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Monthly Archives: February 2014

Practicing the Gospel

Myth 150A friend of mine was asking me a number of questions about my opinion on villains, crossovers and the like. I was surprised to listen to my answers, actually — they seemed so strict, so high-minded and (dare I say it?) pretentious. It’s like making fun of all those folks who call writing some sort of excruciating exercise that very few have the stomach and talent for, only to realize you’re one of them. I had to take a step back for a day or two and think about that. Do I really think that good writing can only come from a hand that’s deliberate in everything they do? Of course not, but it’s really exciting to see someone turning the gears of a story in exactly the way they’ve meant to.

I’m personally drawn to stories that offer peeks behind a curtain, whose structure points to some dark, chaotic recess that it’s easy to get lost in. But at the same time I really love watching the artifice above that storytellers create — it’s like a net used to sift out the big, chunky bits of our existence to examine, while letting all the cruft fall through into a void that’s not actually empty at all. I love stories that play with big existential ideas, filtered through mundane activities or absurd metaplots. Twin Peaks is an enormous influence on me because it has all of this — it’s a soap opera while being a deconstruction of a soap opera and a supernatural, absurdist funhouse mirror of the secretive small-town trope. It exposes the secrets of this sleepy community as simultaneously silly but also fundamental, driven by a need that’s basic to all human life. It’s easy to dismiss it as weird-for-the-sake-of-it fluff, and it’s easy to comb every seemingly-deliberate moment to determine the ultimate meaning behind it. Both approaches are wrong, but they’re also legitimate. It’s a Rorschach test.

I’m nowhere near practiced or talented enough to actually construct something that does this. Mostly, I write stuff that aims for a much more immediate reaction. I like writing pot-boiler stuff, stories that reach out for a baser reaction. Mostly because I feel like I’m still cutting my teeth on the basics of actually telling story; I’ve been taking in and deconstructing story for a really long time, but I haven’t done nearly enough actual construction of them to really know how to create the stories I love to read.

So what do you do about that? Do you relax your standards for the platonic ideal of the story until you can achieve what it is? Or do you keep working at it, knowing that you’re leagues away from it, hoping that one day everything will fall into place and you’ll at least circle the goal? What about the writing of friends and colleagues, who are looking to do completely different things? Do you ding them for not “living up to their potential”? Do you accept their work even though you don’t find it exciting?

Part of me thinks that I should simply put my head down and keep writing, trusting that I’ll work all of this out. I think pulling back and working on a few exercises that help me to wrap my brain around an aspect of short story writing is a good thing, so I’ll be spending a few months doing that — while working on short stories that put what I’m learning to good use. As always, the ultimate answer IS to keep writing. It’d help to know what I’m supposed to be thinking of the craft while I do it, though.

 

The AFI Top 100 Films: The Graduate (#7)

Entertainment 150The Graduate (1967)
Starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft
Written by Calden Willingham and Buck Henry (screenplay), Charles Webb (novel)
Directed by Mike Nichols

The Graduate reminds me an awful lot of Harold and Maude, which came out about four years later. Both feature young, intelligent, sensitive heroes who have no idea what they want out of life but are certain that their well-meaning parents don’t understand them. Both of them strike up unlikely, inappropriate relationships with far older women. And they both have a comedic style that aims to present outrageous situations in the dryest possible way, hoping that the juxtaposition will create a tension that just must be released with laughter. This might have worked back then, but it rubs me the wrong way now.

There’s something about the face of the comic who tries out dry wit while knowing he’s delivering a killer line that just makes me want to punch it. Bud Cort and Dustin Hoffman both have this affectation early in their movies, and it’s a little off-putting until we get to the meat of their stories. While The Graduate ranks much higher than Harold and Maude on AFI’s list of the top 100 movies (number 7 and number 45, respectively), I think I actually like the latter a little better; it had an ultimately more likable protagonist, a more engaging relationship and a better, more genuine ending.

Hoffman, though, is great as Benjamin Braddock, a newly-minted adult who’s just graduated from college. His parents have the next few steps all planned out for him, but Benjamin doesn’t want any of it. The pressure of expectation just makes him nervous and uncomfortable, so he tries to duck out of his graduation party at the earliest possible opportunity. Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft), one of his parent’s friends, corners him and insists that he drives her home. Once there, she tries to seduce him.

