Synecdoche, New York — Idle Fancies, Vain Imaginings, and Longing

Film:

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.

My Thoughts:

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.

synecdoche |siˈnekdəkē|
noun
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.


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Where the Wild Things Are — Tumult in our Hearts

Film:Where the Wild Things Are movie poster

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Starring Max Records and Catherine Keener.

Voiced by James Gandolfini, Catharine O’Hara, Paul Dano, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper and Lauren Ambrose.

Synopsis (From official website):

Innovative director Spike Jonze collaborates with celebrated author Maurice Sendak to bring one of the most beloved books of all time to the big screen.

The film tells the story of Max, a rambunctious and sensitive boy who feels misunderstood at home and escapes to where the Wild Things are.  Max lands on an island where he meets mysterious and strange creatures whose emotions are as wild and unpredictable as their actions.

My Thoughts:

This film is potent.  It is dark and raw, beautiful and sad.  This films goes beyond the purview of the children’s book and really delves into how divorce can effect a child.  Max is lonely and misunderstood and frustrated.  This film does not use much dialogue to express these emotions because Max himself does not have the words to express his struggles.  He is so young and yet going through so much pain.  He tries to connect with his mother and sister, but they too are struggling and so he feels disconnected, abandoned by his father, and powerless.  This is what leads to his acting out, and leads him to his imaginary world, a world just as disfunctional as the real one.  In this world each “Wild Thing” represents an aspect of himself, and members of his family.  One is angry, another feels overlooked.  This place of imagination helps him process what he is going through.  I so wanted to reach out to this fragile, hurting child.  I wanted to:

Be Thou their companion in their loneliness, their helper in a strange land, the remover of their sorrows, their comforter in calamity. Be Thou a refreshing draught for their thirst, a healing medicine for their ills and a balm for the burning ardor of their hearts. —‘Abdu’l-Bahá

I think this film is important for us as a society to watch.  It may not be light and fun and entertaining, in fact, while it was visually stunning and beautiful, it was painful to watch.  But pain is good, pain helps us grow.

Men who suffer not, attain no perfection. The plant most pruned by the gardeners is that one which, when the summer comes, will have the most beautiful blossoms and the most abundant fruit.—‘Abdu’l-Bahá

Often when we see children acting out we may be quick to judge their actions, their behavior, but the world is a difficult place.  Our actions as adults effect children.  Divorce is a difficult thing for all involved.  It leaves young children feeling insecure, confused, hurt, and lonely.  It rips families apart and can leave people aching.  There are times when it is necessary (in cases of abuse), but is it always?

Divorce has really changed the landscape of our society, the nature of our families, and is indicative of the pain and mistrust we have inside of ourselves.  Films like this give us opportunity to reflect upon our actions, their motives, and their consequences.  It also gives us time to reflect on the importance of love and compassion, and helping each other work through pain.

I have never been married, so I cannot speak to how easy or difficult it is.  What I can speak to is that there is a lot of confusion regarding marriage, and the nature of commitment.  People joke of starter marriages, and of “trading up” and I can’t help but hurt thinking about people like commodities.  I also can’t help but lament that the only discussions that seem to be happening regarding marriage in the news revolve around the rights for gays to marry.  We need to have more discussions regarding the nature of marriage itself, the nature of commitment, how a healthy marriage can help the children born of that marriage to flourish, and how the dissolution of marriages are costly emotionally, materially, and spiritually.  One thing that helps me when meditating on the meaning of marriage is to look to guidance, such as:

The friends of God must so live and conduct themselves, and evince such excellence of and conduct, as to make others astonished. The love between husband and wife should not be purely physical, nay, rather it must be spiritual and heavenly. These two souls should be considered as one soul. How difficult it would be to divide a single soul! Nay, great would be the difficulty! —‘Abdu’l-Bahá

So often we go to movies to escape, but this art can also be a mirror, a mirror that helps us to reflect on ourselves and our society.  It can uplift and empower us through emotion and help us cultivate understanding and empathy.

All Art is a gift of the Holy Spirit. When this light shines through the mind of a musician, it manifests itself in beautiful harmonies. Again, shining through the mind of a poet, it is seen in fine poetry and poetic prose. When the Light of the Sun of Truth inspires the mind of a painter, he produces marvellous pictures. These gifts are fulfilling their highest purpose, when showing forth the praise of God. —‘Abdu’l-Bahá

One thing I am going to walk away from this film with is a greater desire to love and serve humanity.  Our society is going through a lot of pain now and love is its only countermeasure.  When the people I know, whether friends, family, members of the community, or strangers I meet on a train, are suffering, I want to be a balm.  I think part of what was so painful for me watching this film was that I could not reach out and comfort Max.  I couldn’t give him a hug.  I could listen to him, or let him heave and cry on my shoulder.  However, there are many real people that need comfort too and I want to be there.  I want to be present, unlike the people in Max’s life.  This may not be possible, but I can strive.  This film has inspired me to strive.

