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3rd-Mar-2014 06:04 pm - idle hands are the devil's workshop
crown
I've taken to listening to the CBC as of late, going through old podcasts of Ideas, including this one about violence: http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/2014/02/04/ted-talks---the-violence-within-us/

There's a lot of unhelpful conflation of violence and evil in this NPR rerun. There's also a fair bit of moralizing going on (how could there not be, when you're talking about evil?) with an underlying assumption throughout that societies should try to eradicate violence. Not a goal I could ever support, but it is still an interesting listen regardless.

The section that most fascinated me comes first in the rerun in which a former psychologist from Stanford (btw, what up with their psych dept and all their unethical experiments in the 60s?) concluded that a critical factor in driving "normal" people to behave in evil ways is... boredom. From my observation, I would agree: chronic boredom is not good for psychological health and can lead to destructive, anti-social behaviour. However, the psychologist takes it one step further - and here I paraphrase - where he basically claims that when men get bored with long, tedious work shifts, they'll turn to sexual violence. He then goes on to suggest that the guards at Abu Ghraib were like, really bored and that's why they came up with all kinds of really perverse forms of torture. I don't know, I think the more accurate conclusion to draw is that when men (weren't there female soldiers too?) who have grown up in a highly puritanical, militant, misogynist, racist and sex-schizoid/negative society get really bored and are given total power with impunity, their already twisted and repressed erotic drives come to the fore. Or something like that. Maybe all those Stanford psychologists were pretty bored themselves to cook up those unethical experiments.

I also think the segment could have started off better by defining violence and different kinds of violence. There's one historian who asserts that the twentieth century has seen the least amount of violence in history. He's got this whole, aren't we so civilized moving beyond our savage tribal warfare roots thing going on. He also claims that it's the power of the nation state that has led to this glorious age of modern peace. Let me repeat that: STATE POWER is a source of peace. What narrow definitions of peace and violence do you have to employ to reach such an ass backward conclusion? Well, in this case, violence is defined solely as "total number of violent deaths by armed conflict." Someone give the man a little Arendt or Foucault, stat.
23rd-Jan-2014 06:00 pm - film review: Her (2013)
crown


I won't deny that I was biased against Her from the beginning. A man has a gendered AI device that's sole purpose is to attend to his needs and interests. Of course he falls in love with it. It's the ultimate Patriarchal fantasy - in which a woman's entire existence is a mere derivative of a man's.

While I do think Her's concept and its non-moralizing approach directs the audience toward fruitful lines of inquiry, the film annoyed me because it falls into a category I'm going to call "rich white people bored with a lack of meaning and passion in their lives and struggling to figure themselves out." Typically, films of this type have smaller budgets, feature quirky, relatable characters and have great soundtracks. As such, they are deemed to be more alternative, more intelligent, more authentic than mainstream Hollywood films.

But for all the attempts at bucking the mainstream, I find these films just as ideological and non-alternative as a Hollywood blockbuster. And that's not to mention the fact that the majority of these characters lead more individualistic lives than your typically Hollywood film and traffic in more individualistic concerns.
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crown


I'd avoided watching In the Mood for Love for, well for over a decade. Because I'm never in the mood for love, much less romance, and the film was billed as a romantic film par excellence. My loss.

The film follows the arrested relationship between two neighbours, Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow, who come to realize that their spouses are cheating with each other. Both Chan and Chow agree to refrain from pursuing an affair themselves, but tacitly agree to flirt with their growing attraction for each other, making for all manner of heated intrigue and play in which the most mundane exchanges become supercharged with innuendo and unspoken desire.

The moodiness of this stunning film is as saturated as its palette. Lush, sultry, seductive - its every scene is pregnant with intimations of passionate longing that practically bleed across the screen with its rich crimsons and carmines. Heightened with daring compositions and masterfully executed cinematography, In the Mood for Love is as much about a love for cinema as it is about a love story.

Highly recommended.
27th-Dec-2013 01:02 am - Film review: Only God Forgives (2013)
crown

IN: I don't like the representations of women in this film.
MS: Well yeah, they're all either dead or in their panties.
IN: Or going to be dead or going to be in their panties.
MS: Or dead and in their panties.
IN: That pretty much covers it.
24th-Nov-2013 02:11 pm - film review: Eden (2012)
crown

Eden is a film that is loosely based on a true story of a Korean American woman, Chong Kim, who was abducted and trafficked for sex. By keeping her wits about her, Hyun Jae, renamed Eden by her captors, manages to navigate her way through the organization that has imprisoned her.

I have mixed feelings about Eden. I really wanted to like this film. It has a female director, an Asian female lead, good reviews. Jamie Chung delivered a strong performance and the film avoided potential pitfalls: lurid representations of sex slavery, the trope of a helpless woman being rescued by men, etc. I also liked that it focused on US citizens in the sex trafficking industry (both as perpetrators and victims), rather than immigrants.

