"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Holiday: We Accept the Love We Think We Deserve

Two women suffering from unfaithful boyfriends swap homes in California and Britain, respectively, where they each meet a local guy and fall in love. By unfaithful, I don’t necessarily mean cheating; rather, the cheating variety can be situated within the larger category of not committing to love one person completely and with fullness of heart. Such is the plot of The Holiday (2006), a film that is essentially about five good people. As the three unfaithful people are pruned out, the viewer is left with an optimistic feeling about human beings being capable of emotional intimacy.


The film opens with Amanda Woods finally getting confirmation that Ethan has been sleeping with a coworker. In fact, the deceitful guy is in love with the other woman. Frozen emotionally from the pain of witnessing her parents split up many years earlier, Amanda cannot bring herself even to cry. In an idyllic hope to get over the hurt by spending Christmas in Europe, she swaps houses with Iris Simpkins. Iris is in love with Jasper Bloom, whose engagement to a coworker takes Iris by surprise. Faced with the excruciating hurt from being in love with someone who has chosen someone else, Iris too goes with the idyllic hope that a few weeks in Los Angeles will lessen or remove the pain.

In England, Amanda meets Iris’s brother, Graham, who does not take long to fall for her. His love is real. Indeed, a deep connection can be sensed up front without meaning it is merely a crush. I think such connections can exist from the start, rather than necessarily coming about only after two people grow together. Amanda is paralyzed deep down, but she finally melts at the last minute and the two are together on New Year’s Eve.

In Southern California, Iris befriends Miles, and their mutually growing interest reflects perhaps a more subtle connection that can “fly under the radar” without detection. Arthur Abbott, a retired screenwriter and neighbor whom Iris befriends, sees the connection before either Iris or Miles, and Arthur’s good nature shows through as he acts as a catalyst. Even so, Iris is distracted by Jasper, who keeps in contact with her for selfish, inconsiderate reasons, and Miles still has feelings for his ex-girlfriend, whom he discovers has been cheating on him. She finally shuts the door (literally) on Jasper when he was visiting her in Los Angeles, and Miles refuses to give Sophie a second chance. Once trust has been sliced apart by not enough love on one end, even the other person being very much in love is not sufficient to heal the ruptured intimacy. Love must be mutual, or it is bound to go off kilter and crash.

In The Holiday, the people who are strong enough in character to say yes to emotional intimacy with one person above all others win the day. The film presents a world in which good people rise above the chaff. Life is not one big picnic with noodle salad for those people; Iris, Amanda, and Miles must struggle, for instance, to overcome their respective feelings for people of a lesser god—wounded souls who for whatever reasons cannot or will not overcome their inner demons and come the rest of the way to adult intimacy. As the last scene shows, much carefree freedom goes with the mutual intimacy, whereas the freedom of the deceivers is illusory, for they are trapped in souls too afraid to grow.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Little Women: Strong in Death and Love

Little Women (1994), based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott, can be thought of as a social history of civil-war-era New England—that is to say, the film captures what life must have been like on a daily basis. Yet the human predicament resonates and thus makes the film moving for viewers far removed from the world of the Marsh family in Concord, Massachusetts. In particular, the film confronts the viewer with the hard task of going on even with the emotionally heavy experience of loss.


The film presents the uneasy feeling of “ending” through two manifestations: death and love. Regarding the former, the Marsh family, and especially Jo, must come to terms with the loss of Beth. With a weakened heart from a fever and minutes from death, Beth tells her sister Jo, “I know I will be lonely for you, even in heaven.” Jo’s realization after the death that she will never see Beth is so hard that she writes a novel of her childhood as a means of vicariously holding on to Beth. It is difficult indeed to come to terms with never again seeing a person who has meant so much. This is true too in romantic love when it is as if fate has brought two people together, and yet one demurs and the other must accept the loss.

“You don’t need scores of suitors; you only need one, if he’s the right one,” young Amy Marsh advises her three older sisters.  When a beloved is felt to be “the one,” the forced return to life without that person can feel like a long prison sentence. Few people rise to such a rank; they can be few and far between—which is a testament to their tremendous value. So much distance, in other words, exists between “getting in” and “never to be seen again” that the heart struggles to make the journey.

In rejecting Laurie’s proposal of marriage, Jo feels that she will never find “the one” tailored to her, for she is rather unique as an independent writer in the nineteenth century. Faced with the unfathomable distance between loving Jo and never seeing her again, Laurie marries Jo’s younger sister Amy. At first, she resists, saying she will not date someone still in love with her sister.  Laurie denies it of course, telling Amy, “I have always known I should be part of the Marsh family.” Amy eventually agrees to marry him, and he need not face the prospect of never again seeing someone who has meant so much to him. Although he need not face such a hard sentence, his chosen path back to “just friends” with Jo is not easy.

The transition that Laurie undergoes in his relation to Jo is not one that many people in Laurie’s emotional place can make. Once you start falling in love with a person, it is nearly impossible to going back to just being roommates, for example. Once you discover that the person you are falling for is not falling for  you, continuing as "just friends" almost certainly goes with much pain, especially if the one you love starts dating someone else. 

Fortunately for Jo Marsh, she finds love in Friedrich, a poor academic tutor from Europe. That he is much older than her and comes with empty hands (i.e., not much wealth) are of no concern to Jo, as she really loves him. Putting her hands in his, she tells him that his empty hands are full now. That's love, which transcends, and thus relativizes, all those criteria that seem important in the absence of love but suddenly pale in comparison when a deep connection is felt. 

Life goes on even amid deaths and loves lost—and even love takes hold in spite of it all. This is the message conveyed by Little Women. Facing the prospect of their father’s possible death in battle and Beth’s weakened heart, the little women are hardly little; and years later, in going on after Beth has died, knowing they would never again see her, Meg, Jo, and Amy are hardly little women. Jo is hardly little when she wraps her heart around poor Friedrich. Life is indeed not only the struggle for existence as Darwin postulated; it is also the plight of the elusive yet very deep meaning felt as two people come together as if by instinct. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Advise and Consent

A film that centers on the U.S. Senate’s role in confirming executive nominations made by the president, Advise and Consent (1962) is arguably about whether moral limits pertain to power.  Put another way, should we expect no-hold barred efforts to manipulate others in the political arena? Personal lives and personal pasts being fair game?  Moreover, is the aim power for its own sake, or the manipulation of others for the sake of a public policy and ultimately the good of the country?


The narrative begins with president’s nomination of Robert Leffingwell reaching the U.S. Senate for confirmation. The Majority Leader supports the nominee out of support for the dying president. The Leader appoints Sen. Brig Anderson to chair the subcommittee that is to hold the hearing. Brig is more concerned that the process be fair and competent than that Leffingwell be confirmed. Sen. Fred Van Ackerman strongly supports Leffingwell because the nominee is for peace in an otherwise harshly anti-communist climate brimming with a penchant for war. Sen. Seabright Cooley, on the other hand, strongly opposes the nominee both  out of a personal vendetta and a concern that he would give away too much for peace.

