Saturday, November 11, 2017

An Evening and Master Class with Atom Egoyan

Poster of UBC Event
Most unfortunately, I could not attend the annual Quinn Memorial lecture at UBC this year! The main reason was problems with scheduling as I would have had to cancel my classes in addition to finding a suitable substitute and all this would have been even more work than simply going to work. My apologies for that and hopefully I can re-arrange my commitments so that I can attend, ruminate and blog about this wonderful event come next year.

In lieu of this, I had the opportunity to attend another UBC event, the Master Class with renowned Canadian film director Atom Egoyan. When I first received the email of the upcoming talk, I did not hesitate and bought a ticket immediately. I marked the day on our kitchen calendar many days in advance. I could not believe that I would not only be in the same room with this esteemed director but also perhaps be given the chance to ask a question, shake his hand and get a selfie and / or an autograph. The latter I realize is more or less passé these days, a circumstantial relic of the non-technological past.


As it turned out, I arrived early that evening. This allowed me to get a rather good seat; yet to my slight dismay, the first and half of the second row were already reserved. As this was a special opportunity for film grad students to see and meet the iconic Canadian film-maker, they were immediately and conveniently assigned the best seats of the house, so-to-speak. Notwithstanding, my seat was not too bad as the (hastily taken) photo above can demonstrate for our intents and purposes here.

The evening began with a couple of (redundant?) speeches and a showcase of the centennial celebration of UBC with a brief video of some sorts. My focus throughout was on the man sitting in front of me who was close enough to be poked. Yes, this actually crossed my mind! I considered it something one could cross off one’s eternal bucket list, namely to poke a Canadian legend. Believe me, at one point I did lean forward with my hand still idly lying beside me.

What would be the worst that could happen to me? I would sincerely apologize to him and explain the reason for my poke. Depending on his level of humility and sense of humor, he might even smile or perhaps use it as an anecdote at another of his upcoming talks. I would be indelibly entwined in his memory as the man who poked him at UBC.

Now why would I go to such length and effort of poking Atom Egoyan? Let me tell you that he is among my Top 40 directors of all time. It may not sound like much, but you should see the list of these world-renowned directors. Exotica (1994) was my introduction to his oeuvre and what an introduction it was indeed! That movie blew me away and I would say it is tied with Arcand’s Jesus of Montréal (1989) for best Canadian movie I have ever seen!

Furthermore, I quite enjoyed his Adjuster (1991), a film that was decidedly different from other types of films I had seen. Felicia’s Journey (1999) impressed me as well but not so much due to its erratic and rushed ending (that is, if memory serves me right) and his most celebrated film to date The Sweet Hereafter (1997) failed to impress me much. Ever since then, for one reason or another, his more recent movies fell under the radar; in addition, I had read movie critics feeling let down by this undoubtedly talented director. Yet my most recent film of his was Remember (2015) with Christopher Plummer, a film that was expertly made but proved to be problematic on different levels. One day I shall put my thoughts on it in writing in the form of a movie review.

Yet back to the evening and sorry for the diversion. To make a long story short, I did not poke. He was then (finally!) invited to the podium and delivered his speech. It started off on a notably false note for me. He alluded to the sexual allegations that are haunting Hollywood these days and that he felt disgusted about it. Of course, I completely agreed with him but unfortunately, there seemed to be no connection or relation with his actual talk, which focused on his upbringing and his experiences of film-making. I felt that he used current events as a hook but one that did not lead anywhere but was used merely to make himself look and appear good. In other words, a type of Ego trip (coincidentally the first three letters of his chosen last name).

Yet over the course of his talk, he did win me over with some of his personal anecdotes as well as observations on the task of film-making, some of which I will aboard here. First off, he talked about his upbringing in Victoria as a very young Egyptian-born Armenian who spoke not a word of English. That resonated with me because I had gone through similar experiences where I was thrown into a country and culture without having any target language skills to get by with.

In his case, he had at least some, if merely feeble and symbolic support from his father. It was he who told the kindergarten teacher that should his son utter a particular phrase in their language, it meant he was hungry; any other phrase simply meant he needed to go to the washroom. Yet when young Atom verbalised his need to go to the washroom, he was given a sandwich instead. This not only confused the young boy but made him aware and averted him of the delicacy and fragility of communication.

We may think we have the means to communicate but that may not be the case. Misunderstandings abound or lurk around the corner. This would happen too when he would talk about his ideas for films or literary adaptations. At times people would say they understand, but he knew that they did not. At other times, writers would disagree with him until they saw the finished product, as was the case with both Felicia’s Journey and The Sweet Hereafter. To his credit, it must be very difficult to give someone a clear picture of the contents of one’s mind, so, more often than not, he would let the images speak for themselves once the film was made.

Egoyan explained that his reason for adapting other people’s materials was because he himself did not have access to those worlds and experiences. Then we would take their materials and adapt them in his idiosyncratic ways, which might or might not resonate with the original author. Film adaptations of literary works are a tricky subject and it is about both preserving the essence of the original work but also adding one’s unique and visual touch to the content. 

Either way, what this showed me was that film-making was a lonely process. Writing certainly is as writers spend most of their time alone producing sentences that are stitched together carefully and then finally presented as a fixed piece of work. In film, it seems that although you are constantly surrounded by people as there are many others involved in the film-making process, in the end, it is an equally lonely endeavor. Although he works closely with actors, some of them prefer not to talk much, as was the case with Kevin Bacon, according to the director. All and all, the only one who knows where all of this is going and how it will all look once put together will only be in the mind’s eye of the director. Yet once all the elements combine and come together, the finished product can then be shared with others.

One of the things that strikes me about films as well is the use of music and I was glad but not particularly surprised that Egoyan himself relished that process. It is often the final but oh so important touch to the film. It is the carefully selected bits of soundtrack that give the film its necessary depth and often identity. That is an important part of film-making; the other would be to imbue your characters with empathy. That way stories can resonate with us and even so-called “cold” film-makers like Michael Haneke show empathy even for dubious or downright despicable characters.

The evening ended with a Q & A session. My question would have been about his relationship with technology. Although technology represents an important part of his films, it is also portrayed as an alienating effect. I wanted to know how he felt about this himself. He alluded to some of it as he told us, with some visible regret, that the old and intimate experience of sitting in a dark room with strangers and seeing the actions projected on a screen was slowly dying out. Instead, we stream movies. That has led to an explosion of content and although it is often of very good quality, it is too much to consume for any single individual.

