Friday, July 31, 2015

why do you do this?

When I was looking up information on the USC Shoah Foundation yesterday, I happened upon an interview with Steven Spielberg from USA Today with a (mis?)quotation as its title--

'This is what I was put on earth to do' - Steven Spielberg

Maybe he said that to the interviewer, but the only line I can find in the actual text of the interview that is similar to that is this (with a little context):

When young people come up to me and instead of saying they liked my last movie, they say, "My grandparents gave testimony [to the foundation] in 1995." Hearing that make me feel I was put on this earth to make a difference, not just in the lives of movies audiences. The testimonies help others hear stories that are not easy to tell or listen to.

I'm not going to talk about the holocaust again today, or the whole poetry after Auschwitz thing. Let's leave Adorno behind, maybe even leave Everything Is Illuminated behind for the most part. Today is Day 729 of this blog. The second year--the so-called phase two comes to an end tomorrow. I'm not aiming for as big a party as Day 365, but I am having some people over for game night, with Groundhog Day somewhere in there. I don't want the focus to be the movie, oddly enough...

(In fact, thinking about it that way just now made me think I don't want to keep blogging every day.

I have been leaning lately toward the idea of a less structured, but just as regular, version of this blog, no week-long repetitions (unless a movie warrants that many days). I figure that if I weren't watching films on repeat, I'd probably just fill that time with other movies anyway, so I might as well write about it. And, on those days, like on roadtrips, when I am too exhausted or too busy to watch some longer movie, I would allow a short film instead. I'd still return to Groundhog Day--I'm figuring on the 2nd of each calendar month--because that is where this began. I'd still write every day.

My biggest problem here is that, knowing the way I am, I cannot take a break and then decide I want to blog every day again, not with out a reinvention and a new blog. (I could just write more political posts at my Against the World blog and put movie reviews, when they come up on my SE7ENTH ART blog, except I know that doesn't work for me--the irregularity, I mean. I end up neglecting them and getting nothing done.

I considered a new, all-purpose blog where I could review movies, talk politics, share fiction or poetry or whatever, but that's what my website and Facebook are for. If I blog, I blog with purpose.

Still, it makes sense to downplay the movie tomorrow. Phil Connors learned to connect with other people. I should connect with other people more than I do.

Connecting is the point. Even to blogging. I should interact with more bloggers, too. In my thesis, I (will) argue that bloggers form a community with common practices even if they make no effort to interact, but it would still be nice to interact with more. (The number of different platforms for blogs make it difficult, sure, but not impossible.)

Anyway, I have found many an excuse to write about things other than the movie I'm watching to talk about whatever comes to mind. I suppose I can keep doing that.)

Celebrating milestones is good. Having a purpose in mind is good. Finding a purpose along the way is nice too. The idea that I might be on earth for one purpose, though--maybe it's because I do not know what that purpose might be, but I don't link the singularity of it; it's too limiting. Still, props to Spielberg for continuing to make movies while also doing something important...

Admittedly, I didn't know how to phrase that last sentence without at least some part of it coming off as sarcastic. I do not mean any sarcasm. Clearly, I think movies are important, but history, personal stories--that is more important. The two can mix and mingle, of course, stories like Everything Is Illuminated or, better yet, something more historically accurate. Except, sometimes, I think the feeling is more important than the accuracy.

For example--but having nothing to do with history--I think the film version of Stephen King's Dolores Claiborne is an amazing film and one of the best adaptations of a novel that I have seen, yet it takes liberties with the very structure of the novel and augments supporting characters to bigger roles to take some of the focus off of Dolores herself. What it does is offer up the feeling of the book in a slightly different package. The details are less important than a feel. The same is true of films like Titanic, injecting a fictional storyline into the middle of a historical event, or Braveheart, altering the order of the timeline so characters and events can interact a little differently to convey the feeling more--dare I say it--efficiently than history would tell it. We know that no historical film is entirely accurate. They need to reduce big stories into a couple (or a few) hours. They need to reduce numerous conversations or interactions to singular scenes. They need to reduce the number of characters so audiences don't get confused. They need too adapt to certain actors, or certain locations.

(For Into the Wild, which I watched a couple weeks ago for this blog, for example, they set up their replica bus a good distance closer to civilization than the real bus (after considering filming at the real bus) because it just isn't practical to take a film crew off into that wilderness without some extra expenses.)

Film cannot tell history accurately. But it can hit the important beats and make us feel. It can make us want to learn more about the reality behind it. Hell, I've written before about how the HBO miniseries John Adams was a big part of why I majored in history as an undergrad. A movie can shape your interests. A movie can shape your life.

Just look at me and Groundhog Day. I wonder sometimes if Lawrence Dai ever watches Julie & Julia or if he completely moved on. (After his Day 365 entry, he posted again two days later, then a week and a half after that, and four more entries over the next week, then his blog ends.) Maybe I chose a better film (I did), maybe I chose a movie I actually liked (I did), or maybe I just have trouble letting go of things (I do).

I figure, with my thesis defense delayed until this fall, while I may get some adjunct teaching gigs by winter, I won't be "full time" teaching at least until next year. When I am doing something I enjoy for a job, and taking more time with lesson plans and what have you, then I will be ready to stop doing this every day.

Maybe.

I need that more important thing to take up my time. (I can't blog about parenting, because that involves personal stuff that does not belong to me alone.) I wrote fiction every day (one day off per story, one day off in between stories) from December 1996 to August 1999. I wrote in spurts from then until two years ago. I haven't been writing fiction these past two years, but I have been writing. And, my fiction always toyed with bigger ideas than its plots anyway. I always blurred the edges of what I was doing to comment on whatever came to mind. I am a writer. I am a blogger.

I am a father and a teacher as well, of course. But that's a given.

Tomorrow's entry has been partly put together already, as it involves the final recap of phase two and those links take a while to get organized. I don't know if people here for the "party" will want to say something like I asked people to do for Day 365 or if it will just be my own thoughts on the... achievement of this. And, it is an achievement. The average word count of the entries that I've coded so far for my thesis is somewhere between thirteen and fourteen hundred words. Take the low end there, and a year of this blog is 474,500 words. Two years, 949,000 words. Another 50 days or so and I'll reach a million words. Even if all these entries made no sense, that would still be something. But, they do make sense. And, some of them, I would wager, are some of the best stuff I have ever written. This is something worth being proud of. And, that's a weird thing for me to acknowledge. I don't deal in pride, usually. I have trouble saying I'm proud of things I have done. Even worse, I have trouble telling my kids when I am proud of them. That's one of those things I need to work on.

More on that tomorrow, I suppose.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

just like me

That Jonathan looks like his grandfather and (middle) namesake is not just a coincidence, or a cinematic convenience. That workers at the airport at the end of the film look like characters Jonathan has met on his rigid search is also not merely a coincidence, nor a cinematic joke.

(I'm not even sure that it's a coincidence that both of Foer's novels involve an old Jewish man who was close to two young women when he was younger; when Lista says her mother thought Safran should marry Augustine because she was older, it reminded me very much of Anna and her sister in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Both of the primary plots are driven by objects, as well--the photograph in Everything Is Illuminated, the key in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, but I don't think I'm dealing in objects today.)

These people look alike because this story is universalizing. It seems a part of the human condition that we want to know where we come from, and that's vital to the story of this film. But, also important is the idea that we all want to understand others and be understood by them as well. We want to relate our stories to their stories and vice versa. The book Everything Is Illuminated is built even more than the film is on Alex and Jonathan getting to know one another.

It's more than just Alex and Jonathan. It is all of us.

It seems a specific comment on the doppelgängers and interpersonal links through space and time that Grandfather's dog is called Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior. Sammy Davis, Junior, of course, is already named after someone else, his father. The dog's name is an echo of an echo. And, (in the deleted scene and, I assume, in the book) the dog is enamored with Jonathan Safran Foer, who is an echo in face and name of Safran Foer.

(Like Phil Connors and Punxsutawney Phil.)

Viewing note: they have just driven past the same group of four goats at least three times. One could take it to mean they are lost and keep passing the same location, but I don't think that was the point. Sure, practically-speaking, it probably just means that the production did not have an endless supply of goats, but I choose to assume in context of today's topic that these goats are echoes of one another just as the boy tending to the goats is echoed at the airport at the end of the film, just as the woman at the hotel and the men at the dig site are also echoed at the airport.

One of the most important echoes in the film is the two grandfathers. Safran left Trachimbrod a week before the Nazis came, so he lived, but he lost Augustine. Baruch, by luck really, survived the gunfire (drowning in the book) and denied his Jewish heritage to escape afterward. Each man left something vital to who he was in Trachimbrod. We can see that Baruch is a sad old man; maybe that comes from his wife's death two years ago, or maybe he's never been able to truly be happy because he denied who he was. (The moon--the first thing he saw when he woke among dead bodies--seems to haunt him when he sees it in the present.) Similarly, though the movie tells us nothing of Safran except that he clearly found another woman to marry in America, I imagine him to be much like Thomas Schell, Senior in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a man who lost his ability to speak because he hurt too much after the girl he loved was killed. Thomas' grief, like Baruch's anger, suggests a deeply rooted pathology built on pain.

