A friend of mine shared this video on his blog and I immediately thought it was something you, dear readers, might enjoy. It’s in two parts.
Starring Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, and Mariah Carey.
Synopsis (from Netflix):
Viciously abused by her mother (a riveting, Oscar-winning Mo’Nique) and pregnant by her father, Harlem teen Precious Jones (Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe) has an unexpected chance at a different life when she enrolls in an alternative school. Teacher Blu Rain (Paula Patton) encourages her, but Precious must battle unimaginable barriers everywhere in her life.
First I would like to apologize for not writing sooner. I had watched this film the first weekend in April and had meant to write a post for you all then. I committed a blogger faux pas.
As for the film, this is one time I am glad it is not a true story as I would not wish anyone the amount of suffering Precious Jones had. I just adore the message though, that through love and education she was able to see value in her life and work to overcome her obstacles, as insurmountable as they may seem.
Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom. – Bahá’u’lláh
Her teachers, both at her first school and at the new alternative school, saw something precious within Ms. Jones. They could see that what appeared to be ugly rocks were actually uncut, unpolished gems and they worked hard with Precious to polish them until she was able to read and able to break free from her abusive home environment.
This is something we can all learn from. We all have gems in the mine of ourselves, as does every other human being even illiterate pregnant teenagers. The issue is that these gems have not been cut and polished yet so to the untrained eye they can seem like worthless rocks. Blu Rain could see the end in the beginning, she could see those gems, and worked hard with Precious so that she could see them too and would want to polish them through perseverance. We all have talents but sometimes we can’t see them. A great teacher can, and can get you to see them too, and more importantly infect you with the enthusiasm to want to work to cultivate them.
What gems have you seen hidden in others? What have you helped others achieve? What have you achieved through someone’s encouragement?
I recently asked you, dear Reader, for your thoughts on ideas for topics I could try and address. Many wonderful suggestions came in, but one, in particular, was one that I could immediately write: Movies.
The idea was presented in the context of writing a review of a movie in light of the Baha’i teachings, but I’m not sure I want to do it quite like that. Instead I will talk a bit about my own approach to movies, in light of the Baha’i teachings.
My guidance comes mainly from two quotes, one by Baha’u’llah and another from Shoghi Effendi. The first, found in the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf ,refers to arts and sciences, saying that they should be “productive of good results, and bring forth their fruit…conducive to the well-being and tranquility of men“. This quote alone radically changed the way that I approached my own work as an artist.
The second quote is found in The Advent of Divine Justice. In that text, Shoghi Effendi speaks of the three spiritual weapons we have at our disposal in our fight “to regenerate the inward life of their own community, and… to assail the long-standing evils that have entrenched themselves in the life of their nation.” The three weapons, as I’m sure you know, are “a high sense of moral rectitude in their social and administrative activities, absolute chastity in their individual lives, and complete freedom from prejudice in their dealings with peoples of a different race, class, creed, or color.”
The second of these three is further defined by the Guardian in the following quote: “Such a chaste and holy life, with its implications of modesty, purity, temperance, decency, and clean-mindedness, involves no less than the exercise of moderation in all that pertains to dress, language, amusements, and all artistic and literary avocations.”
It was this second quote that got me to re-examine those arts to which I subjected myself, as he particularly mentions “all artistic and literary avocations“. Now, don’t get me wrong. I do not believe that he is telling us to avoid movies, or anything like that, but just to be more selective, recognizing the influence that they can have upon us. I love a good fantasy novel, or a fine science fiction movie. In fact, I even enjoy a fun shoot-em-up action adventure movie, too. (Shocking, I know, but true.)
The key word in that second quote is, to me, “moderation“.
The question now is, “How does this effect my movie-going?” Easy. It makes me examine each movie after I see it, explore the motives and morals within it, and see how it effects me as a person. Now, I believe that I get far more out of every movie I watch, and every book I read, than I did before.
This also gets passed on to those I work with.
