Saturday, August 29, 2015

Ode to Medicine: A Passionate Review of the Clinical TV series The Knick

Poster of the TV series The Knick
Medicine has come a long way. Few of us realize this and we rarely think about the struggles it must have taken to get to this current point as we pop a pill for our headache or when we get (or in some cases do not get) our vaccination shots.

When it comes to surgery, the steps and strides have been even greater and filled with more risks and experimentation. We often forget or disregard the downside of experiments. We are often too focused on the end result that we do not acknowledge all the dangers and sacrifices it took to get there. Put differently, how many patients had to – and as awful as this may sound needed to - die under the scalpel to perfect that particular type of surgery.

All these thoughts have been kindled within my skull because of the wonderful turn-of-period series The Knick (2014) directed by Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh himself is not averse to experimentation. He started off as an indie-wonder with his impressive Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) debut; he has made some failures both commercially and critically, Kafka (1991), Full Frontal (2002) come to mind, and some great movies, notably Traffic (2000), the experimental but outstanding The Limey (1999) and the panned but inventive biopic Che (2008), and not to forget the wildly entertaining Ocean trilogy (not to mention Magic Mike (2012)).

In his impressive repertoire, there are also a couple of movies connected to the world of medicine, such as Contagion (2011) about a deadly virus that spreads like wild fire and his what seems to be last (but hopefully he will reconsider) endeavor as a film director, the medically titled movie Side Effects (2013). But it is not only the movies that deal with medicine and experimentation: his style is also considered by many to be cerebral and clinical. So there you have it, no one better to direct a series on the gradual progress of medicine than Steven Soderbergh.

This versatile director might have gotten tired of making movies on the big screen, but looks quite comfortable and at ease with the medium of television. From the familiar cold, unsentimental and beautiful shots often hued with tones of brown and blue to the innovative and anachronistic electronic score of regular composer Cliff Martinez, this is Soderbergh at the top of his game.

The series is about the growing pains of medical science and American society set at the turn of the century in a New York hospital called the Knickerboxer. The series is based on true events and real people, but creative liberties have been taken here and there. Those are, for the most part, for dramatic effect, namely to enhance tensions, and we, for the most part, do not blame the series for this dramatic license since it makes the whole experience all the more exciting.

At the center of the series, at least in the first season, is the brilliant surgeon (and hopeless cocaine addict) Dr. Thackery played proficiently by Clive Owen and the African-American surgeon Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland) who is educated in Europe and in many ways an equal to his Caucasian counterpart. The issue of race is a major stumbling block between them, which is to a large degree an evident racist attitude of our protagonist Thackery, but which is also visibly propelled and encouraged by a racist society.

One thing that becomes quite clear in this series is that the United States may have been innovative in science and medicine, but that it was lagging behind Europe in terms of acceptance and tolerance of colored people. Edwards was treated as an equal in Europe, but has to fight tooth and nail for a little bit of acceptance in an openly and unabashedly racist New York (considered one of the more “open-minded” cities of the times).

Ironically, the Knick was meant to help and treat low-income people who are to a large degree immigrants, but there seems to be a clear line demarcating everyone else from the native black population. Although the black people are a part of this New York society and most of whom are suffering from poverty since they have not been given the opportunity to strive, be it in terms of education and income, they are treated as sub-human beings and are not allowed to enter the premises. In other words, the Knick is an institution for the underprivileged and downtrodden minus the black people.

This fact, evidently affects our black surgeon, so he decides to treat them by secretly setting up a practice in the dark cellars of the hospital. He trains his staff and teaches, for example, the janitor enough skills to act as a nurse by night. All of this comes from a compassionate and humanitarian heart, but it is at the same time fueled by personal ambition as he wishes not only to practice medicine, which the white staff does not let him do, but also to undertake his own little experiments to advance and improve upon the medical sciences.

That like any birth and growth, this comes with its own amount of pain and suffering is undeniable. In a proud - but by today's standard notably ironical - speech it is proclaimed that life expectancy has reached the age of 47 from previously the mid-thirties. But it is those baby steps that have given us the high ground today that we can build upon through the use of technology while projecting greater strides and achievements into the future.

The surgeries depicted in the series are messy and bloody and what we would consider barbaric. They lacked suction tubes, so the blood was cleaned and pumped out manually (a strain on the assistant surgeon's arm) and they also lacked knowledge of the best and most effective cutting procedures. At the same time, lack of medical knowledge regarding blood types, for example, had led to a number of deaths whenever blood transfusions had taken place.

All of these deaths and the evident helplessness on the side of the surgeons coupled with the continued seemingly interminable quest to find the missing block or obstacle must have been a strain on their well-being and psychology. In fact, the series starts with the suicide of one of those eminent surgeons who cannot bear the repeated failure of his medical strategy regarding cases of placenta previa that have led to deaths of mothers and their babies. His promising student, Thackery, must now shoulder the burden and he deals with his own demons by injecting cocaine between his toes at work and by smoking opium at night in a Chinese brothel.

Algernon Edwards, who apart from his medical stress has to deal with constant and daily racism, has found another way to release his pain and frustration at work; he gets into random and pointless brawls to vent off all this negative energy, which may be, all things considered, a slightly better but more painful vice than abusing drugs.

