Saturday, April 26. 2008
Of course we had to see Eastern Promises, and not just because it offered the chance for my wife to see Viggo Mortensen naked.
Mortensen has earned his stripes as a serious actor, mostly because his consummate skill has outrun the long, long shadow thrown by The Lord of the Rings. It was refreshing to get through all the DVD extras and an avalanche of positive reviews for Eastern Promises with absolutely no one feeling the need to mention Aragorn. Mortensen has this eerie capacity to be utterly transformed by his role; you could watch his portrayal of the Russian mobster Nikolai and never even guess that the same man played a Numinorian king. (Elijah Wood, for all that his good work, will have to wait another decade before he transcends the role of Frodo.)
Eastern Promises manages to break a lot of the rules of organized-crime films, and Hollywood films in general. The film restores genuine evil to our view of organized crime. Rather than having a seemingly ruthless don who's really a family-oriented softie at heart (a la Vito Corleone in The Godfather), we get the exact opposite in Semyon: a seemingly sweet old man who is progressively revealed to be despicably heartless and cruel. Most notable is the exquisite restraint with which the story is told. For all its sinister tension, there is exactly one fight scene in the entire movie. For all the romantic tension, there is exactly one kiss. David Cronenberg, the "Baron of Blood" who practically defined gratuitous violence with the exploding heads of Scanners and such, deserves a lot of credit for directing a movie where the violence and sex is sufficiently realistic to be properly horrifying.
Mortensen, too, is as restrained as you'll ever see him. He speaks in short sentences with awkward English, yet he's always as cool as a cucumber. You are reminded a little bit of Robert De Niro's Vito Corleone as he smooth-talks his way through an interview with the Black Hand. You admire someone who can be so controlled. But unlike Vito, Nikolai is more scary than charming. With the tattoos on his fingers and the chill of his pale blue eyes, you are thoroughly convinced of his deadliness. Nikolai turns out to be more than he seems, but it's that unnerving mix of good and evil that makes him, and the whole film, so interesting.
Thursday, April 24. 2008
In response to some of the comments on my post on the Founding Fathers and religion in America:
The biggest contradiction in American religious attitudes is how differently the religious and non-religious interpret whatâ€™s going on in the culture. The fundamentalist Christians look around and see a world in which values are forgotten, faith is ridiculed, self-control denigrated, and more and more people are foresaking their traditional churches. They see it as the beginning of the end of the world. Any moment the forces of secularism, consumerism, and greed will overwhelm the culture and religions will be wiped out.
Meanwhile, the atheists see a world in which having the correct religious beliefs are still a litmus test for holding public office. (Last night I saw Karl Rove on CNN give his analysis of the Pennsylvania Democratic primary results, and he made it clear that Obama is paying dearly for having claimed that people in small towns â€œcling to religion and gunsâ€ out of â€œbitterness.â€) â€œIntelligent designâ€ is being taught in schools right next to evolutionary theory. Even in modern times, increasingly dangerous wars are being fought primarily along religious lines for religious reasons. They see a world in which Reason could be drowned out at any moment by the religious.
So . . . whoâ€™s right? Both sides seem to think that the other is winning.
When I said that religion is a â€œradioactiveâ€ topic in academia and politics, I didnâ€™t men that it was never talked about. I meant that it is dangerous to talk about it. It can be referenced, but not openly discussed. Politicians will play a game of nodding their heads, implying that they generally believe what everyone else believes, without actually asserting a belief in anything in particular. Academics play the opposite game, pretending that they have no personal beliefs whatsoever, lest someone think their objectivity has been marred by moral convictions. In both cases, nothing substantive is happening.
Why do we have this bifurcation in the American mindset? Yesterday I saw a show on the History Channel about the Scopes â€œMonkeyâ€ trial, in which historians discussed exactly this issue of American attitudes towards religion. One explanation they offered was that America was originally populated by two kinds of immigrants: the religious sects looking for freedom to practice their particular faith, and the practical-minded pragmatists looking for an opportunity at a better life. Those two strands of culture, they suggest, have continued along side by side in America for the last few centuries, and a culture has evolved to accommodate the two mind-sets without ever completely resolving their differences.
That explanation makes sense, but I think itâ€™s more than just an age-old divide. I suspect we are at a point where our culture is struggling to unify its worldview, and yet is unable to give up the other side of the coin. We look to religion to provide values and purpose that transcends reason, but we chafe at the logical inconsistencies of dogmatic superstition. We want a primarily rational worldview, but also recognize that reason can cannot create values. Neither a dogmatic religious view nor a starkly atheistic one can provide us what we seek, and so we grope around for a middle way.
