Thursday, February 21, 2013

Christoph Waltz via Tarantino: Digging into the German Heart

King Schultz in Django Unchained

Writer-director Quentin Tarantino has the knack to discover and, in some cases, re-discover talent. He gave the then fading star John Travolta his much needed comeback, and he paved the path to the stars for the previously little known but highly talented Austrian-German actor Christoph Waltz. No wonder Waltz should refer to the film-maker in his Golden Globe acceptance speech as Polaris, his guiding North Star.

It is the creative combination between Tarantino's writing and Waltz's acting sensibilities that brought forth two performances that have been (rightfully and deservedly) hailed with accolades and that are memorable cinematic personalities: One as the German Nazi Officer Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds (a title that curiously never passes my spellchecker) and the more recent endeavor as the German dentist King Schultz who finds himself caught in a “Southern” Western in Django Unchained.

The two characters have much in common, which is not surprising considering that the same writer-director and actor have teamed up for both projects. At the same time, the two movie characters complement each other in interesting ways. They build and rebuild peculiar views and stances regarding German thought and ideology.

In the first character of Hans Landa, we meet an efficient and highly intelligent officer who leaves nothing to chance. His diligence and perfectionism makes this astute person as lethal as can be. It is all served up with a dry humor and as usual with Tarantino we find - against our own better judgement of course - that the "bad guy" is likable despite his psychopathic essence. I had a similar reaction to David Carradine's Bill in the Kill Bill series who pulled off both sides of his personality in an admirable manner: On one hand he was the tender father, on the other hand a sadistic and merciless assassin.

When it comes to Hans Landa, we find a German who follows his own principles and is, in fact, not tied to a specific ideology. He is no Goebbels, for example, who would have his children die rather than have them face a post-German world devoid of fascism. In other words, Landa is not tied to anything than what he sees as rising out of the necessity of the moment. In this sense, he is cunning and selfish, choosing what personally suits him best.

In fact, he is both taking advantage of a corrupt system and government while also falling victim to it. But due to his moral flexibility, he changes horses in midstream. When he realizes that his “horse” was perhaps doomed to lose, he switches sides. He makes a deal with the Americans to escape the consequences of his actions. Yet his collaboration with the forces of evil, whether fully embraced or not, still leave him visibly scarred for life with its bloody cross on his forehead.

Then the second film adds to and rearranges the identity of the German. This time around we are dealing with a bounty hunter (not a “Jew Hunter”!) who lacks no scruples when it comes to killing bad guys. He is, one might say with possibly a few qualms, a “good” guy who does not shy away from killing outlaws who have done wrong, at least in the past, and who are sought after by the law. It is like Brad Pitt's Raine character who kills the Nazis collectively and indiscriminately regardless of individual differences and personal variations since they all represent the face of evil to him.

But in the movie Django Unchained, there is a slight addendum. Although admittedly King Schultz does it all for his own financial benefit, namely the compensation he receives for taking his victims more dead than alive, there is little profit in his decision to help Django. This comes out of his own desire to help, hence revealing his heart, generosity, and a pronounced sense of justice. This dentist is adamant in his principles and stands firmly against any kind of injustice.

For instance, he would like to save the slave who is mistreated and is even ready to pay for him a significant amount of money. This image that innocent people are being mistreated by cruel slaveholders haunts him and leads to his not wanting to have any part in or complicity with the immoral and inhumane trade of slavery. As a result, he refuses stubbornly to shake the plant owner's hand.

This almost pigheaded determination of not even symbolically giving in to something that is seen as morally wrong puts the German on the other side of what he was in Inglourious Basterds. While as Hans Landa he went along for the ride with the Nazis, here he stands firmly for freedom and justice ready to sacrifice significant amounts of money and even his own life for its endeavor. 

