Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Trailer for Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

Thomas Caldwell -
"... Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is an epic meditation on morality, civilisation, masculinity and how each generation suffers the sins of the one before it. The conversations at the start of the film, as the characters drive through the dark night, are about things such as different types of yoghurt. As the night wears on and fatigue and frustration sets in, the conversations become more intimate, particularly between Doctor Cernal and Prosecutor Nusret, the two most educated men who find a degree of common ground in comparison to the more emotional Commissioner Naci. A story Nusret tells Cernal about a woman who predicted her own death is continually returned to with Cernal irritated that no logical explanation can be offered for what happened. The discussion between Cernal and Nusret about what can be rationally explained and what cannot underpins the entire film, which often undermines obvious cause and effect narrative developments in order to comment on the difference between knowing the objective truth and believing an interpreted truth that makes life more bearable.

Many critics have compared Ceylan to Robert Bresson and Abbas Kiarostami, with his direction in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia also arning him comparisons to John Cassavetes, Krzysztof Kiéslowski and Michael Haneke. Perhaps another director that Ceylan is influenced by is the one that the title of the film most overtly suggests, and that’s Sergio Leone ... There are deep mysteries in this film, not just about what happened or why, but what it means for the characters and what it means for the audience sharing their journey. Ceylan’s direction is so assured that unlike the convoy, there is never any doubt that the film is leading to a point where all will be revealed, even if that revelation is not immediate, tangible or easily expressed. The result is a cinematic experience that lingers long in the mind and demands repeat viewings."

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

THE SHALLOWS: WHAT THE INTERNET IS DOING TO OUR BRAINS (2010) - by Nicholas Carr (book review - Part 1)


"I don't want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me."
- Frank Costello, from The Departed

“Today, at last, the mists that have obscured the interplay between technology and the mind are beginning to lift. The recent discoveries about neuroplasticity make the essence of the intellect more visible, its steps and boundaries easier to mark. They tell us that the tools man has used to support or extend his nervous system - all those technologies that through history have influenced how we find, store, and interpret information, how we direct our attention and engage our senses, how we remember and how we forget - have shaped the physical structure and workings of the human mind. Their use has strengthened some neural circuits and weakened others, reinforced certain mental traits while leaving others to fade away. Neuroplasticity provides the missing link to our understanding of how informational media and other intellectual technologies have exerted their influence over the development of civilization and helped to guide, at a biological level, the history of human consciousness.”
- Nicholas Carr, The Shallows, pg. 48

(Personal Note: I have been constantly pondering and wrestling with the ideas in Mr. Carr's book ever since I read it back in February of this year. There is a certain amount of irony that this book review of mine is being published on an internet website (with pictures and hyperlinks and everything else that goes along with a web page). I have come round to the conclusion that Mr. Carr is touching upon something incredibly important and fundamental to how modern day culture works and influences us. This book review, as a result, is long and has taken me months to write. I would be very surprised if even 1 out of 20 of online readers who see this review can manage to read through the entire thing. And this fact alone is further evidence in support of Mr. Carr's conclusions. After all is said and done, I would strongly recommend that you take the time to read and think through Mr. Carr's book (even, if you are willing, before you read this review). Then, if you return to this review afterwards, it will summarize and discuss the ideas of the book and the primarily objections that have been made against it over the last couple years.)

It is a debate that ranges all the way back to the days of the ancients. It's the debate between determinists and those philosophers who believe in the free will of man. The determinists argue that our choices, our desires, and our lives are predetermined by an outside force: fate, the gods, a Calvinist God, the bourgeois, or the behaviorist influences of your genetic code, social power constructs, upbringing, or outside environment. The adherents to free will argue that our own fates and the paths in life that we take are chosen by the exertion of our own wills; that we make real choices and decisions that form who we are. I've personally always fallen somewhere in the middle of this debate, which I think is naturally the result of making just a few logical distinctions.

First, through the use of reason, thinking people can deduce their way to the reasonable conclusion that man does, indeed, possess free will. This is the conclusion of most mainstream Enlightenment philosophers and orthodox Christian theologians. It is ultimately based on what it means to be self-conscious beings. But, secondly, I would still allow for the fact that the determinists are not all wrong. In fact, I would even admit that the determinists are at least apparently right for a large number of people. For most people who don't bother to think for themselves, who are too lazy, who are not interested in thinking through their own decisions - their lives are often lived as if they did not have free wills of their own. Their desires and choices are shaped by mere mood swings, pop culture fads and thrill-seeking, and everything else that they just passively allow to influence and form them.

Nicholas Carr, with his book, The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains , is essentially making these same distinctions. But he does so in a way that is more informative than most likely anything you have ever read (unless you are in the habit of reading Neil Postman or Marshall McLuhan, who both seem to be Carr’s intellectual godfathers). Carr takes a close look at the determinist/free will debate in the context of how the technology that we use actually wires and forms our brains.

“For centuries, historians and philosophers have traced, and debated, technology’s role in shaping civilization. Some have made the case for what the sociologist Thorstein Veblen dubbed ‘technological determinism’; they’ve argued that technological progress, which they see as an automonmous force outside man’s control, has been the primary factor influencing the course of human history. Karl Marx gave voice to this view when he wrote, ‘The windmill gives you a society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.’ ...

At the other end of the spectrum are the instrumentalists - the people who, like David Sarnoff, downplay the power of technology, believing tools to be neutral artifacts subservient to the conscious wishes of their users. Our instruments are the means we use to achieve our ends; they have no ends of their own. Instrumentalism is the most widely held view of technology, not least because it’s the view we prefer to be true ...”
(pg. 46)

Instrumentalism does have far more appeal. I would like very much to object to the idea that surfing the internet or watching TV determines what sort of person I am. I’ve tried to argue, in the past, that it is, in fact, choosing the content that really matters. But, Carr is not arguing that content does not matter. Instead, he’s pointing out that good or bad content aside, the use of a technology still affects the neuron pathways in your brain. Repeated use strengthens some of the wiring in your brain. Disuse weakens neural pathways in your brain.

