Movie Review: Wild Tales (Relatos Salvajes) written and directed by Damien Szifron

A friend sent me a text the other day about a movie he had recently seen: Wild

Movie Poster for Wild Tales

Movie Poster for Wild Tales

Tales. His description was that it was “six vignettes on modern life and its frustrations.”  He later texted that he had been careful with choosing his words and with not wanting to be a spoiler but that “violence and vengeance” better captured the gist of the vignettes than “modern frustrations.” He also stated that he was going to go see it a second time the following weekend.

He was right in amending his description and in his decision to go see it a second time.

For it is a worthwhile film.

Written and directed by the young Argentinian filmmaker Damien Szifron and produced by the Almodovar brothers, Wild Tales is just that: Six wild stories about modern life pushed to the extreme.  An unhappy man takes vengeance on all the people in his past; a waitress is confronted with a customer who had ruined her father’s life; two men are caught up in road-rage gone to the extreme; an engineer fights against a DMV system that seems to indiscriminately tow cars; a wealthy man must deal with a world of bribery and corruption; and a wedding reception goes wonderfully wrong.

Seven characters from six of the "Wild Tales"

Seven characters from six of the “Wild Tales”

To give more detail would indeed be “spoiling” it, for much of the fun comes from the twists these tales take–twists that we probably saw coming, but that leave us incredulous that they did.

In each of these stories, there is frustration and violence and suppressed anger that we all can understand, and because of that, because of their vague familiarity, they become amusing. These tales are cartoonish episodes that seem all too real, and in our recognition of them we also find something that is both wince-evincing and laugh-inducing.

Of course, some of the narratives are better than others. One or two is a “one-liner”–a joke that is elaborately set up and then smacks us with the “aha” (or better yet the “oh no”) moment. And others are quite elaborate. But they all succeed. They all pull us in with their story–unique yet familiar.  The frustrations of modern life tempered by dreams of vengeance.

And if for nothing else, Wild Tales leaves us with one of the most memorable wedding receptions in film history.

Here’s the trailer for your enjoyment:

 

 

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The Ethical Society: Deed before Creed

The Philadelphia Ethical Humanist Society

The Philadelphia Ethical Society

On Wednesday night I attended a rally to kick off the political campaign of my brother-in law Chris McCabe, who is running for judge in Philadelphia and who has now collected the 1000 names necessary to put his name on the ballot. The campaigning officially began this week.

The rally was held at the Ethical Humanist Society of Philadelphia, an inconspicuous building on Philadelphia’s ritzy Rittenhouse Square. I had been there before.

Several years ago, I had been awarded a fellowship by The National Endowment for the Humanities to read “Texts of Toleration”–those works that promoted liberty, free will, and understanding. The opening reception was held at the Ethical Society. That both events were held here made sense: the pieces we were to read dealt primarily with the ethics of society and my brother-in-law is one of the most socially conscious people I know.

Deed before Creed

Deed before Creed

And now, I was here again.  I don’t know if I remember seeing the plaque at the front steps the first, but I liked what it said: “DEED BEFORE CREED.” In our modern world, we are too often reminded that belonging to a particular “creed” is no assurance that “goodly deeds” are to follow.  Certainly, we can point to most of the major world religions to find evidence of this.

And so, I decided to look into this place that calls itself “The Ethical Society.”

The American Ethical Society was officially started in 1877 in New York (as the New York Society for Ethical Culture) when Felix Adler gave a sermon that focused on the immorality of exploiting the underclasses–which at the time included women and labor. Adler’s European education informed his Kantian belief that morality could exist separate from organized religion.

Within ten years of the founding of New York Society, three other societies were established in the U.S., in Philadelphia, in St. Louis, and in Chicago.

*     *     *     *     *     *

In 1867, Matthew Arnold wrote:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

The retreating “sea of Faith,” the general Victorian uncertainties of the day, was the impetus for the foundation of the societies in Britain.  One can trace the American ethical cultural movement to various ethical movements in early Britain.  There was a South Place Ethical Society in London as early as 1793. It became a Unitarian chapel a few years later and is most noted for its strong support of women rights. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Unitarians moved out and the place became the South Place Ethical Society.

A few years after Adler had established the Ethical Culture Movement in the U.S., the Fellowship of New Life was established in Britain, bringing together some of the more innovative and brilliant intellectuals of its time. The fellowship did not last long, but was instrumental in finding the Fabian Society which had a large impact on British intellectual and social thought of the time.  Within years, however, there were four Ethical Societies in London and over fifty societies in Great Britain by 1910.