I decided to postpone my question for a little later in person. We had been given a ticket that would be converted to a drink of our choice, for me it was an unexpected but very welcome glass of red wine. At the reception, I literally hung around in the vicinities of Atom Egoyan who was approached by many attendees with numerous questions and comments.


I stood there patiently, waiting for him to notice me. But unfortunately, people would butt in or slightly shove me to the side. But no matter, I had the iron resolve to abide my time. I was going to ask him my particular question about technology and end it on an ironic note with a selfie of the two of us. There! Finally, he took note of me and raised his eyebrows and walked half a step in my direction before he was pulled over to the side by one of the organizers. There was thereafter another photo-op with certain people after which I was immediately forgotten again.

After some more futile waiting, I decided to leave the scene. I had seen and heard enough so that I could sit down and type away for a blog post. It was not overall as personally satisfying as I would have liked but then again it also reminded me that in the end, even film-makers, who are the equivalent of celebrities for me, are human after all.

Although I appreciated Egoyan’s sense of humour and his (apparent) modesty, in the end I realized hat even great filmmakers are human. As is the case with any artist or celebrity, we impose upon them qualities they may or may not have, and whether we realize this or not, we put them on pedestals. I was glad to have seen and met this great director, but at the same time it slightly chipped away some of my adoration I had for him. After all, even the great turn out to be made of flesh and blood and not that different from the rest of us and in the end, we end up feeling slightly conned and deceived.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Existential Burden: On Guilt and Innocence in The Fall by Albert Camus

Original French Book Cover of La Chute
In the words of his fellow French philosopher (and often rival) Jean-Paul Sartre, the novel The Fall (1956) by Albert Camus is "perhaps the most beautiful and the least understood" of his works. I love the cautionary disclaimer of “perhaps” thrown in there for good measure because Sartre at the time was still at odds with his one-time friend who had tragically died in a car accident. 

Notwithstanding, the other parts of the sentence certainly ring true as The Fall is not as read nor hotly discussed and debated as opposed to the more known and celebrated works of Albert Camus, such as The Stranger (1942) or The Myth of Sisyphus (1942).

In my view, The Fall is not his best novel; that honour I would bestow upon the exemplary The Plague (1947), but I found the ideas expressed in his last work of fiction to be of great interest and relevance for existential philosophy. There are many themes that are dealt with in the form of dramatic monologues by Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a self-proclaimed judge-penitent who has fallen from grace. Once a reputable lawyer who (supposedly) used to help the poor and widowed, he ends up sick and lonely in an apartment in Amsterdam.  

When Clamence started off helping widows and orphans, he was highly respected by his peers and society in general. However, he did not lead an authentic life. He may have helped the blind cross the street and shown many other good deeds in front of others, but deep inside he had done so only for attention and acknowledgement. His actions were self-interested and, worse, they hardly reflected his true inner disposition and feelings, which in fact tended towards its opposite direction, ranging from disinterest to even disgust of his fellow beings.

One night, while walking down the streets of Paris, he notices a young distraught girl by the Seine. He pays her no notice. She jumps and cries for help but instead of coming to her rescue, he quickens his steps and deafens his ears; he even refuses to read about her fate the next day in the papers.

Yet this event remains in his memory and literally resurfaces a number of times in the novel. The most persistent haunt is an indiscriminate laugh (the derisory voice of conscience) that he hears on various occasions, which he feels is aimed at him. In such a way, he carries with him his share of guilt over his refusal to act and potentially save the girl’s life.

Actions are an important part of existential philosophy; they are meant to propel us towards engaging with life in a chaotic and desolate world. After the indelible horrors of World War II, people had lost faith in traditional forms and pillars of meaning, such as God and religion, while humanity, warts and all, had come into sharper focus. Valuable and veritable action existed in helping others and it was considered a manner of alleviating suffering and injustice both of which abounded in the world around us. 

Moreover, actions served as standards of judging and evaluating a life; a good and decent person was not one that merely prayed to the heavens or asked God for forgiveness, but one who physically made the world a better place. In that sense, morality should be expressed in tangible forms and not serve as mere thoughts or an empty mouthpiece; put differently, ideology ought to be enmeshed with actions.

Essentially, we are free but that comes with a price. We need to take responsibility for our deeds and we will be judged by others as well as judge ourselves in the process. The problem is that we all carry guilt with us and none of us are innocent, according to Camus. The fact that the world cannot give us pre-packaged bits of truth and meaning but that we have to figure it all out for ourselves makes the whole endeavor more difficult and cumbersome.

That is the reason, why Clamence is a judge-penitent. He judges both himself and others, while he repents his own actions and lack thereof. The other issue that complicates matters is that people generally do not lead authentic lives; they are either dishonest towards others, themselves or even a combination of both. Clamence claims to know the truth and that elevates him over others, but he is still caught up in the sticky web of the world as he cannot exist without others.   

Existential guilt has been explored in other works, most memorably in Franz Kafka’s The Process in which its protagonist K. gets arrested one morning despite being innocent of any specific crimes. It is the guilt of humanity, the mark of the cross on Cain’s forehead that makes him guilty despite feeling or believing to be innocent. We cannot disassociate ourselves from this, but we can try our best to face it and then deal with it as best we can.

Nobody is exempt of this guilt, not even Jesus. Why did Jesus so quickly give himself up to the authorities knowing that we would face death? Believers may say that it is to purge the world of its sins with his blood, but Camus claims that Jesus was not the innocent sheep himself. On the Day of Innocents, Herod sent out his army to kill infants and children, while Jesus managed to escape with the help of an angel. Although essentially cleared of any wrongdoing himself, Jesus must have felt pangs of conscience that so many innocent children had died instead as well as because of him.

This could be the reason why Jesus did not put up a fight and quickly gave in when the time came. This would also, according to Camus, explain his cry to God, why He had forsaken him, a doubt not only in the Deity’s possible non-existence but also an accusation of not interfering with the slaughter of many innocent people. This information, these particular lines of lament and accusation had been, however, suppressed (censured) by all gospel accounts, with the exception of Mark.

