Monday, July 26, 2010

One-liners that don't hold water.

In one of my favorite songs, I noticed an interesting lyric the other day: "our ideas held no water, but we used them like a dam." This is how I feel about a lot of one-liners: they're often used to respond to crises or to answer deep questions, but in my eyes they don't provide any meaningful answers. They don't hold any water, but we use them like a dam. Here are a few of those one-liners, and why they don't really do anything for me...

- "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!"

Problem: Where am I to get the water and sugar from? How can I be expected to make lemonade if all life "gives" me is lemons? This adage implies that "life" just arbitrarily HANDS us everything we have, and therefore the adage implicitly asks the impossible. It sets up an expectation so whenever something "bad" happens in our lives, we feel pressure to magically transform it into something "good." Oh, and when you still have lemons in your pocket and no lemonade to drink, how do you feel? Miserable and powerless. This adage tells us that if things are bad, we're doing something wrong. "What's the matter," it taunts, "you can't turn this into lemonade?" No, maybe I can't. But I cannot come to peace with my circumstances, so I am tortured: I cannot simply accept things for how they are, because this adage teaches me to expect myself to somehow change them, like some sort of alchemist.

When life gives you lemons, be happy about lemons. Do not automatically label life events as "good things" or "bad things," but rather, simply accept your reality as such and react accordingly. Sometimes trying to change things will be an appropriate reaction, and sometimes it will not.

- "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me."

I have had issue with this adage since the first day I heard it. Sure, we teach this saying to children so that they learn not to get over-offended by what others say. But on the flip side, we try to teach kindness and tact. Why? Why be kind or tactful if the only thing that will hurt is a stick or a stone? For most of my youth, I felt like I could (and should) say whatever came to mind, no matter what, because no one had the right to be offended by mere words. This unhealthy habit of communication eventually faded, but probably would have faded sooner if it weren't for sayings like this "sticks and stones" nonsense.

Don't tell your kids that words "can never hurt" them. Words CAN hurt, and words DO hurt. How we react to that hurt is what matters.

- "That person has too much time on their hands."

Okay, this isn't really an "adage," per se, but it's a one-liner that is often used to sneer at those who perform some impressive or talented feat. It makes us feel better when we watch Youtube videos or "America's Got Talent" or whatever it is. Instead of admiring gifted and dedicated individuals, we assure ourselves of our superiority by noting, "wow, SOMEONE has a lot of time on their hands..."

Actually, everyone has the same amount of time on their hands: namely, twenty-four hours each day. Everyone gets the same amount. Everyone has seven days in a week, just like you. The only difference between the people using this adage and the people it's used against is the use of said time. Sure, this sounds like an obvious distinction to make, but it's very important to remember. The guy you saw doing crazy tricks on TV last night doesn't have some random unfair advantage over you, and he certainly doesn't have more time than you do. He just used his time to hone a skill... and you used your time to watch him on TV.

- "Where there's a will, there's a way."

This is just blatantly and obviously untrue. I find it difficult to understand why people still use this phrase. I hope I don't need to explain that sometimes, will notwithstanding, there is no way.

Where there's a will, there's a will. Where there's a way, there's a way. Sometimes there is both, but they do not cause each other. However, where there's a will, it is sometimes easier [than it would be without a will] to find/recognize a way, if there is one at all.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Why you should see "Inception."

Ever since my filmmaker friend Matt Jensen told me to go watch "Memento," I knew Christopher Nolan was someone worth following: his was a film with a gripping story and an incredibly creative style. I became increasingly impressed with his work over time as I experienced cinematic gems like "Batman Begins," "The Prestige," and of course the amazing "The Dark Knight" (only later did I backtrack and check out "Insomnia," his crime thriller with Al Pacino and Robin Williams). And just yesterday, I had the pleasure of going to see Christopher Nolan's latest masterpiece, "Inception."

"Inception" is pretty difficult to try to describe. It's about shared dreams, and breaking into them to steal - or insert - ideas or secrets. It's a philosophical science-fiction film, but it's also an action film and a heist film and a noir film and a psychological thriller: we're talking a Matrix/Bond/Ocean's/Prestige sort of mash-up here. Of course, describing a work of art in relation to other works can rarely give it justice: imagine trying to tell someone how great "The Lion King" is by saying, "well, it's the story of 'Hamlet,' but there is a talking Matthew Broderick lion, and a warthog that farts." Okay, never mind; that still sounds awesome.

