CHILD OF GIANTS: Lange & Dixon's Legacy

CHILD OF GIANTS is a documentary about being the child of two creative masters of the last century; photographer Dorothea Lange and painter Maynard Dixon. It is an honestly crafted work. It brings depth to the artist, honoring their work, without idolizing them. Tom Ropelewski, a screenwriter known for romantic comedies, recognized in Daniel Dixon's handling of his life with extraordinary parents a really good story. Daniel, an advertising copy writer, had a way of telling stories that translated tragedy into "matter of fact" and sometimes humor. Daniel's is the main narrative voice in the story. His perspectives are augmented by his brother's, other family members' and his parent's art. The oldest child often has more understanding of their parents, in hind sight, than others. It is not easy to be the offspring of people whose destiny is to change the way we see the world. Often the parents don't know what their destiny is; they just do what they do with passion, while walking a tight rope over an ocean of uncharted waters.

Dorothea Lange was some twenty years younger than her husband Dixon. Her early experience with her own parents’ marriage hadn't left her a big fan of convention. She was a feminist before the word was coined. Like her contemporary visual artist women colleagues, Freda Kahlo and Georgia O'Keefe she was a force to be reckoned with. Also, like them, her partners of necessity had to revel in the uniqueness of her creative character and be unintimidated by it. Maynard Dixon was not the hand maiden husband to the great genius of Dorothea Lange. She was his equal. Neither sacrificed much for the other's career; the children suffered for both.

Among the greatest challenges in raising children with an understanding of oppression is insuring they do not become victims of it. There are critical points in children's lives were they need to be secure, that they are the center of the universe. But when your mother is busy advancing a new art form which has the power to document a call for justice in a turbulent time of history, it's pretty clear you are not the center of the universe. When your father disappears for months at a time to paint the vanishing indigenous peoples and lands of the south west, it's rather like telling children there is no Santa Claus at the wrong point in their development.

Dorothea watched the great depression unfold from the window of her studio in San Francisco. When given the opportunity to use her skill to express something of meaning about the depression she did so with singular elegance, creating icons which changed policy and arguably ushered in the error of the concerned photographer. During the internment of Japanese Americans she used the camera again as an organ of human consciousness, creating enduring images of strength and shame.

In medicine we know how you describe a problem affects how you handle the problem. As in the HIV/AIDS epidemic, what you call a thing determines how you respond to it. If it is seen as a narrow outbreak or an isolated economic depression in rural areas -- government has little need to intervene. A whiny baby gets Tylenol and is sent home; an inconsolable febrile child gets a lumbar puncture and admitted. When evidence of wide scale suffering and despair is undeniably documented as in Dorothea's photographs of the depression, the narrative cannot be ignored.

Modern medical ethics is usually taught by the principle based method. In this method one learns to analyze the tension between major ethical principles, particularly beneficence, autonomy, and justice. An alternative to principal based moral reasoning is casuistry. Casuistry uses cases or stories to enhance moral reasoning. The density of visual works of Lange and M. Dixon in the film demonstrate how their visual narrative was able to bring otherwise distant stories to the eye line of masses of Americans. This proximity of visual narrative affected moral reasoning around social policy. Dorothea found greater meaning in her work than in her marriage. The marriage broke up at a time when people were rarely divorced. The Dixon boys were destabilized once again.

In general, all children have a problem forgiving parents for destroying the family romance; children of giants or not. Forgiveness begins to happen when you are a parent yourself. Child of Giants is a story of how Daniel and John were both damaged and nourished by the eccentricities and strengths of their parents, and then forgave them their humanity. It is said that the developmental tasks of life's end include communicating to those whom you love some specifics. Daniel Dixon died before seeing the final cut of CHILD OF GIANTS. However, it seems that in the process of making the film, Daniel's final developmental tasks were achieved. It is our good fortune that filmmaker Tom Ropeleski had the good sense and skill to create this documentary. After all, the legacy of a great artist should be that they inspire more great artists.

CHILD OF GIANTS. DVD. Directed by Tom Ropeleski. USA. 2010.


