Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Dance of Life: All that Jazz about Bob Fosse and Pina Bausch

Dancers with buckets of water splashing each other
Dancing is simply not my thing. Somehow my dancing genes cannot be bothered to be woken up, so I am left with zero dancing skills and practically no rhythm pulsing through my veins. But that does not mean I do not like it. On the contrary, I am strangely fascinated by this activity for various reasons.

In fact, dancing is often associated with mating rituals, which might incidentally explain a lack of mates in my younger years. It is attraction on a rather primordial level, where you do not only catch the partner's attention but also, if you are good at it, manage to raise their arousal. Add to that a little bit of booze for loosening up inhibitions, and you can get the party started.

But dancing is also a veritable art form. In terms of performance, if used and taken to the limits of its potential with its raw power and expression, it communicates more effectively than words ever could. Although I am a lover of words, of arranging and rearranging sentences in particular ways for desired effects, I must confess that the art of dance is a much stronger messenger.

When it comes to dancing, you are taking the power of music, already an incredible force on its own, and transposing it into an overall statement via deliberately chosen gestures. The choreographer, who might be yourself or another, is using the rhythmic movements of the body as a pen that engraves its message along with music, which serves as its paper or celluloid, onto the audience's heart and mind.

I would like to focus on two creative forces that have for me revolutionized the art of dancing and taken it to higher levels, namely the great minds and talents of Bob Fosse and Pina Bausch. Bob Fosse should have been credited (and patented) with the “Moon Walk,” as his smooth movements as the snake in The Little Prince demonstrate. In tune with the music and singing, his dancing captures and accentuates the character of the snake, the closest any human may come to its artistic embodiment.

Furthermore, I was impressed with certain sequences in his semi-autobiographical movie All that Jazz, especially its very sensual "air-otica" number. Although little is seen in terms of actual nudity, it insinuates and expresses erotic passion in no indeterminate ways. I can see how this particular dance number would cause furor among certain types of audience members because it breaks the boundaries of what many might call “decency,” without the actual depiction of graphic nudity.

I had a similar thought when watching the movie Chicago years ago, and only recently seeing its relation with Bob Fosse as its original creator / writer as I was impressed how dance manages to give an erotic quality to people. A person may be sexy and have, for example, attractive features, but eroticism, as opposed to pornography on the crude side of the spectrum, is the artful heightening or switching on of all those features and qualities for the purposes of arousal. Incidentally, we feel turned on by the performance.

This is the case in Bob Fosse's choreography, but to give another more recent example, consider the lap dance in Tarantino's Grindhouse segment Death Proof. Unlike the lap dance in Showgirls (which I have not seen by the way), in this one, the clothes stay on, and yet eroticism oozes out of every suggestive move, and the dance skillfully combines sensuality with aesthetic features.

In other words, arousal is not only about the stripping of clothes, but about the rhythmic, well-timed movements that elicit attraction from others. And this is one thing that Bob Fosse was excellent at, using movements to express sensuality; they transcend and exceed spoken or written words and are, in fact, steamier than a scene depicting intercourse.

Pina Bausch, however, is in another category all together. I first stumbled upon her in Almodovar's brilliant Talk to Her. The few scenes and dance numbers impressed me so much that I felt compelled to watch Wenders' documentary Pina.

I was baffled at how expressive dance can become. In her more than capable hands, dance becomes a modern art form that manages to express philosophical issues, such as existentialism, isolation and death, to name a few. This is what makes Pina's work stand out for me. She transcends the borders of choreography making it not only entertaining and visually stunning, but also giving it artful gravitas.

How does she do it? She uses a number of props, such as water, rocks, umbrellas. She manages to give each of her dancers / characters an idiosyncratic expression, such as nervous gestures and obsessive behaviors. Hence she fleshes out their personality in front of our eyes, which embeds the characters in a narrative context. It feels as if we were following a fully engaging and developed story, a remarkable feat considering that she is using dance and music to do so.