Carr refers to McLuhan’s book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, and points out what cannot really be denied. The use of a medium even helps shape the content and the depth of a message.

“What both enthusiast and skeptic miss is what McLuhan saw: that in the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act. As our window onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it - and eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society.” (pg. 3)

Now, I admit to being initially uncomfortable with the idea that the content matters less than the medium. But then I took a second look at what Carr is applying this to. He is applying this insight to how what we do forms the way that we think. The use of one medium, even in the service of good content, can encourage poor thinking skills. The use of a different medium, even in the service of objectionable content, can cultivate patterns of deeper thinking. Carr anticipates our wanting to focus on the content first:

“Our focus on a medium’s content can blind us to these deep effects. We’re too busy being dazzled or disturbed by the programming to notice what’s going on inside our heads. In the end, we come to pretend that the technology itself doesn’t matter. It’s how we use it that matters, we tell ourselves. The implication, comforting in its hubris, is that we’re in control. The technology is just a tool, inert until we pick it up and inert again once we set it aside.” (pg. 3)

For the rest of his book, Mr. Carr carefully crafts a take-down, assisted by both philosophy and science, of the assumption that quality of message is always more important than the effects of its medium. The internet, he argues, is changing and shaping us. Your use of the internet is making you into a different sort of person. The time I spend browsing webpages is wiring my brain differently (for specific thinking abilities) than other people who spend less (or no) time browsing webpages. Some of these effects are good and useful. But, some of them are not. Mr. Carr begins, logically and naturally, with the recently scientifically established idea of the plasticity of the human brain.

The Neuroplasticity of the Brain

It turns out that another of our assumptions about the brain has been disproved by science.

“Even as our knowledge of the physical workings of the brain advanced during the last century, one old assumption remained firmly in place: most biologists and neurologists continued to believe, as they had for hundreds of years, that the structure of the adult brain never changed. Our neurons would connect into circuits during childhood, when our brains were malleable, and as we reached maturity the circuitry would become fixed." (pg. 20)

In other words, we used to think that how our faculties were developed in childhood, that there was a certain young age at which point our brains were more suggestive and where our neurons were formed to establish thinking habits that we were to keep for the rest of our lives. Thanks to modern medical science that began with the study of brain damage and treatment, this assumption has turned out to be false.

“The brain is not the machine we once thought it to be. Though different regions are associated with different mental functions, the cellular components do not form permanent structures or play rigid roles. They’re flexible. They change with experience, circumstance, and need.” (pg. 29)

“Our neurons are always breaking old connections and forming new ones, and brand-new nerve cells are always being created. ‘The brain,’ observes [James] Olds, ‘has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.” (pgs. 26-27)

This makes sense when you think about it. When you are taught, for example, how to drive, your form new habits (instincts, even) that make much of the process unconscious. This is because repeated physical and mental activity wires neural pathways in your brain. For this same reason, a person with brain damage who loses the use, say, of his right arm, can regain use of that arm by practice as his brain rewires itself.

"The genius of our brain’s construction is not that it contains a lot of hardwiring but that it doesn’t. Natural selection, writes the philosopher David Buller in 'Adapting Minds', his critique of evolutionary psychology, ‘has not designed a brain that consists of numerous prefabricated adaptations’ but rather one that is able ‘to adapt to local environmental demands throughout the lifetime of an individual, and sometimes within a period of days, by forming specialized structures to deal with those demands.’” (pg. 31)

This fact about our brains has consequences that are worth understanding. If you know how your brain "wires" itself, then you can choose to do things that will wire your own brain in particular ways. Most of us have always known that repeated, sometimes forced, conduct will teach us how to perform an act more easily. Men and women have always purposefully taught themselves habits. This is also a regular and common sense goal within any educational system. But, if we can do things to form particular pathways in our brains to help ourselves, then we can obviously also do the opposite.

“But the news is not all good. Although neuroplasticity provides an escape from genetic determinism, a loophole for free thought and free will, it also imposes its own form of determinism on our behavior. As particular circuits of our brain strengthen through the reptition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit. The paradox of neuroplasticity, observes Doidge, is that, for all the mental flexibility it grants us, it can end up locking us into ‘rigid behaviors.’ The chemically triggered synapses that link our neurons program us, in effect, to want to keep exercising the circuits they’ve formed. Once we’ve wired new circuitry in our brain, Doidge writes, ‘we long to keep it activated.’ That’s the way the brain fine-tunes its operations. Routine activities are carried out ever more quickly and efficiently, while unused circuits are pruned away.” (pg. 34)

Often if you repeatedly engage in an activity, you will begin to find yourself wanting to do it again. The desire to do something can be created by doing it. How's that for the determinist/free will debate? To a certain extent, we can even create some of our own desires. Carr continues -

“The potential for unwelcome neuroplastic adaptations also exists in the everyday, normal functioning of our minds. Experiments show that just as the brain can build new or stronger circuits through physical or mental practice, those circuits can weaken or dissolve with neglect. ‘If we stop exercising our mental skills,’ writes Doidge, ‘we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead.” Jeffrey Schwartz, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA’s medical school, terms this process ‘survival of the busiest.’ The mental skills we sacrifice may be as valuable, or even more valuable, than the ones we gain. When it comes to the quality of our thought, our neurons and synapses are entirely indifferent. The possibility of intellectual decay is inherent in the malleability of our brains.” (pg. 35)

Perhaps most readers knew this sort of thing already, but I had never heard or read a description of it this practical before. Mental circuits in the brain are either cultivated and therefore strengthened or abandoned to disuse and weakened. This is why habits can form or die. This is why practice of any skill, physical or mental, perfects the performance of that skill - and why little practice weakens it. If you strengthen communicative circuits in your brain by learning a different language, like Spanish, then learning a third language like French will be even easier. If you get into a pattern of lazy behavior, like using a calculator to perform simplistic mathematical calculations, then your mental ability will weaken.

These principles apply to reading as well. If you don't read as often as you used to, then it will be more difficult for you to concentrate on a book for very long periods of time. Carr explains how this works in more detail. But first, he uses a historical shift in how people used to think as an example. The technology of writing fundamentally changed the brains of our ancestors.

