All Is Full Of Love

bjork

What does it mean to love and to sacrifice? Are they related, and if so, to what degree? In most stories and mythologies of significance throughout human history, self-sacrifice is a recurring theme of paramount importance. The need to give of oneself for the sake of another, or for the sake of the larger community or society, is something that has always been meaningful to us, that moves us deeply. It is quite common to view such acts of self-sacrifice as acts of love. The greater the act of sacrifice, the greater the act of love. From the most grand and enduring story of our culture, Jesus sacrificing himself for his love of humanity, to the most silly modern popcorn flick, Bruce Willis sacrificing himself for the love of his daughter in Armageddon, it is just a theme that resonates at any level in any story. (Yes, I kind of just compared the Bible and Armageddon, get over it!) But when is an act of self-sacrifice justified? When is it truly selfless? When is it honestly an act of love?

I believe because of how absurdly common this theme is in our stories, and because of how often it is linked to being an act of love, it can be easy to confuse the two and not look deeper, in stories and in life. We are being taught through our cultural mythos that to sacrifice oneself is good and noble, and that to do so for love is possibly the most beautiful expression of love. But what if we are sacrificing ourselves unnecessarily out of some misguided and grandiose notion of love? What if the sacrifice we make ends up hurting those we love in the long run and creates undue suffering?

Let’s keep the exploration on an intimate and personal level for this discussion to simplify the issue. I don’t really need to say more about the manifestation of this theme in the film ‘Dancer in the Dark’ than the fact that Bjork plays a woman who is always sacrificing for her son. This is one of the most classic love relationships where we see self-sacrifice, the mother and her child, and it does not get more intimate and personal than that. The idea of such an act is that by sacrificing something of ourselves, we are bettering the life of another, in this case our child, but this can just as easily apply to romantic relationships, other familial relationships, and even close friendships. However, by the very nature of self-sacrifice, we are making choices and decisions for another person which we believe to be best for them. We know that this other person we love will not want to see us hurt or suffering, and therefore would not go along willingly with a plan that requires us to bear all of the burden of sacrifice. So we choose to forgo their input and opinion and make the choice unilaterally. Is that really a selfless way to operate? In relationships, aren’t we supposed to value open and honest communication above all else? I think today, more than ever, we place a premium on conversation, debate, and consensus, especially in healthy and functional relationships. In a relationship with another person we claim to love and who loves us, do we even have the right to make monumental decisions which will greatly impact the other person unilaterally?

There are so many avenues that could be pursued here, but I want to try my best to stay focused and not confuse the issue. I think it is important to split the issue between two functionally different categories of relationship, those between two adults of any type, and those between a guardian and a child. I will make the case that traditional acts of self-sacrifice in any relationship between two adults seems dysfunctional and selfish based on our current value systems within relationships. The person making the sacrifice is really placing their ego and what they believe is best above their relationship and the feelings and opinions of the other person. The one example that keeps popping into my head is when an individual gets a life-threatening illness and keeps that information to themselves as long as possible to avoid scaring or hurting their loved ones. In theory, we can all understand this idea, especially if we imagine being in that situation. However, I believe the best litmus test for how to act is not what we think is best for others from our viewpoint, but how we would want a loved one to act towards us if they were in the same situation. If your partner or sibling or friend was dying of cancer, would you want them to keep it from you and deny you the opportunity to offer them love and support? Or would you want your role in their process of either recovery or dying to be a conversation between the two of you? I think we can all understand and even admire the person who sacrifices themselves out of a noble ideal from afar, but in reality we would want to share their pain and suffering if they were our loved one in order to hopefully lessen it and show our love for them.

The issue becomes a bit more complex and complicated when looking at the parent-child relationship. Obviously the younger the child, the more responsibility the parent has to be unilateral in their decisions and decide what is best for the child. But where is the line? What decisions are too big and impactful to make without a conversation and input from the child? At what age does the conversation have to become more open and cover more concerns? I think these questions are exceedingly difficult to answer, and that makes it much easier for a parent to get caught in their own viewpoint and fail to see what they might want if they were the child again. Parents, mothers especially, are hardwired to sacrifice themselves for their children. It is instinctual and was borne out of necessity by evolution for survival. However, we are at a different place and time in human history. The survival need that hardwired the instinct into us has become mostly irrelevant in the developed world. As we live in a world with much different problems and circumstances, can this instinct get in the way and muddy up our decision making process? What if you, as a parent, sacrifice all of yourself and push your child in school to achieve greatness so they can get into the best college and become a great success in the future. Do you lose a lot of time you could have spent with your child? Do they resent the pushing to be something you think is important? Does it hurt your relationship once they become an adult? Does it keep them from pursuing their passion and being themselves?

