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by Bill Gibron

11 Dec 2008

Faith is a very tricky thing. Belief without a foundation in fact, or the possibility of proving either, gives religion its raison d’être, and skeptics their fodder for a hundred careful criticisms. Of course, no one takes into consideration the believer’s side of the situation. On the one hand, there’s the certainty of their conviction. They have no question about the existence of a God, the sacrifice of His son for our sins, and the ongoing presence of both in their daily life. Yet there are also moments of disbelief, times when dogma fails to offer up an explanation or rationale. It is this inherent element of conviction that stands at the center of Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize winning play, and oddly enough, it’s also a part of the overall experience for the viewer as well.

When he was accepted into St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx, Principal Sr. Aloysius thought that black student Donald Muller would be a problem. But she thought the issues would be between the boy and some bigoted students. But one day, after meeting up with Fr. Flynn in the rectory, Donald returns to newcomer Sr. James’ class with liquor on his breath. He’s also upset and shaken. Bringing her concerns to Sr. Aloysius, the old nun suspects the worst - that Fr. Flynn has been “inappropriate” with the boy. But there is a clear hierarchy within the Catholic Church, and even though she runs the school, Sr. Aloysius cannot confront the priest directly. When her discussions with the higher up become confrontational and contentious, the Sister seeks the advice of Donald’s hardworking mother. What she discovers puts everything into perspective while casting uncertainty on every element in the story - Donald’s motives, Fr. Flynn’s explanations, and Sr. Aloysius’s pursuit of both.

Doubt is not the first “meta” motion picture, but it’s a safe bet that it’s the only one that takes its name, it’s internal conflict, and the resolution of both as a literal fact. In his knotty, ambiguous narrative, John Patrick Shanley shuns outright pronouncements for questions left unanswered and plot threads purposefully left hanging. The characters all exhibit the title tendency, though some avoid it until the very last scene and lines of dialogue. And yet Shanley wants to push the interactive envelope further, suggesting the film (like his play) is actually a work in two of three acts. The final segment comes once the credits roll and the audience heads home to discuss. There will be lots of investigation and interpretation about Doubt‘s finale, especially in light of our passive-aggressive predatory view of backdoor religious dealings. But whether or not we convict the individuals at the center of the story is not the key to Doubt‘s dilemma. What it says about us as human beings may be the movie’s most devastating statement.

Molestation and homosexuality are at the center of Shanley’s themes, but per the early ‘60s backdrop, both are held in hush-hush communicative contempt. Sister Aloysius responds to every rejoinder about her accusations with a standard “you know what I’m saying”, and even when another character calls out her own son’s situation, words like “gay” are never spoken. Without spoiling much, the crux of Doubt‘s plotline asks us to figure out why an older man would favor a younger, sensitive black child. There is no mention of sex or orientation, no evidence of wrongdoing except for the telltale odor of alcohol on the child’s breath. Everything is rumor and innuendo, past indiscretions and the appearance of impropriety dropped into a fog of unproven allegations and misunderstood motives. When the movie ends, we have even less clarity than during the stunning confrontations between nun and priest.

If it offers anything clear and apparent, it’s the hardworking grandeur of Streep and Hoffman’s performances. Amy Adams is left out of many of the main arguments, and while missed, it’s a good guess that she’d have a hard time holding her own here. Both of these able Oscar winners bring so much passion, so much anger, so much emotion to their tet-a-tet’s that we wish the entire film was nothing but debates. Shanley’s writing is focused and firm, never giving away too much without flying off onto unimportant tangents. As Fr. Flynn slowly realizes what Sr. Aloysius is suggesting, the look of hurt and hatred in Hoffman’s eyes is unforgettable. Equally, Streep sells us on her old school view of the world. She’s not really as mean as she makes herself out to be. Instead, her hardness comes from a life of loss, and the stone cold strength of her convictions. She knows she is right, and so far, nothing has proven her wrong.

