May 7, 2008

A family apart

Little Miss Sunshine is a movie about an atypical American family who travels from Nevada to California so that their young daughter can participate in a child beauty pageant called the Little Miss Sunshine contest. The family consists of a failing writer, a stay-at-home mom, a cocaine addicted grandfather, a son who by force of will doesn’t speak and the aforementioned daughter who is a precocious, warm hearted if not beauty pageant material.
For me, this movie is about families coming together. At the beginning of this movie, one see a dysfunctional American family, but by the end of the film, all the differences that separated the family have been reconciled and there is an understanding which has formed.

For my family, this reconciliation did not happen. Instead my parents separated when we were children, got back together, and continued to make everyone’s lives miserable until they finally divorced after five years. What is it that keeps a family like the one in Little Miss Sunshine together? My family is not close, my sister and I barely speak, my mother and father have not spoken once in the last five years. My family also did not have as many problems and none of its members were as eccentric as those in the movie. On the other hand, maybe it was because of this lack of conflict that my family fell apart. Everyone was doing what they thought would make the other members of the family happy and as a result made themselves miserable, building up years of repressed anger and disappointment until no one could take it any longer. Were my parents too afraid to be lonely? Is that why they stayed together? Neither of them are religious so it was not due to a societal restriction that they weren’t more daring in their relationship. It seems that for a relationship to stay alive that you have to push the limits of their relationship, much like the family in Little Miss Sunshine did. They chose to be themselves, not who they were in the past or who they think the other person wants them to be, and in the end they found that they loved each other for who they were. The saying “People change? has always scared me a little when it comes to relationships and it is for that that I am always a little skeptical about marriage. However, given an example like Little Miss Sunshine, even though it is a movie, one realizes the importance of honesty not only to the other person but to yourself.

May 5, 2008

Fairy Tales are not real

I Was a Swiss Banker is a movie about second chances or more specifically fourth chances. In it, the main character who is trying to smuggle a large amount of money across the Swiss-German border is about to get searched and makes the decision to drive off in his Porsche. He then pulls his car over and jumps into a lake in order to escape authorities. What follows is a surreal adventure that takes him to an island in this lake where he meets an evil fairy who wants him to be her husband. She gives him the following test: he will meet three women who will fall in love with him but with whom he will not love back and if he fails to fall in love with them he will have to marry her. Through the course of these three meetings he finds that in each case he does not love them back. When the fairy finds him, he asks for one last chance and she reluctantly grants it to him. In the final scenario involving a beautiful diver who rescues him from the depths he does in fact fall in love with her and in the ending scene one learns that they are pregnant.

I started thinking about the relationships that I have been in and I wonder how many chances I will get before I have to marry the evil fairy. It always seems like one of the two parties involved becomes disenchanted with the relationship. The thing which frustrates me the most is that I am unable to figure out who it is…even if I am dumped I wonder to which degree I am responsible. Perhaps, I give off some sign that I am losing interest in the relationship and then consequently they only react to this sign. I know that even if that were the case I still remain attached to the relationship and have some difficulty moving on. But what is it that I am having trouble getting over? Is it the fact that I “have someone? and can avoid the loneliness that neither alcohol nor hard work has the power to cure. That type of relationship is obviously not love and sometimes I wonder if I am just to afraid to be alone and instead hold on meaninglessly trying to avoid going back down there. Other times I find myself in the opposite scenario, that of the person who can no longer accept the status quo and either demands that things change or I can no longer be in that relationship. In putting relationships in these terms, they seem like they are often contradictory, in that the one who cares most about the relationship and the other person is often the one who leaves. The character in the movies succeeds at falling in love and as such does not have to marry the evil fairy. On the other hand, one wonders how long his love will last. The fairy tale of romance is definitely not alive in Europe or America as evidenced by the sky-high divorce rates in both regions. One wonders if the fairy will indeed win in the end. Furthermore, one wonders what the fairy actually symbolizes. I believe that she symbolizes giving up, throwing down your cards and just accepting the status quo, in other words living in a loveless relationship. If that is the case then I have already married the fairy several times, and somehow got her to give me another chance.

