Rand Richards Cooper

Rand Richards Cooper, one of Commonweal's film critics, is the author of two works of fiction, The Last To Go and Big as Life.

By this author

What's in a Name?

David Brooks wrote recently in the Times about what he calls “The Robert E. Lee Problem.” The column assesses the implications of scrubbing symbols of the Confederacy from the South and elsewhere. By now the Confederate battle flag has come down from the South Carolina statehouse and elsewhere (I’m fascinated by the tipping-point dynamics of this move -- once Walmart gets on board, you know the thing is irreversible). But what about other symbols and figures that may bear a similarly odious taint?

Among the historical figures dear to the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee is paramount – and the map of the South is dotted with sites bearing his name. Brooks notes that Lee was, in his private life, a man of rectitude, intelligence and charm. Yet he joined the slave-owning insurgency, betrayed his oath of duty as an officer, owned nearly 200 slaves himself, and led the forces of a rebellion that triggered the deaths of 750,000 Americans. Should he come down, along with the Stars and Bars?

Brooks says yes. “Every generation has a duty to root out the stubborn weed of prejudice from the culture,” he writes. “We do that, in part, through expressions of admiration and disdain.” He goes on to recommend removing Lee’s name from “most schools, roads and other institutions.”

I lived for years in Germany, among places and institutions dedicated to opponents and victims of the Nazis – all those Bonhoeffer Platzes and Sophie-Schollstrassen, streets and schools named for the rejected and reviled, the murdered and the martyred. There were no Himmler Parks to be found anywhere. Nor would anyone expect there to be. When a country is vanquished, or a despised ruling power toppled, the transitions of memorialization are simple: the statues come down. In a civil war, the challenge can be more complicated – especially one, like ours, in which a high premium was placed on national political reconciliation, and certain core conflicts and resentments were never worked out. 

Key Changes

I found myself wincing at a recent article in the Times, titled “The Slow Extinction of Keys in a Digital World,” reporting on the dwindling use of traditional car keys and their replacement by various digital devices. The article describes the efforts of Tesla, BMW and other upscale car manufacturers to develop iPhone apps that let you unlock the car, start the engine, turn up the AC, and so on.

And I think, no, not keys!

I’ve often noted this instinct in myself, and a corresponding paradox: liberal in my political views, I’m temperamentally conservative in my approach to daily life. (Turns out it’s a fairly common paradox, and vice versa as well.) Put bluntly, I can’t stand change. All too often, my secret plea to the world boils down to a high-school yearbook banality: Don’t change! Stay as you are!

And change, of course, is life.

At least regarding technology, this aversion to change is clearly tied to aging. Anxiety about functioning in a world ever full of new gadgetry is a hallmark of middle age, especially in a youth-glorifying and technologically dynamic culture like ours. I recall my astonishment, twenty-five years ago, when my father – who was sixty at the time -- mentioned that he didn’t use ATMs. I asked why not.

“I don’t know how they work,” he said, sheepishly.

I was incredulous. “Dad, you’re a brain surgeon!” And took him to the nearest ATM and showed him how to use it.

But there’s also your sense of yourself in your world, in your life, and how you engage it, not so much functionally as existentially. The temperamental conservative wants the world to stay as it is – even, or perhaps especially, in the trivial, physical furnishings and realities that make up the dailiness of one’s life. Brand names and packaging, who’s on the ten dollar bill, state license plates, the musical theme introducing the nightly news, and on and on. Stay as you are!

Trans America

Transgender issues have loomed large these past months. In May a series of editorials in The New York Times, titled “The Quest for Transgender Equality,” presented stories of transgender Americans as narratives of personal struggle and liberation, ringingly evoking the civil-rights struggles that are centerpieces of contemporary liberalism. Then came the rollout of Bruce Jenner’s new identity as Caitlyn, with all the attendant hoopla.

I move in liberal-progressive circles where these breakthroughs for trans people are hailed with unanimous approval. Yes, there may be a dissenting note here and there (e.g., Eleanor Burkitt’s dyspeptic op-ed, “What Makes a Woman?”), but only over peripheral issues, like whether the particular image Jenner chose for her Vanity Fair cover, evoking a Playboy bunny from the 1960s, insulted feminists. The underlying notion – that changing one’s gender identification is a liberation to be celebrated – is never challenged. Indeed, if you do challenge it, you risk being labeled a hater.