I am asking these questions because I think they are more important than ever to be asking. We have the luxury in the modern western world of being able to pursue whatever dreams we wish and make a living. Perhaps we will not get rich by following our passion, but we may find happiness and comfort in life, which are of the highest value today. Gone are the days of doing whatever job we can get to scrape by and raise a family. The possibilities are endless, which means keeping the possibilities endless in the minds of our children is important. However, children also need discipline, and sometimes need to be pushed to do more than they would by themselves for their own benefit. And children need the availability, attention, and love of their parents, which means being around and spending quality time. So how do we balance all of these concerns and know when to sacrifice for our children, how to sacrifice for our children, when to bring them into the conversation, and when to let them shoulder some of the burden? Of course I don’t have the answer to any of these challenging questions. All I can do is start a conversation and hope that some of you might think about these issues. And I encourage you, whether you’ve seen the film before or not, to watch ‘Dancer in the Dark’ after reading this and see what you think about the ways in which Bjork’s character Selma sacrifices for her son.

Age Against the Machine

PrinceAvalanche

David Gordon Green carved out a beautiful filmography in the American independent scene throughout early and mid 2000s. His films were understated masterclasses of tone that balanced narrative complexity against visual poetic simplicity. Then his career took an unexpected and inexplicable detour to silly and stupid blockbuster action-comedy via ‘Pineapple Express’ starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, followed by ‘Your Highness’ and ‘The Sitter’. It left those of us who admired and respected his work scratching our heads and wondering, “whatever happened to David Gordon Green?” How could one of the most sensitive, serious, and contemplative American directors of our time plunge into an abyss of inanity? I must admit I have only seen ‘Pineapple Express’, but I have heard nothing but less than flattering things about the other two. When it came out, I figured, ok, he is going to reinvent the genre and put his unique fingerprints all over the film in some amazing way. It was the only rationalization I could accept, and so I went to see the movie. Dead wrong. It couldn’t have been much more conventional. It wasn’t terrible for what it was I suppose, but it was terrible for this person I had admired for so long.

Of course, none of my assertions are fair to Mr. Gordon Green. He is an artist, he is entitled to make whatever he wants. Even if the only reason he went down this path was because he got to know all of these genuinely funny people in his new crew and just enjoyed hanging out and creating with them. After all, didn’t I say in my last post how wonderful it is during the creative process to be able to do it with friends for the pure joy of it? He has not only the right, but the responsibility to go in whatever direction his artistic impulses take him. And I quietly held the hope that there was a greater purpose to this seeming flight of fancy that would pay off in the long run. Maybe there wasn’t, maybe I am just imposing this ideal onto the events because I want it to be true. But if it is true, then the result is his new film, ‘Prince Avalanche’, and his foray into comedy was worth the journey.

I believe now that there were two things that intrigued David Gordon Green as an artist about exploring absurdist comedy. All of his earlier films were very serious, and if there is one complaint some had about him, it was that he could come across as overly self-serious. So I think perhaps he wanted to learn comedy in a way, something he had never really done before, to grow as an artist. Now, unfortunately, his straight comedy films show him to not be hugely adept at comedy in a traditional or mainstream way. However, the second thing I believe he wanted to explore is the current culture of adult immaturity. We have reached a point in American history where comfort and leisure are king and concern over literal survival is at an all-time low in this country. People in America, men especially, are able to shirk the traditional idea of responsibility and live a life of indulgence, apathy, vacuity, and immaturity if they so choose. In rebellion to the mandate of uber-capitalism and a cultural mythos that seems more and more empty by the day, people are choosing to act out in manners most of us would deem anywhere from trivial to self-destructive. Stoners, drinkers, ragers, and layabouts; playing video games, reading comics, living with parents, and living online; not working, working meaningless jobs, hanging with friends, and screwing around. There is a growing population of adults that occupy some or many of these categories proudly, displaying apathy or disdain towards a culture that has left them feeling excluded, abused, or disheartened. This is the community I believe he was diving into with his comedy ventures.

The questions remains, what can be gained from such a journey? What is there of meaning and value to be found in such a world? Well I believe I already hinted at it by looking for clues to the underlying cause of the rise in this population. And this is the space ‘Prince Avalanche’ chooses to live in and get comfortable. It is about two road maintenance workers living out of a tent in the woods as they paint lane lines and set mile markers along a lonely stretch of road in the Texas backcountry. Paul Rudd is Alvin, the straight-laced, hard-working, committed relationship guy trying to do right by his girlfriend and her daughter. Emile Hirsch is Lance, the brother of his girlfriend, a dim-witted, apathetic, misogynistic man-boy living for fun and sex. Neither one of them really wants to be working together, and both of them feel like they are missing out on something by being there. The difference is that Alvin ascribes a noble quest fantasy to his station, whereas Lance just views it as a meaningless impediment to enjoying life. In a way, Paul represents David Gordon Green’s early work as a filmmaker, and Emile represents his comedy trilogy. And in this film, they come together in an attempt to learn from each other something deeper about life.

