Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Value of the Magical

Our breakfast discussion this morning was about the movie "Stardust" starring Claire Danes. It's a well done fantasy/fairytale. Richard asked me if there is an English myth about a wall separating the worlds, and I said that I wasn't aware of one but that perhaps it was a cinematic accomodation of the idea of a transition between this world and the fairy world. I'm not sure that the gateway to the realm of the fairies has a physical representation in popular myths; usually one falls asleep, or wanders into some unknown part of the woods and finds oneself in the Other realm. Perhaps a "fairy circle" shows where the worlds came together at some previous point in time. Richard wondered why I called it the fairy realm, because Stormhold, the world beyond the wall in "Stardust", wasn't a very nice place, and I pointed out that myths often show the fairy realm as dark and populated by beings who are in conflict with each other, as they are in the land of Stormhold.

Richard said that the Stardust writers avoided the pitfall of trying to make the story logical, and this made me think about how important it is to respect the quality of "the magical realm" when writing fantasy. He compared the Stormhold/fairy realm to the philosophical concept of the noumenal reality that is not available through sense perception. For Kant the noumenal is uncovered through reason, but there is another meaning for the term "noumenal," which is the Jungian "Nous," a reference to the gnostic word for Mind, which has a profound meaning for Jung, more akin to soul than to intellect. The Jungian noumenal realm is the source of myth-creation, which is what creates the real. It is the core of the creative impulse.

So often writers misunderstand the significance of fantasy, and misguidedly try to make it accessible by explaining it within common psychological concepts and popular social-emotional culture. This is the horror of Disney-fied children's entertainment, which is indoctrination into reducing the realm of the fairies (the Jungian noumenal) to a psychologized statement about pedestrian desires. Our inner landscapes of aspiration are something apart, and they don't surrender their secrets to simplistic forms of explanation.

This thought about the significance of fantasy made me reflect on the magic of language in our lives, particularly our early lives as children, when the power of language to create the world is self-evident.

 --aside: I'm reading St. Aubyn's "Mother's Milk" and in that book he writes beautifully, creatively, and perceptively about Patrick's young children as they acquire language and knowledge of the world. --

Just as writers are misguided about reductive approaches to our deepest aspirations, curriculum writers are misguided when they rigorously apply phonetic language acquisition concepts to children's literature. I used to work for a non-profit education company that prided itself on its comprehensive "content-rich" curriculum, but they missed the boat about inspiring children to read by ruling out introducing unusual evocative words out of order in the schema. I think they would say something like "That would be difficult and confusing for the child, and inconsistent with the goal of achieving steady reading mastery." But education is also about contacting that part of ourselves that is never satisfied but always hungry for the realm of the noumenal -- the realm that speaks to our deepest aspirations. I remember a special friend of mine, a very literate and creative young woman, who talked about the power of words in the books she read as a child. Many children's authors do get this, and they deliberately introduce a select few long or unusual words into their books, and children feel a thrill in being exposed to such potent language, as it opens gateways that beckon to what lies beyond.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Dad's stained glass fawn

My Dad. What a great, talented guy.
Fawn stained glass
Dad's creation and gift to me: Fawn stained glass artwork

Dad and me in NYC
Dad and Me in NYC. I've got the fawn stained glass artwork in that bag

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Fawns in the backyard

The deer have a lovely quality of innocence and alertness.

These fawns were just born 1-2 months ago; we saw them when they were quite new. We've seen them nursing. The mother is probably nearby. Fawns are often left alone while the mother forages; they stay hunkered down and still, their spotty coats blending into dappled forest understory. This one (and her sister) were snoozing in the afternoon; they often do that, and they seem to like our shady, secluded-feeling yard. Because there are no natural predators, and plenty of yummy decorative foliage, we have too many deer. Still, they are pleasant to see up close... until they munch all the tulips, lilies, and hostas. I've successfully sprayed some plants with a "deer off" product this year. They also treat the bird bath as a water trough.