As the plot thickens, Sen. Anderson learns that Leffingwell lied under oath during the hearing. The senator pressures the president to withdrawal the nominee. The Majority Leader and of course Sen. Cooley support Brig’s decision to delay the subcommittee’s vote until it can be determined why the nominee lied. Sen. Van Ackerman is incensed, however, sensing that Sen. Anderson has turned against the nominee. Van Ackerman realizes he is excessively anxious in the cause of peace, but he goes ahead anyway with what he has uncovered of Brig’s long-past (likely drunken) gay encounter with a friend while in the army. Scared that the blackmailer will expose the skeleton, Anderson slits his throat in his office bathroom. It does not take long for the other senators to discover that Van Ackerman was behind the blackmail and that the president had no knowledge of it. Sen. Cooley, however, did know of it and let it go on in hopes that he could stop it in exchange for Sen. Anderson’s agreeing to oppose the nominee. The Majority Leader tells Cooley that he has gone too far, and this prompts the veteran senator to acknowledge on the Senate floor that part of his motive was his grudge against Leffingwell for having made him look bad four years earlier. Cooley also unbinds senators pledged to vote against the nominee. The Majority Leader in turn unbinds his senators, given the blackmail and suicide, and lets Van Ackerman know that he will not be expelled only because doing so would involve tainting Brig Anderson’s legacy. In other words, Van Ackerman is relegated to a sort of domestic exile in the Senate.

From an ethical perspective, the most transparent line is between political deals to get votes and going into a senator’s personal life to force a senator to vote a certain way. The film illustrates that even such a clear ethical line is like a semi-permeable membrane in the political arena. The fact that the sordid variety of political manipulation can be easily done anonymously makes enforcement difficult at best. Even so, at least the punishment for crossing the line can be strengthened such that it may act as more of a deterrent.

A more difficult ethical assessment lies in how the senators should vote on the Senate floor. The Majority Leader, for instance, favors confirmation even as he strongly opposes Sen. Van Ackerman’s use of blackmail to force a vote as soon as possible so the nominee could be confirmed before the news of his past attendance at a communist group on a college campus could be made public. Should the Majority stick by his friend, the sick president, and vote yes, or is not giving Van Ackerman what he wants (i.e., confirmation of Leffingwell) more important? Sen. Lafe Smith, who had been friends with Brig, votes no. The Majority Leader decides that giving the sick president the secretary of state that he wants is more important; after all, the Leader did unbind the senators pledged to vote yes. Sen. Cooley votes no, legitimately out of a philosophical difference he has with Leffingwell on the place of the U.S. in negotiating with the U.S.S.R.

 If the ethical denoument makes sense but you still feel that the blackmailer got off easy, I’m with you. Generally speaking, the view that aspiring politicians should expect the “hard knocks” of politics is ubiquitous. “You have to expect that your opponents will go after you,” a veteran politician might say to a first-time campaigner. I question this advice, as it leads to society and its government going light on efforts to “destroy” political opponents by using their personal lives (and respective pasts) against them.  It is hard, therefore, to keep “attacks” to the level of policy and office-conduct. Even the common use of words like destroy and attack point to an excessiveness in how political behavior is construed.

The question may therefore be how to raise standards when doing so involves a reconceptualization of politics. That is to say, what we as a people typically take for granted as politics would have to be changed in order that norms and enforcement mechanisms change as well. The strengthened focus on policy alone would be a boon to the viability of any republic. In debates, for example, efforts at a sustained back-and-forth on a given policy often fall to personal attacks with impunity from the moderators. A reconceptualization of politics could make it more costly to a candidate to interlard such attacks rather than concentrate on a sustained line of thought on a given policy domain.


In short, the assumption that politics naturally sinks to its most base level in the political arena can be linked back to how politics itself is understood. After all, it is easy to conclude that politics rules in its own arena and can thus legitimately run its own course, within the law of course. However, politics is that which makes law. Is politics therefore subject ultimately only to itself? If so, then we should expect that anything goes in its own arena. Yet if a moral limit rightfully exists in the human psyche on how far political manipulation should reach, then simply throwing our hands up in a sort of feckless impotence tacitly in favor of the status quo is no answer, for a line must surely be drawn somewhere. If just drawing it is too much for a self-governing people, its republics surely cannot be perpetual. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Monsignor

Monsignor, a film made in 1982—in the midst of a very pro-business administration in Washington, D.C.—depicts a Vatican steeped in matters of finance centering around a priest whose degree in finance makes him a prime candidate to be groomed for the Curia. That cleric, Father John Flaherty, helps the Vatican operating budget during World War II by involving the Holy See in the black market through a mafia. In the meantime, he sleeps with a woman who is preparing to be a nun and subsequently keeps from her the matter of his religious vocation. The twist is not that Flaherty is a deeply flawed priest, or that the Vatican he serves is vulnerable to corruption inside, but that those clerics who mercilessly go after him are devoid of the sort of compassion that their savior preaches.


The pope, exquisitely played by Leonardo Cimino, demonstrates how upper-echelon leadership can transcend the managerial foci that so preoccupy partisans. Put another way, the social distance that tends to come with organizational figure-heads can give “the big picture” characteristic of “having perspective” some role in seeing to it that narrow organizational politics do not have the last say even in terms of what the criteria are to be. I suspect that too many CEOs go with the advice from their subordinates, and thus unwittingly buy into the managerial criteria charged with garden-variety one-upmanship. In such cases, organizational politics triumphs over what is really important from the standpoint of organizational mission statements.

In the film, the pope presides over the traditionalist cleric’s castigation of Flaherty . The pope later reads of Flaherty’s sordid deeds, and then speaks with the man presumably condemned. Rather than defend himself, Flaherty says, in effect, “guilty as charged!” Rather than take Flaherty’s misconduct as the most telling facet of the case, the pope observes that the traditionalist’s tone was that of jealousy, without any hint of sympathy for his brother in faith. The traditionalist’s utter lack of brotherly love stands out in retrospect to the pope as further from Christ, hence more serious, than Flaherty’s corruption. This prioritizing of values is made known to the viewer with the sight of Flaherty’s mentor, rather than the head traditionalist, as the next pope. In fact, the mentor reinstalls Flaherty in the Vatican after the contrite yet corrupt priest has spent some years in exile at a monastery. The film ends with the two men embracing, with facial expressions revealing true brotherly love—a real contrast from the cold, stern expressions of the traditionalists who had been so confident that the “prosecution” of Flaherty would result in one of their own as pope.