I have always considered the job of surgeons to be a stressful choice. In many cases, it may pay well, but the amount of responsibility attached to it outweighs in my mind any potential financial benefits. Even a simple and straightforward surgery can go horribly wrong and become fatal. Nor do we know everything regarding procedures, consequences, and side effects. It is a common fallacy that one assumes that the knowledge one has at any given time is mostly correct, if not infallible, but then new findings arise and turn the previous knowledge on its head.

A minor such example may be the recurring belief that coffee is bad for your health, only to find out its many benefits according to recent research. But more importantly, there are the issues of anesthesia, for instance, where constant revisions and adjustments are necessary due to its effects on the body, especially the brain. In the series, they use cocaine to anesthetize since at the time it was not officially outlawed. Morphine often used as a painkiller is highly addictive and at times can create more problems than good.

The series gives us running gags of dramatic irony where we the modern viewer know more (thanks to the clear focus of hindsight) than the protagonists. For example, when they experiment with an X-ray machine, the characters are amazed that one can see beyond the flesh and take pictures of the bone structure. In one scene, the doctor wants to try it out for a “head-shot.” The operator turns on the X-ray machine and tells him to stand still - for an hour!

There are also parts that may shock and bewilder us, again easy to say in perfect hindsight. That same operator of the X-ray claims that he and his children have been toying around with this machine taking a number of pictures. Oh the horror, by today's standard knowledge of the carcinogenic nature of X-rays.

The very last shot of the series finale for Season 1 is also priceless. As the surgeon is admitted for his cocaine dependency, they are using a new experimental medication certified by the well-known and respectable pharmaceutical company Bayer. We see the patient falling asleep in the background and the close-up gives us the ironical shot (sorry, you need to watch it since I won't spoil this one but perhaps you can already guess what that medication contains).

The series also slightly but aggressively alludes to the field of psychiatry. It is still in its infancy and the series portrays a very negative picture of it or perhaps it was isolating that specific ward from general practice. But since there were still unconfirmed and wildly speculative theories abounding in that field of study (i.e. phrenology), the treatment that the wife of one of the most reprehensible characters in the series gets is shocking and harrowing. The psychologist believes that the germ of madness resides in the teeth and has hence extracted them all!

The Knick takes its time to give us characterizations and a portrait of the era. One can argue that it could have dug deeper into the psyche of its main characters, but without getting confused or bored, we are given the essential and vital information of each character as well as vivid and broad strokes of the city. The Knick's strongest moment must be in Episode 7 provocatively titled “Get the Rope” where a race riot is breathtakingly choreographed and rendered with chilling scenes that it might equal, in terms of film-making and suspense, the impressive edge-on-the-seat raid in True Detective (Season 1 of course)!

Yet there are also a few weaknesses. The surgery scenes were good but they became repetitive after a while, especially with the recurrent graphic images. But more importantly, it portrayed that all those relevant medical inventions can be traced back to Americans. For instance, X-rays are shown as if they had just been invented in the States and that is misleading since Wilhelm Röntgen should get a mention, if not some credit.

The reason for this might be to make up for the barbaric aspects of the American society when it comes to not only class divisions but also cruel and unbridled racism towards its African population (and I have not even touched upon its anti-Catholic aspects). Yet I believe it would have been better to scale down the embellished and exaggerated achievements of the American doctors to a more realistic level since the series could be possibly misconstrued and distorted as an American propaganda piece for medical sciences instead of a historical account of its veritable successes and advances.

Moreover, both main characters are based on real people, but they are at times treated as if they were supermen. They are not invincible and they are flawed in their own ways, but they surely are brave and have given a lot to the medical community. Their unwavering dedication and thirst for knowledge and experimentation have saved lives both in the past and the future.

For instance, it was a surgeon who saved my life decades ago after a burst appendix (which would have definitely killed me in the 1900s and may be life-threatening even today) and an experienced gynecologist who saved my son's life during a complicated and difficult pregnancy. And for all this and more, doctors and all the others who have made contributions, and who, of course, continue to contribute to the medical field I would like to give my heartfelt acknowledgement, appreciation and thanks!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Happiness is: Book Review of STABLE: The Keys to Heaven on Earth


Headshot of author April Michelle Lewis
There are two things that are on my mind for most of the time: The desire to be (and become) a better person and to be happy. Both of them are often connected to what many designate as the spiritual realm. For instance, my happiness would not be merely about instant gratification nor mere monetary gain; rather I would like to be able to prolong, expand and diversify my happiness so that it includes and envelops first and predominantly my family, but so that its rays may also reflect upon friends and acquaintances.

I believe that once one is in balance with oneself then one finds a certain kind of peace and happiness. Those who lash out or who intend to hurt others or are envious of other people reveal a gap or a want inside; for whatever reason they are not satisfied with who they are or how everything is turning out for them. Most of the unhappy folks may not even accept responsibility, but blame others, their co-workers and bosses, their families, or even their fate and their genes.

As we are constantly looking for happiness, we may be led astray or led to believe that it can be achieved via dubious means. In a material world, where success and personal worth are often measured by wealth, it comes as no surprise that we chase the coveted paper. And while our focus is on making money, we overlook the most important parts and aspects of our lives: the people around us and our own spiritual growth.

