“The True Meaning of Pictures”

Today I watched The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Addams’ Appalachia, a documentary about the Appalachian people of Kentucky. I found this documentary strangely compelling. I felt a huge kinship with these people, living poorly by our standards, leading simple lives, and making music to amuse themselves. I think I feel such a kinship because my grandfather’s people come from the hills of Tennessee. Grandpa Brown was a man of few words with a wry sense of humor, and who could fish like nobody’s business. He made his own fishing lures and then stuffed the large fishes he caught. One that he stuffed was displayed on the wall in the house where I grew up. My grandfather played the fiddle and my Grandma played the piano. I remember listening to them both playing hymns together and my aunts and uncles sitting around clapping, singing, or dancing.

My grandmother’s people came from a long line of God-fearing preachers of the independent Baptist variety here in Illinois. Many a night we listened to Grandma talk about the farm she grew up on and the chores she had to do. The tale she tells is of seeing my Grandpa for the first time coming over the hill toward their farm looking for work. He had walked and hitched rides to Illinois from Tennessee. He was 19 and she was 17. They were married a year later. My favorite picture of my grandfather is one where he is sitting on the floor of a porch attached to a cabin in the middle of a forest. I believe it’s the actual cabin where he grew up with his mother and father and sisters and brothers. His knees are drawn up and his arms are resting on his bent knees. He’s wearing a hat and staring off into the distance. The lines of outdoor work are heavily etched into his brown, leathery face. I have a great respect for those who can capture true emotions and lives on film and Addams can do that. When Addams interviews people outside of this culture, there are those who express suspicion, stereotypical attitudes, and fear of the subject. It points out to me how much people fear things outside of their own sense of place and familiarity and the patronizing attitudes that comes from such an attitude. And that works for rich and poor alike. I have a huge respect for documentarian filmmakers who can share the experiences they have lived with us. There are those who wish that the stories could have accompanied the pictures and perhaps we would lose some of the stereotypes if we knew those stories.

I think the reason this film resonated so much with me, by listening to their speech patterns and observing their faith, I can so see myself and my family members in them. There are some that want to politicize the subjects. Oh what education could do, they ponder. It becomes like a media zoo when someone goes into the woods or the midwest or into small towns like a modern-day Margaret Mead and “observe the natives.” Oh what shall we do about poor white folk? Look at those strange beliefs! Oh my God they still slaughter their own animals! We should feel sorry for them! Is it exploitative? When you photograph them, put them on display, and walk through such galleries and thank the powers you no longer believe in that you aren’t that poor, it’s easy to make fun of things you don’t know anything about. It’s easy to romanticize poor lives or imagine that they inbreed or other unnatural things. It’s easy to imagine you have just what they need to “fix” them.

And what shall we say about religion in Appalachia? Addams’ explores the serpent handlers of this area, whose practices are based in the last chapter of Mark. They believe in the signs of the Kingdom of God literally; speaking in tongues, handling serpents, and drinking poison. The folk in this area handles rattlesnakes even though it’s illegal in a public area. Churches are considered public areas, so they have services in their homes. They also drink strychnine. Addams captures the stories behind such beliefs and thankfully provides just the stories others are asking of them. I’m glad he did that, because I can’t say I wouldn’t be one of those who made a snap judgment if I just observed them in a book. When you think of all the popular cultural stereotypes, especially in the movies, about people who live in ‘hollers’ and those in the woods, I can only say I’m glad these folks are unaware that we use their family lives as fun fodder for our movie going habits.

All I could say after watching this and reacting with such a gut reaction is, these people could be my people. Oh, no doubt, these are very, very hard lives. They are dirt poor. They live in shacks, and they are often dirty, missing teeth, or sick with some disease. My family would be considered several rungs up the social ladder from such a life, so I count myself among those that stereotype easily. But as I get older, I have learned to empathize with so much that is different from my world. And I thank those people who have shown me love and encouraged me to do just that. I’m glad I watched this film. I encourage you to do so as well.


