When you're reading 143 applications for work, it's not blog material. Same goes for grading final papers. So here are some great moves and shows I've seen lately instead on these cold, dark winter nights.
The Lives of Others
Set in Communist East Berlin prior to the fall of the wall, the story follows an investigation by a high-ranking security officer who is looking to a group of artists to find communist traitors. He sets up 24-hour bugging and live monitoring of the apartment when a playwright and actress live together. At first, he is dedicated to finding and reporting anything traitorous. But then something unexpected gradually happens, and we see the man begin to feel compassion for the people he is spending most of his days monitoring. He gathers evidence, but does not turn it in. He begins to fake the transcripts of the monitored conversations, editing out the damning content. As we see more of his life, we begin to realize how lonely he is, having no other relationships besides paranoid ones at his workplace. It's disconcerting and heartrending at once, and when he realizes that his entire operation is the result of a government official's attempted affair with the actress, he loses all stomach for hurting his subjects. In the end, he saves them by hiding an incriminating typewriter, an act that reveals his existence to the playwright. A warm, sentimental ending where hidden camaraderies are revealed would dull the sharp edge of this tale. After the fall of the wall, the playwright eventually discovers the records of his monitoring, and dedicates his book to the security officer to who saved his life, but they never meet or speak.
Man on Wire
The young Frenchman who walked between the twin towers was a singularly gifted person, a person who was born with and cultivated an extraordinary gift for walking the high wire. But this documentary lays to rest any easy presumptions that such a gift for balance on the wire signifies a gift for internal steadiness or emotional balance. We see the preparations in detail, from multiple perspectives, and the filmmakers do a great job of splicing interviews so that even though you know from the start what happens, there's great suspense throughout. The charismatic figure who leads a group of young Europeans and Americans in pulling off this and several other feats of daring is a complicated figure, full of both inspiring joy and insipid self-absorption. The most poignant moment is the moment when it all falls apart, right after the great feat has been accomplished. Rather than celebrate with his girlfriend and their amazing team, he accepts the offer of a stranger to have sex immediately after coming down from the towers. While you see his passion for the pleasure, you also feel its hollowness in this moment. His friends simply describe the dissolution of the group. I was left with a sense of appreciation for wonderful, miraculous things that inevitably come to an end at the very moment of their culmination. This is deeply honest film making.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
I heard this was a wonderful mystery book, and though I can't compare the two I can say that the movie version was spectacularly suspenseful. Scenes of rape, torture, and images of ravaged bodies make this tough viewing for the sensitive (as in: me) but the characters are worth it. Set and made in Sweden, an investigative journalist convicted of libel has 6 months before serving his sentence, and during the interim he's hired by an old man to investigate the 40-year-old murder of his niece. He was framed, but this is not a simple story of redemption, though that comes in the end. The story is about the evil that can exist in families, passed on from generation to generation, and the old man's complex extended family is tough to track. But the girl who helps him, first by hacking his computer and cracking a code about a series of murders, is a fierce character in herself. She's out on parole and being sexually abused (and then tortured) by her parole officer, and though she can get even and does (another harrowing scene), it's not enough. She gets drawn into solving the puzzle of the 40-year-old case alongside the journalist. The two have a tender but distant relationship; you get the sense that she has sex with him because he is kind and because she needs to feel something other than pain. He, meanwhile, falls in love with her and is doomed to be disappointed. But they do solve the mystery, leading to one small, poignant family reunion amidst the larger dysfunction. And the bad guys all get their due, every last one of them. That's satisfying in its own right.
Maybe I should wait until I've seen the whole series, but we're 3 seasons into it, and I think this is one of the best imagined sci-fi shows or movies I've seen. There are creepy twists in the first few seasons, as some of the "humans" who escaped the cylon attack on the planet of Caprica turn out to be cylons themselves. For awhile, Ben noted that I was really excellent at the spot-the-cylon game; (spoiler) I pegged the weirdly clean-cut PR guy the minute he appeared onscreen. So while the plot is a crazy joy ride, it's the characters that get me (isnt' it always?). Kara/Starbuck is so tough and fragile, loyal and deeply dishonorable. Laura Roslin is a fabulous leader who has real imperfections and makes real errors. Characters like the Chief are forced to question their humanity as they wrestle with their emotions for specific cylons. And who wouldn't love to hate Baltar, betrayer of the human race and the ultimate self-serving narcissist? The puzzle of what his interactions with the blond cylon actually are has been solved at this point in the series, but for the first two seasons it was one of the more intriguing mysteries. With mysteries to solve (including the bigger quest for human survival) and plots to follow, there's so much to appreciate about this series. And I couldn't be happier that Ben and I are watching the whole thing together (hi Ben!) as he wraps up his first semester of art school of putting his own tech skills to aesthetic purposes, with a successful painting robot and reality-tv-related installation.
Sometimes I write epiphanies here, simply because it's an easy place for me to access later. This is one of those.
In a great conversation with Heather, at lunch on Friday, I was finally able to articulate what I dislike about what Danielle calls "new age gangsters." I do value nurturing in myself and others, and I value knowing how to care for myself, and there are real things to be taken from resources that touch on those topics (such as, for me, Sark's fun and honest books). But I have serious problems with two particular aspects of what I see as "new age." First, people blame the victims. They use magical thinking to presume that, for instance, if a person is victimized, they must have brought it on themselves with their attitudes, as this website details related to rape and sexual abuse. I've actually heard a Hay-House-sponsored podcast that blamed the Iraq war on the mental/emotional attitudes of the Iraq people, as sick and twisted as that sounds. Second, this way of thinking encourages terrible emotional boundaries. It must become impossible to hear other's perspectives or accept the variety that life entails if you're constantly internally busy constructing a positive reality. New age gangsters turn this outward, feeling entitled to judge (and presume) others' emotional lives or mental states and prescribe affirmations if they don't seem "positive" enough. It's an inversion of the old 19th century "cult of true womanhood;"* now women learn (from new age books/cds) that they can and should use their intuition to police the emotional states of others. It's just about as neighborly as Foucault's panopticon.
Real healing doesn't come in a neat package. The raw and furious rant can be just as healing as the happy and polite affirmation. Coldness and distance make breathing room for inventing new ways of living that forced optimism can suffocate. Cultural norms already dictate that women control their bodies, weight, tempers, tongues... all to be "good." How deeply sad that women opt in to controlling their own thoughts and emotions rather than reaching for acceptance of all the wonder and horror and compassion for others.
*a nod to Barbara Welter