Camus then engages in a bit of pun and wordplay, which unfortunately loses its impact in translation. Despite all the somber philosophy, there is substantial amount of humor in his writing. Jesus chose his apostle Peter to be the founder of the church. Yet it was Peter (Pierre in French) who would betray him three times, and yet he was supposed to be the rock (“pierre”) of the Church. Jesus must have been aware of the delicate irony of the situation, says Clamence.

The novel is also surprisingly frank and forthcoming about sexuality, especially considering the time it was written, namely a few years before the so-called sexual revolution. Clamence decries the double standards and hypocrisy of society and he claims to bed both respectable women as well as prostitutes in the same hotel bed!

Moreover, he says that when he engaged in debauchery, namely sex and alcohol, all it did was help him forget about the guilt and pain for a while. In such moments, he would manage to lose himself and find some temporary comfort and relief. Yet such actions were not a sign or expression of freedom but rather a form of evading responsibility and action as one would become enslaved to them and eventually still wake up to an unchanged situation of existential guilt and suffering.

In a world where excess and debauchery are often viewed as the ultimate forms of pleasure and enjoyment as well as a carefree existence and life of freedom, it is interesting to note that all of this is merely another form of escapism. True permanent pleasure cannot be gained from such vapid and superficial experiences or lifestyles.

On its face value, existentialist philosophy may seem pessimistic, especially with its heavy reliance on guilt and loss of innocence. Yet what I like best about this branch of philosophy is the fact that it gives us something to hold onto. This something may be vague and not clearly defined, but it forces us to become who we are and to face the world as genuinely as possible. In all of this, our deeds speak louder than our words and we cannot isolate ourselves from others but must interact and exist with them.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Philosophically Speaking: An Interview with Amy Leask

Colorful aura with black hole center
Philosophy – you can’t live without it and, in fact, you shouldn’t! If life is bread, then philosophy is your butter. To spread (!) this metaphor a little more, the butter melts and unites with the bread and they transform into one indistinguishable oily substance. Put differently, I think philosophy is deeply entwined with life, and vice versa.

When teaching philosophy, my first question is whether philosophy is relevant to life. It is, of course, a rhetorical question but since my students might be inclined to mischievously say no, I have added the subsequent appeal: Please say Yes! The follow-up question is to explain how or in what ways, philosophy is relevant to life.

I have thought to commence a series of interviews on the very topic of philosophy. In fact, I have had the pleasure to pose some philosophical questions to Amy Leask, who is, among many other things, a philosopher, writer and interactive media producer. What I find most impressive about her is not only her passion for philosophy but also the desire to apply it to life and to communicate this to everyone. She teaches children, young adults, parents and educators about the value and importance of philosophy.

In fact, one of the problems with philosophy is that it is often misunderstood or is simply equated with convoluted academic thinking. Yet philosophy has and should have its footprints plastered on our daily life as it is a critical skill for survival and success. It is something everyone can benefit from and it can be applied to many different fields, including film, music, literature, and politics. In order to appreciate the breadth and depth of philosophy alongside its more playful aspects, here is Amy Leask’s interview in full:


1. What do you do for a living? Why?

I’m a children’s interactive media producer. I create eBooks, cartoons, apps and games that teach philosophical questions and critical thinking to kids, so “Why” is my bread and butter. Before I got into this space, I spent over a decade teaching young adults philosophy, and was concerned that learners weren’t learning to argue, or reason their way through information, both of which are vital skills. It seemed like they couldn’t disagree with each other without getting angry, and there were so many amazing questions they’d never thought to ask.

My present work allows me to explore different media as a writer, which is challenging and wonderful. There’s really never been just one kind of thinker, and I love coming up with new ways to reach a diverse audience. I love the community of creators I get to work with, I love our audience of precocious, funny kids, and I love going to bed at night knowing that I’ve put something positive out there.

2. What three adjectives would you use to describe yourself?

Curious, quirky and unrefined. I don’t think I could do what I do for a living if I didn’t have these qualities.

3. What’s something that has always amazed you as a child? Does it still amaze you?

When I was little, I was blown away by words and how powerful they were. I marvelled at how big people could use them to do phenomenal things. If you choose your words correctly, you can make people laugh, or get enraged, or want to get up and change things. I don’t think I’ve ever outgrown that fascination. I still read things that blow my mind, and consider it an accomplishment to write or present something that sounds just right. When someone tells an amazing joke, I want to hug them. 

When someone utters the perfect insult, well, officially I’m offended, but secretly, I want to high five them for their craftsmanship. I can’t sleep after reading something truly inspiring. I find myself looking for evidence of language in other species too, and wonder if they get the same kick out their words as we do out of ours.

4. How would you personally define philosophy?

When I was in first year philosophy, our professor described philosophy as “a blind man in a dark room, looking for a black cat that isn’t there.” It’s an interesting analogy, but it makes philosophy seem totally inaccessible and frustrating, and I’d like to think it’s inclusive and empowering.

For me, philosophy has two components. It’s about big questions that don’t have easy answers, but that are part of what it means to exist and be human. It’s also an ever-growing set of rules for reasoning. I would describe it as a combination of the vehicle and the road map.

5. Why did you choose philosophy over say history, psychology or political science, for instance?

I fell in love with philosophy because it’s full of grey areas. I really like having to really work for an answer, and having the opportunity to rethink it. The kinds of questions philosophers ask are so compelling and multifaceted. Where else do you get to wonder what it means to be a person, or what love is, or if we have freedom?

I’ve stayed in love with philosophy because it presents itself in so many different forms, through different media. Filmmakers can be philosophers, as can novelists, cartoonists, chefs, musicians, athletes. A philosophy class or two never hurt anyone, but really anyone who thinks is capable of doing it in some way, shape or form.

6. What can philosophy do and not do for us?

Practicing philosophy is a direct route to developing critical thinking, communication and problem- solving skills, all of which are in short supply these days. It’s so much more than just contemplation for its own sake. It’s a way to sift through the fog of information we’re faced with. It’s also a way to keep in touch with ourselves and our relationships with others.

What philosophy can’t do is present one clear answer to a question. You’re never really done when you take on an argument.

7. Why do you think people are so suspicious of philosophy?

Leading an examined life is a little scary for most of us. It involves admitting that we don’t know, and that we’re sometimes wrong. Being rational and taking on tough questions forces us to be honest with ourselves in ways that are really challenging. Gloria Steinem has this great quote that applies to philosophy: “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

Some aren’t fond of philosophy because it isn’t a finite science, and it doesn’t often provide a lot of certainty. My students used to badger me for the answer that I would give full marks to, and it took a lot of explaining for them to understand that I was mostly interested in how they were thinking, not what they were thinking.

