Sunday, January 18, 2015

Our lives are not fully lived if we are not willing to die for those we love and for what we believe

Selma, one of this year's Best Picture contenders at the Oscars, is sublimely directed and driven by its actors' powerful performances. It traces Martin Luther King's campaign for equal voting rights - starting from the day he wins his Nobel Prize to the moment his dream is realized.

As a Martin Luther King biopic, the film does his character justice. We immediately get a sense of Dr. King's elocutionary prowess at the beginning of the film as he rehearses the opening lines of his Nobel acceptance speech. Even before we see him, we hear his voice speaking light into darkness the way it did for so many African Americans during the civil rights movement. His humility does not escape us either, as he laments that it is "not right" how he looks like he's "living high on the hog dressed like this" while "folks back home" are suffering. In sharp contrast to President Johnson, who insisted that "this voting thing's just gonna have to wait," Dr. King persists in his determination to "build the path
rock by rock" through civil disobedience. There is palpable hope among his allies for such an endeavour. For example, when Coretta King worries that she didn't have enough time to "prepare" prior to meeting Malcolm X, Amelia Boynton (leader of the American Civil Rights Movement in Selma), says to her: "We are the descendants of a mighty people [...] They've prepared you. You are already prepared."

The film is carried by its cast, most notably the astonishing David Oyelowo. He sustains a regal poise throughout the film, one that is most evident when Dr. King turns his supporters around at the start of the second planned march to Montgomery, deciding to forgo bloodshed. Through Oyelowo's performance, we are closer to vicariously experiencing the stunning impact that Dr. King's speeches hand (and have) on people. Oprah Winfrey, although only in the film for brief scenes, delivered the second-best performance in the film. 

But the true star of the film is its director. Ava DuVernay has a fine sense of timing and acute grasp of visual detail. A great touch is the inclusion of "F.B.I notes" to show how J. Edgar and his team routinely logged Dr. King's activity. Scenes with these notes are shot from a distance to give us some perspective. DuVernay also shocks us effectively (very effectively) with the explosion in the opening of the film, but not at the expense of elegance. Indeed, she captures grace in violence through the slow-motion aftermath that follows: young girls float through debris as if they were weightless ballerinas. Such technique is echoed later on in the most striking scene of the film, as men on horses charge and whip protestors during their first march to Montgomery. Music beats in the background as people, running for their lives through cloud, are chased and terrorized. DuVernay knows how to run an action scene. The tensest and most heartbreaking of these is that of Jimmie Lee Jackson's death. (That was the first instance where I cried when watching the film; the second was, of course, the ending.)

In some ways, Selma does not have the sense of novelty that it would need to beat out its opponents for the Best Picture race. Moreover, because the writers trimmed the scope of the film's depiction of Dr. King, it does not cover the entirety of his legacy. Whereas The Grand Budapest Hotel is driven by its plot and Birdman by its cinematography, Selma - more limited in plot and empowered mostly by its actors - is at a disadvantage. Yet Selma is timeless. As Common raps in what is a sure-win at this year's Oscars for Best Original Song, "Resistance is us ... That's why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up." The path to equality still extends before us; I hope that many remain with the tenacity to build that path "rock by rock." 

Friday, January 16, 2015

The moments

Boyhood is an extraordinary film and an astonishing endeavour. Directed by Richard Linklater and filmed over a span of 12 years, it tracks the boyhood of six-year-old Mason from 2002 to 2014. The actor who plays Mason, the now-20-year old Ellar Coltrane, was cast at age six, just as the other actors in the film signed up for their roles 12 years ago. So, without a finalized script or clairvoyance (that we know of, at least), Linklater shot segments of the film annually for a 12-year period while the actors got on with their lives. Indeed, we even see elements of the actors' personal lives in the film itself.

Throughout the film, music, allusions and clothing are the markers that guide us through this 12-year span of time. Right at the start, Coldplay's Yellow indicates that the movie is set in the 2000s. Mason's trip to see The Chamber of Secrets in cinemas takes us up to 2002. Near the end of the film, Gotye's Somebody That I Used To Know transports us to 2011. Towards the end of the film, Facebook and iPhones become a part of the story.

The beginning of the film is set in Texas, where Mason lives with his older sister, Samantha (Lorelai Linklater), and his mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette is fabulous). Mason's father, Mason Sr. (played by the amazing Ethan Hawke) and Olivia have separated, but Mason Sr. soon returns to Texas and begins to visit the children weekly.

