Friday, February 04, 2011

Inferno I, 32 by Jorge Louis Borges

"From the twilight of day till the twilight of evening, a leopard, in the last years of the thirteenth century, would see some wooden planks, some vertical iron bars, men and women who changed, a wall and perhaps a stone gutter filled with dry leaves. He did not know, could not know, that he longed for love and cruelty and the hot pleasure of tearing things to pieces and the wind carrying the scent of a deer, but something suffocated and rebelled within him and God spoke to him in a dream: “You live and will die in this prison so that a man I know of may see you a certain number of times and not forget you and place your figure and symbol in a poem which has its precise place in the scheme of the universe. You suffer captivity, but you will have given a word to the poem.” God, in the dream, illumined the animal’s brutishness and the animal understood these reasons and accepted his destiny, but, when he awoke, there was in him only an obscure resignation, a valorous ignorance, for the machinery of the world is much too complex for the simplicity of a beast.

Years later, Dante was dying in Ravenna, as unjustified and as lonely as any other man. In a dream, God declared to him the secret purpose of his life and work; Dante, in wonderment, knew at last who and what he was and blessed the bitterness of his life. Tradition relates that, upon waking, he felt that he had received and lost an infinite thing, something that he would not be able to recuperate or even glimpse, for the machinery of the world is much too complex for the simplicity of men."

Thursday, April 08, 2010

A Serious Man (2009)

Larry Gopnik is a very serious man indeed. Or at least, he tries awfully hard to be. But Larry doesn't seem to be in on the great cosmic joke, despite the fact that its at his expense.

The Cohen brother's latest film, A Serious Man, is a very personal film. Certainly for the brothers, who grew up in a Jewish community in Minneapolis during the 60's, but I meant for all of us. It asks the questions that, in our most desperate hours, we all lie awake at night whispering to ourselves, "Why me? What have I done to deserve this?" And for the character of Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor at a Minneapolis college, the answers to these questions appear to be...nothing. Larry's wife announces suddenly that she wants a divorce, his tenure is being threatened by anonymous vilifying letters, a disgruntled student seems to be attempting to blackmail him, And yet there are no answers, even from his rabbis, that can satisfactorily explain why.

Larry tries so hard to live righteously and his sense of moral compass is strong throughout the film. He understands his duty to his family, his institution, and his religion, but it begins to give way under all the trials he endures: his dreams become erotic and violent, and finally he is forced to face the greatest temptation: to try and erase one problem with another.

The film itself is full of uncertainty. We are unsure as an audience when to laugh or when to cringe. The film begins with a prologue which establishes this are the film's central question: what can man be certain of? and how does the reality that can be seen and experienced, what man often claims as "truth", give way to his superstitions and metaphysical beliefs?

I have heard it said that the Cohen bothers are the quintessential postmodern filmmakers. But I wonder if this film is about the clash of post-modern thought and the Jewish tradition, or more simply about the idea of logic versus faith. As a professor of physics, Larry understands all the math; math can be contained in its own world, the world of theory and the page. However, once the math is released from these confines, when the math leaps off the giant chalkboard, when Schodinger's cat breathes air, and the apparent 'randomness' and 'paradoxes' that plague his mathematical theorems come to life, Larry is left drowning in a sea of questions he does not have the answers to. Like why God would allow us to question without ever giving us the answers.
It has been remarked that A Serious Man is simply a retelling of the Biblical story of Job. While the story may be the same, the message is not. Larry, like Job, has everything taken from him with no apparent reason why. As a Christian, I always struggled with the book of Job. Would would God allow bad things happen to good people, the serious men of this world?

I remember hearing a professor speak on the book of Job. I will never forget what he said. He warned that perhaps when we, like Job, are too focused on pondering the problem of evil that we do not fathom the problem of grace. For Christians, this grace and salvation are not things we earn, but things we are given, as a free gifts from the God who loves us more deeply than we could possibly comprehend. We do not deserve it in any possible way and the good acts we do are not a means of obtaining salvation, but a means of demonstrating our joint reception of the promises of God in Christ. However, because all men have fallen short of God's glory, judgement can fall upon us just as swiftly. Larry does not choose to look upon God as an almighty savior, but simply as an aggressor. Perhaps this is where Larry's and Job's stories diverge. Larry's story ends where it began, in uncertainty. But Job, through his recognition of the sovereignty of God is restored beyond his previous blessings.

