29 January 2007

Forrest Gump

You know, this movie is actually really, really strange. My thoughts about it are largely in the form of questions that I don't really have answers for, but ok, here goes nothing.

My friend Russ (oh, the world lost a brilliant humanist when Russ decided to search for the cure for cancer. I cry myself to sleep at night thinking about it. Come on Russ - any schmoe can cure cancer! Don't let your talents go to waste!) reads the movie in very explicit political terms, reading it as anti-liberal propaganda. He sees the film as clearly connected to what is wrong with America today. His interpretation is actually quite compelling, but unfortunately, he doesn't have a blog to tell you all about it.

I think his view of the movie as being about a certain kind of politics is a response to the fact that it's not about Forrest at all. I mean, really, it's about American history. This is made explicitly clear, to me, by the framing device of the floating feather - the movie opens with this feather drifting through the air, almost landing on some random guy, but settling on Forrest's shoe. He picks it up, saves it, and begins to tell his story. At the end of the movie, the feather is released back into the ether and floats away, and the story ends. I think that this is subtly pointing to the randomness of Forrest as focus - it could be anyone. The movie is a window into a certain time period, attempting to capture a vision of American history. And by golly, if modernity has taught us anything, it's that the best way to get at the whole is through the fragment - in this case, Forrest Gump. So the best way to understand American history is to look at one person's life story - conveniently enough, of course, Forrest happens to have been around (and very influential in) most of the major events of his time. Lucky us. The feather has fortuitously landed on the hero of our age. So gather round children, as Forrest Gump relates his life story.

Or so it seems, but actually, it's not really him telling his story at all. It's made to seem that way, but it's actually what we in the lit biz call "erlebte rede" (from zee German), where the author kind of tells the story from the character's perspective, but maintains control of the narrative, and is able to give information that the character lacks. Sort of like the author is "feeling" his/her way into the part of the character. This is particularly crucial to this movie, because after all, Forrest is a moron. The movie quite skillfully handles the task of supplementing Forrest's narrative with the requisite information needed to appreciate the greater context of his story. Telling us what's actually going on, in other words. For instance, when Forrest talks about Jenny's dad, saying that he's always hugging and kissing his daughters, we get a close-up of a bottle of booze in the father's hand. Or when Forrest tells us about "that nice young man who went on to do ____", we get documentary footage of these various celebrities. Here's something curious to consider - the people on the bus bench who are hearing this story lack this information. What does the story sound like to them? I suppose one could figure this out by just listening to the audio of the movie.

Note also that we get to see things that Forrest couldn't know - Seargent Dan's relatives dying in various wars, for instance, or Jenny's various misadventures (the fact that our view into Jenny's world is half-justified by Forrest allegedly having a psychic connection with her is fucking weak, by the way). But this only hammers in, for me, the point that this isn't about Forrest - watching a drugged up Jenny contemplate suicide serves a larger narrative arc. Note also that the tone remains consistent, even when we stich from related narrative to present action - when Forrest gets off the bench and goes to Jenny's house, we're no longer in the realm of memory.

Forrest's character is actually wildly inconsistent (much like the logic of the Extreme Right - ha!). I mean, try to characterize his idiocy. Go on, I dare you. For everything you come up with as a symptom, you can find a counter-example. His apparent inability to understand metaphor ("I thought I'd try out my sea legs." "But you don't have any legs!") is refuted by his famous box of chocolates quote, or his constant repetition of "Me and Jenny was like peas and carrots". His unquestioning obedience is refuted by his saving various people in times of trouble despite being explicitly told not to. His emotional simplicity is refuted by his understanding that Jenny does not love him - "I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is." What about his idyllic description of the scenery he sees as he runs cross-country? How out of character is that?

