Monday, December 31, 2012

'Satiable Curiosity: For All Mankind

For All Mankind does what many movies attempt to do, but few as successfully: Take the viewer on one of the greatest adventures of all time, in under two hours. It is a road movie without a road, a travelogue with no walking.

It is a master of editing.  This film has taken the footage of a number of Apollo missions and created a single hour and twenty minute adventure with them, connected with interviews with astronauts, music from Brian Eno and the sounds of the time.  This gives us a feeling of having been on this trip ourselves, a sense of what it means to leave our gravity and go to the most alien landscape humanity has ever touched.

There are some unique, perhaps even strange, but certainly extreme photos: The earth from afar, one of the most positive but powerful explosions on the earth, the desert of the moon, earthrise, the blackness of space.  Few have seen these images with their naked eye and we have the opportunity to share it here.

These are the films that inspired Dark Side of the Moon, and Space Oddity.  There is a depth and a majesty to them that must be expressed slowly, carefully but with deep passion.  As often as the astronauts may jest, they and we all know that this exploration is the serious business of mankind.  The weariness and steadfastness of the staff at Huston really shows the intensity and stress of what is involved.  Every button pressed has a sense of history, of enormity.  And so it should.  There is a drama here that cannot be acted, for it was lived.

The landing on the moon, the touch of a human shoe on truly alien soil—was it real?  Many claim it was not, that the films were created in a studio, perhaps by Kubrick.  But looking at them again, hearing the commentary, seeing the shadows, glimpsing the shadow of the Eagle on the surface of the moon… but most of all the beating of my heart and the excitement as I watch that final leap—it is real.  It must be.  I know it in my heart of hearts.  As impossible as it might seem that such a modern scientific miracle might occur, I truly, humbly believe.  I can do no other.

Why go to the moon?  There were certainly political reasons, but just as many economic drawbacks.  In the end, it cannot be expressed better: “Man must explore.” There will always be political excuses to explore, or economic reasons.  But humanity’s ‘satiable curiosity, the need to see what has never been seen, to step where no one has ever stepped, that is one of humanity’s deepest destinies.

The drive that causes the two year old to strike out on his own and walk past the corner onto the asphalt.  Perhaps his parent considers it too difficult, insignificant, and simply dangerous for him to attempt.  But he must do it.  His independence demands it, and his love of the new demands it.

It is this same self-serving curiosity that created the hadron collider, that caused men to stand at the South Pole, that causes James Cameron to explore the deepest ocean.  It is the desire to find knowledge, to discover beauty, to find the surprise that no one expected.   We must do this, not just for personal accomplishment, not just for glory, but for the benefit of all, although we ourselves may not know what that benefit will be.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Wise Blood and Redemption

I have not read the novel on which this film was based, but I have read enough Flannery O’Connor to know that it represents her literature well.

The film is about religion.  Not about spirituality, but religion—with its contradictions, misunderstandings and rough-and-tumble viewpoint.  It is about the South.  The small town, the small city, the polite veneer, the prejudices mixed with pride. 

It is about simple people.  Not one-note characters, but people who struggle with life because they haven’t thought everything through, because they haven’t got enough control over themselves to really assist others.   You have our main character, Hazel, whose anger against God and demands that he be redeemed warp his sense of reality.  You have the blind preacher who isn’t really blind and doesn’t really believe in the tracts he hands out.  You have his daughter who knows she needs a man to survive and only knows one way to get him.  You have the landlady whose greatest desire is to help someone in need, which becomes her desperate need.  And you have the huckster, who knows a good con when he sees one, even if the one perpetuating it is desperately sincere.

And finally, there is the ugly aspects of Flannery O’Connor’s works.  In an essay I read of hers, she speaks of the Southern “necessity” of their literature being “gruesome”.   It is interesting that John Huston has the ugly plot points, but he doesn’t make them visually ugly.  He is not even leading us to imagine the ugly scenes which he has off screen.  It would be a very Christian film, if it were not the fact that the religious themes were so difficult to determine.

Hazel is a man in desperate need of redemption, and he not only rejects Christ, but also the need of redemption itself.  We need not repent, we need no blood, we need no two-thousand year old death to save us, because, Hazel preaches, we need no salvation.  We are complete, we are fit, we are sufficient in and of ourselves.   However, the entire film, ever character, every event shows the lie of this message.