But I think, despite his rather laughable way of stating it, that the Junior Rabbi was the closest to being right; that perhaps we just need to change our perspective. That God may not provide us with the direct answers to the conundrums of our individual situations, but that God has provided us with the evidence of His divine nature and power. Its not enough just to sit and contemplate the problem of evil, when we should in fact be contemplating the problem of grace. That although disaster may come like a great unstoppable tornado, we have to trust that the God who gives us this grace will get us through the storm.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

To Show You What You Mean To......

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

This makes me laugh every time....
(Courtesy of

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Third Man (1949)

With the summer finally here (and with more time now available to me) I have decided that I will try my hand at writing some film reviews. I love watching films, making films and intelligently discussing them, so I figured that I should refine my ability to cohesively write about them as well. Here goes.

What is the value of human life? In post-World War II Vienna, the answer seems to be "cheap." However, Carol Reed's film "The Third Man" does not discuss this idea within the context of the brutality of warfare itself, but in terms of a man's sense of morality. Man himself becomes cheap if he is willing to see the lives of fellow human beings as simply a figure on a page or a dollar in his pocket. We love the film's naive hero Holly Martins (incomparably played by Joseph Cotton) because he realizes that morality is much more complex than what is in the westerns novellas he writes; he begins by caring only about the death of his friend Harry Lime, but realizes that he needs to care about so much more. A friend tells Martins, "The world doesn't make any heroes outside of your stories." Maybe he's right. Maybe the world doesn't make heroes. But that doesn't mean Martins shouldn't decide to become one.

Essentially, the film is about Martins, who has come from America to post-war Vienna to find a childhood friend (Lime) who has offered him a job. He arrives to find Lime has been killed in an automobile accident. The British police tell him to forget the whole matter and return to America, warning him that the situation is much more dangerous that Martins is willing to believe. However, something doesn't add up, and eventually Martins concludes that Lime has been murdered. He follows the trail, but it leads him somewhere that everyone warned him not to go. Eventually, Martins must choose a side and come face to face with who his friend truly was: to choose the fierce loyalty of Lime's girlfriend, or to side with the truth. As I watched the film again, a friend suggested that the famous Ferris wheel scene depicts the moral rise and fall of Lime; we look down on the crowd as he does, seeing things from his perspective ("Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don't. Why should we?"), but ultimately, we end where we began. Nothing has changed.

As an artist, whenever I see a photographer who uses an excessive number of Dutch angles in their work, it comes off as desperate and amateurish. However, watching this film reminded me that before the gratuitous use of the Dutch angle in Myspace profile pictures, it was a powerful tool used masterfully by filmmakers like Reed. Almost every shot in "The Third Man" is at an angle, albeit sometimes very slight. The effect is sometimes dizzying, but always disorienting, which despite intuition, does not hamper the film with unnecessary confusion, but builds the audience's sense of unease. In the same way, the lighting in this film is haunting and possesses an otherworldly strangeness. One is often frightened of the night because of the engulfing darkness, but Reed almost makes you more frightened of the light: buildings luminescent like glowing skeletons, shadows that loom larger than life, and just enough dark to conceal oneself in shambles of the crumbling city.