Taking this pain outward, metaphorically, it is like Foer is attempting to express a ethnocultural pain much larger than this personal story. Go back to the discussion the other day about poetry after Auschwitz. How better can the pain of a thousand dead (in this specific, fictional story) or six million dead be expressed than in a story--or go to a Holocaust Museum or the USC Shoah Foundation and listen to numerous stories. A book like Foer's, or a film like this one--it boils that down into less time, makes it available to more people, potentially. Schindler's List may be a better example. It opened at #14 at the box office, though only showing on 25 screens. It went on to win numerous awards, including seven Oscars (for Art Direction, Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, Adapted Screenplay, Director and Best Picture). I was out of high school by then, but I know the next year my school was one of many to show that movie to students. It made the holocaust--if in a simplified package--more accessible, more relatable, and it turned an almost unfathomable concept into something not only self-contained enough to be understood but also something entirely moving. After making that film, Steven Spielberg established the previously mentioned USC Shoah Foundation. From 1994 to 1999, the foundation collected 52,000 interviews. It now has some 107,000 hours of video testimony, and it has expanded to other genocides. While such a database is an invaluable resource, it is also much bigger than most people will have time for. For those with less time, there is--just taking a few popular ones since Schindler's List--Life Is Beautiful, The Pianist, Defiance, The Reader, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas... and so many more. One little known one that occurred to me was The Last Butterfly (which, I think, Life Is Beautiful may have drawn on for inspiration), and a quick google search for details found me a poem by Pavel Friedman, written (apparently) while he was at the concentration camp Terezin (he would later be transferred to Auschwitz, where he would be killed).

The Butterfly

The last, the very last
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow,
Perhaps if the sun's tears would sing
against a white stone...

Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly 'way up high.
It went away I'm sure because it wished to
kiss the world goodbye.

For seven weeks I've lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto
But I have found my people here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut candles in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.

That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don't live in here,
In the ghetto.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

you were very proximal with your grandfather, yes?

Opening shot: close up on amber. Gradually, as the camera moves, we see that there's something in the amber. It's a cricket, or a grasshopper. This bit of amber, from a necklace Augustine wore (in the film version of the story) and presumably gave to Safran, was the first thing--or so it is implied--that Jonathan collected. He took it from the bedside table by his grandfather's deathbed.

The thing about a bug in amber--and it's an ant in the book, not a cricket or grasshopper or whatever insect that is from the order Orthoptera--is that it is like time standing still, a remnant of the past.

(And, if Hollywood (or Michael Crichton, anyway) can be believed, we can get dinosaurs out of them.)

I assumed until I saw a couple people online calling is a cricket that the insect in amber in the movie was a grasshopper. Considering Grandfather's attention, a few times, to the moon, I appreciated the grasshopper's link to the wax and wane of the moon via Japanese tradition. whats-your-sign.com says, that as a Chinese symbol, the grasshopper "offers attributes of longevity, happiness, good health, good luck, wealth, abundance, fertility and virtue. In fact, grasshoppers were thought to be fertility symbols..." The grasshopper here is, of course, long dead. The second grasshopper in the film is not even real--it's on a billboard outside Odessa.

The third is alive and well (though Jonathan putting it in a ziploc bag will probably kill it) when Jonathan retrieves it outside Lista's house. Getting back to the Chinese tradition, "it was believed that grasshoppers embodied the personalities of family members who were deceased." This seems appropriate as it works in Everything Is Illuminated; the grasshopper in amber is Jonathan's link to his grandfather, with whom he was proximal.

(And, I have not even mentioned the way Alex uses words that are just slightly wrong, like proximal for close... And, as I typed that, Alex asked the title question above. Nice timing.)

That bit of amber is not just frozen in time for the grasshopper but also, maybe Jonathan. We do not learn, really, why he collects things, why he is the antisocial vegetarian that he is. As it is implied that the amber was the first thing he collected, maybe his growth has been stunted ever since. His emotional growth.

Grasshoppers... or better yet, crickets--they also make a lot of noise. They let you know when they are around. If this story does anything, it offers a voice to Trachimbrod... the fictional Trachimbrod. The ones who were killed. This, then, metaphorically offers voice to all those who were killed in the Holocaust, all those lined up and gunned down simply for being Jews.

Truchenbrod and Lozisht are two towns adjacent to each, a joint community, other near the border of Ukraine and Poland. While part of Poland, Truchenbrod was known as Zofjowka (in the film, it is said that Trachimbrod was also known as Sofiowka), Lozisht as Ignatowka. Truchenbrod was founded in 1835... I've seen descriptions of the origins of the town from Foer's book, and it sounds much more interesting than Jews settling onto land given them by a Russian noble family--something involving the wagon of a man named Trachim getting him stuck in a river--the Brod--and I think there's a baby he finds there, something about a baby.

(The wagon in the river, and the baby floating to the surface and surviving (I just looked up some details) are echoed in the novel by the drowning of the Trachimbroders and Grandfather floating to the surface and surviving. The film changes the Trachimbroders' deaths to being lined up and shot, not as easy to echo later.)

Anyway, the real community was not destroyed by Nazis. Instead, while there were around 2300 in Zofjowka and 900 in Igantowka when World War II began, Jewish refugees from occupied Poland settled there and those numbers rose to 3500 and 1200, respectively. (This history stuff is from Beit Tal, by the way.) So, the reality is almost the opposite of the story, here. Instead of being a place of slaughter and death, Truchenbrod was a place of refuge.

That is not the point, of course.

This story is not about Truchenbrod any more than it is about Trachimbrod. The strange history of Trachimbrod that Jonathan (mostly) invents in the novel would probably be a distraction in the film and was (perhaps) appropriately cut (much as the Dresden backstory was cut from the film version of Foer's second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close).

As the scene outside Lista's arrives now, I realize the insect must be a cricket, not a grasshopper. There are distinct cricket noises in the soundtrack.

Universe of Symbolism tells us, the cricket's "rhythmic tune" is "symbolic of vibration, of going higher and higher in vibrational states of awareness and presence." The film quite deliberately changes its tone as it goes; a culture-clash comedy of sorts as it begins, it becomes something quite serious. It's vibration changes. Universe of Symbolism continues: "With the escalating vibrations and attunement to the Cosmos, the Cricket begins to announce to the universe and all who can hear it's [sic] heart felt desire... what is in essence 'cosmic ordering'." That is what the film ends up being about, if not the novel--about a new sense of order that comes from knowing. The past is the past; Alex is not wrong about that. But, knowledge of the past affects the present, affects the future. It reshapes the world and the people in it. That Alex can so readily embrace being a Jew that he wears a yarmulka to Grandfather's funeral speaks to this. That Jonathan seems ready to share his collected dirt with his grandfather does, as well. The voice of the past shapes the present.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

along the side of your life

It's strange that Jonathan Safran Foer (Elijah Wood) is almost a cypher in his own story. He drives the plot, sure but he is not really changed by anything here... well, not very much. There is, arguably a change in that at the end of the film he not only makes a bag for someone else (Grandfather) but also empties his own bag of dirt from Trachimbrod onto his own grandfather's grave. (We don't actually see this happen, but the film cuts from the dirt in Jonathan's hand to dirt in Alex's hand at Grandfather's funeral, implying that Jonathan will let that dirt go.) He changes enough to give up an item from his collection to connect these two men. (To be fair, we have no particular reason other than presumption to think he has not given up an item before.)

The emotional beats in the story belong to Alex (Eugene Hutz) and Grandfather (Boris Leskin) and Lista (Laryssa Lauret).

(Considering one of the deleted scenes, in which it seems that Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior (the dog) is attracted to Jonathan, maybe there would have been room for an emotional beat for the dog if things had been a little different. As it is, Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior does purposely lie at Jonathan's door and then in his bed when they spend the night in the city.)

They don't belong to Jonathan. He is an empty vessel. Storywise, and also character-wise; his need to collection items linked to his family, to bag them and catalog them--there has got to be a hole he is trying to fill, as the common parlance goes. Other than this need, he is little more than a string of punchlines and guesses, much like Alex. but, Alex is more expressive, and Alex has the emotional link to the ending of the story. SPOILERS ahead. Alex is the one who has lost his grandfather to suicide. Jonathan might as well be Kevin, Elijah Wood's character in Sin City, as inexpressive as he is most of the time. Also, he's got those glasses. Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, calls the "oversized eyeglasses so thick they make his eyes huge" a "distraction."

But, like Kevin's glasses, Jonathan's make him who he is for us. His eyes are big because he is on the "rigid search"--he is looking for something. But, his prescription is so strong because he really cannot see it. Not on his own, anyway. In fact, the moment it really becomes clear that Lista will be useful, that she really knew Safran and Augustine, she removes Jonathan's glasses so he looks more like his grandfather. As "Illumination" starts to arrive, he is without those lenses.

(He does have an inner life. In the deleted scenes, he imagines getting awards for his collection. Still, he barely smiles.)

From the start, Alex is clearly trying to figure out Jonathan. He is concerned about the history he is only learning now--that Ukrainians may have been anti-Semitic before the war, for example--after he may have been doing these "heritage tours" with Grandfather before. Maybe not. He is 21 and Grandfather hasn't done these tours since Grandmother died two years earlier. But, Father has. Alex specifically references these tour as the reason he "had the opinion Jewish people were having shit between their brains"--he just doesn't understand why they would leave America to "vacation" in Ukraine.

