Intersections

Exploring the crossroads of religion, culture, and science through a Pagan lens


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Hidden Figures and Pussyhats

The new film Hidden Figures tells the story of three black women (among many) who helped to save the American Space Program.  In segregated Virginia, these women battled both racism and misogyny, deftly fended off micro- and macro-aggressions against both race and sex, and figured out the very mathematics necessary to launch Americans into orbit and bring them back safely.  Ultimately, their work helped to win the Cold War.

Source: Educationworld.com

Their stories have been largely untold until now.  Their lives were mostly unknown by the general population.  Sadly, despite their incalculable service to their country, despite the fact that they fought against all odds and proved their value and their capabilities, the same fights are still being waged.  Racism is alive and well; misogyny is on its way to taking power in the White House.

After the movie, I happened to overhear two people discussing what they had just seen.  “They didn’t complain,” said one person.  “They just accepted things for the way they were and worked harder.”  These two moviegoers went on to praise the three main characters in the film, not for their genius or their bravery, but for being quiet and meek about the injustices they were forced to overcome.  It was, in their minds, good for these three black female heroes to remain hidden.

Someone clearly missed the point.

As a Pagan, I’m proud to be part of a religious community that is on the forefront of the fight for equality.  We aren’t perfect.  Racism and sexism and other injustices still crop up, but large numbers of our community believe in and actively fight for the equality of all people.  To the general public, we are often hidden.  They want us, and others who believe in equality, to remain that way.

No.

With an administration that has openly insulted women and advocated racist and xenophobic policies, those who believe in equality can’t afford to remain hidden.  What is hidden needs to be revealed, and it needs to claim its power.

One way women are doing that is through the Pussyhat Project.  Inspired by President-Elect Trump’s now infamous claim that he can “grab” women “by the pussy,” knitters have created a hat design to bring their support for equality out of the shadows.  They are taking a term usually used pejoratively and taking back its power.  Many plan to wear the knit hats as they protest the inauguration in Washington D.C. and across the country.  It’s a simple, but visible sign of protest.  It’s a method of claiming power and refusing to stay hidden.

Source: thestranger.com

Contrary to the views of the ladies I overheard, remaining hidden does not help.  The three women who sent America into space may well have succeeded in changing the culture of NASA, but it took a larger and more visible fight to make progress against legal segregation.  There’s a larger, cultural reason that Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan were unknown before this movie.  The contributions of both women and African-Americans is largely absent from standard history books.  That leads to ignorance about their contributions.  Ignorance leads to hatred and fear.

The only remedy for ignorance is exposure and education.  I’ll be wearing a pussyhat proudly and I look forward to helping my black and female friends shine a light on their contributions to society.

 

 

 


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Deadpool, Witchraft, and the Meta-Hero

I just got back from seeing Deadpool. Although the character would bristle at being included in the genre, it was a good super hero movie. Our protagonist is the classic antihero: he’s flawed, potty-mouthed, and obsessed with revenge. Like many people in this world, he uses humor to cover up the burning anger within. But, in the spirit of the film, I’m going to break the fourth wall. I don’t want to talk about the merits of the film. I want to compare it to modern Paganism and magickal practice.

I’m getting a bit tired of super hero movies. There are some really great ones. I loved the first Iron Man, but that franchise hasn’t been the same since. Batman and Superman have been reinvented and regurgitated so many times over the decades that by now they just need to trot out a few recognizable icons then devolve into a CGI fueled orgy of fight sequences. Marvel has a plan to continue releasing its films at least through 2020, but I’m not sure the market can take it. As Deadpool might say, “the market is getting saturated and the audiences are getting tired. The genre is getting stale.”

