Friday, September 05, 2003

Fantasizing about Arnold, the action hero
Op-Ed By Nell Minow
Chicago Tribune

September 5, 2003

When Warner Bros. chief Jack Warner first heard that Ronald Reagan was thinking of running for governor of California, his reaction was: "No--Jimmy Stewart for governor. Ronald Reagan for best friend."

If we were talking about casting a movie that people would buy tickets to see, Warner would have been right. But when it came to the real-life role of governor and then president, the voters cast Reagan. He was able to show them that while he had a performer's communication skills, he had a politician's ability to address the issues. He became far more successful in politics than he ever was as an actor.

Most show biz personalities who run for office have to overcome their image as lightweight entertainers, most recently the late Sonny Bono, "Love Boat's" Fred Grandy, and current California gubernatorial candidate Gary "Diff'rent Strokes" Coleman.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's bid for the California governorship is in another category. His background as an action hero is not something he has to overcome; it is a large part of what is appealing about him. It has to be--there isn't much else that the public has had a chance to learn about what kind of governor he might be. He may just be the ideal candidate for this race.

- In a field of more than 100 candidates, Schwarzenegger's greatest strength is near perfect name recognition and almost zero understanding of his stands on key issues. Everyone knows he is a Republican, but everyone also knows he married into the gold standard of Democratic royalty, the Kennedy family. For the moment, at least until his high-powered band of advisers starts issuing position papers, Schwarzenegger is more Rorschach inkblot than candidate. So each voter can project onto him whatever is most appealing, reminiscent of Chauncey Gardner, the blank slate on "Being There" who becomes a presidential candidate, and, of course, Forrest Gump.

- Schwarzenegger is also the optimal combination of both outsider and insider. Americans have always loved candidates who were outside the political process and therefore had some claim to purity. But we also want people of achievement who will be taken seriously--not taken. Think of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

- When politicians talk about what they do, they use snooze-inducing words invoking process and compromise, like "mark-up," "committee," "policy," "measured" and "appropriate." They stand behind podiums and they blink in the sunlight. Schwarzenegger looks like a bronzed god. Schwarzenegger doesn't talk much in his movies--he had less than two dozen lines in the first "Terminator" movie, and not one involved process or compromise. Schwarzenegger has created an indelible impression as a powerful force, which has a lot of appeal when America and its leaders seem less and less powerful, economically, diplomatically and militarily. Politicians have meetings. Schwarzenegger acts. I don't mean that he uses technique and method to create a subtle and persuasive character; I mean that at least onscreen he does not discuss; he just does things, and he does them swiftly and decisively. In the "Terminator" movies, he is literally a machine, killing without any hesitation, whether he is the good guy or the bad guy. In "Total Recall," the wife who betrayed him begs for her life, "But we're married!" He shoots her, replying, "Consider this a divorce." It does feel that if we had just sent Arnold in there, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden would have been sharing a plate of baked beans at Gitmo long ago. Or blown to bits--think of, well, just about any Schwarzenegger action movie.

- Politicians are always asking for money. Schwarzenegger already has money. We may not admit it, but secretly many people feel he could do a lot for California's budget deficit by writing a check, sort of like Jimmy Stewart in the Depression-era "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," using his $20 million inheritance to help the farmers.

That is the ultimate fantasy, of course, the dream of some great force for good that uses extraordinary powers to provide magical fixes to the mundane or complicated problems that overwhelm ordinary people. That fantasy has fueled hundreds of blockbuster action movies, the fairy godmother waving her wand to transform Cinderella, and, of course, the most recent rendition, the truly extraordinary powers of five guys with magnificent taste to turn drab to fab in "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

So, for a moment, until it's time to get serious about finding a candidate who can turn this mess of a recall election into a way to address the complicated and serious problems facing the state, let's enjoy the fantasy of having Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California. So what if the closest he's ever been to politics is some appearances promoting fitness and a cameo in the presidential impersonation movie "Dave?" Just imagine him bringing not just the forceful solutions to problems he showed in the "Terminator" movies, but the empathy for women he showed as the pregnant man in "Junior," the tenderness toward kids he showed as the policeman working undercover in a school in "Kindergarten Cop," and the sense of humor about his own image he showed as a fictional version of himself in "The Last Action Hero." And Tom Hanks as best friend.