Benjamin initially rebuffs her advance, but eventually caves. They spend the summer meeting up in a hotel under assumed names and having a lot of sex. A LOT of sex. Unhappy with the way he’s spending his time, Benjamin’s parents set him up with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross). They hit it off, which drives Mrs. Robinson just insane with jealousy. The whole thing blows up rather quickly, of course, and the rest of the film follows Benjamin as he tries to put the remnants of his relationship with Elaine back together.

Directed by the great Mike Nichols (this was only his second film; he went on to do Working Girl, The Birdcage, the amazing movie Wit and Charlie Wilson’s War), the film admittedly has plenty of style. Mrs. Robinson’s attempt at seduction is an iconic moment in cinema, and Nichols’ use of Simon & Garfunkel in the soundtrack was a pretty new move at the time. Credit where it’s due — a lot of the tropes we use in our cinema today were first popularized here. It’s a cultural touchstone that people should know about.

But is it enjoyable? That’s a different matter. As likable as Hoffman is, Benjamin Braddock is really a selfish jerk. He has the self-absorption of youth and the boundless capability to make really bad decisions without any sense of purpose. He doesn’t know what he wants, so we really don’t care when he strives for something. There’s a sort of mild amusement at his discomfort, a sympathy for his tendency to flee from the expectations of the adults around him, but no real connection with him. When he chases Elaine through the final hour of the movie, you know they’ll end up together simply because they must, not because Benjamin has gained the things he needs to actually be good for her.

The Graduate is one of those movies that makes me feel how age has crept up to me when I’m not looking. I have less affection for the folly of youth, especially when I see how much it hurts the people around the young. Benjamin’s parents are clueless, but well-meaning and harmless; it’s his privilege to completely disregard their investment in him, their desire to see him mature into the best possible person. He has a mother and father who are willing to give him anything he needs to succeed with his life, and he turns up his nose. It’s surprisingly, fundamentally frustrating. Is it because I grew up poor, or is it because I’m too old to connect with that adolescent ennui? I’m not sure.

Mrs. Robinson is clearly a woman who doesn’t really care about the feelings of the people around her; she’s only concerned with her own pleasure. She uses Benjamin because he’s easily used, and threatens to blow up his life to get her way. When he calls her bluff, it destroys two families. How are we supposed to root for these people?

But this is a comedy; perhaps I’m overthinking it. Why would their behavior be any different from any other black comedy protagonist? I think the difference here is that the read I get from The Graduate is we’re supposed to root for Benjamin. With most black comedies there’s the gentlemen’s agreement that everyone knows these characters are terrible, and we root for the people who can be terrible most artfully. Here, there’s no charisma behind the malice; when Mrs. Robinson confronts Benjamin, we’re very much supposed to feel he’s the victim, even though the only reason he’s breaking off the relationship is so he can actually make a move on her daughter.

Maybe that’s the big disconnect between me and this movie; it feels an affection for its hero that I don’t share. Nichols does a great job with carving out a new, youthful kind of film, and Hoffman plays Benjamin as bewildered, confident, detached and driven by turns — all quite well. And as important as the movie is, it just leaves me kind of cold at the closing credits. Benjamin rides off into the sunset, on towards his new life, where presumably he’ll make the same mistakes he did before. It’s a new life, perhaps, but he’s the same old selfish boy.

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2014 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The Hero In Their Natural Environment

Myth 150If you’ve been reading a few of the things that have been passing through my writing desk over the past year, you’ll probably notice that I’ve taken a number of stabs at Sleepwalkers — the current crop of stories will be the fourth set featuring Abigail and her friends. I know I’m running the risk of exhausting your ability to care about these guys before I even get to tell their stories, and that prospect terrifies me. Still, trust me when I say that I share your exasperation at these half-measures, and I know the time is quickly approaching where I’ll just have to sink or swim.

The reason I’m having such trouble with the setting is that I don’t have an entirely clear idea on the rules of the universe or how anything works. It’s my first time actually dealing with magic and fantasy on a systemic level, and it’s a really daunting thing to consider. Will nailing down a rule here actually cause significant problems during the third act, for example? What sort of unforeseen consequences will people who are smarter and wilier than me discover? What if something that looks good on paper actually becomes a huge pain in the ass for the story, but it’s too fundamental to remove easily? So forth and so on.