MIRAL: Roots of Peace

MIRAL is a cross cultural, inter-generational film about preparing people for Peace; particularly those who have been oppressed by war. Peace in the world of bioethics is a “good,” which can only be held by humanity as a whole -- not the individual. It is important to understand that Peace is likely to be found in a collective unconscious which transcends our divisions. Peace exist in the territory that connects us, not that which separates us.  

Miral, a seventeen year old girl derives from the characters of three other women in the film. These women are reminiscent of universal stories from the era before God was considered male. Universal stories resonate within the human core and contain archetypes. Archetypes are imprints that exist in our psyches. Those of us who work with dying people encourage personal narratives; how many times we hear King Lear and his daughters! Archetypes are a way in which human beings make sense of complex experiences. Artists tend to express these core experiences in ways that translate across culture. The term archetypes comes from the Greek word archetypos, meaning "first of its kind."  Archetypes derive from icons. Icons are Gods and their doppelganger Monsters.   

When God was a woman, she had three parts: Creation, Love, and Destruction.  Nadia is Miral's mother. Nadia was a victim of sexual violence, which resulted in the creation of Miral. Nadia's indomitable spirit of resistance was manifested by her gnawing off parts of herself to escape the trap in which she was caught; until predictably there was nothing left.  Hind el Husseni  as a young Palestinian woman, turned a corner in the blue dawn light of Jerusalem to find 55  children hungry and displaced by the Deir Yassin massacre. This massacre destroyed an Arab- Palestinian village during the civil war that just preceded the end of British rule of Palestine & Israel in 1948.  Hind's first statement to the children in the school she founded is always, "I love you." Not unlike Maria Montessori Hind sets about the task of educating children for Peace. Fatima, a nurse is fired for freeing patients who would be taken as prisoners of war.  This injustice radicalizes Fatima to extremism. Fatima meets Nadia in prison while serving 3 life sentences for a bomb that did not go off. Fatima's brother, who works at the home for children with Hind, cares for Nadia at his sister’s request. He then marries Nadia, raising her baby, Miral, as his own and educating her at Hind's school.  Nadia, Hind, and Fatima contribute parts of Miral, "a common red flower that grows by the side of the road.”   Hence creation, love and destruction bring the roots of Peace.     

MIRAL is a good film for those interested in bioethical issues because it deals with ethical conflict at global, historical and personal levels.  In Fatima, it has a direct reference to ethical conflict in a health care provider. It demands a review of the Declaration of Human Rights which is an important part of the origin of the field of modern bioethics. Miral's ethical conflict is truly tripartite between, beneficence (what knowledge brings and she has been impeccably educated); autonomy (respect for the right to act in her own self-interest) manifested by her love for Hani who at the time is embracing acts of sabotage which risk life; and justice (equipoise in distribution of risk and burdens) for a people displaced for centuries (Jewish people) and a people being refugeed to accommodate them (Palestinians).   

Julian Schnabel is a Jewish American painter and clearly consummate film director. He is the son of a 1948 Hadassah president and so is hardwired to attempt to do good against the odds. He and Palestinian writer, Rula Jebreal, bring her semi-autobiographical novel to the screen. The film's collaborative process reflects the struggle and goals about which it speaks. In this film steeped in war, Schnabel's apt creative capacity shows no graphic violence. A bulldozer wrecking a Palestinian home rips tears from us as we add our reactions to the shots of the impotent members of the refugee camp. Our emotional temperature is changed with the use of film craft: shifting color, saturation, grain and focus. The films words are spare, visuals are modern, and the music decisive.  An homage to EXODUS (Preminger, 1960) in handling of geography and innovation of storytelling,   Mr. Schnabel and film family have created a film both epic and specifically intimate.  We identify with Miral's adolescent evolution to Peace agency and more importantly, we want to be her.     

