Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Written and Grooved

Example

I live not far from a Subway station in Toronto. I don't use it often- it's more convenient for me to take a streetcar (which is even closer), but the overall walk time from my front door to the subway is 15 minutes. I can even shave a few minutes off that time if I take sidestreets (the main, most direct route is actually misleading, since it curves), so let's call it 12 minutes.

My previous apartment was a 10 minute walk from the subway. My new walk isn't far chronologically, but as precentages go...perhaps my brain has said that I can't be expected to walk 50% extra without some kind of price being exacted. Or perhaps I'm simply patterned. My brain isn't used to the route or the area, therefore it is impassable. Walk along two sidestreets and over a bridge past the German deli and the bulk food store to the subway? That's crazy talk. You can get to the streetcar in, what, 10 minutes, and that takes you right to your office's front door.

Example

Patterns. My brain is used to method A- 5 years of walking from point A to point B at St. Clair and Yonge (an area I loved, and was familiar with). So when I move to a walk that takes no more than 5 minutes extra in the upper beaches, it must be longer, impassible, not in the programming. Patterns.

Example

My friend Hembeck has lost a toe in the last year. There's no punch line. He stubbed his toe, and watched it turn black, and had a walk-in clinic physician tell him "Go to the hospital. Don't go home first- GO TO THE HOSPITAL." He was admitted, blood was taken, and a few minutes later somebody said "You're not treating your diabetes properly." Hembeck, bless him, said "What diabetes?" and learned something new about himself that day- he learned he'd deeloped adult onset diabetes to be precise.

Circulation issues. The doctor drew lines around his toe with a magic marker, saying "If the gangrene (and correct me if the term is wrong) goes past this line, you lose the toe. Past this line, the foot. This line, the leg." I was perhaps the 14th person to tell him that he was lucky he didn't wake up blind (learned from Alnilam, rather than my years at the Mayo clinic), and was the 14th person to hear that his new nickname, 9-toed-Hembeck, was here to stay.

Example

The interesting part of this is...he's feeling phantom pain in the now missing toe. Again, not unusual. Anyone who's lost an appendage or a limb will 'feel' it in those all important quotes because the brain has never had a chance to be without it. The weird part in Hembeck's case is that he has trouble feeling his very present feet - again, circulation issues - but can feel his missing toe. A phantom floating on a visit of fog. Result of patterns.

Example

Your brain doesn't always know what's real. I've met celebrities, ususally passing them in a hallway or leaving a screening, and from time to time, your brain just says "Wow, that looks like..." or "It's AMAZING how much she looks like..." and overloads, since your brain has seen X on a screen or on TV and X doesn't belong in this world. I saw Catherine O'Hara at a kitchen store, and must have been staring, thinking "that can't be..." until (possibly being used to this kind of thing) she finally blinked and said "Yes, it's me," rather pleasantly and I apologized and said she was great in Beetlejuice and did the best Meryl Streep impersonation known to man before beating a hasty retreat. And no, it's not my picture or autograph, it just looks like she did that day.

You probably become immune to this if you travel in those circles, but there must be exceptions. I saw Dan Ackroyd in the presence of a film-critic friend and watched him become jaw-dropping, dumbstruck, starstruck for a second (but just a second). He later said "I'd never met a Ghostbuster." I thanked Ackroyd for 'Dragnet', and he said "Ah. You must be the one who saw it" before inviting us to see his blues band that evening.

Patterns. I'm about to become a father, so all existing patterns are probably going to get blown out of the water, except for the one I'm dreading, and maybe it's the one that will transform itself. The child will come back to our new place, and various family will enter and I'll wait for my father. My mother will arrive, with my sister, and otherwise alone, and I'll have a faint, primal idea that the townhouse is painted, why haven't I shown my father? Then the memory. Then my mother, holding the baby, and where's my father. I can imagine the smile, the looks in his face as he holds a grandson. It won't happen, as such.

Example

If this transforms itself, it will be that his absence is not conspicious, that holding and facial expresssions notwithstanding, his presence is still accepted, welcomed, known.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Jesus! No, seriously, Jesus...

Example

How precisely did a Mel Gibson Jesus movie suddenly become 'all that is right' on moral terms for American film? Most of the fuss has died down and I'm not going to kick at the flick because its too easy- most of it has been said on political terms, so-called moral terms, and damned if the evangelicals didn't get their teeth into it. And all that said, it will be a staple in Church basements (certain churches) for years, despite the simple fact...it's just another Jesus movie.

A bit bloodier, yeah. CGI laiden, uh-huh. And the Aramaeic was a unique touch, its not like a great deal of people are going to storm out of the theatre and claim that the Aramaeic wasn't like they remembered it in the old country (might be wrong there- a film critic friend of mine heard devotees grumbling about the autenticity of Liv Tyler's Elvish accent in one of the Lord of the Rings films). And it's still shot with Italian extras and costumes borrowed from Cinecetta, like most other Jesus films. And if you bring up the Utah Jesus flicks (King of Kings, Greatest Story Ever Told), true, they don't look like Cinecetta. They look like Utah.