That is what may make Deadpool the pivotal film in Marvel’s master plan. While Marvel’s promoters like to bill Deadpool as an antihero, this movie presents him more as a meta-hero. As the movie progresses, his voice jumps in to offer analysis and commentary on everything from the producer’s budget, to casting choices, to the cinematography of the final scene. His commentary is funny and completely true to his character, but it also betrays something about the genre: we’ve all gotten used to it, and you’re going to have to be pretty damn good/different/shocking to get noticed. The opening credits say it all. Top billing goes not to actors’ names, but to well-known tropes such as “A British Villain,” “A CGI Character,” and “A Gratuitous Cameo.” These movies are a formula, and audiences are catching on.

deadpool

So Deadpool gets to be the meta-hero. He steps off the screen to dissect his own film, the genre, and the machinations that go on behind the scenes to make a movie happen. It’s understandable. Marvel is under pressure to keep their universe fresh and exciting. They have to innovate and change. In that way, they are much like each and every one of us.

One of the things I love about Paganism in general and Witchcraft in particular is the chance to step briefly away from your life – step into that “place beyond a place and time beyond a time” – to get perspective and advice on where your life is going. Are you making the right casting decisions in your life? Have your everyday routines become rote and dry? Are you challenging yourself to grow and evolve or are you mindlessly cranking out the same existence each day? What is your Will and how do you plan to get there?

If you are a practitioner of Wicca or another type of Witchcraft, you have the eight sabbats of the Wheel to step back and offer commentary on your life. You have the chance to ask yourself what you want, what you are doing to get it, and if you’re happy with how it turned out. You also have the moon cycles to go about the different methods of meditating, ritualizing, and manifesting the life you want. It’s a beautiful system that, if practiced with discipline, can lead you to a more successful and happier life. You can be your own meta-hero; your own Deadpool- always able to heal yourself.

Sometimes a genre gets stale, and it needs to be reinvented. Sometimes a life begins to grow moldy around the corners and needs to be changed. Either way, it’s necessary to step out of the situation to gain perspective. Whether it’s a character stepping out of the formula or a witch stepping into meditation, journey, or ritual, it’s vital for us to step back and gain perspective in order to ensure a happy, successful life (or film franchise). Innovate and change.  It takes hard work, a strong magickal practice, and – to quote our hero – “Maximum Effort.”

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Returning to Jurassic Park

I saw the first Jurassic Park movie the day it came out. We spent hours waiting in line to get into the special midnight showing at a theater that billed itself as the “largest screen west of the Mississippi.” The anticipation was palpable as we played cards, read books, and talked to our fellow moviegoers about what we were about to see. Some had read the book and knew what to expect. I hadn’t, but their excitement served only to pump up my own even more.

Watching that film on that screen with a house full of excited fans, all of whom were viewing it for the first time ever, was one of the greatest movie-watching experiences of my life. We were all shocked together; we all screamed together; we all felt the constant rise and fall of tension together. The climactic sequence in which the two velociraptors hunt Lex and Tim through the park’s kitchen, nearly killing the children over and over, was the tensest few minutes of film I’ve ever felt. There is no doubt we were all in a group mind by that time, entranced after two hours of thrills and kills.

It has been over 20 years since that night, and after a long hiatus, the series is making its return to the big screen. Obviously, I have very fond memories of the first movie, but I hadn’t seen any of them in well over a decade. So my wife and I recently did a little binge watching of the trilogy to catch ourselves up and prepare to see Jurassic World when it comes out this weekend. What I found this time was that I’m older, and the movies are no longer just about dinosaurs and danger. There are some deeper threads running through them that speak of real problems we humans have in our relationships to each other and, more pointedly, to the natural world.

The first thread involves our relationship with money. In every film, there is someone who trusts in his money to protect him through the dangers of the park, and that trust propels the death and destruction that ensues. John Hammond, the park’s creator, repeatedly uses the mantra “spare no expense” in describing the electrified fences, security precautions, and scientific advancements that he intends to use to keep visitors safe. Of course, he is frightfully wrong about each and every one.

The Lost World features Hammond’s nephew, Peter, who uses “Site B” as his own personal big game hunting ground and seeks to exploit the dangerous animals for the sake of his shareholders. He loads the island with all he can buy- more weapons, more vehicles, more equipment. The third movie brings Paul Kirby, who uses his savings to fool the experts into helping him save his son. In both movies, money saves no one, and its misuse leads to disastrous consequences.

