“He Lived as a Free Man and Died as a Free Man”

(p. A1) Thousands of people crowded a neighborhood on Moscow’s outskirts on Friday [March 1, 2024] — some bearing flowers and chanting, “No to war!” — as they tried to catch a glimpse of the funeral for Aleksei A. Navalny. The outpouring turned the opposition leader’s last rites into a striking display of dissent in Russia at a time of deep repression.

. . .

After a procession to the cemetery, Mr. Navalny’s coffin was placed next to his freshly dug grave. Video live streamed from the site showed his family members and then other mourners kissing him goodbye for the last time. Then his face was covered with a white cloth and the coffin was lowered to the Frank Sinatra song “My Way” and then the final song from “Terminator 2,” which Mr. Navalny considered “the best film on Earth.” Mourners slowly passed by, each taking a handful of dirt and tossing it into the grave.

. . .

Outside the church, people chanted, “Thank you, Aleksei” and “Love is stronger than fear,” according to videos from the scene. As they gathered next to the cemetery, mourners cried out, “peace for Ukraine — freedom for Russia!”

. . .

(p. A8) Some people traveled from far away to attend the funeral. Anastasia, 19, had flown in from Novosibirsk, 1,800 miles from Moscow, to be present.

“I came here because this is a historic event,” she said in a voice message from the neighborhood where the church service was held. “I think that he is a freer man than all of us,” she said of Mr. Navalny. “He lived as a free man and died as a free man.”

In Russia, it is considered bad luck to give living people an even number of flowers in a bouquet — those are reserved for funerals. But Anastasia said that many mourners carried bouquets with an odd number, “because for them, Navalny lives on.”

For the full story, see:

Valerie Hopkins. “Crowds Flood Moscow Streets Over Navalny.” The New York Times (Saturday, March 2, 2024): A1 & A8.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 1, 2024, and has the title “Thousands Turn Out for Navalny’s Funeral in Moscow.”)

3.7 Million Russians “Flocked” to Film Satirizing “Tyranny and Censorship”

(p. C1) By all appearances, the movie adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s cult favorite novel “The Master and Margarita,” in Russian theaters this winter, shouldn’t be thriving in President Vladimir Putin’s wartime Russia.

The director is American. One of the stars is German. The celebrated Stalin-era satire, unpublished in its time, is partly a subversive sendup of state tyranny and censorship — forces bedeviling Russia once again today.

. . .

“I had an internal belief that the movie would have to come out somehow,” the director, Michael Lockshin, said in a video interview from his home in California. “I still thought it was a miracle when it did come out. As for the response, it’s hard to expect a (p. C2) response like this.”

More than 3.7 million people have flocked to see the film in Russian theaters since its Jan. 25 [2024] premiere, according to Russia’s national film fund.

. . .

State networks didn’t promote the movie the way they normally would for a government-funded picture. And the state film fund, under pressure after the release, removed the movie’s production company from its list of preferred vendors.

The antics spurred a new wave of moviegoers, who rushed to theaters fearing the film was about to be banned.

“The film amazingly coincided with the historical moment that Russia is experiencing, with the restoration of Stalinism, with the persecution of the intelligentsia,” said the Russian film critic Anton Dolin, who has been branded a “foreign agent” and fled the country.

. . .

“The movie is about the freedom of an artist in an unfree world,” Lockshin said, “and what that freedom entails — about not losing your belief in the power of art, even when everything around you is punishing you for making it.”

. . .

When Putin launched his invasion two years ago, Lockshin opposed the war on social media from the United States and called on his friends to support Ukraine. Back in Russia, that put the movie’s release at risk.

“My position was that I wouldn’t censor myself in any way for the movie,” he said. “The movie itself is about censorship.”

. . .

The film’s verisimilitude was unmistakable for many moviegoers.

Yevgeny Gindilis, a Russian film producer, said that he had crowded into a Moscow theater near the Kremlin to watch it, and sensed some discomfort in the hall. At the end, he said, about a third of the audience erupted in applause.

