Sunday, October 26, 2008

W.

I saw Oliver Stone's "W." yesterday. I felt ashamed as I left the theater.

The ads for the film, with Talking Heads' "Once In a Lifetime" playing over them, had me geared up for a wickedly funny skewering of George W. Bush and his incredibly poor, and almost over, two terms in office. I wanted to laugh at him.

I saw the film.

I realized there was nothing to laugh at. His presidency has been inconceivably manipulative, dangerous and filled with failure after failure. There is nothing to laugh at. Even his incredible misuse of the English language is not funny. We deserve - we demand - better. At least, I hope we do at this point.

"W.", the film, portrayed W. as a brash young drunkard, looking for acceptance from his father, and finally finding success that allowed him to go his own way. I was surprised at how fair to Bush it was.

But there was hardly a laugh to be found. And though it offered reasons as to how he may have made such disastrous decisions, it never allowed circumstances to become excuses. And there are no excuses for such ignorant and selfish governance.

Good bye, W. I want to laugh without guilt again.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Story Within a Story

This may become a homework assignment for me, and possibly a bigger theme for my later work, but I thought I would get down some quick, initial thoughts here. In the Mahabharata, the classic Indian epic of Hindu mythology, there is a story, "Nala and Damayanti" in the middle of the main story. My guess is that in the longer versions of the epic, there may be more than one instance of this, but this particular tale illustrates a steady course of action for the main characters to follow.

The tale within a tale is a popular literary device, and one around which such series as the 1001 Arabian Nights are wholly based. We have seen that the same is true in cinema - the flashback being an obvious example.

I think we can consider mythology, and really, any story, in the same vein. We have our reality - which can be considered an ongoing tale - in which we imagine, tell and sometimes write stories. These stories are tales within our own tales. We use them to illustrate possible courses of action for ourselves to follow. Religious mythology, the tales of our extant religious systems, are perfect examples of stories meant to illustrate life. Often they relate the same advice of myths from past religious systems, such as the Norse myths, but few now follow the Norse as religion. There is little difference to the advice in the tales, though.

If we could get past belief and see myth as story, we might be a lot better off in our own living myths.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Miracle at St. Anna

Spike Lee's "Miracle at St. Anna" is a sprawling epic, the kind of film I wish was being made more often these days.

On one hand it is pure Hollywoood - in the sense of classic Hollywood. A lot of characters, an intricate plot, room for war, drama, humor, magic realism, love, and whatever else you might want in a good film.

On the other hand, it is extremely artful. From the opening titles, I knew there was something special coming. Lee did not let me down. I would consider this one of the best films I have seen this year, and a film worth multiple screenings. There were some problems. I tend to look at reviews after I see a film to see what the "experts" have to say. In this case, there were a lot of different complaints. They included: editing, cinematography choices, music, acting ability, mise-en-scene and actual scene choices. I will admit I noticed scenes in which each of these was a problem. But it was always a small problem. The narrative and the story immediately told me to forget it - move along with us. This is what classic Hollywood does better than anything - make you trust the film and go with it. I did, and I am glad I did. My gut tells me that on a second view, these inconsistencies will have a better place in the vision of this film than they did on the intial watch.

Spike Lee has made a major film here. It is about race. War. Love. Loyalty. What really comes to mind takes me back to the first lee film I saw at the theater. "Do the Right Thing". Damn it. Just do the right thing. When you reflect on what the Miracle actually is, do the right thing may become your mantra.

What pains me is that "Miracle at St. Anna" was only number nine on the weekend movie charts. I don't usually care about this, but had to look after I saw "Eagle Eye" the next day. "Eagle Eye" was number one, by a wide margin. EE was a fun film - evoking Hal from 2001 in ways that I really enjoyed - but fun was all it was. Thrills, spills and chills. But no art. And no heart. I guess that is why so few films like "Miracle" get made.

After "Miracle at St. Anna" ended, the woman behind me quietly said, "That's right, Spike. That's right." I agree with her.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Musings

What follows is simply a lot of my thoughts on a lot of issues, mostly being brought up from my new graduate mythology classes. If you have any thoughts on any of it, please let me know.

1) I am trying to work through whether stories - specifically the stories that would be classified in the fantasy genre - can be considered myths. There is such a wide variance on what myth is that for me the question bears examination.

For instance - in a Newberry Library class on Welsh Mythology last night, the instructor defined myth, in a nutshell, as a narrative, set in sacred time and sacred space, with divine (immortal or superhuman) actors, often associated with a particular ritual performance. Big nutshell, I guess. In my Graduate program at Pacifica, another component of myth would be the use of symbols from the unconscious to tell that narrative.

Now - I don't know the stories of Welsh Mythology, but the instructor made it clear that after so many years, they are rather literary by now. I can't wait to learn about the rituals they were part of originally. And my unconscious is getting a work out in my readings for Grad School, which also emphasize ritual as an important part of myth.

So, in moshing all these ideas together - Fantasy is a narrative. You could say set in sacred time and space. Often with divine actors - and if you consider anyone in touch with these divine actors, or with their unconscious, as divine also, I think that provides more evidence for Fantasy as myth. Additionally, Fantasy definitely uses symbols in telling the story. Are they the symbols of the unconscious? Not necessarily. And is there any sort of ritual content that follows from, or by, reading these stories? On first thought, probably not. There are fannish activities, and there may be studies relating fanac to ritual, but that's beyond my knowledge right now. In general, the type of ritual usually involved with myth is missing from these stories.

However, on second thought, my whole premise is that the content of Fantasy can often change reader's attitudes towards their real lives. The views written into the fantasy narratives of so many of todays genre authors are views of how the world could, and maybe, should, be. On a personal level, do these stories change lives? Maybe. I think they can. Is there any aspect of ritual in a reader who seriously relates to these texts and uses them to look at life in a new way?

2) On a different tack, if myths are stories using the symbols from our unconscious, is a thought-out story any less mythical? OK, perhaps it is not a myth simply because it uses symbols. It might only be an allegory. However, the definition of myth is rather fluid, both academically and in general usage. Doesn't the very act of thinking involve, on some level, those unconscious symbols? Thinking is formulating ideas by working with, or pulling out, the symbols from our unconscious. Consciously or not. Thinking is similar to dreaming, but with rational rules - not symbols any more, but thoughts. If the intent is to explore a different kind of landscape, or any aspect of ourselves, but still tell about real lives in some way, I think we are close to myth and the Fantasy story having the same function.

3) One of the aspects being left out is the religious component to mythology. I have already expressed my views that religion is myth and that the traditional use of religion makes me nervous. Specifically, our world has changed, yet most religions try to force us, and everyone else, into a box of similar belief. Conversion as a goal is dangerous. Will there ever be a time when the major religious texts lose their holy power and become, like the Welsh Myth texts, more literary? They already can be read that way, but the organized powers behind them don't like that much.

4) The Archetypes of the unconscious led to myth, religion and philosophy. Science followed. We can probably assume that unconscious archetypes are leading to new ideas in scientific fields, right?

5) On a personal level, what do we do with archetypes now? What is being created with these symbols? Is this only for artists to wrestle with? Does the average muggle just get neuroses because they ignore their internal archetypes?

6) The archetype of the hero is well known. Is there an anti-hero archetype? As the lead character in much (too much in my opinion) of modern story, it would seem there must be. Was this archetype always in existence, or is this something new we have created? As I undersatnd it, new archetypes are not really created. I think I have a problem believing that.

7) Modernity is an endless parade of visuals and symbols. We either reflect on their meaning or are conditioned to soak them in. My film class called Visual Analysis was great, because their premise was that in the onslaught of images being thrown at us, we have a responsibility to filter them and understand them. I took that class twice! Now, my myth classes are very concerned with the analysis of the images our unconscious is barraging us with. Similar processes; utterly different material.

8) We used to have our actions animated by our internal symbols and we lived them. When did this stop exactly? Can we trace when mythic and religious thought began to be drowned out by rationality? Not that I mean this is a completely good thing. Symbolic and religious thought can make life easier to live, though not necessarily squaring up against our rational thoughts. The problem rises in the global sphere when religions clash. They promote division. Where do we find the religious thought that makes life easier for everyone, that promotes unity?

If you read through all that, you must have some thoughts. Leave a comment. Thanks!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Are Animals the Children of Men? (A Look into Film Analysis)

I have been working on a paper about the film "Children of Men". While watching the film, I realized I was seeing animals in many scenes. After watching it closer, for a dystopian science fiction film, I found it interesting that animals were featured in 97 scenes in a 109 minute film. Pets and working animals, with a few exotics, are the kinds of animals shown, represented, heard or spoken about almost constantly in the film. Though not really the main focus, they are the type of details in the mise-en-scene that provide the substance of a film.

