Freedom, Courage, Love, and Truth

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Two films currently in the running for the Academy’s “Best Picture” award are standouts for me. What they have in common is that, at their cores, they extol some very primal virtues. The first, Room, explores the value of freedom (which we too often take for granted); it’s ultimate price, courage; and the love that can motivate the needed courage: in this case, the mutual love of a very young child and his mother. This is a story that pushes some very emotional buttons, for all the best reasons. Here’s the official trailer, but if you haven’t read the novel, I recommend that you do not watch it prior to seeing the film, because it ruins the suspense of the plot (even if it doesn’t entirely neutralize its emotional wallop)-

The second film, Spotlight, is stylistically quite different. It’s a journalistic procedural, much in the spirit of 1976’s All The President’s Men, about how a dedicated group of reporters uncovered the depth and breadth of the “pedophile priest” problem in the Catholic Church. Being a (non-postmodernist) philosopher by trade, I’ve always been a sucker for stories about the pursuit and exposure of truth, especially when it’s intentionally been hidden, and when arriving at it comes at the cost of unexpectedly implicating apparent innocents in some moral morass. That’s where this film excels: when the head reporter (played by Michael Keaton) finally figures out who prevented the story from coming to light years earlier, it’s an enlightening surprise. Here’s the trailer (which, unlike the Room trailer, I can certify as “safe to watch”)-

Liberal Arts: The Seed of Apple

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In this dark age of deep budget cuts to once-great public universities like the University of Wisconsin, and politicians who pander to their anti-intellectual base by demeaning liberal arts majors while hyping technology majors (see previous post), it may be refreshing to remind ourselves that Steve Jobs himself once stated that what made Apple Computer different from other tech companies was that its goal was to bring a “liberal arts perspective” to computing-

I think our major contribution was in bringing a liberal arts point of view to the use of computers. … You know, if you really look at the ease of use of the MacIntosh, the driving motivation behind that was … to bring beautiful fonts and typography to people … it was to bring graphics to people, not for plotting laminar-flow calculations, but so that they could see beautiful photographs or pictures or artwork. Our goal was to bring a liberal arts perspective, and a liberal arts audience to what had traditionally been a very geeky technology and a very geeky audience. That’s the seed of Apple.

Here is the audio of this quote, from a 1996 Terry Gross interview-

Another often-quoted statement from Jobs on the same subject, which he gave after introducing the iPad in 2005-

It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing — and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices.

By the way, since I was acquainted with Jobs when we were both students at Reed College, I’m looking forward – with just a wee bit of trepidation – to the new Sorkin/Boyle movie, “Steve Jobs” (even though it might have more to do with the artists who made it than with Jobs the man – something Steve actually might have approved of…)-

Update: Well, I saw the movie, and I’m sorry to say that I can’t recommend it, at least if you’re interested in learning much about the major events it depicts: the release of the original Mac; the (apparently) intentional failure of NeXT; the release of the iMac following Jobs’ return to Apple, and finally the ambivalent Sculley-Jobs relationship (which, as the film handles it, is simply confusing). Nor can I recommend it if you’re more interested in learning about Jobs’ attitude towards his daughter Lisa: first he disowns her, then [spoiler alert!] he finally tries to make amends – a transformation that might have been worth exploring if Sorkin could attribute it to something deeper than Jobs’ merely growing up. The acting, as you might expect, is all fine (Fassbinder really nails Jobs’ persona in the film’s third and otherwise weakest act), and the dialog is certainly pithy enough (Sorkin’s trademark). But the kid I remember from Reed College was far more complex than the character I saw on the screen, and I can’t believe that he lost so much depth and subtlety over time. He certainly might have become as obsessive and inflexible as the film portrays him, but surely he continued to be more than that, at least when he was away from the high-pressure events the film focuses on. To achieve a more satisfying portrait of Jobs the man, a better film would follow him between those events, during many quieter moments, and track his development at a more leisurely pace.

