Weighty Issues

Since October of 2019, I have been working to lose weight. It’s been going really well so far. I don’t talk about it much, because I’ve been down this road before. I have struggled with my weight my entire life. I cannot recall a time when I wasn’t at least a little bit overweight.

In the past, I have had periods of success trying to lose weight, but they are always short lived. I will start a new diet and exercise routine. The pounds will start coming off. I will get very excited and hopeful, thinking that I have finally turned this problem around. Inevitably though, I will get bored or frustrated with whatever routine I’m following. I will slide back into my bad habits and put the weight back on, long before I even make it to my weight loss goal.

So even though my current efforts seem to be going very well, I’m hesitant to crow about it. In the back of my mind is the fear that this will all come crashing down, as it has so many times in the past.

My frustrations with myself in this regard are paralleled by my frustrations with certain people around me. Those who have never had to deal with a chronic weight problem, and they just don’t get it.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to restrain myself from choking someone who says, “What’s the big deal? Just eat right and exercise.”

I shrug and nod my head humbly at such a remark while thinking, “Oh fuck off, asshole.

It was maybe fifteen years ago, when I was living in Los Angeles, and I started seeing a new doctor. During my first exam with him, the inevitable awkward conversation about my weight occurred. He asked me to describe my diet. I did, as best as I could.

“Have you ever considered changing your diet?” he asked with great sincerity.

I wanted to slap him.

Oh shit, Doc, I never even thought of that! You’re a fucking miracle worker!!!

Those of us who are chronically overweight are not that way because we’re stupid. It’s not that we don’t understand what we should and should not be doing. We get it. But there is a psychological and emotional disconnect between knowing what to do and getting yourself to do those things consistently.

For anyone reading this who has never had a weight problem, I ask you to consider it this way. Think of something you don’t like about yourself. Some bad habit or annoying personality trait that you wish you did not have. You know it’s bad and you’ve tried to change it, but you just can’t quite seem to get a grip on it.

That’s being overweight. At least, that’s what it’s like for me and I suspect that’s what it’s like for many people like me. The way we eat, our relationship with food, is one of those things that gets carved into our psyche at a very early age. It is forged into our personality by events that occurred so long ago, we often don’t even remember them.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our best to improve, just as you should do your best to improve whatever shortcoming you just thought of. You have your issues to grapple with and I have mine. It doesn’t make either one of us a failure or a bad person. We’re both doing the best we can within our limitations. Please consider that the next time you feel the urge to make a fat joke. Ask yourself if there might be a better way to address the situation.

In September of 2019, Bill Maher did a segment on his show, Real Time With Bill Maher, in which he essentially blamed fat people for the problems of America’s health care system. Rather than getting bogged down in all the ways that premise is unfair and absurd, I will like to zero in on two specific points that he made.

At the 2:50 mark, he mentions footage from the 1960’s that recently aired during the anniversary of Apollo 11. He marvels at how skinny everyone was in 1969 and wonders why America doesn’t look like that anymore.

Well Bill, it might have something to do with how radically the production and marketing of food has changed in America since 1969.

The rise of factory farming, processed foods, and fast food over the last fifty has transformed the way America eats. These industries make a fortune mass-producing food that is cheap and plentiful, but also unhealthy and often addictive. These companies market their wares to children in an effort to get people hooked at an early age.

I’m not saying this absolves anyone from taking responsibility for there own health. It does present a significant obstacle though. Many people struggle to find healthier options that are affordable in a marketplace flooded with this junk. Unhealthy food is a cheaper, easier habit that is difficult to break.

Which brings me to my second point. At the 6:03 mark, Bill claims that, “we shamed people out of smoking.”

No we didn’t, Bill. That statement is complete horse shit.

I have never smoked in my life, but my father and my brother both did. Anyone who has ever lived with a smoker knows that shaming them is the absolute worst thing you could do. Shame makes people feel bad about themselves. Often these unhealthy behaviors are something people lean on to comfort themselves when they feel bad. So shame only makes them want to do it more. Compassion, patience, and positive reinforcement are much better tools for helping people improve.

Bill is correct that national attitudes about smoking have changed, but shame had nothing to do with that. In the 90’s, as we learned more and more about the dangers of second-hand smoke, state and local governments started passing laws banning smoking in public places.