Every person in this film is religious, almost all claim Christ in some way.  Even Hazel, who denies the effectiveness of Christ is haunted by him, sees him in the very fabric of life.  And even though he denies the fact of redemption, he cannot stop thinking about it, talking about it, like an atheist who cannot stop speaking about the existence of God.  It is clear that religion is doing none of these people good.  It is as much a block between them and healing as their own desperate clutching of their needs.

Spoilers below

There are two questions that stay with me at the end of this film.  The first is: given the need of redemption, did anyone find it?  Clearly Hazel goes through a remarkable character arc, in which he learns about his own need, but did his solution, his repentance really cause his redemption?  Or was his self-mutilation and self-denial just another way of taking advantage of others?  

The other question is one that Huston and the writers struggled with: Does Christ win, in the end?  The screenwriters opined that he did, but it isn’t clear that Huston agreed.  Perhaps Christ won in the sense that Hazel, and most of the rest of the characters, recognized the need for redemption by the end of the film.  But if Christ is about redeeming people, not just making them want redemption, then not a single soul was saved in this film.  All are left in as much agony as they began—some more so.

I’d say that Christ, just like everyone else in this film, lost.

However, to see this struggle, to pose questions that otherwise could not be posed, to open our eyes to the struggle of redemption that is happening all around us—for these reasons and more I’d say that this film is more than worthwhile watching.  

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Lincoln: A Review and Political Rant

Steven Spielberg is not only one of the great makers of blockbusters, he is also a great history teacher.
I know, your history teacher was better.  At least more accurate.  Less subjective.

C’mon, who’s kidding who?  History is about story and the best history teachers are storytellers- every one with   Some might help us better remember facts and figures better.  Some might better cause us to remember the flow or themes of history.  But almost no one is a better storyteller than Spielberg.  And what other history teacher has a multi-million dollar budget?

Spielberg has now got a number of historical films under his belt: Empire of the Sun, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, Amistad, Munich, War Horse and now Lincoln.  While others may have taken place in the past (e.g. 1941, Catch Me If You Can), there is less a sense of communicating anything about history.  There is just a setting that the story takes place.  All these films can best be called historic fiction, although there are parts of all these films that give us a sense of placing us in that historic setting and giving us a greater knowledge of what it meant to live in that time and place.

Like a good history teacher, it is not enough for us to just know the facts of the event, but to give us an interpretation of what the facts mean.  In this way, we not only have a starting point for our own interpretation, but we will remember the facts better than if they are given to us in an Edward Murrow presentation.

As a presentation of history, I think that Lincoln is next to Schindler’s List in its greatness and moral complexity.

 Certainly there are some stunning performances here. Tommy Lee Jones gives one of his best performances here (in my opinion, second only to No Country for Old Men).   He balances the humor and power of the role of the radical Thaddeus Stevens perfectly.   The whole ensemble was fantastic.

But this is the film in which I must declare that I have decided that Daniel Day Lewis is the best actor of our generation.  Yes, I have seen him before and I’ve been impressed, but this performance is stunning.  It isn’t an imitation, but a full embrace of a historic personage to such a degree that I suppose that I will never think about Lincoln without this performance again.   DDL’s Lincoln isn’t the image of Lincoln I had in the past, who I considered brooding unless he was before an audience.   DDL’s Lincoln is an image of perfectly controlled anger.  He is furious at injustice, furious at his wife’s instability, at his son’s insistence to join the army, at his opposition’s unfairness—yet he knows that raging and yelling only increases his impotence.   As a man sold out to create justice, he does only what is necessary to form a better family, a better government, a better nation.

Without spoilers, I just want to say one thing about the three climaxes of the film: the vote, the scene in Thaddeus Steven’s bedroom and the theatre.  All three of these amazing scenes were done without the central character in sight.  This is a brilliant choice to show us the impact of Lincoln’s work, because it is about what he did for others, no matter what the cost for himself.  

Yes, there’s a lot of talking here.  But it’s surrounded by great cinematography and imbued with one of the greatest dramas of American history.   I will never forget it.  5/5

* * *

Meditation on the Politics of Lincoln
This meditation is necessarily full of spoilers of the film.  You are warned.

