Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Insular Worlds and School Shootings

A Facebook post, in which A. got annoyed with the amount of posts that seemed to show that people really just didn't care about the recent school shooting in Newtown, CT.  The postings I have seen have been basically pictures of angels, and of the children themselves, or posts supporting or being against (mostly against) gun control as a method of curbing future shooters from getting guns in the first place.  The feeling is more that if the rest of us have guns, those that want to use them for violence won't get very far.  Sort of a cold war Nuclear race type idea.  But most posts after this have been about life as it has gone for years, past and future, and A. is annoyed because it seems like no one cares.  My thoughts were to figure out if there was any support to this.  A.'s post in italics.

A: Y'know, MOST of my FB friends are thoughtful and considering in posting their comments during a time of seemingly unremitting bad news. And I'm hesitant to even post this, since the majority of those people are, allegedly, adults. There are a few, though, who seem to be living in their own little worlds, oblivious to anything and everything that falls outside of their self-contained insular nests. To those of you who fall into that latter category, here's a word of advice: when there is a mass murder, involving mostly innocent children, a crime so heinous that it throws the entire civilized world into shock and mourning, then no one gives a damn about the movie you just saw, your love of computers, the new color scheme of your bathroom, cutsie cards/posters, or your gaming passion. Not to be too preachy about it, but save that crap for another time. The rest of us will be OK without it.
I agree with you, to some extent. That's a complicated matter, as escapism is a tool people use to deal with circumstances such as this. And has the media made it so where, after the time they deemed necessary to talk about the CT shooting, it goes on to the next item, having trained us, on the evening news, to hear about the everyday shootings and fires and accidents and then move on, unmoved about the loss of human life. Is it that, the news that is reporting how monstrous mankind can be, is also training us to view it as normal, or overlook it as fringe happenings that deserve a ninety second story, and then on to the Weather, sports, and what happened on American Idol? Humans live in their compartmentalized, "insular" worlds and deal with issues even as they watch their football games and download apps. onto their Android phones. 

My mom retold the days following the Kennedy Assassination, where between news reports, the three channels played classical music for the entire weekend. She was shocked when, after the funeral and procession, when an advertisement actually came on. How far have we moved past those days, when commercials will be done no matter what is happening? Where there is always cable channels filled with escapist, entertaining, crap so that we would never have to face reality at all. And I do it too, as the Disney Channel stays on my TV most of the day. I play my Bejeweled Blitz and my Hidden Chronicles, and the world outside goes on unnoticed. It's unfortunate, but I don't believe that the majority of people who are on Facebook could *not* participate in mass escapism to deal with the Sandy Hook massacre, as the addiction of constant information gorging is far too powerful for them to watch one Television station, with no commercials, and classical music in between news of something that should bring us all together. Human beings are too busy being walled in by big screen TVs and tiny cell phones to deal with actual live human beings. We can reach out, and participate in world events just as instantly as they happen, yet that same ability keeps us even more distant from each other. It's the tragic irony of our times. As the politician on the Monkees movie "Head" said, "The tragedy of your times, my friends, is that you may get exactly what you want." How true that is.

It's also the fact that most people have a very limited attention span. No one, it seems, can focus on anything for more than a few moments. Thus the constant demand for digression: to the extent that television "news" rarely runs a story lasting more than thirty seconds. Absurd shows like "Good Morning America" intersperses tragedy with music, celebrity "news", weather, and so-called human interest stories. It's no wonder that the average American is misinformed about, well, everything. 

Yep.  How we communicate is as important as what we communicate (Postman), so we've been trained to communicate in 30 second sound bytes, 140 characters, get it out, make it known, no thinking, just instant response.  Move back and forth, from one subject to another. It's necessary, to some extent, in this world we live in. Compartmentalization allows us to sort out the vast amount of data that gets thrown at us every minute. Now, that doesn't mean that we're able to reflect, absorb, and learn from that information.  It also protects us from that raw data, as, for the longest time, we weren't able to instantly be aware of all the wrongs in this world.  Now, with the 24 hour news, the Internet, the cell phones, we can know everything going on.  And that's not good.  Robert Goolrick, author of The Reliable Wife, documented the many tragedies that happened in the northern states back prior to cars, electricity, medicine, where people went crazy and slaughtered their families, killed themselves...etc..., but no one knew about all of that, as CNN wasn't there to report on it.  Now, we didn't know, so we couldn't solve the problem.  We couldn't throw our money, our technology, our scientific knowledge at it.  But there was also no instant emotional response in rash legislation passed, no blame turned political, and no moving on as the next tragedy hit, and the next, and the next.  And the idea wasn't put into other, maybe mentally unstable, people's heads, so they could carry out the same thing the next time they forgot to take medication.  Copycat acts are the direct result of the communication of unsorted images and acts and emotions, all thrown out of televisions and computers.  We have to learn to think about the consequences of our actions, and in this society, that's not happening.  It all boils down to right and wrong, and in today's world of victims, moral relativity, and shades of gray, it's hard for a normal person to decide right from wrong, much less someone who might have a neurological problem.  Thus the results are ambushed firefighters, slain school children, and all the myriads of violent acts that happen every single day. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Book Review: The Isle of Shapeshifters by Otto Coontz