I doubt there’s a single issue that makes me feel a wearier sense of confusion, and in some ways ideological exclusion, than that of transgender life. Being so far apart from other liberal/progressives makes me wince. In late April, listening to a segment of NPR’s On Point about Jenner, I found myself uncomfortably bristling at the self-congratulatory tone of the commentary. Host Tom Ashbrook and his guests (one of them a psychiatrist and co-author of “a resource guide written for and by transgendered people”) treated it as self-evident that all Americans should greet Jenner’s revelations as a triumphant cultural and political moment. Their enthusiasm exuded the implicit sense that there simply isn’t any ground to stand on for anyone who might have qualms about transgenderism.

Yet I do.

Summer Morning

A first-time Commonweal blog entry for me, and while in future entries I’ll take up books, politics, movies (I’ve been one of your reviewers for fifteen years now) or whatever, today I’ll be more personal. Right now it’s 5:30 AM, I’ve got a cup of coffee, and I want to convey that moment when you feel your family’s life gathering its breath for the summer to come. We’re an early-rising bunch (and early to bed -- alas!); my wife Molly is out walking the dogs, and our daughter Larkin, who recently finished third grade, is asleep in her room with her friend Fiona in the top bunk bed. A sleepover!

I’m turning fifty-six, and for most of my friends the kid sleepover era is long gone. But Molly and I got started late at all this; she was almost forty, and I almost fifty, when Larkin was born. Thus we’re wildly out of synch with most people our age -- as I was reminded at my recent thirty-fifth college reunion, where many of my classmates were fresh from their kids’ college graduations. Anyway, do you remember what it was like when you were up early and your child was still asleep, with a sleepover pal? The silence is blissful! You have that satisfying sense of being a temporary custodian of precious lives, which really is the essence of being a parent.

I spent a few minutes on the front porch, drinking coffee and waiting for the newspaper guy to deliver the Times. We have a family of rabbits living somewhere in our yard (in Hartford, Conn.), and they’ve gotten sufficiently inured to people that they barely look up when you appear. So I watched Brer Rabbit munch for a while. Our newspaper delivery guy is a thirtyish-year-old man who delivers the paper by hurling it from his moving car, without slowing down. This is mortal peril for my tiger lilies, and I keep meaning to ask him to aim for the lawn, not the front walk. But by the time I amble down into the yard, he has roared on. And I hesitate to mar his business plan, anyway.

My mother died nine years ago, when Larkin was just six months old, and after that I took up gardening. My mom was a skilled and joyous gardener, and I’d always intended to spend some time with her in her garden and learn the tools and tricks of the thing. And then she was gone, and I regretted not having done it.

'San Andreas' & 'Love and Mercy'

I am mesmerized by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the ex-professional wrestler cum action-film hero. Did you know he is 6’ 5” and 262 pounds, wears size 14 shoes—and has a 34-inch waist? Watching his mammoth, sculpted body and boulder-like bald head dominate the screen feels like standing below Rushmore; there’s something distinctly geological about him.

Last Word: Flick, Flick

A recent article in the Washington Post profiled a photographer with the pleasingly gangsterish name of Babycakes Romero, who photographed couples and friends in public places immersed in their separate handheld devices—together, but alone.

'It Follows' & '71'

Does any cinematic product deliver as much bang for the buck as the indie horror film? The Blair Witch Project (1999) was shot on a budget of $30,000, while last year’s critically acclaimed The Babadook cost just $2 million.

American Reckoning

Rudy Giuliani went on an Obama-bashing tear in February. Speaking in Manhattan to an audience of business executives meeting with Republican presidential hopeful Scott Walker, the former New York mayor charged bluntly that “I do not believe that the president loves America...

'American Sniper'

Moviegoers are up in arms about a film of arms—American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s tense account of the bloody saga of Chris Kyle, the Navy Seal who, during four tours of duty in Iraq, notched more kills than any sniper in U.S. military history. Some critics have trashed the film as warmongering, racist, right-wing propaganda. Amy Nicholson in the L.A.

'The Babadook'

My pleasure in being scared silly by movies dates to age eight, when I shrieked in my seat as a murderous Alan Arkin, kitchen knife flashing, hunted Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark. Ever since, I have taken guilty pleasure in horror movies, terror movies, thrillers, suspense, and all films whose goal is to make you feel temporarily unsafe in the world. You either crave this kind of thing or (like my wife) you detest and avoid it, finding real life already unsettling enough on its own.