I begin work on a paper when I want to explore the text of a film or story, to see what is contained in it and to then unpack that container: to see why someone has put these things into it. My initial interest in "Children of Men" was that it extrapolated some of our current social conditions, and attitudes, into the future. It was grim enough to spur my thoughts and seemed worthy of a detailed inquiry. All of these animals being superimposed into this story is the sort of textual detail that should be examined, not for answers, but for possibilities.

I started with the premise that the film is science fiction, though I found later that this was fatal premise. I began my research with the current issue of Science Fiction Studies. It explores animal studies in literary science fiction. I wanted to see if current SF literary themes were at all relevant to this film. But literary science fiction is often about contact between species - alien or extraterrestrial, but increasingly animals. As Sheryl Vint reviews, current literary interests are human-animal relations: communications, usage in our technological pursuits, including slaughter for use as food, land use and wild life issues, and the status of animals as feeling beings. The question persists of the status of animals in comparison to humans. Vint's summary is a thorough review of the issue's contents.

These ideas represented a wide-ranging discourse on the question of animals and their relation to the human animal. Science fiction is an arena that explores current practices with an eye as to how they may develop in the future. However, these topics fell flat for me when I looked at "Children of Men" through their lens. Other than three scenes that show burning or dead cattle, which could possibly be related to land use issues, none of these themes seemed comelling enough as an explanation for the use of animals in the film. Even the dead cattle scenes seem to be more about the aftermath of human war and medical condition of the land than about the actual animal shown.

The animals are all shown as pets, working in security or on farms - all directly in a relation with humans. Even a zebra and a camel are shown as pets being walked in a park. The only wild animal seen is a deer. It comes out of an abandoned school house. As one instance out of 97, it holds undertones of land use/habitat themes, but I didn't feel it could be used as the main argument. It was one scene only. Perhaps the reasoning for the widespread use of animals in the film is simply to show that wildlife is dependent on a balancing act against humans, a balancing act this film seems to say has tipped irrevocably toward the human side. Is that it?

I moved to sources on animal studies in film analysis. While literature on documentary and real-life nature film is readily available, the use of animals in narrative film is less well-represented. Jonathan Burt's Animals in Film from 2002 appears to be the seminal work. Burt points out that we have an emotional response to animals on film - is there something natural in our reaction to animals, or is the emotional response developed by film technique? Burt explains that the diversity and quantity of animal images in films, and elsewhere, makes it hard to pin down meanings for animal symbols.

He also points out that too often these days, our only knowledge of animals comes from film. There are few wild animals left for us to encounter in reality. Does film contribute to animal loss? Burt sums his book up somewhat by showing that "In film, the animal so often presides over disorder but also in some sense shapes it towards some form of reunion or resolution,..." (Burt, p. 78). In other words, animals are often used as the plot point the film revolves around.

But in "Children of Men", the film does not revolve around the animals shown. They are not focused on. They are marginal, seen quickly before the camera or edit moves us on. Are the animals being filmed to produce a response in us? Certainly the scene in which a kitten trys to climb the protagonist's leg and we get a high close up of it, seems to want to lead us to think the kitten is cute. But, is the importance that animals are dependent on humans? That pets are doing well, but not other animals? Or not us?

And I realized that what I was watching wasn't really science fiction at all. Yes, the social implications of our world in the future were extrapolated in interesting ways. However, the main plot of this film is that humans can no longer reproduce. There are baby kittens and animals shown in almost every scene that don't have the same problem. Possible? Yes. Probable? No. Animals are the first to go. Problems show up in them first. The canary in the coalmine test. So really we are watching a fantasy. As fantasy, it speaks more to what our world is like now than having an interest in the future. The trappings of SF are present, but the heart of the film is in the fantastic.

A big budget fantasy. In Wheeler Winston Dixon's Visions of the Apocalypse, he writes, “In contrast, the paint-by-numbers movies of the majors sell quickly and then burn out, becoming texts without a function. The more bloated the spectacle, the more divorced it is from the culture that created it and the less it has to offer us as scholars and historians.” (p. 117). And in this statement, in which he was suggesting that such films as the low-budget exploitation movies of Troma have more to tell us about our culture than almost any Hollywood product, I seemed to have found my answer. Many films are empty texts.

There is an overwhelming use of the animals, but seemingly no over-arching context for them. They have little function. The text of this film makes animals seem relevant because of the number of scenes they are used in, but in analysis seem devoid of a lot of meaning. If 97 instances of animals are there to tell us that pets and wildlife depend on us, it seems a bit of overkill.

In an essay about the use of the forest in the Fantastic and exactly how that is changing due to the loss of actual forested land, Ruth Padel asks, "So as the woods, fens, and heath which evolved the wildlife of our intense little island turn into fenced-off archipelagos between the suburb and the motorway, what's the state of play with native British wildlife in the new millenium?" She is writing about the British landscape of classic fantasy literature and how it can be seen today. "Children of Men" takes place in just that same landscape.

The deer in the abandoned school house is probably the scene that works the best for the animals in the film. It relates to the history of British fantasy in which wildlife was, as Padel points out, just outside your door. The scene achieves a sense of the fantastic, the one time this big-budget fantasy delivers any hesitation, any sense that what we are seeing is relevant to both us and the film.


We must truly examine what we are seeing. This film fooled me into thinking there was a puzzle at the heart of it, but when its text opened to me, I found a Hollywood fantasy, in which the action and explosions took on a greater meaning, but the issues I believed were there at first dissipated rapidly.

Note: Just as I finished my analysis and research, I read Jonathan Rosenbaum's excellent inquiry into Carl Dreyer's "Day of Wrath". This 1943 film that is filled with text, subtext and possibility of relevant inquiry 65 years later. Check it out.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Burt, Jonathan. Animals in Film. London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2002.
Dixon, Wheeler Winston. Visions of the Apocalypse. London: Wallflower Press, 2003.
Mitman, Gregg. Reel Nature. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Padel, Ruth. Into the Woods: On British Forests, Myth and Now. 2000.
Science Fiction Studies March (2008) 35.
Vint, Sherryl. “‘The Animals in That Country’: Science Fiction and Animal Studies” Science Fiction Studies March (2008) 35.

FILMOGRAPHY
Children of Men, dir. Alfonso CuarĂ³n (2006)

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Why Mythology?

I have been asked many times in the last few weeks why I am about to enter a Mythological Studies program. People ask me what I am going to do when it's completed. "How much does a mythologist get paid?" some chortle. My answers have been evasive. We don't like to be chortled at usually. For those that were sincere, it was hard to give a clear answer. My reasons are there, but have been bubbling up, still out of reach.

But clarity has struck me. My thoughts became a bit clearer as I have delved into my school readings, been away from the corporate world for a while and watched the political conventions over the last week and a half.

Mythology is the study of the stories humans tell to explain their world. They are stories filled with the archetypes and symbols of humans throughout the ages. Even when a story is outdated for how it tells us to lead our lives, those archetypes and symbols still pull us in. Our minds are able to play with them and use them, figuring out our own lives.

The archetypes and symbols are used in our films and stories. Our artists use this mythological world to express the inner life that we all have, even if we struggle to express it. Even if we repress it. Artists help us to figure out how to use it.

And I am interested in these things because I really believe that paying attention to our unconscious, the place where these archetypes lie, and our dreams, where they are expressed, and our sudden insights and thoughts, where they finally come out and become useful to us, are the only way we can be fully human. We have to use everything we have, and too often we ignore this part of ourselves. But too often these internal, personal issues are used as public tools.

Religion is mythology. As such, it is a personal interplay with your unconscious. Personal. The stories of all religions are reflections of someone's unconscious. They should be used as internal meditations of your own personal possibilities. You have a responsibility to listen to yourself and figure out what you are about. But as myth, no religion should ever be forced on anyone else. It is inhuman to do that. Your faith in something should be kept to yourself if you don't realize that everyone in the world has different ways of getting to know themselves.

The corporate culture is about money. Nothing else. The political culture is often about producing a show that will put you in power so you and your friends can get money. Sort of a corporation also.

I am about to study mythology because I want to explore how we can change this culture. I want the creative power we all hold in ourselves to be the strength of the people of the world, not guns and money. Our political leaders use religion to lure voters to them. Religion should never be used as a ruse. God - or gods - unless they are the God or gods in you - do not make decisions for you.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Look at Life from "The Mahabharata"

"Now take care," said Krishna. "Maya mixes his blessings. Let me lead the way."

The Pandavas followed Krishna up the stairs. "Is it dangerous?" asked Arjuna.

Krishna replied over his shoulder, "Not exactly, but..." With a crash Krishna walked straight into a closed door of clear crystal, and stood back rubbing a bruise on his head. "See? That's the sort of thing not to do..." Krishna was pushing at the door. Then he gave up and went to a smaller doorway next to it. "I'll get in, or else!" He stepped up, pushed, and fell right through.

