Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Lobster: An Existential Fable

I found that the danger of watching the Lobster is laughing too hard at it.  Unless I am willing to laugh equally hard at myself.

The director/writer of a trilogy of film said of his first two films that Dogtooth was about a created fiction to protect their children from reality.  That Alps was about a self-imposed fiction in order to protect oneself from grief, for our own good.

In taking that idea to the next stage, what if all of society was a fabrication?  What if we needed to hide reality from our own eyes in order to keep us all conformed to an artificial structure?

It might be easy to look at The Lobster and see it as a ridiculous comedy, full of insane situations.  But we see situations like these daily.  Do we not feel the threat of sexual nonconformity, the ostracism, even physical threat?  Are not many willing to accept idiocy and clear fiction for the sake of conformity? 

Are many not willing to go through gross and disgusting physical deformities (which might be called “augmentation”  in order to maintain the façade of love that has nothing to do with those deformities? 

Does not our society create a series of verbal and physical facades in order to perpetuate a false pretense of romance and marital bliss?   Of course society’s restrictions are not just about sexual mores but also class and culture and security and on and on.  When we look at society’s fictions they pile ever higher.

Our fictions go ever deeper.  As if presidential elections change anything, as if our jobs our meaningful, as if our enemies were really enemies and no fellow human beings, as if making changes in our lives do anything else but establish our placement in a different level of the self-appointed façade.

The Lobster invites us to laugh at ourselves.  To see the facades for what they really are. And also to see the dangers of the fictions we blindly accept.

I am tempted to ask the question, "Was it good?".  But I'm not sure a vision of a subversive, existential prophetic vision should be limited to such words as "good" or "entertaining."  That kind of misses the point, doesn't it?

Personal Reflection on After the Wedding

Jacob runs a struggling orphanage in India, but he is no distant administrator.  Rather, he is personally involved with the children, loving them with all his heart.  He is committed to the cause of poverty and he had dedicated his whole life to doing his part.  He visits his origin hometown in Denmark, to attend a wedding.  After the wedding he is made an offer: never go back to India and a very wealthy supporter will give enough money so that the orphanage might be established firmly for decades to come.

I just love how awkward he looks
I could see myself being places in that same vice.  I run a church for the homeless, and we provide services for hundreds of economic refugees in Portland Oregon and its neighbor Gresham.   I’ve been doing this work for twenty years and it has grown as homelessness itself has grown.  We monthly struggle financially, and given that we have very limited political support in city or church, we regularly face extinction.

What if someone gave me the opportunity to make sure that all of my people were cared for, at least as well as I could or better, but I would never see them again, I would not even be able to say goodbye.  Not only could I get a break, but I could do what I have been longing to do for more than a decade: give the work over to someone who isn't exhausted and overworked every day.  However, I would belie one of the principles that I base my work on.  That this work for the poor wouldn't be clinical or two dimensional, but would be personal, based on true friendship and care. To trade my relationships for what fundamentally is a sum of cash changes the very structure of the work I have established, transforms it possibly into a monster, a facade into which a stranger would insert their own motivations and principles.  It is not just my own retirement, a breaking of deep relationship, but turning my back on everything I've created.  I think of this, deeply consider this, on a regular basis, without the sum of money (the possibility, say, of housing half my folks) because I am that exhausted and I often look for an escape route.  But the cost is the trust that I have built.

All this to say that After the Wedding isn't a thought experiment for me.  Well, I suppose it is.  I created and maintain my work with no one but those I serve wanting to continue it, so no one is offering me a sum of money for the name and shell of my work. In the last month I have been rejected from two opportunities to work with the main cities I work with, because my answers are too radical, too insistent that the homeless are equal citizens of anyone else in the city and so worthy of equal rights.  I enact illegal actions, again and again, in order to save lives the city find inconvenient.   I suppose they find my solutions inelegant, or impolitic.  My point is this: there is no one who has a sum of money who would like to infuse it into the structure I created.  I can't get grants, I can't gain support from other churches, I can't even get food from the local food bank.  My work is formed out of a twenty year growing emergency, that the powers that be finally recognize, but they don't want me or my work on the team to create solutions.

After the Wedding threw this moral dilemma in my face, and I "knew" what Jacob should do.  But do I now choose a different option for myself?  Am I a hypocrite because I choose a path for a fictional character, but in my life I would chose the opposite direction?  Pramod, the orphan in India who does not stay with Jacob because he denies his own principles, would he look at me and gently accuse me? 

All this to say that a powerful movie like this causes us to question our whole lives, to re-examine our motivations and hopes.  This one just shaves a bit too close.  It is one of the great films, especially for me, but damn.  

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Coen Religion in O Brother Where Art Thou

"O Brother Where Art Thou?" is the title of the movie that was going to be made in the film Sullivan's Travels, a film about the depression, poverty and reality.  Well, it's close.  I am watching the film for the third time, but each time that I watch it, I gain insight.

The Coens' claimed that they were deeply influenced by Homer's Odyssey in the writing of this film, although they had never read the poem fully.  I'm sure they read a summary.  But deeper than this, they were interested in placing their own philosophy of life in the film.

Homer's Odyssey:
Our Ulysses is on the run from the law, just as Odysseus was running from Poseidon.   Like the epic poem, the gods of O Brother are capricious and fickle-- we have the governor of Mississippi, his opponent in the coming election and the representative of unmerciful justice.  There is a debate in the film as to whether there is another, all-powerful god over all these other human.  The power of these gods are not magic, but music, which can stir the hearts of humans and create powerful actions to occur.  Ulysses is fated to the poorest luck possible, just as his epic counterpart.  He and his travelling companions are beaten, tricked, betrayed, and run into the worst of characters-- one-eyed monsters, women intent on their destruction, and chased by powers of destruction.  Finally, they find that they have their own music that can guide their own fate, which leads Ulysses to his true treasure-- his family and his wife who is being wooed by another man. Through the power of a merciful god?  Or fate? Or luck? Ulysses achieves his goal-- home and hearth and family.   Perhaps.

Coens' philosophy:
The Coens' philosophy begins with a universe that cannot be determined.  Is it God?  It is fate?  Is it luck?  Whatever the case, for the most part we are all a sad sack, trapped in a cycle of bad luck.  The way to move ahead is to grasp onto our fate, to take action in every moment that it presents itself. That action might be theft, it might be earning money, it might be working with people who are perhaps unsavory.  But we will never achieve the next step we need in life unless we keep moving.  Death is stillness, passivity, inaction.  Only when we keep acting do we know who we are.  And when we keep making those steps, we find that the universe isn't opposed to us, but in the end it fits together, for the best.  And the best for us is home, hearth and family.

Besides the themes of this film, the music is marvelous.  This is one of my favorite soundtracks of all time, brilliantly produced by T Bone Burnett.  I listen to the music all the time so it is so wonderfully familiar when it appears between the cracks or in the forefront of the film.  Each song is the magic of the film: not just the tone, but the power of each scene, the sound of the god or monster shaking the universe, all attempting to fruitlessly force their own will upon humanity.