Friday, August 21, 2015

BiRDMAN: movie review

The year 2014 had ambitious, mega scaled, highly anticipated movies, such as: Christopher Nolan’s visually poetic and complicated Interstellar, David Fincher’s edgy adaptation of best selling novel Gone Girl, the witty A-class actors The Grand Budapest Hotel, the epically fulfilling X Men: Days of Future Past. Yet at year’s end, one movie swept us off our feet: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance) Not only that: it also swept away four Oscars.

Strangely, the movie wasn’t a media sensation or overly hyped as its releasing date was nearing, and it had a limited release in the United States.

The simple premise, conveyed by perfect performances and extraordinary directing, is the satirical and smothering story of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a forgotten actor who rose to fame for portraying a superhero character in the early 90s known as Birdman; but his career spiraled down ever since, and he refuses to admit that his primetime had passed, so we watch him during the finale stages of a play he writes, directs and starts in. Obsessed to reclaim his fame, he endures difficulties and challenge to fulfill his quest; problems with his troubled daughter Sam (Emma Stone), struggles steering his play-actor Mike (Edward Norton), and a snotty scornful critique that swore to slay the play in reviews. 
Yet his most daunting demon is the inner villainous voice of his alter-ego: Birdman, who continually belittles Riggan and questions his efforts and his merits as an actor.

The characters of the movie speak out Riggan’s doubts and fears. They all were edgy and tense, and we the audience experience as the camera that kept following the actors closely in one long shot in the narrow corridors of the theater and back-alleys of New York City; even shots in public felt too close, as if the director is shoving us to walk in the shoes of the characters, and endure what they endure.
Riggan is driven by his need to be loved, but according to his ex-wife, he confuses the perception of being loved with being admired; and this aligns well with the opening remark in the movie:
"And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth."

This drive is the curse of Riggan: he constantly feels smothered, on the verge of being forgotten. The world around him had moved on but he didn’t; he ignores social media; he believes in being artistic productions while the world asks for sensational entertainment; he dismisses the cynical remarks of his family, friends and foes.
There were certain elements in plot that I couldn’t understand: the falling meteor at the begging and ending of the movie; does it resemble Riggan’s rise and fall? And the ending, after Riggan shot his face, did he shot his nose? Or did he actually die, and we watching his glimpses of his after-life?

This A-Class movie needs to be viewed twice: to capture the parallels between Thomas Riggan and Michal Keaton, the battle Hollywood and Broadway, entertainment and art, the deep symbolism, real life analogies, and the bitter mockeries at current celebrities. 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Unrepenting Prayer

Man, discord and dismayed, reproaches the silent and saddled Lord:
O Lord! I scold not thou but I seek thy sanctions!
Why accurse me with one ear and two tongues? Preaching not what I campaigned; judging what I knew not; practicing not what I vowed?
O Lord!
Why bestow upon me bliss-less passions and passionless blisses? Devoured into a bottomless perdition? Alter my friends into foes?
O Lord!
Abandon not my cries; neglect not my prayers; pluck me out of bleak blackness into brilliant blooms.
O Lord!
Have thou not guided Dante with Virgil? Siddhartha with Buddha? Rumi with Tabrizi?
O Lord!
Guide my soul out of swerving stances into splendid shines.
O Lord!
I only sought to justify the ways of You to men and manifest thy glory. 
O Lord!
Let not my Self be the Serpent to Adam; Judas to Jesus; Proteus to Julius.
O Lord!
I slumber soulless under sunless skies with no senators or saints,

The Lord, gazing upon the wretched Man, musing: 
Oh how Satan like; how Prometheus like. How rebellious; how oblivious.
You seek earths where I don’t rain, and I reign supreme.
You shall confine yourself like Jonah in the confines of the Whale.
Disobedient to my commands and uninspired by my scriptures.
You shall dwell under rayless suns and dwindle into lightless celestials.
Man, be genius or cowered, defines himself. The knowing genius manifests his own glory; he thus merits the unmerited, and demerits the merited. My glory shan’t be reveled by labors of the knowing cowered, and he shall only reincarnate other Men, but not me.
Deliver your work and I shall love you. 
Propel the dogmas and I shall love you. 
Speak for the weak and I shall love you. 
Deny Man not for his sect and I shall love you.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Alexander Question

Plutarch, a famous Greek historian, cites an encounter that probably occurred by 336 B.C., when Alexander visited Craneion:

Thereupon many statesmen and philosophers came to Alexander with their congratulations, and he expected that Diogenes of Sinope also, who was tarrying in Corinth, would do likewise. But since that philosopher took not the slightest notice of Alexander, and continued to enjoy his leisure in the suburb Craneion, Alexander went in person to see him; and he found him lying in the sun.” Alexander then asked Diogenes “Diogenes, I have heard a great deal about you. Is there anything I can do for you?” Diogenes raised himself up a little when he saw so many people coming towards him, and fixed his eyes upon Alexander. And when that monarch addressed him with greetings, and asked if he wanted anything, "Yes," said Diogenes, "Stand a little out of my sun." It is said that Alexander was so struck by this…."

