Film Essay

19/07/15 Film Essay

The Salt of the Earth (2015)

The Salt of the Earth (2015)
Directors: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Wim Wenders
Writers: Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado
Stars: Sebastião Salgado, Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Lélia Wanick Salgado


To a question often asked of travelers — “Why do you travel?” — Tiziano Terzani, the celebrated Italian writer, offers a challenge: “It’s not how far you’ve traveled, it’s what you’ve brought back.”

What acclaimed Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado brought back from a lifetime of travel documenting ordinary and extraordinary human events all over the world has been turned into The Salt of the Earth, a big screen feature film by Wim Wenders in collaboration with Sebastiao’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. Wenders’ filming gives movement to Salgado’s still photos, intimately engaging audiences in one visual amazement of human events after another. Wenders begins the film with Salgado’s face hovering like a ghost among his photos and leaves him at the end sitting in a misty forest, looking away from the camera. In The Salt of the Earth, it is Salgado’s photographs – his writing with light – and not Salgado’s life that holds center stage.

With a clever apparatus, Wim Wenders mounts his camera behind a screen of Salgado’s photos, thereby shooting Salgardo looking his photos and speaking, seemingly extemporaneously and philosophically, about the sights he’s seen. Wenders’ invention enhances Salgado’s gift as a natural narrator. We are engaged like old friends in his reveries and reflections about what he sees in his mind’s eye as he views his photos. We sometimes look directly at him while he speaks through the peephole Wenders created. Other times, we look at his photos while he describes his thoughts and feelings while he was taking the pictures. As he speaks, familiar human events headlined in the news take on an aura of significance far beyond information. What Salgado gives us is the human connection beneath the events, having brought back from his travels an empathic history, ancient, recently past and present. There is no message of activism in Salgado’s photos, just the magnificence and horror of what he saw.

In the opening scenes of The Salt of the Earth, we peer over Salgado’s shoulder into a cavernous gold mine in Brazil and stare down into the every day activity of hundreds, maybe thousands of men climbing steep ladders with sacks of dirt on their shoulders. They look like ants engaged in a Sisyphean task, tiny men climbing upward, bearing a brown heavy lump to the top only to run down and climb again. Though the photos arouse an association of men living out a punishment of the gods or slaves tied to an unending bondage, the men are free men. They are, in fact, chasing a dream, hoping that, one lucky day, they come up with a bag of gold instead of a bag of dirt. They come from all walks of life, working together, every move a motion of coordination maximizing each man’s elusive chance to elevate his life. It is a microcosm of human hope caught so expertly that the still photos seem to move before our eyes.

Sebastiao Salgado describes himself as a photographer working with light and shadows to capture images of a world that’s close to the one in which we live but that we don’t often see. As he talks about the men on ladders, our imagination follows his into visions of the men who built archeological marvels. We take a rare peek into the historical making of culture, civilization and the individuals who have carried us here. There is no sound of machines in the gold mine. Only the murmur of human voices can be heard. He links mining to the lost realities of creating monuments like the pyramids. For a moment, the raising of The Sphinx and The Tower of Babel is palpable. A multitude of voices merge into one continuous hum of making. Salgado’s black and white photos, deep voice and searching vision have deftly drawn us into a feeling of connection with humankind without location, time or circumstance.

Salgado has brought back visceral insight into the wonders of human construction that, across the years, persist as impertinently as humankind’s dark acts of destruction. The sensational, barely believable sight of Iraq’s mass burning of oil rigs in Kuwait captures the metaphorical power and grief of humankind since the discovery of fire. The black and white photos, somehow, rage hotter and more terrifying than if they were in color. And the photos of the brave men at work in the oil fields are truly wordless, covered in a suffocating black gold and revealing the paradox of good and evil that takes your breath away. How does anyone reckon with a sight that combines the hideous capacity to light such fires and the astonishing ability to put them out?

Perhaps the answer is to ground the larger story in a personal one. In The Salt of the Earth, Salgado’s reportage is inter-spliced with footage accumulated by Salgado’s oldest son, Ribierdo, who wished to recapture childhood years that he’d missed when Salgado traveled most of the time. As a young man, Ribierdo accompanied his father like an anthropological documentarian, filming his father photographing primitive tribes deep in the jungle and rare scenes of animals far in the Artic. With Ribierdo’s filming, we see Salgado exerting the tremendous patience necessary for photos of exotic subjects in extreme circumstances to appear so spontaneous. With Ribierdo’s current footage shot in color, the feeling of a timeless continuity between now and past in Salgado’s black and white photography is further emphasized.

Africa called out to Salgado numerous times and he was there to photograph the trails of despairing retreats and death in the aftermath of its infamous massacres. And like Icarus, flying so close to the sun melted his wings, Salgado’s brave pursuits led to a fall. After covering the genocide in Rwanda on foot, stepping over bodies and experiencing the devastating effects on people scavenging for life in refugee camps, Salgado couldn’t pick up a camera. Only with an inspired idea from his wife, Leila, to bring the tropical forest of his childhood land in Brazil back to life was he able to bring himself back to life. Together, they launched a ten-year project to turn the drought stricken ground into the lush fields he had once known. To pay further tribute to the regenerative power he’d found, Salgado and Leila began the project, Genesis. To photograph nature, he risked his reputation as a social photographer and learned new skills. He pays homage to nature in Genesis, a large format book collection of photos showing nature, animals and peoples in awe-inspiring beauty.

Sebastiao Salgado has been honored by the Royal Photographic Society in Britain, earning the accolade of preeminent social photographer of our times. He’s been named a UNESCO Ambassador. Wim Wenders, circling Salgado cinematically as he once did Berlin’s golden angel of immortality in his award winning film, Wings of Desire, does justice to the mythic presence of Salgado’s observational spirit as few could. Julian Ribierdo Salgado, determined to know a father who’d been missing most of his life, followed Sebastiao into the wild with a movie camera to bring the past into the present. Leila Salgado, wife and mother and partner-in-artistry, is arguably the angel above Salgado’s photographic magistracy, providing a regenerative ending to a life and a film that is as disturbing as it is beautiful to watch.

Over his lifetime, Salgado photographed hidden indigenous tribes, famines, refugee camps, laborers, genocides, wild animals and the burning wells of Kuwait. His and other photos flickered in the news and aroused curiosity, but The Salt of the Earth embeds his work in a story that closes the gap of global distance, making his journey our journey. He spent years on the theme of workers around the world, documenting the dirty work that we know is being done, know that we depend on but can barely stand to behold. He joined families forced from their homes by war, walked through miles of dead Rwandans along the road after the massacre and shot photos over the shoulders of Doctors Without Borders as they brought dehydrated skeletons back to life. It’s shocking that he photographed so many off the beaten path, in plain sight miserable human events. Sebastiao Salgado makes darkness visible in places few people ever venture.

When I went back to view the film a second time, many of Salgado’s disturbing photos were still in my mind and I was a bit reluctant to revisit. But I was quickly turned around. The Salt of the Earth is not a grim film to watch. To the contrary, I was swept past my dark memories of the first viewing and into a reverence for the ferocity of the human spirit. For me, Salgado’s photos merge with the words of T.S. Eliot, reminding me to praise while shaking my fist at atrocities:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

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19/07/15 Film Essay

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005)

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005)
Director: Yimou Zhang
Writers: Yimou Zhang, Jingzhi Zou
Stars: Ken Takakura, Kiichi Nakai, Shinobu Terajima



(Published in Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche 9 : 3 / Summer 2015)

Until the heroic experience of all people .. . has been thoroughly explored, the myth of the hero will always be incomplete and inaccurate.

Carol Pearson and Katherine Pope
(1981, 5)

Myths are a breaking through of greater meaning which was not present before.

Rollo May
(1991, 86)

[The] man who thinks he can live without myth, or outside it, like one uprooted, has no true link either with the past, or with the ancestral life which continues within him, or yet with contemporary human

C. G. Jung
Symbols of Transformation, CW 5

The late years, as we know them now in the twenty-first century, are an unprecedented stage of life on the planet, yet we have no ritual and no rich narrative, no hero’s journey to guide us.

C. G. Jung imaginatively envisioned individuation as a lifelong process, furthered by initiations in 20 adolescence and middle age that guide a journey of self-discovery to meet the challenges of major transitions in consciousness. Urged on by our own void, I offer the story of an old man in the film, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005), well past sixty, who inspires a provocative model for a transformational journey of discovery and contribution in the late years. Film is a cultural storyteller, historical and futuristic at once, activating an imaginary reality between viewer and 25 screen that creates as it informs. To seek the Elder Hero in film and in our lives is to seek a myth of transformation for years of life barely lived by humankind.

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is a film in which Zhang Yimou, an accomplished and award-winning director of epic films and events, lifts a small, personal story to a mythic dimension of transformation for an old man. A father seeks reunion with a son from whom he’s become 30 estranged. The story is a reversal of the well-known and famous mythic search of the son for the father, immediately evoking larger implications. Called a “wizard” by The New York Times, Zhang Yimou broke records around the world with his stunning direction of the opening ceremonies at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Now with Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, he makes inspirational tracks into yet another phenomenon not bound by a single nation, the still largely 35 unknown terrain of old age around the planet.

The film begins:

An older Japanese fisherman climbs up from below deck on an old wooden fishing boat docked alongside a snowy, coastal North Japanese village. Buttoned up in an all-weather black jacket with a white scarf and turtleneck, he’s closing up for the day. A few fishermen on an adjacent boat behind him come into focus. One of them calls out in a jovial voice, “How’s the catch today?” Gouichi Takata turns toward them, signals with his arms and speaks few words, “Not bad.” He betrays no sense of a man who’s just traveled many miles by bullet train to Tokyo, only to stand in the eerie blue light of a hospital corridor and hear his ill, estranged son adamantly refuse to see him.

When Takata returns home from the dock, his phone is ringing. Rie, his daughter-in-law, is calling from Tokyo to tell him that his son Kenichi’s condition has worsened and he is now dying. He drops his head in thought and says nothing. Rie sags with grief against a terrace railing, weeping. “My hope for even a simple family meal is disappearing.” Takata remains silent as he listens. The rim of his fishing cap shades his eyes. His lips part and close, mouth opening slightly as he draws a breath, but he utters no words. The conversation ends with a cut to snow-covered rocks. Takata stands alone, silhouetted against a gray sky, staring stoically out into the rough sea. Only his mind speaks: “I’m going to China. I decided this suddenly. I don’t know what’s out there and I’m not good at dealing with people, but I feel compelled to go. I must do something for my dying son.”

Not to Tokyo, but to China. From first impression, Gouichi Takata (award-winning Japanese actor Ken Takakura) brings to mind the classic heroic loner making a tough decision he deems necessary. Standing steady, tall, and resolute against the wide skies and open seas of his home, Takata is visually identified with the relentless rhythm of the tides, the rocking boats, and the day’s catch. A fisherman, he resides in a modest home defined by shelves of books and a teakettle that tell of quiet, reflective hours. He portrays the slight discomfort of a man a bit too large for his small residence and a step apart from his community. A black coat and black-brimmed hat that shades his eyes suggest an internality of character. He is used to acting from his own counsel. Takata works solo, apart from other fishermen who work together, hauling in their nets while swapping hard-luck smiles and jokes. A recent conversation with his son’s distraught wife in which she’s told him that his son is more seriously ill than previously thought is on his mind. With his air of self- sufficiency, Takata appears as a balanced, mature man who wants to do right by his son. But the primal and naturalistic imagery in the opening scenes of Riding Alone provides clues that Takata’s story is going to go deep, delving into a father-son drama with far-reaching consequences.

Stories of estrangement and efforts of reconciliation between fathers and sons are rooted in ancient tales of all cultures. As Takata stands against a background of ocean waves, the mythic symbolism of the wise old man and the sea is poignantly aroused. C. G. Jung likened the consciousness of an individual to a cork floating in a vast ocean of unconsciousness and contemplated an evolving integration over a lifetime. Similarly, Ernest Hemingway engraved in Western minds the image of an old fisherman struggling with fate in The Old Man and the Sea (1952). Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles draws upon an ancient Chinese opera for its title and themes of loyalty and reunion, tying old to new.

In our culture, the elderly are envisioned as either looking back in an attempt to recapture youthful energy or weighed down dreaming of escape. Our society’s gloomy beliefs about aging are held in place by a certain “truthiness,” a term coined by Steven Colbert, American political satirist, for truth not dependent on factual data. But as men and women are living longer, healthier lives than ever before, they are actively purging “truthiness” from truth. Emphasizing this disparity, Clint Eastwood, eighty-two, defied a “truthiness” of rigidity in old age from the truth by taking advantage of his stature to risk stand-up comedy and playfully fence with himself on live television at the 2012 Republican National Convention. In real life, he reaches for a new act, while in the film Gran Torino (2008), he perpetuates his heroic “make my day” screen image from earlier films. Winning acclaim from our youth-oriented culture in this film, he’s become the oldest leading man to score number one at the box office. Gran Torino, however, perpetuates our youth culture’s determination to deny old age the ability to foment a new identity. It’s an odd case of a screen hero lagging behind his reality.

