Afterschool: Never Forget

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In all of our lives, we must constantly deal with the omnipresent question of what is real and what is fake. Never has this clash of realities been more relevant than with the dawning of the internet. It’s a tool that presents us with unlimited power and knowledge, but also in that comes the herculean task of deciphering it all. In the hands of a young person, this can be both crushing and mind altering at times.

Antonio Campos in his 2008 film, Afterschool, presents us with this struggle in the form of his protagonist Robert, a young boy sent off by his family to a wealthy New England boarding school. During his time there he preoccupies himself with what he calls “little clips of things that seem real”. In his mundane life, he sees these videos of violence and sex as a portal through which he can glimpse something authentic. In many ways, they alter his young mind’s understanding of what is real in the first place.

While filming some stock footage in one of his school’s hallways for his video class he discovers something far realer than he could have ever expected when he discovers the two most popular girls in school as they suffer a horrible reaction to rat poison laced cocaine and die right in front of his eyes, one bleeding out in his very arms.

This tragedy obviously causes quite a few ripples throughout the school. As much as everyone is torn up about their deaths, what truly seems to bother everyone is how lost they are in actually understanding and dealing with these girl’s untimely demise. Most of all the reaction of the school and, in particular, its principle, Mr. Burke, deftly played by Michael Stuhlbarg, seems most perplexing and cold.

Mr. Burke recognizing Robert’s position in the school’s video class gives him the responsibility of making the memorial video for the girls, in the hopes that it would help him deal with their graphic deaths. Along with this the school pushes everyone to go see the school counselor and talk about how they feel, then in most cases get handed a prescription for whatever pill will handle the symptoms of their internal traumas without actually addressing it. Robert as the one to first find the girls is sent to speak to Mr. Virgil. He is obviously quite out of sorts with the whole ordeal. He talks about the videos and the violent porn he watches and how he finds a reality in them that’s fascinating. An authenticity that’s missing from his own life where, as Mr. Virgil tells him, the school had been told about the dead girl’s drug problem and did nothing to help them, in the interest of keeping their rich parent’s money and support going.

Once Robert finished putting the video together for the memorial, he shows it to Mr. Burke who asks, “Was that serious Robert? That was the worst thing I’ve ever seen”. The video wasn’t quite what the school had hoped for. With no music, shaky camera work, and the raw sense of reality that Robert has been searching for through countless Youtube searches. It didn’t try to provide the false sugar coated narrative the school hoped everyone would guzzle down. Instead of idolizing these girls with cheap condolences and ignoring the elephant in the room that they are responsible for allowing things to escalate so far into tragedy, Robert’s video portrayed the reality of that elephant and all its unsightly blemishes. The school and those around him wouldn’t stand for this, though. They aren’t interested in the truth they’re just interested in the most convenient reality where they print “Never Forget” all over the memorial stage and paint it as just another forgettable tragedy. Nothing to learn here, just move on, take another pill. Robert does and so does everyone else, just like Mr. Burke and Virgil reminds Robert, “It’s everyone’s fault” “It’s no one’s fault”, forget.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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Famous Filmmaker : Forgotten Film | Christopher Nolan : Insomnia

This will be the first in a weekly series of articles aimed at unearthing the often great films of well known directors that are rarely discussed when considering their filmographies. While the goal of this series is to raise awareness and draw attention to these films, it will also serve as an opportunity to recommend some really terrific movies that have sadly been overlooked in recent years.

Insomnia

Fifteen minutes into Nolan’s third feature length film, it seems apparent why this is the least discussed movie in his filmography. Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) and the other guy are two LA detectives called up to the small town of Nightmute, Alaska to investigate the brutal murder of a 17 year old girl. The film has all the markings of a typical slow paced detective thriller, substituting the dim streets of Los Angeles for the well lit backdrop of the rural Northwest in summer, where there is daylight twenty four hours a day. However, while tamer than his later works, Insomnia still reflects Nolan’s penchant for twists within his films, as the film shifts focus as Dormer descends into madness and paranoia. Dormer is under review back in LA for potentially unsavory actions he took while conducting investigations back home, and matters are made worse when he is forced to cover up a murder he commits while pursuing his Alaskan suspect, all while losing night after night of sleep to the harsh, blinding Alaskan sunlight.