Many still associate philosophy with academia. They think it isn’t something that people do in their daily lives, but rather, an area of study. I think there’s still a place for academic philosophy, but there’s also a movement to make it more practical, more accessible, and to encourage it in children and other groups who are traditionally left out of the conversation.

8. Who is your favorite philosopher, and why?

I’m an existentialist, so I’m into de Beauvoir, Sartre and their contemporaries. I think this is because so many of them were also writers, and their ideas were conveyed through novels, plays and poetry. However, I see philosophy in a whole lot of other sources too. In my mind, really good comedians are philosophers, as they’re constantly asking “Have you thought about X like this?” I think I’ve had just as many epiphanies listening to George Carlin, Robin Williams, Russell Brand or Margaret Cho as I have reading actual philosophy books.

9. In today’s world, technology has become part of everyday life. Do you think that computers are capable of thinking and / or feeling? Could they fall in love?

Machines that think and feel (or at least the possibility of them) are forcing us to rethink what we consider to be human, which is exciting. It’s possible that computers could be taught to think and feel, or to love, but it would probably be in a different way than humans do. However, non-human animals think and feel and love in different ways than we do too. Thinking/feeling machines would compel us to take another look at other living organisms, which I think is a healthy thing to do.

A bigger question would be whether we want to create machines that can do everything that we do. Technology is supposed to be created in aide of us having better, richer lives. Something I’ve always wondered is why we feel we need machines to be like us. To what end?

10. Do you have a catchphrase? If not, what would it be?

I’m going to defer to Shakespeare: “Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.” I’d rather look like a dork and  come up with a few useful ideas than be composed and refined and say very little.

11. Now it’s your turn: What would you like to ask me!

(Note: The tables have turned here and Amy Leask is allowed to ask me a question, which ended up being three in number!)

What big ideas do we have that no longer serve us, and how do we let them go? Why are we holding onto them in the first place?

That is a big question indeed, Amy, and I will try to give my small answer to it. The biggest issue here is that people are afraid to be wrong so they adamantly insist on being right all the time! In our day and age, science has advanced in many ways but it has not (cannot?) shed light on a number of important matters, such as life’s meaning and purpose or the afterlife.

So then we have philosophy and religion eagerly stepping in to fill the void. They are in themselves filled with big ideas. Once you have convinced yourself of one of them, say the existence or non-existence of God, you will find it hard to let go of it, especially if you have invested a lot of time and energy into it. 

Say you have been a fervent non-believer (for argument’s sake) for decades now and suddenly you witness what could only be called a miracle. You would wish to dismiss it and try to find a logical answer to what has just occurred. It is hard (but not impossible) to be open to change and to let go of one’s cherished convictions, whatever they may be. We hold onto to them because they give us a bit of comfort in a world that more often than not does not make a lot of sense and does not provide free security blankets.

What happens to socks that get lost in the dryer? Seriously, I need to know. I’ve got a couple of favourites that have gone MIA.

They reappear in another dimension. The dryer actually works as a time-warping device that breaks down the time-space fabric and catapults the dry socks into a spinning black hole. There they are caught up by gravity until the black hole itself implodes and the socks reappear on the feet of another person in another time and place. That’s at least what I think happened to one of my socks but I could be wrong.


Thank you so much for participating in this interview and for providing us with thoughtful responses on these issues! Hope you had as much fun as I did and hope our readers do too!

(If you are curious about Amy Leask's work, feel free to visit her sites at RedTKids.com and AmyLeask.com)

Friday, August 18, 2017

Kieslowski’s Dekalog: The Father of TV Miniseries

Poster of Dekalog Miniseries
Some thirty years ago, the great Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski decided to make a TV series based on or rather inspired by the Ten Commandments. About a week ago, we decided to watch it in its entirety. Thankfully, my wife was willing to give this series a try and remained my patient screen companion throughout all this artsy binge-watching. The issue with my wife, however, was less related to art movies but more with the subject and content manner, the series being, at least nominally, related to religion, which she, for better or worse, does not have a very positive relationship with.

If that is your only deterrent for staying away from this magnificent series, rest assured that it should not pose any impediment. Sure, the Vatican has applauded it but Kieslowski is not a religious fanatic, far from it. In fact, he is not didactic but presents us with moral dilemmas that will make us think about the subject matter. Yet in all of this, we, like his characters, appear to have free will to embrace and accept the ideas or not, and we are encouraged throughout to draw our own conclusions.  

In fact, the series is rather loosely based on the Ten Commandments. Most of the times, the Biblical connection highlights some of the issues raised in the given episode, but at other times the link seems a bit far-fetched. Yet throughout, there is one thing that can definitely be agreed upon: The whole series bristles with creativity and makes us reflect on these religious and spiritual matters. In fact, there is so much thought and reflection crystallized and condensed into each episode that one ought to follow the advice of film critic Roger Ebert and watch only one episode at a time, then spend the rest of the night discussing it with friends.

Almost all the episodes are filled with nostalgic and melancholic sentiments that are underscored with the beautiful haunting score by Kieslowski’s regular composer Zbiegniew Preisner, but the series opens on a decisively sad and tragic note. It is the first commandment of not having any gods before God. In this case, it is amplified to the human fallacy of trusting technology a little bit too much.

The series was shot some thirty years ago where computers were the exception not the norm, so it is interesting how Kieslowski foreshadows and predicts the advent of and dependence on technology. At one point, the professor alludes to Artificial Intelligence and claims that at some point in time it will have its own likes and dislikes and hence be more and more similar - if not equivalent - to human beings.

In the first episode, the computers are used not only to compute and offer predictions but they are also programmed to switch lights on and off and to turn on the water faucet. At a crucial point, the computer is used to calculate the thickness of ice and to decide whether it is safe to skate upon the nearby frozen lake. His ten-tear-old son Pawel wants to try out his new ice skates for the occasion.

His father is adamantly, one might say even blindly, embracing technology at the expense of any kind of spirituality. His sister, Pawel’s aunt, however, is pious and wants to inculcate religion into her nephew, which the father despite his personal beliefs does not object to. 