We do not need voice-overs, we do not need words or explanations to know what they are thinking and feeling; it is the wordless rhythmic movements combined with carefully selected music that sets the mood and expresses the deep recesses of human sentiment; it is the dance of life that gives voice to the inexpressible just like dervishes that spin and turn fervently before the eyes of the divine.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Nothing as the Absence of Something: An Existential Review on Jim Holt's “Why does the World Exist?”

Book Cover showing en empty French cafe around closing time

Why is there something rather than nothing is the question that Jim Holt sets out to investigate in his philosophical book Why does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story. Along the way, he encounters, talks about and to various philosophers and scientists dead and alive. Holt weighs, filters and digests ancient and modern ideas to reach a satisfying and rational answer to the existential question of the creation and sustenance of the universe. He leaves no (philosopher's) stone unturned and even enters, boldly and confidently, into the unstable and volatile world of quantum mechanics.

It is a wild ride indeed that will make your head buzz with thrill and excitement with its revolving universal doors that contain possible worlds to infinite degrees. Holt approaches nothingness as if it were something to behold and looks at it from any possible angle he can get his hands on. He spins and twists the Ferris wheel of thought and speculation to shed some light on the origin and purpose of our existence in this endlessly vast spacetime that is doomed for a Big Crunch, Chill, Bounce or what-have-you.

As I was reading Holt's book, I was accosted by a host of ideas and counterclaims that I wished to make, yet somehow the author had the ability, like a grandmaster or a psychic, to foresee my own objections; he even made allusion to one of my principal allegories I wish to demonstrate here, i. e. apples.

Apart from their flesh, in certain accounts, having tempted Adam and Eve with the “curse” of knowledge, and apart from the fact that they also had a say and unofficial credit in Newton's discovery of gravitation, apples are used here to show both something and nothing at the same time.

Here it goes. Let us say, you have two apples, and you eat one of them. You are left with one. And then, because of their intrinsic delicious properties, you cannot help yourself and end up with no apples whatsoever. Zero. Zilch. We went backwards here from something concrete in your hand, two scrumptious green apples, to their nonexistence, no apples at all. But how can you have or possess no apples? How do you know for a brute fact that you have no apples?

Certainly, you can make an inventory and check that you have peaches but the variable “apple” is not there, hence empty, and you add to your shopping list that you need to buy more apples. But in its absence, an apple has no particular shape or form whatsoever. In fact, no apples may easily be the equivalent to no oranges. While in their presence (something) they look different, in their absence (nothing) they “look” the same; put differently, they are identical when not being there. In short, (no) apples = (no) oranges. Somehow that does not make a whole lot of sense. 
That brings me to my second allegory, a parade of some sorts. Last weekend, we went to a parade that was supposed to start at 11:30 am. We got there, due to my German upbringing a land in which one breathes and eats punctuality, ten minutes before it was supposed to start. The street was buzzing with regular traffic; no one was sitting at the sidewalk; no trace of any possible parades was to be seen. We were early.

So we waited. More than half an hour passed and still no sign. Nothing. We got to feel restless. The expectation of finding something, a parade in this case, exasperated us when we found nothing but cars driving by and people who lived gleefully unaware, not to say ignorant, of any such event. From a purely phenomenological point of view, my world was filled with the expectation of a parade and its nonexistence disappointed me; nothing else would replace or console that desire, at least for that time being.

I had stumbled upon the existence of this parade a year ago, accidentally passing by and seeing what we have termed the Hare Krishna parade, perhaps due to the persistent and accompanying chant of Hare Krishna. Last year, we were thrilled to find something that we did not expect to see whereas its absence this time around disappointed us. Our expectation comes to color our definition of something versus nothing. (If interested, it turned out that the parade lasted less than ten minutes; how life disappoints those who expect something specific to happen!)