From here onwards, the film touches upon all the chapters of boyhood: young Mason daydreams in class, is fed up with his annoying older sister, flips through lingerie magazines with childish curiosity, goes through an acne phase, gets himself a girlfriend, turns fifteen, graduates...and finally heads off to college.

The interim is interspersed with meaningful scenes that capture the relationships between father and son, son and mother, boyfriend and girlfriend, and so on. One of my favourite scenes is the one in which Mason. Sr. has the "birds and the bees talk" with his children - it is as awkward for them as it is for him and nothing about that scene seems falsified in any way. Another memorable scene takes place when Mason. Sr. drives his children to a park on one of his weekend visits. Here, we see his attempts to  be a good dad: he asks his children how their week was, wanting to get to the heart of the question and refusing to be "that guy," refusing to be the stereotypical dad-who-visits-every-weekend in the divorce. So, what is lovely about the father-son dynamic in this film is the way Mason Sr. - although initially lost and with a drinking problem - cleans himself up and forms a meaningful bond with his children. The most moving instances of this are the scenes in which Mason and his father go hiking, and when Mason. Sr. confronts his son after his break up.

Speaking of father-son relationships, it is important to consider the men in the film because this is, after all, a movie about boyhood. Mason's father is wonderful, but he is not immune to placing expectations on his son. When he takes Mason out bowling, for instance, he insists that Mason forgo the bumpers (through another lens, this could be seen as Mason Sr.'s way of teaching his son perseverance). When Mason and Samantha show him dry Canadian grass and basketball team photos, respectively, it is the latter that grabs his attention. As Mason ascends to the eighth grade, his perceptions of manhood are further influenced by the seniors he meets. Spouting out profanity and challenging "are you gay," these seniors capture the stereotypical immaturity and self-consciousness of teenage boys.

Yet none of this is too troubling, unlike the disturbing "mansplaining" attitude of Professor Bill, Olivia's second husband. He demands Mason to cut his hair, saying that he will now "look like a man instead of a little girl." He orders his own children to do their chores rigorously. He dictates the way his son plays golf. Worst of all, he is tyrannical and abusive - what kind of boyhood will his son experience?

So, as much as the film is about boyhood, it is also about parenthood. Early on, Olivia exclaims, "I'm a parent, that means responsibility." Indeed, she does an astounding job at being a mother - having to face her daughter's "horsesh-t attitude," pulling her family out of poverty and raising Mason and Samantha until they graduate. She uses the tiger as an example to explain love during one of her classes, saying that mother tigers abandon their cubs and "throw them down" in the face of danger. For her, however, the opposite is true; she is the one who clings onto her children despite all danger and strife. Her motherly instinct is further strengthened at the end of the film, when the family runs into Ernesto, the man who had fixed their sewer pipes years ago. Now one of the managers of the restaurant they dine at, Ernesto credits Olivia for inspiring him to learn English and find his current. "[Olivia] is a smart woman," he tells Mason and Samantha. "You should listen to her."Yet the day Mason leaves for college, Olivia breaks down, crying, "I just thought there would be more."  Although the audience will inevitably get caught up in the journey of Mason's boyhood, we must not forget that it is his mother - not his father, stepfathers or peers - who does the best and most wholesome job of raising him.

Speaking about the film's ending, the whole film retains its structural integrity. For instance, it opens with the family moving and ends with another instance of moving, but it is only Mason that moves the second time round - into adulthood. Similarly, we can draw a clear link between Mason's childhood love for staring out of the window to his eventual passion for photography. Even Jimmy, the friend of his father whom Mason met when he was still young, reappears at the end as if to reinforce the length of time that has elapsed since.

So, it is fitting that Mason says to Nicole, one of the first girls he meets at college, that the young kids she tutors "haven't reached the awkward years yet."He, after all, has just gone through those awkward years - and what a journey they have been!

The fact that Linklater actually tracked his characters for 12 years contributes to the most striking element of this film: its realism. Yet he also achieves this because the dialogue in the film is so spot-on that it ceases to seem like scripted material. Indeed, I  saw myself reflected in the way Sheena, Mason's ex-girlfriend, chats with Samantha. The awkward laugh, the tucking of the hair behind her ear...I mean, I do that too!

At the same time, Boyhood - for all its realism - cannot be considered a faithful representation of "boyhood," although it may come close to capturing an idealized American boyhood (hence Mason's baseball games, a shotgun for his 15th birthday, a graduation party). Where was Mason's real teenage angst and where were his wild adolescent years of rebellion? Boyhood, striking as it is, deals with certain troubles of boyhood in some parts - but lacks to address some others.