We have bunnies, a chipmunk, a hawk that eats the birds, and Mr. Stinky-Poo, a skunk who saunters by at night, forcing us to close our windows. I've seen a red fox-face peering out from the micro-forest that separates our house from the house behind us. We have been visited at night by what Richard thinks is an owl; I have twice heard a ghostly beautiful quavering hooty sound in the darkness. We remark how the trees are about twice the height they were when we moved in seven years ago. Richard chops the kudzu that threatens the trees in back, which are not on anyone's property. He devotedly maintains the two bird feeders. Perhaps the consistent infusion of black oil sunflower seeds into the ecosystem is also helping the chain of wildlife.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Vulnerability in the actor's craft

While watching Woody Allen's movie Midnight in Paris, I was stimulated to think about what makes an actor's performance compelling. In order to deliver a story, to make it real, the actor uses his craft to engage the audience in a cathartic experience. This is in contrast to performance-as-spectacle, where the audience has an aesthetic or emotional experience that is produced by witnessing a drama or event. I see far too much of this at the movies, where computer graphics and derring-do substitute for engagement and genuineness. The hugely expensive comic book extravaganzas hang their special effects on thin, clicheed stories, where actors can only deliver broad and stupid performances with the scripts and direction they are given, with few exceptions.

I'm not talking about that kind of movie now, so don't get me started.

I want to talk about movies that are supposed to be the other type that I first described; the ones about life that make the audience feel deeply engaged in an experience that is cathartic and thought-provoking. I'm interested in the magic that an actor can bring to a story. A bad job of acting is the fastest way to destroy a movie — not the lack of a sufficient special effects budget. Film makers: take a page from the theater playbook, and recognize that it's the actor's craft, with outstanding scripts and brilliant direction, that brings a project to life.

When you think about it, you know which actors are capable of delivering a performance that can touch one deeply. I think that those actors are in touch with what I call vulnerability: their ability to suffer, and to recognize their own suffering, and to express it in a genuine manner.

Actors hate performing with small children and animals. Why is that? It's because animals and small children — young enough not to understand that they are performing — always upstage the actor. This is because small children and animals have vulnerability. They are unmediated by self-awareness. They are not "acting." We feel their presence and vulnerability, and that makes them engaging; they make us aware of our own vulnerability.

Which takes me back to Midnight in Paris, and why it wasn't more successful. I thought the story was brilliant. The sets were a love-song to Paris. The script was intelligent and touching, and was ready for production. Alas, however, for Owen Wilson, who deeply tries to deny his vulnerability, and routinely depends on his shell of a persona to get by. I see him as a fragile human being caught in tragic condition, just as most of us are, but this is not the same thing as being a compellingly vulnerable actor. He doesn't make his emotions and experience available to his audience. Consider for a moment, if you will, Woody Allen's movies which starred Woody Allen. In his best movies, he demonstrates his vulnerability, and that made him engaging, funny, and excruciatingly real, and the audience could have a genuine experience; comedic, dramatic, and cerebral.

I'm thinking that the requirement for vulnerability also applies to writers; that's something I'd like to explore.

If you agree or disagree with me, or if you would like to mention some of your favorite actors who succeed by being in touch with their vulnerability, you're invited to leave a comment.

My letter to Congressman John Kline re: H.R. 4170

Lately I've been doing my small part in the political process by putting my name on various petitions, and communicating my opinion to Federal and State representatives. This invitation came to my inbox via signon.org.

There's a bill before Congress now, H.R. 4170, The Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012. The amount of debt that students are taking on is staggering. The fact that they're allowed to assume as much debt as they do needs scrutiny; doesn't this remind one of the subprime mortgage fiasco? In any case, these students will be defaulting on their loans in massive numbers, because the burdens of debt are unaffordable. The fundamental problem is that state universities have become too expensive for students from low-to-middle income families. Another problem are the commercial colleges that are in many cases a ripoff.

Here's what I wrote to the Chairman of the House "Education and the Workforce" committee:
Chairman Kline,

Please hold hearings on H.R. 4170 as soon as possible. The amount of student college debt held by recent graduates is a scandal in a prosperous country like ours, and doubly scandalous when compared to many European and Asian countries.

We Americans need to do more to support our smart and ambitious students. A democracy without educated citizens cannot stand. The rate of increase in tuition costs at state universities presents an insurmountable burden for students from low-to-middle income families. If we want to keep the American dream alive, we must make college affordable and accessible to motivated students.