Cloud 9

Every once in a while you will see a movie that you know you could not have watched until you reached a certain age, an age that appreciates the idea of love and sex long into one’s “old age.” This is such a movie. I watched Cloud 9 last night on Netflix instant play and was engrossed from the beginning. This German movie (with subtitles)  explored the 30 year marriage (?) and passionate affair of a 60-year-old woman named Inge Werner.  She’s a seamstress  who sews out of her home. Inge meets an older man of 76 who comes to her home to have his trousers altered. They are instantly attracted to each other and one day, after delivering his clothes to him at his apartment they make love in the most touching, fumbling, unembarrassed, and abandoned scene I’ve ever seen on film. It was not perfect. Their bodies are shown in all of their aging glory. Young people will no doubt be grossed out. Even people in their 30s who still believe we shall be fit and “beautiful” according to society’s standards long into their 60s will no doubt be horrified.  But I was touched and gratified that it was dealt with honestly and truthfully.

I, for one, am extremely glad that someone has the audacity to show mature sex in all its grittiness and gloriousness. It shows that we are never too old for love and sexual activity and that sometimes things don’t always go as we neatly plan it to go. Sex isn’t a sure thing sometimes, but it’s merely an affectionate and loving expression of something much larger. There are different kinds of relationships and different kinds of sex along with them. Once Inge falls for Karl, she is torn between the comfortable relationship with her husband (and we are never told if they are married or not) Werner and the excitement she feels for the first time with Karl. We find out from the story that Werner helped raise her daughter, so we know he had come on the scene when she needed him the most. Inge has a close relationship with her daughter Petra and tells her about it. Petra advises her to keep quiet about it to Werner and not to hurt him but that she could continue the affair if she wants to and no one would no. She is happy for her mother’s happiness. From there, it’s an agonizing decision for Inge to do just that or to finally tell Werner.

What I love about this movie is that I know moralizers will predictably fall on either side of the issue. Those who believe that a 30 year friendship and comfortable relationship trumps excitement and passion will intone about the sanctity of marriage although, again, we are never told that Werner and Inge are married. Those who value open relationships as healthy will see the possibilities of carrying on with the affair as an added bonus to a comfortable life but would no doubt advise Inge to be truthful. When Inge finally does tell Werner, her agony is the real truth when she says, “I never wanted this to happen!” When Werner is angry she asks him why they cannot talk about it, and right there is the problem with their relationship. They live comfortably side by side and do not talk, share, laugh much, or even share many interests. They are comfortable. Just comfortable. One of the key issues in the movie, for me anyway, is that everyone thinks that the right thing to do is not to rock the boat of all that stability put in place, as if life doesn’t happen to you all the time and adjustments always have to be made. Humans are creatures who want nice, neat, packaged solutions and who crave stability and orderliness as something akin to “godliness.” Anything thing that upsets that orderliness is verboten. They all wondered about Werner’s happiness, but no one advised Inge to embrace her happiness openly and freely. It’s about what women trade for their happiness and the price they pay for it.

I will say that the ending was unexpected and very sad and bittersweet. I found myself wiping away many tears at the end. Life is messy and we can’t go through it without hurting people we care about or without hurting ourselves either.  Most of us plan our lives down to the last detail and stick with it, knowing that one upset of this ordered life may send us over the edge and we might have to confront messy feelings or thoughts. Some accept another’s prescription of life and try to follow that even to our own hurt and destruction. Life is less static than that and more fluid, if we allow it.  Some embrace openness and find love or trouble or sometimes both at once. But love, if allowed, will trump all else in the end. It may leave a painful path, but it’s ultimately our responsibility to choose our own path and accept the consequences once they come.

Paranormal Activity

Why do people go to haunted houses that others create for Halloween? Because they know it’s fake but they want to be scared witless anyway. It’s called the suspension of disbelief to get the payoff in the end. Scaring ourselves and feeling safe at the same time is a human past time. And ghosts and demons and things that go bump in the night are just the ticket to help us get the adrenaline going. That’s what the new movie Paranormal Activity is all about. I know it’s fake, I love that it was made for $11,000, the couple who star in it are likable, and it delivers exactly what you think it will; a great scare after a suspenseful buildup. Don’t we all want to know what goes on in our houses while we sleep? What’s scarier than contemplating that? As for the movie, I haven’t heard audience reaction like that since I saw Carrie at the movie theater. Or even Jaws. Good stuff. I highly recommend it this Halloween.

