Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The narration of our lives

I recently saw The Great Buck Howard, a movie starring John Malkovich and Colin Hanks. While I watched, I couldn't help but think about Colin trying to get out of his father's shadow. Tom Hanks is like the male Jennifer Aniston or Sandra Bullock; an iconic, person-next-door kinda, much beloved actor/celeb. His son just doesn't have the same magnetism, at least not yet. For instance, the kid tells nothing with his eyes or face.

While I mused over whether Colin is any good, or at least watchable, I realized part of what bugged me was the narration. Colin is narrating his own story, the movie being a tad more about him than his quirky employer. As if his acting isn't enough to carry the story, he tells us what he's thinking, or about to do. Is it harder to write a screen play in which the characters' lines and acting carry the story without the spoken insights? Can a good actor overcome insight gaps with facial expression, movements, gestures? Does Kevin Costner overcome his narra...--nevermind. Don't don't get me started on Costner. I love Field of Dreams, BUT... guess I need to think on that some more.

What are examples of narration in a good story? A number come to mind. The Princess Bride, The Big Lebowski, The Shawshank Redemption. I can't imagine any of them without the omniscient narrator embellishing things. And hey, I'd listen to anything Morgan Freeman narrates, including a Denny's breakfast menu.

In making a story, there are two kinds of narration: reliable and unreliable. The three examples above are reliable, the narrator is giving you true insights; an excellent example of unreliable would be The Usual Suspects. The narrator there, Kevin Spacey, is making things up as he goes along but you don't know it (for sure) until the end. His unreliable narration IS the story. The same is true of Edward Norton in Fight Club. So maybe I'll make this generality for the moment--while reliable narration EMBELLISHES a story, unreliable narration tends to BE the story.

If art imitates life, what does that say about our narration of our lives? That voice in our heads, our stream of consciousness, the avatar of our self image. Are we reliable or unreliable narrators? I'm thinking we pretty much reliably embellish our stories, and here's why.

I once received a real gift in the form of a blind personal evaluation conducted by a military school I attended. I was in my 40s at this point and well established in my career. The evaluation included opinion sheets filled out by by at least 3 each of my subordinates, my peers and my bosses. The results would be anonymous except by group, and revealed to me only after I left my job, so as to prevent any hard feelings. After attending this school, you move on to a different job posting.

My own opinion of myself was pretty good--that I was overall competent and valued, responsive to my bosses, loyal to my peers and just a hell of a great boss to subordinates. To mix the poll up a bit though, I sent one to a boss I "knew" didn't like me, a friend I considered my "very closest," and subordinates I thought would at least be a spectrum of opinion, from great to so-so.

I'll get straight to the point--across the board I was almost universally average at best. In a couple areas, a little below. That means the boss that hated me didn't destroy me, my best friend didn't elevate me, and worst of all (I thought), not one of my subordinates worshiped me. In hot-button areas like competence, fairness, personality--average. It gets worse, because there may have been a "halo effect" in which people tend to be a little kinder than completely truthful. Well, I refuse to believe I'm a complete ogre, but clearly my self image was wrong.

What to do, what to do. I like to think I adjusted myself both to be more realistic and to improve the areas I already thought were good. I don't know how I did, because I'll never get blind honesty again like that again; but I know for sure that like the saying goes, never believe your own press.

As far as movies, most narration is not a cop-out, and mostly reliable--but you're not being painted into a corner like we probably do in real life...

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Once Again, Health Care

Found this site called darwinsfinance.com while searching the web for pro and con arguments for the current health care bill. Though his primary focus is finance, he wrote an excellent article "What's wrong With THIS Health Care Reform."

Darwin's not a fan, and makes some disturbing points about "to ration or not to ration" (6 kidneys, 10 transplant patients, who decides???). He takes big exception to some shameful back-room deals made to get this legislation, like the deal made with unions--grrr.

Yeah, it's a little ugly. But don't lose the main point for a bitter sidebar. Yeah, making side deals sucks, but always had 'em, probably always will... what about what we achieved?

Truthfully, after reading up a bit, I see a lot wrong with this bill. However, I've taken the viewpoint that suck or not, we had to get SOMETHING on paper, or we would never even BEGIN to address this heinous problem everyone agrees will bankrupt the country some day. Are you forgetting that since Nixon, we have been trying to "fix" health care with no luck? Even back in '71, they could see the train wreck coming.