For years now, whenever I take a group of youth to a movie, I willingly take them to see whatever movie they want, on condition that we can talk about it afterwards. A two-hour movie? I want at least thirty minutes of conversation. And during that time we explore the story and motives of the characters, framing the whole thing in the context of virtuous development, and the Baha’i teachings.
Conclusions? Well, I have to admit that I used to love horror movies, but now have absolutely no desire to see them any more. I have not found anything worth the time invested in seeing them. Although I don’t criticize anyone for watching them, they are just not for me. My time can be better spent elsewhere.
I have also come to love some of the action movies even more. Why? Because it gives a lot more room for discussion of motives, and allows a great deal of exploration in how we would react to similar circumstances. Now I don’t expect to ever find myself hiding in a building that is being taken over by terrorists intent on robbing a bank, or having to jump on a moving train to try and save someone from being blown to bits by a bomb, but I have found myself reacting instantly to seeing people getting beaten to death by gang members on the street. This little exercise of asking myself what I would do in such a situation allowed me the ability to draw the attackers away long enough for the victim to survive (without getting killed myself).
Some of the most enjoyable movies I have seen are ones that I was “dragged” to by a group of teens who thought I would never want to see them. They figured that those movies just weren’t my type, whatever my type may be. But I enjoyed them, and we had a very fruitful discussion afterwards.
The teens also told me later that these discussions have changed the way they watch movies, television, and on and on. They are far more selective, and always ecplore it afterwards, no longer content to view them as mere entertainment.
Going back to the first quote, in which Baha’u’llah tells us the purpose of the arts, I began asking myself if a particular work was conducive to my well-being and tranquility. I didn’t expect to only enjoy works that put me in a drug stupor, but looked at that in a broader context. Did they lead me to tranquility? Did they improve my well-being? If not, why was I subjecting myself to it?
By looking at the overall purpose of the arts, I found myself in a better position to decide whether or not I wanted to take the time to view a particular work. Now that said nothing of the merit of the work itself, just whether or not I wanted to take the time to find out.
The second quote, about absolute chastity being related to artistic endeavours, made me further examine what I watched, read or listened to.
These two quotes also helped me better refine how I wanted to spend my time on my own artwork, but that’s probably better suited for another article.
Instead, I’d like to just take a moment to look at an example, Lord of the Rings. While I could go into the artistic merits of the film, or how they used so many different artisans to create the world, I, instead, want to look at one part of the story. Or actually, one part not of the story: the bad guy.
This is a story that does not focus on the bad guy. It focuses almost completely on the good guys, and their epic struggle. You never really see the bad guy; he’s always just this big eye in the distance.
Too often in artistic works, the artist focuses almost exclusively on the bad guys, or at least spends a considerable time on them. They get into the minds of these people, and really, do you want to get in there?
But Tolkien focuses on the good guys. He gets into their headspace, and brings us with him. You feel their fears, their concerns, and their courage. And that is a space I want to get into. Don’t you?
So next time you read a book, or watch a movie, look at these two quotes again and see how they apply. It’s a wonderful experiment that I will explore more and more in the future.
Synecdoche, New York, 2008
Staring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Synopsis (from NetFlix):
After his painter wife (Catherine Keener) leaves him and takes their daughter to Berlin, theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) stages an autobiographical play in a massive New York City warehouse amid a life-size replica of Manhattan. Meanwhile, Caden must contend with the many women in his life — including a box-office worker, an actress and a shrink — in this beguiling directorial debut from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.
This movie has been in the recommended queue for over a year and I am finally getting to it. I apologize for the delay, it’s been a crazy year, and I know it’s the type of film that requires due process. It’s the type of film that makes you think, and makes you feel. But not comfortable feelings. Incredibly frustratingly uncomfortable, painful feelings. I like films like this, that force you to wrestle with this side of life but I do not enjoy films like this. Let me elucidate that paradox a little.
