Cognition & Reality

Friday, 1 April 2011

Changing The Past

Filed under: Attachment,Emotion,Film,Psychotherapy — drtone @ 1:50 pm

In previous posts, I have discussed the non-existence of past and future. They are projections consisting of nothing but complex thoughts, and are therefore not real. In its many guises, the past can be particularly problematic. From a “psychotherapeutic” standpoint, the past, as we conceive it to be, is the source of many difficulties in the present. We trace the defensive adaptations that seem to get in our way to the distorted family dynamics of childhood. Our memories of the past, constructed though they are, can appear to us with great clarity. Although they refer to the “past,” our memories happen to us in the present.

You can’t change what doesn’t exist. In movies, sometimes, a character journeys into the past, where he or she has no power and can’t even talk to those he or she sees, perhaps to warn them of an impending disaster. Our experience of the past is much more like those movies than we usually recognize. Memories, especially when they are very clear, seem to be as subject to the rules that govern reality, such as the laws of physics, as are events that actually occur in the present. So we try to solve the problems that come to us from the past as if they were happening now. The problem is that we walk around in our memories much like a character in a movie who wanders wraithlike through scene after scene in which he or she can touch nothing nor be heard.


Saturday, 29 January 2011

Racism In The Civil Rights Era

Filed under: Film,Race — drtone @ 1:10 pm

For anyone under the age of about 40, it would be difficult to imagine the state of race relations at the beginning of what is now called the Civil Rights Era. Witnessing the TEA Party and its attacks on President Obama, one is struck by the obvious, but veiled, racism at the back of the vitriol. That the racism is veiled, however, is perhaps the most important thing about it.

Not so long ago, the concept of a Black man in power might not even have occurred in the mind of the most dedicated civil rights activist, White or Black. In 1963, African-Americans had been second-class citizens for a century, and before that, had not, most of them, been citizens at all. Americans were used to the subservience of one race to another. When most Whites saw a Black person, it was as some sort of domestic worker. Black professionals served their own community; it was inconceivable for a White person to seek out an African-American doctor or lawyer, and I use the word “inconceivable” advisedly. No one was free of a racist understanding of the world. No one had ever questioned the position of Whites on top of a world in which those of other races existed to support Whites’ privileged existence, an attitude that extended beyond the borders of the United States and was reflected in the distribution of global power. The world literally belonged to Caucasians.

Everyone had grown up within a system that accepted and depended upon the dominance of White people. As late as the early 1970s, no African-American was in a position of authority over Whites. I have already used the word “inconceivable” and I will use it again: for a Black man or woman to be the boss of any White person was inconceivable, even by individuals who questioned the order of things. For example, we did not see Black head coaches and managers in the major sports until the 1980s. One need only watch either film version of “Imitation of Life” to grasp the how total was the acceptance, by both Whites and Blacks, of their unequality: The plot of the movie, which adopted a relatively progressive point of view, revolves around a young Black girl’s inability to accept how wrong it is for her to “pass” as White.

The inferiority of Blacks was taken for granted. It was, as I pointed out in a previous post, regarded as a matter of scientific fact, hardly questioned until the 1950s (and still accepted by some people to this day). The story is often told about American WWII POW camps, in which Black American soldiers had to sit in the back, behind German and Italian prisoners, when movies were shown. Although the injustice of the situation could not have been lost on many who were there, in the cultural milieu of the time, it could not have been any other way. The US Army itself was segregated, with Blacks mostly relegated to the dirtiest jobs, as many who are still alive remember. One questioned this racial hierarchy at one’s peril.

My purpose here is not to celebrate how far we’ve come. As far as I’m concerned, the United States, having been built by slavery, will always have a long way to go in putting its errors to rights. The point is that it is no wonder that, as I suggested in a previous post, the current view of the Civil Rights Era suffers from inadequate recognition of the circumstances that prevailed at the time.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Polanski Mails One In

Filed under: Film — drtone @ 9:15 am

A couple of years ago, while Roman Polanski was fighting the efforts of the Swiss to send him back to the US for trial, he was also finishing a supposed thriller entitled “The Ghost Writer.” In spite of having received some excellent reviews when it was released about a year ago, this movie has an amazing dumbnitude. Although I recall wanting to see it when it came out, I watched it without knowing that it was a Polanski film. Having received it from Netflix, I put it into the machine, and watched it in its entirety, asking myself every five minutes or so why I didn’t turn it off, convinced that it had been cobbled together by a committee of know-nothing twenty-and thirty-somethings whose only value is slickness. When the credits rolled at the end announcing that it was directed by Polanski, I was therefore shocked, especially when I found that Polanski co-wrote the screenplay with the author of the book on which it is based.