MIRAL.  35 mm. Directed by Julian Schnabel. Venice/France/USA.  2010. The Weinstein Company.  (112 min)  

For more Film / Bioethics Literacy on this site see: "Lighten Up" slides, 0.045, 0.046 (How film changes culture), .053 (Read All Tracts), 0.057 (lighting what is it saying). 

also cf. LA MISSION: Prototype for the Peace Genre  on this site May 2010 


NOWHERE BOY: Open Adoption and Autonomy

NOWHERE BOY is a coming of age story about triumph over destructive losses to find wholeness and direction for a young man.  His is the story not of an icon so much as a typical example of changes of thinking that hallmark a generation. This is an ordinary story, of an ordinarily confused adolescent, seeking to clarify those things which constitute acting in his own best self-interest.  In bioethics, such self-interest is serviced by respect for the principle of autonomy.  The fact that the young man is John Lennon, is in a way incidental. Skilled documentary filmmaker cum fiction director, Sam Taylor-Wood, convincingly argues it is the boy’s tough process that made the creative "John Lennon.”

In the story, John has been adopted by an aunt and uncle. He has grown up without knowing his birth mother or father. The death of his uncle, whom he adored, catalyzes waves of desire to connect the dots between sketchy early childhood memories and his current reality.  He needs to know his birth parents. Denial of this need causes rebellious actions, expulsion from school and other attempts at individuation. This film is an infinitely more subtle handling of ethical issues around adoption than the strong but comedic film THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT (Cholodenko, 2010).

Most of the last century, the norm in adoption was to protect the unenlightened self-interest of involved adults through closed adoption. In closed adoption children have no contact with birth parents once adopted. The unadoptable were institutionalized or placed in foster care, as illustrated in CIDER HOUSE RULES. (Hailstrom, 2000).  Modern physician’s ethical consultation around pregnancy is supposed to explore all medically indicated options; birth with rearing, birth with adoption, and abortion.  Through Matt Greenhalg's script craft and deftly delivered performances by Kristin Scott Thomas, David Threlfall, Josh Bolt, and Ophelia Lovibond, ethical conflicts between these options are expressed through characters.  For instance, John's Aunt Mimi initially is the embodiment of the approach of closed adoption.

In the past 25 years, coinciding with the bioethics of protection of the rights of vulnerable persons, the rights of adopted children and birth mothers relinquishing children under duress are more fully being considered. In NOWHERE BOY, both adolescent John and his mother, a manic depressive scarred from the burdens of relinquishing her son, are both vulnerable persons In the case of adopted and foster children, the rearing parents are the guardians of those children's autonomous rights. Mimi acts as proxy for John. There has been an inherent ethical conflict for the rearing parents in the face of little scientific information about the developmental outcomes of children in closed adoption.  The demands of adopted children led to legal remedies which allowed for adoptions to be opened and outcomes to be evaluated. Along with his creative talent, John Lennon’s genius may have included his demanding open adoption for himself forty years before those legal challenges occurred.

With the expanded knowledge of outcomes in different forms of adoption come opportunities for individual and societal moral growth. The bioethical principle of beneficence is the obligation to do good with knowledge.  What we have learned from open adoption is related to acceptance or rejection of differences between biological and adoptive parenthood. Virtually all researchers currently agree: insistence that biological and adoptive parenthood are the same leaves adoptive children with no venue to express grief, anger, or fears about abandonment and rejection from either parent.  If parents are unreceptive to the needs of their children to express how they feel, then loss of self-esteem has been observed. John lost self-esteem when his aunt was unable to allow him to express grief around his uncle's death or his mother's rejection.

John’s relationship with his aunt is in contrast to the one with his mother. John's access to his birth mother, who loves music and teaches him in turn to play an instrument, provides him with a tool for self-expression.  John's passion for expression eventually enables his birth mother and his rearing mother, who are sisters, to complete developmental tasks in their own relationship.  It bears stating that the lyrical, visual and narrative demonstration of John's passion for music, and his process of creativity are as well done as any artist biographic film. The scenes of John learning to play the banjo and write music are layered and reminiscent of Citizen Kane’s wife’s opera debut.

Dedicated to Anthony Minghella, this film has three hallmarks of a Minghella collaboration: A love triangle - uniquely between the birth mother, adoptive mother and John; all parties are eligible for redemption, and finally the work is visually breathtaking.

Nowhere Boy. 35 mm. Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood. USA The Weinstein Company. October 8, 2010. (97 min)