Krishna lay on the beautiful floor. "Well, come in. There is no door here, just empty air." (Buck, p.88)

Buck, William. Mahabharata. Berkley: University of California Press, 1973.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Drive-In Movie

I went to a drive-in the other night. I used to see a decent number of films at the drive-in, often low budget horror and fantasy films. I wish something similar was on the bill this time around.

The Skyway Drive-In is in Fish Creek, Wisconsin in Door County. It is a throwback, one of the few drive-in's still in operation. It has radio sound, so it sounds better than the speaker you hang on your window. It has that option, but no one was hanging anything (till after the show). A lot of people sat outside and turned those speakers up. It seemed to work pretty well.

I'm not sure why, but sitting in your car watching movies is pretty cool. It's private, and sort of surreal. People walk by and the shadows they cast, as well as their floating dialogue, dampened by the insulation of the car, makes it a sort-of-scary fun summer activity. Scary because while you're in the car, it's hard to tell exactly what is going on outside. It's sort of like telling ghost stories. Corny, but fun. A little creepy. For some reason, summer holidays make me think of Stephen King novels. The drive-in did too.

The concessions at the Skyway were great. They offered a stellar candy selection. They showed old cartoon ads, such as aliens coming down to buy popcorn, and cartoons announcing how many minutes till showtime. Before the first film, they played old Fifties tunes. Again, corny, but fun. And a little creepy.

When I was younger, it was all fun. I would have to bring pajamas and a blanket - I could never make it through a double feature without falling asleep. And I have to admit, it took some effort this time around. Which may be due to the quality of the films I saw.

Films I remember seeing at the drive-in when I was younger? "Dr. Doolittle", "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory", "Capricorn One", "Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger", "Food of the Gods" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Special Edition". OK - a few good films (Willy Wonka, CE3K:SE and Sinbad - if you don't appreciate Ray Harryhausen, move over to the next blog), one decent kid's film (DD), one bad, but fun horror movie (FotG) and one I really don't remember (Capricorn One - I think OJ Simpson was in it - and it's probably pretty bad, but I think I liked it when I was a kid). All in all, at least these were fun. All of them had their creepy moments as well. To go along with the fun, drive-in atmosphere.

The Skyway was showing "Mamma Mia" and "The Dark Knight".

Let's start with "The Dark Knight". It was the second film, so I was getting a bit sleepy. It was OK. I don't see a need for my humble, in-depth thoughts on the biggest film of all time, except to say: I like my heroes to be good, and I like to care, one way or another, about the characters in films. There weren't many to care about here. And it was dark, really dark - and though the drive-in, starlit night may have had something to do with that - it was also not much fun. Interesting and complex, but ultimately, I'm just not one for the dark reality comic book heroes.

But - it was way better than the first film I saw. "Mamma Mia". Oh mamma mia, why? I didn't think it could be so bad, but I watched this film with my jaw dropped down around my ankles. Why would anyone make this? It made Greek islands look dingy and dark. That's all that needs to be said - so there is no need to comment on why you would make a story based on songs that are unrelated, use actors with no singing talent in a musical, then edit their performances to point out their flaws rather than to tighten their few charms. I know it was a stage show first - apparently a hit? I don't know. This could be the worst film I've ever seen.

If the fun and creepy drive-in can't soften the blow, you know it's bad.

Friday, August 15, 2008

In Defense of The Clone Wars

What the heck. It's Friday.

I had plans to see "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" today. Me and my brother-in-law, both old enough to have seen the original (Part IV, I guess) (when it first came out, multiple times, standing in long lines hoping to get a ticket for my seventh viewing - really), were going to spend some time together and thought it would be fun. This morning, I get my local paper, the old-fashioned printed Chicago Tribune, and what, to my horror, do I read? Michael Phillips' review. He beats this little cartoon like a rented mule.
http://chicago.metromix.com/movies/movie_review/movie-review-starwars/553252/content

Not wanting to believe - it's Friday, after all, and we're going to the matinee (what we used to call the cheap show) - I check out the other local, Mr. Ebert, on-line at the Chicago Sun Times.

OUCH. Looks like we picked a dud. Star Wars just isn't the same. What happened?

We had a plan though. And we stuck with it. We went to see "The Clone Wars" in spite of the stellar reviews. And you know what? We had fun. There's lots of Jawas in it, you know? Neither review mentioned the Jawas.

A lot of what they did mention, and I'm just giving my impression of what they said - dark animation, sort of clunky, long battle scenes, bad dialogue in short sentences - and whatever else they say, is probably not all that wrong. But it seems to me that the awe-inspiring original "Star Wars" was a bit clunky, had long and utterly unbelievable battle scenes and pretty bad dialogue. But it changed the fantasy movie forever - for better or for worse. And it was fun.

Just like "The Clone Wars" is fun. Star Wars is not just a film, it is a universe. The fun is in the details, however broadly drawn - or as the esteemed reviewers might say, badly drawn. I'll agree - the art is uneven, at best. I did think Obi-Wan looked a bit odd - and in certain close-ups I thought he was one of Gerry Anderson's old Supermarionation Thunderbird's puppets. But for every odd bit, there are some pretty spectacular ones too. The backgrounds were tremendous - vague, dark pastels that set a grim mood over the war scenes. One scene of Anakin and his new Paduan apprentice walking across the desert - with R2-D2 of course - in shadow, in front of the blazing Tatooine suns - really stood out also.

Yes - these are small pieces of a film. But because Star Wars is a universe, I can enjoy the smaller pieces. I enjoyed seeing multiple Greedo's (I'm sure his race has a name, but I don't know it). The Huttlet - and perhaps this is an old man talking - was awesome. Cute as a button.

There are other problems, though. The battle scenes are a bit long, and in consideration of the times we live in, pretty grim. The dialogue is spotty. The new Paduan gets away with a lot of sass. But then again, Anakin is a Jedi who is all about sass. The Episodes I thru III were not as widely hailed as the originals, and I think most of the problems were with the character of Anakin. My belief was that Darth Vader should have made his appearance by the end of Episode II. We also knew the story already. The charm and the power of "Star Wars", the original film, is that it was new and we were not quite sure where it was going. It spoke pretty deeply to a lot of people, probably because of its adherence to Joseph Campbell''s Hero's Journey. The prequel trilogy just did not have that power.

That leaves the major problem that ran through my mind as I watched "The Clone Wars". Why would Jabba the Hutt, basically a criminal on the edge of the universe, even if he is a very successful criminal, be so integral to so many stories in this universe?

Because he's a big blob of Hutt, that's why. Jabba is a great creation and it's good to see him again. He may have looked better than he does in "The Clone Wars", but as old friends, we don't comment on someone's deteriorating looks. We greet them and smile.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Tolkien's Concept of Recovery, Part 2

"If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion." (Tolkien, 127 - 128)


A quote from Tolkien's "On Fairy Stories" worth analyzing - if we are unable or unwilling to see truths in reality, the Fantastic will be warped, as we will be unable to distinguish fantasy from reality. Not only does it "not seem at all impossible", I would suggest that our world is currently plagued by those unable to honestly assess "facts and evidence".

We have believers of numerous religions, unwilling to accept anyone's faith but their own. This leads to such nonsense as a creation museum, where dinosaurs pull carts made by men (not shown here, but look at the video of the Commercial to get an idea). I would say this qualifies under people that "could not perceive truth (facts or evidence)". On a different level, we have many people with a lack of imagination. They are able, but unwilling, to examine the facts of society's problems and then extrapolate possible solutions. If you can't imagine, or empathize with, what other people experience (things you "did not want to know"), there is a lack of creativity in dealing with problems. If you can't imagine solutions to problems you face, then you become powerless. You accept the situation you are in. This leads to hopelessness.

Worse, on the larger, political level, you accept the status quo. You seek nothing, find no new solutions and accept the way things have always been done. This leads to the political stagnation we find ourselves in - deception and corruption in politics, financially over-the-top benefits for the wealthy while everyone else moves along blindly, apparently powerless. Bread and circuses indeed.

Fortunately, the inability to work with the truths and evidence of life does not affect everyone. So while some Fantasy IS Morbid Delusion (again, the dinosaur pulling the man's farm cart is really the perfect example), the role of fantasy in our lives, created by rational people, is to enable imagination. It is real creation from real people, using fantasy to explore possibilities.

And here is where Tolkien's Recovery is a useful term. He discusses the problem of humans when they come to believe that everything is a part of them. This is in the sense that the individual believes he or she is central to everything - someone who believes the world revolves around them. We might say egotist. As Tolkien writes, "Of course, fairy-stories are not the only means of recovery, or prophylactic against loss. Humility is enough." (Tolkien, 129).

"Humility". The ability to see oneself as part of a whole and not necessarily the most important part. Creative fantasy aims to describe something new. This brings recovery - the seeing of old things in a new light - as we experience the world's simple things in a new way. Humility follows when we appreciate the intricacy of the connections between people, animals, plants, the planet, the stars, etc. The fantastic elements in these stories are there to bring wonder to us, but they also serve to enforce the wonder of the real elements that they echo and help describe.

