Archive for the ‘ insights ’ Category

It Can Be a Fair Game

where will we go from here?

where will we go from here?

At the end of Fair Game, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) asks a straightforward question: How many of you know the 16 words in President Bush’s speech that led us to war in Iraq? No hands. How many of you know my wife’s name? All hands.

Valerie Plame—the beautiful CIA agent outed by the White House. The 2010 film recounting her story surprised me. What I expected to be an entirely political and propagandistic journey through a news story I vaguely remembered was actually a personal and inspiring interaction with my own Americanness. Valerie Plame’s life may have become fair game in the swirl of government and global relations, but there is hope for this generation to shirk off the embarrassment of American imperialism and participate in the fair game democracy can truly be at its best.

Yes, that was a rather sweeping statement, haha, but I think the film makes a strong case for participation in our government—or at least in the amplification of one’s voice that coalesces with other voices to make a government. And it pulled down grandiose abstracts—Freedom, Duty, Responsibility, Intelligence, and Patriotism—onto the intimate stage of interpersonal life.

where the world happens

where the world happens

Director Doug Liman expertly employed mise-en-scene to contextualize the American ideals in the American reality: the kids running through the kitchen, the dinner pot boiling on the stove, the patient hurrying out of the clinic, the lunchtime rush at a downtown restaurant, the babysitter coming and going, the cold hardwood floor at 3:45 a.m. You could listen to the dialog with your eyes closed and you would find an intriguing debate about the individual versus her government, but you wouldn’t really hear what the film is saying. You have to see it.

With each cut into action, each audio linkage, each carefully mixed ambient track, each fleeting glimpse of a ponytail, each just-out-frame introduction we begin to feel Valerie Plame’s life. Her life. No nation exists independently of the lives of its citizens. Whether they have a voice or are drowned out by power-mongering, those citizens are in fact that country. And this is what Fair Game reminds us.

Each person in the CIA is a normal person trying to be a loyal employee who is good at their job. (A generalization, yes, but one worth making because it is mostly true.) The more challenging implication is that people in power—such as Presidents—have just as much chance of being normal people making the best decisions they can to keep things moving forward as the CIA analyst. And the housewife. And the elementary school student. Life is damn hard, and making it through is a game of luck in which you collect as much information as you can and make the decision that is needed to move forward. Without forward motion, we die.

3:45 a.m.

3:45 a.m.

Now, that does not mean that Fair Game excuses the White House for what happened, for everything from the Iraqi War to the leak of “Valerie Plame.” It goes beyond mere smearing and challenges every citizen to hold its government accountable—to embrace the reality that we the people can make it a fair game once more. And the most beautiful scene is the one that reinforces that accountability and courage starts between two people: Valerie Plame comes back and refuses to let the fiasco steal her marriage to Joe Wilson. Making a name for ourselves within a marriage, keeping the word we have declared at the altar, takes more courage than managing secret covert operations for an employer that hasn’t pledged its allegiance to you.

I will acknowledge that this interpretation of Fair Game was deliciously influenced by screening Invictus earlier in the day. It is entirely opposite: Nelson Mandela has left his family to become the father of a nation. He has become the captain of his soul and taken the lowest road to greatness. Throughout the film, opposition accuses of him of being a self-promoting, distracted politician, and yet it showcases the depth of his leadership time and again. There were moments that reminded me of that glorious line in Batman Begins: if they need someone to chase, the people can chase me for a while. Batman allows the populace to think meanly of him when he is the only reason they have survived. Not because he has an inferiority complex, but because he is willing to absorb the high cost of change for a better world into his own person. That’s what Mandela did.

Invictus: politics is personal

Invictus: politics is personal

And he knew the power of inspiration. That’s why, the film tells us, he committed to the success of South African rugby. Just like Fair Game, Invictus understood that global realities actually form at the basic level of human experience: falling in love, having children, watching sports on TV, playing in the backyard, getting up in the morning, fixing dinner, having tea at 4 p.m. We have the power to change our world not merely because of the new channels of amplification—BBC, CNN, FOX, blogs, television, satellite broadcasts, YouTube, cell phones, high-tech communications—but simply because our world—food, shelter, warmth, clothing, love—is the world.

No, we cannot fully understand everyone else’s experience and it is fatal to assume that we can, but each person is in fact a human. And that makes all the difference.