However, at the end of the day, I think Eden presents serious problems. The film has a touch of the "misery-porn genre" (apologies for the use of the word porn) to it and I think its departure from the reality it is based upon does a great disservice to the story. Without writing any spoilers, I cannot provide examples, but many of the realities of Chong Kim's life were glossed over or completely changed, to the effect that instead of providing any kind of meaningful representation of sex trafficking, Eden presents a kind of fear-inducing fantasy about sex trafficking. An unrealistic story you might tell a gullible teenager to illustrate why they shouldn't talk to strangers or such like.

The verdict: one's time would probably be better spent on non-fictional resources about sex trafficking.
14th-Oct-2013 10:26 pm - film review: Ginger and Rosa (2012)
crown


I have to be upfront about my bias before reviewing Ginger and Rosa. I have a thing for films about adolescent female friendships. Mind you, I have no interest in the kind of sugar coated, girl power, best friends forever kind of bullshit, but films that tap into how female sexuality transforms female relationships and how patriarchal power often tear girls apart.

Now I don't know what it's like to be a teenaged boy having an intensely close, emotional relationship with another boy, but having been a teenaged girl who has also observed many teenaged girls up close, I can tell you that the eroticism and intimacy that teenaged girls can share can rival that of any grand adult romance, if not more because of its youthful myopism and self centeredness. Because girls mature sexually at a faster rate than boys, all that new erotic energy cannot be directed toward teen boys simply because boys are not equipped to handle any of it. So there are two routes for a teenaged girl to pursue to share her emerging intimate, inner, erotic self: older wo/men or... her best friend.

I feel like this story is so rarely told probably because men are simply not privy to it and because the idea that a woman's sexuality and erotic life might not be solely focused on a man's needs is threatening to a patriarchal society. No, let's have stories like Sex and the City or Mean Girls where female friendship is about adult girls banding together as they wait to be saved by their prince or horrible backstabbing bitch frenemies.

Ginger and Rosa have been BFFs since birth. They're seventeen, thick as thieves and doing what teenagers do. They're testing boundaries, but in very different ways. While a cold war climate of 1962 Britain stirs Ginger's activist proclivities which draw upon her romanticization of her narcissistic father's pacifist and anti-autoritarian views, Rosa's rebellion consists of training herself to be the kind of woman a man would never leave, unlike her mother, whom she views as responsible for not being able to "keep" her father. These patriarchal legacies, imprinted upon the girls, eventually take the friendship to a breaking point. While Ginger desperately tries to fight this, projecting her anxieties onto atomic warfare, Rosa actively enslaves herself to the power of her own sexuality. I think the above still provides a perfect visual summary: Ginger in the background, modestly dressed with her earnest little peace button and Rosa in the foreground, already having perfected her sexpot cateye.

Although the film focuses mainly on Ginger's character and she is really the one with the most depth, the script affords enough complexity to the rest of the characters to keep things interesting. No one is depicted simplistically and the film reminded me very much of the Iranian film, A Separation (recommended!), by which you can simultaneously empathize with each character while being supremely annoyed at all their shortcomings. Personally I didn't care for the film's melodramatic climax, but the acting by Elle Fanning and Alice Englert is really quite superb (the rest of the cast is also stellar). Also, I'm not sure why all the reviews focus so heavily on nuclear war. This film is as much about nuclear war as Requiem for a Dream is about drugs. It's omnipresent, yes, but it's not the point of the film. Recommended.
25th-Sep-2013 01:58 am - gyan mudra
crown
Existing in a chronic state of crisis is not an easy place to be. The mind grasps for easy solutions to flee the discomfort and uncertainty. It wants to oversimplify things in an attempt to gain (a false sense of) control.



I love this yoga mudra because I think it so neatly encapsulates our human tendency to narrow cognitive functioning in the face of a crisis. As this was taught to me, the three fingers represent attraction, repulsion and indifference. These map on nicely to the three primal physiological reactions to an immediate threat: fight, flight or freeze. Extremely useful for emergency situations, life saving actually, but not all that useful for... everything else.

Knowing this has saved me from making pretty dumb decisions in the past. Instead of attacking without thinking, avoiding/running away from shit or becoming numb with apathy, I trash all three approaches and instead, work on being receptive enough to reframe a threatening situation differently and reorient myself along the lines of understanding, honesty, genuine suffering, etc. rather something reactionary. I won't lie, this process can be fairly unpleasant, but in time, the binds of one's narrowed perception will loosen. Let it relax wider and wider, and wider still, until the heart speaks. Then you will know the ethical way forward.

Anyways, give the wisdom of this mudra a whirl sometime when you find yourself framing something in a damned if you do, damned if you don't kind of way. Life is rarely lose-lose.
31st-Aug-2013 09:47 am - film review: To The Wonder (2012)
crown

When I first heard about To The Wonder, described as a "romantic drama" with Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams cast in leading roles, I thought to myself: To The Blunder. Terrence Malick directing a romance? SRSLY? But I was intrigued.

What followed was everything you would expect from Malick: a sweeping camera, gorgeous cinematography, de-emphasis on narrative, contemplative, questioning voice overs. But what followed was also very unexpected.

