Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Human Condition: A Personal Perspective

***Mild spoilers below***

The Human Condition is the story of Kaji, a leader in fascist Japan with a heart of compassion.  He travels all over occupied Manchuria from 1943-1945 and leads a bold but quiet fight against the heartless nature of the military machine.  He is a labor organizer, a soldier, a lead private, a refugee, a POW and a homeless beggar. 

It is a nine hour film and it is not for the faint of heart.  It is divided into six equal measures of an hour and a half, and it was meant to be watched over a period of time,  not one day.  But it doesn't feel long for all that. This film is also one of the most powerful experiences of my life.  

This is the most personal film I’ve ever experienced. I feel like I’ve lost my best friend and my very self to despair and madness.  To say this film is “depressing” doesn’t get to it.  I am devastated, in mourning, in almost physical pain.  And yet I would watch this film again, right now.  All nine hours. There is so much I missed and I want to experience it all.  And I don’t want to lose my relationship with Kaji, the man who is in every scene of the film. He is my friend, my counterpart, even in his lowest points.  He sees the world as I see it, with all the naiveté and sorrow and struggle that accompany such a vision.

Ever since I spent months in India decades ago, observing desperate poverty and experiencing a mild form of it myself, I see the world as a battle between peace and collapse.  Peace, as I understand it, is wholeness.  A self wholly at peace, a community united, a nation set on providing needs, a religion of love and compassion for all people. 

That’s a big order, really.  Especially in a world that is filled with powers attempting to break that shalom.  There are billions of hungry, wars in many nations, violence on almost every major street, the chronically ill in every family.  And there are those who, just in the normal course of things, require more attention: children, those nearing the end of their lives, the infirm, the very poor, the mentally ill.  To battle this requires stamina, focus, strength and resources.

That’s how I see the world.  It’s how I’ve seen the world since I visited India in 1985 and saw real poverty and suffering and my own complacent reaction to it. From the beginning of 1986 I determined that I would do all I could to combat it, with whatever I had.  If that is taking my paltry life in its fragile eggshell and throwing it against the stone wall, so be it.

The film The Human Condition comes from a similar viewpoint.  Although locked into a very specific cultural construct—Manchuria from 1943-1945 from the viewpoint of the Japanese invaders—it introduces the idea of the poor and the lowly again and again.  Draftees in boot camp, forced workers, POWs, refugees, women forced to trade sex for survival, some lost in the wilderness, the homeless, the despairing, the lost.  Each of these are given their fair time and a voice in this film.  They are able to express their anguish and the corner that they are put in.  This movie is, more than anything, about the plight of the lowly, and how they suffer not only their everyday sorrow, but beating, raping, insults, forced hunger, unpaid labor, and more leveled on them.

Why do the lowly suffer this way?  Because some have power over them.  The power forces the lowly into their place of suffering and the lowly must, in their way, support the system that causes their suffering. These powerful are not only the thumbs of the system, but they also heap on additional abuse onto the lowly that isn’t required or even legal by the system they represent.  Why should they do this?     It isn’t just their power, but their assumption of superiority that makes them so deadly.  They “deserve” the better treatment as opposed to the lowly, and the lowly “deserve” the additional abuse heaped on them.   Their petty complaints are really more important than the survival of the lowly. It’s as if some people think that being homeless isn’t enough, they also must be criminalized and harmed to teach them that being homeless is a bad idea.  Who would do that?  Oh yeah… we do.

Kaji is our protagonist, he is the mediator between the outcast and the powerful.  He has charismatic power that gives him authority even when the system hasn’t given him that authority.  He is like Joseph in the Hebrew Bible—no matter how low he lands, he still rises to the top of the heap.  He is smart and courageous and strong and determined.  He is also compassionate for the plight of the lowly, but that compassion isn’t all.  It is that he stands up for better treatment for the lowly, so that they may thrive, or at least survive.  He is the persistent voice of justice for the outcast.  He is sometimes listened to, always reluctantly.  More often than not, he is mocked and derided.