(Alex's big deleted scene involves more bragging about how great he is after the "premium dancer" bit. Like the other deleted scenes I've mentioned above, I think the film is better off without this flight of fancy.)

Though this began as the real Jonathan Safran Foer's fictionalization of the "rigid search" he might have gone on, the history he might have found, in this story--the film version especially--Foer is just a vehicle for the audience to come into these other people's lives. Alex's life. Grandfather's life. Lista's Life. Even Augustine's and Safran's.

This is not about Jonathan's life. His presence is incidental at best.

I wish I had read the novel--there's more of Jonathan in an invented narrative of the history of Trachimbrod and letters back and forth between he and Alex (or so I've heard)--because Jonathan might be less of a cypher. Still, there's something of a discovery about self for Jonathan, even if he doesn't express much of a response to it, and there is certainly a discovery about self for Grandfather and for Alex. Alex tells us that he "was of the opinion that the past is past and like all that is not now, it should remain buried along the side of our memories." He doesn't think about the past. Grandfather even more deliberately does not think about the past. He erased his past when he removed his coat with the yellow star. Returning to it is something he probably would not have even done if not for the depression that followed the death of his wife... when, he began to wear dark glasses and claim he was blind.

Now he sees.

Now he is.

And, thought he kills himself, I don't think we are meant to see it as a negative thing. He is at peace. He finally got to be himself again after half a century of living a lie, and he was, I suppose, ready to go.

Monday, July 27, 2015

it does not exist for you

Where was I?

Adorno, perhaps. This: "writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric."

Which isn't what he said. Not really. Brian Oard, in his Mindful Pleasures blog, points out that this quotation is "always taken out of context and rarely footnoted." Hell, I quoted it indirectly from a study guide that has no clear author and which did not identify the specific source for the quotation. Fortunately, Adorno is well enough known among those who know him--he's come up, for me, in my undergraduate history program and my graduate communication program--so a quick google search and I've found more specific reference. The line is from a 1949 essay, "Cultural Criticism and Society." In a bit more context (from an English translation of the collection Prisms):

The more total society becomes, the greater the reification of the mind and the more paradoxical its effort to escape reification on its own. Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. Critical intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation. (p. 34)

Dense stuff, sometimes, Adorno. But, it should be clear, at least, that he is not actually suggesting that we cannot write "poetry" after Auschwitz, or that we should not. In "Barbarism: Notes on the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno," Anna-Verena Nosthoff argues, "the aforementioned dictum was not a verdict intended to silence poets or artists." In fact, she says, he

calls for arts and culture to respond from within and in the face of an inescapable aporetic condition. Namely, to write poetry after Auschwitz means to write from within a differend--a radical chasm between the signifier and the signified that one neither ought nor could overcome via writing or aesthetic means in general. Yet, poetry (and also art and thinking, per se) as a form of active engagement with sociopolitical realities, has to respond to the ungraspable (i.e., the Holocaust); it cannot simply avoid doing so. It permanently has to speak whilst knowing that it will never reach the addressee; that it must fail in speaking.

Still pretty dense. Sorry.

Foer doesn't shy away from writing about these "ungraspable" subjects. His next novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close deals not only with the bombing of Dresden but also the World Trade Center attack of September 11, 2001. The point is not that "poetry" is impossible in the face of such things but that poetry is fundamentally redefined by these things, just as a person must be. For example, here in the movie version of Everything Is Illuminated, Lista (Laryssa Lauret), the woman Jonathan (Elijah Wood) finds at Trachimbrod remains the sister of Augustine, who saved Jonathan's grandfather. Sure, she doesn't seem to know that the War ended decades ago (and she has never been in--and refused to ride in--a car), but otherwise, she seems lonely and strange only in her isolation. While I have not read Everything Is Illuminated--

(I had trouble dealing with Alex's narration when I tried reading this book after I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and then got distracted away from it by some reading or another that I had to do for school.)

--I have read in a couple sources that Lista may actually be Augustine, just having gone a little crazy over the years, or perhaps years ago. One of the last things she does in the book is mention the baby she has to take care of. The only baby figuring in the story so far is the one with which Augustine was pregnant, the one that was shot by a German soldier. The movie plays as if Lista an Augustine both existed before, and there is little reason to doubt what Lista says. The book, I guess, plays it differently. Grandfather (Boris Leskin) turns out to be someone other than the man he has been since the war. And, Jonathan is decidedly not the real Jonathan Safran Foer.

People are transformed in relation to the Holocaust, to any of these "ungraspable" events. But, people must keep going, changed but continuing. Similarly, "poetry" must keep going, changed but continuing. Sometimes, one can find the most pain or the most joy in poetry, in prose, on film, on television. The layer of reality that separates the words or the images from the three-dimensional reality around us does not detach us from the strong feelings, the horror or the fantastical joy, but rather offers us a cushion that makes it easier for us to take in that which might otherwise overwhelm us. Something I have always loved about movies is not the escape aspect--I know that is often cited--but the intense gravity of a great film (like a great novel or a well-constructed television series or a sublime poem) that pulls me in. Whether I can identify with a specific character or not, I find myself in the scenes, with the characters. It is not an escape from my own life but an enriching of it. I am adding this experience, these people, these settings, these scenes, to what my life already is. Each film becomes a part of me (and, maybe, I of it).

Oard quotes from another Adorno piece--Negative Dialectics--a bit that seems quite relevant here in relation to Grandfather or Lista...

Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living--

If you really think about the most horrendous things done there, or in other concentration camps, or elsewhere throughout the war, or in the years since, the years before, if you really think about the worst things of which we humans are capable, it does seem a question worth answering (not that I am in any way suggesting that there is not an answer): how can you go on living?

Back to Adorno:

--especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed [like Grandfather or Lista], may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there would have been no Auschwitz; this is the drastic guilt of him who was spared. By way of atonement he will be plagued by dreams such as that he is no longer living at all, that he was sent to the ovens in 1944 and his whole existence since has been imaginary, an emanation of the insane wish of a man killed twenty years earlier. (pp. 362-363)

If one is in fact imaginary, like Grandfather or Lista, merely products of Jonathan Safran Foer's pen, how much harder must it be to go on living?

Sunday, July 26, 2015

sometimes, i'm afraid i'll forget

The thing about Everything Is Illuminated is it suggests--at the same time, mind you--that it's never too late to get over your past and your past will always catch up to you. If The Grey was purgatory, this is somehow both heaven and hell... or maybe just another form of purgatory... or maybe just life.

The movie returns us to the idea that life is just stories, the what we choose to remember--how we choose to remember it--matters more than the reality. Stories change over time. So do memories. Each return of a memory is affected by the previous one--that was a detail in the latest Pixar movie, Inside Out that I rather liked, in fact; positive memories turn negative, joy turns sad... and vice versa, I suppose. Bittersweet is introduced.

Everything Is Illuminated is based on Jonathan Safran Foer's first published novel. It is, of course, about a young man named Jonathan Safran Foer going to the Ukraine in search of family history, specifically, the woman in a photo with his dead grandfather. The real Foer did travel to the Ukraine to find a woman in a photo. But, in reality, Foer never found the shtetl of Trachimbrod, nor the woman in the photo. He wrote the fictional version, in which--SPOILERS--he does find Trachimbrod and the woman in the photo, reportedly in two-and-a-half weeks, then edited it for two-and-a-half years.

(My first novel, which is really not very good, was written in one month... I considered turning a piece of my life into a novel once, taking the failed relationship that had me living in a trailer in Arkansas and injecting it into a metaphorical story involving ghosts. It was called Furnished Apartment. Because I felt it wrong to adhere too closely to reality, I traded certain personality traits between me and the Miranda, the woman I was living with in Arkansas. But, these personality traits ended up bogging down the narrative almost immediately, and I never got very far. It is one of several unfinished stories I have.)

In a study guide for the book, it discusses "the arts and the Holocaust." Everything Is Illuminated deals not just in the leftovers but in events within the Holocaust. That study guide says, "Many writers and critics believe that writing is a key way to preserve our collective memory of the horrors of the Holocaust so that it is remembered but never repeated." I would go further--not in the direction of the Holocaust, but in the direction of writing to remember. I look at old pieces I have written--lately, blog entries from the first year of this blog, early entries nearly two years ago now--and I can remember, sort of, being there, writing that. But, I also cannot, and it serves as a window into a specific time and place, words as memory. That study guide quotes "German philosopher Theodor Adorno [who] claimed that 'writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.'" It continues:

The fear he articulates is twofold. First, to the extent that art is inherently beautiful, high art can be perceived somehow to justify or valorize the horror. Second, to the extent that art is cathartic, effective art might "cure" the sadness and remorse in a way that formalized and purges our memory rather than keeping it active.

I'll get to Adorno in a moment [no I won't], but first the study guide. I know that there are those who might make the arguments here, but I see it like this: if you think that art can only beautiful, or rather that only beautiful things can be art, your view is a little flawed, at least on a literal level. Some very ugly things can be art... and then, I supposed, become beautiful, but the phrasing here implies that something must be beautiful to be art, not that something is beautiful because it is art. I disagree. For example, one of my favorite paintings is Pablo Picasso's "Guernica."