It's a good thing we can agree it will bankrupt the country if we do nothing--because from that point on, there is no agreement. So how do we move forward? Better off trying to fix a program in place, than to get one off the ground.

For good measure, Darwin references several pro and con blogs: My Journey to Millions (gist: is this constitutional?), Len Penzo (gist: we'll have buyers remorse) and Financial Samurai (gist: insuring the uninsured is worth it). It is worth reading all three to get some other viewpoints; you may find that each of them makes good points, or contains at least a little emotional argument, incomplete logic or questionable "facts." There may be legitimate concern on how the insurance companies will fight back. There will almost certainly be unintended consequences. If you want a really depressing viewpoint, do a search on "what nurses say about Health care reform." Man, who to believe...

Lest we forget, we are already sharing the costs of basic health care for all in the form of Emergency Room's that can't (and rightly shouldn't) turn away patients. So, Mr. and Mrs. Entitlement, quit bitching about footing the bill. And get better informed about what you stand to lose by this legislation, which in most cases is little or nothing.

GOP got you riled up? Guess why, they aren't in power; and elections are at stake this year. How are we going to pay for this? Is it really going to "save" us money in the long run? I personally find much of what the Dems do is distasteful, I am in fact a registered Republican. But it is worth mentioning that a GOP controlled congress and GOP president didn't even try to address health care. Nor did they reduce the federal budget, deficit, or the size of government. Does it bother you that not one Republican reached across the aisle in an effort to get something passed, for the greater good? It bothers me. Some things really should transcend partisanship.

It's interesting to see the demographic that comprises the organized protests... all I'm saying is do some research, listen to both sides, and check your facts people. You may still disagree with what's happened but at least you won't be parrots or sheep.

I hope this damn post makes sense...

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Stuff I Love

I don't know how much this blog is read by others than my family, but I noticed my profile got 10 quick hits right after I wrote something on health care. Well, I like getting comments and it's gratifying to know someone is reading these, so more is coming on health care shortly; but, I'm giving serious thought to starting a second blog just to embed music videos for my own reference. Most of today's music just feels soul-less to me, for me there is no comparison to the 70's and 80's.

So anyway.... here's three. I found this stuff that I saw on British television when I lived there in the 80's. These videos didn't get much play, if any, in the states.

First up is Kate Bush, who does some weird stuff but also some beautiful stuff. It's called Breathing, from 1980, and it's about a baby afraid to come out of the womb due to the threat of nuclear weapons.

Next, one of my '80s favs, Howard Jones. This is not one of the songs for which he is well known. But after seeing this performance, he is probably the first musician that started me thinking of musicians as artists, and this is definitely artful. And spooky. From 1985, Hunger for the Flesh (forgive him the flat moment or two).

Last one, just for fun, Nik Kershaw. Though there is a definite message here, this is just light pop fare, and Nik was definitely publicized as a teen idol-type. But don't take him lightly, he was a solid arena performer, he wrote great stuff and still performs, and if you find a video of this song in his acoustic version, you will be very impressed.

Hope you enjoyed. OK, next post, something with a political slant.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Healthcare--Who is the enemy?

In 2003, Tony Blair, former UK Prime Minister and one of my favorite politicians, addressed a group of British Ambassadors with this speech (in part):

"I am not surprised by anti-Americanism; but it is a foolish indulgence. For all their faults and all nations have them, the US are a force for good; they have liberal and democratic traditions of which any nation can be proud. I sometimes think it is a good rule of thumb to ask of a country: are people trying to get into it or out of it? It's not a bad guide to what sort of country it is."

To be fair, he wasn't the first to espouse this sentiment. George Will called it "the gate test" in '92, and in '94 Timothy Ash called it "the Statue of Liberty test." Neither of them was referring merely to Mexican border incursions; in truth, the US limits immigration in both number and in terms of what the prospective immigrant brings to the table, due to the incredible number of applications each year.

I feel this is kind of a "bottom line" to which we should defer when doubting some of the stuff that is happening in our country. Some people I know, who shall remain nameless, are quick to jump to the negative stuff and cry "our nation is falling apart" or some-such. Why do we keep supporting Israel when they openly snub us? What in the heck is Texas doing with their history books? Why do we still have racism and homophobia in our country? I'm not going to stand for this health care legislation...