It is almost as if Fantasy is an adjective for the real world.

Tolkien, J.R.R. "On Fairy Stories". A Tolkien Miscellany. New York, SFBC Science Fiction Printing: June 2002.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Imprisonment, Part 3

Bergman's Faith trilogy examines the internal dynamics of faith and how it can imprison us if we use, or lose, it. Blackmon's "Slavery by Another Name" rips straight into our real world sensibilities by uncovering ugly imprisonment, and worse, in post-Civil War America.

What is the relevance to us today? Internally we want to be free and believe everyone should be. Ideologically we should feel that wrongful imprisonment is bad. But how bad is imprisonment otherwise? Who should be jailed? How should they be treated when they are jailed? These are bigger questions and each of us may have our own answer.

Let's look at two current texts that dovetail nicely in exploring imprisonment and finding similar answers. One is a dramatic film; the other is a science fiction novella. In the current film "The Visitor", imprisonment of illegal immigrants in America is the explicit driving force of the narrative. How the effects of that imprisonment work internally on a middle-aged European American forced to confront the situation is the real exploration of the film. Is he imprisoned also? By what? Does he escape that imprisonment? How? In "The Political Prisoner", written by Charles Coleman Finlay (and found in the August 2008 issue of F&SF), a high level political agent of a volatile government on a "religiously" oriented planetary colony finds himself on the wrong end of an uprising. He is soon imprisoned in a hard labor camp, where every prisoner strives to stay alive by whatever means are necessary. He eventually winds up enmeshed in forced labor along with a group of alien Adareans. What he learns about history, people and fairness makes this hard-hitting, well-written story one to read.

The protagonist of "The Visitor" is a college professor whose love of life was sucked out of him when his wife died. He improbably gets tied to the lives of two immigrants that he helps out with a place to stay. He gets help from them by being immersed in discovering his own music and meeting new, friendly people. These new people are all recent immigrants. When one of them gets detained for later deportation, his life changes. He begins to consider what America means, but also what imprisonment is. Is it proper to simply lock people up, denying them easy access to help and information? There may be a better way to handle people's lives than the impersonal and distinctly rude way that this film portrays the immigration system. Illegal immigration may be just that, illegal, but this film speaks to these real people's common humanity. They should at least be treated like people.

In the novella "The Political Prisoner", the situation is different. It is the well-connected government agent that, perhaps mistakenly, gets arrested. He is packed in with other prisoners and sent to a hard labor camp. It is difficult to be on his side completely, as he is a brutal agent involved in double-dealing and murderous plots. But even this hard man becomes sympathetic; the brutality of camp enforcement and the conditions of so many men pushed together in small spaces works on his, and our, sensibilities. Finlay shows us the problems inherent in such brutal treatment. When the agent ends up with an imprisoned group of aliens, who have been treated by the humans poorly at best, and exterminated whenever possible, the irony, of course, begins. Their sense of who they are, their strength, pride and unity, show the human prisoner not just the only sympathy he can find in prison, but also what it actually means to be alive. Those we demean and abase should be mirrors for us, as they are never fundamentally different from ourselves. This is often the function in science fiction when "humans" and "aliens" meet. It also should apply in our world, as we meet any other person from around the world.

"The Visitor" and "The Political Prisoner" both end up focusing on the humanity of their respective detainees. The lessons in both should be obvious when we look back at our history. Hopefully they also speak to us about our current society. And perhaps Bergman's films should have a last commentary - as artistic cinema, what lessons are we to take from his films? When each of his character's lose faith in others, they get imprisoned in their own mental jails. Inevitably, this leads to tragedy. The worldwide Golden Rule says to treat others as we want to be treated. When it comes to prison, detention and human rights, it seems we often forget this.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Imprisonment, Part 2

Douglas Blackmon wrote a book called "Slavery By Another Name". It's a book everyone in America should read.

Slavery was abolished by the Civil War, right? When the Yankees beat the Confederates, slavery was abolished. Blacks were free and though they knew it would be a long road to equality between the races, they were free. Right? Well as it turns out, not everyone got on that road. The slave system was re-invented, given a new name and practiced, legally, up until World War II. Unable to have slaves, the businessmen and law enforcement of the South teamed up. African Americans were arrested for any thing that could be thought of - such as vagrancy, meaning they did not have a job (how many people could be arrested for that in 2008?) - and fined large sums which they could not pay back. Their sentence: labor to pay back those fines, and the prisons then sold them to the mine owners, steel mills, etc. So the law enforcement arrested people for no reason and sold them to the industrialists for cheap labor.

"Legal" servitude - Another Name for Slavery.

Apparently, the only real reason it was ended at WWII was because the American government was wary of Nazi Germany and the Axis Allies. You couldn't have the enemy using America's poor treatment of its own citizens as propaganda against us. We were supposed to be freeing the people of Europe, so I guess we better free our own imprisoned people first. I guess.

It took foreign criticism to finally end the legalized practice of slavery in the United States of America.

There were some poor whites who were caught up in this system, but the majority were the supposedly freed blacks. A link to the book can be found on my links list on the right. And here is a link to an op-ed piece about the book from Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Leonard Pitts: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chi-oped0728pittsjul29,0,5821420.story.
For typical Internet ignorance, read some of the comments after that piece. It shows that attitudes toward others have not changed much. Skin color makes some people very angry.

But they don't seem to understand the history of our nation. The exploitation of the past made us very wealthy and it explains our current situations. And it is still happening today. The racial ratio of prisoners is one piece of evidence.


But more important to today is if you look at who is being exploited now, it is people with power (and money) exploiting those without power (and money). Color doesn't matter as much any more. Just don't be poor and without social connections. But because of the history, if you are poor, without the right connections and happen to be black, you are probably dealing with even more limitations.

So if the wealth divide is growing larger, why do people want to continue racial disputes and arguments? We need to get over color and move on to fair. Not to mention justice.

Is film relevant on issues like this? How do Bergman's films about faith in God and in family relate to racial and economic slavery in the real world? Next I'll look at a film and a story with more direct relevance to the issue.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Faith and Imprisonment, Part 1

In a few weeks, I will begin a Mythological Studies Masters program. My goal - besides immersion in myth and story - is to understand how myth is used in our society in film and literature. Even more important is to then explore how mythic underpinnings in our art and culture help explain our politics and history while foreshadowing our future. Myth is the stories of our lives, and our lives are the stories of the world. Big ideas to get a grip on and sometimes the wonder is in whether it even makes sense to try.

Timing is everything though, and sometimes parts of the whole crystallize out of nothing. Imprisonment has been a theme running through texts I have recently been reading and watching. I will explore that in my next post, but first I want to explore some films that have served as an underlayment to my thoughts as I was thrust into these Imprisonment texts.

I began watching the Ingmar Bergman Faith Trilogy recently, consisting of the following films: "Through A Glass Darkly", "Winter Light" and "The Silence". Though known as the Faith trilogy, each one revolved around the theme of imprisonment. Bergman explores the effects, and reasons for imprisonment, whether it is just or not, and the effect it has on people's faith (in many things). The images, themes and stories have been simmering in my unconscious for weeks as the films are truly complex works of cinematic art.

The most distinctive part of these films is the cinematography of Sven Nykvist, as the black and white (and gray) imagery shimmers in the light of the filmed worlds. Just like the shading of the filmed light, the theme of Faith is not always explicit. Implicitly, faith seems to be tied to trust and family in these films, but not always with pleasant results.

"Through a Glass Darkly" depicts a small family's struggle to come to terms with a woman's ongoing insanity. The father, husband and brother all seem to have lost faith that anything can be done to actually prevent the woman's illness.

"The Silence" explores the relationship between two sisters, the older one who is dying and the younger that wants to escape from under her dominance. The eldest has lost faith in the younger, who resents having to tend to her and acts out in a destructive manner. Complicating the situation is the small son of the younger daughter - he cannot comprehend what is happening with his mother and tries to comfort his aunt as best he can. As the eldest is dying, alone in a hotel room, the boy is the only one who even thinks about her.

Only "Winter Light" explicitly discusses faith as Faith. A priest's lack of faith in his god spreads to the people of his church, who begin to stay away from him. He is imprisoned by his role as pastor of a congregation and as his belief leaves him he becomes unable to help anyone else believe. When this leads to a father's suicide, we see faith, and perhaps loss of faith, causing undue stress in our lives.

As usual with great film, the thematic situations and magnificent imagery stayed with me even when I was concentrating on thinking about these films. For an example, the last amazing shot of the eldest sister in "The Silence" - the lighting of the scene almost making the shot look like a negative image. It is of her in agony, mouth open to scream but unable to, as she is about to die, alone and abandoned, her faith in her sister and in the way she was taught to live utterly dissipated. Powerful image to go with large ideas to ponder. And there are many more scenes of equal quality.