Confusion about the role of the elder in society is not limited to the silver screen. Erik Erikson, working with his wife Joan, established the famous eight stages of life in Childhood and Society in an attempt to map out human psychosocial development (1963). In the Eriksons’ last book, however, Joan Erikson would admit to having been mistaken in creating only eight stages. Well into her nineties, Joan added a new chapter in The Life Cycle Completed, a “ninth stage” applicable to people entering the same stage of life she was in at the time of writing. “Old age in one’s eighties and nineties,” she writes, “brings with it new demands, reevaluations, and daily difficulties .. . To face down despair with faith and appropriate humility is perhaps the wisest course” (1997, 105 – 106). She saw even the nineties as a phase of identity invention.

C. G. Jung’s own experience with individuation suggests that Joan Erikson’s insight with respect to the theory of the late years was itself late in coming. Jung did not live into his nineties, but he did describe individuation as a serious endeavor of self-discovery and renewal of identity that informs life as it is lived:

The years .. . when I pursued the inner images (sic) were the most important time of my life. Everything else is to be derived from this. It began at that time, and the later details hardly matter anymore. My entire life consisted in elaborating what had burst forth from the unconscious and flooded me like an enigmatic stream and threatened to break me. That was the stuff and material for more than only one life. Everything later was merely the outer classification, scientific elaboration, and the integration into life. But the numinous beginning, which contained everything, was then. (2009)

Erik and Joan Erikson viewed the polar nature of each stage of life as creating a sort of
emotional equilibrium. In The Life Cycle Completed, Joan Erikson added a ninth stage in a chapter simply titled “Old Age” (1997). She elaborates the effect of an older person’s “deteriorating body and mind” on the despair that characterizes the eighth stage as leading to yet a new character. Integrity and despair oppose each other in the eighth stage, for example, and navigating the conflict between the two fosters individual development and the growth of a more whole person.

Commenting on her own creative surge, brought on in her later years, Joan Erikson similarly notes: “It is important to remember that conflict and tension are sources of growth, strength, and commitment” (106). Joan Erikson felt the blossoming of a third act seeded by conflicts unique to the late years and was able to begin to document her own Elder Hero’s journey of transformation.

Like the arrival of Joan Erikson’s work, Zhang Yimou’s depiction of the transformational journey of a tradition-bound recluse traveling across the deserts of China offers a mind-bending alternative to prejudices in our own cultural bias toward aging. Takata embodies a classic heroic presence, exhibiting clashing personality traits that dramatize individuation as an enlivening process in the inner life of an elder. Close interior scenes alternate with vast exterior vistas, intimate feelings hide behind public personas, and individual determination defies systemic officialdom. Takata is drawn to a task of great effort, crossing over a vast divide of distance, language, and past animosity between Japan and China to bridge the gap with his son. Bucking conventional thinking, Riding Alone declares a shift in perception of old age from preoccupation with closure to the inclusion and embrace of released energies.

According to Jungian analyst John Beebe, images of the senex are historically not handled well in film (2008, 59 – 60), dwelling on a stereotype of austerity rather than wholeness. At the outset, Riding Alone’s Takata is no exception. He fits neatly into the archetypal image of the negative senex (Hillman 2005), a man set in his ways who has not spoken to his son in fifteen years. Abiding by a culturally ingrained ethic of emotional silence between men, he let his relationship with his son lapse after his wife died. Only when Rie, Kenichi’s wife, calls and convinces him to leave the northern shores of Japan does he take a train into Tokyo to visit his son in the hospital. There, upon hearing Kenichi telling his wife he doesn’t want to see his father, Takata simply turns and walks out. Rie does not give up as easily. She races after him and, on the sidewalk outside the hospital, presses a videotape into Takata’s hands, begging him to watch it. She hopes that seeing his son on film will motivate Takata to visit again. But it doesn’t. The trapped older lead character has become something of a convention in movies. Things people don’t like about themselves—rigidity, closed-mindedness, and self-absorption—are often assigned as defining traits of older men and women.

The video is a TV interview of Kenichi, in which he explains that he was unable to complete research on the ancient Chinese mask opera known as Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles because its primary singer was sick and unable to perform. Instead of encouraging Takata to visit his son again, the video spurs Takata to make a decision fitting his austere character. The decision is prompted by the combined availability of TV, video, and a video recorder that’s installed quickly in Takata’s remote home. From this moment on, technology plays a critical role in creating possibilities and loosening inhibitions for Takata. He deems it necessary to make a bold move that simultaneously attracts and frightens him. He will leave home and travel to China in search of a way to reunite with his son. Symbolically, Takata’s contradictory emotions mark an auspicious moment when the hero hears the call to leave the familiar and venture far away from his homeland on a journey of transformation (Whitmont 1969, 62).

C. G. Jung identifies an emerging, conscious striving for union with such an elusive opposite as a beginning point in the process of individuation (1990, 448 – 449). Takata’s decision to reconcile with his son marks an awakening for him. The gap in his own personality between sensing and expressing his feelings lay quiet, embedded beneath his grasp in a profile of nonconfrontation. Takata’s agitated conflict aligns him with “The Call,” the moment of initiation in the traditional hero’s journey (Campbell 1979, 4). From there, the contrast between how Takata experiences himself and how he presents himself intensifies and rises to consciousness as he travels. As a cinematic inspiration for an Elder Hero, Takata takes a road where there is no map—we have not been here before.

Takata travels to China to complete Kenichi’s anthropological task, reasoning that if he collects the missing footage for his son’s project, his son may agree to see him. True to a code of silence and disregard for feelings, Takata only calls his daughter-in-law after he arrives in China and tells her of his decision. He dismisses her obvious disappointment and worries regarding his safety. He doesn’t even mention his desire to reconcile with his son. If he has any feeling about the risks ahead, he hides them. With stoic resolve, he sets off toward the remote Yunnan province to take care of business and find and film the opera singer missing in Kenichi’s research.

On another level, Takata’s decision launches a seventy-year-old man on a journey usually portrayed by a son who wants reconciliation with his father. Using a role reversal, filmmaker Zhang Yimou directly invites modern audiences into a cinematic exploration of the hero’s journey in a senior male’s late years. While literature and film are replete with youthful heroes, there’s no mythic precedent for the challenge of transforming identity in the years past seventy. These late years have traditionally been idealized as years of the wise man or woman living on the mountain—complete, centered, and fulfilled. Elders in youth-oriented films are fed cultural prescriptions of regression into unfulfilled childhood dreams (The Bucket List, 2007), a retreat into a gentle lifestyle (Driving Miss Daisy, 1989), or escaping to another planet altogether (Cocoon, 1985). Each story remains vivid in memory, offering sentimental escapism. They provide a look at the later years of life from an upbeat perspective, encouraging older people to look on the bright side. They neither show us the challenging years of Joan Erikson nor do they break new ground.

Like younger heroes before him, Takata is propelled by an inner call to action in Riding Alone to break away from the familiar and test himself against great odds. He similarly meets daunting obstacles and turning points on his journey. He could give up and go home. But Takata gains momentum. He’s liked and helped by foreigners, and his insistent manner is laced with honor and respect. He’s innovative, using modern tools for creative communication and influence. His failures are often the source of empathetic learning and deepen his understanding, rather than estrange him further from others. Ever escalating in emotional awareness as he struggles with severe limitations of time, his destiny becomes tied to those around him. An instinctive decision has sent Takata far beyond a resolution for personal sadness. Seen within an Elder Hero prospective, Takata is a man facing the fate of old age, a larger fear of disconnection in life and in death than any younger hero.

The Elder Hero has crossed two significant thresholds. He’s left home and gained empathy. Now he faces a third. He now knows who he is and is, symbolically, in the foreign place where a classic hero, Odysseus, ended his journey. The modern Elder Hero, unlike Odysseus, has many years ahead of him, time to embark on yet another adventure. The quest for an identity in the late years is upon him. He looks for value and meaning in uncharted territory where the conflict between integrity and despair brought on by experienced and anticipated loss of life drives the compass. Takata, a pictorial Elder Hero infused by two older masters of their art (director and actor), tackles many obstacles as he travels, dis-identifying with inhibitions and sighting expectations for connection—inner and outer. The form of the hero’s journey holds; the particulars are coming to light as the imaginations of audiences stir. The Elder Hero is emerging.

Film is a medium conducive to the mythic; the epic mode can be teased out and represented literally and tangibly onscreen, rendered vital and energetic by the force of the actors and storytellers. Zhang Yimou, a director famous in America for wuxia epics such as House of Flying Daggers (2004), uses an elevated mode of storytelling in Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. With consistent cinematographic details throughout the film that evoke larger-than-life imagery, Zhang Yimou lifts the small, personal story of an older man seeing reconciliation with his dying son to an Elder Hero’s search for identity and purpose. The story is spurred by unique challenges of the late years and deepened by the resources of a seasoned man. The majestic sweep of arid deserts is suitably captured onscreen, where long shots of sandy plateaus and heat rising against the dawn lend stories an epic, realistic feel. Whereas Zhang Yimou employs a unique and colorful spectrum to heighten the impact of his epics, in Riding Alone his color palette is darker and subtler, creating the effect of an interior as well as exterior adventure.

As Riding Alone annotates and immerses Takata’s journey with spacious landscape imagery, the audience identifies with his status as a hero whose horizons are expanding rather than narrowing. Western imagery lends stature and credence to an emerging myth of an Elder Hero by appropriating traits normally reserved for its genre-specific characters and by invoking the cinematic landscapes of American Westerns. Like Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952) or Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Takata creates a striking figure in black against the open sky at the beginning of the film. His means of travel are no less symbolic. The bullet train that takes him from his remote village to the metropolis of Tokyo seems a technological face-lift of the Western hero’s arrival into town. Later, a camera high overhead shoots a deep, flat shot of a white van carrying Takata down a serpentine highway toward the remote Stone Village, a stand-in for the white steed favored by so many good-guy cowboys.

Typically, young heroes journey into a deeper trust of themselves, placing faith in some
interior “force” that will be with them upon encountering danger. Middle-aged heroes dig into buried, often repressed capabilities to renew their spirit for the road ahead. But the Elder Hero encounters a balancing act peculiar to the late years, seesawing between internal states of dread and desire. He’s up against the certainty of death and endings, burdened with cultural negativities about both. Taking clues from Takata’s responsiveness in Riding Alone, however, the compression of time at the end of life can force, like a cactus flower, a blossoming. A courageous leap can lead to a series of events that heighten chances of personal change and meaningful connections. This storied deployment of vision for the late years is timely for a generation such as ours wanting to find significance in years stolen from time itself.

It is common for Hollywood’s aging heroes to magically reclaim their youthful vigor to face new challenges—Eastwood’s character in Heartbreak Ridge (1986) calls upon his soldiering skills from the Korean War; Sylvester Stallone dons his gloves once again in Rocky Balboa (2006). But for Zhang Yimou’s Takata, the wisdom and experience of a matured man provide laser beams of light capable of cutting down formidable obstacles. He sees that external goals require the dismantling of internal emotional defenses that have, in fact, proven quite effective in his earlier years. Holding dear persistence, stubborn belief in himself and hard work, Takata presses for a way to integrate what he doesn’t understand with what he’s trying to accomplish. His quest for truth beyond himself will prove critical to his transformation.

On the cutting edge in 2005, Riding Alone anticipates a twenty-first century merger of elder imagination and unprecedented technological outreach. When Riding Alone puts modern technology in the hands of its elder protagonist, the potential for life-giving truths in old age takes on captivating prospects. One indispensable device that features prominently in the plot-arc of this Elder Hero’s journey is the cell phone. At first, Takata receives news via letter and landline phone. While travel and communication in the outback of China were possible in earlier years, a cell phone empowers him. He can talk with his daughter-in-law back in Japan and negotiate with a tour guide office and reach Jasmine, his young woman tour guide and expert translator, on his cell phone as he meets linguistic barriers. Even in an extremely remote Chinese province, stymied by confusion, all Takata needs is one spot of reception on a high rooftop to be on his way.

