Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Thinking about spring

This past spring often felt like summer, but it was still uniquely and beautifully spring. I've posted about Philly streets in springtime and windblown tulips in Bowling Green.

Here are some more photos of the season that just passed:







Monday, June 25, 2012

Worth Watching: Footnote (2011)

Title: Footnote
Director: Joseph Cedar
Language: Hebrew
Rating: PG

Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) and his son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), are both Israeli university professors and Talmudic scholars. Eliezer represents an older, unfashionable school of scholarship based on pain-staking life-long narrow work that may or may not lead to any noteworthy findings. At one point in his career, he had come close to publishing decades of his research in what might have been a ground-breaking book, but a chance discovery made by an academic rival, Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), doomed Eliezer's manuscript to the city dump. When the movie begins, Eliezer has few publications and accolades to his name, and furthermore lacks the social skills to advance in the university. Shunted to the side, he buries himself in his study at home or in the shadowy corners of the national library. He also regards Uriel with great bitterness.

Uriel is in many ways the opposite of his father. He's charismatic and adept at schmoozing and departmental politicking. He's a bright and dazzling researcher who publishes prolifically on many different topics and has written popular books about his scholarship; he's also a well-regarded lecturer, delivering his talks with wit and passion. He tells a colleague at one point that it's important to keep moving forward, to be active, to write and publish and speak out about your ideas as much as you can even if you're not yet sure of their validity. Though he's only middle-aged, Uriel is already an academic titan whose success fuels Eliezer's bitterness and resentment, along with his contempt for Uriel's entire approach to scholarship.

For years, Uriel has been nominating Eliezer for the prestigious Israel Prize, coveted by academics. Uriel knows how much the prize would mean to his embittered father. But why would Eliezer want it so much? If he doesn't respect the current crop of academics and what they stand for, why would he crave their recognition? The answer to that lies at the heart of Footnote. Eliezer might be devoted to truth and objective scholarly pursuits, but he's human, isn't he? His ego still demands to be fed, even by people he considers unworthy. Maybe he doesn't care that the prize committee, in his opinion, is made up of intellectual lightweights. The prize itself could stand for truth and excellence irrespective of who's handing it out; in the recent past it may have been awarded to undeserving people, but Eliezer is proud enough to believe that he could polish off some of the tarnish it's accumulated over the years. He also wants to see himself recognized for once as more than just a scholarly footnote.

In Footnote, it's difficult to fathom the extent to which people are motivated by truth versus petty ego or pride. A great example of this toxic mix of truth and ego emerges in an intense, brilliantly written confrontation between Uriel and Yehuda Grossman, the professor who damaged Eliezer's academic career. Grossman's motives are left ambiguous. Did he undermine Eliezer's career because he genuinely thought that Eliezer was a plodding, problematic researcher? Or did he do it out of jealousy and spite? Or why not both?

The idea that academia is a bastion of objectivity often blinds people, including the academics themselves, to the very human and sometimes very ugly personal motives that they're all vulnerable to, no matter how high-minded or objective they think they are as scholars. Eliezer's contempt for his son's work, for example, stems not only from genuine scholarly disdain but from Eliezer's wounded ego. As long as he has the scholarly justification for his animosity, Eliezer can dismiss the deeper and messier truths in his life and ignore the ways in which he hurts his son.

The extent of Eliezer's petty rancor is never clear. He seems largely disconnected from emotions, both his own and other people's, and (at least from what we see on screen) is rarely open to others. Maybe most of his bitterness towards his son really is provoked by the sloppiness he perceives in Uriel's work and his disappointment in how academic standards have fallen more generally. His beef against Uriel and the wider academic world really could be driven mostly by scholarly considerations. But maybe his pride has blinded him to any excellence in his son's work. It's so easy for resentment and wounded pride to be mixed in deeply with more principled motives, until they're all indistinguishable.

When Eliezer receives a phone call out of the blue informing him that he's won the Israel Prize, the rush of emotion and the gratification to his ego is so great that he's blinded to details that he would have picked up on immediately under normal circumstances. What follows is the happiest day of his life. Finally he has it - the top prize, the place among his peers, the recognition of his life's work and proof perhaps that his approach to scholarship isn't obsolete.

A day later, Uriel also receives a phone call. It's from the Israel Prize committee, and they're summoning him to a private meeting. As it turns out, Uriel won the Israel Prize, but because of clerical carelessness his father was notified. Now the committee wants Uriel to inform Eliezer of the mistake.

Uriel objects. He argues that it would kill his father to not only get the prize taken from him but to see it awarded to his son. He claims that Eliezer in fact deserves the prize - has deserved it for years. Even later, when he realizes that his father's achievements maybe aren't so grand in scope, Uriel emphasizes the personal devastation and the irreparable blow to the father-son relationship that would result. It isn't as if Uriel is close to his father; Eliezer's personality and preoccupation with his work have made him distant from nearly everyone. But Uriel fears that his father would loathe him.