The boy himself is curious about life and death and has started asking difficult questions. What happens when we die, Pawel asks his father. What will remain of us? His father’s responses seem limited to the boy’s understanding of the world, whereas his aunt offers answers to soothe his inquisitive soul.

In the end, the calculations end up being wrong: the ice breaks and the boy drowns. The father rechecks his numbers and cannot understand how this could have happened. It can serve as a reminder that we cannot be certain of anything and that there is an indeterminate and mysterious variable in all our life’s undertakings. Call it a freak accident or spiritual white noise. But whatever it is, it is there and reminds us of our fragility. The Titanic was the beacon of human hope / hubris and it sank like a stone.

A second and, in my viewpoint, more disturbing interpretation could be that God is punishing us for our transgressions and for not adhering to the first commandment. In that sense, the father is chastised for embracing the false idol technology over God. In other words, it is God who has the last laugh.

But I do not think that is the way Kieslowski would want us to feel. My evidence would lie in the recurring character of the young man with the sad eyes. He shows up in almost all the episodes and especially at crucial moments of the tales. In the first one, he sits at a bonfire by the frozen lake, and he has eye contact with the father who carefully stomps upon the ice, testing his hypothesis.

The young man is not a Christ-like figure but more like a watchful angel, similar to the reflective angels in the brilliant film Wings of Desire. He watches humans but does not - or rather cannot - interfere in their decision-making. He is sad because he already knows the outcome, but the humans do not understand and cannot see the big picture or the full gamut and consequence of their actions. In the words of Christ, they do not know what they are doing.

As you can see, Kieslowski presents us a complex moral tale and it is never a matter of black and white. To give another example, let us take a look at the commandment of not killing. In this fifth episode, an irresponsible, careless and cruel young man kills a taxi driver for no discernible reason. Then the second half shows us the aftermath, he himself is facing death in the form of capital punishment.

Is an eye for an eye the appropriate response? By making the perpetrator so repugnant, one might think it so but then we see his own despair in front of impending doom. Is the government not engaging in another killing that is almost as cruel and heartless as the one committed by the criminal? The young lawyer of the film asks that question. Who is this capital punishment for? Is it to punish the criminal? Or to protect the innocent?

These are moral ambiguities presented in each of the episodes, and the answer is never easy. At times, the scenarios seem abstract and heavy-handed, especially in the case of the pregnant woman who is trying to decide whether to have an abortion or not. It all depends on whether her husband will die of cancer as he is not and cannot be the father of the child.

If her sterile husband survives, she will abort because the child is of the lover she has taken during his convalescence (!) and so she asks the doctor about her husband’s odds. The doctor is presented with an ethical dilemma. To his surprise and against medical odds, it turns out that the patient is, in fact, recovering. But if the doctor tells her that, she will go ahead with the abortion. But if he lies to her and claims that her husband is dying, she will not do so and the child will survive.

Yet despite its abstract framing, the episode is still filled with life and feeling. We wrestle with the doctor, our main protagonist, whether he should keep his oath by not using the Lord’s name in vain or whether he should deliberately lie to this woman; to make matters worse, she asks the doctor to swear that he is indeed telling the truth! In other words, here is a perfect example in which Kieslowski seems to side with actually breaking the commandment, that is, it is OK to use the Lord’s name in vain if it can save a baby’s life!

This situation is brought up again in the eighth episode, at least theoretically, as a moral dilemma: In a university classroom, the female professor believes that the doctor made the right choice in saving the child’s life over following the commandment. Ironically, the same professor has followed the commandment of NOT bearing false witness to her neighbor, which put the life of a young Jewish girl in danger! So she does not do as she preaches in class even though she ends up sticking to her commandment.

Or consider how Kieslowski deals with the commandment thou shalt not steal! In that episode, the young mother “steals” her own child! She was impregnated by her school teacher, so her mother decides to claim motherhood of her own granddaughter. Since the real mother, the young defiant girl Majka, is not allowed to live with her own child Ania, she decides to kidnap her daughter from her mother Ewa, the child’s grandmother.

In other words, this young woman Majka is stealing what (or rather who) is rightfully her own, but in this case the government does not recognize her as the official mother because the young girl Ania is registered under the name of her grandmother Ewa posing as her mother. The problem is Majka is quite irresponsible and emotionally unstable, while her mother Ewa would provide a safer home for the child Ania.

I could go on with the discussion of each episode but it would take up too much space here in merely one post. Each of the episodes is self-contained but it is the interconnectedness that makes them stand out as an integrated whole. Most of the characters live in the same housing project. At times, the paths of some of the characters cross. It is usually as a minor note, but it provides delight to the careful viewer.

For example, the doctor in one of the episodes happens to take the elevator with the characters of another episode. Or the recently departed father who does not appear in the final episode had a brief scene in Episode Eight, so we know what he looks like! The girl Ania also reappears in a brief shot in Episode Nine! These small scenes tend to underline the overall message of the whole series as an ambitious and monumental undertaking rarely seen on television up to then (we are talking pre-Twin Peaks era).


The strength of Kieslowski lies in presenting us abstract thoughts in concrete ways. We feel for and with the characters. We may not like them or may not agree with them; we may judge them or we may remain neutral, but be it as it may, Kieslowski presents us intimate and life-like stories of simple people. By magnifying the small and ordinary, he gives us a glimpse of the big picture: The workings of the universe with or without God in it. That interpretation is best left at the personal discretion of the viewer. 

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Silence as the Absence of God’s Voice

Movie poster of movie Silence (2016)
What makes Scorsese’s movie Silence (2016) brilliant is not what it states but what it implies. Although many have hailed it as a testament to faith and by extension an appraisal of Christianity and its values, the film offers more questions than answers. If you approach it from different angles, you may spot troubling messages regarding faith and religion.

The movie is set in feudal Japan where the government has decided to ban Christianity and it is persecuting Christian missionaries alongside many recently converted and faithful locals. Under the leadership of the Japanese Inquisitor, the Christian priests and their followers are given a chance to apostatize: If they stamp upon - and in other cases spit on - the image of Christ, they shall be spared.

Various missionaries cannot do so and are ready to go through immense suffering and to sacrifice themselves as martyrs hence becoming pillars of the Christian faith. Others break down and reject their religion to continue living. When rumors hit the Vatican that the renowned head priest Ferreira has apostatized and publicly denied the Catholic Church, two of his idealistic disciples, two Jesuit priests reject this as mere gossip and hearsay and decide to head to the dangerous territory to find out for themselves and see it with their own eyes.