The message presented by the film is therefore that in a religion in which God is love, hardness in place of brotherly love is without any legitimacy whatsoever; it is worse than unethical conduct. This is one way of saying that religion does not reduce to ethics because more important things are involved. This is not to excuse corruption in the Vatican; the hypocrisy alone is repugnant to anyone who takes the clerics in the Curia at their word that they are following Christ in their living out of the Gospel. Even so, going after such hypocrisy without even sympathy for the human nature, which we all share, evokes the Pharisees whom Jesus goes after in the Gospels. A Church run by Pharisees does more than unethical conduct to undercut the faith espoused by Jesus because matters of the heart are more deeply rooted than conduct as far as Jesus’s preaching is concerned. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Heaven Is For Real: Applying Kierkegaard to a Film

In Heaven Is For Real (2014), a film based on Todd Burpo’s best-selling non-fiction book of the same title, the evangelical Christian minister becomes convinced that his son, Colton, actually visited heaven while in surgery. Todd cannot make his faith-held belief intelligible to even his wife, Sonja. She misunderstands her husband and questions his obsession and even his sanity until Colton tells her something about heaven that applies to her uniquely. Then both parents are uniquely related in an absolute way through faith to the absolute—to the absurd, in Kierkegaard’s parlance. How Todd deals with his realization can be unpacked by applying the work of the nineteenth-century European philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard.



Before Sonja comes to believe in the impossible, a formidable wall stands between her and her husband as he grapples with whether to take heaven literally and comes to believe that Colton has been there.  “I’m sorry I can’t help you,” Sonja tells him at one point. His relation to the absolute, the impossible, has become isolating, for such a relation is individualized, according to Kierkegaard, and incommunicable to others.

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard dissects the Biblical story of Abraham being prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. Essentially, Abraham goes above the ethical to embrace an absurd impossibility by faith. Faced with God's demand of sacrificing Isaac and God's promise that Abraham's seed will spread, Abraham has faith in the impossible on the strength of the absurd (i.e., that God will somehow present the old man with another child to fulfil the promise). It is absurd for God to have Abraham sacrifice his only offspring and yet promise that Abraham’s seed will populate the nations, yet somehow Abraham embraces this impossibility.

Kierkegaard contends that such an apparent impossibility held by faith cannot be communicated. A “knight of faith” must therefore be isolated in this respect. This is part of the price he or she pays for violating the ethical on the strength of the absurd, which transcends but does not obviate the ethical dimension. "Abraham is silent--but he cannot speak, therein lies the distress and anguish. For [Abraham might say] if when I speak I cannot make myself understood, I do not speak even if I keep talking without stop day and night. . . . The relief of speech is that it translates me into the universal."[1] By the universal, Kierkegaard has ethical principles in mind, for they are on the universal level because they are known inter-subjectively and thus can be understood by others.

For example, a person who resists the temptation to take more than his share of a food can be understood by others as doing so on the basis of fairness. This ethical principle is widely known, so a person acting ethically can appeal to fairness in justifying his or her action. In intending to violate his ethical duty to care for his son, Abraham no longer has access to ethical principles; a person of faith is alone, without recourse to shared understandings and thus support from other people. The paradox or impossibility embraced by faith "cannot be mediated,” Kierkegaard contends, “because it is based on the single individual's being, in his particularity, higher than the universal."[2]  A knight of faith, unlike an ethical hero, gives up recourse to intersubjective (i.e., universally understood) ethical principles; making matters worse, because the impossibility is particular to the individual (i.e., the faith is applied to a particular situation), it cannot be made intelligible for this reason too. God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac; it is not as if every man has the same demand and can thus stand in Abraham’s shoes. Therefore, Kierkegaard writes, "The true knight of faith is always [in] absolute isolation.”[3]

As effectively depicted in the film, Todd Burpo suffers from such isolation as he grapples with what his son is telling him and concludes that heaven is for real, rather than imaginary— a dream, fairy tale, or myth. That is to say, he takes heaven’s existence literally, rather than figuratively. Not only is Todd not understood; he is misunderstood, which puts him in a tight spot. Nancy Rawling, a member of the church’s board that oversees the minister, Todd, tells him that his obsession is hurting the church. Besides his leaves of absence, Nancy has a problem with what he is preaching. Underneath, she resents God for taking her son but allowing Colton to live. She does not know Todd’s isolated pain, and thus is jealous.

Before Sonja is convinced that Colton really did visit heaven, she chastises her husband for being sidetracked from cares of this world, including most notably their family. She does not understand that the absolute paradox of existence that so grips her husband is really about their family—Todd comes to this realization only at the end of the film.

Colton tells Todd, for example, that he sat on Pop’s (Todd’s maternal grandfather) lap in heaven. This sends Todd into a frantic search for pictures of the man. When Colton recognizes a boyhood picture, Todd is face to face with the absurd. “That’s impossible,” he says. “Everyone is young in heaven,” Colton explains matter-of-factly. Todd does not notice the inconsistency in one boy sitting on the lap of another boy roughly of the same age, or the convenience for Colton in everyone in heaven being approximately his age.[4]
  
Even Colton’s sister who died in the womb is Colton’s age in heaven. That a baby who had not made it out of the womb in life would exist as a girl Colton’s age in heaven is an absurdity that Sonja initially decries as impossible; but that Colton knows of the miscarriage, presumably from his visit, convinces his mother that her son had actually been in heaven, and, moreover, that heaven is real, literally. From her cognitive conclusion, Sonja suddenly has faith in the impossible. Even though Todd also believes that Colton spoke with the unnamed daughter in heaven, he and Sonja find they can only embrace without words on the strength of the absurd that transcends understanding.  The wholly other is finally ineffable; we are left with the experience of yearning beyond the limits of human cognition and perception.

Seeking nonetheless to be understood and to spread his new faith sourced in his particular circumstance, Todd feels the need to preach on heaven as literal—even inviting radio listeners to come hear him at his church on the next Sunday. “You don’t have to save the world; that’s already been done,” Nancy had already warned the evangelical minister. Kierkegaard warns that a false knight of faith is sectarian.[5] Todd’s partiality—his mission to get others to accept the absurd in spite of his unique vantage-point—stems from the obsession and feeds off pride. In his sermon, Todd claims that love demands telling people that they are loved. Does it? Might this be as much presumptuous as it is compassionate? Maybe love more naturally issues simply in being witnessed rather than being told.  In any case, his Augustinian conclusion from heaven being real (rather than imaginary) that God is love, and therefore that we should love one another, is hardly harmful, and it closes the gap that existed, when he wrestled with the absurd, between his preoccupation with heaven and tending to the people in this world.

Kierkegaard’s knight of faith "is the paradox [;] he is the individual, absolutely nothing but the individual, without connections and complications. This is the terror that the puny sectarian cannot endure. Instead of learning from this that he is incapable of greatness and plainly admitting it, . . . the poor wretch thinks he will achieve it by joining company with other poor wretches.”[6] Hence, Todd advertising his upcoming sermon on heaven to radio listeners can be taken as an attempt to pivot off the insecurity of a faith-based isolation by trying to convince other people of the veracity of his claim and being oriented to how they should live accordingly.

