Archive for April, 2010

Over the past two days I saw Louis Theroux’s America’s Medicated Kids and Amir Bar-Lev’s My Kid Could Paint That. Basically, I have the questions you’re supposed to have when you’ve finished watching Doubt. Who’s telling the truth? Who’s lying? Can I trust the representations being made to me here? The feeling is more complicated because in the documentaries the people are real. I don’t in fact have to come to some sort of resolution between Sister Aloysius Beauvier and Father Brendan Flynn. But when confronted with real people and real circumstances, I’m left with an acute sense of irresolution.

By way of introduction, I’ll say that I’m a fan of Louis Theroux documentaries. He’ll uncover the humanity in some rather unsavory characters. For instance, in the Most Hated Family in America Louis documents the lives of the family of “God hates fags” fame – their hatred is directed at numerous people, groups, and institutions, but probably they are particularly noted for their protests at the funerals of American soldiers. Towards the end of the documentary the father and seven or eight year old son go to Greenwich Village in New York to protest against homosexuality. What follows is the kind of ugly spectacle you’d expect when you hold a one man (and one child) anti-gay protest in the Village. All of the father’s absolutely odious hatred aside, the way that he reacts when his son cries about the denizens of the Village rejecting his message oddly embodies fatherhood. Maybe the moment Theroux captures is all the more surprising because the pure humanity of a parent comforting a child occurs after all the bigotry that’d been explored earlier in the documentary.

Theroux reveals so much, or people reveal so much to Theroux that he can point up the absurdities of a situation, often humorously. Or expose utter vulnerability of individuals; in the later half of The City Addicted to Crystal Meth Theroux talks to a married couple that uses drugs and the encounter is memorable for the couples’ realization that they’re ensnared by the drug and revealing why they carry on using anyway. Their awareness of the addiction is striking, they’re not indifferent to the manifest harms the addiction causes, but it as though they have agency and they don’t at the same time.

Usually with Louis Theroux documentaries I am not undecided. In Thai Brides it is pretty clear that the Western customers have some pretty misogynistic visions of women’s roles and decide an Asian wife is the fulfillment of their Kinder, Küche, Kirche dream. Western women’s independence is an obstacle to their vision of subservient women and the power imbalance suits these consumers of Thai brides just fine. In Louis and Gambling it is pretty clear that people are fooling themselves into thinking they have some “system” that will beat the casino, even after being hundred or thousands of dollars down they carry on – perhaps with echoes of the crystal meth addicted married couple.

Which brings me to the most recent Theroux documentary, in America’s Medicated Kids Theroux presents the lives of families whose children are medicated to treat a variety of mental illnesses. The primary subjects are children age six, ten, and fifteen, if I remember correctly. The illnesses being treated with medication were bipolar disorder, OCD, and ADHD. The most difficult case was probably the six year old, what does it mean to be six and be medicated for ADHD? But all the cases were equally difficult to disentangle the “normal” behavior for a child of that age from the potential pathologies.

I wavered between thinking they’ll be making critical films about us for this medication of children in the future, and thinking that the parents might have encountered some sort of more fundamental problems for the classification of pathology came about. And throughout the documentary we’re seeing children post-medication and post-treatment/therapy, so there’s not a contrasting situation for me to adequately evaluate what it means to these individuals’ health. Overall, I’m left feeling just as uncertain about the rights and wrongs of the medical solutions presented as before, neither more nor less confident in the idea of better living through pharmacology.

Amir Bar-Lev’s My Kid Could Paint That follows artist Marla Olmstead. Olmstead paints abstract expressionist-type works. What attracted attention, she is age four. Some of her work was in a friend’s coffee shop, those pieces attracted attention, a local paper wrote about her work, then the New York Times wrote about her work. Celebrity followed, with pieces about her in many papers around the world and artworks selling for thousands of dollars. Then 60 Minutes did a piece on her. In Charlie Rose’s piece a child psychologist cast doubt on whether or not Marla painted the works at all, or without coaching.

So, is Marla a fraud? Did her father, who paints, tell her what to do? Did the father paint the pieces himself? What’s particularly interesting about the documentary is that it follows the family before and after the 60 Minutes piece, with the director himself unsure whether the parents are telling the truth. In all, the documentary ends without being an expose or a clearing of the Olmstead’s name. After 60 Minutes the waiting lists for Marla’s works dries up and pieces go unsold. The Olmstead’s make their own DVD of Marla painting a work from start to finish, and by the end of the documentary Marla is selling works again. But overall, the documentary does not provide a definitive answer to the fraud or not question (though, there are several moments when Marla indicates to her father it is his turn to paint, or asks her father to tell her if she is done or not, so on balance I lean towards unanswered questions). It concludes with more of a meditation on celebrity and truth rather than a verdict on the Olmsteads. I’m left with the same indeterminacy about the provenance of Marla’s works. During the course of the documentary I came up with my provisional answer as to whether Marla painted the works or not – it does not matter. If people enjoy the works of art that is what matters, the art market will do what the art market does.

