Archive for category Film

Lucy is Stunning

Scarlett Johannsen masters her role as

Scarlett Johannsen masters her role as “Lucy”

If you read the critics most see the summer film “Lucy” as an action-thriller with a rather silly story line.  They rave about Scarlett Johansson’s performance, praise the visuals writer and director Luc Besson creates, but dismiss the story line as being rather standard sci-fi movie script.   A few critics love it, a few hate it, most are in the middle.

I went to the film and was blown away, mesmerized by the ideas behind the film, and when it ended it felt like hardly any time had passed.   I was completely drawn into it.

(Spoiler alert – if you plan to see the movie and don’t want to know what happens, stop reading now!)

The story line on its face is a bit bizarre.  Lucy stumbles into a world of drug smugglers who have perfected a synthetic form of CHP4, said to be a powerful natural form of energy that pregnant women pass on to their fetuses during pregnancy in very small doses.  She is forced to become a drug mule, carrying a large quantity of this drug under her skin.   Before she can get on her flight to deliver the drug to fly from Taipei to Europe, she resists the advances of one of her captors and is kicked in the stomach, releasing a large quantity of the drug into her body.   Rather than kill her, it starts a process where she is able to access more of her brain capacity, ultimately 100%.

Director Luc Besson skillfully weaves a story together. He dismisses those who point out the brain capacity theory isn't true:

Director Luc Besson skillfully weaves a visual masterpiece together. He dismisses those who point out the brain capacity theory isn’t true: “Of course it’s not true! They think I work on this for nine years and don’t know it’s not true?”

OK, I get where the critics are coming from in terms of being skeptical of the story line.   The idea that we only use 3 or 5 or 10% of our brain was debunked long ago, and a massive ingestion of drugs creating superhuman power is a bit much.  But Director and writer Luc Besson is making a movie, not a documentary.   Much of what in the movie is true – how our cells communicate, the way the brain functions, etc.   The drugs/brain capacity bit is a vehicle to create a visually compelling action/thriller with a spiritual subtheme.  After all, how “real” is Batman, Spiderman, or the Terminator?!   It’s a movie, after all!

As Lucy’s ‘brain capacity’ increases her perceptive capacity expands.  She can see pulses of energy in trees, electromagnetic forces emanating from cell phones, and the world around her becomes noisy as she can sense everything.   She is able to manipulate reality – turn her hair from blonde to brunette, create an invisible barrier that can’t be penetrated, or cause people to hang helpless from the ceiling.

Amr Waked does a superb job playing Captain Pierre Del Rio

Amr Waked does a superb job playing Captain Pierre Del Rio

After traveling to Paris she meets a police officer (Pierre Del Rio, played by Amr Waked) who manages not to be completely freaked out by her abilities and becomes her ally – albeit playing a secondary role.   She also consults a brain specialist Professor Samuel Norman (played by Morgan Freeman) who tells her she should share her knowledge.   Pursued by the drug smugglers she tries to invent a computer into which she can record her insights.

As she gains more knowledge she not only can control herself and the environment around her, but she starts losing herself in the broader world.   She realizes that time is an illusion, and that humanity is stuck in fear and repetition.  Ours is an existence that is empty in comparison to the deeper scope of reality.    At one point she tells Captain Del Rio to accompany her.  “I don’t know what help I can be,” he says, realizing her powers are beyond anything he’d ever seen.  “To help me remember” she says, giving him a kiss.  As she gains knowledge she becomes less emotional – her understanding of the world causes her to realize there is no real loss, pain or sorrow.   When Del Rio protests her wild driving by saying “people might get killed” she brushes him off, “No one ever really dies.”

She travels back in time, even confronting the real “Lucy” – an early humanoid whose bones were discovered back in 1974, presumed to be over 3 million years old.   She can control time – speed it up, make it go back and forth.   She sees the beginning and the end of our universe.   Ultimately she disappears, causing Del Rio to ask “Where’s Lucy?”   He receives a text message on his phone: “I am everywhere.”

Lucy can sense bands of energy invisible to most and even find and hear phone conversations of others.

Lucy can sense bands of energy invisible to most and even find and hear phone conversations of others.

Early in the film she calls her mom, essentially to say goodbye, but also to tell her she remembers everything, even the taste of her mother’s milk.  This ability to transcend limitations and connect with the universal was for me very powerful.  Besson’s imagination was not merely used to make what’s been called “a kick-ass heroine” but also to play with ideas that explore the nature of space, time and existence.

It was a flashy and extremely beautiful action film, with imagery and pacing that make it entertaining for almost anyone, even if they dismiss the poetic transcendent message.   I like to think the Besson knows there are people like me out there who connect with an imaginative, coherent spiritual/scientific fantasy that actually makes profound sense to those who perceive it a particular way.

Because whatever one thinks, the movie’s transcendent vision is what had tears in my eyes for much of the film – I walked out of the theater almost stunned.   Besson’s film was profoundly moving and I think it’s impressive that he can create such a film that reaches different people in different ways.

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You Seek Yoda!

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

About a year and a half ago I had a number of Star Wars themed posts, thanks to my kids becoming totally immersed in the story, playing Wii Lego Star Wars, learning the characters (even minor ones I’d never heard of like Bobo Fett or Captain Rex) and building ships with Legos.   Alas, their video interests shifted.   Ryan got into a video game which had him becoming a mercenary battling Universal Petroleum in Venezuela, both became engulfed in the world of Pokemon, and Star Wars was forgotten.   I got Blu Ray discs of the entire movie series for Christmas which remained unwatched as the kids dominated the television watching “The Regular Show,” “Pheneas and Ferb,” and “Good Luck Charlie.”

I actually truly enjoy both Phineas and Ferb and “Good Luck Charlie” – two of the shows the kids are into these days!