Example

There are ways to do the Jesus film in such a way that it doesn't look like a well intended Sunday school production, or like a sermon; Pasolini's "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" (or Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo if you want to be fussy) is beautifully done, the best instincts of a soon-to-be-excommuicated Italian Marxist working with neo-realist traditions. I didn't say it was a light flick, but it is well done and rather haunting, if anachronistic (Bessie Smith coming up on the soundtrack with a chorus of 'Motherless Child' is something else, but works rather nicely). And 'Jesus of Montreal' gets a little self-consciously artsy, but it's about that particular crowd and as such lets you see and feel on their terms. For all its faults (the wailing 80's Quebecois-pop soundtrack being high on the list), the depiction of the resurrection is a work of art.

A nice touch - the film veers towards melodrama from time to time and diffuses it instantly. A priest is caught early on in an obviously carnal relationship with an actress and they shrug it off. She says "This isn't a bedroom farce", and he says "I'm not really a good priest." And the story goes on without the finger-wagging gotcha moment.

You could go deeper than all this if you were bored or ambitious- some critics suggest that The Gospel According to St. Matthew is more about being an Italian Marxist and reading the gospels as a tract to collectivism (hey, I don't write this stuff, I write about it from time to time, ok?), and Jesus of Montreal can be seen more about the Catholic/Sinner battle in and around anyone dealing with the church in Quebec.

So before getting into the anti-semitic controversy around The Passion of The Christ, and the cynical (VERY cynical) marketing, and the blood, the strength of the convervative movement in the US and the impact of the first splatter Jesus film...two credits where credit is due:

1. An early scene with Mary, mopping up Jesus' blood in the background of a scene. It takes a few minutes to figure out what she's doing, you eventually see that she's been listening at the floor, finally freezing over a particular spot. The camera tracks downward through the floor into the holding cell of Christ. Its a gentle moment after a series of brutal ones, nicely observed, almost touching.

2. Gibson made his intentions clear. Gibson took flak for the fact that, rather than deal with the top 10 hits of Jesus' life (sermon on the mount, curing lepers, feeding the hungry, begging for tolerance) that he instead focused on the last 12hrs which were, as the bible suggests, kind of a downer. But at least Gibson didn't promise 'The Greatest Story Ever Told' or 'King of Kings', he starts the film with a quote about Christ suffering for humanity. The movie is about the suffering- Gibson saying 'Wanna see how bad it got? Voila.'

That said, I don’t think Gibson’s film was any more anti-semitic than a raft of other Jesus films. For that matter, I’m not Jewish. I won’t get hit by anti-semitic imagery in the same way. The Pharisees don’t come off particularly well, but they rarely do in such works, the usual dodge being that its not the Pharisees per ce that do Jesus in, but one or two nasty ones skittering around the edges. I don’t think Gibson’s smart enough as a director to be actively or even subliminally anti-Semitic. I don’t think he believes that the Jews in toto are responsible for the death of Christ. I think he believes that the guys with the beards in the tall hats killed Christ, like he remembers from those illustrated bible lessons in Sunday school. If he believes otherwise, it doesn’t come across in the film.

I do have a close friend who is a film critic, and Jewish, and he was more disturbed by the violence in the film rather than any anti-Semitic overtones, particularly the flaying scene, which is pretty explicit. Or…not? I’m not sure what this says about me, but I could deal with the flaying, it just felt like so Kayro syrup-based blood. There are a few horrible shots of the rasp taking skin off Jesus’ back, but most of it seems more geared to response shots- grimaces, Roman soldiers swinging and grinning. Gibson could have made it even more effective (horrible?) with less blood- good filmmakers will let your mind will fill in the blanks.

Note: I don’t own a copy of The Passion of the Christ, I haven’t done a frame-by-frame analysis, so if anyone who wants to send screengrabs and disagree, be my guest. And if you’re the kind to do that, you’re probably paid to do such things, and how do I get YOUR job?

Example

Hitchcock did the old stab-and-switch properly in ‘Pyscho’, where you never see the blade enter Janet Leigh’s skin in the shower. I don’t care what you remember- rent the DVD or find one of the hundreds of published frame-by-frame critiques of the film and you will discover that you never see the blade touch Janet Leigh. And no, it wasn’t re-cut at some time in the 70’s or due to pressure from church groups or whatever conspiracy theory you’ve heard, the blade does not penetrate the skin. The MPAA censors at the time swore that they saw it, and Hitchcock submitted the same unchanged print 3 times, each time claiming he’d trimmed it, until it was approved uncut. I won’t say that Gibson’s quite smart enough as a filmmaker to get away with this subtely – the flay does land a few times – but to be fair, its more horrible by association than portrayal.