Going back to Shanley’s own suggestion about Doubt being divided into three distinct parts, it’s obvious that sections one and two are the most potent. The beginning of the film takes a while to find its cinematic sea legs. We stumble around among various disconnected events, young boys being bad as their female classmates are read the standard religious riot act about “improper” dress and attitudes toward boys. One guesses we are supposed to see Flynn’s progressive nature and Sr. James discomfort with her order’s discipline based decision making in these sequences. But it’s only when Hoffman handles his character’s amazing sermons that we see any symbolic link to the rest of Doubt‘s designs. Perhaps the incompleteness comes from Shanley’s need to open up the play for the big screen. Maybe he underestimated the power of his last act affronts.

There will be some who see the ending as a massive, mannered cop-out. They will want closure, a consensus as to who or what was the boogie man in the closet (or out, so to speak) and hear someone say something to ease their easily manipulated and Dateline driven mind. Part of the success of Doubt onstage must have come from Shanley’s shadowy avoidance of finality, giving those callous contemporary theatergoers a dose of their own narrow minded medicine. The narrative makes it very clear that Flynn could be a victim here, a would-be non-warlock in a witch hunt, so to speak. Yet nothing within the final fifteen minutes suggests that kind of purity. Indeed, the best thing about Doubt could be the fact that everyone is guilty - either of over reacting, or not reacting at all. And don’t be surprised if you feel equally culpable when all is said and done.

by PopMatters Staff

11 Dec 2008

Dedicated fans drove over ninety minutes from Providence to see Mike Doughty perform at Hamden, Connecticut’s The Space for it was the closest show to their city. Doughty was formerly the front man of Soul Coughing, a unique ‘90s alternative band that, like Cake, was hard to categorize as the songs often contained jazz elements and absurd lyrics. While still with the band, Doughty recorded tracks that he would later release as Skittish (his debut solo LP) after the band’s breakup. Since going solo, Doughty has consistently toured the country playing acoustic shows and has also released a handful of albums, EPs, and live recordings, building up his loyal following. While still performing acoustically, Doughty has been touring with his friend, Andrew “Scrap” Livingston, who provided backup on cello and electric guitar. They continue to captivate audiences with their intimate performances and, at least in Hamden, also answered audience questions from a jar.

Over the course of his 21-song set, Doughty almost covered his entire career, including a few hits from the three Soul Coughing albums (“Soft Serve” and “Janine”), a cover (Kenny Rogers “The Gambler”), and songs from his solo albums, plus a new one called “Nectarine Part II”. However when someone asked him to play songs from his even earlier days (Mod Five? though no reference is found on the internet), he did not remember any but was astonished that someone knew those works.

Unifying rollicking guitar strumming with flowing singing, Doughty creates genuinely catchy tunes. With his quirky and sometimes personal lyrics, he is also a very literate singer-songwriter as well. (Though, during “Unsingable Name”, Doughty forgot some lyrics, asked for someone to remind him what they were and then laughed as he proceeded to trip over them again.) Over the nearly two hour show, the audience’s enthusiasm was remarkably high, though a particularly boisterous woman caused consternation by shouting during almost every break. Fortunately, she was silenced after someone loudly acknowledged her as the girl in back who won’t shut up.

Interspersed throughout the songs was a question and answer segment, per Scrap’s request that the audience write some and place them in a jar. Some people wrote song requests such as the oddball “More Bacon than the Pan Can Handle” that Doughty rejected (probably because it contains samples) while others inquired about any possible Soul Coughing reunions. He was often asked about his favorites: candy (grape Laffy Taffy); poem (Alan Dugan’s This Morning Here); and his musical heroes (John Lee Hooker, Billy Bragg, and Ani DiFranco). While Doughty switched guitars, he let Scrap take a stab at the questions and by the end, the two had emptied the jar. All things considered, Mike Doughty is an artist who truly can become a fan’s favorite due to his good shows, catchy music, liberal taping policy, genuine friendliness, and witty humor.

by Rob Horning

11 Dec 2008

At the Mind Hacks blog, Vaughan Bell links to a study whose name is self-explanatory: “The Role of Medical Language in Changing Public Perceptions of Illness.” Medical language, it seems, is deployed to make humdrum conditions more exploitable in the market. Conditions like baldness can be rebranded with medical jargon that has the effect of making the condition seem more acute, more unhealthful. We take diseases more seriously if they sound complicated and Latinish. Patent-medicine hawkers and nostrum makers have of course taken advantage of this for years—using obfuscation and crypto-erudition to cause alarm and insecurity—so it’s no surprise to see the efficacy of the tactics confirmed in research. And of course, one of the triumphs of modern advertising was the invention of “halitosis”—the semantic means of medicalizing bad breath.

