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Captain Fantastic

Vito & Todd

Vito & Todd photo by Marcia

“We may divide thinkers into those who think for themselves, and those who think through others. The latter are the rule, and the former the exception.” Arthur Schopenhauer

As the inauguration of Trump fast approaches, many frightened Americans talk of moving to Canada, in much the same way frightened Americans spoke of moving abroad when George Bush became President. But Canada and other safe haven countries only want us these days if we are wealthy or possessed of highly desirable technological skills. Thus we common folk must consider other responses to the new regime.

One vision of a response to the madness currently gripping and deforming American life is the 2016 movie Captain Fantastic, written and directed by Matt Ross, a California writer, director, and actor who lives in Berkeley. I mention where he lives because I seriously doubt that a writer/director living in Los Angeles could have written a screenplay as far outside the Hollywood box as Captain Fantastic. That Ross also raised millions of dollars to make this fairly outrageous movie and was able to land a distribution deal resulting in the film turning a profit is nothing short of miraculous.

I will not spoil the film by recounting the plot, but I will say that Captain Fantastic bears some resemblance to the excellent 2003 American film Off the Map, and the dreamy Swiss/Italian 2014 film The Wonders. All three films involve adult couples seeking to live independently of the dominant capitalist paradigm, and each of these movies focuses on the children of those seekers as they collide with the outside world.

I found Captain Fantastic by turns funny and sad and disturbing and uplifting and maddening and deeply moving; and twice during the movie I had to get up and go outside to catch my breath and calm down, but not because the film is violent; it is not, thankfully. Marcia and I have been talking about the movie for several days now, and that alone makes Captain Fantastic a rare American film for us.

Meanwhile, here in the so-called real world, we are facing a Congress, a President, and a Supreme Court poised to wreak havoc on our already inadequate healthcare system, dismantle Social Security, remove constraints on industrial pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and enact laws to benefit the wealthy and further punish the beleaguered lower and middle classes as defined by income and assets. These same dangerous people are anti-women, anti-minority, anti-peace, and anti-anybody other than white Christians. And that is why so many people are afraid, and why so many people wish they could leave the country.

“There are three kinds of economist. Those who can count and those who can’t.” Eddie George

I am currently writing a new screenplay, having recently rewritten an old one for a director in Canada. I had not immersed myself in the screenplay form for more than a decade, and the rewrite got those juices flowing again. And though the odds of getting a movie made of anything I write are not quite as good as the odds of winning the national lottery, should I ever buy a ticket, I do enjoy the screenplay form and love imagining the scenes I write coming to life.

Yesterday, under the influence of Captain Fantastic, I read what I’ve written so far of my new screenplay and thought: I wonder if I’m writing this story in lieu of trying to flee the country.

Speaking of fleeing the country, it was recently reported in various mass media outlets that Ford Motor Company was about to spend a couple billion dollars opening a new plant in Mexico. Then President-elect Trump bellowed at Ford for being un-American, Ford cancelled the Mexico plant, and instead says they would invest 700 million dollars in upgrading a Michigan assembly plant. This would reportedly save at least 700 American jobs and give a much-needed boost to the Michigan economy.

Was any of this true? Maybe some of it was sort of true, but probably none of it was true. Ford Motors now says they are proceeding with plans to increase production in Mexico by enlarging their existing facilities there and not opening a new plant. Does this give us more reason to doubt Trump’s credibility? Yes. Ford Motors stated they prefer doing business in Mexico because they feel oppressed by so many federal and state regulations in America having to do with decreasing pollution and increasing safety and requiring the payment of taxes, and they are hopeful that under Trump they won’t have to worry so much about those annoying things.

So what are we common folk to make of all this? I think that henceforth we must assume anything we hear or see or read in the news (not counting really good fiction and neighborhood gossip) is probably not the whole truth, or even part of the truth. Did Donald Trump save 700 jobs in Michigan? Unlikely. Why did Obama expel dozens of Russian diplomats for something that may not have happened? We don’t know. Why are automobile manufacturers still allowed to make cars that run on gasoline? Because unregulated capitalism cares nothing about the environment.

The most popular American movies nowadays are animated films featuring animals behaving like goofy people and speaking English, live-action films set in other galaxies featuring humans with British accents, films about wizards and vampires rife with astonishingly bad dialogue, and films about impossibly strong and violent people who say very little as they run amok. Oh, yes, and films about morons and bimbos are popular, too.

Captain Fantastic is entirely about Now and full of real people dealing with the many and complicated challenges of being human. In this way, the movie reminded me of my favorite movies from the 60s and 70s, movies exploring contemporary society from the perspectives of people for whom the dominant cultural paradigms do not serve—movies about eccentrics and rebels and artists and innovators who are questing, as many of us were in those days, for ways to live healthy and meaningful lives on spaceship earth.

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Off The Map

Green Chair oil Nolan Winkler

Green Chair oil on canvas by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2014)

“We now live in a nation where doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, governments destroy freedom, the press destroys information, religion destroys morals, and our banks destroy the economy.” Chris Hedges 

Marcia and I are on the two-movies-a-month plan from Netflix, and many of the movies we watch are foreign films and documentaries. For my taste, most of the American films made available to the public in the last thirty years are so badly written and badly acted and poorly directed, I want no part of them, though once in a while a miracle occurs and I am reminded of how vibrant and creative American cinema used to be before the televisionization of everything.

A couple months ago, Marcia suggested, “What about the one where the IRS guy goes to audit the family living in the middle of nowhere?”

