How To Discover Your Life’s Path — And Achieve Mastery

Thought Catalog

Excerpted from Mastery (Viking Press, 2012).

Many of the greatest Masters in history have confessed to experiencing some kind of force or voice or sense of destiny that has guided them forward. For Napoleon Bonaparte it was his “star” that he always felt in ascendance when he made the right move. For Socrates, it was his daemon, a voice that he heard, perhaps from the gods, which inevitably spoke to him in the negative–telling him what to avoid. For Goethe, he also called it a daemon–a kind of spirit that dwelled within him and compelled him to fulfill his destiny. In more modern times, Albert Einstein talked of a kind of inner voice that shaped the direction of his speculations. All of these are variations on what Leonardo da Vinci experienced with his own sense of fate.

Such feelings can be seen as purely mystical, beyond explanation, or…

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27 Things That Will Make Your Life Easier, Period

Ok. I’m going to do my best to follow this list…

Thought Catalog

1. Just respond to the email already.

2. Call your mom. Chat for five minutes, pretend that public transportation is coming/you’re walking in to work/the battery is low, then get off the phone. All she wants is to know you’re not dead — and to know that your relationship, no matter how shaky it may be, is still intact.

3. Make your bed — it makes the entire room look cleaner.

4. Write out a list by hand. Google may have invented every list-making tool on the planet, but writing it down commits it to memory — and, contrary to popular belief, not every place has internet.

5. When you get a free minute, clean out the thing nearest you, whether it’s a drawer, your gym bag, or your fridge. Just open the door, look at what is moldy, and throw it out.

6. When you get a free moment…

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I Watched a Documentary.

Living on One Dollar

I don’t often watch documentaries. The only Artists’ Den episode I’ve ever seen was the one about American Ballet Theater’s Misty Copeland, and that’s only because she came from my dance studio. And I did see First Position, the feature documentary about the world of competitive ballet, again because I trained in ballet for ten years.

Normally, when scrolling through the front page choices on Hulu, I look for my usual comedy shows; I rarely click on something I’ve heard nothing about. But earlier today, I clicked on this: a documentary called Living on One Dollar. The picture wasn’t super incredible, just a shack in a jungle with some dudes, but something in the back of my mind told me I’d enjoy it.

And I did.

I don’t often watch documentaries for two reasons:

1) It’s such a clinical, “objective” (in quotes for reasons I’ll explain later) approach to storytelling and there are ways to get your message across in a dramatic narrative. There’s this expectation that documentaries tell The Truth, that they show life as it really is, and when I’m in the mood to watch a movie or television show, most of the time I want to escape from real life.

2) If you leave a camera in one place and show everything that it records in one sitting, then you have real life. Documentaries are made by people who have a specific message in mind; they choose topics to film, they choose which people will represent those topics and how to shoot these people, they choose what to show in the film and what to throw onto the figurative cutting room floor. Documentaries are truth filtered through the bias of the directors and editors.

So I normally expect documentarians to be weathered, experienced filmmakers with a predetermined vision that skews the film’s perspective. That’s probably the reason why I instantly liked One Dollar. The filmmakers were students, the voice overs were unprofessional, and the film had a refreshingly self-reflexive feel (it drew attention to the fact that you’re watching a film). At the beginning, many shots were shakily handheld, out-of-focus, and there was a moment when the students turned the camera on and sat around like, “Well, we should be saying something meaningful and worthy of being captured on film but…what do we say?”

It was cute. And then right after that it got real.

I’m hoping that by leaving out any of the plot of the story I’ll force you to watch it (link above) because it’s really worth the watch. These four students are doing something brave and meaningful, something I wish I had the guts to pull off. They had an idea and they made it happen, even though it took them way out of their comfort zone to a place full of potential health hazards. I’m sure they did their research beforehand and had back up cash in case something terrible happened; regardless, they had little idea what potential diseases and hardships they would have to face.

Why can’t we all take such bold risks? Because it’s clear that they pay off, at least in the way that life-changing experiences can. Yeah they lost an unhealthy amount of weight, exposed themselves to parasites, faced fear of starvation every day, but they gave their new friends in Pena Blanca something new, just as they received new ideas and a new understanding of a different kind of life.