To go back to Holt's book, it comes down to a matter of perspective. My answer is, again he predicted it too, that nothing is the absence of something, the same way darkness is the absence of light. We need something to be able to distinguish it from or to contrast it with nothing. Yet I suspect that nothing and something are intricately embedded within each other, just like the yin and yang of Taoism. 

So those who set out to find nothing will do so, while others with the expectation of something will find and see something, following the uncertain principle of Heisenberg, the good-old speed versus position riddle of quantum physics. That is where our rational thinking hits an impasse and God bless quantum physics for that!

In fact, my previous assumption of one apple and one apple equaling two apples might be wrong in the first place. Every apple is different in its shades, taste, and looks. Objects like apples are unique in this world, made of individually discernible particles, so no two apples are ever identical even if they happen to look similar. You merely end up with one example of apple A and another one of apple B; you cannot add up apples with oranges. (Question: What happens to my apple when I move backwards in time?)

To conclude, Holt is asking the right questions and looking at the right places for an adequate and appropriate answer, particularly when dipping his philosophical fingers in the particular fountainhead of quantum physics – but alas he comes out with his hands empty – or rather full of nothingness – for which evidently neither he nor his hands ought to be faulted due to the vast complexity and wondrous simplicity of his topic. 

However one thing is certain: this book is definitely not a waste of spacetime. If I had to choose between something, the existence of this book and nothing, its nonexistence, there is no doubt in my mind: I would take the book!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Chess Moves, Karma and Decision-Making

King Otto IV of Brandenburg playing chess with his wife
King Otto IV with wife

It is amazing to me that no two chess games are ever alike. Considering that there are a limited number of pieces on the board, each with their own restrictive movements, it is quite fascinating that there are nearly unlimited variations to this thinking person's game. An accomplished player will need to consider a whole host of possible movements while speculating about future counter-moves. Chess is then similar to math linking probability to an underlying and intentional master plan behind each and every move.

The game of chess has, in fact, been used as different types of metaphors. The most common is related to strategies of war. The enemy is the opponent, and one considers each move in the light of possible reactions and retaliations. The same approach can be used for business ventures or even plans and planned changes in the workplace or in one's life. One acts on and analyzes the different possible reactions that may occur as a result of a given action.

Decision-making is not a simple process. A conscientious person will make prognostics about the decision before she acts, not after. It is a mental picturing of how things may turn out; one considers the evidence and other peculiars of the situation to come up with the best possible action.

We encounter this particularly in heist movies where the plan is laid out, how things are supposed to develop, and then the actual heist falling apart at the seams because of an unforeseen detail, a minor, perhaps unexpected oversight, or an unaccounted random chance or “freak” occurrence.

Those may be the extreme ends of decision-making. But in our ordinary lives we do encounter choices on a daily basis. Everything from the trivial to the significant. Sometimes the trivial may turn out to be life-changing. For example, a few years ago we decided not to go to a Mexican Independence festival that ended up falling victim to a grenade attack with a number of casualties. The decision breaker here was the fact that my wife was pregnant at the time, and we knew for a fact that the event would attract large crowds. Had my wife not been pregnant, we probably would not have missed out on this event.

We hear such stories of people making minor, seemingly banal decisions that may have saved their lives. We may put more weight on the selection of significant decision points, such as where to live and work, having children, buying property, but even the trivial category of decisions may have the potential to alter our lives in significant ways.

So if even your minor decisions may have such an impact, does that not make you feel anxious and paranoid? I mean we are bombarded with the possibility of many choices the same way a chess-player has a number of moves at hand at pretty much any moment (unless he is being checked or close to check-mate; in that case, his options would be severely limited).

Add to this the selection of words at any given moment. Do we tell a colleague what John Doe did at the Christmas party with Jill? The impulsive will not be able to control themselves or their tongue, while the speculative chess-players might carefully weigh choices and repercussions before speaking.

