List: Movies About Courtesy

Posted on September 30, 2009 at 3:47 pm

As I noted last week in my discussion of the recent outbreak of rudeness, courtesy is a neglected virtue, often dismissed as tangential or even hypocritical. But courtesy is sincere, based on a recognition of the dignity deserved by all people, and it is crucially important, requiring us to be sensitive to the feelings of others, and to show respect for them and for ourselves. Some movies teach us that being treated with courtesy can be a transforming experience, a lesson well worth family discussion. And this is particularly important because so many of today’s movies seem to depict lack of courtesy as somehow brave, honest, or funny.

In “To Sir With Love,” it is not being treated courteously by the teacher that changes the way the students think about themselves and each other as much as it is being required to change their behavior and treat each other with courtesy. In the delightful “Babe,” our porcine hero becomes the greatest shepherd of all time by asking the sheep to move politely instead of nipping at their heels. “My Fair Lady” has one of the most famous exchanges on the subject of courtesy in all of literature, when Eliza explains that Colonel Pickering treats a flower girl like a duchess, and Professor Higgins treats a duchess like a flower girl. As Americans, we are inclined to agree when Higgins says that the great thing is to have one manner for all people, but we also agree with Eliza when she says she learned more from Pickering’s courteous manners than from Higgins elocution lessons.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is a movie that resonates on many levels and has much to teach us about many subjects. But I recommend watching it at least once with attention to its emphasis on courtesy, which serves as a beacon in the most troubled and unsettling circumstances.

Babe “This is a tale about an unprejudiced heart, and how it changed our valley forever.” So begins this lovely story about a pig who lives his dream (and saves his life) by learning to herd sheep. Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) wins the little pig at a fair. Back at his farm, Babe is adopted by Fly, the sheepdog, who treats him like one of her puppies. Babe learns the ways of the farm and the barnyard, and is very distressed to hear from Maa the sheep that she thinks Fly is cruel, and even more distressed to learn from Ferdinand the duck that humans eat animals. Hoggett enters Babe into competition at the fair, submitting him as the best sheepdog. At first, the sheep at the fair won’t listen to Babe, but when Rex finds out the sheep password (by promising to be kind and respectful to sheep in the future), Babe uses it, along with his unique style of courteous friendliness, to manage the sheep so brilliantly that he wins the competition.

This movie is a delight for the eye, heart, and spirit. And it deals very well with many important issues. The movie is really a tale of two “unprejudiced hearts.” And one of its themes is the importance of kindness–Hoggett’s to Babe, Fly’s to Babe, Babe’s to the sheep, and ultimately Rex’s to Babe, and how it transforms both the giver and the recipient.

My Fair Lady On a rainy night in Covent Garden, Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) meets Colonel Pickering (Wilfred Hyde-White), a fellow linguistics scholar, as he is correctly identifying accents of all those around him. Offhandedly commenting that in England people are defined by their accents, he says that he could even teach a poor Cockney flower girl to speak like a lady. The next day, the flower girl (Audrey Hepburn) comes to see him, to offer to pay Higgins for language lessons. She wants to be “a lady in a flower shop,” and that requires a more bourgeois accent and manner. Higgins proposes to teach her to talk like a society lady and bets Pickering that he can pass her off. This musical was based on “Pygmalion,” written in 1912 by George Bernard Shaw. In this era, and in this country, it is hard to imagine how genuinely revolutionary it was for Shaw to say that the only difference between the classes was accent and demeanor. It is worth discussing the way that language and accent defined people in this era, and asking children about the conclusions people draw from accents today.

This story has its parallels to Cinderella; it has its climax at a ball, which our heroine attends in borrowed finery. But Higgins and Pickering are far from fairy godfathers. Their interest is not in rewarding Eliza for a virtuous life; they want to show off their own achievement, and play something of a joke on high society. And Higgins is not a prince. In a way he reveals the princess inside of Eliza, though he never intended to, or even took the time to imagine it to be possible.