I haven’t done reading on the historical accuracy of the film Lincoln.  I know that it is based on a work of history, Team of Rivals, but I am not so naïve to think that the film does more than give generalities of the arguments and ideas and people involved. 

Nevertheless, with what reading I have done, I find that the historic attitudes and the means and ways of politics in the film to be accurate, even if many of the specifics aren’t. (Again, I don’t know  how accurate they are, they may very well be.)

Lincoln was an idealist placed in the middle of a political catfight.  But he knew that there is no straight line in politics.  To accomplish his goals he needed to hide them.  To create justice, he had to remain “neutral” between injustice and justice. 

Personally, I am much more attuned to Thaddeus Stevens, both in attitude and in approach.  He is portrayed as a simple, moral man, angry and ideological, but he could destroy the whole process by his refusal to compromise.  He stands with justice without compromise, without retreat and hopes that his constant harping on the truth might bring change. 

Democracy must put aside such passion.  Democracy demands that all sides make compromise with each other for the greater good.  Lincoln understood this, and lived to push for justice in the midst of this system.  A political saint who tells stories, worked for positive compromise, started a war for the greater good.  A politician of the best kind—full of the lies and the egomania that all the best politicians have. Yet would slavery have been abolished without this man?  He was a unique man, a “pure” man—but why should a nation be dependent on the unique powerful individual to create morality?  Without the unique moral individual who is willing to take the compromise, democracy cannot work.

What kind of a system that demands moral compromises, even outright lies, in order to accomplish the moral good?  I cannot accomplish a politics that requires me to surrender what I know to be good for that which is significantly less than good.  I cannot abide a government that insists on liars in order to achieve truth.  Nor can I believe in a system that demands the innocent be unwillingly sacrificed for the sake of peace and unity.
In the end, the amendment was passed because of the compromise of good people and the corruption of weak people.  

And Lincoln, in the end, says that democracy requires people to stick with it. The fact is, with the rare exception, democracy is fighting against-- and just as often fighting for-- a rising tide of injustice.   For every moral position, two immoral positions arise.  For every "pure" man, fifty arise to take power.  Yes, the pure politicians (as few of these that there are) can make some progress, but the impure at the same time provide distractions and drawbacks, and even more. If this is democracy, give me anarchy, or monarchy.

Castaway on the Moon: A Meditation

Castaway on the Moon is a Korean “romantic” comedy of the most quirky nature. At the beginning it has some uncomfortable similarities to the film Cast Away, and I wondered if it would be a satire of that film.  But apart from a few jokes, it quickly moves ahead with it's own unique storyline. It is always fun to watch, and often laugh-out-loud hilarious.  But it also has a very serious side that isn’t to be seen on the surface.  In watching the film, it strikes me to be an example of what I see every day in our homeless community.

Homelessness isn’t a failure on a person’s part.  It is rather the place where a tragedy and a person’s weakness meets and they are unable to keep up the appearances of a “normal” life.  It is a surrender to a simpler, more foundational life, where the needs are simpler, and one hands one’s life over to fate. 

What makes homelessness a terrible crisis is the attitude toward the homeless in society.  That they are in some way criminals because they have been unable to get housing.  That they are dangerous, scary people, who need to be kept away from our children and our neighborhoods.  That they are disgusting, and their techniques of survival are reproachful.  That they must be doing things that are unseemly and unacceptable.

This is why the homeless are, to a degree, isolated.  And this is the worst of the experience.  To be homeless is to not have anyone to support you, to care for you. 

Everyone talks about the causes of homelessness, as if addiction and mental illness are the main issues for all homeless.  The main issue is the lack of a support network.  There is no one to grant help when help is needed.  This initial separation between the homeless and the “normal” world is exasperated when the homeless person becomes adept at being alone and surviving through unconventional ways.  They become more unique and so more alone.

Of course, everyone says, there’s nothing wrong with being unique.  But none of us believe it.  To be unique is to be someone that we are happy to have somewhere else.  But in our family, in our neighborhood, in our community, we want people to follow our standards.  And those who don’t do that… well, they can go somewhere else.

And so the homeless do.  They are pushed “somewhere else” and “somewhere else” and “somewhere else” until there is no place for them to live.  No place to be.