In the next few days, I will be examining other films and stories that look at imprisonment, as well as some disturbing American history. If you are familiar with the Bergman trilogy, keep these films in mind. He works with the spiritual and mental imprisonment in ways that linger - and also in ways that come to mind when faced with real imprisonment.

Also - I would welcome any comment about these films or other Bergman films. I have not seen many more and don't see general discussion of his work brought up usually. It would be interesting to hear what others had to say about him.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

A First Look at Recovery

J.R.R.Tolkien, in his justifiably famous essay "On Fairy Stories", uses the term Recovery. It is used to describe the effect of how Fairy stories - about other worlds and the fantastic - enable us to see our own "real" world in a clearer way. I like this term because it is absolutely what happens to me when I read fantasy literature - I start to think about things in a different way, envision the world anew.

But fantasy is not the only medium that does this. Science Fiction is, in a sense, a "recovery" of our view of the future. We see new possibilities. An even more interesting idea to me is that recovery can happen when we learn things - science, history, culture and politics opening up our eyes and minds to how the world works and to what may actually be possible.

An example: I tend to trace my recovery of the wonders of nature back to a snowstorm that hit one afternoon. I had a day off from work and was visiting my Mom that day - a cold sunny morning turned quickly to a storm. It left a few inches of snow in a very short time. However, in an hour or two, the sun was back out, but the ground was covered. I noticed that birds, immediately after the storm passed over, went flying back and forth in search of food. And I noticed, for the first time in a long time, the variety of different birds that were actually around. It had been a long time since I had looked so closely at what was around me, but that afternoon I spotted at least six different species - sparrows, starlings, crows, pigeons (rock doves for you birders!), mourning doves and a blue jay - looking for some food to get through the day. There may have been a gull sighted also.

My wonder at nature - the recovery of the reality of my life and what surrounded it - took place in that crazy storm. It led me to do a little birdwatching and to realize that there are a lot of different birds flying around, if only we take the time to notice them. I now see all kinds of birds just on my daily commute.

Recovery is probably a word we would associate more with medical rehabilitation today, but I really like it for use in the sense of our renewed vision. Seeing things in a new light is the only way we can get out of the ruts of our daily lives and perhaps make changes to what life actually is. We may even make changes that change the world. This is what looking beyond the veil means.

In future posts, I will be looking into recovery in more detail - going back and re-reading Tolkien's essay and then writing a few different ideas down here. The stories we tell - from fantasy to "real-life" stories of culture, history and science - all go to the heart of recovery, using story to change the way we perceive the world. If some stories are made up and others simply revealing facts we never knew, what's the difference? For our purposes, we are learning new things in either case. I like to look at History and Politics as a mirror image of Literature and Film.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Big Budget Fantasy

I had a conversation recently that made me think in broad terms about the films I see. I had to admit I had not seen "No Country for Old Men" or "There Will Be Blood", well reviewed, realist films that are, by all accounts, genuine additions to the "good film club". I had every intention of seeing them on release, but I often have good intentions to see films currently on the big screen. This is the way movies should be seen. But I didn't go. They are available on DVD now. And I still haven't seen them.

On one hand, I love serious film - on a simple level, artfully made cinema can show us real life and the problems involved with it. I love Carl Dreyer; I've started exploring Bergman. Murnau. Lang. Capra. By that short list alone, you can tell I am very cautious with new films.


When you don't watch films every day - and with stories available in so many other forms, I don't - sometimes the film you find yourself watching is simply for entertainment. Can we expect more from a film that supposedly is only for entertainment purposes?

Which brings me to Hollywood's seemingly recent high-priced love affair with big budget, epic fantasy films. I love a fantasy movie. I am excited by the ways in which the unreal can be shown on screen. The fantastic, in the right creator's hands, illuminates the possibilities of our reality instead of just showing reality. By finding humanity in situations that are not real, the meaning of that humanity seems to be clearer, felt at a deeper level. Fantasy comments on what could be, if only we looked at our situations in a different light. This "different light" is what cinema - fantastic or realist - does so well as an art form.

But the "different" is what seems to be lacking in most Hollywood cinema. I saw "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" and found it to be a pretty powerful cinematic experience. This was only because of the small moments in the film, moments not copied from other, similar films. What gets repeated? The wide angle, amazing landscape shot, for one. At the beginning of the film, when Caspian rides his horse valiantly out of the castle and through the woods, past mountains and trees and... you know this scene. It was a staple of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Place, and landscape, are very important elements in any fantasy. But when we see the same shots over and over, they lose all their power and grandeur. And it really doesn't take long for that to happen.


The other major similarity in these films is the epic battle scene. I don't feel I even need to detail this.


In contrast to the battles, I believe fantasy works better on a smaller scale. At least it becomes more meaningful, better able to tell us about reality. After all, fantasy is an inward look for most of us, bringing forth what we have inside of us - our dreams, aspirations and fears. Filmmakers often ignore this scale, but there is a sequence in "Caspian" that is a true triumph. When Lucy falls asleep at the campfire, she awakens to find herself called by Aslan into the forest. The lighting is the clear lighting of a new day, the leaves float around her, forming into spirits as the trees move and direct Lucy toward the lion. The joy on Lucy's face throughout mimics our joy at the beautifully imagined and produced mise-en-scene.


Then Lucy truly awakens. It was a dream - the leaf faeries, the moving trees and the Lion - were all inside of her. She brought them up and met them because they were in her. But when she truly wakes, the light is different. It is day time, but it is a murkier light. The landscape is not so crisp and delightful any longer. And because of this, we instantly realize it was Lucy's dream we were in. But we have learned all about Lucy. We know what is inside of her. Since fantasy is imagination, isn't that what we really want to see?


Epic battles are a fantasy stereotype at this point, and "Caspian" plays along, offering a lot of those. But there is another small moment that makes it easier to sit through more warfare. When High King Peter battles the Telmarine King, one-on-one, they call a respite because they both need a breather. As they turn from each other, leaning sideways, hands on hips, limping slowly, they remind me of my own aging body, standing up after sitting too long and the pains of old age that come creeping up slowly. Realism steps into the bloody fray for one brief moment. It makes the fantasy all the more real. As well as makes us laugh at how foolish the violence really is.

Fantasy's small moments are the ones that offer insight into ourselves and our reality. Since there are very few "small" fantasy movies made, hopefully Hollywood will learn to scale back. Till then...

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Father in the Fantastic

The Water Horse, a film plainly intended for a younger audience, like all good film and fantasy, offers thought for all ages. A simple story - a lonely boy discovers the egg of the Loch Ness Monster (a Water Horse) and by nursing it from a hatchling develops a strong friendship with the magical creature.

Interesting to me is that the story is layered with commentary about fatherhood and how it relates to the realities of family life, children and war. The film shows the fantastic, the magic of the world, as an antidote to a harsh reality. The Fantastic is an option we can choose. We can choose to take delight in the world and all its wonders, or we can choose to get bogged down by that harsh reality.

Angus, the lonely boy, had a father that led him to the natural world, explaining the awe of natural wonders to him when he was smaller. The father spent quality time with the boy and forged a strong relationship with him. His subsequent death in a ship sunk during World War II led Angus to a fantasy world. Literally, Angus refuses to acknowledge his father's death. But also figuratively, as their bond of an interest in nature leads the boy to discover the egg of the Water Horse, a faerie spirit of Scotland.

Angus' delight in the magical creature occurs around the events of the real world, as the armed forces move in to the estate Angus' mother is watching over. This brings in the first personality to vie for the role of Angus' father figure: a captain in the army, who is living in his own fantasy - he has been sent to guard the lochs of Scotland because there is a good probability no one will be coming to invade by that route. War is his life, but he really knows nothing of real war. Angus' mother is attracted to him because he is a man of position.

The second personality to vie for Angus' attention is Mowbray, an honorable ex-soldier, tired of the violence that has left him scarred, but aware that in service to a cause, sometimes it is necessary. He is a balanced figure, interested in the real world but aware that the Fantastic holds a better way of life at its core. It is stories that make life interesting and can show us a better way to carry on.

Because he refuses to accept his real Father's death, Angus rejects both of these men. The foolish captain tries to impress him with war. Mowbray probably reminds him too much of his real father at first. But when everyone is confronted with the reality of the Water Horse, honesty and true feelings are released. The mystery of things unkown, which are the very same things we want to know and often suspect, are the mysteries that prove to be cathartic when we are able to look at them correctly.

An interesting further look can be made with the Fantastic and the issues of Parents and Fatherhood. Harry Potter lives in a closet under his mean aunt's stairwell, his parents both killed. Lyra of The Golden Compass lives at a great institute under the care of the staff , her father pretending to be her uncle. The Pevensie's of Narnia fame have been shipped off to a country estate by their mother. We can even add Frodo to the list - Bilbo is his mentor, but is his uncle. Where are these British kid's parents?