To my mind, “The Ghost Writer” does not deserve an actual review, and I will not go into all the mindless twists it contains, nor the coincidences it involves that seem less like artful fictions and more like writing conveniences. Let’s just say that, for a “thriller,” it drags on from the first, introduces characters purely because famous actors agreed to play cameos, puts jarring grammatical mistakes in the mouths of characters who would not make such mistakes, and revolves around a “mystery” that is neither mysterious nor interesting. Sympathetic though I am with the political points it tries to score regarding the lawlesssness of the Bush Administration, the effort to make those points seems forced. As has been required of action-oriented movies for some time, “The Ghost Writer” includes the product placement of a high-priced vehicle, and spends an inordinate amount of time focusing on the features of that car, a BMW SUV. The women in the movie are strangely miscast: because Olivia Williams, in her early 40s, plays a woman who, to satisfy the plot, must be in at least her mid-50, they give her a streak of white hair, which has the effect of making her seem younger, not older; meanwhile Kim Cattrall, who is in her mid-50s (but still has a first-rate ass, as one particular shot illustrates), plays a woman in her mid-30s. There’s a sex scene for which the word “obligatory” seems inadequate because it is so unnecessary, and is preceded by so little sexual chemistry. Ewan McGregor, the hero, appears to float  in outer space during every scene. Not that I’m a fan of horror movies or anything, but I would have expected Roman Polanski to make far better use of the obvious pun in the movie’s title. I could go on. I only hope that this clunker isn’t Polanski’s swan song.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

An Offer(ing) I Can Refuse

Filed under: Film — drtone @ 11:40 am

The first time I saw “The Godfather: Part II,” I didn’t like it. I went to see it at the student cinema in Boulder with the woman who would become Wife #3 & 4 and her then-husband. The two of them loved it, but I found it incoherent, and objected both to Diane Keaton’s shrill performance as Kay and the substitution of the then-obscure Robert De Niro for Brando as the younger Don Vito Corleone.

A few years later, I was house-sitting for Phil Zimbardo at his place on Lombard in San Francisco. At my disposal was the first VCR I ever encountered, a top-loading Sony monster the size of a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Among the few films Phil, who is Sicilian, had in his library was “The Godfather: Part II.” Using the Sony, having little else to do, except digging the view from the deck, I analyzed the film. Excited about the ability tape gives for watching a scene repeatedly and closely, I deconstructed a few key scenes, and was fascinated by the one in which young Clemenza (Bruno Kirby) and young Vito steal a rug. De Niro, who was still relatively unknown at the time of my second viewing, blew me away with the subtleties of his performance. I became a fan of his and belatedly became a fan of the film, with its appealing atmospherics and top-notch acting.

During two successive late nights recently, I watched “The Godfather,” and “Part II.” The former deserves its reputation as perhaps the greatest American film of all time. The latter, which I have now seen a few times, was as annoying as it was the first time I saw it, for different reasons. The worst irritant is the revelation that the cruelly orphaned Vito Corleone became a gangster as a married man in his twenties, replacing the previous Don’s reign of terror in his neighborhood with a kinder, gentler form of “protection.” I find this “Robin Hood” premise offensive and silly.

Though I understand the need of director Francis Ford Coppola to create a sympathetic Don Corleone (faithfully following the account in screenwriter Mario Puzo’s novel), and I understand that movies are not the place to go for historical accuracy, it is a disturbing distortion. The big-time mobsters’  life of crime, in nearly every case, began when they were children, stealing from neighborhood merchants and extorting money from other kids. The other hole in the movie, and one that’s a hangover from the first film, is the puzzling transformation of Michael Corleone (handled a little better by Puzo in his novel) from Ivy League war hero to mafia don, which would not be a glaring problem were it not at the the heart of the drama. Keaton’s performance remains a sore point. I recognize that every movie, even the best, has its holes, but “The Godfather: Part II” has run its course with me.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

“Bigger, Stronger, Faster”: The Anatomy Of Lying

Filed under: Chemical Imbalance,Film,Propaganda,Psychomyths — drtone @ 11:07 am

Chris Bell’s “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” is ostensibly a documentary about the campaign to eliminate steroid use from sports. In exposing the abuse of the issue by journalists and interested parties, however, it also demonstrates the structure and function of propaganda wherever it appears or applies. Although there is little evidence of the harm they supposedly do, demonizing steroids and those who use them has created a distracting urban mythology that serves some powerful interests. That is what propaganda does.

