life

Ikiru and Inertia

Sort of on the cusp between middle-aged and elderly. Certainly not old enough to be in a nursing home, but certainly too old to get off the bench in a recreational basketball league. Out of place at both a rock concert and a bingo hall. That I-like-my-coffee-black sort of age, but likely too young to have one of those medicine trays with seven compartments, each labelled for a specific day of the week. A city councilman, or a planner, or a chairman, or some other variety of bureaucrat. Public Works department, yet he doesn’t seem to have completed any sort of Work for the Public in quite a long time. Stack of paper. Stamp. Place in bin. Brush aside needy citizens, who do they think I am, some kind of public servant or something?

Stomach cancer. Incurable. Six months, maybe? He realizes how he’s never realized how unfulfilling his life is. He tries indulging himself. Gambling, drinking, parties, etc. Doesn’t cut it. So he decides to do his job, see if he can make his community a better place. Turns a cesspool of sewage into a public park. The people love him. He dies.

Ikiru is, I think, among Kurosawa’s finest, samurai or otherwise. It’s certainly among his most personal. And yet some of its implications are a bit unnerving. Do we never fully realize our capacity for good, nor recognize the happiness it brings about, until we’re nearing the end of the time allotted to us? Why does it take so long? Perhaps it’s a desperate scramble to do something of substance, to justify our birth and the eighty-odd years we spend spending and eating and indulging and crying and laughing. Kind of like this review. I spent the first half rambling and now I’m realizing that I need to say something, that this needs to have a purpose, because otherwise why did I even bother to sit down and write this? We fear that our story will end without a theme, without having said something, and maybe it isn’t until the end approaches that we even recognize this fear.

Or maybe it’s more ego-driven. Perhaps our desire to be seen, to be noticed in some way lies dormant throughout life and only overcomes our inertia when it’s almost too late. Maybe his swan song is nothing more than a way to perpetuate himself, to make some sort of legacy that will outlast him. Is this why anybody does anything at all? Certainly frightening, but Ikiru leaves it open as a possibility.

Go watch it if you haven’t already. Above all else, I think it works best as a warning against the joyless drifting that we fall into all too often.

 

 

Wonder Woman and Growth vs. Proficiency

Is it better to prioritize growth or proficiency? Although this question is at the heart of education, I’ve been considering it in relation the the DC Cinematic Universe. Since its inception it’s been a C- student, completing the required tasks to get by (make loads of money at the box office) but never showing any real interest in the material (making a legitimately good movie). If we look at Wonder Woman in relation to the franchise’s previous efforts, it’s fantastic. It blows everything else out of the water by having a coherent plot and reasonably interesting characters. But I can’t help but feel like its praise stems largely from the horrible movies that came before it.

There’s certainly a lot of good stuff to be found in the film. It provides an interesting look at outdated gender roles and carries a meaningful social message without seeming hamhanded or pandering. In particular, watching Diana walk the streets of World War I era London and balk at its blatant inequality is entertaining and incredibly relevant. The relationship between Diana and Steve manages to avoid tired Hollywood romance clichés. Some of the action is well-orchestrated as well, surpassed only by one of the Batman fight scenes in Dawn of Justice. It’s a thoroughly entertaining, mostly well-done popcorn movie.

Yet it isn’t perfect. In any sense of the word. There is some incredibly corny dialogue. Most notably, the interactions between Diana and the film’s primary antagonist were not easy to listen to. Some of the directorial decisions were questionable as well, like the film’s painfully trite final shot. The beginning was a bit exposition-heavy and had a few minor pacing issues.

Despite these flaws, the film is solid. It hasn’t revolutionized the superhero genre like Nolan’s trilogy, but it’s a strong entry in an incredibly weak franchise. Should this be enough to earn universal acclaim, or are we looking at the film from a pessimistic worldview tained by Zack Snyder’s directorial dictatorship? Perhaps it’s impossible to separate film from franchise at this time, and only time will tell if Wonder Woman is worthy of the praise it’s received. Either way, it’s good to see that the DC Cinematic Universe is capable of producing a watchable movie.

The Challenges of Film Familiarity Pt. II

(This is a continuation of an article I posted on March 26th, 2017. If you haven’t read that post, click here to get caught up.)