Film is a medium, and as such it is not always used for entertainment and pleasure, even if that is the predominant trend. Film can be used as a tool for communication, for meditation, or exploration. I love it when movies use all the power film has to offer as an art form by working the visuals, and pushing the boundaries to actually show you something rather than tell you. This movie does that. However what it shows is frankly unpleasant. It does it really well, but it’s painful. It helps you to experience the pain and suffering of the main character by getting so lost in him, and his meta existence so as to trick you into feeling that (if you are highly empathetic like myself). If you like films like Lost in Translation or Magnolia then you will like this movie, but it’s even more extreme. Ok, with that lengthy introduction let me actually get to the content of the film.
The film begins like a typical independent film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s made a lot of them and if you’ve seen even one you have a feel for it. As it opens, it’s gritty and has that look to it. I think Kaufman wants to trick the audience into complacency because as it goes on characters start breaking unwritten rules. They do not react how you expect them to, they do not react in the way society dictates is normal.
What is clear from the beginning is that Caden Cotard is lonely, unhappy, and ill, and throughout the film this state increases. Nobody can help him, even when he asks for it. His family abandons him. His doctors shuffle him around not solving the problem. His therapist just tries to sell him books.
What oppression is more grievous than that a soul seeking the truth, and wishing to attain unto the knowledge of God, should know not where to go for it and from whom to seek it? – Bahá’u’lláh
Cotard has no clue, and so he pours himself into his art. Art can be a wonderful thing. It can uplift the soul. It can increase knowledge. But what Cotard does is essentially use his art for his ego. He wins this prestigious MacArthur genius grant right when his life is falling apart and thinks it can redeem him. Instead his play becomes him playing God and recreating his life over and over again, getting deeper and deeper into himself and his neuroses and it doesn’t work. He finds no solace. He finds no audience. He finds no answers.
Cast away, O people, the things ye have composed with the pen of your idle fancies and vain imaginings … Idle fancies have debarred men from the Horizon of Certitude, and vain imaginings withheld them from the Choice Sealed Wine. – Bahá’u’lláh
Instead decades go by, he ages as he suffers and as his relationships disintegrate more and more due to his inability to view the world outside of himself and outside of his pain. He becomes completely self centered. There is a glimmer of hope near the end when he and Hazel finally work out there issues, and she states what may seem like a throw away line, but I think reaches at the heart of the matter about how it was the first time she’d seen him think about someone other than himself.
And finally the true ending when he is too tired of all his directing and decides to play another role, to step into another person’s life. It is here that he can see that another has pain, another disappointment, and he can finally find comfort in feeling for another, rather than himself.
Millicent Weems: What was once before you – an exciting, mysterious future – is now behind you. Lived; understood; disappointing. You realize you are not special. You have struggled into existence, and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone’s experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone’s everyone. So you are Adele, Hazel, Claire, Olive. You are Ellen. All her meager sadnesses are yours; all her loneliness; the gray, straw-like hair; her red raw hands. It’s yours. It is time for you to understand this.
– From the film
And I think this is why I had such a problem with the film, why it did not sit well with me, and that’s because this is a half truth. It reaches the culmination of understanding that we are all connected, that we are all unified and we need to get over the ego of self, but it only focuses on the negative, on the disintegration. This is everyone’s experience, but not everyone’s complete experience and because of this it is bleak.
Where is joy? Where is beauty? Where is love? Where is God? The word was only first mentioned an hour into the film in passing, and then indirectly and derogatorily by Hazel “We send the kids to Christian school. It’s Derek’s idea, I don’t believe in that stuff”, and then in the end at a funeral when a priest preaches pretty much the exact opposite message that a cleric would. This is a world without God, without religion (in the true sense of the word), and it shows. It shows in all the social dysfunction and ill portrayed in the film. People are amoral. They abandon each other. They use one another. They cause each other suffering. If this is everyone’s experience than what are we all doing wrong for it to be this horrid?
Some people argue that this is the world as it is, and on some level they are right. People have abandoned the teachings of the great faiths, have stopped fearing God, stopped loving God, and stopped following God and in doing so have created even more pain and suffering. They have corrupted many forms of religion and turned them into self-serving political machines, or an isolationist club, in the image of themselves instead of God’s so that even labeling oneself religious does not necessarily free you from this Kaufmanesque view of the world.