Do not be content with showing friendship in words alone. Let your heart burn with loving-kindness for all who may cross your path. ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

 

Awaken! International Spiritual Film Festival

Film FestivalI am both so happy and so sad.  I was wandering around the internet (like you do) and I happened upon this film festival… Awaken! International Spiritual Film Festival: the first ever spiritual film festival in New Jersey, where I’m from.   And it happened a month ago and I missed it!  I hope that they hold it again next year, but who knows if I’ll even be here then.  Either way I wanted to share it with you guys.

I find trolling film festivals a great way to learn about small market films.  Unfortunately some of these films never even make it to mainstream theaters or DVD so it is hard to even see them without these festivals.  I hope to catch a few of these at some point.  It looked like a pretty good bunch of movies.

The winners for the audience choice awards were:

Feature-length Film:
Stranded: I come from a plane that crashed
in the mountains.

Documentary (up to 1 hour):
The Cats of Mirikitani

Short Film:
The Peace Tree

Family Favorite:
Raising Lucy

Sunshine Cleaning — Turning Dirty Work into Service

Sunshine Cleaning PosterFilm:

Sunshine Cleaning, 2009

Starring Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin, and Steve Zahn.

Synopsis (From IMDB):

Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) finds herself a single mother attempting to support her son Oscar (Jason Spevack) and her unreliable sister Norah (Emily Blunt) while working a mundane job as a maid. Once the head cheerleader in school with plenty of prospects, Rose now has little to show for her years, and while she still sees the former lead football player (Steve Zahn), it is little more than a despondent affair. When Oscar is expelled from public school, Rose takes a job as a bio-hazard crime-scene cleaner to help pay for a private education, and brings Norah on to help in her steadily growing business. As the sisters work to clean up the messes left behind by the chaotic lives of others, they must learn to reconcile their own differences and overcome a troubled past if they hope to prosper in their newfound venture.

My Thoughts:

I do not know why I have been attracted to watching films which have centered around death lately.  Perhaps that is what life and spirituality are all about: to prepare us for death and encourage us to make the most of the time we have on earth.

Sunshine Cleaning focusses on people who have struggled with making the most out of life.  It is revealed throughout the film that there are actually a lot of unresolved issues as well as grief- burdens that justifiably have weighed on these very real, and very relatable characters- which explain why it has been hard for them to thrive.  This films does an excellent job of feeling real, like you could actually know these people.  They do not have superpowers, they are not uncommenly witty, things do not work out magically for them.  Instead, they are people like you or me who have to struggle with work and with daily life.

Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) immediately captures your heart.  She tries to keep upbeat despite having a lousy job, raising a child alone, and having to care for her quirky father, and her nare-do-well  sister.  She is also having an affair with her (now married) high school sweetheart.  Her self esteem has taken quite a beating and her parental and financial troubles are incredibly stressful, yet she does not give up and strives to remain upbeat even if the smile is strained.

Therefore, strive to show in the human world that women are most capable and efficient, that their hearts are more tender and susceptible than the hearts of men, that they are more philanthropic and responsive toward the needy and suffering, that they are inflexibly opposed to war and are lovers of peace. ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

When an opportunity presents itself Rose decides to start her own business and go into Bio-hazard Crime Scene cleaning.  At first she has no idea what she is doing, but with the help of her sister and a friendly Janitorial Supply Store owner, she is able to build it up.  She decides to call the business “Sunshine Cleaning” which is indicative of her outlook.  Crime scenes are messy.  They are full of blood and often other vile things like rotting food or trash.  People look at what she does as morbid.  Yet Rose looks past that to the good, of being able to help people through a hard time and making the world a little better and easier for them.

“We come into people’s lives when they’ve experienced something profound.  And we help. In some small way, we help.” ~ Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams)

This is really what I would like to focus on, how to Rose this is not just a job, it’s a service.  It is a way she can show people love and compassion.  Crime scenes are not easy deaths.  She cleans up homicides and suicides, and there are people left behind in shock dealing with the tragedy.  This is juxtaposed with her prior job cleaning homes of the privileged, of partying college students.  While is is the same skill set, the same technical job, cleaning the homes of the dead and removing the bio-hazards and evidence of crime takes it to another level.  Any job we do, whether maid, doctor, accountant, or engineer, can be transformed into a spiritual experience when we think of the people we are serving and put them first.  Rose did just that.