On the Historical Transition From the Oral Culture to the Literate Culture

“... around 750 BC ... the Greeks invented the first complete phonetic alphabet. The Greek alphabet had many forerunners, particularly the system of letters developed by the Phoenicians a few centuries earlier, but linguists generally agree that it was the first to include characters representing vowel sounds as well as consonant sounds ... The Greek alphabet became the model for most subsequent Western alphabets, including the Roman alphabet that we still use today. Its arrival marked the start of one of the most far-reaching revolutions in intellectual history: the shift from an oral culture, in which knowledge was exchanged mainly by speaking, to a literary culture, in which writing became the major medium for expressing thought. It was a revolution that would eventually change the lives, and the brains of nearly everyone on earth ...” (pgs. 53-54)

Just so that we're clear - writing, and reading, are learned habits that, when you learn them, form neural circuits in your brain. These are circuits that will strengthen or weaken during your lifetime. But, if you realize that "...[r]eading and writing require schooling and practice, the deliberate shaping of the brain ..." (pg. 51), then you can actually choose to weaken or strengthen them. Decide to watch more TV, your reading and concentration abilities will get worse. Decide to read even just one book a week, and your reading and attention span will increase in power.

But this means that, beginning in ancient times before writing, people developed other mental circuits in their brains instead. In the oral tradition, other mental powers were exercised.

“In a purely oral culture, thinking is governed by the capacity of human memory. Knowledge is what you recall, and what you recall is limited to what you can hold in your mind. Through the millennia of man’s preliterate history, language evolved to aid the storage of complex information ... Diction and syntax became highly rhythmical, tuned to the ear ... Knowledge was embedded in ‘poetry,’ as Plato defined it, and a specialized class of poet-scholars became the human devices, the flesh-and-blood intellectual technologies, for information storage, retrieval, and transmission ... The oral world of our distant ancestors may well have had emotional and inuitive depths that we can no longer appreciate. McLuhan believed that preliterate peoples must have enjoyed a particularly intense ‘sensuous involvement’ with the world. When we learned to read, he argued, we suffered a ‘considerable detachment from the feelings or emotional involvement that a nonliterate man or society would experience.’” (pgs. 56-57)

Reliance upon technology always results in the loss or disuse of a human ability. With the technology as his tool, man will be more efficient or effective. But, without the technology, man's reliance upon it will mean that he has not had to perform the tasks (for which the technology was invented) himself. In ancient times, people's memories were exercised more. Today, our memories are weaker. We commit little to nothing to memorization. In ancient times, men memorized the equivalent of whole books.

Carr next takes the reader through a logical progression that, by the time he's through, began to convince me that he was on to something historically important. There are a few facts about writing and reading that you may not have known.

1 - As Writing Began, Everyone Always Read Out-Loud

Did you know when people first started reading historically that they didn’t read silently? I didn’t. But, when you think about how an oral culture would treat the written word, it does make sense. Before writing, the purpose of words was speech. There is no reason that it would be readily apparent to someone who is used to an oral tradition that written words could be read without speaking them.

“Even as the technology of the book sped ahead, the legacy of the oral world continued to shape the way words on pages were written and read. Silent reading was largely unknown in the ancient world. The new codices, like the tablets and scrolls that preceded them, were almost always read aloud, whether the reader was in a group or alone. In a famous passage in his Confessions, Saint Augustine described the surprise he felt when, around the year AD 380, he saw Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, reading silently to himself. ‘When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still,’ wrote Augustine. ‘Often, when we came to see him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.’ Baffled by such peculiar behavior, Augustine wondered whether Ambrose ‘needed to spare his voice, which quite easily became hoarse.’” (pgs. 60-61.)

St. Augustine’s surprise is humorous to us today, but Carr brings it up to remind us how a technology like writing can change and shape us. Writing has given us the ability to see and think words without speaking them, to allow a writer's voice to work its way through our minds as we digest his story or argument. You often remember far more of what you read than what you hear. A person reading silently is using his or her brain a little differently than a person who is reading out loud. More on this later.

2 - There Were Originally No Spaces Between Words or Any Standards for Word Order

or, in other words - twotherespacesbetweenwordsnowereoriginallyorwordorderstandardsany


Actually, that's not really what Carr wrote. Here it is instead -

"It’s hard for us to imagine today, but no spaces separated the words in early writing. In the books inked by scribes, words ran together without any break across every line on every page, in what’s now referred to as scriptura continua. The lack of word separation reflected language’s origins in speech. When we talk, we don’t insert pauses between each word - long stretches of syllables flow unbroken from our lips. It would never have crossed the minds of the first writers to put blank spaces between words. They were simply transcribing speech, writing what their ears told them to write. (Today, when young children begin to write, they also run their words together. Like the early scribes, they write what they hear.) ...

The lack of word separation, combined with the absence of word order conventions, placed an ‘extra cognitive burden’ on ancient readers, explains Paul Saenger in Space between Words, his history of the scribal book. Readers’ eyes had to move slowly and haltingly up to the start of a sentence, as their minds struggled to figure out where one word ended and a new one began and what role each word was playing in the meaning of the sentence. Reading was like working out a puzzle. The brain’s entire cortex, including the forward areas associated with problem solving and decision making, would have been buzzing with neural activity.”
(pg. 61)

Even having read the above paragraphs before, if I still go directly from reading the spaceless paragraph to the regular word spaced paragraph, it is like a weight is lifted that was impeding and dragging down my reading. And, remember, that paragraph still has standard word order. Ancient writing didn't. In reading a page of spaceless unordered text, your brain has to work much harder in order to decipher it. You are using problem solving parts of your brain that now, we no longer have to. It is Carr's point that there are different kinds of reading. He explains it in more detail elsewhere in the book, but the type of engagement that a spaceless text has with your brain is not unlike the type of engagement that a web page has with your brain.