May 4, 2008

Not another teen movie

I recently had the occasion to watch a Danish film called “Kick ‘n Rush.? The film was billed as a teen movie. I became interested in comparing this “teen movie? with movies such as “American Pie? and other such American “teen movies.? I wondered if it was possible that the teen experience as represented on film was universal in cultures across the ocean from each other. What I found surprised me a little. Instead of finding a romp that doesn’t really represent anything that I lived in high school, I found a realistic, thoughtful, and insightful film about being a teenager which is applicable not only in Denmark but also the small town in Wisconsin that I grew up in.

The characters in the movie play the usual pranks and have the occasional meaningless flings and talk about sex just as much as the characters do in American Pie. However, they try to find meaning in their lives and often fail miserably due to their lack of understanding. There is also the omnipresent question in teen movies about identity and where one fits in. One of the main characters is a brilliant soccer player; however, due to his being misguided as many teenagers are and not feeling comfortable with the identity that is given him by his parents and society, he does drugs and parties too often. One of these parties causes him to play miserably when a professional scout is there watching the game. All of his friends and his family are disappointed since they expected him to live up to his destiny. However, even after they try to console him and reconcile their expectations he has become too distant: he ends up dying because of drugs. While the other friends party as well they find ways to manage their lives, and in the end on notices that they are changed by their experiences. I found this a very interesting film because it was a mixture of the typical American teen movie with some heavy doses of drama that made it a powerful movie as well. Furthermore, I started thinking about all the challenges of being young in today’s world. Now that I have grown up, I can look back on my experiences as I teenager and I understand them a little more.

When I was in high school, I had straight A’s my first semester much as I had all through Middle School. However, the second semester something happened and I started losing interest in school. I had been shy all through grade school, and I could no longer handle the social awkwardness that I had felt for so long. High school is for many a very awkward experience. You have to try to figure out where you fit in. Are you a jock, a nerd, or a preppy? Oftentimes the definitions that are given to people change who there are and how they act in given situations. Jocks are supposed to beat up nerds so many do, just as Emilio Estevez’s character beats up one of the friends of the “nerd? in the movie the Breakfast Club.

My case is a little different. In order to find out who I was, I started hanging around people who didn’t care as much about school as I had previously. We had a lot of fun, we didn’t do drugs or drink or anything. We just weren’t too enthusiastic about school. I still ran cross-country and track and was very good at them both. We were a marginalized group of friends, we weren’t geeks, but we weren’t cool. Over the course of the next year, I developed different friends. These friends liked drinking and cigarettes and all had older brothers who could procure them for us. Some of these friends were “jocks?, others were “preppies? and most all of them were popular. I however was not popular; I had just known several of them through various encounters. I didn’t really feel that I fit in with them either, I wasn’t really as charismatic or as gregarious as any of them were.
My final change came at the summer between my junior and senior year when I tried smoking pot for the first time. Looking back that was one of the most significant events in my life, not because it was unique, but because it corresponded with a growing disdain for being a successful student and trying to fit in. I tried lots of drugs the last two years of high school, and that was pretty much all that I did. On the other hand, I had developed a rather large social network that included the previous friends that I had. I was beginning to know a lot of people. I even had a few girlfriends during this period. However, in this final phase in my exploration I had to go to truancy court several times, got several underage drinking fines, lost contact with my parents for awhile and eventually had to go to night school for three hours a night just to graduate from high school.

I think that even though the social system is constructed to develop people who fit into society, there are other ways to be happy and still conform relatively to the society. Sometimes, the institutions of modern America such as the high schools are too restrictive in that they give teenagers too little room to define themselves. The consequences of not feeling as though you fit into whichever group you have been cast into can sometimes have serious consequences such as for the soccer player in the movie. Sometimes it takes time, and sometimes you have to test the boundaries of this society and see where you fit into it. While my dabbling in different social groups preventing me from really attaching myself to any of them and also had a strong negative effect on my future, I feel happy that I was able to develop an image of myself that is not completely dependent on narrow, constrictive identities that are too often represented in American films and society.