I hope, someday, that I’ll have the courage to leave my comfort zone and immerse myself in a new, challenging culture–one without any of the creature comforts I’m used to. It’ll make me appreciate my life in the States that much more.

 

Italian Neorealism in American Film

This week’s assignment calls for an analysis of cultural values and/or fantasy themes, which means I look at a work and decipher what preexisting ideologies the creator is drawing on to make a statement.

Example: If I asserted that someone gave up something valuable for another, I would be implying that they were selfless, which would create a nice, alluring glow around this person, because we, as a culture, frown upon selfishness and value sacrifice. –> Cultural Values

Example: If I make a movie about the triumph of an underdog, I’m capitalizing on the David and Goliath myth that I assume the majority of readers in this predominantly Christian culture is familiar with. –> Fantasy Theme

My overall subject is the Italian Neorealism movement, but since I’m not Italian, nor am I an expert on Italian cultural values, I decided to look at the American film that most closely followed techniques of Italian neorealist filmmakers: Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954). This film premiered after the Italian neorealist movement lost its momentum in Europe, but is the closest Hollywood ever got to the truthfulness of post-war Italian film, for three reasons:

1)   the use of real locations (not on back lots or soundstages),

2)   non professional actors (real thugs as extras and supporting characters), and

3)   a topic revolving around social responsibility and true-to-life situations (narrative adapted from a series of newspaper articles called “Crime on the Waterfront” about corruption and racketeering in NY longshoreman unions)

The Premise:

Terry Malloy (Marlin Brando) is a boxer nearing his thirties who gets cajoled into the racketeering business by his brother, Charlie, who works for mob boss Johnny Friendly. Friendly pulls strings on the docks, smuggling shipments in and out and controlling workers through the union. He’s about to be put up on the podium in court and needs to get rid of the snitches. Charlie uses Terry to lure out one of the witnesses, Joey—he thinks the thugs are just going to “lean” on him. Joey falls to his death right in front of Terry’s eyes.

Now Terry is suspicious. He’s guilt-ridden and second guessing if he really wants to be involved in this kind of life. But should he testify against Johnny or stay loyal to his brother? A priest and a love interest urge him to testify, even as Johnny and Charlie pressure him to stay quiet. And then Johnny makes a huge mistake: he kills Charlie as punishment for letting Terry off the hook and as a warning to Terry (this is what happens when you defy me). Of course he also gave Terry all the incentive he needed to want to testify against him in court.

Terry testifies and goes back to work on the docks. The union thugs warn him not to enter to dock, he doesn’t really think they’ll let him work after everything that’s gone down. But Terry doesn’t back down, despite the beating he’s getting, and eventually the other workers band together and declare a strike unless Terry gets to work. The final shot shows Terry limping, injured, onto the docks to work alongside his fellow longshoremen.

Now, why is this story so compelling? Let’s break it down.

First off, Terry is in a kind of David and Goliath situation; he’s one poor, powerless man going against the brute force of a ruthless gang. We root for him because his chances are slim and because we’ll always want the underdog to win.

In most cases, the Informant character would be portrayed negatively, as a Snitch—since we value loyalty—but in Waterfront, the hero is a snitch. His betrayal is justified because he sides against corrupt criminals, even though he doesn’t decide to testify until the third act of the film.

Any audience today would consider the film with less awe than moviegoers did at the time of Waterfront’s release; the core of the narrative reflects certain cultural values that were more prevalent in post-war America than they are today. The 1950s were a time of fear, a time in which McCarthy’s anti-Communist paranoia put many Hollywood filmmakers on black lists and under heavy suspicion. Director Elia Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg were driven to create this film in direct response to their experiences with the tumultuous politics and extreme factions of the “Red” debate.

Both Kazan and Schulberg stood before the House Committee of Un-American Activities as witnesses and named several fellow filmmakers as Communists. Naturally, they got a lot of heat for their decision to testify, especially since one of the accused was Kazan’s close friend and collaborator, playwright Arthur Miller. However, the political climate at the time only made the hero’s dilemma in Waterfront more compelling and relatable to audiences who had strong opinions about the idea of “snitching.”