“In a very real way, the Web returns us to the time of scriptura continua, when reading was a cognitively strenuous act. In reading online, Maryanne Wolf says, we sacrifice the facility that makes deep reading possible. We revert to being ‘mere decoders of information.’ Our ability to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction remains largely disengaged.” (pg. 122)

But, let's keep following Carr's groundwork.

3 - You Would Figure Out What You Were Reading by Sounding It Out

"The slow, cognitively intensive parsing of text made the reading of books laborious. It was also the reason no one, other than the odd case like Ambrose, read silently. Sounding out the syllables was crucial to deciphering the writing. Those constraints, which would seem intolerable to us today, didn’t matter much in a culture still rooted in orality. ‘Because those who read relished the mellifluous metrical and accentual patterns of pronounced text,’ writes Saenger, ‘the absence of interword space in Greek and Latin was not perceived to be an impediment to effective reading, as it would be to the modern reader, who strives to read swiftly.’” (pgs 61-62)

4 - Adding Spaces and Word Order Allowed for Deeper Reading

“By the start of the second millennium, writers had begun to impose rules of word order on their work, fitting words into a predictable, standardized system of syntax. At the same time, beginning in Ireland and England and then spreading throughout the rest of western Europe, scribes started dividing sentences into individual words, separated by spaces ... Writing, for the first time, was aimed as much at the eye as the ear ...

The placing of spaces between words alleviated the cognitive strain involved in deciphering text, making it possible for people to read quickly, silently, and with greater comprehension. Such fluency had to be learned. It required complex changes in the circuitry of the brain, as contemporary studies of young readers reveal ...As the brain becomes more adept at decoding text, turning what had been a demanding problem-solving exercise into a process that is essentially automatic, it can dedicate resources to the interpretation of meaning. What we today call ‘deep reading’ becomes possible. By ‘altering the neurophysiological process of reading,’ word separation ‘freed the intellectual faculties of the reader,’ Saenger writes; ‘even readers of modest intellectual capacity could read more swiftly, and they could understand an increasing number of inherently more difficult texts."
(pgs. 62-63)

All the book reviews of The Shallows that I've read have essentially ignored this logical progression. But, I believe Carr's description of the shift from the oral to literary traditions is vital to the main point of his book. Each of these points are worth prolonged discussion in and of themselves. Imagine only being able to read by sounding the words out loud, by not being able to immediately recognize them by eyesight alone, by needing to speak in order to read. The entire activity of reading would be different.

Carr is arguing that deep, undistracted reading of the printed word encourages a depth of thought that, as a general rule, we do not find encouraged by other mental activity. Many of the reviewers of Carr's book criticized it because they questioned the value of what he calls "deep reading." But the fact remains that the act is possible only through practiced discipline and that it forms neural pathways in the brain that prove to be extremely valuable.

"Readers didn’t just become more efficient. They also became more attentive. To read a long book silently required an ability to concentrate intently over a long period of time, to ‘lose oneself’ in the pages of a book, as we now say. Developing such mental discipline was not easy. The natural state of the human brain, like that of the brains of most of our relatives in the animal kingdom, is one of distractedness. Our predisposition is to shift our gaze, and hence our attention, from one object to another, to be aware of as much of what’s going on around us as possible." (pg. 63)

"The reading of a sequence of printed pages was valuable not just for the knowledge readers acquired from the author’s words but for the way those words set off intellectual vibrations within their own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply ... Reading a book was a meditative act, but it didn’t involve a clearing of the mind. It involved a filling, or replenishing, of the mind. Readers disengaged their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions. That was - and is - the essence of the unique mental process of deep reading." (pg. 64-65)

The ability to concentrate, the ability to meditate upon and to ponder meaning, the faculty of reason is inherently strengthened by depth in your reading habits. Studies that Carr cites later show that the very act of reading a page of writing with spaces between the words frees up most of the rest of your brain to think about and process the meaning of the author with your past ideas and experiences. Before word order and spaces, most of your brain was engaged in the pure problem-solving task of deciphering the text. Rules of grammar freed us from this. Our eyes recognize the words on the page in mere fractions of a second. We aren't thinking about sounding out the words, instead we are thinking about the ideas that the words convey to us. This is how a good author is able to engage and grip our attention in ways that he or she couldn't before.

“The bond between book reader and book writer has always been a tightly symbiotic one, a means of intellectual and artistic cross-fertilization. The words of the writer act as a catalyst in the mind of the reader, inspiring new insights, associations, and perceptions, sometimes even epiphanies. And the very existence of the attentive, critical reader provides the spur for the writer’s work ... Our rich literary tradition is unthinkable without the intimate exchanges that take place between reader and writer within the crucible of a book. After Gutenberg’s invention, the bounds of language expanded rapidly as writers, competing for the eyes of ever more sophisticated and demanding readers, strived to express ideas and emotions with superior clarity, elegance, and originality. The vocabulary of the English language, once limited to just a few thousand words, expanded to upwards of a million words as books proliferated. Many of the new words encapsulated abstract concepts that simply hadn’t existed before. Writers experimented with syntax and diction, opening new pathways of thought and imagination. Reading eagerly traveled down those pathways, becoming adept at following fluid, elaborate, and idiosyncratic prose and verse. The ideas that writers could express and readers could interpret became more complex and subtle, as arguments wound their way linearly across many pages of text. As language expanded, consciousness deepened.” (pgs. 74-75)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

THE DECALOGUE: EPISODE I - FILM REVIEW (1989 - Directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski)

“And God spake all these words, saying, “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generations of them that hate me; and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.”
- Exodus 20:1-6

There is nothing on film quite like it. Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski's The Decalogue is a ten episode miniseries that explores the ten commandments. It was aired in 1989 and seems to be still only at the very beginning of gaining the public attention that it deserves.

Kieślowski is a storyteller who can pack more content, theology and philosophy, into one little 45 minute episode than most Hollywood directors can reach after filming for years. It's time for more of us to take notice. Out of all the countless hours we're supposed to be spending watching television these days, there is no good reason why The Decalogue should be missed. It is a little hard to acquire these days. But that is simply our fault. Supply meets demand. Supply is low when there is low demand. It about time we started entrepreneurs like Criterion a reason to produce more of these.