It seems one of the more common themes in our big fantasy movies is the missing parent. But they all discover the awe of the fantastic only after being on their own. Is the Fantastic a good metaphor for the teaching of children, a substitute for guidance that cannot be found at home?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Red Balloon - A Classic Short

I guess "The Red Balloon" made a lasting impression on me when I first saw it, which was probably 30 to 36 years ago. I could not have told you what exactly happened, but the imagery floated in my memory. I just saw the film for the first time since then and my fleeting mental imagery was just like the rather large balloon, dipping in and out of my mind just like it did on film with the boy.

There is no great analysis of this film here - other than to say it is a masterful use of cinema to tell a fantastical tale of the dreams and possibilities of youth. There are lessons to be learned about others trying to block those possibilities, but overall, it is charming and has a fun and wish-fulfilling ending. At 38 minutes, it is the type of film that I would love to see more of an outlet for.

Film school is built on short films. Oscars are still given out for short films, documentaries and animated shorts. A lot of artistry on film can be found in shorter lengths than the typical feature, but the general public never sees much of this work. I suppose that Youtube is providing a venue and helping generations get used to shorter film experiences. A lot of what comes up there is not very artistic though.

There is a case for depth - a feature length film that is worth watching will provide a deep experience and that is what we crave in cinema. But after watching "The Red Balloon", it's just a "too bad" situation - it is too bad that we don't have more outlets for public viewing of 38 minute films. Director Albert Lamorisse proves that it can be as fulfilling as the best of the classic epics of cinema.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Enough With the Gangsters Already (or Moving On and Up with a Little Help from Others)

Reading is my escape right now, and blog ideas are at a minimum. I am always pleasantly amazed at the intelligence of the ideas articulated by comics artists. Their stories as to how they started are often similar, but their insights are also similarly well-thought out and well-stated. So here are some quotes I found to be worth writing down - lucky for me I have a blog to write them in. One is from fiction writer Paolo Bacigalupi whose talents I have already praised here. The last three are taken from the latest issue of The Comics Journal. If you like discussion about art, and you like comics, TCJ is must reading.

"Right now all of our myths are focused on how to become rich and successful -- we tell stories about ourselves as explorers, as adventurers, as extractors. So I'm wondering about the creation of another set of myths and models, where we start to get excited about the possibility of being a sustainable species rather than a rapacious species." - Paolo Bacigalupi (From www.grist.org, "Stranger Than Fiction", Interview by Michelle Nijhuis 2/21/08)

"The problem with reality is that it is too chaotic. Too coincidental. Art is supposed to make some order in this chaos we call life.To give it some sense, some meaning. Life, reality, has no meaning, at least not one we can be sure of. I better say it like this: Life has no subtext. And a story without subtext is a soap opera." - Rutu Modan (From "An Interview with Rutu Modan, Conducted by Joe Sacco", from The Comics Journal No. 288, pg. 33)

"The films show these Mafiosi as calculating greedy killers, but at the same time portray them as a sensitive if somewhat dysfunctional family whose moral corruption is justified by family honor. Even in his last moments Don Corleone is shown in the sun-drenched garden playing with his adorable grandson. Heave a sigh and cue the fuckin' violins. Some might call this a well-rounded family saga of moral complexity. I call it a complete cop-out trying to cover your bases. Don Corleone was a motherfucker to condemn, not a Badass Motherfucker to lionize." - Paul Karasik (From "An Interview with Paul Karasik, Conducted by Michael Dean", from The Comics Journal No. 288, p.52)

"When you live in a culture that embraces terms like "evildoer," that calls cheese "protein" and bread "carbohydrates" then you know you've got problems. We assign dark consequences to everything, and it stems from a fear of our own mortality. It's a very debilitating undercurrent if you aren't consciously aware of it." - Cathy Malkasian (From "An Interview with Cathy Malkasian, Conducted by Kristy Valenti", from The Comics Journal No. 288, pg. 100)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Path to Enlightenment

My sage, a steadfast supporter of my academic quest, passed away recently. He was a pillar of wisdom, though never knew all the answers, and he understood that in not knowing answers, all we can do is keep asking questions. In the midst of my search for graduate school, he was one of very few people who accepted and supported my need to expand my world.

He was also my sounding board. He actually liked to read this blog! We discussed everything, and his major interest - how all religions have a fundamental teaching on how we should treat each other, but how they all become convoluted in people's hands - led to many spirited discussions. We wondered together how anyone can truly believe there is one, true way, when there are so many people, so many beliefs.

My grief at his passing is only lessened by the immense nature of the responsibility I feel to continue on my way. This week I should be hearing from at least twograduate schools to see if I have been accepted. If the answer is yes, I only wish I could have told him I was accepted. If the answer is no, I will follow his lead and continue to look for a new path.

It is amazing to me how at these moments there is always a confluence of ideas, circumstances and often, revelations. Whatever we want to call this, a synergy exists in this world. If we look for connections, we usually find them. This may all be our mind working to make those connections, but if it is useful for us, all the better.

I was introduced in a very direct way to Buddhism in the last few days - my sage had been a Buddhist. They say that there are 84,000 different ways to enlightenment, 84,000 being a code for Infinity. So for each person, there may be a way to enlightenment. Apparently they also say, if I am understanding this one bit of knowledge correctly, that the enlightenment is all around us - we only need to look at things the right way. And this is where the confluence makes sense. And our interpretations of the connections we see. If we take their meanings to be positive, we can grow. If we see only doom and gloom, our chance for enlightenment shrinks.

I return to the question my sage and I often discussed: How can there be one God, and only one way to God, when there are so many different ideas and beliefs around the world?

It seems to me that God was a reaction. When there were multiple gods of mythology, the pantheons - from Odin to Zeus to Isis to Ameraterasu - they each had a name. Who decided that the one, true god would have the name "God"? Or Allah, or whatever one name means "God" for each existing religion? It seems to me that the one true god would not take God for his name, as that is a generic term. A distant corner of my mind tells me there are probably passages in holy books talking about how the Supreme Being has no real name. But if you explore the construction of religion, I would expect a name other than God to be placed on that being. Or on that idea. Perhaps we forget that men make their gods, and their God.

And so - with new ideas constantly spinning forth, the path I traveled with my sage will never, ever end. I will just have to find new companions to travel it with me. Maybe just for awhile, I will walk that path alone and still converse with my sage.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Spread of Ignorance

Two articles were brought to my attention recently, and they give me good reason to refocus on the Beyond the Veil manifesto.


One is a book review of Susan Jacoby's "The Age of American Unreason" at Salon.com . It explores the anti-intellectual backlash taking place in America today, including how that has led to an increase in religious fundamentalism. The second is a story from the Chicago Tribune dealing with American Christian fundamentalist groups that are actively exporting Creationism and anti-evolution teachings to Europe. Through heavy spending, they are making inroads into changing the intellectual climate of that continent. An interesting point from this story: the Council of Europe was able to prevent a Muslim fundamentalist creationist text from being placed in some public schools, but they do not seem to be having the same success against the American economic backing that is pushing Christian fundamentalist texts.


I do not believe the ignorance that is taking hold in America is only a result of a retreat into religious dogma. Religion and myth are excellent personal retreats for anyone that can find meaning in soul searching and the contemplation that have marked the beauty of these realms for so many years. However, personal is the key word here. Whereas myth has retained a personal connection to those interested in it, religion has always had those who exploit beliefs for personal gains in power and wealth. When religion stops being personal and becomes forced ideology, zealously proclaimed as one true way for all the world's people to follow, we have a problem.

Why do so many people want everyone to only believe what they believe? The ignorance discussed in Jacoby's book is actually encouraged by those pushing fundamentalist ideology. We are not a free society, welcoming new ideas and innovations. We are a scared society, aware our way of life may be on a tipping scale downward. We have lived well off of others for a long time. But now that we may be seeing an ultimate end to our excessive wealth that is beyond the rest of the world's means, we retreat into ideology that we hope will preserve our lifestyle.

Instead of collectively facing our challenges, too many of us take the easy way of banding together against change. Our nation has a collective lack of interest in science and art, the truly great achievements of the human race. Our scientists, artists and teachers are ignored by a majority of people, and they lose out in competition with business, money and fame. We lack an interest in exploration, in science that pushes to discover the wonders of the universe, including how our own world functions. A truly religious person wants to know these things, to know the beauty of the intricacy of creation.

In the same vein, we lack an interest in the creations of artists, who seek to explain our place in that natural world. By ignoring science and art, we take refuge in a religion and use it to try to hold on to a way of life that we hope we can perpetuate forever. But when we ignore others and other ways of seeing and believing, we are doomed to failure.

As the Tribune article shows, with American wealth and economic policies spreading globally, the same lack of interest in scientific and artistic ideas may also spread. The world may grow in its concern only for material goods, the way of thinking that led to America's predominant economic place in the world. More is better has been the American motto and has quickly become the same for the world's rich and powerful.

