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Black History Month, day 16 (sigh . . . I am not cut out for daily blogging)

I have no interest in seeing yet another movie whose chief interest in racism is how it affects white people. That’s okay now and then–racism does, after all, affect white people–but it is so, so overdone. So I’ll skip Green Book, which last night joined Driving Miss Daisy and (so I’m told–haven’t seen it) Crash on the list of Oscar-bait movies that successfully hooked the big fish by using the most irresistible bait of all: making white people feel as if racism can be resolved without any real sacrifice on our part.

Instead, I’m going to watch the documentary The Green Book: Guide to Freedom, released today. I know a bit about the Green Book, thanks to an exhibit in San Francisco several years ago (I wrote very briefly about it here) and a passage in The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s fascinating book about the Great Migration, in which one of the Southern African-Americans whose stories she tells was driving across the country to California and couldn’t find places to stop. Unable to rent a room, and at risk of being arrested, not to mention attacked, if they pull over and sleep in the car: it’s a system designed to tell black people that they have no worth or dignity.

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Alan Turing at age 16

I’ve been interested in Alan Turing ever since I first encountered his work in Gödel, Escher, Bach, a book I read obsessively in my teenage years, so the moment I heard there would be a movie about him I started lobbying Joy to see it with me (we don’t go to the movies very often). It didn’t hurt that Turing would be played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is starting to impress me as one of the best actors of my lifetime, and sure enough, we saw The Imitation Game last week and his performance is humane, subtle, and heartbreaking. It does him a disservice to suggest that the role of Turing is an easy jump from his Sherlock Holmes. Sure, they’re both geniuses drawn to socially-useful work yet painfully lacking in social skills (the writers hint that a modern-day diagnosis would place them both on the autistic spectrum), but Cumberbatch, who must have been aware of the trap as he prepared for this role, never mixes them up. His Turing is his own person.

At the time Douglas Hofstadter wrote Gödel. . ., the story of the breaking of the Enigma code was still classified. We now know that Turing was not just a brilliant mathematician, originator of computer science, and pioneer of the concept of artificial intelligence, but also a behind-the-scenes hero of World War II, and it was no doubt the fact that the Bletchley Park codebreakers knocked probable years off the war and saved millions of lives that got Turing pardoned, over the heads of the House of Lords, by Queen Elizabeth. Of course “pardon” is a legal term; what he really deserved was an apology, as he had done nothing wrong: he was just a gay man at a time when his government regarded acts of love between people of the same sex as “gross indecency.” What the rest of the world lost by Turing’s being forced to choose among prison, a mind stunted by chemical castration, or the option he took, suicide, we can only imagine. Or, given the astounding originality of his thought, it would be more accurate to say that we simply can’t imagine it.

That loss, the misery he suffered, and the knowledge that it’s no easier to be gay today in most countries than it was for Turing in 1952, left me feeling shaky as the theater lights went up. So did the information that over 49,000 people (all men, from what I’ve read) were prosecuted in the UK before the “gross indecency” statute was terminated. Turing’s pardon was won because of a petition launched on the internet and his accomplishments, but he’s just one of the victims of this stupid law, and the argument made against the pardon that “these acts were illegal at the time” just adds insult to the injury against them all. Of course they were illegal–but some laws are nothing more than the enshrinement of injustice, and the least we can do, after repealing them, is to apologize to everyone they’ve harmed.

So I was very pleased to learn that Cumberbatch has thrown all of his Oscar-nominee influence into getting an official pardon for everyone convicted under those laws; Stephen Fry has enthusiastically joined him. You can add your name to these more famous ones, as I did, at the petition site.

 

It’s the first day of Lent and I’ve decided that my practice this year will be to write daily on this blog. I have let it slip, and I miss the discipline of thought that it requires.

I made mental notes about Gravity back last fall when I found the one showing in San Francisco that fit between my drawing class and my time to take my daughter to music, at a small theater that only showed it in 2D. It being Monday afternoon, it was practically a private showing. If you haven’t seen the movie, you may want to skip this post, because here be spoilers.

 

I loved this movie. I know it drives people crazy who know and care what astronauts do. I’m sure I would froth at the mouth about all the mistakes in a movie about ministers, but since I am not particularly interested in astronauts or the proper procedures for maintenance of space telescopes or the International Space Station, I just enjoyed what the movie was really about, to this viewer. It isn’t supposed to be a documentary about space. To me, it’s about grief, and how difficult it is to return to daily life when all you want to do is float away and never feel anything again.

And before I even knew that, at the very first shot, I started to cry. There they were, little tiny people floating in this unimaginably large, indifferent expanse. As the introduction says, life in space is impossible. And then the moviemakers show us people in space. I thought, “That’s us! We’re all floating here in space for a tiny amount of time and then phut,” and I just stayed in that existential crisis for the following two hours. I thought that that was a different emotional issue than grief–me fussing about my own mortality instead of my never-absent dread that my daughter might precede me into death–but several months’ rumination on Gravity have made me realize that maybe they are really the same sorrow.

In the end, ironically enough, it is a very small movie, in the sense that it isn’t epic in scope but about a single person coping with a single event that is not newsworthy or noteworthy to anyone much except her. (I like small movies.) A woman’s young daughter has died. The woman, Ryan Stone, doesn’t know how to go on, or how to want to; she hasn’t touched the ground since. On earth, she achieves this by driving as much as possible, always moving. In space, maybe it’s easier to float, but maybe not; when we first see her, she is fighting nausea, and clearly her distress is not just physical. By the close of the movie, however, she wants to live. She digs her hands into the earth, grateful just to be here, and when she stands up on those shaky legs, the camera looks up at her as if at a colossus. With that shot, Cuarón is saying that Stone is heroic, and she is.

One critic couldn’t resist the pun, and wrote (safely after the winner was announced) about the Academy’s choice between “Gravity and gravitas,” the latter being represented by 12 Years a Slave. I can’t compare this movie to 12 Years a Slave or any of the other Best Picture nominees, because it’s the only one I’ve seen so far, but I cannot agree that Gravity lacks gravitas. The writers named it well. “Gravity” stands for one of the weightiest, most serious losses a person can endure. It is what tethers us to reality and all the pain it brings, rather than our floating in a half-existence. If you wanted to demonstrate gravity in the most prototypical way, you might drop a stone, the main character’s name. And, of course, “gravity” evokes the grave, in this movie about death and coping with loss. The daughter even died of gravity. The writers could have made the cause of her death drowning, or poisoning, or a car collision, but in one of their subtler details, they tell us: she fell. She fell to earth. It is a small movie, as I say, but a grave one, and a joyful one, too, because in the end Stone chooses life and is glad that she has.

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