Nonetheless, the final line of the film pithily captures its essence: "It's constant, the moments, it's just — it's like it's always right now, you know?" Linklater, after all, filmed Boyhood in the "right now" moments. He has translated a coming-of-age story onto screen in a way that allows the audience to vicariously experience - and truly witness - the passage of time through film. Boyhood is a work of incredible scope that is, despite its flaws, the most important contribution to cinema in a long while.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The search for peace of mind

My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of MindMy Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Scott Stossel's My Age of Anxiety is a personal, honest and thorough exploration of anxiety - what it is, how it manifests itself, how it is treated and how it may, in moderate levels, even be a blessing.

Anxiety may be defined as "a signal that the usual defenses against unbearably painful views of the self are failing." Exploring its various interpretations in the opening chapter of the book, The Riddle of Anxiety, Stossel writes that it is a "medical illness," a "philosophical problem," a "psychological problem" and perhaps even "a cultural condition, a function of the times we live in and the structure of our society." Molecular genetics have also suggested that anxiety has hereditary roots; Stossel, who belongs to a family of phobics, is living proof of this. Indeed, it is striking to note that we share the same evolutionary roots as rats and marine snails when it comes to fight-and-flight reactions. Is anxiety purely a cruel trick of our biological mechanisms, then? Perhaps not. As Stossel points out, what differentiates humans and animals is our orientation towards the future. "An animal cannot fear death," the source of many of our "fear of ontological givens"

So, these categories are certainly not mutually exclusive. As Stossel writes, "anxiety is at once a function of biology and philosophy, body and mind, instinct and reason, personality and culture."

Focusing on the impact of culture on anxiety, Stossel also discusses the ways in which our understanding of and response to anxiety have changed over time. For example, the fight-or-flight reaction mentioned above was well adapted to dealing with legitimate physical dangers in the past. Yet these days, this response is activated by what tumblr might term '21st-century-problems.' Among the few listed in the book, "the college application process" is the one I identify with the most. As Stossel eloquently puts it, the result is that we end up "marinating in a stew of stress hormones" that are detrimental to our health and only elevate our anxiety.

Moreover, the digital age in has heralded a sprawl of choices and possibilities that did not exist before. We, before a myriad options that at once liberate and trap us, have become victims of the "paradox of choice." Thus, as Stossel proposes, maybe anxiety is "a luxury" - in many ways, it is the consequence of the breadth of personal freedom that the generations before us did not have. Moreover, as social media continues to construct extreme standards of beauty, what psychologists call "impression management" - the fear that others will perceive one's inadequate self - has now become both a symptom and cause of anxiety.

Throughout the book, Stossel also outlines the many ways of curing anxiety, including riveting personal anecdotes. The most memorable of these is his horrifying experience of trying to vomit. Such an approach falls under the umbrella of "exposure therapy" - the process of exposing ourselves to what makes us anxious in order to overcome it. There is also the biomedical approach, which tackles the mechanisms of anxiety by focusing on research concerning the amygdala (the part of the brain that controls fear) and hippocampus. Interestingly, research has shown that people who meditate have much denser amygdalas. Other approaches include the experiential approach, which seeks to addresses the issues underlying anxiety, and the psychoanalytical approach, which encourages patients to develop a conscious awareness of their repressed conflicts in order to achieve a sense of emotional closure.

Moreover, Stossel also explores how drugs have worked to cure - but perhaps even increase - anxiety. In the case of the former, drugs such as Xanax and Prozac have been used by celebrities, musicians and thousands of anxious people worldwide. On the other hand, the presence of these drugs might have put into place a self-fulfilling prophecy regarding anxiety; indeed, reported cases of anxiety have soared since the drugs first entered pharmacies. You would think that more people would feel stressed out during World War One than now, but in fact statistics show that the latter is true instead. In legitimizing anxiety in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), have we merely escalated what could otherwise be simply referred to as 'worry?' In some cases, many may be tempted to say yes. Yet Stossel's story and those of the many others he writes about suggest that anxiety is - in its harshest form - a draining, debilitating and maybe even fatal condition.