Episode I starts us off with a reflective story on the nature of idolatry. Idolatry is forbidden in the first of the ten commandments, and yet, because of how we've been taught, it is often difficult to separate the idea of idolatry from pictures in our heads of people bowing down to idols. Thus, for a TV show set in 1989, Kieślowski gives us a symbolic idol in order to explore the nature of the commandment. Kieślowski's symbolic idol for modern day times is a computer. In our society in 2012, there still may not be a better modern symbol of idolatry. I'd even wager that most of us spend far more time in front of a computer than people in ancient times spent in front stone idols. In fact, we currently trust far more aspects of our own lives to computers and the internet today than anyone ever trusted a stone idol with.

So what is idolatry? I believe that C.S. Lewis, in his essay, First and Second Things (most recently published in the book, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics) hits upon the fundamental idea behind the prohibition against idolatry. We may not think in terms of "worship" in the way that we view how we relate to the world anymore, but the idea of worship involves making something a first or ultimate priority. If there are things you are willing to sacrifice everything else for, if there is something in which you place all your trust and confidence, something that motivates and forms all the rest of your thinking and your choices, then it is that thing that you "worship" as the ancients understood the idea. For some people, this thing is money. For others, it is sex. Fame, celebrity, alcohol, drugs, career, family, marriage, relationships, sports teams, political causes ... all these things can be idolized and "worshiped" as "gods" in the Biblical sense. And it is very important to remember another corollary to this idea. The things that we idolize can be good things. It is the idolization of them that is wrong. Furthermore, the people who engage in idolatry can be good people. But their idolization of things that ought not to be idolized is still going to hurt them.

C.S. Lewis writes:

“To sacrifice the greater good for the less then not to get the lesser good after all - that is the surprising folly ... The longer I looked into it the more I came to suspect that I was perceiving a universal law. On cause mieux quand on ne dit pas Causons. (One converses better when one does not say, ‘Let us converse.’) The woman who makes a dog the centre of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping. The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication. It is a glorious thing to feel for a moment or two that the whole meaning of the universe is summed up in one woman - glorious so long as other duties and pleasures keep tearing you away from her. But clear the decks and so arrange your life (it is sometimes feasible) that you will have nothing to do but contemplate her, and what happens? Of course this law has been discovered before, but it will stand re-discovery. It may be stated as follows: every preference of a small good to great, or a partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice was made. Apparently the world is made that way.

... You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first. From which it would follow that the question, What things are first? is of concern not only to philosophers but to everyone.”

In other words, idolatry is valuing something higher than it ought to be valued. The idea of right and wrong, of ought and ought not to, and of morality applies to the amount of importance that we place in things. But by valuing something too highly, you are losing its good and requiring of it what it is incapable of giving you. There is an order to the health of our spiritual and mental lives. Idolatry disrupts this order and destroys what is meant to be. When God says "thou shalt have no other gods before me", He is saying not to grant deity to what is not divine, not to hold of first importance what is not of first importance. When God says "thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image" and "thou shalt not bow down thyself to them," He is saying not to serve and worship our own creations, things that ought not to be worshiped or sacrificed to.

In the first episode of The Decalogue , Kieślowski gives us the story of a man and his son. The man, Krzysztof, is an agnostic linguistics professor who essentially idolizes, of all things, science. The choice of science as an idol in this episode is tremendous for us because, if you think about it, science is often idolized in modern times. For many people, the discoveries of science contain the greatest good that mankind will ever attain. We trust in science to save us, and while science is a good, it can still be valued out of proportion. There are some things science can never give us.

There are many people who dismiss the first three or four of the ten commandments as merely religious commands having to do with religion, but they are wrong. Each of the commandments touch upon fundamental truths about human nature that apply no matter what you personally believe.

The son, Pawel, is a 12-year-old who is questioning these truths for the firs time. He shares his father's enthusiasm for science and computers but is also fascinated by his aunt's religious faith. His father, his aunt explains to him, noticed that many things could be measured. Later, she says, Krzysztof concluded that measurement could be applied to everything. There is nothing wrong with studying and measuring the world, but she points out to Pawel that this does not necessarily rule out God. Neither does it explain important facts about us or God. Pawel shows her that he has programmed his overseas mother's daily schedule so that the computer will tell him what his mother is doing when he asks it to. When the computer tells him that his mother is sleeping, his aunt tells him to ask what his mother is dreaming about. "I do not know!" replies the computer. The computer is also inadequate when it comes to understanding how Pawel's mother feels for him.

Pawel's aunt tells him that it is doing things for others that makes life brighter. She tells him that human life is a gift to be treasured. When he asks her whether she believes in God, she answers yes. When he asks her who is God, she hugs him and tells him that God is in the place where they feel love for one another. Science, as his father explains it to him, does not answer all of his questions.

There is something about the scientific answer to everything that does not answer everything. For example, at one point when his father answers some of his questions, Pawel leaves the discussion completely unsatisfied. How does science explain meaning? How does it explain human understanding, emotion, free will, choices or the appreciation of what is good or beautiful? It doesn't. This doesn't mean that science is defective, it just means that the scope and realm of science is limited. Idolizing science is always going to leave the idolizer unsatisfied. Man still wants something more than science can give him.

Pawel: Why do people die?
Krzysztof: It depends ... heart failure, cancer, accidents, old age.
Pawel: I mean ... what is death?
Krzysztof: The heart stops pumping blood. It doesn’t reach the brain. Movement ceases. Everything stops. It’s the end.
Pawel: So what’s left?
Krzysztof: What a person has achieved, the memory of that person. The memory’s important. The memory that someone moved in a certain way, or that they were kind. You remember their face, their smile, that a tooth was missing
Pawel: ... “For the peace of her soul” ... You didn’t mention a soul.
Krzystof: It’s a form of words of farewell; there is no soul.
Pawel: Auntie says there is.
Krzystof: Some find it easier to live thinking that.