Corporate-governance expert Nell Minow also reviews movies at and is a syndicated columnist

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

`Nemo' teaches that it's OK for kids to be a little scared

June 11, 2003

The mother of a 4-year-old who wanted to see "Finding Nemo" wrote to ask me one of the questions I hear most often: "Why do Disney movies always kill off a parent?"

The reason is a pretty simple one -- if the parent is there, the child cannot have an adventure.

It isn't just Disney. This is true of just about every story with a child as the lead character. We never see parents in "The Wizard of Oz." Dorothy lives with Auntie Em and Uncle Henry and leaves them behind in Kansas when she is carried off by that twister. After all, just imagine what it would be like to have a mother standing by her elbow as Dorothy looks down the Yellow Brick Road: "You can't go to the Emerald City today! You have homework! You don't have a sweater! And stay away from that scarecrow and tin man! I don't want you talking to strangers!"

In "Tom Sawyer," the character based on Twain's own mother is Tom's "Aunt Polly," and Huck has no mother and stays away from a drunken, abusive father. In "Alice in Wonderland" we just see Alice's older sister, who is soon left behind as Alice follows the white rabbit into Wonderland. Roald Dahl cheerfully dispatches parents, sometimes gruesomely. In "James and the Giant Peach," they are killed by rhinos. We all know that You-Know-Who killed Harry Potter's parents. And in "Home Alone," Kevin's parents are alive, but far away.

Benefits of fantasy

Most kids instinctively understand this and enjoy identifying with these brave and resourceful children. The whole benefit of a story is fantasy. Though they would not want to be on their own, kids like to identify with a child who is and who handles it well. They are far less fussed by it than their parents, who sense the devastating impact it would have on the children if something happened to Mom and Dad. Just as important, the issue plays into adult fears as they grapple with losing their own parents.

In terms of what's scary in "Finding Nemo," the beginning of the story tells us Nemo's mother and his 399 sibling-eggs were eaten by a barracuda (off-screen). Some kids will be upset by that, and some will be upset by the movie's subsequent theme of Nemo being separated from his dad.

But it is important to note what are not scary in this movie: the bad guy and the matter of Nemo's fin. Most animated Disney movies, like the fairy tales that inspired them, rely on evil villains acting out of greed, jealousy or anger. Think of the Queen in "Snow White" (No. 10 on the American Film Institute's just-released list of the movies' top villains) and Cruella De Vil, who wanted to turn the 101 Dalmatian puppies into a fur coat (No. 39 on the AFI list of villains). In "Finding Nemo," there are no scarily wicked bad guys. Nemo is captured by a dentist who just wants some fish for his office aquarium. Even the sharks are trying to be vegetarian.

A lesson about the disabled

The most important thing treated as not scary in "Finding Nemo," though, is something about Nemo himself. The little fish is what we humans would call disabled; he has an underdeveloped fin. Movies have traditionally ignored disabilities or portrayed them as ennobling. Nemo's fin is handled frankly but matter-of-factly. It is part of what makes Nemo's father overprotective and part of what makes Nemo a little more eager to prove his independence. With one important exception, he never uses his fin as an excuse for not being able to do something. It does not define Nemo or his relationships, but it is just as much a part of him as his adventuresome spirit.

As for dealing with the potentially scary elements in "Finding Nemo," parents of younger kids should always to talk to their children before going to a movie or watching a video for the first time to make sure they understand the basics of the story and the characters. And they should make sure they give children an emotional vocabulary so they can talk about how they feel. Ask them what they will do if they get "this much scared" -- thumb and finger-measured -- maybe hold Mom's hand or sit on Dad's lap. But if they get "that much scared" -- two hands apart -- then they can go out into the lobby or turn off the television.

We parents know just how Nemo's dad feels. But like him, we have to learn that while you cannot always protect your children from scary things, you can be there to comfort them and to teach them what they need to stay strong and brave enough to comfort their own little fish someday.

Friday, May 23, 2003

Surviving `Matrix Reloaded' -- a movie guide for parents
By Nell Minow
Special to the Chicago Tribune

May 23, 2003

Face it. Your teenagers are going to see "The Matrix Reloaded" (rated R for prolonged, intense violence, some bad language and a brief, sensual sex scene). In fact, if the response to the first one is any guide, it is likely that they will see "Matrix," part two, many, many times. So you might as well spend a few minutes understanding why it is so important to them. Instead of rolling your eyes and telling them they are wasting their time, take a moment to understand it -- and them -- a little better.