Can a right word or right action at the right time land you the job or promotion or even the mate you have always dreamed of? Or would the opposite happen, you botched a wonderful opportunity because of something so seemingly insignificant like the color of your tie or an innocuous comment that was taken the wrong way?

Think about it. What you have for breakfast or maybe what you had for dinner last night may affect your day in unsuspected ways too. To drink the extra cup of Joe or not may then become a neurotically charged existential question.

What are we to do? Are we to have an in-house psychic or a pocket-sized I Ching or Tarot cards oracle to run past and consult every moment of our lives? What to wear today, what music to listen to on the iPod, what topics to address at work?

Many of us will say that those things are trivial and one needs to be spontaneous about them. Or one may need to listen to one's gut feelings since it is impossible to plan everything out. And that is my point here. If you add up and fret about all the alternative possible moves you may have made during your life time, it will drive you insane.

If I had not moved to that particular deserted oil-town in Mexico by listening to the advice of parents, colleagues and financial advisers, I would have never met my wife there and not have had my beautiful son. Did I seriously consider that outcome? Was it a logical, well thought out decision?

On an outward level, I did not know but perhaps an inner voice guided me in that direction. We can call it destiny; we can call it a random act. Yet one thing remains clear: Our actions have (karmic) reactions. This may be the reason why we feel angst and anxiety at times because we simply do not know and must trust ourselves on our decisions and actions, right or wrong. (Incidentally, that might be one of the causes for “existential angst” or “dread” that Kierkegaard speaks of, the fear of the unknown at each and every moment of our lives.)

All this is similar to the situation of Tomas in the opening passage of Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being when he comes to the conclusion that “Es muss sein" (It has to be) and that there is no way of living an experimental parallel life with a combination of different decisions. There is nothing to compare against except the life we are given, with the choices, good or bad, we have made along the way. In a way, we need to accept our fate, the way the cookie crumbles and the way the dice roll and in the meantime simply play and carry on with our daily lives.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Cost and Benefits Analysis in Romantic Relationships

Old-fashioned scale in an old store museum

I am not particularly business-inclined nor too endowed when it comes to economic transactions. Mine are often limited to buying necessities and receiving money for work performed. The stock exchange is a foreign language to me and rarely do I sell what I have, least of all for profit; if need be I merely give stuff away.

Yet I see the benefits of business with its philosophy being applicable to everyday life. I do not advocate a material life with money as its pinnacle, but there are indeed certain things in our life that warrant a cost-and-benefit analysis, our relationships being one of them.

Simply put, a cost-and-benefit analysis is similar to the pros and cons on a divided issue. They are both important assets when it comes to decision-making. Despite having an idealistic and romantic strain, I do not think that life's most important decisions should be made with the heart only. Purely emotional decisions can, more often than not, lead to disastrous results, as the saying “love is blind” is not that far off from the truth.

At the same time, love can be so particularly elusive of rational thought and will take flight when it feels constraint by the limits of logic. The urge to throw all caution to the wind and to make an impulsive decision is rather strong, such as leaving everything behind - family, job or even country – for the sake of love and attraction toward a particular person. This might be acceptable if we were looking at love as a permanent force to be counted on; unfortunately, reality is filled with break-ups and divorces despite strong promise at first. (One only needs to look at a couch-jumping Tom Cruise ending in its deplorable current-day crisis.)

But I am not here to wave a red flag against love and passion - without them our life would be bordering on dullness and even meaninglessness - but I want to see how an economic view of cost and benefits can aid us in avoiding Cupid's drops and pitfalls.

Some people say that everything is political, the same way everything has an economic root. Marriage that does not take into account the issue of economy might suffer consequences from it. Women's rights throughout history and in various (developing) countries nowadays have come about largely due to the growing economic independence of women. 

A relationship in which only the husband is the breadwinner can often become abusive; the woman does not seriously consider the option of leaving her partner as she would have difficulty surviving on her own, especially when children are involved while the man is fully aware of this and can do as he pleases. Being economically dependent on another person willy-nilly limits your options and decision-making in most areas of life.