But this week for some reason Star Wars returned, and in fact we’ve been going through the series from episode 1 to episode 6.   I’ve never actually watched them in that order before.   The last time I watched all six within a period of a week or two it was 4, 5 and 6 followed by 1, 2 and 3 – the order in which they were released.   After all, that’s how fans experienced them.    Yet for the boys that order made no sense — and it’s been a pleasure (even if it meant that a couple of beautiful afternoons were spent indoors – Star Wars is worth sacrificing an afternoon of outdoor play).

First, when watched in the “proper” order, it is very clearly the story of the redemption of Anakin Skywalker.   When the first trilogy came out it was not; Luke was the hero and Darth Vader was his nemesis.   Only in episode five (“The Empire Strikes Back”) did it get revealed that Vader was Luke’s father, with Yoda only hinting that he might have a twin (“There is another,” he replies to Obi Wan’s spirit after Obi Wan says Luke is their last hope.)

Some of George Lucas’ colleagues were upset with all this in episode five, especially bringing in the Emperor as the master of evil, thereby diminishing Vader in the Vader vs. Luke dynamic.    Episode Six was about Luke becoming a Jedi, saving his father’s soul and learning he had a sister.   But Anakin Skywalker was important only in a symbolic way, we connected with the son finding closure over not growing up with a father.   How Anakin fell or why was unknown.   In fact, Leia even vaguely remembered her mom — which now has to be seen as either an error or a sign that the force can cause even newborns to commit a scene to memory.

Yoda’s encounter with Chewbacca in Episode 3 adds to the sense that he and Han Solo were guided by destiny, even as Solo dismissed “the Force” as silly superstition

But watching episodes four through six right after the first three caused me to see the originals in a new way — a way one could not have seen them thirty years ago.   I could imagine Anakin’s voice behind Vader’s supposedly synthesized voice.  I could see Anakin’s personality in Episode V as he tries to convince Luke to join him and rule the galaxy as father and son.    Anakin’s break from the dark side to betray the Emperor was not just about a father seeing his son being killed, but a recapturing of the good that Padme and Luke knew was still in him.

Watching this, I had to marvel at the story telling power that George Lucas commands.   In his prequels he put together a stand alone story with power.   The last thirty minutes of Episode 3 are riveting.   But for fans willing to think about the original series with an open mind, he created a new, deeper and more meaningful experience.   From the city planet of Coruscant there is the feel of shifting from political intrigue to a raw feel of the rebellion in the original films.   Their lower tech effects don’t stand out as the story is put in a simpler setting.

George Lucas also added bits and made improvements in the originals.   Some fans thought that was sacrilege, messing with a classic product.  But Lucas is an artist who wants to improve and perfect his work.    I respect that.

Star Wars would not have come into being if Lucas wasn’t a stubborn fighter willing to follow his vision despite criticism. So when he wants to make changes to improve his originals and some fans scream foul, it’s in keeping with the spirit of Star Wars that he does what he wants, despite criticism.

And ultimately what makes this more than just another action series is not only the cultural impact it had when released, but depth of thought in the story line.  It’s fast paced and action packed with a subtle philosophy of the force and the power of calm courage against fear and hatred.    Where Batman might just be a vigilante against villains, Star Wars represents the power of patience, ethics and a sense of unity against fear, anger and greed.   Star Wars is good vs. evil both in terms of the people and their values.   The message touches something inside.

Though he slaughtered children, destroyed a planet, and killed without mercy or regret, Darth Vader still had good in his hear and could be redeemed.

After all, what other movies from the 70s generate such interest and passion, even among six year olds?   And maybe as we head into our daily routines we can think about Yoda’s message.   Be patient and calm,  avoid fear and anger, focus on one’s higher self and deal with the problems as they arise, living in the present and not fretting about past or future.   Perhaps most important is to seek the good in others, understanding and forgiving their failures.  After all, if Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader can be redeemed, couldn’t anyone?   May the Force Be With You.

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The Horror of Communism

Fictional characters Georg Dreyman and Christa Marie Sieland dramatize how the Communist system could swallow lives whole

In teaching Comparative Politics its hard to know how to explain how Communism functioned.   On the one hand, it’s easy to paint it as an economic failure.   Centralized bureaucratic planning created stagnation, inefficiency and lack of response to real demand.   Incentives within the system were not to rock the boat, not to improvise or show initiative, and thus economic dynamism and creativity were thwarted.

One can also explain the political control of totalitarianism:  the “grand bargain” whereby citizens were promised shelter, food, health care, education and a job in exchange for going along with the system and following the rules.  But explained that way some students say “why is that so bad?”   Less stress, security that one will have life’s needs taken care of, and only at the cost of not being political, well, for many people that sounds like a decent deal.

The real failure of communism, however, was neither political nor economic, it was the system’s inhumanity.   I’m not talking about Stalin’s horrific crimes killing 20 million people, or Mao’s misguided economic policies that killed over 30 million.  I’m not talking either about Pol Pot’s genocidal ideology that led to the Cambodian killing fields.  I’m talking about the mundane evil of ‘real existing socialism’ in the former East bloc even after the purges and mass killings had ceased.

People weren’t taken and shot, and most weren’t even held in prison.    Instead government repression alongside a system that bred dependency took a tool on the psyche and spirit of its citizens.   It’s hardly surprising that alcoholism rates skyrocketed and depression grew.   It was a system that worked against the human spirit with heart numbing bureaucratic control.   It was a system where you could have your basic needs met and appear to be living in relative comfort and still be suffering in the soul.

I’ve finally found a method to communicate that aspect of the communist system:  to show the film The Lives of Others, or Das Leben der Anderen, a German film set in East Berlin in 1984.    The plot is basic (spoiler alert!)   A Communist big wig – a government Minister named Hemph, has a crush on aging actress Christa Marie Sieland (CMS).   She’s in a loving relationship with the famous author/playwrite Georg Dreyman.

Dreyman is a successful writer who remains in the government’s favor but yet has appeal in the West.   He does this by knowing the rules and being sure to stay away from political themes.  He knows to say the right things to government elites and when to keep his mouth shut.    Even as his colleagues chide him for refusing to take a stand, he thinks it foolish to risk everything just to make political statements.   He wants to write, not rock the boat.

