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Did Mom See Semi-Tough?

May 20, 2021

It seems like almost every film I’m watching these days is either from Criterion or Kino Lorber, which seem like direct competitors to one-another.

I had seen Michael Ritchie’s Semi-Tough on shelves for years and had no interest in seeing it until I happened to read on Wikipedia that it has a parody of est, which is now called Landmark Forum, although critics and audiences had generally negative feedback for screenwriter Walter Bernstein’s inclusion of this plot element, which was absent from Dan Jenkins’s novel, which kept the focus on football, whereas in the film, it’s treated more as the central characters’ occupation than the main point of the story. Certainly in Unity I have heard from people who have taken wither est or Landmark seminars. David Friedman has mentioned his experiences with est. The part I remember most vividly is that they say that anyone can do anything to you at any time, but that the point is that that’s the case in real life. A person could pull out a gun and shoot you at any time, which is not to say that there would not be consequences for the other person.

Mom was certainly into new age and self-help in the 1970s, although the extent of my knowledge of that was her interest in the channeled works of Edgar Cayce and Ruth Montgomery, and both my parents taking Transcendental Meditation (TM) training, followed by Unity, where my dad stayed, but Mom going first for Urantia and then to A Course in Miracles, the latter remaining important to her until the end of her life. While I got almost all her books placed in the storage unit where the stuff she was storing for me went after she passed away, her Course books, which she had heavily annotated with multicolored highlighters, went to a friend who actively studies the Course with no objection from me.

While I’ve generally been delighted when Marianne Williamson, whom some people erroneously think created or runs A Course in Miracles rather than simply being a student of it, has spoken at Unity (years before she ran for president), and have had no objection with people in Unity sharing wisdom from it, I’ve been hesitant to study the Course based on the way my mother had a tendency to quote passages out of context in ways that are typically called metaphysical malpractice. In the film, Friedrich Bismarck, whose real name is revealed to be Irving (Bert Convy), is the limousine-riding guru of Bismark Energy Action Training (B.E.A.T.) In New Thought and metaphysics, we believe how you experience things is a choice, not that individuals control what happen to them. This is inherently true. Some people who become homeless become despondent, which we saw in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, while other, like me, chose to fight back, although not in a violent way. While these are two different scenes in the film, I find it amusing to pair them togther.

I didn’t choose for the images to be different sizes and don’t know how to make them uniform. They were all captured identically with the “Take Snapshot” tool on VLC Media Player. Neither, I think, did Bert Convy choose to have a stroke and die at the young age of 57, preceding his own mother, whom he was visiting at the time, in death. Many in New Thought believe those with terminal problems make the choice to leave their bodies at the point of death, but I doubt many believe that people choose whatever symptoms lead them to make the choice unless they are metaphysical malpractitioners.

On a side note, I find it amusing that even though these are two separate scenes in the film, the first about an hour and nine minutes in, and the second being the climax of the 108-minute film, the same guy is behind Bismark, which I didn’t notice until I was taking the screen grabs (I had to put it on maximum slow motion because VLC does not have step-by step, and it was very difficult to pause at the exact moment of the punch until I did). I immediately thought of punching Bismark, though. I’m not a violent person, but it seems like an obvious response to such ludicrous remarks about choice. If you chose for someone to punch you, then it would be ludicrous for the person who did it to face consequences. (Interestingly, this was the argument that was initially used to exonerate Armin Meiwes of murder and cannibalism because there was significant evidence of a willing victim, although it was overturned, and he was sent to prison.)

As Bismark is not the central character in the film, but more of a catalyst figure, what happens to him after this point is not shown, although he does not appear to have been hurt badly by the punch. The first punch thrown leads to a riot in the church, and a finale involving only two of the major characters. (Naturally, I’m trying to avoid spoilers.)

I mention my mother because she and my brother would make the obviously false claim, “You choose not to work.” They would also make logically fallacious arguments about how my mom, a secretary, works in spite of her knee problems, and my brother, a computer programmer, works in spite of having benign tumors on his kidneys, one of which had to be surgically removed because the tumors were that large. Telling someone with a master’s degree to work at Burger King or as a security guard walking the entire length of a large, many-story building multiple times a day when one has documented medical problems that cause pain and difficulty in prolonged standing and walking, as my mother did, or sending me a job posting for a management position at Whole Foods that specifically states “the ability to stand and walk for long periods of time” as a job requirement, as my brother did when the Columbus Circle Whole Foods was hiring staff prior to its opening, and getting responses from me full of insults and vulgarities is not a choice not to work, and no honest person could claim that it is.

Before I moved out of my parents’ house to attend graduate school in 2003, it was still common practice for businesses to demand job applications by fax, and this remained true until the late aughts. To me, this was a way of screening out unemployed applicants because, while some people had fax machines in their home, most people never adopted it, and my family certainly had not, and it was primarily used in offices. While Dad did it more than Mom, both parents would take resumes and cover letters to work with them to fax to the employer for me. To claim that I was somehow at fault for not going on interviews is effectively to accuse me without evidence of deleting messages from employers on the answering machine without taking the information and responding. I made it a practice not to delete such messages after I heard them, which annoyed my parents, but my feeling then as now is that the messages should be left for them to delete if Mom was going to make accusations. Bismark’s statements in the first scene were in response to the guy standing at the microphone in the first shot who is angry that his boss fired him without good cause. As more and more businesses were accepting applications by e-mail–during this period there was an array of how employers wanted you to respond–mail, fax, e-mail, or in person–few allowing any choice of application method to the applicant–it became easier for Mom to accuse me of not applying because printing application confirmations would just get her angry at the use of the ink.

So that’s why I wonder if I’m right about whether this character is an influence. Ritchie and Bernstein never go so far as to portray Bismark as a fraud. It would be wrong to say he believes in what he is doing because he is opposed to the concept of belief, yet there is no explicit portrayal of him as insincere–the fact that he is introduced using a phone in the back of a limousine and multiple references to the money paid to attend his seminars is certainly cynical, but so is the scene in which he and the priest of the church talk about investment opportunities and tax breaks. These moments might lead one in that direction, but they leave it up to the viewer whether they are all; about the money or if these are simply practical concerns. As someone formerly blacklisted as Communist, not to mention simply as an artist, Bernstein probably knew better than to draw any overt conclusion from this. Mom never made any money off A Course in Miracles. It would have been anathema to her. The collection was to pay the church for renting of the space and using the electricity.

I’m sure someone in my comments will revisit some of the negative posts I wrote about my mother while she was alive. This isn’t about criticizing my mother. It’s about criticizing a wrong idea that she held in common with others.

I never intended this post to be so long, but I also never intended it to be an overall review of the film, as there was never any intention to discuss more than one aspect of it. One could do another entire essay on how the film portrays mistreatment of women in ways that a viewer today (or at least I) would interpret as uncritical. I gave Mr. Freedom, in which the men are even more abusive of women, a 10 out of 10; however, that film was satirizing the antics of white nationalists, making it hard to not see that as an aspect of what director William Klein was deriding.

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2 Comments
  1. Reality (Troll Too Cowardly to Give Real Name) permalink

    Stop blaming your Mother for your failures and take some accountability once in your life. You’ve made some poor decisions own up to them.

    • More idiotic, substance-free platitudes, I see. If I asked you to identify the poor decisions I’ve made in life, I guarantee they’d boil down to, “You need to major in your worst subject if that’s where the biggest demand is, then blame yourself when you fail.”

      Your image looks like a modified swastika.

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