‘Prince Avalanche’ melds the naturalistic beauty and searching lens of Green’s early films with the absurdist bent and narrative meandering of his comedies. The result is something strange and new that is difficult to get a firm grasp on. Is there deep meaning? Is there meaning in a lack of meaning? Is there a destination? Is it a journey? Is it funny? Is it sad? Can it be all of these things at once? And that is the great triumph here, I think. The film is at home in paradox, showing us that it is ok to be in the unknown. Niels Bohr said that the opposite of a great truth is another great truth. The world is mysterious, and if we look at our lives in an open and honest way, we see opposites existing together in perfect harmony, without contradiction, all the time. That is just life. Alvin and Lance are opposites, yet they are both sabotaging their lives and their happiness in their own ways. Alvin needs a little Lance, and Lance needs a little Alvin. So the bond they form is perfectly natural and healing, as is the fighting and headbutting they engage in along the way. Their job as road workers is a perfect metaphor for the culture of stunted adults being explored. A road is one of the most universally recognizable symbols of our path in life. And here they are, spending every day out on this road working, but never going anywhere. But by coming together, perhaps they can head out on that road in search of a new adventure, a new life.

Rising in ‘The East’

The-East-movie-2013

There is a new movement happening in the independent world, one that is focused on stretching, seeking, and questioning. It is happening in film, in comedy, in art, in music. There are two defining features of this movement that make it so important. The first is the rise of the niche, or the decline of the mainstream. Everything in the world of art and entertainment has become so fragmented that there hardly exists a giant mainstream anymore, but a huge collection of niches that overlap and intermingle. This means that the definition of the term independent has to change, and I believe it just means real, honest, and personal. Independent is no longer a limiting term, it is no longer a fringe term, because the niche has become the mainstream in a weird way. The second is the era of collaboration, or screw ownership, let’s get real. The simplification of the creation and distribution of artistic endeavors means not only that anyone can do it, but people can do it first and foremost for the pure joy of it. And what brings more joy than sharing that act of creation with friends? So people are banding together with like-minded people to create the art and entertainment they want to see in the world and then putting it out there. People are less concerned with a ‘look at me, this is mine, I made this!’ mentality in the independent world, and more with getting at truth. I believe both of these two trends signal the birth of a new world.

‘The East’ is the new movie by filmmaking duo Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij. They started their feature collaboration by making last year’s ‘The Sound of My Voice’ (see here). Brit got started in writing because she was tired of auditioning and not finding the roles out there she was passionate about playing. After her first feature as a writer and star, she re-teamed with like-minded Zal (they made a short together in 2007), and they discovered they were passionate about many of the same things. They had these big questions about society and the world that they were wrestling with, and decided to go on a journey together to explore those questions and see what comes of it. They spent a summer traveling around the country and spending time with different groups that considered themselves a part of the counterculture, people questioning the world around them in the same way. This trip was the genesis of both films, and they both deal with similar themes, but in dramatically different ways. ‘The Sound of My Voice’ is a much smaller and contained film, whereas their upcoming film ‘The East’ stretches much farther and goes much deeper. It also uses the apparatus and cinematic language of the mainstream to achieve its aims. Thus the niche usurps the mainstream and becomes something altogether different and new. Are you ready?

One of the joys of the style of film Brit and Zal make is discovering the details for yourself as you watch. So I will say very little about the specifics of this film, other than the generic synopsis you can find anywhere online: a private intelligence agent is sent to infiltrate an eco-terrorist organization attacking the heads of large corporations they feel have wronged the American people. That synopsis tells you nothing about the film’s heart or meaning, it’s just dressing. In their earlier film, ‘The Sound of My Voice’, I stated the defining feature of the film was that they were setting up an argument with two sides, and giving you enough crumbs on both sides to make the case for either one based on your convictions. I also said the danger is that people entrenched on a single side might miss the point. Well, with ‘The East’, they have corrected that dilemma in a powerful, shaking way. They again set up an argument with two sides, but instead of providing the evidence to support either side, they instead focus on providing the evidence to destroy both sides. The danger here as a viewer now is this: if both sides are torn down and destroyed, what is left? So the inner dilemma becomes, are you an optimist or a pessimist? Will you see what they have done and use it an excuse to feel nihilistic, or write the filmmakers off as nihilists? Or will you use it as an opportunity to imagine a brave new world?

And that brings us full circle: I believe the answer to the question of pessimism vs. optimism presented is the question of the individual vs. community. If you place all of the power in the hands of the individual, then we are headed for the doom and gloom of nihilism. It may seem an odd connection, but by extension, placing power with the individual is the same as placing it with the large individual systems of society we have created: governments, corporations, countries, etc… They are equivalent, and this is precisely why the equivalency of corporations and people makes sense in the eyes of those whole believe in absolute individualism. That view brings destruction and rubble. It is hard to see a way out of these systems, which is what leads to pessimism about the future. The cure is community. Communities are built upon love, they represent creation. Communities are always small at heart, even if they get big (though it is a very difficult balance to find and maintain). Communities are groups of likeminded individuals banding together over common ideas, beliefs, and goals to create something new or different. Communities are agents of change and evolution. No individual can achieve this, but they can inspire others to join them in community. This is achieved through love. Love is the answer. As I stated at the start, I see a new world order in arts and entertainment based on collaboration, community, and love. I believe this will extend beyond those realms and into the whole of global society, evolving a new social order. So which side are you on? Is the world ending? Or do you believe in love?