Unsatisfying, I know, but I don’t think I’ll get the satisfaction of a clear unambiguous conclusion with either of these documentaries. Needless to say I’d recommend both documentaries, and not only to get more opinions as to what to make of the parents’ choices in both films.


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Erbarme dich, mein Gott,
um meiner Zähren willen!
Schaue hier, Herz und Auge
weint vor dir bitterlich.
Erbarme dich, mein Gott.

Have mercy, my God,
for the sake of my tears!
See here, before you
heart and eyes weep bitterly.
Have mercy, my God.
– St. Matthew Passion (libretto)

Pope Benedict XVI needs to appoint an independent commission to report on the abuse of children and the response by officials in the Roman Catholic Church from (at least) 1962 to the present day. This suggestion is not offered as a panacea, or instant healing, or a public relations sop, but an attempt to get a small step towards truth and reconciliation. The Pope should take as models the UN Independent Inquiry Committee appointed by then-Secretary General Kofi Annan to investigate the oil-for-food scandal, the Independent Committee of Eminent Persons appointed to investigate post WWII conduct of Swiss banks towards Holocaust survivors, and the post-apartheid South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Currently, there is an adversarial environment built on the heinous nature of the crimes committed, the (justified) sense of betrayal, and some of the efforts to defend the church. The pope’s “Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland” apologizing was widely seen as insufficient to the task of addressing the allegations that are engulfing the church (NYT 1, NYT 2). Beyond Ireland, allegations of abuse in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Poland, and Italy are emerging (FT). Thus far the attempts by church officials of varying standing have been, at least, ineffectual in countering criticisms. In fact, the poor defenses have probably exacerbated the adversarial nature of the discourse. Gawker took a characteristically wry look at “Stuff Catholics Have So Far Blamed for the Church’s Pedophilia Scandal” citing, the devil, the gays, the sexual revolution, the media, and persecution. Even separating out where in the hierarchy the people doing the blaming are, there is still quite a bit of less than dignified behavior on the part of people speaking officially for the church at high levels.

In Ireland at least two commissions have reported on the rape and abuse of children (Murphy Report, Ryan Report), but media accounts say they were ignored when they approached the Vatican for cooperation (Times). A newly pope-appointed commission must have access to Vatican documents and public hearings where appropriate. As head of state, the pope has immunity from foreign courts (Reuters), but he should take the opportunity to testify publicly before the commission early on, with an object of having a constructive dialogue about what went wrong, why, and how it can be corrected. That is the right time and place to reiterate some of the sentiments expressed in his Pastoral Letter. Needless to say, all the cardinals, bishops, and other church officials who resigned or were implicated should also testify before this commission.

In my imagination as members of such a commission I have at least a lay Roman Catholic, a historian, a psychologist, a theologian, a jurist of international standing, a former head of government or similar senior politician, at least one person from another Christian denomination, at least one person who is involved in Judaism, and at least one person who is involved in Islam. “Independent Committee of Eminent Persons” is an apt description of what the Roman Catholic Church needs at the moment. Very little healthy can come of calls for a papal resignation and accusations of Catholic-bashing – the to and fro will produce far more heat than light. Processing the conduct of church officials requires public acknowledgment of the macro-level decisions and dialogue to work through the terrible events that have harmed so many.

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Charlemagne’s Notebook linked to Dan & Dan‘s brilliant Daily Mail Song and I had to put it together with an excellent takedown of the Daily Mail’s frequent forays into casual bigotry and xenophobia. Nick Davies’ piece in the New Statesman provides numerous examples where the Mail pillories its favored targets, asylum seekers and immigrants, by making extremely selective use of evidence and refracting reports through a reactionary lens. One of Davies’ examples to close:

As commander of police in Brixton, south London, Brian Paddick found two bullseyes on his forehead: he is gay and he took a liberal line on the policing of cannabis. In March 2002, the Mail‘s sister paper, the Mail on Sunday, paid £100,000 to his former lover for a story which claimed Paddick had allowed him to smoke cannabis in their flat and that Paddick had smoked joints with him more than a hundred times.

The Daily Mail picked this up and used it as a stick to beat Paddick, calling him “the camp commander”, “Commander Crackpot” and “an icon for our moral decadence”, running a series of stories that attacked his policy on drugs, repeatedly referring to his homosexuality and suggesting this would allow him to escape unpunished. “I suppose we must be thankful he’s not a black homosexual, in which case he’d have been metaphorically bulletproof,” a Mail columnist wrote.

A legal action for breach of confidence ended in December 2003 with the Mail on Sunday confessing that the allegation that Commander Paddick had smoked cannabis was simply false; the paper paid more than £350,000 in costs and damages.

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