Kierkegaard tells us,

A knight of faith “is assigned to himself along [;] he has the pain of being unable to make himself intelligible to others but feels no vain desire to show others the way. . . . The false knight readily betrays himself by this instantly acquired proficiency; he just doesn't grasp the point that if another individual is to walk the same path he has to be just as much the individual and is therefore in no need of guidance, least of all from one anxious to press his services on others. Here again, people unable to bear the martyrdom of unintelligibility jump off the path, and choose instead, conveniently enough, the world's admiration of their proficiency. The true knight of faith is a witness, never a teacher, and in this lies the deep humanity in him which is more worth than this foolish concern for others' weal and woe which is honoured under the name of sympathy, but which is really nothing but vanity. A person who wants only to be a witness confesses thereby that no one, not even the least, needs another person's sympathy, or is to be put down so another can raise himself up."[7]
Todd expects his distended congregation to accept his faith-claim even though the minister came to it out of his particular relations. In fact, Todd goes on to tell them how they should live accordingly. He dismisses, in effect, the innate unintelligibility of the absurd. It is possible, nevertheless, that Colton’s visit is a dream or hallucination. After all, the book tells of Colton describing Jesus sitting on a throne just to the right of God—an image that fits with Todd’s evangelical paradigm. Interestingly, Colton’s repeated emphasis on heaven being beautiful does not necessarily point to, or require, a literal interpretation. Moreover, the meaning, and sense of spiritual well-being that the boy gets from the experience would not be diminished had he actually been dreaming or hallucinating—the latter from a hormone released by the human brain in the process of dying yet not dead.[8] In turning to preaching his message, Todd is vulnerable to building a house of cards on a fiction.

Kierkegaard’s false knight is plagued by pride, and is too weak to leverage the strength of the absurd into a sustained faith that can withstand the solitude of intelligibility and the ever-present possibility of non-existence (i.e., the visit being a fiction). The figure is akin to Nietzsche’s ascetic priest—a voluntarily-weakened bird of prey that is too weak to resist its (dominating) urge to feel the pleasure of power by dominating others. Telling others how to live by bracketing off areas of strength by Thou Shalt Nots, the weak herd animals who nonetheless seek to dominate are not strong enough to accept their inner constitution of weakness. They are not of true faith, and yet their herd follows them as if purblind. Were Todd content to be a  witness to love simply by loving, he would not feel the need to save the world on the word of his son. As Nancy points out, God’s Son has already done that.



[1] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (Penguin Books: London, 1985), p. 137.
[2] Ibid., p. 109.
[3] Ibid., p. 106.
[4] Colton may have been dreaming—sitting on his great grandfather’s lap without seeing the man’s face then suddenly the man is a boy like Colton.
[5] Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, p. 106.
[6] Ibid., p. 107.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh have studied the hormone and found it to have such a property. As for common images, we can look to cultural (i.e., shared) myths and the related archetypes (e.g., Jesus with a beard—an image that came about in the early Middle Ages—Jesus being represented as clean-shaven in the ancient Roman, or Patristic, epoch of Christianity).

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Gandhi: A Film that Teaches

Film is indeed an art form, but the medium can also function as a teacher in how it conveys values and wisdom. Both of these features of film are salient in Gandhi (1982), whose director, Richard Attenborough, says in his audio commentary that the film has done much keep Gandhi’s philosophy alive in the world. In using the film’s star protagonist to explain what is behind his approach, viewers become, in effect, students. The strength of film here lies in its use of both audio and visual means to engrave the lessons in memories. In Gandhi, the main concept to be explained and illustrated is nonviolent active non-cooperation or defiance of unjust laws or regimes.


In a speech to his fellow Indians, Gandhi declares, “We must defy the British.” The crowd erupts. “Not with violence,” he explains, that will inflame their will, but with a firmness that will open their eyes.” He then advocates burning clothes manufactured in Britain. “If you are left with one piece of homespun, then wear it with dignity!” Active, nonviolent defiance strengthens self-esteem. The strategy also has a strength that counters the force of the unjust.

For example, guards at the Salt Works hit the Indians protesting the British monopoly on salt. As the unarmed Indians walk row by row into the guards, wood swiftly comes down on heads, shoulders, and backs. “Women carried the wounded and broken bodies from the road, an American reporter reads into a phone, “until they dropped from exhaustion. But still, it went on and on.” Then, crucially, he reaches the essential point. “Whatever moral ascendancy the West held was lost here today. India is free, for she has taken all that steel and cruelty can give and she has neither cringed nor retreated.” In the voluntary taking on of suffering is a kind of invisible force that confronts the aggressors with their sense of being good rather than evil. In other words, the suffering is like a mirror making the dark side of the human psyche inexorably transparent. Not even a tyrant can put down such a squalid self-image. The image is also likely broadcasted to third parties and even the world at large, likely resulting in the very human sentiment of disapprobation, which Hume calls the moral sense. The culprits may find themselves cornered, psychologically and perhaps even politically and economically.

“I think our resistance must be active and provocative,” Gandhi tells the Congress Party leaders meeting in Jinah’s living room to strategize. “Where there’s injustice, I always believed in fighting,” Gandhi states at another point in the film. “The question is, do you fight to change things or to punish? For myself, I’ve found we’re all such sinners, we should leave punishment to God. And, if we really want to change things, there are better ways of doing things than derailing trains or slashing someone with a sword.” Nonviolent non-cooperation is geared to changing the unjust by forcing them to confront themselves.

“I wish to embarrass all those who wish to treat us as slaves. All of them,” Gandhi tells the Congress Party leaders at Jinah’s house. He then illustrates his point. Specifically, he asks the servant for the tray of tea and starts to serve “I want to change their minds, not kill them for weaknesses we all possess.” He then suggests a day of prayer and fasting, which of course would have the same impact as a general strike. The prayer and fasting are oriented to confronting a person’s own demons, while the societal discomfort draws attention to the demons plaguing the oppressors who are living comfortably while exploiting the Indians. Awareness is the first step on the road to change.

“What about very powerful tyrants like Hitler? Do you really believe you could use nonviolence against Hitler?” a photographer from Life magazine asks Gandhi in a later scene. “Not without defeats and great pain,” he replies. “But are there no defeats in [World War II]? No pain? What you cannot do is accept injustice from Hitler or from anyone. You must make the injustice visible; be prepared to die like a soldier to do so.” The strength in active nonviolent defiance is subtle, unlike that of a club or gun; the impact on the oppressor psyche is reflected in the excessive measures that it takes in reaction.