That’s bad enough, but Abigail has been giving me absolute fits ever since I first met her. I’ve wanted to write a female protagonist for a while now — and Abigail just popped into my head with a story and personality all ready-made. As I started exploring her, though, I realized just how…complicated it would be to tell. There’s a lot going on here; not only is there this brand new shadow-world of modern fantasy that we have to discover together, but there’s also the matter of Abigail’s background and what that does to the story.

She comes from an abusive home, and that emotional and physical abuse becomes a major trigger for Abigail’s “discovery” into her true nature. But that’s a very tricky landscape to walk through. Major abuse at the hands of a family member causes all sorts of emotional and mental issues that are difficult enough to explore; what happens when you’re in a setting where thoughts and emotions actually become real? What does that do to someone? And how can people who find themselves in similar situations within the real world learn from and empathize with this sort of thing? It’s an exciting puzzle to crack for me, but a very difficult one. I don’t want to sensationalize this kind of trauma, or over-boil it into some sort of melodrama. It needs to have a proper weight and perspective.

Perhaps I’m just not ready to tackle Abigail’s story yet, but I feel like I need to get it out. It’s an important one to me. There are other protagonists in other settings — Matthew and his chimerical universe, Abernathy and the Unstable Future — where their personalities feel inextricably tied to their settings. I want to talk about these specific people in these specific worlds. Separating them has never really been an option for me. I can’t imagine Abigail popping up to talk Matthew through his change, for example.

I’m curious if other people have that same sense of firmness with their characters. I suppose that’s one of the reasons cross-overs and fan-fictions always bothered me; I buy characters as an extension of their environment, and the universe a storyteller constructs is a relatively fixed one. I don’t like seeing Miles Morales jump into Earth-616 to have an adventure with Peter Parker, for example; it feels wrong, oddly incestuous, for parallel universes to touch so closely.

At any rate, Abigail is proving to be a really tough nut to crack. I want to fully explore the damage done by her father, but I also don’t want her to be so broken that the audience can’t empathize with her. I want to portray the helplessness that victims of abuse feel, but I don’t want to make her helpless and passive. I think the key to understanding Abigail is to read a bit more about emotional and physical abuse, what that does to you, but it’s quite difficult stuff for me to mine. I have a feeling that once I have a firm grasp of Abby’s situation, her pyschology and issues, the world will solidify around her. As always, my protagonist is my anchor for any setting, the fixed point that I can always come back to once I’ve explored the world a bit.

For now, though, I’ll be using this latest crop of Sleepwalkers stories to wrap my brain around a few of the things I’d like to do and get to know the supporting characters a bit more. I think the characters are key in cracking this setting, though I could be wrong.

What about you, fellow writers? Do you have a trick or tool you use when you’re trying to nail down a character or setting?

 
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Posted by on February 17, 2014 in Self-Reflection, Sleepwalkers, Writing

 

Friday Fiction: Abigail Comes Home

Writing 150(This is the first bit of fiction featuring characters from my Sleepwalkers setting. Of course, it focuses on the main character of Abigail. I wanted to quickly sketch out what it was like for her at school and at home, and how the pressures of being bullied by her schoolmates and father while a mother with her own shit going on would affect her. One of the things I’ve learned — and experienced — is that going through life with not one safe space to retreat to will mess you up, and the emotions that come from that will manifest in weird ways if you don’t know how to deal with them or don’t have an outlet.

At the same time, I don’t want to present Abigail as a “poor little match girl”. It’s a tricky balance to strike, properly painting an awful experience without feeling like you’re being manipulative or ham-fisted about it. I don’t feel like I’m quite there, but this is a pendulum shift away from the more lyrical and fantasy-oriented looks I’ve had of Abigail until now. 1422 words.)

Abigail imagined herself getting into a fight with Debbie Wizer the entire bus ride home. She stood up at a stop sign and came out swinging until Debbie went down, and then she’d sit on her and just start punching. The other kids, excited with the thrill of adrenaline and bloodlust, rose in their seats and started cheering. For some reason, the bus started rolling again while all of this was going on.