Kaji attacked by both sides.  By the powerful because he is seen as subversive, by the lowly because he is seen as an oppressor.  What is funny is that he is not subversive at all.  He gathers what resources he must to allow the lowly to survive and thrive.  Nor is he oppressive.  He is in the place of power so that he might cushion the attack against the lowly, but the lowly only feel the attack, they don't see the softening of it.

I understand Kaji, better than many, if I may be so bold.  I just read some critics wondering if Kaji is a realistic character, standing with compassion when the rule of the day was prejudice.  I have been given the opportunity to be a pastor of the homeless and the mentally ill in a United States that thinks the poor are lazy and unworthy of compassion.  The treatment of the homeless and the mentally ill by the police here in Portland and its suburbs is comparable to the treatment of the POWs after WWII or the Chinese by fascist Japan.  Their possessions are stolen from them or destroyed by local government forces.  Even as some of us attempt to assist these very poor, we are hindered by others.  The local housed people consider themselves superior to the homeless and consider the homeless worthy of being punished just because they are homeless.  The neighbors of our church and the local government wants to stop us from providing showers or overnight shelter on the coldest nights because they have fears or policies.  Me and my kind have stood up, attempting to help the community see the homeless as human beings, worthy of respect as anyone else, local citizens and not criminals unless they have actually done criminal activity.  And for this work, we have been insulted by the neighbors, threatened, yelled at by the police, knives drawn on us, and kicked out of our homes. 

Because of this background, I truly appreciate Kaji.  I haven’t been through all he has, but I understand his perspective and I can appreciate his suffering, even if I haven’t been through it all. Kaji represents my heart, and when he speaks I can see myself speaking the words, even if I am at times uncomfortable with them.  At this point, I am older than Kaji ever got, and sometimes I think of him as a younger version of myself and I’d love to give him some counsel.

When Kaji is naïve, in the first film, I understand, for I was once naïve and considered that I could change the world myself.  I want to sit down with Kaji and explain to him that his difficulties came from thinking that the uncompassionate, oppressive world would just see the justice of his position and agree to it.  He is so humble that he fails to see the assuredness of the oppressors superiority.  The lowly aren’t just lowly because of some twist of fate but because they “deserve” their position in some karmic insanity.  And their suffering is “good” for them in some twisted logic.  Kaji can’t understand this logic so he keeps speaking the language of compassion, of empathy with the lowly, which the powerful cannot understand.  So Kaji is alone and persecuted.

Kaji is also like Jesus.  Not in some false Christ-type many movies attempt to throw in.  In many scenes, however, he is willing to suffer and take on the beatings and tortures that would have gone to the lowly.  He
accepted it so they wouldn’t have to.  Perhaps that was his own hubris, that he could handle the suffering better than they.  But in a way this was true.  Because he was taking on suffering out of nobility, not out of some false sense of justice.  No one who punished him considered him worthy of punishment.  Rather they punished him because they had to release their own wickedness in some way.  Kaji accepted it so others would not.

Eventually that suffering broke him down.  He is only human.  In the second film, Kaji becomes angry, sometimes irrationally so, lashing out at his persecutors and I wanted to have another session with him.  I understand why he is angry.  He is angry because his body cannot endure such suffering anymore.  He is angry because he cannot endure the irrational punishment any more.  But I’d like to remind him of the result of his anger. His anger wouldn’t create compassion for the lowly, nor would it force the oppressor’s hand.  In fact, he is undermining his own compassion, for he fails to see that the oppressors are enslaved by their own actions and that they need deliverance as much as the lowly do.  Perhaps he can’t help it, but if he can, he should control it, for other’s sake.

In the third film, Kaji cannot forgive himself for his own acts of oppression.  Again, I understand, as I too have oppressed and beat myself with guilt.  What I wanted to comfort him with was that the system of power makes it all too easy to oppress those who are weak.  We can oppress with a word, with a glance, or by simply ignoring the lowly.  We must resist those impulses, but we will slip into them.  When we do, we cannot beat ourselves up because of our failings in a system of destruction, but resolve never to do it again.  We must remain strong so as to both help the needy and fight the system of injustice.  And it is easy to fall into the trap of weakening ourselves with shame or a too-quick-surrender.