For example, Gandhi remarks at one point that “Marshal law [in Bengal] only shows how desperate the British are.” Surely some kind of force had provoked the desperation that the British rulers could not shake. The strength of Gandhi is essentially the innate ability of any human being to make force a confrontation within another person between a self-image, which can be so convenient to the self, and the demons that inhabit every person.

More broadly than in nonviolent civil disobedience, the demons plaguing another person’s soul can both be made more transparent and exculpated by means of restorative suffering. While Gandhi is on a hunger-strike to end Muslim-Hindu violence in the newly independent India, a violent Hindu man approaches Gandhi and tosses some bread on the old man’s chest.

“Here! Eat! I’m going to hell, but not with your death on my soul.” Unlike the typical oppressor, the man is already aware of his demons.

“Only God decides who goes to hell,” Gandhi retorts.

“I killed a child,” the man explains. “I smashed his head against a wall.”

“Why?”

“The Muslims killed my son! My boy.”

“I know a way out of hell,” Gandhi offers. “Find a child—a child whose mother and father have been killed . . . and raise him as your own. Only be sure he is a Muslim and that you raise him as one.”

The hardened murderer is stunned, and collapses at the foot of Gandhi’s slender bed. The great soul has given the angry sufferer a way to reintegrate his soul that is plagued with pain; in coming to see the Muslim side by raising a Muslim child, the man would come to see the other side in the societal strife and therein create space in his own soul for the otherness of the other in place of the seemingly intractable demons. For being a man of peace, Gandhi does an awful lot of fighting.

Just before Gandhi is assassinated by a fellow Hindu, he tells the photographer from Life that “(t)he only devils in the world are those running around in our own hearts, that that’s where all our battles ought to be fought.” Civic clashes are essentially projections of those which take place in the human mind between contending urges, and ought to be viewed and attacked as such by opening eyes.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Proof

If you are not careful, you could come away from the film, Proof (2005) as a scientist, for the scientific method enjoys a starring role, albeit mostly in subtle undertones rather than in stark instructional flourishes in Technicolor. Essentially, the message is that confirming proof eludes the human mind and its scientific method. Yet interestingly, the film also captures genius, even if its source cannot be proven.


The film centers around Catherine, the daughter (played by Gwyeth Paltrow) of a brilliant math professor, Robert (played by Anthony Hopkins), who went insane and died; the story takes place just after his death. The dramatic tension is both in terms of relationships and questions of fact. Concerning the former, tension is most salient between Catherine and her visiting sister, Claire. Tension also builds between Catherine and her love-interest, Hal. In flashbacks, we feel tension also between Catherine and her father. Last but certainly not least, Catherine herself is riveted with inner tension, which comes to a major decision whether to go to New York to live with Claire taking care of her or to remain in Chicago to pursue Hal and mathematical notoriety and further advancement. In short, Catherine’s inner conflict lies in whether to buy into the paradigm in which she is deemed crazy or the alternative “story line” in which her apparent craziness is actually a natural reaction to having had to deal with her messed up father and sister.

In terms of questions of fact to be resolved, Hal and Claire seek proof establishing the authorship of the breakthrough mathematical proof written in a notebook locked in Robert’s desk. The handwriting seems to be Robert’s, but it is possible that Catherine’s own resembles his as the two worked closely together on mathematics. Also, it is not clear whether Robert was sufficiently sane to reason through such a momentous proof. Proof is therefore paramount, yet as Hal admits, the author cannot be proved. The film ends with him telling Catherine that in going through the mathematical proof together, the most he could do is prove that she could not have written it. This is none other than the scientific method in action!

In science, alternative hypotheses (i.e., propositions) are eliminated. The elimination can be known with certainty—that is, proved to be false. This is all that science portends; it cannot prove the hypothesis that the scientist asserts. In shooting down alternative explanations, the hypothesis is left standing, but this does not prove it. In trying to figure out who ate the cookies left out on a kitchen counter to cool off, we can eliminate the cat, sister Susie, fat brother Scott and even fat brother Jeff. This does not mean that Skip ate the cookies. That Skip has actually lost weight and is athletic would suggest that he is not the culprit, but this too is not proof. It is possible that the dog Skip (named after the brother) jumped up on the counter and chomped up the chocolate mistakenly taking it for another dog’s poop (this does not mean that the brother known as Skip has the same habit!). In short, eliminating alternative suspects does not prove that Skip is the culprit. Even so, science says we can have greater confidence that Skip is our man. Yet is such confidence warranted? We could be overlooking another alternative entirely. Suppose we are completely unaware that a friend occasionally stops by. The only person who knows is the mother, and she isn’t talking. She would gladly let her son Skip take the rap so she could go on leading a double life.

In the film, eliminating possibilities that Catherine could not have written the proof does not mean that she wrote it. It is possible that both she and her father could have written it. Yet the viewer is left with a distinct answer—that Catherine is indeed the author. In fact, we get to see the very instant in which she had the major insight, while she was reaching in her refrigerator. Seeing genius for what it is—a break-through of ideas past those that had been log-jammed or stymied—is perhaps much more revealing, not to mention satisfying, than whether Catherine actually wrote the proof. The flashback itself functions as proof, though even here this devise is shaky due to the salience of mental illness in the film. In other words, the viewer’s assumption that the flashbacks are meant to reveal what actually happened may be faulty, and thus hardly able to support proof. I submit, therefore, that the film is really about how limited the human mind is. Philosophically, the theme is on the epistemological limits of the human brain. We think we know a lot more than we do. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Last Emperor: A Curious Case of Limited Absolute Power

People either obey a powerful government official or rebel. A rebellion does not typically include continued loyalty to the sovereign. The French Revolution demonstrates this point. Yet in China in the 1910s as the Qing dynasty lost power, the authority of the emperor became more complex—or maybe it had been so throughout the dynasty.


Early in the second act of the film, The Last Emperor(1987), the Manchu boy-emperor can do whatever he pleases in the Forbidden City. Behind the massive red walls, he orders one of his eunuchs to drink ink. The man dutifully complies, knowing that he will die from the poison. The boy gave the grave order simply to prove to his emperorship to his younger brother, who had been shouting, “You are not the emperor! You are not the emperor!” The order instantiates absolute power on a human scale—the sort that Thomas Hobbes prescribes for a sovereign king or assembly in the bloody seventeenth-century Europe. Even in being the final say on theological interpretation, Hobbes’ ruler, or ruling body, has absolute sovereignty.

For the last emperor—the last Manchu ruler of the Qing dynasty, which began in 1644—sovereignty is limited to the Forbidden City. Even as he is master of all therein, the Ming dynasty falls to a series of two brief republics—representative democracy in China—and a chaotic period in which warlords contended for greater influence. The teenage emperor cannot very well leave the confines of his city’s walls under such circumstance; his absolute sovereignty is thus limited.

