Misreading What a T-Shirt Says

In anticipation of the Boston Marathon, public radio’s “All Things Considered” ran a piece considering he Boston Strong phenomenon. But some “expert” commentary seemed better described as some things ill-considered.

The program described how, within a few hours of last year’s bombing, a couple kids at nearby Emerson College had designed the now iconic Boston Strong T-shirt thinking they’d sell a few hundred. At last count they’d sold over 66,000 and had spawned a light industry of Boston Strong objects.

Part of the original appeal was the promise to donate a portion of the proceeds to the victims. But by now it looks like the business has morphed into a gravy train. They are bringing out a first anniversary edition, for instance, and there is reason to believe the charitable cut has dwindled. What could be more American than to do well by appearing to do good.

But that fact seems to me less interesting than some of the criticism NPR turned up. They interviewed a psychologist named Joseph Burgo who said he understood the ideas of solidarity and defiance in the face of an assault on normalcy.

But Burgo didn’t quit there. He went on to say that “I cringe at people feeling that their every sentiment has to be tweeted or posted or literally worn on their sleeves.” He attributed the Boston Strong phenomenon to “our narcissistic culture” where everything “is about self display.” And he is not alone. Some have scorned such displays as Slacktivism, lame attempts to appear to be activists without actually doing anything other than wearing a shirt, bracelet or ribbon.

I get some of the criticism, but a lot of it seems wildly wrong-headed as an analysis of what the Boston Strong thing signifies. I don’t think I’d like Mr. Burgo as my shrink since he seems to be working out some anger and ego issues of his own.

I certainly agree that the constant phoning, texting and tweeting by people in the produce department describing how they are now buying an orange or celebrities narrating each time they clip a toenail are a trifle self-obsessed. And long ago Paul Fussell, in the hilarious “Class,” scorned what he called legible clothes as a dimwit substitute for originality or belated prole attempt to be with it. (On the other hand, ever since beginning to blog I have regarded blogging as a very high form of literary art).

But is the case of Boston Strong really about narcissism or ego? It seems to me this is 180 degrees wrong. Wearing shirts proclaiming Boston Strong is not meant to celebrate the self. On the contrary, it is meant to celebrate the tribe to which one belongs. It’s not about me, but us.

Waving the flag is not narcissism nor is identifying with your team or your military unit. When a Royal Welch Fusilier put on the uniform he wasn’t arrogant about being himself, but humbled to be a part of the group under whose banner he marched.

Today few or none of us live out our lives in the village in which we were born. We no longer expect to work 30 years for the same company and may be twice or thrice divorced before calling it quits. Instead of stability and consistency, we inhabit a world of constant flux. That is disorienting to humans who may actually be wired to be part of a group, a tribe, a clan, a village.

I’m not from Boston, but I get the sentiment. I haven’t lived in the town where I grew up since 1975 and haven’t been back for almost a decade. But if somebody tried to blow it up, I’d take the attack really personally and I’d rally to the cause of my home place and proclaim my identification with its plight.

That may express a deep, primitive psychological need, but it isn’t the need for self-display or an expression of vanity. It is the need to belong to something and somewhere in a world where we too often seen anchorless, rudderless and adrift.

In short, think again Mr. Burgo. Boston Strong. Long may she run.

Films from a Festival II

The two films at the recent RiverRun Film Festival that were to my mind indisputable winners were The Nightingale and The Chef, with The German Doctor a respectable runner-up. In this day of instant On Demand, pay-per-view and streaming available from many sources, you may soon have a chance to see any or all of these. I recommend all three.

The German Doctor, an Argentine film, is based on reality and as soon as you learn the German doctor of the title is living in Patagonia in 1960 you begin to suspect it must be you-know-who.

He befriends a family whose children are enrolled in a German-speaking school with an unsettling curriculum and takes a medical interest in the daughter who is small for her age and in the mother who is pregnant with twins.

There is a particularly creepy leitmotif involving dolls that the father designs and another concerning the medical care the doctor begins providing for the children. There are few surprises in the plot, but the atmosphere is thick with foreboding and the lead performer, Alex Brendenmuhl, is deeply disquieting.

The Chef is a French film doing what the French do better than anyone – cooking up a social comedy teetering on the brink of farce. Ever since the New Wave the French have tried to emulate American genres – the hardboiled detective story, the thriller, and one they gave a name, film noir. But they never seem really at home in them. Whereas the comic soufflés they concoct are superb and The Chef is delicious.