Nolan is often lauded for his keen visual style, and though traces of this can be seen in his previous films Memento and The Following, Insomnia is his first aesthetically stunning work. Due in no small part to Nolan’s career long cinematographer Wally Pfister, Insomnia is a spectacular in its visual coherence, as the camera work perfectly captures the mounting psychosis of Dormer as his sleeplessness drives him to the point of delusion. Pfister’s mark on the film is not limited to solidifying thematic ideas, the action scenes within Insomnia are tense, and kinetic, though one chase scene across a port used by Alaskan logging companies seems stand out as a definitive high point.

In addition to Insomnia being Nolan’s most cohesive film, as it avoids the unresolved, lofty ideas that have proved themselves to be an underlying issue in his more recent films, there are myriad reasons to give this film the viewing it deserves. The script is strong and tight, drawing heavily from the Norwegian Insomnia that inspired this fantastic remake. Though Pacino shines in the majority of the film, Insomnia has a stellar auxiliary cast, including Hilary Swank as a naive Alaskan cop, and Robin Williams delivers a terrific performance as a local crime writer who becomes intertwined with Dormer as his sanity and morality slip through his fingers. I am the first to say that I am not a huge Nolan fan, but Insomnia is by far my favorite entry in this generally beloved filmmakers admittedly impressive filmography, and definitely well worth your time.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Beat Breakdown #1: Argo

Here’s a new series I’m going to take a crack at. It works like this: we’ll start by taking a look at the screenplay of an Oscar-nominated or Oscar-winning feature film, and try to identify and briefly discuss the important beats. Maybe I’ll keep up with this feature, maybe I won’t. I’m just such an unpredictable, free-spirited type of guy, you know?

In any case, today we’ll be taking a look at the the Oscar-winning 2012 political thriller Argo, written by Chris Terrio and directed by Ben Affleck.

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A .pdf of the screenplay can be found here.

PLOT SYNOPSIS

The film opens with the famed attack on the US embassy in Iran in November of 1979. During the attack, fifty embassy staff members are taken hostage, though six manage to escape and hide inside the home of a Canadian ambassador. Meanwhile, CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck, begins concocting a daring, go-for-broke rescue mission involving secreting the six erstwhile captives out of the country by posing as a film crew scouting for exotic locations.

INCITING INCIDENT

(Pages 1-9) The action begins immediately as a group of angry Iranian activists break down the gate of the American embassy in response to Jimmy Carter’s decision to grant the Shah of Iran asylum during the Iranian Revolution. Instantly, we’re faced with a simple and effective conflict: the bad guys have taken hostages, and the good guys want to get the hostages back. If simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, then this snappy, effective opening might luncheon with the Queen.

PLOT POINT ONE

(Pages 27-44) So things have gone to Hell in a hand basket, as they inevitably must, and Tony Mendez is called to action (literally, on the telephone) to restore the status quo—that is, rescue the hostages before they’re ground up for fertilizer. In what we experts (read: random pleb) refer to as the “Eureka moment,” Mendez is on the phone with his kid one night when he notices Planet of the Apes playing in the background, thus providing the inspiration for the hair-brained scheme that is to follow. From there, we’re treated to a sort of odyssey of colorful characters and clandestine meetings as one-by-one the various specialists are brought on board Fellowship of the Ring style to aid in what would eventually come to be known as the Canadian Caper.

MIDPOINT

(Pages 80-86) As per usual with your standard three-act dramatic structure, things get real bleak real fast in the second act. There’s an almost audible clunk marking the shift of tone between the Happy Hollywood Fun-Time Hour in the first act and the point where we spend the rest of the film with the escapees in Iran, miserable, hunted, and afraid. The juxtaposition between the two, however, is a masterful touch, serving to drive home how high the stakes actually are. Of course, what is a Hollywood film without some good old-fashioned sensationalism? Accordingly, the story has to contrive an excuse for the hostages to go out in public, resulting the bazar sequence, wherein the escapees attract unwanted attention from an antagonistic shopkeeper, nearly blowing their cover in the process.