The cheering would die down slowly when everyone realized that Debbie wasn’t fighting back. Abigail kept on punching, watching from some place in the back of her own head as Debbie’s head rocked one way, then the other. She felt the impact of her knuckles on skin. She watched in fascination as blood started to appear, as if by magic. Each punch took Debbie’s face farther away from her typical cultivated perfection. Bruises popped instantly. Her face swelled and darkened. Her lips grew chapped and bloodied.

The children on the bus went quiet, but no one thought to stop her. She kept going. Soon the only sounds were her grunts and the blow of her fists on increasingly tenderized meat. When the bus came to her house, she stood up, shook the blood and skin off her fists, and walked out. She made sure to thank the driver.

Abby shifted in her seat, and felt her nails digging into her palms. Debbie was right behind her, talking to Eliza Vintner about some stupid gossip. It would be so easy. All she had to do was turn around, grab a fistful of hair in one hand and start wailing away with the other. Eliza would scream and try to stop her, but she was pretty sure she could shrug her off. It would happen so fast. No one would know what to do. And she was pretty sure no one would make fun of her again, knowing that she could snap at any moment, knowing she could rain down a storm of violence unheard of in Solar Hills High. They would never mess with her again.

The bus stopped. The driver called. “Abigail Carter,” she said, as if she were reading the name off of an especially boring manifest. Abby looked out of her window. She saw her house staring back at her.

She got up to go, and an unexpected shame washed over her. She had been passive for another day. She had invited abuse to be heaped upon her. She could feel the eyes of the school bus on her as she gathered her books and her backpack and rose to go.

“Bye, Abbi-fail.” She heard a giggle from the seat behind her. She wasn’t sure if it was Eliza or Debbie, and she couldn’t turn around to make sure. Either she would go into some sort of rage-fueled frenzy, or she would break down crying right there.

The sun was warm and bright on her skin when she stepped onto the sidewalk. She heard “Abbi-fail” echo in her brain, even over the rising hum of the bus as it went on. She stared at her house. The only consolation it offered was the chance to be alone in her own misery for a few hours.

She clutched her books to her chest, felt the weight of her backpack across her shoulders, and walked up to her front door. Her house might have been nice once, but years of neglect had given it a slightly run-down appearance. The wood on the stairs had warped through countless rainstorms, her yard had developed bare patches of earth surrounded by yellow, stressed grass. Her mother had added bricks between the sidewalk and the yard as something of a border, but those hadn’t spruced it up as much as she wanted. Abby took the stairs two at a time, looked at the few wooden chairs strewn about the porch, and went inside.

The air was cooler indoors, but tinged with stale cigarette smoke. Abby found her mother sitting in front of the TV in the living room, taking long drags from something with menthol and sipping from a glass that probably wasn’t apple juice. An open bottle was on an end table next to her.

“Hi Mom.” Abby glanced to the TV. Two women were rising from their chairs on a stage to fight; a bald, burly security guard appeared from nowhere to break them up.

“Hey, sweety.” Her mother’s voice was tired, drowsy. But the affection was there. “How’re you doing?”

Abby crossed the distance between the living room door and the couch. She leaned over to kiss her mom on the forehead. “I’m fine,” she said. “Just a lot of homework, so I’m going to get to it. When is dad coming home for dinner?”

The woman on the couch turned to look up with glassy eyes. Abby was startled by an expression she couldn’t read. “It’s payday, honey. Your father’s not going to be home until late.”

“Oh.” Abby felt her stomach drop. She would be staying in her room tonight. “You want me to go ahead and make dinner for myself?”

Her mother nodded.

“You want me to make something for you?”

“I’m fine, sweety.” She set her glass down and grabbed the bottle. The sharp smell of alcohol filled the air as she emptied it and set it down. She lifted the glass and took a long drink, then finished with a pull from her cigarette. Her eyes never left the television. “I’m just fine.”

Fifteen minutes later, Abby locked herself into her room with a plate of hot dogs and potato chips. She felt a pressure in her stomach and chest that needed to come out somehow. There was all of this…stuff that she didn’t know what to do with. If she left it to her body to decide, she stabbed things with scissors, or punched the wall, or thumped her head against her desk. She cried or pinched herself. Sometimes she would just sit and shut down, lose hours staring at nothing. When she was done, she felt weird, like she had done something she knew wasn’t normal. But what else was she going to do? She couldn’t find a proper place for whatever she was feeling, so any release of the pressure would have to be enough.