There is a hubris suggested by the films, a hubris fueled by a fat wallet. These men expect their profligate spending to keep them safe and to place them somehow higher on the dinosaur food chain. Even the “nice” ones still expect their funds to elevate them, and they find out that carnivorous reptiles have very little respect for your bank account. It suggests that our relationship with money in our society is out of whack, that we believe that having money makes us superior to others. You can see this vividly in Lost World, when the group is separated from its leader. Wealthy Peter, the financer of the expedition, tries to order his group to get up and move. Nobody listens. It is only when Nick, who has earned the team’s respect, asks them to move out that they comply.

There is nothing wrong with money, but the trap comes when we feel it elevates us above others. The events of Jurassic Park are an extreme example, but they ring true. Wealth becomes dangerous when people will stop at nothing to achieve it or exploit it. Much like breeding dinosaurs, wealth demands responsibility.

Another thread that winds its way throughout the franchise is a trend of anti-intellectualism. As soon as the scientists realize what is truly going on in this new amusement park, they begin to sound the warning bells. The park establishment laughs them off. The same is true when the mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm urges caution based on chaos theory.

In every case, in each film, scientist characters are called in for their expertise. And in every case whenever they issue a warning – and they do this often – those who hired them completely ignore what is actually very sound advice. Their academic, research-based knowledge is ignored, mainly because these intellectuals are a bunch of Debbie Downers.

This is a constant theme in society. Scientists state their conclusions, but no one listens to them. The most obvious real world example is climate change. Researchers have been sounding that alarm for decades, and yet we still have people in power, usually motivated by the hubris of wealth, who refuse to believe the overwhelming evidence. I see it every day here in California, where we are under the weight of a severe drought, yet every day I see lawn sprinklers sewing their precious liquid all over the sidewalk.

Where scientists seek objective evidence for the truth, the public wants to hear whatever supports their preexisting biases.

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was blessed with the gift of perfect prophecy. What she predicted always came true. Yet she was cursed so that no one would ever believe her. In Jurassic Park, much like in the real world, scientists become the world’s Cassandra. They keep screaming at us to change our ways, but that’s way too hard, so we harm ourselves by continuing our unsustainable patterns. The monster that gets us may not be as dramatic as a T-Rex, but it could be much more devastating.

But maybe the most important thread in these movies is humanity’s profound separation from nature. Historians like Ronald Hutton have suggested that one of the reasons neo-pagan religions developed was because industrialization alienated humanity from the natural world and its cycles. Over 100 years after the Industrial Revolution, we find ourselves even more divorced from the natural world.

Since we live in concrete oases and buy our food from packages in supermarkets, we have little connection to how our actions affect the planet. A couple months ago, I wrote about how the destruction of wolves in Yellowstone caused a chain of events which threatened to destroy the beautiful park. Shortly afterward, this touching video began circulating around Facebook:

It shows how just the re-introduction of a small pack of wolves to the park caused a “trophic cascade” which improved multiple ecosystems within the park. This is the kind of thing the Ian Malcolm character warns about in both of the first two films. You can’t fuck with nature. You can’t underestimate it. You can’t control it. Small alterations cascade into huge problems. The changes caused by everyday human actions may be imperceptible, but they add up over time, and the Jurassic films hit that note repeatedly.

We get enamored with our ingenuity, but we often don’t see the eventual damage. As Malcolm says in Lost World, “Oooh, ahhh, that’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and um, screaming.”

These three films came out in a different time. Much has changed since part three was released in summer, 2001. And yet, these three problems are still around. If anything, I fear they have gotten worse. Wealth is still abused. Scientists are still ignored on issues that are vital to our very survival. The average person’s connection to the earth’s natural cycles, where their food comes from, and the effects of their own actions is still woefully inadequate.

We have more distractions now, though. We have more to divert our attention from any of these issues. I don’t know if the upcoming Jurassic World will continue to explore these themes. I hope it does, but I also hope it modernizes them. The story is supposed to take place many years after the first three films. I hope that it gives us another chance to look at ourselves over the past 20 years and find our priorities. Like Lex and Tim fleeing raptors in the kitchen, we have a maze to navigate in our world, and we may be out of our depth. We need to avoid the running and the screaming.


