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Race, Family, and Song in Three Recent Films
Well, I realize I’ve been failing you by not sharing my views on the top films. My remedial effort will begin with three I saw in the last couple of days.
August: Osage County has quite a wonderful beginning, featuring Sam Shepard playing an alcoholic poet quoting T.S. Eliot. Unfortunately, the Shepard character commits suicide early on, and it becomes all too easy to wonder how he lasted so long. His family gathers for his funeral, revealing one inconvenient truth after another about one another. Everyone is worse off—really, psychologically decimated—by the end of the film. The Shepard character’s wife, played by Meryl Streep, gets more and more thoroughly repulsive, while, in my opinion, having trouble staying in any particular character. That would be almost okay if she were consistently really witty or something, but she ain’t that smart or funny (or the script isn’t). This film may have some kind of “subtext,” but the “text” is really, really anti-family. One lesson: If you stay at home and care for your mom, you’ll end up falling in (romantic) love with and almost marrying your loser brother.
The acting in August, with the exception of Streep and beginning with Julia Roberts, is pretty fantastic, I have to admit. And there are some good lines: Query: “Are you supposed to be smoking?” The Streep character’s response: “Nobody is supposed to be smoking.”
I also saw Twenty Feet from Stardom, which is a documentary about the rise and fall of great African-American girl backup singers. It’s as good as documentaries get—full of both memorable music and fascinating history. We learn about how “Gimme Shelter” depends for its haunting impression of depth on one of those singers, and how the singularly joyous and defiant sound of “Sweet Home Alabama” depends on a lot of them (ironically enough). For the most part, this film isn’t about how these hugely gifted and talented women were oppressed, but how they were respected and often well compensated for their uncanny ability to supply what other (usually lesser) artists needed, especially white artists who want to sound black. In more than one case, these women got real shots at being solo artists, but it turned out their records didn’t click with the public. As Sting sagely says in the film, being a star depends less on talent than circumstances and a kind of self-confident vanity about the importance of one’s own sound.
What caused the fall of girl singers? TECHNOLOGY! Their contribution was always, to begin with, to make the tune sound on key or, as Randy used to say on “American Idol,” not “pitchy.” Now technological tweaking can to do that for pretty much any recorded voice, even Taylor Swift’s. Just to remind you: The most famous of the backup singers is Darlene Love, thanks to the efforts of admirers from David Letterman to Bruce Springsteen (not to mention her magnificent stage presence and sound). She actually has had considerable solo success and is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I finally saw The Butler, which has the features of both an edifying family film and a kind of political documentary. To begin with, Forest Whitaker (as the legendary White House butler) and Oprah (as his wife) turn what could easily be stick-figure roles into fleshed out characters, and I would have nominated them both for the big awards. There are a lot of carping criticisms that could be made of this film as art and as history. BUT the narrative of the Butler from the tyranny of the cotton fields to the White House and to a kind of deep understanding of the personal price he paid by spending his life showing one face to his family and friends and another to his white employers is quite compelling.
Not only that, there’s a fine moment in which Martin Luther King Jr. gives a little homily from a Memphis hotel room about the dignity of the African-American butler, who, by being trustworthy, skillful, and endlessly diligent, defies and so overcomes the nasty racial stereotypes. The butler, King concludes, is subversive, and we can add to that subversiveness his loyal and loving care for his family in a beautiful home. The butler, the film also shows us, doesn’t really come into own or achieve full dignity until he demands and receives appropriate compensation for his service, and until he affirms as his own the political struggle of his people.
The film also presents in a kind of quasi-documentary way the political movement in America—sometimes led and sometimes resisted from the White House—to full political equality for African Americans. It would be easy to quibble that the presentation of each president is somewhat too stereotypical. I’ll leave you with one quibble: The Kennedys’ (John and Robert) contribution is somewhat overrated, as is the political significance of their change of heart. The contribution of Lyndon Johnson, who did more for civil rights than other American presidents, is underrated, and he is needlessly degraded by being presented as dictating policy while struggling on the toilet. (I know he actually did that on occasion, but that isn't what should be remembered if you only get to see him for a few minutes.)
Johnson was a very aggressive president. He fought three wars: in Vietnam, against poverty, and for the federal enforcement of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment—for civil and especially voting rights. Even we conservatives have to admit that one for three, in this case, ain’t all bad.
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.