Capitalism thrives by fostering new needs; luckily, new worries also qualify. In 1936, Printer’s Ink, an advertising trade journal, began to keep a list of diseases invented through marketing. It makes good business sense to hit people where they are most vulnerable and potentially most ignorant. Jargonizing health discourse has the neat effect of seeming to educate consumers while actually confusing them and making them more manipulable. (Perhaps all jargon serves this function.) It’s subtraction through addition.

Bell sums up the larger ramifications of the research well:

Pharmaceutical companies often promote the benefits of their product, but they also regularly attempt to change our understanding of the problem itself, so the use of their medication seems the most sensible option.
However, there are many other players in the public discussion of illness and certain ideas about causes, symptoms and treatments are often pushed by people because it fits in with other agendas they have.
This is particularly relevant for scientific theories and it is no accident that many of the most significant public medical debates in recent years have been over the acceptance of certain explanations - such as the role of the MMR vaccine in autism, the role of neurotransmitters in mental illness, the role of genetics in obesity.
There is no explanation of illness independent of culture and an understanding of how popular ideas influence our personal medical beliefs is an essential part of understanding medicine itself.

In an article from Stay Free, Carrie McLaren drew the requisite conclusions about the commercial persuasion industry’s effect on that “culture” and those “popular ideas.”

when it comes to advertising, the more symptoms–and the more noticeable, painful, and embarrasing the symptoms–the better, because the easier it is to sell to consumers; that is, the more likely the illness will be self-diagnosed. And drugs for self-diagnosed ills–allergies, weight-reduction rather than cholesterol or blood pressure–are those seeing the greatest boost from commercials. Eskimos may have 14 words for snow, but we’ve now got just as many for allergy symptoms. In the same way that the availability of a drug such as Prozac can define an illness, televisibility now figures in…. It is, in other words, eerily fitting for drugs to be sold as consumer products, for products–whether cookies, diet drinks, or cigarettes–have long been sold as drugs, as magical cures…. Consuming, in other words, is our placebo.

This is what makes consumerism so tenacious—it makes us feel better without fulfilling any of its promises. It’s essentially a means for circulating promises; the products themselves are, in a sense, by-products—just props for the healing daydreams.

by PopMatters Staff

11 Dec 2008

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
I got a little choked up when I saw Man on Wire, the documentary about Philippe Petit. He’s the man who walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers the year they were erected. It’s the most poetic movie I’ve seen in a long time. Oh, and I almost found myself crying when I went to see Ghost Town, the Ricky Gervais vehicle, in Chicago last week. I guess a good hangover can make you a little emotionally vulnerable.

2. The fictional character most like you?
I’d like to say George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life). Maybe we can throw in a dash of David Addison (Bruce Willis on Moonlighting).

3. The greatest album ever?
Today it’s a toss up between Beggar’s Banquet and Let It Be (The Replacements’ one). I’ll say side two of Tattoo You. That sets the right mood for me these days. Best album ever is just an impossible question.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wars for sure. Han Solo was a hell of a guy. I could never relate to anybody on Star Trek—except for when Spock laid the hammer down on the guy with the boombox in Star Trek IV. I enjoyed that.

5. Your ideal brain food?
Anything new. The less I fall into routine, the better. Variety keeps the brain strong.

by Evan Sawdey

11 Dec 2008

 

1. Justice: “DVNO”

 

2. The Chemical Brothers: “Midnight Madness”

 

3. Weezer: “Pork & Beans”

 

4. Feist: “I Feel It All”

 

5. Pink “So What”

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