If they can prove that this were untrue or even better that the priest had died for his faith, it would be a great boon for Christianity across the world. The opposite, however, would destabilize the strength and fortitude of the religion and plant seeds of doubt among its adherents. The Jesuit priests soon realize that their religion has many persecuted followers among the simple Japanese country people, many of whom are to ready to die for harboring these two priests.

Eventually and it was merely matter of time, both priests are caught; one of them, Rodrigues ends up meeting his pale-faced mentor Ferreira who in a cruel ironic twist of faith encourages his pupil to apostatize as he has done. In fact, Ferreira has even acquired a Japanese name and identity and is known for publishing anti-Christian writings. The world of the young priest Rodrigues falls apart and he ends up rejecting his faith publicly. On the other hand, the other priest Garupe, who was stricter and sterner in his beliefs, dies in his attempt to save Japanese Christians.

All this set up provides us then with an important array of thoughts and questions. First off, the most relevant one would be the problem of evil: how can God allow his followers to suffer such torment and never intervene on their behalf? Priests and Japanese Christians endure horrific methods and sequences of torture and abuse by the hands of the Japanese and it seems that throughout all of this, God guards His silence.

In fact, the Jesuit priest Rodrigues claims he has not heard God’s voice since youth and complains why He has not made himself heard to his ardent worshiper. Doubts begin to fill his mind and it is only towards the end of the film where we appear to hear the voice of Jesus telling him that he was there with this priest all this time suffering by his side. At the end of the movie, the priest’s death is followed by Japanese funeral procedures but a close-up reveals him secretly clutching onto his cross.

The ending can be interpreted as a reinforcement of faith and that despite lifelong suffering and continuous eroding doubt, the priest has never actually denied his faith. That is a valid reading; yet there is no certainty in this. We do not see him arrive at the Gates of Heaven, which for obvious reasons is avoided as it would reek of kitsch. In other words, we never know whether all his pain and suffering was worth it and that his was indeed the true religion.

One of the indications here would be the title itself: Silence. This applies to an absence of not only sound but of God’s own existence. There is a possibility, and this was the nagging doubt of our priest, that his religion may be merely make-believe. There was doubt previously in Scorsese’s masterful The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), but it was overcome at the end as Jesus found himself back on the cross and died.

In that instance, we assume that Jesus preserved his faith and managed to be resurrected as the Scriptures tell us.  But again, this is an assumption that Scorsese only implies; the music is joyful and celebratory but we never see Christ actually go to heaven or resurrect with our own eyes. This is different from Pasolini’s version of The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), which for the most part has a documentary feel to it but ends up showing us the after-effects of Christ’s death, the trembling of the Earth and that he has arisen from the dead.

So the question remains, how do we know if this religion is true after all? Catholic religion has survived such a long time because of its structure and philosophy. Belief in it is universal and standardized and is not open to interpretation. It is beyond nationalities or ethnicity. It is run internationally like an organization with its headquarters in the Vatican. This is as true today as it was back then.

By way of comparison, the Protestant faith has not had such a uniform run. Since many are open to voice their doubts, it has splintered into many factions most of which don’t see eye to eye with each other. It is, for better or worse, not as solid and unified as the Catholic Church.

But the question remains, which is the true religion? What if Catholics are wrong and they are not adhering to the true religion? This is a conversation the priest has with the Japanese Inquisitor. What if it turns out that Buddhism is true after all? Is it not arrogance to assume that Christians are right and even conquer other countries in the process?

As the Inquisitor says, the Japanese have their own religion, culture and beliefs, all of which they would like to preserve. So with what right do these Christian missionaries come and usurp their territory? In that sense, we can see the political workings and machinations of religion. It is not merely a matter of faith but cuts much deeper than that.

The priest responds that Christianity is beyond nations and borders because it is the truth. But why did it then not firmly set foot in Japan? Because the Japanese soil is rotten and truth cannot grow there, this is the young priest’s weak answer to that question. Suddenly, we realize that the Japanese are not driven by sadistic motives but that they try to preserve their culture and traditions, all of which they perceive being under attack by the Christian threat.

The arrogance of the Catholic Church can also be felt in its methods of punishing sinners and non-believers. This is not touched upon in the film but as I was watching the Japanese torture of the Christians, I could not stop thinking of the horrendous and horrific ways that Inquisitors of the Holy Church had tortured and tormented so many souls. What if all of this was in vain and these people suffered and died meaninglessly by the hands of the priests?

Of course, the priests believed that they were doing a favor to their victims as they were supposedly cleansing all their sins through immense and imposed suffering and that the souls of their victims would be free to enter the Pearly Gates. But that seed of doubt is the question here, what if it is not true? Then these people had been brutally killed for nothing.

Yet apart from being a usurping power, did the priests truly manage to conquer the hearts and minds of this country folk? The head priest Ferreira says no. These people in their simplicity and due to their previous cultural beliefs and upbringing had a faulty understanding of the Christian faith. In an earlier scene of baptism, we witness how a young couple assumed that they were all in heaven after their child was baptized and the Jesuit priest had to correct their views and say that this was not so and that paradise was another place indeed.

Furthermore, the Japanese had the belief that the sun was Jesus and that he did not arise three days later but every day instead. Such misunderstandings and misinterpretations led these people to follow a religion that was neither Christianity nor their own cultural belief but rather a hybrid of both. In that sense, the missionaries had effectively failed propagating the true religion instead giving birth to something else completely.

That is another issue that arises. Since each and everyone sees and interprets the world in a different manner, how can one have universal beliefs then? And how do we know that they are all aligned? Even among priests there are discrepancies and they draw their ideas and inspirations from the Holy Book, which has contradictions itself and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Which is the truth after all? On this essential question, the movie remains uncomfortably silent.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Woody Allen’s Match Point: A Meditation on Chance and Luck

Opening scene from the movie Match Point
The opening sequence of Woody Allen’s Match Point sums up not only a crucial point about the game of tennis but serves also as a metaphor for life’s (seeming) coincidences. The tennis ball balances on the edge of the net and there are two potential options: either the ball falls back into the player’s court and the match is lost or it will creep over to the opponent’s court and mark a win. A whole match could be decided in the blink of a moment and at that point, expertise or experience take a backseat because it is all in the invisible hands of the tennis gods.

