High on Heels (2020)

The short documentary High on Heels, from director Adelin Gasana and co-producer Lola Kayode, takes on high heels, their history, and continued cultural and social impact. With interviews from a multitude of fashion designers, entrepreneurs, models, actresses, influencers, doctors and chiropractors, and cultural and design historians, the film considers the cultural obsession with high heels and how they can both empower and disempower women.

High heels themselves are a somewhat fraught topic—often treated as both a violation of feminism and a form of feminist empowerment, sometimes in the same sentence. And many, though not all, of the women interviewed in High on Heels acknowledge the complicated nature of heels as a cultural and social marker: the sense that they are both an entrapment of fashion and cultural constructs of femininity, and a source of confidence for women in the workplace and on the street. High heels elevate women, but also constrain and confine them. Most of the women discuss how they feel empowered when wearing heels—that the way heels make them walk, and the form that they give the body, imparts a sort of confidence, of being sexy and feminine. Of course, many also admit that this is itself constructed by culture—we’ve come to see heels as one of the major indicators of femininity, to the point that women are often required (tacitly or explicitly) to wear heels in order to present themselves as professional. 

The other side is the very real impact that heels have on women’s bodies, as detailed by several chiropractors and doctors. Heels might provide a sense of empowerment, but their structure misshapes women’s bodies, raising dangers of lower back, knee, hip, and ankle problems. Wearing heels for any length of time becomes painful in the short term, and potentially damaging in the long. High on Heels does not spend much time on the other physical consideration, that heels are themselves constraining and that while they might be considered sexy, they also inhibit women’s movement (this is briefly addressed in a “how to walk in high heels” video that explains how carefully one must ascend and descend the stairs, but is not elaborated on).

It’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t attempt to define whether women should or should not wear high heels, whether the pain and possibility of permanently damaging your body is worth the sense of power and confidence. High on Heels does remind us that much of the pressure to wear heels (or not) is not about men, but about women: how we understand femininity, how we relate to our own bodies, how we judge other women. At one point, a commentator says that all beauty is painful—and that, whether she knows it or not, says a lot.

High on Heels is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Love and Debt (2020)

Given the events of the past four (twelve?) years it’s amazing that more contemporary dramedies don’t try to treat of the complexities in the increasing (and likely to continue increasing) money woes of…pretty much every American. Love & Debt, from director Valerie Landsburg, attempts to explore this experience from a sympathetic, though thematically muddled, perspective, in the story of a white-collar father and husband who loses his job and won’t tell his family, not even when debt collectors come calling.

The film centers around Henry (Tom Cavanagh) and Karen (Bellamy Young), an upper middle class couple with the requisite 2.5 children and a fancy house in the suburbs. Karen divides her time between trying to manage her children—an obnoxious adolescent girl, a hockey-obsessed middle child, and her youngest son, who has selective mutism—and developing her own business as a home organizer. She’s frazzled and exhausted and doesn’t yet know that Henry has lost his job and is more than eighty thousand dollars in debt, now owed to a collection agency. Collection agent Travis (Casey Abrams) has been assigned to Henry’s case, making tenuous connections with every member of the family as he desperately tries to get Henry on the phone and explain that he has to pay up. What ensues is a muddle of lies, confusion, concealment, and multiplying stress within a family already edging towards collapse.

Love & Debt manages to be funny without being cloying, highlighting the humanity of the characters even as they make confused, foolish, and all-too-understandable decisions in their increasingly stressful lives. Yes, we’re once again focusing on white collar workers who have the benefit of being in debt without getting the cops or the repo men called to the door, but the film skirts the class issue somewhat to focus on the stress undergone by a husband who can’t bring himself to ask for help or admit failure, and a wife who experiences a whole different kind of stress with no support at home. The film shifts the viewers sympathies between Henry, Karen, and Travis in equal measure, focusing in the second half more on Henry’s attempts to find a job and Karen’s attempts to corral three children, her own overbearing mother, and her husband’s increasingly odd behavior. Travis deserved a bit more focus, as he attempts to do a thankless job that he obviously does not have the stomach for. The film’s message here is one of humanity—that the collection agent is a person who has to see the debtors as less than people (otherwise he’ll lose his mind), that the husband and wife are both people undergoing their own forms of stress, that concealment and lies only result in children having to be the parents, and in parents repeating the sins of their own parents.