What if Uriel were to give up the prize and maintain the charade that it was intended for his father all along? He would spare his father from public humiliation and personal hurt but also make him an unwitting accomplice to a lie; Eliezer, in his scholarly work at least, has always been meticulous and accurate. Furthermore, Uriel loves recognition - one key way in which he's similar to his father. By passing on the award, will he ever be able to claim it for himself? Would he ever get recognition and respect from his father?

If Eliezer found out about the deception, how would he react, knowing that the award was granted to him thanks to his son's efforts? Uriel's actions may be self-sacrificing, but he has also trapped Eliezer in a fiction. Because Uriel wants to protect his father's ego from yet another blow, he maintains an illusion around him. Could Eliezer ever penetrate it? This is his one chance to be embraced by his academic peers, when for decades he's labored among a handful of like-minded scholars in the depths of the library, people coming to identify him primarily as 'Uriel's father' rather than as a notable academic in his own right. The award reflects what he feels he deserves, and what his son wants him to have in order to feel less embittered - but does he merit it? Does his fragile pride, and his son's need to protect it, trap them both in a lie? What does the award itself come to mean, compromised as it is?

The movie starts with a lie - an anecdote distorted by Uriel about a time his father supposedly inspired him, when instead Eliezer was acting out of pride (and not with much honesty, it seems). The movie ends with a public lie too, as far as we know. My first reaction to the ending was, "What a cop out!" but then I came to appreciate its thought-provoking quality. The movie in some ways is like an incomplete text. We're given some facts and footnotes about the characters, we witness their surface struggles and hear some general principles stated: that there are some things a son shouldn't know about his father, and that a man shouldn't envy his son or his pupil. But the characters also have dimensions only hinted at. Their relationships are shown in glimpses, brief emotional exchanges and meaningful silences, that suggest depths we can't readily access. Watching them, we're interpreters of a complex text.

Uriel for instance has children of his own, including a son, Josh (Daniel Markovich), who seems to have no ambitions in life. Has he tuned out because he grew up in the shadow of his father and grandfather, who are both obsessed with greatness? Does he recoil from the hypocrisies and pettiness so often found at the heart of ambitious enterprise? Maybe in observing Uriel and Eliezer he concludes that it's impossible for a son to truly please a father. We never find out what's going on with Josh, but those are some likely guesses. In the beginning of the movie, we hear that Eliezer's wife, Yehudit (Aliza Rosen), has the title of 'doctor' but never learn what kind of doctor she is; though she and her husband live under the same roof, they don't really live together - they sleep in separate rooms and engage in some stilted conversation - but we never find out why they're so distant from each other, though we can make guesses. Uriel's wife, Dikla (Alma Zack), is primarily his sounding board and occasionally punctures his pretensions about himself. We know relatively little about the wives and children, because everyone in the movie is secondary to the father and son, their egos and demands. And even the father and son aren't fully revealed to us, though I think by the end they learn a good deal about each other and maybe about themselves.

Both Shlomo Bar-Aba and Lior Ashkenazi give wonderful performances (Bar-Aba excels at playing a closed-off quietly tormented character). One problem I initially had with the ending was that I wanted a father-son confrontation; they barely speak to each other throughout the movie. Then I realized that they do have a confrontation, obliquely, through text. They communicate to each other through their scholarly habits and their use of language. One word that stands out is 'fortress.' A fortress can be a means of defense. It can also be a trap, shutting people away within its walls. A fortress can seem impregnable, when in reality it has fundamental weaknesses in its structure that you can spot and exploit if you know where to look.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Week in Seven Words #124

Dinner is held in a dim and peaceful room, the windows framing a pink sunset. On the table, flowers are cradled in a vase.

I'm fed up with "good intentions" - not actual good intentions but the expression itself: "Don't be mad, I have good intentions" or "I'm telling you that nearly everything about you stinks, but that's ok, because I have good intentions." They're an excuse for every insensitive remark, personal affront, and belabored criticism; they absolve the speaker of any wrong-doing. There's no need for self-examination or a sincere attempt to speak with tact and empathy. How can anyone be hurt or irritated by good intentions? ("That's one of your problems right there - you're too sensitive. No, it's true. Believe me, I'm telling you this out of the goodness of my heart.")

Walking in the rain wearing sandals that nick my toes.

For the most part she's an easy dog to watch over. She solicits belly rubs, flops down on the carpet by my feet for a rest, and tussles with some of her chew toys. But there are ten minutes when a switch flips in her puppy mind and she tears around the room in a circuit, over the back of the couch and under the bed and back out again.