Never having heard of such a film, I entered movie about IRS guy auditing family in middle of nowhere into my favorite search engine and up came Off The Map (2003), directed by Campbell Scott, the co-director with Stanley Tucci of one of my favorite American movies of the last few decades Big Night (1996). To our delight, Off the Map was available from Netflix (which is not true of many films we wish to see), and a few nights ago we watched Off the Map, which I found genuinely funny and touching and thought provoking and full of beautiful imagery.

One of the main thoughts this tenderly made movie provoked in me was how terribly impatient people have become as the result of the massive and ongoing reprogramming of our expectations of how life should be, as opposed to how Nature actually is. This reprogramming, carried out by the mass media and by the mass incarceration of children in mind-numbing schools and by fear-driven previously reprogrammed parents, is at the heart of our collective dissatisfaction and depression and abnegation of our true natures in service to an economic and social system entirely disconnected from Nature.

Off The Map is an insightful portrayal of the healing power of kindness and generosity and cooperation and patience, not with the usual Hollywood flourishes and swelling music, but through the graceful capture of hundreds of reflexive acts of kindness and sharing by a few good people living far enough off the map, literally and figuratively, that they have reconnected with the founding truth of human society, which is that we cannot survive in any meaningful or satisfying way without being of service to each other, and even if we could survive without helping each other, what fun would that be?

“All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” Ronald Reagan

In distinct contrast to the movie Off The Map is the play Other Desert Cities, which Marcia and I just saw performed by the Mendocino Theatre Company (performances continuing through April 6.) The big reason to see this play, as far as I’m concerned, is to watch Sandra Hawthorne, who is so extraordinary and impressively real in the central role that the difficulties I had with the play’s story and writing pale next to her remarkable performance. If you go, try to sit close to the stage because the acoustics in the venerable Helen Schoeni Theater severely suck. If I ever strike it rich, I will endow MTC with sufficient funds to have local sound wizard Peter Temple install a few excellent microphones and speakers in the appropriate nooks so actors’ voices may carry with ease to the far reaches of that sound absorbent little box.

Other Desert Cities was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, which is vivid proof of the current silliness of that prize, and though the dialogue in Other Desert Cities is far superior to the awful speechifying in the last play we saw at MTC, Time Stands Still, the dialogue in Other Desert Cities suffers from far too much on-the-nose expository telling and not nearly enough nuanced character-revealing showing, which is true of all new American plays that find their way into production these days. Subtlety and complexity and shades of gray, not to mention dialogue reminiscent of how people actually speak to each other, are apparently suspect now in contemporary American theatre, and companies large and small seem to operate on the assumption that their seats will be filled, if they’re lucky, with not very bright children trapped in the bodies of adults—and maybe those theatre companies are right.

Which brings me to another thing I loved about the movie Off The Map: the author, Joan Ackermann, and director Campbell Scott, completely ignored the dominant trend in American books and plays and movies today, which is to speak down to the audience—down down down into idiocy. On the contrary, the makers of Off The Map (a film I’ll bet lost money) trusted that people watching their movie would possess sufficient intelligence and imagination to come to their own conclusions about much of what happens in the film, just as we come to our own conclusions about the myriad mysteries in life. What a concept.

“A man of great common sense and good taste—meaning thereby a man without originality or moral courage.” George Bernard Shaw

In the play Other Desert Cities, one of the characters, a television producer, is incredulous when his sister claims she has never heard of The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, a highly unlikely claim given that she is a New York sophisticate, a literary writer, and is about to publish an excerpt from her lurid memoir in The New Yorker. Her brother opines that her saying she has never heard of Tolkien is either a lie or snobbery or both. This was a most telling moment in the play for me, and I was eager to see how their conflict would progress, but the subject was summarily dropped and never broached again.

“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” Groucho Marx

Yesterday I was having a cookie at the Goodlife Café & Bakery when I was approached by a man I’ve known for several years who prefaces all our conversations with, “I see you’re still writing for the AVA,” though he has never divulged if he reads me. Curious. Anyway, this fellow seems to think that because I am a writer, I must also read piles of popular contemporary books, which I do not. Every time I bump into this guy, he enumerates the many bestselling books he has consumed since our last meeting, each title followed by the name of the author and a one-word review such as “important” or “heavy” or “painful” or “sobering.”

This man is repeatedly dismayed to learn that I have not read any of the books he enumerates, and my explanation—that I read very few books these days because I spend so much time slaving over my own hot lines—does not console him. He is adamant that it is my duty to read the current darlings of corporate publishing in order to…what? Learn from them? Imitate them? I dunno.

“Bad taste creates many more millionaires than good taste.” Charles Bukowski

A reader recently wrote to suggest I add book recommendations to my weekly articles. I explained to her that I no longer recommend books or movies or much of anything to anyone because so many of my past recommendations proved grave disappointments to those I sought to please. For instance, I used to zealously recommend Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim to anyone who would listen to me, prefacing my recommendations by saying I’ve read Kim several times and continue to imbibe the blessed tome every couple years because for me Kim is more than a novel but a holy text, a gorgeous epic poem, and a timeless masterwork.

Alas, nearly all the women who, on my recommendation, attempted to read Kim loathed the book and said the story was sexist, racist, outdated, confusing, adolescent, boring, a guy thing, and unreadable. Guy thing or not, most of the men who tried to read Kim on my recommendation said they found the book confusing, imperialist, irrelevant, childish, implausible, clunky, outdated, and unreadable.

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.” Alan Jones

Those words by Alan Jones, former Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, perfectly elucidate the guiding theme of the movie Off The Map, as well as the guiding theme of all my favorite novels and stories and plays and movies.

Todd’s new novel Ida’s Place is available exclusively from UnderTheTableBooks.com