(Maher had a show on ABC called Politically Incorrect at the time. I seem to remember him being very critical of those new laws, claiming they infringed on personal freedom. I suppose it would be too big of a concession for him to simply admit that those laws worked.)

Also, in 1999, the federal government launched a massive lawsuit against the tobacco industry. It targeted Big Tobacco for lying to the public about the addictive nature of nicotine, working to make cigarettes as additive as possible, and marketing their products to children. Sound familiar?

Public awareness, changes to our laws, and the consequential shifts in societal norms are what made the difference when in comes to smoking in America. We need a similar push against the bad practices of today’s food industry. Changes to the law and public pressure can work together to incentivize a healthier approach. That’s the lesson we should be learning from what happened with tobacco.

Until that happens, and even after it does, we all just have to keep doing our best. We also need to be kind to each other.

Four years ago, I started seeing the doctor I go to now, here in Portland. During my first exam with him, I once again had to have that awkward talk about my weight. I explained to him that I have always struggled with it. I described my past attempts to change and how they had failed. He responded with the words I wish someone had said to me a long time ago.

“I would rather you keep trying and failing than not try at all.”

Every doctor in America should have those words tattooed to the back of their hand. They should be required by the AMA to speak those words every time they consult with a patient about their weight or any other unhealthy habits. Those words have been so much more useful to me than any shame or fat jokes or feckless bits of advice from people who just don’t understand what I’m going through.

In the last four months, I have lost 36 pounds. That’s about halfway to my eventual goal. It feels great, but like I said, I don’t want to crow about it. I am painfully aware that six months from now, I could easily be right back where I started. I hope I’m not. I hope I can keep this going. But history has shown just how hard this is for me.

It will probably always be hard. I may never be perfect when it comes to managing my weight. There is a degree to which we all have to accept our flaws, even as we do our best to improve upon them.

But today, I have a much better understanding of what drives this behavior in me. And I know that there is a value in trying. Even if I never quite get it right.

Superheroes, Aging Directors, and the Academy Awards

“I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

These are the words of Martin Scorsese, from an interview with Empire Magazine in October of 2019. It is a bit ironic that he made this statement while promoting “The Irishman,” a film which relied heavily on the de-aging special effect that Marvel Studios helped to perfect.

As an unabashed fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and an admirer of Scorsese, I was not sure how to feel about this quote when I first read it. Initially, I thought his statement was unfair and ill-informed. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if he had a point. Was the MCU really the great film-making achievement I considered it to be, or was I a sheep who had been suckered by clever marketing and shiny objects?

Sometime around Halloween, I was at home, watching a movie called “Short Term 12.” It had been sitting on my Netflix list for months. On an evening I had free, I finally decided to push PLAY on it. The film stars Brie Larson as a counsellor at a short term care facility for at-risk kids. This was a couple of years prior to Larson’s Oscar-winning performance in “Room.” Before “Short Term 12,” I think she was mostly known for supporting roles. This is the first movie I’m aware of that features her as the lead.

She’s excellent in it of course. It’s a very touching film dealing with weighty issues, including the impact of sexual abuse on a person’s psyche. As I watched it, it occurred to me that this is probably the sort of film Mr. Scorsese would consider to be true cinema. That “cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences” he extolled. Moved by the film as I was, I began to concede that maybe he was right.

Then I remembered something.

The night before, I was driving home from work. I passed through a neighborhood where some children were trick-or-treating. Cute kids in cute costumes, making their way from door to door, amused parents in tow. One child stood out to me. A little girl marching proudly down the sidewalk in a kick ass Captain Marvel uniform. Self-confidence fiercely on display as she embodied the persona of Carol Davers.

When you see that, how can you say that Brie Larson’s performance in “Captain Marvel” is any less important then her performance in “Short Term 12?” Or even “Room,” for that matter? Try telling that little girl – or the millions like her that were inspired by “Captain Marvel” – that it’s not real cinema. That it’s just a theme park ride.

In November of 2019, Scorsese wrote an op-ed that appeared in the New York Times, seeking to clarify his original remarks. He only convinced me that he has this all wrong.

Scorsese complains, in part, that there is a sameness to these super hero franchise movies. That they lack a genuine sense of risk or revelation. Remember, this began with him saying he does not watch these movies. How can he make such a declaration about movies he hasn’t seen?

