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Twenty-seven Movies in Twenty-seven Days

Film, I think, is the most complete cultural artform of our era, expressing the spirit of our times in monuments to human endeavor worthy of comparison to the great works of art, literature and music from centuries past. I promised myself in 1978, when I finished college with a degree in humanities, that I would track and appreciate the output of the people of my own time, and not continue living mainly in the past. Now, forty years later and in my first year of graduate school, I was a little shook up when a wise confidante warned me that he remembers graduate school as “those five years when I have no knowledge of any popular culture.” Luckily, I had four weeks off for Christmas, and had a chance to catch a few movies. Ok, more than a few.

The list follows, in order from my most to least favorite. There is clearly a theme, which is human suffering, and a perspective, which I think is realism shaded with hope, although disillusion and despair are in there. There are many tales of human effort to overcome suffering, not always going according to plan. Not tragedy, not melodrama, just plain old “shit happens.” I think my own personal aha of 2016 was discovering the inner peace that shows up when I realistically accept my own suffering. I’m learning to embrace its place in the context of my whole life, of other lives, of infinity and eternity, while recognizing on a deep emotional level that these things represent something quite different from emptiness or absurdity.

Embrace of the Serpent (2015, Columbia), dir. Ciro Guerra, with a complete unknown from the local Amazon rain forest village as the young  Karamakate, the shaman, and another unbelievable actor as old Karamakate. I woke up in another world, back then, and before that, where everything seemed to mean something completely different from anything I was familiar with. The music and the chanting, not to mention the images, will echo for a long time to come.

Manchester by the Sea (2016), dir. Kenneth Lonegran. Casey Affleck killed it. Beautifully shot and it captured the pace of a slow painful apathetic hopeless life. I really enjoyed the hard realism. Compassion without pathos?

Guernica (2016, Spain), dir. Koldo Serra, w/James D’Arcy: the Spanish Civil War and a lame love story, but it is set in Bilbao and the Basque countryside. And nothing compares  with a cast of hundreds dying onscreen. They scream out to eternity, just like in Picasso’s painting of the same horrifying event.

La La Land (2016), w/Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone. Ok, a throwback 50’s style musical, seriously? Technicolor. Jazz. It would not have worked if it had a happy ending. Sublime.

Jackie (2016), w/Natalie Portman as Jacqueline and Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy. Her husband’s dead. There’s blood all over her. Somebody cried “poor casting;” I’ve got a feeling they hadn’t seen the movie. She killed it.

Knight of Cups (2016), dir. Terence Malick, my surreal New Years eve experience. The camera tirelessly trapses after Christian Bale through six hopeless love affairs, searching for meaning in a superficial American landscape. Evocative of timeless truth and beauty, even though the film is as self-indulgent as it’s main character. Cate Blanchett was haunting, and pretty real.

99 Homes (2014), w/Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield. Garfield was good as evicted homeowner Dennis Nash who crosses over to the dark side in order to survive and provide. Picks you up and runs you through on spin cycle.

Krisha (2015), dir. Trey Edward Shults, w/Krisha Fairchild as Krisha, and Trey Edward Shults as her son, Trey. A (somewhat) recovering middle-aged alcoholic comes home for Thanksgiving. Heartbreaking, totally heartbreaking. You can’t get much more real than this.

The Accountant (2016), w/Ben Affleck and Anna Kendrick. I don’t know if you have to be an accountant to love this movie. First action film in 62 years where I did not get bored during the fight scenes.

Boondock Saints (1999), w/Willem Dafoe as a mean police guy. Two athletic Irish catholics kill a lot of criminals in between visits to the priest for encouragement. A genre unto itself.

The Innocents  (2016, France), dir. Anne Fontaine. A nurse is having an affair with a doctor in 1945 Poland, trying to get the French soldiers patched up and shipped home, when she runs across a convent full of pregnant nuns who need her help. Despair and redemption.

The Dynamiter (2011), dir. Mathew Gordon. A 14-year old boy become a man in rural Mississippi, and leaves the past behind, in spite of a bad start. Well acted, insightful, moving.

Marguerite (2015, France), dir. Xavier Giannoli, with Catherine Fort. Based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkens, the lady who couldn’t sing but did anyway, with a change of venue and era. Catherine Fort is incomparable, and there is cool Dadaism stuff. Made me think about being totally in the dark about how I appear to other people, and how I handle it when I learn the truth.

Complete Unknown (2016), w/Rachel Weisz and Michael Shannon. She left her boyfriend and her life and assumed a new identity during college, and then kept doing that over and over for twenty years.  The complete unknown makes me want to do that too, but she is very, very sad.

