Masochism

Georgia O'Keefe, Jack-in-the-Pulpit IV, 1930

Georgia O’Keeffe, Jack-in-the-Pulpit IV, 1930

There’s a secret spot in the brain, an endorphin-rich place many humans try to enter. It is a dangerous location dividing two sides of psychological states: drive and fortitude on the sunny side and the murky, ruinous side of masochism and martyrdom. Whether you are a writer or reader or observer of films, these characters who are on a quest for the ultimate mental escape, catch us, and pull us along for the ride. They have something to share about the human condition. Will they triumph or will they fall? The pleasure/pain principle is human nature’s most fascinating oxymoron. Some live it; almost all of us are entertained by it.

The Artist  
Natalie Portman, The Black Swan, 2010

Natalie Portman in The Black Swan, 2010

I admire the performing arts. The symmetry, the composition, and the spectacular lengths artists make it look and sound effortless garners awe. What’s the price an artist will pay to be the best? The rigors of practice and the dedicated focus to be perfect requires an atypical lifestyle where time and schedule are aligned for one purpose–to exist only for art. The Black Swan is one of my favorite psychological thrillers. The stress Nina Sayers struggles with as she strives to be perfect is an example of masochism. How does she achieve perfection? She has to let go of her bodily self and transcend to that secret spot where she becomes the black swan, Odile, and is no longer Nina, the good white swan, Odette.  Darren Aronofsky told a similar story–opposite societal arena–starring Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (2008). Both films depict the extent to which an artist will transcend to the art form they worship.

Damien Chazelle's Whiplash (2014)

Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014)

Whiplash (2014) is a tale about the sadomasochistic relationship of character Miles Teller and his mentor, Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons who won the Oscar as his manipulative old-school instructor. Miles needed the task-master to push him to greatness. He couldn’t be the next Buddy Rich without the abuse. By the end of the story, the boy transcends into a man and the power struggle shifts to an exciting conclusion. The dynamic duo and the gorgeous jazz easily made Whiplash one of my favorite films of the year.

Transcendence via Sex
Lars Von Trier, 1996,  Breaking the Waves

Lars von Trier, 1996, Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves (1996) is an odd film set in Scotland starring Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgård. Bess is Calvinist and pure of heart while Jan is an atheist oil-rigger. Her love for her husband extends to great limits most of us wouldn’t venture, for he becomes incapacitated and wants her to have sex with others and describe the details to keep their union whole. Her devout relationship with God affects her rationale, and she concedes, convinced it is God’s will to cure Jan. Bess eventually overcomes her repulsion with lovers and transcends to the special spot via sex to a symbolic state of purity by martyrdom. Visionary director Lars von Trier incorporated ten rules in his Dogme 95. The remote Scottish landscape is ancient and stimulating and perfect extension to the film. You can learn more about Lars von Trier’s technique HERE.

Dangerous Jobs 
The Hurt Locker directed by Kathy Bigelow, 2008.

The Hurt Locker directed by Kathryn Bigelow, 2008.

The threat of imminent death causes an adrenaline surge to create the complete escape. This altered state is foreign to normalcy. War puts you in that heightened state seen in films like The Hurt Locker and American Sniper.  How ironic that only when faced with death, do some people feel alive.  

LEOs and FF/EMTs
Ron Howard 1991 film starring Kurt Russell

Ron Howard 1991 film starring Kurt Russell

The ER nurse or doctor. The ambulance driver. The firefighter, and the police officer. Surrounded by the threat of death to others and themselves requires control and steady hands. The exposure releases the chemical surge and the instinct for survival kicks in; they are in the zone. They commit to a lifestyle that few of us could stomach. These heroes are in a voluntary, dangerous career, and they take the abuse. It’s their identity.

The Athlete 

Similar to the skater, the dancer, and the musician, the focus to excel and perfect their sport requires one visit the sweet spot in the brain. Extreme sports, extreme results.

The Actor 

What about the craft of the actor? How far will an actor go to alter their state of being? There are few actors who come to mind who are willing to transform their bodies for the sake of their art, but Christian Bale probably does it better than anyone.

Extreme sleep deprivation is as close to the sweet spot as I’ve ever been. This altered state of torpidness is fascinating and dangerous. In the sweet spot, pain is not felt, the world does not hurt. Nothing can touch you. Does pain brings pleasure?