The narrative’s origin in real life events hints of a strong Italian Neorealist influence, and obviously paid off for Kazan, since the film took home eight of the 12 Academy Awards for which it was nominated and has remained in many of AFI’s “Top 100” lists for Movies, Heroes and Villains, and Film Scores.

Basically, what I’m saying is: “You need to watch this movie; it’s amazing.”

Body Obsession in Life, Film, Media

Most of my posts are assignments so I go into full-on Nerd with Words mode, but this topic has been on my mind on-and-off for a while, and I finally feel like the moment is right to share. See, I was reading an excerpt from Feminist Analysis by Donna M. Nudd and Kristina L. Whalen, which outlines the feminist approach to rhetorical criticism and shows an example of the approach used in an analysis of the romantic comedy Shallow Hal (2001). Unfortunately, I can’t find a link to the entire excerpt, since it’s a scholarly article, but some pages are available on GoogleBooks if you want to familiarize yourself with the basics, since I’m not going to go into it here.

I generally agreed with the assertions being made about the film. The message was supposed to be “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover; inner beauty trumps outer beauty; love someone for what’s in their heart, not how much they weigh.” However, comedic elements and storytelling choices contradict the supposedly altruistic intent of the directors, the Farrelly brothers.

The Premise:

A son takes his dying father’s words to heart: Tail’s what it’s all about. Go for the hottest chick in the room.

Years later, this boy is all grown up—a chubby, average-looking, shallow, immature, jerk who targets the “hotties” and ridicules anyone who’s not a size zero with “perfect” features. (I enclose these words in quotation marks because how do you classify someone as “hot” or “perfect,” I mean, really? It’s all a matter of perception, perspective, definitions that society programs everyone to buy into. But more on that later.) This man, played by the most wild, ridiculous, and entertaining man I can think of, Jack Black, gets hypnotized into seeing only people’s inner beauty. Naturally, he now courts, dates, hits on, what have you, women who have beautiful personalities/hearts/souls. In his point of view, they now look physically “beautiful,” as per Hollywood’s standards: thin, symmetrical faces, well-dressed, hair done, nails done, everything did. But to everyone else, especially his best friend and sidekick, these women are…let me put this delicately, not up to Hollywood’s standards.

Long story short: hijinks ensue, jokes are made at fat people’s expense, the hypnosis is reversed, and Jack shuns his love interest, Rosemary, horrified by her 300 lbs of natural woman, before realizing that she’s his true love, regardless of her size. Whew, what a sentence.

Now, Nudd and Whalen state their issues: the plot implies “Love all people, ignore their size,” yet we very rarely see Rosemary as she is; we almost always see her through Jack’s eyes as the inner beauty, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Furthermore, the gags are primarily of the lowbrow “LOL fat people eat a lot and break chairs” variety, which is kind of offensive. Scratch that, it’s just plain cruel and unoriginal. Don’t get me wrong; I love being politically incorrect for the sake of inappropriate humor—it’s guaranteed to get a laugh because we’re all at least a little bit judgmental and insensitive. But don’t try to bill your movie as the sensitive, feel-good film of the year, perfect for the imperfect viewer, when all you’re really doing is making fun of the “imperfect” character.

What bothered me about the critique of Shallow Hal is mentioned later in the excerpt: the rhetor (fancy term for the writer/speaker/person who joins in on the critique) points out problems but doesn’t offer a solution. And I think most people’s idea of a solution would be to make films with overweight leading ladies; films that portray those with “imperfect” physical attributes as love interests and sexual candidates, with absolutely no comment about their weight. At least, that’s what the critics of Shallow Hal briefly imply in the excerpt.

That’s one solution, but not the one I’d choose and here’s why:

Movies, for the most part, do the best when they appeal to the broadest audience possible. The broadest movie-going audience in America is made up of heterosexual Caucasians. Although I have no statistics to back that statement up, I’m assuming that I’m correct based on the fact that most blockbuster romances feature Hollywood-perfect Caucasian characters. Obviously someone high up on the creative team made that choice for a reason.

