Perils In Palacio: On R.J. Palacio’s “Wonder”

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R.J. Palacio Wonder

R.J. Palacio. Image via The Telegraph.

Near the end of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, an interesting — nay, emblematic — thing starts to happen. Just when Auggie, the book’s friendless, deformed, 5th-grade hero gets all the abuse that he could possibly stand, a mildness comes over the other children. Perhaps this is because Auggie finally stands up for himself. Perhaps it is because the popular girl befriends him, then ‘risks all’ to stand by him. Or perhaps it is something altogether stranger, less definable, in the way that a mob might rise and go despite still suckling at their accumulated aims. Yet none of this matters, really, for Auggie gets friends, a possible romantic interest, and even receives the school’s most prestigious award for — well, for survival, I guess, despite not doing much to earn it. He gets, in short, the sort of rich fantasy life that every bullied ‘loser’ must on some level entertain. The only difference, here, is that nothing is imagined, for there are just too many hands (of adults, kids, God) laying it all out on a platter.

Now, I’ve wondered how this could be; how a children’s book that purports to teach kids about life prepares them for nothing but its bowdlerization. There are, I suppose, many answers to this, but the short one is that condescension, for all intents and purposes, is dead. No one cares to talk ‘up’ to anyone, for everyone, we are reminded, is corralled into ghettos of both mind and place. No one really understands dilution (of compliments, emotion), for what was once an end, and very much ‘the’ end, is now a means to something vaguely therapeutic. No one wants to hear of inborn talent unless it is doled out and democratized for all. Yes, this is pure condescension — all of it — but when few care about the word and how it applies to things, when it ceases to be something that is feared, defended against, rebuked — then it is dead, for it has entered into the body as an autonomic impulse rather than a choice.

Of course, Palacio’s badly written, badly edited, tin-eared, and poorly thought-out book is not the problem. The real problem is that someone decided to bring this book into schools, and schools, always so very sensitive to trends, decided to teach it, and teachers, wanting to believe the best of their kids, simply bought it, and kids, being kids, nodded their heads at the book’s various ‘lessons,’ and went back to a far more bitter reality — often with glee. In fact, Wonder’s peculiar brand of irreality has been making inroads for decades, now, as people were slowly brought in from the margins (into schools, jobs, relationships) and, lacking skills or any way to make their worth tangible to the real world, they were simplified rather than dealt with, to the point that our innate differences were quietly erased. In this arrangement, human nature … Continue reading →

Review Of “La Planète sauvage” (Fantastic Planet)

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La Planète sauvage Fantastic Planet Roland Topor LarouxThe more that I study animation, the bigger its differences (self-imposed and no) with cinema seem to go. This is because animation — as I’ve argued elsewhere — despite forcing a kind of irreality upon the viewer, requires no genuine suspension of disbelief, since we know that people don’t quite perceive the world in the way that animators depict. This is an often overlooked advantage, for it gives an artist leeway to break quite a few rules without necessarily compromising the art’s art, all the while putting the viewer into a receptive state of mind that wishes to further test boundaries. In fact, it is precisely this willingness to explore and engage that’s necessary for good art to flourish. It is surprising, then, that so few animated films have broached artistic greatness, a thing that might be remedied if the ‘why’ of such is better understood, and the word’s answers better applied.

Rene Laloux’s 1973 film Fantastic Planet (La Planète sauvage) is a good pedagogical tool to this end, for it is well-scored, well-voiced, well-limned, intellectually, and well-animated — the last being true despite its simple appearance, which by its nature tends to heighten the Draag giants, diminutize the tiny Om, and deepen the more outlandish creatures, within, merely by stripping them down to a few salient parts, and mimicking the way child-like dreams and memories really work. Indeed, it is animator’s Roland Topor’s work that drives much of the film, both in the film’s overt decisions, such as La Planète sauvage‘s lingering shots and mnemonic imagery, to the smaller stuff, such as the heavy-handed shading, thus nicely recapitulating how a child might interpret (and conduct) the word ‘art’. Yet for all that, the film is more or less adult, and while didacticism hinders so much animation, from Soviet ‘classics’ (Hedgehog In The Fog) to even the most recent Japanese anime, it still manages to handle its ideas quite well, deftly turning away from its own arcs, at times, before things get too formulaic and predictable.

The film opens with a fleeing Om (identical in sound to the French homme), as a few blue-skinned Draag children torture her and her child with exotic-looking objects and reneged opportunities to escape. It takes the viewer a moment to get what’s going on, nicely imaging the sort of helplessness that the Om, themselves, might feel. They kill her, and Tiwa — a conscientious, pre-teen girl — decides to keep the infant as a pet. Named Terr (the film’s onomastics, if you can’t tell, are a weak point), he provides a pretty good voice-over: ‘good’ because it is succinct and does not needlessly recap what we’ve already witnessed, keeping things to an occasional sentence or two, the first of which (‘That was my first encounter with the Grand Master of the Draags’) tricks the viewer into accepting Tiwa’s father as the referent, even as Tiwa is the one to grow in stature over … Continue reading →

When Google Met WikiLeaks: Julian Assange & The Making Of A Live-Long Pattern

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When Google Met WikiLeaks Julian Assange

Image via WikiLeaks.

Some time ago — oh, say, on the order of 40,000 years — a few tribesmen shored onto New Guinea, and were puzzled to find the place quite empty. Sun, highlands, and the moon’s egress, mid-day and night; things, all, no doubt, big things, even, but without the confluence of people to make it real. In short, the tribesmen were too used to activity, not quiet, analyzing others’ body language and being analyzed in turn, at every turn, for everything was violence and negotiation for as long as they could remember. Yet they were only a few families, still, with an immediate environment that was quite easy to control. So, they’d let the generations pass, until, one day, they woke up to clamor.