If Thin Red Line was a meditation on death, To The Wonder is a meditation on love. Not romantic love, don't let the marketing short hand mislead you, but rather the love between persons and the love we have with god. The richness, complexity and also, the suffering. The plot is fairly simple and somewhat cursory: An American man and a French woman fall in love in Paris. They move back to Oklahoma together and oscillate between movements toward union and separation. In their small town, a priest echos this same journey. Having lost his former intimacy with Christ, he roams through the disposessed - disabled persons, poverty stricken families, the incarcerated - with a keening longing for that lost connection.

As with Tree of Life, To The Wonder was widely panned by critics. Aside from the typical complaints levied at Malick (pretentious, boring, etc.) that I don't subscribe to, I do agree that the almost constant presence of poetic voice overs can become underwhelming. I found this technique, more sparingly applied in past films, incredibly potent. Here, it can become tiresome at times. It has something of the effect of a laconic, but hour and a half long confession. More successful, was the sea of voices from minor characters that fade in and out, in which you catch confessions of an entirely different nature, confessions from disenfranchised Americans, voices that are more violently silenced even as their ranks swell.

I've been thinking of TTW as Malick's post 9/11 film. In one scene, before the priest enters one of the houses, we see its number: 911. Unlike the romanticized Americas of Malick's past films, this is America in a state of emergency, in crisis. While we have our typical Malick shots of rolling fields and fast flowing streams, we also see a very ugly side of America. Its gaudiness and slickness and cheapness. Broken bodies, and even more broken lives. Obesity, grime, pollution, resiliance. The slow death working in people's faces. Everything eventually comes to an end, especially empires.

Personally, this film was difficult, and at times painful to watch because it so accurately captures the way America looks to me now. Like the priest, I keep grasping for wonder in this strange land, knowing that I am surrounded by beauty, immersed in light - but I am unable to love it.
crown

I normally dislike neorealist films, and clocking in a full 201 minutes, Jeanne Dielman is as neorealist as it gets. Wide static shots, minimal editing, you get the idea.

Maybe it's all the meditating I've been doing, but I loved it. I'll never watch the whole damn thing again, but it's one of the better films I've seen all year. Jeanne Dielman follows the life of a middle aged woman who goes about her daily errands - from dishwashing and grocery shopping to caretaking and prostitution - with a dispassionate, collected, orderly manner that perfectly matches the slow paced style of the film.

The extremity of the film allows you to become hyperaware of your ways of looking. With precious little dialogue and no obvious trajectory to the plot (I knew absolutely nothing about the film prior to watching it), I found my mind grasping for some kind of narrative or meaning, trying to Sherlock some kind of storyline out of what felt like an utterly opaque style. Is this a feminist treatise on domestic work and sex work? Is that young man her husband? What conclusions can be drawn from the way Jeanne dresses? etc. At some point, you need to zen out and notice how much more you can understand if you stop projecting your busy mind onto the film and allow yourself to observe without judgement.

What Jeanne Dielman masters is the rhythm of this woman's life, each chore enclosed within its own parenthesis, punctuated by the carefully crafted sounds of her largely mute existence, the changing light of day and her careful movements. All these small details, which would normally be overlooked in a more conventional film, come to gain great saliance. How the distinct aural beats of quotidian domestic life - cups being placed on saucers, heels clicking on the floor, doors shutting in their jambs - create an almost John Cage-esque musical effect. How the jittery neon blue lights shining into the living room at night irritate while the artificial light in the bedroom seems deadening somehow. How Jeanne straightens her sweater over and over and over and over again throughout the film as if she is resetting her composure. In this way, Jeanne Dielman accomplishes the impossible task of being utterly engrossing.

Despite the fact that Jeanne spends most of her time alone, taking care of domestic tasks, the film skillfully manipulates the aforementioned details and builds a growing sense of unease and distress, a vague oppressiveness. Like many neorealist films, this all comes to a head, but after waiting 3 hours, the impact is quite impressive. Highly recommended.
18th-Jul-2013 11:50 pm - motivation
crown
As much as I admire humanitarian work in crisis zones and support those who do this line of work, I am not motivated to do it. I've lived in shitty conditions, witnessed violence, and my health has taken a hit for my efforts, but I've never come close to putting my life on the line. So I love to ask people who do this work what motivates them. I mean, these people can see, from a certain perspective, how futile and problematic their work can be. But still, they do it and they risk it all.

No one I've ever asked in humanitarian/crisis work, who have made it their life's work and purpose, will respond that it's because "it's the right thing to do." And you never hear stuff like, "it's a noble cause" or whatever. What I've found are people who are able to accept - or cannot deny - a kind of brokenness in themselves and they are made to suffer for it. They might even start out in the field as fugitives. They're fleeing this suffering by going deeper into it.

For one reason or another, humanitarians can't seem to separate themselves from the Other. And because of this, they don't fit. And when they come back, often psychologically fucked up and sometimes, deeply traumatized, they really don't fit. They embraced the reality of suffering in one of the most direct ways possible, and they paid the price. Sometimes you can see it in their eyes, this depth of suffering, brought to light.

Of course, if you don't embrace the reality of suffering, you also pay. One pays in other ways.

What motivated you to choose the life you have made for yourself?
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