Right now, she felt like she didn’t have the energy to do anything. So she dumped her food and books on her computer table, sloughed off her backpack and collapsed onto her bed. It took her a few minutes to register the noise coming from her closet, the sound of something bumping around, then being dragged.

“Hey kiddo,” a voice said at last. “Tough day, huh?”

Abby turned to see the Gnome standing there. He was a short fellow, maybe two or three feet tall, with skin that looked like baked dirt. His hair was white and expertly styled underneath a small, pointed red hat, and he had impressive facial hair. His eyes were huge and blue, the color of sapphire, and right now they stared at her. She read concern on his face. He was impatient.

“I just want to sleep for a while,” she heard herself say. The Gnome grabbed her hand in both of his and pulled.

“I know you do, but…listen, I’m sorry you had a bad day, but I need you to get up and help me finish packing. We need to get out of here.”

The urgency in his voice stirred something within her. She propped herself on an elbow. “What?”

“You know how bad paydays are, don’t you? Well, this is going to be worse than most. And you shouldn’t be here for it, OK?” He let go of her, then hopped off the suitcase he had been standing on.

She looked at her closet. Half of her clothes were off the rack. She suspected they had been stuffed into the huge, lime green piece of luggage next to her bed. “What, you want me to leave? I…I can’t do that. I just can’t leave Mom.”

The Gnome stepped forward, and put both of his hands on her knee. “Honey, it’s too late for your Mom. But it’s not too late for you. Not if you leave now. Let’s go.”

Abby felt like she was about to burst. She knew this was crazy, of course it was. But even worse, she knew this was right. She had to go. She couldn’t be here when daddy got home.

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2014 in Sleepwalkers, Writing

 

The AFI Top 100 Films: On The Waterfront (#8)

Entertainment 150On the Waterfront (1954)
Starring Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint and Lee J. Cobb
Written by Budd Schulberg
Directed by Elia Kazan

Terry Malloy (Brando) is a New Jersey dock worker whose brother is in the mob. That mob runs the Worker’s Union, and as long as you play by the rules you get the chance to work that day. Of course, playing by the rules means making sure the police and the Waterfront Crime Commission don’t ever find witnesses to the string of murders they know mob boss Johnny Friendly (Cobb) has ordered. In order to subsist, you have to simply let crime pay.

Terry was a boxer who could have fought his way out of the slums, but he took a dive on his brother’s orders so that he could win a bet. He’s also used in the murder of a popular dock worker who was thinking about flipping to the Crime Commission. When Terry falls in love with the slain worker’s sister, he’s finally jarred out of his lifetime of subservience and finds it within himself to actually stand up for what he believes is right — not just for himself, but for every other dock worker under the boot-heel of Johnny Friendly.

On the Waterfront is a story about a man coming into his own sense of morality, and what that compels him to do in the face of systemic corruption. When everyone around you has a tacit acceptance of social injustice as the way things are, it can be impossible to speak out against it. We have an earnest belief that it only takes one person to get the ball rolling, and once the process has been started momentum will take care of the rest. The death of Joey Doyle is that inciting incident, and Terry simply picks up from there to finish the job.

What’s interesting about this film to me is how the idea of standing up for social justice becomes so indelibly tied to Terry’s slow but distinct straightening towards manhood. Terry’s arc is that of the man learning to lead his own life; when he tells his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) “I coulda been a contender, instead of a bum”, the regret he’s expressing is not being tempted by his environment to be anything less than the best person he could be. Now, at long last, he’s making a different choice when faced with similar circumstances.

It takes him a while to get around to that point, and he’s coaxed every step of the way by Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint, in her first role) and Father Barry (Karl Marlden). They both know that there’s no difference in Terry’s case between personal redemption and social salvation, and it’s fascinating to watch them patiently lead him to the ideal that doing the right thing so you can be the kind of guy who does what’s right.