According to the disinterested experts Bell interviews, there is simply no evidence that steroids are particularly dangerous. I’ve never used them, but I recognize the attacks typical of every anti-drug campaign: Like cannabis, ecstasy, PCP and many other illicit substances, steroids are supposed to make a person both super-strong and insane, while having devastating effects on one’s physical health. For example, the physician who represents the principal anti-doping agency distorts and misrepresents the facts about steroids, operating from the presupposition that they are evil. The press and politicians have participated enthusiastically in denouncing steroid use. Congress has spent a disproportionate amount of time on the steroid question, and journalists continue to march out Lyle Alzado’s demonstrably false claim about the connection between his brain cancer and his use of steroids during his NFL career.

The situation is similar to the one that prevails in the public’s view of the use of another type of drug, antidepressants. The difference is that, when it comes to the latter,  the powerful are on the side of using drugs, and the campaign is all about the devastating effects of depression (i.e., sadness and fear), based on the faulty “science” of “chemical imbalance.” Isn’t it interesting that the medical and political establishments oppose the use of substances that make a person stronger, but encourage the use of substances that make a person contented and compliant?

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Britain, Baseball And Bloopers

Filed under: Film — drtone @ 12:10 pm

With the resources at their disposal, including both a research staff and the personnel on the set, why can’t they get it right in films?

I’m addicted to the “Foyle’s War” series of TV films, about the home front in on the south coast of England during World War II. In it, Detective Chief Superintendent (DCS) Christopher Foyle, a man of dry wit, unimpeachable integrity, and dogged determination, solves very English murders against the backdrop of the war years.

In the episode I most recently watched, “Invasion,” set in March of  1942, the US Army begins its “invasion” of the south coast. Murder ensues, as usual. In one scene, an American officer interacts with a Brit enraged because his farm has been requisitioned for an airfield. In the background, American enlisted men are playing “baseball”: A soldier is shown hitting a pitched ball with what appears to me, an admitted cricket dunce, to be a cricket swing rather than a baseball swing. The ball he hits appears to be a softball. As the scene progresses, another soldier pitches the ball to the batter overhand. OVERHAND. First of all, the Americans would have been playing hardball, not softball. Secondly, no one pitches a softball overhand. I thought that maybe the guy who plays the American officer was a Brit, but he’s not; he’s an American born in Burbank (i.e., Hollywood).With the advice of an American actor standing right there, the potential advice of American crew members or American tourists, and with the extensive research department necessary for mounting a historical drama that prides itself on accurately portraying the wartime milieu, how could the filmmakers get so wrong a couple of things that almost every American knows, even those who care nothing for sports? I’ll excuse the British extra’s  horrible swing, and I won’t even talk about the way the dialog in these films plays fast and loose with the nominative case.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Middle-Earth: Not A Workers’ Paradise

Filed under: Film — drtone @ 8:08 am

Watching all three parts of the movie version of “The Lord of the Rings” in the course of a week to celebrate my new A/V equipment, the implicit social commentary dismayed me. Written in the 1950s, the LOTR novels supposedly reflect JRR Tolkien’s experience of World War II, although the author denied that. In any case, the story assumes as good a monarchical society, in which kings have not only divine rights, but also magical powers. In the films, the social structure of the forces of good is highly stratified, not dissimilar from the British society in which Tolkien lived, which had entered a painful period of transition in the immediate post-war period. It’s been many years since I read the books, and there is therefore a danger of confusing the two, but I can only assume that the films, if anything, soft-pedal the evident class distinctions between, say, Sam and Frodo. Nevertheless, the agrarian societies of Middle-earth appear to depend on their class structure.

The evident charm with which the LOTR world is imbued caused me to wonder about the attractions of the sword-and-sorcery genre, which typically references the forms of the Middle Ages. It is almost inevitable that any sympathetic portrayal of a pre-industrial society will also be sympathetic to social arrangements that place one group above another based on accidents of birth. Much of the romance in these fantasies comes, moreover, from the more personal form that warfare takes. OTOH, there is the “fun” of a world in which people hack each other to death, rather than shooting each other or blowing each other up. OTOH, there is the comfort of a society in which everyone knows his or her place.