Perhaps even more poignant, is the music in this film. I must admit that I had never listened to zither music before, but I think now I will never be able to look at it the same way. The score (performed by Anton Karas) haunts you long after the film has ended (the first time I watched it, I was humming the theme for the next few days). The music, as Roger Ebert states, "is jaunty but without joy, like whistling in the dark. It sets the tone; the action begins like an undergraduate lark and then reveals vicious undertones." Could not have said it any better. The elements of this film, the acting, the cinematography, and the music, all unite in a perfection that is undeniable. Personally, I can find no fault.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Time Machine

He paused for just a moment. Until this point his rough hands had been furiously laboring to finish this delicate mechanical operation. The sweat dripped from his brow and stung his eyes. As he wiped his reddened cheek on his shirtsleeves, he suddenly realized how warm it had become in the room despite the November chill. He threw off his waistcoat and violently flung open the window. A gust of cool wind shot through the room. He closed his weary lids and allowed the wind to cool his distempered mind. For an instant he longed to forget it all, to abandon his project. Somewhere in the back of his mind he still longed for the position and acclaim he had once enjoyed before accident had occurred. But he knew that could never be. He remembered why he worked so diligently. He felt a surge of longing and courage course through his soul and he turned to resume his project only to realize that the candles had gone out. He hastily shut the window and relit only the candles most necessary to continue his task for he knew that he must work in earnest now. A few hours passed as he strove for completion. At last he picked up the wrench and finished tightening the final cogs. It was ready… he hoped. He tenuously turned each crank to the appropriate settings. Once the machine was set, all he could do was wait for the appropriate window of opportunity. The last few years had been an agony; waiting before they could be reunited, but this torment had only served to heighten his sense of diligence and not to weaken his resolve. Now that this night’s work was done, he picked up his fountain pen and a clean sheet of paper. He knew he must write a letter, just in case he did not survive the journey. He scribbled some nonsense about the division of the heart and the distance of time, but he knew it was no use: he could not explain what he felt through the pen and ink. He crumpled this sheet and began another, but he disliked this one as much as the last. Finally, he settled on one draft that was adequate in his mind, and proceeded to add his seal and then safely stow ed it in the inside pocket of his coat, which lay neatly across the back of his chair. He gently lifted his pocket-watch off the desk. There were only a few minutes left now. His agitation became more and more intensified until he could do nothing else but pace about the study. His overly heightened senses perceived a muffled noise. Without a second thought, he donned his waistcoat, coat and hat, and felt inside the breast pocket to ensure the letter was still there. He froze and waited silently. It was only a horse and carriage passing by outside. In disappointment he began to take off his hat, when suddenly, it began. A flash of white light lit every corner of the room and a low rattling noise shook the floor. Despite the piercing light, he was able to see the faint outline of an entrance and he knew he would just be able to power his machine and step across the threshold. He reached across the desk and threw of the final switch. An even deeper rumbling began that shook his very being. All his previous fears came flooding back to his mind: would his machine work like it did the last time? would he survive the dross-dimensional journey? And, most importantly, could love survive the test of time? He was unsure, but there was one thing he was certain of: she was waiting, and he could not disappoint. He glanced towards Heaven, stepped into the light, and was gone.

:::::::: This is my most recent 3-D design art project. I'll post a few more of my projects from this class soon. Feel free to comment or critique.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Another Squire's Tale

For our pull question on the Canterbury Tales, our class had the option of writing a tale of our own concerning the questions of marriage proposed by Chaucer. In class we discussed whether marriage kills the idealization of the beloved, so behold my sad attempt at answering this idea through my even sadder poetry skills. Enjoy!