Whiplash & Nightcrawler

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I’m not sure whether I liked Whiplash so much because it managed to accurately portray the musicality and ambience of big-band jazz (a unique accomplishment, I believe), or because J. K. Simmon’s performance as the “conductor” was so deliciously over the top (imagine Kubrick’s abusive drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket times 10), but I do heartily recommend it, particularly to jazz and classical musicians. Yes, there are some scenes that could have been toned down a bit, and not all of the acting and writing is equally strong, but I’ll be very surprised if Simmons doesn’t win a few awards for his performance. Justin Hurwitz also deserves more-than-honorable mention for the music (not to mention the players who made it happen). Here’s the trailer, which makes the film look much tamer than it is-

The other similarly low-budget but high-quality film currently in theaters is Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo. Gyllenhaal has been getting much of the hype for this one, and his portrayal of a man (alien being?) with a “business plan” is impressive: highly controlled, consistently tense, and definitely disturbing. But for my money, the performance to watch here is Russo’s. Her subtle reactions to Gyllenhaal’s bizarre presence are shockingly effective; if she doesn’t win at least a nomination for best supporting actress, there is no justice. Watch the trailer on Vimeo-

Bill Murray On The Hardest Job In The World

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In his Charlie Rose interview last week, Bill Murray said the following while trying to describe his experiences on the set of George Clooney’s latest picture The Monuments Men

“It’s fun to watch someone like John Goodman, who is such a natural actor, and yet it takes work… you know, people say: ‘He’s not acting, he’s just being himself’… Well, it’s hard to be yourself, it’s hard to be yourself, you know what I mean? It’s impossible, it’s the hardest job in the world.”

“Her” and Him (Alan Watts, that is)

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I found “Her”, Spike Jonze’s new movie, somewhat difficult to sit through. It feels too long (so little happens), and it treads a very thin line between a psychologically rich character study and a Saturday Night Live parody of a cliché romance. Also, the overall look of the film is bland, as if it were covered with a gray-filter. It’s too dimly lit in many scenes. In fact, one key scene happens entirely in the dark, a stylistic choice I couldn’t help but see as a sign of Jonze’s embarrassment with the scene’s content. No doubt the somberness of much of the indoor photography is meant to underscore protagonist Theodore’s extremely introverted personality. But it’s overkill: Joaquin Phoenix’s spot-on Theodore needs no extra help.

Yet, despite these problems, “Her” is, to my mind, perhaps the most thought-provoking Hollywood film released this year, with the possible exception of 12 Years A Slave (which I blogged about here). I say this even though in most ways Her is the opposite of my favorite Jonze film, 2004’s Adaptation. That movie had an almost frenetic energy; it was saturated by the sub-tropical colors of South Florida, it had a very complex structure (thanks to screenwriter Charlie Kaufman), and it centered on two (or three?) eccentric protagonists, played with all the requisite bravado by Nicholas Cage and Chris Cooper. Her, on the other hand, just plods along, without much to look at (a Scarlett-Johansson-shaped video image of Samantha might have helped a lot in that respect), with the simplest possible structure, and only two substantial characters, one of which is invisible, the other of which is rarely expressive.

But what I like about “Her” is its heartfelt exploration of intimacy, an exploration that goes deeper than what is generally found in your standard relationship flick (which, I admit, is not saying much). The film raises the question of whether it would be possible to be really intimate with the user interface of an operating system (to get some sense of Johansson’s silicon-based Samantha, just imagine Apple’s SIRI on both intellectual- and emotional-IQ steroids). But the film is more centrally concerned about the loss of human intimacy in our ever more technologically-mediated world, and that is an even worthier subject. Samantha and Theodore’s dialog reminds us, somewhat poignantly, of what a genuinely intimate relationship at least sounds like – something that’s sorely lacking not only from most other films, but also from many lives. The only thing missing from Theodore and Samantha’s relationship (besides a body, of course) seems at first to be any element of danger. For surely nothing could be less dangerous than a relationship with an entity pre-programmed to satisfy one’s every need. Theodore apparently need not fear that Samantha will ever leave him like his ex-wife did, but there’s the rub: how could such an apparently “failsafe” relationship ever really be fulfilling?