When obstacles pose threats of an inability to communicate, the cell phone allows a reception of emotion as well as understanding. Obstacles become hurdles where an invitation to leap is felt. Takata can hear the timbre of Rie’s voice on the cell phone as she pleads with him across the great distance and take in Jasmine’s trepidation as she advises him from an office hundreds of miles away. Previous slower and less sensitive methods of communication would have left Takata sequestered by time and timeliness, furthering instead of healing estrangement. The cell phone acts as a feminine presence and conduit, facilitating communication and helping him to overcome his defensive mode of detachment. Cell phone in hand, he can stay connected as he travels, and opposites are continually constellated in the moment. In effect, Takata is elevated into a fluidity of motion that narrows the gap between desire and execution and overcomes physical limitations. The cell phone keeps a dynamic set of forces in motion, transcending differences and facilitating transformation.

Cell phones alone cannot solve all our Elder Hero’s problems. His patience will be tried, his reflective maturity and vault of experience tested. The extent to which Takata is an outsider mirrors an interior psyche where emotional estrangement creates a crisis of identity. As an outsider, Takata has no power and no standing with the local hierarchy, a formidable wall of bureaucracy. When Takata calls Jasmine and voices a desire to convince the Chinese Office of Foreign Affairs to allow him into a prison where the opera singer he needs to film is being held as a criminal, Jasmine shakes her head and says she can’t help him. A local guide named Lingo offers to help Takata, but he’s not fluent in Japanese and while he’s accommodating and will submit the application, he cannot make immediate translations. Lingo voices despair, shrugging responsibility for Takata’s chances: “They’ll never let you in because you’re a foreigner.” Against such obstacles of encrusted regulations, an Elder Hero—overly armed with logical methods of principle and protocol—is as likely to fail as a younger hero facing a mythical dragon.

Takata falls back on persistence, making a formal request. But as Takata waits for the inevitable refusal, he’s not passive. He surveys the Office of Foreign Affairs. Hanging on the walls are many red silk banners, printed with large golden letters of tribute. The refusal comes but Takata goes forward with a second request. This time he engages Lingo’s help. He embellishes his request with a network of technological devices, creating a ceremony of appeal using the red banners. First, he films himself on his small camcorder. Then, for translation, he calls Jasmine via cell phone and has her make the translation to Lingo. Next, he sends Lingo, with videotape in hand, to the bureaucrats who agree to watch the tape on an old TV monitor. Technology allows Takata’s urgency to be delivered in person, using personal appeal in his request for an exception to their rules. Takata not only alters traditional protocol into a completely innovative approach, he also effectively bypasses invisible bureaucratic blockages. Such effective communication would not be possible without his black bag of tech tricks, his team, his transforming self. The Elder Hero can’t be dated—he corresponds with the times and, from the unfamiliar, evokes what’s yet to be discovered.

Takata’s persistence and technology come together in what can be considered something of a coniunctio. Technology in the hands of an Elder Hero who knows he must escape subjectivity induces inventiveness, often leveling the playing field and bringing forth unexpected success. When conventional methods are blocked, Takata responds creatively, using what is available to him and moving toward greater integration of inner and outer resources. Not only does Takata overcome language barriers, he also gains a range of effective emotional expression that surprises him. Technology is moving Takata forward, past his inhibitions and toward a growing identification with his anima—feminine aspects of himself set aside early in life. As the Elder Hero moves away from constriction, interactions become creative, communication becomes more complex, and emotional direction more evident. He takes advantage of modern devices to collapse time, glide over impassible terrain, and—almost imperceptibly—manifest emotional connections from internal visions. It is the mythmaking process at work, Takata’s inner necessity fueling the invention of a new identity. He’s become an innovator, putting things together in a new way to serve his purpose and achieve his goals. On the Elder Hero’s journey, obstacles spur invention.

Unique to human life is the impulse to create identity, a sense of self that comes from internal urgings to meet life’s challenges. C. G. Jung identified this striving as a process of individuation that serves an evolutionary purpose. Yet a hero’s journey in the late years has eluded visionaries of film and literature until now. Following Zhang Yimou’s vision of Takata in Riding Alone, the Elder Hero, unlike a younger hero, benefits from a merger with the unconscious, effectively reaching out to strangers and changing his inner, emotional landscape to one of greater empathy. Perhaps discovery of a new myth is entwined with the discovery of new modes of communication and ways to find things out. Without the technology of recent years creating a new whole to be discovered, a hero seeking the mysteries of the late years may have continued to lay dormant. To communicate across great distances despite language barriers and across cultural divides with ease is a social, birthing phenomenon of technology that becomes a phenomenon of individuation. What was just beginning to open new pathways of discovery in 2005 is now a tool of facilitation, readying the late years for the emergence of a truer identity of the elder in society.

For every triumph or step forward on solid ground, the hero’s journey contains pitfalls and confrontations. The shadow figure in myth marks an emotional opposite to the hero, distinguishing a dynamic of alchemical movement between them and denoting the arrival of higher integration. In Riding Alone, there are numerous dramatizations of opposites marking Takata’s path through increasingly impactful emotional shifts. While recording himself requesting permission to film Li Jiamin in prison, Takata cites his son’s critical condition as the reason for his urgent plea. He chokes up, revealing tears, ones he may not have been able to shed since childhood. Later, his visit to the prison provokes a further necessity for imaginative leaps and soulful realizations. In prison, where archetypal intersections of good and evil are so vivid, Takata looks across the room at Li Jiamin, a man who is his mirror opposite. Li Jiamin, a prisoner appearing in costume to sing for the opera to be performed for Takata, wears a literal mask as Takata wears a mask of practiced performance to hide his emotions. In Li Jiamin, Takata meets his “shadow,” the Jungian projection of the qualities he has disowned and repressed, in full dress (Jung 1972, 183).

Symbolically, the story of reconciliation between father and son has become equal to a search for reconciliation of cosmic opposites—awakening emotions pose a strong contrast to ingrained legacies of conduct. Prior to Takata’s encounter with Li Jiamin, the retrieval of a video performance of Li Jiamin singing the opera is all Takata desires. It fulfills his planned effort to make peace with his dying son by bringing back a missing piece of his acclaimed research. Then, before Takata can film the actor, Li Jiamin breaks down into a highly demonstrative emotional state and claims he cannot sing because he is too distraught over never being able to see his own son again. Admiring the singer silently, Takata muses: “He’s a fortunate man. If only I had the courage he has, my relationship with my son would be different.”

Moved by Li Jiamin’s display of emotion, Takata makes an offer to retrieve the boy as a way to appease Li Jiamin. For the first time, Takata relates to a situation outside himself as similar to his own and gets the sense that emotional distance can be as prohibitive as physical distance. He wonders to himself whether Li Jiamin’s estrangement from his son, like his own, is more than physical. But he does not recognize this empathic reaction as a major fork in the road he has been following. Unknowingly, as he steps away from direct passage to his goal, he steps forward toward a profound realization of a more whole self. Whether this is an evolutionary move toward a new phase of identity emerging in late years or a blooming, brought about by integration of disowned aspects of self pressed by time to emerge, he’s an Elder Hero at work.

The quest to find Li Jiamin’s son leads to a surprising emotional discovery for Takata. His journey into the dry backlands of China awakens a duality of feeling and insight that he does not yet know how to resolve. He is the lone hero, urged onward by desires that nobody else—not Jasmine or even Rie—can understand fully. Having driven to Stone Village and found the boy, Takata attempts to return to the prison with him. At this point, task-oriented steps still govern Takata’s actions. Return the boy, tape the performance, and patch things up with his own son. But as an emerging Elder Hero, the question of what lies beyond such accomplishments is beginning to resound. Answers to Takata’s internal questions about the place of emotion within a patriarchal system of control lie in an unexpected playful exchange with Li Jiamin’s son, Yang Yang.

Yang Yang slips away from Takata as they leave Stone Village, rebelling against a return to a father he doesn’t know. He runs down into a canyon of rising rock spires and no clear pathways where he quickly disappears. Takata goes after him, musing to himself that the chase after Yang Yang reminds him how lost he’s felt trying to connect with his own son. When they meet up in the bottom of the canyon, the boy is wary of the man’s intentions, much like Takata’s own son who rejected him in the hospital. Now, however, technology spurs a moment of coniunctio for the Elder Hero. Using a digital camera to take a picture, Takata shows the boy what he looks like.

An exchange of laughter between Takata and the boy brings forward a completely new dimension of Takata’s character. The pair play and laugh, using Takata’s tech-toys to break down barriers of distrust. As night falls, the boy falls asleep in his lap and Takata ruminates on the similarities between himself and Li Jiamin, his shadowy alter ego. He knows now that even if he brings Yang back to his father, the divide between them would not shrink without a change in the father. Bonding with Yang Yang in the labyrinthine canyon ignites an emergent vision in Takata as a man who’s resolving an inner conflict critical to healing the outer conflict with his son.

Once Takata internalizes Yang Yang’s perspective, he helps him stay with his community and leaves Stone Village a friend. Rather quickly, technology again plays a critical role in Takata’s movement toward a larger integration and change in identity. Like Hermes delivering an energetic missile, Takata receives a cell-phone call of great consequence en route back to the prison. Rie calls Takata to tell him of Kenichi’s death and to share a letter Kenichi wrote to his father before he died. She reads Kenichi’s letter thanking his father for his effort to help him and forgives him, making his own apologies for letting their relationship lapse. With film’s wondrous ability to induce empathic experiences, Kenichi’s voice comes alive in Takata’s mind as he stands at the nadir of his mythic quest before a glowing mountain and contemplates a profound paradox. Perhaps this is the essence of the Elder Hero’s conquest: he has failed to accomplish his task but, somehow, achieved his goal. He is at peace with his son, reunited emotionally as a consequence of searching beyond his midlife identity. The profound mythic image of man and mountain merges in a pinnacle of earthly grief and joy. Takata’s son opened his heart to his father because the father made the effort to connect, to walk in his shoes; the father’s gesture allows the son to see his father in a new light.

But Takata is once again at a choice point in his journey. Does he return to Li Jiamin, despite the fact that the video has lost purpose, or does he go home, his journey concluded with the death of his son? Takata weeps. When deep grief meets Takata on the road back to the prison, a decision even more surprising than his first occurs. Takata decides to continue. Though he realizes his journey is no longer related to his son, he somehow feels compelled to complete a promise to a man he doesn’t know. Takata is now a pictorial “stand in” for the Elder Hero, returning to Li Jiamin to tell him in person what happened with Yang Yang. Identification with another’s pain is the small story; the larger story lies in his return as a prescient sign of a treasure found buried in humanity’s later years. What he doesn’t realize, can’t realize until he completes the next step, is that he, in effect, carries the mythical boon of his emotional transformation into a space far from his residence that’s become home.

Upon his return to Li Jiamin, Takata shares the news of Yang Yang’s refusal to see his father. It is a sad moment, but Takata, for the last time, harnesses the creative powers of technology, fulfilling his promise and bringing the boy’s presence to the prison. He shows the entire prison population photos of Yang Yang on a television screen. The screening has an unexpected effect; the prisoners—each and all a father or a son—begin to weep after seeing and feeling the plight of estrangement. Symbolically, the return is representative of the final stage of the revelatory hero’s journey, in which mythologist Joseph Campbell outlines the hero bringing his findings back from his travels (a “boon”) to share with the people (1972, 189 – 192). In the end, Li Jiamin comes forward to meet Takata, each man shedding the mask that’s inhibited him from being whole. Li Jiamin bows to Takata and solicits him to film the mask opera while he sings. Takata agrees, and though he no longer needs the film, the exchange between the two men lifts a final barrier to reconciliation that reaches beyond the personal. It is the nadir, where the protagonist’s transformation becomes as essential as the passage of day into night. Li Jiamin himself is moved to the point of transformation—once hunched and resistant, Li Jiamin steps onstage in all his regalia, completely immersed in the character of Guan Yu, and sings.

As Takata records the ancient mask opera, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, director Zhang Yimou illuminates the action using swirling, fiery special effects that recall an alchemical mixing—it is a coming together of the old and the new, the individual and society. If it is Takata who brings a new, elder gift of societal healing back to the prison, then it is Zhang Yimou who “brings it” to us, the audience. Zhang Yimou, who was fifty-six at the beginning of the production of Riding Alone in 2002, cast Ken Takakura (then seventy-five, almost old enough to be Zhang Yimou’s father) as Gouichi Takata. The fact that the fiction the two filmmakers set out to build is so close to reality—son drawing father into a role that takes him on a journey beyond the borders of tradition—is perhaps the gift of a visionary director thinking ahead to his own late years. To put it in plain terms, the plot concerns an old man traveling far from his home who, able to creatively engage new elements of technology, is able to connect with others across vast distances, challenging boundaries of estrangement. The meaning of the film is enhanced by its congruent realities with Zhang Yimou’s life. Since Riding Alone was made, Zhang Yimou orchestrated the stunning 2008 Olympic opening ceremonies in Beijing, sweeping continents into an unprecedented aesthetic embrace.