Love & Debt wobbles a good bit in the final act, as the film slips into fairly worn clichés and more than one deus ex machina moment. It becomes hard to feel sympathy for Henry, who seems to blame everyone but himself for his debts and the lengths he goes to conceal them, or for Karen, who can’t handle her husband’s lies or the stress of her children, and lashes out in erratic ways. The film seems to be trying to bring things to a satisfying conclusion where no logical conclusion will satisfy, and the final act plays out much as one would expect, without much of the energy or the commentary of the first two-thirds of the film.

Love & Debt feels unfinished, an interesting concept with a strong start that peters out as it comes to a close. Where the audience’s sympathy should lie is an open question, and exploring that issue of sympathy with a group of people occasionally behaving very stupidly and very humanly would have been interesting, if the payoff made it work. But Love & Debt wants to be comfortable viewing while also exploring a complex and difficult topic. Too much time is spent with Henry and Karen and not enough with Travis and his weird band of fellow debt collectors—arguably the more interesting characters, people who have to suborn their humanity in the interest of keeping their jobs, trying to avoid becoming too sympathetic or involved with those they’re trying to collect from in a cycle of parasitic capitalism.

It’s a shame, because the film does have a good heart and generally strong performances across the board. But it winds up feeling a bit perfunctory, as though Landsburg wants to tell a story that she can’t quite bring herself to tell in full. The film is worth it as a diversion, and for the changes of sympathy that the audience has to grapple with, but there’s a lack of depth at the end that makes things just a bit too pat.

Love & Debt is now on VOD and streaming on Amazon Prime.

The Dalai Lama – Scientist (2020)

Dawn Gifford Engle’s The Dalai Lama – Scientist examines the 14th Dalai Lama’s lifelong interest in science and technology, culminating in his initiation of a number of dialogues between himself, fellow monks, and (primarily) Western scientists, including physicists, neuroscientists, and psychologists. The goal was not only to feed the Dalai Lama’s fascination with science, but to establish a conversation and potential collaboration between Eastern religious philosophy and Western science. As the film chronicles these dialogues, an evocative image emerges of the sympathetic relationship.

Despite the slightly odd title, The Dalai Lama – Scientist is an interesting examination of the developing collaborative relationship between Western science and Eastern religious philosophy, specifically Tibetan Buddhism, in the person of the Lama himself. The most interesting sections focus on the extensive dialogues between the Dalai Lama and Nobel Prize-winning physicists, MIT neurologists, psychoanalysts, and beyond. It then traces the similarities between Buddhist thinking and the foundations of quantum physics, neurology, and psychological examination. In establishing a clear comparison between two apparently disconnected modes of human investigation, there’s a revelation that perhaps science and religion are not and should not be at odds, that the constant questioning and investigation of the world around us and within us are more human endeavors than strictly religious or scientific ones, and that much can be learned by collaboration rather than skepticism of each other.

The film does occasionally veer into the hokey and brushes against some New Age mysticism that is at odds with the attempt to take both Tibetan teachings and quantum mechanics, among other things, seriously. This is not a critical documentary, but more of an instructive one, and relies primarily, if not exclusively, on the viewer’s comprehension of a number of heady concepts. But both as a mental exercise and as a unique insight into these dialogues between the Dalai Lama and scientists, it functions well, most interesting when the film takes a step back and simply shows us, in somewhat truncated form, the progression of the dialogues and the revelations from both sides of the aisle.

Happily, The Dalai Lama – Scientist makes those dialogues available and accessible, with minimal interference. Yes, we are meant to respect and understand both sides of the conversation, their complexities and mutabilities, and not really to question the dialogues as political exercises (though a brief statement, nearing the end of the film, clarifies that the Dalai Lama did actually meet with Chinese scientists not long ago), but the whole interaction is intriguing without being politicized. The film does not necessarily take a position, though the title indicates that it’s certainly coming from the side of the Lama – the film is produced by PeaceJam, a foundation made up of fourteen Nobel Peace Laureates, including himself, and is part of a series intended to showcase the work of the Laureates.

The Dalai Lama – Scientist is ultimately intended to preach to the choir, instructing without much critique, but it accomplishes its project intelligently, developing the relationships between science and religion via the person of the Dalai Lama and his desire to integrate his belief system and the teachings of the Buddha with scientific understanding. Ultimately, this is about mutual respect, learning what we can from different modes of thinking, and developing relationships that that bring us together as human beings. It’s an act of love and of collaboration, reinforcing the ability of human beings, and especially intellectual thinkers, to bring disparate modes of thinking together in common understanding and with a common goal to further human investigation and enlightenment. For its occasional hokeyness, it’s hard to fault the film for that.

The Dalai Lama – Scientist is available to stream on Kanopy, Vudu, and Amazon, among others.