Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Social Experiments Gone Horribly Wrong

One of the key rules taught in lifesaving classes is that, despite one's desire to rush to the rescue, no one benefits from a double drowning. Having the capability to assess a potential rescue operation means knowing when a situation might call for greater strength than you or your team can deliver. Not only can a panicky swimmer muster unexpected reserves of strength, sometimes there are other factors (wind, current, body weight, sharks) that may compound the risk of a rescue operation.

Added to that is a basic rule that warns: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it. And even if it is broke, who said you're the one who is capable of doing the job?" The rescue instinct is strong and often irresistible. In a recent Op-Ed piece for The New York Times entitled The Charitable-Industrial Complex, Peter Buffett (son of Warren Buffett) wrote:
"Early on in our philanthropic journey, my wife and I became aware of something I started to call Philanthropic Colonialism. I noticed that a donor had the urge to 'save the day' in some fashion. It’s what I would call 'conscience laundering' (feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity).  People (including me) who had very little knowledge of a particular place would think that they could solve a local problem.

Whether it involved farming methods, education practices, job training or business development, over and over I would hear people discuss transplanting what worked in one setting directly into another with little regard for culture, geography, or societal norms.  Often the results of our decisions had unintended consequences; distributing condoms to stop the spread of AIDS in a brothel area ended up creating a higher price for unprotected sex. As long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we’ve got a perpetual poverty machine. Is progress really Wi-Fi on every street corner? No. It’s when no 13-year-old girl on the planet gets sold for sex. "
Peter Buffett

Despite the best intentions, the "rescuer" who professes to be sharing his or her wealth with a needy person of presumably lesser stature is looking for a certain kind of emotional (if not financial) return on investment. Although the rescuer may be loathe to admit it, bragging rights over good deeds can have an intoxicating effect on one's ego.

Until, of course, something goes horribly wrong. At that point the rescuer's naivete comes into glaring focus, proving that there are times when no good deed goes unpunished.

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One of the delights of the 2013 San Francisco Silent Film Festival was Jacques Feyder's 1925 film, Gribiche (based on a story by Frédéric Boutet). The protagonist is a young boy, Antoine "Gribiche" Belot (Jean Forest), who has been happily living with his single mother, Anne (Cécile Guyon), in a working class section of Paris. Although Anne has been romantically involved with a handsome young man named Philippe (Rolla Norman), she knows that her first responsibility is taking care of her son.

One day, while Gribiche is in a department store, he notices that a woman who was trying on gloves at the counter behind him has dropped her purse before exiting the store. Picking up the purse and rushing out to find her, he meets Edith Maranet (Françoise Rosay), a rich American living in Paris who is grateful for the return of her purse (with her money intact) and intrigued by the spunky young man who brought it to her.

After Edith's initial attempt to offer Gribiche a reward is rebuffed by the boy, she asks him to write down his name and address in her notebook. Having give the matter some thought, she then convinces herself that if she were to adopt Gribiche, she could not only give him a top-notch education, but a second chance in life which would lift him up and out of the working class.

When Edith visits Anne and Gribiche, her offer to adopt the boy draws a mixed response. Anne is shocked and reluctant to agree to Edith's offer.  But Gribiche, who has heard Anne frequently tell Philippe that her life revolves around her son, realizes that if he were to leave home, his mother could find a new and happier life.