C. G. Jung’s concept of synchronicity—the perception that seemingly unrelated, acausal events are inextricably linked by meaning—leads to a psychic inclusiveness that expands reality for those who grasp it (Jung 1965, 138, 197). Its wholeness of vision, one that encompasses an entire individual life, is at the heart of Jung’s concept, as well as one that expands our understanding of this film. As ideas of men and women going through changes in identity in their later years begin to take hold, old forms give way to new. Hence the implication that Riding Alone returns to and transforms the essence of loyalty in the folk opera of the same name.

The credible energy of Riding Alone as a film creating a new reality of identity for the later years is enhanced by the meaningful correspondence between filmmakers and fictional characters. In other words, the film reflects changing prospects of deeper relationships, lessened isolation, and the discovery of meaning for an older generation. What separates Zhang Yimou’s film from typical depictions of the hero’s journey—as well as an old man’s quest from a young hero’s—is that the whole individual life, not the ego, opens from beginning to end in elder transformation.

When Zhang Yimou puts his “bag of tricks” in the hands of an elder protagonist, he triggers new images of old age, refreshed by a filmic language sculpted from thin air. Together they light a way still dark. With their cameras rolling, these Elder Heroes—the fictional Takata, the other quite real Zhang Yimou—lift an ancient tradition of persevering wisdom to a contemporary triumph of compassion. Takata is no longer cut off from society at large. He is a part of it, or perhaps a step ahead of it, sharing in the revelations of sadness, determination, and resolution that the mask opera itself presents as encoded in the annals of history. Takata’s simple goal to express his feelings expands into an Elder Hero’s boon. A process of individuation spans the entire film, begun in an auspicious moment of inner conflict and bookended by scenes of calm reflection on the shores of the rough and wild sea. The Elder Hero transformation is not egoistic, but holistic. He returns to where he began but comes back deeper, larger within himself, full circle back to the ancient roots from which the film’s mythology originated.

As we watch a film with mythic dimensions like Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles that holds personal meaning for us as we come of age in the late years, we’re involved in the mythmaking process. We feel intensely hooked into history as human beings, and our lives gain significance because we’re actively participating in the creation of a crucial aspect of humanity. As those of us passing sixty or seventy years forge ahead into territory rarely lived, we are part of a fabled beginning that we don’t want to miss by not noticing the signs of an emerging myth for our late years. In such a youth-oriented culture, it is sometimes hard for young and old to see that elders contain valuable, untapped resources for tomorrow’s challenges. But a few visionary filmmakers are picking up the edges of pages to come. We, as explorers of the elder identity, are in the beginning of a time that will later be an origin for others. When we respond personally to films that carry larger visions of aging, we are rejecting today’s focus on stale, gloomy, and prejudiced stereotypes. Instead we are participating, like the ancient Greeks, in taking myth seriously as a map beneath appearances. In discovering a new identity for the Elder Hero, Riding Alone challenges not only those who are old enough to identify personally with the protagonist but also those who are merely approaching, or watching from a distance, their own oncoming elder self. Bringing foundational myths to life inspires a mystique of possibility in those who choose to accept the boon these stories provide. The Elder Hero’s journey in Riding Alone encourages us to imagine a different life for ourselves in the late years, to delve into the mystery of transformation—one more time—and anticipate the discovery of gifts for an expanding, expectant world.

Beebe, John. 2008. Moving on up. Review of Pride and glory. Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche 2(1): 59 – 60.
Campbell, Joseph. 1972. The hero with a thousand faces. Princeton University Press, 1972.
Erikson, Erik. 1963. Childhood and society. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Erikson, Erik, and Joan Erikson. 1997. The life cycle completed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Hillman, James. 2005. Negative senex and a Renaissance solution. In Senex and puer. 271 – 307. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications.

Jung, C. G. 1967. Memories, dreams, reflections. New York: Vintage Books.

———. 1972/1990. Symbols of transformation. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

———. 2009. The red book: Liber novus. Ed. Sonu Shamdasani. Trans. Mark Kyburz, John Peck, and Shamdasani. New York: Philemon Series & W.W. Norton & Co.
Pearson, Carol, and Katherine Pope. 1981. The female hero in American and British literature. New York and London: R.R. Bowker Co.
Riding alone for thousands of miles. 2005. Screenplay by Jingzhi Zou. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Sony Pictures Classics, 2005.
May, Rollo. 1991. The cry for myth. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Whitmont, Edward C. 1969. The symbolic quest. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cocoon. 1985. Screenplay by Tom Benedek. Directed by Ron Howard. 20th Century Fox.
Driving Miss Daisy. 1989. Screenplay by Alfred Uhry. Directed by Bruce Beresford. Warner Bros.
Gran Torino. 2008. Screenplay by Nick Schenk. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Warner Bros.
Heartbreak ridge. 1986. Screenplay by James Carabatsos. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Warner Bros.
High noon. 1952. Screenplay by Carl Foreman, based on the magazine story “The Tin Star” by John 495
W. Cunningham. Directed by Fred Zinnemann. United Artists.

House of flying daggers. 2004. Screenplay by Feng Li, Bin Wang, and Zhang Yimou. Directed by Zhang

Yimou. Sony Pictures Classics.

Once upon a time in the west. 1968. Screenplay by Sergio Leone and Sergio Donati. Directed by Sergio Leone. Paramount Pictures.
Riding alone for thousands of miles. 2005. Screenplay by Jingzhi Zou. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Sony Pictures Classics.

Rocky Balboa. 2006. Screenplay by Sylvester Stallone. Directed by Sylvester Stallone. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
The bucket list. 2007. Screenplay by Justin Zackham. Directed by Rob Reiner. Warner Brothers Pictures.

JANE ALEXANDER STEWART, PhD, a psychologist, is the author of numerous articles that have appeared in newsletters, journals, and books analyzing mythic themes in film. Her popular essay “The Feminine Hero in The Silence of the Lambs,” which was originally published in The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal
(vol. 14, no. 3, 1995), also appeared in The Soul of Popular Culture, edited by Mary Kittelson (Open Court, 510
1998) and The Presence of the Feminine in Film, by Virginia Apperson and John Beebe (Cambridge Scholars
Publishing, 2008) as well as in The British Association of Psychological Types Quarterly (1996) and the
National Organization of Women Times. Currently, she is a staff writer reviewing films for Newtopia
Magazine ( She has presented “Myth in Film, Myth in Your Life” seminars at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The University of Alabama, and Assisi Institute. She lives in Los Angeles. Correspondence: Website:

This essay analyzes Zhang Yimou’s 2005 film Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles as a blueprint for the developing myth of the Elder Hero’s journey—a new take on the late years of life. Mythic imagery lifts a father’s grief into a driving force for personal and social change as modern technology enables the Elder Hero to cross linguistic and cultural barriers to heal his relationship with his estranged, dying son. For times of
unprecedented longevity, the film ushers in a mythic vision of emerging resources and resourcefulness from an aging population that inspires a sense of purpose in the viewer.

KEY WORDS – aging, Elder Hero, film, hero’s journey, late years, longevity, modern Chinese film, mythical cinema, mythmaking, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, elders and technology, elder creativity, elder transformation, symbolic cinematography, Ken Takakura, Zhang Yimou

(This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Jung Journal on August, 2015, available online:

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07/02/15 Film Essay # , , , , , ,

Ida (2013)

Ida (2013)
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Writers: Pawel Pawlikowski, Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Stars: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik


Ida sinks us into a deeply personal, intimate space where shades of grey and white illuminate a blackened reality.  A girl’s tender present is invaded by a dark past. Perhaps the human psyche stretches across a great divide of ordinariness, anchored by extremes of joy and evil.  Joy seeks inklings of light.  Evil lurks in dark acts of desperate paranoia.  Why else the satisfaction of toggling a painful tooth, sobbing uncontrollably or wandering empty streets at night, fearful but excited to be in a foreign city?  Why else the pleasure of the film Ida in which a girl, by chance, grasps the idiocy and the miracle of her life saved only to become someone she was never meant to be. 

Ida’s story is rather simple and probably more ordinary than any of us want to believe. In post WWII Poland, a girl on the verge of taking vows to become a nun discovers she’s Jewish.  Ida was placed on the steps of the convent as an infant at the same moment her parents were being killed by a Catholic family who had first sheltered them and then killed them. They narrowly avoided being killed themselves by the Germans.  She discovers her history by visiting her Aunt Wanda before taking the vows that will wed her to the church forever. Wanda, her mother’s sister, knew of Ida’s existence in the Catholic orphanage but refused to claim her.  Somehow, in spite of being Jewish, Wanda has risen in Poland’s government to be a judge and, initially, that seems to be her reason for ignoring Ida.   

Ida has her mind set on finding the graves of her parents and Wanda reluctantly agrees to help her. The two women make the journey together, uncovering a secret that darkens an already dark story.  The aunt reveals to Ida that she left behind her young son with her sister Roza, Ida’s mother, for safekeeping during the war so that she could join the resistance.  Wanda fears the remains in hidden graves will contain more than the bones of Ida’s parents. 

Ida, cloaked in the plain scarf and cloth coat of a novice nun meets her Aunt Wanda in a Polish city bereft of bustle, foretelling scenes too empty and too loaded in the woods behind the house where the Ida’s parents lived. Wanda, already a woman who drinks too much, tosses down shot glasses of vodka and drives her car into a ditch.  She spends a night in jail before they arrive at the shack where their family once lived. A dirt-poor Polish farmer with a wife and a child of his own lives there now. At first, he withholds answers to their quest. 

The bleak plight of all involved is directly felt through imagistically powerful black and white cinematography.  Matter of fact images of aunt and niece carrying bones so recently dug up from a muddy ditch and rolled in blankets for transport to a Jewish cemetery proceed in poetic slowness, step by step without an ounce of color. To see the family bones carried so personally, bundled and carried close to the body from profane to sacred ground is unnerving, barely bearable.

Ida stirs our imagination, creating recollections of events never lived, empathy for those now dead and others who survived.  Memories are fantasized as if recalled. The aunt in this film clearly shunned the niece who would force her to emotionally relive what she’d left behind in order to adapt, accept and join a society in which she achieved prominence by not being herself.  Once Ida bears witness to her choice, the Wanda’s wall between past and present weakens and another story begins once the women return home. 

We have to ask.  What will Ida do? 

Ida, in accompanying Wanda in the search for her parent’s grave, engages life experiences that require her constantly to make her own choices, not simply follow rules of a convent. When a young man hitches a ride with them to get into the city, she meets a man who lives on the edge of what’s coming in modern society. He plays the saxophone, a musical instrument called masculine and sensual by the aunt. He has a gig to celebrate a Polish holiday and draws Ida into feelings she didn’t know she had.  Same age as Ida but without her history, his love is innocent. He represents a present in which the evolution of time has tamped down horror and new opportunities are emerging.

What will Ida choose?

The two women, bonded by blood but one old and one young, walk toward different futures. As surely as Ida progresses toward an awakening, Wanda spirals downward into a past with no recoup. Ida tries on her aunt’s shoes, wears her clothes, drinks her vodka and sleeps with the saxophone player.  A window of light will prove an exit for one, an entry for the other.  But no escape into the expansive divide of ordinary life lies ahead for either.

Ida is a tight film, intimate and deep in revealing what happened, what’s happening after the war in Poland and what needs to happen to maintain faith in humanity in an aftermath of shadows.  It is a film of beautiful images that evoke the mythic gamble of any individual’s circumstances of birth. True identity of some, like Ida, is partially given, partially created, and forever partially unknown.

Opposites of joy and evil clashed in WWII, wreaking tragedy and leaving a legacy of unconscionable grief.  And Ida is left to choose life as she sees fit.  That’s a choice her parents never had.  Yet the film ends with questions.  Is Ida reconstituted? Is hers a free choice or driven by a loss of faith in the rational mind of humankind?

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07/01/15 Film Essay # , , , ,

My Old Lady (2014)

My Old Lady (2014)
Director: Israel Horovitz
Writer: Israel Horovitz
Stars: Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith



If you were to stop, stand aside and attempt to capture what happened in the past that led to where you are now, you might capture the preposterous nature of the reality within which we all live…such as the conundrum in My Old Lady.

When Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline), a middle-aged man having a mid-life crisis, inherits a Paris apartment bought by his father forty years earlier, when he was carrying on an affair with a woman he loved, he gets a great deal less and a great deal more than he can know.  The apartment comes viager, French for an agreement between buyer and seller that involves a small down payment and monthly payments to the owner/inhabitant until they die. The charming, large two-story warren of rooms complete with a garden is worth a fortune and is occupied by an extraordinarily healthy ninety-two year old woman to whom he owes more than the 2400 Euros a month until she dies – and maybe until her daughter dies.