Put differently, King Schultz represents justice (and morality) in its most precise and literal form to protect humanity from “bad guys,” whether they are (ex-)outlaws or legally recognized slaveholders. And had he been able to ever meet Hans Landa in person, there is another guy whose hand he would never ever shake!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Cinema on the Run: Escape from Authority in Peter Weir's Movies

A son is embraced and comforted by his compassionate father
The Return of the Prodigal Son

Escape from authority and father figures are two of the running themes that can be encountered in the majority of Peter Weir's work. Although he is not known as a writer-director per se, his choice of movies usually include characters that are or feel confined in a given setting and then try to escape from those limitations to different effects and outcomes. Spoilers are inevitable as I will go through a number of Peter Weir's movies.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

His first major work was the gorgeously shot Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). The main characters are boarding school girls who feel repressed by the institution, which is run and represented adamantly by the strict headmistress Mrs Appleyard.

Yet this place and environment are allowed to exist due to the repressive Victorian attitudes towards a budding sensuality; this creates a space in which any forms of sexuality within these teenage minds and hearts are firmly rejected and denied. Interestingly, poetry is seen as dangerous as it may incite and (God forbid) excite those carnal pleasures.

The escape follows a trip on Valentine's Day (of all days!) to the majestic and mysterious rocky presence of Hanging Rock. It is impressive and firm in its grandeur, but it also entails prehistoric powers and magic. In its rugged wildness, it stands in clear contrast to the ordered world these girls are taught to live in.

Three girls mysteriously disappear in its labyrinthine pathways as if swallowed up by a supernatural entity. Hence, the escape from the limitations of an epoch or society ends up in disaster not only for the afflicted disappearing girls, but more so in its aftermath and effects on those who remain, in particular the headmistress who, in her despair, ends up seeking refuge in alcohol and whose body is eventually found dead at the base of the Hanging Rock.

Dead Poets Society

A similar story is offered in the more accessible but nonetheless remarkable Dead Poets Society (1989). Here we are dealing with teenage boys who are studying in a cold, strict and highly conservative environment, Welton Academy. They also are trying to make amends with their growing sexuality alongside a search for their own identity.

Their opening for escape comes in the form of an unorthodox English professor John Keating, in my view Robin Williams most impressive and restrained performance to date. He challenges not only the fixed institutional guidelines, but inspires and infuses his teenage students with the poetry of life. However, his rejection of academic formulas and the desire to awaken the students' true selves lead to disaster for all involved.

For instance, one of the boys tries to escape from the authoritarian rule of his father (echoes of the strict headmistress come to mind) by defying orders and by following his own dreams of becoming an actor. This action leads to the boy's suicide and Keating's dismissal, so again we are dealing with a tragic outcome.

The Mosquito Coast

Escape also comes in form of moving away from general American values and lifestyle that may feel confining, fake or hypocritical (take your pick). Enter the unpopular and single-minded character Allie Fox of The Mosquito Coast who wants to escape American society by creating an idyllic place somewhere in the jungle of Central America. He is inventive and has dreams, but he does not listen to the voice of reason and becomes perturbed and blinded by his own pride.

As a result, everything leads up to disaster not only for his family, but in fact for himself. His escape from one confinement leads to others as he has to deal with unforeseen difficulties and obstacles in this new world of his. And he comes up empty-handed despite all his wittiness and his MacGyver-like ingenuity.

There is an underpinning but not fully developed story of his teenage son Charlie played by River Phoenix who is at first admiring his father and then slowly and painfully realizes that his hero not only has his own share of limitations but that his father's dreams are selfish and do not include him.


When it comes to Witness (1985) the escape is from corrupt forces and danger into the peaceful bosom of an Amish society. John Book played by Harrison Ford goes into hiding and basically becomes an Amish for a while until things cool down back in town.

The Amish world seems both distant and appealing. It is distant because it so different form the world most of us are used to. Their lack of technology may appear a suitable idea at least ideologically, but in reality it is a tough bullet to swallow. One day, Book decides to fix a radio leading to some music and a little bit of dancing, both of which are generally frowned upon by this seclusive society.

Again the stern father, our running motive in Weir's work, appears on the scene and is firmly against such frivolities. The underlying message may be that a world that lacks music and dance, two common forms of entertainment, is one that falls short on joy. Not to mention passion as there is budding chemistry between the two protagonists, Book and the Amish widow.

The appealing part of this society is their rejection of violence. Both guns and physical violence are a common part of Book's and more specifically of our own urban world. In a key scene, Book does not allow himself to be bullied or humiliated to the horror of his Amish companions who simply tend to offer the other cheek on those occasions.