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Sometimes Wearing Shoes Helps You Find Your Way

the most beautiful filmic fairy tale

the most beautiful filmic fairy tale

The Red Shoes is quite possibly the most stunning surprise I’ve seen in months.  The exquisite cinematography kept me glued to my iPhone screen for the whole two and a half hours.  Yes, I did it the disservice of watching it on my iPhone, curled up in bed.  But I must say, that The Red Shoes ran away with my soul and will not come back.  I’ll be purchasing it on Blu-ray and sitting spell-bound in my theater room for years to come.

If you’d like to read an informative summary and review, I refer you to Roger Ebert.  But really you ought to simply purchase the film and experience it all by yourself.  It reminded me of why I like to read fairy tales and will continue to read them until I lay upon my death bed—and even then, provided there’s time between the lying down and the dying.

Fairy tales help us travel this difficult world by simplifying it for us: we can recite all the characters by rote—the hero, the villain, the damsel in distress, the comic relief, the love triangle, the wicked relation.  But just because we recognize them doesn’t mean we really know them yet, and throughout the reading, the archetypes becomes sign posts on the journey to understanding.

Fairy tales help us by elevating our world from the mundane to the magnificent.  Death can look utterly wonderful at the final curtain.  The tedious repetition of our decisions is compressed into dramatic climaxes—rising and falling action, twists and turns.  In a fairy tale, your decision stands and you move forward; there is no washing back and forth on the tossing deck of the ship.  Every moment is fatal—and therefore more worth the living.

The Red Shoes may at first appear to be a classic fairy tale about two loves—the older and the younger, the promising and the seasoned.  But really it ends up being a most unique fairy tale: about the two halves of life, the one of work and the one of the heart.  As it is about artists, the parable of the red shoes can demonstrate oh! so painfully how hazy is the devision between the two, work and heart.  You cannot do one without the other: to work you must care and to care you must actualize through activity.  But there is such a desire to be wholehearted that the division in which we live grows into an impassable schism—especially if you are a woman.

trying so hard to make everything work---but your feet are pinned to the charade

trying so hard to make everything work---but your feet are pinned to the charade

To put food on your table, clothes on your body, and a roof over your head, you must perform a certain amount of utility for the world.  You earn your place in it.  But, to perform a certain amount of utility for the world usually plays out as a sacrifice of the dearest things you love: the person eating dinner with you, complimenting your dress, and waking up in your bed.  Our modern economy and  mode of living is predicated on specialization.  That specialization demands isolation of unique skills, repetition of their performative utility, and exclusive positioning in a system of production.

Sound anything like a ballerina performing the reparatory of her company?

We think that the arts are our last bulwark of everything human—that which is cooperative, creative, and mutual—and yet, in The Red Shoes we discover that not even the arts are safe from the pressures of post-industrial mechanism.  And I, lonely though “I” may be, am not willing to give them over without a fight.  Thanks to The Red Shoes, I discovered I was marching down a road I did not choose to a beat I have not written.  Now that I know that, I can turn and run.

((( Voice )))

Hearing my voice on the radio today was quite the surreal experience.  It is said (perhaps only by me) that each person is a 1000 pieces at any given moment: who you are this second is who you were the next and no two seconds are alike.  Patterns emerge, and shapes form as recurring points in a given plane.  But really, people are the most elastic things on the planet.

What I sounded like recycled through my cell phone, the GA cell tower, the AT&T satellite, the host’s phone, the recording software, the editing software, the computer’s audio output, the radio website audio platform, and back through my own computer speakers was so other than myself.  But at the same time, me.  I was struck with how powerful my voice is.  It survived that harrowing journey!  And came out fresh and alive—like a person.

reflections on my self in Spring 2009Sometimes when my parakeets chatter too loudly.  When the commuter traffic drowns my gabbing.  When the stereo pulse absorbs my harmonies.  Sometimes in those moments I feel the strength in my voice rise to the occasion, and sometimes in those moments I feel its existence as intimately as the tree that falls in the forest that nobody hears.

But what’s absolutely, utterly glorious about the human voice is that it never really dies.  It is always amplified—reverberating through the plastic and metal universe we’ve built around our fragile bodies—and it reaches into your soul and says ” I am.”

There is nothing more comforting and ‘couraging than talking to yourself.

Going After the Players

Yesterday a friend sent me an intriguing article about Yale University’s disciplinary action against a fraternity promulgating a “hostile sexual environment on campus” for women.  I won’t bother summarizing it for you, since a quick scan of the actual article will probably prove more useful.  But what I emailed to my friend in my thank-you response was:

It really encourages me that the symbol of white male status in America (Yale) has taken such a clear and extreme stand against their entitlement mentality (“No means yes”) on behalf of women. This kind of cultural shift is paramount to addressing the root of exploitation.