Economics is a human construction. The natural world is not. It can only be explained by the process of hypothesis, experimentation, and conclusion. This leads to new hypotheses and starts the cycle all over. Science explains how the world works and opens new doors that fill us with wonder and assurance, if we can accept always having another question as being assured.

Religion should be personal. There is no one way for every person to feel about the world, so religion should not be forced on people. Why can't everyone's right to believe what they want be accepted by all? Myth and art, the stuff of our dreams and inner thoughts, is how we deal with the world and express our place in it. Doesn't religion belong in this category? So, if someone gets reassurance from belief that death leads to a better place, who are we to criticize that? However, if someone else believes that death is just that, death and removal from this world, leading them to believe the only thing that matters is how they live their life while they still have it, why does the religious person criticize that?

The individual right to different beliefs should be the most cherished right we hold. Religion has no place in the public sphere because every religion is valid. No one should want, or be able, to legalize religion. But lack of knowledge and the spread of ignorance are leading to more and more confrontations between religions. Is this the world we want to live in, wherein our own personal beliefs and hopes are put ahead of everyone elses beliefs and hopes? Do we really want a system of capitalism for our most dearly held inner beliefs?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Where the Ideas Come From

Man disillusioned moves away - becomes a troll.

This is a sentence from a sheet of paper that is full of ideas that I have written down. It is an easily accessible file with ideas for stories, papers, films - anything I come up with at any time. My hope is I'll get around to expanding them, sometime, into complete works. They may be simple, like the above sentence, or they may be paragraphs, trying to capture a feeling that defines the idea as a whole.

It is not really important where these ideas come from, as I believe ideas flow rapidly. I keep paper and pen nearby to get them in writing when they are more interesting than the usual stream of associations passing through my brain. What is important, though, is what do we do with the ideas once we get them. And that is by far a trickier question.

I guess this is really about procrastination. We need to produce some sort of story, or other work, from those small ideas. It's easier to say than to do.

I just began a collection of Neil Gaiman's short stories called "M Is for Magic", and the second story within is called "Troll Bridge". Basically, it is about a man, disillusioned, that moves away and becomes a troll. I read his story in a public place, while I waited for my wife, and got some looks as I laughed when I finished reading it. Neil Gaiman took my idea! Well, no, of course not, but it was great to know that this amazing writer at some point had the same idea as I did.

However, he wrote a wonderfully haunting story based on it. I moved on after I wrote my one sentence down, never quite forgetting it because I thought it was a promising idea, but never getting around to expanding that idea either.

I guess the point is - "get to work". You can't produce art or reviews or papers or - anything - if you don't sit down and do it. There are a lot of ideas in my idea file, but very little finished work. Time is always an excuse, but never a good one.

The question for me is - do I write my story about the man who becomes a troll now? Or will Gaiman's story be so present to me that it will not be worth the attempt?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Adaptation and Persepolis

Here is an interesting post (from the Chicago Comics website) about the new film version of "Persepolis". It deals with the question of whether the film is necessary because of how it adapts the comic.

I have not seen the film, nor read the comic, but this article makes me want to start with the comic. As I've said before, the intimate nature of the comics experience often leads to longer lasting effects for me than many films do.

For all the similarities between various storytelling methods - for my purposes here including film, literature, myth, religion and comics - they are also very different. I for one wish film would create more of its' own stories instead of adapting all the others.

On the other hand, I wish the others were not losing ground in the race for people's attention. Well, maybe religion isn't, but that is not always a good thing.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Once - A Quick Look at Life and Music

I realized that music, which I've always loved, and musicals, which strangely enough I haven't, seem to have become an integral part of how I look at the world, and the worlds of the fantastic. I have seen more musicals in the last few years than I ever thought I could, but I've also been exploring recorded and live music more than I have in the last few years. Music takes us out of our everyday world and moves us somewhere else. Exactly where depends on the form and the style of music.

Previous posts here about the Waterboys were inspired by an amazing live concert that caught me up completely in the moment of the playing of the musicians. When the music is that powerful, that interesting, most anyone can tell you that in some way you are transported to somewhere in your mind, regardless of the venue you are actually at.

In film as well, music often serves to create a new place. It sends various signals to an audience. This includes sometimes suggesting to us that what is happening onscreen may just be an ideal, a fantastic twist on our reality. We do not have music around us in real life in the ways in which typical musicals present it to us.


This makes the recent film Once an interesting film to look at, because the music is presented in a style which does not take us away from reality. The main characters are musicians and the majority of the film is presented as moments when the two are singing or playing songs.

My quick insight on this film is about the first scene in which the two play together in the back of a Dublin music store. They begin playing, then singing, progressing so naturally into their song that I did feel the music taking me into a different reality. It was not fantasy, and not necessarily that far removed from my own world, but as a cinematic moment, it was different from day-to-day reality. It was a place where people connect in positive ways, which seems so rare for the real world.

The cinematography also had a huge part in contributing to this exploratory and joyful feeling. The shots were consistently close ups of both musicians. The camera caught them understanding each other as they played, and the joy they felt as they connected through music that they explored and expanded together.

A truly amazing and magical scene, which was more than I expected for a musical that is garnering praise for its documentary-like style. But exploration, joy and expansion are what the best music is all about, so maybe I should not have been surprised.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Science Fiction of Paolo Bacigalupi

Science Fiction is a genre that truly goes beyond the veil, speculating on what can happen based on the various threads of real life. It is also a very misunderstood genre. On film it seems to be a rarity, as what gets called science fiction is often more mythological and fantasy based. The obvious example is the Star Wars series - the technological trappings lend them the SF label, but the worlds created are pure fantasy. There are exceptions, but cinema as a whole does not seem to do justice to the genre.

And the genre, containing what should be thought exercises as to what the future may hold, works best for me in literature. Plot and character drive film, but science fiction is often about setting and ideas. The intrigue for me has always been the intellectual game being played, extrapolating possibilities of both the physical and social sciences. A film about such ideas may not often interest the ticket-buying public, but for the right reader, such stories can provide a lot to think about.

Through the dim light of memory, Arthur C. Clarke comes to mind as someone whose work always inspired me with new ideas. As with the best science fiction, Clarke's future always provided me with new ways of looking at the world today. It also opened my eyes to how politics, technology and social structure contribute to creating new developments. As I haven't read any of his work in a very long time, I can't comment on how I would feel about it today. But there is a new collection of short stories being released soon by an author whose work, as different as it is from Clarke's, puts me in the same mind set when I read it.

Paolo Bacigalupi is the author's name and his work bears close attention. I have read three of the stories included in the upcoming collection titled PUMP SIX. They rekindled memories of the best of the science fiction I have read even as they presented absolutely new visions based on some of the problems our world faces going forward.

I first discovered his work in The Magazine of Fantasy & SF, mentioned in a previous post here. Bacigalupi writes tales infused with extrapolation of the future based on possibilities taken from our current economic and environmental trends. As you may guess, it isn't always pretty. But like the best science fiction, the real genius of the genre, it makes you think about your current world. And it makes you think hard.
The tales can be somewhat grim. For me, the only recent film dealing with any similar territory for comparison might be CHILDREN OF MEN (I have not read that book, so I can't comment on it). The settings and conditions are often harsh, but the characters are well drawn. Their situations are always engaging and thought inducing. What more can be asked for?

There seems to be a perfect storm of publicity rising up around the author in light of his first collection, but in this case, I believe it to be fully justified. If you don't read science fiction, try this out.

To help convince you -
1) A recent AP News Story about a looming problem which is typical of those Bacigalupi explores. AP News Story on Western US Water Crisis
2) One of his stories, The Tamarisk Hunter
3) An excellent, three part interview with the author PBS Wired Science
4) A review of Pump Six by Gary Wolfe, one of the best reviewers of the genre today at Locus Magazine's website
and
5) Bacigalupi's official website, windupstories.com

Friday, January 18, 2008

Retention, or, The Art Form of the Comic

When I was younger, everyone around me quoted lines from movies as their contribution to good humor. Everyone would laugh in shared recognition of famous, and hilarious, lines from the latest Hollywood comedic blockbusters. Except me. You see, I never could remember any of these lines. I seem to have a retention problem, most noticeable when it comes to humor. If you know me, you'll realize I have never actually told a joke. When I try, I barely can get it out, and don't have the timing needed for succesful punchlines. But thankfully, I also don't use movie lines to try and get you to laugh.

Lately though I have been using lines of dialogue from "It's A Wonderful Life". I've even gone so far as to suggest, just as Tom Hanks touts the virtues of "The Godfather" in "You've Got Mail", that to any question there is an answer from a line of dialogue in Capra's masterpiece. But really, why does anyone want to do this? Use scripted dialogue in real conversations? Laugh because we recognize a line from a movie? Just because it was funny the first time around...