Interestingly, however, this peaceful idyll, which is not unlike in The Mosquito Coast a double-edged sword and blessing in disguise, becomes “contaminated” by the presence of this man who is evidently at odds with his environment. He unintentionally attracts violence onto this society; yet at the same time, he has left his mark and has brought about some life and movement into what is effectively a closed and static society.

The Truman Show

In The Truman Show (1998), the world seems to be one of perfect order. It is often predictable and apart from certain negative experiences that befall on poor Truman, it is generally one in which he may find safety. But there is something that is nagging him.

Truman notices certain suspicious and repetitive patterns, and he becomes rightfully paranoid. For some time, we may wonder as viewers whether he is suffering from a mental illness or whether he is in fact right that something fishy is going on around him.

The climax is reached when he finds out the truth, that all his world (and basically his life and his experiences, his whole existence) is but a fabricated and controlled lie. Finding himself at odds with his world he attempts to find the truth and escapes this fake and artificial setting; he travels across the dangerous and stormy sea just like strong-willed and proud Captain Aubrey in Master and Commander: The Fair Side of the World (2003) defying the elements to reach his goal.

When Truman does find out the truth, he meets Christof, the director of the reality show. He is the one who is not only running the show, he is in fact running Truman's life. So in a sense, we have the father figure again who this time around is almost as powerful as God. Yet Truman eventually faces his maker and, as a result, he escapes from his grasp becoming a fully realized person of flesh and blood now, one who finally has actual control over his own life.

The Way Back

The final movie I want to discuss here (I am skipping some of my favorite films of his, such as Green Card and The Year of Living Dangerously for matters of space not because of a lack of interest or ideas) is The Way Back (2010). Here we are dealing with a real prison, a Gulag set in the middle of the Siberian wilderness.

The prisoners physically escape but their quest makes exceptional demands on body and spirit. They have to fight hunger, climate and, more importantly, their own failings and demons to reach their ultimate goal: freedom.

This movie has been criticized for its lack of emotion or for its somewhat implausible ending, but I think it works well on most fronts. The movie comes full circle not only in its own narrative stream (all the way back), but also as a culmination of Weir's work itself.

The “father” has been vindicated or has left willingly (can the character of Mr Smith played by Ed Harris – who also played Christof in the Truman Show - be the representation of the father here?) giving his “son” full rein and freedom. Seen from this light, it is a wonderful fitting coda that after years of absence the prodigal son - now perhaps himself a father figure - reunites with his beloved.

That being said, I sincerely hope that Peter Weir will make another movie, but so far he has kept us dangling. In the meantime, I made an interesting discovery about him. Peter Weir's favorite movie (and one of mine as well!) turns out to be The White Ribbon (2009) by Michael Haneke.

This may come as no surprise as the children in that film are dealing with a stern and unrelenting father who punishes them for misbehaving or doing wrong. The children cannot escape in Haneke's film and are both victims and aggressors. However, Peter Weir's message is overall more optimistic. Some of his heroes have broken free and now it is up to them what they will do with their new-found liberty.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Plato in a Non-Euclidean World: Review on Berlinski's King of Infinite Space

Book Cover of Euclid with clouds by David Berlinski

There are two known sins that one can commit in relation to books: a) to prematurely judge a book by its cover; and b) to believe in the tempting correlation that a short book can be read in a short amount of time.

I have managed to stay clear from the first bookish sin since the name of the author has more value to me than its graphic representations, but in the case of David Berlinski's The King of Infinite Space: Euclid and his Elements I made the error of thinking that its slimness, the relatively and comparatively few number of pages meant that I could finish it in a jiffy. Not so. I learned my (mathematical) lesson the cumbersome way because a lot of complex information can be packed in small parcels of space.

Entering the world of Euclid, as imagined by Berlinski, is like sitting in a wide-angled out-of-focus high school classroom where the bespectacled math teacher is hardly audible and the clock keeps receding instead of advancing in time. Or so was my own general feeling when I attempted to read and re-read this book.