Do Killers Dream?

Joshua_TheActOfKilling

I don’t think it is an understatement to say Joseph Oppenheimer’s film, ‘The Act of Killing’, is one of the most important works of art and film in the modern era, dating back to the start of the 20th century. It captures the dirty truth of a time period, of the shocking powers of violence and cruelty inherent in man and supported by the modern sociopolitical systems we have been creating and evolving over a hundred years. It asks us not to imagine what it would look like if the Nazis or the Khmer Rouge had won and were able to shape the history of a country in their own image. It shows us this reality, here and now, existing in Indonesia. It hints at the role of Western countries in creating this dark truth. And even harder to grapple with, it draws parallels between what has happened and continues to happen in Indonesia and our own past and present as a nation, forcing us to look in the mirror if we are brave enough to hear the call.

What is the nature of good and evil? Is any individual inherently good? Evil? Or does the capacity for both of these qualities exists within most of us? The fact that genocides have been repeated in many countries all over the world with vastly different cultures and countries, and that the killing themselves were carried out by ordinary people, suggest a frightening answer most of would never want to admit to ourselves. The famous Milgram experiment posits similar outcomes. The motivations for acts of kindness or cruelty are complex and subject to a multitude of outside factors. The systems of government and society surrounding us play a huge role. The communities and families in which we were raised. The education systems in which we were taught. So is it fair to say that any individual who engages in acts of kindness or cruelty is necessarily good or evil?

Anwar Congo is the focus of ‘The Act of Killing’. He was a small time ‘movie theater gangster’ in the 60s in Sumatra. When the military coup happened in 1965 and an ethnic/political cleansing was encouraged in its wake, he got swept up in the wave and was personally responsible for around 1,000 deaths out of the 1 million reported. Today, Anwar enjoys the life of a retired gangster, which in Indonesia they term a ‘free man’. Such is his comfort and freedom that he agreed to not only give an honest accounting of his involvement in the genocide, but to recreate and film his killings for a movie in hopes of glorifying this extermination of communists, a great feat of heroism in the country’s professed history. He and his buddies proceed to dream up, plan, and shoot ever wilder, surreal scenes of technicolor violence paying homage to the roots of their influence as gangsters and killers, Hollywood films of the 60s.

During this process of recreation, Anwar and the other killers are left to their own devices on how, what, and where to shoot. Oppenheimer is less interested in the outcomes of these recreations than observing the process as a fly on the wall. In the way the major players talk about the scenes, recounting their memories of killing and torture, it is hard to glean any remorse. To this day, the official line of the government and the largest paramilitary organization in the country is that the killings were justified, and that they would happily exterminate the communists again if the children of victims tried to rise up and make their voices heard. So not only is there no reason for these men to express remorse, but to do so might actually put them in a precarious situation with the government. We hear one man boast of how much he loved raping every woman he came across, how he loved beautiful 14 year olds the best. We hear another exclaim how he walked down the street in Jakarta one day stabbing every ethnic Chinese he passed, and because his girlfriend was Chinese, he killed her dad that day as well. They tell these stories with laughter and pride.

The only person in this group, aside from our star Anwar, to express discomfort with the whole process was a former killer now living overseas, Adi, whose only objection was that they shouldn’t be admitting that they lied about the communists being cruel and allow the historical record to show that they, in fact, were the cruel ones. This happens during filming of an interrogation scene. A neighbor of Anwar who hangs around and is friendly with these gangsters gets up the nerve to share a secret story. His step dad raised him from when he was a baby. His step dad was also ethnic Chinese. One night men came to the door, kidnapped his step dad, and they found him the next day dead under a barrel. He tells this story while laughing in a grotesque manner, and pleads that he is not criticizing but only sharing a story for accuracy in the film. No one reacts to this story. They proceed then to film a scene where this same man is interrogated, tortured, and killed, forcing him to imagine and relive the fate of his step dad. During the scene he sobs so hard snot shoots out of his nose and down onto his mouth and chin, hanging in long streams from his face as he begs for mercy. This is no act. This is the release of emotions held inside for decades.

A government, a country, says killings are justified, that any means necessary are acceptable in protecting the interests of the country, including hiding certain realities. The people at every level of involvement must tow the line and present an image that upholds this belief. Does that make the killings justified? It is easy from the outside, perhaps, in such cases as this one in Indonesia, or the ones in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Germany, to say of course it does not justify the killings. But what about from the inside? Would it be easy within Indonesia to see through the propaganda and see that the killings were unjustified? Adi defiantly states at one point, ‘ The winners get to define the war crimes’. That is his view, and it holds within Indonesia, but from the outside we say, hold on, no no, we judge what happened as unjust. But what happens when the country in question is one of the largest and most powerful in the world, able to exert pressure over the entire international community? Are people from the outside going to stand up to injustices committed by that country? Or will they tow the same line being put out by the ‘winner’? It is uncomfortable to use such an opportunity as this film presents to turn the lens back onto ourselves. What killings have been committed in the name of our own sense of morality that may rightfully be deemed unjustified? Who has been held to account for those war crimes? Why do we rush to harsh judgement of those who commit war crimes elsewhere while not taking the time to judge ourselves, our leaders, our killers the same? Because we are the ‘winners’ of the world, we know best, we define the terms.