In the scene in which the emperor makes a run for the exit, his own guards beat him to the outer door and close it before him. He orders them to open it, but they do not. Interestingly, they kneel to him and bow their heads in obedience—yet with their swords held upright in front of them. This strange mix of loyalty and refusal may strike the Western viewers as odd. In Mutiny on the Bounty, the rebellious crew-members to not pay captain Bly homage as they ignore his orders. Such a stark “black and white” dichotomy concerning power does not fit The Last Emperor. On the one hand, the very young emperor orders a servant to drink ink, yet five or ten years later the emperor’s guards refuse to re-open the outer door as per the emperor’s order. This strange comparison suggests how artificial human power can be. That is to say, sometimes the authority that some people say they have is exaggerated, even false, yet in having their way those weak birds of prey may exercise their presumed entitlement nonetheless.

For the emperor’s servant to actually drink ink just because a six or seven year-old boy gives the order as some part of a puerile sibling-rivalry suggests that the servant takes human institutionally-dependent authority too seriously. An adult of sound mind would never agree to die as part of a child’s game; yet if other adults are bent on enforcing even such an absurd manifestation of power as coming from legitimate authority, the servant may have died anyway. In other words, when the ludicrous is taken seriously by some adults, the real adults—the stronger ones—may find the lunacy all too real, for practical purposes. Hence, a kid can get away with telling a servant to drink ink even as the guards pledged to obey the emperor refuse his more substantive order to let him through, out of the world of make-believe. Sadly, that world can be all too real. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Son of God: Comparative Religion in Film

The 2014 film, Son of God, follows a familiar trajectory well-known to viewers who had seen films such as George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Watching the Passion story yet again, I could not help but take note of the repetitiveness from sheer likeness. Yet one scene sticks out among the usual denouement—that scene in which Jesus in the wilderness, the high priest in the Temple, and the Roman Pontius Pilate with his wife in their chambers pray in their own ways and with differing assumptions about divine intent toward a petitioner. The interplay of petitions plays like a tutorial for the ears and eyes on comparative religion, found here even within a religion.


“Father, I know it must be as you will it. Father, take this from me; spare me,” Jesus implores in a quiet voice nearly breaking in the emotionality of the intimate petition. God’s Will is here not in line with Jesus’s immediate comfort; indeed, following that Will would mean severe upcoming suffering and even death.

“Lord I know you are pleased with me, for you sustain me in sincerity,” the Jewish high priest announces as he looks upward, flanked by his fellow priests, in the stone Temple. In stark contrast to Jesus’s approach, an air of formality characterizes the Temple-centric relation. The chief priest finds himself benefitting from God’s Will, thanks to the sincerity the man finds in himself. Such sincerity, he assumes, must surely be based in a foundation beyond himself—namely, God.

In this back-and-forth film-making technique, the viewer is presented with polar opposites within Judaism. The mode or style of discourse with Yahweh and whether the Godhead’s will is convenient or to be grudgingly accepted are each pushed into two camps. Can organic creatures approach the source of existence intimately without dismissing the abyss between Creator and Creation? On the other hand, is formality nothing but puffed up human artifice? Furthermore, does divinely sanctioned suffering represent self-mortification writ large or is the existential angst a reflection of the dearth of pathos in a canyon so wide? On the other hand, is not the presumption that perfect being is so well pleased (and so conveniently) in a hardened heart in actuality an eruption of arrogance? With such questions boiling just below the surface, the viewer is then thrust out of Judaism, if only for a few seconds, and even out of monotheism.

“We thank you, our ancestors, for watching over us,” Pilote’s wife prays as her husband looks on. Ancestors in ancient Roman religion are like saints in that they can intervene to protect if petitioned. Unfortunately, the film overlooks the Roman pantheon of gods, such as Jupiter and Mars, that are roughly equivalent Yahweh. Even so, the petition to the ancestors presents the viewer with the suddenly odd combination of intimate relation and convenient alignment of wills.

“Father,” Jesus implores, whispering intimately. Coming off the convenience of the priest and Pilote, the viewer is suddenly confronted with a very painful misalignment---Jesus’s flesh being weak.

“Praise the Lord, God of Israel, everlasting and everlasting. Amen. Amen.” the high priest shouts. Coming on the heels of Jesus’s soft cry, the distance in the priest’s formality is transparent. Praise the god that is well-pleased in me. Were the priest in Job’s place, would he still praise the everlasting source that can allow for such unjust pain?

“If you will it, Father,” Jesus says in a quiet voice as a tear streams down his left cheek, “if you will it, your will is mine.” The congruence of wills even in the midst of still so much suffering to come severs Jesus from the high priest, and hence the fabric of Judaism would be ripped apart.

In short, this rather unorthodox scene-analysis demonstrates how an entertaining feature-film can present comparative religion in a very effective way. Even within a religion, comparative religion can be done. Perhaps the major pitfall to avoid is that of reductionism. The mature screen-writer and director bracket their particular preferences rather than cast all of the options but one as straw men designed to fail. The multiplicity teeming in human nature naturally manifests itself both in the myriad approaches to the divine in worship and the assumptions that we have regarding alignments and clashes of Will with will. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Emperor: Above the Clouds of Petty Protocol

In complex social arrangements, such as exist in governments, business firms, and religious organizations, a person must climb through many levels before reaching persons of sufficient height and occupational breadth that what had been said to be binding requirements suddenly become as though unfettered butterflies. Astoundingly, the mid-level subordinates may even object as the rules are relegated back to their true status as guidelines. Beyond the element of greater authority, a greater perspective in terms of what truly matters is profoundly important in this regard. Having many decades of lived experience, plus a certain maturity in place of pettiness, is also in the mix. A Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, for example, may be more likely to pick up on a sincere heart of the sort Jesus would praise than run through a laundry list of doctrinal requirements. 

In the film Emperor (2012), religion and government are intertwined in the Japanese emperor, who was until shortly after World War II also officially a living god. Although his aides attempt to put General MacArthur into a straightjacket of protocol for the meeting with the emperor at the end of the film, both the general and the emperor are off sufficient maturity and perspective to disabuse themselves of the protocols and focus on the truly important stuff. To discern the petty from the profoundly important is a key feature of upper-echelon leadership.


In the film, Teizaburo Sekiya forewarns General MacArthur before the meeting with the emperor. “there are certain proprieties I’d better make you aware of. You may not shake His Majesty’s hand or touch him. You must never look His Majesty directly in the eyes. You may not step on his shadow. When you sit down with His Majesty, you have to sit on his left. You must never call His Majesty by his name.”

Upon greeting the emperor, General Bonner Fellers obeys the protocol, assiduously avoiding eye contact with the shorter man. General MacArthur begins likewise, looking above the emperor, and says, “It is indeed a pleasure to welcome you here, Your Majesty.” The emperor thanks the general, to which MacArthur thanks the emperor, making eye-contact with a warm-hearted expression and outstretching his hand. The emperor wears a confused look at first, but then gently shakes the general’s hand.
As if the general had not broken enough with protocol, he announces that he has arranged for a picture. The emperor motions to his aide not to object, and moves into position for the picture—the general standing on the emperor’s right.

