Erin Brockovich

erin brockovich

This 2000 biopic traces the real-life story of Erin Brockovich, a broke, uneducated single mother of 3 who happens to stumble on a major cover up by PG&E and ends up winning the largest direct-action lawsuit in United States history. Erin first happens upon a suspicious real estate case involving the Pacific Gas & Electric company while working as a legal assistant at a small firm. Outraged when she realizes they’ve been improperly disposing of toxic hexavalent chromium and poisoning the residents of Hinkley, the formerly desperate single mother uncovers her purpose: to punish the $28 billion corporation and serve justice.  

When the film opens, Erin is at her breaking point.  After fumbling through a job interview, Erin pulls out of her parking space only to be smashed by an E.R. doctor speeding through a red light.  Hoping to win a settlement for her injuries, Erin enlists the help of lawyer Ed Masry.  A few moments later we see Erin in a neck brace presenting her case to a courtroom: “I don’t have insurance so now I’m about $17,000 in debt,” she confesses, hoping to garner sympathy from the jury.  “Does your husband help you out?” the defense questions. “Which one?” Erin asks with the toughness of a woman who’s used to being betrayed. “There’s more than one?” he responds judgmentally, suggesting he’s both shocked and a little disgusted that’s she’s been married more than once.  Ed’s legal strategy to paint Erin as a hapless victim worthy of pity backfires shortly after when the defense lawyer accuses her of purposely hitting his client for money. “That asshole smashed in my fucking neck!” she screams back, defensive.  When Erin gives her profanity-laden reply, she seals her fate: the jury dismisses her as a white trash single mom looking for a meal ticket and hands in a not guilty verdict for the doctor.  

erin brockovich neckbrace

This is our first introduction to the troubling irony of the U.S. justice system: Erin, who in fact tells the truth, loses while the hot shot doctor in a Jaguar just walks away.  In this opening scene, Erin Brockovich suggests there is no retribution for lawbreakers (if they have money), certainly no justice for victims.  Most often, the little guy goes to jail and the titan corporation (or double-dealing politician or swindling stock broker) gets away with murder.

In a nation where democracy has been overrun by greed and the 1% have been divided from the 99%, Erin Brockovich resonates today more than ever.  At present, most Americans seriously doubt the integrity of our government and justice system.  What makes Erin Brockovich so appealing is that it restores our faith in justice and order: in the end, morality prevails and the residents of Hinkley win the lawsuit.  In a way, Erin represents all the people our justice system neglects-the minorities, the drug addicts, the single mothers- so it is all the more satisfying when she puts that system on trial and bulldozes it to the ground.  

Director Soderbergh’s southern California is desolate and barren much like the wasteland of corruption Erin encounters there.  A $28 billion corporation, PG&E proves a mammoth adversary, its Hinkley plant a menacing force that hovers above every shot.  Throughout the film, the monster corporation erects roadblock after roadblock to impede Erin from filing (and winning) her lawsuit: they intimidate her, drown her in paperwork, even threaten her at her home.

erin & ed

At its core, Erin Brockovich is an underdog’s tale. “It’s kind of like David and what’s his name,” Erin smirks with Roberts’ trademark winning smile. “Yeah,” Ed scoffs, “it’s kind of like what’s his name’s whole fucking family.”  But rather than resort to what film critic Todd McCarthy calls the “hackneyed movie hoopla of hooting and hollering” typical of such courtroom dramas, Erin Brockovich ends on an understated, even anti-climactic note.  There’s no closing court scene, no final showdown between Erin and PG&E.  Instead, the film concludes with Erin and her boyfriend George visiting Donna Jensen, one of their plaintiffs, on a quiet summer day.  While sipping lemonade on the porch, Erin reveals they’ve won the case: “I wanted to come here instead of calling because the judge came back with a number…he’s going to make them pay $333 million and he’s going to make them give 5 million of that to your family.”  

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Soderbergh’s choice to end the epic battle between Erin and PG&E in such a restrained way is effective for the same reason that stories are more persuasive than statistics.  Statistics are cold, hard, purely factual, impersonal; stories are individual.  If I tell you 1 in 5 children in the U.S. go to bed hungry, you might momentarily think to yourself, “Aw, that’s sad” but reflect no more about it.  But if I tell you the story of a specific child, a child named Eduardo for instance, who has to rummage in the trash cans at school for extra food, the suffering of hungry children will feel more real to you.  By focusing on one plaintiff, Donna, out of the hundreds who were poisoned and lied to by PG&E, Soderbergh renders the scene more poignant than if he had depicted more than one character.  Because of this clever stylistic choice, we fully grasp Donna’s pain…and her relief that it’s all over.