I consider it a masterpiece - a seamless film that works perfectly in so many ways, and I realize the only reason I can do this with "It's A Wonderful Life" is that I have seen it so many times. Without VCR's and DVD's, I never had the funny lines ready as a kid because I never saw things over and over. Even now, the majority of the films I see, I see once. Quality should be treasured, but there is more dreck than quality out there. Amazing images and characters stick with us, forcing us to remember, or lingering just close enough that we can recall them at appropriate times.

Similarly, there are few books I read more than once. There is always a new story to get wrapped up in. Sadly, it seems I have less retention of books than I do of movies. But there is only the image we create in our heads to associate with literary stories. The truly powerful works that remain with us are probably more so than those of cinema because the pictures are all our own.

Which brings me to the point of this post - comics, sequential pictures, with or without dialogue. The images and stories from comics seem to stay with me stronger and longer than either film or literature. I believe it's because of the personal nature of the art form - we are alone as we experience it. A movie can be shared, but we can be passive as the images roll. The written words of literature create images in our head, but often these slip away.

With comics, we turn pages at our own rate. We linger as long or as little as we like. And though we don't create our own images, we fuse the drawn forms with our reading of the lines. If the work gives us a personal reason to respond to it, the likelihood rises of our being able to remember and recall those images and storylines. I plan on writing more about comics in the future.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

La Perdida - The Lost One

After seeing the first few pages of Jessica Abel's "La Perdida" at a comics art exhibition in Chicago a few years back, I have been looking forward to reading it. It took a few years, but I finally read issue #1. Luckily, I just received the collected book as a gift and was able to read the entire story. In one sitting. Yep, it's that good.

And it's relevant to the examination of how fantasy worlds and the real world mix that I try to explore here. "La Perdida" is the story of Carla, an American girl who grows up without any understanding of the culture of her Mexican father. As she gets older, she becomes interested and makes her way, by means of some subtle subterfuge, to Mexico. She attempts to learn what she has been missing.

I would call Carla's expectations and hopes for what Mexico can mean to her the fantasy world. She has little knowledge of Mexico and does not speak the language. The story plays off the differences between her relationships with American expatriates and those she creates with various natives. With little knowledge of what to expect, she is unable to see that her Mexican friends, whose attributes come to be her embodiment of what it means to be Mexican, may not be the nicest people to hang out with. She judges everyone else against them, but does not always see that their lack of respect toward others may also be directed at her. Eventually events take place which show her that she was seeing the world only from one direction, unable to get beyond what her own hopes were.

It is hard to fault her for wanting her reality to conform to her thoughts, but easy to realize that she needed to be more discerning to get what she really wanted out of her cultural exploration. Abel's genius is that she made me feel sad for Carla at missed opportunities. Looking back, when her co-worker Luisa moves in with her, Carla could have gotten a healthier view of her new world. Instead of opening to a new voice, she pulls Luisa toward her circle of friends.

Though this is not really a work of the Fantastic, I feel that when culture meets culture, we are at a place where reality begins to push the boundaries into something new. That being said, I have to mention the revelation of the last page of this work. Carla is from Chicago originally, as am I. Abel draws various Chicago locations and uses the city for certain plot details in the framing sequences. The last page of the work depicts a street in Chicago with Asians walking in front of Asian restaurants. This colored my entire experience of the story before it. The search is universal. Carla may have been exploring her Mexican roots, but everywhere, everyday, there are people whose roots are behind them. They try to make sense of the traditions and cultures that led to their present. As well there are people who have moved away from their backgrounds, trying to make sense of new cultures and traditions.

When respect is given to all cultures, and when substance and meaning, instead of popularity and fleeting sensation, become the basis for new cultural traditions, I think we'll all be better off. Unlike Carla in "La Perdida", we should get to know a few different people before we make any judgements.


Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Golden Compass - The Book

Cinema, as a set of all films, contains a rather large, and loud, subset that we call Hollywood films. When we look for examples of great cinematic art, Hollywood has produced many films of profound value. All too often, however, and seemingly more often than not, they fail to produce great art because of economic reasons, including a simple lack of taking risks, which often is the catalyst for great art. Sequels are a good example of the expensive nonsense that too often is the product of Hollywood cinema. Just as incomprehensible are missed opportunities.

Based on the book, the movie version of "The Golden Compass" missed too many opportunities to make an artistically visual, and poignant, cinematic statement. Changes made to the film, and scenes that were left out, created a typical Hollywood thrill ride, when the possibility existed to create a vision of the Fantastic that would make people think and remember.

If you plan to read the book and/or see the movie, be warned - this is a SPOILER ALERT.



Philip Pullman's novel, "The Golden Compass", reads simply and straightforwardly. Written for a young adult audience, credit is still given to the reader's intelligence. The simplicity of the language does not eliminate the visual detail that Pullman infuses in his world. He attempts to use that detail to explore the larger issue of the nature of the soul. The core of this exploration is the beauty of the relationship between Lyra and her daemon, Pan. I suspect the author's view may be that a person grows up when they choose who they want to be. Hopefully they are given every opportunity to allow themselves to choose freely and intelligently. "The Golden Compass" is the first of three books. I would expect the second and third books to fully expound on the author's beliefs. But the first is a satisfying whole, even though it ends in the middle of a tragedy, with earthshaking events taking place around Lyra.

The movie would have done well to attempt relating the author's story in the same visual detail and with the same emphasis on the relation between the girl and her daemon. Unfortunately, the film is strictly Hollywood. It takes no real chance at creating art or memorable ideas, but simply provides standard Hollywood thrills. As my previous post is testament to, it succeeded. It's a visual treat - but it could have been much more.

First, the film makes Iorek the polar bear the most important character after Lyra. The Hollywood choice is obvious - the bear is huge and exciting to see in animated form running through the icy landscape. The trailer is based on that image and creates the feeling of the Hollywood spectacle. If the book had been followed, Lyra's daemon Pan would have been the secondary focus. The story would be drawn down and inwards. The relation between a girl and her soul, as they learn about the world and attempt to come to grips with it, would be the focus of the storyline. By elevating Iorek to a higher status, the thrills become more important than the revelations that cinema can give us about the human condition. Escapism wins out over revelation at much too high a rate in Hollywood.

Second, the film twists the book's events out of order, including leaving off the pivotal and explanatory ending. If Iorek was to be made more important in the film, his battle with the renegade king makes more sense to be positioned in time as it is in the book, the last episode before the actual ending. It seems to me the cinematic bear vs. bear fight was moved to take place before the rescue of the children from Bolvangar simply to allow a sprawling battle to take place at the end of the film. This seems to be the requirement of a large budget, Hollywood fantasy film. "Can't end one of those fantasy films without a big battle at the end," I can hear the producers say as they procure the money needed to finance such a film.

The ending of the film was strange to me, but it is truly puzzling after reading the book. The film has no conclusion to explain all the questions that arose for me while watching it. The book elegantly answers enough questions at the end so that we understand what has gone before and completes a story, while still maintaining our interest in getting further answers if we choose to follow Pullman to the second book. The film does not address or explain major plot points - the Dust, what exactly Lyra's place is in the story and again, why the daemon/human relationship is so important. An opportunity to make a unique film was pushed aside to make a typical film that could be marketed to the "young adult fantasy film audience".

The last difference between the book and movie that I will address refers back to the visual detail of the book. The movie has the great visual effects that money can buy, but the choices of what to show seem amazingly safe. Here is why the art of cinema, which should be perfectly suited to the amazing worlds of the Fantastic, is lacking in many Hollywood productions. I would expect the production teams on films like this to be the best in the business. And I would expect their business to be the ability to push the envelope of what we see on-screen by making visual statements worthy of the imaginative scale of their source materials. And even though the scale, and budget are large, I would expect these artists to be the ones that could successfully pull off telling the smaller story of Lyra and Pan. Somehow, they are not allowed to attempt that lyrical exploration of the soul. The evidence is a character and a scene that is eliminated from the movie.

In the book, the witch Serafina Pekkala has a grey goose for her daemon. We do not see the goose in the film, which I believe to be a major mistake. By showing the actual witch herself, the focus is again taken off the daemon/human relationship. But Pullman describes the goose with such majesty, and anyone who has truly seen the various geese of our world will understand, how it is a shame we do not get this character on the screen.

That may sound silly or unimportant to a viewer, but the scene eliminated from the film is probably my favorite in the book and is Pullman's best work. Lyra and the grey goose free several ghost-like images of animal daemons from cages, where they have been locked up after being forcibly separated from their children. The eloquence, horror and hope of the scene are beautifully described by Pullman, ending with the grey goose coercing all the ghostly forms to take on the shape of small birds and follow him, escaping through the air to some place they can be tended to.

As I read that scene, I wondered how the eloquence of such visuals, as well as their relevance to the deeper themes of the story, could be eliminated from the film. If I were the production design and cinematography teams on that film, I'd sure like to take a crack at bringing that to life.

The day when Hollywood is consistently able to bring eloquent versions of the imaginative stories our authors dream up to the big screen seems to be a day that is very far off.