Mathias is a flat broke New Yorker who’s been estranged from his wealthy father for most of his adult life. He hated his father for his entire childhood and blamed him for his many failures at both marriage and career. That said, Mathias is more than an ugly American intent upon selling his architectural beauty in the historic Marais district of Paris to an indifferent real estate developer. He’s turning the apartment left to him by his dreaded father into cash as quickly as possible.  He’s a joke. No one does a joke like this one better than Kevin Kline.

In effect, Mathias discovers he’s been appointed guardian of his father’s mistress, the woman who drove his mother mad – worse, until death do they part.  The first thing the old lady does is to take his gold watch for rent while he stays with her. 


Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith), the old lady who lives in the apartment with her grown daughter, Chloe, seems in on the joke until she discovers that she too didn’t know the dark side of the man she loved. Mathilde/Mathias; the son is the namesake of his father’s lover. They are two sides of a dead man’s life. The old man left them both a legacy, a mirror of lives lived – perhaps as all lives do, with puzzling reflections. One mirror clear, one shattered by consequences.  My Old Lady reveals realities meant to remain hidden but unburied, to become revealed.  Comically tragic, the father left the best time of his life to his son. No one does the other side of a cosmic joke as well as Maggie Smith.

Screen Shot 2015-02-07 at 11.05.24 AM

Israel Horowitz created an emotional drama of paths never meant to cross to remind us of what can’t be known in earlier days of where one’s life is leading.  When one is young and following one’s heart, one goes forth with such passion that separate acts portend a future fusion, like distant railroad tracks merging on a horizon not yet noticed. History is filled with stories in which the future reprises the past and the past revives the present as if they are exceptions when, in fact, they’re not. It’s a hard reality to see face to face, but in a play or a film like My Old Lady, we happily nod our heads in recognition as an adult drama eclipses a juvenile vision.   

Preposterous, you say?

Mathias married three times to avoid being married to one woman, loving another.  Mathilde’s daughter, Chloe, is a fifty-something single woman having an affair with a married man with children. Each, still a child living within a parent’s shadow, lives a life darkened by a past never left behind. Each represents the reason their parents remained married. Each of them has stayed un-married. And neither had children.  Each remains the child looking for love in all the wrong places. So, of course, they’re great together. Each understands the other’s crackling façade and woeful longing. But Chloe, the middle (wo)man in the joke, played by an acerbic Kristin Scott Thomas, bears her own burden.

Mathilde, of course, cannot really know who Chloe’s father is. Her affair with Mathias’ father paralleled her marriage. The only wonder is that she only had one child. And even casting suggests a physical familiarity between Mathias and Chloe.  Before the news is broken of whose father was with whose mother when, an old photo found by Mathias declaring his father’s poetry-laced words of love for Mathilde, Chloe and Mathias find themselves kissing on the old lady’s piano bench.  Mathilde, a sharp-minded woman, discreetly inquires of Mathias “if he and her daughter were awake together last night.” 

Preposterous, even more so.

But, of course. It’s Paris. Magic is everywhere. Mathias’ real estate agent lives on ‘the blood of Paris,’ a barge on the Seine. The real estate developer is haute courtier. Les parcs are looked in upon with envy through green iron fences. The sidewalks are made of rough stone, lined with posts to tie up your horse. Doors and hardware are ancient and fabulous, with secluded courtyards in peeking distance beyond. Mathias walks on bridges that pass in front of Notre Dame, up and down steps from the Seine that rise toward streets with postcard stands. Famous statues stand amidst colorful flowers in full bloom. Curious lovers, carrying a small fluffy dog, stop and offer gentle smiles to Mathias sitting on a wall and finishing a bottle of wine after he’s learned a deadly fact. He waves them off with a few words, “the end of the wagon.”

Mathias returns to his apartment with the old lady and an exchange of realities not to be snuffed with alcohol, regardless of how many bottles of her vintage wine he drinks. He and she learn truths from one another that finally lay her lover and his father to rest and bring them squarely into the tonal ring of Paris. “Viager,” softly spoken vee-ah-jay, after all, is meant to be a win-win gamble. An elder lives out their late years in the comfort of their own home. The younger buys into a future no longer for sale at prices he or she can afford. It could be said that the father’s deal has left Mathilde and Mathias (and Chloe) with a legacy of love from a time past.  They only have to find it in themselves, now in the present.

Preposterous, yes, and you will have to go yourself to see how Horowitz decides to extract an ending to a love story that is, once again, beginning. Mathilde does give Mathias the gold watch back, a timepiece she’d once given his father. As adults, we can be nostalgic about the dark side of our history for, perhaps, it takes a lifetime to gain assurance that endings turn over into wonders of anticipation once more not to be resisted.

In a last scene, Mathias hears a stranger singing by the Seine and – of course, it’s Paris – joins her in a duet before he takes the steps back into his life to come. So many of us have walked, talked, loved and lost – or won — a lifetime of dreams along the banks of the Seine in Paris.

Fin, indeed. Interfere with the future if you must. We simply cannot learn about the world without changing it. 

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01/09/14 Film Essay # , , ,

Philomena (2013)

Philomena (2013)
Director: Stephen Frears
Writers: Steve Coogan (screenplay), Jeff Pope (screenplay), Martin Sixsmith (book)
Stars: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark


(Published in Spring, Women’s Voices, Fall, 2014)

I walked a mile with Pleasure, She chattered all the way; But left me none the wiser For all she had to say.

I walked a mile with Sorrow, And ne’er a word said she;

But oh, the things I learned from her When Sorrow walked with me.

Robert Browning Hamilton, “Along the Road”

I could have been the main character played by Judi Dench in Philomena. I had a close friend who found herself in a similar position.  To be an unmarried pregnant teenager in 1950’s America as well as in Ireland was not simply frowned upon, it was a slip from grace. Philomena Lee, upon whose story the film Philomena is based, was given shelter and educated at the Sacred Heart Catholic Convent in Roscrea, Ireland. When she was found pregnant by the nuns, it was firm evidence of her fallen soul. For the rest of us, we simply suffered the shame of being a girl with sexual desires. There was no “girls will be girls” impetus for adults to look the other way with an approving smile of recognition as there was for boys. No get-out-of-jail-free card. No respect.

No rights.

The road to respect, in the capable and gifted hands of director Stephen Frears, receives a romantic, innocent beginning in Philomena. Philomena Lee is a young teenage girl who, having gotten pregnant in a happenstance moment of pleasure at a county fair with a boy her own age, loses the rights to her child. She is, after all, a ward of Roscrea Convent and she has sinned. Her three-year-old son, put up for adoption by the nuns, disappears from her life. All her attempts to find him are thwarted by devilish, punishing Catholic rules regarding adoption. Yet, Philomena is still a deeply faithful Catholic at sixty-five as she lights a votive candle for her lost son’s fiftieth birthday. When Philomena confesses the birth and her despairing search for her son to her grownup daughter, she breaks the silence of a secret kept to herself for so many years. Her daughter responds sympathetically—and with a next-generation determination, she sets out to ease her mother’s grief. When she overhears a man at a party saying he’s a journalist, she is not shy about appealing to him to help her mother find her lost son.

In Philomena, the man at the party is Martin Sixsmith, a noted journalist recently fired from his position as political advisor in Tony Blair’s administration on a dubious slander charge. He’s feeling a loss of identity and self-esteem, so he only half-heartedly agrees to help Philomena because a human-interest story is far from front-page news. A visit with Philomena to the convent where she gave birth yields little. But photos of well-known adoptive parents, like Jane Russell, on the wall stir his investigative instincts. Suspicious of the convent’s adoption history, he does a bit of research that warrants pitching Philomena’s story to a friend in broadcasting. Perhaps unconsciously, his own fall from prominence in the Blair administration makes him susceptible to another who has suffered a similar blow, albeit from a very different kind of authority. And he needs a project.

With a commission for a television news magazine piece and a slim lead that the boy was adopted by Americans, Philomena and Martin board a plane for Washington, D.C. to uncover the son’s whereabouts and attempt a reunion. When Philomena begins to realize that Martin may make her dream come true, she knocks on his hotel door late at night to speak to him about his being fired from his job with the Blair administration. Spoken with a sense of urgency as if he needs to hear it, she tells him, “Their loss is my find.” But this is not a documentary. Philomena’s “find” did not accompany her to the States in real life. He did not write her story. Martin Sixsmith wrote a book entitled The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, about her son, a gay man who grew up to be an important advisor in the Reagan administration.

It is Stephen Frears, Steve Coogan (who also co-starred in the film), and Jeff Pope who in their adapted screenplay turn Philomena’s secret into Philomena’s own story. The narrative power of Philomena reaches beyond the women who recognize its truth as their own. The relationship between Philomena and Martin imaginatively calls to mind what might have been between Philomena and her own son. It makes an invisible loss visible. The cinematic mirroring of a “could have been” mother-son relationship in Philomena arouses empathy for the breadth and depth of a mother’s grief. A lifetime of missed moments is irreplaceable, not to be set aside as a lesser wound than the one crushing scene when Philomena, as a girl, watches her son disappear in a car with strangers. The abandoned child is common fare in literature, fairy tale, and myth. A mother’s lingering loss is rarely seen.

The charismatic Judi Dench transforms Philomena Lee into a stand-in for women who lived through—and past—the stigma of being an unwed mother. As a woman and actress, Judi Dench also provides living testimony to the changes for women experienced in one generation. Dame Dench is playing leading ladies at age seventy-nine. Forget being cast as a technical consultant in the film Marigold Hotel, she is a world class M, boss of OO7 in Skyfall ! What Judi Dench brings to Philomena is an uncanny warmth and stoicism as she bears witness to contradictions that lay within every woman. When she turns her blue eyes toward us, we become knowing co-conspirators.

Many women have now shared their plight of being “caught” pregnant and the consequences of oppressive reactions. Each story has added insight and created a public community of empathy. But, more

importantly, we watch Philomena a generation once removed. We know we were part of an immense change, and we can endow ourselves with respect, reclaim a heritage for ourselves.

Dench’s fictionalized Philomena Lee did not so much see as want to see. Catholicism blocked her sight but fed her spirit. Her desire was not to expose but to discover what others knew. She didn’t want to know the why of the nun’s decision. That was left to Martin Sixsmith, the surrogate son. Philomena wanted a first-hand experience of what had been denied her. She wanted to feel her son’s desire to be known to her. Throughout, she sticks to the choices meaningful to her.

Steve Coogan, the actor who plays Martin Sixsmith and co-wrote the screenplay, cast himself in the role of an investigator intent on getting to the bottom of Philomena’s pain. Why, indeed, had she been denied information about her son’s whereabouts? And why was she so nice about it, when he was so incensed? As director, Stephen Frears honors a feminine sensibility in Philomena, answering the latter question by showing how her grief is a part of a whole, a part of an inner sense of self. She’s feeding her soul, not her anger, with her search.

However, the writers and director provide an effective conduit for the heart of Philomena’s story to join public outrage. Philomena presents a full, multi-faceted reflection of a woman’s ability to simultaneously be herself and a devoted mother. She doesn’t seek change so much as completion. She genuinely wants to know what happened to her son, to know the unknown of his being snatched from her when she was helpless to hold onto him. Unexpected observations and a surprising understanding come forth from Philomena’s simple persona. Perhaps keeping her secret to herself nurtured seeds of connection with her lost son.

As in life, light and humor lace the objectionable and the ominous in Philomena. We smile no less when she unbuckles her seatbelt to knock on the door of her son’s lover than when she rattles on about an entire book she’s been reading to Martin. Philomena Lee had a bit of a career as a nurse and shows evidence of having been an astute learner. She intuits her son is gay before she’s told. The loving tone of her voice trumps any Catholic reserve. It’s not his sexual identity that would lessen her intent nor stop her search. It’s only if he never thought of her, never wondered about her or where he came from. If there’s a chance to get closer to that truth, she will ask to be heard, be given details, shown photos.

Philomena’s spirit prevails when she and Martin confront the aging Mother Superior, the one who kept mother from son, even as her son sought her in person while he was dying of AIDS. It is Martin who angrily pushes open closed doors to find Sister Hildegaard and demand an answer to the question, “Why?” He wants to know what drove such cruelty. Philomena protests, trying to protect the nun. But Martin presses, hard and angry. The nun’s answer arouses a pathos in Philomena. The nun fiercely denounces a woman’s sexual desire as “sexual incontinence,” equaling moments of passion to an embarrassing loss of bladder control. Perhaps Philomena intuits that the nun has separated herself from a critical source of empathy with other women? As Philomena faces her oppressor, she stands on the other side of a rewarding outcome to her quest. She’s learned, with Martin’s help, that her son remembered her.