When Sieland is being routinely raped by Minister Hempf and his director friend Jerska is blacklisted and ultimately kills himself, Dreyman confronts the reality that he is living in an evil system and has to speak out.

Meanwhile, Hempf has employed the Stasi — the East German secret police — to find dirt on Dreyman so he can be arrested and Hempf would have CMS to himself.   Here we see the Communist bureaucracy.  Anton Grubitz is a high ranking Stasi official who is clearly motivated only by his desire for upward mobility.  He’s eager to give Hempf what he wants and puts his best man, Gerd Wiesler, on the case.

Hempf (center) convinces Grubitz (left) to spy on Dreyman after watching CMS star in one of Dreyman's plays

Wiesler is a committed Communist.  He is a Stasi agent because he has high ideals and believes he’s protecting socialism and the state.   Yet as he investigates Dreyman, he becomes conflicted.   He starts by hating the “arrogant artist” types who thumb their nose at the state.   But he cannot ignore the hypocrisy of Hempf wanting to use the state police to simply get rid of a rival, his friend’s lack of concern for anything but his ambition, and the way in which the state’s intrusion into the lives of this couple is destroying what he comes to recognize as a true committed love.

Wiesler sets up a listening post in the attic of Dreyman's apartment, hearing every phone call and conversation

Much of the film is about Wiesler’s inner conflict.    At one point you sense he’s changing when a boy follows him into the elevator and asks, “are you really with Stasi.”    When asked if he knows what Stasi is, the boy says “my dad says it’s bad men who put people in prison.”   Wiesler instinctively responds “what is the name of…”  but then stops.   “Your ball.”   He doesn’t have the heart to go after this boy’s dad any more.

What is the name of your soccer ball?

Ultimately Wiesler switches sides.    He starts protecting Dreyman just as Dreyman makes a stand against the system.  Dreyman writes an article to smuggle to Der Spiegel magazine in the West about high suicide rates in East Germany.    CMS is arrested when she finally resists Hempf, who has been supplying her with illegal drugs (which she takes in part because of how his affections torture her).   She is forced to implicate Dreyman and betray her love.

After a fight in which Dreyman begs CMS not to go to Hempf, she leaves, stopping in the same bar Wiesler has gone to. Seeing her there he goes over and pretends to be a fan, telling her she is genuine. His words convince her not to go to Hempf again after all. "You are a good man," she says.

Despite efforts by Wiesler to protect them, wracked by guilt she purposefully steps in front of an on coming truck to kill herself.  Weisler has removed the implicating information but Grubitz realizes he must have aided Dreyman and demotes him.   Dreyman is left broken, CMS is dead, and the system plods on.

A plot summary cannot do justice to how well this film illustrates the pervasive corruption and immorality of the internal system, how it could turn good honest people into those who betray their friends and lovers and ultimately find their own lives destroyed.    It isn’t always as dramatic as portrayed here, but the film encapsulates the human horror of communism.

Yet the film ends with an upside.   German unification and the fall of communism comes.   Wiesler finds work delivering mail.   The Stasi files are open to the public and Dreyman goes to his, shocked to find that Stasi had been watching him.   He reads Weisler’s reports and is amazed to find that Wiesler — known as agent HGW XX/7 in the report — started covering for them and not reporting his real activities.

Inspired to write, he publishes a new novel, “Sonata for a Good Man,” named after a sheet music for a sonata given to him by Jerska, the director who had committed suicide.   Wiesler sees an advertisement for the book and goes into the store and reads the dedication:  “To agent HGW XX/7”   He purchases the book and when asked if he wants it gift wrapped he says no.  “It’s for me.”

The destruction of the lives and relationship of CMS and Dreyman symbolize the destructive force of the Communist bureaucratic system



Kansas City Bomber Raquel Welch

I have a vivid memory of watching the Tonight show as Johnny Carson was interviewing Raquel Welch.   She comes out with a cat that sits on her lap.   She asks Johnny “do you want to pet my pussy?”   He answers “sure, if you move that damn cat.”   In my memory it’s vivid, I can see the picture, hear his reply, the exact intonation and see her response.   I’m sure I saw it.

Or did I?   Not according to Snopes.  They note that the story most often involves Zsa Zsa Gabor, but sometimes involves Raquel Welch or a number of others.   That inconsistency is the mark of an urban legend, they state.    Doing a google search the story most often includes Gabor so I must be wrong.   Or maybe not — in this thread another person remembers it just as I do, with Raquel Welch, and around 1970, when I would have seen it.   This post also has the incident involving Welch in the 70s, which would fit my memory (it even mentions a clip, though I can’t find a clip posted anywhere).

In my mind there is no doubt but that it happened.  The memory is vivid and clear, including a memory of me shocked by hearing that (suggesting it probably was 1972 or a little after) and seeing her reaction.   There is no way my memory could be so detailed about both what I saw, how I felt and what my reaction was without it being true.   That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, that’s what I feel to be true deep down.

But, of course, the evidence is against me.   Who am I to argue with Snopes?   What if as a 12 or 13 year old I heard this urban legend, visualized it in my mind, and somehow over time came to believe I’d seen it.   Having watched Johnny Carson almost every night from age 10 to when I went to college at 18 I know his mannerisms and could easily have concocted a mental image of this exchange.   Over time real memories and stories heard/scenes imagined blur.   Perhaps what was once my imagination of a story I heard became to me a real memory.

Memories are strange things.   In the court of law eye witness accounts used to be given the most weight; now they are if anything more distrusted than objective evidence one can glean from records, videos or other documents not so vulnerable to subjective error.

Part of the problem is that memory is imbued with a strong sense of subjective interpretation.   For instance, let’s say I had an argument with someone in a bar in 1994 — or perhaps an early internet debate back when usenet was new and flame wars common.   I might remember it with me rationally trying to reason with someone who is obstinate, arrogant and even rude.   If that person were to recall the argument he or she would likely have the same memory — but with me the obstinate one.