May 2, 2008


OSS 117 is a parody of Spy films most notably James Bond. Although, this film involves a French secret agent in the late fifties, I couldn’t help but draw a few parallels between his blunders and the American foreign policy of today. One of these first blunders occurs when XXXX while attempting to make small talk with his beautiful Egyptian contact tells her that “her language is not at all pretty.? American’s it seem are always willing to judge another language as being not as worthy as English. However, even if our language is right now the lingua franca of the world it has not always been and likely will not be for all that much longer. Chinese will likely take that role in the perhaps not too distant future. I wonder how I would feel if someone told me that my language was not a pretty language, something which my children’s children would likely have to endure if English loses its status in the future. A second blunder is when he also tells her that her Muslim religion and civilization will not be around for long since it does not permit drinking. This seems to also be a common theme in the American foreign policy spirit. We have a bad understanding of history and its cyclical nature. Saying that an ancient culture such as that will not be around for too long because it doesn’t conform to today’s status quo is like saying that our culture will last forever. I wonder how much longer our civilization will be around. Plenty of scholars and philosophers are already predicting its downfall and I wonder what that will be like. Finally, he addresses his Egyptian foreman for his cover business in a tone that is meant to benevolent but comes across as condescending and racist. I find that this is also a common theme in our political world. Americans believe that they are the height of civilization because of their wealth, their technology and their industry and all countries that fall short of these standards are thought of as primitive and treated as such. We think ourselves as benevolent for helping these “poor savages? with little trinkets and gifts much like the character in the movie did for his foreman. However, in the movie his foreman unimpressed and outraged at this patroness and betrays his “benefactor.? In the movie, one sees this with a clear eye for what it is but in the real world I think we often lose sight of this.

I think that this spoof much like other genres shows the superiority of European cinema. Even those films which are meant to be funny can be taken on a different level to reveal more about the world. Austin Powers, our version of the genre, fail to do this and resorts mostly to sexual innuendos and childish humor. Furthermore, It seems likely that this movie is a critique of Western civilization and not just a spoof much like the famous satires such as Candide are both funny and at the same time harshly critique their age and time.

May 1, 2008

In Bruges

As much as the medieval city of Bruges is demeaned by Colin Farrell’s character Harry in the movie In Bruges, the picturesque settings and beautiful screenplay give the viewer a strong will to visit there. Aside from that the movie made me think about several things. Among them was the concept of friendship and loyalty. One of the main characters, an assassin, botches a job in Dublin and accidently kills a child so he and his partner are ordered to go to Bruges, Belgium, a small but very touristic medieval village. They spend some time there doing the normal tourist things but finding that these don’t make them feel any better they start drinking and doing drugs. After a couple of days, the character Ken played by Brendan Gleeson, receives a call from the boss saying that he has to kill his partner, since it was he who had botched the job. Gleeson’s character goes and has quite a few beers in order to prepare himself to kill his friend. When he is getting ready to do it he sees Harry getting ready to commit suicide. After the awkward scenario works itself out, Ken realizes that his friend is already suffering and that he is not going to judge him and that he is going to stand up to the boss and let Harry go.

This made me start thinking about whether or not I have had friends who I would do this for and who would do the same thing for me. I have had friends stand up for me in fights before, but I don’t know if they would take a bullet for me, and I also don’t know for certain if I would either. At what point does someone realize that they would risk their life to save someone else’s life? Is it all a question of the moment? In other words, would you do it one day but on another day let him die? Do you have to feel like their life is more important than yours? Am I too cynical? These questions all floated through my head and I realized that self sacrifice involves some sort of higher relationship that you share with the other person. In other words, it is based on this relationship, whatever it may be, that determines how a person will react in a similar scenario. My friends and I have shared some good times, had our share of fights and disputes, and resolved them. Does that add up to enough that I would risk my life for them? I don’t think so. However, if there was some other relationship at work, such as between a parent and a child or a husband and wife, I would most likely react differently. In the movie, Ken was sort of a father figure to Harry and he was responsible for bringing him into to the professional killer racket, so it is possibly because of that relationship of responsibility that he chose to save him, Harry was likewise about ten or fifteen years younger than Ken and it was also his first job that he botched. I guess that if I felt responsible for one of my friends I would take a bullet for them. Thinking about it this way makes me somewhat skeptical about human emotions. It seems that Biology is the driving force behind them. Parents would die for their children in order to pass on their genes and a husband might choose to die for his wife in order that she can raise their children. But where is the line between biological impulse and human society drawn? People sacrifice themselves by going to war but perhaps it is only to protect these same people to whom they have a responsibility. If that is the case then there is some serious mind control going on by the governments of the world: we must have victory becomes tantamount to if we lose, our children will likely fall into the hands of the enemy. On the other hand, it seems that human society is then perhaps just one big collective biological impulse. There is no difference between biology and society.