Instead if we distill the message from the major faiths it is this: Love. Put others before yourself. Humble yourself. Be compassionate. Show this love through deeds. Love everyone, even the people you don’t like, nay, especially the people you don’t like because it’s not about you, and it’s not about your opinion. They probably need the love even more so.
We can hardly blame Cotard because he was not shown love so he could not really learn how to love. He is constantly looking for someone to follow, but has no adequate model. However, this is why we have the examples of Buddha, of Jesus, of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l Baha. They show us what true selfless love can be so we can follow there model, so that the world won’t devolve into Synecdoche, New York.
a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa, as in Cleveland won by six runs (meaning “Cleveland’s baseball team”).
-from the Apple dictionary.
In this case of this film Caden Cotard represented the whole. Let’s change that. Let’s make it one of these great teachers, who shows us how to love, and how to suffer with grace instead of despair.
I figured in the spirit of Valentine’s Day I would pick a romantic comedy and look at how it deals with this confusing notion of love. I picked this film because of it’s tag: “This is not a love story. It’s a story about love.” Enjoy!
500 Days of Summer, 2009
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel.
Synopsis (from Netflix):
When his girlfriend, Summer (Zooey Deschanel), unceremoniously dumps him, greeting-card copywriter and hopeless romantic Tom (Golden Globe nominee Joseph Gordon-Levitt) begins sifting through the year-plus worth of days they spent together, looking for clues to what went awry. As he recalls the good and bad times he spent with the commitment-phobic girl, his heart reawakens to what it cherishes most. Marc Webb directs this uncommon love story.
This film is about these two people, and deconstructs their relationship. But more importantly it is about this fuzzy notion of love as these two people blindly explore what it is and what it means. One enters the picture believing in destiny and soul mates and the other enters cynically not believing in love at all, only wanting to have fun. Near the end their positions on the subject have switched. However neither extreme is correct. Neither of these ideas is right. There is no such thing as a soul mate in the destiny, only-one-for-me sort of way, but love most definitely exists.
Know thou of a certainty that Love is the secret of God’s holy Dispensation, the manifestation of the All-Merciful, the fountain of spiritual outpourings. Love is heaven’s kindly light, the Holy Spirit’s eternal breath that vivifieth the human soul. Love is the cause of God’s revelation unto man, the vital bond inherent, in accordance with the divine creation, in the realities of things. Love is the one means that ensureth true felicity both in this world and the next. Love is the light that guideth in darkness, the living link that uniteth God with man, that assureth the progress of every illumined soul. Love is the most great law that ruleth this mighty and heavenly cycle, the unique power that bindeth together the diverse elements of this material world, the supreme magnetic force that directeth the movements of the spheres in the celestial realms. Love revealeth with unfailing and limitless power the mysteries latent in the universe. Love is the spirit of life unto the adorned body of mankind, the establisher of true civilization in this mortal world, and the shedder of imperishable glory upon every high-aiming race and nation. ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
At one point Tom is so fed up with love after having his heart broken that he quits his job at a greeting card company blaming the industry, as well as romantic movies, for his unreal expectations. It is a comic scene but there is deep truth to it. Just as Summer pointed out that over half of marriages end in divorce (which is why she doesn’t believe in love), our culture has gotten incredibly confused as to what love is, and because of this miss it.
Love is a verb. It is an action, specifically the act of putting someone else’s needs before your own. It is something we all should be doing everyday because we should love everyone. But for some reason we’ve got it into our heads that romantic love is something else, some magic feeling or state, and that once that feeling is gone it is okay to be selfish again. We fear commitment because we fear the magic leaving, instead of recognizing that we have an opportunity to show love most greatly in a committed relationship.
The Lord, peerless is He hath made woman and man to abide with each other in the closest companionship, and to be even as a single soul. They are two helpmates, two intimate friends, who should be concerned about the welfare of each of each other.