Despite its artistic sensibilities, Erin Brockovich never forgets to establish its mainstream appeal: often times, the film resorts to trying-too-hard, clever-sounding banter, funny (if predictable) sitcom-like jokes, and an unbelievably leggy Roberts in a short skirt and cut-too-low top. Leading film critic Roger Ebert, among others, have accused Erin Brockovich of focusing too intently on Roberts’ sex appeal, claiming “unwise wardrobe decisions position her somewhere between a character and distraction.”  

Sadly, the objection of women’s bodies for box office profits is nothing new-just look at any action movie trailer. Though Roberts’ aggressive cleavage is prominent in most shots, for me, her skimpy outfits contribute-not detract-from the development of her character. Erin Brockovich is a movie about a real woman, a working class woman who hilariously said “Roberts’ skirts weren’t short enough” upon seeing the premiere. However undignified, Roberts’ slutty attire maintains the film’s realism by capturing Erin the woman as she actually was. After all, it wouldn’t make much sense for a penniless single mom to be strutting around in high-end heels and classy pencil skirts.

At the end of the day, Erin Brockovich may have flaws but it never fails to entertain-and inspire.

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Adler & Doren on How to Read a Book

Though published in 1940, How to Read a Book remains as relevant as ever.  Adler and Doren are adept instructors, their advice for intelligent reading both erudite and accessible.  This seminal guide to critical reading will make a valuable addition to your reference library whether you’re a literati aspirant or a bibliophile.

Adler and Doren’s approach to deconstructing a text primarily rests on active reading.  For them, in reading there is a clear relationship between effort and reward: the more we engage, the more we understand; conversely, the less we participate, the less we grasp the author’s meaning:

Though, strictly speaking, there can be no absolutely passive reading, many people think that, as compared with writing and speaking, which are obviously active undertakings, reading and listening are entirely passive.  Reading and listening are thought of as receiving communication from someone who is actively engaged in giving or sending it.  The mistake here is to suppose that receiving communication is like receiving a blow or a legacy or a judgement from the court.  On the contrary, the reader or listener is much more like a catcher in a game of baseball.

Catching the ball is just as much an activity as pitching or hitting it.  The pitcher or batter is the sender in the sense that his activity initiates the motion of the ball.  The catcher or fielder is the receiver in the sense that his activity terminates it.  Both are active, though the activities are different.  If anything is passive, it is the ball.  It is the inert thing that is put into motion or stopped, whereas the players are active, moving to pitch, hit or catch.  The analogy with reading and writing is almost perfect.  The thing that is written or read, like the ball, is the passive object common to the two activities that begin and terminate the process.

There is one respect in which the analogy breaks down.  The ball is a simple unit.  It is either completely caught or not.  A piece of writing, however, is a complex object.  It can be received more or less completely, all the way from very little to what the writer intended to the whole of it.  The amount the reader ‘catches’ will usually depend on the amount of activity he puts into the process, as well as upon the skill with which he executes the different mental acts involved.”

how to read a book

Adler and Doren’s argument is essentially this: books have much to offer us but only in proportion to how much we’re willing to work for them.  The skilled reader— through his active engagement— will deepen his understanding and broaden his viewpoint of the world. Like a ruthless prosecutor, he interrogates the text and— by asking it questions and demanding answers— he gains something.  The idle reader gains nothing but perhaps a few hours wasted.  In order for a book to become a part of you, Adler and Doren contend, you must put forth the effort.

Though I’d call myself an avid reader, sometimes I feel I amass— as Sylvia Plath would sayvery little of what I read.  For anyone who wishes to ponder loftier matters of philosophy or read (and actually understand) the canonical works of Dante or Shakespeare, How to Read a Book is an indispensable resource.  Adler and Doren offer practical tips that can aid any level of reader, from the most sophisticated to the beginner.  I found their “Four Basic Questions” incredibly useful as a general guide to tackling a text and especially liked how they refined this approach for specific kinds of texts in subsequent chapters.  Part III is entirely dedicated to outlining these methods for different subject matter and includes discussions on reading everything from mathematics and science to lyric poetry and imaginative literature.