*     *     *     *     *     *

So what’s it all about?

As far as I can tell, the Ethical Society basically acknowledges and celebrates the inherent worth of all people. It emphasizes that moral action is not dependent on religious creed and that the betterment of self implies a betterment of society.

That all seems pretty good to me.

*     *     *     *     *     *

And then one of those weird coincidences.  Four days after beginning–though not finishing–this blog post, I read a review of two volumes of work by Bernard Malamud.  In the work they mention, that Malamud, the son of Jewish immigrants, wanted to marry the daughter of Italian Catholic immigrants.  Malamud’s father was highly against the marriage. (He did not speak to his son for years afterward.)  But they married anyway–at the New York Ethical Society.  It is a small bit of information, but it highlights the society’s pushing aside of parochial prejudices and celebrating a basic goodness.

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Quote #44: “When I was a child I truly loved… “

 

"Grendel" illustration 2015 by jpbohannon

“Grendel”
illustration 2015 by jpbohannon

“When I was a child I truly loved:
Unthinking love as calm and deep
As the North Sea. But I have lived,
And now I do not sleep.”
—  John Gardner, Grendel

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Book Review: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki by Haruki Murakami

colorless I used to think that it was only Americans who were so caught up with the experience of  “High School.”  I had believed it was an American construct, an over-idealized rite of passage that had spawned too many bad television series and “coming of age” films. I had believed it was strictly an American thing.

I’ve known many men for whom those “high school” years were the very pinnacle of their lives. It is those days that they keep referring to, those days by which they measure all others.  I mean I know men in their 40s and 50s, in their 60s and 70s, even in their 80s whose conversation invariably turn to the high-jinks and glories of their high-school days.

But I was wrong.

Haruki Murakami’s novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage revolves around five Japanese high school friends and the long-lasting effects of the decisions they made when they were twenty years old.  They are now in their mid-thirties; two are living in their hometown, one has moved to far-away Finland, one to cosmopolitan Tokyo, and the fifth one is dead, murdered.  The one-time connectedness of these five high-school friends haunts the hero, Tsukuru Tazaki.

Tsukuru–whose name is the only one the five which does not have a color attached and who believes himself to be “colorless–was abruptly dropped from the group when he was a sophomore in college in Tokyo. And he never was given an explanation, just the order to never contact them again.  The separation caused Tsukuri months of suicidal depression and then years of self-doubt, wonder, and the inability to relate to people. For Tsukuru, the five high school friends were an unprecedented harmony of spirits.  And yet there were several cracks in this group which he was too nice to notice.

Tsukuru’s name in Japanese means “one who makes things,” and indeed, that’s what he does. He makes railroad stations.  And in Japan, railroad stations are a very big deal and making connections is an intrinsic part of Tokyo life. Yet his treatment by his high-school friends has left him unable to make connections with people. There have been several romantic liaisons, but nothing serious and nothing he wished to pursue further. There was a friendship–tinged with a touch of homo-eroticism–that ended as abruptly as his friendship with his high-school mates. He was simply abandoned one day, his friend moving away from Tokyo with no forewarning and no intention of staying in touch.

And so we follow “colorless” Tsukuru as he tries to make his way in the world.

I needed a novel like Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. There had been too few novels lately that gripped me from the beginning and made me read obsessively until I was finished. And Murakami has done that for me before. While I can’t remember the exact plots of his Kafka on the Shore or NorwegianWood, I do remember the obsessiveness with which I read them.  I can remember jotting down notes, following up allusions, taking notes. I remember protagonists who were like Tsukuru Tazaki: thoughtful, introspective, aware young men, burdened by what they cannot change in the past and fearful of the uncertainties of the future. And I remember getting caught up in their sadness and their serious attempts to make sense of their world. Murakami’s novels are both thoughtful and fascinating, outwardly exotic and inwardly philosophic.

And also I remember the fascinating side-trips of information. In Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, there is an odd but brief discussion of the genetic dominance of a sixth finger; there is a continual look at the music of Listz, particularly the “Le Mal du Pays” section of his suite “The Years of Pilgrimage.”  It is a piece that the young murdered friend played often when they all were together, and it is a record that his friend Haida had coincidentally left at Tsukuru’s apartment before he had left him. Towards the end of the novel, Tsukuru visits one of his old high-school friends–still seeking enlightenment as to why he was so unceremoniously dropped–and the friend has the piece in her pile of CDs. The two reach some reconcilliation listening to Listz.