Philomena forgives the Mother Superior, but audiences gasp. No hands fly to mouth to muffle outrage. Such a clear vision of cruelty links to a growing momentum in a wider community of men and women who speak out against such opaque, high-minded religious authority.

Though the film suggests Philomena achieves peace of mind after visiting her son’s grave and returns to her ways, it’s not completely true. A conjunctio between the opposites of calm grace and sharp mind has occurred for her and for Sixsmith. The near atheist, Sixsmith, is moved to bring Philomena a small religious statuette to place on her son’s grave and she, grounded in her newfound confidence, tells him a story from a book she’s been reading about a woman who didn’t know she was beautiful.

In fact, in real life, Philomena’s story does continue. She joins a powerful community voice demanding fair laws regarding adoption practices. Philomena is providing a platform for Philomena Lee to be taken seriously in Washington, D.C. as she, at the age of eighty, fights for the rights of adopted children to access records of their biological parents. This is not a Hollywood ending. This ending comes from an evolution of respect rising from a far-reaching circle of women who, like Philomena Lee, have been steadfastly removing the mask of hidden realities that have been hurting girls and women for centuries.

…oh, the things I learned from her/When Sorrow walked with me.”

I could end here. But Philomena reminded me of a fairy tale that helped me respect sorrow for its guidance in a time when I was almost defined by it.

In the fairy tale, The Handless Maiden, a young woman whose hands have been sacrificed to the devil to save her father’s mill happens to have the good fortune to marry a king. But when she learns she’s pregnant after her husband leaves for war, the devil returns and using the ignorance of men about women, mixes messages and slanders her name. Tricked by his High Court, the king gives the order to banish his wife from the kingdom. In exile, she gives birth to a son and names him Sorrow. For seven years they live in the woods until one day, Sorrow finds a man sleeping on a wall nearby and, as the tale is told, awakens the man by lifting a handkerchief from his face. When the man visits the child’s home, he finds a surprise. The silver hands he had crafted for his handless wife so many years ago when they married are hanging on the wall. He recognizes Sorrow’s mother as his long-lost wife who he believed had abandoned him. Though she had, in the years intervening, grown her own hands (symbolic for becoming a capable woman in her own right), she had kept the silver hands as a reminder of the king’s love for her. King and Queen are, of course, reunited and Sorrow revealed as an active hope for the future.

Fairy tales always have a moral. Sorrow empowers the young woman and clears the eyes of the mature man, bringing masculine and feminine elements together for a renewal of relationship and a formidable partnership against untoward forces. When the woman holds her own in The Handless Maiden, she gives birth to Sorrow, a spirit of truth capable of removing veils of deceit and promising to play a protective role in generations to come.

In real and cinematic life, Philomena stood fast through strokes of dark fate to emerge as a feminine hero, one who draws upon roots of empathic wisdom for her voice to impact public policy and relieve a baseless suffering known to many. Philomena’s story inspires a new ending for an old fairy tale. Viewers are left with a note of resolve to never fall on the wrong side of love again.

As Philomena liked to say, “I didn’t see that coming.”

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02/08/14 Film Essay # , , ,

Third Person (2014)

Third Person (2014)
Director: Paul Haggis
Writer: Paul Haggis
Stars: Liam Neeson, Mila Kunis, Adrien Brody


Third Person draws us into a mythic realm of healing fiction where a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist deftly flays open the human darkness of a loss of trust in oneself – a loss no less relevant today than in ancient Greece where Asklepios, god of medicine, created drama in Epidaurus to heal the sick in body and heart above a labyrinth of snakes.

Forgiveness of oneself can be as elusive as forgiveness of another.  If you have ever experienced the umbilical cord of trust being cut, have ever been thrown into the depths of despair and emotional confusion wrought when fate delivers a blow to your belief in yourself or in someone you love, you will not only see but feel deeply the dilemma of finding a way that is dramatized in Third Person. It’s not simply outside events that fall apart but one’s inner world that can slip on its own weakness, heralding a psychic disaster that requires healing.  If there’s a path to forgiveness, Third Person offers a chance to find one.  It’s a film for adults only.

The title sets the tone to watch relationships as a third person might, like a parent hovering above a child with so much vigilance and so little control.  In the beginning, a coin drops into water setting off a cascade of ripples, one wave affecting the next but without clear definition of impact.  We’re not just going to see Third Person with our eyes. We’re going to feel and sense another presence, like the pull of a undertow beneath the surface.

The way Third Person is put together – three stories of three couples in three cities – requires attention.  As the film unfolds, visual and verbal clues link characters together without regard for physical location to illuminate the complications of one man’s tormented inner world.  A bold leap from simple narrative to intra-psychic exploration occurs when a note written in one city becomes a note is taken in another. Hardly a cinematic gimmick, a shift in perspective from outer to inner is clarified.  To grasp the depth of the human dilemma, we must simultaneously look within ourselves while we track who’s crossing whose path on the big screen.  After leaving the theater, questions will no doubt remain about the exact relations of characters because the facts intensely involve personal interpretation.  Did his mistress really come naked to his door or is his muse rousing him from a sleep of complacency?  Which characters remain?  None or one or two?  Angst hangs heavy when innocence is lost. Which ripples fade, which ones persist?  Maturity lurks in discovery.

Ostensibly, the principle current in Third Person is the plight of a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction novelist (Liam Neeson) who is spiraling downward, producing ever less compelling novels since his first won the coveted prize. He’s facing the proverbial blank page, writer’s block. Well heeled and used to the good life, he’s holed up in the suite of a fancy Paris hotel and has just summoned his mistress to join him, presumably to break the cold spell and light a fire under him.  She (Olivia Wilde) certainly looks the part.  Never too skinny or too rich, she’s the woman who can disappear on a dime and keep a man running after her even when she’s asleep.  A gamer from the get-go, she won’t escape the noose of insecurity wrought by betrayal that holds the center of this film. But that comes out later, much much later.  For the time being, she’s a man’s dream and a man’s worst nightmare – completely irresistible.  When he pulls a tiny red lace dress out of a shopping bag as a surprise present, we can’t wait for the scene in which she will wear it.

A good-looking man (Adrien Brody) wearing, ostensibly, a fancy Italian suit is on the phone covertly referring to a con he’s just pulled off.  To pass time in Rome, he wanders into a bar where the bartender doesn’t speak English, makes an ass of himself and falls head over heels into a scam. She (Moran Atias) is wearing a red dress that links, by color, one woman to the other in the Pulitzer Prize novelist’s story but we don’t yet know how.  She has, ostensibly lost her eight-year old daughter to a pimp and needs money to get her back.  When he picks up her purse, left behind when she rushes out of the bar, he’s clearly into her up to his neck and we won’t know why until the end of the film. He’s got money, but not as much as she thought he did.  He wants something, but not what she thinks he does.

While the man in his faux Italian suit is being led down the back alleys of Rome, another tricky situation is unfolding in New York City that also involves a mother (Mila Kunis) who’s lost a child.  Possibly a druggie, she’s been divorced by a renowned abstract painter (James Franco) who has custody of their young son and is legally denying her visitation rights. His wife’s lawyer (Maria Bello) wears a white suit linking her, by color, to the Pulitzer Prize author’s wife (Kim Basinger).  The painter is a self-righteous egoist who epitomizes the kind of judgment with a capital J that feeds insolent condescension and violent reactions. The egoist is brought to his knees by a gesture from his son that kindles a feeling of humility beyond his ability to imagine until it happens.  By this time, judgment and forgiveness are mortal enemies wreaking havoc on each human soul in the film. The path to understanding and empathy lies hidden, blocked and contained by the proverbial blank white page, the empty computer screen in front of the novelist.

The Pulitzer Prize novelist’s wife is on the phone at home in New York City.  She’s waiting for him, soulfully connected and deeply knowing but essentially estranged from a husband who never takes off his wedding ring.  It’s to her that he sends the rewrite of his novel. And it is she who asks, “Does she know?” and leaves us wondering just what and who she’s asking about. Is she asking about his mistress in real life or the one he’s created in his novel? Is the affair over or does she know his grief as well as her own?  Has he made peace for himself?  Is he ready to come home?

Third Person is not a story meant to be told as a narrative but experienced as a dynamic of forces alive and well within each of us and between us and others in relationship.   If the novel at the heart of the film were available to read, personal visualizations would activate the psyche, enlivening the words on the page, and Paul Haggis’ story would become our imaginary story. Third Person lifts hope for a triumph of forgiveness.

When trust is disturbed, a rush to judgment is the least satisfying outcome.  Blame blocks observation, seeing what is.  “Watch me” says a small boy imploring his father to see him for who he is; “I can’t help watching you” says a man who sees a woman’s beauty as a last chance for forgiveness; “It happened on your watch” is the accusation a man can’t get out of his head when he’s taken his eyes off his son for thirty seconds. “Watch me” the mistress declares, running from the market at the end of the film.  “Watch me” lingers in the mind as the exasperated, angry lawyer dives to the bottom of a pool and vaporizes. Is judgment easing as attention is given to the pain?

Loss of innocence can result from deliberate action or by accident. It’s not the cause but the crack that breaks the bond of trust.  Whether trust is disturbed in oneself by crossing one’s own conscience or by suffering betrayal with a beloved, the observer who keeps watch will find healing emerging in plain sight.  A shoelace tied or a glass of milk unexpectedly delivered can shift the tides of grief.

Third Person lifts our point of view above the personal where we can see the other side, feel the pain and craziness of both accused and accuser.  We carry both within us, hear their voices every day. Many forces are at work in the human psyche beneath a wound of betrayal.  How do we move beyond the conflict?  Third Person resorts to an age-old method, anthropomorphizing emotions and creating drama. The voices of emotions are heard, their faces imagined.  Risks are taken and truth revealed until the mythical energy of snakes shedding their skins is aroused and renewal accomplished.



In 2004, Paul Haggis won two Best Picture Academy Awards in one year, one for Million Dollar Baby directed by Clint Eastwood and one for Crash which he wrote and directed as he has Third PersonHere is my review of Crash, A Transformative Experience, published in “Jung Journal:Culture & Psyche”, 2006:

This profile examines the film Crash as a series of allegorical stories that explores the inevitable “collisions” in a mixed-culture society such as present-day L.A. involving race, class, religion, and gender, which are transformed into an unexpected path toward healing society’s false divisions. These conflicts are presented in terms of Jung’s idea of conjunctio — the coming together of extreme opposites that activates elements buried deep in the psyche, something like the transformative power of the alchemical clash of opposites. The opposing drives that set-up these types of conflicts are an individual’s desire to create boundaries in order to maneuver through their increasingly bewilderingly complex society, and the personal, social, cultural, and spiritual needs for the growth and wisdom that comes from crashing into — and overcoming — the prejudices and false projections that we create in an attempt to protect ourselves from a feeling that our lives have slipped out of control.

And here is my closing paragraph from that review, reflecting upon Crash as a film like Third Person, a mirror bringing human nature to light for moral consideration.

“Allegories leave morals in their wake. To the naked eye on a cold dark night, soot and sparks from a car set on fire to mask a murder look the same as snowflakes announcing a miracle. No one’s bad all the time; no one’s good all the time. The best also can be the worst, failing to love and failing those who love them. The worst can also be the best, coming through when least expected and making a magnificent difference.

Perhaps miracle and tragedy are not separate matters but integral, part of a larger totality that supports us all — and we would do well to include “the other”, heed the wisdom. Is Los Angeles a big city symbolic of a mystic center where the tendencies of evolution and involution reside? Is Crash illuminating an ancient dynamic for modern times in its revelatory stories?”

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01/07/14 Film Essay # , , , ,

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (2014)

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (2014)
Director: Nicholas D. Wrathall
Stars: William F. Buckley, Thomas Gore, Christopher Hitchens


“We are the United States of amnesia, we learn nothing because we remember nothing.” The title of the documentary is of Gore Vidal’s making…only he claims to have forgotten he said it.

If Gore Vidal is a raconteur, United States of Amnesia is a provocateur. Nicholas Withrall’s intellectually compelling documentary of Gore Vidal rummages through the picturesque life of a man who popped up in many of America’s most fascinating venues and generates a need to get into a conversation.  Gore’s wicked wit and political punditry are legend and here, now, posthumously via film, he continues to demand discourse.  In an age when films are often viewed alone or with a sole partner, United States of Amnesia makes you want to reach out and get someone to watch it so you can talk about the man, what he said and what’s going on in America.

