Images and Story: Call and Response
Vittoria de Sica’s classic 1947 film, The Bicycle Thief, has probably been written about more than any other film in history. At one time, film audiences considered it to be the best film ever made; unfortunately, it has slipped off the charts in recent times.
I have longed maintained that films consistently use visual and auditory images as stories in and of themselves. They often become complementary social plots replete with cultural values and world-view perceptions. The central story line in many classic films becomes more than just ornamented with these visual and auditory images, it often becomes a kind of call-and-response complement to the less evident images of a film.
The Zealot by Reza Aslan (Random House, 2013)
Christ as Jewish Nationalist, an Earthly Messiah, a Threat to the Roman Empire
So let’s get to the meat of Reza Aslan’s theory about Christ.
According to Aslan, in his potboiler book, The Zealot, Christ was a Jewish nationalist who was more interested in being an earthly king of the Jews than a sky-god miracle worker promising eternal life to those who followed him. “The principal task of the messiah,” says Aslan, “was to rebuild David’s kingdom and reestablish the nation of Israel.”
To add more fuel to the fire of Aslan’s position is that Christ’s crucifixion, as Aslan sees it, was Rome’s way of executing anyone who was a threat to the Empire (Aslan is emphatic here that Christ’s behavior and words were seen by the Romans as acts of “sedition”).
The crucifixion of “bandits,” by Rome was not an uncommon practice. And “bandits” was a code name given to those who were accused of treason or attempting to overthrow Roman occupation. They were the ancient Jewish variation of modern terrorists.
And the Jewish clerical hierarchy, especially the Jewish Temple rabbis, felt very threatened by Christ’s followers claiming him to be a Jewish Messiah or King of the Jews (There is some evidence to suggest that the Jews, by tradition, were not allowed to execute—ahem, somewhat debatable—so the rabbis willingly deferred to the Roman law that allowed execution for acts of “sedition”).
Recently, I asked someone I knew if I could talk to him for a few minutes. I will call him Eric.
We walked for a short while. I explained the issue. Then we stopped. I was facing Eric directly as he turned to give what I will call his “verbal position paper” on the topic. He was wearing sunglasses, his face angled upward, his jaw, firm, his body arched backwards at a comfortable level. And then he spoke.
It was clear to me, at that moment, that Eric had total control of the space he was in. I was convinced that his body actually began to stretch upwards, his voice sounding like hot taffy, consonants tapping softly on top of long rubber-band vowels.
I felt I was in a re-run of a 1930s Cary-Grant black-and-white film. Blue-blood, Boston-Brahmin, old-money territory. Continue reading
Winter Sleep, 2014
Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Interiority, Pathos, Survival
There are many things to like about Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s exquisite film, “Winter Sleep.” (Palme d’Or winner at Cannes Film Festival, 2014).
First of all, it is a very interior film. Ceylan manages to create a strong inner sensibility of pathos, an aching sense that life, in the end, is cruel, relentless, and merciless. Inside of that psychological cosmos, however, is the other half of Ceylan’s Sisyphean fatalism: people do manage to survive in spite of the quiet desperation of their lives.
There is little question that Aydin, the central character, is the personified form of Ceylan’s world of pathos. And he is also a survivor, not unlike Hidayet, his lower-class assistant, who does all the managerial tasks and is Aydin’s personal chauffeur. (Hidayet’s constant, but strong background presence in the film appears to be Ceylan’s way of reminding his audience that the poor and the service class, in their uncomplaining stoicism, will always be with us.) Continue reading
Learned Emotional Detachment
Now that I’ve got your attention.
It took me a long time to discover that I had learned, from early childhood, to be a detached observer. I was the youngest of five children. My family was in constant turmoil. My parents argued all the time. My two older brothers were always fighting. And my mother’s volatile and often violent mood swings continued to keep the family on pins and needles.
So, kids do what kids do. They protect themselves. They go to their rooms. They stay away from the chaos as much as they can. And when they are in the midst of the family tornadoes, they often withdraw into silent observers. They become recorders, television cameras, quiet witnesses. They learn, very early in the game to passively take in what’s happening and not to participate. It is the only recourse they have; it gives them some kind of order and safety in their lives.
Then they become adolescents and adults. They can’t figure out why others tell them they are “too analytical.” They find themselves observing again as they did when they were children. But the observation mode begins to implode when a friend breaks down after his girlfriend tells him the relationship is over.