After Gribiche convinces Anne that the adoption would serve everyone's best interests, he begins a new life in Edith's mansion which is unlike anything he has ever experienced before. His heavily regimented days include tutoring from an English teacher (Alice Tissot), a literature teacher (Major Heitner), and a boxing instructor (Georges Pionnier), while being fussed over by a governess (Andrée Canti) and valet (Serge Otto). However, the only person whose company the boy seems to enjoy is Edith's chauffeur (Armand Dufour), who shows him how to take care of his employer's automobile.
Edith's social experiment starts to sour after Gribiche overhears her overly-dramatic narration to her friends about how she rescued him from a live of utter poverty. When the boy flees Edith's elegant home in search of some honest fun, her worries turn to feelings of resentment and betrayal after all of the "good" she has done for Gribiche. After Edith's brother (Maurice Soufflot) explains the folly of her experiment and convinces her to return to America, Gribiche returns to his mother and Philippe, Edith creates a scholarship for him, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Cécile Guyon, Françoise Rosay, and Jean Forest in Gribiche
A classic tale of a misguided attempt to transplant a young boy from one social class to another, Feyder's film benefits from the luxurious Art Deco designs of Lazare Meerson and the ebullient performance of Jean Forest in the title role. The live accompaniment by Rodney Sauer and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (who can also be heard on Turner Classic Movie screenings of Gribiche) added a great deal of charm to this summer's screening by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
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Although there is a happy ending (and no one really gets hurt) in Gribiche, such is not always the case. Back in May, as I watched a screening of Afternoon Delight during the San Francisco International Film Festival, I found myself reacting with much more sadness than laughter to the tale of an upper middle class housewife living in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles who takes it upon herself to try rescuing a stripper. Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) is a middle-aged mother struggling to breathe life into a marriage that has hit the sexual doldrums. Although her husband (Josh Radnor) is a software programmer who wrote a popular "app" that got purchased for an impressive sum of money, neither one of them really has to work. As a result, it's quite possible that overexposure (coupled with the demands of raising their child) has left the couple physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. As Rachel whines to her therapist, Dr. Lenore (Jane Lynch), about her continued lack of sex with Jeff, it's obvious that the usual thrills of motherhood, keeping up with her peers at the local Jewish Community Center, and life in general have lost their fizz.
Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) gets a lap dance from
McKenna (Juno Temple) in Afternoon Delight
When one of Rachel's close friends suggests a double date to a strip club (and pays a stripper to give Rachel a lap dance), the results prove to be far from what was expected. The over-educated, politically correct Rachel treats the stripper like a real person, finds a way to cross paths with her during the day, and upon learning that McKenna (Juno Temple) has lost her job and been kicked out of her apartment, invites her to spend some time at Rachel's home and eventually hires McKenna to be her child's nanny.
Problems quickly develop after McKenna moves into the maid's room. In order to satisfy Rachel's curiosity about what a sex worker really does, McKenna invites her host to accompany her on one of her regular outcalls with the possibility of turning it into a threeway. Rachel quickly discovers that she is not emotionally equipped to handle such situations and comes unglued. As filmmaker Jill Solloway recalls:
“When I began, I saw the film as a way to inspire brilliant comedic actors to head to deeper, more human places in their processes. The movie’s spine -- mom rescues hooker-- seemed like a fun way to achieve that cinematic goal of marrying hard comedy with real feeling. But as we shot Afternoon Delight and shared it with wider audiences on the festival circuit, more relatable concepts emerged. It turns out everyone has lived the story about how easy it is to distract yourself -- from yourself -- with an idea about helping. It can be easier for people to open up when there’s a transaction -- financial or otherwise-- at play. Beyond the comedic and cinematic concepts that were on my mind, I made a few feminist choices while writing. Often, when the Madonna/Whore trope turns up in popular entertainment, the bad girl gets thrown under the bus or otherwise metaphorically murdered so that the movie can fulfill a typical Hero’s Journey plot. I am deeply interested in another possibility, a less-told Heroine’s Journey that unravels in the shape of contiguous spirals. These interconnected circles form an emotional roller coaster for the audience as we allow dual protagonists to repeatedly switch places; both women veer through right and wrong multiple times. Something else that drove me was the idea of a female main character who could be an unlikely, complicated and utterly real screw-up of a woman. We're used to the Seth Rogens, the Jack Blacks and Albert Brookses as lovable but nebbishy, wrong-headed male leads. It’s always felt frustrating to me that studio films seemed to present my entire gender as beautiful and perfect and interested in making great choices. This movie aims to remind us that women want the same thing from movies that any audience wants from life -- emotional honesty, raw comedy and the humanness of true flaws.”
Juno Temple and Kathryn Hahn in Afternoon Delight

What becomes painfully obvious is that McKenna knows how to control many more types of interactions than Rachel does.
  • Though she may not be a professional nanny, she knows what will make young children happy. 
  • Though she may not be a wife, she knows what will make married men happy. 
  • Though she may not be monogamous, she knows what will make her sex clients happy.
As one watches Afternoon Delight, one sees the fragile foundation of Rachel's marriage start to crumble, largely due to her own naivete and clumsiness. The segment in which McKenna crashes an all-male card game hosted by Jeff becomes a horrifying turning point for everyone involved.  Keegan Michael Key shines in a supporting role. Here's the trailer:

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