I posted the above on reddit.com/r/truefilm to start a dialogue about the theory’s implications for the delivery of film education. I got a few interesting responses, but the most notable one extended the theory to encompass all forms of visual media and consider its social implications. Here’s an excerpt from his response:

(As is completely understandable in a casual forum, /u/mosestrod made some grammatical errors in his response. I preserved them for the sake of accuracy.)
The moving image is so familiar to us insofar as it is our everyday, it does – as you suggest – produce both passivity and conformity with the what is. Film mimics reality better than any other art form. But this pretence is also its risk, and we’re always threatened by the loss of that capacity to critically confront the artwork, to break its spell. Few even recognize the hold but finish as if having been mesmerized. You’ll often hear people talk about getting lost or absorbed in film, which is necessary, but so too is that moment in film that break the trans-fixation…
…We can perhaps probe even further the moving image; the infamous Baudrillard argued the image-world had produced a simulation of reality that had substituted itself for reality. That the hold of the TV was like the gods of old, and consumers sat fixated on the truths it delivered ready-made into their minds; moving only to make the regular libations and offerings of coin. What does it mean to switch fluidly from a film channel to one on baking to an advert and so on? How does art as a separate sphere survive this? What does it mean to carry around a screen, a smart phone, so you can be always plugged into the network 24/7? So many of our experiences come to us via. the moving image; I’ve been to so many countries, and worlds, I’ve seen shock and awe live, danced in prisons and inside volcanoes. But have I ever actually lived it, experienced it? All those moments are no longer lost in time, in rain, but captured, colonized, stored in ventilated server warehouses in Arizona, replayed and doled out. I can exchange my independence for access to this image-world and the wonders it delivers to me like all the rest. The avant-garde once made it their task to breach the separation of art and life, well our industrialized society did it for them, but at the expense of both.”
(/u/mosestrod)

This comment spurred me to consider two important implications of film familiarity. The first relates to how film familiarity can warp our perception of what is real and what is entertainment, breaking down the barriers between experience and media. In the modern world we’re exposed to an unprecedented volume of visual stimulus, from commercials to cell phone screens to pieces of art. If we accept the idea that film is a medium that closely resembles our perceptions of the real world, then how are we to determine what belongs to our world and what belongs to the world of the image? With this challenge in mind, overcoming film familiarity becomes a much more meaningful task. Before I had thought of it simply as a way to facilitate the analysis of the form, but if we concern ourselves with the social implications that /u/mosestrod raises, then it serves a different purpose entirely. It becomes a method of demarcating what is real and what belongs to film. It constrains our perception of reality and determines what we internalize as art and what we accept as experience. Thus, our ability to overcome the rapport that accompanies our innate film familiarity determines the extent to which we can identify reality for ourselves rather than have it preselected for us by the visual media that we consume.

So what are the implications of this extension of film familiarity for the delivery of film education? For one, it certainly ups the gravitas of the endeavor. We’re no longer just teaching people to appreciate and understand an art form, but rather we’re teaching them to filter the information they’re exposed to in order to separate reality from fiction. There are also some important practical implications of this shift in pedagogical duty. For instance, I think for the purposes of a beginning level film class it will be crucial to develop visual literacy for a wide range of image-based media, not just the feature film. Of course, actual films should be the focus of the course, but including other forms of visual stimulus will ensure that students establish a strong base for overcoming film familiarity in all spheres. Perhaps the deconstruction of advertisements and visual social content will help facilitate this.

/u/mosestrod’s post also got me thinking about another implication of film familiarity: film’s status as an exploitative medium. Motion pictures rely on their ability to place viewers into a sort of “spellbound” state of mind in order to achieve their emotional effects. But film’s entire ability to place us in this state relies entirely on the existence of a subconscious familiarity with the medium in the first place. In a way, it’s targeting a weakness of our mental capacities in order to shift our perception of reality for a limited time. Is this the case for all forms of art? Are they simply targeted doses of stimulus that leverage our instinctual quirks for the purpose of entertainment? Perhaps I’m getting off task with this, but it could be interesting to consider what mental weaknesses, if any, are targeted by other forms of media.
This concept of film as a medium that takes advantage of an instinctual weakness also has some interesting pedagogical implications. Primarily, it harkens back to the issue of balancing an emotional connection to the piece with intellectual disinterestedness. If film really does leverage emotional quirks, those quirks must be kept active in some capacity to experience the film as it was meant to be experienced. In order to break down how a film works we must be able to remove our latent film familiarity, but in order to see its intended effect we must allow some of that film familiarity to remain. Perhaps encouraging multiple viewings would strike this balance: the first one to watch the film as intended, the subsequent ones to understand its technical elements. This may be impractical for a classroom scenario, but striking the proper balance between these two observational modes will be crucial to developing a deep understanding of the form.