The education of each child is compulsory…. In addition to this wide-spread education each child must be taught a profession, art, or trade, so that every member of the community will be enabled to earn his own livelihood.  Work done in the spirit of service is the highest form of worship…  ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

And she discovered this profession in a time of her own desperation.  Her son was given the ultimatum to go on behavior modifying drugs or be kicked out of school.  She knew that drugging her son was not the answer and wanted to put him in a school that would better cater to his learning differences.  Out of love for him she tried a new job, despite her misgivings, and discovered her love for it and the people she was able to help.

Unfortunately it was almost all taken away from her when there was fire which brunt down a clients house.  Rose had been waiting for the results of her certification exam before purchasing insurance for her business, hoping a good result would lead to lower rates and therefore had no safety net.  She was devastated to watch everything she had worked for, literally, go up in flames.

O SON OF MAN! Should prosperity befall thee, rejoice not, and should abasement come upon thee, grieve not, for both shall pass away and be no more. ~ Bahá’u’lláh

Another thing we learned in this film is the strength of family, because her father ended up sacrificing his own home to help her start a new Crime Scene Cleanup business.  By selling his house he was able to show how much he loved her, how much faith her had in her capacity, and how much he thought her business (and the service it provided)  was worth.

Word must be conjoined with deed. You must love your friend better than yourself; yes, be willing to sacrifice yourself… I desire that you be ready to sacrifice everything for each other, even life itself…   ~’Abdu’l-Bahá

Watching this film made me ask myself: Am I ready to serve?  Am I ready to truly sacrifice?  On this earth we all have a part to play, and what I do know is that I too am not living to my fullest capacity.  I could serve with a pure heart more often, and sacrifice my time, means, and energy more fully, and help to bring a little more love and a little more peace to this world.  So often when we talk about peace we think big, ending wars, but wars are just social ills scaled upward.  In the Lorkowski family there were internal wars that needed a peaceful resolution.  So often when we talk of love we talk of romance, but love is more than that.

I charge you all that each one of you concentrate all the thoughts of your heart on love and unity. 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.  Thoughts of war bring destruction to all harmony, well-being, restfulness and content. Thoughts of love are constructive of brotherhood, peace, friendship, and happiness. ~’Abdu’l-Bahá

I can do these two things.  I can conquer my thoughts of hate with thoughts of love, and I can overcome thoughts of war with thoughts of peace, and maybe in doing that bit by bit day by day, I like Rose can make the world a little better.

Your Thoughts?

Watchmen — Justice, Accountability, and Distopia

Film:Watchmen Poster

Watchmen, 2009

Starring Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Patrick Wilson.

Synopsis (from IMDB):

In a gritty and alternate 1985 the glory days of costumed vigilantes have been brought to a close by a government crackdown, but after one of the masked veterans is brutally murdered an investigation into the killer is initiated. The reunited heroes set out to prevent their own destruction, but in doing so discover a deeper and far more diabolical plot.

My Thoughts:

I am the type of person that enjoys lighthearted films, films that make me laugh and pick me up, films that inspire.  That being said, sometimes gritty, raw, and dark films can also inspire.  Watchmen is definitely a downer, as one can tell from the opening credits as the heroes fall from favor as society turns against them and they must go into hiding.  But there is a lot we can learn from these dark emotions that Watchmen so artfully invokes.

I have talked about justice before, but this film focuses so heavily on it that I feel it is important to discuss again.  In an ideal society government would function in a way to serve and protect its citizens.  Unfortunately in this universe, during World War II society needed assistance.  The Watchmen formed and were initially heralded as heroes, though soon were villianized as vigilantes.

Much of this had to do with the Watchmen wearing masks.  This anonymity gave the appearance of a lack of accountability as the public rallied crying “Who watches the Watchmen”?

O SON OF BEING! Bring thyself to account each day ere thou art summoned to a reckoning; for death, unheralded, shall come upon thee and thou shalt be called to give account for thy deeds. ~ Bahá’u’lláh

Accountability is important.  Afterall the film, as well as the graphic novel it is based on, showed that there were reasons for the people to be weary of the Watchmen.  They were just people too, afterall, and while some had noble intentions, others, like the Comedian, acted on more base instincts.