PLOT POINT TWO

(Pages 87-92) One of the other major plot points takes us back to the States, allowing us to get embroiled in the administrative side of things. There’s an ongoing conflict between Mendez and his supervisor, Bryan Cranston’s Jack O’Donell, who, like any good authority figure in a governmental hierarchy just can’t resist stepping on the toes of his subordinates. O’Donell threatens to shut the operation down on the grounds that it’s too risky, but Mendez is loath to see all of his hard work go to waste. Even with its predictable outcome, this sub-plot is handedly well and its last-minute resolution adds an extra basting of adrenaline to the conclusion.

CRISIS AND CLIMAX

(Pages 95-113) When we talk about the crisis, we’re referring the chain of events, often becoming incrementally tenser, leading up to the climax. The climax itself, however, is the point of no return. Argo’s crisis, that extended and incredibly tense sequence during which the escapees, accompanied by Mendez, waltz their Western-sympathizing selves through a remarkably airtight security checkpoint. For the sake of drama, all the possible ways in which our motley crew can be sniffed-out are avoided or solved at the last possible moment, allowing them hightail it to safety while still retaining possession of their limbs. The climax itself occurs moments later, at the point when their plane actually takes off. The wheels leave the tarmac, the perusing Iranian officials shake their fists with impotent rage, and the audience can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the six luckiest McGuffins in all of existence got away safely.

DENOUEMENT

(Pages 114-122) It’s wheels-up in Iran: cut to reaction shot of CIA staff members going berserk in celebration. Not exactly original, but it gets the job done, I suppose. As the audience decompresses from the tense excitement of the preceding sequences, we learn which governmental department gets the credit, who has to share, and who’s bummed about it. Moreover, Mendez himself is bestowed certain honors, but owing to the degree of secrecy surrounding the whole enterprise, they’re supposed to be classified. Ah, but surely reuniting with his family after such a close brush with death is enough reward for old Mendez, who we’ve all come to love and respect. So all’s well that ends well, except for the other fifty-two hostages, obviously.

Spring Breakers: Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

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In spite of Andrew’s raw, feral hatred of this film, I’ve decided to go a little more in-depth in regards to the philosophy and psychology behind Spring Breakers. I realize that the film had niche appeal to begin with, and I also realize that there are some very legitimate reasons for not liking it. Nevertheless, let me cater to those rare few who, like myself, sincerely enjoyed the film, with this brief examination of some of the more understated aspects of character phycology.

Positive Psychology is a relatively new branch of psychology which seeks to understand what makes people happy and to promote joy and fulfillment in the lives of individuals. Essentially, Positive Psychology is unique in the sense that it deals with a person’s happiness, while other branches of psychology are generally more concerned with depression and other mental illnesses.

In his book Authentic Happiness, one of the founding fathers of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman, proposes that a person’s happiness can be determined by the following factors: setpoint genetics, circumstances, and voluntary control.

Setpoint genetics refers to the concept of a portion of a person’s happiness being attributed to their genetic makeup. The general idea is that after an individual experiences certain emotional highs or lows, they will eventually return to an average level of happiness, or setpoint, which is inherent in the genetic makeup of an individual- that is to say, unchangeable.  Therefore, Seligman argues, generally optimistic people tent to have a slightly higher setpoint while generally pessimistic people tend to have a lower one. Furthermore, Seligman suggests that about 35 to 50 percent of a person’s overall happiness is influenced by setpoint genetics.

Circumstances, likewise, seems to play a role in a person’s overall happiness, albeit a significantly smaller one. The circumstances referred to here can range from living in the first world versus the third world, being born into a rich family or a poor family, having an illness versus being healthy, etc. Seligman believes that the importance of these factors is much smaller, at about 8 to 15 percent, in the grand scheme of one’s happiness.

Voluntary control is an interesting factor because it proves to be surprisingly important, being responsible for up to 40 percent of a person’s level of happiness. Seligman argues that things like positive affirmations, utilizing one’s strengths and character traits effectively, being mindful- that is to say, being present in the moment-to-moment activities, and feeling as thought one’s actions are purposeful are all examples of voluntary control of one’s emotions.