One of Shaw’s most important insights in this story is of the role of courtesy, and the different characters’ ideas of its importance provide an excellent opportunity for discussion. Pickering’s treating Eliza like a lady has as much to do with her becoming one as all of the training about diction and appropriate topics for conversation. As she says, he treats a flower girl like a duchess. When she says that Higgins treats a duchess like a flower girl, Higgins says that “the great thing” is to treat everyone the same way. That may be, but Pickering is able to treat everyone (even Eliza at her Cockney-ist) with equal courtesy, instead of equal brusqueness. Mrs. Higgins is also courteous to everyone (with the exception of her son); her concern over having Eliza at Ascot is at least as much for Eliza’s comfort as her own.

To Kill a Mockingbird The story is about prejudice and injustice, seen through the eyes of a little girl, the daughter of a lawyer who defends a black man against a trumped up rape charge in 1930s Georgia. The lawyer, Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), is the essence of quiet dignity, integrity, and courtesy. His efforts to teach his son and daughter the values he believes in, which the community they live in does not always honor, are moving and inspiring.

There is a great deal of emphasis in the movie on courtesy and sensitivity to the feelings of others. In the first scene, Atticus tells Scout not to embarrass a client named Walter Cunningham, when he comes by to drop off some food as payment for legal services. Later, when Scout brings Walter, Jr. home for lunch, she is told not to say anything when he pours syrup all over his food. Atticus treats mean old Mrs. Dubose with gallantry, disarming her. Atticus’ courtesy in cross-examining Mayella Ewell is so unfamiliar to her that she assumes it is some new sort of insult. The black people in the courtroom balcony stand as a courtesy to Atticus. And Sheriff Heck Tate explains why the official record will show that Bob Ewell fell on his knife. He wants to protect Boo “with his shy ways” from the well-meaning gratitude (and curiosity) of the “good ladies” of the town.

To Sir, With Love Released the same year as “Up the Down Staircase” this is also the story of a new teacher in an inner-city school, although this time the city is London, and the teacher is Sidney Poitier. An outsider by virtue of his country (West Indies) more than his color, Poitier becomes impatient with the insolence and narrow-mindedness of his students and imposes his own set of rules, foremost of which is courtesy to him and to each other. At first, they are embarrassed and awkward, as though they don’t want to believe that they could deserve such treatment. The other teachers make it quite clear that they don’t think the students deserve it. But soon the exaggerated sarcasm of “Miss Dare” and “Sir” falls away, and we see a superb example of the transforming nature of being treated with — and treating others with — respect.

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Three Movies Examine Our Struggle to Understand God

Posted on September 29, 2009 at 2:59 pm

Three new and very different movies have one thing in common — they all ask their characters and their audiences to think about the nature of God and faith. This week we have a perky romantic comedy with Ricky Gervais and Jennifer Garner called “The Invention of Lying.” As the title suggests, it is about a world in which everyone tells the literal, concrete truth all the time. And then one man figures out that he can lie, and that since no one else is aware that lies even exist, he can pretty much get away with everything. Since no one lies, everyone is completely gullible. So much is clear from the trailers. But Entertainment Weekly reports that there is a more controversial element to the film and that one of the “lies” the Gervais character comes up with is the idea of God.
Gervais, who also co-wrote and directed the film, has responded to concerns from bloggers.

1. No one has seen the film.

2. Even if the film suggests there is no God, it is a fictional world. One of my favourite films is ‘It’s a wonderful life’ and at no time am I offended by the suggestion in this wonderful work of fiction that there is a God.

3. If the film was not set in a fictional world and suggested there is no God then that’s fine too, as it is anyone’s right not to believe in God.

4. By suggesting there is no God you are not singling out Christianity.

5. Not believing in God cannot be blasphemous. Blasphemy is acknowledging a God to insult or offend etc.

6. Even if it was blasphemous, which it isn’t, then that’s OK too due to a little god I like called “freedom of speech.” That said, I am not trying to offend anyone. That would be a waste of such a privilege.

7. I am an atheist, but this is not atheist propaganda. When creating an imaginary world you have to make certain decisions. We decided also that there would be no surrealist art, no racism, no flattery, no fiction, no metaphor, and no supernatural. However, we decided that apart from that one “lying gene”, humans evolved with everything else as we have it today. Joy, hope, ambition, ruthlessness, greed, lust, anger, jealousy, sadness, and grief. It’s just a film. If any of the themes in it offend you or bore you, or just don’t make sense to you, you should put everything right when you make a film.