Please move forward with the Student Loan Forgiveness Act, which should have strong bipartisan support. Compare the cost to the very expensive and nearly pointless wars we have recently engaged in, and we should see clearly by that comparison how we can pursue the public good with sensible economic policies that support education and the lives of working people. We should be talking more about supporting the public good, and affordable quality education should be at the forefront of that discussion.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Charlottesville Route 29 Bypass awfulness

The proposed Charlottesville Route 29 bypass is now taking bids from developers, and VDOT is denying them information for accurate quotes. Are they doing this to steer the bid toward particular cozy construction firms?

The real awfulness and absurdity of this project is clear to me.
  1. It will have almost no observable impact on the actual traffic on Route 29. An expert study shows that the vast majority of traffic on Route 29 is local. This issue is best addressed by upgrading local alternative routes for users. 
  2. The bypass will permanently degrade beautiful Charlottesville environs, and accelerate its decline into another hideous Northern-Virginia-style soulless suburban outpost.

It makes my heart sick when people care so little for their surroundings. This project does nothing whatsoever for Charlottesville, and does much to harm it. What more can be done to convince our representatives and the citizens to oppose it?

Western Bypass From South Interchange to North Interchange from Charlottesville Tomorrow on Vimeo.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The United States: The Half-Hearted Empire

What is the plan-book for the United States' military success in Iraq or Afghanistan or indeed anywhere else?

The only example of successful intervention is the Roman one. Everyone else failed. This includes the British, the Persians, and Russians, all of whom had powerful empires of relatively brief duration.

How does one build an empire that lasts a thousand years? One starts by studying the Romans, whose Republic was the model for the government of the United States. Are you still with me?

The Romans...

  1. Had perfect belief in their power, cultural superiority, and moral rightness
  2. Had sufficient wealth to build a great army and navy
  3. Had sufficient population of men willing and able to fight 
  4. Had outstanding leadership in the army and navy, and ability to promote from within the ranks
  5. Had an army that could dominate populations through its exertion of threat and highly organized professional and technical capability
  6. Had a well established bureaucratic program for subsuming conquered lands into the empire
  7. Had no qualms about meting out the severest punishment in order to promote its agenda of stability and submission to Rome
That, my dears, is how it's done.

Friday, September 23, 2011

What's possible for Israel and Palestine?

I'm not an optimist. I strive to be a realist. I would like to recognize where people are coming from, what's the concern that they have, in their heart of hearts; how is that translated into action, and expressed in beliefs and deeds; what contradictions and conflicts lurk there. I lived in Israel between 1970 and 1972, age 12-14. I recommend to every American to live in a foreign country for some significant period of time; it does one a world of good, to gain perspective by seeing one's own country, and one's own culture, from the outside.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Review: A Dance With Dragons

Meaty, beaty, big, and bouncy! Plenty of the usual Martin juiciness in character, interactions, schemes, and events. Brutality and suffering are well in evidence, side by side with hope and sincerity.

Alas, I start to tire of the cliff-hanger formula for each chapter. I would like to follow each story line farther, with fewer interruptions. Is this device so necessary? It's typical of a modern TV dramatic series. More than five major story lines are juggled in the air, and there are some important new characters. But their coming together is still mostly anticipated.

A Dance with Dragons left me with more questions than answers. It's a giant "coming next season!" promotional trailer.

I listened to the previous books on audio book. They are read beautifully and powerfully by Roy Dotrice, with the exception of A Feast of Crows, which is very unpleasantly read by a different narrator, and should be avoided. As audio books, they are marvelously effective, although it can be challenging without the aid of maps and appendices of characters, to remember who is who. On the other hand, a superb narrator helps one get the feeling of each character, story line and situation. There is a richness of consciousness in the voice which helps one absorb the story. Roy Dotrice is phenomenal.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Review: Game of Thrones: Season 1

 Sean Bean as Eddard Stark. Perfect in every way.
I had been looking forward avidly to this HBO adaptation of George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones. Well, to tell the truth, I was a bit put off by the extreme hoopla. There is such a thing as over-promotion. I'm sufficiently bored with marketing antics to not pay much attention to them. It tends to inspire disgust. Though I did think the food wagon was a nifty idea. Too bad I don't live in New York City -- I sometimes say that to myself, living out here in the cultural boondocks of Charlottesville. But, as I rarely leave the house, it matters little.