Such struggles in relationships have been examined by Nietzsche and further explored by Foucault, as they look at relationships mainly in the sense of power struggle, the question of who is dominating whom. As an example, women may use sex as their weapon of control; yet again money itself may open up various other avenues for the pleasure and satisfaction of men, thus diminishing or flat-out eliminating the sexual advantage.

How to make the best decision when it comes to personal relationships and marriage? Cost involves the investment the person would undertake for the given relationship. Although I have discussed money mostly, it can also be the investment of time or emotion. The question is how much we are willing to invest in such a relationship, what its profits are and how stable or prone to a crash it is.

This way of thinking may horrify some people, especially romantics, at first glance, but it can save a lot of pain and suffering later. There are cases where people have devoted most of their lives to a person, sometimes the proverbial high school sweetheart, only to realize that they have wasted their life, in terms of time, happiness and opportunities. So before one fully enters a relationship for the long haul (or so one hopes), one needs to analyze its components first.

How much happiness is this person able to generate for me? This question clearly depends on one's own definition of happiness. A life that would be based on overwhelming passionate feelings will give you bliss and its other side of the coin torment as well. Love and jealousy are no strangers to each other. But happiness needs, again in the sense of a long-term commitment, to include companionship. This person may be sexy and irresistible, but will she continue to be so in say fifteen or twenty years? What then?

However, if your definition of happiness is broader and you gain joy from shared activities, going out for walks, watching movies or having talks and discussions, then your chances of feeling fulfilled or satisfied have risen dramatically. This is the person I can spend my whole life with and not be bored, a decision not limited to sex or income in this case.

Then there is your confidence in the relationship. If you think that it is possible that the person may change later while overlooking or glossing over major flaws for the time being, you are most likely setting yourself up for disappointment. Nobody's perfect but you need to see what is most important for you in terms of personal characteristics, for example. If your partner has a tendency to cheat on others, then most likely, you will not be exempt, whatever he or she may say to the contrary. Then, in other words, your investment will not be safe, the same way, you would not trust money in the hands of a business with a shady reputation.

The final point I want to consider here separately is time. Time is the most fleeting and perhaps most devastating one. When we lose out on happiness or money, there is always a manner of making up for it, of getting it back or finding recompensation. But time, that has slipped away, is never retrievable, is lost forever. That must be the most devastating feeling when you realize that through a lack of insight or reflection you ended up practically wasting your life with the wrong person.

Therefore, look out for signs in advance. People may change, but most of the time, very slightly. If you notice that the person is wonderful except when he is drunk, and he has a history of alcoholism even in his family and ipso facto genetic make-up, my advice would be, it is not worth it. Sure, he can kick the habit and can sacrifice a lot for love, but it can be deceptive as well; in other words, check if the benefits outweigh the costs.

All in all, decisions regarding relationships can be made following the cost-and-benefit analysis. It is definitely not the perfect model, but it is a reasonable one. We usually spend time debating a major purchase since we do not want to lose out or suffer consequences, and strangely enough our relationship can be viewed as a “commodity” as well in which we must continuously invest (money, time and energy) but from which we can reap significant (immaterial) benefits.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Unity, Pride and Nationalism of the Olympic Games

Different colored Olympic rings representing five continents

I missed out on the opening, but managed to catch the closing ceremony of London 2012. In-between I watched some of the sports off and on, had to contend with what events the Canadian network offered and what fit into my schedule while not taking the Games as seriously as to sacrifice sleep over it.

There are some who oppose the tradition of the Olympic Games. One of the main problems is its immense cost. To my knowledge, the costs are greater than the benefits although official figures demonstrate more cautious “hit” or “miss” records. The building of arenas, fortification of the infrastructure, security expenditures, and of course, the cost of opening and closing ceremonies are among some of the expenses.