I really hope everyone enjoys the film and keeps an open mind. I believe in peace on Earth, and good will to all men. I do as I would be done by, and believe that forgiveness is one of the greatest virtues. I just don’t believe I will be rewarded for it in heaven. That’s all.

I have a different take, which I will discuss in my upcoming review.
Perhaps an even more unexpected place for a discussion of God and faith than a comedy is in Michael Moore’s latest documentary, “Capitalism: A Love Story.” Moore is well-known for his attacks on the Bush administration (“Farenheit 911”), insurance companies (“Sicko”), and our treatment of guns and violence (“Bowling for Columbine”). In this new film, he takes on the financial crisis. His argument turns out to be based not as much in economics as in his own Catholic faith. He even interviews the priest who performed his wedding ceremony to help make his point that the current system is not just bad policy; it is not WWJD. The media often creates the impression that faith-based politics are right-wing and it is provocative and refreshing to see a different point of view.
And then there is a movie that is going to be difficult to put in any category, because it is the new film from the Coen brothers, who are masters of genre — both evoking and transcending them. According to the New York Times, their new film “A Serious Man” “is both a Job-like parable of Jewish angst in a 1960s Midwestern suburb and a bleakly antic meditation on divine intent, the certainty of uncertainty and the mysteries of Jefferson Airplane lyrics.
The film’s central character is a scientist who seeks the advice of three rabbis to help him find meaning and purpose. That makes this film unusual in two respects — the portrayal of Jewish theology and the portrayal of clergy as a place to go for guidance.
And I am glad to see movies providing some guidance as well, by engaging us in very different ways about issues so profound and pervasive that it is only through a variety of approaches we can begin to understand what we believe.

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Posted on September 29, 2009 at 8:00 am

“Physician, heal yourself!”

Henry Carter (Kevin Spacey) is the best-selling author of a book called Happiness Now and a Los Angeles psychiatrist to glamorous and highly successful people. But he is a mess, self-medicating to the point of obliterating himself with drugs and alcohol. He walks off in the middle of a talk show interview about his book. He walks out of an intervention from his friends and family. He is trying to walk out of his life. His patients want answers, reassurance, a sense of order and safety. But the usual assurances and gentle openings, “I know how hard that is” or “Do you know why you feel this way?” do not seem to work. And a devastating loss in his own life has left him in greater need than any of them.

Spacey is mesmerizing as the “compassion fatigued” Carter. The pain and anger of his character are palpable, as is his heart-wrenching frustration at not being able to stop feeling for himself and his patients. The cast is filled with brilliant performers who find subtlety and heart in otherwise stock characters (out of control rock star, would-be writer, shark agent, troubled teen) complex and sympathetic. Dallas Roberts (the agent), Pell James (the agent’s assistant), and KeKe Palmer of “Akeela and the Bee” (the teen) are pitch-perfect. If writer Thomas Moffett makes the mistake of falling too much in love with his characters to let anything too terrible happen to them, it is understandable, because we do, too.

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The Wizard of Oz

Posted on September 29, 2009 at 8:00 am

The 70th anniversary of this all-time classic is being celebrated with a beautiful new DVD release, a great chance for the family to sit down and watch what is probably the all-time greatest family film again.
Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) lives in Kansas with her aunt and uncle and her dog, Toto. Mean Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) swears she will have Toto taken away. Auntie Em and Uncle Henry support Dorothy, but they are too distracted by the coming tornado to pay much attention to her. Dorothy dreams of a place “over the rainbow” where everything is beautiful, “troubles melt like lemon drops” and “the dreams that you dream really do come true.” She starts to run away to protect Toto, but is sent back home by the kindly Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan), a traveling fortune-teller.

When the tornado arrives, Dorothy is outside the shelter. She goes to her room, where she is hit on the head by a piece of wood torn loose by the wind. The whole house rises, and is carried away by the tornado.