A Year and Change (2015), Bryan Greenberg as a loser with a heart, and a brother in trouble. Will they make it?

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), with Sam Neill. A treat. It took me beyond here and now and into the heart of some very real characters.

Dixieland (2015), dir. Hank Bedford. Real southerners playing real southerners. Drugs, violence, hope, defeat, redemption, not necessarily in that order.

Faraway, So Close! (1993, Germany), dir. Wim Wenders, with Willem Dafoe, Peter Falk, (German) others. Angels above and around about Berlin. Death and Life, and Life, and Death, etc. Pretty cool, really.

The Wailing (2016, Korea), dir. Hong-jin Na. A bunch of murders and a bunch of real people in a small town, including a memorable police detective, neither endearing nor disdainable.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016), dir. Tim Burton, w/Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Samuel L. Jackson (evil incarnate). Some people live forever, others don’t. In this case it comes at a price – constant uncertainty and fear.

Allied (2016), dir. Robert Zemeckis, w/Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. Not as bad as I thought. Ok, it was good. Peter Sarsgaard plays a bad Nazi, but he gets gunned down by our hero and heroine.  Brad Pitt’s character dizzies around with a moral compass and his own heart.

The Age of Adaline (2015), Blake Lively as Adaline Bowman, a woman who doesn’t age, with Michael Huisman, Harrison Ford, and Ellen Burstyn. Haunting juxtaposition of then and now, especially since I lived in San Francisco, where it is set, when I was young and carefree and thought I would live forever.

Viktoria (2014, Bulgaria), dir. Maya Vitkova. Bulgaria, communism, an unwanted motherhood, a failed attempt to escape to the West. Futility. The kid is a brat, but nothing lasts forever. Long and poetic with a lot of cool songs and pensive moments.

Louder than Bombs (2015), dir. Joachim Trier, w/Isabelle Hubert, Gabriel Byrne, Jesse Eisenberg. Gruesome intrapsychic turmoil. Not her best film, but well played. Full of inconvenient truths, mostly about human cruelty, human frailty, and marriage.

The Handmaiden (2016, Korea), dir. Chan-wook Park. Explicit erotica plus history plus good storyline with twists and turns. The bad men get what they deserve.

Little Men (2016), dir. Ira Sachs, with Greg Kinnear and Pauline Garcia. Two boys make friends. Dad is kind of a shit, a second rate actor and trying to be a tough landlord. Pauline Garcia as the other kid’s mom is amazing. The teenage son of Kinnear’s character comes to accept his dad for who he really is and still loves him. Sounds melodramatic but it is adequately underplayed.

Wrong Move (1975, Germany), dir. Wim Wenders, based on a novel by Goethe but in a contemporary setting. The main character Wilhelm leaves home and hooks up, goes here and there, can’t really commit. Moves on and goes on. Flashback to my youth.


2014.8.8 The Phenomenology of Childhood

I wrote this and posted it on the other blog for some reason. Now it’s here as well!

Deliver Daily

51cmaGy-w5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In trying to understand what a small child needs to grow up mentally healthy, and what the parent does and does not do, I got the idea that the answer involves the phenomenology of being a small child. So I googled.

And I discovered this book by Eva Simms, The Child in the World: Embodiment, Time, and Language in Early Childhood (2008, Detroit: Wayne State University Press). Simms is a psychology professor at Duquesne University. In her book, she is talking about the experienced world of the child, using insights from the existential phenomenology of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. She also draws on Piaget’s descriptions of the child’s early experience of reality.

Human experience is embodied, nondualistic, and occurs in relationship to others. We experience, space, time, and things. We do it all with language. And we are all historical beings of a culture and a certain time period.
Coexistentiality, the…

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2014.1.18 Two to get ready, three to go.

Sometimes I get an urge and, even though it threatens to unbalance my precarious overloaded life, I throw caution to the wind and go for it. This was the case in December when, swept up in the frenzy of best of 2013, I started googling for best books and new titles in the social sciences. A year ago I discovered some great books this way. I guess it was a little early to find 2013 lists. But I highlighted two books from 2012 I just had to have, and put on a hold at the county library. These two books were The guardian of all things: The epic story of human memory, by Michael S. Malone (2012, NY: St. Martin’s Press), and Louder than words: The new science of how the mind makes meaning, by Benjamin K. Bergen (2012, NY: Basic Books). When I went to pick them up, I discovered a third book, not quite so new, that I just had to have. This was Descartes baby: How the science of child development explains what makes us human, by Paul Bloom (2004, NY: Basic Books). Bloom’s name rang a bell and the title was catchy, so I grabbed it. I walked out of there with three more books to add to my already deep pile.