It’s the particular way in which the film first raises and then answers (or subverts) that question that makes it worth watching, and helps to excuse its weaknesses. Here’s the trailer-

Near the end of the film there’s an important reference to Alan Watts, the mid-20th century intellectual, ex-theologician, and pre-New Age disseminator of Asian religious traditions and metaphysical views. For those unfamiliar with Watts’ work, the brief description of him given in the film might suffice for the script’s purposes (though I doubt it). But for those at least passingly familiar with his life and work, the reference will have all sorts of rich resonances, and suggest several different levels on which to interpret the ending. The most obvious level has to do with Watts’ charismatic charm, which seems to have been accompanied by a (no doubt philosophically motivated) lack of shame. The second, slightly less obvious level rides on Watts’ trenchant criticisms of Western Culture, which he viewed as both a cause and effect of its average member’s confusion and neurosis. His prescription was, quite simply, to become enlightened in the down-to-earth, Zen sense he himself clearly sought. Finally, a third level of interpretation rides on the similarity between Samantha and Theodore that Samantha at one point says comforts her. To jump aboard this train of thought, you need to focus on Watts’ thesis that reality is, ultimately, One (a “monistic” worldview that a Buddhist need not accept). To avoid falling into didactic mode, I’ll just add that these three levels of interpretation are, I think, complementary. They leave Theodore with much more to mull over beyond the picture’s ending than just the promises and pitfalls of romantic attachments. The only problem is that the reference to Watts and the relevance of his personality and worldview is such “inside baseball”, the resonances that finally sold me on the film will probably not occur to most of the film’s audience. I’m not sure that they even occurred to the filmmakers.

If you’ve never heard an Alan Watts talk, here’s a 10-minute audio excerpt I once used in an adult enrichment class that focused on his fusion of Eastern and Western perspectives. At one point he mentions “the ceramic myth” and “the fully automatic myth” – ideas he explains earlier in the talk. By the first he just means the monotheistic story that God created the universe (much as people create ceramics). By the second he’s referring to the Newtonian view of the universe as a dumb, fully automatic machine, devoid of consciousness. In this excerpt, the two main themes he riffed on throughout his career – the mental illness of Western culture, and the metaphysical monism (supported by ecology and post-Newtonian physics) that could be part of the cure – are on full display.

Much more Watts is available here. For my own previous posts on Watts, just search for his name using the Search box above.

12 Years A Slave

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As I blogged almost a year ago, I didn’t much care for Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” (to put it mildly), the last mainstream movie that was ostensibly about slavery, but was really about Tarantino’s running out of inspiration. I knew that there was yet to be made a film worthy of the seriousness of the subject, and it has arrived: 12 Years A Slave. If this adaptation of Solomon Northup’s autobiographical novel doesn’t win Oscars – or at least nominations – for Director Steve McQueen, Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, Supporting Actress Lupita Nyong’o, and Producer Brad Pitt (for Best Picture), I’ll be, well… flabbergasted.

You really can’t understand contemporary conservative talk of secession, or of the South’s “rising again”, or the Tea Party’s reflexive rejection of all things Obama (policy disagreements aside), without understanding the history of the South, and you can’t understand the history of the South without coming to grips with 18th and 19th century slavery. The concrete reality of that slavery – much like the reality of the Holocaust – resists conceptualization, or adequate description in language. But its essence can at least be indicated by the artful telling of the stories of particular slaves (and slave-owners), and I’ve seen no better representation of such experiences in film.

I do have one minor quibble: as producer of the film, it was a bit self-serving of Brad Pitt to cast himself in one of the most pivotal (if brief) roles, and as one of the few admirable white characters. His appearance needlessly took me out of the movie, and his role certainly could have been just as well-handled by a less recognizable actor. But I’m willing to cut him some slack on this one, since just having his name on the posters will probably sell a significant number of seats, and he deserves a lot of credit for backing the film.