The Jenny issue brings me to another strange feature of the film, namely, the way it brings up and then totally ignores the sex issue. You get the scene of premature ejaculation, which establishes him as too stupid for sex, but in the end, he does manage to get Jenny pregnant. It's really strange, because idiots having sex is actually kind of a taboo topic, and the movie seems to take it on, but then ends up skating right past it. Cue psychoanalytic reading; the movie starts out with the absent father figure, and ends up with Forrest taking over the mother role, sobbing over a grave as he talks about bedtime stories with his son. ANY IDIOT CAN BE A MOTHER. Heh heh.

Another strange feature of the film - Forrest's unheard Vietnam speech. You let the guy narrate the entire goddamn movie, but then render him voiceless. Why? Note that this occurs almost exactly at the center of the film. The lacuna that is Vietnam. Intriguing. One can come up with a number of possible justifications for this, but none fully satisfy me.

It's also interesting to me that people generally see this movie as being extremely manipulative. Several of my students, discussing it today, talked about "what the makers of the movie wanted you to feel". I wonder if this is caused purely by the overt sentimentalism (and how funny it is that we are SO wary of sentiment these days, eh?) or the political message, or both, or something else about the way it handles narration?

There is this really fascinating way in which the tone of the movie is constantly teetering between sentimentality and cynicism. I mean, you can't help but laugh at Forrest (I also can't help but laugh when his mother prostitutes herself in order to get him into public school, but apparently not everyone finds this funny. My students seemed somewhat appalled by my glee. Ooops.) but at the same time, the movie does seem to be holding him up as a model for a superior kind of worldview. Or rather, a superior modus operandi. I mean, it's not accidental that he keeps repeating "stupid is as stupid does", and most of the "stupid" behavior in the movie is carried out by other characters.

Anyhow, it's an interesting film. I don't think I'd call it a good movie, but it's certainly fascinating fodder for thought.

19 January 2007

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

This is quite possibly one of the greatest works ever written in the English language. It is so flawlessly constructed, so mind-blowingly phenomenal, that I hardly know what to say about it. I just finished reading it, and I'm still totally exhilarated. You may be tempted to disagree with me. Read it again. Seriously, you can get through it in 2 or 3 hours. This was, I think, my 4th time reading it, and only now do I begin to appreciate its genius. The first time I read it I was bored, the second time somewhat interested, the third time rather impressed, but this time, I am completely under its thrall.

It's such a dense text, with so many layers of meaning, its just incredible. You can read it as a parable about the dangers of genius, as a warning about the responsibility a man has for the results of his intellectual labor; you can read it as a contemplation of what makes a man and what makes a monster, you can appreciate it for its curious take on man's relationship to nature, you can enjoy what it has to say about the connection between love and virtue - there is so much going on in the story. What really fascinated me this time was the underlying discourse on sympathy, which I had never noticed before.

The text is composed of these unbelievable tissues of parallels and mirrorings that are so delicate and yet so poignantly brilliant that I literally cheered while reading it. Genius!

Meir Ezofowicz, by Eliza Orzeszkowa

The more I think about this novel, the more I can't wrap my mind around it. Certainly it's a very powerful work, and quite remarkable, but in a way, it's also rather bizarre.

The text is written in a curious epic fashion, weaving back and forth across generations and centuries without blinking an eye, chronicling the upheaval of a community of Jews living in a Polish village. The main character, Meir Ezofowicz, represents the sweeping change encroaching upon the Jewish communities in Poland - modernity. He stands out in a world that clings to tradition and insularity. At the same time, he doesn't actually have the goods to back up his position - he has only a rudimentary secular education, but a strong yearning to learn more. At the same time, he's deeply invested in Talmudism. So he's the figurehead of the text's drive to advocate, not assimilation, but co-habitation. He's willing to sacrifice some aspects of Jewish life, but nonetheless maintains a strong connection to some rituals, and generally to the community at large. The text, of course, provides a foil to his character by depicting a largely secularized, very well educated Jewish family who turn their back on tradition, and generally behave like jerks.

