Focus Offers Disturbing View of Mid-Century America

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The Colorado Freedom

Focus Offers Disturbing View of Mid-Century America

by Ari Armstrong, July 2, 2003

Focus is one of those movies I often picked up and looked over (it's now on video), but for some reason or other I always picked something else. Part of the problem is that the text on the case utterly fails to capture the essence of the story. Finally, though, I rented it -- and it changed my perception of mid-century America.

Having seen the movie, what now strikes me as most chilling about Nazi propaganda is that it pretty much reflects the racist views that were widespread in some segments of our own society. I don't think it ever struck me so forcefully before just how utterly ingrained racism was since the inception of our nation. Whether the victims were Native Americans, African Americans, Japanese, Hispanics, or Jews, ethnic minorities have regularly been abused, terrorized, and murdered right here from sea to shining sea.

Now, I don't for a second buy the leftist, postmodernist line that the United States is fundamentally corrupt or that power relations and group warfare are the penultimate political concerns. I appreciate the views of people like Dinesh D'Souza who point out it is "Western" culture that banned slavery and that has eventually given rise to a general revulsion of racism. No, I don't believe we've yet reached the "end of racism." Thankfully, though, most Americans view racism as fundamentally immoral.

Still, we can hardly hope to continue in our progress to wipe out racism -- and prevent it from rising up again -- unless we understand just how easily many of our ancestors slipped into racist modes of thinking and behavior.

Yet the film Focus is not overreaching: it addresses these grander issues very simply, through the story of one man on one city block. William H. Macy plays the lead, and through the role he rises to the top echelon of all-time greatest actors. He's truly superb in this challenging role. The rest of the cast is also excellent, including Laura Dern, who plays the love interest of Macy's character. The film is based on Arthur Miller's novel of the same name (which I haven't read).

The story begins in earnest when Macy' character purchases a pair of eye glasses. When he first wears them at home, his mother stares at him. "What!?" "You look Jewish," she replies. And it is not a good time even to look Jewish, according to some. It's not a film to be missed, and I wish I hadn't taken so long to see it.

* * * * *

Two other wonderful movies are Bend It Like Beckham (still in the art houses) and Real Women Have Curves (now on video). Each movie is a charmer in its own right, and both focus on a similar theme. A young woman fights gender roles and cultural pressures to make her own way in the world.

Bend It is a soccer movie set in England. (Beckham is a famous soccer player.) In the lead's Indian family, dating non-Indians is taboo, and women are expected to get married and start families. Certainly they are not supposed to play soccer. In Bend It you'll find plenty of warmly funny moments, and also some sad ones.

Real Women is set in California, and the lead is a young Hispanic/Latina woman whose high school teacher encouragies her to go to college. Her mother wants her to work in her sister's dress manufacturing shop. Her mother also regularly gives her a hard time about her weight.

I find the theme of achieving individuality in the face of social and family pressure very appealing. The casts are excellent in both films.

* * * * *

He's back, and I love him in Terminator 3. I feared it would be a tired sequel trying to cash in on the popularity of the Matrix, but T3 is a pretty good movie.

There's nothing deep about it. The theme of historical inevitability is obviously put out merely to explain why the damned robots (er, "cybernetic organisms") keep traveling back in time to "terminate" people. (The plot troubles of time travel are obvious.) But the simple story, though similar to the last one, progresses nicely, and the cast carries it off well enough. I really like Claire Danes, and she's great here.

What I especially like is that the writers added a humorous dimension without going over the top with it. In Bond films, I almost wince every time he offers another cornball one-liner. But Arnold's lines actually fit the story, and the humor is clever and subtle. (I mean, as subtle as can be hoped for in this genre.)

At the same time, the writers took some dark turns that surprised me.

I have mixed feelings about the "rise of the machines" line. Frankenstein and all sorts of stories since deal with the supposed inability of humans to control their technology. I'm basically pro-technology, though of course technology is often abused (especially by the state).

* * * * *

I heard with horror that Starship Troopers II is planned. Though I enjoyed Heinlein's novel, director Paul Verhoeven totally screwed it up. If he directs the sequel, I won't see it. (At least in the theaters.)

I recently read another Heinlein story, Citizen of the Galaxy. It's a great yarn about a boy who is sold into slavery -- and purchased by a beggar who hates slavery and treats the boy as a son.

I wish they'd turn Heinlein's better works into movies directed by somebody who can do them justice.

The Colorado Freedom