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The Theory of Everything: Trapped body and liberated mind

Imagine a doctor breaking this news to you: “Your brain isn’t affected. Your thoughts will remain the same, it’s just that eventually no one will know what they are.”

Devastating. You will still be you, but very soon, you will be unable to communicate anything you are thinking to another person. You will be trapped inside your head.

Now imagine that your “unaffected brain” is one of the most intelligent brains in human history. You are way off the charts of statistical outliers. You are, potentially, the smartest person alive today; your name is routinely mentioned alongside names like Einstein and Newton. And within two years all of that amazing thinking ability will be locked up in a body that has no ability to communicate its thoughts.

This is the painful realization that lies at the heart of The Theory of Everything. The film is a biography of world renown theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking from the point of view of his first wife, Jane Hawking, but really it goes deeper. It asks us to contemplate the universe within as well as the one without. The universe is silent with its secrets, and the most qualified human to interpret those secrets for us battles daily with the ability to speak.

Stephen Hawking

Professor Stephen Hawking

Yes, the film is a biography, but more than that it is about being trapped.  Hawking’s groundbreaking ideas are trapped within his ALS-ravaged body. He hits terrible lows on his journey, but is always lifted up when some new ability liberates him. His wife, Jane, is trapped by her love for him. She commits early on to be his full partner, and that commitment becomes more and more difficult on her. The secrets of the universe are trapped somewhere inside mathematical equations that only a mind like Hawking’s can comprehend, and yet the physicist himself is trapped by the tyranny of his disease.

Eddie Redmayne is spectacular in the role of Professor Hawking. Redmayne helps us really feel the progression of Hawking’s life and his disease. Early on, he helps us see that glimmering and active young man Hawking was at the age of 21, overly brash in his mental superiority yet not in the condescending way we so often see in movies about geniuses. This portion is vital, because as his physical abilities deteriorate we can still see the young man and his brilliance become ever more trapped inside his ailing body. Less and less able to emote or even speak, Redmayne counts on our love for him early on. It works.

Redmayne young Stephen Hawking

Eddie Redmayne as a young Stephen Hawking

Felicity Jones is Jane, his vital link to the outside world. She plays the role with a quiet, determined strength that nevertheless allows us glimpses into the prison into which she trapped herself. Jane has her own dreams, and her dedication to her husband – albeit willing – presents its own trap as she tries to live her own life. Even as the tension rises, Jane’s gushing love for her husband always shines through.

Felicity Jones Jane Hawking Theory of Everything

Felicity Jones as Jane Hawking

This love story is told against the backdrop of something most theatergoers would see as decidedly dull – physics. Equations, graphs, and discussions of spacetime are a constant feature, but just as Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time seeks to explain complicated astrophysics to the layman, all these discussions of theoretical black holes and the mathematical nature of time provide a moving and exciting canvas for the love story to unfold.

Another theme that permeates the film is the tension between science and spirituality. Yet, just as Stephen the atheist and Jane the Christian find a way to make their partnership work, we are left feeling that maybe the grand unified theory can unify both of these two seemingly paradoxical pillars of cosmology. Hawking describes the study of cosmology as “a religion for atheists,” and each little thread of the film seems to tie the two fields closer together. Or maybe, paradoxically, those ties liberate both science and spirituality from their prison of exclusivity. Why be trapped studying one or the other? Much like the two pillars of physics, we should unify both.

Every situation we find ourselves in had an origin. As we live through our lives, we rarely notice just how profound each moment can be, but our life is a sum of each and every decision we have made. If Professor Hawking had never met Jane, it is quite possible that his illness would have prevented the world from the gifts his intellect has to offer. We have those moments too.

The Theory of Everything asks us to take a step back and examine what brought us to that point where we are today. Where are we trapped? And, since time has no beginning or end, it challenges us to escape our traps like radiation escaping a black hole. Even black holes can’t trap everything. We can swirl around in our own defeats, or we can burst through that which seeks to trap us and make Everything we can out of this Brief Time we are given.