In the midst of all our fears and anxieties, however, a silver lining persists. For example, Stossel argues that those who are phobic "retain their love for mankind" by transferring their fear of humanity's evils onto other things, like the dark. Those who are anxious are also more sensitive to others' feelings, making them - in some ways - better spouses and friends. Finally, most worriers are workers; don't we all know that one person in our class or office who frets about the tiniest details but scores the highest on the exam or gets the first promotion? If harnessed properly, anxiety can fuel our productivity. Stossel writes about a basketball player who used to vomit before every match but would then go on to play incredibly (up to the point where his coach would not allow the game to begin until he had vomited). Isn't Stossel himself, editor of The Atlantic and author of this incredible work, also proof of how anxiety can help people achieve more and with more focus?

I find it astounding that Stossel has written this book, "come out of the closet" as it were, and shared his fears and findings with the world. My Age of Anxiety is an astounding "quest to understand, and to find relief or redemption in, anxious suffering." It is an important read for not only the people who suffer from anxiety, but also the families and friends of those who live in "fear, hope, dread" and are ever on "the search for peace of mind."

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Friday, January 9, 2015

On s'est bien battus

Deux jours une nuit is a mesmerizing film about tenacity, human nature and the meaning of value. It traces the story of Sandra, a mother of two, who struggles with depression and anxiety but is given the chance to recover her job in the timespan of two days and one night. To do so, Sandra must confront her sixteen colleagues over the weekend and convince at least nine of them to cast a vote on Monday morning that will decide whether she gets to keep her job - or whether she will lose it while her coworkers, now fewer in number, will receive a 1000-pound bonus.

Sandra ou la prime? is the question that is asked before the votes are cast near the end of the film. Sandra or the bonus? These words pithily capture the primary ethical question that looms before us in the film: Compassion or pragmatism? Utilitarian or egotism? 

Such a question, difficult as it already is, is further complicated in the film. Sandra, for instance, is not an indispensable worker. Thin, bedridden and dependent on Xanax, she herself questions her competence and self-worth. If her colleagues choose to keep her, therefore, they will be doing so purely out of humanitarian reasons. Furthermore, her colleagues must take their own financial bearings into account when making their decision. As Sandra visits their homes, the audience realizes quickly that the people she works with also belong to the lower-middle class of Belgian society. Some work double jobs, some live in dingy apartments.  

What is most intriguing about the film is, of course, the ways in which the colleagues respond to Sandra. The first man she meets seems almost willing to side with her, but his wife interjects and angrily reminds him that they have to pay their daughter's college tuition. Another colleague, Nadine, flat-out refuses to even answer the door. She instead makes her daughter do the dirty work and pretend that no adults are home. It is Timur, on the other hand, who shows the most empathy - crying, even - when Sandra approaches him. It is also Timur who reminds Sarah of a time when she once showed him kindness; I suppose there is still good karma after all.

At the same time, Sandra's meetings do not simplify down to yeses and nos. Alphonse, for instance, struggles because he is afraid that Jean-Marc, his contremaître (and the one who threatened the colleagues to vote Sandra out), will revoke his contract upon knowing that he decided to vote for Sandra. Graver still, Sandra's visits - as she herself notes - provoke conflicts, ranging from spats between spouses to actual fistfights between employees. The miraculous turn of events is that one of these fights finally pushes Anne, one of the colleagues, to leave her abusive husband. There is the idea that Sandra's visit offers her sixteen colleagues the opportunity to reflect, reconsider and reevaluate. Yet how many choose to do so? It is fitting, then, that the vote ends in a draw. Indeed, this ending works out not only because it elaborates the plot, but also because it perpetuates the question the film asks: Sandra ou la prime? 

The presence of children in the film is particularly striking. Firstly, the fact that almost all of Sandra's colleagues have children means that the question for most of them is not only Sandra ou la prime, but also Sandra ou la prime [et le bien-être de ma famille]. Moreover, the children add a layer of innocence and lightness to the otherwise heavy, adult-dominated film. It is lovely that a child walks her to the laundry room as she heads there to meet Alphonse. Despite all the unkindness that she has been shown by some of her coworkers, not a single child looks at her meanly. So, it is ultimately Sandra's children and her dedicated and tenacious husband, Manu, who form her backbone. It is them for whom she fights. 

Throughout the film, we often see Sandra under sunlight as she rushes from door to door; instead of appearing illuminated or emboldened by the glow, however, she appears weak and overcome. Yet this is in stark contrast to Marion Cotillard's performance. Capturing anxiety and despair but also renewed hope and gratitude, she powerfully portrays a character who - despite feeling like "un mendiant" -  persists with her long journey to rediscover self-worth. She is fearless and flawless.

Deux jours une nuit is truly a film that deserves the 15-minute standing ovation it received at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival!