Moving People: Capturing Humanity on Film

Image of guest blogger Maureen Batty

By Maureen Batty

Part of what appeals about movies is watching someone else grasp the human experience. Two films quickly came to mind when I first considered the idea for this piece.

In the Oscar-winning film “As Good as it Gets” (1997), Melvin Udall (played by Jack Nicholson) — who struggles with what seems to be a form of high-functioning autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder — returns to his psychiatrist’s waiting room and says to those sitting there, “What if this is as good as it gets?”

I love how Nicholson’s character has that moment of clarity many of us have — when we realize that as much work as we do on ourselves, we will probably never best all of our flaws and will be forced to accept what our lives might look like in light of that revelation.

In the Adam-Sandler-does-serious vehicle “Spanglish,” mother-in-law Cloris Leachman matter-of-factly tells her daughter (played by Tea Leoni), “Lately, your low self-esteem is just good common sense.”

The 2004 movie wonderfully deflates the assumption that self-esteem is a right no matter how badly we behave or treat others. Tea Leoni’s surprised “I’m the problem when I expected to be comforted?” reaction is awesome. That line reminds me of “I’m the bad guy?” — when Michael Douglas’s that’s-the-last-straw-of-life’s-inconveniences, rampage-going character in “Falling Down” (1993) realizes he’s the problem.

For our continuing series on the collision of arts and human nature, I asked three very different people to tell me about a movie scene or quote that struck them as brilliantly placing its “finger” on the pulse of human nature. Two of our sources went for the nature of love, one for the nature of morality; all of them moved me to put their movies in our family’s Netflix queue.

Here’s what they had to say:

Rebecca Thomas, Miami

Rebecca Thomas art

“You don’t know about real loss, ‘cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself.”

– Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) in “Good Will Hunting”

Robin Williams and Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting

Robin Williams and Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting” © Miramax Films

It’s hard to beat Robin Williams when it comes to delivering memorable and poignant lines that encapsulate human nature, whether it was William’s portrayal of John Keating in “Dead Poets Society,” the genie in “Aladdin” or the title character in “Patch Adams.” Over the course of his career, Williams’ characters provided such an overwhelming amount of unforgettable lines and sentiments that it’s nearly impossible to choose just one.

And, yet, the line above from “Good Will Hunting” has stuck with me for reasons I didn’t realize would be applicable to my life at the time I heard it spoken in 1997, at the mere age of 25.

The concept of basic humanity and how love factors into our own individual human experience are essentially, well, conceptual in our younger years. As children and developing adults, our definition of love is overwhelmingly unrealistic and egocentric: We love to get something in return, or to accomplish a goal set forth in our minds, or because we expect to be loved. However, as we grow and experience love in all of its various forms — religious, romantic, familial, platonic, et al. — the concept becomes much more realistic and tends to be shaped more by how we love, whom we love and what our capacity is to continue loving, despite the losses we may experience as a result of having loved other, imperfect humans.

The ability to carry on despite the losses and learn to love in new and different ways, in my opinion, is the very nature of what it means to be human.

Rebecca Thomas by day is a marketing manager for a commercial real estate company in Miami, Fla. By night, she does flat-fee web and graphic design for Backpocket Marketing Group.  The yoga, reading, movie, wine, music, and fantastic food enthusiast cares deeply about autism awareness.

Tracy Cox, San Francisco

 

Tracy Cox artOne recent film that I loved not only as one of the best genre films of the last decade but as one of the best films period in that time frame is Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (2008). The premise of the film itself is a study in human nature.

Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne struggles with trying to do the right thing as a crime fighter while dealing with the huge ripple effects he has created as a vigilante. Regular civilians, inspired by his actions, imitate him, and get killed for it. He breaks laws he wants upheld. He creates his own surveillance state, convincing himself the ends justify the means. And of course, Heath Ledger’s brilliant performance as The Joker is the psychopathic antithesis to Batman.

Two of the film’s scenes that put their finger on the pulse of human nature have always stuck in my head:

Christian Bale and Michael Caine in "The Dark Knight" © Warner Bros.

Christian Bale and Michael Caine in “The Dark Knight” © Warner Bros.