I would not call it inherently beautiful. In fact, the ugliness of it, the misshapen forms and just as misshapen empty spaces is quite deliberate--enough has been written on "Guernica" that I will not bother getting into much detail. I would probably just say something stupid. My point is, the painting evokes the ugliness of the bombing of the Spanish village of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.

I like horror films. I even like some of the so-called torture porn films. The Saw series, for example, has at its heart a story that can be found in many other films, about the value of life, about fighting to survive (much like The Grey), about figuring out who you really are when trapped (not unlike Groundhog Day). Some very ugly images on screen can point the way to beautiful ideas. This does not (necessarily) valorize the content, the violence. Now, there are films that do valorize and glamorize violence and gore and take things too far--

No, not too far. I would never suggest that art needs boundaries as such. But, some films, some stories take things so far that it is hard to discover meaning any longer. Take my review of A Serbian Film a few years back. That is a difficult film from which to take meaning. But sometimes, the meaning you can take might have nothing to do with the content of the film or the novel or the poem or the painting, but rather in you, in the people around you, in the time and place where the particular piece of art was created. (I spent this past January, for example, dealing with action movies from the 1980s as markers of that specific time, and a specific place: late-Cold War America.)

That art is cathartic, that it may be barbaric to make art after real-life horror... that will have to wait until tomorrow.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

i have reflected many times

The weekend that Everything Is Illuminated was released was apparently in the midst of a dry spell for movie viewing for me. Serenity would be out two weeks later, Good Night, and Good Luck the week after that. The Constant Gardener was two weeks earlier. Everything Is Illuminated was #45 at the box office its opening weekend but, to be fair, it was only on 6 screens. And, I didn't even see it in the theater. I watched it on DVD months later.

The 40-Year-Old-Virgin was #4 in its 5th weekend. I would see it on DVD. The Constant Gardener was #7. I had seen it a couple weekends earlier. Red Eye was #8. Saw that one its opening weekend, four weeks earlier. Wedding Crashers was #9. I would see that on DVD. Same with March of the Penguins at #10, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at #16, The Skeleton Key at #18 (hated that movie), and Broken Flowers at #19. Batman Begins was #25 in its 14th weekend. Saw that one opening weekend. More that I wouldn't see until DVD: Fantastic Four at #26, Madagascar at #28, Junebug at #29, The Aristocrats at #30, Mr. & Mrs. Smith at #33, Proof at #35... or did I never end up seeing that one? I know I read the play. Grizzly Man at #36, War of the Worlds at #38, 2046 at #40. Not that I need to get beyond the top 40, but Revenge of the Sith was still in theaters, #41. And, #42 was a great little movie called Thumbsucker.

Everything Is Illuminated is all about looking at the past. It is also very much about objects. It is about time and place. I was curious about the time--September 2005--so I googled it. Hurricane Katrina had just happened. There was apparently a blackout in Los Angeles. Don't remember that.

On TV, Prison Break had just started its first season, as had Rome and Supernatural. I wouldn't get into the latter until midway through that first season. How I Met Your Mother was about to start its first season, but I wouldn't get into that show for another two years or so. House had just started its second seasonBoston Legal was about to begin its second season, as was Veronica Mars. Lost was about to begin its second season. Other shows that were trying to grab that same audience--Threshold, Invasion and Surface (the latter, I never watched) were about to premiere. (Threshold premiered that Friday night, in fact--the 16th. Arrested Development was about to begin its third season.

My LEGO collection had gained several Viking sets that summer. I hadn't gone back to school yet. I was a stay-at-home dad.

Like many a time I have come upon this movie in the past, I find myself just sitting and watching.

I will try to say more about the movie itself tomorrow.

half the things i've done

I was reading a thing about The Grey and depression and was thinking of writing about that... Hell, yesterday, I implied that I felt worthless, though really I was referring to the possibility of feeling like that again. Today, this day, I don't feel worthless. But, I have. And, I don't want to feel that way ever again.

But...

I get to this bit about retrieving the wallets, "so they will not be forgotten. It is commonly said that men carry their whole lives in their wallets, but it's literal in this case; a man's whole identity and life in their pants pocket which is a sad, but realistically true." And, I think about my wallet when I should be thinking about my final thoughts on The Grey.

It's brown leather. It's texture is a little weird because this past Sunday it got rather wet when we went to Knott's Berry Farm and it poured down rain on us. We even went on the log ride in the rain. We were soaked. But, still, we stopped at an ice cream place on the way to the parking lot, got in out of the rain and had a treat.

It's falling apart. The section with pockets for credit cards on whatnot on the right is detached at the top from the back of the wallet and the lining on the part where you put cash is also detached. I need to get aa bunch of new clothes before the fall quarter. I also need a new wallet.

I've got $40 cash right now. Figured I'd need some for a play I went to tonight directed and choreographed by a friend of mine, and of parking tomorrow at the Pantages, and because, you know, life needs cash sometimes still. We haven't all upgraded to credit cards and apple pay. I've also got a folded and deteriorating "reward gift" from Costco in there--$15.69 in value except I think my Costco membership may have expired again. That I am not sure is kind of the point, though. In that money section, I've got a copy of my car insurance card (and there was a copy of the recently expired insurance card as well, which I will now throw away). Also, a ticket stub for About Time from November 2013, a theater in Burbank that I used to frequent all the time but now I don't get to as much; I've come to favor a theater here in Glendale even though it doesn't have as a good a matinee price. Also, photos, bent at the edges and stuck together. Three photos, one of each of my kids, and a fourth, family photo. We've all got red shirts; it was our one attempt at Christmas photos.

Break down the cards.

On the right: a Starbucks gift card given to me last year when I subbed for a fellow TA. The initial money was spent probably within a week. But, the Starbucks on campus won't scan the Starbucks app for my payment so I keep the card around. Behind that, my AAA card, which recently helped my get my car off the side of the highway. My Barnes & Noble membership card, though I only ever buy anything at Barnes & Noble anymore if I've got a good coupon. My AMC Stubs card, even though AMC is the theater I don't frequent as much anymore. A Staples Ink & Toner card that I didn't even know was in there. My Ralphs Rewards card--in case you're reading this in another state or another country, Ralphs is a grocery store. Finally, my LEGO VIP card, which gets me points at the LEGO Store; conveniently we've got one here in Glendale. I haven't built nearly enough with LEGO blocks this summer. I was going to make a Western town while I was watching Westerns last month but I never really made the time to even get one building finished.

On the left: my debit card, which expires next week. Behind that, my new debit card, which I haven't activated yet. Behind that, my Target Redcard--only credit card I carry in my wallet for some reason. In a separate leather thing that can be pulled out when I don't feel like carrying my entire wallet, I've got three campus IDs--my faculty ID for CalState Los Angeles, my student ID for CalState Los Angeles and my student ID for Glendale Community College. I haven't needed the latter for a couple years now. Also in that pull out section: my driver license--only just realized it says driver, singular, not possessive--and my social security card.

Behind that left bit with the pockets: my defensive driver training card. I don't think the physical card really matters, but without the defensive driver training course I wouldn't be allowed to drive for away trips with the speech team. Behind that, my My Juice It Up! card. Being a vegetarian, Juice It Up! is about the only place I can get sustenance on campus. Some of the food trucks we have sometimes have stuff I can eat, but the food court? not so much. Behind that: my old (last Winter quarter) human resources card proving I'm faculty which I've got just so I could get the cheaper faculty parking pass (for last Winter quarter; I'm going to throw that away now, too).

That's my life measured by my wallet. It shows that I'm a father. It shows that I'm a teacher. It shows that I like LEGO blocks and movies and Starbucks. It shows that I don't always keep up with everything--expired cards, a Costco reward but not even my Costco membership card. I almost wish that I had one of my Groundhog Day Project business cards in there so it would capture all the important elements of me. Maybe some sort of atheist membership card, or something that identifies me as a bleeding heart liberal, and something to do with tabletop games (to be fair on that last one, i tend to combine my Barnes & Noble membership discount with coupons only to buy games; everything else is usually cheaper online).

There would still be nothing of the twelve (I could have sworn it was 13 but I cannot come up with that many titles) novels I have completed, the six feature-length screenplays I've written, the shorter scripts, the one short play, the short stories, the poetry... I just wandered over to my school bag to find a business card. Couldn't find any of the Groundhog Day Project ones; maybe I'm out of them. But, my lemming drops studio card refers to me as "writer, artist, ideologue." I think I'll put one of those in my wallet.

(As Henrick leaps off a cliff, I just gotta add a note regarding Into the Wild instead of The Grey. That movie shows Chris McCandless destroying his ID and whatnot, leaving his wallet behind, burning his cash. In reality, he had his wallet and ID with him when he died. He did not so much leave his real identity behind as ignore it for a while.)

My life encapsulated in a leather shell, falling apart, worn and tired.

My life in some plastic and paper.

My life.

...

The movie has a bit more to go, but I will leave it alone, let it run and just watch the rest. Tomorrow, another movie. A week from tomorrow Groundhog Day. After that...

