Interstellar (2014)

Whether by pure chance or design, the cinema I was sitting in to see Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic “Interstellar” ran the trailer for the grand daddy of sci-fi epics “2001 : A Space Odyssey” before hand. It was a prescient choice, given that the parallels between the two are obvious. Indeed the trailer, for the upcoming re-release of Stanley Kubrick’s cerebral masterpiece features a quote from Nolan himself, who refers to “2001” as “Pure cinema”.

At their core, both movies share the same basic story; a mysterious, possibly alien, presence compels man to travel to the stars in search of answers. In “2001” the motivation is purely curiosity, but in “Interstellar” there is a more pressing drive. Man must venture beyond this planet because this planet is dying, or at least becoming uninhabitable. The answer to this impending doom lies out there, and man is guided by a mysterious hand from beyond, referred to as “they”.

That is where the similarities end. If “2001” is pure cinema, and it is, then “Interstellar” is Nolan’s attempt at such purity and he approaches it with a scientist’s precision. But cinema is not a science, it is an art, and any attempts to distil its purest form in any kind of formulaic way will end up being sterile and cold, devoid of humanity.

The first half of “Interstellar” appears to be almost entirely exposition dialogue. Almost every line uttered seems to be in service to explaining the situation that the characters find themselves in, clumsily disguised as natural conversation peppered with plot points to note down. And if they are not driving the story, they are instead sign posting the films message with polemic statements about mans place in the universe that are ham fistedly dropped into conversations. It brings to mind the character from “Don’t Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood” who popped up to shout “message!” every time a character made a John Singleton-esque piece of social commentary. There is nothing wrong with polemic film making, but it can’t feel like you are attending a lecture. Or worse still, a morality play put on a by a local church to warn kids of the dangers of some vice.

Narrative dialogue pervades whole swathes of “Interstellar”. Contrast with the relative sparseness of “2001”’s dialogue. The maxim “show, don’t tell” is completely abandoned here. Everything is narrated by the characters explaining it to each other, and us, the audience. There is, admittedly, a core of humanity represented by the break up of a family as the father goes off to “save humanity”. This core is hindered by clunky dialogue, but saved by excellent acting from all involved.

Once our characters get up into space the film begins to pick up. Nolan can create a thrilling action sequence, and “Interstellar” has a number of them. The mid section of the movie settles into an entertaining enough yarn, and you are carried along by the combination of special effects, roller coaster action and bombastic music. It does “peril in space” well, but I couldn’t help but think of last year’s “Gravity” which took this to its logical conclusion. Still, it thrills and delights for a good extended period. But it feels like slight of hand, a diversion to distract you from looking behind the curtain and finding out there’s nothing there. In time however, “Interstellar” begins to set up its big final reveal, as the mysterious other is unveiled.

Both “2001” and Nolan’s film culminate in the central hero astronaut, having defeated a nefarious interfering menace, confronting the central ‘alien’ mystery. But whereas Kubrick gives the audience space to interpret, ponder and imagine in the incredible “Star Gate” sequence and beyond, Nolan takes you by the hand and begins to point out the pieces bit-by-bit (all driven by external character narrative). “2001” leaves a void in which the audience can speculate, but “Interstellar” literally tells you almost everything, but in doing so unveils a mystery which ultimately collapses under its the weight of its own logic. “2001” gives you enough to fill in the gaps yourself, “Interstellar” gives you so much, you are left with a gap that makes no sense. The sad thing is the central premise of the mystery in “Interstellar” is a great idea, but so literally explained and revealed it ultimately feels silly.

The scientists in “Interstellar” are obsessed with solving an equation which will reveal humanity’s salvation. Nolan appears to look upon film making in a similar way. Like his characters he is looking for all the variables which will complete the puzzle, and he proceeds through them in an objectively literal way. It is no surprise that the man who in “Inception” (which I enjoyed) presented dreams not as the hazy, shimmering experience they are, but as tightly bound rule driven video games, does something similar with the mysteries of a multi-dimensional universe. Like the similarly cosmic and ambitious “The Tree of Life” by Terrence Malick, the film could have ended 20 minutes before it did and chopped off a whole section of explanation and I would have been left much more satisfied. Fade to white and let us finish it.