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George Takei: Navigating the Undiscovered Country

I think George Takei is my new hero. This 77-year old actor, most famous for playing Sulu on the original Star Trek, truly has lived a life of exploring new worlds and bursting through frontiers that once seemed final. He’s a social media sensation with over 2 million Likes to his page, a passionate advocate for marriage equality, and a longtime civil rights activist. The new documentary about his life, To be Takei, brings together all the aspects of his life and helps us understand just how amazing this man is.

 

Photo: georgetakei.com

The film is named after one of his Facebook campaigns. When the state of Tennessee attempted to make it illegal to use the word “gay” in schools, Takei volunteered his name as a solution. He suggested that when teachers need to refer to a gay person, they could simply substitute the word “Takei.” “That’s so gay” became “That’s so Takei,” but of course the advocate used his sense of humor to put his final mark on the effort, stating boldly: “It’s OK to be Takei.”

 

Let me just stop there. As a working actor, George Takei encouraged his name, perhaps an actor’s most valuable commodity, replace a loaded word that offended both the state of Tennessee and – in the way it was used – also offended the LGBT community. Using his honesty sense of humor, he eviscerated a civil rights violation while also launching himself into social media superstardom. That takes both a strong sense of self and serious courage.

 

In To be Takei, we learn a lot more about his life that helps us understand how Takei got to that point. He has been overcoming barriers and barbed wire, sometimes real and sometimes metaphorical, his entire life. The US government forced his family to live behind the walls of three internment camps during World War II. Later, as his acting career developed, he began to be pigeon-holed into stereotypical Asian roles, complete with the heavy accent, thin mustaches, and exaggerated karate moves.

 

Star Trek has a long history of pushing society’s taboo buttons. In 1965, the very idea that a federation starship could be piloted by a Russian and a Japanese man with communications being handled by an African-American woman was downright revolutionary. Takei finally had the opportunity to play a character who could pronounce the letter R and represent his heritage with dignity. It was his first public foray into civil rights.

 

But as we all know now, he was hiding a secret. Takei was a closeted gay man, and an openly gay character or actor was too much for even Star Trek’s utopian vision to handle. Kirk and Uhura could kiss, but not Sulu and Chekov. So despite challenging racial stereotypes, Takei still was trapped behind that other wall for most of his career. Thankfully, he emerged from that closet in 2005 and has been openly fighting homophobia in his unique and humorous way ever since.

 

Fences

 

Yet the most powerful message of the film could easily be overlooked. Very briefly, Takei mentions that when his family was released from the internment camps they were scared. Not overjoyed. Not proud. Scared. Confinement had become comfortable and safe. There were no guarantees on the outside, and life had to start anew. America’s prisoners greeted their liberation with fear.

 

There was a lot to be afraid of. Lingering racism from the war created a fence. Jobs were hard to find for Japanese-Americans, homes were hard to obtain, and education was still separate and not equal. Later, there were very few working actors of Asian descent, and Takei’s father encouraged him to forego his dreams. Another fence.

Even after establishing a career, there was that final fence: exposure. There was a constant fear of his career being ruined by that one sci fi geek at a gay bar who recognized him and outed him. These days, the paparazzi would slobber all over that story. That last fence imprisoned the man for most of his career, just as it imprisoned other public figures like Rock Hudson and Liberace. They could not be themselves and work. They had to choose.

 

And yet, as Takei mentions in the documentary, those fences become comfortable. They are safe; easy. Breaking through them is difficult and dangerous. It takes time and perseverance, as we see in the life of George Takei.

 

We all have some kind of fence around us. Sometimes it is real. Ask the people of Ferguson, MO. Racism is still a very real barrier. Women who work for places like Hobby Lobby have a very clear fence around them. There are still people ignorant of American history who interpret the word “freedom” to mean “freedom for them, but not for others.” The majority race, religion, sexuality, and gender can do as they please, but the rest of us have to move to the back of society’s bus. Of course, if we challenge that we are limiting their freedom to discriminate. These fences are real.

 

Sometimes, though, we fence ourselves in. Much like Takei’s situation, the fence is real but we choose not to disturb it. Unjust situation happen all around us, but sometimes challenging them seems scary. We just accept out confinement.