A game of Scrabble on a bench outdoors with a breeze from the river.

Light shimmering on the underside of stone.

When I tuck them into bed they sing me the lullabies that their parents usually sing to them.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Worth Watching: Whip It (2009)

Title: Whip It
Director: Drew Barrymore
Language: English
Rating: PG-13

Whip It movie poster

Whip It is a funny, energetic and heartfelt movie about Bliss Cavender (Ellen Page), an awkward teen who comes to feel most at home in a giant warehouse in Austin, Texas where she skates in a roller derby league. Roller derby is an aggressive contact sport on quad skates, explained nicely in the movie; the league Bliss joins is made up of amateur teams and all the skaters are women, which is what most roller derby leagues look like. She gets recruited to the Hurl Scouts, the underachieving underdogs of the league, and skates alongside the likes of Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore), Rosa Sparks (Eve), and Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell), who become a second family to her. (Bliss's roller derby name is Babe Ruthless.)

Drew Barrymore, Ellen Page, and Kristen Wiig

When watching Whip It I sometimes knew what was coming, but other times my expectations were overturned. The movie is character-driven; it isn't chained to a generic coming-of-age or underdog athletes plot. It feels like a labor of love, with characters who are loved. The story is really about Bliss's character development, how roller derby gives her a new comfortableness in her own skin and a growing assertiveness that changes her relationships with other people.

Bliss being cheered by her roller derby team

The movie doesn't have any villains. Bliss butts heads most often with her mom, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden), who in a lesser movie might have been portrayed as a shrill over-the-top tyrant, but here is human and understandable; Marcia Gay Harden softens her, gives her vulnerability, and she and Bliss actually have conversations, confront each other with love and pain. Bliss's arguments with her mom aren't about mindless rebellion or not caring anymore what her parents think, because she does care, and after getting a sensible perspective from Maggie Mayhem (her mentor/closest friend/"cool aunt" from her team) she also hopes for a truce. In part she and her mom argue because their temperaments are similar - both stubborn and tough, with a tendency to feel insecure about themselves.

The one character who comes closest to being villainous is Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis), a scarily intense skater who is Bliss's biggest rival in the league. Juliette Lewis plays her in such a way that when she smiles you don't know whether she's going to slap you on the back or slam your face into a wall. But Iron Maven isn't psychotic, and there's in fact a strange respect that springs up between her and Bliss. She's like a mentor from the dark side, pushing Bliss to be as competitive as she can be and live up to her derby name, Babe Ruthless.

Ellen Page skating

It's great watching the actresses roller-skating and pulling off cool moves on the track. One of them, Zoe Bell, is an actual stunt double in film and television (she was Uma Thurman's double in the Kill Bill movies), but all of the actresses get to show off their athleticism and just have fun skating.

The Hurl Scouts and their coach

The movie also has a romance between Bliss and a musician, Oliver (Landon Pigg), which starts off sweetly enough but by the end feels a little tacked-on, the obligatory romance in a coming-of-age story. The men I liked watching in this movie were the Hurl Scouts' coach, Razor (Andrew Wilson), who achieves a state of supreme well-being when his team finally decides to study his playbook, and "Hot Tub" Johnny Rocket (Jimmy Fallon), the announcer/commentator in the league, who's just happy to be there, hungover and enthusiastic, trying and failing to score with the women. Also Bliss's dad, Earl (Daniel Stern), is pretty sweet, especially when he and the mom make eyes at each other.

Given how Whip It turned out I hope that Drew Barrymore keeps directing movies. The acting is good all around, especially from Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, and Kristen Wiig. The movie has humanity and is centered on the characters; it also does something relatively rare in movies - portray friendship among many women, who discuss topics that have nothing to do with guys and clothes (though they talk about that too). And it's full of life and spirit. It should be better known.

*All images link back to their sources (Rotten Tomatoes and Flixster Community).

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Week in Seven Words #123

Music waits for us at the subway platforms too - xylophone Disney and Broadway melodies, a guitarist smiling through his performance of The House of the Rising Sun.

Being menaced by a sword made out of construction paper.

The whine and sigh of taxis, cars, and trucks on the street below, muffled by window glass.

I sit with my laptop outdoors in front of a dark rectangular pool. When looking up from my work I picture images flickering across the pool, as if it's become a computer screen too, full of scrolling text and pop-up ads.

I'm reminded of why I don't like most non-fat frozen yogurts. They taste like sharply sweet coldness.

What an unreal day, floating around on buses and trains.

The child objects to the stroller. As he's folded into it he screams that he wants to walk. When his hollering turns into frustrated tears I can't help feeling bad for him.

Introducing Bright Across the Lifespan

Another blog?

Yes, I have another blog. It's called Bright Across the Lifespan and is focused on the psychology and neuroscience of having a well-developed healthy mind at any age.