Now, in regards to Spring Breakers, I’m most interested in the first of these factors, setpoint genetics, and in a phenomenon knows as the ‘hedonistic treadmill’.

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that the protagonists of the film are devoid of any existential meaning, as I argued in my review. This would erase the possibility of being motivated by living a purposeful life and, as we apparently see in the film, the girls are motivated solely by the pursuit of physical pleasure, or hedonism. Hedonism, essentially the pursuit of pleasure, is a key component of ‘the pleasant life’, but, as Seligman says, that brand of ‘happiness’ is fleeting and does not contribute to a feeling of authentic well being and flourishing.

The girls, without a conception of authentic happiness, and perhaps no capacity for authentic happiness (they’re debatably psychopaths, remember) are left no other option but to pursue the pleasant life. As they pursue the fulfillment of their physical pleasure, they begin to experience an emotional high, which quickly returns to their respective setpoints. As this happens over and over again, they begin to get accustomed to this emotional high in a process called adaptation. To compensate for this adaptation, their expectations must keep growing and growing in a phenomenon known as the hedonistic treadmill. Essentially, once this process has started, and unless an internal, voluntary shift takes place, no amount of pleasure will ever be enough and each successive attempt to recapture that same emotional high will be met with futility.

Perhaps an argument against hedonism, Spring Breakers captures a portrait of a self destructive path, leading neither to fulfillment or authentic happiness. I believe that the story is made all the more tragic by the fact that the girls really believe that they’re going to find some kind of salvation or meaning, where, in reality, only desperation and destruction exist.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: The World Forgetting by the World Forgot

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Every experience that you’ve ever had, from the desolation of bottomless despair to the zenith of limitless euphoria, constitute the wholeness of your being. They make you who you are, whether you like it or not. Do you deny it? Your experiences shape how you see and interact with the world around you. To loose one’s memories is to loose one’s grasp of self.

Today, I’d like to talk about an extraordinary film called Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In it, we can explore an array of interesting principles including the value of memory as well as the concepts of fate and chance. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman presents us with one of his finest accomplishments through peerless storytelling and deep and meaningful characters. Likewise, director Michael Gondry outdoes himself in Eternal Sunshine by devising some of the most ingenious uses of line, shape, space, and color in nearly every shot than I have seen in any film. The result is aesthetically beautiful, and I do not use the term lightly. I have never seen a film which has kept me so engaged on visual level while only utilizing such simple elements of design. I do not hesitate to call this film a true work of art, and as such I have developed a deep and profound respect for it.

The film explores several different yet equally important topics, the best way to proceed is to analyze them one at a time.

Memory

“Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders.” 

Many philosophers, including Immanuel Kant, support the idea that tampering with one’s memory or any other form of ‘self deception’ as he put it, is morally wrong. That’s all well and good, but what about the nature of memory itself? Is it not true that a man is shaped by his experiences, whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Everything that he has been exposed to will effect the choices that he makes as well as his outlook on the world. Essentially, this view presupposes the premise of subjective reality based upon the perception of the individual. For instance, if one were to be exposed to violence at a young age, that individual may grow up thinking that violence is a normal and valid response to conflict. On the other hand, that same individual may become disgusted with the violence that he was exposed to as a child and later in life adopt a non-violent worldview. Either way, and regardless of which choice he makes, that individual has been affected by the events that have occurred in the past. He is who he is now because of who he was then. Such a principal may seem like common sense, but it is vitally important nevertheless. Every choice you make, from the kind of coffee you drink in the morning to your stance on the upcoming election, is a result of the things that have happened to you in the past and your memory thereof.

Now consider Joel, who voluntarily forfeit his memory to escape the pain of the past. Considering what we now know about the nature of memory, is it possible to suggest that Joel is not quite complete? In other words, is he somehow less of a man? Physically, he is healthy. He has a brian, a heart, a liver, four functioning limbs and all the rest, but what about mentally or philosophically? For a real-life example, we need only look to an amnesia patient. If his memory is muddled, unclear, or even cuts off at a certain point, can we conclude that some part of him is missing, even if he does not know it himself? If he has no concept of how much time has passed between his last memory and the present, can he try his best to pick up where he left off and be no worse for it, or is his case hopeless because he cannot remember the events which shaped and guided his life up until that point. It is for you to decide. Both schools of thought are valid, and no great philosopher has succeeded in reaching an objective conclusion.