A daunting task lies ahead of me, one comparable to climbing Mount Everest or cleaning my basement... reading the books I have on my bookcases.  It's even more daunting because I'm adding more and more books every week.  Favorite authors, intriguing book covers, sizes and shapes, all of them crying out "Read Me!" like a piece of candy to Alice, before she inevitably shrinks or grows, or a cat meowing at an animal shelter.  So when I finish the last page of one book, I venture toward those bookcases and see which one meows at me the most.  Now, most of my books are stacked horizontally, so top ones get preference (cause I'm usually on the way to wait in a line or go to work.), and they're double stacked, so front also gets first shot.  So I pulled one off my shelves and took it to work.  It's a book called Isle of the Shapeshifters by Otto Coontz.

You certainly can't have a last name like "Coontz" and not be expected to write something akin to Horror.  Turns out, this particular book reminds me of Dean Koontz' writing, especially like his book The Taking.  It also is very typical of  the B-list horror movies that came out in the 70's and 80's.  The setting often becomes as much a character as any of the people.  It rains when bad things happen, wind, fog, earthquakes... a pathetic fallacy where nature becomes sentient, (although, in this book, it's actually controlled by the people living on the island.)  Mix that in with very well created characters, and description of the island that was amazing, and you have a great book.

After I finished the novel, I went to Google Maps and took at satellite tour of Nantucket Island, and it's exactly as Coontz described it in the novel.  Even today, so far removed from 1983, when the book was written, Nantucket is a desolate area with tourists and the local people living on certain parts of the island, but with an astonishing lack of resorts, casinos, and nature-wrecking buildings.  You could easily step back in time (as the book did) and see how the original natives of the island lived, as well as the fisherman that have made the place their home for years.

I certainly understood the ending, I just didn't have to like it. The main character, Theo, is on vacation on the island, as an invitation from the "fan club" of her vein soap opera star stepmother (typical stereotype, but it works). On the island, she meets Kip, who takes care of his elderly grandmother and whose dad works at the Oceanography center on the island. Together Kip and Theo explore the island, becoming interested in the Native American markings found on the rocks in the Moors and also on the strange pendent given to Theo by "the fan club." Little does she know it's an amulet that will draw the power she has inherited from her ancestors. Kip discovers the link, but can he save her before those that wish to use that power carry out their plans? The end doesn't tie all the ends together, as Theo leaves without even telling Kip good-bye. It feels like one of those Law & Order episodes where it ends without a satisfactory last note, like a song ending on something other than DO. It's why, when I put the star rating on this book, it only gets four out of five. Nothing I just said will spoil anything in the book, but you end up thinking, "A great book, if only...." This book is more than likely out of print, but it should be easy to find online or at used bookstores. I do recommend it for young adults, especially those that like things a little scary.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Movie Review: Life of Pi

It is quite impossible, when reviewing this film (and the book), to discuss it without delving into the meat of the story.  Therefore spoilers will be abundant below the asterisks.  Please don't read below there if you plan on seeing the movie or reading the book (both of which are highly recommended.)

The Life of Pi is based on an incredible novel by Yann Martel.  I say this because you probably won't find any other work of his aside it at a bookstore, as they were not commercial successes.  It's like every author has a finite supply of "muse juice," the amount of works that, given a lifetime of creating and writing, that any one book will reach the point where, a century from now, it will still be read.  Harper Lee knew when not to write anymore, she had used up her muse juice, and To Kill a Mockingbird has probably been read (or at least seen) by millions of high school kids all across the world.  And I bring up Lee's novel because the film is highly faithful to the book, making it very possible to watch the film and understand almost everything that Lee intended.