In days of yore, while Arthur led the Knights of the Table Round,
When lady loves received vows of love profound,
There lived a timid squire, of scrawny stature and ruddy cheek
Whose voice was scarcely audible, his manner very meek.
This bashful youth would oft appear in the good King’s court
And with the noble gentry to consort.
Yet women-folk he did admire from afar,
Too gentle was the squire to approach them who are
In his opinion, of gracious spirit and superior wit
Who he could match but for a whit.
The women would gather and speak in a hush
While our goodly squire would stammer and blush.
However, till that time he’d never met one
To whom the strings of his heart were undone.
He’d stutter and start, he’d sputter and smirk
And yet, each one of these women would irk
His sensitive conscience and opinion, it’s true!
Preventing him to either marry or woo.
On Michaelmas day, this squire of tender years,
His trepidation to soon disappear,
Arrived at the court in proper pomp and stance
To view the courtly ladies all askance.
He was about to leave the murmuring throng
When he noticed, she to the heavens belong,
A woman of great stature and grace,
That his heart did but burst and flow to his face.
Her manner, her words, ay! Heaven above!
He knew in that instant that she was his love.
Were she carved out of marble, her perfection’s not matched,
All other collations the squire dist dispatch.
She was resplendent, a goddess, a lover,
And just as the stars in the heavens above her,
In her, the light of her Maker dist shine,
Mortal and divine beauty forever did twine.
Our squire, overcome with devotion to the lady,
Knew his heart to be bound to hers already.
The only obstacle that lay between him and his prize
Was to capture her fancy. So a plan to devise
The squire’s goal came to be, to gain
A love she might otherwise feign.
Each day he wrote sonnets and tied them with string
And each new day he would secretly bring
A new song through which of his love he would speak
And mention his courage and manly physique.
The lady would read this poetry and constantly sigh
And to pine for her brave hero she madly would cry,
“Where art thou, O lover divine?
You’ve given your heart, I might give you mine!
How brave and how manly and robust you sound,
With the wreathes of the gods you must surely be crowned.”
This lady’s maid knew of the verses
And rebuked her mistress with long, drawn out curses:
“You know not who this man be, or how he dost look
Wait not to reject him till your heart he does rook.
How foolish you are not know your love now
And wait till you’ve sealed your fate in marriage vow.”
The lady would have non of her maid’s prattle
And went off instead to write her own verses that’ll
Return her deep passion and continue this farce,
And proclaim her own virtues, which by troth were not sparse.
And so in her verse she hath promised to conjoin
With him in matrimony, their hearts to adjoin.
So squire and lady arranged through letters a day
They might be wed, much to her maid’s dismay.
The maid would rant and rave about the dangers of this plan
But the lady could see no fault with her man.
When the day of the wedding did finally arrive,
The squire knew nothing could now deprive
Him of his wife, his perfect idol, his star!
Even if he had only viewed her from afar.
So he put on his armor at leopard’s fast pace
With his sword at his side, and helmet over face.
His heart was a flutter for his lady all in white,
That he felt himself to be no longer a squire, but a knight.
She approached him with her face all aglow
And because of her love asked him timidly to show
The face and the form he had written so much about
The image to which she had been so devout.
But the wedding began before he could say naught
So that she might know who he is as she ought.
The nuptials now done, it was time to reveal
And soon to break each others’ ideal.
She pulled back her veil and with helmet off head,
They moved into kiss, but, alas, what instead?
A scrawny young squire of equal her years,
Yet all infatuation dist then disappear.
At the sight of his lady so angry and distressed
He knew that she was not the type of lady he meant to impress
For she seemed more concerned with outward appearance
Than with his poetry, love and strict perseverance.
They protested and cried, ranted and screamed
But the marriage was valid, or so the Church deemed.
The maid wildly cackled and said, “So I thought!
My lady and gent, what lessons you’ve been taught!”
His image of her, and her image of him
Were broken, and their outlook seemed grim
But the couple, resigned to their simple fate,
Decided to see if love they could create.
Each new day they would meet and discuss,
And so very often their meetings went thus:
A small salutation, a nod or a bow,
Then their own thoughts and ideas avow.
Some days she’d be shrewish, some days he a bore,
But after some months, they began to adore,
Overcoming the small faults seen in each other
That they finally knew they couldn’t seek another
To love or to cherish, to have and to hold,
The true image of beloved they now could behold.
For the first time they saw woman and man as meant to be seen,
The good times and bad, and all in between.
The false image destroyed had been restored by truth,
Patience, obedience and the passion of youth.
Yet think not this love will die with the years
As the couple that marries dost often fears.
By Heaven no! Their love hath lived on,
For by their own understanding was drawn
A marriage that would rise like the glorious sun,
And now I must think my tale is now done.
Be wary of lies, of false lovers, be sure!
In order that your love might endure.