Friday, July 24, 2015

live and die on this day

That ^ is a line Phil Connors could appreciate.

It’s a line that invokes both timelessness and the temporality of life. You are born. You live. You die. The rest is details.

I made the mistake of a google search just now. I was on my phone just to check if anyone had a screencap of the IV drip from the end of The Grey—no one seemed to. If I remember, I will get the image after the movie is over by sticking the DVD in the computer...

Voila!

(If there’s just a big white box or a blank space with a red X or whatever, that means I was too tired at the end of the movie to remember. Sorry.)

(If there’s a photo, that is because I am committed to doing this right and, damn the tiredness, I will have the image I want.)

I will explain the mistake in a moment. First, this:

I had been leaning the other way the last few days, wanting to continue this blog past this month, coming up with a way to free up what I’m doing but still have... something here every day, a movie every day. Then, tonight, listening to Wil Wheaton’s Radio Free Burrito podcast, I got to thinking about how nice it would be to get to sleep at a reasonable hour, or to write some fiction again instead of this, or to spend more time with my kids—I mean, yeah, they watch some of these movies with me but not every day when the movies repeat.

I would like to do something new. I don’t know if I’m ready for that yet. A podcast, a YouTube thing... I don’t know what all is involved. (The YouTube thing, I could get into without much prep, but then there’s the matter of filming... whatever it is, making it look good, look professional (or deliberately unprofessional). A quotation occurs to me. I recently came upon the following because of a regular respondent (and former bit of content) to this blog, Maolsheachlann. I’m sure he will reply below because he loves Chesterton (and recently called the following quotation “the single Chesterton quotation that stands out to [him] more than any other.” Anyway, this seems to be from a piece called What’s Wrong with the World:

The principle is this: that in everything worth having, even in every pleasure, there is a point of pain or tedium that must be survived, so that the pleasure may revive and endure. The joy of battle comes after the first fear of death; the joy of reading Virgil comes after the bore of learning him; the glow of the sea-bather comes after the icy shock of the sea bath; and the success of the marriage comes after the failure of the honeymoon. All human vows, laws, and contracts are so many ways of surviving with success this breaking point, this instant of potential surrender.

There comes a time in any task, whether it was tedious to begin with or the most enjoyable thing around, that you might just grow tired. It isn’t that you want to quit. It isn’t that you need to be finished. It’s something... else. I find myself in an in-between stage, on the brink of finishing something, or on the verge of repeating it. A liminal space. A grey space. Purgatory.

The mistake above, by the way, was checking of other people’s theories about The Grey being about purgatory. Taking, three different individual’s takes on this topic—Ryan Pratt in a blog, stanfan114 on reddit, a handful of users at eBaum’s World—there is a similarity that differs from my take. They assume that Ottway killed himself at the start of the film. Bleak voiceover of his letter to his (presumably) dead wife, gets a drink at the bar, goes outside, puts the gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger. The rest of the film is what follows that suicide. Ottway is in purgatory, earning his way, perhaps, to something better.

That his letter just showed up, almost by chance, as he and the others are about to leave the crash scene would fit this theory. He needs to be reminded of his suicide, of his failure before God. He needs to prove that he values life, I guess.

But, then there’s this: I don’t think Ottway killed himself. He also doesn’t die at the end of the film. He was dead before the film even began. Like the Oscar-nominated short film, Fifty Percent Grey—awake to the afterlife.

I latched onto one particular detail in the film to get to this theory

(And, I generally hate fan theories. But, I’ve got to keep writing because I think I’ve got the notion in my head that I need to decide the future right now, that decisions must be made even though I’ve still got another week. The idea of being... free? Versus the notion that if I stop blogging I might not feel so much like I’ve got my shit together. We’re still waiting on divorce papers to get processed. My kids (and I) have psychological and emotional hurdles to deal with. And the fall quarter/semester is coming for us all. I’ve got my thesis to write,(and the coding bit of that is getting in the way of some straight research for what I see as “chapters” two and three of my thesis—some fairly straightforward research-paper-style material) and time keeps seeming too short. Each day seems shorter than the one before. Well, not literally, but also, sort of literally. As I get older, each day is a smaller percentage of my life than the one before it was. Each day is relatively, if not literally, shorter.

So, I get it in my head that I must keep writing, keep the words coming so that I—the person I am right now, even if I’m still not doing everything quite right—can keep going. I get it in my head that I have decided that I am a blogger. AM, present tense. It is an identifying marker, and one that I think I’m pretty good at being. Maybe I never got a huge audience, but does any blog these days? (Especially any blog that will get so damn wordy as this?)

In the film just now, Ottway admitted he was afraid, and accused Diaz of being so. I think I might be afraid that if I stop doing this blog, I won’t know what to do.

And, that’s a fucked up way to think about anything one does in life, really. It’s a perspective I’ve argued against before. Who I am, who you are—there is no permanence to it. Cells are replaced every—what? five years, or something. Or the atoms of our bodies are, anyway. We quite literally are not the same people we have been as time passes. Get into the psyche and there’s a whole other level to it. You are not the same person you were yesterday. I am not the same person I was the day before. The wolves of time come at us and we keep going, keep becoming. Future me is probably going to quote this in his Master’s Thesis, so I should try to word this just right. Or maybe I should just say it as it comes to me. Identity is never solid, always fluid. As Sam tells his father in Life as a House, “I am what I say I am.” I am a father. I am a teacher. I am a coach. I am a blogger (for now). But, more than any of those things, or maybe wrapped so tightly in all of those things that the definitions are inseparable, I am simply me.)

—the IV drip.

That was a long parenthetical, and I don’t want you to have to scroll back up to remember what I was saying. I was saying that I latched onto one particular detail in the film to get to my theory that the entire film (not just after Ottway’s suicide) is set in purgatory. That detail is the IV drip. See, Ottway keeps flashing back on two things—his father and that poem of his, and his wife in bed (presumably) dying. She tells him, “Don’t be afraid.” Yet we assume that she is the one dying. Sure, in his letter, he says, “You left me and I can’t get you back.” But, imagine that Ottway is dead, maybe he’s in a situation like Malcolm Crowe in The Sixth Sense, doesn’t realize it. The shot at the end, a revelation for us maybe, but maybe a revelation for Ottway, realizing where he is, realizing that none of these wolves are real, none of these men are real (or maybe they’re going through their own purgatory alongside him)—we cut back from Ottway’s wife in the bed to a shot that includes the IV drip. Thing is, we cannot see that it is linked to her. In fact, it is on the the near side of the bed, where Ottway would have been lying for the POV shots. The IV, one could assume, was not hooked to Ottway’s wife at all, but rather Ottway. He died, and he died from disease of some sort. He died slow. He died painful. And he left his wife behind, alone. She told him not to be afraid because he was facing death, not because he was facing loneliness. And, he probably feels guilty because he left her alone, because his suffering made her suffer. He was supposed to be her husband and death did them part, as it were. Fighting the wolves, surviving this manly adventure—that offers him something better than the slow death he surely experienced.

(And, I could use some great adventure to replace this daily grind... and I don’t choose the word grind to imply that it is tedious, or that it is more work than the effort is worth. But, it is a grind, the gears of life day in and day out, the gears of watching these movies day in and day out, the gears of feeling like I’m not worth much...

And, sometimes, a single sentence can strain those gears near to breaking.

I shouldn’t need this outlet to get by. But, I think I still do.

It’s an extra purpose to every day, this blog. I’ve got my kids. I’ve got my students. And, I’ve got my movies. I’ve got my words. My words fuel my being. My self continues as long as I have something to say... Rather, my self continues as long as I have something to say and I say it.)

So, then, I gotta wonder... Ottway makes it to heaven after this, right? I mean, the cross made of wallets, the baptism in the river where Henrick dies, and “the last good fight” he’ll ever know. The one that comes after he dies.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

probably thought it rounded him off

Ottway's father's poem is so simple as to not quite ring true, though it's understandable that a man's man like John Ottway would appreciate it. It's like the epitome of some simplistic, stereotypical version of masculinity...

Once more into the fray...
Into the last good fight I'll ever know.
Live and die on this day...
Live and die on this day...

In the commentary track, director Carnahan keeps coming back to masculinity, how Hollywood's sense of what it is to be a man has gone wrong. He's never particularly specific, though. Does he think that these men, who are (eventually) able to talk about their feelings and their fears and their love--of course, Ottway never talks about his wife with these men, only his father--are real men? Is he suggesting that the usual macho men of action movies are the wrong version?

What kind of men are these men?

In an interview with Screen Rant, Liam Neeson talks about men and emotions. He says:

I don't think for this generation, but for my generation [Neeson was 59 at the time], and my father's generation, men had difficulty in accessing emotion and then being able to talk about it. I think [the movie] certainly touches on that, and these guys, these characters in this film, find it very, very hard to relate to themselves and to one another. Which is one of the nice things about the film, that they do, in a way, they do share in a very primitive, basic way.

Keep in mind, these characters don't even have first names until nearly the end of the film, and then only the last three survivors.