Finally, Kaji snaps and takes his vengeance out on one who caused the death of the lowly. Again, I wish I could have spoken to him, even yelled at him.  Take your vengeance out by changing the world!  See your ideal flourish!  Look at the long view-- he isn't the problem, and you can't take vengeance out on a system.  You are just participating in the system by being the criminal against it.  You are fitting into their idea of you!  I don't know that he would listen to me, though. 

What kept Kaji going, waking up each day, was the thought of going home to his wife.  My home is even more distant than his: I see a world of justice, a world where the poor aren’t oppressed, a world where governments and religions are organized around compassion instead of a false sense of justice.  My home is where the poorest of the poor have a home and a comfort and can contribute creatively to society. 

Now I’m going to get all religious on you, that the film never went.  In this view of the world, Kaji had to go mad.  His hope was pointless.  In fact, in the third film there are hints that his wife was probably raped, beaten, starved or sold her virtue for food, possibly dead.  The home that Kaji longed for probably wasn’t there. 

In Christianity, we are told that we will get to the end of our lives and not find this home we seek, a world of justice and hope for the lowly.  The next world is where we will find it, and those who gave mercy and suffered for would get a second chance at life, successfully creating a just world that could not be done in this life.

And I’ll be honest.  I am often stumbling in the snow, wondering if my hope is in vain.  The way I figure it, Kaji, is that even if there is no home to come to, I have done what little I can to make the world a place where others can have home.  Perhaps this world wasn’t meant for us, Kaji.  Perhaps we were never meant to find home.  But isn’t it enough to know that we offered comfort to others?  Isn’t it enough that our lives were lived for the ease and survival of others?  We may not have done much.  Helped a few hundred people.  But isn’t that enough to keep living for?  Even if that means we go to Siberia, isn’t that enough? Certainly better than dying of frostbite, longing for a home we’ll never have.

Isn’t it?

Friday, September 13, 2013

A Life With A Clockwork Orange

I was an older teen when I first watched A Clockwork Orange.  That isn’t a surprise, since it seems many people watch this controversial film at about that age.  The age when we are old enough to watch a movie on our own without our parent’s supervision.  A Clockwork Orange seems to be one of the first go-to films for kids of that age.  We hear rumors of the violence, the graphic nature of it, and it’s classic status.

I know that some, when they catch up with it, find it a moving experience, important.  For me, frankly, I found it disturbing and… well… I don’t know.  It is memorable, that’s for certain.  But what is it about this film that makes so many people find it significant?  I just don’t know.  I couldn’t decide about it.  And that’s where I left it for 27 years or so.

This week I decided to revisit the film.  My wife deeply questions my wisdom about that.  But I was missing something.  As I explained to her, I was so young when I saw it that I can’t really rate it fairly.  (Her response, “And that’s good enough reason to watch it?”  “Of course,” I replied.  A film buff cannot be denied a rating.) But more than that, it’s an important film experience for many people, but I can barely remember a thing.  I wanted to participate in the event with my film buff community.

So I watched it and it was as disturbing as I remembered it.  The violence, the dehumanization of women, the sociopathic activity, it was all very distressing.  It made as if to titillate with the sex and violence, but all it did was offend, which I suppose is part of the point.  I certainly did not enjoy the film in any way whatsoever.  It was clearly satiric.  Frankly, it felt like one Monty Python sketch after another, each one more over the top than the one before, but not a one was even remotely funny.  There were times I felt sick to my stomach.

And as my memories came rolling back from almost 30 years ago, I realize that I must have had some level of the same reaction back then, but to a less degree.  The one scene that I remember most clearly from my previous viewing is the scene in the bar where the plastic woman’s nipples are used as a faucet to pour the patron’s drink.  It disgusted me then and disgusts me today.  Frankly, the whole thing does.  This is similar to the film Brazil, when it communicates just how bad society has gone and seems to go too far… but at least Brazil had some laughs to break the oppression on one’s soul.  A Clockwork Orange never does.