Why would nations still make bids for the Olympics if they are not always economically viable? Perhaps it is about advertising, to put one's country - and by extension nation - on the map, to celebrate and propagate one's culture and achievements, to stimulate tourism.

People are opposed to the Games for various reasons. The money could be spent for more charitable purposes. The Olympic Games are fostering nationalism as a form of mind control since they seem to wield more power than the United Nations (at least they are a more popular organization) and they may have their own secret political agenda.

Here is my response to the naysayers. Sure, the money could be spent in more humanitarian ways. We could help to lessen poverty both nationally and internationally instead. But look at it this way. At least, the money is not going to be spent in worse ways. It is not wasted on military equipment, on planes and bombs or any other destructive plans and organizations.

As to the second point, although nationalism may be suspect and may provide fodder for future wars, in all fairness, what the Olympics promote are competitiveness and pride, and these could serve rather peaceful purposes. The idea is to be the country with the best and most medal-wielding athletes. If it is a kind of war, then it is of the type I prefer most. No corpses, no civilian deaths or bombings, rather only humiliation and shame for the losing teams, at least seen from its most radical viewpoints. If your lack of medals entices you to produce more and better athletes, then so be it. Less nuclear arms, better sports facilities is my motto.

As to national pride, yes, it can be troublesome. But it can also bring people together. The Games have not been as “bad” as soccer championships where the fans tend to be more radical and in some of which there have been ongoing allegations of racism and unsportsmanlike conduct. The Olympics have a more general peaceful ambiance where the spectators and fans seem to be more accepting of other countries and are not as fanatic about the whole thing.

As a matter of fact, the Games can give people a sense of unity. You have your own country to cheer for and if you are good and lucky enough to get a medal, it can be seen as a source of both individual and national pride. Nothing wrong with that. Considered from the point of view of an athlete, this event is so much more valuable due to the fact that it is on such rare occasions that one may compete, only every four years. That brings up the tension of the moment and the value of the medal, regardless of its color.

Yes, there is always drama and heartbreak and this is not a bad thing. It adds up to making it more interesting and spectacular for all alike. What stands out for me personally is the Canadian women's soccer team that was robbed of its berth in the finals due to questionable decisions of the referee. Unfortunately, I missed out on the badminton scandal, but I think it must be hilarious to have athletes trying really hard to lose. That in itself is amusing.

The only thing I disagreed with was the disqualification of the female German rowing athlete Nadja Drygalla, a case brought before me by my German friend and ex-wrestler Rudi. She was accused of having a neo-Nazi boyfriend, yet she did not nor had ever expressed any racist views on or off the Olympics. 

Although I do question her intelligence, I think what matters most is the athletic achievement instead and since she did not propagate any hate or controversial remarks, there was incidentally no harm done. The same way, I think it is all right for athletes like Phelps and others to smoke pot. That is not doping; in fact, if you are on pot and still manage to make it to the finish line, you simply ought to be awarded a medal for that feat.

Finally, yes, the competitive edge may be sharpened, and it often comes down to fractions of seconds. A minor mistake may cause athletes lose a medal, while doing things consistently well and right leads to creating the stuff that legends are made of, i.e. Phelps and “Lightning” Bolt. And for about two weeks one is entertained and gets to see athletes give their best (with the exception of certain badminton teams, of course).

And in closing, just a final comment on the closing ceremony. I found it to be not perfect, but pretty good. It reminded me how many great artists Britain has. Many I had either erroneously taken for Americans, such as Fatboy Slim, and others I had somehow forgotten they were Brits, such as Take That and Queen.

In these moments, one realizes also how much one misses certain artists. Although spiritually and somewhat visually present, John Lennon and Freddie Mercury have left gaping holes in our communal psyche, no matter where you are from. Shine on these crazy diamonds!

And it was strangely satisfying to see the Spice Girls perform with their typical youthful charm. They are better together than on their own, a case of the sums of the parts not being better than the whole, somewhat similar (although artistically inferior) to the Beatles.