Interstellar and Science

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Christopher Nolan’s 2014 Interstellar, a thought-provoking mind-bender about wormholes, black holes, time travel, fifth dimensions, and love triumphing all — wow– just listing the goals of the film makes me exhausted. It’s a grand attempt with jaw-dropping effects and solid acting by Matthew McConaughey, Michael Caine and Jessica Chastain. Anne Hathaway’s performance was disappointing as was Matt Damon’s performance as the portly, good scientist turned bad.

The science, the principles of quantum mechanics, linked to the fiction, and the prediction of our world in the near future had me ruminating about the film for weeks. Did Nolan get the science right? I opened up the Time, November 2014 article written by Jeffrey Kluger, where he kindly separated the scientific theories for me as well as answered how accurately they were portrayed in the film. The verdict? Much of it was plausible. You are welcome to read all about it HERE.

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Or better yet, if you are like me whose knowledge of physics extends to the arm-chair, Top Documentary Films on the internet is an excellent index. I recommend the series Into the Wormhole narrated by Morgan Freeman. Specifically, in season two, try watching this episode “Are there more than three dimensions?” 

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I think I get it. We’ve been accustomed to three dimensions–length, width, and height for a long time. Then Einstein came up with time as the fourth dimension, and Interstellar toys with the concept of a fifth dimension. Did you know the “string theory” suggests there might be eleven dimensions with just as many, if not more, universes out there?

Interstellar included some Inception tricks like a space station with a bendable horizon. I loved the imagined foreign planets that might be suitable for human existence–a water-world with colossal tides and it’s opposite, a bleak, desert-world. There are other nice touches in the film like the replication of a dust storm blotting out sight and air tagged with the recollections of survivors of the U.S. Depression in the 1930s. There were many details that Christopher Nolan did right with Interstellar like his interpretation of a wormhole, or his characters aging (or not) to illustrate the effects of time travel. I can’t condemn him for aspects that seemed inconceivable such as the role the black hole played in the film.

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It seems unlikely that a ship could orbit the lip of a black hole and not get sucked in. It seems unlikely that anyone could travel through a black hole and survive spaghettification. But how thrilling to imagine going through one! I loved the fifth dimension played out on the screen. All of humanity rests behind the book shelf? Far fetched, yes, but I was too wowed by the story-line and the attempt of representing scientific theories to find much fault with plausibility. Instead of finding fault, I commend the audacity of Christopher Nolan for creating another mind-bending, intellectual treat. It was worth the price of admission, and you bet, I’m going to buy a copy.

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It is expected that fiction will bend the rules for the sake of the story; at the heart, Interstellar tells a love story. The reunion between father and daughter is nothing short of miraculous. So what if it probably couldn’t happen?  Its magnificence lies in the imaginative spirit of Nolan. It is as visually stunning as Kubrick’s  2001: A Space Odyssey. That’s saying a lot.  

Your thoughts?

Moll Flanders

Daniel Defoe’s  1722 satirical novel, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, featured the true account of a girl from the eighteenth century who was morally ambiguous, Moll was a rogue, someone who lamented breaking the ten commandments, yet she did it anyway. Immersed in a Christian world, she was held captive by its expectations. Poverty led to thievery which led to corruption and it molded her into a sinner. It is one of the first novels an author created a female anti-hero.

As a satirist, Daniel Defoe is ranked among the best and shines brightly next to Jonathan Swift with his 1726 masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels and Peirre Choderlos de Laclos, who in 1782, published his damning satire of the French elite by introducing the manipulative pair, The Marquise de Merteuil and The Vicomte de Valmont. This epistolary novel became a perfect period film in 1988.

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Dangerous Liaisons, 1988, Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer

Daniel Defoe’s satire explored this ethical struggle between one’s instinct to survive and Christian purity, and the character, Moll Flanders, was the subject of his experiment. Unfortunately, there is no film adaptation which brings to life Defoe’s wit and complicated heroine in my estimation.

In 1965, Kim Novak and Dame Angela Lansbury starred in a farcical film of Moll Flanders. It is too ridiculous for me to appreciate.

Moll Flanders was an opportunist, a shrewd businesswoman, and an adept thief. Moll’s proclivities instigated a gender controversy since in the 1700s, women were generally considered more virtuous than men. Moll Flanders could steal like a man. She used her gender as a shield to hide behind to give her the advantage. Once she noticed a child who wore a gold necklace; she escorted the child to an alley and slipped it off the child’s neck without hesitation or discovery. Her accounts are reprehensible, but her cleverness begets admiration.

