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Not so very long ago my wife had a conference in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The town and the surrounding countryside figured prominently in the lives of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, two Presidents who earned their stripes as Founding Fathers of this country.  They were major contributors to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, not to mention the University of Virginia.

I made a pilgrimage to Jefferson’s home of Monticello back when we were living in DC, so this time I took the time to visit the University of Virginia campus and Montpelier, Madison’s home.  Montpelier has undergone an unusual, multimillion dollar “facelift” designed to obliterate a significant renovation by the Dupont family, of whom you may have heard.  Not long ago, the house was about four times the size it is now.  The restoration looks very much like a work in progress.  There are a number of virtually empty rooms at Montpelier, including one with peeling wallpaper and partially exposed lathe under crumbling plaster.

When the guide began his tour, it soon became obvious that historical hagiography has suffered a setback.  This new narrative was not exactly warts and all, but it was certainly less idealized than the presentation I got when I went to school. Both Madison and Jefferson had flaws, after all, and these were not glossed over by our guide.  It is hard to reconcile the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” with the fact that Jefferson (and Madison) lived off slave labor.  The enslaved men, women and children from Africa were obviously not the “men” Jefferson was talking about.

This gradual shift toward a more realistic and nuanced approach to our history seems to fly in the face of the voices that are dominating the political scene today.  It is as if a Pied Piper has come along and serenaded all the responsible adults away somewhere.  Belligerent children are in charge. How else does one explain the uproar over health care reform and the upcoming fight over financial regulation, not to mention the regular tantrums that Republicans seem to have at the very mention of Obama.

First, there were the people who rejected his right to be President because he was supposed to have been born in some other country than the USA.  Hawaii may be different enough and far enough away from the mainland states to give people that impression, but then, so is Alaska.  And no one questions Sarah Palin’s credentials as a red-blooded Yank.

Now, we have the tea party people.  According to a recent CBS poll, 18% of Americans identify with the movement.  They are white, older, better educated than their fellow Americans, and angry–  about Obama, health care reform, government spending, unemployment and the economy.  They seem to believe that Democrats are leading us down the path of socialism.  Every older American entitled to it loves Medicare and still hates health care reform.  Go figure.

Despite the facts, the tea party people are convinced Obama has raised taxes.  They believe same sex marriage is awful and gun control laws should be eased.  Australian readers may be astonished to learn that Americans can now take handguns into national parks (for our own protection).  Inebriated campers are going to be far more dangerous to us nature lovers than Grizzly bears, rattlesnakes and alligators.  Tree huggers, beware.

Walt Disney must have anticipated this when he adopted this country and built an empire built on fantasy.  Americans seem less inclined to tolerate other people’s opinions and more inclined to believe in paranoid conspiracy theories now than at any other time in my life.  We have turned into a nation of ignorant people, deliberately turning our backs on the opportunity to learn from other countries or wiser minds.  It is frightening that we wield such a big stick and use it so carelessly.

I made peace with my Peter Pan syndrome some time ago, but the fact that I managed to stretch childhood into my retirement does not mean everyone should do so.  In fact, it is a really bad idea.  Countries need citizens who are willing to take a certain amount of responsibility on their shoulders and not mess things up.  The world is not a finger painting, after all.  It is possible to screw things up so badly that they can never be fixed.  Time is running out.

American grownups, please come home!  We need you.


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I didn’t realize until a short time ago that Durham, North Carolina is home to one of the most prestigious documentary film festivals in the USA.  It takes place over four days, and it just wrapped up this Sunday.  By using superhuman powers of self control, I managed to limit myself to nine films.  Considering the fact that I had over 100 films to choose from, I thought that was reasonably restrained behavior.

This is the thirteenth year of the Full Frame Film Festival, and it seems to be going strong.  We are fortunate to be living at a time when anyone with access to a high definition camera and editing software can make a film.  He or she will not necessarily create a work of art, but it will be the expression of an idiosyncratic, individual voice, rather than a Hollywooden product that comes out of the collective consciousness of Los Angeles.

I fell in love with films when things were very different, back when all films were shot, edited and released on celluloid. For a short time, I worked in the chemical soup of a film processing place, which seemed to specialize in soft core porn. This was followed by a year of film school before it became a fashion statement.  The most successful film I worked on there was an impressionistic, wordless film about a canal that threads through the heart of London.  I was amazed and delighted to see that the images and music we assembled could create something akin to a religious experience, a Catholic mass without the incense.

Even though some of the subject matter of the films I chose to watch during the festival was dark and a few were difficult to watch at times, I felt invigorated by the experience.  I was transported by the stories and images, from the incredibly hard, but rewarding lives of nomads on the plateau of the Kham region of Tibet to the horrific intensity of the most intense fighting in Afghanistan.  A handful of the filmmakers were on hand for Q/A sessions after the shows.

I went on a slick, brilliant, roller coast ride of a documentary about Jack Abramoff, the uber lobbyist who took advantage of his political connections to play for high stakes in the ultimate casino– the United States Congress.  A handycam took me on another, very personal ride with a bright kid who lands a job with Columbia House Records in New York.  The job soon sucks him in, and he morphs from a happy-go-lucky, skeptical kid  into a paranoid workaholic before making one last attempt to make the workplace creative and fun again.

There were emotionally wrenching stories as well.  “The Last Train Home” wove a narrative about the mass migration of the Chinese workers during the New Year from their jobs in the city to their old homes in the countryside.  It is about the impact of modern factory work on the lives of peasants, who leave their children to grow up with grandparents, then discover that they have teenage children who are strangers, just as angst ridden as American adolescents, and equally unhappy with their parents.

In “Born Sweet,” Vinh is revealed as “arsenic boy.” His village in Cambodia has been contaminated by the water from a new well dug for the villagers by Westerners.  They have acidentally tapped into deposits of arsenic distributed by volcanoes thousands of years ago.  Vinh is only fifteen and he’s dying.  He dreams of being a karaoke star.  In another film set in Laos, I watch two young boys, best friends in a rural village, as they are forced by circumstances to split up and start to lead very different lives.  “Videocracy” has me  transfixed by the spectacle of Italy’s intense devotion to television, and the revolting impact it has had on politics and everyday life.

The most personal, unwaveringly bleak documentary I watched was a static film about the impact of rampant capitalism on the town of Butte in my home state-  Montana.  It is called “An Injury to One.”  It centers on the the dangerous work of mining and the murder of Frank Little, a union organizer for the Wobblies.  It tells of the decimation of the union and reveals the devastation of the city itself as it is turned into little more than a hole in the ground slowly filling with acid. Its harsh shadows depict the unrelenting rape of the land for the copper buried in that one particular place on the planet.

Documentaries don’t necessarily paint a pretty picture, but they can show us the world we need to see.  And they bring people out of the woodwork and into downtown Durham, and that is a wonderful thing.

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