The text is notable in that it's written by a Polish Gentile and strongly advocates multiculturalism and Jewish Emancipation at a time of rising nationalism and intolerance (1878). The author delves into Jewish life, depicting the Polish noblemen in a not-so-positive light -albeit not entirely negative. There's some attempt to understand how these tensions between the two groups come into being, and a refusal to actually caricature any side - they may seem like jerks, but she makes a point of giving them redeeming traits as well. Also notable is her way of bringing to light the heterogenaeity of the Jewish communities in Poland, and particularly the class tensions existing within them.

But what's really striking about the work is its dramatic denouement, which occurs in the final pages (in case it's not obvious, I'm about to give away the conclusion. SPOILER.) There's this whole build-up to the reading of the pages of one man's will, which has been passed on through generations and is supposed to bring about some kind of miracle. And while these pages are quite stirring, they actually entice the Jewish community to mob violence, rather than mass conversion. But then, Meir is ex-communicated, departs in shame... and the crowds stand up for him. And the Rabbi has this grand epiphany that perhaps the "spirit of the age" is advocating tolerance rather than evil. But Meir is banished anyhow, and sets off into the world to find this grand education, etc. Fair enough. He's going to go out in the world, drink from the well of wisdom, and, we suspect, return to raise this backwards village into the light. But what happens as he's leaving town? He discovers that his lady love, who is all set to patiently wait for him as he roams the world bettering himself, has been murdered. My. God. Talk about ending on a downer. And for what? I mean, the major conversion in the work is NOT caused by the reading of the pages, but rather, by the ex-communication of Meir. Because the people simply can't support the humiliation of a guy who has done so many great things for them. And the ex-communication isn't even caused by the reading of the pages, but rather, by a whole host of other reasons, some of which have been present from the outset. And the conversion isn't even complete. There's no real resolution to the text. Just this brutal, horrific ending, that actually serves no clear purpose. Aside from being seriously intense and tragic. So why? WHY?

I'm baffled. A very interesting work. And actually quite an enjoyable read, worth checking out.

14 January 2007

Jesus Camp

The Onion A.V. Club's review of this movie was pretty harsh, but personally, I thought it was phenomenal. They describe it as heavy-handed, whereas I thought it was actually quite subtle. Yes, sometimes the music is a bit much, but for the most part, the movie does a fantastic job of letting the material speak for itself.

The camerawork in the movie is incredible, and the footage is amazing. There are these fantastic shots of children praying that are framed just like religious icons, the single tear they weep almost too perfect. But then you also get the red-faced, snotty, sobbing, frizzy haired little girl wailing for jesus. There's this subtle interplay between these moments where these children seem freakishly adult, talking about their faith, being saved, etc, and then these moments where they act just like normal kids. Well, kind of. And while it's clear that a lot of these kids are basically parroting back things they've heard adults say, the movie isn't patronizing towards them, nor does it dismiss their beliefs. In fact, it takes their devotion seriously, giving them plenty of screen time to express themselves. The film does an excellent job balancing various kinds of footage; from prayer conferences, to interviews, to candid moments of people just sitting around relaxing. It's incredibly intimate - you really feel like you're getting an up-close look at what these things are really like. So much so, in fact, that I occasionally felt the need to forcibly remind myself that for this scene to be shown, there must have been a dude standing there with a camera filming it - it's very, very easy to forget when you're watching.

Interspersed throughout are scenes with a Christian radio talkshow host who is absolutely appalled by the rise of Evangelism and its political prowess. Incidentally, I think this is a brilliant move on the part of the filmmakers, that makes it explicit that this movie is not about ALL Christians, or all people of faith. Occasionally statistics flash across the screen - for instance, that 75% of home-schooled children are Evangelical Christians. For the most part, one has the sense that the movie is just setting all this information in front of you without slanting it in any given direction. The only real divergence from this is that the film is framed by Samuel Alito's appointment to the Supreme Court, but actually, this seems like a foil to me. Far more powerful, precisely because it's never made explicit, is haunting figure of George W. Bush. The radio talk-show guy talks about how the extreme Christian right is slowly working its way into positions of power - the president of the Evangelical Association of America says that when Evangelicals hit the polls, they decide the election - we are told that he meets with the President and his advisors weekly - various Evangelical Christians reiterate that George Bush is the best thing to have happened to America - and something clicks.