Determinism

While not an outright theme, Determinism is subtly woven into the context of the film. In short, determinism states that all events in life are based on the law of cause and effect, meaning that for every action there is one and only one unalterable and unavoidable reaction. According to its supporters, mostly pre-enlightenment philosophers, the process began at the very instant of the universe began and continues uninterrupted to this day. This being the case, and all actions being a result of cause-and effect, it would follow then, that free will as we know it would be rendered an arbitrary illusion as all of our ‘choices’ are indeed the only actions that could have occurred under the circumstances.

In the context of the film, determinism may be viewed as the inevitable fate of the two lovers, Joel and Clementine. The two had their memories erased and by reasonable conclusion should not fall for each other again. The simple phrase “Meet me in Montauk” whispered by a fleeting memory of Clementine travels through space and time and memory to find Joel in the present against, or perhaps because of, all odds. Ultimately, Joel and Clementine find each other again, almost as though it was meant to happen no matter what.

Indeterminism

Let me qualify this apparent contradiction. Indeterminism, as one would assume, is the opposite of determinism, and suggests that chance, rather than fate, is the determining factor in the process of events in the universe. Indeterminism began to gain widespread popularity with the advent of the study of quantum physics. Until that point, all observable information that humans possessed was based on the law of cause and effect, lending a huge amount of support to determinist thought and creating a grim outlook for free will as a concept. However, in 1927 Werner Heisenberg formulated his uncertainty principal, which states that that position and momentum of a particle cannot be known simultaneously. Essentially, what Heisenberg was suggesting was that the movement of the particles was without cause and therefore based on chance. Once it was accepted that the smallest units of matter were floating around more or less randomly, the concept was soon applied on a grander scale and free will returned as a valid concept of decision-making.

In the case of Joel and Clementine, it seems as though it was by mere chance that they fell in love the first time, and it seems as though it was by mere chance that they were able to find each other again. Isn’t it miraculous that a simple shard of a vast and beautiful memory was spared, when all other vestiges of Clementine were erased from Joel’s brain? Such a simple phrase…”Meet me in Montauk.” There was nearly an infinite number of variables, and still they fell in love again. I know what you’re thinking. How can we know if the events that transpired were machinations of fate or the defiance of free will? The answer is, admittedly, unsatisfying. We cannot know. Perhaps the more important question is “what do you believe?”

For now. and perhaps always, the truth will be a matter of perspective.

*Special thanks to Professor of Philosophy Christopher Grau of Clemson University.

Black Swan: Is This Real Life?

Have you ever considered if others see and experience the world differently from the way you do? Have you ever wondered how an autistic, blind, or deaf person may perceive reality? Have you ever thought to yourself “Is this real life. Is this just fantasy?” A great many thinkers spanning from Plato to Thomas Nagel have attempted to define the true nature of reality and how we perceive it. Today, we’ll take a look at subjective reality with the help of one of my favorite films, Black Swan.

Natalie Portman plays Nina, a ballerina who strives above all else for the perfection of her craft. Unfortunately for Nina, she realizes too late the all definitions of perfection are arbitrary because there is no objective standard to which she can be held. In her futile pursuit of perfection, our protagonist slowly looses her sanity, which manifests itself as hallucinations and false memories, among other terrifying symptoms. The question that we must ask ourselves is whether or not Nina’s experiences are any less real, simply because they may not be a shared experience or may not be relatable to a third party.

The term for the idea that the nature of reality is dependent upon the perception of the individual is ‘subjective reality.’ One of the oldest advocates of subjective reality is Plato, who gives us the “allegory of the cave” to illustrate his point.