Brando embodies Terry with a nervous masculine energy that belongs specifically to him but feels universal. We all struggle to live up to our ideals, and the harder it is to fight against the current the sweeter the victory, no matter how small. The end of the movie feels like a triumph, even though it’s a small show of solidarity. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the workers have won over the mob, but it makes an important turning point in the fight.

This is heavy stuff under a paint of 50s melodrama. The performances feel locked firmly in their time, even though the script takes a specific situation to explore universal themes. It’s strange to pull back the ‘coating’ of the movie and find yourself identifying with it so strongly. Admittedly, the dated production can make the barrier to entry too steep for some, but it’s worth doing. The discovery of such a rich movie is worth taking it on its own terms.

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2014 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The Art of Pacing

Exercise 150I strap on my heart monitor and put on my shirt — the one that is clearly athletic wear but doesn’t bunch around my “generous” stomach so much that it accentuates how out of shape I am. I put on my shorts, my performance socks, my baby-minimalist shoes. I grab my phone/running app, my keys, a stick of gum to chew when I’m racing down the block. I stretch, I walk out of the door, I imagine myself breezing down the sidewalk, breathing deep (but not panting). I open the app when I’m ready to go.

It tells me that my estimated time for my distance is 28 minutes. I know I’ll do it in 25. I’m going to OWN. THIS. RUN.

When I limp back home 30 minutes later, panting with shooting pains in my ankles and knees, I can only think one thing: that sucked. Usually, I do fine in the first mile or so, before my breath starts to fail me. I push through that, and then my muscles start to seize and cramp; before long, there’s persistent pain in my ankle, or my knee. Either my lungs or my legs give out soon after, and I come to a point where I need to stop. I walk the rest of the way home, and my legs are sore for days afterward.

A couple of days pass, and then it’s time for my next run. I try to find an excuse to put it off — the leg isn’t quite healed from last time, or I’m way too tired to get in a run today. Sometimes, those excuses actually work and I skip a run day. That just makes the next one harder, but since I’m rested I think I’m going to ace it. The cycle begins anew.

The problem here is that I’m a weak-lunged, sedentary office worker who thinks he’s going to be a rock-star athlete every time he laces up his running shoes. Pushing myself is a good thing, but maybe not to the point I’ve been doing. To even get close to the ten-minute mile (which is my personal nirvana), I have to push my heart rate towards maximum for a fairly sustained period. I’m just not fit enough to hang with the big dogs yet, even though I want to.

Recently, I’ve joined an online training program for runners, and my trainer is really, really big on pacing yourself. She says that making sure you want to run slow enough that you can hold a conversation while you do it, which…to me doesn’t sound like running. But she swears by it; going slow increases your endurance and fitness levels to the point where you can run faster, easier. I’m clocking 14-minute miles right now, and most days I’m chomping at the bit to do more. But I’m running more regularly than I have in a long time. And that’s the point.

Transferring this lesson to other areas of my life is a really great idea. Most days I’m chomping at the bit to get everything done — I want to cook in as much as possible, keep up with the Writing Desk here, bang out short stories, read more novels, exercise more, clean the burrow, spend more quality time with the husband, work harder with the day job, catch up to the system and story in my Pathfinder game…the list goes on. But the truth of the matter is I’m still a 98-pound weakling when it comes to productivity. If I try to do everything at once, I’m going to push my brain to a level of activity it just can’t sustain. It will break down and burn out.

That happened last week, which is why the first chapter of Sleepwalkers didn’t go up as planned. I’d like to make it up this week, but…we’ll see. The trick is to push myself, but not too much, and to go ridiculously slow until the habit is built — and THEN see about pushing myself a little more. I’m late getting to this game, and I feel like I should be doing so much. But there’s only so much I can handle at the moment. That’s OK.

It’s quite important to remember that the energy you have one day will not necessarily be there the next; it’s a lesson that has bitten me in the tail time and time again, and I think I’m finally learning it. Though I’m sure there’ll be a couple more crashes in the months to come. I’m leaving this semi-realization here for posterity.