I know this is a painful topic to broach, one that most of us would rather avoid or pretend does not exist. But what if, for a moment, I change the focus to the interesting case of China. China is an interesting case, because they have done, and continue to do many things that we, in the international community, can agree constitute egregious human rights violations. However, they have steadily become an unstoppable economic power in the world that may soon eclipse the vaunted West. That puts them in the unique position today where the outrage over their human rights violations has become less and less, while support and encouragement for their stature as a world power has taken precedence. As they too become ‘winners’ of the world, they get to define the terms. What should by all rights be recorded in history as a terrible genocide of Tibetan people and an illegal occupation, has increasingly been accepted and forgotten to most as no government dares to cross China by calling a spade a spade, and instead accepts their claim of ownership to this land, and in doing so tacitly approves of their rewrite of history. Practices and conditions that would not be tolerated in any major Western country run rampant in China, and we turn a blind because of the benefit we obtain from their ‘winning’ economic practices. Only the future will tell how the modern history of China gets recorded. Unfortunately, we have a sad example with the Native Americans in our own backyard.

But we needn’t look all the way back to the Native Americans to question our own moral certitude and the validity of our unchecked unilateral actions in the world. The example of China clearly shows the uncomfortable dissonance created by such a fast rise in economic stature and the easy exchange of information in a digital, global world. But we have been a world power far longer, and we are on the inside. What do we ignore? What do we miss? Is Guantanamo justified? Are drone strikes justified? The innocent casualties that result? Our invisible hand in numerous atrocities like the one in Indonesia? Our invasions of Iraq and Vietnam? Environmental destruction? Chemical poisoning of citizens through toxic dumping? Financial collapse? Obesity? What else is out there of which we are unaware? It is endless how far down this particular rabbit hole we could descend in looking for our culpability in causing suffering by the systems we have created, supported, and nurtured. It does not take a dictatorship or communism to pull the wool over the eyes of citizens as cruel acts are carried out by individuals in the name or freedom, prosperity, and evolution at the direction of the government and the culture.

So where do we draw the line? Who is actually responsible? Our ‘hero’ in ‘The Act of Killing’, Anwar, has his own personal moment of reckoning during filming. He hints at the beginning of being haunted in his dreams by his crimes, of hiding from the guilt and pain with drugs and alcohol and partying. In one scene, he plays the role of communist victim himself, perhaps to punish himself and feel the pain he inflicted upon countless others. As his friend and fellow killer pretends to strangle him with wire after a simulated beating and interrogation, we watch Anwar become overwhelmed, nearly pass out, as if he left his body for a few moments. Later, he tells Joseph he felt their pain in that moment. Joseph points out that it was much worse for them because it was real. Anwar insists, ‘but I felt it Joseph, it all came back to me,’ as he breaks down and cries, pleading for it not to come back to him. This scene is followed by Anwar retching and dry heaving, on the roof where he killed so many people, for an uncomfortable length of time. We can see he is not faking or playing it up for the camera. This man has finally allowed himself to be overcome by the gravity of what he did, the cruelty for which he was responsible. Could a killer possibly ever be a sympathetic figure?

Anwar did wrong, committed horrible atrocities, and lived a privileged life because of it. He did it at the direction of his government, alongside many cohorts, with many rewards reaped. He has been tormented internally for years, hiding all of this emotion, and pretending to be something he is not. He has loved his family and done the best he could in the wake of a system set up to scapegoat him if ever the need came. We can see all of this through his remorse and pain. Does he deserve our sympathy? Or is what he did too ‘evil’ to ever merit sympathy? Is it impossible to imagine ourselves, or people we know, doing the same thing if put in the unfortunate situation Anwar was put in? Of course we want to say yes, that is impossible to imagine. But is it? Is it really?

If we take a moment to explore the possibility of Anwar as a sympathetic figure, a stooge of a government and a culture, a victim of unlucky circumstance, with a basically good heart who committed horrible acts, where does that leave us? None of the other men even hint at remorse for their actions. Does that mean they would not merit sympathy? Just because we can’t see the pain and torment inside, because they refuse to show it, does that mean it is absent? I do not claim to have answers to any of these questions. But I do know we are all too happy to lay blame and punishment at the feet of individuals, but loathe to assign responsibility to the systems that created and enabled them, systems in which we freely participate and benefit from. In similar circumstances, there will always be a discouraging number of individuals who will feel pressured to participate in such acts of violence. It has happened repeatedly the whole world over. Could they all possibly be evil? If given the chance, how many of the slaughtered victims would have participated if the tables were turned and they were not the minority? How many people would participate in such acts within our own country if forced? I know I keep going back to this, that these things are incredibly uncomfortable to explore. But if we don’t explore them, what are we allowing? Where is our responsibility in this whole moral universe? I overheard a fellow audience member comment on the way out, “I’m glad I’m from the United States *laughs*!” I think her discomfort with what she just witnessed caused her to miss the larger point. Does being from the United States absolve us of responsibility?