Plato asks us to imagine a group of people who have been chained to the wall of a cave since birth and who have watched shadows flicker endlessly on the wall opposite them. To these people, the shadows on the wall represent everything that they know about reality. If a prisoner were to be set free and was finally able to look at the objects creating the shadows, Plato asserts that the prisoner would not recognize the objects and indeed would not be able to name them. We, as a third party (and not having been trapped in a cave), would be able to identify the objects creating the shadows at a glance. The prisoner, however, would believe that the shadows he had been seeing his whole life were more ‘real’ than the the actual objects were. In short, Plato’s allegory of the cave provides one of the oldest instances of support for the idea of subjective reality.

A much more modern philosopher, Thomas Nagel, put his thoughts on subjective reality into more simple terms. In his famous essay, What is it like to be a bat?, he argues that each and every individual organism had a unique point of view from which they see the world. Furthermore, no organism can gather experience from the point of view of another organism. The only reality that an individual can truly know is one based on his own experiences and perceptions. He asserts that human consciousnesses are closed-off from one another, and although there may be similarities, which practically speaking, allows society to function, it is impossible for two different individual’s perception of reality to be the same because they experience reality from different points of view.

In the case of Nina in Black Swan, the only thing that she can know for sure is that the living hell induced by her hallucinations are just as real to her as our own realities are to us. It may be slightly more accurate, however, to say that Nina experiences a kind of dual-subjective reality. That is to say, the individual is incapable of synthesizing information into one coherent reality, and instead makes several different interpretations of reality instead. It is important to note that even if she was the victim of terrifying hallucinations brought about by the pursuit of the unattainable, or if she experienced a form of dual-subjective reality, all of her experiences were real to her, and that really makes all the difference.

Reality is Perception

Perception is Subjective

Therefore, Reality is Subjective

The Incredibles: Who Cares About John Galt?

Pixar, throughout the years, has produced more than its fair share of exceptional films. In my mind, one movie in particular rises above the others. The Incredibles, released in 2004, has everything I could want in an animated film, and indeed, in any film; action with a sense of something at stake, romance with consequences, and brilliantly written characters and a plot which invites the audience to experience something…incredible.

Moreover, the film possesses an intricate and engrossing commentary on the ethics and values associated with Objectivist philosophy, which may (or may not) have been evident to anyone familiar with the work of philosopher Ayn Rand.

Allow me to provide only the barest background into the admittedly labyrinthian intricacies of Objectivist thought. In its most basic form, Objectivism (as far as values and ethics are concerned) holds that there are three virtues which make it possible to honor the ultimate Objectivist value, that is to say, one’s life. These virtues are rationality, productiveness, and pride*. Rand believed that no man of integrity could live without these three virtues and hope to live his life to the utmost.

Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s magnum opus published in 1957, is also referenced through the film as it remains to this day the most complete and comprehensive guide to Objectivist thought. In it, Rand portrays a world in which society’s most productive members have been demonized and have therefore chosen to go into hiding in order to watch a civilization which champions mediocrity to crumble from the inside.

Now, in the case of The Incredibles, the superheroes have been forcibly driven into hiding and are no longer allowed to use their powers which once set them above their fellow man. From the beginning, Mr. Incredible is punished for using his intimate knowledge of his insurance firm’s inner workings to help people who are in need, because the though the company’s profits may suffer. He is discouraged from that “sacred” virtue, productiveness, in the name of the greater good (at least from the point of view of his tyrannical employer).

Likewise, when Mr. and Mrs. Incredible argue over whether their son, Dash, should be allowed to go out for sports, Mr. Incredible laments the fact that theirs is a world in which the mediocre are heroes while the strong are themselves oppressed. He goes on to say that only those who are truly exceptional should be celebrated and acknowledges the fact that Dash’s superpowers may give him an advantage, but argues that his son’s success should not be limited by the inability of others.

There are, however, natural exceptions which disqualify this film from being about Objectivism. One such exception is the fact that the protagonist, Mr. Incredible, believes that saving people should be done for its own sake, whereas Objectivist ethics would imply that he himself should be gaining something from that endeavor.

If you’ve never read one of Rand’s novels, I do recommend it. The Fountianhead or Anthem is a good place to start. But be warned, do not accept everything you read as fact, even when Rand may present it as such. And would you kindly remember one last thing for me? We all make choices, but in the end…our choices make us.

*Paraphrased from an essay by Rand entitled The Objectivist Ethics. (1961)