The house lands with a crash, and when she opens the door, she finds she has landed in the colorful world of Oz (the movie, black and white until this point, becomes technicolor). Her house has landed on the Wicked Witch of the East, killing her, and the tiny Munchkins celebrate Dorothy as a great heroine. Their friend Glinda the good witch (Billie Burke) arrives and gives her the Wicked Witch’s magic ruby slippers, just as the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) arrives to take them. The Wicked Witch of the East was her sister. Furious, she swears revenge. Dorothy wants to go home and is told to seek out the Wizard of Oz, who lives in the Emerald City, for help.

On the way to the Emerald City, she meets a talking Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) who wants a brain, a Tin Woodsman (Jack Haley) who longs for a heart, and a cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) who wants courage. They all join her, to seek the help of the Wizard. At the Emerald City, the Wizard at first refuses to see them, then finally tells them they must earn their wishes by bringing him the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West. They are captured by the Witch’s flying monkeys, and just as she is about to kill them, Dorothy douses her with water, trying to protect the Scarecrow from fire, and the witch melts.

They return to the Emerald City only to find that the Wizard cannot help them. He is a fraud, just “the man behind the curtain” whose terrifying displays of smoke and light hid a “humbug” who had no magical powers at all. But he is able to show the Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, and Lion that they really did have what they were seeking all the time, and he promises to take Dorothy back to Kansas in his hot air balloon.

Toto jumps out of the balloon’s basket. Dorothy runs after him and misses the balloon launch. But, just as Dorothy despairs of ever going home, Glinda arrives and shows Dorothy that she had the means of getting home all the time. Back in Kansas, Dorothy wakes up to find her aunt and uncle, the farmhands, and Professor Marvel (who strongly resemble the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, Lion, and Wizard), and tells them that “there’s no place like home.”

This movie is an ideal family film, superb in every aspect, with outstanding art direction, music, and performances. It is still as fresh and engrossing as it was in 1939, and improves with every viewing. If you ever have a chance to see it in on a big screen, in a theater with a good sound system, you will enjoy it even more.

It is hard to imagine what it would have been like with the original intended cast, including Shirley Temple as Dorothy and Buddy Ebsen as the Tin Woodsman. But 20th Century Fox would not loan its top star, and Ebsen was hospitalized when he inhaled the aluminum dust in the Tin Woodsman’s make-up. Judy Garland is a perfect Dorothy — vulnerable, sensitive, completely believable. On the brink of leaving childhood, her dreams of a place “over the rainbow” are in part a yearning to escape the concerns of adulthood.

There is something especially satisfying about the way that the main characters find what they need within themselves. Talk with children about the way that the Scarecrow demonstrates his intelligence, the Tin Woodman demonstrates his heart, and the Lion demonstrates his courage. Even the humbug Wizard finds that he had the means to go home all the time. Dorothy, who in the first part of the movie runs away from home to try to solve her problems, spends the rest of the movie trying to get back. Even if the story is just a dream (in the book, it is a real adventure), this makes a great deal of emotional sense, a way of working through her inner conflicts.

It is also worth talking about the scene in which Dorothy and her friends disregard the Wizard’s plea to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” and discover that he is really just an ordinary man. This can be a touchstone or metaphor for many kinds of challenges children face. It can help them recognize that the overpowering figures in their lives (parents, teachers, adults, sports figures) are just imperfect human beings. And it can also help them recognize attempts, by themselves as well as others, to distract people in hopes of hiding our imperfection and vulnerability.

NOTE: There are a number of different scenes in this movie that may be scary for children. Many adults still remember the flying monkeys or Dorothy looking into the crystal ball and seeing her aunt turn into the witch. Parents should talk to children about the story before seeing the movie, and watch with them to gauge their reactions.

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Michael Moore on God, Faith, and Capitalism

Posted on September 28, 2009 at 2:35 pm

Tomorrow night, I’ll be interviewing Michael Moore at a premiere screening of his new film, “Capitalism: A Love Story.” It comes 20 years after his “Roger & Me” changed the rules for documentaries in every category. He did not pretend to be balanced; he did not hesitate to be irreverent, even laugh-out-loud funny, and — related to the first two points — he shattered box office records. “Roger & Me” focused on the devastation in Moore’s home town of Flint, Michigan, in an economic downturn that seems modest by today’s standards. And Flint shows up again, in a twist that will give the audience goosebumps. Here is Moore on CNN this week. I’ll report on our session on Wednesday.

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