Now we have our common characters; what’s the story going to be about? Well, audiences want to escape from their lives into a magical world where everyone’s hair is always perfect and their skin and make-up are flawless and they end up with a Prince (or Princess) Charming and a Happily Ever After, despite all the bad luck, shenanigans, and obstacles that happen in the preceding eighty minutes of the film.

Romantic comedies show us the version of the lives we wish we had, therefore they mostly star skinny, beautiful people because we all want to be skinny and beautiful. Unless we’re athletes, or men, in which case we want to be the strong, sexy type of beautiful or handsome. (I got tired of quoting all the subjective terms, sorry guys.)

Regardless, Hollywood movies show idealistic versions of ourselves: the warrior hero, the nerd who finally finds love, the screw-up who finally gets his act together, whatever the archetype may be. Films show us who we want to be and who we should be; of course I’m speaking of the most basic story structure and theme in Hollywood blockbusters.

Now, I’m all for loving your body, embracing who you are, not letting anyone change you or make you feel bad about yourself (I got your back, Eleanor Roosevelt!), but  there’s that tiny, inescapable, scientific fact that being overweight is unhealthy. Forget about weight issues in relation to society’s perception of beauty! The debate over whether or not someone can be beautiful if they’re fat should take a total backseat to the discussion of physical health in heated disputes on Facebook/Imgur/Twitter/news sites. Because pretty, beautiful, striking, strong, proud women and men do exist. Of course in this debate it’s usually women defending themselves and their appearance, because women are less likely to find love if they aren’t Hollywood perfect, right? And that means they need to fight harder and yell louder to gain approval. That’s what our patriarchal society insinuates, or so say advocates of feminism.

Aah! Getting back on topic. Films glamorize events, even at their most truthful, because it’s the easiest way to get butts in the seat. A story has to be interesting in order to get moviegoers’ attention and achieve financial success. And yes, my friends do call me Captain Obvious. We, by which I mean filmmakers, shouldn’t glamorize obese actresses and actors any more than they should glamorize unhealthily skinny ones. Yeah, Angelina Jolie is beautiful, but in Mr. & Mrs. Smith I kept wondering how she could possibly manage all those fight scenes and stunts. Her arms are so skinny! And then I start wondering how she gets that skinny. Does she just work out all the time? Are there eating disorders involved? Do exercise and dieting monopolize the majority of her time and cause her undue stress?

The target BMI range is 18.5-24.99kg/m2, anything below is unhealthy, and anything above is equally unhealthy. So my solution is, if we’re going to glamorize a body type, why not get some actresses on screen who are legitimate brick houses? And am referring to the wonderful Commodores hit that makes sweet, funky, song-love to strong, fit women (at least that’s the definition that I’m choosing to use).

I agree with the critique that inspired this post when they say that “Hollywood is an industry that clearly discriminates against plus-sized actresses,” I just don’t believe that doing a full 180 and discriminating against skinny people or making obesity acceptable and idealized in films is a good solution, or an effective one. We should encourage healthy, strong body types in our films; we should cast actors who are healthily muscled and fit. That’s part of the reason I like Scarlett Johansson; she’s never been super skinny. Granted, she has the face of a goddess, but I still appreciate her solidly average, healthy body (whether she’s trying to achieve this look or not). Jennifer Lawrence is another one who’s not afraid to have a healthy body and a healthy attitude about her appearance; the Internet gets flooded with JLaw-love every time she makes a public appearance at a Hollywood event, so audience members are clearly not put off by the fact that she doesn’t look like Twiggy.

Instead of furiously jumping to the opposite extreme body type in order to counteract and argue against the ridiculously idealistic concept of the “perfect” woman that Hollywood favors, why not aim for the healthy middle ground and redefine “beauty” and “sex appeal” and “perfection” to mean healthy and strong? That way you create a positive, healthy stereotype that can work to rehabilitate women with body image issues by instilling a new ideal in society.

And now let’s count how many times I used “perfect” and “healthy” in this post!!