So goes the countdown, love it or hate it, for the next one, four years from now, a 3000 year-old tradition that has seen major changes and upheavals along its long and eventful history.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

We are what we speak: Benefits of the “No Hard Feelings” Outlook

An eco-cow with cow bell staring at the camera

Attitude goes a long way. It affects not only one's perception on life, but also social relationships. A “nerd” with the (stereo)typical characteristics would have a hard time fitting in with punks, for example. It occurs on various levels - clothing, education, hobbies and interest - but what I want to focus on here predominantly are language expressions. In other words, we are what and how we speak.

There are those who secretly court and openly play with nihilism. This is expressed in various ways. It can be aggressive and upfront “who gives a shit or rat's ass,” to a blatantly pessimistic or fatalistic view of “nothing matters anyway” or an even existential “what's the point” attitude. It can also be expressed in the juvenile yet still apathetic form of “whatever” or – one of my favorite in this category - the all-encompassing “meh,” popularized, at least for me, through the Simpsons' cartoon characters.

Then there are those who take the cues from the hippie generation, idealistically reaching for peace or the stars for that matter. They use non-aggressive and de-escalating expressions, such as “chill out” or “take it easy.” Their stance can be sometimes confused with the other group except that in their chill-attitude, they prefer peaceful non-action. It may denote a lack of goals and motivation in life, but the difference with the nihilistic group is that they are happy with the state they are in and their voice is, for the most part, exempt from cynicism.

In this category, I would also put the two expressions of “no worries” or “no hard feelings.” Here the context is a little different. It depends on a situation in which somebody has somehow trespassed. Others might have taken your seat, stepped on your toe, shoved you with their elbow or even betrayed your trust. Yet the speaker holds no grudge because of her easy-going attitude on life.

What I like here is the generosity and acceptance incorporated in those phrases. It goes with the attitude that whatever works for you, “whatever floats your boat” is all right and there is no need to worry about anything. It is also forgiving in the sense that “nobody is perfect” and everybody may step out of line once in a while. In the grand cosmic scheme of things, a botched exam or job interview or an oversight is really not that important and nothing to fret about.

One of my favorite anecdotes about Zen Buddhism is when two monks are approached by a woman. She asks them if they could help her cross the brook as she does not want to get her dress wet. The novice looks on his master in horror as he cheerfully accepts to help this woman out of her plight. In fact, the novice is so troubled by it that he remains silent for the remainder of the walk. The observant master notices and asks him what the trouble is.

Well, master, is it not one of the tenets of our order to not have any contact with women, to not touch them...”

The master nods.

Well, then, why did you carry that young lady in your arms, I would like to know.”

The master laughs, which makes the novice blush.

The master then says, ”When I helped the woman, I dropped her off at the other side of the stream, whereas you, my dear friend, have been carrying her around all this time.”

I took some creative liberties in the account of this anecdote, but the point does come across nonetheless (I hope). Sometimes we simply worry too much. We make a mountain out of anthills, feel bad and guilty, are eaten by the mea culpa voice of conscience, excuse and genuflect ourselves, go to church and confession and feel sorry pretty much most of the time.

We could all benefit from the “no hard feelings” approach. Yes, I screwed up, big time or not; yes, what you did was wrong, you should not back-stab your friend or hold a grudge for a long time because, all things considered, but it is all right and there is nothing to mull over. And if in the past I have, advertently or inadvertently, offended friend or foe, colleague or supervisor, please keep this phrase in mind: No hard feelings.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Madness on Celluloid: The Bold Experiment of Joe Wright's “The Soloist”

Cover of the movie "The Soloist"

The Soloist (2009) by Joe Wright is one of those rare feats that give us a glimpse of the inner workings of a fractured and fragmented mind. It approaches the same mental illness as portrayed in Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind, but its ambitions are much loftier. 