Of Mad Men and Conspiracy Theories

I watch entirely too much television. How do I know this? Because I can’t seem to read enough books that I want to that’s how I know. I have stacks and stacks of books in my place and haven’t read half of them. So, some television shows have to go to make more reading time. It is indeed a hypnotic box that keeps us transfixed in front of it for no good reason. However, that said, I cannot give up good quality TV no matter what beckons me and there are only 24 hours in a day and 7 of those I spend sleeping and 8 working. So what am I watching and what have I given up? Let’s list those I’ve given up first:

Survivor: I’ve watched this show since it started. This is what… the 17th season? Unreal. I mean, how different can each season be? You watch ruthless people win through lying and manipulation and you watch the others lose because they weren’t willing to compromise their principles or friendships for $1,000,000. It’s the same thing over and over. What the losers don’t seem to realize is that it’s just a game and if you don’t play by the rules of the game, you’ll lose. You’d think someone would be learning this by now. The last straw was watching this season’s premier. Every season they seem to want to find the most unlikeable characters they can so people will watch who they LOVE to hate. I was sitting there listening to the latest blowhard talk about how smart he was and how dumb all the women were and how easily manipulated and I said, enough is enough. Here’s one woman who’s not falling for that again. End of story. I haven’t watched it since.

Lost: Like The X-Files, I thought I would watch this to the end; because I like Science Fiction and because I like mysteries. However, the mistake I made in watching the X-Files to the end was assuming that Chris Carter would give us some answers. Instead, I don’t think he knew any of the answers and just strung us along and made things up as he went along. However it was vastly entertaining and each episode pretty much stood on it’s own. Lost however grew tiresome very quickly. After watching two seasons, I wasn’t willing to take this trip any longer. I am convinced J.J. Abrams has no idea where this show is going or where it went in the last couple of seasons. He did an EXCELLENT job on the last Star Trek movie!! However, Lost is no longer on my list of “must see TV.”

The Mentalist: (Tuesday nights at 9 p.m.) I gave this show a whole season because I like the lead character played by Simon Barker. He’s amusing. But I can’t seem to work up any liking for Robin Tunney’s character. The plots aren’t compelling enough; not that they have to feature murders and gore. Mad Men supplies none of that and delivers the goods week after week. It’s just not substantive enough for me.

Shows that I continue to watch:

The Amazing Race: (Sunday nights at 7 p.m.) This is a fun show that uses my favorite game format: a scavenger hunt. The values promoted are worthy; play dirty and it usually comes back to bite you in the end. Take your time and read the clues and you’ll be fine. Rush too quickly and sloppily and something’s going to go awry. Plus you get to learn a little bit of history and see some cities along the way. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego for grown-ups.

Ghost Hunters: (Wednesday nights at 8 p.m.) Do I know it’s probably fake? Sure. But just the fact that there are no psychics on these hunts, that they have “scientific” equipment and that they are trying to debunk evidence and do many times, is enough to keep me watching. Oh and Jason and Grant and Steve are just the type of guys I’d love to hang out with especially while visiting spooky places. What more fun is there?

Supernatural: (Thursday nights at 8 p.m.) Well there are only two reasons why I watch this show at my age: Jenson Ackles and Jared Padalecki. ’nuff said.

The Closer: (Monday nights at 9 p.m.) I love the whole cast of this show. They work well together. However, Kyra Sedgwick’s character can be annoying sometimes and there are moments that even I want to slap her. The plots are standard police procedural and even though the whole premise was ripped off from the UK’s excellent Prime Suspect series starring Helen Mirren, it’s interesting enough to garner a TiVo slot.

Project Runway: (Thursday nights at 9 p.m.) The chief thing going for this show is to see how people can creatively design clothing and make it out of fabric. Fascinating. I can’t create a paper bag, let alone a dress. Oh and let’s not forget Tim Gunn! “Five minutes people!!”

