Monthly Archives: May 2012

Who I Am is What I Do

It’s been tough to write about self-improvement these past few years, largely because I’ve moved out of the contemplative phase of it. Through a great deal of my 20s I was still figuring things out — what it means to be a good person, the fundamental nature of humanity, how society works and how it doesn’t. To this day I’m still not sure I can explain concretely what I think about all of that, but at some point I realized that endless contemplation didn’t really get me anywhere. If I was going to try to live a good life, I needed to take action.

For the last few years, you may have noticed me trying different ways to spur myself into action. I’ve tried posting my goals on journals and Twitter to make myself publicly accountable. I’ve tried to take all of my big goals and break them up into bite-sized chunks where progress could be measured over the span of weeks. I’ve tried to distill virtues and ideals down into essential actions, to marry certain habits I was trying to cultivate at the time to something sacred. Through action x, I express virtue y. So forth and so on. It’s been a long, difficult slog, and so far nothing’s been a silver bullet. I’m still scattered and inconsistent. I still can’t develop a habit worth a damn. My willpower doesn’t feel much stronger than it has been. No matter how hard I try to make them bearable, I still collapse under the weight of my goals fairly often.

After a while, I get really discouraged about it. Why is it so difficult to do the things I want to do? Why is it so easy for me to trade long-term virtue for short-term pleasure? How do I keep making the ‘wrong’ choice — the one I end up regretting — over and over again? How can I develop that habit just fine, but any one that benefits me is actively resisted?

I don’t really have an answer for that either, but it’s making me more contemplative about my goals and priorities. I can feel the pendulum beginning to sway the other way, though not completely — I’m still going to keep running towards a virtuous life no matter how many times I trip up. Once you realize how important it is to apply your philosophy out into the world, to try to express thought through action, you can’t go back to being primarily a thinker. That genie has left the bottle.

Anyway, what exactly is it that I’m trying to do here? In other words, what kind of person am I trying to be? It’s been a few years since I’ve really asked myself this question, and I’ve been sort of flailing through all of my goals to the point where I can’t remember why I set them in the first place. It’s time to set my current priorities down, examine them, and discard what’s not working for me any more.

Right now, what do I want to do more than anything? Who do I want to be? I want to be someone who’s confident, but quietly so — it’s so much more attractive when you have a sure knowledge of your ability and limits without needing to have them reinforced by someone else. Part of that is pushing myself to be better than I was the day before, to test myself to see where my limits are. The more I expand my limits, the more I’ll be able to display confidence in a variety of situations, after all.

I’d also like to be compassionate. It’s a difficult skill to cultivate, because far too often we’re wrapped up in our own stories. Taking a moment to pause and step out of that, to be a part of someone else’s life in a way that serves them, requires a lot. It can be an incredibly simple thing to do, but very very difficult if you’re used to being the center of your life. I’d love to be able to get out of my head a bit, to do more for other people, to make them feel loved, capable and strong. I want to be a nurturing, positive influence on the people around me.

Finally, I would like to be productive. This means actively doing things that help me to become more confident and more compassionate. Losing weight, trying new things, letting go of ideas I’ve had forever, that sort of thing. Being productive means, to me, that you’re constantly generating new things, refreshing yourself with new ideas and perspectives, and (hopefully) a natural byproduct of that is shedding the things that have grown stale, that no longer work for you. Being productive means that you’re naturally able to embrace change, that when something new comes along you’ll at least give it a shot before deciding you like something familiar better. To me, being productive is the action of people who have an open mind.

Confidence. Compassion. Productivity. Those are the three big things I would like to cultivate right now. What about you guys? Are there any virtues or ideals you try to live up to? How do you do it?


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The AFI Top 100 Movies: MASH (#56)

MASH (1970)
Starring Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould and Tom Skerritt
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Ring Lardner Jr. (screenplay) and Richard Hooker (novel)

MASH is not a friendly movie. Even though you know you’re watching a comedy, the opening title credits throw you off — the theme song is the legendary “Suicide is Painless,” and over the melancholy tune you see shots of wounded soldiers being lifted out of combat by chopper. It creates a diasrmingly somber mood right out of the gate, and when you first meet the film’s nominal protagonist, Capt. Hawkeye Pierce (Sutherland), his flagrant disregard of authority reads as cynical near-nihilism as opposed to free-wheeling comic anarchy.

Most of the early scenes drop you right into the chaos of the MASH unit, so there’s a constant stream of conversation at all times. It’s tough to figure out which bit of dialogue you’re meant to follow, or if you’re meant to follow a particular thread at all. If you’re not military minded (I’m certainly not), it’s a little difficult to follow the chain of command in any given scene. It all adds up to twenty or thirty minutes of orchestrated chaos that’s confusing, vaguely upsetting, and impossibly slippery. You can’t really get a bead on it.

Then something happens; at some point in the movie, everything clicks. The humor becomes clear, the rhythms of dialogue tap a beat you can follow, and you finally get to know the characters. After a thick and off-putting opening, MASH becomes something different and fascinating in its own right.