“2001” and “Interstellar” are two planets orbiting the same star. But “2001” is a world partly cast in darkness, in the shadow of a monolith which invites us to explore its mysteries for ourselves. “Interstellar” is bathed in the cold light of day, where everything is revealed and its mysteries are exposed in an objective, joyless glare and ultimately is found wanting.

Why Not Today?

I was walking to work today listening to Rage Against The Machine on my headphones and at the exact moment in “Guerrilla Radio” where Zack says “What better place than here? What better time than now?” I walked past a woman wearing a t-shirt that read “Why Not Today?”. :)

It is now two weeks since I made a formal decision to not eat meat. Since I made that choice a big weight seems to have lifted off my shoulders. I’m not interested in making a case for not eating meat here, but I want to talk about making decisions.

Going “vegetarian” was something I was considering for a long time, and it had increasingly become a source of stress for me. When it came time to eat I would think a lot about it, feeling guilty about possibly eating meat, then stressing out about it. Then a few weeks ago, a single image struck me, and I made a ‘now-or-never’ choice. Since I’ve made that choice, there is no stress. There might be decisions about what I can eat etc., but what I should eat no longer bothers me. If I get annoyed by lack of food options somewhere, at least I am not being made anxious by my own indecision.

It has occurred to me that this is something I should investigate more. Doug was writing recently about conduct and Buddhist practice and touched on this. One of his bits of advice was:

If unsure, just don’t do it.

I think this mirrors how I made my decision about eating meat. If I was doubting the ethical ramifications of my actions, it’s simply best to not engage in that action. I also agree with Doug when he encourages disciple, which reminded me of the Leo Tolstoy essay which also inspired my decision:

In order to be moral people must cease to eat meat? Not at all.

I only wish to say that for a good life a certain order of good actions is indispensable; that if a man’s aspirations toward right living be serious they will inevitably follow one definite sequence; and that in this sequence the first virtue a man will strive after will be self-control, self-restraint.

I fell that beyond just living in a way I feel to be right, the effort of practising some kind of self-restraint and disciple is helpful.

I’m of course not suggesting that it is easy to just stop engaging in any activity that is causing you anxiety. We all struggle with these things. But what I do think that if it is something that is relatively not difficult, but that it is still causing you grief and you want to give it up….why not today? It was save you anxiety and guilt over it. You might fail, but then you can start again. But you have to start.

Goodbye to meat

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So for over a year now I’ve been giving serious thought to giving up meat, something I wrote about before. The initial spur was when I became Buddhist. Not that all Buddhists are vegetarian, nor is there a rule that says you must become vegetarian. But if you study and follow Mahayana Buddhism, it becomes increasingly difficult (I think) to align eating meat with a commitment to not harm sentient beings, and many teachings I encountered suggest this, including those from the head of my lineage.

If a Mahayana practitioner, who considers all sentient beings to be like their father or mother, eats the flesh of another being out of carelessness and without any compassion, that is not good. So we need to think about this and pay attention to it. All of us Mahayana practitioners, who accept that all sentient beings have been our mothers and fathers, need to think about this. For that reason, it would be good to decrease the amount of meat that we eat.

This was coupled with seeing some documentary footage on how animals are treated for food etc. and the idea of eating meat became increasingly unpalatable (pun intended).

So I reduced my meat intake a lot, cutting out red meat completely, and limiting meat to weekends only, sometimes going a month at a time. My intention has been for some time to cut it out completely, my only real hurdles being that I don’t eat cheese or eggs, and many vegetarian options (when eating out) feature those. But increasingly this has improved and i’ve found more and more alternative options. What was only holding me back really was the idea i’d never get to enjoy meat again. I kept saying to myself “i’ll start in August”, or “September”. Or for a long period I decided I would never formally swear off meat, and simply avoid it as much as possible. But as I went for longer and longer stretches without meat, I became less and less comfortable with ‘breaking’, and it dawned on me I’d only be satisfied if I completely stopped.

This week was the anniversary of Leo Tolstoy’s birthday and I discovered that he was vegetarian and had written on the topic. One quote in particular jumped out at me:

This is dreadful! Not the suffering and death of the animals, but that people suppress in themselves, unnecessarily, the highest spiritual capacity – that of sympathy and pity towards living creatures like themselves – and by violating their own feelings, become cruel. And how deeply seated in the human heart is the injunction not to take life.