Until someone comes and says, “I don’t care how different you are.  I don’t care if you aren’t like everyone else.  I don’t care if you are irritating and even a problem sometimes.  I want you to be a part of my community.  I want you to be in my neighborhood.  I want you to be part of my family.”

And then healing, for all of us, can begin.

If you’d like to know more about our community and family of the homeless in Portland, OR, please check out our website:

Castaway on the Moon is available in the U.S. on Netflix Instant.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Is the Disciplined Life Worth Living? (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai)

79. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

Ghost Dog is a man who lives by the text.  One book, Hugakure: The Book of the Samurai, determines his lifestyle, his every move, his passion and his habits.  He is a disciplined man, disciplined by the text.  He is a noble man, made noble by the noble principles which he upholds.  And he is a hit man.  For every man, no matter what their profession, is noble if they embody noble principles.

A man is not simply made by a text, however.  A principled man is made noble by how he applies the principles in a context.  A samurai must obey his master.  Thus, nobility is determined not only by the principles one follows, but by the nobility of one’s master.

The way of the samurai is not just a set of principles, but a way of looking at life as a noble war.  What if life isn’t noble?  A noble man cannot live where nobility is not honored. 

The disciplined life views all through one set of colored glasses.  Perhaps in our post-modern society, a variety of glasses, a variety of perspectives is necessary. Is nobility so great to be held above survival? Perhaps Rashomon is more noble than Hagakure. 

Ghost Dog is a film in a gritty urban criminal context based on two real books and one very cool film.  The film is Le Samourai, which stars Alain Delon as the coolest hit man ever filmed.  The one text is Hagakure, mentioned above, which is a real text and it quoted extensively in the film. To read more quotes, check it out. The final text is Rashomon, a short story by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke was made into a famous movie by Akira Kurosawa.  The story is quite different from the film and you can read it here

What Controls A Person? (Memento)

80. Memento (2001)

Leonard, an amnesiac, wakes up every morning having to learn the basic focus of his life: his wife was killed and the man responsible is still at large.  Leonard must track down the man and kill him, for her sake.  As the morning wears on, he discovers the notes, tattoos and clues he has left himself to discover the attacker.

As a unit, the human race is powerful, able to change the surface of the earth.  As an individual, a human being is weak.  Yes, a single human being can be amazingly creative or destructive.   single human can change the flow of history, potentially.  But any plans a human can make can be disrupted by another person.  Each person is limited by their weakness.  And if another knows a person’s weakness, in detail, they can manipulate them to their own devises.  If a person’s weakness is lust, those who have the ability to sate that lust have complete power over them.  If a person’s weakness is fear, those who manipulate fear successfully have complete control over them.

And if Leonard's weakness is obsession, the one who feeds that obsession knowingly has complete control over him.  It is not the obsession that controls him, but the one who knows how to use the obsession to make him do as they please.

To understand and use a person’s weakness is the ability to control them.

Is True Love Worth It? (The Princess Bride)

81. The Princess Bride (1987)

Sonny, True Love is the greatest thing, in the world-except for a nice MLT – mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich— where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe…” -Miracle Max

Not once in the midst of the Princess Bride, do we get a definition of True Love.  Nor do we see it in action, unless True Love is found in uncontrollable passionate kissing.

But we see the consequences of True Love.

Let’s just take Westley for example (spoilers ahead for both of you who haven’t yet watched the film).  For the sake of True Love,  he leaves the only home he knows, is attacked by Rodents of Unusual Size, drinks poison, becomes a pirate,  climbs a cliff, defeats a master swordsman, defeats the brute squad while paralyzed, and dies. 

You know, I don’t think that The Princess Bride is the best advertisement for True Love.  Seems to me that this nebulous idea causes an untold amount of suffering. 

Yet, oddly enough, like Fred Savage, I am strangely attracted by this odd mystery.  After all, if someone is so willing to suffer for something I do not understand, perhaps I too would like to hear more about those kissing parts.  There’s got to be something to it.

The Princess Bride is based on a novel by William Goldman where he recounts his rediscovery of the fictional S. Morgenstern classic The Princess Bride, which was primarily a political satire, but Goldman re-edited it so only the "good parts" were left.  If you loved the movie, you'll love the book just as much.