But the film does not stop on the surface level of accountability.  As we can see in the current economic crisis, people without masks can be just as wreckless as those who remain hidden.  In the movie this comes to light through the one living Watchman who had “gone public”.  He was viewed honorably and as a hero and a successful businessman, but he turned out to be the most deadly of all, whereas others like Night Owl had a strong moral compass that kept them accountable even masked.

I think that is a lesson we can all take to heart in our own lives and meditate on the true meaning of accountability.  For those who believe in God,ultimate accountability rests in His hands.  I think Watchmen really plays with the idea of loss of accountability.  This distopia lacked God, it lacked government, it lacked a social contract.  In that system it is little wonder that Ozymandias could see the sacrifice of several million people for peace as valid.  We can see how tragedy can unite people, and through unity peace can be achieved.  Maybe it was valid argument, but Ozymandias does not have the right to make that choice.

How can we build unity?  In a way that does not resort to destruction like it did in Watchmen.  I see this movie, and graphic novel as warning, a look into a world unchecked.  Some people see our world like that, but it does not have to be.  We can make good choices, and keep ourselves accountable.

I think I will end this post with a beautiful story from Persian culture about another Watchman.  I think it has a lot to do with seeing the end in the beginning, which was a theme of this film as well.  Rorschach could see there was something wrong before the others could, but he could not see the end as quickly as he would have liked.  Ozymandias believed the end was just.  Dr. Manhattan withdrew from humanity.  The difference, or perhaps similarity if you share Ozymandias’ point of view, is that the end in this scenario is good.   Perhaps the people should have listened to the Watchman, which watchman is up to you.  Without further ado, the story as recounted by Bahá’u’llá

There was once a lover who had sighed for long years in separation from his beloved, and wasted in the fire of remoteness. From the rule of love, his heart was empty of patience, and his body weary of his spirit; he reckoned life without her as a mockery, and time consumed him away. How many a day he found no rest in longing for her; how many a night the pain of her kept him from sleep; his body was worn to a sigh, his heart’s wound had turned him to a cry of sorrow. He had given a thousand lives for one taste of the cup of her presence, but it availed him not. The doctors knew no cure for him, and companions avoided his company; yea, physicians have no medicine for one sick of love, unless the favor of the beloved one deliver him.

At last, the tree of his longing yielded the fruit of despair, and the fire of his hope fell to ashes. Then one night he could live no more, and he went out of his house and made for the marketplace. On a sudden, a watchman followed

after him. He broke into a run, with the watchman following; then other watchmen came together, and barred every passage to the weary one. And the wretched one cried from his heart, and ran here and there, and moaned to himself: “Surely this watchman is Izrá’íl, my angel of death, following so fast upon me; or he is a tyrant of men, seeking to harm me.” His feet carried him on, the one bleeding with the arrow of love, and his heart lamented. Then he came to a garden wall, and with untold pain he scaled it, for it proved very high; and forgetting his life, he threw himself down to the garden.

And there he beheld his beloved with a lamp in her hand, searching for a ring she had lost. When the heart-surrendered lover looked on his ravishing love, he drew a great breath and raised up his hands in prayer, crying: “O God! Give Thou glory to the watchman, and riches and long life. For the watchman was Gabriel, guiding this poor one; or he was Isráfíl, bringing life to this wretched one!”

Indeed, his words were true, for he had found many a secret justice in this seeming tyranny of the watchman, and seen how many a mercy lay hid behind the veil. Out of wrath, the guard had led him who was athirst in love’s desert to the sea of his loved one, and lit up the dark night of absence with the light of reunion. He had driven one who was afar, into the garden of nearness, had guided an ailing soul to the heart’s physician.

Now if the lover could have looked ahead, he would have blessed the watchman at the start, and prayed on his behalf, and he would have seen that tyranny as justice; but since the end was veiled to him, he moaned and made his plaint in the beginning. Yet those who journey in the garden land of knowledge, because they see the end in the beginning, see peace in war and friendliness in anger.

Victor Victoria — Justice & Gender Roles

Victor Victoria Poster

Film:

Victor Victoria, 1982

Starring Julie Andrews, James Garner, Robert Preston, Leslie Ann Warren, Alex Karras, and John Rhys-Davies.

Synopsis (from NetFlix):

Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews) is a struggling soprano who, with help from a fellow performer (Robert Preston), finally finds success by posing as a male female impersonator. But what will happen when a nightclub owner (James Garner) finds himself attracted to Victoria’s cross-dressing male persona and begins to suspect “Victor” is really a woman? This gender-bending musical comedy received seven Oscar nominations and won for Best Score.