When Krzystof gives his lecture at the university, play close attention to what he says. In it, he reveals a philosophy that, even though he is a linguistics professor, upholds science to a level where it can do anything. He admits the limits language, the limits of our ability to express ourselves, the limits of a translation from one language to another. He admits that any translation between two languages loses meaning. "Rationally," Krzystof posits, "we may have an excellent command of it, using a rich vocabulary, but how can we get to know what lies hidden behind the words in that vocabulary? How can we know the cultural luggage of a language? How to formulate historical, political and cultural links and associations with daily life? How to establish and understand what creates the spirit of a language, its metasemantics ... perhaps even metaphysics?"

In an episode devoted to exploring the commandments of an ancient Hebrew text, Krzystof's questions are even more relevant. The spirit of a language, the metaphysical meaning behind the wonderful fact of human communication - these ought to be untranslatable to the world of science. Oughtn't they? In fact, the whole point of the prohibition of idolatry is that no idol, in and of itself, can satisfy the metaphysical longings (and pursuits for meaning) of man. Krzystof continues with his lecture:

"[T.S.] Eliot said: poetry is what’s untranslatable. But must Eliot be right? Try to imagine an interpreter capable of accumulating all knowledge of words and language with an unlimited memory that can be used at any time. An unconventionally used mathematical apparatus might be made into something, or somebody, like that. This device, which seems only to differentiate between zero and one has not only a kind of intelligence, it selects. That makes it capable of choice, perhaps even an act of will. In my opinion, a properly programed computer may have its own aesthetic preferences ... a personality."

But we, and Krzystof and Pawel, come up against the curious fact that a computer that turns itself on, that makes it's own choices, is eerily unnatural. When Krzystof's computer starts turning itself on and declaring "I am ready" we begin to see a hint of how terrible an idol might be if it really possessed the qualities that we acted as if it possessed them. Even the fact that I'm using the word "possessed" in this sense feels wrong. Krzystof's computer is starting to act as if it had a will of it's own, as it if might be self-conscious, as if, as Pawel suggests to his father, it might want something. This is precisely what Krzystof, from his lecture, sounds like he was hoping for. And yet, when it starts happening, something is wrong. It is still inadequate. It is still missing something very important. And it's very inadequacy is what is so dangerous because of the hope and trust that Krzystof has placed in it. There is an understanding here that we can miss if we aren't paying attention. There is a sense in which trusting science to give us what it cannot give results the in loss of what science is really for.

“This uncanny self-generation resonates as an everyday mystery, a commonplace unexplained event with suggestions of a transcendent reality lurking behind the material world. The computer falls short in the face of the most important questions. Technology cannot convey the divine love that Aunt Irena conveys in her physical contact with Pawel. All the gadgets, with which Kieslowski was so fascinated and which generate such happiness between Krzysztof and Pawel, ring very hollow at the film’s end, failing in the liminal space. Even the computer’s memory, which is often mentioned throughout the film, is shown to be cold, factual memory lacking the nuances of meaning in human recollection ...

Monday, May 21, 2012

Trailer for The Master

This will be the next film from Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of There Will Be Blood and Punch-Drunk Love. The plot synopsis says that "this story stars Academy Award winner Philip Seymour Hoffman and Academy Award-nominee Joaquin Phoenix. Set in America in the years following World War II, a charismatic intellectual (Hoffman) launches a faith-based organization and taps a young drifter (Phoenix) as his right-hand man. But as the faith begins to gain a fervent following, the onetime vagabond finds himself questioning the belief system he has embraced, and his mentor."

Besides Hoffman (Doubt, Charlie Wilson's War, Capote) and Phoenix (Walk the Line, We Own the Night, The Yards), the considerable cast also includes Amy Adams (Enchanted, Doubt, The Fighter), Laura Dern (Tenderness, Recount), Rami Malek (Snafu from HBO's The Pacific), Jesse Plemons (Landry from Friday Night Lights), Kevin J. O'Connor (There Will Be Blood) and W. Earl Brown (Dan Dority from HBO's Deadwood).

Monday, May 14, 2012

IVAN'S CHILDHOOD - FILM REVIEW (1962 - Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky)

“They sent me out by plane to a boarding school, but I ran away. You just eat up grain supplies while studying the importance of herbivores in man’s life.”
- Ivan

It is a poor state of affairs indeed when the majority of the readers of this review will not have ever seen a single film directed by Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky. But this will likely be the case. Most people have simply never heard of him. And this is in spite of the fact that some of the oldest, most experienced and deepest thinking film critics will argue that Tarkovsky is the greatest director who ever lived in the history of filmmaking. At this point, it's a conclusion I would find it very difficult to dispute.

So, if you are like I was until fairly recently, then it is high time you remedied your shoddy film education and took a look at the works of Andrei Tarkovsky. The man only made eight films. Each of them are very special in their own unique way. Each of them captivate and linger. Watching eight films, with no actual time limit, should not be a very difficult assignment for any of us. And, while there is something highly challenging about all of Tarkovsky's films, it's the sort of challenge worth engaging.

Ivan's Childhood (1962) is Tarkovsky's first film. It was based off of the short story, Ivan , by Vladimir Bogomolov. In it, you see the beginnings of a genius that will mature into making Tarkovsky into the master that he is now considered to be. Andrei Tarkovsky, like one of his cinematic descendants - Terrence Malick, is a director consumed with beautiful images. Images, often more than dialogue, drive the plot, or even simply the experience of, the film. Here in Ivan's Childhood , we are given the stark and bleak images of an apocalyptic landscape (in black-and-white). This is a landscape of a reeling Russia, vainly trying to protect and defend itself from a crushing Nazi Wehrmacht invasion. The Nazis ("Fritz's" as Ivan calls them) are leaving a long trail of death and destruction in their wake (the winter of '41 had not driven them back yet). But these aren't the only images we are given. Tarkovsky is constantly contrasting the imagery of the destruction of war with the imagery of life as it is seen through the imagination of a child. I would suggest that it is in this contrast that the film possesses its power.