In the book Stable: The Keys to Heaven on Earth, April Michelle Lewis tackles some of these issues by presenting her own philosophy based on her personal experiences. She wishes to show us how we can be stable in our lives, that is to be happy and to remain so and not merely on a shallow level. Happiness from a new gadget or new shoes will last only so long; the question is what can fill us with personal and enduring satisfaction, namely of being happy in our skin.

Few of us are. We may accept ourselves and feel balanced once in a while and this tends to be on the odd lucky and bright sunny days, but there is not too much we can do to remain stable. Religions do not generally help much; they may give us (illusory?) moments of security within the confines of a building, but the moment we step out into the real world we either forget or more often we do not apply to the outside what we have learned from those sermons inside the church. Self-help books are temporarily fine, but once we have read them they get shelved and forgotten.

According to Lewis, we can find lasting happiness and constant purpose in our lives by following three specific guidelines, which make up the acronym STABLE. They are Sound Thought (ST), Always Believe (AB), and Life of Excellence (LE). She explains each of her stages in detail and with examples and by occasionally referring to science. She also tells us upfront that it will take time and effort from our part so those who expect quick and magical solutions need not apply. But in the end it is worth its salt, and she equates it with finding heavenly bliss on Earth.

Lewis is also honest with her own background: She is a devout Christian and I doubt she uses those terms as metaphors. Her religious beliefs can be hard to swallow for some or be a turn off for others. I myself who espouse some Christian values and philosophies felt uncomfortable with this fact, but I found that from the get go, we did strike some common ground.

The author believes that organized religion tends to misrepresent and distort the teachings of Christ. Jesus did not want us to judge others and be righteous but showed us to accept each and everyone the way they are. Furthermore, Jesus was not thinking of saving only his kind or his own people.

Also some Christians use their Sunday service as an excuse for actually doing good. It is not enough to sing chants or pray to God and then forget about all those values until next week. As Lewis succinctly puts it, those rituals and deeds matter less in the grand scheme of things since God is hardly worried about whether we eat fish on Fridays or not.

Religion should be about life and living and should be treated as a practical spiritual guide not as a convenient and lazy shortcut to heaven. Along the same vein, no, it is not enough to profess your belief in the Savior Jesus Christ without having lifted a single finger to do any good in the world.

Throughout the book, there are - apart from many religious passages from the Bible - quotes from religious figures, such as Mother Theresa, the occasional hipster, such as John Lennon (his “Imagine” did have the line regarding no religion, just saying), Kelly Clarkson (?), Pocahontas (??), Napoleon Hill, and in terms of science, Lewis refers to some (for the most part positive) psychologists like Martin Seligman and neuroscientists who claim that higher levels of confidence and self-esteem have overall health benefits on the immune system.

Yet the most quoted scientific book is that of Jeffrey Long's Evidence of the Afterlife on Near Death Experiences. Although I have not read that particular book, I have been familiar with its general findings. Dr. Long interviewed many people from different cultures, faiths and nationalities who had been biologically brain-dead, and they reported similar experiences: the flashing of their own lives before their eyes, the importance of interpersonal relationships and feelings of regret regarding them, and also the warm and welcoming presence and embrace of a loving Creator. All of them also claimed that the near death experience profoundly affected them and they realized what was important in their lives and what was not. All in all, all our actions should be fueled and guided by love and forgiveness.

Jeffrey Long's book is the proverbial pot of gold for believers. I certainly feel that it validates to a degree the existence of an afterlife. In the same way, many Christians, including our dear author here, jump upon those findings and claim that they provide scientific proof for God's existence. Yet it is a little rushed and premature to present the information as facts. Furthermore, I believe it to be rather presumptuous to automatically equate a loving creator with the notion of the Christian God or with Jesus Christ.

This is my main issue I have with this book as it claims to accept all faiths, but narrows everything down to its own Christian belief set. Scientific findings are carefully cherry-picked to “prove the one truth (italics in text) that we are all searching for.” The Christian belief goes tightly and rather conveniently hand in hand with the idea of “truth” and I shudder (in some cases even turn away) when I hear or read that somebody claims to know the truth.

In fact, her truth is not as universal as she would like it to be. Christians claim to know the truth, but so do Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus. If all religions are seen as equal or equally valid, then we cannot raise up a particular one on a pedestal proclaiming that one to be the real one. Incidentally, my favorite line is when she purports that many atheists - at least those she has met herself - can be loving and passionate people!

This book can be summarized as a self-help book with a religious twist. But if we strip away the religious content from the book, there is still a lot of interesting stuff and helpful advice here. Sure, it will be trimmed down and even altered significantly, but it still has its useful aspects.

For instance, there is an element of cognitive, in particular positive, psychology at play. The first phase claims that we should have sound and healthy thoughts about ourselves and about others as a whole. By reinforcing positive aspects, such as personal acceptance and forgiveness, there will be also internal health benefits. We should not let the dark or sad thoughts take over and ought to fight them like military experts and be ready and equipped for assaults and ambushes.