If they live thus, they will pass through this world with perfect contentment, bliss, and peace of heart, and become the object of divine grace and favor in the Kingdom of heaven. But if they do other than this, they will live out their lives in great bitterness, longing at ever moment for death, and will be shamefaced in the Heavenly Realm.
Strive, then, to abide, heart and soul, with each other as Two doves in the nest, for this is to be blessed in both worlds. ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
This is what a true soul mate is, but it can be anyone, not just one person.
I think that many of the reasons relationships falter is that humanity is spiritually seeking God but often does not recognize it. They want eternal, perfect, unconditional love, a love that God can only give, instead of the imperfect, yet beautiful, attempts we humans do. We turn our significant others into idols whom we worship, and that is not healthy. When these people turn out to be mere mortals instead of the gods and goddesses we’ve made them out to be the foundation of the relationship is shaken.
This film does a great job of showing just that. It also shows how much pressure is put upon the person who is being idolized to live up to the impossible standards. I am glad this movie was a story about love instead of just a love story because these are conversations we need to be having. The way we think about love, the way we talk about love, and the way we show love is broken. We see it daily through acts of violence, through dissolution of families. But through art, through deep contemplation, we can be inspired to change how we view love, to make it the verb it is.
The first sign of faith is love. The message of the holy, divine Manifestations is love; the phenomena of creation are based upon love; the radiance of the world is due to love; the well-being and happiness of the world depend upon it. Therefore, I admonish you that you must strive throughout the human world to diffuse the light of love.
The people of this world are thinking of warfare; you must be peacemakers. The nations are self-centered; you must be thoughtful of others rather than yourselves. They are neglectful; you must be mindful. They are asleep; you should be awake and alert. May each one of you be as a shining star in the horizon of eternal glory. This is my wish for you and my highest hope. ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
I read this review and would like to share it with you guys. Check out the original here.
I believe it was the psychologist Heinz Kohut who introduced the world to the concept of “good enough parenting”. The Book of Eli could be considered an example of good enough film-making. It manages to get its various characters from point A to point B, provide some interesting images, execute fight scenes with relative skill and convey it’s underlying message(s) well enough. It’s not a great movie though.
Eli is the name of the film’s protagonist (Denzel Washington), who we first meet as he preys upon an ill-fated feline in a forest as ash drifts down from the sky (a nod to 9/11). The cat in question is later shared with a mouse (talk about a role reversal!) as Eli enjoys some Al Green and a read of the Book from the movie title. It’s 30 years from now and some sort of man-made apocalypse, possibly brought about by religion, has had a really bad effect on personal hygiene, fashion sense, and civility. It has also contributed to a new diet fad (cannibalism). Eli strides through images of hell on earth: miles of rusting vehicles, grinning skeletons and empty dwellings. A voice has told him to head west in order to take his book to a place where it can do great good for the world.
When his Ipod runs out of juice, he heads into a little Wild-West looking town to get a recharge. This town, like most towns in these movies, is run by a strong man named Carnegie (Gary Oldman). Like Eli, Carnegie likes a good book (pun intended) and is looking for a particular title that he believes will increase his powers of social control and facilitate the expansion of his rule to other towns. Wouldn’t you know, the book Carnegie is looking for is the one Eli has. The problem is, Eli has no intention of sharing his book with the likes of Carnegie and has a knack with blades and bullets that makes him tough to persuade through sicking tough guys on him.
Carnegie next tries to seduce Eli through sending him Solara (Mila Kunis) who agrees to be used this way in order to protect her blind mother (Jennifer Biels). Solara is rejected sexually by Eli but does spend the night with him and is introduced to the power of prayer and the book in question. Eli decides to continue his westward journey killing anyone who tries to stop him on his way out of town with Solara tagging along as initially a damsel-in-distress and later a companion and willing student of the book’s content. The movie shifts into full-on Mad Max mode as the two are pursued by Carnegie and his thugs in big vehicles (guess carbon footprints are no longer a concern for people). There’s a humorous scene with a couple of fine old cannibals and a huge shoot-out complete with a giant machine gun and grenade launcher.