Anyway, if you can handle some rather intense scenes of cruelty and violence, I encourage you to see this movie, and to see it in the theatre for maximum effect.

Sans Soleil

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While it’s certainly not for everyone, Chris Marker’s 1983 film Sans Soleil (Sunless) is like nothing else I’ve ever seen. Part travelogue, part prose poem set to moving images, the film ruminates at a leisurely pace on – among other things – time, history, memory, Japanese culture, post-colonial Africa, technology, Animism, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, film making, sex, and (of course) death. I found it mesmerizing, but I can also can understand how others could find it unbearable. Here are a couple of representative samples, the first a largely silent meditation on weary faces in a Japanese train and shopping mall, the second an almost poetic treatise on a civil war in Africa (warning: this clip has some very disturbing images).

Django Disdained

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When I recently read that, because he thought it would make light of his ancestors’ suffering, Spike Lee was making a point of not seeing Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Django Unchained, I thought he was probably being unreasonable. After all, although I’d had similar reservations about seeing Inglorious Basterds, I’d been pleasantly surprised by how adroitly Tarantino had managed to navigate the potential mine fields lying just under the surface of that film. Inglorious was a homage to several genres (including WWII films, holocaust films, and revenge films), and it was leavened with enough sharp humor and intelligence to make it thoroughly entertaining. The characters were boldly drawn but not quite cartoonish; the suspenseful scenes were genuinely suspenseful; and the genres were respected enough to draw you in. The same could probably be said for almost all of Tarantino’s previous films, but, sadly, not for poor Django.

From the very first scene, with its ridiculous soundtrack, Tarantino loudly announces that rather than paying homage to spaghetti westerns, slavery films, and revenge films (again), Django will be a relentless parody of those genres – a parody that is so self-conscious, it holds you at arm’s length; a parody with humor that is so broad and obvious that it careens wildly but quite narrowly between a pale imitation of a Mel Brooks comedy and a trying-way-too-hard Saturday Night Live sketch. Perhaps even worse, Inglorious at least had a convincing villain in Christoph Waltz’s Nazi character. Here, the main antagonist is merely Leonardo DiCaprio’s plantation-owning Calvin Candie, and you never believe for a moment that our heroes – Jamie Foxx’s Django and Waltz’s dentist-cum-bounty-hunter – are in any real danger from him. The one scene that rises to the level of Inglorious Basterds is a brief tête-a-tête between Candie and his head house-slave Stephen (played, admittedly, with brilliant irony by Samuel L. Jackson), in which it’s made clear who is really the boss of this house. But apart from that scene and a few other scattered moments, Django Unchained has almost nothing of interest – and certainly nothing remotely original – to say.

The weakness of the film lies, I think, at its very core: the script. The actors do the best they can with the roles they must play and the lines they must say; and on a technical level, Tarantino’s direction seems adequate to his limited goal of presenting nothing but a parody, not only only of the genres that concern him, but of his own style. But when an “auteur” director starts parodying his own already-broad style, you can be sure he’s reached the end of his rope (think of Hitchcock’s Family Plot). In a recent interview with Terry Gross – in which she uncharacteristically allowed her own disdain for the film to (faintly) shine through – Tarantino reiterated that Django Unchained may well be his last film. I think he’s a smart enough film critic to realize that if he’d had any doubts before that he’d run out of gas, Django Unchained proves it. Gross almost begged him not to stop making films, because she desperately wanted to see if his sensibility would change (say, by the age of sixty). Ouch.

Spike was right: viewing fictitious representations of 19th-century American slavery is worthwhile only if it teaches you something you didn’t already know, either about that institution or about oneself. But to use such images merely for entertainment or for the purpose of parody (particularly self-parody) only magnifies their obscenity. Attempting to excuse such a project by wrapping it in a revenge fantasy is as unconvincing here as it has been in porn films that salaciously portray rape and then attempt (or pretend) to excuse the use of that imagery by allowing the victim some violent revenge. I think that, at some point in the making of the film, Tarantino knew this himself, but perhaps by then both he and his producers were in too deep to live to die another day.

