Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"This is the world I want to live in. The shared world."

Airports are odd liminal spaces, where everyone is on their way to somewhere else. I always get an first impression on coming back into an American --it varies according to the times. I remember times in the last few years when I immediately felt oddly muzzled on entering the States again, like certain things couldn't be said loudly, like people were watching their words carefully. I haven't felt that way the last few times, however, which is reason enough for hope of a sort.

A poem about that sort of feeling that I came across just before flying:

Wandering Around an Albuquerque Airport Terminal

by Naomi Shihab Nye

After learning my flight was detained 4 hours,
I heard the announcement:
If anyone in the vicinity of gate 4-A understands any Arabic,
Please come to the gate immediately.

Well -- one pauses these days. Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian dress,
Just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly.
Help, said the flight service person. Talk to her.
What is her
Problem? we told her the flight was going to be four hours late and she
Did this.

I put my arm around her and spoke to her haltingly.
Shu dow-a, shu- biduck habibti, stani stani schway, min fadlick,
Sho bit se-wee?

The minute she heard any words she knew -- however poorly used -
She stopped crying.

She thought our flight had been cancelled entirely.
She needed to be in El Paso for some major medical treatment the
Following day. I said no, no, we're fine, you'll get there, just late,

Who is picking you up? Let's call him and tell him.
We called her son and I spoke with him in English.
I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and
Would ride next to her -- southwest.

She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it.

Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and
Found out of course they had ten shared friends.

Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian
Poets I know and let them chat with her. This all took up about 2 hours.

She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life. Answering

She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies -- little powdered
Sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts -- out of her bag --
And was offering them to all the women at the gate.

To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
Sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the traveler from California,
The lovely woman from Laredo -- we were all covered with the same
Powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookies.

And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers --
Non-alcoholic -- and the two little girls for our flight, one African
American, one Mexican American -- ran around serving us all apple juice
And lemonade and they were covered with powdered sugar too.

And I noticed my new best friend -- by now we were holding hands --
Had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing,

With green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always
Carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought,
This is the world I want to live in. The shared world.

Not a single person in this gate -- once the crying of confusion stopped
-- has seemed apprehensive about any other person.

They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too.
This can still happen anywhere.

Not everything is lost.

Monday, August 18, 2008


Packing for ten days in Maine and ten days in San Diego.

Music synched on iPod: check.
Books downloaded to ebook reader: check.
A couple of books picked out in case ebook reader breaks: check.
Digital comic books downloaded onto memory stick for reading: not yet.
TV shows loaded onto digital media player for watching in San Diego: about half done.

Anything else? Oh yeah.
Clothes: check.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Dark Knight, Take 2

Went to see The Dark Knight again and this time watched more carefully for specific things.

--The plot. The plot...made no sense. There were so many plot holes and improbabilities (right up to impossibilities) that the whole plot structure felt like a very fine lace doily, just barely holding together. Example one: There's no reason at all both Rachel and Harvey couldn't be saved if the police had just gotten to Rachel in time. And they should have been able to, since there should be patrol cars in the area. There was no real either/or there. Example two: Okay, how does this work? Reece goes on television to announce he's going to reveal the Batman's identity. Cut to the Joker setting the pile of money on fire and lecturing the mob guy. Suddenly the Joker pulls out a cell phone and calls in to the tv show to announce Reece dies or the hospital gets it. Uh, how did he even know Reece was on television and why? And when did he have time to rig the bombs? Did he have a whole hospital rigged with massive amounts of explosives (which none of the police found while evacuating) just in case he might need it that evening? *scratches head* Now, I believe plot is less important than story, and the TDK's story themes blew me away so completely that I was willing to ignore the plot issues, but I can see how a more detail-oriented person (like my husband, who kept twitching and muttering next to me) might find it really annoying.