 

What fences have you grown comfortable with?  What new frontiers look too scary to navigate?  What do you tell yourself you can’t do when, really, you can but it would require taking personal responsibility for your life instead of relinquishing control and allowing life to happen?  We say we can’t lose weight, but we can.  We say we can’t give up chocolate or smoking, but we can.  We say we can’t afford this or we’ll never have the money for that, but do we ever seek out ways to obtain the funds?  Is the “never” actually more comfortable that acknowledging our own power?

 

Each of us has a different fence.  Find it.  Face the fear.  Boldly go.

 

 

 


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Maleficent: a trend of reframing the villain

Everybody’s weighing in on Maleficent.  Any time you have a magical story, especially one involving dark but misunderstood protagonists, the pagan community climbs on board.  Add to that some very palpable metaphors about humans, greed, and our relationship with the Earth, and Maleficent has proven to be very popular in the community.

 

WARNING: This post contains spoilers

 

Wild Hunt columnist Heather Greene has done a wonderful job of both discussing these themes from the film and also reviewing it.  One of my favorite parts of her piece is her discussion of the film’s “fallen angel’” theme.  The framing of Maleficent the classic Disney villain as Luciferian figure who falls from grace, but ultimately succeeds in bringing balance and light to humanity, re-unifying the human race with paradise, was the heartbeat of this film and, for me, provided the energy that powered a large part of Maleficent’s story.

 

I’m not going to review Maleficent here.  Suffice it to say that I agree with Heather Greene and also wish that King Stephan’s story had been more fully realized.  We understand that he is dishonest at the very beginning when he is caught stealing jewels from the Moors; we also learn early on that he is ambitious.  These two qualities are a dangerous, MacBeth-esque pair that produced a very bad king.  I only wish that we had a little more of a glimpse into how he ascended so far up the ladder.

 

Still, the movie isn’t called Stephan.  Maleficent is the main character and Maleficent drives the story.  Thankfully, Angelina Jolie captures Disney’s dark fairy beautifully.

More importantly, I’ve become fascinated with a new trend in movies, stage, and television: the deconstruction, reconstruction, and retelling of classic stories from the villain’s point of view.  Maleficent seems to have cemented this theme into our pop culture consciousness.

 

The beginnings of this “Reframing” theme, as I’m calling it, goes back at least as far as Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.  In that musical, the stories from classic fairy tales intertwine with each other, and the Witch drives the action.  She isn’t the enemy to defeat; she’s more of a redeemed trickster who eventually gives up on humanity’s foolish ways.

 

The Wizard of Oz has been reframed more than once.  The most popular version, and perhaps was the first to truly re-cast the villain as the hero, is the book and musical Wicked.  The musical especially capitalizes of re-framing evil as good.  It begins with the Munchkins asking Glinda how someone can become as evil as Elphaba (later the Wicked Witch of the West).  Glinda, Elphaba’s high school bestie, blanches and tries to tell her story.

 

“Are people born wicked? Or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?  After all, she had a father.  She had a mother, as so many of us do…”

 

Glinda goes on to reveal how Elphaba was ostracized for her green skin, had parents who hated her, and was forced to serve her wheelchair-bound sister.  She was smart and had knowledge of current events.  She could see outside the Wizard’s hegemony.  When she saw the Wizard doing evil things, she rebelled and became the victim of a vicious PR campaign to reframe her as “wicked.”

 

Speaking of the Wizard, Oz the Great and Powerful also re-casts a morally difficult character.  Sure, the Wizard is still a fraud and huckster from Kansas in this one, but at least he uses his skills to save Oz (and to create his enmity with the Witch of the West).

 

Arguably the most accomplished feats of re-framing, and certainly the most complex, are in TV’s Once Upon a Time.  The labyrinthine twists and turns taken within the elaborate plot of this story is a whole other post (or three).  Almost every character has a life in the Enchanted Forest (fairy tale land) and our world.  That means that every actor is playing at least two characters.  With time distortions, alternate worlds, and flashbacks, every character is different depending on where, who, and when he/she is.