There is a stunning scene near the end of the film, shot in vivid color, of Anwar and his best mate Herman standing with arms spread wide in praise and victory in front of a towering waterfall. They are surrounded at a distance by gorgeous women dancing in bold pink strapless dresses, stark against the lush green of the mountainside. The camera focuses on two executed communists with wire around their neck standing next to Anwar. They remove the wire from their necks, present Anwar and Herman with medals, shake hands, and say “Thank you for executing us and sending us to Heaven.” This is the big climax out of the minds of Anwar, Herman, and the rest of their killing buddies to their movie. Redemption through the gracious acceptance of their executed victims. This is the truth they are ready to present to a nation and beyond of their deeds in the name of strength and prosperity for Indonesia. But what other ending could their movie have if its aim is to tow the line, to promote the propaganda of the government and reinforce the history everyone is forced to believe in. Anwar sits and watches this scene in his home alone with pride. “I didn’t think I could make something so beautiful Joshua.”

Embracing the Dark Side

God Bless America

I happened to catch the new film by director Bobcat Goldthwait over the weekend, “God Bless America”, and I think it is a wonderful jumping off point for a serious discussion about human nature. If you are not familiar with his work as a director, he is an enthusiast of extremely dark satire. His set-ups are about the most bizarre and disturbing you could imagine. In fact, the plot of his latest, about two very different individuals who hook up and go on a killing spree of America’s stupidest and meanest personalities because they are fed up with American culture, is probably his least controversial in my mind. That will give you an idea of the kind of dark territory he lives in as a filmmaker. “God Bless America” is not a great piece of cinema. The rants about different aspects of American culture the two leads engage in can range from justified to trite to completely out of touch. But as a conversation starter, it has real value, as do all of Goldthwait’s films. So what conversation is he trying to start?

By the very nature of his methods and the materials he is using, Mr. Goldthwait will certainly turn off a fair number of mainstream viewers. But the feature of his work that will turn off those people is exactly the thing that is most interesting and valuable. His great gift as a filmmaker is to take the darkest and most disturbing inclinations of human nature, let his characters indulge in them, and then make us as viewers relate to those characters. Of course, this is not a journey everyone would be willing to take, because we are most afraid of the darkness that exists within us all. We prefer to look at whatever it is that drives people to commit heinous and disgusting acts as a mysterious evil that is other to us. We rush to condemn anyone who could commit such acts as inhuman, and we do not dare attempt to put ourselves in their shoes or believe we or anyone we know could be capable of such atrocity. The truth is, the dark and evil deeds of men and women are not other, they are part of human nature.

There are no easy answers to questions of why humans commit such atrocities upon each other and the world around us. However, one merely need to look at any point throughout human history to see that ‘evil’, as we classify it, is a part of human nature. If it were not, history would look quite different. But evil is indeed a classification, a societal judgement, subjective in nature. According to the Bible, to kill is a sin, an evil. However, we have developed so many different classifications for killing that it can be judged anywhere from evil to heroic, depending on the circumstances. What is evil changes over time as society changes, and what is evil can be different from culture to culture, although globalization and technology are moving us closer every day to a universal judgement, which does not make it any less subjective.

However, when it is presented as black and white in the public arena, we lose valuable lessons and information. Because what evil really represents is a catalyst for change. If everything were fine all the time, there would be no need to change, and therefore no need to move forward, to evolve. The term ‘necessary evil’ probably exists for this reason. It is not that an evil rises up from nowhere magically or comes from some outside place, it is that either the societal judgement changes, or the form of an existing evil changes in response to new technology or opportunity. Show me a utopia, and I will show you a person waiting to figure out how to exploit it, or a person already exploiting it who has not been identified yet. This does not make me a cynic or a nihilist, far from it. It makes me a believer in change, in evolution, and in the evidence of all of civilized human history. Look at democracy, once thought to be the height of societal structure that would bring freedom and prosperity to all. And now look at the situation we are in as a country and the ways in which our democratic government is failing us. It is begging for a change, for an evolution, but we have not yet reached the tipping point where we identify and point out the evil in it and rise up to force change, though we may be close.

Let me get back to Mr. Goldthwait now. He forces us to not only look at and accept the dark side of human nature, but he actually makes us sympathize with his characters who act on these dark impulses if we give him the chance. More than that, he makes us angry at the society and its members who would judge these people as evil. Now that is a gift, because if we can do this in the setting of a film, maybe, just maybe, someday we can do it within our actual society with real people. When we can look at the student who shoots up his school, or the ‘terrorist’ who blows up a building, and try to understand what it says about what in our society needs changing, then we will have reached a place of significant power. When we merely brand these people as evil and scapegoat them for larger societal problems, we are losing out and slowing down the process of evolution.