I felt like this was speaking directly to me: that I was suppressing an opinion I held. Which made it even worse. I actually believed eating meat was wrong, but was not being decisive about my role in it.

But later that day I was walking through Dublin and I walked past a restaurant and read this in the window and I almost heard a bell ring in my mind. I just knew instinctively I was going to imminently give up meat. The slogan seemed so horribly cynical.  I wonder who wrote it. If you believed it to be true, if you believed that chickens could indeed be happy, how could you possibly eat them? It’s a self defeating statement.

What it is, of course, trying to say is that their chickens are not treated cruelly, so you can eat them guilt free. But for me, they are replacing one source of guilt, that your food suffered for your enjoyment, with another. Your food didn’t suffer, but was happy. But we killed it anyway so you could have dinner.

That was that. As of today, I plan to not eat meat again.

Alan Watts and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

If you’ve read any of my blog you will be aware of my love of the work of Alan Watts, who has been one of the most influential people on my own philosophy and outlook. Interestingly, Alan moved in the same circles as two other teachers who have informed my thinking greatly, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and Chogyam Trunpa Rinpoche. I’ve outlined before some of the relationship between Suzuki Roshi and Alan, and David Chadwick’s biography of Suzuki Roshi details it much more. In particular, it brought to light Alan’s relationship with Suzuki in Roshi’s final days before his death.

It was interesting then to learn, that apparently Alan spent his last day and night with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Trungpa Rinpoche was a highly influential and revered Tibetan Buddhist lama who came to the West after fleeing the Chinese invasion in 1959. Like Suzuki and Watts he was instrumental in spreading the dharma in the West by helping explain it in ways young Westerners could understand. All three ended up in the United States in the last 60s/early 70s having journeyed from Japan, England and Tibet. And Trungpa, like Alan, was not only a great teacher, but also enjoyed sensual delights, specifically alcohol and women.

Chronicles Radio have a short podcast where they claim that Alan spent his last night alive in the company of Trungpa Rinpoche. Apparently, Watts was one of Rinpoche’s “literary heroes” and he loved reading him. When Trungpa came to America from Britain he was keen to meet Alan. They had their first meeting on Alan’s houseboat where they spent the night drinking and talking.

Afterwards Trungpa remarked that he was “disappointed”, as he was surprised at Alan’s lack of depth about practice. (Alan was definitely a brilliant speaker and ‘translator’ of Eastern ideas but was sometimes criticised for his lack of formal commitment to set practises, particularly meditation). But Trungpa was still keen to meet with Alan and they continued a friendship.

Later, whilst Trungpa Rinpoche was holding his Vajryana Seminary, he went to San Francisco to see Alan, and they spent a day and night together, talking and drinking. Alan went home and passed away in his sleep the next morning.

In an odd footnote, afterwards Trungpa became concerned about Alan, worried that he had become stuck as a ghost at the foot of Mt. Tamalpais where he had a study and library. Rinpoche took some students to his library and told them that Alan was “stuck with his books and his office and couldn’t let go”. He wandered about until he found a spot in the field outside where he though Alan was. He instructed his students that they were going to help Alan by exorcising his ghost. They performed the supplication to the Kagyu gurus and the Heart Sutra. After which Trungpa said “That’s it” and he was happy.

It’s fascinating to note the role these three men had in each others lives, and in each other’s final days. Trungpa himself died years later, in 1987, like Alan with conditions related to excessive drinking.

Chronicles Radio also details Trungpa’s meeting with Suzuki Roshi.

Alan Watts: Rascal guru or inspirational poster boy?

As readers of this blog will know I am a big fan of the late English philosopher Alan Watts. He has been one of, if not the, most formative influences on my way of thinking. As such, I am keen for more people to read him; I think he has a lot to offer humanity, especially at this present time.

Since his hay-day in the 1960s, Watts has had some what of a resurgence thanks mainly to the web. A sub culture has grown around taking speeches and lectures and making multimedia video presentations out of them. This is an activity which is encouraged by his estate, which is managed by his son Mark. Probably the most famous of these is still the seminal series done by the creators of South Park, of which ‘Life and Music’ is still best known. For many this is the first they hear of Watts and is a great example of how his work has been remixed for the modern age; his words enhanced by the visuals.