I started it recently, and figured that if I get past 10 posts, it means I'm committed to it.

If you'd like, you can visit and sign-up to get updates by email (or join me on Twitter - this is my first Twitter account, and it's been interesting so far. I've discovered great people and articles through it.)

The Sill of the World will of course continue as it is (a Week in Seven Words post is scheduled for later today).


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Brassy voices and mass tap-dancing

If I need a five minute break from work, one thing I'll do is watch one of the many Youtube clips showing musical numbers from older movies or shows. But sometimes I also watch more recent performances.

This is a 2011 Tony Award show clip highlighting the final song-and-tapdance number in Anything Goes (Sutton Foster, the lead singer in the show, did win a Tony that evening.)

Anyway, I loved the group tapdance, and the note Foster belts out at the end.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Week in Seven Words #122

At the cafe we sit right by the huge open windows, and cool air rolls over us as the storm starts up. We breathe deeply and peacefully until I wonder aloud if lightning can come in through open windows. (Chances of that are small, very small, but it's not impossible...)

It's lovely when a subway car suddenly disgorges all if its passengers, and you're no longer standing with your nose in someone's hair line.

Turtles loll in the shallows nom-nom-nomming on leaves.

Tulips on a table laid out in rich blue paper.

Springtime in the synagogue, flowers twined around the room.

They sing "Baby Beluga" with looks of rapt innocent concentration. They're little people who can barely sit still, love to give hugs, and know the words to songs about donkeys, wheels on buses, saying good-bye and the deep blue sea.

The bug making its slow patient way across my ceiling is an explorer of sorts, mapping out an ocean of space. Even as I stand there waiting for it with an old textbook and a bottle of Windex, I can respect its intrepid spirit.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Good Short Fiction: The Pedestrian (by Ray Bradbury)

Title: The Pedestrian
Author: Ray Bradbury
Where I read it: Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories (ed. John Joseph Adams)

Imagine living in a society where going for a walk alone at night can land you in a mental hospital. Not a far-fetched idea. Walking alone is a subversive act. Your mind is going in any direction you want it to take. You don't always have a destination or a clear purpose for your walk, so your actions aren't easily accounted for. And you aren't going along with the majority of people, who drive, stick together in groups, share similar tastes, and spend their spare time plugged into mass entertainment. The pedestrian of Bradbury's story, Leonard Mead, is also a writer and unmarried, so his deviancy is off the charts. Who knows what he'll do, roaming the neighborhoods after dark?
He listened to the faint push of his soft shoes through autumn leaves with satisfaction, and whistled a cold quiet whistle between his teeth, occasionally picking up a leaf as he passed, examining its skeletal pattern in the infrequent lamplights as he went on, smelling its rusty smell.
The Pedestrian isn't a story with an involved plot, but a snapshot of a society where every harmless aberration from the norm is treated as a dangerous mental illness. It's written effectively and hits close to home. It's also exactly what you'd expect from such a story: an artistic individual gently violating the unspoken rules of society while his faceless neighbors stare at T.V. shows. The authorities, when they swoop in, are also faceless. If there's some heavy-handedness in how the story's told I can overlook it, because it's a short piece and the image of the solitary walker pinned by the light of a patrol car is chilling.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Week in Seven Words #121

They're given random scraps and told to build whatever they can imagine. Cars with plastic bottle cap wheels, a walkie-talkie with a straw antenna, a castle made out of cups and toilet paper rolls.

The music at the frozen yogurt shop is so loud, the place so packed and noisy, that you can't think or talk to the person next to you. You just stare into your cup and eat and eat before it all melts.

We've gone so deep into the park we can pretend we're no longer in the city. At the pond we find a bench. Though it looks a little wilted in the heat, the pond is a nice spot I think. He sees it as stagnant. I can understand why, but I can't agree. There's always something alive in there. A mix of fish, turtles, plants and microbes. It's a quiet place, and promises whatever you can find in it; the closer you look the more there is. After our conversation, which has kept returning to life's disappointments, to uninformed choices that can't be undone, I want to be in a place like this, out-of-the-way and quietly overflowing with life.

The tiny sailboats have ventured onto the water again.

The cookie dough has already been prepared; now it's only a matter of cutting it and flattening it into cookie-shaped pieces before it goes into the miniature oven. Of the four residents at the table, one can wield a knife quite well. Another tries but can barely manage. A third pops a piece of raw dough in his mouth then resumes staring silently at the rest of it. The fourth curses when you get too near her. "I wouldn't feed that to my cat," she mutters.

Forget the subway and bus; I'll find a new way home. And I do, on land rising steeply over a lake, where the inlets are coated in a vivid green scum, and the path curves beneath low-hanging branches.

The howl of a dog that doesn't know what she did wrong.