Pentadic Criticism of Rome, Open City

In order to draw significance from the narrative of a classic film of the Italian Neorealism movement, I will use the 5Ws and an H (Who, What, When/Where, Why, and How) that journalists use when writing articles–otherwise known as the Pentad, as detailed in Kenneth Burke’s A Grammar of Motives. First, let me lay out the plot:

Rome, Open City is about a handful of Italian patriots resisting the German occupation in 1944 in the hopes of returning their native country to its former independence. Giorgio Manfredi (aka Luigi Ferraris) is the resistance leader who spends the majority of the film trying to escape capture by the Gestapo, before getting captured and tortured to death while refusing to give up resistance information. His ally, Don Pietro Pelligrini, works with the patriots as a courier of information and packages and looks after a group of local boys. Marcello leads this child gang, the son of widowed Pina and her fiancé Francesco, a typist and friend of Manfredi’s.

Several archetypal characters oppose the featured rebels:

Major Bergman: an effeminate, heartless Nazi with no qualms regarding torture; his motive is to capture resistance leaders and torture information out of them in order to crush the rebellion; he carries out this torture to the point of murder

Ingrid: a sleazy, cold lieutenant who manipulates and bribes information out of corruptible girls

Marina: Manfredi’s girlfriend; one such “corruptible girl” who betrays Manfredi’s whereabouts for money, drugs, and material possessions

Police Commissioner: Italian native who helps the Gestapo leader locate patriots

Captain Hartman: the ultimate soldier; carries out orders sans compassion, regardless of his personal opinion about the army’s motives and actions; in charge of executing Don Pietro

Through analyzing dialogue and characters’ actions, we can form two general statements about the opposing factions in Rome.

1)    The patriots, the good guys, are common people of strong faith in God who are dedicated to their justified cause to the point of self-sacrifice.

Dialogue between Don Pietro, Pina, and Francesco advocates placing faith in God before all things, staying true to the principles of Christian humanism (helping the downtrodden), and trusting in the inevitable victory of a just cause (one that frees a nation’s people from persecution). In the third act of the film, Manfredi stays true to his cause, even though it costs him his life; Don Pietro refuses to crack, in honor of Manfredi’s noble sacrifice, and he is executed. The resistance’s burden, and hope of victory, is then transferred over to Marcello and his faithful gang of kids, who witness Pietro’s execution.

2)    The bad guys are not only Nazis, but upper-class Italians that value money and material things over loyalty to their country and their native people.

There’s an obvious lack of faith and Christian principles in the antagonistic characters: no humility, compassion, or generosity, only greed, cruelty, and pride.

We have now identified the Agents (characters) within the film, the Acts of resistance and torture they commit, the Scene (setting) of fascist, WWII Italy within which the story takes place, and the Agency’s that allow the Agents to carry out their Acts (tactics of the Italian patriot resistance and the Gestapo). The last element of Kenneth Burke’s Pentad is Purpose. Why did Sergio Amidei, Federico Fellini, and Roberto Rossellini (writers and director) choose to build the plot and construct characters in that particular way?

Motive can be drawn most significantly from analysis of the Act-Agency ratio. The Scene is unique to wartime occupation in Italy, and the characters are archetypal and therefore universal, but the theme can be drawn from an examination of what the characters were trying to do and how they attempted to succeed.

In the first and second acts of the film, characters attempted to get a leg up on the Gestapo by setting off bombs wherever there was a concentration of German soldiers. In the third act, the two main characters resist the Gestapo not through violence, but by refusing to renounce their faith, their cause, and their people, even at the cost of their lives. That’s the message that they indirectly imparted to the children, the hope of the future. Both the score and the sweeping panorama of Rome with the children in the foreground implied that hope was not yet lost.

Previous dialogue exchanges and the rebels failed attempts at guerilla warfare underscore the importance of faith, humility, and courage in the face of death. The message can thus be extracted as such: Don’t give up, believe in a cause that’s dedicated to liberty, and don’t stop fighting oppressive forces.