In that moment, I was so proud of Yale.  I was proud of it for making a big deal out of something that most people might consider innocuous—chanting at a fraternity meeting.  I was proud of it for erring on the side of the severe instead of the side of the lenient when dealing with an issue of sexual threat.  I was proud of it for publishing its disciplinary action—that I found out about it from the NYTimes!

With{out} Make-up

With{out} Make-up

As a woman, I have noticed in my own life that I permit (without reason) certain jokes and advances of sexual hostility in men.  Why should I laugh when a man I hardly know jokes about sitting me on his lap because there are no more seats available in the room?  Why should I accept the tight squeeze in greeting from men that haven’t earned the right (interpersonally) to put their arm around my waist instead of extending a handshake?  Why should I smile along with the group’s plans to get a free drink if I wink at the bartender?  Each one of these scenarios rests on the fact that I as a woman am expected to say “yes” when I want to say “no.”  That I as a woman should be comfortable with being a physical object instead of a moving force.  That I as a woman must learn how to do these things to “make my way in the world.”  And not only I as a woman—-men are also expected to play this game of objectification.

Women are “born knowing” how to play the game, and as such any “skill” they accrue is uncredited.  But the excerpt below is from a blog article on being a better bartender, and it showcases the expected behavior of objectification especially well because it is an action guide from one man to another man (or woman).

Some people think that there is only a certain type of person that has the confidence to talk to the opposite sex, and to talk to them in “that special way”. This isn’t necessarily true when it comes to the drinkslingers of the world – we all have to be at least a little outgoing or we wouldn’t have got the job in the first place!I love to make a girl feel special when she’s at the bar, because hey – she might give you her number. A good way to get into the habit is to have an “alter ego”, someone that is’t accountable for their actions by the light of day. You see this all the time when girls do the Hooters for Shooters, to give you an idea of what I’m talking about. So there’s Me when I’m doing the laundry, walking around the city, and writing for your entertainment, and then there’s Bartender Me, when I’m the cheeky sonovabitch that isn’t afraid to ask for a kiss as payment for that round of shots! A bartender is able to get away with a little more than a “normal” guy at the bar; you shouldn’t be afraid to take this opportunity to flex your flirting muscles! Practice your wink, look into your customer’s eyes (no matter which gender, it implies trust and confidence) – provided it isn’t sleazy, it can speak volumes. [italics mine]

With{out} Glamour

With{out} Glamour

I added the italics because I want you to see the schism that is forced into society, down to the deepest level of an individual psyche.  The schism is between behaving as a person (agent of action) and an object (to be used by another person).  Of course, there are levels of gratification, use and abuse that move back and forth.  The bartender gets better tips when he performs the part of a sexy Romeo; and the customer gets the pleasure of using said sexy Romeo in their own private narrative of conquest.  But beyond the momentary utility of being an object, the act of objectifying either another person (“No means yes”) or yourself (“No means yes”) ultimately divides us from our Selves (agency) and confuses our sense of personal integrity (wholeness).

I don’t want to split myself into parts.  I didn’t audition for the role that our culture has cast for me.  So, in short: thank you, Yale.  And thank you to all the other men and women in America who let our “yes” be yes and our “no” be no.

12 frames is all it takes

I’m incessantly puzzling over how to depict the exploitation of women without actually re-exploiting them “for the cause.”  How truly does an overly sexualized teenager staring vulnerably into the camera challenge our myths and presuppositions about trafficking in children?  Or how do eroticized action films confront our fantasies and pigeon-hole estimations of femininity?  And then, how do you actually create images of exploitative situations without exploiting the [child] actors involved?

It’s a theme I’ve been contemplating for years now, and my thoughts are in such constant flux and evaluation that I rarely get to actually put “pen to paper” about it.  But today I watched The Click Five and MTV Exit’s new music video for their song “Don’t Let Me Go” and in a flash of brilliance at least one rhetorical construct made sense: twelve frames is all it takes.

Between 2:54 and 2:55 there is a grainy black-and-white flash that says everything: a man pins down and straddles a young girl on a stark white mattress.  The high angle and visual quality of the shot evoke those creepy, voyeuristic hotel security cameras.  Suddenly, in perhaps 12 frames or less, we the viewer are skyrocketed into the bird’s eye view, the simple, clear, gray-scale truth that children are being hurt at the hands of adults who are supposed to protect them.

And it hit my gut.  A four-minute video with pretty tame, allegorical representations of trafficking—and one freezing moment, blink and its gone but forever imprinted on your soul.  For all the complex planning and production and analysis that litters the table of abolition rhetoric, twelve frames was all it took.

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