If those of us who have seen all of the MCU movies are being honest, we would have to admit that his critique is on the nose for some of these films. It is certainly not true for all of them. Within the Marvel cannon are films that I do consider to be true works of cinematic art. There are also some that are pure dreck. That’s true of every genre though, including the gangster films that Scorsese seems to love so much. (More on that in a sec.)

Scorsese goes on to lament the fact that big franchise films are all that Hollywood seems to care about making these days. On this point, I agree with him 100%.

The studios have become obsessed with building multi-film cash cow franchises. As a result, they are not putting their resources into smaller-budget films the way they used to. Scorsese is right to be concerned about this. But to single out one specific genre – one specific studio, really – and demonize it like this misses the point. There needs to be room for everything that the art of film making has to offer.

I have seen movies in every genre imaginable. From low-budget art house films to big-budget blockbusters. All along that spectrum, I have seen brilliant works of art that thrilled, inspired, and educated me. Films that made me feel, made me think, and made me ponder important questions. Films that broke my heart and films that lifted my spirits.

All along that spectrum, I have also seen movies that are completely irredeemable. The stink of over-commercialized crap is not exclusive to one particular corner of the industry. Cinema is a vast and broad art form. There is potential for great art and embarrassing failure throughout its entire realm. Our culture as a whole is stronger when movie theaters can offer a rich diversity of stories, styles, and points of view.

Which brings me back to “The Irishman.”

With Oscar season upon us, I am trying to see as many of the nominees as I can before the big ceremony. Yesterday, I watched “The Irishman.” All three hours and twenty-nine minutes of it.

It’s a fine film. It’s well made and tells an interesting story. The performances are as impressive as you would expect from the likes of De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci.

It’s just… I feel like I’ve seen this movie before. Multiple times. From the same director. It is odd to me that a director who complained about the sameness of franchise films, has made so many movies about thugs and tough guys struggling through the cold, violent world they inhabit. Seriously, how many times does a man have to film Robert De Niro scowling and shooting someone before it stops being a directorial style and starts being a fetish?

This style of gangster movie was edgy and exciting – revolutionary even – back in the 70’s when they first started cropping up. At this point, they’re such well-worn territory though. Unless you can offer a fresh take on the subject (which “The Irishman does not), why bother?

But hey, he’s Martin Scorsese. He’s a legend. So the Academy gives him a Best Director nomination for turning out the same movie he’s made five or six times now.

But this time, it’s longer!
And Robert De Niro has blue eyes for some reason!
And that’s… not creepy at all! Trust us!

Look, I’m not trying to dump on Martin Scorsese here. He is without question a brilliant director who has made some of the greatest movies in history. But in this particular instance, I just think he’s wrong. Wrong in a way that is out of touch with the times.

He seems like a grumpy old man whining about how things have changed without reconizing that maybe he needs to change too. He’s trying to crank out the same old stuff that made him popular in his youth and not understanding why the kids don’t dig it anymore. If the old guard of Hollywood can’t bring any new ideas to the table, perhaps it’s time for some of them to step aside.

I would prefer that the Academy turn its spotlight to the likes of Greta Gerwig or Taika Waititi or Noah Baumbach. All of them have movies nominated for Best Picture. None of them were recognized in the Best Director category. That’s a terrible oversight.

These filmmakers have created works of art that clearly meet Mr. Scorsese’s lofty definition of cinema while bringing a fresh perspective that Hollywood desperately needs. They represent that diversity of viewpoints I’m talking about. They stand as evidence that the film industry is not as limited by the franchise phenomenon as Scorsese makes it out to be.

It should also not evade anyone’s observation that each of their films included female characters that are – ya know – actual fully-formed characters! I’m sorry, but the women in “The Irishman” are treated like they’re part of the set dressing. Why the fuck to you hire an actress of Anna Paquin’s caliber just to have her stand around and stare at people? What a waste! Get with the times, Marty.

I love movies of all kinds. It is an art form that has enriched my life and I hope it continues to do so for many years to come. Like any art form worth a damn, it needs to evolve over time. That evolution will bring some great innovations and some unwelcome changes. Ultimately, it will always be better to push that evolution forward than to try and hold it back.