Thus the same goes with the movie Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee.  The story of how this novel became a movie is worth a book in itself, having gone from director to director, from screenwriter to screenwriter, with each succession of groups failing, with each director choosing another project to work on.  M. Night Shyamalan was slated to produce the movie first, but chose instead to film The Lady in the Water.  (I, for one, am SO glad M. Night did not direct this movie.) The current screenplay, written by David MaGee, compresses the emotion, the framework, the illusory ease by which you conclude the 2nd part, the shock of the 3rd part, and boils it all down into a movie which might be better than the book.  And let's face it, while reading the book will always be preferred, if you only have 3 hours to complete the story, it's very okay to watch this movie.  There will be no Indian attacks in The Scarlett Letter movie which was botched from the beginning.  There is no better way to experience this story than to watch the film.

One other note before I talk about the movie itself.  Watching it in 3D is essential to the story, as the visual effects of the ocean, of the animals and their movements, turns it from a critical success film-wise, to an artwork of motion, colors, and sound.   Much like Hugo a year ago, the 3D imagery does so much to accentuate the film, rather than be just a gimmick to draw you into the theatre.  I expect that if Titanic had first been released in 3D, it would still be the #1 movie at the box office.

The story behind the movie (book) is framed into three parts. Pi's life in India, which introduces us to the zoo that his father has created in the park within the French-Indian coastal town of Pondicherry during the 1970's, is written in lyric prose, Thoreauian, philosophical in nature, with words and scenes as lush as the Romance of exotic India which drew so many colonists there throughout the years.  The second part finds Pi stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and the prose turns Hemingway-esque, parse, more concerned with survival and the realism of doing so (suffice it to say that it is best, while reading this part, not to be eating your lunch). And then the end, which I will speak of later.

I see I have talked about everything except the plot. A look at the book or movie cover will tell you as much, so it's not necessary.

I will warn, I guess, that those who are avid animal lovers will not like the movie, although I expect that no real animals were harmed during the filming.  For those of you like this, I recommend reading the book instead.

Go see the movie, and do it in the theatres before it goes away, in 3D, because seeing it on a normal TV won't have nearly the effect. 


What made the movie amazing, aside from the 3D imagery, the sheer strength of the characters, the soundtrack which added to the imagery as it swirled around Pi and his surroundings, was the ending.  To me, a movie reaches "great" status when it affects me in some way.  The ending, specifically, the alternate story that Pi gave the Japanese insurance agents who interviewed him in the hospital, was so troublesome, as it was exactly opposite of the story about faith, strength, compassion, that Pi had shown the whole movie.  But given the circumstances, man will do anything to survive.  It provided evidence that man is inherently evil.  In the alternate story, the animals that survived the crash were substituted for people, including Pi's mother.  The problem is, after everything we've experienced with Pi, with the Tiger, with all that was real or illusory, we can't tell, there's no way to know which story was true.

After I got home, I looked on IMDB to see other people's reaction to the film.  Most people loved the movie, but hated the ending.  Its unique, a movie in which the intent was to make you hate the ending.  But I think Ang Lee intended that all along.  And the surprise is that Yann Martel included the same scene in the third part of the novel.  Yet I didn't remember it.  I read the book, and loved it.  I would have remembered a plot twist such as this, but I didn't.  The only conclusion I can make is that my brain rejected the alternate version of the story that it completely blocked it, regarding it as a useless part of the book, something to be totally forgotten, to preserve the Romantic (capital R) version with the Tiger (who in the end could be considered the "Noble Savage.") I was amazed. I had to go back and reread the ending to make sure that it wasn't something Ang Lee just put on there as an addition.  We only remember what we want to.  History is only written, leaving out the things that mankind must do, or does, in the dark recesses of his heart, his mind.  It was a stark addition to the end, to say that not only is Nature indifferent to mankind's sentience, but man is indifferent to each other.  And I couldn't accept it.  To the point where I forgot the scene even happened.


As additional reading, I recommend the following books as ancillary material to understanding the themes that come from Life of Pi.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.  The framework is similar, as is the path of the hero, and the lie at the end of both stories that flaw the "hero" as complete.  Both stories also show the beauty and unrelenting evil of man and the world he lives in.

"The Open Boat" by Stephen Crane.  A short story about men stranded in a lifeboat just off shore.  Shows the indifference of nature, and our need to make heroes out of those on the boat.

Dove by Robin Lee Graham.  A teenager who saled on a ship around the world. From his total loneliness to finding his wife and finding faith, the book is very similar to Life of Pi, and is well worth reading. They made a movie of it as well, although I've never seen it.  In this book, Graham has the instruments to navigate around the tides and currents that Martel and Lee forget to include in the movie and book.  It's a necessary plot hole, as a boat stranded without a sail would follow the tides, and would wind up going north and would end up in California or even Canada, not Mexico as in the ending.  The only explanation is that there was a strong El Nino current in the Pacific at that time, causing the currents to reverse.  That is plausible, at least to alleviate cynicism.