Monday, April 21. 2008
Last week the New Yorker had an interesting review of several books about the religious convictions of the Founding Fathers, and how they have played out in the formation of the Constitution and the First Amendment. When it comes to the topic of law and religion, I have several possibly contradictory currents competing within me:
So what does the New Yorker's literature review have to say about it? Firstly, they cast some doubt in both directions, both for those who would claim we were founded as a "Christian nation," and those who would elevate secularism as the highest value in society. The founding fathers were not the sort of Christians your average fundamentalist would identify with â€“ they were deists, who recognized a spiritual reality and at the same time were skeptical of dogma and superstition. (They were, I dare say, not that different from me.) At a time when most states explicitly established an official religion in their constitutions and had religious tests for holding office, the Constitution is remarkable for explicitly refusing such tests, and, for that matter, not even mentioning God at all. It is an emphatic exclusion â€“ they clearly wanted Reason to be the foundation of their political system, and to keep religion out of it.
At the same time, they Founders were not anti-religion. They were explicit in saying the purpose of the disestablishment clause was not so much to protect secularism from religion, but rather to protect religions from each other. They very much wanted the free expression of religion, and thought it most likely to happen if no religion could establish itself above any other. And so far they have been right: America has been significantly more religious than its European peers since its independence, and indeed even more religious than the founding fathers themselves.
In a nutshell, the Founding Fathers had faith in freedom. They believed that people, and institutions, would arrive at the truth if given the freedom to do so. The coercion of an official religion was antithetical to their notion of religion itself, which had to be the individual's free and direct recognition of the Deity. Most interestingly, the Founding Fathers were not even that thrilled that we should care what they think. As Jefferson put it: "Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human."
Saturday, April 19. 2008
The most notable thing about Pixar's Ratatouille is how tackles the very notion of art critics and reviewers. The fact that they are talking about food critics is irrelevant; every film reviewer who sits down to write about Ratatouille is going to affected by food critic Anton Ego's epiphany. Anton Ego is right: negative reviews are fun to read, and fun to write. Writing an interesting positive review is much harder than writing a negative one.
So it is with Pixar. Against all odds, the critics raved about Ratatouille, even as Anton Ego raved about Gusteau's unlikely rodent chef. After all, we were anticipating failure. On first blush, everyone thought that a movie about a rat learning to cook in Parisian restaurant was the first long-awaited sign of Pixar's wane. Unblemished perfection is hard for critics to withstand, and Pixar had been winning critical awards for twenty years with nary a flop. As much as critics loves to watch good movies, that unbroken line of greatness gnaws at the jealous hearts of those who appreciate art yet lack the capacity to create it. Pixar had managed to take a number of not-too-cuddly protagonists (bugs, fish, monsters under the bed) and make them lovable, but rats felt like a big stretch. Surely, we thought, this will be the time that Pixar produces something less than earth-shaking. And damn it all, Brad Bird keeps disappointing us by failing to disappoint us.
Brad Bird continues the same themes that he developed in The Incredibles: the struggles of those who must hide their greatness. Chef Gusteau's maxim, "Anyone can cook," may sound like a populist and democratic sentiment, but Bird's real intent is naked meritocracy. Some people (and rats) have great talents, and their struggle is to be true to themselves in order to realize their greatness in the world. Remy has to be his own rat, and cook in spite of consequences . . . even as Mr. Incredible must be a superhero to a thankless world. In Bird's vision, even those who lack great talent can display great virtue, like Linguini telling the world the true source of his culinary skill, or Remy's father rallying the rat clan to his son's aid. It's a very American sort of ethic, celebrating individualism and achievement in the service of the greater good.
Of course, we could nit-pick. Remy's puppeteering of Linguini is so preposterous that it still baffles me that I could suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy the conceit. And Anton Ego's conversion from cold hauteur to life-affirming rave will rival Ebeneezer Scrooge for most-belief-defying epiphany. And yet . . . We still enjoy it. Why? Because we have a faith in human transformation that transcends all bounds of reason. The story may be set in France, but it's really unfolding in the American mind, where all sins can be forgiven, all differences recognized, and any rat can grow up to be the greatest chef in the world.
Friday, April 18. 2008
The progressive, "enlightened" energy policy of recent years goes something like this:
And that's what we did.
Unfortunately . . .
Oy. Suddenly the position that looked so green, so thoughtful and compassionate, turns out to very, very wrong. We start out thinking we're going to save the environment, make a few changes, and suddenly things are drastically worse. What can we learn from this?