In my efforts to keep this blog worthy of its title, "Food For Thought," I have avoided posting straight-up movie reviews (with the exception of special occasions, like the end of a decade). In that spirit, I intend here to briefly discuss and explore the themes of "Inception" instead of simply critiquing the film itself. Incidentally, these themes are topics I've been meaning to write about anyway: from a dinner conversation with my dad about moral responsibility in lucid dreaming to a conversation with a friend about the virtues and vices of virtual reality, I've had plenty of food for thought in recent months about the sort of things that "Inception" just happens to be about. And I've been meaning to discuss them here, but haven't gotten around to it until now. Kudos to "Inception" for providing the intellectual kick in the pants!

Anyway, you should see "Inception" for a lot of reasons (including visual excellence, great suspense, and good performances), but mostly you should see it because, if you pay enough attention to it, it can give you a ton to think about. Here are the three main themes I noticed it made me think about:

Theme 1: The nature of reality.
As a film about dreams, this is very much a film about what it means for something to be real. Just as the unreality of Ofelia's fantasies in "Pan's Labyrinth" is irrelevant (the fantasies are just as powerful to her whether they are real or not: they are real to her), the unreality of a dream is irrelevant when we are in it. A dream feels like it's real while we are dreaming, and as protagonist Dom Cobb explains, "it's only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange." So what does that mean? Is "reality" kind of relative, dependent on perception? Are we morally responsible for actions we take in half-lucid dreaming? Should we avoid too-often abandoning the "real world" to plunge ourselves into more "artificial" realities (like video games, books, films, social networks), or are those experiences as valid and real as we make them to be? This idea is also interesting from a theological perspective: I recall once reading a metaphorical suggestion from C. S. Lewis that the world we live in now is somehow "less real" than the kind of world Heaven is, and that we emerge into a fuller and more "real" reality when we are exalted. If that is the case, then this entire mortal life is sort of like a film or a book: it is a sub-real experience meant to enrich and enlighten us, so that when we snap out of it, so to speak, we are more whole. This would mean that indulging in artificial realities can be morally profitable, given that we become more solid, well-rounded, informed, complete, and enlightened people after indulging in them. This responsibility for edification lies partly on the artist's shoulders, and partly on ours, as the audience.

Theme 2: Leaps of faith.
Sometimes we don't know what's ahead, but we have to take chances. Sometimes we don't know if we can trust our experiences - memories can be mistaken, people can be performers, friendships can be faked - but we have to act on faith. Often we wish we could do everything with systematic and flawless logic, knowing everything beforehand (or at least know every possibility, like an expert chess player). Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), this is not the case. Sometimes, like in the film, you're simply waiting for "a train that will take you far away," though "you can't be sure where it will take you."

Theme 3: The power of ideas.
This is perhaps the strongest theme I saw in the film. Dialogue in the very first scene argues that the most dangerous virus in existence is an idea: if you can plant an idea deep in someone's mind, there is almost nothing that can root it out. Science fiction or not, this is applicable and true; ideas are undoubtedly the most powerful seeds of which we know. Things like the wheel, the printing press, the airplane, and the Internet all started out as ideas - and on the other hand, so did things like the Holocaust and the atom bomb. Therefore religious leaders of all kinds exhort their followers to carefully monitor their thoughts, because thoughts spread and multiply and can lead to obsessions and to words and, eventually, to actions. But ideas are not entirely private: they can be shared or planted from person to person, and therefore they are truly the most dangerous and effective weapons we can use - for good or for evil. This is why people who fly planes into buildings are called "terrorists," because what they've created is much more than an explosion: they've created the idea of insecurity, the idea of fear, the idea of terror. That, not broken metal and glass, is their ultimate goal. This is also why non-profit organizations put anti-smoking advertisements on television, because what they create is the seed of an idea that will hopefully turn into a train of thought leading to positive and constructive action. I believe one of the most powerful messages I got out of "Inception" was that the ideas I allow to be planted in my head, and the ideas I plant in others' heads (inadvertently or purposefully) can potentially have significant unforeseen effects. Because, like V said to Mr. Creedy in "V For Vendetta," ideas are indeed bulletproof.