My Thoughts:

Firstly, any film which discusses gender roles and sexuality is bound to be controversial, even if it was made over 25 years ago, so before I go any further I would like to preface that whatever your opinion regarding homosexuality is, as well as of people who hold a different view than your own,  please keep this spiritual guidance in mind before commenting:

1“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.3“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”  ~ Matthew 7:1-5 (New International Version)

and

O SON OF BEING! How couldst thou forget thine own faults and busy thyself with the faults of others? Whoso doeth this is accursed of Me.  ~ Bahá’u’lláh, Arabic Hidden Word #26

When I first heard of this musical I thought it would be a mere comedy of mistaken identity and gender swapping, akin to a Shakespearean Comedy, and while it definitely has that feel and element, it also speaks on a deeper level.  In 1982, when this film came out, the United States had just gone through the Civil Rights movement,  Women’s Rights movement, and the Sexual Revolution.  Thoughts about what true justice meant were circulating around public consciousness, and being wrestled and debated with.  This film comes out of that context.

Victoria Grant is an amazing operatic soprano, yet due to the poor economy she is unable to find work in Paris during the 1930s.  She is so down on her luck she even auditions for a burlesque theater, insisting that she has a legitimate voice but the manager replies:

I’m looking for something
a little more illegitimate.

Victoria: I’m sure that with a little practice l…
Manager: Lady. That’s like a nun saying, with practice, she’d be a streetwalker.

However, Victoria is hungry and is about to be evicted so she is willing to compromise her virtue.  Toddy, a Gay nightclub performer, shows her kindness and as a result comes up with the idea that she should pretend to be a drag queen. Victoria is initially skeptical:

Victoria: Toddy, I don’t know how to act like a man.
Toddy: Contrary to the popular conception of how a man acts… there are different men who act in different ways.
Victoria: I mean, as opposed to the way women act.
Toddy: I am personally acquainted with at least a dozen men who act exactly like women…and vice versa.
Victoria: But there are some things that are naturally masculine.
Toddy: Name one.
Victoria: Peeing standing up.

This is interesting to me because it is true that society has carved out roles for men and roles for women and those who do not fit into those roles can feel excluded, or worse yet have assumptions made about them.  We should love all people and should not try to constrain people unnecessarily and unequally (clearly there are some social constraints that are necessary, like punishing theft or murder, but they should be applied across the board, regardless of gender or creed.  The constraints I am talking about here are things like not allowing certain people to pursue a profession based on their gender, class, or creed.)

Apparently there is no market for a woman with amazing musical talent, but there is a market for a man who can impersonate a woman with amazing musical talent.  However there is no man, so now a woman must pretend to be a man, who is pretending to be a woman.

This amuses me.  Truly, it is all about perception.  It should not matter if it is a man or a woman, we are equal in the sight of God, yet for the audience it does.  Perhaps because a man should not naturally be able to sing that high, or perhaps because it forces them to wonder about gender roles.

Victoria ends up being wildly successful but is conflicted when she begins to develop feelings for a man.  If she were to pursue the relationship it would either out her as a woman, or cause people to think that the man was gay.  Eventually they get together clandestinely but it soon becomes a problem:

Victoria: I mean, a woman pretending to be man pretending to be…

King: Well, you can stop pretending.

Victoria: And do what?

King: Be yourself.


Victoria: But, you see, I don’t think I want to. I’m a big star now. I’m a success… And something more. I find it all really fascinating. There are things available to me as a man…that I could never have as a woman. I’m emancipated.

Victoria: Would it be fair for me to ask you to give up your job?

King: lt’d be ridiculous.

Victoria: But you expect me to give up mine.

King: There’s a difference, for Christ’s sake!

Victoria: Right, but there shouldn’t be.

King: Well, look, I’m not the one pretending to be someone else.

I think there are two very different and equally important spiritual truths in this conversation that need to be teased out.  Both Victoria and King have valid points.  Victoria has experienced injustice.  Despite her talent and hard work, as a woman she was not able to find employment.  Also, once she got used to pretending to be a man she realized how much more freedom this lifestyle afforded her (this is the 1930s).  Victoria shouldn’t have to pretend to be a man to get work, she shouldn’t have to pretend to be a man to be respected, yet this was the case.

O SON OF SPIRIT! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes. ~ Bahá’u’lláh, Arabic Hidden Word #2

King is right though about her pretend game.  In the end she is lying, to herself and to the world.  What starts as innocent deception can cause a lot of emotional and social turmoil.  As much as we want to correct injustice we cannot do so by being unjust ourselves.