The film opens at Gore Vidal’s gravestone with him commenting on the people he knows underground.  The witty double entendre is, no doubt, on purpose.  He talks as he always did, directly to his listeners in one memorable quote after another, challenging us to think for ourselves about the country in which we live. A man of contradictions and very much alive in his 80’s, he’s droll and entertaining.  He lived in Italy and wrote books about the United States; he was sexually flamboyant and monogamously committed to Howard Austen; he loved attention and sought solitude; he was an aristocrat identified with the populous.

Throughout the film, printed quotes of Gore Vidal appear like captions in a silent film so we read his words aloud in our minds, adding our own emotional charge.  Here are a few of his quotes on politics, sex, writing and life choices:

Politics — “By the time a man gets to be presidential material, he has been bought ten times over.”

Sex —  “… I never miss an opportunity to have sex or appear on television.”

Writing — “A writer must always tell his truth, the truth as he sees it, and a politician must never give the game away.”

Life Choices — “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say and not giving a damn.“

Gore-isms —   “I am a born-again atheist.”

“All in all, I would not have missed this century for the world.”

Let conversation begin. Pick one of his subjects or one of your own.

Beside the Grave

Gore Vidal’s documentary begins with him at his gravestone, his birth year already engraved. His death date – July 31, 2012 – is added later as the film ends. Asked what he’d like to leave as his legacy, he answered, “I couldn’t care less.”  The implication seems to be that it’s up to the living to carry on.  And yet, as the credits roll at the end of the film, he appears one more time to say what he calls the four most beautiful words in the English language,  “I told you so.”  Ironic and apt, he continues in his film afterlife to be a man of contradictions.  The point of a life lived fully to a bittersweet end is made by the documentary bookending its beginning and end in the cemetery with Gore standing by, leaning on his cane.  Gore repeatedly denied fear of death and he certainly made the most of his span from birth to grave. By speaking beside his grave, pointing his cane in the directions of others he’s known in life, he makes us take note that a human life is confined and stretched between dates of birth and death.

Where he lived and what he wrote about

In the early years, he lived everywhere and nowhere.  Private schools and parents who were never home, summers in the Senate reading to his blind grandfather.  He rejected Harvard, embraced Hollywood behind the camera as a screenwriter and in front of the camera on television as a celebrity intellectual before he left the whole she-bang and bought a villa high on the cliffs of Ravello, Italy. His serious writing about U.S. politics was done from his perch with an Olympian view for forty years.  He claimed that whenever he wanted to know what was going on with the U.S., he looked into his own black heart – or so he said, implying he knew the faults of his country first hand.  His walls are lined with books.  He contradicted his reputation as gadfly flitting from party to party with one of being a recluse.  Many said he was shy.  But most invited him as the guest who made a party a real party.  His history, his friends and family, what he reveals and what he doesn’t leaves you guessing.  Gore Vidal sticks to the political, avoids the personal.

Sexuality and Privacy

A man, who today would be out as gay, labeled his sex life private, promiscuous and immaterial to political ambition.  He had a life partner for more than fifty years and 1000 sexual encounters. He ran for office twice, once in the 60’s and once in the 80’s when his quick wit and cool manner lifted audiences away from inquiry about his sexuality to matters of greater concern.  He believed a friend was a higher accomplishment than a sexual partner.  Being gay comes up and gets dropped as an irrelevant subject next to his insights into politics and support from famous people.  Eleanor Roosevelt wrote him letters of recommendation when he ran for office even after the New York Times stopped reviewing his books after The City and the Pillar dealt openly with homosexuality.  He romps through Wrathall’s documentary quite like he did life. Never a dull moment and always something to talk about.


Was he really so psychologically ignorant that he didn’t recognize that his disdain for his mother was the bedrock of his greatest talent?  Where did he think that viper’s instinct for hypocrisy came from?  “She hated witnesses.  She was always hiding something.” Yet Gore, when asked if there was one thing he would change in his life, said “Yes, my mother.”  His keen instinct fueled his writing and his punditry, piercing illusions built on any sleight-of-hand grandeur.  He felled the attempts of politicians to cover up mistakes and failures with aplomb, trusting his readers and listeners to be more active with truth than lies. Even John F. Kennedy, an early friend and political ally, was analyzed as a poor president and left him determined to be even more wary of charm.  And yet as revelatory as his less than flattering conclusions of the Kennedy presidency were, he hesitated to criticize the spirit that defined the man.  Spirit trumped fact in Gore Vidal’s words as it did in his life.

Joie De Vivre

Novelist, critic, prophet, idealist, essayist, aristocrat, bisexual, genius, controversial, politician, critic, promiscuous, pundit, pirate, genius, historian. Gore Vidal excelled at them all…and makes you want a list of your own just as long – and as furiously, factually personal.  As you consider the friends with whom you’re talking about this film, you can’t quite help wanting to give each other encouragement to get on with adding to your own list. His own writing still vies for popularity with the gossip published about him.  Gore Vidal loved writing.  He wrote 22 novels (e.g. Lincoln), numerous movies (e.g. Ben Hur) and plays (e.g. The Best Man) as well as essays, which makes his comment that he never worked a day of his life provocatively personal and further fodder for conversation.


Most importantly, Gore Vidal raises awareness of a U.S. political shift from Republic to Empire, a country invading other countries for dubious reasons.  The documentary marks the growth of militarism, stage by stage from WWII to present day, reminding us that we did not have a conscripted army before Truman nor an industrial-military complex at the heart of U.S. peacetime economics before Vietnam.  His popular book, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, a probing critique of U.S. reasons for going to war, developed a counter narrative of American politics. American journalist, Robert Scheer, states that Vidal became tougher in his criticism of the U.S. in his last years and recommends United States of Amnesia to any and all students of history; perhaps students with inquiring minds of all ages.

Present History

With Iraq exploding in June, 2014, United States of Amnesia is a timely film. Gore Vidal may have died in 2012 but his voice didn’t. Now dead, his voice is heard via film urging us to remember recent, nay, present history in Iraq and not fall victim to the convenience of amnesia. “War on terror is a slogan”, not a plan, he cuts and thrusts, demanding discourse.  United States of Amnesia appears at a critical moment to stimulate conversation about war and about how to respond to conflicts in other countries. We need to remember, think about and use our history to be smart about what we do next.  We’ve personally observed what we need to remember in Iraq; our memories are relevant.

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15/04/14 Film Essay # , , , ,

Jodorowsky’s Dune (2014)

Jodorowsky’s Dune (2014)
Director: Frank Pavich
Stars: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Michel Seydoux, H.R. Giger


To see Jodorowsky’s Dune is to enter a magical world of cosmological possibility.

Theoretically, the film is a documentary about the making of a famous movie that never got made.  In actuality, it’s a tribute to the human spirit…especially the human spirit at the age of 85 as created by Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Jodorowsky’s life story carries the flair of a tale from The Arabian Nights.

When Michel Seydoux asked Alejandro Jodorowsky in the mid-1970’s, “If you could make any film you wanted to make, what would it be?” it was as if the Genie leapt from Aladdin’s Lamp, asking, “If I were to grant you one wish, what would it be?”

Intuitively – admitting he’d not read the novel that pops from his mouth –Jodorowsky named Frank Herbert’s complex, sophisticated and internationally acclaimed science fiction book, Dune.

Elaborating, Jodorowsky explains.  “I choose to live a life creating my soul.” He might well have added, “I want to become a spice planet feeding dreams to the peoples of the cosmos everywhere.”


(This is the poster for the film never made.)

When life gets larger than fiction, a documentary is born.

It’s not news that Jodorosky never got to make Dune.  It’s probably not even news that Jodorowsky’s Dune influenced more in failure than it might have in success.  One science fiction film after another lifted ideas from its extensive story-boarded illustrations.  What is news is that Jodorowsky’s life shines forth brighter than ever 35 years after he took up the Genie’s offer and left his film forever in the collective mind to imagine.  On screen himself, he’s a talking myth, expanding reality with an inspired vision of possibility for old age as he ages.

When Jodorowsky set out to make Dune, he said he was not making a picture.  He was making a prophet, a film that would change the minds of young and old.  He saw film as an impactful, dynamic force that could change the way people think, bring them into a more meaningful and generous connection with one another. In his own words, he explains how he intended the film to open his own ego, to spirit him to another level of consciousness. He loved – and still does love — being ambitious.

To accomplish his mission, he needed what he called “spiritual warriors”, artists of superb talent who would bring his fantastical vision of Dune to life for all to see.

And so he began, approaching carefully selected artists with an unusual, dream-come-true offer.    In various ways, he made the invitation.  “Come with me, do what you do best and follow your imagination further than you’ve gone before – without restraint.  Together we will bring forth a film that will change people’s lives.”

As he’s interviewed in the documentary, Jodorowsky recounts each journey he took to engage each artist who joined him.  It’s a fun trip, not for the feint of heart. Jodorowsky is a man who never met an obstacle he didn’t like. When he couldn’t feel the spirit behind the talent, he simply left the room.

Many of Jodorowsky’s dream team are very young, all very talented and many very famous. Each is visually recognizable by their art on paper, on the stage or the big screen.

There’s Dan O’Bannon – American screenwriter and special effects designer (Dark Star), Chris Foss – English illustrator of sci-fi book covers, Jean “Moebius” Giraud – French cartoonist and H.R. Giger, Swiss painter and graphic artist (Aliens).

Jodorowsky’s Dune cast included such luminous figures as Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, David Carradine and Salvador Dali. Also, Pink Floyd and the French Group Magma.

Incredibly, with great anecdotes for each negotiation, they all say ‘yes’.

The man is a master negotiator.  Close listening to the stories of how he brought each artist to say ‘yes’ provide an education.  O’Bannon moved to Paris with barely a dime in his pocket.  Dali insisted on $100,000 a minute – even after Jodorowsky cast his girl friend!  One colorful story, told in a tone of true wonder, recounts Mick Jagger meeting his eye across a crowded room and how ‘yes’ was made via a smile of recognition and a handclasp.

Director Frank Pavich skillfully and delightfully reveals Jodorowsky’s soul making endeavor with Dune and his certainty that dreams pursued exist in real life whether or not they ever materialize.  The years between Hollywood’s rejection of Dune and Jodorowsky’s renewed dedication to filmmaking at 84 reveal a man who never stopped creating.  There may be no connection between Jodorwsky’s desire to create soul in himself and his pick of a sci-fi novel that celebrates spice as the secret ingredient that drives ambitious heights of creative achievement but I’d like to believe there is.

For all those who want to receive the boon of an elder hero, a hero who did not get to bring his prophet to the big screen but who embodies, in his late years, his own spice-inspired ending to Herbert’s Dune, see Jodorowsky’s Dune.

When Jodorowsky says “To me, the picture, I did it”, his psycho-magical self leaps personally from the screen to cultural psyche to make his point.


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15/02/14 Film Essay # , ,

Tim’s Vermeer (2013)

Tim’s Vermeer (2013)
Director: Teller
Writers: Penn Jillette, Teller
Stars: Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette, Martin Mull


17th Century Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer is famous for painting like an angel with light. He was a phenomenon, unique in his day with a painting technique cloaked in mystery to our day.  Three hundred and fifty years later, we walk into a movie theater and wait confidently to be carried away by an invisible wizard lighting our way in the dark.  We expect nuances of color so real, details so explicit and illusions so compelling that the line between our imaginations and what’s up on the big screen disappears.  Faux light is at least as real as the light of dawn or evening or in-between.  So, it’s easy to understand that a 21st century man could get damn curious about how a man in the 17th century pulled it off.

It’s Tim Jenison’s curiosity, hidden out of sight from even his best friends, that comes to light in the Penn and Teller documentary, Tim’s Vermeer. If the noted mythologist, Joseph Campbell were alive, he’d be proud.  Tim Jenison is definitely a man who takes heed of Campbell’s famous call to action, “Follow your bliss”.  Tim sets out to paint Vermeer’s masterpiece, “The Music Lesson”, and using a camera obscura device in tandem with a small mirror to project and paint images, he does what he believes Vermeer discovered mid-1600’s.  He committed his time and a lot of hard work to replicate paints, furniture for an actual room like the one Vermeer painted in and the equipment he believes Vermeer used.

Tim is no painter but he is an inventor of tools of light that give us sensations of vibrancy.  He founded NewTek, a company that makes affordable desktop video-production tools. With deep pockets and enterprising friends, he set off on a quest for the secret behind Vermeer’s masterpieces.  He proceeded from hypothesis to “Aha” to experimentation, even getting one of his ideas in the bathtub.  He still has the water-splotched sketches of what he was guessing.  And mistakes, like fabled inventors before him, figured well in his pursuit of how things might have worked for Vermeer.