“The Bicycle Thief” – A Narrative Analysis

In my last post, I discussed Roberto Rosselini’s film, Rome, Open City, through a pentadic lens (Agent, Act, Scene, Purpose, Agency or Who, What, When/Where, Why, How). My analysis revealed that the film doesn’t fall in line with Italian neorealist principles, namely a dedication to simple stories with few key characters and a plot derived from everyday activities.

This week I’m going to breakdown Vittorio de Sica’s masterpiece, The Bicycle Thief, by looking at the narrative structure.

Setting – The key element of the Italian Neorealism movement is it’s setting, shocking, I know. Neorealist films popped up all over the globe after World War II, any place where filmmakers were drawing stories out of the common person’s everyday life and struggles. What made each region’s brand of neorealism unique was the setting and the type of people that fight for life there. In this case, the setting was post-word war Rome, the element that colors the film as Italian Neorealist.

Characters – The two main characters are classic archetypes that all audience members can at least feel empathy for, if they don’t personally relate. The main character is an unemployed father with a wife and two kids, living in poverty-stricken Italy and struggling to support his family. His young son of eight years old is confident, brassy, and self-sufficient beyond his years. Together they work at whatever jobs they can get to support the mom and her newborn child.

Narrator – The film presents the story sans narrator, although the story follows the father. This avoids the inevitable bias that narrator characters bring to a story and leaves only the point of view of the director and writer up for consideration, since they shape the work’s creative vision, as per the auteur theory prevalent in post-war films.

Plot – The events of Bicycle Thief express the actions of people found in the state of poverty and are revealed chronologically over a short period of time, thus exemplifying the real time + real space = real world verisimilitude equation of neorealist filmmaking. The driving force of the film is a combination of bad luck (or lack of luck) and, primarily, the actions and choices of other humans within the setting.

–       The opening scene shows a gaggle of men standing outside an employment office waiting, hoping, for a chance at work. Our main character, the father, is called up and he comes out of the crowd to accept the job. This opening shows the universality of the story we’re about to witness; it says that this one man’s story could be, and most likely is, the same as any one of the other men in the crowd. Opening on a crowd and singling in on one of the crowd members is a tactic De Sica uses again in Umberto D., which chronicles the struggles of post-war pensioners.

–        The crux of the story is that the father needs a bicycle as part of his job requirement (gluing up movie posters on buildings). The resulting series of events details his acquisition of a bike; the theft of a bike; the unwillingness of a witness to give up the thief’s information; the father’s damnation by a hostile community when he attempts to confront the thief; his resignation to stealing a bike out of desperation; his failure and arrest; and his release. The father and son walk off dejectedly into the sunset, without a bike, without a job, without money, and without hope.

Audience – The majority of local audience members seeing Bicycle Thief would have been familiar with circumstances detailed within the film; although social commentary on the poor and downtrodden were just barely beginning to be “a thing” in film, the sentiments expressed in de Sica’s work (the ones that spurred on the neorealism movement) were widespread within discontented Italian communities. Global audiences, however, weren’t as familiar with the problems in post-war Italy. Most would have related to the film’s universal portrayal of unemployment struggles and the pressure of a parent’s responsibility to support their family. At the very least, compassion for the spunky, charismatic son would have captured audience interest and invested them in the story.

Theme – Like many neorealist and post-war filmmakers, De Sica was of the type to lay out problems and ugly truths of life for audiences who were used to the glamorous, glossy melodramas of the wartime era. The lack of luck and lack of communal compassion in the film’s Italian community lead to a theme of hopelessness and fatality that rubbed many Italian viewers the wrong way. De Sica offers no solution to the problem, rather he lays out the life of this stranger and challenges audiences to pay attention to the sufferings of people around them. He says, “Hey, this is happening, this is real, are you going to do anything about it?” rather than, “This is a problem and here’s how you fix it.”

De Sica’s approach with The Bicycle Thief points out the flaws of society and suggests at the universality of the main characters’ situation in order to throw light on the reality of post-war life. Since the film’s release in 1948, it has held a strong position at the top of Sight & Sound magazine’s list of greatest films of all time, as well as the British Film Institutes recommended list of films to see before age 14. De Sica knew his audience and knew how to hit right in the feels.