In the first, Bruce Wayne is trying to understand the motives of The Joker. Michael Caine (as Bruce Wayne’s butler) explains that not everyone has a logical thought process. He tells the story of a jewel thief who couldn’t be caught for months. Eventually, they found he had been throwing the jewels away. He says:

“Some men can’t be reasoned, bought or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

In the second, the Joker has outfitted two boats with huge amounts of explosives — one boat is filled with convicts, the other with normal citizens. Each has the detonator for the other boat. The scenes shifts back and forth between the boats as time counts down. On the boat filled with convicts, one of the toughest grabs the detonator and refuses to use it. On the citizen boat, a business-type guy takes the detonator, wants to use it, but can’t do it. So there are the most violent in society ­— understanding exactly what that violence is and will do, refusing to take part. And then there are the citizens; they really want to save themselves by doing something horrible, but they just can’t cross the line.

Tracy Cox is a graphic designer (krop.com/tracycox) and artist (tracycox.com) who loves movies and basketball and is addicted to “The Twilight Zone” and “The Simpsons.” He also likes to create music on his laptop (soundcloud.com/quphonic) and practice martial arts. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and “one cool cat named Neo.”

Ken Barnes, Washington, D.C.

Ken Barnes Art

(Spoiler alert:  If you’ve never seen “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” the Oscar-winning 2008 Brad Pitt movie based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, you should seriously consider watching the film, viewing the trailer, or reading the book before reading further.)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

A scene near the end — if there is an “end” — of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” includes this voice-over narration of Benjamin’s letter to his daughter, who never knew him:

“For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”

This is a movie full of impactful scenes, and this one in particular is heart-wrenching because it invokes that “stranger in a strange world” feeling that we all feel time to time (or all the time, if one thinks too much).

The scene with the voice-over also ties together many affecting aspects of the movie:  the shock of learning long-concealed secrets; the life-altering impact of happenstance (Daisy getting hit by a taxi after a chain of small circumstances are traced, Daisy being too busy and self-centered to connect with Benjamin until they are closer in age); the heartbreaking helplessness of dementia (in reverse, as Benjamin grows very young); and the redemptive power of selfless devotion (Queenie, the woman whose doorstep Benjamin’s father leaves him on, caring for the “old” helpless Benjamin at the beginning of his life, even though she doesn’t know him; Daisy caring for the “young” helpless Benjamin, who can’t remember her, at the end of his life).

It’s a surreal fantasy story, but underneath the dramatic plot beats the pulse of humanity: we all want what’s best for our children after we’re gone.

Ken Barnes is an aerospace engineer in suburban Washington, D.C.  He has a beautiful wife and daughter (both of whom are happily aging in the proper direction) and enjoys music, playing chess and tennis with his daughter and watching movies with his wife.

___

Maureen Batty is a Detroit-based freelance writer, editor and lover of how human nature and the arts collide. www.liveloveedit.com.

Check out the first story in the series.

 

©Maureen Batty and Wildemere Publishing LLC [2015]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is to Maureen Batty and Wildemere Publishing LLC with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Location Matters: Poetry Event Sets the Right Tone

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I’m sure I heard angels sing in March the first time I walked into Signal Return Press for the Motor Signal Poetry Reading Series.

What got me were the words around the room: Words on beautiful posters, words on books, on greeting cards, letters waiting to be pressed into words on paper by machines that look hundreds of years old but not at all antiquated.

Here’s the thing… poets are used to sharing their words in all sorts of places — some comfortable and comforting, others not so. Coffee houses, bars, auditoriums, bookstores (a writer’s best friend), living rooms, even. But what Signal Return offers is the ultimate atmosphere.

Signal Return is a three-year-old nonprofit community and print shop nestled on Division Street in Detroit’s Eastern Market District. The press is partnering with Literary Detroit, another nonprofit hosting the Motor Signal monthly poetry reading series.

Birth of a literary movement

The concept for holding the series in that space came in June 2013 after Literary Detroit hosted a book release event for poet Matthew Olzmann’s “Mezzanines.”

“We had such a good time with that,” says Theo Hummer of Literary Detroit. “And Matthew said to us at that time, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we did poetry here regularly?’ So us Literary Detroit people got all excited and we slowly jumped on it.”

They tossed the concept around among the org’s 30 or so members and didn’t even have to do a hard sell to Signal Return artistic director Lynne Avadenka.

“It just seemed like an obvious connection between the written word and the printed word and the spoken word,” she says. So the group decided to go for it early this year.

Location, Location…

I love Rachel Hyman’s response to the question “Why does this place work for what you’re doing?”

“It infuses the air with this certain spirit,” says Hyman, series co-curator with Literary Detroit. “And it feels like language and poetry and words are all just in the air here. And when I’m here I feel like there’s this certain gravity. Not in a way that makes our readings super serious or academic, because I think our readings are fun and they do aim to be that.

“But I think when people walk in the door here (or at least I would hope) they think, like this is a special space, and a particular kind of space. And the reading that’s about to happen in this space is going to be different from readings that might take place in like in a living room or at a bar or any other place.”

Engaging with poetry in the print shop is like being in a safe space, a space that innately understands the nature of the craft. Jeremy Schmall and Ann Marie Thornburg, poets for the May session felt the magic.

“It’s a great environment,” says Schmall. “A lot better than reading at a coffee shop or at a bar where patrons are distracted. I’ve read at coffee shops where there’s TVs on, or bars where people are drinking. But here, it’s in the spirit of printing… everyone is seated and facing you.”

Thornburg, an animal lover and animal behavior researcher, shared poems from a series she wrote about wolves. Coincidentally, there was a poster about the phases of the moon that struck her.

“What a great typographic of the moon’s different phases,” she says.

“I’ve never given a reading at a letterpress,” adds Thornburg. “I’ve given readings in an art museum auditorium and book store, which were great spaces. This is such a nice, open space. The acoustics here are great! But also, being surrounded by letters and words and all these pieces of type felt really inspiring, a little empowering.”

Intros & Outros

The space isn’t only inviting to those who come to read. The Motor Signal hosts strive to enhance the mood further for fans of the literary arts by meeting them at the door not only with words but also with wine. And when you leave a Motor Signal Poetry Series event, you get to take a piece of the press home with you — a broadside of the poets’ names, on quality weighted paper stock. Nice touch.

© Andrea Daniel and Wildemere Publishing LLC [2014].

Andrea Daniel is a poet, publicist, freelance writer, editor, voice-over artist, BMI registered songwriter, founder of AND Communications and co-owner/operator of Dakota Avenue West Publishing. Andrea produces the Michigan Literary Network’s Internet radio show. She lives in Detroit, Mich. with her son and Terrier-Poodle-mix, Dot.

© Andrea Daniel and Wildemere Publishing LLC [2014]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is to Andrea Daniel and Wildemere Publishing LLC with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Life happens: My Sense of an Ending

Credit JDurham / MorgueFile.com

When I was about 13 years old, I was at least 10 pounds shy of 100 and still several clicks away from my dream height of 5-feet. Around this time my parents, brother, and I attended our family reunion at a park where there were games, goo gobs of food and cousins galore in a variety of colors and sizes. I was the same age as a few of my cousins and, admittedly, those were my favorites. When we came together, we did it in grand fashion with big hugs and kisses and declarations of love along with promises not to stay away from each other so long.

After a while, one such cousin suggested we get on the see-saw (or teeter-totter depending on your regional phraseology). Not thinking, I sat down; and then he sat down. Hard. I flipped up in the air and flew about 10 feet, landing eventually in a field away from the action. When I came to, he, along with everyone else, was standing over me.

What happened? Life, and I let it.

I began thinking about how often we let life happen to us and what that means after finishing “The Sense of an Ending,” for which author Julian Barnes won “The Man Booker Prize.” I am still deciding whether I enjoyed the book; the characters are mostly self-satisfied or seemingly uninspired with few likeable qualities. But days later I am still thinking about it. That must mean something.

SPOILER ALERT (Stop here if you don’t want to know more): “The Sense of an Ending” is the story of Tony Webster; we start while he is a schoolboy and follow him to revelations in middle age. The mother of an ex-girlfriend in Tony’s youth wills him five hundred dollars and the diary of a friend who committed suicide. As Tony makes various attempts to acquire the book, he begins reflecting on his past; but his past is not how he remembers it. Tony, we discover, or surmise, may not be the innocent party: His history, subconsciously it seems, is revisionist history.

Sense-Vintage-International-200

“What did I know of life, I who had lived so carefully? Who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him? Who had the usual ambitions and settled all too quickly for them not being realized? Who avoided being hurt and called it a capacity for survival? Who paid his bills, stayed on good terms with everyone as far as possible, for whom ecstasy and despair soon became just words once read in novels? (Barnes, “The Sense of an Ending”)

What does it mean to let life happen to you? Does it mean there is no winning or losing? No choices or challenges? How many of us really control or direct our lives? Some talk of creating a five-year plan. Do you know five people with a five-year plan? What about a two-year plan?