Watching the trains

Watching the trains

Watching the people

Watching the people

 

And then finally there is the subject of trains and of Tokyo’s public transportation. When Tsukuru needs time alone, when he is filled with angst and confusion, he goes to the train platforms and watches the trains and the people. There is a certain peace he finds in the uniformity and the precision which such a place exhibits, against what seems impossible odds. (Shinjuko Station handles 3.5 million passengers a day!)

I had skipped Marukami’s novel before this, 1Q84, for a variety of reasons. It was a mistake on my part and one I will rectify shortly.

 

You can listen to the very recording of Listz that Tsukura played on his stereo in his apartment here:

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Heaney and Plath: Two Poems about blackberry picking

Blackberries in a white bowl.

Blackberries in a white bowl.

We read two poems about Blackberries the other day. One by Seamus Heaney, one by Sylvia Plath. While both are dark, the latter is much darker. I did not tell them the facts of Plath’s life or how near in time the poem was written before her suicide. I will let them find that out on their own. (We try to downplay the biographical.)

Here is Heaney’s poem:

Blackberry-Picking by Seamus Heaney

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

And here is Heaney reading it:

What we have are the thrills and joys of nature’s bounty, of love, of lust, followed by its ultimate disappointment, and capped by the human facility to continue even with the knowledge that disappointment is almost always assured.

But that last line is hopeful despite the odds: “Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.”

*     *     *     *     *     *

Hopeful is what Sylvia Plath’s poem is not! It too holds the gathering of blueberries in awe, is humbled by their abundance and their promise, but in the end there is nothing. Though that should not be a surprise. The first line itself drums in that nothingness, repeating the words “nothing,” “nothing,” “nobody.”

Blackberrying by Sylvia Plathimage

Nobody in the lane, and nothing, nothing but blackberries,
Blackberries on either side, though on the right mainly,
A blackberry alley, going down in hooks, and a sea
Somewhere at the end of it, heaving. Blackberries
Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes
Ebon in the hedges, fat
With blue-red juices. These they squander on my fingers.
I had not asked for such a blood sisterhood; they must love me.
They accommodate themselves to my milkbottle, flattening their sides.

Overhead go the choughs in black, cacophonous flocks—
Bits of burnt paper wheeling in a blown sky.
Theirs is the only voice, protesting, protesting.
I do not think the sea will appear at all.
The high, green meadows are glowing, as if lit from within.
I come to one bush of berries so ripe it is a bush of flies,
Hanging their bluegreen bellies and their wing panes in a Chinese screen.
The honey-feast of the berries has stunned them; they believe in heaven.
One more hook, and the berries and bushes end.

The only thing to come now is the sea.
From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,
Slapping its phantom laundry in my face.
These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt.
I follow the sheep path between them. A last hook brings me
To the hills’ northern face, and the face is orange rock
That looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space
Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths
Beating and beating at an intractable metal.

The speaker, who is traveling downward on a path lined with blackberry bushes, believes that there is something at the end–the sea. Earlier, when she sees a swarm of flies satiated with blackberry juice she states that the flies “believe in heaven.” (Is her statement that “they believe in heaven” an implication that she does not?)

Perhaps the flies believe they have found it.

For the speaker, however, no reward awaits. The sea–to which she had looked forward to throughout her journey–is a pale wasteland. Again there is the repetition of the word “nothing”: “…that looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space” and from within this void she hears the “Beating and beating of an intractable metal.”

That ‘beating and beating” reminds me of the sea in “Dover Beach” where:

you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

It’s that eternal note of sadness that Plath’s speaker also hears, an empty, pale silence. After her walk, after her hoping to be loved, after her wanting a heaven, she comes to this cliff. And this is what she hears.

Perhaps we’ll do “Dover Beach” next.

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Series: The Deadly Sins–Gluttony

"Consumerism is the new Gluttony" photo-collage 2015 by jpbohannnon

“Consumerism is the new Gluttony”
photo-collage 2015 by jpbohannon

“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”   ― Socrates

“The things you own end up owning you.”  — Tyler Durden, Fight Club

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Series: The Deadly Sins–Sloth

 

Gustave Doré Slothful Penitents (Abbot of St. Zeno)

Gustave Doré
Slothful Penitents (Abbot of St. Zeno)

“In the world sloth … is the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing and remains alive only because there is nothing it would die for. We have known it far too well for many years.”

Dorothy Sayers, “The Other Six Deadly Sins”

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