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2014 in Diet and Exercise, Self-Reflection, Writing

 

The AFI Top 100 Films: Schindler’s List (#9)

Entertainment 150Schindler’s List (1993)
Starring Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley
Written by Steven Zaillian (screenplay) and Thomas Keneally (novel)
Directed by Steven Spielberg

The Holocaust is one of those singular events in history that’s very difficult to wrap your head around. How could an entire country of people stand by and allow the systemic genocide of an entire race? Neighbors, employers, friends and countrymen were rounded up, stuffed inside a terrible, small patch of land, and then finally carried by over-crowded train to camps where they were starved and abused and eventually murdered. How could this happen? How could anyone work within a system that did this?

It’s easy for us to demonize the perpetrators of this atrocity, simply because the idea that they were just people, like us, who gave in to their worst possible impulses is so hard to swallow. Imagining the Nazis as human beings with the same potential for kindness and complexity somehow makes their ability to bring such suffering to their fellow man that much difficult to envision. We want to write them off as simple monsters. We want to write off the people who sat by and watched it happen as either helpless or callous. Doing so means that we never have to think about the fact that, gods help us, it could be us watching this happen or even MAKING it happen.

Schindler’s List tells the story of one man who takes the opportunity of the war to open up a profitable business. Oskar Schindler (Neeson) bribes the SS to open and run a factory, then hires Jewish administrator Itzhak Stern (Kingsley) to handle its operation. Stern hires Jewish labor to make sure as many people are deemed “essential to the war effort” as possible, and Schindler agrees mainly because Jewish labor costs less. Over time, the men begin to bond and, as Schindler is exposed to more and more of the brutality wrought by the Nazi regime, shift the focus of their work from running the business to saving as many lives as possible.

One of Schindler’s friends — and the frequent recipient of his bribes — is Amon Goeth (Fiennes), the overseer of one of the concentration camps Schindler is working so hard to save people from. Goeth is a true psychopath, shooting people at random from his balcony, mistreating his Jewish servant at the same time he covets her, killing one Jewish engineer when she tells him a building’s flaw is so fundamental she won’t sign off on it. Goeth is a fascinating representative of the SS. He is a man who has clearly given himself over to his darkest instincts without question, and there’s clearly something psychologically wrong with him. He is driven, uncompromising, and cruel. Even the affection he displays for Schindler and his maid is tainted with a casual, consistent sneer. Yet while he is clearly evil with very few good qualities to recommend him, Fiennes embodies him with a humanity that’s startling and recognizable.

That’s the major achievement of this film — it doesn’t hyperbolize. It would be easy, given the subject matter, to heighten events to elicit a visceral emotional reaction. Spielberg instead tries to keep everything as grounded as possible, using the artifices of film only very sparingly. The black-and-white cinematography gives the movie a historical weight, and the expertly handled movement of the camera gives it a documentary film. There aren’t any zoom or crane shots, no images chosen for their aesthetics. It doesn’t aim to be high art; it aims to be historical record.

Yet as art Schindler’s List is profoundly effective and extraordinarily moving. Schindler begins the film as a callous, ambitious businessman. He only cares about other people in as far as they can provide him with something. But when he sees just what kind of world he’s moving through on the way to his fortune, he realizes that he has the chance to relieve the suffering of many, many people. And he does so, right under the noses of the people he rubs elbows with.

This transformation is a wonderful thing to behold. What makes it so affecting is that Schindler didn’t throw everything away to oppose the SS regime directly — he worked within its system, using the tools that he had, to stop the atrocities as he could. He was one cog in an enormous machine, and while he didn’t stop Nazi Germany from carrying out its mission, he saved the lives of more than a thousand people.

We often feel that things are happening in the world with a momentum we couldn’t possibly stop. It feels hopeless to even try to resist the tide. What Schindler’s List does is show us that while we might not be able to change everything with our actions, we each possess some small power to change something for the better. All we have to do is decide to do it. Even a small difference is one worth making.

Do I need to talk to you about the quality of the movie? Of course not. When it was released in 1993 it was an instant classic. It won seven Academy Awards and was nominated for another five more. It’s difficult to think of another movie that directly addresses the Holocaust without this coming up first. There’s a reason for that — it’s astonishingly well-made, timeless in its execution, built to serve as a lasting testament to what happened.

It’s most important impact as such, then, is what we take from it. What does it motivate us to do? How does it change the way we think? To me it shows the power of small actions and the importance of backing up your morals with actual application. If you think something is wrong, don’t participate in it, but don’t isolate yourself either. Help right it, however you can.