On screen, the morally challenged Francis Underwood, the star manipulator in Netflix’s “House of Cards,” goes after life with verbal machine guns firing off underhanded deeds. He makes his future in full Hitler fashion. For him, getting caught unaware is an inexcusable flaw and his wife, Claire, is there to make sure it does not happen, at least not more than once. So Frank plans and follows his personal plotline until he accomplishes his reprehensible goals.

That dedication is a good thing, right? Short answer: Depends on the goals.

Personally, I found jealous Othello to be boor, blowing smoke in the form of long soliloquies when really he was just a gullible fool. Yet, the eponymous drama, in my estimation, is brilliant and arouses questions, like did the famous Moor let life happen to him? Was he unwittingly duped into murdering his wife? Or did he consciously choose to believe Iago?

As a child, my dad signed me up for baseball, mom for piano. I ran track until I let my grades fall. I got married, divorced and made other foolish decisions. Eventually I got a B.A. in English and wrote my heart out. In need of employment after graduation, I took a job the college career office found me, working at a national retailer selling hundred-dollar sneakers to female gangbangers with butterfly tattoos. Eventually, I took a better paying job and then another, until I discovered I was a journalist. It was exciting, challenging and educational, an experience I will never regret but did not plan it.

Now, at least according to other people’s timetables, I am middle aged; I am also unmarried, childless, and have not published the great American novel. I go to church regularly and read my bible daily. Did life happen to me? Maybe. Or was the very act of letting things happen a choice? Have I, by not sticking to my original plan of being a great American author, ruined my chances of seeing my dreams come true? Possibly. Do I regret it? Sometimes.

I had emergency surgery back in the 90s. A week later, after the friendly fuzziness of morphine started vanishing from my system and I was nearing the ability to whine without pain, my mother looked up from her crocheting and said, “It’s just more material for your book.”

Life may have happened to me but I have more material for my book than some who have followed the linear way, with all its smooth contours and shiny doodads. Still, I have been taking more chances lately, making purposeful changes, and doing things because they feel right and not just because I have a great capacity for survival.

© Leslie Green and Wildemere Publishing LLC [2014]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is to Leslie Green and Wildemere Publishing LLC with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Interview with a Vampire Candidate

 

 

When the Wall Street Journal reported that giving the blood of young mice to old mice has a rejuvenating effect. The old mice, according to a study from Stanford University and the University of California, improved memory and the ability to learn. Similarly, a Harvard University study reports giving old mice certain proteins improved brain and exercise capabilities and reversed “the effects of aging on the heart.”

Since it seems unlikely researchers are out to improve the lives of geriatric rodents, one must conclude, and WSJ briefly touches on this, scientists hope one day to test this theory on humans.

A close friend sent this news report around via email. One respondent asked, if you could be a vampire, would you? Unsurprisingly, my friend said he has thought about this before. His answer: “A definite maybe.”

That got us talking about what it takes to be a vampire. My concern was the bloody mess of killing people—that and the whole morality of the matter. Yet my friend maintains his particular undeadness would not involve murder—fraud maybe, but not murder. Unlike those discipline-challenged creatures of the night seeking weak and unwitting victims, usually women, he theorizes he would be very much an Anne Rice-like incarnation. In other words, he would BK_Interviewmaintain his human character traits, those of a non-murderous misanthrope who would go about collecting remarkable antiques and, knowing him, make wise investments. His wealth, he speculates, would sustain his ability to buy donated blood. Awkwardly at 213 years old, he would also have trouble getting a passport to travel the world to gather these fabulous treasures, hence the fraud.

Well, we know how these sorts of things just brew all kinds of questions in my mind. For instance, if the traits that would change for my friend in his Anne Rice-created state of immortality were his lack of ability to die, thirst for erythrocytes, lack of reflection and shadow, intolerance to sunlight, shape-shifting abilities, increased strength, and his inability to eat at the Bucharest Grill (read: he must avoid garlic), then what character-traits might change if an old woman received blood transfusions or targeted protein injections from the young in an effort to reverse the effects of aging? Would she be the same old gal who loves French cuisine and British literature? Or would she garner a taste for something younger, racier?