Moll Flanders was an expert manipulator because she vowed to be self-reliant. She refused to be at the mercy of a male. When she became a widow, she vowed to be wealthy since it bought her freedom. Monetary gain was the principal goal behind her marriages. Vain and promiscuous, Moll committed many sins, yet we still end up liking her. She beat the system. Her sins seem forgivable because she clawed her way up from the bottom of a prison cell at infamous Newgate Prison in London and rose in status to an elite member of society. Defoe’s satiric message? Money might bring prestige and a certain kind of freedom that has been equated with superiority and virtue, but it’s likely to be a facade behind which corruption and greed flourish.

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Interested in historical prisons? Newgate Prison has quite a horrible reputation. I enjoyed this article about the history of Newgate Prison at Peter Berthoud’s blog found HERE.

Why is it difficult to create a good period film like Dangerous Liasiaons, Amadeus, or Elizabeth? Usually the costumes are superb but something seems lost in the translation. I have seen more mediocre period films than good ones. What do you think? 

Nuns in Film

Get thee to a nunn’ry, why woulds’t thou be a breeder of
sinners? –Hamlet Act 3, scene 1, 120 -121

There have been a lot of films which depict convents, nuns, and the women men think should go there. Here are some of my favorites in no particular order.

Ophelia

John Everett Millais 1851-1852 masterpiece. Go to the Tate Gallery to see her.

Was Hamlet so repulsed by the marriage of his mother to his uncle that it spread to his relationship with Ophelia? Was he really punning and using the word “nunnery” to mean “brothel”? Was he just acting crazy and using her so she would report his peculiar antics? Probably all the above, and it instigated Ophelia’s decision to drown herself as reported by Gertrude in Act IV. Ophelia’s death inspired hauntingly fabulous artwork. Which version of Hamlet is your favorite? On stage, I wish I had seen Ralph Fiennes or Richard Burton portray the indecisive prince.

Let’s stick with films. Which version and star do you prefer as Hamlet? Perhaps Sir Kenneth Branagh (1996), Mel Gibson (1990), Ethan Hawke (2000), Laurence Olivier (1948), or  Innokenti Smoktunovsky(1964)? If you are a Shakespeare nut and love theater, this was a fun site showcasing 45 Hamlets HERE

Doubt (2008)

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With an outstanding cast including Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis, the film set in 1964 featured the charismatic Father Flynn who was suspected by Mother Superior, Sister Aloysius, of inappropriate behavior of an African-American altar boy. Interesting plot twists and superb acting make this a fine drama written for the play and film by John Patrick Shanley.

Magdalene Sisters (2002)

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Magdalene Sisters Asylum was an Irish institution run by nuns which housed girls sent there by their families, the law, or they were orphaned. Rejected by society, the asylum functioned more as a prison with no parole. Teaching the girls of ill-repute the way to religious redemption, the film was based on a true story of three girls whose friendship aid in their survival. This riveting drama set in the 1960s peeks into the Irish relationship with Catholicism, specifically female expectations of purity and morality. After watching the film, you will wonder how these asylums stayed open until 1996.

Ida (2013)

Ida, Sundance Film Festival 2014

Set in 1962, Ida was Jewish and orphaned during WWII and placed in a Polish convent. Now she is about to take her vows, but first she must go on a journey of self-discovery with her troubled aunt to unearth the secrets of her family. It won Best Foreign Film this year at the Oscars. Subtle and puritanical, the atypical choice made by director Paweł Pawlikowski and cinematographer pair Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal  to use Academy Ratio–that boxy look before widescreen–their choice complemented the era of the time. It worked for me. I thought the black and white compositions were stunning. The ending was perfect.

Lilies of the Field (1963)

A touching, feel-good film about two proud, strong personalities, the rambling carpenter, “Schmidt”, and Mother Maria, leader of Eastern German nuns. The nuns etch out an existence on an Arizona farm, barely able to sustain themselves. When “Schmidt” played by Sidney Poitier arrives, Mother Maria played by Lilia Skala, persuades him to aid the nuns with repairs and eventually a new chapel. The community spirit and friendship between all is uplifting.