“I think the clapping,” Gindilis said, “is about the fact that people are happy they are able to experience and watch this film that has this clear, anti-totalitarian and anti-repressive state message, in a situation when the state is really trying to oppress everything that has an independent voice.”

Gindilis recounted how one of the most uncomfortable scenes for people to watch in Moscow was the final revenge sequence, when the devil’s mischievous talking cat repels a secret police squad that has come to apprehend the Master, leading to a fire that ultimately engulfs all of Moscow.

The Master and Margarita, alongside the devil, played by the German actor August Diehl, gaze out over the burning city, watching a system that ruined their lives go up in flames.

“Today the whole country is unable to take revenge or even respond to the persecution, restrictions and censorship,” Dolin, the film critic, said. But the protagonists of the film, having made a deal with the devil, manage to get even.

The film flashes to the Master and Margarita in the afterlife, reunited and free. “Listen,” she says to him. “Listen and enjoy that which they never gave you in life — peace.”

For the full story, see:

Paul Sonne. “Poking The Bear Right In His Den.” The New York Times (Monday, February 19, 2024): C1-C2.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 16, 2024 and has the title “Life Imitates Art as a ‘Master and Margarita’ Movie Stirs Russia.”)

Navalny to Russian People: “Not Give Up”

(p. C1) In the opening moments of “Navalny,” the Oscar-winning 2022 documentary about the Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, the director Daniel Roher asks his subject a dark question.

“If you are killed — if this does happen — what message do you leave behind to the Russian people?” the voice asks from behind the camera.

Navalny’s ice-blue eyes narrow just a little, and he sighs. “Oh, come on, Daniel,” he says in heavily accented English. “No. No way. It’s like you’re making a movie for the case of my death.” He pauses, then continues. “I’m ready to answer your question, but please let it be another movie, Movie No. 2. Let’s make a thriller out of this movie.”

. . .

(p. C8) But if “Navalny” wasn’t intended as a postmortem, it’s chilling to watch it after reports of his death. He knows what might happen but doesn’t seem scared, just determined. The day of his return to Moscow, he appears nervy and intent, but with fellow plane passengers, he makes jokes about the weather, accepts their well wishes and watches “Rick and Morty” as they descend. This is, you realize, a resolutely unflappable man.

At the end of the film, Roher once again asks Navalny what message he would leave for the Russian people if he was imprisoned or even killed. Answering in English, Navalny responds, “My message for the situation when I am killed is very simple: Not give up.” Recognizing there’s more to the sentiment, Roher asks him to repeat his answer in Russian.

“Listen, I’ve got something very obvious to tell you,” Navalny says rapidly and fluidly in Russian, according to the subtitles. He’s looking straight into the camera and picking up steam as he goes. “You’re not allowed to give up. If they decide to kill me, it means that we are incredibly strong. We need to utilize this power to not give up, to remember we are a huge power that is being oppressed by these bad dudes. We don’t realize how strong we actually are.”

. . .

Navalny takes a breath, then continues. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. So don’t be inactive.” He stares sternly into the camera, steel in his eyes.

And then his face cracks into a wide, joyful grin.

For the full review, see:

Alissa Wilkinson. “More Chilling, Posthumously.” The New York Times (Tuesday, February 20, 2024): C1 & C8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated Feb. 18, 2024, and has the title “The Documentary Aleksei Navalny Knew We’d Watch After His Death.”)

Did Robbie Fail to Be Oscar-Nominated for Barbie Due to a Powerful Patriarchy, or Might It Be Random, or Even Based on Merit?

(p. A24) And now there is a new Barbie cause to rally around: the Great Oscar Snub and what it all means — and why it is wrong. Neither Margot Robbie nor Greta Gerwig was nominated for her most prominent role: best actress or best director, respectively.

. . .

But hold on. Didn’t another woman, Justine Triet, get nominated for best director (for “Anatomy of a Fall”)? As for “Barbie,” didn’t Gerwig herself get nominated for best adapted screenplay and the always sublime America Ferrera get nominated for best supporting actress? A record three of the best picture nominees were directed by women. It’s not as if women were shut out.