April 29, 2008

Romulus, My Father

Romulus, My Father is a film adaptation from a memoir by the Australian writer and philosopher Raimond Gaita. The story takes place beginning in the nineteen twenties when Raimond is born to a somewhat dysfunctional family. He lives with his father a Romanian immigrant in New South Wales, Australia and their mother lives in a nearby big city where she continually has love affairs outside of marriage. The father and Raimond live and work on a somewhat isolated farm, yet there are enough neighbors who keep them company and help out in all the family crises and celebrations.

As much as I love books and reading and even though I feel that the printed word often has more power than the visual, I also found myself believing that film can also lend itself to portray complex events in a human life, their vacuity, their poignancy, and their impact. In Romulus, one sees the gradual decline in the health of the father as he becomes less and less capable of sustaining the lies and deceit of his wife. One also sees the effects that this conflict has on their young son, who as time passes in the movie becomes more vacant and shows visible signs of a growing hopelessness. The father tries to find a balance through a hard work ethic which is portrayed beautifully in the film by sweeping shots of the Australian countryside and long scenes of him working. These add a rhythm that the viewer can almost feel, one can feel his anguish. In contrast, the rhythm of the scenes in which there is fighting and conflict in the family is much more urgent and also somewhat reckless. An example of this is during one of the final conflict scenes during which brief shots of the different characters and cut off sentences add an element of confusion. This is a very effective way of portraying a situation which is full of confusion since neither party knows exactly where the other party stands or his thoughts. A written version of these same scenes would seem to have to be much more explicit in order to evoke this confusion. The isolation of the son from his family is clearly visible in scenes which portray a visual emptiness which portrays his anguish and despair.

I began to wonder how my life would be portrayed in a film memoir. I would choose long drawn out shots to portray the seemingly insurmountable distance that separated my small hometown from the rest of civilization. Likewise, I would have short, cut shots portray my failures in my relationships and family problems. I would use short sequential shots to portray my hectic life during the week. I would start with a shot of about 10 seconds in which I was jumping on a bus that is late and already full, and I would be bumping into people. Then it would cut to me walking in late to class with a look of despair on my face. Another cut would feature me eating a hot pocket while reading. Then a call from a girl and me saying “why don’t you want to see me anymore?? My weekends would be portrayed as a mixture of confused shots taken in bars with a blurry camera focus and then a dull long shot of me being lazy and trying to figure out what I did and what I need to do (in front of the TV). All these shots would take up around on minute on film, and I could also add some more from my youth, my time in the Navy and my time in France. But then I realize the problem, they wouldn’t really have any meaning. That is not to say that I don’t believe that I have done interesting things with my life and met interesting people, but that I don’t know how to connect these images and experiences to give meaning and significance to them. The Memoir, it seems to me, can only be undertaken by someone who has a strong self awareness and who has spent a significant amount of time to figure out their life. Unfortunately, I am not yet one of those people and nor do I believe that my life would hold enough interesting events to fill a memoir. I do on the other hand believe that memoirs like Romulus, My father have the ability to teach people how to analyze their life. In reading how others analyze their lives, I think that everyone can gain a sense of the significant events and people who have affected their own life. In other words, the memoir instills a reflective spirit in the reader and it is for that that I do not share the disdain for them that is common today.