Dancing With the Stars: (Monday and Tuesday nights at 7 & 8 p.m.) The judging is snarky and inconsistent. The stars only have nominal talent sometimes.  So why do I watch? Because I want to do that. I love dancing and seeing someone blossom into a good dancer is fun and rewarding.  The elimination shows are a complete waste of time however. Just post it on the internet already!

My new husband :-)

My new husband 🙂

Mad Men: (Sunday nights at 9 p.m.) Probably THE MOST intelligent show on television right now. This last episode should be Emmy material for next year because the underlying themes are so complex and intertwined and the actors so flawless in their delivery that you actually believe Sterling Cooper ad agency exists out there in an alternate time-line somewhere. Brilliant, brilliant is all I can say.

And speaking of conspiracy theories….Sadly, the books I managed to read recently I can count on one hand: The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown is only worth throwing with the other hand. I can only say the ending did not justify the plot or to put it in fictional terms: Did I have to wade through this stupid plot to get to THIS???  Ugh.  Someone let his own positive press over Angels and Demons get to him. Kind of like Book 6 of that other series people are wild about. Mr. Potter or Twilight whose popularity still stuns me as its horribly written and the main character is a stalker let alone a vampire!

On the good side, I read Ruth Rendell’s Adam and Eve and Pinch Me. (I hate it that some books are only available in the UK, like Barbara Erskine’s books. Why?) Anyway, Rendell’s was available, so I picked this up over there and finished it very quickly, which is saying something. Ruth Rendell is always, always a good read. I also did NOT know that Ruth Rendell wrote under the name Barbara Vine, whom I also like. Go figure. Why do people do that? Dean Koontz’s last Odd Thomas book Odd Hours wasn’t as good as some of his others either. I suppose some authors can’t be consistently good. Or maybe it’s just me and my tastes have changed. That’s probably it.  I seem to have less patience with some that are mildly books and more patience with some that makes my brain hurt. Perhaps I get a sense that time is precious and shouldn’t be wasted on such things? Age. Hmmm. Sometimes we have to let go of a few things to make room for others. This is a great time to do some letting go and to hunker down for winter. Gather the acorns, so to speak.

I’ll Take the Red Pill Please

I found this post at Scotteriology via Exploring Our Matrix. What an excellent analogy. The Matrix was a revolutionary movie for me. Like Fight Club it was one of the few movies that dared challenge how deeply humans are enmeshed in what we perceive as reality or what we have created for ourselves as a protective layer against the harshness of the world. Some of us are living lives pretty much on the surface of  reality, but biblical fundamentalists are buried beneath another layer called inerrancy. As a fundamentalist I felt pushed further and further back from the surface of reality as layer after layer of dogmatic belief was draped over me like blankets. The deeper one went in biblical theology according to inerrantists, the poorer the chances of ever waking up from it.

I’m not sure now what the “red pill” was for me back then. I think it was first discovering that so many different sects of Christianity interpreted the same set of scriptures in entirely different ways that set me on my way to questioning the “reality” fundamentalism claimed to construct for me. At least it got me out of a fundamentalist church. The final swallowing of the red pill was in a mythology class at university. There I discovered etiological myths. I learned that myths are so deeply ingrained in cultural consciousness that some cultures began to actually believe their own stories; those poetic stories told ’round a fire at the tribe’s center, stories about heroes and exploits of group salvation when the tribe began. These stories about gods and goddesses and supernatural phenomena, centered around the supposed origins of the world, were written down eventually and the very act of writing made them seem magically permanent somehow.

This germ of a thought opened every door for me. If I could claw my way out of the morass of inconsistent and self generating dogma that inerrancy provided, unplug myself from the “machine” of fundamentalism that was feeding me only what it wanted to make me serve it, then I could at least begin to see things clearly and make decisions closer to the surface of reality. All I had to do was handle the fear than engendered by facing the world as it was, not as fundamentalism told me it should be. Swallowing the red pill was the best thing that ever happened to me up to that point.