Every time a woman fails to win an accolade doesn’t mean failure for womanhood. Surely women aren’t so pitiable as to need a participation certificate every time we try. We’re well beyond the point where a female artist can’t be criticized on the merits and can’t be expected to handle it as well as any man. (Which means it still hurts like hell for either sex — but not because of their sex.)

For the full commentary, see:

Pamela Paul. “‘Barbie’ Is Bad. There, I Said It.” The New York Times (Friday, January 26, 2024): A24.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Jan. 24, 2024, and has the same title as the print version.)

Cancel Culture Makes It Tougher to Be “Intellectually Interesting”

(p. B6) John Cleese is “not bothered about getting cancelled.”

. . . while he is too “old” and established to worry about it, he admitted if he was just starting his career he’d be more hesitant about his writing.

. . .

“Cancel culture tends to make people less broad in their thinking, more literal-minded. It is tougher to make funny — or intellectually interesting — associations.

When The Life of Brian was released in 1979, the Monty Python troupe faced calls for it to be banned or censored, and John, 84, thinks they were “early targets” of cancel culture.

For the full story, see:

Bang Showbiz. “Cleese ‘Too Old’ to Worry about Being Canceled.” Omaha World-Herald (Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023): B6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

Disabled Civil Rights Leader Removed from Audience of “The Color Purple” Because the Chair He Brought Fails to Comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act

Presumably the Reverend William J. Barber II knows what chair designs reduce the chronic pain he feels from the ankylosing spondylitis he has endured “for almost 40 years.” He has what Hayek called “local knowledge” that is not possessed by the government legislators and enforcers of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Regulations keep individuals from using their local knowledge, with results that can be outrageously unfair.

(p. A15) AMC Theaters has apologized to the Rev. William J. Barber II, a civil rights leader, after he was escorted from a Greenville, N.C., theater after employees refused to allow him to use a chair he needs to manage a painful medical condition, he said.

Mr. Barber, 60, was attending a Tuesday afternoon screening of “The Color Purple” with his mother, Eleanor Barber, 90. He said he tried to use the chair, which an assistant carried for him, by placing it in an area reserved for handicapped seating, saying he had done so before in theaters, at Broadway plays and even on a visit to the White House.

He said a theater employee told him that he would not be able to use the chair, which looks like a small stool, because it did not comply with guidelines in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

. . .

Mr. Barber has a condition called ankylosing spondylitis, and walks slowly with the aid of a cane. He said the disease attacks his joints “like a guided missile” and has forced him to live with chronic pain for almost 40 years. “I describe it like that because it’s a war to live with it,” he said.

He added that people with disabilities often fight invisible battles that can be difficult for people not living with disabilities to understand.

For the full story, see:

Clyde McGrady. “Rights Leader Gets Apology For Removal From Theater.” The New York Times (Saturday, December 30, 2023): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 28, 2023, and has the title “AMC Theaters Apologizes to Civil Rights Leader Removed From Movie Theater.”)

Communists Extinguish Hong Kong’s “Brash Flash”

(p. 8) It was never just about the neon, that Cubist, consumerist razzle-dazzle cantilevered over Hong Kong’s streets announcing pawnbrokers and mooncake bakers, saunas and shark’s fin soup shops.

. . .

Because while the government’s crackdown on the neon signs stems from safety and environmental concerns, the campaign evokes the fading of Hong Kong itself: the mournful allegory for an electric city’s decline, the literal extinguishing of its brash flash.

Nights in Hong Kong these days feel as if still in the pall of a plague, or a deep political malaise.

Many of the tourists and resident foreigners are gone, the old party spots unsullied by their beer-guzzling excess.

Hong Kongers have left, too. More than 110,000 permanent residents departed last year, and the city’s population of those worth more than $30 million shrank by 23 percent, according to government and wealth survey data.

Their departure, a quarter-century after the territory reverted from British to Chinese rule, has been spurred by the territory’s economic decline and by an acute diminishment of political rights.

. . .

A national security law, imposed in 2020, criminalizes acts considered threatening to the state. Students, former legislators and a former media mogul sit in prison because of it.