April 28, 2008

The Wayward son

The Grocer’s Son is a French film which contrasts urban life urban with rural life. It also highlights how crises can bring families together. I started thinking about the different ways of life experienced by city people and also by country folk. In this film, the country folk are at first portrayed as simpletons given the contrast that the first 30 minutes of the film take place in the big city of Lyons, France. The father has a heart attack so he must leave his grocery store in the country and come to Lyon to get medical aid. It is there where one learns that his son, with whom he no longer speaks, did something in the past and abandoned his family to search for his dreams in the big city. His father never forgave him for leaving the village. The one interesting thing about this grocery store is that it also has a delivery van which takes groceries to the older people who live in the countryside. In fact, it serves also as a taxi to bring one of the old ladies to the salon, and also as a delivery vehicle of all sorts, delivering propane, wine,etc. In other words it is a highly unusual service that is provided by the father. With the father in the hospital the son is forced to make a decision of whether or not to come back to the village and help his mother run the store. His decision is made easier by the fact that his lovely neighbor in his apartment building also would like to get away from the city to study for her precollege exams. They soon start delivering groceries together and develop an affinity with the simple old folk and also begin providing the unusual services much like the father did. In the end, the son and his girlfriend end up taking over the family business, a typical Hollywood style ending but an interesting portrait of the life in a rural French region. One of the other things that this movie does is examine how conflict can resolve familial problems: for example it is through the sickness of the father that the son is brought back into the family circle and forgiven by the father. In the end scene the father and the son embrace as if there had never been any dispute between them. In fact, the old couple, his parents, is going on a voyage and it serves as symbolism for the fact that the family business is being taken over by the younger couple. The moral of the story seems to be that all old wounds can be healed and that the family bonds are strong.

I found myself empathizing with the main character who could no longer live in his hometown and who found his parents way of life despicable. I think that everyone has felt this way at some time towards their parents and their origin. I had to get out of my hometown in Wisconsin and since I didn’t have that good of grades in High School and I wouldn’t receive any scholarships or anything like that I was forced to choose a different route. So I joined the Navy. The Navy offered me everything that my little town in Wisconsin didn’t: cultural diversity, travel, a high paying job. But obviously with all these added things came stress that I was not used to. Much like the character in the film I found myself feeling lost sometimes and often being angry with my upbringing and origin. After I had been in the Navy for awhile though I began to realize that everyone feels that way. People from big cities have similar sentiments towards their origins. I began to realize that it was about trying to do something different in order to find out who you really are. For me that meant leaving my hometown to find out that that I really don’t hate it as much as I thought. I can’t hate it since it made me who I am. I am someone who appreciates intimate conversations and calm but I am also someone who looks for a bigger world and a bigger meaning to things. This is only possible because I grew up in a small town and I had to wonder what else was out there. Many people from New York for example probably don’t have the same way of looking at life since they were surrounded by diversity and were much closer to the bigger world than I was. In other words they don’t have to search as hard as I had to. However, even though I have a new found affinity for my hometown I do not see myself moving back there like the character in the movie. His situation was different: neither my parents nor my friends live there any longer. Everyone has gone and looked for something different. However, I still keep in touch with many of them and we all look back with a sort of wistful remembrance to the place that made us who we are.

January 31, 2008

Sundance sell out

I recently watched Juno with a good friend while she was visiting her family in Wisconsin. We went to a super-chic movie theater in Madison that was a part of the Sundance company that organizes the Sundance film festival. One of the most surprising things that I have noticed being a movie lover is the forthcoming commercialization of even the artsy films, although I wouldn’t really call Juno an artsy film. The Sundance film festival owning a theater? I guess I always thought that the purpose of film festivals was to promote and to exhibit new and obscure cinematic works. The tickets at Sundance 608 cost about twelve dollars, well above the price of any theaters that I have been to in awhile and they didn’t have student discounts. On the other hand they had gourmet food and microbrews that cost less than a soda at the typical multiplex. What are they looking for besides to turn a lucrative profit? Surely they tell themselves that they are doing it for a benevolent reason such as the more widespread exhibition of good films. However, I don’t see the people at Cannes creating a special movie theater arrangement any day soon. To me it seems like whenever art is commercialized it stops to be art…this is especially true in Hollywood. Americans seem to commercialize everything, even tragedies that are fresh in memory. Just look at some of the films that are released every year.

I guess that I just prefer the old main street theaters. When I lived in Connecticut there was a theater like this (where they sometimes even screened foreign films) that I used to go to. There was an old woman who worked behind the counter with her dog (a little one). One time we went there on a Sunday with nothing else to do (it was winter). We watched one film and then decided that since we had nothing else to do we might as well watch another. When we went up to pay for the second movie, she told us that we could just go watch it and she wasn’t going to make us pay! Whether she recognized us as regulars and wanted us to keep coming (there are several multiplexes that threaten small theaters in the area) or maybe she just cared more about movies than money, I don’t know.

Sundance cinemas