It is the nagging voice in our head that tells us we are wrong, unfit or simply ill-equipped for life or that others are responsible for our misfortunes. Instead, Lewis says replace them with positive thoughts (laced with religious tones). The problem with positive thinking is that there will be more thinking as the bright side wants to think the dark side into submission. Lewis believes that once we have control over our thoughts after fighting them “tooth and nail,” then we can choose the happy ones over the negative trash talk in our heads.

Moreover, Lewis claims that the best strategy is to attack these negative thoughts, the “cruel stranger” in our head firmly and directly and she even blurts out responses in the grocery store or on the street. Apart from this, she talks to God directly and admits that she has many personal conversations with the Almighty (in her car, in her shower, and at her kitchen sink!). So much so that people think she is crazy for talking to herself. She sees and addresses the negative thoughts as bullies and wishes to “brainwash” herself into bliss (but we should be aware of being brainwashed by the world!). After years of this practice (of self-hypnosis?) we will also find bliss too, according to her.

Both the aggressive manner she intends to ward off so-called evil thoughts as well as the fact that part of herself is in constant struggle with another part of her identity makes me think that meditation ought to be a better strategy. In meditation we learn to see thinking as what it is, namely a flow of thoughts both good and bad. Yet we can remain unaffected by both of them and just watch them float by (after years of continuous and strenuous practice, of course).

The second principle of Always Believe is more faith-based. I think that it is also commendable. There are dark moments where we do not see or expect rays of hope, but life can give us the reversal of fortunes all of a sudden and at any given time. It usually comes in cycles where out of great misfortune great fortune may arise. So one should never give up but always fight for a happier day.

In this sense, God or what I would prefer to call the powers that be have a plan for us and everything happens for a reason. Yes, I do believe in both destiny as well as her sister-in-law coincidence. In fact, there is no such thing as coincidence. Nothing happens in isolation and everything is interrelated.

Some years ago, I embarked upon a simple experiment. I made a wish. I asked the universe (God, powers that be) for a specific outcome. In the meantime, I tried my best to reach it of course (you need to work for it too). But guess what? Things that seemed like obstacles before suddenly fell into place, I got the answers and opportunities I needed and in the end, my dream came true and the outcome was indeed what I had wished for (in some cases even better!).

So when Lewis says that she would need a computer and then received one in a contest by the grace of God, I cannot but understandingly smile and confirm this. Such so-called coincidences do happen many times over and I firmly believe that they are coordinated from the other world. So yes, believe in yourself and in your life and in happiness and most importantly do not lose the childhood ability to wish for things. And needless to say, always try and give your best.

The final stage is called Life of Excellence, and by this she means that one must behave in accordance with one's beliefs. That is definitely true. You cannot call yourself a good Christian and hate your neighbor or call yourself spiritual and worship money. As Sartre (not quoted in this book) puts it, we are the summation of acts within our lifetime. The existentialist hits it on the nail and if only more people would replace lip service with actions, the world will be indeed a better place.

We are living in the best of times. We have a relatively solid amount of knowledge about the world, the human body and ourselves; we have access to technology like never before and can reach millions of people at our fingertip, and the sky is indeed our limit. So let us all agree on love and accept ourselves (warts and all), accept our fellow beings (they also have their own warts but who are we to judge) and live in harmony within and without.

This the message I take from this book, and I do recommend it overall. Lewis writes with passion and fervor, and it is quite intoxicating and contagious. Her message is very personal and I am glad she has the courage to share it with us. I also want to thank Drew Tharp for sending me a copy to review. Christians will surely find a lot to admire in this book, but non-Christians can also be inspired by the universal aspects of this book.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Entering the world of John Cassavetes: A Woman under the Influence

Movie poster of Cassavetes movie
It is a shame that for a number of years I have stayed away from the work of John Cassavetes. I had encountered his name here and there, but refrained from watching any of his movies. My knowledge of him was limited to his role as a so-so actor in Rosemary's Baby (1968). I did not know that he mainly acted in films to gather money for his own cinematic projects.

In my euro-centric view, I had been suspicious of American films because I equated them for the most part with Hollywood. There are, of course, a number of good filmmakers, but I had often felt that they liked the gravitas of the great filmmakers out there. I like Coppola, Spielberg and Woody Allen, but I felt that they came up short in comparison to those whom I deemed masters of cinema: Bergman, Tarkovsky, Fellini, Kurosawa and those illustrious French masters of the New Wave.

This would explain why I was literally shell-shocked about how good Cassavetes' Woman under the Influence really is, my introduction to the work of a cinematic master! This independent anti-Hollywood film was made with financial difficulty in 1974 and is about a woman who is struggling with her daily life, including her roles as a mother and a wife, which seem in direct conflict with her own self-identity. It is quite an existential film that looks at madness in such a poignant and piercing way that it breaks your heart.

Now the 70s is really the golden age of American cinema in my view. Like most of the classic films of those times, such as Dog Day Afternoon, One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, and The Deer Hunter, these movies strive for authenticity. They look and feel like documentaries and model themselves, consciously or not, after the cinema vérité style.

In other words, there is more focus on ordinary life and situations and with little expository music. The beautifully timed and framed shots of Cassavetes' Woman under the Influence predate the Dogme 95 style of the handheld camera and have a spontaneous feeling to them. The acting also strives to be as natural as possible and is rarely melodramatic, stylized or over the top. As a result, we are given slices of life set in a clearly American context.