This may seem haphazard but as an avid watcher of tennis matches in my youth I can vouch for the importance of the balancing act of the net. There are more than a handful of games that were decided by it. One of the most memorable ones was an early round series of the US Open between the unseeded but terrific Derrick Rostagno going up against the seasoned tennis champion Boris Becker. An upset was on the lips of commentators and spectators as the champ was facing a couple of match points against himself.

As I recall it, Rostagno was about to hit the winning volley to end the game but, lo and behold, the ball clipped the net and flew higher than expected. In the heat of the moment, Rostagno’s reflex was to quickly hit the ball and it ended out of bounds. This tilted what would have been a sure win for the newcomer to a heart-breaking loss.

In fact, Boris Becker won also another match, the ATP final against Ivan Lendl where the rally in the tie-breaker seemed to go on forever until the German was lucky once again; this blond tennis-god favored superstar won the championship as a result.

So Woody Allen indeed hits a raw nerve of any tennis player, professional or amateur. The net becomes the blind line of chance, a random stroke of luck. In the movie, the main character, the occasional tennis instructor Chris Wilton makes an important personal contact at a tennis lesson; he meets Tom Hewett. By chance, he gets invited to the opera during which this ambitious young man meets Tom’s sister Chloe who, as luck will have it, happens to fall in love with him, head over heels.

Suddenly, Chris has the golden opportunity to gain access to sudden wealth; through his relationship with her, he manages to land a job that comes with a personal chauffeur as an enticing perk, and thereafter, marriage formally secures and binds him to a life of continuous wealth. 

Yet then there is the curveball in the curvy shapes of Tom’s fiancée, the sexy Nola Rice. Against all odds and reason, he is immediately taken by her and indeed lusts for her. His desire is so strong that he throws caution to the wind and his persistence finally pays off: He manages to make love to her on a stormy day. 

But that seems not enough, so he continues to pursue her while she is giving him mixed messages. When his friend Tom breaks off the engagement, Chris happens to run into her again and seizes once more and even more tempestuously this new situation and opportunity with Nola.

It is all a matter of luck to him. It was a coincidence that he ran into her after her break-up, so he wastes no time. She gives in to him after a while and he has his way. Yet as she is both unstable and penniless, a struggling actress who simply does not seem to land any gigs, he has no intention of leaving his wife Chloe for her. As he explains to a friend, he has gotten so used to the life of luxurious comfort that he cannot imagine himself being without it anymore.

The irony of it all, fate always has the last laugh, is that his mistress Nola becomes pregnant. It is ironical because he and his wife Chloe have been trying very hard for a child, mostly on the latter’s insistence and his lover gets impregnated during a single misstep. That only time Nola was not protected leads to this - in his eyes - inconvenient pregnancy. Chris even calls it an immense moment of bad luck.

And he puts his fate into the hands of luck. If there is morality, then immoral deeds ought to be punished. Yet if he is not punished, then there is no moral authority or guidance and the world runs on sheer and random coincidence. He puts this to the test by meticulously planning a murder. This is similar to Raskolnikov’s belief that he is morally superior to other beings and that he should get away with anything, including murder. Incidentally, in an early scene of the movie, we see Chris read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

And then there is the culminating point of irony: Blind chance is indeed on his side. In a brilliant sequence, we see how a piece of jewelry gets caught up on the ledge of the river and falls back on the pavement and this shall serve as an important piece of evidence that will not come to haunt but rather serves him well to escape punishment. 

Although his illicit extramarital relationship with Nola comes to light via an unexpected (and rather unlucky) item, namely the diary kept by the victim, it is not enough to incriminate him and that piece of jewelry absolves him completely and puts the blame of the murder on another person completely.

This movie is rather bleak in its message but it is quite brilliant in its ruminations on luck. What if the protagonist is right and we are simply driven by luck and happenstance? How many of our outcomes do not depend on chance? The meeting of one’s beloved? The landing of a job? An accident? A fatal illness?

And if that is so, how can we escape it or turn it into good luck? Are superstitions helpful? Or should we pray to a supernatural being to win over favors? We often think or assume we are in charge, and in some situations, we may be, but it is like the tip of the iceberg: There is so much brooding beneath it all and it might just come down to a stroke of luck after all.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The End of Silence: Back from a Hiatus or Stress-filled Interval

Light at the End of the Tunnel
My apologies for not having posted for quite some time. Even during busy times, I would usually manage to sneak in a post or two every month but the past six months have been quite something, to put it mildly and euphemistically. Some parts I am personally responsible for, while others have been thrust upon me unawares.

First off, since Christmas I had been ailed with intense gum pains, which eventually led to the extraction not of one put two of my teeth! Fortunately, they are not front row teeth but losing two generally healthy teeth is hard to swallow. Both cases were due to irresponsible if not downright careless actions by two different dentists: the first one had done me a root canal but managed to leave a souvenir in the gums, a tiny broken piece of equipment; the second one did not put in or fasten my crown properly leaving room for bacteria to enter on the sly, which led to a subsequent infection and copious amounts of pain. I had to be treated with antibiotics for one of the abscessed teeth, while the other one remained a borderline infection case and that meant that I had to refrain from drinking wine for a whole two weeks in a row!

My wine-drinking habit started about a couple of years ago when I was facing a heavy workload and the precious red liquid helped to ease and deal with the stress. While drinking wine I have come to appreciate it not so much as an alcoholic beverage but rather as an art form in and by itself. It is not just used to drink my sorrows away but to replenish myself with life and vitality whilst discovering and developing a certain palate or taste bud for this nectar of gods and goddesses. I am far from being a wine connoisseur but I have picked up a thing or two along the grapevines.

But somehow even wine could not prepare me for what was to come. I took in a heavier load than normal and ended up working pretty much non-stop. No holy sabbath or idle Sunday for this middle-aged man! I was tired and weary, and family time or any other time of quality for that matter had to be reduced and downright sacrificed for the sake of work. All work and no play, well you can imagine and fill in the rest.

Yet I am one who can generally deal with constant stress, or so I thought. It turns out that by continuously living in survival mode and not giving your body time to recover and to regenerate can only lead to more serious problems. The workplace that used to give me joy and encouragement and that appreciated and valued my intelligence and creativity had undergone some unfortunate changes in management (and possibly ideology) and became instead a blind and deaf place where choices were limited to either their way or the highway, so I was forced to put on my wandering boots.