--Speaking of convoluted schemes, the Nolan Joker has to have some kind of amazing psychic superpower, like an evil Hari Seldon who can predict human behavior to the finest detail. Either that or Longshot-level luck (to pull in a Marvel character whose superpower was just that, he was always lucky). Nothing else could make his plans, which are the most labyrinthine, Byzantine, Rube Goldbergesque plans in the universe, work. He knows how to manipulate that cop into getting too close to him just in time to blow up his stooge before anyone notices he's got a bomb in his stomach, while knowing the explosion will kill or disable everyone in the HQ except him and Lau. Impressive! Even the bank robbery at the beginning involves such amazing levels of meticulous, minute planning, down to making sure the last robber stands in just the right place to get hit by a bus. All of which makes it the more ironic when Joker gives his speech to Harvey about how everyone in the world is a schemer and a planner except him, how he doesn't plan, he just does. He's an agent of chaos, yes, but he uses both order and chance to further chaos--in exactly the same way Batman uses chaos to serve the law.

It's interesting to me that one of the only times Ledger's Joker actually seems to find something legitimately humorous is when the last bombs don't go off at the hospital--that is, when his own careful planning goes awry on him.

--Rachel is frustratingly chemistry-free with everyone, and yet Bruce, Harvey and the Joker all clearly find her completely compelling. This makes more sense if you think of Rachel as somehow embodying and symbolizing all of Gotham--which makes her choice of Harvey and Bruce's agonized wish/belief that she would have chosen him much more resonant for me. It's cliche and robs the character of actual character, but it makes some sense within the movie.

As a side note, this movie could arguably pass the Bechdel test, as Barbara Gordon discusses her safety with Anna Ramirez (they're discussing Jim's reported plans, so I'm not sure it quite works, but it's closer than a lot of movies I've seen).

--The ending. *sighs* I've gotten in some rather spirited arguments elsewhere, both with people I respect and people I do not, about Batman taking the blame for Harvey's wrongdoing. Some people apparently deeply dislike this ending. Phrased in the form that I find most reasonable, they say that it doesn't make any pragmatic sense for Batman to be blamed for what Harvey did, that the people of Gotham should be able to be good on their own without having a symbolic hero to look up to. It serves no practical purpose to have Batman be seen as a murderer.

I understand that argument. Really I do. And I find myself, when responding, to be completely unable to explain the power of the ending in any terms that make sense to the people I'm arguing with. Because maybe it doesn't make practical sense, but it makes a deeper, more primal kind of sense to me. It may not fit the facts, but it tells the truth-- the truth that there's a deeper heroism than the flashy public kind, that a true hero is a darker, more lonely role than we would like to think it is. Harvey's story of the champion chosen to defend the gates of Rome, and how being chosen was not an honor but a sacrifice, rang very true for me. Batman is the scapegoat that bears the sins and guilts of Gotham, because he's strong enough to endure them and brave enough to transmute that outcast status into action. It's a story of alchemical transcendence that appeals to me at an intuitive, pre-rational level, impossible to explain in pragmatic terms. Which means I'm constantly backing down in arguments I've been having about the movie, because there's really no way to say "I'm sorry, I love the ending because it appeals to the spiritual and romantic side of me, transcending brute facts and illuminating truths beyond those of simple pragmatics" without sounding like a condescending putz.

"It's not FAIR!" cries Harvey in anguish from his hospital bed. I'm working on a textbook and have to write sample dialogues in English. In one, either Dan or I wrote a grieving relative at a funeral, saying "It's not fair they died so young." Our Japanese co-writers were puzzled by this. "What has fairness got to do with dying? How could it be either fair or unfair to die? It simply is." We could not make them understand the deep-seated feeling in the Western world that things must be fair. They must. Harvey's sense of unfairness is what snaps his mind. And I love this movie in part because it puts an arm around your shoulders and says "Life isn't fair. Horrible things happen to people who don't deserve them to happen, and there's nothing that can be done about it but endure. Endure and fight. But it will never be fair." What happens to Batman isn't fair, and I think that bothers some people a lot, at a very deep level that they don't want to think about. If life isn't fair to handsome, wealthy, charming, intelligent Bruce Wayne, who fights crime tirelessly and selflessly, what can it possibly offer us? And the answer is: nothing. The world offers us nothing. You have to take what you can from it and claim it as yours.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Watching the Olympics in Japan

