12 Angry Men a film by Sydney Lumet. With Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam. *****
Ghostbusters a film by Paul Feig. With Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones. ****
Last spring my wife and I saw By Sydney Lumet at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, and set about watching the work of this great and important director. His characteristic films—Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict—all concern a single man standing up to a mob, a subject with which Lumet was obsessed, and which he explored as a television director before he moved on to feature films. But no movie he ever directed explored that theme as well as his first, 12 Angry Men, which we watched for the second or third time this weekend. Never had the movie seemed greater to me, or more profound. What really struck me was how relevant—and oddly comforting—it was in this election season.
I’ve been suffering from extreme anxiety about the election. I wake up in the morning thinking about it, I go to bed thinking about it, and I think about it many times during the day. My wife and I look at each other and can tell we’re both thinking about it. Sometimes I go off on mad rants in my head excoriating someone whom I feel disagrees with me. I’m tempted to avoid people who are on the other side (I almost didn’t visit my 95 year old uncle in Pittsburgh last week because he’s a lifelong Republican and I was afraid I might blow up at him. He’s 95 years old! I don’t get to Pittsburgh that often!). I heard from another family member that he was “not voting” because he supported Sanders—I heard this in a decorous restaurant—and it was all I could do not to pull the tablecloth off the table and bring everything clattering to the floor, stomp out of the restaurant and never see that person again (I was thinking to myself, This is one of those moments, this is a moment when you say an unforgivable thing and ruin a relationship forever). I managed not to have an extreme reaction, though I was still smarting about it hours later. My wife talked me down as if calming a wild beast. The Man Whisperer, we should call her.
Why was I so angry? Why did I want to do such violent things? I, who am supposed to be a Buddhist, and am supposed to practice equanimity (and spend many minutes of my daily zazen screaming in my mind at my political opponents).
Part of my anger is that I’m genuinely fearful about what this man would do as President. I have grandchildren, for God’s sake. Another part is that I would feel such shame. I’d be ashamed of my country. I’m ashamed that he’s running.
It doesn’t take a great genius to realize: 1. That some people feel about my candidate the way I feel about the other one; and 2. That this struggle, this battle, whatever it is, will not end when the election takes place. It keeps going on. Though I can’t remember so dire a moment.
But it seems to me that male anger, male incivility, is at an all-time high. People didn’t used to punch protestors at rallies, or beat them up. People used to write to columnists and disagree with them: they didn’t say they were going to hunt them down, rape and kill them, kill their children. I’ve heard incidents of all these things. People didn’t drive on roads as if it were a testosterone festival, didn’t make taunting gestures when they scored a touchdown or hit a home run; they certainly didn’t say—about people who had spoken against them at a political convention—that they wanted to punch them so hard it made their heads swivel around. That quotation didn’t even make the Times, as far as I could tell. I don’t know whether it was too unbelievable or too commonplace.
I’ve resolved lately (not entirely successfully, I might add), not to back down from any political discussion, but not to speak in anger, and to treat everyone with perfect civility, even people who disagree with me, even if I somehow encountered the head-swiveling puncher himself. We’re supposed to love our enemies, pray for those who despitefully use us. It ain’t always easy, I must admit.
In the midst of this fury and torment I was rescued—or at least comforted—by a great work of art, or at least a very good one. I had no idea that would happen. I’d ordered it from Netflix weeks ago, after we saw the documentary, and it just happened to come last week.
I don’t think it’s an accident that the movie was called 12 Angry Men, even though it was made in 1957, when it was naturally assumed that anything important was done by men (and that women were not angry. I didn’t think my mother was angry, even though I sometimes saw her clench her jaw in rage, and sometimes heard her scream at my father). The movie is about male anger. It is about male prejudice, and long-held resentment, and the way that our biases and prejudices make us act like robots, with no thought at all. It’s about a bunch of guys who really don’t want to talk to each other, don’t want to be on a jury at all, they just want to get the hell out of there and go to a ballgame, get a drink, something. They don’t want to be bothered.
They’re like every other bunch of guys.
At the beginning of the movie, the jury is charged with deciding the fate of a 17 year old kid who is charged with killing his father. If he is convicted, the law says he will be executed. There is no other recourse. We see the kid sitting there as the jury walks into the jury room. He doesn’t speak, and we never see him again. It’s obvious that he’s somehow “ethnic,” though no one says how. But it isn’t long before the jurors are talking about “those people, you know what they’re like,” and “those kids.” He’s not an individual. He’s the member of a collective.
At the beginning of the process, eleven vote the kid guilty. We see the vote; seven or eight hands go up immediately, a few others go up slowly, or reluctantly. One doesn’t go up at all, to the utter disgust of the group. It is Henry Fonda who doesn’t vote guilty, and he says that he isn’t sure the kid is innocent, he just wants to talk. He repeats that several times. He wants to do the thing that men never do. He wants to sit and talk.
I found the man’s courage overwhelming, and somehow moving. It isn’t that I think I could sit down and change the mind of somebody on the other side in this political debate. I’m not sure I’d even identify myself if I were surrounded by that many others, though I hope I would. But the idea of that man sitting there quietly, not himself apparently angry (they should change the title to 11 Angry Men). I found it heartening. I even found it helpful to see men with so many prejudices, acting out of biases and long-held opinions. It seemed so fundamentally true. Seeing the truth is oddly comforting, even when it’s disturbing.
I won’t say more about what happens. Probably most people have already seen the movie anyway. I’ll just say it was surprisingly cathartic for me to see it. I recommend it. And the cast is like a Who’s Who of actors for their generation. Check it out.
There is even apparently a lot of male anger—in this case rather young male anger, I assume—at the remake of Ghostbusters with an all-female cast. This takes irrational anger to new heights, or depths. I guess I can understand people thinking a woman isn’t capable of being President of the United States, though I don’t happen to agree, and I might point out that this woman has held some other rather important positions. But a woman isn’t capable of acting in Ghostbusters? Really? That great cultural icon?
In a celebratory mood after last week’s Democratic Convention, my wife and I wanted to see some Girl Power movie. (Maybe that’s grrl power, or some other goofball spelling. Forgive me.) Equity hadn’t arrived in our city yet. (Women can be as greedy for money as men! Another important breakthrough!) We went to Ghostbusters instead.
I like movies. I like comedies. I like women. I especially like Melissa McCarthy, in everything I’ve seen her in. I happened to think Leslie Jones stole the show in this particular movie, but that may be because I like black comedy (not what we used to call black comedy in the Sixties, but comedy with black people in it. Even the Tyler Perry preview in this movie looked funny to me). I think black people are funnier, which I’m sure is racism, or reverse racism, or some unacceptable thing. You can stop reading right now. I thought Leslie Jones was the funniest of the women in the movie. (I understand that she got a huge amount of venom from the angry young white men, and that some of their comments had racial overtones. Honest to God, I do not understand it. People are so afraid of the other? Afraid of people with vaginas? What is it?)
I thought the special effects went a little overboard in this movie—I grow tired of special effects—and I thought the original was better. So send me an angry e-mail. I saw the original with my young son, and I had never seen anything like it, and the cast included Bill Murray (as this one does, in a cameo appearance). No one can outdo Bill Murray.
But I think the new version is a good movie, and if you like movies and comedies and women you should go see it.
The rest of you can pitch a fit on your I-phone.
 I read in the Times last week that this is a syndrome that is showing up in psychiatrist’s offices in New York. People are coming in with severe anxiety at the possibility of a Trump presidency.
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