If one has self-doubts, one may remember things as being more personally insulting and cutting then they were.  Small statements that one is sensitive to may dominate a memory of a conversation where objectively that statement was inconsequential.

I remember seeing John F. Kennedy’s picture in the newspaper in color when I was three years old.   He had just been killed, and a color photo was rare.  I remember learning to walk and wondering why my parents were forcing me to do that, as my dad flashed lights at me.   But there is also a picture of those first steps — is my memory a reconstruction based on that photograph, or real?   Did that photo reinforce a real memory?

One memory I have is at age 2 in the Black Hills going to a zoo.   My dad was enthralled with buffalo on the other side of a ridge, but I couldn’t see them (he had binoculars).   I looked down and saw blankets and sheets floating down a stream, then apparently going under the stream and coming out at the start and flowing down again.  I tried to get my mom and dad to look, but they were just into the buffalo.   There was a picture there too — me looking down, my dad with binoculars.   Once years later I asked my mom about that, and she said, “all I remember is you were really fascinated by a clothes line with sheets on it in the valley below.”

So the memory was real — albeit through the eyes of a two year old whose brain had not yet categorized clothes line perception and thus saw the sheets flowing down the river.  But that shows another limit of memory, our brains interpret and categorize based on experience.   We can’t be sure that our perceptions and interpretations are accurate, only that our brain is doing the best it can within its experiential framework.

Yet within our brain every memory is said to exist.   Brain surgeons sometimes trigger old conversations, or cause patients to hear the past as if it were happening in the present.  For that person the past is the present, the experience of that conversation is suddenly real.

Memories are flawed and biased; one remembers a reality where oneself is more benevolent than was likely the case, with others perhaps more flawed and malevolent.    Memories fit into categorizations and can reinforce conflicts and bias, whether on a personal level or between groups like the Israelis and Palestinians.

Memories are useful, of course.   Remembering how one was swindled makes one less likely to fall for the same ploy; memories of help and friendship can lead to positive action.   The subjectve bias inherent in all memory means simply that we should be open to learning how others may have interpreted a situation differently, recognizing that even if it contradicts what any of us remember, that doesn’t mean the person is lying or dishonest.   We all mold memories to fit our own subjective states.   Recognition of that makes it easier not to carry grudges and to avoid resentment.

Yet I still insist that it was Raquel Welch being interviewed by Johnny Carson, and he delivered that line.   Perhaps he was reprising something he did with Zsa Zsa Gabor earlier.   Perhaps an angry Raquel demanded the tape be destroyed, and since this was pre-VCR and original tapes were often unique, the whole incident could easily have been made to go away.   As long as the two never talked about it all there would be were the stories of people who remember seeing it, but in an era where Youtube provides instant proof for all recent claims, no clip exists.

I remember this 1970 least I think I do...

There is no way to objectively know if my memory is right or wrong.   There is no evidence for the objective observer to side with me, and as Snopes notes, the evidence suggests this to be an urban legend.   My subjective evidence is still convincing to me, even as I recognize the likelihood of error on my part.   It’s also a reminder that even though we think we objectively and clearly perceive and understand the world, interactions and activities around us, we’re always twisting and interpreting it in ways that are biased towards our beliefs, past experiences and world views.   At the very least, that should lead to humility.


1977: Illusions and Star Wars

1977 may not be remembered as an especially important year, even though it started with Commodore demonstrating the first personal computer – the Commodore PET – in early January.   Gerald Ford was finishing out his short term as President, while Jimmy Carter was getting ready to move into the White House.   But in 1977 three pieces of popular culture were released which represent major reflections of and influences on my world view.

On May 25, 1977, 20th Century Fox released a film many in the company thought would not be worth the $12 million they spent producing it: Star Wars.    It was the creation of George Lucas whose surprise hit American Graffiti  had given him the credibility to pitch this sometimes silly sounding story of good vs. evil in a galaxy far, far away to the movie execs.   Sci-fi films rarely made much money, though.   Moreover it opened at only about 40 theaters because of lack of interest.

Yet from that first day it was an instant hit, with lines in every city where it was shown.    Most people think that a smart strategy of hitting sci-fi conventions and releasing a comic strip before the movie’s release generated enough beneath the radar buzz to turn what some expected to be a flop into a major success.  In any event, overnight it changed the film industry and unleashed a phenomenon that spread across the country.   Now almost 35 years later my 8 and 5 year old sons know every character, have toy light sabres, Star Wars Lego sets and video games.    3D versions of the films will start being released to theaters next year — the force is still with us.

On July 7, 1977 (7/7/77) the struggling band Styx released The Grand Illusion.   Styx had hit the big time with the single Lady, but its two recent LPs Equinox and Crystal Ball failed to push them to the next level; Crystal Ball  actually undersold Equinox.    The release was met with a yawn.   The first single from the album, Come Sail Away, moved slowly up the charts and seemed to stall.    Then suddenly it took off to the top ten.   The album quickly went platinum and Styx became a certified big time act.   They would dominate the concert circuit and LP sales for the next five years, the largest and most successful act of the late seventies/early eighties.

Also in 1977 author Richard Bach published Illusions: the Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, a follow up to his unexpected best seller Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which had been published in 1970.   Illusions would not sell nearly as well as Seagull had, but when I read it I was amazed.  It not only reflected thoughts I had inside about the nature of reality, it also helped shape how I look at the world.    The book exemplifies a kind of new age spiritual philosophy, a bit neo-Platonist, and one which if embraced requires one to take full responsibility for every aspect of ones’ own life.

What sets Illusions apart from other spiritual descriptions of life, or ideological attempts to define what life means and how one should live is the books final thought:  Everything in this book may be wrong.   Bach did not provide dogma around which cultists would gather, he presented his personal philosophy in story form, allowing readers to find it as persuasive as they wished, reminding them that it’s just his interpretation of experience.   Unlike religious leaders he did not claim divine authority; unlike some philosophers, he did not claim to have discovered truth.