After the picture is taken, the general announces that the translator is to stay but everyone else in the room is to go to the library while the general and emperor talk. Being excluded, and thus unable to enforce the protocol, Sekiya blurts out, “But that was not part of the plan.” The emperor says “Sekiya” in a way that lets his compatriot know that he is to comply with the general’s wishes. Only the general and the emperor appear aware of the political reality: the general rather than the emperor is running Japan. To the victor goes the task of rebuilding the foe.

The emperor takes his seat, with the general already seated to the left. The emperor then rises, and offers himself as solely responsible and as willing, therefore, to take all the punishment. “This has nothing to do with punishment,” the general replies. Even among two leaders in high places, one can lose sight of the truly important. The general had cut through the morass of thou shalt nots, which the lower and mid-level functionaries hold onto so tightly, to establish a sort of collegial intimacy that renders the two men much more alike than either to his respective subordinates.  Only at that high level can the sun shine above the clouds of minutia, such that eve the gods on Mount Olympus might be jealous of what man can accomplish. “I need your help,” the general beseeches with heart-felt concern for the emperor’s subjects as he looks directly into the man’s eyes. “So let’s see what we can do to get Japan back on its feet.” Both men doubtlessly know that this task lying before them is vitally important, as many Japanese are starving at the time.

The movie thus provides a good snapshot of organizational life being appreciably freer on the top floor and unnecessarily petty on the floors below. How to convince the narrow-minded gate-keepers that their levers are not so vitally important after all is a question in need of an answer. It is telling that Sekiya is so greatly disturbed by the general’s change of plan. MacArthur has used his experience wisely in not having argued with Sekiya as he promulgated the forbidden conduct; the general undoubtedly knew the true pecking order in Japan then, and that he could appeal directly to the emperor as both were unique having responsibility for the whole of Japan and thus would undoubtedly relate.



Saturday, August 30, 2014

Behind the 2014 Summer Movie Flops: It’s the Narrative, Stupid

With box-office revenue in the U.S. and Canada expected to come in at only $3.9 billion for the summer of 2014, or 15% lower than the year before, and no film hitting $300 million domestically,[1] the question is whether the dip could be explained by a cycle or some larger, irreversible trend. I contend that two factors push the answer past the typical response that most of the movie franchises would be out in force in the summer of 2015.

Most importantly, the well-trodden recipe for box-office cash may have gradually willowed away good story-telling. The number of flops is astounding. They included “The Expendables 3,” “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For,” “Edge of Tomorrow,” “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” “Hercules,” “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” and “Sex Tape.” Out of twelve sequels, only three managed not to nose-dive. According to The New York Times, audiences had had enough with “same old, same old.”[2]

“Maleficent” did well because it proffers audiences “a revisionist story line with an unexpected twist.”[3] Of course, Angelina Jolie in bondage gear might have had something to do with the box-office success too. Likewise, Scarlett Johansson might have pushed “Lucy” to its $115.1 million in North American sales; her sulky voice had certainly stole the show in “Her.” Yet without fresh, captivating yet not overly complex narrative, the drought in so much of California at the time could easily be said of Hollywood too.

It is no secret that aspiring screenwriters are told both in print and by writers in the business that Hollywood producers look for certain kinds of scripts that are known to sell well, especially if they can be readily made into franchises. In The Screenwriter’s Bible, the author barely hints that stories can have bad endings; The ending had better turn out good if you want to sell your script in Hollywood. Such capitulation to distorting narrative to meet what has sold well in the past is often a “no-brainer” to beginning screenwriters who desperately want in the game. Perhaps they should not be so sycophantic—so much in need of Hollywood. Perhaps screenwriting is best pursued part-time, as a hobby that could wind up paying well, rather than as a career. Yet Hollywood too is to blame, for it has been too easy for producers to go the road most travelled at the expense of good story-telling and thus the film industry’s own best interest.

Alternatives stemming from online streaming, dvds, and better home screens increasingly push movie theaters to justify the value for price that they provide. Films such as “Gravity” and the “Transformers” franchise can justify their appeals to be viewed on the huge screens that only a movie theater can provide, whereas dramas lack such a rationale, and may be more comfortably watched in bed anyway. Films not meeting the raised bar visually probably will not see much action in theaters. Whether visually stunning on a mammoth screen or not, a film must have excellent narrative to draw audiences, at least ideally. The arteries can become blocked, however, as entrenched producers and screenwriters presume erroneously that only the deepest grooved paths lead to the Emerald City. The wizards, detached from the city’s other residents and thus the way things are done, are the screenwriters who dare think outside the box yet are not so far gone as to lose touch with the mainstream audience.




[1] Andrew Hart, “Film Industry Has Worst Summer Since 1997,” The Huffington Post, August 29, 2014.
[2] Brooks Barnes, “Movies Have Worst Summer Since 1997,” The New York Times, August 29, 2014.
[3] Ibid.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Subtle Anticipations in Film Narrative: Foreshadowing in A Single Man

Tom Ford’s approach in screenwriting and directing his first feature film, A Single Man (2009), which is based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel of the same title, can be characterized as thoroughness oriented to the use of film as art not merely for visual storytelling, but also to probe the depths of human meaning and present the audience with a thesis and thus something to ponder. As Ford reveals in his oral commentary to the film, that thesis is that we should live in the present, attending to it more closely, because today might be our last day of life. George, the film’s protagonist, supposes that in intending to commit suicide at the end of the day covered by the film, he chooses the final day of his life—hence retaining and exercising some control over his otherwise hackneyed daily routine. Though an exquisite use of foreshadowing that subtly and vaguely anticipates his death, the film gains a depth of meaning that operates at different levels. The underlying meaning is nuanced, even multivalent, rather than entirely opaque and transparent. In this essay, I take a look at Ford’s use of hints anticipating George’s death. Being salient in the script, they serve as a good illustration for aspiring and even accomplished screenwriters who want to touch the unconscious as well as awareness.


The most transparent foreshadowing takes place at the beginning of the film, in the morning before work, in the kitchen. George’s heart disease suddenly clenches and he winces in a quick spat of pain. In Christopher Isherwood’s book of the same title, which Ford adapted for the film, the fit is a spasm—a mere cramp that George has on a regular basis.[1] The film begins closer to consciousness.

“I don’t see my future,” George says as our narrator at the beginning of what would turn out to be the last day of his life in spite of his last-minute decision not to kill himself. Sitting in his modern, Frank Lloyd Wright-based house in Malibu, California on November 30, 1962, he knows he plans on killing himself—an intent that is entirely missing in the book. The professor is genuinely perplexed, as if the lack of any envisioned future would be any surprise on his last day on earth. He is inexplicably stupefied even as he goes over his plan to commit suicide. In the book, George tells Kenny at the bar late that night, “The future—that’s where death is.”[2] It is all so open-ended, as if a blank screen so bright nothing on it can be seen.