And in this American context, we meet a constructor by the name of Nick Longhetti - played against type by “Columbo” Peter Falk - who has to work overtime due to an unexpected burst pipe. He was supposed to be with his wife Mabel as she had charged their children to her mother's care for the night. It was supposed to be their romantic evening together, which considering they have three young children must have come about once in a blue moon.

Nick feels bad about canceling and would rather avoid this sticky situation. Mabel sees this incident as a blunt rejection and ends up getting drunk at a random bar. She then hooks up with a stranger who then takes her home and has sex with her. Cassavetes throws us into the story the same way Michael Cimino in The Deer Hunter (1978) suddenly throws his characters into the madness of war; it takes a bit of time to sort things out and find out how one feels about each of these characters.

In fact, my first impression was that I liked the hard-working husband and was not so thrilled about his wife played brilliantly by Cassavetes' real wife Gena Rowlands. But slowly, our feelings and opinions shift as we get a glimpse of their daily life and, more importantly, their struggles.

This conflict first becomes visible and tangible when after the night shift Nick brings home his co-workers for some early-morning spaghetti. The spaghetti scene seems to drag quite a bit where Mabel asks everyone at the table for their names and then a couple of the construction workers start to sing operatic tunes in Italian. Yet when her husband suddenly and unexpectedly shouts at Mabel to knock it off, the mood shifts and we are left in a similar state of shock as the guests. Our sympathies begin to shift also.

Gradually, the madness of the main character comes into focus. She is struggling hard to find and define her own identity under the circumstances. She is trying hard to be a mother and trying to please her husband by being good and by fulfilling his expectations, but as she overdoes and overplays her roles, all of it turns out to be rather pathetic.

It certainly does not help that her husband is not averse to using violence; he hits her a number of times bullying her into the role he wants her to play for him. Yet despite their problems they seem happy when they are alone together and there are a few glimpses of happiness and love between them. It is when others are involved be it Nick's co-workers or their family members when things get out of hand and beyond control.

The documentary style fits the movie's message quite well. This is not an overdone film like A Beautiful Mind (2001); the madness presented here is more mysterious but also more accessible and strangely personal. We never really know what mental illness she is suffering from except that she is often described as nervous and anxious, and it seems that her husband has his own mental issues as his parenting style is also questionable (who in his right mind shares a six-pack of beer with his under-age children?).

The movie reminded me of Bergman's (movie not the series) Scenes of a Marriage (1973) except that I found Cassavetes' film more moving and more realistic. Woman under the influence captures a number of themes in an effortless way. At the center stage is the couple. We sense that they do love each other, but they find it hard to accept each other and to show and express their love in an appropriate way, whatever that may be. Perhaps both have become victims of how others want and expect them to be.

No scene shows this more than the final one. She is about to return from the mental hospital after a six-month-absence. To welcome her, the awkward husband invites all his friends and colleagues over to throw a party because he thinks that is what she would have wanted.

This multitude of people in a small house does not impress his family members, and his mother played by Cassavetes' very own mother criticizes her son Nick in no unequivocal terms. What was he thinking to invite over all these people? This was supposed to be merely an intimate family event. What were all those strangers doing in the house at such a crucial moment? This would only stress out his wife etc.

He feels embarrassed and paces wildly in the rain asking his mother to send his friends away. And so she does. But we can see that he meant good and wants to surprise his wife. However, it might also be that he wants to show off his “new” wife and show them that she is fine and not crazy (anymore). That he is very sensitive and touchy about the home front and in particular her strange behavior and madness is a running theme throughout the movie.

When Mabel walks in, she is even less herself. She is too calm and seems to almost sleepwalk herself through the scene. Then she asks to see her kids and her husband refuses. He does not want to have a show in front of family members because she would start crying, and they would cry and nobody will have a good time. Whether this is his selfishness speaking or simply a desire to spare her some suffering is not immediately clear.

As her behavior remains restrained, her husband takes her to the side and confronts her. He wants her to be herself again; he wants those nervous and strange mannerisms and tics to return. According to him, this is how she is and he tells her this is her house, that she should not be intimidated by those guests, their family members. Again we could say that he wants her to conform to the impressions he has of her in his own mind. But let's not complicate things.

In a crucial moment, she asks her Dad to please stand up for her. He takes her literally and does so. Then she asks him to sit. He does that too in a bewildered state. Her mother, however, sees through her silent plea for help; their daughter Mabel must have been asking for some kind of protection from her husband. But what can they do? What should they do? All these wild emotions are insinuated via a close-up of the father's face.

This movie has great individual scenes and it is also remarkable that throughout its two-and-a-half hour running time, it rarely drags (minus the spaghetti scene but that had its purpose). The acting is outstanding and we are left in a state of shock. It is one of the best portrayals of madness I have seen.

In fact, it is not only about the suffering and helplessness of being mentally ill, but also about its stigma. At the same time, it shows us that the husband may be mad also, perhaps even more so if we look at the harm his violent behavior causes; notwithstanding, it is the woman that is locked away and treated in a mental hospital.