Since this there has been a cottage industry formed around taking Watts lectures and setting them to music and video. Many of these are done quite well. One of my favourites sets a discussion on death to the sounds of Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

It’s not just Watts either, there is a whole culture of taking ‘inspiring’ lectures and treating them such. There was KickStarter recently to help fund some guy to make more of them, many of them Watts based.

I do fear, however, that this is becoming its own clichéd genre. Take a short section of Watts, lay it over some overly emotive music, and then make a montage of various ‘random life’ footage clips. The problem is that this becomes a production-line thoughtless process. The reason the good Watts videos work is that there is a link between his words, the music and the visuals. If this becomes an unthinking process I am concerned that it will transform the meaning and context of Watts work.

Alan Watts’ primary drive in life was to introduce you to a viewpoint that he enjoyed and held. This viewpoint, to paraphrase extremely briefly, was chiefly the viewpoint of Asian religions, namely Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism and seeks to make you see how inseparable you are from your environment, you and the universe are one process, and that not seeing this interdependence was the cause of human suffering. He was not a ‘self-help’ guru, nor did he seek to inspire hope as it were; he sought to help you see as he saw, and from that suffering would be alleviated.

My worry is that Watts becomes relegated to the status of pithy comment source, for the multi-font on a picture of a sunset inspirational quote crowd who seem to fuel Facebook timelines. This fate has befell the Dalai Lama and the Buddha for instance, often with words they never actually said. This would be a misinterpretation of what Alan was about. That said, I am in favour of bite-sized Watts, as he has such a great way with words that I think he can drop tiny ‘aha’ moments into your day. Some Twitter accounts are great at picking out such parts. But the real power and joy of Watts work are where he can expand on his ideas over time. Certainly some of the 3 to 5 minute videos can get some key ideas in, but I think he works best over his hour long lectures, or his essays and his books where he can unveil and build these powerful concepts. My other fear, is that some of these videos are using an aesthetic which is unsuitable. Watts was serious about helping people change their outlook, but he was a playful, mischievous man, never sombre. Some of the music choices, for instance, in these videos set a tone at odds with his actual spirit.

But, if these videos lead people to discovering his work, then I’m all for them. Just as long as they don’t reinvent him as a Facebook wall update quote source.

(I’ve written loads on Alan Watts, all archived here)

Alan Watts on the 1970 Brazil World Cup team

If you happened to witness, in 1970, the World Cup championship of soccer, you would have seen that the winning team from Brazil played soccer in the most extraordinary way. They played it like basketball. They played it dancing. They way we learned soccer when I was at school as a boy was very, very formal and ordinary and we didn’t really enjoy it. But these fellows were bouncing balls off their shoulders, off every muscle, and they had astonishing team play, while at the same time were dancing the game

Alan Watts – Work As Play

Calvary (2014)

I was instantly interested in seeing John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary” the moment I saw the trailer some months ago. This was despite having viscerally disliked the writer/director’s previous collaboration with Brendan Gleeson “The Guard”. I remember watching “The Guard” and being genuinely disturbed by how much acclaim it got. For me it was a tone-deaf mess, not sure of what it was supposed to be and shot through with a streak of nastiness wherein (like McDonagh’s brother Martin’s “In Bruges”) much of the comedic value seems to rest on having gombeenish cartoon Irish men say bigoted offensive slurs. But despite this, “Calvary” seemed to offer something; a compelling story (a priest is threatened with murder and has one week to put his house in order), beautifully shot, with a powerful Brendan Gleeson performance at its centre.

Having now seen the film, I can report that it retains all of those things (trailers can be deceptive) but despite these, the film is an unholy (pun intended) mess. Like “In Bruges” it is tone-deaf, shifting from solemness one moment to slap stick panto acting the next. Gleeson appears to be occupying a different universe than everyone else, like a character from one film has stumbled into a sketch show, or like Bob Hoskin’s grizzled detective wandering into cartoon land in “Who Frames Roger Rabbit?”. Black comedy can be a beautiful thing, but must be handled deftly. Here there is no subtly and it comes apart at the seems.