The Inseparability of Romanticism and Science

As a humanities-focused student and a “romantic” according to Robert Pirsig’s definition, I’ve always had some preconceived ideas about people who pursue math and science. For instance, I tend to think of them as fact-driven, emotionally detached from their investigations, and focused on the utilitarian outcomes of their work. Of course, some scientists probably fit this description fairly well, but a quote from Einstein raises another possible motivation for the pursuit of these disciplines that I hadn’t considered before. He claims that some scientists are drawn to their profession out of a desire to “escape from everyday life” and “[trace] out the restful contours apparently built for eternity.” It may not even be the useful outcomes of their investigations that draw them in, but the experience of the process itself. Human life is emotionally turbulent and opaque, often not understandable by cold logic alone. Science, on the other hand, relies entirely on objective observation. Although the process is challenging and involves countless missteps, the tools that garner answers in science are well-defined and easily observable. Perhaps these tools attract those who are turned away by the volatility of everyday life.

 

There is, however, a hint of irony in Einstein’s justification of scientific pursuits. Everyday life, just like science, could be broken down using methods of logic and inference. It’s just that the objective tools of scientific investigation are rarely applied in an informal setting, and therefore human life takes on the appearance of an impenetrable mystery marked with emotion and uncertainty. If we stick to Pirsig’s definition, then claiming that science is understandable via logic and everyday life isn’t is itself a highly romantic statement. It’s looking purely at the observable veneer of each pursuit: science as a chain of reasoning and life as an ever-changing combination of mysterious factors. A true scientific mindset would hold that life can just as easily be approached using logical tools of inference. Perhaps this tension, this inability to see the entirety of existence through an objective lens, shows that we all have a degree of romanticism within us. The tools we use to perform science may be based entirely on observation, but the motivations for utilizing them are not so pure. Even Einstein couldn’t deny that science is sometimes pursued for reasons beyond the purely utilitarian and logical.
Furthermore, science is also influenced by rules of morality and justice, rules that are based entirely on romantic intuitions about what is right and what is wrong. Beyond the evolutionary conditions that have trained us to cooperate with others, ethics are based primarily on emotion and instinct. Science, thankfully, is restrained by these ideas, which demonstrates that there is a degree of intuitive decision making that affects even the most objective discipline. It seems to be impossible to separate ourselves entirely from our romantic affectations, which is probably for the best.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I’ve always been fascinated with the way cinema is able to connect us with characters by means of narrative structure. For instance, Nolan’s use of a reverse-chronological structure in Memento in order to make viewers as dumbfounded as his amnesiac protagonist continues to be one of my favorite moves in any film. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind had a similar effect on me. Its structure isn’t as pronounced as that of Memento, but it still made me interface with its story emotionally and connect with it on a visceral level. When the film’s focus jarringly shifts from a man in a happy relationship to a shot of the same man hunched over his car’s steering wheel in tears, you can feel your heart sink as you experience the unforgiving, unpredictable pain of heartbreak. It’s a bold, gut-wrenching move that sets up the uncompromising complexity and honesty of the piece. And honest it is. Eternal Sunshine is unwavering in its exploration of the imperfection and dissatisfaction of love. I’ve seen plenty of films that provide an unfettered view of the human experience, but few have distilled this particular theme down to its essential characteristics. It’s not an easy watch, but with its impactful structure and beautiful exploration of romance, it’s clear to see why Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has been heralded as one of the best movies of the 21st century thus far.

The Sense of an Ending, Life and Death in 163 pages

The first page begins with six cryptic, seemingly random statements. They are moments in time, innocuous observations of the world. When first read they seem meaningless, but as the story progresses these six moments begin to take on an important meaning. They develop and build slowly in a heartrending crescendo until they finally culminate at the conclusion, when they all finally make sense to the reader. Herein lies the beauty of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. He is able to seed images in his readers’ minds, images that wait for the perfect moment to come into their full form.

I’ve read a lot this year, but nothing has had as strong of an emotional impact as this short novel. It’s difficult to describe the feelings that it brings about. While there is an overwhelming sense of despair and terror brought about towards the gravity of our actions and our single chance at life, it isn’t the kind of despair that makes one want to bury their head under their pillow. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; after finishing, I found myself oddly invigorated, wanting to go out and have some kind of meaningful experience. A pervasive idea throughout the text is that most people fail to take charge of their life and turn it into something worth living, instead opting to let it fly by past them and take the path of least resistance. Barnes addresses this in a beautiful and realistic way, without allowing his book to become some sort of preachy self-help novella. The language is fairly simple but well-refined, and none of the events seem grandiose or exaggerated. I’m normally not a stickler for realism in the literature I read, but considering this novel’s grounded and practical driving theme I found it to work very well.