Finally, the movie shows us that there is often no cure for mental illness. Yet at the same time, this ailing couple still love and need each other in their own way and must fight hard for their sanity and their happiness. A great work by Cassavetes that has made me his fan already; now I am quite thrilled about exploring his other films. And my apologies for underestimating him without giving him a fair trial!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Narratives we weave and get entangled in: Book Review of Reconstructing Strategy

Book cover with a bent pencil

Everybody has a story, or rather, everyone has their own narratives. We soon become not only a figment of our imagination (with the so-called ego being the most persuasive one), but are also more often than not ruled by the imaginations of others. Society, those formless yet tangible and ever-present eyes stare at us, judge, and define us. It is in others that we view and reflect ourselves and it is in others that we check for confirmation of our self-identity.

In fact, it is quite normal to misjudge ourselves, including our personality, our abilities, and our performance (at work and in bed). You may think you are the handsomest or funniest man alive, but when no girl turns her head in your direction or no one laughs at your jokes, you might want to re-evaluate how you see yourself and find something that is more in line with reality.

This can also work in its opposite direction where we underestimate ourselves. We may suffer from minority complexes or think we are not a good person or not skilled enough, but all of it may be subsumed to the distorted and fragmented mirror of insecurity that we see ourselves in.

However, self-identity is not limited to individuals. It is more overarching than that. Self-identity is also related to companies and more importantly, countries. Countries define imaginary borders that over time and through different narrative strands become an accepted reality. It is the histories of culture and national identity that forms the present, but at anytime these stories can be changed or redirected towards other goals and objectives.

These are stories that we swallow up and they become ingrained in society, which in turn influences the individual perspectives. Such narratives can give us grounding and comfort, but they can also become dangerous, especially when they are belligerent or when they lead to exclusion of or aggression towards others.

In the past, the narrative of communism influenced major decisions and plans when it came to foreign policies or downright reasons and pretexts for wars. Today that narrative has been replaced with terrorism. I am not saying that terrorism does not exist, but that it has become part of the global lens through which decisions are made, fear is created and augmented, and wars are wagered. This brief introduction hopefully shows how important these narratives are and how we often weave them into our identity; in some situations, we even become entangled in them and do not see the truth and reality out there.

Now let us talk about the awesome book by Dr. Saqib Qureshi entitled Reconstructing Strategy: Dancing with the God of Objectivity. It is a mouthful of a title, but do not be discouraged by it; this book is indeed a rewarding read that is worth your time. The author Qureshi shows us that the problem with strategies whether related to the individual, the company or even countries is the fact that they overlook the important influence and impact of self-identity.

By strategy Qureshi and I simply mean defining and setting the starting and endpoints and finding the means to get there. For example, an individual may see himself at the current point, i.e. myself on the obese side, and then envision himself on the desired side, a skinny and healthy me (ideally the teenage version of myself). Then the trick is to find the best way or strategy for getting to that point.

In this situation, it is easy to give cookie-cut or sample answers. Go to the gym and work out for two hours a day, you may say. But this strategy may not work for everyone, or it may not be the best solution for all. I for one do not like gyms and would soon feel discouraged and drop the whole thing altogether, so goodbye to this strategy. This is when knowing the personal details, the make-up of the body, underlying health issues or psychological problems or preferences would help to find the best path for the given individual.

To give another example, an academic adviser would not tell you to become an engineer, but would need to take into consideration your skills, interests and capacities. In most cases, financial information as well as personal preferences regarding living space and environment becomes of importance as well. Put differently, there is no objective truth for the best strategy out there; there are a number of individual differences to consider. What is good or interesting for me may not be so for you.

This may seem like common sense, but the main reason we do not use it is that our modern world and science has led us to believe that we can be objective. This has been a modern philosophical trend where knowledge is claimed to be pure and free of subjective vestiges. Scientists claim to know the facts, and these facts are purported to be applicable to all situations and conditions. (Thank God for quantum mechanics for shaking that hubris a little and for bringing about occasional headaches in firm and headstrong scientists!)

And guess what, the claim for objectivity is another narrative we have come to swallow. It's a good and sturdy one, for sure, but nobody can fully and truly be objective since there are always, whether we acknowledge it or not, social, cultural, psychological influences that guide us hither and thither. This is phenomenology messing with our wannabe objective minds.

After setting up the theoretical basis, Qureshi looks at different examples and case studies from each of the categories, namely of the individual, the company, and the nation. For example, in case of individuals, he looks at Jan Morris who changed his sex and found a better fit for his both perceived and felt identity. As a result, he became not only physically a woman, but also engaged in what sociologists call role theory: society helped and made him behave, think and identify as a woman.

For instance, she became less skilled with car mechanics and lost some of her math skills. This is not meant to claim that women are innately bad at these things, but simply that they are perceived or expected to be bad at them, which often, but not always, becomes a self-fulfilling fallacy.

In these situations, we can see how we more closely identify with the role we are supposed to play in society. This also applies to the change of fatherhood. It happens quickly and suddenly; our self-identity shifts and what was important yesterday is not so today. Shelve those dreams of riding in a fast car, which is expensive and, more significantly, dangerous, and replace it with the safer and more family-friendly station wagon.