The mocking of society is penetrating and somewhat remarkable in its insight.  Over the last 40 years since it was made, society has off and on again embraced pornography as an everyday experience, as a regular part of everyday existence.  And the result of this almost always is the objectification of women, especially young women, to just be seen as objects of lust.  Right now, pornography is as popular as ever, but it is kept private, and women are more and more regarded as equal humans. 

Another pointed jab is how we allow ourselves to be led by sociopaths.  Those who are willing to use violence or dehumanization to bully and force their way through both small groups and society at large is still a fact of life.  It is interesting that often today we see the conservatives, who demand an “eye for an eye” to be the bullies, but in this film it is the liberals, those who want to rehabilitate rather than just punish criminals, who are guilty of the greatest depth of dehumanization—by denying freedom altogether.  Not only the freedom to commit crimes, but the freedom to appreciate art as well.  In the end, our “hero” is granted an opportunity to partner with the government.  It looks like he will go far, because he is of the same type.

Our society reflects the world of A Clockwork Orange in the lack of ethical thinking.  What is essential is the outcome, not the process.  As long as all the policies are followed, and the outcome is what is accepted, then all is well, and we can enact crimes to produce that outcome.  It is fascinating to me that there are only two ethical thinkers in the film: The Chief Guard and the new roommate.  While they seem cruel at points, at least they had an ethical theory.  

One of my issues of the film is that it, like many satires, can point out the wrong in thinking, but can it determine the right?  Simple “eye for eye” punishment isn’t exactly a well-thought out ethical theory as well. 
But in the end, considering all these things, I realize that when I watched this film when I was young, the plot didn’t stick, nor did many of the scenes.  But what did stick with me was the disgust at the misogyny and the violence.  I couldn’t determine my reaction to the film because the primary emotional response was revulsion, and while I knew there was something else going on there, I couldn’t process what it was.

Now I can.  And I think that disgust and unfunny satire isn’t enough to base a great movie on, at least for me.  I nod at the bold moviemaking.  And I am glad to have had the experience of revulsion at the dehumanization of women when I was young.  But I cannot recommend this film, as noble as its intentions may seem.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

What is Truth? A Meditation on Stories We Tell

In the ancient world, two or three witnesses proved an event.  This proved problematic when there was a conspiracy, such as the ancient book of Susanna showed.

But what if every person speaking intends to tell the truth, but you still have different stories, different perspectives?  You get real life.  But do you get anything close to truth?

I suppose it depends on what truth you are seeking.  Are you seeking the truth of what happened?  Emotional truth?  Relational truth?  Or, if given an introspective mindset, can we discover something about the nature of truth itself?  That it is dependent on perspective, on relationship, on context, on narrative arc?  That multiple truths can exist in the same story, in the same overall truth and still have meaning?

It is fascinating to me how certain decades of nations have types of movies that characterize them.  Korea is the "genre-bending" nation.  France is the "personal narrative art" nation.  Finland is the "dry humor" nation.  Canada used to be known as the "bad movie" nation.  But then Guy Madden and some quiet classics were created.  It makes me think that perhaps Canada is the "personal perspective" nation.  Stories are told from a strictly personal point of view that would look different if someone else was telling it, and they glory in that unique point of view.

This movie could only be told by Sarah Polley.  It is the perspective of the daughter with a lost mother and two fathers, one unknown.  If someone else told this tale, it would look vastly different.  Someone else wants "facts", another one wants comedy, another one wants it to be more touching or more objective.  But this is Sarah's story and only hers.  It is her life.  And she chooses to tell this story by multiple perspectives, all given equal weight.  And that is as it should be.

It still mystifies me that people think that documentaries are truth.  They are, of course.  But they are no more truthful or of a different sort of truth than a fictional film.  They tell us narratives that increase our experience and, at their best, cause us to look at our lives differently.  This story is telling, for when the narrative was made know three women divorced their husbands.  The most amazing moment for me is when the adult director is speaking with her "mother." It shows to what extent a director is willing to bend the truth to present truth.

For me, the truth is, that truth is found in the differing perspectives.  The way of telling is the truth that lies behind the facts.