Just as vaguely, George says “I’m going away” in answer to a hustler’s suggestion of “Maybe another time?” as the two look into the setting golden sunlight after work. Later that night, George answers his friend Charlie’s desire to get together again real soon with, “I think I will be quiet this weekend.” In the book, George nearly falls down stairs going out from Charlie’s front door, very nearly falling “ten, fifty, one hundred million feet into the bottomless black night.”[3] In retrospect, these remarks are chilling, even ominous, for they imply an insufferable, terminal void into which even a person’s consciousness and thought dissolve; and yet, as George lies prostrate on his bedroom floor, dying of a heart attack just before 3 a.m., his voice narration informs the audience, “And suddenly it happened.” Another foreshadowing, perhaps, though this one is for the viewers, who in answer to the anticipated void at the end of their own lives dare to hope.

The foreshadowing is also done by substituting awkward inexplicable reactions in place of the expected. The effect is to open up the narrative, as if pregnant with new-found potential directionality. Looking at George during cocktails before dinner at her stylish house, for instance, Charlie observes, “Darling, you don’t look well; remember that heart attack you had?  You don’t look so hot.” Even though George intends to put a pistol to his head later that night, I find it odd that he barely registers a reaction. To be sure, he has no incentive to run to a hospital for a stress test.

After dinner and an enjoyable dance, George lights two cigarettes and hands one to his former lover. “It’s not like smoking will kill me,” he deadpans. Charlie, her own drunken state doubtlessly being a factor, does not take the hint as she should. Is George unconsciously crying out for help? Rather than two people connecting, the two alcoholics are talking past each other even as they presume (and crave) emotional intimacy. George lost it a year earlier when his partner Jim died in a car crash in Ohio, and life was in black and white for him ever since—except for that last day, when George found himself amazed with the beauty in the ordinary and then unexpectedly connecting.

After leaving Charlie’s house, George goes to his neighborhood bar. Finding Kenny, a student clearly obsessed with his professor, curiously there (pensively waiting, in the book’s version), George confides to him (hence establishing emotional intimacy), “You know the only thing that has made the whole thing worthwhile, has been those few times when I’ve been really, truly been able to connect with another human being.” The question is thus whether this new, unforeseen connection will mean a suspension or cancellation of the current plan.

The answer is not delivered directly or all at once. Once again, the narrative has depth, and thus reaches out on more than one level using foreshadowing. Back at his place with Kenny after their short swim in the Pacific Ocean after drinks at the bar, George realizes that his watch has stopped. “My watch seems to have stopped,” he says—again, strangely perplexed. A hint for us that time has run out for George, only he does not realize it even though he still intends to end his life that night; he is still under the impression that he is in control of when his life will end. Besides being a neat-freak, George has nearly suffocated himself tightly in controlling his interior and exterior, yet as a functioning alcoholic he is anything but in control of even himself.

Minutes after realizing that his watch has stopped, George passes out as Kenny looks on. In his recurrent dream of drowning, the depressed, still grieving professor finally gets to the surface and can breathe. This awakens him, and he finds and locks away his gun, no longer intent on ending his life.  No doubt the emotional intimacy with Kenny—finally connecting with another human being again—has brought color back into George’s life. Ford cleverly varies color saturation to distinguish the pallid world of George’s depression from Charlie’s liveliness and Kenny’s emotional connection. In fact, Kenny plays a savior role, rather than merely that of an obsessed student—even keeping his professor safe by holding the gun while sleeping on the couch after carrying George back to bed. According to Ford, although it is not clear that Kenny is interested in men, he willingly offers his body to George when the two return earlier from swimming.

Kenny has indeed saved George, at least in terms of suicide.  Yet the Fates, intimated for the audience by the sight of an owl taking flight as George opens his front door to glimpse the nearly-full ruddy moon, will have the last word in this affair we call life. As Ford points out in his commentary, the owl has long stood for death being not long in coming. George is in a state of suspended animation, for he finds himself ensconced in one of his rare, fleeting moments in which the universe and everything in it, including his own life and even his partner’s crash, make sense. “A few times in my life,” he narrates, “I’ve had moments of absolute clarity. When for a few, brief seconds, the silence drowns out the noise and I can feel rather than think, and things seem so sharp, and the world seems so fresh; it’s as though it had all just come into existence.” Burning the suicide notes he had written to Charlie and someone else, he concedes that he can never make such moments last. “I cling to them, but like everything, they fade. I’ve lived my life on these moments; they pull me back to the present.” With that, the thesis is transparent: live in the present, for today may just be your last. Such alignment is suddenly undercut, however, as George gets his wish even if he is no longer willing it.

Realizing that “everything is exactly the way it’s meant to be,” George reaches out for to his bed stand for water only to feel himself in the clutches of a fatal, all-consuming heart attack. Ford says George is even wrong about everything then being just right in his life. How cruel it is of the Fates to cut into one of those rare conditions of insightful equilibrium. The Fates will not be denied by what little control we think we can muster, or perhaps George pulled the trigger with all the years of smoking and drinking—a subtle and gradual means of suicide.

As he lay on the floor barely alive, we hear the slowing clicks of his alarm clock. The clock stops, and George sees his deceased partner lean down and kiss him on the cheek—the kiss of death—for “just like that, it came.” Suddenly the overhead camera shot turn to black and white; there is no longer any living in the now for George. We are left with what is perhaps the deepest level of meaning in the film—what now?

With George narrating his own death, his soul must exist in the film’s story-world. “And suddenly it happened.” People don’t usually say that death came. So I suspect that given the sense of amazement in “just like that,” George experienced something liberating, or at the very least a sudden change or transformation into another realm of existence in which his emotional pain could not go. He does not mention his dead partner, Jim, so I suspect that whatever suddenly came, it was existential rather than restorative in terms of human relationships. In effect, death relativizes them such that seeing earlier departed loved ones is no longer important.

Narrative visual art can indeed plumb the mind’s depths and thus register as substantive instead of superficial eye-candy. Films that leave an audience thinking and feeling deeply for a sustained period of time are themselves multi-layered, with multivalent symbols placed at various degrees of subtlety throughout the narrative to foreshadow. Such films register at various depths of human meaning and reflect its complexity through the use of linguistic and visual symbols, each of which contains by its very nature more than one loosely-related meaning. They play even with time by lending to human nature more omniscience than it has a right to. It as if the screenplays have been written as orchestral pieces, with more than one instrument group—each at its own level of subtlety and duration, and yet likely simultaneous with various others at foreshadowed intervals.


[1] Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man , (University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 1964), p. 13.
[2] Ibid., p. 157.
[3] Ibid., p. 145.