 

This is particularly true for the two “evil” characters.  Rumpelstiltskin (Mr. Gold) is reframed as a coward, turned jilted husband, turned evil magician, turned regretful father, turned abandoned son, turned pawn shop owner, turned lover, turned hero, turned lunatic, turned slave, turned nice guy (but not really).  You can never really trust him, but you begin to understand and sympathize with his motivations.

 

The Evil Queen (Regina) is almost as complex, but she is in the more classic style of this genre: she didn’t begin wicked.  It was thrust upon her by the naive Snow White (Mary Margaret) and her ambitious mother, Cora.  As we see her history, we see her grow from starry-eyed to vicious and back again.

 

Once Upon a Time even succeeds at recasting Peter Pan as a really nasty villain while turning Captain Hook into a redeemed hero and lover.

 

Why spend so much time talking about these different stories?  Something about reframing bad guys clearly appeals to us.   I like to think it’s a sign of a maturing society, one which is learning to see good terms beyond black and white.  These characters not only contain lots of grey, they embody a whole spectrum of color.  Each of their actions needs to be evaluated on a much more finely calibrated scale than simply black hat/white hat.

 

A common argument against stories that reframe like this is that it isn’t the “real” story.  Maleficent did not turn her raven into a dragon- she became the dragon; J.M. Barrie never wrote anything that suggested that Peter Pan held Wendy Darling captive in Neverland. While this is true, it misses the point.

 

Reframing stories, especially classic fairy tales, is almost a postmodern exercise that allows us to deconstruct a tale and rebuild it to suit a different purpose.  It allows us to see that “the villain is always the hero of his/her own story” and encourages us to see things from different points of view.  In social psychology, out-groups are always believed to be both A) all alike and B) bad because they’re not like  us.  The remedy to this is to spend time with the other group and learn to see things through their eyes.  Reframing stories, in their ever-increasing popularity, give us more opportunities to do exactly that.  They help us see past the black white and grey and into the reds and greens and purples of someone else’s life.  This is a vital skill in our modern, internet-connected era.

 

Maleficent is a very successful exercise in reframing.  It brings us into the world of a character that always seemed so dark and foreboding and rewires her into a powerful, essentially good woman who made a couple really bad decisions.  We’ve all made bad decisions.  It also flips the script on the king and queen, changing them from a picture of radiant goodness in to greedy, manipulative, just plain awful people.  In both cases, it is when each accepts the intricacies of the other that there can truly be peace.


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Lonely Planet: Oscar Edition

January and February are Movie Season in our home.  After years of going to Oscar parties and not knowing a thing about any of the films nominated for Best Picture, we decided to change our outlook.  Now, as soon as the movies are nominated, my wife and I go on a mad movie binge to see as many of the films as humanly possible before the big night.  It still hasn’t won me any money, but at least I have some idea what’s going on as everyone else takes my hard-earned dollar bill every year.

As I progress through this year’s Best Picture nominees, I’m noticing a theme.  A sad theme.  I used to teach my English students that “literature is a reaction to the world.”  Novelists, artists, and even screenwriters look to the problems they see in the world and turn to their artistic medium to express their views on those problems.  If that is so, then there is one undeniable problem being tackled in this year’s films: loneliness.  If these films are reactions to today’s world, then we may be the loneliest, most isolated people on the planet.

It’s more than a personal loneliness.  Yes, many of these characters are physically isolated from the world.  But it’s also an esoteric, almost spiritual loneliness that emanates from the top films of 2013.  As much as social networks and other modern technology, connects us together, we seem to be feeling more isolated than ever before.  Just look at the evidence from the nominated films:

Gravity: Surrounded by realistic, modern technology astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) becomes stranded in space by a freak accident.  Plagued by internal doubts stemming from her failures on earth, Stone must somehow get herself back to terra firma.  In many ways it’s a story of death and rebirth, but she has no loving family or personal mission to return to.  She has gone into space to escape the ravages of real life, and that space almost ravages her.  Surrounded by the endless void, Stone must choose to make a new life for herself, one without self-doubt and that celebrates the forgotten beauty of living in the real world.