With Michael Malone’s memory book I was hoping to learn more about recent research on how memory works, specifically how information is stored in the brain and moved from place to place. The guardian of all things, turned out to be more of a history book. That includes some very, very ancient history, beginning with the evolution of memory in primates. It then takes up the history of civilization including the beginnings of trade and the history of writing, which allows up to preserve our collective memory. So yes, an epic story indeed. He rounds it all out with the history of data processing and computer memory.

louder than wordsLouder Than Words was more up my alley. Bergen is associate professor of cognitive science at UCSD. He studies the relationship between perception, mental representation and language. He is an advocate of something called “embodied simulation.” This idea is based on the discovery, using fMRI, that the same brain motor and visual cortex areas are activated when we talk about something, as are activated when we do something or see something. The idea is that we understand language by simulating whatever the words represent, using the same brain areas that are used in perceiving the world and performing actions.

This book describes a lot of research studies. This serves three purposes. First, it shows how the history of the ideas it presents. Second, it illustrates the ideas by giving concrete examples. And third, it shows how social science uses experiments to answer questions and test hypotheses. The studies also introduce us to some of the researchers in the field who have contributed to the theory of “embodied simulation, exploring how we understand words.

Benjamin BergenSome of the studies are classic, such as the 1910 work of C.W. Perky, who discovered the Perky effect by projecting dim slides of bananas or leaves on a blank wall where she asked participants to imagine a banana or a leaf. She discovered that mental imagery can interfere with perception of the real world, suggesting that they may both use the same part of the brain. Other classic studies include the time lag in mental rotation of geometric shapes (Shepard & Metzler, 1971) and in imaginary journeys around an island (Kosselyn, Ball, & Reiser, 1978). A lot of work has been done since the seventies, but there is still disagreement about the role of mental simulation and what it all means. An important milestone was the discovery of mirror neurons in macaque monkeys by scientists at the University of Parma in the the 1980s (Gallese, Fadiga, Fogassi, & Rozzolatti, 1996).

What does anything mean? What is meaning? How do we grasp meaning? Communicate meaning? These are some of the philosophical questions that cognitive psychologists are attempting to answer with empirical methods. Linguists are also involved, sometimes pointing the way. For example, in construction grammar linguists study the way sentence structure and grammatical constructions convey meaning that is more than the meaning contained in the individual words in the structure. And when we start talking about meaning, we easily veer into Semantics, a favorite subject of mine within linguistics. Some studies have explored the timing of a simulation in understanding, showing that we begin to simulate before a sentence is completed, running a new simulation in mid sentence if our guess about the meaning doesn’t match the progression of what we’re hearing or reading. Bergen says we simulate “early and often.”

Languages differ from place to place. An important and controversial topic is how meaning and understanding of the world varies according to the particular language we speak. For example, I once wondered, is their blue without the word blue? Can concepts exist nonlinguistically, or are they created in conjunction with the learning of the words we use to label them, in a culturally variable context? Bergson mentions that in English pink and red are two different things, while in Russian they are both variants of red, but sky blue and regular blue are two different things with two different words.

“To learn a language is to learn a particular way of talking about the world, cutting it up into meaningful parts that we encode through the words in our particular language.” p. 188.

“To know a language is to mean in that language.” p. 194.

Metaphor is a strange and fascinating creature. Our understanding of time seems to be metaphorical. We talk about time using the terminology of space, and apparently use the same parts of our brain that are used to understand spatial relations. Metaphor may also be the paradigm for much other abstract thinking. Bergson suggests that we construct abstract concepts based on concrete concepts and use similar mental simulation in talking and thinking about both.

This book is up to date, informative and a good read. And now we come to my favorite part, further reading ideas from the notes and references! These are at the end of this blog post.