. . .

The Hong Kong filmmaker Anastasia Tsang’s directorial debut, “A Light Never Goes Out,” is about a family coping with the death of a neon sign maker. The film, Hong Kong’s submission for next year’s Oscars, is an elegy for a disappearing craft that could also be a requiem for something larger.

“Hong Kong people have a very strong feeling of loss,” Ms. Tsang said. “Every day you’ve got a friend or relative who’s going to emigrate. Every day you feel like some part of your flesh is being taken from your skeleton.”

For the full story, see:

Hannah Beech. “A City Where a Lot More Than Neon Is Fading Out.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, December 10, 2023): 8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 9, 2023, and has the title “Where Did All the Hong Kong Neon Go?”)

With Repeated Experiences We Establish “a Personal Relationship” with Technological Tools

In a philosophy course that our daughter Jenny took at Notre Dame, a reading or two suggested that repeated experience with technologies make them almost extensions of our own senses, expanding what Ed Yong (quoting others) calls our “umwelt” (which I think means the scope of the sensory world we can experience). My guess is that pilot Brian Shul (who is discussed below) experienced this after many hours piloting the SR-71 Blackbird. If this is an important phenomenon, and I think it is, then it increases even further the diversity of what Hayek called “local knowledge” and what Polanyi called “tacit knowledge.”

(p. A17) Brian Shul, a retired Air Force major who modestly described himself as “a survivor” rather than a hero after he was downed in a Vietnamese jungle, suffering near-fatal injuries, before rebounding to pilot the world’s fastest spy plane, died on May 20 [2023] in Reno, Nev.

. . .

His final assignment, before he retired in 1990 after a two-decade military career, was piloting the SR-71, the world’s highest-flying jet.

The aircraft, nicknamed the Blackbird and deployed to monitor Soviet nuclear submarines and missile sites, as well as to undertake reconnaissance missions over Libya, could soar to 85,000 feet, fly at more than three times the speed of sound and survey 100,000 square miles of the Earth’s surface in a single hour.

“To fly this jet, and fly it well, meant establishing a personal relationship with a fusion of titanium, fuel, stick and throttles,” Major Shul wrote in his book “Sled Driver: Flying the World’s Fastest Jet” (1991), invoking the detractive nickname that U-2 pilots had pinned on their faster Blackbird counterparts. “It meant feeling the airplane came alive and had a personality all her own.”

Major Shul piloted the Blackbird for 2,000 hours over four years.

. . .

The Lockheed SR-71 soared so high into the mid-stratosphere that its crew was outfitted in spacesuits, and it flew so swiftly that it could outpace missiles.

“We were the fastest guys on the block and loved reminding our fellow aviators of this fact,” Major Shul wrote.

. . .

In Vietnam, he was a foreign air adviser during the war, piloting support missions in conjunction with the Central Intelligence Agency’s Air America, which flew reconnaissance, rescue and logistical support missions for the military.

When his aircraft was attacked, he crash-landed in the jungle, where he was rescued by a Special Forces team and evacuated to Okinawa, Japan. Doctors there predicted that his burns would prove fatal.

. . .

. . . one day, while lying in bed, he heard children playing soccer and, as he remembered being their age, the radio began to play Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow.”

“You listen to the words to that song — it’s all about daring to dream,” Major Shul said in a speech at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California in 2016.

“I heard the words of that song for the first time that day,” he continued. “They penetrated my brain sharper than any scalpel they were using, and I could look out the window and see the other side of the rainbow and those kids, and I made a choice. I made a decision right then. I am going to try to eat the food tomorrow. I want to live. I’m going to try to survive.”

For the full obituary, see:

Sam Roberts. “Brian Shul, Fighter Pilot Who Flew World’s Fastest Plane, Dies at 75.” The New York Times (Saturday, June 3, 2023): A17.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated June 8 [sic], 2023, and has the title “Brian Shul Dies at 75; Fighter Pilot Who Flew World’s Fastest Plane.”)

