested cultural cows.  All of which has led me to be considered a crank, and one relegated to the margins of society.

Looking back on my childhood, it was only natural that I would not do well in school, or that I would be considered an annoyance by my teachers.  It’s a wonder I wasn’t thrown out.

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MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

After a prolonged battle with Hollywood powers over his last film, Margaret, playwright-screenwriter-director Kenneth Lonergan returns to the screen with Manchester by the Sea.  Hollywood ways and theatre ways of working do not jibe, and Lonergan, in the Margaret battle, became a pronounced victim of the film world’s power tactics.  Lonergan is a playwright in the best sense of the word: he is fundamentally concerned with the soul’s struggles.

His new film features a janitor named Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck.  Lee’s adolescent nephew, who has lost his father and been abandoned by his alcoholic mother, needs him as a guardian.  Returning to his native town, Manchester by the Sea, Lee also encounters his ex-wife, played by Michelle Williams.  The Williams character, despite being remarried, is still in love with him.

But at the frozen core of this story is anguish and guilt over an event that occurred years earlier.  Because of his guilt, Lee cannot remain as guardian for his nephew.  Nor can he come to terms with his ex-wife, or get involved with other women.  He is stuck.

It seems fundamental to plays and movies that they deal with characters who change.  Those changes, or turns in the story, seem essential to the dramatic work.

Is Manchester by the Sea any the worse for centering on a stuck character?  The film has many of the hallmarks of a good, even great, movie.  Its acting, led by Affleck and Williams, is outstanding.  Its use of visuals, showing the sea town of Manchester, is top quality.  It is a story honestly and skillfully told.

Nevertheless, in art as in life, we hope that people will learn from their tragedies and continue their journeys as humans.

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