Example

Want a legitimately religious film, at least as 'this is how people cope with religion' rather than a sermon? Try ‘Dead Man Walking’, which overplays its hand in one shot that almost ruins the flick (for those who haven’t seen it, I won’t reveal the shot that I dislike; suffice to say that a little Christ imagery goes a long way and it gets laid on thick). But director Tim Robbins is smart enough (or faithful enough to his subject) to end the film on a prayer, literally. It’s the same impulse that Gibson can’t quite manage. Robbins says “We are all subject to God and all prayers are heard. For example…” and leaves us fumbling for grace. Between our dreams and actions lie this world, and all that, echo chambered or not.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

God did what? I didn't read that part...

Let’s talk Miracles and science. A matter of perspective, especially within the lower level of miracles. I make dumplings from time to time, which are just flour, egg, salt, little baking powder, assorted spices. For chicken stew I tend to toss in chives, tarragon or sage.

Example

Allegedly, all WASPs eat sage. A friend of mine (Portuguese) went to a dinner with his then-girlfriend (Scottish) and came back astounded. “Stinking of sage, Michael, your people are stinking of sage” This was the same man who from time to time would pick up a loaf of Wonderbread and say “Look Mike, the food of your people…”

Anyhow- low level exhibition of the deity. The dumplings always look horrible and sticky. You take a spoonful of the foul stuff and drop it onto the steaming stew, whereupon it sort of melts and you’re sure the stew is ruined. Then you put the top on the pot, let it steam for 10 minutes or so and…voila…perfectly shaped dumplings. Soft, but not too soft. Chewy, but not too chewy. Done correctly, they taste sort of like a whole wheat sponge infused with chicken (and sage or tarragon) that has been wrung out just enough to be palatable and maybe even delicious.

So...it's a low level miracle, but it always seems to work. Or maybe its just the naturally leening qualities of eggs plus the flour and baking powder responding to heat. It’s hard NOT to make good dumplings in such a situation. That explanation lacks the poetry of the miracle of the dumplings, but who writes poems about dumplings? Chalk it up to science.

Example

One other low level miracle (or at least proof that the good Lord works in strange and mysterious ways) is the art of mimicry. I was at a party around 10 years ago and watched a nationally known Canadian journalist transform herself seamlessly into Dennis the Menace (complete with his dog Ruff) with only a sideways baseball cap and a bright eyed enthusiasm that one is born with, rather than aspires to (we were playing a party game, but alcohol was also a factor). And I was briefly in a band with a 6’1 longhaired Finnish-Canadian drummer with heavy metal leanings who, for some unfathomable reason, did the best Jack Benny impersonation I’ve ever seen.

First assumption: God not only has a sense of humour, it’s a weird one.

Example

This brings up the topic of 'Intelligent Design',, which can either be seen as a compromise in the Creation / Evolution argument, or a gutless cop-out by either side in that particular argument. You can sum it up simply in several dozen ways. My personal favorite boils down to “Well, yes, evolution works. But God invented it.”

I used the much-grumbled upon Wikipedia,(sort of an open source encyclopedia which is either wonderful and represents a free exchange of information, or is specious and grossly inaccurate and the repository of crackpots) to link the term, because its at least flexible enough to let everyone kick at that particular can, and even tosses this definition of Intelligent Design (ID) into the pot:

The majority of ID advocates state that their focus is on detecting evidence of design in nature, without regard to who or what the designer might be. However, ID advocate William Dembski in his book "The Design Inference"[1] lists God or an alien life force as two possible options.

So. The X-Files fans and the Come to Jesus types might have just found themselves on the same lifeboat (probably eyeing each other as potential shark buffet). If you’re religious, this could fit in well with the previously mentioned First Assumption.

Example

I have less of a problem with school boards that prohibit teaching evolution entirely than boards who have decided to embrace the whole Intelligent Design idea. If you are a diehard creationist, at least you’ve tied yourself to a set of rules, even if they’re a bit dodgy. Last I checked, creationist professed the belief that the world was 6000 years old or so, and a few even suggest that Noah’s Ark was full of dinosaurs at one time. Probably the smaller ones. Or it was a really REALLY big ark.

I don’t agree with the creationists but I’m not trying to knock them entirely. At least they’ve made that particular leap of faith in the direction of faith (where, admittedly, its easy to find a soft landing). The Intelligent Design movement worries me because it feels like a halfway maneuver, something along the lines of “Fine, the whole ‘evolution’ math works out on the blackboard. We agree. Therefore, God made the blackboard. No? But we agreed on the math...”, and so on. Sort of like shaking Darwin’s hand while giving a thumbs-up to God behind his back.

Example

The movement feels like an escape clause rather than the compromise that its supporters suggest. It makes it much easier to say something along the lines of “Why don’t we just knock the whole evolution theory out of the equation, it takes ages to explain, and since we’ve agreed that God started the whole thing, why not just say its all God?” Why do we have to teach religion in Science class?

Example

For that matter, why do we have to teach it at the movies? A thought for another evening...

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