Pierce and his best friend, Trapper John MacIntyre (Gould), are the ringleaders of this circus. They’re excellent surgeons but terrible people, and their bad influence spreads through the entire unit until almost all of them are simply reflections of a trickster spirit that just so happens to be able to heal you. After Pierce and MacIntyre persuade or badger everyone into their way of thinking (or in the case of religious zealot Major Frank Burns, eliminate them entirely), the group forms a vastly dysfunctional unit that’s shockingly inappropriate but a bunch of guys you can root for anyway.

The movie is essentially a series of episodes detailing the evolution of the group. One by one, Pierce and MacIntyre deal with the members of the community, getting to know them and then correcting their perspective. Some folks take a little more work than others, but the effect is almost always the same. You come to an understanding with Pierce, and then he floats away to work on his next project. What you end up with is a true cult of personality that gets broken up by war’s end.

I’m not sure if this is the crux of the novel the movie is based on, but director Robert Altman and his merry band of chaotic actors use the setting to present a different view of war. The soldiers were dirty in both mind and body, and no one knew why in the world they were there. These weren’t noble people driven by a sense of patriotism or purpose. They were just a bunch of guys thrown together to do a job. And they made the most of it, stiff-arming any resistance they were faced with. The senselessness of the war (said to be Korean in the movie though everyone knows it was really about Vietnam) was underscored in hedonistic atmosphere that Hawkeye Pierce cultivates so well. They were an Army medical unit just outside the front lines of a nasty, brutal war — any or all of them could go at any time. Might as well make the most of the life you’ve got before then, right?

What makes the movie fascinating is how you’re never quite sure how to feel about what you’re seeing. Hawkeye and company are incredibly misogynist, self-serving and callous. At the same time, they’re the soldiers who were fighting for our freedom back home. You can’t really approve of what they’re doing (even though it’s frequently hilarious), but you can’t pass moral judgement on them either. These characters are in a war that we’re simply seeing from our own couches. Most of us will never have this experience. Who’s to say what that would do to us?

MASH is a messy, funny, uncomfortable movie. It’s absurd and troubling and because of that, fascinating. It’s certainly not the easiest movie to sit through (at least for me), but I think it had a brave authenticity that resonates today. This, for better or for worse, is the face of America abroad.

Rating: 6/10.

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Posted by on May 23, 2012 in AFI Top 100, Movies


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The AFI Top 100 Movies: The Third Man (#57)

The Third Man (1949)
Starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli and Orson Welles
Directed by Carol Reed
Written by Graham Greene

Part-film noir, part-European murder mystery, The Third Man isn’t something I’ve ever seen before. The protagonist, a writer visiting a friend in war-torn Vienna, isn’t as hard-boiled as your standard detective. The femme fatale isn’t quite as devious or troublesome as you see in this type of movie, either. But the fight against a monolithic, byzantine system is just as confusing and demoralizing as ever, and the touches that serve to visualize the struggle really brings that home. In fact, the setting is so well-constructed it’s no surprise that the characters are so outmatched by it.

Pulp novelist Holly Martins (Cotten) is invited to Vienna to stay with his childhood friend, Harry Lime. He arrives just in time for Lime’s funeral, though — it turns out he was run down by a car. Martins quickly figures there’s some foul play at work, and tries to sort through his friend’s messy life in an even messier city to get the truth. This earns him a few enemies along the way, and every time he gets an answer there are three more questions that spring up. Anna Schmidt (Valli), one of Lime’s ex-girlfriends, bonds with him through the course of the investigation. At least, until they get an answer neither of them were expecting.

The movie really doesn’t play like a film noir, even though it has all the pieces in place. No one complains about the heat, Martins and Schmidt actually like and trust each other until circumstances tear them apart, and Martins isn’t done in by his own heroism. What actually does happen would be interesting if the characters behaved a bit more logically. When all of the cards are on the table and the main characters do have to make their decisions, they prove to be ultimately disappointing. But more on that later.

The real reason to watch this movie is the wonderful strangeness of post-war Vienna. The city is divided into Russian, French, German and English territories. Each of the foreign nationals seem to mix freely in any of them, though, so chances are most people you meet won’t speak your language. Director Carol Reed has characters hold conversations in their native tongue whether his main character can keep up or not, and it only adds to his confusion — and ours — to great effect. He must be missing something, but what? Broken English can only get you so far when you’re dealing with a complex subject like covering up a homicide.

The other fascinating thing about this movie is Orson Welles himself. His character’s reveal is one of the most satisfying I’ve seen in a long time, and Martin’s meeting with him is as riveting as it should be. The entire movie pivots on his one important scene, and afterwards we have a very different idea of where it’s going. Both Martins and Schmidt are forced to deal with what they learn, and here’s where the movie unfortunately falls apart.

I’m all right with my characters having a strong gray streak. After all, this is a film noir. However, I do have an issue with characters who don’t seem to have reasons for choosing one virtue over another. Both Martin and Schmidt consider loyalty to be more important than anything else in the movie, and that doesn’t ring true for me. Knowing what they know to be true, it deeply diminishes my regard for them to see them behave the way they do in the third act. Not only because it’s morally bankrupt, but also because it’s senseless behavior.

I can’t say much more without spoiling the mystery, so I’ll leave it at that. The Third Man is a nice, strange movie that doesn’t give you a chance to orient yourself. If you’re into that sort of thing — and you have a high tolerance for unlikeable characters — this is probably your movie.

Rating: 7/10.

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Posted by on May 22, 2012 in AFI Top 100


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