Truthfulness is the foundation of all human virtues. Without truthfulness progress and success, in all the worlds of God, are impossible for any soul. ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

The ending of the film was a bit confusing and unsatisfying, personally, because it did not resolve these problems.  Instead it seemed that Victoria chose to be with King and to give up her career, but maybe she will be able to continue singing now that people love her.  After all they clapped before she “revealed” she was a “man” so hopefully they would still enjoy the beautiful music despite the vessel it is in.

Vantage Point — An Exploration of Truth vs. Perception

Film:

Vantage Point, 2008
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker, Zoe Saldana, and William Hurt.

Synopsis (From IMDB):

President Ashton (William Hurt) is attending a global war on terror summit in Spain. Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid) and Kent Taylor (Matthew Fox) are two of the Secret Service agents assigned to protect him. This is the first action that Agent Barnes has been in since he took a bullet for President Ashton six-month earlier. We really dont know if Agent Barnes is up to the challenge of protecting the President. Shortly after President Ashton is escorted to the stage in the plaza by the Secret Service, he is shot twice by a rifle from a window and falls to the floor. The crowd is in shock and chaos breaks out all over, especially when bombs begin to explode. Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker) is an American video-taping the event to show to his children that he was actually there at this historic event. He believes that he has the picture of the man who shot the President. Agent Barnes sees the tape and has a clue to that person. Several different people witness the event, and only through their eyes do we see the truth behind the assassination attempt.

My Thoughts:

This film takes a unique narrative format in that it shows the same event through the perception of 8 different characters and through each new viewing of the incident the spectator comes closer to omniscience.  The first portrayal was from the GNN production truck in which we watched the producer keep track of the several cameras throughout the square.  I bring this up because it is the most distant of the views in that we are seeing the event transpire through a television screen (which it can be argued we are doing already so make it two television screens) and the people watching it have no control over what is happening.  From our limited perspective we can only see chaos.

With each retelling we are forced to re-evaluate what we saw in the previous vision, or what we (and the character) thought we saw.  From one perspective a swaying curtain looks like it could be a gunman, from another it’s just a fan blowing.  One character looks psychotic from the initial perspective but from another they are just trying to sound an alarm and warn of the oncoming violence.

We could walk away from this film thinking it was a good, fast-paced thriller, with a few unanswered plot points, but instead I think that this film is more than that.  It calls us to question what truth truly is.  We cannot believe our own eyes because our perception is limited by our “vantage point”.  We also only have the information of that moment, not always the information of what led to that moment.  It also shows that we are dependent on our perceptions and that when we are called to act fast we have to trust the only faculties we have.  We can’t just sit blindly and depend on others for our sight.

In our own lives how frequently have we seen something “fishy” and judged people because of it?  While people do make mistakes and sometimes have negative motivations (this film was about terrorism after all) I think that our perception isn’t just hindered or limited in those times of crisis, but every day.  God (whether or not you believe) is the only one capable of omniscience, and it is important to realize that if only to remind us to be humble when dealing with our perceptions.

We must investigate truth from more than just our own limited view of reality, and if we confuse what we see, or our own perception for “Truth” then we are bound to compound our mistakes.  We also need to forgive others for actions they take which we do not understand, and remind ourselves that they too our acting on incomplete information from their limited perspectives.

“There have issued, from His mighty Pen, various teachings for the prevention of war, and these have been scattered far and wide.
The first is the independent investigation of truth; for blind imitation of the past will stunt the mind. But once every soul inquireth into truth, society will be freed from the darkness of continually repeating the past.”
~‘Abdu’l-Bahá

If anything this film reminds us to take pause and to realize that truth is greater than our own bubble, our own incomplete slice of reality.  Even these words I am using can only adequately but not exactly describe the concepts I am trying to convey because concepts our so much more complex than we can ever explain.  Instead we have to make do with what we have- our narrow point of view, our incomplete command of language, our lack of precision- and remind ourselves to collect as much information as we can before judging a situation lest our judgments be misinformed and wrong.  And regarding the ideas of judgment and justice I leave you with two quotes from the Hidden Words which address both sides of this issues- the importance of Justice and yet our limitations when trying to pass judgment:

O SON OF SPIRIT! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes.


O SON OF BEING! How couldst thou forget thine own faults and busy thyself with the faults of others? Whoso doeth this is accursed of Me.

~Bahá’u’lláh

Your thoughts?