As long as we have the ability to judge good from evil, there will be evil. It we lose that ability, or evolve beyond such a simplistic black & white worldview, then evil will be gone, because it is a concept of our creation. I propose that we can eliminate evil not by eliminating the side of human nature that leads to evil deeds, but by changing our understanding of what evil is, and what purpose it serves. I applaud Mr. Goldthwait for boldly advancing a different view. If you wish to check out his work, I suggest you rent “World’s Greatest Dad”, as it is his best film, with a brilliant performance by Robin Williams. (P.S. – sadly, the trailer I included is rather tame and doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how dark and amazing the premise of this movie really is)

The Mythology of Women: Part I

an oversimplification of her beauty

How do we perceive women in this day and age? We have seemingly reached a point in human history of unprecedented equality of opportunity and independence. But is it really equality? After watching the brilliant film, “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty”, at the San Francisco International Film Festival, I could not help but ponder the mythologizing of women in our culture today. It started as an exploration of the ways in which I personally related to the filmmaker’s narrative. However, as I began to peer behind the veil of this massive issue of gender identity in modern America, I peeled back layer upon layer of symbolism and meaning tied into such a seemingly banal internal dialogue about my own relationships to women. I can barely being to scratch the surface of such a topic in this forum, but it fascinates me to the point where I cannot get it out of my mind, and film, as all art, plays such an important role in shaping the discussion. Scope and forum be damned, I am going to aim high and begin a multi-part exploration of the mythology of women in America today. Feel free to join in!

The current cultural female archetype is informed by so many different sources and replicated and reinforced in so many ways, overt and subtle, that it can hard to pin it down. Throughout most of the history of ‘civilized’ society, the female archetype was created by men in the image of their desire and women were molded to it, so it was easier to define and comprehend. Of course when we speak of a cultural archetype, we are not speaking of the internal reality or truth of women, but the accepted mythology of a women’s role within society that is broadcast externally. However, as civilization progressed and women gained more and more say in defining the female archetype of the day, it has become a much more complicated push and pull of identity. This creates a built-in feedback loop where lines become blurred between whether a woman is, at any given moment, redefining, reshaping, or merely reflecting the existing archetype. What if a woman is attempting through her actions or statements to reshape an aspect of the existing archetype that was originally defined by a man? Does that move it closer to the truth, or just further distort a falsehood? No matter how far down this particular rabbit hole one ventures, can an archetype ever really come to close to approximating an individual’s internal truth? It is in the context of these and many more complex questions that I head down the rabbit hole.

Given the nature of the film that instigated this piece, I will begin this journey where my own began, the personal. Ok, let me address the elephant in the room right off the bat: why is a man trying to dialogue about the identity of women in society today? Well, let me first say I am definitely not as arrogant as my forefathers as to try and define the role of women in society. In fact, if anything, I’d like to deconstruct the whole concept of female identity as being fundamentally different from male identity. Secondly, I am confronted and affected by the mythologizing of women in our culture every day, externally and internally, as I interact with women every day. The mythology of men in our culture is a whole different topic which I could, and may, explore at a later date, but I will only mention here that I often feel I stand far outside that mythology, and that too affects the ways in which I encounter and bump up against issues of the female archetype. So what really interests me here today is the ways in which the female archetype enters the male psyche and distorts our own personal internal reality.

How is it that a man can meet a woman, and in that present moment of first encounter feel a total connection that puts him on the same level as her in his mind, only to slowly tumble down to a lower and lower level every moment he is not with her? In that first moment when the slate is clean, the two individual personal realities are interacting and finding connections in an organic process. However, once the two are separated for any length of time, the female archetype starts to invade the psyche and usurp the memory of the woman’s reality. The longer the separation, the worse the effect. Thoughts that are not his own begin to enter the man’s mind. “She is too beautiful, she can have any guy.” “She is so kind and compassionate, I am not worthy.” They meet again, but this time a thin protective wall has been built in between their true selves and colors the interactions. The connection is still there, but it feels less solid, more doubtful. They separate again, and the usurper is more aggressive, less forgiving. “She will only hurt you, did you see all the men staring at her?” “She is too good, she will judge you for your flaws and weakness, you must hide them.” It is clear where this path is headed, but how, and why?

I have certainly had many versions of this experience myself, of different lengths and severity, with different effects and results. My dominant reaction in the past was to wall myself off emotionally until any initial connection was completely gone so when I drove them away with my aloofness I felt relieved and justified in the ending of the relationship. Lately my dominant solution has been to attempt to go in reverse, by starting with the wall up and figuring whoever could slowly break the wall down and get inside would explode the archetype. This solution was, of course, ridiculous. It was not until a recent experience when I was caught with my guard down and felt the excitement and passion of that naked intermingling of personal truths for the first time in years that I both remembered the beauty of that first encounter moment and realized the sobering persistent presence of that old vixen the female archetype. And there you see I allowed myself to consciously give in to her by even using the word vixen, which is a cliched, meaningless word that could only describe her, but not an actual individual woman.