The Sound of Music (1965)

I would be remiss if I didn’t include the best nun ever, Julie Andrews, as Maria in The Sound of Music. Roger and Hammerstein’s classic score is timeless. It falls into the same mental group of The Wizard of Oz. I find it inconceivable when I hear someone admit they have not seen either. This is one of the finer feel-good films–when was the last time you watched it?

There are plenty of films I left out. Do you have favorite films about nuns?

CinemaScope and Some Came Running

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Mighty films packed the Oscar ballots in 1952. Honors split between A Streetcar Named Desire, The African Queen, A Place in the Sun, and An American in Paris. Although Best Film went to An American in Paris (1951), Vincente Minnelli lost as director to George Stevens who directed A Place in the Sun. A string of musical hits such as Meet Me In St. Louis (1944), The Bandwagon (1953), Brigadoon (1954), and  Kismet (1955) cemented Vincente Minnelli’s reputation. He was awarded Best Director for Gigi (1959) which swept the Oscars with nine awards. His background in theatrical stage direction served him well in the film industry; his gorgeous set designs, cinematography, and vivid colors are features of his style and enhanced all the more with the invention of CinemaScope in 1953.

One of my favorite Vincente Minnelli films is the 1958 classic, Some Came Running starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Shirley MacClaine. Of the many reasons why it’s highly regarded, Minnelli’s sensibilities display a colorful world provided by CinemaScope and inspired future directors like Martin Scorsese. I learned a lot about the history of CinemaScope at the American Widescreen Museum site  HERE.

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Having never gone to film school, I enjoyed this brief video explaining CinemaScope, letter-boxing, and Pan and scan and recommend it.

 Some Came Running (1958) 

In the film, a rogue and disappointed writer returns to his Midwest hometown where tongues gossip and reputations hang on the perceptions of a family’s name and their power in the community. Played by Frank Sinatra, Dave Hirsh is a caustic Army veteran. Chasing internal demons, he dissociates himself from his superficial brother and sister-in-law and befriends gambler Bama Dillert played by Dean Martin. Shirley MacClaine plays a tramp who follows Dave to his hometown with hopes of wooing him into a relationship. It’s a rare film that has it all: love triangles, class-conflict, dark comedy, suspenseful climax, and a satisfying conclusion delivered beautifully by director Vincente Minnelli. Some Came Running was nominated for five Oscars including Shirley MacClaine’s first Best Actress nomination.

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Frank Sinatra as Dave and Shirley MacClaine as Ginny

Shirley MacClaine’s performance was outstanding–I prefer it over her celebrated performance in The Apartment (1960). It’s unusual when you consider a segment of the film does not include her. Irony abounds in the film. MacClaine keeps her naïve charm even though she represents the experienced floozy. Unrequited love is a prominent theme. Dave loves a cold teacher whose moral standards place him beneath her. Meanwhile, he spurns the unconditional love of Ginny. The role of women compliment historical and literary themes of domesticity, sexual repression, double standards between the genders, and an overt concern for materialism. Teenager without a cause, Betty Lou, rebels and the unlikely mentors, Dave and Ginny, offer wisdom when her parents possessed none. Rebellion, boredom, and much alcohol drinking hearken to stories by John Cheever and John Updike. If you love Frank Sinatra, you’ve probably already seen this film since it’s an acclaimed acting performance, and he shines as the anti-hero. Dean Martin exudes charm. He is a creep. He redeems himself with his prop, his beloved hat.

It’s a fine classic not to be missed.

What’s your favorite performance in Some Came Running? 

Book Review: The Knife with the Ivory Handle by Cynthia Bruchman

Cindy Bruchman:

Here’ s a true friend! Wow. Thanks, Kate.

Originally posted on Odyssey of a Novice Writer:

imageIn Cynthia Bruchman’s debut novel, The Knife with the Ivory Handle, she weaves together a group of unlikely characters to create a rich and complex story.

Set in Illinois around 1900, the story begins with two orphans traveling via train to meet their adoptive parents. During the journey, they discover a black man hiding in one of the boxcars. Wounded, wanted by the law, he has to trust them not to divulge his presence to the authorities. The children make the decision to befriend him and so does the young priest sent to meet the orphans and escort them to their new home.

Bruchman does a fine job with making each of the characters compelling and sympathetic. Young Jonathan is a sensitive, creative boy with a gift for seeing beneath the surface of things. Artistic and bright, he senses the moods of others through keen observation and careful listening to…

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