(What does it mean that two of them are named John and one Peter, biblical names, New Testament names? We don't normally think of Jesus and his disciples and the founder of Christianity as manly men. Important men, sure. But not manly men. Nevermind Elder Cunningham's notion about Jesus manning up; these are men for whom one of their great iconic representations is them sitting around having dinner.

But, these names do link these men to the Bible, to Jesus, to God. God is an important part of this film; Talget's faith vs. Ottway's atheism; Diaz basking in the beauty of the natural world vs. Ottway's rejecting that beauty to trudge on, effectively until he dies. Hell, Lewenden dies from a wound to his side. References to religion, or at least the debate over whether there is or isn't a God, abound. I needn't bother with any official Christ-Figuring to figure out that Ottway is a Christ-Figure. Trust me on this one; I've done it a few times, wrote a paper on the subject, got a binder full of articles and essays on it. John Ottway is a Christ-Figure.)

These men are identified by family name, and they have been reduced to working, as Ottways describes it, jobs "at the end of the world." They are, again in Ottway's words, "Ex-cons, fugitives, drifters, assholes. Men unfit for mankind." Their given names don't matter because they don't matter. I watched the deleted scenes today before turning on the film, and there's an extended section at the campfire, with the men telling each other more stories, and more detailed versions of the stories they tell in the final film. It differentiates the men a bit more than the film, as is, does. It gives them more opportunity to be more distinct characters. But, they are not supposed to be distinct characters. They are group of men stuck together in this situation, and in the process of dealing with it, they are a pack.

Note: Flannery references two other films in passing in dialogue. When he first talks to Ottway on the plane, he asks him what the biggest game he's shot is, if he's shot a Kodiak bear. Then he references, quite negatively, Timothy Treadwell, Grizzly Man. Being out in nature, communing with the beasts of the wild (by choice or not, I suppose) is referenced in the negative.

(Subnote: Another deleted scene is an extended version of Ottway's suicide scene from the beginning of the film. Instead of a wolf howl distracting him from pulling the trigger, a polar bear approaches, and rises onto its hind legs. He turns his rifle on that bear (taking his duty to protect everyone else as more important than his own depression in that moment), they remain momentarily in a standoff, then the bear drops to all fours and leaves.

Nevermind the bit I will definitely get to below about Ottway being the alpha of this pack of men, he is here equated with a polar bear. This is a place he belongs. A killer is what he is.)

The other film that Flannery references is Alive, the true story of the Stella Maris College rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes. When they have no food, they end up eating parts of the deceased passengers. Flannery jokes about the cannibalism--"ass on a stick" I think he says--but the reference is still positive. Being a team, banding together to survive--that is positive.)

Reviewing the movie for the New York Times, A. O. Scott makes a notable (and, not unique, though I cite only his piece) literary comparison: The Grey, he says, is "a stripped-down, elemental tale of survival in brutal circumstances, as blunt and effective--and also, at times, as lyrical--as a tale by Jack London or Ernest Hemingway."

(And, just now in the film, the alpha was challenged offscreen and, as Ottway says, "the alpha put it down." Moments later, Ottways tells the men to make their "bang sticks" and Diaz challenges Ottway's authority. (I imagine that, as Diaz starts with "This is what it comes down to, this MacGyver bullshit," that challenging wolf on the other side of the hill started with "This is what it comes down to, this picking 'em off one by one bullshit.") Ottway puts that challenge down.)

London and Hemingway--two authors whose names come up in discussions of masculinity in literature all the time. And, London's name goes with wolves too. This movie makes for a sort of deconstruction of and reconstruction of masculinity, especially cinematic masculinity. Diaz' overkill of the wolf that comes into their camp is just one example of the deconstruction side of things. The extra stabs with the knife, the kicks, the beheading not much later--the other man stand and watch, are amused (and maybe a little horrified). The violence is as movie men do. Yet it comes after Ottway's admission that he is terrified. These moments balance each other out. Just as these men talking around the campfire balances out the violence we expect, but don't really get. It's important to realize that these men are on the run from the wolves. Their pack is smaller so they must flee. Even after they fashion their bang sticks, they use them almost immediately thereafter when the omega attacks Diaz. Then, they flee again.

(If there hasn't been enough SPOILing going on the last few days, the next bit will very much SPOIL events to come.)

Burke dies in the night, not killed by wolves. Talget dies from falling off their makeshift rope, not killed by wolves (though we do see them pulling him apart, that fall was fatal). Diaz chooses to be left behind and, though we can assume that the wolves get him (and indeed, just before the scene cuts away, you can briefly hear them approaching), we do not see him killed by the wolves. Henrick successfully gets away from the wolves, but gets stuck in the river and drowns, not killed by the wolves. The pack is thinned, but mostly not by the wolves. Most of the deaths do not come from the "plot" of the wolves coming after these men. Many die in the crash. Lewenden dies from his wounds therefrom. Only Hernandez and Flannery are actually killed by the wolves (and we don't see the former).

And, maybe Ottway.

At the end of the commentary, Carnahan says that post-credits scene doesn't answer any questions, so whether or not Ottway survives, whether or not the (other) alpha survives--that shot is not supposed to offer a clearcut answer. That the wolf is still breathing doesn't (necessarily) mean anything. That Ottway is still relatively upright doesn't (necessarily) mean anything.

Except for this:

Who cares what Carnahan says? The meaning we take from the film does not have to be intended. Inference does not have to follow implication. That the wolf is still breathing--I take this to extend the metaphor, the wolves as all of the things that can kill us, the things that make life difficult, the darkness of death that frightens us; this is still there; it can never die. That Ottway's head is visible, that he is sitting upright, leaning against the wolf suggests a sort of victory, even if he may die from his various wounds. This wolf on the ground, breathing hard--this echoes the scene early in the film (the last bit before the plane) in which Ottway puts his hand on the wolf he has just shot, as he feels its last breath. This echo is (presumably) intentional. The echo takes this shot beyond something that is just artistic, as Carnahan describes it. The echo means something. Carnahan specifically says in the commentary that he wanted that scene of the earlier wolf dying to be the very last thing before the plane (nevermind that this placement toys with the flow of time from scene to scene, since it happened before the suicide scene). That scene demonstrates Ottway's place where they work. He is there to kill the things that might kill these men. This is the same job he maintains to the end of the film (though with less success). Ottway is a Germanic name, meaning "one who is fortunate in battle." But, we see Ottway consistently being unfortunate in battle. He is the alpha of this pack and his men die around him one by one. Hell, Henrick dies in his arms, inches from the surface of the water. There is an inevitability to Ottway's isolation at the end of the film that rings quite true. You may die with loved ones around you, but you are still the only one dying. You are still very much alone... Ottway suggests something strange, that death slides over you, warm. It sounds almost comforting. I don't think that most of us buy that description.

And maybe it is the most atheist thing about this film that, regardless of his efforts, his sacrifice, Ottway cannot save any of the others.

Or maybe that doesn't matter. He has saved them time and time again on the job. Plus, assume he does live, that he survives his fight with the alpha and the rest of the wolves don't then kill him. He has those wallets, he grew to like if not really know those men. He can tell the tale of their last days. He can still serve a purpose for their families, even if he could not save them from death.

Besides, you cannot save anyone from death. Not really.

turn around and look at that

Commentary track--director Joe Carnahan with editors Roger Barton and Jason Hellmann. They're drinking scotch--"watching The Grey the way it should be." Me too.

Referencing Anne Openshaw who plays Ottway's wife (and who only says three words in the film), Carnahan says it's a lesson for filmmakers, tell your actors to shut the fuck up. Because with only three words she has a big presence in the story.

First wolf, the one Ottway shoots on the job, is CGI first then a practical effect, with a bellows for its lungs, with a guy blowing into a tube up its ass. Carnahan likes his swear words about as much as the characters in the film.

Joe Anderson, who plays Flannery, thought that Carnahan hated him and would fire him after his first day. Carnahan says Anderson is not the actor that he hated. The not so subtle implication being that he did hate one of the actors.

Obvious stuff, but worth mentioning: they like James Badge Dale for what he gave the film with such a small amount of screentime; he's Lewenden who dies just after the crash.

Took 72 takes to get the shot of the cold plane interior with the breath visible just right.

Carnahan: "If there's a better plane crash in a movie, I wanna see it... Only because these guys cut the shit out of it."

Liam in the snow just after the crash--about minus twenty degrees. The redness of his face is not makeup. Carnahan had boots rated for minus twenty-five and had to get rid of them because he was feeling the cold through them after fifteen minutes.

The editors make jokes about how cold it looks--because they edited from a studio in Los Angeles; they were nowhere near that cold.

Lewenden's last line--"Wait for me"--were Carnahan's great grandmother's last words.

They were never trying to capture wolf behaviour accurately, Carnahan says. They are supposed to be a force of nature. One of the editors says, very slowly: MET-A-PHOR.

Carnahan also says they never ate wolf meat.

Frank Grillo was cast first.

The wolves in the dark bit the night after the crash--initially, it was just the alpha there, but that didn't work. Jason Hellmann added the other eyes. Carnahan likes the idea that they are "spectral beings" there, eyes in the dark. As opposed to the full practical alpha that they had for shooting.