Child actor, Nikolai Burlyayev, plays the 12-year-old Ivan, and he is another reason this works. He's got all the childlike imperiousness of Peter Pan combined with the grown-up too fast ingenuity and adult friendships of Huckleberry Finn. He biting a bit of straw and daydreaming one moment, and then he is strongly demanding to be included in future military reconnaissance expeditions the next.

When we first see him, I could be wrong, but I get the impression that he's flying through the woods (again, just like Peter Pan). At the very least, the innocence of childhood is such that children tread much more lightly than adults. A little beam of light or a butterfly or a flower are studied more closely and considered more carefully by children in ways that they are never noticed by adults. But Tarkovsky's camera is interested in helping us notice these things. Like Merlin taught a young Arthur lessons in the enchanted forest in order to prepare him for manhood, when Ivan's Childhood begins, you begin to expect Tarkvosky to do the same sort of thing for Ivan. After all, Ivan is the sort of little fellow who, when he is told that there is a star resting at the bottom of a well, is interested in catching it.

The interruption is immediate and brutal. Whatever looked like the beginnings of a fairy tale is suddenly a deserted field strewn with smoking dead bodies. As Ivan tries to crawl his way through the sludge of a swamp, enemy flares are spiraling down on top of him and sections of ugly looking barbed wire loom over him. By the time he makes it to the Russian line, he looks more like a starved and drowned rat than a child.

"War isn’t for you, understand?"
- Lieutenant-Colonel Gryaznov

“The completion of ‘Ivan’s Childhood’ marked the end of one cycle of my life, and of a process that I saw as a kind of self-determination ... What attracted me to Bogomolov’s short story, ‘Ivan’? I have to say at the outset that not all prose can be transferred to the screen. Some works have a wholeness, and are endowed with a precise and original literary image; characters are drawn in unfathomable depths; the composition has an extraordinary capacity for enchantment, and the book is indivisible; through the pages comes the astonishing, unique personality of the author: books like that are masterpieces, and only someone who is actually indifferent both to fine prose and to cinema can conceive the urge to screen them.

... Other prose works are made by ideas, by clarity and firmness of structure, by originality of theme; such writing seems not to be concerned with the aesthetic development of the thought it contains. I think Bogomolov’s ‘Ivan’ is in this category ... A third thing that moved me to the bottom of my heart: the personality of the young boy. He immediately struck me as a character that had been destroyed, shifted off its axis by the war. Something incalculable, indeed, all the attributes of childhood, had gone irretrievably out of his life. And the thing he had acquired, like an evil gift from the war, in place of what had been his own, was concentrated and heightened within him.”

- Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time , pgs. 15-17

Lieutenant Galtsev (Evgeny Zharikov) wakes up to find that his men have discovered this little soaked and muddy urchin declaring that "I am Bondarev!" and that he, Galtsez, the commanding officer of that unit, MUST call No. 51 to tell them that "Bondarev" is there. Ivan delivers his orders and has such a confidence about him that the soldiers (and officers) believe him. Galtsez calls No. 51 and he and we both learn that "Bondarev" is a valuable asset to the Russian forces. He has his own system of code for himself (berries, nuts, shells, leaves, firs, stones) in order to count and identify the units and equipment of the enemy. He's a little 12-year-old who finds it easier to pass back-and-forth across enemy lines than the men do.

The kid is a walking paradox. There are times when he is clearly "playing at" war in the film. There are times when he is definitely not playing. And the line between the two is not clearly defined. It turns out, to Galtsez's bemusement, that the other men - Lieutenant-Colonel Gryaznov (Nikolai Grinko), Captain Kholin (Valentin Zubkov), and Corporal Katasonov (Stepan Krylov) - genuinely love Ivan and view him as something of a hero. It becomes evident, early in the film, that Ivan's family have been killed in the war. He has no one except for the Russian army, and he and the Russian army have basically adopted each other as family. The plan is for one of these men to adopt Ivan when the war is over.

While they seem to have the understanding that either Gryaznov or Katasonov will make the most responsible choices for Ivan's future, you begin to get the impression that Captain Kholin has the closest and most father-like relationship with Ivan. He is the one who the Lieutenant-Colonel criticizes for still needing to grow up. While Ivan is the child who has been forced to grow up by the war far too soon, Kholin is the man who refuses to let the war force him to "grow up" in any way that he doesn't want it too. He is the one in the group still most likely to smile or crack a joke. He is the one interested in wooing the pretty medical orderly, Masha (another innocent who is being changed by the war). And he is the one willing to risk his life for the sake of making extravagant gestures of defiance to the enemy (like re-taking the bodies of his friends from the Nazi's public display). He is the one to tell the somber Galtsez, who for all we know is still only 17 or 18 - “You’re too stern. You need a little tenderness inside.”

Captain Kholin personifies one of the reasons Ivan insists on doing what he does. He loves the soldiers like Kholin. When the men decide to send Ivan away from the front-lines to safety in a military school, Ivan cries and protests that that will get the men killed. They can't hide like he can hide because they are too big.

If Captain Kholin goes on a mission in Ivan's place, his chances of survival are lower than Ivan's. But that's what he wants. He doesn't want Ivan to go on any missions anymore. Because he and the rest of the men love Ivan, they've decided to send him away. Ivan's tearful protests and (actually logical) arguments have made them hesitate. This film is essentially the story of the couple of days during which they are hesitating. Ivan's fate is still undecided, just like Russia's fate. They are expecting the Nazis to advance farther into the country. The chances of the scarecrow outfit at this military outpost don't look good.

“Everything about the actress Valya Malyavina was at variance with Bogomolov’s portrait of the nurse ... But with all that she had something original, individual, unexpected, which had not been in the story ... The kernel of Valya’s acting persona was vulnerability. She looked so naive, pure, trusting that it was immediately clear that Masha-Valya was completely defenceless in the face of this war which has nothing to do with her. Everything active in her, all that should determine her attitude to life, was still in an embryonic state. This allowed the relationship between her and Captain Kholin to build up naturally, because he was disarmed by her defencelessness. Zubkov, who played Kholin, found himself totally dependent on his partner, and whereas with another actress his behaviour might have seemed artificial and edifying, with her it was utterly genuine.”
- Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time , pgs. 33-34

The picture that Tarkovsky paints with the camera in telling this story is something to behold. It's a study in contrasts. We go from the muddy narrow winding trenches to an ethereal birchwood forest to dark nights over a treacherous looking swamp, and then back to the earlier dreams and memories of Ivan. When the main characters crawl through the darkness at night, flares are constantly burning their way through the sky. If you haven't seen them in real life, and in complete and utter darkness before, it's hard to describe how sinister flares can really be. They look like little falling stars, but they buzz with the sign that someone, somewhere, is looking to kill someone else.