I found Howard's film to be too neatly packaged for its disconsolate subject matter. According to some accounts the main character of John Nash, played aptly by Russell Crowe, was overall presented in a more favorable light as was the case in real life. In addition, the final twist seems added more for special effect and satisfaction of the viewer, while being less focused on and losing track of the continuous agony and mental anguish of its main character, i. e. real-life person.

In Wright's depiction of schizophrenia, there is no twist to speak of and the loose ends - sorry for the upcoming minor spoiler - do not come together in a “satisfying” manner. While both of these movies are based on true stories, A Beautiful Mind is a more Hollywoodized, a more hygienic and homogenous version of its topic. 

On the other hand, The Soloist is less satisfying as a movie experience because of its more direct and less filtered access of the main character's perturbed mind. (To see an even less Hollywoodized, more direct, original and bewildering account, see Cronenberg's schizophrenic tale “Spider,” which I found hard to sit through and follow.)

The experience of watching The Soloist can be compared to a transitory drug experience where reality falls apart; we end up in a twisted corner of our mind where rhyme and reason have long exited through the back door. Generally, our logic binds our experiences together and selects what to believe and act upon and what to dismiss as pure fantasy; yet in the case of certain mental illnesses, that faculty seems blocked leading to confusion about reality.

I do not think that the plot in The Soloist is particularly relevant here and one can see the movie as an advocacy for the mentally ill and the homeless urging us to give at least a little sympathy and compassion - if not help and respect - to these people. The movie intends to give us a personal glimpse into and a first-hand account of the madness of its protagonist, which is revealed not through a sentimental story line but through its peculiar style of film-making.

The jump cuts and the convergence of disparate sound elements, the sources of which seem at times unclear and perplexing, all add up to a dizzying confusion. The only other movie that made me feel this way was Steven Soderbergh's brilliant The Limey where people would talk but their lips would not move, for example. The stylistic purpose there was merely meant as an experiment in the medium of film, whereas in Wright's hands they serve as a more symbolic representation of the character's suffering.

In other words, we are invited to partake of the madness. It is not all that bad as madness and genius are no strangers to each other. Our musician is obsessed with Beethoven, but he feels music the way we may at best feel only on rare occasions. Again to build upon our drug metaphor, according to LSD experiences certain people claim to “see” music. I remember reading that one person “entered” the architecture of Bach's musical construction (Luckily, he did not get lost and eventually found his way out thanks to Bach's mathematical precision).

There are fascinating visuals when we get to listen (in) and feel the music the way its protagonist does, high-soaring shots mixed with laser light effects. It is the closest the medium of film can get in expressing this type of experience.

At times, we may wonder whether this man “should” ever take medication; however, the movie shows us also the debilitating pain and bewilderment that the disease brings with it. For one, it destroyed the chances of this talented musician to ever reach the heights he ought to. At the same time, why should success be measured in material terms and whether he plays his music in a concert hall or in a back alley makes little difference to his pleasure and enjoyment of it.

Compare this situation to another film that shows a troubled musician, namely the Australian film Shine. Its protagonist managed to pull his fragmented self together giving the viewer an uplifting sense of closure. At the same time, the character's main issue was with his strict and unrelenting father and his mental problem was something that did not seem to put him or others in imminent danger. For the most part, I must confess it was rather funny to see Helfgott run around naked or to follow the babble of his mumbled jargon.

However, there are sudden and surprising shifts of mood in The Soloist. For example, the main character knocks down his friend in a fit of anger threatening to open up his guts like a fish. Such sudden outbursts of violence undermine the cheerfulness we may have experimented in Shine, for example.

All in all, of the various movies discussed here, The Soloist is the most realistic although least satisfying one to watch (with the exception of Spider, of course). This movie may have flopped in people's (and surprisingly enough critics') eyes because it was a little too close for comfort offering little redemption or uplift. Let's face it, most of us still use cinema for escape, and we want movies to give us hope rather than depress us, and we often do not appreciate being left with unresolved questions and issues.