Why do I say that the film is not heavy handed? Because although there is a voice of critique present in the film it is always explicitly situated. Various sides are presented, and none is given precedence. Although one can find fault with the occasionally ominous music, it's no more ominous than the music that is actually being played at the prayer rallies. We watch the Kids on Fire director prepare her Power Point presentation and search for a font that appears to be dripping in blood. In other words, this imagery is not being thrust upon its subject from the outside. Furthermore, I am willing to bet that all of the people involved in this movie would be happy with the way they are portrayed.

The interviews with Betty Fischer, the director of the camp, are especially remarkable. I mean, she openly admits that she's indoctrinating children into hardcore Christian faith. What's really striking about this is that she says that "our enemies" are doing the same thing. But unlike most people, who speak of kids getting brainwashed into being suicide bombers, etc, Fischer seems to have the utmost respect for what they're doing and their methods - it just happens that, as she puts it, "truth is on our side".

One can't help, while watching the movie, wondering how much these children really understand. The shots of them speaking in tongues, for instance - this seems particularly brilliant to me, because it seems like such powerful proof of divine work, but then on the other hand, it seems so obvious to me that any kid would be happy to be given total freedom to scream gibberish. I mean, come on, it's fun. But it's so interesting, how there are these tropes for intensely religious experiences, like prayer, or speaking in tongues, and how these kids can so easily mimic them, or get swept up in them. Again, another subtle critique, is that the kid who looks like he's praying the most fervently (arms spread, body oddly controrted, face scrunched up in intense concentration) is the one who stands up in front of the group and confesses that he's really struggling with his faith, because sometimes he just doesn't believe what the Bible says, and he prays that he will truly believe. Wow.

Of course you can't help wondering how much these kids really get to be kids, and whether they actually struggle with this stuff, or what. One little girl talks about how when she dances, it's important to her to make sure it's the Holy Spirit dancing through her. She admits that sometimes when she does it, it's just dancing for the flesh. And she struggles to overcome that. There's a great scene where some boys are sitting around, and one tells another that he looks like Harry Potter. They all kind of smile uncomfortably, then say they're not allowed to read/watch Harry Potter because it's about witchcraft. To which the first boy says, somewhat gleefully, "My mom doesn't let me either, but I watch them at my dad's anyway". And the other kids looks absolutely horrified.

What really struck me, too, is how these people really sort of live in their own little world, a world that is totally different from mine. Not just the home-schooling thing, but also their attitude towards pop-culture - they mostly just dismiss it. As one little girl says, Britney Spears sings about boys and stuff, and she doesn't care about that. At the same time, they seem to have their own version of all of it - Christian rap, Christian death metal - it's wild. I mean, they've got their eye on the prize - they have a right answer, and anything that looks like evidence the the contrary is the Devil's work, end of story. I was imagining trying to convince such a person of anything, and honestly, I don't think it's actually possible. They just operate on different rules. For instance, a mother asks her son about global warming and why it's bullshit. And he obediently replies, the temperature has only gone up by 0.6 degrees. And she laughs and says, "So it's not really a big problem, is it?" I mean, it's just such a wholly different way of looking at the world.

Anyhow, a great movie. Highly recommended.

07 January 2007


Check it out, new links!

I just discovered this one today; it's a blog called PostSecret. People anonymously mail in their secrets on postcards. It's been done before in various forms, but I think the visual element makes this one particularly interesting.