It is also as subtle as a brick. Clearly a film about a priest in modern Ireland is going to carry a message, and there is something needed to be discussed, but “Calvary” wants to say too much. Almost every scene features a caricature of modern Ireland, many played by skilled actors who have turned their performances to 11, some 20. In Father James Lavelle’s final week he does a greatest hits tour of troubled souls, ticking off many boxes as he goes, including a serial killer, secluded novelist, Celtic Tiger hyper capitalist, and a village idiot type that appears to have been created in a costume shop. One character even remarks about how themselves are cliché, but a knowing self referential wink at the camera does not forgive such laziness. At it’s core it does have something to say about forgiveness, but this is almost drowned in everything else. Only Gleeson’s masterful performance and the films stunning cinematography keep the film in any way ticking along.

I remarked to someone who liked the movie that the characters did not feel real and they retorted that it wasn’t supposed to be reality. That may be so, and I love movies that distort, extend and play with reality. The films of Wes Anderson, for instance, occur in a parallel universe, with people portrayed in an exaggerated way, but they still are relatable. “Calvary” exaggerates, but does it in the most ham fisted way. These characters seem so unreal to the point where I cannot recognise them, or worse still, I cannot sympathise with them. Only Gleeson’s Father James, his daughter Fiona (played by Kelly Reilly ) and David McSavage’s Bishop Montgomery really worked for me.

It has moments of fleeting beauty, mainly between Father James and Fiona, and of the stunning Sligo landscape, and some genuinely funny moments but they are few and fair between in this over cooked movie, which culminates in a montage sequence so prescriptive that it could have come out of an episode of Hollyoaks.

Banksy Wuz Here

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Once again a piece of stencil graffiti has been spotted that has led to speculation that it might be a “Banksy”. It’s interesting how the story these days is less so about the art itself, what it says or what it depicts, but whether or not it is confirmed to be by Banksy. After such a piece is spotted, the subsequent tension over whether or not it is a “Banksy” betrays the real interest here: people don’t really care about the art. They care if its a “Banksy”. His celebrity status was confirmed years ago, and is now such that it doesn’t matter what he does, it just matters that we know its him that does it. Of course, being an internationally recognised superstar artist it is natural that news outlets would report on his latest work. But what’s more interesting is our relationship to the work. What if one of these pieces turned out not to be by him? Obviously its material worth lessens (as is the want of the international art market), but does it become less interesting? Less thought provoking?

In his debut film “Exit Through The Gift Shop” Banksy blurred the lines between reality and fiction by exploring the rise of a fellow graffiti artist (Mr. Brainwash) from his beginnings as a documentary film maker following Banksy to his emergences as an artist in his own right, through to a major L.A. show which attracts a lot of attention. Although the artist and his work are presented as being real, there is the overwhelming impression that his work (at the very least the L.A. show) is a hoax by Banksy which aims to expose the shallowness of the art world. All those people fell for a ‘fake artist’.

Banksy should take the entire project one step further and announce that half the work attributed to himself are not his. What would happen? What would be our impression of them then? If we sit and wait to see if a piece is indeed by Banksy, what happens if we retroactively remove attribution? What if one of those new pieces were posted in a few places online as being by some unknown name…would they get any traction?

I have an odd relationship with Banky’s work. As a graffiti obsessed teen who began to develop a (naive, admittedly) political world view as I entered college I became a huge fan of his stuff, which appeared to me to be edgy and unique. But as time has gone by I’ve become increasingly wary of his stock-in-trade. Many of his juxtaposed images have become so obvious and cliched, that they have sprung up various parodies, from Nathan Barley to a Twitter account. Whilst he continues to occasionally do interesting things (his altered paintings etc.) that show a growth, the standard “give a machine gun to an unlikely person”* street stencils illicit eye-rolls mainly these days.

And being a curmudgeonly contrarian, my aversion to him increases as more and more people lap up everything he does without question. The obsession with him in particular baffles me, as he didn’t even invent this style of art.

This has, however, inspired in me an idea: A Google Glass app that alerts users if they are looking at a CONFIRMED BANKSY, so that they can then choose to Instagram it or ignore it. I mean, what’s the point if it’s not a BANKSY?