Styx album The Grand Illusion has a similar theme — ‘if you think your life is complete confusion because your neighbor’s got it made, just remember it’s a grand illusion, and deep inside we’re all the same.’   Yet the album focused less on giving a world view than reflecting the way in which America’s cultural embrace of materialism and consumerism lead to a dead end.   We can fall under the spell of believing we need wealth, beauty and fame, but in the end those things aren’t real — they are illusions.   From the biting cynicism of Miss America, the hopeful escapism of Come Sail Away to the introspective Man in the Wilderness, the album explores the human quest to find meaning in modern America from a number of perspectives.    Whatever the external trappings or competitions won and lost, we still ask “who the hell we are.”   The Grand Illusion remains my favorite album of all time.

Star Wars, of course, contained similar allusions.   We are surrounded by an invisible force that permeates and unites all that is; reality is much deeper than its material appearance. George Lucas studied mythology as he designed the story, casting it as good vs. evil, and ultimately a story of the redemption of what might be one of the heinous criminals one can imagine.   On the surface it was a throw back to the old Flash Gordon type serials of the fifties, when the good guys were very good and the bad folk were pure evil.

It was fun, the mysticism didn’t overwhelm the action, and though the characters were not well developed, the plot moved quickly and audiences connected.    It also had another connection to the other two cultural products – it dealt with reality beneath appearances.    That’s why people connected – it wasn’t a complex cynical analysis of the human condition, it was a straightforward appeal to our basic ideals of freedom and values.

Taken together, what influence did these 1977 works have on my world view?  I guess they reinforce my view that we each have to take responsibility for our lives, recognizing that much of what we strive for and take seriously is temporal and unimportant.   Beauty fades, wealth does not satisfy ones’ spirit, and battles and competitions are quickly forgotten (this obviously connects with my last post on Augustine and Petrarch).   More importantly, there is a purpose.   Life isn’t meaningless.    Just as it was Luke’s fate to confront Darth Vader, I trust that life leads us to where we are meant to be; each of us is actually the captain of our life voyage.  Blaming others only pushes us deeper into delusion.

The final song (save the album coda) on Grand Illusion is Castle Walls by Dennis DeYoung.   I’ve often thought about the Star Wars saga as I listened to these lyrics.    I also suspect the last two lines reflect true wisdom.

Far beyond these castle walls
Where I thought I heard Tiresias say
Life is never what it seems
And every man must meet his destiny

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Steaks, Film, then back to Pizza!

This continues my posts about pizza and my life.  I apologize for the self-indulgence, but part of the purpose of this blog is to leave a record for my kids, and stories about my past are part of that.

I left Village Inn Pizza Parlor at age 16 and then worked nearly a year at the First Edition Restaurant and Steak House, and then a summer at a drive in movie theater before returning to the world of pizza.   Each of those experiences were important, and convince me that high school kids do need to work, you learn things on the job that you can’t get in school.

At the First Edition my duties were to bus tables, sometimes run the dish washing machine, and keep the salad bar stocked.   Memories include eating steak off plates that were brought back to be washed (when you’re 16 you chow down anything), sneaking into the walk in cooler to sample some of the ice cream prepared for the bar (which had ice cream drinks), and a grill chef throwing a steak on to the ground before putting it on the grill.   “Well done!?  They want a filet well done?   They may as well go to McDonalds!”   Seeing the shocked expression of a 16 year old bus boy, the chef smiled, “Don’t worry kid, the grill will burn off any gunk from the floor.”   Needless to say, I order my steaks medium rare.

We had the cleanest kitchen in Sioux Falls according to the health inspector, and I recall cleaning grease above the grill, scrubbing down every inch, and coming in on Sunday mornings for intensive cleaning (windows, polishing brass, etc.)   To be sure, not everything was clean.   One day a waiter came back with what looked like clean silver ware.   “They say this has been sitting on the table too long and they want ones freshly cleaned.”  He then licked them.  “There, this should satisfy them.”   I watched as he brought out the “clean” silver ware and the customers thanked him (and likely tipped him well).   Another note to self: don’t send back the silverware for replacement unless it’s clear they are dirty!

I also would grab sugar packets and chug sugar during my shift.   The packets are small, but I thought I didn’t need the extra calories so I decided to try Sweet N’ Lo.   Note to self:  NEVER chug sweet and low!    The restaurant was also a bar, and at closing time if we did a really good job the manager would often let us have a beer.   That was illegal of course, but hey, this was the 70s.   The trouble was, at that point in my life I did not yet like beer.   But I couldn’t admit it (what would the other busboys think?!) — so I’d secretly pour it down the drain and pretend like I drank it.

I was very observant and learned a lot about the restaurant business and its demands.   I appreciate what waitstaff go through and still observe restaurants for how they operate.  Yet I grew sour on the job — there was no real chance to move forward.  I couldn’t become a waiter because I wasn’t 21, and thus not able to serve drinks.    I decided to try something else, so I took a job at the drive in movie theater, East Park Drive In.

That was my slackest job.   The place no longer stands — it’s now a K-Mart — but it was fun and I was able to rack up hours, even though the pay was low.   I did a couple dusk to dawns, having to wake up people who fell asleep during the night (usually it was a series of five films).   One time I knocked on a van window and saw a naked man and woman wake up.   “It’s morning, time to go,” I said.   “Thanks man,” was the reply as they covered themselves.   We’d joke and flirt with the concession girls.  They had a machine that you poured the syrup for the soda into the top, and it would mix it with the carbon water.   I started making strong sodas, my favorite being orange soda syrup, and then mix it with 7-Up.   I also recall the manager being amazed at the summer phenomenon at the indoor theaters.  A film called Star Wars was in town all summer, breaking all sorts of records.