Jean Reno is a three star chef who has been repeating himself for years. His famous restaurant is owned by a company with many other venues and the patriarch is semi-retired. His son is all business and impatient to modernize, but by contract he can’t replace the chef unless he loses a star. Since the Michelin judges are rumored to favor trendy molecular gastronomy, the jig may be up.

Michael Youn is a chef wannabe who drives his pregnant girlfriend mad by losing one job after another because he is an impossible perfectionist incapable of letting a less than stellar plate escape any kitchen that employs him.

Obviously the old lion and young tyro need each other. Much hilarity ensues including satiric thrusts at culinary fads, the valuing of novelty over tradition, TV cooking shows, and even industrial espionage when the two chefs don Japanese disguises to spy on a rival.

Finally we come to The Nightingale, a French-Chinese co-production. It features a soulful, subtle performance by Li Bao Tian as a widower grandfather who sacrificed his own happiness living apart from his family in order to earn enough to allow his son to win an education.

Now the son is a jet-setting architect married to an equally high flying executive. They are lavishly raising a princess daughter but are rarely in the same time zone together.

Grandfather and son are estranged because of what the son regards as an unforgivable lapse years before when grandpa was allowed to babysit the precious girl. But scheduling conflicts now force the mother to park the girl with grandpa without telling her husband.

Wise grandfather decides to take spoiled granddaughter on a trip to the ancestral village where his wife is buried. Along the way everything goes wrong until everything is finally put right, minds are changed, tears are shed and antagonisms overcome.

The bird of the title plays an important role that is beautifully revealed and developed as the competing claims of ambition and duty, tradition and modernity are reconciled.

The Nightingale could be accused of sentimentality, but so could “The Tempest” or “Twelfth Night.” Like them, it begins as a seemingly realistic, even depressing story of a family’s sorrows, but at some point it slips imperceptibly across a border into the land of romance and fairy tale. It is a beautifully wrought film, full of heart.

Fruits of a Film Fest

Film festivals are peculiar institutions in my experience. The problem isn’t the films, it’s the festival. To jam so many films and too many people in so few days guarantees a kind of gridlock. Often the screenings seem closer to rush hour on the subway than a theatrical experience. Too often the venues pressed into service also have poor screens or projection and terrible sound.

Add to that relatively high ticket prices and a crap shoot regarding quality. With so many foreign films and indie pictures with relatively unknown actors and directors you can bump into an unheralded masterwork or a laughably amateurish atrocity. No way to predict.

The only excuse for putting up with all this is love of movies for their own sake and the adoption of what might be called a Klondike mentality. That is, being willing to put up with a lot of dross in the hopes or the occasional gleam of gold.

Last week at RiverRun in North Carolina, six films in four days, the panning turned up a surprisingly high percentage of nuggets. In ascending order of watchablity, today and tomorrow I’ll give you a look at what I saw. No crowds and no tickets required.

We begin with Tanta Agua, a forlorn comedy from Uruguay. It concerns a plump divorced father who takes his resentful children on an ill-fated vacation where everything goes wrong beginning with the abundant water of the title. It rains and rains. The concept could produce amusement and the players are adequate, but too little has been done by writer and director to bring it to life. As Edmund Kean supposedly said, “Dying is
easy, comedy is hard.”

Two Autumns, Three Winters from France traces the rocky progress of a romance between a hapless schlub who also narrates and the sleek girl he clumsily courts. They meet cute by literally running into each other and the method of the story-telling, a sort of collage or mosaic of scenes, is clever. But again the project is sunk by writing that is too thin to make any character other than the narrator three dimensional.

At first blush the Canadian film, Sarah Prefers to Run, seems to suffer from similar defects. Sarah is an actual runner and a good one who wins a place at McGill University. But attending may be beyond her means and her mother is opposed for reasons that are unclear. A co-worker at her part-time restaurant job says he too wants to head for the big city and offers to share the cost of lodging. She accepts and they are off.

Soon he broaches the scheme of getting married to win a government subsidy only available to married students. She goes along, only to learn he is actually in love with her. But she only wants to run despite a heart arrhythmia of unclear seriousness, which may explain her mother’s opposition to the move and the athletics.

Sophie Desmarais as Sarah is such a recessive personality that it is impossible to know what is going on in her head and the film at first seems little better than an anecdote. Yet its effect lingers and in retrospect it is clear that we have been given a glimpse of the kind of monomania needed to compete at a high level in spite of the damage it can do to one’s heart – literally and figuratively.