If you lost mobility and suffered from increasing bouts of memory loss and suddenly found yourself able to run a few laps without coughing up a lung or relocated the wallet you misplaced two years ago, then you certainly are not going to be the same person. You are going to change. Markedly? Good question. For the better? Let’s hope so.

TwentyThirty

Have you read the “Twenty Thirty: The Real Story of What Happens to America” by Albert Brooks (the actor starred in “Broadcast News,” my favorite “Defending Your Life,” and most recently “Drive”)? The novel is a frightening tale of a time in the not-so-distant future when the young hate the old and show it in increasingly caustic, cruel ways. Why? Because the old, they argue, bleed the world’s resources dry by not dying. The novel becomes more fear provoking as science proves itself a formidable storyteller.

Am I suggesting researchers sit in their labs and find out how to make scratch-and-sniff television a reality rather than looking for cures to the great mind suck Alzheimer’s disease or the blood-curdling numbers of cancers and autoimmune diseases? Not at all, I’m just saying “Wow.”

© Leslie Green and Wildemere Publishing LLC [2014].

Book(store) Report

9780060194994

Spring commencement for students at my alma mater, Wayne State University, is May 1 in the stadium near my job. Seeing the various college colors posted all about got me thinking about my school days and summer vacations and (bing!) my recent indie bookstore visit.

I don’t know what you did during your summer vacations as a kid (please share with a comment), but between short family vacations, camp, pick-up kickball games, piano lessons, and every attempt at loafing around, I had homework. Not the kind assigned by schools hoping to keep their students’ minds engaged during the nearly three months of downtime. Worse: My homework was internally assigned; it came from my mother.

She was a schoolteacher, a reading specialist specifically. The assignments started when she discovered I did not know the state capitals. There was some scolding and finger wagging before she declared she would test me on the information that August. If I didn’t know it, she explained, she would ground me. A few years later, when I was 12 or 13, I got the summer assignment that changed my life; my mother handed me Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and explained I would read it and write a book report by August, or I would be grounded. You see how this worked, right?

And worked it did. I have been an avid reader ever since.

 

I was reminded of this book report and my summer adventures with Scout, Jem, Boo, and Dill upon a recent visit to John K. King Used and Rare Books in Detroit. king_store Have you been? If not, then, oh my, you are in for an adventure. I thought John King was a booklover’s dream prior to my recent visit, as I have been going there since my dad took me as a child. So it came as no surprise earlier this year when Business Insider declared it the No. 2 bookstore in the world. However, my latest visit—I swear I heard angels singing when we walked through this unfamiliar set of doors—made me wonder why it wasn’t No. 1.

 

Correct me if I am wrong (I’m sure some out there will remember), but when I was a child—or so I thought—John King’s rare book collection was in a small room in the back of the first floor of the four-story structure. Yet when I was wandering recently with little purpose other than to soak in that old book mildew and sweet stench of knowledge, I looked for that rare book room to no avail. So I inquired. The pleasant salespeople explained that seeing the rare book collection required an appointment. Sadly, I did not have one. I explained my love of books and my family history with them­—as if they would care—neglecting to mention, however, that if there were a Book Buyers Anonymous my brother would need to be its first member.

 

Thankfully, they responded to my plea (I was this close to begging) and a friendly, albeit cautious, woman named Toni came by to lend a hand. She guided my significant other and me to the building next door; my excitement at seeing the small stash of collectibles grew with every step. After asking what types of books I was looking for, she opened the steel door and led us up several flights of stairs into, well, heaven. Seeing as books and those who reside on the pages in them never die, this could only be described as a book afterlife. The first room we saw was massive and filled with leather-bound titles of all types, shelved, and stacked and stored, and just plain well kept. I wound up purchasing a half-month’s rent worth of books, most as gifts. Toni became less cautious; while there, she introduced us to an inscribed and signed edition of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Right beside it: Lee’s Mockingbird.

My Thoughts?

In addition to classic literature, John King boasts every imaginable topic in the four floors of books in its regular retail space as well as the building behind it. It is truly a book lovers’ nirvana. Now, my brother may not be the only one in the family with a problem. Where is your book haven?

© Leslie Green and Wildemere Publishing LLC [2014]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is to Leslie Green and Wildemere Publishing LLC with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.