I also remember beers after close (by this point I indulged, albeit not as much as my co-workers).   Perhaps the low point was when I loaned my Oldsmobile — a Delmont 88 — to some drunk girls (co-workers).   They took off and my manager said, “Scott, what the hell are you thinking?”   They returned, thankfully, vehicle in tact.  Otherwise we had a running battle with kids trying to watch the movie from the lot beside us, chasing them off and/or flirting with the girls.   Of course, I had one of those flashlights with the orange bit at the top.    At the beginning we’d take tickets, and then every once in awhile I’d see trunks open a couple people pop out.   One co-worker, Orville, would yell at them and make them pay.   I’d usually just smile and look the other way.

My favorite movie of the summer was the original Freaky Friday.   I also recall learning the lines to A Star is Born with Streisand and Kristofferson almost by heart.   That movie played two weeks since one of the weeks was fair week and business that week was always bad so they didn’t bother with a new film.   I also volunteered to work every night so my co-workers could enjoy the fair.   I can’t remember many of the other films we had; I know we showed Stephan King’s Carrie.   But it was a fun summer…a few cars drove away with the speakers, but in all it was a more laid back job.

Alas, drive in movies are seasonal, and I needed to get a job in the fall.    At first I went back to The First Edition, but the job wasn’t as fun or interesting — always the same routine.   I quit to focus on debate for awhile, and then in February decided to head back to Village Inn Pizza.   A friend had gotten a job there and said they were hiring lots of new people.   So I re-applied.  The manager grilled me on why I left a year earlier, and I was honest — I said I thought the pay was better at the other place.   Then the manager, a guy named Warren Andy, looked at me intently.

“You know something, if you want to work, this is the place for you.   $2.35 to $2.45 an hour?  That differences is crap.  It’s shit.  You don’t leave a job for a dime an hour.   You know what — everything is in play here.   The old management has been fired, I’ve been brought in to clean up.   You work hard, you’ll go places, I’m even looking for supervisors, maybe three or four to run shifts.   I’m not going to choose them from the old staff, they’ve been spoiled, I’m going to fill those positions with my people.   I can’t promise anything, but if you really are willing to work, this is the place to be.”

“Yes, I want to work here, and I will work hard,” I replied.   Warren smiled.   “You start Saturday night, tomorrow, five to close.  Is that a problem?”   It was — I had plans.   “No, no problem, I’ll be here!”   He gave me my uniform — a white and red checkered shirt and a bow tie and paper work to fill out.   Little did I know I was about to start not just another job, but a job that I still look back on with pride and fondness.  I did become a supervisor in less than a month, and it was a grand experience.    More to come in future posts…


Angels and Demons

Emma and Jenna by the Fontana di Quattro Fiumi (Bernini)

And the demons won, at least logistically.    We had a busy day planned.  I was to do an Angels and Demons tour at 1:00, and a seminar on Vico at the Colosseum at 7:00.   Some students went to a concert designed to mix the art of Caravaggio and the music of his era, exploring the connections between music and art.   Others had a seminar on Catullus and Roman poetry.    Those went very well, and the Caravaggio + music concert was combined with a lecture in English that fit perfectly with the themes of this course; Steve and the students who went were enthused.

For me, the day just didn’t work out.   I didn’t realize that the main churches on my tour were closed between noon and 3:00, and thus we couldn’t go in and see the art work.   When I got to the Colosseum at 6:40 to scope out a seminar space only two showed up.  They reported others were interested, but were scattered in Rome.   We decided to reschedule and they left.   As I was leaving four others showed up, but it was getting late, and I didn’t want the two punctual ones to miss out.    So basically my stuff flopped today.   I am going to do the Angels and Demons walking tour again tomorrow at 3:30, and work Vico into a final seminar tomorrow evening.

Diana and Chris were ready for the Vico/broad look at history seminar, but we rescheduled

I will describe the walking tour today, but I may get better pictures when I repeat the walk tomorrow.

Angels and Demons is a novel by Dan Brown later made into the movie.   In that film a group called the Illuminati are alleged to have kidnapped four Cardinals just as the College of Cardinals was about to go into conclave to elect a new Pope.  The four were the top candidates for the job and in the story they are assassinated one by one in holy sites around Rome, with Tom Hanks following clues to try to stop the killing and ultimately save the Church.   The tour was to use the connection students have with the film or book to help them learn more about the people and history behind these places.

The first stop (based on the fact our hotel is near Termini) was at Santa Maria della Vittoria, where the Bernini sculpture “St. Teresa in Ecstasy” is located.   This statue was inspired by Saint Teresa of Avila, a Spanish mystic who was part of the counter-reformation.   She emphasized the importance of a contemplative life mystically connected with God through constant mental prayer (as opposed to ritual spoken prayer, which was the norm those days).   Once while ill she described an emotional experience of becoming one with God during her prayers, feeling “excessive” and “sweet” pain, on fire with the love of God, after having a gold spear thrust into her.

Due to her life of works she was canonized in 1622 and in 1970 Pope Paul VI made her a “Doctor of the Church.”   The language St. Teresa uses to describe her experience can be read as akin to a sexual encounter, and many thought that Bernini tried to capture not just the ecstasy of God’s love but Theresa in the throes of an orgasm.  This made the sculpture at times controversial, and of course fed into the  Angels and Demons story.

Next we took the subway to Flaminio, where the church Santa Maria del Popolo is located.   Named for the poplar trees that used to stand there, it’s a beautiful little church and a piazza defined by a large obelisk.   Inside on the left is the Chigi chapel.  (Again, we’ll have to come back Sunday to visit it)    The chapel was designed by Raphael (1483-1520), completed later by Bernini (1598-1680), who also supplied sculpture.    A beautiful high renaissance work, the chapel’s design, involving pyramids, signs of the zodiac and other things that seem odd for a Christian church now, lends itself to Dan Brown’s story.