Tolkien, who was born in South Africa, rejected both racism and Nazi racialism. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to understand the conflict between the good beings of Middle-earth and the evil ones as essentially one between races. Regardless of Tolkien’s intentions, the racial divide is clear in Peter Jackson’s films. The orcs are horrible deformed non-humans or sub-humans, as are many of their allies. Jackson also manages to dress  the men who side with the Dark Lord as Arabs, with turbans, etc.

One further note: Although the production values of the LOTR films are generally the highest, there are numerous scenes in which it is clear that the filmmakers took the easy, cheap way out in portraying the hobbits and the Gimli the Dwarf. In many scenes, the hobbits are shot from the back clearly doubled by children. And when they are on horseback, one often sees only a Dwarf helmet or other headgear, suggesting the presence of a character, but without a face. I don’t remember noticing this when I first saw the films back in the early part of the decade, nor when I watched them as videos a few years later. Now it’s glaring and distracting.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

A History Of Nothing

Filed under: Film — drtone @ 10:51 am
Tags: ,

Watched “A History of Violence” (2005) last night. It has some great people in it, including Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen, and the production values couldn’t be higher, with beautiful indoor and outdoor cinematography and great colors. The director, David Cronenberg, has done some good stuff. It has a 7.6 rating on IMDB, which is quite high. That’s the good news. It’s a pretty terrible movie, featuring three or four violent set pieces and that’s about all, short-circuiting the family drama that could be at its core. One question is, “Why is it so bad?” Another question is, “Why has it been so well-liked?”

The short answer to the first question is that there is no story, but that raises the deeper question, which is why there is no story. Shouldn’t Cronenberg, who is old enough and smart enough, know better? I suspect that part of the answer is that it’s based on a graphic novel, and graphic novels inevitably emphasize the “graphic,” depending on darkness and violence to carry them.

Demographics give no answer to the second question. “A History of Violence” has scored well in every audience category, nixing my first hypothesis, which is that it was hugely popular with males in the 18 to 45 bracket, and not so popular with women and older viewers. Although there is a drop-off among the latter groups, it’s not much. Perhaps I’m applying obsolete standards to cinema story, and movies nowadaze don’t have to be about anything. In some instances, it’s easy to understand how that could be true because there is a class of movies that depend more or less solely on explosions and other forms of violence for their appeal. “A History of Violence” does not at first appear to be that shallow, but then it’s based on a comic book…

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Staring At Goats

Filed under: Film,Perennial Philosophy,Relational Somatic Psychotherapy — drtone @ 11:07 am

I’m watching “The Men Who Stare At Goats,” a funny movie about a mythical secret psychic unit in the Army. It makes excellent use, at one point, of a dachshund puppy. That proves it’s a great movie. Anyway, it reminded me of something my best friend said to me yesterday.

She said, “The mind thinks it has things in neat packages, but then when you explore the emotional side, it’s not so neat. Imagine you’re afraid of goats. The mind would put them all in a nice pen, a nice goat pen. But say you climbed over the fence. A goat would piss on your leg. Another would step on your foot. They would smell bad. That’s how it is with the mind and emotions.”

Friday, 30 July 2010

Amores Perros

Filed under: Film,Rumi — drtone @ 1:01 pm

I realize that Rumi is now all the rage, but that does not make him any less great.

Some years ago, I went with my wife at the time to a wonderfully funky little movie theater in Mesilla, NM, run in part by an old friend of hers and the friend’s husband. We went to see a Mexican film that had created quite a stir, “Amores Perros,” by Alejandro González Iñárritu. It’s a rough, engaging story, revolving in part around dog-fighting, but also around other real and figurative dogs in Mexico City. I did not know until years later that the title was a reference to a poem by Rumi:

Love Dogs

One night a man was crying Allah! Allah!
His lips grew sweet with praising,
until a cynic said, “So!
I’ve heard you calling our, but have you ever
gotten any response?”

The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.
He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.

“Why did you stop praising?” “Because
I’ve never heard anything back.”

“This longing you express
is the return message.”

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.

Give your life
to be one of them.

Go here for a wonderful reading of this great poem.

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