We just watched this fantastic movie last night. It was last year's Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film. The movie details the Stasi's surveillance of an East German playwright and his actress girlfriend. It is through that story that we see how the surveillance changes the man doing the surveilling, how it affects relationships in the GDR, how it ruins lives, kills dreams. The previous sentences have no doubt reductively turned this amazing movie into something you think will not interest you, but believe me it is potentially the saddest, most hopeful, darkest, most optimistic movie you will see this year. We have good friends from Germany; one from the West and one who grew up in the GDR. They met, literally, when the wall came down, and are now married with kids. I remember them telling us about the day the wall fell, how West streamed into East and vice versa, the headiness, the disbelief, the notion of walking either backward or forward in time depending on which side you'd come from. Perhaps their most compelling story of that day is the memory of sheer mass panic as a siren sounded loudly several hours after the wall fell. Everyone thought the wall was being closed, that they had to run for their lives to make it to the Western side of the wall. It is one of those stories you hear, and you feel for your friends but you really, honestly have no true idea what they were feeling because, as Sister Patty always tells me, "You can't know what you can't know," meaning that certain life events will always only be truly understood by those who experienced them first-hand. Others can empathize, sympathize and imagine the feeling, but they cannot KNOW because they cannot know. Watching The Lives of Others drove home to me what my friends must have been feeling as they heard that siren blare. It also demonstrated the power of the individual to change a world even under the repression of a state.
And speaking of the lives of others, I've been mulling Britney Spears over the past few days. I know; things I thought I'd never say. But hear me out. Asra Nomani, a contributor to People magazine, resigned last week following the massive paparazzi convoy following Britney Spears home from UCLA Medical Center where she'd been hospitalized for psychiatric evaluation against her will. Nomani acknowledged complicity in feeding the beast of the Britney media circus, but had come to believe that "basic moral decency" required the press to back off as Spears was clearly in a fight for her life. Some have called this move holier than thou, others say it is simply not workable; that the public wants their Britney and they are in the business of providing it. Others say that Britney herself wants all this attention.
So here's my point: Isn't Britney Spears a bit of a metaphor for the current negative state of popular culture in America? She represents the pursuit of fame from a very young age, driven by parental dreams. She embodies the "ick" factor that should be inherent in the sexualization of young females in America. Back in the late 90's when she was first on the scene at 15 and 16, women commented on the grossness of men in their 20's and 30's lusting after (an albeit scantily-clad) child. I remember thinking less of male coworkers who thought she was "hot." (Some of those males now have toddler daughters, which delights me no end as they finally "get it," that they'd kill any 30 year old guy looking at their 15 year-old daughter). She represents the pursuit of money at all costs. Rolling Stone's recent article on her details how her "friends" and assistants were promised shopping sprees by her management if they could get Britney to come out of her trailer to work on days when she was not feeling well, not up to doing press, or just in general being a human teenager. Can you imagine a life where everyone around you is out for themselves? Where your friends are cheering you up so they can get stuff at Armani Exchange? It's unconscionable on a basic, human level. Britney, unfortunately, also represents an abdication of parental responsibility to PARENT your child. I'm not talking about Britney's kids; I'm talking about Britney's mother and father. No child should be the sole breadwinner for the family, and no parent should ever allow it. And becoming a paid employee of your kid doesn't count, Mrs. Spears. But most disturbingly--and perhaps the issue that prompted me to thinking about Britney Spears--is that she represents the lack of compassion in our popular culture. Here is a young woman clearly in the throes of a profound mental health crisis...and we watch it as if she's not really human, and worse--as if WE are not really human. It bothers me greatly. Especially in the context of watching The Lives of Others, wherein (mini-spoiler alert) the Stasi agent, becoming more troubled by the motivations behind his orders to spy on the playwright, seems to find his humanity deepened as the actions of others grow more frantic and more sinister. In my interpretation, the life of the playwright held up a mirror to the Stasi agent's life, and he didn't like what he saw. So too, perhaps the chaos and drama and unrelenting footage of Britney's descent into mental illness will hold a mirror up to our lives and perhaps reflect the sickness we have inside ourselves and our culture that turns such a lamentable situation into entertainment.