At the closed Maria del Popolo

Both the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, our next stops, were parts of ancient Rome.  Piazza Navona was called Circus Agonalis (the name seems to have evolved from agone to navone and finally navona), where games were held.   Its centerpiece is the famouns Bernini sculpture “Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi.”   In the story the final candidate for Pope was rescued from drowning in that fountain.   We discussed how both the Pantheon and Piazza Navona have changed through time, but help bridge the gap between ancient and present.   Rome’s personality is still shaped by the attributes from ancient Rome.

We also viewed  Castel Sant’Angelo.  It was the mausoleum for Hadrian and was constructed by 139 AD, about the same time the Pantheon was built.   As Rome declined it was transformed into a military fortress in 410.   Popes would often take refuge there in the tumult after the fall of Rome, and Pope Nicolas III had a pathway built between the fort and the papal apartments to make it easier for the Pope to flee to the safety of this gigantic fortress.   Connecting to past seminars, the pathway was built during the time of Aquinas (1200s), Dante had Nicolas III condemned to the third Bolgia of the Eighth circle of  hell for bribery, and the pathway was used during the sack of Rome in 1527, just after Machiavelli’s death.

We also discussed a bit about the story line of the book/film, namely the role of the Illuminati.   There was a group with that name founded in Ingolstadt, Germany in 1776, clearly long after Raphael, Galileo and Bernini were dead.  We shifted the discussion away from conspiracy theories to the lingering and yet unresolved tension between the secular and the sacred.

Behind the students the passageway from the Vatican connects to Castel Sant'Angelo

What gives Brown such fodder for his stories is that in that era intellectuals were starting to discover a world that couldn’t be explained completely by church doctrine.    For artists and scholars the real, material, human world was becoming more important, yielding a quiet rebellion against church authority in the Catholic world.  After 1517 there would be a century of open rebellion and war from the protestants.

The intellectuals didn’t doubt the existence of God — how could a world like this come into existence without a creator?    The question of ‘where did God come from’ was brushed aside because only in the material world do you need an act of creation.   Yet they were questioning key tenets of Christian faith and recognizing corruption and hypocrisy in the Church.

Fears of punishment during the counter-reformation and concern about just staying employed meant that doubts and dissent had to be quiet, often in small secret societies that could meet and talk about things in private that could have led to severe consequences of made public.    They may even have had hidden messages and small conspiracies, but probably nothing too dramatic.   After all, even in Brown’s story the Illuminati are ultimately not the villains, and may not be real.

Still, I find Angels and Demons to be a useful book and film in opening the door to get students to think about the sites in Rome differently, to want to learn more about them, and to discuss the tension between the sacred and secular that persists to this day.   One can quibble about errors and the license he uses to make the story interesting, but anything that can engage people with the past and want to learn more is very welcome!

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The Plan

Friday night we saw Adjustment Bureau with Matt Damon and Emily Oivia Leah Blunt.   In the film, a romantic suspense drama, Damon stumbles on the fact that a group of beings are charged with keeping humanity on a plan written by “the Chairman,” who one gets the impression is the equivalent of God.   Vague about the details, these “adjusters” come in and make subtle changes in our minds and situations, forging coincidences, changes of mind (though they can’t mess with personality and emotion — they can only subtly adjust how people reason) and use probability to make sure humanity doesn’t veer from the plan.

It’s not like there is no free will.   As long as we are not causing events which cause the plan for humanity as a whole to progress as expected we can make lots of different choices.    We have a lot of choice, but we cannot defy fate — if one is meant to play a particular role, that will happen one way or another.

Yet it had an interesting twist.   When Matt Damon asks about free will, he’s told that they tried that.  At the height of the Roman Empire “they” decided humans could try it on their own.  The dark ages resulted and civilization collapsed.  So they intervened again and gave us the enlightenment, and in 1910 decided to let us try it on our own.   That brought two world wars, the holocaust and the arms race.   The decided to intervene with a new plan after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The international relations person in me thought “gee, talk about ethnocentric, the plan apparently only involves the West.”  But there was something intriguing in that whole story line.   The conclusion actually reminded me of some of my thoughts on the Sophie Scholl movie I mentioned a few days ago.  (By the way, if you didn’t read the comic Uzza linked to in the comment section of that post, you should check it out — I’ve forwarded it to all the faculty at the university and am going to use that to get students to reflect on what they would do — thanks, Uzza!)

First, a thought experiment.   What if there were entities, or a God, who had the power to twist fate to avoid the worst catastrophes, or at least to force us to learn from them?   This entity could plop Romeo Dallaire into Rwanda so there would be a witness to humanity’s failure in that genocide and limit the damage our propensity towards fear and hatred create.   Usually free will and fate are put forth as a dichotomy — we have one but not the other.  In reality free will is never absolute, fate is always a product of circumstance and probability, even with no interventions.   If there were some intervening force giving us a modicum of free will even as we were kept on a plan, would that ultimately be better than giving us total free will and letting our inability to handle our fears and impulses run amok?

People would be tempted to say yes.   That’s what in fact they yearn for when they pray to God or Allah for some kind of help — to provide for the people in Japan suffering after the Tsunami or to save a young child’s life from a debilitating disease.   And even if you want to say that’s not God intervening in peoples’ minds, what about prayers to help a loved one have the strength to overcome an addiction, or to get a cold hearted leader to have some compassion?

The conclusion added a level to this (I won’t give away the plot).   One character reflects that maybe free will is something humans have to learn to fight for, to not just go along with the plan, but be able to risk everything to truly live the life they want to live, on their own terms.   With that the film suddenly seemed not just about a fancy God-light entity guiding human development, but about conformity.

You see, there is indeed a plan.  It’s embedded in our culture and daily routines.    We’ve made that plan through our practices over centuries.   And just as the plan can be re-written in the film (apparently it has gone through multiple versions), we alter the plan created by those who came before us every time we question the culture and status quo we were born into and take steps to change it.    To the extent we conform to expectations we follow the plan, and our lives are not truly our own.  We may think we’re making rational choices, un-manipulated and clear headed.   Or we may cleverly think that we like the plan and are choosing to follow it.    But if it’s based on conformity (an inner fear of not being accepted, not being liked, or some how not doing the ‘right’ thing), then it truly is not from inside.   We are letting the external shape our internal self.   That dehumanizes, and makes us more automatons than individual humans.