Late in the film, Tarantino, in a cameo role, literally blows himself up onscreen. That self-referential moment suggests that, at some level of awareness, he knows exactly what Django Unchained should (but probably won’t) mean for his career. However, I’m not only with Spike on this particular film, I’m also with Terry. I hope that Tarantino will keep making movies into his later years. But I also hope that his sensibility will mature.

The Story of Coco and Igor

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Actually, there’s not much of a story in Jan Kounen’s (2009) hypnotic romance/drama, but you hardly care as Stravinsky’s lush music and the unapologetically sumptuous images wash over you like a tidal wave of Chanel No. 5. Oh… and don’t miss the kaleidoscopic opening credit sequence, which sets the film’s impressively consistent tone and pacing from the get-go. Warning: not for those allergic to self-consciously “high art”.

Incendies

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I finally got around to watching Denis Villeneuve’s excellent film “Incendies”, based on Wajdi Mouawad’s play. The tag line on IMDB reads: “Twins journey to the Middle East to discover their family history, and fulfill their mother’s last wishes.” It would be best not to investigate the plot further if you’re interested in watching it – let it unfold for you as it does for the twins. The film plays like a Greek tragedy (actually, a particular one, at least from the point of view of one of the apparently minor characters), set, via flashbacks, in the insanity of a sectarian war (clearly Lebanon some thirty years ago, but Villeneuve transparently obscures that fact, perhaps to underline the ultimate message’s universality). I advise not watching it right before going to bed, unless you want to wake up early in the morning thinking about it without being able to fall back asleep (if you were able to fall asleep in the first place). The plot is both completely ridiculous and, on reflection, completely plausible – which is what makes it, in the end, unforgettable. Here’s the trailer-

Blog Here Now, Be Here Now

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Those of you “of a certain age” are no doubt well aware of where I got the idea for the name of this blog: Ram Dass’s famous book, “Be Here Now”, one of the holy books of the late 1960s and early 1970s “counterculture”. And if you have read much of this blog, I’m sure you also recognize that the similarity of the titles is probably the only thing Blog Here Now and Be Here Now have in common. Part of the reason for this is that, while I very much respect the insights delivered by forms of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism (and the practices of meditation upon which they’re based), I don’t have much to say about those insights. In fact, I tend to think that the more one talks about them, the less insightful they seem. That’s not the fault of the insights, it’s just a result of the limits of languages and the conceptual schemes they encode. Poetry, music, and the visual arts do a better job of communicating the insights than language. But two well-educated intellectuals (or counter-intellectuals) of the mid-20th century, Ram Dass and Alan Watts, probably have done the best jobs of trying to communicate them in English. I tend to gravitate more towards Watts’ approach than Dass’s, because Watts “clothes” the insights in less religious language, and when he does use religious language, he goes out of his way to clarify what he means by it. Dass, however, perhaps more faithfully translates aspects of the Hindu tradition into English.

If you have never seen Mickey Lemle’s documentary, “Ram Dass: Fierce Grace“, which deals with how Ram Dass “transacted” – and continues to transact – with a life-altering stroke, I want to take this opportunity to recommend it to you. Here’s the poster for the film-

I think it’s particularly relevant to aging baby boomers such as myself. The way he managed, painfully, to integrate his neo-Hindu insights with his stroke is truly impressive and inspiring. Who knows when each of us might be similarly challenged?