While Bergen argues that meaning, a primary mental capacity of humans, is embodied, Paul Bloom in Descartes’ Baby (2004), took what almost seems like the opposite approach, carefully distinguishing our understanding of mental aspects and physical aspects of the world. Sixteenth century philosopher Rene Descartes wrote about our dualistic nature, the distinction between mind and body, a viewpoint which A. Damasio referred to as “Descartes’ Error.” Bloom believes that we can deepen our understanding of human nature by looking at early development. He shows how, from early on, we have mental capacities to understand the physical world and separate but equally important capacities to understand other people, their thoughts, feelings and intentions. This is a new take on dualism as a feature of humans, one that begins with babies. But it seems like what Bloom is saying, and showing, is not that the mind and the body are separate, but that the mind has the ability to understand both minds and bodies, bodies here being an example of physical things. Not nearly as astonishing, but a good strategy for organizing a lot of interesting information.
Bloom reviews research from developmental psychology, clinical psychology, and neuroscience to illustrate his point. The book is anecdotal and entertaining and presents a lot of key findings in recent psychological research. It also ties back into long-standing philosophical questions. Many things are considered from an evolutionary perspective, looking at the adaptive advantage of behaviors and traits. The readability disguies the significance of some of the ideas presented. Unfortunately, it also seems to camouflage their memorability.
Our thinking about categories of objects involves essential or defining qualities. The use of essences in thinking about objects is “essentialism.” With this we are thrust into the midst of the controversy between culturalism and nativism. Cultural anthropology has advocated that essentialism is a product of Western culture. Bloom disagrees. He thinks it has something to do with evolution. But he also thinks essentialism sometimes goes too far, such as when we attribute qualities to, for example, a race, which really aren’t there. Bloom thinks race is to a large extent, an “artifact,” something created by people. Artifacts are different from “natural kinds,” things that are not created by people. He talks about essentialist biases that distort children’s thinking about natural kinds.
Bloom turns his attention to modern art. He talks about “anxious objects,” artifacts that stimulate an emotional response. He discusses research on children’s understanding of the difference between mental representation and real objects. And he explores the idea that we can best understand art as a form of performance.
Next Bloom tackles another hot topic, the evolutionary basis of good and evil, and human morality. This involves empathy and altruism. A lot has been written lately about the adaptative advantage of altruism. How could helping others at a cost to ourselves appear as a result of evolutionary forces? Does it involve kin selection (William Hamilton)? Group selection (E.O. Wilson)? Mutual advantage through reciprocity? All these and more? He clarifies the view that natural selection involves the survival of animals that are “merely the gene’s way of making another gene” (Richard Dawkins). Bloom discusses emotional contagion, one of my favorite topics, and shows how it is the first step in empathy and compassion. And we can’t get through this topic without covering mimicry, imitation, and mirror neurons. The text contains some great photos of baby and mother faces taken from Field et al, 1982, “Discrimination and imitation of facial expressions by neonates,” Science 218, 179-181. How does the newborn baby mimic facial expressions and experience emotional contagion before it can “understand” any of it? Amazing.

In his discussion of dualism, Bloom acknowledges that “we do not occupy our bodies, we are our bodies.”  And he challenges the older view that children don’t understand the difference between fantasy and reality. No matter how much time they spend in the world of make-believe, they seem to know the difference from real-life.

Bloom is a psychology professor at Yale. He also wrote, How children learn the meaning of words (2002), which I am dying to read. He seems to have a nose for hot topics. He wrote Just babies: The origin of good and evil (2011), and How pleasure works: The new science of why we like what we like (2010).

Here are some gems from Bloom’s references:

Gelman, S.A. 2003. The essential child. NY: Oxford University Press.

Gopnik, A. and A.N. Meltzoff, 1997. Words, thoughts, and theories. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hauser, M.D. 2000. Wild minds: What animals really think. NY: Henry Holt.

Habson, R.P. 2002. The cradle of thought: exploring the origins of thinking. London: Macmillan.

Sterlny, K. 2001. Dawkins vs. Gould: Survival of the fittest. NY: Totem Books.

Here are the hot references from Bergen’s Louder than words:

Barsalou, L.W. (1999). Perceptual symbol systems. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 22, 577-609.

Bergen , B. & Chang, N. (2005). Embodied construction grammar in simulation-based language understanding. In J.-O. Ostman & M. Fried (Eds.), Construction grammars: Cognitive grounding and theoretical extensions (pp. 147-190). Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Boroditsky, L. (2011). How language shapes thought. Scientific American, February 2011.

Bowdle, B. & Gentner, D. (2005). The career of metaphor. Psychological Review, 112(1), 193-216.

Feldman, J.A. (2006). From molecule to metaphor:A neural theory of language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hagoort, P. (2005). On Broca, brain, and binding: a new framework. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9, 416-423.

Kaschak, M.P. & Glenberg, A.M. (2000). Constructing meaning: The role of affordances and grammatical constructions in sentence comprehension. Journal of Memory & Languages, 58, 508-529.

Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, fire and dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: How the mind creates language. New York: HarperCollins.

Stefanowitsch, A. (2004). HAPPINESS in English and German: A metaphorical-pattern analysis. In M. Achard & S. Kemmer (Eds.), Language, culture, and mind (pp. 137-149). Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information.

Talmy, L. (2000). Toward a cognitive semantics. In Concept structuring systems: Volume 1. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


At some point, …

At some point, life starts to pass you by and becomes about avoidance. I want to stay clear from that situation, because I don’t like that.
Daniel Craig