“Perfume, The Story of a Murderer”

I haven’t done a movie review in quite some time. Perhaps it’s because most movies out there are merely exercises in didactic over exertion and those don’t hold any fascination for me. The best films are those that don’t hit you over the head with any message at all, but respects the audience enough to make it subtle AND, (and here’s the key word here) entertaining. Those who make films (and I would include all artists such as novelists, song writers, etc.) seem to fall into two camps; those who make it for the sheer artistry and storytelling and those who make them to teach us all a lesson. I much prefer the former category.

Last night I received Perfume, The Story of a Murderer in the mail from Netflix. I had never heard of this movie, based on the 1986 German novel Das Parfum and never saw it advertised and it’s been out since 2006. I am always fascinated about why movies do not make a larger dent in the public consciousness when they come out but just because I didn’t notice it doesn’t mean it wasn’t released widely. I am always annoyed with the movie industry and around Oscar time I am particularly peeved by the blatant politicization of movies every year. The movies released in November and December are always nominated for Oscars and all the movies that come previous to that are always overlooked. It’s a perfect setup that never varies. This is why I never watch nor do I have much respect for the Academy Awards any longer. Members of the Academy ceased to be relevant a long time ago, except perhaps as a mirror held up to their own faces. But I digress.

perfumeFirst, the movie is narrated wonderfully by actor John Hurt and this sets the tone for the entire film. It reminded me of the frame in Big Fish or the television show Pushing Daisies yet far darker and much less witty in intent. The main character of this movie is Jean Baptiste Grenouille who begins life as a poor abandoned infant in the dirtiest, most despicable part of France and whose remarkable sense of smell defines his entire life. The problem? He has no scent of his own. His main desire in life is to collect the essences of all odors, including the impossible essences of glass and copper, and apprentices himself to a perfumer  (a most brilliant Dustin Hoffman) who knows the logistics of distilling and mixing scents but has no talent for creating perfumes that sell. He makes the mistake of telling Grenouille an Egyptian tale of the 13 essences which make up the greatest perfume in the world. Now Grenouille is bent on finding this secret formula. To say Grenouille is an aberrant personality is slightly an understatement but you do have some sympathy for the boy. He’s had the hardest of lives imaginable. And something, somewhere went even more horribly wrong in the formation of his conscience. His descent into murderous ways is almost innocent. He wants others to love him as he sees people do with each other every day.  He has no sense of boundaries. He has no concept that what he is doing may be wrong. All he wants is to distill the odors of young women because he finds it the most irresistible and life-giving smell in his world. And, above all, he wants love. He just chooses the most anti-social way of finding the “essence” of love that he can; murder. He literally harvests the scents of women. In his quest he comes across the one girl that will complete his collection of essences and he is bent on getting her, despite the efforts of her father (Alan Rickman)  to hide her.

Ben Whishaw is perfect as the  tortured soul yet seemingly serene soul, Grenouille. The film is compelling in its portrayal of Grenouille’s existential despair in the face of being overlooked simply for being born and being scentless. Catholics will be offended by the portrayal of the French bishop’s caricaturish belief in the superstitions of the day and the movie’s semi-penultimate scene in which the town amasses to execute Grenouille but descends into a pheromone induced orgy instead is sure to insult many. But I am never prude enough to overlook the beauty and skill of the intent of the movie because of the content of some scenes. Do they serve a purpose? Yes, they do. It is enough.  This movie reminds me of Chocolat a tad bit although much harsher in tone and content. But the trope is the common one of someone coming to town and altering the perception of it’s residents and the town religionists forever. This film is more about religion in the face of a presence that cannot be precisely described as evil because it’s motives are the purest. Grenouille is completely unaware of his action’s wrongness. Wrapping your mind around that one and the implications of it should keep you busy after viewing. The movie is dark and gritty in parts but exquisitely filmed and beautifully rendered. We are plunged from darkness to light in equal measures not only in landscape but in Grenouille’s life. It is sad and beautiful all at once in Grenouille’s quest to be noticed, loved, and desired. And the final scene is a moment of magical realism that will leave you pondering for quite some time.

I would recommend it but don’t watch it if you dislike the dark and the gritty mixed with blood or if you dislike mocking of religion. I just happen to like all of the above especially if a thoughtful message is cleverly disguised in an artful piece of work.