At times, Adler and Doren tend to over-explain the obvious, making certain chapters needlessly tedious.  At others, they unfairly prioritize one subject over another (their chapter on philosophy, for example, is nearly twice as long as their chapter on imaginative literature. You’d think more people would need help navigating the complex labyrinths of plot and character).  But despite these shortcomings, How to Read a Book remains a must-have for those who want to be better critical readers.

Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much With Us”

Wordsworth & Nature

The World Is Too Much With Us

By William Wordsworth 

The world is too much with us; late and soon, 

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;— 

Little we see in Nature that is ours; 

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! 

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon; 

The winds that will be howling at all hours, 

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers; 

For this, for everything, we are out of tune; 

It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be 

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; 

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, 

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; 

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; 

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Like many Romantic poets, Wordsworth felt the critical problem of modernity was the intrusion of industrialization onto nature. Historically, the 19th century was a time that saw rapid technological change like no other: factories rose, machines displaced human workers, and millions abandoned the lush country side for bustling city centers.  

In his elegiac sonnet “The World is Too Much With Us,” William Wordsworth laments this loss of an intimate connection with nature.  The first line and title of the poem— “the world is too much with us”— mourns this urbanization, claiming it is because we can’t escape the hectic hustle and bustle of everyday life that we can’t appreciate nature (Wordsworth 1). Wordsworth’s use of the 1st person plural “we” in this line performs two functions: 1) grammatically, it indicates that alienation from the glories of nature is a widespread— rather than isolated— problem and 2) by its inclusion of Wordsworth, the 1st person plural suggests that he, too, suffers from this disillusioning feeling of disconnect.

Our unceasing obsession with “getting” and “spending” points to the rampant consumerism that pervades our capitalist culture. Rather than possess exulted, spiritual ambitions, most of us—Wordsworth would argue— are content just buying the new I-phone. This replacement of spiritual values with material ones deeply disturbed the Romantics, as they believed acquiring more things was an ultimately futile exercise. By phrasing these verbs in the present progressive (“getting” as opposed to its present form “get” or past form “got”), Wordsworth suggests the desire for more things is insatiable and can never be fulfilled. The desire to obtain more is perpetually bound to the progressive “-ing”: always present and never satisfied.

Even the words themselves hint at the ceaselessness of the consumerist cycle: once we procure or “get” the object of our desire, we immediately want something new. We then “spend” our money only to find that the attainment of our wish (yet again!) leaves us disappointed. And what do we do? We go out and buy something else! Wordsworth abhorred such materialism, believing the accumulation of objects could never lead to a rich, satisfying life.

Most of us feel a vague sense of ennui, Wordsworth claims, because we’re preoccupied with the superficial and estranged from the beauty and wisdom of nature: “Little we see in Nature that is ours” (Wordsworth 3). Here, the capitalization of “Nature” elevates the natural world to status of proper noun, which suggests Nature is god-like in its power. The tragedy, however, is that— while attached to physical things like money and objects— we feel little ownership of the natural world. Though industrialization represents our demolition of nature and urbanization saw us claim ownership of nature like never before, we see little in nature that is “ours”, meaning we no longer feel connected to Mother Earth: we may “see” a sunset, but we don’t revel in its colors or the way its light illuminates the sky.

In the next line, Wordsworth deplores that “we have given our hearts away,” which reveals our loss of nature as a loss of self (Wordsworth 4). The heart is such an archetypal symbol for emotion that— if penned by another hand— its use might feel cliché; however, here Wordsworth applies the image with evocative effect. By discarding our respect for the awe-inspiring beauty and mystery of nature for the empty sensual pleasures of consumerism, we’ve relinquished our ability to feel and be moved.  The modern man— obsessed as he is with frivolous pleasures— can no longer experience melancholy or despair, ecstasy or euphoria: he is dead to the world.  Or, more accurately, the world is dead to him.  The “sea” and “winds” may be personified as energetic nouns who are intensely active, but to the speaker, they are “up-gathered now like sleeping flowers”— a sad image reflecting his detachment (Wordsworth 5-7).  Though nature appears as stunning as a bouquet of spring flowers, its beauty is “sleeping” and thus lost on the speaker.  For Wordsworth, this is the greatest tragedy: although ordinary life possesses the potential for revelation and glamor, most of us are too heedless to notice.