Yet Qureshi's example of Ed Husain was the most poignant one. In his young adulthood, Husain unfortunately got caught up in radical Islam and this ended up shaping his worldview to the utmost degree. He ended up shunning family, friends, alcohol and girls, and all of this happened within a short period of time. It shows us that we can be brainwashed quickly and adopt a very different self-identity as a result. The same happens to anyone who joins cults or any other extreme and radical group or society.

Qureshi further looks at such shifts within countries. His most interesting example was that of Iran that within a few years changed from a Westernized place filled with booze and miniskirts (imagine that!) to the place we think of today that is religiously strict or strictly religious. The defining moment was the 1979 Islamic Revolution that shifted gears and radically changed the identity of the country affecting the lives and destinies of millions of people.

In terms of businesses, I found his description and depiction of Disneyland the most appealing. In this case, he claims that a clear and focused identity, that is the desire to create happiness for all and to offer a synthetic fantasy world that is free of litter and everyday worries, helps to create the best strategy at hand. There may be other amusement parks and competition out there, but none compare to the paramount and resilient success of Disneyland / -world.

So far I have had nothing but praise for the book. It is indeed a timely one considering globalization and global politics. And the author backs it up with erudite knowledge and studies ranging from business and political sources to psychological and philosophical research. The fact that he himself is a Muslim gives the whole a healthy and refreshing spin on these current issues, and he has interesting views and insights on Gitmo and Dubya.

What further impressed me was the fact that he was using what are deemed by many as non-academic but popular sources to back up his claims. The most portentous would be to include Dr. Phil as an embodiment of life strategy approaches. Why not? And then there are quotes from Buzz Lightyear and other popular memes.

Yet there is a downside to this book; the flaw is minor, but I need to mention it in order to give a balanced perspective here. The author thinks himself funnier and wittier than he is in reality. Sorry to burst the bubble! The reason might be that his humor is too self-conscious; put differently, he is trying too hard to please or amuse the reader.

Notwithstanding, there are a few really funny bits, such as Hegel's hypothetical cover letter for a communications firm being rejected or that the author consistently over time does not see himself as a “fluid lesbian.” But these humorous instances are rather rare. His constant references to McDonald's also sounded more of an endorsement than intended. It reminded me of a class I was giving where I detailed the many harmful effects of fast food by using the Golden Arches as an example. However, right after the break, the majority of my students showed up with packages of that same food I intended to discourage!

Also, while I am nagging with his style, there was a bit too much repetition for me. Yes, he did hammer his message home, but he could have used fewer nails to do so. Just saying.

But I am more than glad to have had the opportunity to read and review this wonderful book. Many thanks to the author and to Kristi Hughes for sending me an advance copy to peruse (and apologies for taking my sweet time to do so)! If you are interested in strategy, business, foreign policy, political history, psychology or you just want a good comprehensive book to read, this one ought to be on your shelf!

Monday, August 3, 2015

Time Travel in the Movies: From Predestination to Looper


Ethan Hawke with a gun
What would it feel like to travel in time? Would we be able to change the world for the better or would everything simply stay the same regardless of our intentions, influence and impact? Both science and movies have toyed around with these kinds of ideas. Time travel in film is represented as speculative and hence classified under the science fiction rubric. Although time travel may be theoretically possible (a big maybe is implied), our mind boggles under the weight of assumptions and paradoxes that such travel would entail. We can see ourselves easily traveling through space, whether horizontally or vertically, across the globe or towards the planets, but how would such a trip be possible across layers of time (without hallucinogenic drugs of course)?

There are generally speaking two options proposed (there are more, but I am limiting myself to a couple for our purposes here): Either we cannot change events despite our travel back in time, referred to as the predestination paradox represented in films like 12 Monkeys (1995), Timecrimes (2007) and (the aptly named) Predestination (2014), or our actions will have consequences across the ripples of time and change the events to occur in the future, as seen in films like Back to the Future (1985), The Jacket (2005) or even Looper (2012).

Some may say that Hollywood is merely simplifying these issues, especially when you notice Back to the Future on this list, and I could have easily added X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) to round it all out. But I believe some of the philosophical underpinnings regarding time travel can be presented and expounded upon with the movies mentioned above. Among the most sophisticated of them is the criminally underrated but brilliant film Predestination.

To sum up Predestination is not an easy matter. I will have to give away clue points for my discussion, while my synopsis might be confounding for those who have not seen the movie to begin with. You have been warned.

So basically, the movie starts with a terrorist nick-named the "Fizzle Bomber" whose latest action is about to be foiled by the Ethan Hawke character simply known as The Barkeep. Not only does he fail but in this process, he also burns his face. After reconstructive surgery, he is sent out back again in time to stop this mysterious terrorist, that is to find enough clues about his identity so that he can be targeted and stopped next time around. The goal is to change history and save and undo the biggest attack that killed a multitude of people.

He is called Barkeep because on his next mission he works at a bar. He meets a strange and rather depressive man who teases him with his life story. This man claims that his is the strangest story the barkeep will have ever heard and the latter assures him that he has heard many a bizarre story in his profession, so he bets a bottle of booze on it. Yet the story this stranger is going to tell us in flashbacks (yes I know flashbacks in a story on time travel!) is bonkers indeed!