Which is the point of the comic Uzza pointed too — Sophie Scholl was true to herself, Traudl Junge was not.   There may not be a “plan” enforced by drably suited bureaucrats with the power to intervene in our mental processes and create coincidences and accidents.  But if we don’t look inside, conquer fear, live as we truly believe it is right to live, following our conscience and inner voice, then there may as well be.


A Movie You Must See

A short blog entry today to recommend everyone go to netflix and rent The Last Days of Sophie Scholl.   It is a German film (Sophie Scholl – die letzten Tagen), and it is very powerful.  I wrote a blog entry about it two years ago called ‘moral courage,’ so I won’t repeat here what I said there.

It is the kind of film that draws not tears of joy or sadness, but the tears which come when witnessing true moral strength and clarity, the kind of behavior that speaks to the most noble and honest aspects of humanity.   The film is set in her last six days of life, from her arrest to her execution.  It is based on real transcripts of her interrogation, and interviews with others involved.    Her faith, sense of honesty, and ability to see the situation with moral clarity while others are deluded or simply taking the easy path by conforming to expectations should cause all of us to look inside and ask if we have that capacity to see truth and stand by it.

The issues that come out in the court room, her interrogation, and her reflections are intense and powerful.   The acting of Julia Jentsch is riveting and persuasive.    Words cannot do justice to this film, you simply have to watch it.    In a culture where ethics and morality seem devalued, where uncertainty takes relativism almost to the state of nihilism, this film is a powerful affirmation that there is such a thing as truth, moral clarity is possible, and when it is on display, immensely beautiful.


May the Force Be With You

Star Wars quotes have invaded recent blog entries for a reason.    For the last month the boys have been nearly addicted to the Wii Lego Star Wars game, working through the stories, building Minkits, buying characters, etc.  They know the name of places, characters and battles better than I do.    You know it’s something when your just turned five year old son asks for help on a video game, and you have to say “you know how to play this better than me.”   Luckily, he can turn to his seven year old brother who is an expert for help.

Of course, they also wanted to see the movies, and last weekend Dana (the five year old) had me talking like Obi Wan, while he pretended to be either Anakin or Yoda.  I realized I was losing myself in these fantasies when I talked like Obi Wan to the cashier at the grocery store.  Last night Jon Stewart comes back from his holiday break and wouldn’t you know it — the first bit is a nice comparison of Barack Obama to Luke Skywalker.

Finding myself drawn in, I re-read a book I got over a decade ago called “Empire Building,” by Gary Jenkins, giving the history of the Star Wars effort, and a short bio on George Lucas.   The book was released just before the new trilogy came out, and I was pleased to read that George Lucas said the series was really about Anakin’s redemption.   That was cool since I wrote a blog post titled “Anakin’s Redemption” a couple weeks ago!    It’s pretty remarkable how a film that many at Fox studios thought a waste of money ended up becoming such a cultural icon.

Why has the movie become so iconic?  The conventional wisdom holds that in an era where dark, realistic and psychologically deep (and depressing) films were the norm, Star Wars came forth with optimism and a simple ‘good vs. evil’ message that spoke to the inner child in all of us.   Moreover, it was fun, an escape from reality.  The heroes were likable, the villains were clearly evil, and there wasn’t a lot of complexity.    Obi-Wan and Yoda’s bits of wisdom were short and succinct, patterned after zen phrases rather than complex moral dramas.

Of course, the three ‘prequels’ that came between 1999 and 2005 added more special effects and complexity to the story, as we got to watch Anakin Skywalker slip towards the dark side.   And, at a time when the US was over-reacting to terrorism and President Bush embraced war in defiance of the world community, the story of a Republic morphing into an empire out of contrived fear seemed close to home.   When Anakin says “if you are not with me, then you are my enemy,” and Obi-Wan replies “Only the Sith deal in absolutes,” Lucas provides a very political statement!

But the reason I think Star Wars became the most successful movie of its era may be because of the spiritual world view of the Jedi — “the force.”   George Lucas calls himself a “Buddhist Methodist,” and one can see the mix of Christian and eastern ideals in the Jedi vision of the world.

Consider some of Yoda’s quotes:

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

“Do or do not… there is no try.”

“Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship.”

“Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealously. The shadow of greed, that is.”

When Luke skeptically says “I can’t believe it,” Yoda replies “That is why you fail.”

“Remember, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware. Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side are they. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”

“You will know (the good side of the force): when you are calm, at peace, passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.”

And my favorite: “Train yourself to let go of the things you fear to lose.”

Or as Obi Wan (Alec Guinness) put it: “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”

Also Obi Wan: “Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

Back a couple years ago I wrote that I thought we needed a new axial age, a fundamental shifting in how we look at faith, religion and philosophy.  I think Star Wars is so powerful because its moral voice reflects truths which transcend particular religions and world views.  The action and story line is connected by an understated yet dominate moral thread: the force.   There is a good side and a bad side.  The dark side comes from fear, and is associated with hate, death, and anger.  The good side comes from a calm, clear vision, with self-mastery and perspective.    The dark side is confused, doubting, impatient, and discontent.   It is suffering. The light side is confident, patient, and does not over-react.   It is love.   There is a spiritual, psychological and practical wisdom in Lucas’ simple yet elegant “force.”

Without the “force,” Star Wars might have been a hit, but may not have been the world wide blockbuster it became.    It speaks to core values that unite us,  transcending the different religious myths and stories that divide us.  And, of course, the core value of forgiveness is present in how Anakin Skywalker, even after engaging in massive atrocities, such as murdering Jedi children and committing genocide, is redeemed through his sons’ faith that he still had good inside him.

May the force be with you.