Carnahan doesn't mince words regarding PETA and the humane society complaining about the film; he says, "The myopic view of this film is that we were mean to wolves, which I think is absolute bullshit and nonsensical and absurd... I don't mind if you protest something. See it before you, you know--because it's those kind of attitudes, honestly, that got... books burned in Berlin in the late 30s."

Carnahan calls the blood in the wolfprint shot "as Spielbergian" as the film gets.

...

I find myself just listening. A lot of the commentary is expected stuff, talk about what it means to be a man, reference to a whole lot of dialogue that didn't survive the editing process. A lot of scenes overwritten, saved by great performances and editing. Carnahan sees the film as a thinly veiled art film, and says it never should have been #1 at the box office. The editors both disagree.

A lot of conversation on Diaz' last scene. The long take of them walking. The snow was all real. The editors couldn't add any "pace" to the scene and Carnahan shot it so it could breathe. It needed to breathe. This was Diaz sacrificing himself to give Ottway and Henrick a chance. The first names. A return to masculinity; Diaz' death is about his strength and resolve, not his weakness. And, Carnahan says, as the camera moves in closer behind Diaz, "this is most spiritual moment in the film."

"God helps those who help themselves." - Carnahan after Ottway gives up on God with "Fuck it, I'll do it myself."

The photos in the wallets are all real. Dermot Mulroney and his actual daughter, for example.

Ottway forms the wallets into a cross. There's no clean shot of that so I hadn't noticed. Also, with the last wallet, no family photos, Ottway closes his hands around it as if in prayer. This was Neeson's move, not something from the script or from Carnahan.

Finally--though I haven't talked about the end of the film yet--Carnahan, Barton and Hellmann all agree the film could end no other way. Anyone who was expected a fight between Ottway and the wolf after watching the rest of the film, Carnahan says... well, they missed the point.

That's the ending before the credits. Carnahan calls the post-credits shot "purely artistic." It doesn't answer any questions.

Monday, July 20, 2015

what about faith?

Honestly, though I'm a vegetarian or whatever, I don't much care, as PETA did, that the cast ate wolf stew to get into the mood for the film. Now, I don't know the status of wolves in Alaska currently, endangered or what have you. There was a bit of a controversy at the time, though. Liam Neeson, unlike his fellow cast members, went back for seconds. PETA complained: "Neeson's stance on kindness to animals is sorely out of step with the rest of the world." Out of step with PETA maybe. The rest of the world? Not so much. The rest of the world seems to be just fine with torturing animals to get some meat to eat.

A couple notes: the film was shot in Smithers, British Columbia. It is legal to trap and kill wolves in British Columbia (or was at the time; maybe that's changed. I don't know). Wolf stew (or the use of wolf carcasses in the film) was not illegal. I was going to point out that Liam Neeson also is not an American citizen (while PETA is an American organization) but apparently, he became a US citizen after his wife died (i.e. not long before this film was in production).

Dick McDiarmid, the trapper who sold four wolf carcasses to the production was "surprised that people would want to eat a wolf" according to The Examiner. "He also was surprised that the movie portrays a wolf pack relentlessly hunting a group of humans. That just doesn't happen in real life, he said."

National Geographic talked to Daniel MacNulty, a wildlife-ecology professor at Utah State University. In 16 years studying wolves at Yellowstone, he says, "I have never been approached by a wolf or wolf pack." Asked about Ottway's suggestion that the wolves "a) have a 300-mile hunting radius, b) will attack anything that comes near their den, and c) 'are the only animal that will seek revenge'" (To be fair, Ottway does not offer that last one.) MacNulty replied: "No. Nonsense, all of it." The omega testing the men's defenses is "pure fiction" according to MacNulty. And, finally, asked if the mini liquor bottles would give Ottway a chance against the alpha, MacNulty replied:

If I was lucky enough to encounter a large gray wolf in the wild, he would turn and run before I could tape the first bottle to my hand. Most people don't realize this, but wolves are wimps.

Except...

These aren't really wolves in The Grey. And, I don't mean because they used CGI and animatronics. I mean because within the context of the story, these just aren't wolves. Not really. These are something bigger, badder, meaner, something that plans and connives and comes at men and make them doubt. These are demons. You know, forget everything I said yesterday about this being an atheist film or whatever. This could be taken almost as readily as pro-faith. These men have been tempted to evil--Ottway tells us in voiceover that they are "ex-cons, fugitives, drifters, assholes, men unfit for mankind"--yanked out of regular, everyday, life. These are the dregs of us. They should be more readily beaten by these demons, more readily destroyed because they have already turned to darkness. So, as long as they keep fighting, it gives us hope. If they can manage against this satanic horde, we certainly can.

Even without God or demons or faith or what have you, there is this sense with The Grey not necessarily just of bleakness but something... else. These men keep going even when all is clearly lost. They walk away from a plane crash. They walk away (in increasingly small number) from wolf attack after wolf attack. They leap from, then dangle from, a rather high cliff. They keep going. This doesn't have to be taken as a story about the inevitability of death, but the inevitability of life. I've quote before, Hemingway's line: "Every man's life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another." The key to The Grey is not that they all (presumably even Ottway, but we'll cover that another day) die, but that they all keep living. Diaz (Frank Grillo), the only one who really gives up, only does so when every step hurts. Even then, he admires the view. "I feel like that's all for me," he tells Henrick (Dallas Roberts), "How do I beat that? When will it ever be better? I can't explain it. I don't have the words." The beauty of the natural world is enough for him just then, injured enough that the wolves will get him. With death before him, he chooses to see something more beautiful.

it's all fantasy

I was going to talk about wolf stew today. That will wait; I'll save it for later in the week when I've run out of things to say about The Grey.

Instead religion...

(There is a thing about wolf stew in relation to this film, by the way, a behind-the-scenes controversy. But...)

Religion...

(First, I spent today at Knott's Berry Farm. It started raining while we were there, and we still managed another couple rides. Point being, it has been a long day. But, I'm not particularly tired--it's well after 10pm as The Grey begins. Rather, I'm a little energized from treading old ground on Facebook. See, I used to debate politics on there all the time, long drawn out arguments with people I knew wouldn't be changed by what I said. But, I did it anyway. I like the idea of speaking up when you think something right. I don't do it enough these days... at least, on Facebook. I link to articles without comment, I offer brief posts about topics that matter far more than my wordcount might suggest. I don't rant and rave like I used to.

Well, that's not fair to this blog, is it?

I rant and rave here every day. It's not always political, not always "important" but I do have a place to put my words when I have them.

I don't expect it to change the world. Or even change any of you reading. But I do it anyway.

This blog is offered up for your entertainment, and maybe your enlightenment. But, ultimately, this blog is for me. (You got that, future, thesis-writing me?) I get to vomit out portions of my brain onto this (these) screen(s) and I get to use this space to (re)imagine my self, to (re)create my self.

But anyway, tonight, I got into a debate on Facebook. Just like old times, one of my old Facebook sparring partners. It was about...)

Religion.

The Grey offers up an easy metaphor for the struggle of life. The metaphorical wolves come for us all eventually, and no matter if we get along with our brothers (or sisters, though this film is quite masculine) or fight with them about what we should be doing, we will ultimately die anyway.

In the end, Ottway turns to God, demanding. "Do something," he says. "Do something." Then, he gets into a bit of profanity (the movie has a lot).

You phony prick fraudulent motherfucker. Do something! Come on! Prove it! Fuck faith! Earn it! Show me something real! I need it now, not later! Now! Show me and I'll believe in you until the day I die. I swear. I'm calling on you. I'm calling on you!

Then, he's got a nice "fuck you, Jobu, I'll do it myself" moment and he moves on, heads into his last fight (presumably, but that is a discussion for another day) alone. Without God.

Shane Morris, at Breakpoint (the website is subtitled "Changing Lives, Minds and Communities through Jesus Christ" since Breakpoint didn't make it obvious this is a Christian website), refers to this scene as "retread[ing] the standard atheist syllogism: God doesn't answer to my beck and call, therefore He doesn't exist (and I hate him)."

Minor nitpick: the film doesn't suggest that Ottway hates God. He just doesn't need him. Around the campfire, he tells the others, "I wish I could believe in that stuff. This is real--the cold. [Breathes out] That's real--the air in my lungs. Those bastards out there in the dark, stalking us... It's this world that I'm worried about, Talbot. Not the next." In the reality of the film, there are wolves stalking these men. Faith will not save them.

Major nitpick: this "standard atheist syllogism" has a point, and is far more complicated than "God doesn't answer my beck and call, therefore He doesn't exist..." It should be something more like "God doesn't offer up any evidence that He exists, therefore He doesn't exist." Or "God not only doesn't answer to my beck and call, but also answers no one else's, ever, and as far as evidence suggests, never has. There are no miracles, and everything can be explained without Him--in the future if not already--therefore He doesn't exist." Or "Life is full of chaos and pain and those who purport to speak for God and act on His teachings are responsible for much of it, if not (indirectly) all of it, therefore He doesn't exist." Or something else far less simplistic than "God doesn't answer my beck and call, therefore He doesn't exist."

Now, Ottway may come to his end without God, but he begins the film in a very dark place, on the verge of committing suicide. He is already without God. But, like pretty much any one of us, he would probably prefer a world in which there's a Creator and there is order and, though things may look bad--and, on cue, there, the remaining four men just came to the cliff--they can get better (in the next life if not this one).