The "Matrix" series taps into some of the most enduring themes of myth and epic, themes with special appeal for children and teenagers. The first is the chosen one with a hidden source of power. Characters from Pokemon to Harry Potter, Dorothy in Oz, Alice in Wonderland and Clark Kent/Superman allow kids, who often feel powerless in a world of adults, to enjoy the fantasy of strength and control. Superpowers as a metaphor for adolescence are even more explicitly portrayed in 2002's mega-hit "Spider-Man" and in the "X-Men" movies.

Characters from Moses to Hamlet to Luke Skywalker to King Arthur and Rick in Casablanca exemplify another aspect of the hidden source of power -- the reluctant hero who, confronted with dire circumstances, is able to call upon his capacity for greatness. This theme is immensely reassuring to teens, who can think of themselves as hopeless losers or as unappreciated superstars (or both) at any given moment. Imagining themselves in this position is more than a fantasy; it is a dress rehearsal for adulthood.

When movies like these become cultural phenomena, they also act as training wheels for the emerging social interaction of teenagers who are beginning to relate to each other in new ways. Movies are always a good way to get things started for kids at this stage, because they take up a large part of the evening with an important shared experience that requires no accompanying conversation. And then, when it is over, the movie gives them a lot to talk about and a shared language in which to do it. A movie like "Matrix Reloaded" has enough to fuel several evenings of discussion.

Period of enchantment

Anyone who has ever lived with a 9-year-old knows that it takes him two hours to see the movie and then it takes him two hours to tell you about the movie. They can remember every detail of what they saw, but it's still all about the trees of plot. It isn't until they get to about high school age that they begin to be able to understand the forest of meaning, to appreciate metaphor and multiple layers of interpretation. But they are still close enough to that 9-year-old self to be enchanted rather than overwhelmed by a fully realized world with endless detail to be absorbed and memorized (other examples that inspire passions in this age group are the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien and "Star Trek").

This movie was made for just that developmental moment. "Matrix" screenwriter/directors Larry and Andy Wachowski have provided a wonderfully rich hodgepodge of references from classical mythology and philosophy to the New Testament, Alice in Wonderland, Karl Jung and comic books. One of the best things about this movie is that it will lead teenagers to want to learn more about how the shadows on the wall of Plato's cave inspired some of the themes of illusion and reality and about the sources for names in the movie like Morpheus, Trinity, Niobe, Persephone, Nebuchadnezzar and Merovingian.

The "Matrix" movies also address key issues for this age group. Erik Erikson brilliantly described the search for identity that is the central experience of adolescents. Each one must separate from the assumptions they have never previously challenged, including just about everything their parents ever taught them. They usually begin by becoming contrarians, reflexively rejecting everything they once accepted, to give themselves some breathing room while they begin to apply their developing analytical skills to come to a more thoughtful understanding.

Equipped for the journey

The "Matrix" films present teenagers with an ideal story for this journey -- along with some very cool fight scenes, special effects and sunglasses. In the original, a man named Tom Anderson finds out that the ordinary life he thought he led, with an apartment and a job and interaction with other people, was just an illusion. In reality, machines have taken over. They use humans as their source of power, and to keep them quiescent, the machines pipe the illusion of "normal" daily interaction into their minds. Given the (literally) new name of Neo, Anderson considers whether he is indeed "the one" who can make it possible for all humans to understand reality.

In "Matrix Reloaded," Neo takes the battle forward. We'll see how it all comes out in November with "The Matrix Revolutions," the third chapter.

The issues the "Matrix" movies raise of destiny and choice, consciousness, authenticity, freedom and identity are thrilling to explore, especially for the first time. Parents may think that "Matrix Reloaded" is just another silly summer explosion movie (not that there's anything wrong with that), but they should treat it -- and their kids' passion for it -- with sincere respect.

I am all in favor of holding the line on exposing kids to inappropriate material, but I think that this is a movie many parents may find worthwhile for mature teens ages 14 and up. If your kids see the movie, invite them to talk with you about what they find compelling in it. You might even ask them to bring you to the theater with them so you can learn more about what they are thinking. Just be careful not to enjoy it so much that you unleash the one force even greater than the "Matrix" -- the de-coolifying power of parental enthusiasm!