In fact, this man used to be a woman. She has never met her parents but was delivered one day at an orphanage. One day she applies for a job to go to space. She is a very dedicated, applied and smart person. She also endures physical stress and outdoes her female rivals in the application process. Only when they undertake specific medical tests do they notice something strange that disqualifies her for the position: She has, in fact, a set of both genitalia with the masculine part lying dormant yet fully formed.

After she meets the man of her dreams, she gets pregnant but the man simply abandons her. The pregnancy is one of high risk and although the girl she gives birth to is well and fine, she has surgery and becomes a man as a result. So she takes hormone pills and has her breasts surgically removed. During her stay in the hospital, her daughter is stolen from the nursery.

Now to the shocking reveals. The man she meets is actually herself. It is the masculine version of herself, that is why they hit it off so wonderfully as soulmates. She basically has sex with herself and gives birth to ... herself! Then she, as the baby girl, is abandoned at the orphanage and we have the loop complete. Oh, except I forgot to mention that the Barkeep is also her. She did not recognize him because he had his reconstructive facial surgery! That is why they hit it off so well!

So all the characters are subsumed to one. It is quasi mystical / religious that the Father and the Mother and the child are one and the same. This means that according to the film's premise it is possible to be and coexist with yourself at the same time during different time periods. Similarly, the movie Timecrimes illustrates this idea when the main character Hector intervenes and interacts with himself on multiple time levels affecting the desired outcome of the future.

Secondly, all the characters in Predestination are caught in a loop and lack free will (the different versions of the protagonist in Timecrimes each believe they have free will, but they don't really). They are predestined to repeat their actions that add up with minor fluctuations to the same result. (As an added twist, the terrorist in Predestination is the same person as well: He is the older version of the Barkeep who has traveled so much in time that he has lost his mind completely. Too much time travel can literally mess with and mess up your brains!)

In other words, the characters are trapped the same way the Bruce Willis character James Cole of 12 Monkeys cannot change the future even if they have knowledge of it (perhaps events driven by a higher force?). In Timecrimes, the protagonist is willingly trying to change things to the way they need or ought to be. This is similar to the adjustors in the off-beat and also very good Adjustment Bureau (2011), where God's executive angels (strange word combination indeed!) try to ensure that the Chairman's (i.e. God's) plans of destiny and fate are followed to the T and are not hindered by the nasty bug of coincidence. These are the innumerable moments when your car breaks down unexpectedly or you accidentally spill coffee on yourself that lead to alternative outcomes in your life (supposedly) arranged by those invisible agents.

To sum up the predestination paradox, no matter how hard you try, there are forces at work that will ensure that the eventual outcome will be the same (perhaps with very minor variations). Good luck trying to assassinate Hitler or to prevent accidents and deaths as none of it would happen according to this view on time travel. There is the somewhat amusing albeit rather morbid example of you trying to save your friend from dying in a car accident, and after your trip in time you find yourself in the driver's seat helplessly running over your dear friend. The future in this view of time is set in stone.

The other main view on time travel is often called the many worlds theory. This view is generally more flexible about outcomes and gives the agent more room to operate within. This would be the Back to the Future scenario. It has been years since I have seen this movie, but in that situation our main time-tripping protagonist changes the outcomes of the future through his actions. He interferes with the relationship between his parents and his mother falls in love with him (Oedipus anyone?). Of course, all of this has repercussions for the future and the future will be different.

The same applies to Looper (another film that is complex to summarize) where the protagonist caught up in a time loop manages to track himself down in the past, but in a crucial scene the younger version commits suicide (don't ask me why) in order to eliminate himself alongside his older self thus changing future outcomes (the assumption is of course for the better of all involved minus the protagonist who is dead in the past, present and future and has definitely closed and sealed his own loop). Although the protagonist cannot save himself in The Jacket either, he creates an alternative and better world due to his actions and interference. A more humorous version of this was attempted on the Simpsons when Homer goes back in time, steps on a bug in prehistoric times and changes the whole course of human history and civilizations as a result!

The question boils down to free will and personal responsibility. It is succinctly stated as could we have done otherwise. Do we have control over our present? If so, can we choose what we do now? If we can, then it ought to be possible to change or correct events through our actions by repeating the time loop and by creating alternative outcomes as a result.

For example, I could choose not to get married in another life and test out that outcome and then decide to go back and take the same path I had taken in the first place and be back again in the position and circumstances I am in already! The problem with life is that it is a one-time experiment. We cannot go back and forth in time or choose alternative outcomes as we are trapped and bound within the time-space continuum.

In other words, we cannot experiment with life, but have only one life to live. What would have happened if I had done so and so instead of this and that is not really possible to figure out, or if it is so, then on a minor and often not so relevant scale. We can switch jobs, partners, countries, and sometimes have the opportunity to go back to where we felt best, yet our experience of time remains linear.

Time travel is a fascinating subject and no wonder that cinema has decided to represent it in its various possible forms. It is food for thought and it both entertains and confounds. For now we may not know what it would be like, but we can experience it to a degree through the lens of cinema. And who knows, maybe the next time you see a person who like James Cole from 12 Monkeys claims to be from the future, he may be right indeed and not a lunatic as you may think. Think about it. If time travel will ever be possible, it is quite possible to meet someone from the future. But for the time being that is the stuff of dreams (nightmares?) and cinema!