Which brings me back full circle to the film, “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty”. It is not a linear narrative feature by any stretch of the imagination, but more a textured visual poem containing the subjective experiences and impressions of the filmmaker himself. It is part documentary in the sense that it is about a real relationship from his life and includes candid interviews with the actual woman of his desire. But everything, even these interviews, is necessarily obscured through the lens of his own motives, feelings, and memory. To his credit as an artist and a human, he acknowledges this fact, but then we could question the motive of such an acknowledgement, couldn’t we? However, it is the very existence of this questionable and distorted perspective that makes the film beautiful and meaningful. About half the film existed previously as a separate short with the intention of expressing previously unexpressed emotions to this woman with the stated goal of making her fall for him. The remainder was shot and edited in later to explore the aftermath of the filmmakers initial decisions, process, and outcomes. What was clear to me was the not only the ways in which the filmmaker mythologized this woman in his own mind, with it affecting his ability to pursue an honest relationship with her, but how he then actually mythologized her not once, but twice, on film. The different levels and layer of mythologization present in this film are staggering, and could start a myriad of debates. However, the one aspect that impresses me most comes from the recognition inherent in the title itself. What is the female archetype but a vast and dangerous oversimplification of the beauty of an individual female’s personal truth?

The real sad discovery here is that we can acknowledge and express the process, yet still fall prey to it. Why is that? Well, as I hinted at earlier, the phenomena that define and shape the prevailing female archetype of the day, the stories we tell as a society across every channel and are exposed to from earliest childhood in ways that are unavoidable without the total removal of oneself from society, seep into the deepest recesses of our subconscious and are virtually impossible to extricate completely. In other words, the female archetype is a part of our cultural mythos which cannot be escaped unless you dare to step outside of the culture entirely. What does that mean? Can it be done? And can you ever truly step back inside after you’ve done so? I will attempt to explore these questions and more as I will move beyond the personal to the cultural constructs of the female archetype in part II whenever I feel up the challenge. In the meantime, stay tuned, and join in the discussion!

The Power of Belief

Sound Of My Voice

At a time when those in positions of power are increasingly trying to convince us that we live in a world of black & white in which you must choose a side, Brit Marling is screaming that the truth is grey. In her new feature, “The Sound of My Voice”, she presents a world of confusion and unease at the intersection of faith and reason and lets us watch the slow motion collision. Also at play are the dynamics of power and authority in shaping our thoughts and pulling us towards one side in order to set us in opposition to the other. I do not wish to get too much into the specifics of the narrative, because it is better to see the film with as little knowledge of the actual plot and direction as possible so as to form your own conclusions and opinions. What I find most interesting and do wish to explore here is the greater meaning behind the film’s ambiguous nature.

The brilliance of style and form here is the defining feature, and is actually more important than the details of plot to the overall message I believe Marling is trying to convey. It has become much more acceptable and commonplace in independent film over the course of it history to leave a film unresolved or ambiguous at the end and to let the viewer make their own conclusions. It has helped to elevate the art form and to challenge us to think. But what “Voice” does is even deeper and more sinister in a way that drives home its point. The ending is indeed left unresolved and ambiguous, however, the whole movie was a setup to give the viewer equal evidence on either side of the argument to make their case. If you are a believer, you are armed with adequate evidence to make a compelling case for faith by filling in the blanks to fit your worldview. If you are a skeptic, you are armed with equal and opposite evidence to make a compelling case for reason and to fill in your own blanks. If we are given both black and white, where does the truth lie?

The problem here is that the film’s approach may be too elegant for its own good. If the viewer is allowed to take what they want to justify their own worldview, will they miss the point entirely? We can see the same dynamics at play everywhere in our culture, and it is tearing us apart. As this black & white war becomes more and more entrenched, it becomes harder and harder to see a way out, because each side moves further and further away from the center, from the grey. The grey is indefinable, it is contradictory, it is incomprehensible, and that makes it is scary. People in power tap into this fear to sway people to one side or the other, a black or white viewpoint they often don’t actually fully believe in themselves, to drive their own agenda. Neither side is ever all right or wrong, all good or bad, and any feelings we have that tell us different, no matter how strongly felt and no matter with how much conviction we believe them to be our own, come from society. An idea can be independent, but any judgement about its value or nature is always dependent on society.

The ultimate meaning then, I believe, echoes the heart of every great spiritual tradition: never buy in wholly to anything coming from a source outside yourself. Question everything and put it to the only test that counts, the only one that is truly independent, your own inquiry. Access the deep well of knowledge and inspiration that is available to us all at all times, and find your answer. It will not be right, it will not be wrong. It will not be good, it will not be bad. It will simply be yours, and that is the truth.