I always feel vaguely guilty enjoying the Olympics: the glitz, the jingoistic subtexts, the nationalism. And yet... At their best (which they're often not, I grant) the Olympics really do have some transcendent moments. Somehow I always enjoy watching the medals ceremonies and the different ways people respond to the moment--the ones who just grin all the way through, the ones who suddenly look like they've been hit between the eyes, astonished to find themselves there, the ones who cry.

Watching in Japan is always odd. I'd never realized how much one relies on the announcers to make sense of what's going on. I have no way of understanding judo without a helpful announcer. Two guys stand there and hold each others' gi for a while, then there's a flurry of motion and the announcers start screaming--and I can't even tell who just won a point. :) And there are none of those soft-focus athlete profiles. I always kind of disliked them in theory, but watching an Olympics without them makes me realize how helpful they are in framing what's going on, personalizing it.

On the plus side, there are three channels running the Olympics here, all of them absolutely commercial-free. Envy me, muahahaha! I've watched badminton and air pistol and women's weightlifting. And I've already watched a lot of very grim judo wrestlers (in judo for Japan, it's gold or you might as well have stayed home. Like American basketball times about a million). I can't understand any of it, but it's really fun to watch. :)

Monday, August 4, 2008

Long Review of The Dark Knight

I came out of The Dark Knight with a tickling memory of another scene from a book in my head. I couldn't pin it down for a long time, and finally it clicked: "1984." In George Orwell's book, the crisis of the story comes when Winston Smith is being tortured with rats, his greatest fear. A cage is strapped to his face and he's told that when the gate opens, the rats will be released to eat his face. In a panicked moment, he begs them to torture his lover with them instead:

The mask was closing on his face. The wire brushed his cheek. And then -- no, it was not relief, only hope, a tiny fragment of hope. Too late, perhaps too late. But he had suddenly understood that in the whole world there was just one person to whom he could transfer his punishment -- one body that he could thrust between himself and the rats. And he was shouting frantically, over and over.

'Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don't care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!'

Faced with the proof of his own cravenness, with the fact that he would sacrifice anything he said he loved to save his skin, Winston is broken. His spirit gives up, he capitulates to Big Brother.

In The Dark Knight, the Joker's purpose is to reveal to as many people as possible how craven, cruel, and self-serving people are; how when given a choice between our ideals and continuing to draw breath without pain we'll sell our ideals, our loves, any of our cherished values in a moment. The theme starts with the bank robbery, in which criminals gladly kill each other for some cash. It continues through scenes such as the one where he gives the two thugs the broken cue and tells them to kill each other, to the one where people have to kill an innocent to save the hospitals, to the final climax with the ships. Over and over again, he tries to force people to choose--and to reveal to them that their choice will always be cruel and cowardly, to render their lives empty of meaning beyond chaos and self-interest. He wants to make clear to Batman that the people he serves are merely animals, slavering dogs. And sometimes people do fail the test.

This is why, in my mind, the scene with the two ships is the emotional heart of the movie. Everything after, with Harvey, is merely a gripping anticlimax. The scene with the ships is where Gotham--not Batman, but Gotham and the human spirit--triumph over the Joker.