To make a long story short, Eli does manage to make it to his destination and delivers the book (though not in the way you’d imagine). Carnegie, at a moment of apparent triumph gets what’s coming to him in a twist that is sure to astonish. Like The Sixth Sense, it’s the kind of twist that makes you want to watch the movie again to see if you can notice any signs that it was coming that you might have missed.
Here’s a few reflections on themes, metaphors, and images that align with aspects of Baha’i teaching.
Religion as a Cause of a global calamity: Religion’s contribution to the end of the world is only hinted at in the film, but given current events it is not so far fetched. The Universal House of Justice acknowledges this:
“With every day that passes, danger grows that the rising fires of religious prejudice will ignite a worldwide conflagration the consequences of which are unthinkable. Such a danger civil government, unaided, cannot overcome. Nor should we delude ourselves that appeals for mutual tolerance can alone hope to extinguish animosities that claim to possess Divine sanction.”
(The Universal House of Justice, 2002 April, To the World’s Religious Leaders, p. 5)
Manipulation of Religion in the Pursuit of Power: Carnegie describes religion as “weapon” as he tries to explain to a henchmen that Eli’s book is more than just a book. Carnegie sees possession of the book as a means of controlling others, reminding us that “it’s happened before. It can happen again”. Baha’u’llah comments on the potential for religion to be manipulated in this way in strong terms:
“Leaders of religion, in every age, have hindered their people from attaining the shores of eternal salvation, inasmuch as they held the reins of authority in their mighty grasp. Some for the lust of leadership, others through want of knowledge and understanding, have been the cause of the deprivation of the people.”
(Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 14)
The Black Madonna/Black Messiah: I’ve discussed this phenomenon exemplified by several recent films in a previous post. Eli’s character definitely fits into this concept, embodying qualities attributed to people of African descent in the Baha’i Writings such as this selection:
“The qualities of heart so richly possessed by [African Americans] are much needed in the world today-their great capacity for faith, their loyalty and devotion to their religion when once they believe, their purity of heart. God has richly endowed them, and their great contribution…is much needed…” (Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 532)
Steadfastness in the path of God: Watching Eli’s single-minded and resolute march towards his goal called to mind many selections from the Baha’i Writings. One of them was the following:
“Whoso hath recognized Me, will arise and serve Me with such determination that the powers of earth and heaven shall be unable to defeat his purpose.” (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 137)
The Oneness of Religion: The Book of Eli has been viewed by some as a “Christian” movie. However, there are aspects of the film that suggest it has a more universal message. Eli for instance could be seen as a more complex figure (his kaffiyeh and scimitar-like blade evoke an Islamic image, while his hand to hand combat has a Samurai feel to it). Also, an important scene near the end of the film includes Eli’s book among a diverse selection of books that have similar significance in other faith traditions and cultures. An interview with the directors of the movie on National Public Radio supports the notion of Eli embodying a broader concept of spirituality. In the words of the Universal House of Justice:
“It is evident that growing numbers of people are coming to realize that the truth underlying all religions is in its essence one. This recognition arises not through a resolution of theological disputes, but as an intuitive awareness born from the ever widening experience of others and from a dawning acceptance of the oneness of the human family itself. Out of the welter of religious doctrines, rituals and legal codes inherited from vanished worlds, there is emerging a sense that spiritual life, like the oneness manifest in diverse nationalities, races and cultures, constitutes one unbounded reality equally accessible to everyone” (The Universal House of Justice, 2002 April, To the World’s Religious Leaders, p. 4)
What’s your review and/or reflections on The Book of Eli?
A friend of mine shared this on her blog, and I wanted to share it with you. It is a short film called “Afghan” and explores how one victim and his friend try to overcome the situation through art and humor. Despite all their attempts the atmosphere is somber. Hate is never really funny even if we try to use humor as a coping mechanism. Art, like this film, that address issues of hate and injustice help us to build compassion and to think about the effect our actions have on others. I hope to live a life full of love, because hate, like darkness, can only be expelled through light.
When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love. ~‘Abdu’l-Bahá
So with out further ado, the film.