(I've got to wonder, what point is these men's struggle with the wolves? Assume a world with God, with order, and there's got to be a point. Generally, I go for the idea that bad things are allowed to happen because good things have more value that way. But, these men die. And no one will ever know what they went through. They will be presumed to have died in the plane crash. The events after the crash will matter to no one at all...

Except us. This story is for us. This story's importance is only as a story. The events don't matter within the story. No one is saving the world. Hell, no one is saving anybody. This is a group of men struggling to survive and failing, as we will all eventually do. Morris tells us that "the real thrust of this story was about neither feisty critters nor foul language. It was atheism." Except this film is not telling us that there is no God. That is implicit. It might be telling us that He is ineffectual, that He cannot save us. But, the film no more insists that He does not exist any more than reality insists that He does.)

Fox Mulder poster aside, it would be nice to have religion, to have God. But Ottway doesn't. I don't.

Fortunately for me, my world is not so bad, not such a life and death struggle, not the "chaos and pain" referred to above. At least not currently.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

at the end of the world

Not everyone goes to Alaska to be free. Ottway (Liam Neeson) does go there to escape a painful life, though, which isn’t that much different from Chris McCandless. Not everyone goes to a movie to escape. I go to movies sometimes to identify with characters or plotlines, to feel great joy or great sadness when real life is offering the opposite or is offering nothing.

The Grey movie puts me in time and place. Two of them, actually. Well, same place, two times. Though this movie came out just before my wife and I separated, I didn’t see it until a few weeks later. Winter quarter is a busy time in forensics and there were speech tournaments almost every weekend for a while there. Hell, the day after I was out of the house, my birthday in fact, I was at a speech tournament. My dark mood made one of my interpretive pieces go very well, and my other stuff not so much.

The death of Lewenden (James Badge Dale) lets you know early on that this will be a painful film to watch. Death isn’t glossed over. It’s felt.

When I saw this movie a weekend or two after my wife and I separated, and I was sleeping on the floor of my sister’s apartment, I was just fine with feeling that pain. This movie appealed to me a lot. Two, three weeks later, I’d go see it again (at what was for those several months of our first separation my regular theater) with my son.

The thing is, this movie didn’t just hit me because of the throughline of Ottway being without his wife. It hit me for bigger reasons. The movie isn’t just a generic survival-in-the-wild movie; reviewing the film for The Guardian, Philip French describes the immediate aftermath of the plane crash that gets the story rolling as

initially commonplace: exciting survival stuff, if a trifle talky, in which the freezing , frightened group alternately bicker and bond. An hour in, the half-time score is “Wolves 2, Oilfield Roustabouts 1”. [I think the wolves are ahead by more than that, at that point.] Then the tone steadily changes , and it’s apparent the filmmakers have something more ambitious in mind than a conventional survival thriller moving towards a triumphalist ending. This is an existential, God-baiting fable where the wolves are agents of destiny and the isolated protagonists must confront their individual fates, and the effect is as chilling as the weather.

I think the tone was already set as something other than a basic survival picture. Reference to the movie Alive suggests a self-awareness that indicates deliberateness, as well. Ottway intends to kill himself at the start of the film. Lewenden’s death freezes the action to create a moment that sort of meditates on death and dying. The tone is already leaning toward something different.

...

(I’m looking at the box office, the weekend The Grey took #1. Despite a busy January (and February), I had managed to see a few of the films on the list. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The Descendants. Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol. The Artist. Hugo. Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. War Horse. We Bought a Zoo. And that’s just in the top 20. (Top 40 adds Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Devil Inside, Puss in Boot, A Separation, The Muppets, Shame. Top 60 adds Real Steel, We Need to Talk about Kevin, Young Adult, Moneyball and In Time.) Those weren’t all seen in January. Some of those were Oscar hopefuls, got early releases in December. Some I probably didn’t see until February, as the Oscars approached... actually, I just checked and the awards were February 11th that year, so there wasn’t much approach left. I’d been watching the Oscars every year since I was a kid, had started making a concerted effort to see as many of the nominated films as I could since the mid-90s, had been having an Oscar viewing party at home for a handful of years. There would be no party that year.

Even now, watching this movie again after not having seen it for a while, I find myself just sitting here watching it more than writing. It is—and maybe this isn’t the best word—captivating.

...

One more note before I go for today. This movie includes actors from several movies I’ve already watched for this blog. Dallas Roberts (Henrick) was Grayson Butterfield in the remake of 3:10 to Yuma. Joe Anderson (Flannery) was Max Carrigan in Across the Universe, Dermot Mulroney (Talget) was Dirty Steve Stephens in Young Guns. Like old friends come by to visit.

Come by to visit with a nice depressing existential tale about the struggle that is life.

Friday, July 17, 2015

making something of this life

The day before (or was it the day of? I know it's the first bookmark in my Into the Wild folder on Chrome) I was going to start watching this movie for this blog, someone linked to an article on RobGreenfield.TV called "How to Travel America For Free (without mooching)." He left his home in San Diego with $2000 cash and gave away his last $421 on August 12--this act he calls "a leap of faith in humanity." The article was published September 26. Greenfield (2014) summarizes the experience:

This experience is about much more than just not spending money. It's about showing that you and I can be contributing members to society whether we have money or not, It's about showing that there are much more rewarding ways to live than just throwing money at every situation. It's about living a life that is truly beneficial to the earth, my community, and myself. It's about being more involved in our communities and treating each other with respect. And it's also about teaching you how to live with less money so that you can follow your dreams and live independently of corrupted systems that don't serve your best interests.

Though Chris McCandless doesn't seem as interested in the communities part, the rest fits McCandless' adventure pretty well. Had he made it back and written that book he mentioned to Wayne Westerberg, it might have a message like Greenfield's. He might live off the grid and dumpster dive and write about that, too, just like Greenfield.

We could use more people like that.

Of course, McCandless as he was probably wouldn't care for the internet much. He wouldn't tweet. He wouldn't blog.

To be fair, had he come along later, maybe he'd be okay with it. I mean, Greenfield uses the term "off the grid" yet writes online articles. The potential for contradiction be damned; get the message out. (And, I don't mean that last line as a criticism. Seriously, such a message needs to be spread.)

In his "Author's Note" at the start of his book, Jon Krakauer admits,

I won't claim to be an impartial biographer. McCandless's strange tale struck a personal note that made a dispassionate rendering of the tragedy impossible. Through most of the book, I have tried--and largely succeeded, I think--to minimize my authorial presence. But let the reader be warned: I interrupt McCandless's story with fragments of a narrative drawn from my own youth. I do so in the hope that my experiences will throw some oblique light on the enigma of Chris McCandless.

I will take this in reverse.

I can appreciate that last bit because, as I have argued before in this blog, will argue again (I'm sure) and as is integral to my Master's Thesis, including the subjective, including my own narrative from time to time* in this blog is not entirely self-indulgent but potentially revelatory in regards to understanding the text in question. The text today is Into the Wild. My interpretations of said film must be taken in light of what follows.

(* I have learned in my recent coding of old blog entries that personal anecdotes and stories are present in the majority of entries, more so than from time to time would imply.)

In an interview with NPR, Krakauer elaborates on his impartiality. He explains:

When I was his age, when I was 23, a year younger--[Chris] was 23 when he died. When I was 23, I went to Alaska by myself into the glaciers of the coast range and climbed a mountain by myself. It was incredibly reckless, incredibly stupid. But I was lucky. And I survived, and I came back to tell my story.

When I was 24, dealing with a bout of a depression and an office job that had no appeal for me, I saved up a few paychecks and planned to quit my job and go on a roadtrip of my own. Ostensibly, my roadtrip would explicitly involve people as much as places--the internet as we know it today was still growing and my introverted, late-blooming self had made a lot of friends in this burgeoning medium. In planning my potential roadtrip, I marked on my map where a few of my best online friends lived and I imagined meeting them in person along the way, as I got as far away from a dayjob as I could. At least for a little while.

At 24, I would have loved to be on the road like Chris McCandless, would have loved being in the wilderness for a time, just separating myself from all of this modernity and technology and--let's be frank--society. I lacked the courage. I wasn't as reckless as I would have liked to be.

Plus, I met a girl online and ended up moving out of California for a few months later that year. At the time, that seemed like a better idea than wandering around on my own.

Too bad I couldn't have done both.

Still, I wanted to balance my wanderlust with human interaction, go meet in person people I knew online. I didn't want to just be out on the road, in the wild, on my own.

As I suggested yesterday, McCandless' real insanity was not that he wanted to get away from the world but that he wanted to get away from people...

But maybe that was deliberate. Get away to regain perspective. Leave as the damaged young man he was after growing up with abusive parents. Return as someone new.

That is the romantic idea here. That we can reinvent ourselves by going away for a little while. I've written about the Pirah√£ in this blog before. When a Piraha wants out of a relationship, he or she just leaves his or her partner, leaves the village for a few days and upon returning, is considered no longer attached. That simple.

And, of course, I'm a fan of the idea that one can reinvent him- or her-self.

Wanderlust. A quest for a new identity. The need for human contact and companionship... Sounds like everyday life to me.