What got me thinking about Ram Dass was an email I received from Noah Te Stroete, a former student of mine and one of the few regular commenters on this blog. It turns out that Noah has an artistic talent of which I was previously unaware: he’s quite a painter! Here’s his portrait of Ram Dass (which, I think, beautifully captures the man’s “spirit”)-

Portrait of Ram Dass

"Ram Dass", by Noah Te Stroete

Passing Strange

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I’ve never been a big fan of musicals; they always seem to cheapen either the music or the narrative of what might otherwise be a perfectly good album or play. But this collaboration by Stew (of The Negro Problem) and his partner/bassist Heidi Rodewald really won me over, big time. Running just over two hours, I do recommend experiencing it in halves; the intermission is there for a reason. And the sophisticated lyrics, punctuated by Stew’s often ironic narration and the inventive choreography and staging, might require more than one sitting to fully absorb. But it all packs quite a punch the first time around.

Really, there are several decades worth of reflections and ruminations about art, music, politics, culture, race – and, of course, motherly love – crammed into and between the lines of this piece. But even if much of it goes over your head on first view, you can’t help but be impressed by the rock-solid songwriting and some absolutely jaw-dropping performances by the cast, which includes De’Adre Aziza, Daniel Breaker, Eisa Davis and Colman Domingo.

Oh, and did I mention that it was filmed by Spike Lee?

Here’s the trailer (which doesn’t really do it justice)-

They Came To Play

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Alex Rotaru’s 2008 documentary, They Came To Play, is well worth a watch, especially if you love classical piano. The film follows several competitors through the annual Van Cliburn competition for (dedicated) amateurs, and it’s quite inspiring in its own quirky way. If you don’t love this genre of music, no need to worry – the concert footage has been cut to (quite impressive) snippets of no more than a minute or two. Although Rotaru clearly appreciates the artistry of the pianists, he’s far more interested in their rich, non-musical lives. Each one is an entertaining character. Ultimately, the film is an ode to the making (or appreciation) of art for art’s sake, and the joy (or horror) of competition for competition’s sake. We found it streaming on NetFlix. Here’s the trailer-

A Couple Of Notable Films

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I’ve seen two films lately worth blogging about. The first, Gaspar Noé’s Enter The Void, sports the following blurb on IMDB: “A drug-dealing teen is killed in Japan, after which he reappears as a ghost to watch over his sister.” That pretty accurately summarizes the plot, but plot has very little to do with this film. It’s really all about the visual imagery, thanks to the largely first-person point of view from which it never deviates. The only time you see the protagonist’s living face, in fact, is in the mirror. And for the majority of the film, the perspective is not only subjective but also out-of-body: a ghost’s-eye POV, soaring over roofs, and through walls and heads. Early on, this discomfiting perspective includes perceptual distortions of the sort produced by various psychedelic drugs and magnified by the uber-alienating cityscapes of Tokyo. But the best of the imagery focuses on far more mundane subject matter, some of which – especially near the end of the film – is graphically sexual, but not particularly erotic… Rather, the point of all that feverish coupling is, well… surprisingly Buddhistic. Enter The Void is definitely not for everyone, but if the brief description above piques your interest, I recommend your checking it out.

The second film is the documentary, or near-documentary, Catfish, by three rather young filmakers: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, and Yaniv Schulman. Unlike the technical virtuosity of Enter The Void, this production is shoe-string city, shot partly on little hand-held cameras, mostly in natural light and with ambient sound. But the low production values rarely get in the way, and sometimes they actually help by reinforcing the film’s sense of authenticity; you feel as if you’re watching a well-edited home video, and that somehow makes the film’s dénouement all the more touching. Catfish raises interesting questions about the ethics of internet relationships, but, due in part to the self-centeredness of the film-makers (which they make no attempt to hide), it also raises questions about the documentary form itself. For while the film-makers document a sort of romantic “abuse” that Yaniv suffers at the hands of a Facebook friend he has never met in person, the way they doggedly pursue their investigation into the matter itself teeters on the edge of abusiveness, without ever quite falling off the cliff. For the most part, Catfish pulls off its delicate high-wire act, and you’re left with a surprisingly complex aesthetic and emotional experience that adds up to far more than the sum of its low-budget parts.