Ah, there it is--such unbelievable divisiveness, not seen in our country since social security legislation, this "first step toward communism..." Now that it has passed the House, a number of states are taking it to court for 10th Amendment violation of state's rights, and more specifically, the lack of authority to force the american people to buy something (health care). Don't kid yourself, if you look at the vote along party lines, it is obvious special interests are playing a part in damning this legislation. My research is not complete, but it looks like most of the states filing this are being led by GOP Governors or Attorney's General. As has been the case since Nixon, everybody agrees on reasonable health care for all, but not on how to do it--end result, until now, is it never happened.

My point in opening this blog with Blair's quote is simple; we are a country with flaws despite our greatness, but what makes us great is our consistent track record to make corrections that always bring us within tolerances so attractive to immigrants. Shouldn't we be proud of our actions to legislate and improve tolerance of all kinds? Don't we stand for human rights in the world? Aren't we constantly providing aid of all kinds to other nations?

We have our setbacks--we should have learned something about our actions in Iraq from our actions in Viet Nam perhaps; but the threat of international NGO terrorism is something new we are learning to deal with, with sometimes faltering steps. We will get better at it.

I think the same will hold true with health care. Is it perfect? No. Adjustments are forthcoming, with time. We are not our own enemy; we are the force of balance that will fine tune the thing everyone wanted, a fair and equitable universal health care system. We just had to start with something, and finally--we did. Have faith...

Monday, March 1, 2010

Where are all the good horror movies?

The most prolific horror movies today are pure crap. The whole "slasher" genre. As much as I love a good scare, somebody sold my beloved horror world to pure unadulterated sell-out profit mongers. They care nothing for the craft. They keep rewriting the same "murder the good-looking people" plot lines. They are even remaking them; Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elmstreet, Texas Chainsaw. Why are people going to these movies? I love a good horror story but I am appalled by the idea that simply killing a long string of attractive young people in gory ways immediately before, during or after sex is somehow entertainment. It's just disgusting, but worse, and more unforgivably, uninteresting.

People, true horror is not sci-fi, mass-slashing or cataclysm. You have to build horror, it has to creep up on you, not ride in on a bullet train during an earthquake.

How about the classic monsters? One of my fav books of all time is Salem's Lot, possibly the rightful successor to Bram Stoker's Dracula as the quintessential blood sucker tome. However, vampires have been done to death and, as far as TV and movies goes, thanks but no thanks. Frankenstein monster? Over-cooked. The mummy? I say "let's call it a wrap." Werewolves? They used to be my favorite because of the tragic dimension to the curse. But that oil field is drained as well; I'm told the recent remake of The Wolfman is a real howler...

So I'm not fingernailing the chalkboard for any more of those movies. My fear is that many folks are quick to lump zombies in with that overexposed crowd and stop making those movies--and here, I cry foul.

People overlook one fact about the zombie milieu; it is actually two genres in one--monsters and the apocalypse--lending itself to many more permutations. Werewolves, vampires and ax-wielding sexually-frustrated nut cases make for very personal dramas played out, most commonly, in a near claustrophobic stage setting. Zombies are almost by definition pandemic and near-global. The essential zombie movie inescapably deals with heroes and/or anti-heroes scrounging off a lost civilization while dodging horrific caricatures of their previous lives. Think of the possibilities!

There are variations, i.e. fast and slow zombies. A zombie story can be claustrophobic or span a continent, or most likely both. (SPOILER WARNING IN THIS PARAGRAPH) Recently released to DVD, Zombieland reinvents the genre by painting zombies almost as backdrop to a buddy story with a romantic interest. That movie delivers comedy and a few good scares without ever losing any of the main characters to the imminent threat. Refreshing change from most horror entries.

Another variation, the original zombies were not flesh eaters. The result of voodoo practices, zombies were meant to be people whose free will has left them, possibly they are dead. But ultimately they are being punished, or used as slave labor, and the horror comes purely from the threat of becoming a zombie, not being victimized by one. Movies from the '30s through the '50s were populated by that genre.

So lets not close the door on this most fertile territory just yet. You know what they say: "When there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth..." Well, how about we temporarily rent the freespace in Hades so we can get a few more of these little treasures on celluloid, or disc, or whatever media?

At least until World War Z hits the theaters...