This is a movie which manages to be dark and inspiring. This is a movie in which, given a perfectly reasonable opportunity to harm others in order to save themselves, average people choose to risk sacrificing themselves instead. (Yes, pragmatically it's likely that whoever pushed the button would blow up their own ship, but the decision is framed ethically, not pragmatically). This is a movie in which, given the opportunity to kill a bunch of criminals in order to save themselves and their children, people take a vote! And then even when the choice is reached democratically, they still know in their hearts the truth of what Socrates says, that it is better to suffer evil than to do evil, and they turn away from their reasonable, democratic choice to resign themselves to sacrifice. The moments when both ships turn away from killing are transcendantly, ludicrously optimistic about the human spirit. These are people who aren't inspired by Batman, they're not asking "What would Batman do," they're not afraid he'd disapprove of their choice--they're merely acting from the depth of the human soul's ability to sacrifice itself.

And Bruce has total faith that they'll choose right. He tells Gordon so, he tells the Joker so. He knows that human beings will not choose to deal death, and he's vindicated. Gotham wins, and in that moment justifies Batman's love for it and his continuing sacrifice for it.

Batman says he isn't a hero, and I think by that he means more than "people won't see me as the hero I am." He's not the hero. The hero of this movie is the human spirit, which is what Bruce fights for. Bruce himself makes plenty of mistakes in this movie--his extreme interrogation tactics aren't treated as heroic or satisfying, and in nearly every case they're either futile or they actively help the enemy. But even though some people do give in to the Joker's nihilism, in many key instances they don't. In fact, even Harvey repudiates the Joker's thesis at some level, as he's broken not by realizing he cares about his own life more than Rachel's, but by being unable to bear the pain of failing to make the sacrifice.

The moment when the Joker waits for one of the ships to explode, and waits, with disbelief dawning in his voice, while Bruce knows the people he protects are worth the sacrifice--civilians, policement, and convicts alike--they're all capable of making the right choice...that's where the Joker loses. Harvey, for all the attention given him, is just one man, and any one man can fail. But if normal people--thugs and accountants, mothers and muggers--can make the heroic sacrifice, how can Bruce ever consider his mission a failure?

Other thoughts:

--Ledger's Joker. I've talked a lot about the Joker's "purpose" and "goal" here. I appreciate the theme and the way it's played out very much, but...I'm not sure I like a Joker with a purpose. I tend to prefer him as more truly capricious and, well, having fun. Ledger's Joker is oddly, ironically, serious. He's teaching us an important lesson, why won't we listen to him? It works very well in this movie, but it's not a version of the Joker that will stick in my mind in the long run. The basic theme might have been better played out by a villain like Mr. Freeze...but I understand that the Joker is, like, a zillion times creepier, so I can't really blame them for using him. I did like that they kept the conceit of a totally unknowable background, a true cypher.

--The politics are iffy at times, I'll grant. Batman's always been about the willingness to take the morally gray path in order to serve the greater good. He's a fantasy of the idea that the man outside the law can still preserve the law, like the old cowboy dramas such as "Shane." Although I believe that in reality it's a dangerous concept, in a fantasy world (even Nolan's "realistic" Gotham is still clearly a fantasy world)it has a mythic resonance. The movie's about a lot more than terrorism and current world politics; it speaks to much deeper themes.

--I'm struck and moved by Bruce's essential aloneness, which is different from loneliness. There's a beautiful, sparse bleakness in his Mission in this version, his embrace of a life and a philosophy that transcend what most people are able to do. I've been rolling over in my mind images of the traditional scapegoat, who bears the sins of the community (the constant theme of being pursued by dogs seems to reinforce this), the Suffering Servant of Isaiah: "Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted."

Yeah, Batman makes me think about religion. *grin*

Friday, August 1, 2008

Mandalas online

I've been mesmerized by Myoates, which is a web tool that allows you to basically create sophisticated Spirographs online. I loved Spirograph. My sister and I spent hours making designs and coloring them in, cutting them out and painstakingly putting them in a photo album which I am certain is still lurking around somewhere. With some effort, one can make designs with Myoates like this one:

Not my work, I assure you. Mine have all looked mostly like sophisticated doodles. But I love the almost mandala-like feel of the result, and the hypnotic quality of watching my casual scribbles be mirrored into near-infinity and given structure and symmetry...

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