I must make a clear confession before I go on: I lost my math ability and most enjoyment thereof after age 17. It happened overnight and there is, in fact, no reasonable explanation for it. Math simply vanished out of my mind, and I carefully circumvented and kept out of its shadows and surroundings whenever I could.

Fortunately, math and literature are not the closest of friends, so I have been safe for most of my life. But in philosophy you will stumble upon math every once in a while, while the fascinating and overwhelming world of quantum mechanics will take even seasoned mathematicians for a hearty spin.

I cannot deny the fact that I envy mathematicians out there: they have access to a world that I will never understand. The Greek double Pythagoras and Plato were great mathematician-philosophers, so were their French double counterparts Descartes and Pascal. And each and everyone had powerful things to say about human nature using math as a their guiding light.

Reading about Euclid's theorems and axioms and postulates re-vibrated my Platonic sensibilities. I realized that both Plato and Euclid either lived in an elaborate world of fantasy or that they correctly imagined the existence of a world outside of this world, one that defied imagination and general conventions. They indeed spoke and were inspired by the same abstract and grammatically precise language of mathematics.

As I was walking home one day immersed in Euclidean thoughts I could not help feeling slightly overwhelmed by the world of geometry myself. In fact, everything is geometrical! Buildings construct a right angle to the ground and stretch out in an imaginary infinite line through the sky; streets are straight lines that are parallel to each other; shop signs and ladders on the street form triangles. You cannot escape shapes; even my face and pot belly are round-shaped and my hanging arms are straight lines.

And yet, it turns out that Euclid needed to be modified when it comes to spheres and the physical world because the shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line. Curves and geodesics within spheres, gravity and elliptical forces make it not so what on paper looks perfectly sound and fine. And the sum of the angles of triangles is not always 180 degrees in real life.

And then it came to me. This is what Plato must have meant by the heavenly forms! Yes, there must be a perfect triangle out there, one that fully represents what is drawn on two-dimensional space. Whatever shape we encounter may then be an imperfect replication of its heavenly and otherworldly ideal. We live in a non-Euclidean world because it is the shadow of the infinite space that was imagined by Plato and reformulated by Euclid.

Oh, my God! And it had seemed that this book by mathematician David Berlinski was a bore or drudgery! Not so if math is your cup of tea of course, but to me all the abstract logical talk had given me a slight headache. Until the information somehow seeped in into my subconscious, I suppose.

Euclid spent a lot of time to prove his theorems with his various definitions and postulations. Why did he take such pains, I asked myself? And yet, it was this strategy of taking pains to try to convince others through logic that has shaped the Western consciousness. Socrates and Plato had used reason to debate points and to persuade and enlighten others. Euclid used geometry. Descartes applied a similar mathematical approach to the methodology of philosophy itself.

And Euclid's ideas had withstood time over more than two thousand years (compare that with the nimbly two hundred years or so that Newton's mechanical outlook lasted!) until 19th century mathematicians turned it upside down, and Einstein put the proverbial dagger through the hearts of Euclid and Newton respectively.

And yes, the very foundations of the Earth had begun to shake! Berlinski quotes how Bertrand Russell and others were shocked at the opening cracks in a once stable foundation of mathematical precision. Suddenly nothing was certain anymore and everything became relative. And the problem with relativity is that there is no absolute truth or theorems, no clear formulas.

Plato will say I told you so! He will insist on his version of another idealized Euclidean plane of existence where triangles are as they should be, namely perfect. Life can become more predictable again; we can calculate shapes and movements without elements interfering with our studies. Put differently, it is not the triangle that is wrong; it is our faulty perception of it.

Of course, had I more knowledge about Euclid or the subject matter I would have gotten more out of this book. As an afterword under his Teacher's Note, Berlinski talks about Euclid's book, something that could be easily applied to his own work: “The book demands both effort and concentration. The proofs do not come easy.”

Although there is humor to help us along, it comes as dry as unsalted crackers and the language is quite sparse. Where I would expect to be taking off on flights of fancy, there is but a cracked line. It is all as geometrically efficient as it gets.