Despite its short length, The Sense of an Ending manages to pack in many complex and profound truths about the nature of life and aging. Among these are the reliability of memory in forming one’s ideas about the world, the place suicide has in society, and the transitive nature of relationships. I was amazed to see how well Barnes is able to fit in so many ideas without overcrowding the text, and also how he manages to bring all of these ideas together to tell the story of a single man’s life, identifying the most important and formative moments along the way.

I can’t recommend this novel enough. I hope to revisit it when I’m older in order to compare how it impacts me at a different stage of life.

Wyoming, Tourism, and Raw Experience

For the most part, it was a fairly normal vacation. My father took the family to Wyoming to see Yellowstone and other odds and ends. I enjoyed my time there and would certainly recommend it to anyone, but there was one specific event that got me thinking. It was our first full day of the trip, and my dad had hired a tourism company to show us around Grand Teton national park. There was nothing wrong with the tour guide at all; he was personable, entertaining, and knowledgeable. Nor was there anything amiss with the park itself. It was certainly an enjoyable excursion with many beautiful sights, but something didn’t feel right about the experience itself. It felt unnatural and contrived, like a trip to Disneyland rather than to one of America’s great preserves.

It wasn’t until later that day that I was able to realize the source of this feeling. After we got back from the tour, I went out on my own to explore the resort town we were staying in. I found my way to the base of the ski slopes (sans snow, as this was during the summer) and set out to climb to the top. It was an exhausting endeavor, and I didn’t even make it to the summit. When I reached my limit I sat on the slope and looked down onto the town, the surrounding plains, and saw other mountains far in the distance. It was certainly a beautiful view, but nothing like I had seen in the park a few hours earlier. Despite this, I felt a strange sensation. I was sitting atop a mountain tailored and manipulated by humans, but I felt more fulfilled than I ever did in the largely untouched park. I took in the view and sat in silence, enjoying the spontaneity and adventure of the moment. I felt a sense of discovery and escape that I didn’t experience earlier in the day. This was very odd to me: the park was much larger, much more natural, and more beautiful than what I saw sitting on the slope. Shouldn’t I have been much more excited by that?

On the way down, I was able to pinpoint the reason for this disparity. Climbing the slope may have been less exotic and seemingly less interesting than visiting the national park, but it was of my own doing. I set out on my own, I made my way to the slope, and I decided to climb it without planning. When I completed my journey, I had all the time in the world to sit and enjoy the experience. It wasn’t anything daring or extravagant, but it was entirely my own. While our trip to the park was entertaining and informative, it was largely manufactured. The tour guide picked us up at our rental condo, drove us to the park, and ferried us around to predetermined points of interest. There was no discovery or uncertainty involved, and discovery and uncertainty are the very things that make something like a vacation meaningful. This doesn’t apply only to something like a trip, though; it can be used to consider the value of any experience, even those that seem pedestrian. An experience is not memorable or meaningful purely because of what is seen or done. The way one engages with an experience, connects with it, explores it, and makes it their own is what truly matters. A truly meaningful experience cannot be contrived, but must be sought after individually and organically.

After considering my experience on the slope, I began to wish that I had been able to experience the park on my own terms. It was, of course, a family vacation, so I absolutely understood the need for a degree of structure, but I still felt a twinge of annoyance that such a promising opportunity had been marred by artificiality. Later, my family discussed the tour. Everyone thought that it was highly beneficial to our experience because it allowed us to see more of the park and find things that we wouldn’t have found otherwise. I don’t find this to be a compelling argument against my proposal for a more natural approach. Sure, we may have been able to see more, but wouldn’t it have been better to intimately and meaningfully engage with whatever we managed to find on our own, rather than viewing everything the park has to offer on the surface level? I sure thought so, and I still do.

I certainly don’t want to sound like an ungrateful brat. I’m appreciative of all the things I’ve been fortunate enough to see, but I do feel that many of these experiences could have been greatly improved. I now make an effort to allow experiences to unfold in a natural manner so that I can engage with them and connect with them on a more visceral level. I do believe that it can help to enrich life, so I implore you to do the same. Explore life’s joys without any pretense or structure, wander aimlessly, search for nothing in particular, and take the time to reflect on what these experiences mean to you. Forego the tour guide and truly connect to whatever you manage to stumble upon. Make an effort to search for nothing in particular, and I guarantee that you’ll find something of value.