The contrast between the world of childhood and the world of war is one that Tarkovsky slowly and carefully studies at various angles through the camera. One moment we see a 12-year-old who takes pure joy out of simply hunting through an entire truckload of apples to find the perfect one to present to his sister. The next moment we see Ivan pretending that he's on a mission hunting a spy or a war criminal. The next moment we see Ivan fiddling and playing with Galtsev's dead friend's knife. At one angle he looks like any boy would look who has just been given the infinite number of useful possibilities that a large and sharp knife presents one with. At another angle he looks like a tortured soul who has just been given the means to finally murder his enemy.

“You know who rests during wartime? Useless people!”
- Ivan

“The next thing that struck me was the fact that this austere war tale was not about violent military clashes, or the ins and outs of reversals at the front. Accounts of exploits were missing. The stuff of the narrative was not the heroics of reconnaissance operations, but the interval between two missions. The author had charged this interval with a disturbing, pent-up intensity reminiscent of the cramped tension of a coiled spring that has been tightened to the limit. This approach to the depiction of war was persuasive because of its hidden cinematic potential. It opened up possibilities for recreating in a new way the true atmosphere of war, with its hyper-tense nervous concentration, invisible on the surface of events but making itself felt like a rumbling beneath the ground.

... In a non-developing, constant state of tension, passions reach the highest possible pitch, and manifest themselves more vividly and convincingly than in a gradual process of change. It is this predilection of mine that makes me so fond of Dostoievsky. For me the most interesting characters are outwardly static, but inwardly charged with energy by an overriding passion. Ivan turned out to be a character of this kind. And when I read Bogomolov’s story these things took hold of my imagination.”

- Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time , pg. 17

Ivan somehow mixes childlike curiosity and playfulness with a patriot's determination to fight to the death. He excitedly looks through the pictures that Galtsev has brought back, but then pauses at Albrecht Durer's etching of 'The Horsemen of the Apocalypse.' The horsemen, he explains, represent the Nazis. When Ivan sees that the horsemen are trampling people in the picture, he sees his family. That is what they did to his family. When Ivan plays a little war game with himself, he comes across writing on the wall of the old Russian house. The writing is by other Russians back when the Nazis had been there last -




In Ivan's mind, this is a message written specifically to him. He keeps remembering it throughout the film. This message, combined with what happened to his family, has turned him into a little Russian patriot.

The men love Ivan because his passion is their passion. They share their vodka with him and drink to each other's safety. Sometimes we forget how often young boys have historically fought in wars alongside the men. From armor bearers to drummers to naval midshipmen, it was not uncommon for 10 to 12-year-olds to be valuable assets to their military units. Tarkovsky captures this dynamic in Ivan's Childhood better than any film I've ever seen (except for perhaps Peter Weir's Master and Commander ). To the men, the child represents the soul of their military unit. To the child, the men are larger-than-life heroes that he passionately wants to be become.

“Now, more than twenty years later, I am firmly convinced of one thing (not that it can be analysed): that if an author is moved by the landscape chosen, if it brings back memories to him and suggests associations, even subjective ones, then this will in turn affect the audience with particular excitement. Episodes redolent of the author’s own mood include the birch wood, the camouflage of the birch branches on the first aid post, and the landscape in the background of the last dream and the flooded dead forest. All four dreams, too, are based on quite specific associations. The first, for instance, from start to finish, right up to the words, ‘Mum, there’s a cuckoo!’ is one of my earliest childhood recollections. It was at the time when I was just beginning to know the world. I was four. Generally people’s memories are precious to them. It is no accident that they are coloured by poetry.”
- Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time , pg. 29

When we first meet Lieutenant Galtsev, we expect him to treat Ivan harshly. And yet, he doesn't. He views Ivan more with astonishment than with anything else. He is probably the sternest and most humorless character at this solitary little outpost. Galtsev frowns often and deeply. He says boys like Ivan don't belong in war. He says girls like Masha shouldn't have anything to do with the war. And he at least implies, if he doesn't voice it directly, that jovial jokesters like Captain Kholin shouldn't be fighting a war either. What is left unsaid is that no one, not even Galtsev, belongs in this war. The war is taking vitally important things away from all of them, even from the melancholy Galtsev.

He acts selfishly and sometimes petulantly. But, as he watches Ivan interact with everyone, you suspect that you are getting just a hint that Galtsev is about to change for the better. Like the other men, he remains convinced that Ivan shouldn't be there. But, simultaneously, he starts to find that maybe there is still joy to be taken from Ivan's very presence. Ivan's childhood has been destroyed, but his love, integrity, loyalty and sympathy have not been. This is a boy who was intended for a beautiful and enchanted world who instead finds himself in a miserable and ugly one. It is only by little moments of kindness and concern for each other that these characters are still managing to rise above the dehumanization of their circumstances. And it is Ivan who brings out the good in them. It is Ivan who keeps risking his own life for them because, as he tearfully declares, the men are too big to avoid being seen by the Nazis.

How do I express all there is to express on this film?

When it comes down to it, this is not really something I'm writing because it is clearly laid out by Tarkovsky in the film. Instead, it's more the impression I get from the imagery - from Ivan's occasional smile, from Kholin's wink or from the tiny bits of still wonderment in the men whenever they hear a snatch of music from the gramaphone - not from the dialogue or linear plot itself. I've only seen this film twice, and the second viewing was far more meaningful to me than the first. I can only imagine the further and deeper impressions that I'll get watching it again for a third time. But this is what happens with Tarkovsky, and Ivan's Childhood is only the beginning.