As a result, my stress levels skyrocketed and were much higher than usual. I suddenly suffered symptoms I had only heard or read about: I could not sleep well; I felt troubled and tormented with occasional panic attacks, and highly unusual for me I just did not feel at peace anymore within my skin.

I realized that many people suffer on a regular basis from these symptoms and they – the symptoms not the people - are truly unpleasant and overwhelming; I felt affinity with them and their suffering. Especially now, I get angry at people who do not see this and assume that insomnia or episodes of stress can be treated by simply relaxing or closing one’s eyes. It cuts much deeper than that.

As usual, I try to see the positive side of things although this optimistic side of me had been stifled and comprised within me. I had support from colleagues and friends and I am entirely grateful for that. A few words here and there and a hug felt like balsam on my soul. It is often in times of need that one realizes how much love and care there is in people, which then manages to come to the forefront. It creates a new bond that is to stay even after the periods of stress, a glimpse of beyond the surface, the true worth and value of a person. Of course, there are some who are nothing but surface and lack worth, value and dignity, but that is better left unsaid here.

The other thing I learned was not to overvalue work. Many of us see it tied up with our identity. We work very hard to establish a name and career and take it to be the definition of who we are. But this is not so. It can at best only be a fragment of ourselves. The workaholic (and I am a recovering one myself) may not immediately see this, but there are other parts and aspects to life than work. In the end, when you pour so much of yourself into your work, you realize that at the end of the day, it does not amount too much. People who have been loyal to companies for years can be replaced and are essentially indispensable. I have seen and even felt it myself at times and it can be all as empty as a Trojan horse when push comes to shove.

So for reasons of health and sanity, it is best to find balance and moderation in everything. That extra push at the expense of one’s personal relationships is not really worth it. Time will pass whether you notice or not. We want to be doing what we enjoy the most and be with the people we cherish most and not be dictated by the mandates of work. As the good book says somewhere, there is a time and season for everything while a wise man once advised us to avoid excess and seek only moderation.


These are the lessons that I learnt the hard way over the past months but they needed to be learnt in that manner. That is when and how you remember them best and cherish those findings most. It may feel like turning your world upside down, but it is a necessary evil that can be turned to your own advantage if you look closely enough. Long story short, this is why I have neglected my joyful duty of writing and posting here and I hope it serves as a genuine apology with the sincere hope that it shall not happen again. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Honesty is a Lonely Word: Lies in Personal and Professional Lives

Lyrics from Honesty song refrain with chords
Everyone is so untrue, Billy Joel complains in his song. It does seem that honesty is lacking in today’s world. No matter where you look, you see that dishonesty is gaining ground. This is not just limited to celebrities and politicians and the media circus surrounding them, it is firmly embedded in daily life.

Its more harmless expression in form of white lies is socially accepted and in some cases even encouraged. But the problem is that these smaller feats of dishonesty appear to signal the message that lies are and ought to be part and parcel of daily interaction and that it is normal and healthy to do so.

Take for instance, people on a first date. That is the breeding ground for lies. We lie to impress the other; we hide (lying by omission) unpleasant facts or details about our lives. Yet in the end, we are deceiving the other person and to an extent ourselves. We show them an image that does not correspond with our inner reality.

Sooner or later, once this house of cards collapses, disappointment ensues and this may be another reason why break-ups are so common-place. People lie to each other, create false impressions and promises and are then disappointed once they realize that they had been led on all this time.

But lies are not limited to our personal lives. They also invade our professional world. From the onset, we lie on our resumes and CVs. We omit the unpleasant facts or weaknesses and expand on our assets. When the interview comes along, we embellish our strengths, lie about or slyly cover up our weaknesses, and in many cases, people claim they have experience and expertise where none of that is existent or grounded in fact.

The employers, it seems, like getting lied to or they are or at least pretend to be naïve in taking all the words at face value. When an honest person comes along and offers them the truth on a silver plate, they ignore him and offer the job to somebody else. Modesty is immediately dismissed as weakness, while lies and gossip are taken as valid truths because that is what people prefer to hear.

This is not limited only to the interview process but continues throughout. Those who spread gossip and hide their lack of abilities by consistently claiming that they are more than qualified and competent, they indeed end up getting promotions. The ones who quietly work away and who are talented and competent get the short end of the stick.

This is worrisome from many points of views. First of all, justice is not served when people get ahead through lies and manipulation; the carefully groomed appearance and persona do not correspond with the inner reality. It also means that people will find themselves in positions they cannot handle in any effective manner. Their decisions are going to be harmful to others working under them and would lead to the demise of the company itself. It backfires, but once the employer realizes this, it may be too late and the damage has already been done.

This is across the board and in a variety of businesses and practices. Those who are elected to positions also benefit from their inflated appearance; they lie and smear their rivals and more often than not end up victorious. They may even be the least competent, but they have the gift of the gab tied with the ability to lie through their teeth.

The other problem is that this constant concern about appearance will mold and influence the person and they will end up losing touch with their real selves. They will come to believe the role they are playing and not only lie to others, but also deceive themselves. A culture that values putting one’s best foot forward and that is concerned with saving face and one’s image ends up encouraging lies and discouraging truth and honesty.

This is the common complaint about people being phony or not being genuine. Instead of speaking their mind or showing themselves as who they are, people like to build fences around themselves and stuff them with commonplace expressions and socially accepted but empty jargon. More often than not they will go with the current streams of mainstream opinion and media because being honest to oneself ironically takes more effort in such an environment.

So yes, Billy Joel is right when he says that honesty is hard to find and that it is what he needs most from his friend or partner. But what the singer may perhaps not realize in all of this is the fact that he is most likely not honest to himself. One needs to take a hard look in the mirror and face the music about oneself. Some truths are hard to swallow; yet pretending the negative traits do not exist or turning a blind eye to the unpleasant facts about oneself is not the solution.


Only if we see the truth about ourselves, the good and the bad, the weak and the strong can we live a more truthful and more authentic existence. And once we learn to see ourselves as we are and stop lying to ourselves, we can open up to those we trust and care about us and reveal to them our true persona in all its colors. Then we can finally have an honest relationship. But in a world that turns its back on honesty and authenticity, that is much harder said than done.