At first sight, the book seems to have absolutely nothing to do with one's own life being as abstract as it can be, but it is not unlike Euclid's work itself: Dig in there for a while, and you will find something worth your time and effort.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

When Things Don't Work: Frustrations of Daily Life

Photo copier that does not work

When things don't work is one of the major frustrations of daily life. When things don't work is the negative imprint of the technology coin, where life that is supposed to become easier and more convenient has suddenly come face to face with the unexpected and unwanted.

When things don't work is not to be equaled with when things don't work out. In the latter case, there is often a plan and intention involved in the process. A relationship would be a type of experiment where things, generally speaking, have two options, two possible dimensions: they can either go right or wrong. 

As any experiment can fail, the idea of failure does not come as a shock or an unexpected event; it is part and process of the deal. We shrug or have a tear in our eye when we say, oh well, things did not work out ... this time around.

But things not working or breaking down is another matter altogether. The element of surprise in its negative sense is what makes this one so stressful. In fact, we are expecting things to go right when suddenly they do not. 

In my personal life, my best friend and worst enemy is the copier. I usually expect it to work (though it has a marked history of letting me down) and when I arrive all my original sheets in hand ready to make copies for my students, the copier refuses to do its share: It does not work.

Although in the back of my mind I know that it is quite possible that the copier will not work this day, it still comes as a surprise. This is why I almost always have a couple of back-up plans, Plans B and C. This goes as far as arriving half an hour early for work and ditto to job interviews.

The reason for this is simple. I expect that the unexpected will arrive sooner or later. There is a chance that my bus may break down, that there will be a massive traffic jam or a detour that may cost me precious time. I am known for arriving (too?) early for job interviews but once I was actually on time. That means, I was late according to my worldview.

The following had happened. The bus that was scheduled to run according to my Internet sources did not do so anymore. And I ended up doing what I had to do to make it on time: I ran.

It was not a pretty sight: a man in suit and tie and dress shoes sprinting down the street, but I got there on time all sweaty and out of breath. That I did not get the job in the end did not faze me. In fact, it was me who had won the battle; I had beaten the unexpected; I had slapped it in the face, at least for that time, while I had been steadfast to my principle of being on time for a scheduled interview.

Interestingly, I was once, during my undergrad years, late for an appointment with my instructor. The reason was not my oversight, but the fact that the bus had broken down. My instructor looked at me with quizzical eyes and wondered why I had come up with such a lame excuse. Sometimes the truth and lame excuses are not strangers after all.

When things don't work is a part of reality. It happens on a regular basis across the board. I turn on my computer and expect it to work; when it does not, I feel the blood rushing, which turns me into the Incredible Hulk (by the way, this indeed happened earlier today, my computer went berserk and the blood started rushing, though the Hulk part is apocryphal).

Others will designate the moment when they turn the key and the engine does not respond to be one of those typical bad days. Or to show up with ferocious appetite and craving at your favorite restaurant only to find out that it is closed for renovation. The list is endless and as each of us have their own list of demons and horrific scenarios, this may vary according to taste and lifestyle.

Why do we feel so frustrated in these situations? Is it the feeling of helplessness? In part, it must be. We think we have everything under control and then things get out of hand because something does not work or work out as planned. 

It can cause embarrassment, such as those insufferable but suffering moments when I put in the DVD and the computer or DVD player will not play it for some reason. And I do not have to look at my students' faces. A perfect case of Schadenfreude on their part. And a sense of relief. Thank God, this is is not happening to me!

The reason that it affects us so much is that these things do usually work. If the DVD player would never work, then it poses no problem. I would just discard it. I would immediately look for another option. If my pen does not work, I throw it away. But the thing is, when things work most of the times and then suddenly stop working for no reason, then this is the culmination of frustration.

There is little we can do. I usually try to control my anger and start talking to the machine. I stroke the copier and ask him to be nice to me. On good days, I thank my computer for being there, for doing things for me. On bad days, I hope its RAM has not forgotten my words of kindness. More often than not, the worst scenario comes true, and I try to smile and later when out of sight to laugh it off hysterically.

Those moments teach me a valuable lesson. Just when you thought you had it all figured out, things throw you a monkey wrench. We are indeed dependent, even slaves of things, objects, possessions and even of the idea of technology itself. We are not running the show, but are the actors. Life can be divided into two main categories when things either work or they do not. Either way, we must work it out the best we can.