The first instinct of the grand observer is to look around for the nearest exit. The other instinct is to click into the detached mode and calculate all the possible solutions for the friend. “Have you thought about an online dating service?” “Why don’t you go on a trip, get away?” “I’ve got a single friend; I think you guys would really hit it off.” Continue reading
Lawrence Welk, Fear of Blacks, Hell in a Hand Basket, Bedroom Sex
When I was growing up, every adult I knew seemed to be conservative. They watched Lawrence Welk. They dreamed of having a family like Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. They feared blacks. They played pinochle and drank lots of beer.
They all had dinner around five in the afternoon. They loved roast beef. They huddled around their televisions at night. They smoked cigarettes or cigars in the house.
The conservative adults I knew complained about the teenagers “going to hell in a hand basket” after watching Elvis gyrate. Some conservatives even read “Peyton Place” or saw the movie as one of their few radical ventures into the forbidden. Or they secretly sneaked off to a movie theater to watch Marilyn Monroe sleaze her way through “Niagara.”
And they always had sex in the quiet confines of their bedrooms. Back-seat-of-the-car sex was for the driving-age teenagers and young adults who had part-time jobs and could afford a Friday night out at the local drive-in. Continue reading
The Past, Formal Ceremonies, Rituals
It is one of the beautiful peculiarities of writing, if you do it often enough, that content often unfolds in ways you had not expected.
As I was writing about conservatism, for example, I would discover the need conservatives have for “order”; that they need a chain of command; that a golden-age past looms very large in conservative thinking; that their obsession with “states rights” is an extension of their belief in “rugged individualism”; and that religious conservatives depend heavily on “sacred texts” for their values.
I am still discovering more about conservatives.
The fixation that many conservatives have for the past has many subtle and not-so-subtle shades to it. Sometimes the past is romanticized, even mythologized by those who want to hold on to a remembered, but somewhat fictionalized time, when life seemed simpler; when the good could clearly be distinguished from the bad; when “commandments” were meant to obeyed; when men were the moral centers of the world; when children actually obeyed their parents. Continue reading
Messengers, Followers, Teachers, Edifices, Divisions
If history is correct, humans have never been content to just live in the world. They have consistently yearned for some kind of meaning in their lives. Often that pursuit of meaning has expressed itself in the form of religion.
For those who have chosen to follow groups with any kind of religious or spiritual trademark, the pattern seems to be the same. When a religion begins, one person usually has an idea or believes he (historically, mostly male) has the right message, the truth, or has a special message, powers, insights, given to him from an exterior divinity.
In ancient times spiritual teachers were often wanderers or lived in small villages or towns. Small groups gathered to hear these teachers. Over time, followers began to expand beyond these villages. Official teachings were established based on the words purported to have been said by the founders or, in some traditions, messages or rules given or spoken to an official messenger (or inspired messengers) by an exterior divinity. ( Who becomes an official messenger after the first messengers die often depends on the rules of lineage)
It didn’t take long before religious organizations began to sprout up all over the world. Centuries-old edifices and sacred centers are still standing as testaments of humans’ need for spiritual roots.
Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, all seem to have followed this pattern. Continue reading
Diversity of Spiritual Journeys in AA
Some of us in twelve-step recovery programs have never belonged to a religious institution. Some once belonged but have left. Some are still emotionally connected to their religious heritages, even though they do not practice their religions.
There are a minority in recovery programs who have chosen Buddhism, a non-theistic sect. If they are practicing Buddhists they participate in daily rituals: chanting; silent, sitting meditation; or walking meditation.
Others in twelve-step programs have developed a very eclectic collage of practices, values, and beliefs they have gleaned from Pema Chödrön, Osho, Krishnamurti, Andrew Cohen, Deepak Chopra, Gurdjieff, among others
There is a vast number in recovery programs who remain attached to their Judeo-Christian heritages and continue to practice their faiths of choice.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years of Pilgrimage
Vintage International, 2015
Magic Realism, Interiority, Bildungsroman Tradition
Haruki Murakami appears to have captured the imaginations of a lot of readers. And that’s saying a lot because he is not a writer who seems to be satisfied with just a story line.
In two other novels I have read, he clearly mixes his own brand of magic realism (fantasy, dream narratives, science fiction, fable) and a very realistic narrative (It would be an understatement to say that Murakami does not shy away from sex or death. He also manages to blend the murder mystery genre into some of his stories).
He is also a writer who has a strong interior sensibility and appears to be particularly drawn to millenials.
A third motif of Murakami’s fiction is a penchant for story lines that resemble the Bildungsroman tradition (stories about self-knowledge journeys, usually about younger protagonists moving through a variety of intense rites of passage). Continue reading