The Shul autobiography quoted in a passage above is:

Shul, Brian. Sled Driver: Flying the World’s Fastest Jet. 2nd ed. Chico, CA: MACH 1, Inc., 1991. [I am not sure the year is right in this citation. Maybe it should be 1992. I have not seen a copy of the book, and citations online are inconsistent.]

The Yong book I mention at the start is:

Yong, Ed. An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms around Us. New York: Random House, 2022.

“People’s Experience with the D.M.V.” Teaches Them “the Government Is Plodding, Slow”

(p. B1) The film “Leave the World Behind” centers on the idea of mistrust and how easy it is for humans to lose empathy for one another when faced with a crisis. It is at once unnerving, misanthropic and bleak, and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, it’s produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground.

. . .

(p. B5) While Mr. Obama was no stranger to Hollywood — since his early days of campaigning for the presidency he found a welcoming audience among the show business elite — he has found that working in this business has taken some getting used to.

“It’s ironic that the private sector is made out to be this hyper-efficient thing, and the government is plodding, slow,” he said. “I think part of it is ideological and part of it is people’s experience with the D.M.V.”

For the full story, see:

Nicole Sperling. “Reimagining Storytelling, Obama Style.” The New York Times (Friday, December 8, 2023): B1 & B5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Dec. 7, 2023, and has the title “Obamas’ Vision for Hollywood Company: ‘This Isn’t Like Masterpiece Theatre’.”)

“Keeper” of Home Where Walt Disney Screened His Films Wants to “Inspire” the “Creative”

(p. M6) Walt Disney’s former Los Angeles home—now for rent asking $40,000 a month—looks like something out of one of his films: Largely covered in vines, the Storybook-style home has a turret, leaded-glass windows and a cobblestone motor court.

Disney built the four-bedroom Los Feliz home in 1932, and lived there with his wife and family for about 20 years before moving to Holmby Hills, according to Disney historian and blogger Todd Regan. The property is now owned by Kazakhstan-born film director Timur Bekmambetov, who bought it in 2011 for $3.7 million, according to public records.

. . .

He is now renting it out, he said, because he wants people to be able to experience staying there.

. . .

There is a screening room in the house where Disney watched his films, Regan said. In the yard sits a cottage-style playhouse, which Disney gave his daughters on Christmas Day in 1937 following the release of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” he said.

. . .

Bekmambetov, who has directed movies including 2004’s “Night Watch” and “Wanted” in 2008, said he has always been a fan of Disney’s work. When the home hit the market in 2011, he couldn’t believe it was tied to the late filmmaker. “I got a notification that there was a house for sale and it had the Walt Disney name,” he said. “I called my assistant and said to her, ‘Please call. I think it’s a mistake.’” But it wasn’t a mistake, and Bekmambetov decided to buy the home sight unseen.

Bekmambetov said he considers himself the home’s “keeper.” The house inspired a graphic novel and movie script he is working on, he said, about fictional Disney characters who never made it to the big screen. He said he hopes to rent the house to someone who is creative and will be inspired by the home, just as he has been.

For the full story, see:

Libertina Brandt. “Walt Disney’s Onetime L.A. Home for Lease.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, June 16, 2023): M6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 12, 2023, and has the title “Walt Disney’s Former L.A. Home Is Now Renting for $40,000 a Month.”)

Chinese Communists Suppress “A Touching Portrait of Love and Resiliency”

(p. C6) According to reliable news reports, the Chinese government never confirmed having banned Li Ruijun’s quietly heartbreaking feature “Return to Dust,” a touching portrait of love and resiliency in a collapsing rural community of Gansu Province.

Still, the film was pulled last fall from all Chinese movie theaters and streaming services two weeks after a successful domestic debut. It isn’t hard to see why. China’s leadership has a history of suppressing art that spotlights the failings of its ruling class and ideology, which is exactly what Li’s film does, . . .

For the full movie review, see:

Austin Considine. “Return to Dust.” The New York Times (Friday, July 21, 2023): C6.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 20, 2023, and has the title “‘Return to Dust’ Review: Grit Against All Odds.”)