Sunday, November 16, 2008

What to Watch

Last night we watched “To Kill a Mockingbird” because we were in the mood for a scary movie. That may seem a surprising criteria for that selection but I suggest you consider watching it if you haven’t done so in a while and consider what’s truly dramatically frightening versus the dreary and flat grand guignol that passes for scary in most recent films. I sometimes think that in this day and age film and television, the CSI series in particular, have made us as tough as 2nd year medical students who’ve passed Gross Anatomy when it comes to gore. As such, it’s ironic that splashing blood is still used to frighten an audience instead of more effective, dramatic techniques. In contrast, TKAM explores truly frightening things in both a child’s and an adult’s world. There are the child’s terrors: the strange neighbors or the creaking of the trees on a summer night and for a adults there’s racism. Even more terrible is that both kinds interweave and interact. The execution of that element more than anything is why the book and film have retained their hallowed place in American fiction and film.

So, we picked TKAM because we wanted to watch something really scary. Obviously, it was also interesting in light of recent events. There are the obvious societal comparisons between now, 1964 when it was made and 1932, which is when it takes place. A more interesting comparison is that we’ve just elevated a lawyer to the presidency whom I expect aspires to the wisdom and morality of Atticus Finch, Harper Lee’s hero. We’re told the president-elect is particularly fond of Lincoln, and the manifold allusions in Obama’s speeches, sometimes subtle, occasionally obvious, support that. But he is also fond of compromise, as Lincoln was, and, of course, Atticus Finch. Another interesting attribute is empathy. Atticus Finch tells Scout that you can’t really understand someone until you “put on his boots and walk around in them.” It’s been a while since we’ve had a major political figure who identified that skill as a necessary virtue as Obama has.

This morning I watched the President-Elect’s first weekly youtube video address. I was disappointed. There were only only a few sentences with actionable substance, (his call for the Congress to pass a down payment on a stimulus package and to aid the automobile industry). I empathize with the leadership complexity he faces as he has not yet taken office. Nevertheless, it’s important that his weekly addresses be concrete and meaningful as he prepares to take action. Perhaps, he should have considered simply telling us what he did this week.

Last week the news was full of articles about the Republican meetings and soul searching to rebuild and re-center their party. It seems to me that in spite of their victory, the Democrats need to be doing some of the same kind of work. There are still many missing details the absence of which could lead to missteps early in the next administration. Some historians feel that Lincoln didn’t truly find his stride until the emancipation proclamation. President-elect Obama faces daunting challenges and has the mandate of a significant majority of Americans. Now he needs to put “foundations beneath his castles in the air,” to use Thoreau’s metaphor, and communicate it plainly to the American people.