Her: In a slightly futuristic, yet very recognizable Los Angeles, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his computer’s new artificially intelligent operating system.  This is a world we all recognize- a city full of people who never even notice each other because they are too wrapped up in their own love affairs with their tiny, portable computers.  Twombly is surrounded by a different void, a city void of purpose, meaning, or pleasure that forces him to turn to an artificial relationship that has no real hope of lasting.  He has no higher purpose, and like many of us he lives on his computer.  It’s only one more step to actually consummate the desperate relationship.

Captain Phillips: Based on a true story, cargo ship Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is navigating his ship near Somali waters with no escort or protection when the ship is attacked and commandeered by local pirates.  Ultimately, Phillips is left alone with his captors and must survive through his own wits, ingenuity, and perseverance.  Phillips is forced out of the protective bubble of his vessel and into a face-to-face showdown with the true squalors of the third world.  It’s a different kind of isolation, but it is isolation nonetheless, and as Phillips’ rank and humanity is slowly stripped away, we become more and more cognizant of the intangibility of our own position in life.  They say we’re all two paychecks from the jungle, and Captain Phillips proves how little our titles and degrees mean in the grand scheme of things.

Nebraska:  There is profound loneliness in this film even when the room is crowded.  As befuddled, alcoholic father Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his son David (Will Forte) make their way to the state’s capital on a fool’s errand, Woody is confronted with his family and all the ghosts of his past.  Never mind the ghosts he’s already running away from: his overbearing (and annoying) wife (June Squibb), a string of failures, and a family that treats him like a stupid child.  Throughout the film, Woody is surrounded by family, yet completely alone.  No one understands him.  Few even try.  They treat him as less than human from the first frames of the movie, and he can’t convince anyone that he is a real, thinking, individual person.  Woody is isolated and ridiculed even by his own loved ones.

American Hustle:  Unable to find their share of the American Dream, con-artists Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams) team up to lie, cheat, and steal money from the most down and out people they can find.  This is no Robin Hood film, where the crime is justified because our heroes are stealing excess money from the wealthy.  No, in this movie we sympathize with two people who are perfectly content robbing the poor and desperate by baiting and switching them out of the last of their money.  A zealous FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) forces them to help him bust other bad guys, but even he gets greedier and greedier until he has lost sight of the good he was trying to do.  This is a story of deep isolation from the good within all of us at the expense of personal wealth and power.

Those are all the nominees I have seen.  I’ll be checking out as many of the rest of them as soon as possible, but from what I can tell, these themes will continue.  Even Blue Jasmine, a film nominated for other awards and written by a man suffering his own (possibly well-deserved) isolation, contains the theme of loneliness. Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine tries to make a new life for herself after all her comforts have been stripped away.  Much like Hanks’ Captain Phillips, Jasmine shows us just how reliant our supposedly developed world is on the work and toil of others we dare not acknowledge.

All of this takes me back to the Pixar film Wall-E.  Remember when they finally showed what happened to humanity?  They were all fat and lazy and staring at computer screens in a hedonistic, artificial world.  This year’s Oscar films seem to be bringing the predictions of Wall-E and manifesting them into our world.  All of them present a world of spiritual dearth, with no common bond among humanity beyond possibly an atavistic brand of tribalism.

During the Super Bowl a Coca-Cola ad that featured people of various cultures singing lines from “America the Beautiful” in their own language got a segment of our population so angry that they took to social media in droves to register their complaints, trending the hashtag #cokesucks.  If this isn’t evidence of misguided rage, isolation, and tribalism, nothing is.

You would think that people would be happy that cultures from around the world were showing affection for our country, that we were a respected member of the world community. Nope.  Instead, fear, anger, and xenophobia won out.  Plus, this happened in the same week that some people got vocally angry when the Grammys celebrated marriage and love by performing a mass wedding of 33 gay and straight couples.  We are in Nebraska, surrounded by potential friends, yet keeping ourselves isolated.  We are somewhere in LA, making love to our computerized girlfriends.  We are somewhere in the Somali Basin, trying to sail alone when what we really need are friends.

Our loneliness is self-inflicted.  These are all good movies, and they are all reactions to the modern world.  Have we lost that part of our collective soul that connects us to others?