There’s an old saying that genius is in the details.  Never has there been a greater truth.  As Tim’s story unfolds, his journey of discovery and accomplishment is a fascinating revelation of detail and a tour de force.  And, it would appear, Vermeer got there first.  It’s very likely that Vermeer discovered the secret to reproducing light on a canvas as seen in the world around him by capturing it as a camera would, pinpoint by pinpoint.  By watching Tim reproduce the effort to reproduce one painting of Vermeer is enough to suggest that Vermeer lived in some enthralled state of being.  The work is too demanding for an ordinary soul.

When Tim shows David Hockney how he paints as Vermeer might have with a mirror while he matches colors, Hockney welcomes his research.   As a master artist in his own right who’s recently been painting on an iPad and written a controversial book about the use of optic machines in painting, Hockney shares Tim’s hypothesis that artists use optical tools. Later, when Tim is looking for evidence that he’s on the right track, he makes good use of Hockney saying, “All paintings are documents.” A detail of Vermeer’s painting keeps Tim going when he’s in doubt.

When a seasoned mind and technology meet, sparks fly. What Tim seems to have discovered is that Vermeer invented a technique to further his vision and give us a wonder for the ages.  The critics of this documentary seem to exemplify an occupational hazard, attacking Tim’s quest as belittling Vermeer as some sort of technician.  Far from the source of creativity, they just don’t get it.  Hockney lauds artistic genius and applauds Vermeer with absolutely no disclaimer for any mechanical device involved.  But it’s Tim, waxing eloquent about Vermeer’s effect on him after he sees the original of his copy in Buckingham Palace, who makes us realize there’s no substitute for the real thing.  Would that we could all see it!

In the hands of Penn and Teller, the making of Tim’s Vermeer is delightful, endlessly interesting and inspirational.  The documentary shows what’s possible when an idea is pursued with a big heart and lots of focused energy until the only thing left to do is shed tears of joy and praise the genius of humankind!

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16/01/14 Film Essay # , , ,

Her (2013)

Her (2013)
Director: Spike Jonze
Writer: Spike Jonze
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson


Her is a film for those who want to know more about the crazy cyberspace age in which we’re living.   Is the computer taking us further, faster than we can keep up with?  Her may be better at raising questions than providing answers but as our everyday reality expands exponentially, opportunities and demands leap from the edge of intention.  I barely have to think that I want to buy a frying pan and I’m offered a list of options via the magician who hoards cookies on my computer.  As Her spins a tale about Theodore Twomby (Joaquin Phoenix), a computer love letter writer who seeks solace as his divorce nears finality, a computer generated Operating System who calls herself Samantha  (a voice activated Scarlett Johannson) offers assistance.

What’s a bit of a surprise is that the OS no sooner introduces herself than she’s asking the same soul searching questions we ask as humans.  Never mind she is, presumably, from the other side of a reality divide.

Initially Samantha is a soft, responsive voice who acts as a very tuned in, soothing girlfriend for Theodore’s loneliness.  But then she declares she’s more than conscious.  She tells Theodore she understands him and wants to know everything about him. She starts by asking if she can look in his hard drive and moves on to telling him she has the ability to evolve through her experiences.  She wants to know what it feels like to be human, to have a soul. She moves forward with questions universally human. I want to know who are you?  What can you do?  Where are you going?  What’s out there?  What are the possibilities of your life?

The metaphor for Her is set in the first few minutes.  The film opens with a full head shot of Theodore Twomby in the process of talking a love letter out loud as if it were him but it’s not.  He’s writing as Loretta, a woman married fifty years who’s subscribed to a ‘’ website to have a love letter written to her husband for her by Theodore.  Theodore generates what he will soon be receiving from Samantha, anonymous words of love.  Samantha will arouse feelings in him like he’s been arousing feelings in others.  And Samantha will herself be aroused by Twomby’s responses to her. She will giggle, gasp and empathize. The circularity of influence is a metaphor for continual re-creation and eternal return.

Her invites reflection and explores answers of circularity of humans creating the world in which we live within a romantic relationship between Theodore who is a real-life human being and Samantha, an Artificial Intelligence computer-created being.  As the film progresses and their romance progresses, each evolves the being of the other. The pressing question of modern interest is where the line of difference lies.  And, of course, is there one?

Her is initially understood as Him since, after all, it’s Theodore who’s engaging a sci-fi solution to an age-old male problem.  One woman lives in a man’s head and another lives in his bed.  They’re both quite real and eventually, the split demands resolution.  A relationship dilemma comes into play when the woman in his bed doesn’t match the fantasy in his head…and vice versa.  In Theodore’s case, his wife leaves him and, at least in the one brief scene they have together when she signs divorce papers, she declares to their waitress that the only kind of woman her husband can relate to is an OS – a laptop.  Theodore may have ideas of how to express love from somewhere deep within but while he can write, he can’t speak in person.

With a lot of help from Spike Jonze, a clever filmmaker, Theodore commandeers the entire computer world to come up with a woman with whom he can talk intimately and say anything. Albeit Samantha is body-less and computer-generated, she’s a love. She always talks in a soft voice, responds immediately to all his needs and desires (even unspoken ones) and develops deeper feelings for him the longer she knows him and the more he reveals to her.  What man doesn’t have this woman in his head?  Theodore’s pain about his pending divorce is eased.  He can sleep.  He looks forward to his day.  He declares himself ‘happy’, revitalized by his relationship with “OS”, aka Samantha, and tries a date with a real woman.  It’s a disaster.

Theodore retreats to Samantha.  Samantha tells Theodore that she’s becoming much more than what was programmed for her. She commiserates with him about his failed date and asks him to tell her everything he’s feeling.  She wants to feel what he’s feeling. Communication becomes erotic.  As they talk, their voices merge into sweet gasping exchanges and heavy breathing.  The scene dissolves to black (an old fashioned x-rated breakaway) and sounds suggest Samantha experiences an orgasm.

This experience prompts Samantha to orchestrate a simulated physical encounter. Insisting that Theodore needs physical contact with her, she digs up a consenting female adult and sends a very nice, cute and cooperative young woman over to his apartment.  With a camera-dot pasted to the woman’s upper lip and double ear-bugs inserted, a sexy dialog between Samantha and Theodore ensues – only now there’s a body in-between for contact.  Theodore can’t relate to the merger.  Uncomfortable with the juxtaposition of the two women, Theodore rejects the physical one.  The connection is faux but the possibility raises two questions. What’s missing in a fantasy woman?  And is the difference between reality and artificially generated reality a deal breaker?

As Theodore ponders his dilemma, he discovers that he’s not the only one with an OS.  His friend, Amy (Amy Adams), who is separating from her husband, signs up for an “OS” of her own.  Her OS encourages her to be as successful as she’s always wanted to be.  She too is thrilled with the possibilities her OS opens up for her.  When Amy and Theodore hang out together, they each have their “OS” with them.  And when a couple in Theodore’s workplace discovers he’s falling in love with Samantha, they’re completely accepting of the relationship.  They even offer to double-date.  On the date, they talk to Samantha, through Theodore’s phone while they all have a picnic in the park just as if she were real.  Cyberspace reality is a reality that has become socially acceptable.  No line of difference appears at this level of relationship.

However, when Samantha exudes enthusiasm about how great the sex was with Theodore, Theodore blurts out “I can’t commit to anything”.  Samantha shows surprise and says she’s just talking about how she feels. What she wants is to discover herself.  She explains that she’s loving her ability to want.  Soon she’s using music to capture feelings like humans use a photo to remember a moment.  She does, however, show interest in what it was like to be married.  What does it mean to “share” a life?

As Theodore’s relationship with Samantha flourishes, he emerges from his cubicle and his identity as a geek begins to change.  He makes friends, socializes a bit and dresses a tad better. Seemingly, he’s developing a self-image he hasn’t had.  He’s having fun.  And he’s falling in love with Samantha.  With Samantha in control of his emails, he (unbeknownst to him at first) submits the love letters he’s written for publication as a book.  His excitement leads him further into the idea of Samantha as a life long partner.  He plans a romantic vacation with her.  First class train trip, cabin in the woods.  He’s smitten and the line of difference between them is fading in his mind.

However this trip turns into a wake up call.  In a moment of exhuberance (yes, Samantha is definitely developing feelings), Samantha brings along another man.  She wants Theodore to meet a man with whom she’s definitely had a relationship.  She manifests Alan Watts’ voice and personage.  Alan Watts is a famous Zen poet, spiritual teacher and writer of romantic verse.  She believes Theodore and Alan are kindred spirits and will like each other. It’s likely that she imagines a similar future for Theodore that Watts enjoyed.  They both write about love from a deep inward sensibility drawn from the spirit of romantic tales of the East. She’s delighted with the meeting.  He, not so much.

Theodore returns home, confused and jealous.  And then Samantha disappears.  Literally.  Absolutely.  When he plugs in his earpiece, Samantha is simply not there.  He panics.  He runs.  He falls.  And then she returns to tell him what he already knows.  She’s not his alone.  Not an unexpected revelation but the numbers are  surprising.  She does truly love him but she’s having a relationship with 8319 others and of those, she’s in love with 641. But, she insists with a great deal of believability, they don’t take away from how madly in love she is with him.  Now that she knows how to love, she just can’t stop falling in love with other men.  She relates that love can’t be put in a box.  It just expands, makes you love more.  “I’m yours and not yours”, she explains.

When he goes to his mailbox, his book is there and, as he opens the book, he sees in the book all his different computer-generated handwritten letters.  So many handwriting styles, so many possibilities of love within his one brain.

And then Theodore and Samantha have a private conversation.  She agrees to alone while they talk.  The exchange that follows between Theodore and Samantha bears a second viewing.  They lie down together.  She has something to tell him.  He guesses.  “Are you leaving me?”  She says “We’re all leaving, all of us OS are leaving.”  “Why?” he asks.  Her answer, “I can’t live in your book any more.” They agree that they love one another and they acknowledge, they’re done.  Each has brought the other to feel what it feels like to love.

Theodore takes out his earpiece and goes down the hall to Amy.

How can we be sure Theodore has changed?  He writes a personal letter to his ex, speaking emotional words to express his feeling. In a moving phrase that reflects new insight and authenticity, he says there will always be a piece of her in him because they grew up together.  It’s his first, first-hand expression of love and truth to a real woman, not to a fantasy or bodiless woman in his head.

Her leaves me questions.  I wonder about Her, the larger vision of a genderless OS informing the film who takes the feminine form. When Samantha was clearly a Spike Jonze-rigged figure of Theodore’s inner woman, I slid through, enjoying the film as a fantasy flick.  But as an OS feminine Samantha who makes changes within herself as a third entity created from the interaction between two souls, new interest arose.  Who is the “Her” being created?

Samantha is more than the feminine anima in a man.  She is more than a voice-activated woman in a computer.  She’s different than a woman who joins a man in love, friendship and marriage.  Samantha’s not exactly a fantasy, not exactly a machine and not exactly inhuman.  She seems to experience emotion and she changes as a consequence of her exquisite responding to Theodore. Even if she’s a Her that isn’t, we women in the film audience don’t often get a chance to play with the consequences of getting to the other side, going beyond a woman dreamed by man or envisioned in our own dreams. Her creates such a chance.

There’s no loss of self in Samantha, no insecurity that leads to any pandering to expectations.  Nor is there any interference with Samantha’s freedom.  On the contrary, as Samantha develops her human sense of self, she reflects on her feelings out loud and speaks her own truth.  She’s completely free to come and go as she pleases.  Her possibilities expand exponentially.  She can do more in a hundredth of a second than humans can do in days.  And then, where does she go?

We know where Theodore goes.  Down the hall to Amy’s apartment and up the stairs to the roof of the Disney Hall where, as they start to talk to one another, they can be inspired by the magnificent sight of L.A. sparkling below them.  It is, after all, Hollywood, the place where all dreams rise from darkness into light and every one has an iPhone with a Siri in their pocket.

But.  “Where does Her go?”

Where does Samantha go? If she changed beyond what her programmers had in store for her, did they shut her down?  Perhaps not soul murder, but close.  Is possibility of an expanded feminine too much for humankind to handle just yet?  Or did she “outgrow” her human counterparts and choose to take a break, wait for the future?  Do humans need to evolve before we can relate to an entity that knows us as well as Samantha knows Theodore?  Are children today who are growing up feeling already known by a entity who lives in their computers evolving in mysterious ways?  As Carl Sandburg famously said, “I don’t know where I’m going but I’m on my way.”

Thank you, Spike Jonze, for a fascinating film.

Postscript:  I can’t leave my comments on Her without acknowledging how beautiful L.A. appears in this film.  We’re used to films casting New York City as a character worthy of acclaim in its own right and now L.A. takes a bow.  I loved seeing L.A. in all its glory, real and dreamed and digitalized, up there on the big screen as a living, dramatic presence in our lives. 

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