This anecdote became one of the most celebrated ones in Greek history. Triumph of dignity over pride. The romantic confrontation between philosopher and tyrant. David slew Goliath. The affirmation of Socrates’s notion: ‘He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature.’ If you visit Wikipedia’s page of the anecdote, you’d find various interpretations by various philosophers.

I have been reflecting a lot upon the anecdote, for I had a similar encounter too. A previous manager of mine invited me to his office. After small, insincere, pleasantries he confided to me that he has a vision for my future. In two years, he foresaw, I could occupy his role. His offer rather than delighting me, infuriated me. Unfortunately I wasn’t quick witted or courageous as Diogenes was, so I only maintained a stoic composure. A stream of thoughts cascaded upon me: how dare he assumes knowing what I aspire to? How dare he assumes that he’s a role model to me? What sort of audacity he possessed with which he measured my abilities and skills, and based on that computed that I need two years to be at his role?

Some of you might think my emotions were exaggerated, and maybe ungrateful; that this was such a nice gesture of the man. But my manager, just like Alexander, spoke from a lofty, dominating stand. They didn’t familiarize themselves with their assumed beneficiaries. This is however not a strange phenomenon. Dominance exists as long as hierarchy exists. Hierarchy implies vertical distance and positional difference; and this vice has oozed into our metaphors language: high horse, pedestal, soap box, and ivory tower.

The literature of psychology undertook the study of such symptoms since the 1960s, and its scientific name is Narcissistic Personality Disorder. What follows is the symptoms that accompany this psychological impairment:
  • Expects to be recognized as superior and special, without superior accomplishments,
  • Expects constant attention, admiration and positive reinforcement from others
  • Envies others and believes others envy him/her,
  • Is preoccupied with thoughts and fantasies of great success, enormous attractiveness, power, and intelligence,
  • Lacks the ability to empathize with the feelings or desires of others,
  • Is arrogant in attitudes and behavior, 
  • Has expectations of special treatment that are unrealistic,
There is a prescript to the name of the syndrome: Narcissistic; the name is derived from the young Narcissus who fell in love with his own image reflected in a pool of water. He fell into the water and drown. His self-admiration caused in his demise. The analogy of the story is quite accurate. Study an array of professions where one’s excellence developed into Narcissism, it usually results to failure: military leaders, artists, athletes, media personalities, scientists… the list is quite endless. 
Let us borrow the story of Narcissus and the consequences of Narcissism and apply its lessons to one unexpected field: charity work.

In a public speech, Ernesto Sirolli, an Italian who spent 7 years of his youth in Africa volunteering shares a riveting tale. Of his first project there, he says: “…a project where we Italians decided to teach Zambian people how to grow food…and we taught the local people how to grow Italian tomatoes and zucchini and ... And of course the local people had absolutely no interest in doing that, so we paid them to come and work, and sometimes they would show up. And we were amazed that the local people, in such a fertile valley, would not have any agriculture. But instead of asking them how come they were not growing anything, we simply said, "Thank God we're here." … We had these magnificent tomatoes…we were telling the Zambians, "Look how easy agriculture is." When the tomatoes were nice and ripe and red, overnight, some 200 hippos came out from the river and they ate everything.

Sirolli and his people shouted: "My God, the hippos!" to which the Zambians said, "Yes, that's why we have no agriculture here."  The Italians, baffled, asked them "Why didn't you tell us?" to which the Zambians said "You never asked."

Obviously, there are commonalities amongst the stories of Alexander and Diogenes, the Manager and myself, and the Italians and the Zambians: questions were asked. And the responses might seem a bit strange: hostile and indifferent. But the problems weren’t that the questions were asked, rather, the attitude with which they were asked. And what was wrong them? The questions, at least in the eyes of the supposed beneficiaries, were insincere. While they appeared sympathetic and philanthropic, they courted arrogance and condescension. They weren’t about fulfilling the need of the supposed beneficiaries, but rather to fulfill something less straight forward: the egotism of the asker (just imagine someone approaching you randomly and suggesting: ‘I can help you lose weight’ or ‘You look pale, I can give you tips to prettier!’ wouldn’t you be insulted?)

There is a postscript to Sirolli story: “We Western people are imperialist, colonialist missionaries, and there are only two ways we deal with people: We either patronize them, or we are paternalistic. The two words come from the Latin root "pater," which means "father." But they mean two different things. Paternalistic, I treat anybody from a different culture as if they were my children… Patronizing, I treat everybody from another culture as if they were my servants.”

That is the Alexander error: his question stemmed from an imperialist and colonialist mindset; a vertical, hierarchical view that seeks to fulfill one’s ego, but losing the respect and interest of the recipient. And the mindset creates the right and wrong questions.

What was the title of Ernesto Sirolli’s speech? Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!