It wasn’t war, exactly. It was, in fact, mere over-crowdedness, and each person — not used to crowds after all these years of re-adapting — could no longer sense what the other was thinking. In time, something big will happen, something new, wherein people could finally organize themselves, find new ways of doing things, new ways of thinking, and open long-closed doors to productivity. Except there will be one problem: not everyone’s on board. And, whenever there are folks on the margins, there’s always the threat (or so the thinking goes) of a new and better, perhaps endless order.

No, I can’t know these things, as facts, but I know (or think I know) people, and the ruts they inevitably fall to. Thus, in reading Julian Assange’s When Google Met WikiLeaks, on Google’s Eric Schmidt’s meeting with Assange in 2011, I was reminded of the above precepts. They are not, to be sure, value judgments per se, but simply an admission that as the world grows more complex, the human tendency is fear, and that fear leads to paranoia, and paranoia leads to irrational and presumptive behavior — Assange’s real critique of government secrecy, both in the book and elsewhere, whether or not he realizes this, for the issue is not so much the desire to pry data, or hide bad behavior (human constants, all), but the particulars of this arrangement, and especially when the balance starts to favor the powerful.

In fact, as I’ve argued elsewhere, far too much has been made of, say, the legality of Edward Snowden’s leaks, despite the fact that pure legalism is a rustic way of viewing far deeper ethical dilemmas. I mean, just think of it: Jim Crow was a legal fact once. So is Monsanto’s bio-piracy, and bank policies that — unless immediately curtailed — will lead to financial chaos once more. Such things are outside of the scope of ethics, however, for when they’re ensconced in mere legalese, as pundits and laypeople so often do, they refer strictly to contracts: what people agree to do or not do, NOT the immanent justice of such contracts, which is the deeper and more relevant discussion.

Eric Schmidt Julian Assange When Google Met WikiLeaks

Eric Schmidt: “‘If you have something that you

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My New Column: “Tooth And Nail” at Cosmoetica!

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Besides my essays for IDEAS ON IDEAS, I will now be writing a column called “Tooth And Nail” for Cosmoetica, thus taking the place of Len Holman’s brilliant several-year run. If you haven’t read his essays yet — 15 million hits, and counting! — they are witty, concise 800-900 word pieces on all things politics, and more. Len is combative, opinionated, and, most importantly, an excellent writer: qualities that I will replicate in similar articles to give you guys (and myself!) a respite from the monstrous 10,000+ word essays on this website.

In short, writers get FAR too comfortable simply being ‘one thing,’ whether it’s novel-writing, poetry, essays on this or that topic, or what have you. Yet as art grows out of its juvenile little phase, artists will take on new challenges as well as new responsibilities. These include diversity of skill and vision, greater consistency, and a better understanding of what art is, and, yes, what art isn’t.

This column is my way of going towards this direction, that I don’t ossify into merely ‘one thing’ and get fat and sassy in the process. In this spirit, the topics will cover everything from art to politics, to cultural musings, and small ‘o’ observations. Do it all, baby — and do it well!

Essay #1: Pundits On Drugs, and what drug legalization should really mean.

Bye!… Continue reading →

Review: Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Still Walking” (2008)

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Still Walking Hiroshi Abe Yui Natsukawa Koreeda

It’s often thought that the best way to create a film — or any work of art, really — is really to write drama: to craft a conflict, first, and then deal with its natural outgrowths. In most cases, however, this is quite backwards, for true ‘adult’ drama begins not with the energies immanent to it, but to their architects: that is, people, and all the little details, the sums and parts, that help make such energies real. In this way, drama is not a thing that merely happens, but is demanded by the specifics of character, and feels almost inevitable. Few films have shown this better than Hirokazu Koreeda’s Still Walking, a work that begins and terminates with its characters, whose whims, personal beliefs, quirks, and mannerisms not only build their conflict, but come to justify it as well.

The film’s narrative follows a day in the Yokoyama family, a (subtly) needling clan not privy to the extent of their own destructiveness, and their shared mistakes. It opens with vistas of an anonymous town as a couple of guitars play (from Japan’s GONTITI) and domestic scenes unfold. These include food preparations — less for a meinichi, we’ll come to learn, than a bitter, self-serving ritual that simply recapitulates their own problems — small-talk between the aging mother, Toshiko (Kirin Kiki), and her daughter, You (Chinami Kataoka), that lulls that viewer into a sense of complacency that will soon be dispersed; and, most interesting of all, shots of Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), the film’s doctor and patriarch, seen in one of the film’s only tender moments as he laughs with a patient. Now, it may be impossible to tell just yet, but this is a clue that he’s not so much aloof as he is aloof from his own family, for reasons we’ll come to know and others never stated.

Kyohei’s role in this dynamic is evident early on, in one the film’s most arresting shots. One sees the parents’ son, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), his wife, Yukari (Yui Natsukawa), Yukari’s son, Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka), You, and her husband, talking to one another as Kyohei enters, unseen by the viewer, but clearly there given the family’s sudden — perhaps even fearful — reaction. It is a great acting moment and one that encapsulates the talent of pretty much everyone involved, subtly taking cues from each other and responding to them. The group immediately moves to bow, yet Ryota merely looks on with an aloofness that Kyohei returns. This is not really spiteful, merely proof that the relationship is at its end, with the rest of the film focused not so much on how it unravels — for it’s already quite unraveled, in interactions we do not see but can guess at — but on new insights into the same basic conflicts that must have trended through their lives for much too long.

Thus, there are no massive revelations, no melodramatic secrets that are uncovered to help the … Continue reading →