There's something really intriguing about the tone of these postcards. It kind of reminds me of A Softer World comics. There's something breathless and precious about it. They're very brief, and yet filled with a sense of import, and exhaltation almost. When you think about it, secrecy is kind of a fascinating phenomenon, and closely related to the notion of the sacred. It's a piece of information one possesses and may not share, or may share only with certain elect. So it can also confer status, but if it spreads too much, it becomes irrelevant. Yet here, despite the fact that these secrets are being broadcast to the world at large, they don't actually spread information, because of their anonymity. So it's not that nobody can know a secret, it's that some specific group of people to whom this information actually matters can't know it. Telling it to outsiders has no real effect. So in this case, the missives remain secrets despite being shared with the world at large. The internet has made it possible to speak from within a secret without destroying its sacred nature.


06 January 2007

9 Songs

I was pretty skeptical about this movie after watching it, but two days later, I find myself appreciating it more and more. It's not as good as it could be, true, but it's actually a fairly impressive movie. You may have heard of it because it made waves for having extremely graphic sex scenes. This was particularly notable because the French gave it a mainstream certificate, rather than the X classification used for porn.

The movie is quite subtle - there's very little dialogue, and very little narrative. It opens with the protagonist, Matt, talking about his memories of his lover, Lisa. Matt, we are given to understand, is currently on Antarctica, studying ice. The movie sort of follows their relationship, but not really. Basically, there are 4 kinds of scenes - gorgeous shots of Antarctica, footage of rock shows, graphic sex scenes, and then a few scenes of (non-sex) interaction between Matt and Lisa. There's no real story. We learn that the pair met at a rock show, were sleeping together for maybe a year? and that Lisa moved back to the US. That's pretty much it in terms of plot. So what's the point? Hard to say. But I think that it's a kind of a reflection about the ways in which two people can both know and not know each other, how they can be extremely intimate in some ways and yet be completely blinded by their idealized fantasies of each other and their relationship. Or, to put it another way perhaps, how two people who are well nigh strangers can have extremely intimate relations. Matt and Lisa have some very intense sex, and yet, they don't seem particularly well suited to each other. Their conversations aren't particularly deep or interesting - they have this crazy sexual, and generally physical, chemistry, but nothing else. Matt acknowledges that Lisa is young, selfish, and insane - and she truly seems to be all three - and it's hard to say whether or not he really loves her. There's a scene when he runs naked into the freezing ocean just to prove his love, and yet it seems to be a move guided by the aesthetics of it, rather than a true expression of feeling. I think that the movie is subtly suggesting that this stylized version of something like love is precisely the model that rock music generally offers. But maybe that's reading too much into it.

The movie's greatest strength is its cinematography. The footage of the rock shows, in particular, is some of the best I've ever seen - handheld cameras from within the crowd that really capture what it's like to be there. The shots of Antarctica are, of course, breathtaking, and the sex scenes, while extremely graphic (there's even a money shot) are quite elegant. It's really very impressive.

Also, the film has a rather astounding poignant brevity. The dialogue is extremely sparse, and yet speaks volumes. There are these scenes where just one line speaks volumes about the character in really incredible ways. The movie is only an hour long, and there's really no story, and yet it seems to do so much. Quite remarkable.

The downside is that it is perhaps too subtle. Initially, you're sort of shocked by the graphic sex and absorbed by the rock shows, but then it starts to seem kind of monotonous and played out. Even the sex scenes get boring. Then again though, perhaps this is partly the point - it sort of mirrors their relationship, how the initial excitement slowly plays itself out. Then there are these scenes where it seems like you're going to get some deeper story, moments that seem to create a possibility of genuine intimacy, and yet they fail. It's kind of brilliant, now that I think about it. Matt's reflections, provided in the form of voice overs layered over visions of ice, could be a bit better written - they're a little too precious, at times. The language is very reminiscent of Jeanette Winterson's novels, but not quite as well done.

It's odd, I was discussing the film with the friend I saw it with, and she was saying that she felt that it would almost be more effective as literature, which I agree with, but then realize that the visual element of it is actually one of the most impressive, striking things about the movie. So it's strange. I have increasingly more respect for the film, and yet, I have this strong sense that it's lacking a certain je ne sais quoi necessary to actually be a really good movie. Quite puzzling.