Thursday, April 17. 2008
The breakaway Glenmary sisters were what sociologist Howard Becker would call "moral entrepreneurs." When they could no longer abide by the rules and restrictions placed upon them by the Church and their religious order, they set out to create a new mini-society that they hoped would better serve them in their mission to help the poor of Appalachia. They were not merely "deviants" or "rebels," breaking the rules they disagreed with; they were trying to remake the rules of right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate. In an entrepreneurial spirit, they were investing their own lives into the effort to recreate religious life.
I love their example, because it shows a certain boldness and responsibility in taking control of their lives. I think every human being should carefully consider the rules and mores of their culture, understanding their nature and purpose, and carefully experiment with changing them when changes are needed. The Glenmary sisters pursued every avenue of change within the Church's hierarchy, and only as a last resort went "off the reservation."
The Glenmary sisters also discovered just how hard it can be to recreate a culture. They had what appeared to be reasonable gripes with their order's rules: the habit was bulky and impractical, and they wanted to associate more freely with the people they were serving. The rules of the Church seemed to be arbitrary, outdated, and unnecessary. But once they ditched the limitations of their order, they immediately discovered that crossing those boundaries did have consequences. Once they start dressing like ordinary women, men started treating them like ordinary women . . . including flirting with them, courting them, and ultimately marrying them. They started eating meals and associating freely with the people they served . . . and ultimately the bond that tied them together as a religious community dissolved. They threw off the yoke of absolute obedience to a single authority . . . but then found their collective decision-making bogged down in endless discussions.
I point this out, not to establish the Church was right and the sisters were wrong, but just to stress the fact that the rules were not arbitrary. There was a purpose to those rules put upon the sisters. There may come times when you decide to cross the boundaries laid out by a society, but if you do, you have to be prepared to accept the unforeseen consequences. If you're going to experiment, you need to experiment carefully. The rule that might seem stupid and arbitrary might be more important than you think. Let all bold reformers of society take note . . . and humbly accept that they, too, might get it wrong.
Tuesday, April 15. 2008
I just heard the story of the Glenmary Sisters on an episode of This American Life. According to the radio story, the Glenmary Sisters are a relatively recent Catholic order of nuns established in the 1940s for "field mission" work; they go into rural communities that have little or no Catholic presence and directly serve the poor, outside the traditional institutions of churches, schools or hospitals. Because the sisters were pioneering a new form of ministry, they found that some of the traditional restrictions of the religious were interfering with their work. In the 1960s, with the permission of the church, they adopted some new practices: a modified habit that was more practical for moving about in the community, and easing restrictions on who they could eat meals with. Time magazine ran a very admiring article about the sisters, but the Church hierarchy was not pleased with the images of the modern nun and quickly rolled back the order's practices to be even more restrictive than before. A group of 70 nuns left the order together, and 40 of them started a new organization outside the Church, so they could essentially continue to be nuns doing the same mission work as before, but without the heavy restrictions imposed upon them.
The sisters set out to abide by their original vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. That proved to be a lot harder than they expected. Without the Church to provide material aid, many of them had to start working regular jobs to generate money for the order. The working sisters were supposed to share their earnings with the others who were doing unpaid mission work . . . but over time it became clear they weren't keen on sharing their meager incomes with others. The sisters didn't want to be obedient to a single superior, so they struggled (mostly in vain) to find a collective process of decision-making. And once the restrictions on dress and association were lifted, many of the sisters found themselves courted by the men they were serving, and eventually married and had families. After many years of struggle the organization was all but disbanded, though the sisters continued in their social work and activism and kept in touch with each other.
So why does this interest me? My heart always goes out to people who try to create communities, especially spiritual communities, and most especially spiritual communities that transcend walls and boundaries. The Self Knowledge Symposium is an ongoing attempt at community-building in the same spirit â€“ creating a wall-less monastery, a collective spirit to support the individual. So I can relate to every phase of the renegade Glenmary sisters' quest to find a communal arrangement that will work. But what are the lessons to be learned from their example? More on that later.
Monday, April 7. 2008
Kenny sent around a New York Times article on scientific studies of willpower capacity, which basically established that we have a finite capacity of willpower that can be exhausted, but that the capacity for greater willpower can be developed over time, mostly by practice. Personal willpower is a theme that often comes up in the SKS, since it's a necessary-but-not-sufficient capacity for nearly all forms of success, including spiritual success.
A few other observations on the article's ramifications:
Friday, April 4. 2008
I started a couple different essays challenging the philosophical assumptions of compassionate communication, but finally realized I needed to let them sit for a while.
There are a few things that I've noticed already, in the actual practice of compassionate communication:
Overall, I've decided there's enough value in the compassionate communication model to invest in learning it and practicing it, even if it proves to be less than the Holy Grail of all human interaction.
Thursday, April 3. 2008
Ok, I've been pretty positive about the compassionate communication thing in my last few posts. Let's get down to the critiques:
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