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Monthly Archives: October 2013

Into the Abyss, released in 2011 and directed by Werner Herzog, is a documentary film that focuses on death row in America. The film follows two men in Texas convicted of a triple homicide. One man – Michael Perry – is on death row, while the other – Jason Burkett – has been given a life sentence. Herzog interviews both men, as well as people affected by their crime, including families of the victims, an ex-prison guard, and a death row reverend.

Into the Abyss is not at all preachy about the death penalty issue. Herzog states at the beginning of the documentary that he completely opposes capital punishment, but the film as a whole makes no judgements. Perhaps this subtlety makes the issue even more ripe for debate. My boyfriend and I had a discussion about the death penalty after watching Into the Abyss. Boyfriend wasn’t sure whether or not Michael Perry should have been killed. It was surprising, as boyfriend pointed out, that neither Perry nor Burkett – even after ten years in prison and a guilty verdict – would admit what they had done, and continued to blame each other. Perry even used his last statement to forgive the family of the victim for putting him on death row. Boyfriend thinks that people like Perry and Burkett are sociopathic, and can’t be part of society. It’s no fault of their own, he says, but they have to be killed. I don’t agree. I think while perhaps it’s true that people like Perry and Burkett can’t be part of society, they can have some sort of quality of life away from society. Being able to read, think, and be alone.

In both Grizzly Man and Into the Abyss Herzog comes across as a very likeable documentary maker, an engaging and friendly interviewer. Maybe it’s his German accent, or the fact that he’s an older man. Or perhaps it’s something more practiced and premeditated. Herzog makes conversation with people easily. He treats everyone with respect, no matter who they are or what they’ve done, but still manages to ask tough questions. He’s very good with people. The opening where Herzog talks to The Reverend Richard Lopez, a man who worked beside the death row death bed, is particularly striking. The Reverend talks about stopping for squirrels in his car, saving them, and wishing he could do the same from those on death row. He cries. There are lots of lingering cameras, in Herzog’s films, which also serve to bring the viewer closer to the documentary’s subjects. Herzog lets the camera hold on people’s faces after they are done speaking, which somehow makes you feel like you see a touch more truth in them. (I’m sure the emotive music playing over the top has something to do with it, as well). Interviewing people is an art, and Herzog has perfected it. He knows not only the right questions to ask but how and when to ask them, and how to respond.

Into the Abyss is quite a long film, but it held my attention throughout. A fascinating and very human documentary.

Into the Abyss was directed by Werner Herzog. His other documentaries include Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Herzog won the Grierson Award for best documentary for Into the Abyss at the British Film Institute Awards in 2011.

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This review contains spoilers.

For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.

-Viktor Frankl (quoted at the beginning of A Good Land)

The second book about the Middle East I have picked up off the shelf in the last few months. The first was Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa (reviewed here), a novel that focuses on the conflict between Palestine and Israel. A Good Land is set in Lebanon, and while the final sections do revolve around the bombing of Lebanon by Israel in 2006, Jarrar’s novel is much more about the search for identity and the investigation of character than it is about war.

I like the structure of this story told in six parts, the first four from the perspectives of different characters. Layla, born in Lebanon but raised in Australia, returned to Beirut out of some need for Lebanon she can’t quite explain. Fouad, born and raised in Lebanon (he seemed sort of a peripheral character, and I’m still not sure why he had his own section). Kamal – a Palestinian refugee and a writer, who feels Beirut is his home. And Margo – the most intriguing character, an old woman, Polish or Czech, who lives in the same apartment block as Layla and Kamal. She connects with people easily, and has many friends. But she is deeply troubled, haunted by her past. When she dies it becomes clear that she wasn’t always honest with her friends about who she was.

The last two parts of A Good Land jump between perspectives, mostly those of Kamal and Layla, and cover the 2006 conflict (“War”) and life in Lebanon afterwards (“Hope”). Margo’s memories (or perhaps Layla’s imagining of Margo’s memories) also feature prominently. The last two sections also focus largely on the romantic relationship between Layla and Kamal.

At times I found A Good Land a bit too contemplative. The same question seemed to be repeated (mostly from Layla) over and over: Why am I here? This pondering coupled with a large amount of waxing lyrical about childhood places and landscapes became a little tedious. The love story was also a bit much for my taste – a little on the mushy side.

However, there are a lot of interesting ideas in this novel; intriguing universal questions about loneliness, happiness, purpose, and belonging. And Jarrar’s descriptions are often poetic and lovely. A Good Land offers a glimpse into a world that is different (for me, at least) in landscape and culture but recognisable in theme and feeling. An absorbing and interesting novel.

Nada Awar Jarrar was born in Lebanon but fled with her family during the civil war. Her other novels include Somewhere, Home (2003) and Dreams of Water (2007).

Imagine you see a little girl drowning in a lake. You can save her, but you will ruin an expensive pair of shoes. Who cares about the shoes? you say. Human life is far more important than shoes. But what if that little girl is drowning in Africa? You can’t see her, but you know she is there. And you can still save her life for the price of your shoes. Will you do it?

Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher most well known for his book Animal Liberation (1975) outlines the above hypothetical on his website The Life You Can Save. Singer suggests on the website, and in his most recent book of the same name, that we are just as obligated to save a child we know is dying in a faraway place as we are to save one dying a few feet from us. According to UNICEF about 19,000 children die every day from poverty related conditions. Conditions that we could prevent, Singer argues, for the cost of an expensive pair of shoes.

For those of us living relatively comfortable lives with money to spare, this is not a huge sacrifice. To cut world poverty in half, The Life You Can Save website argues, would take about $125 billion per year: not a lot when you consider the fact that Americans spend $116 billion annually just on alcohol. On the website Singer suggests how much people should be donating according to their annual income: if you make less than US$105,000 per year you should donate as little as 1 percent. The website even allows you to calculate exactly how much that means for you: if you make US$30,000 per year, for example, you should donate $300.

So why don’t more people donate? Singer suggests that we need to change the culture of giving. The Life You Can Save encourages people who decide to donate to pledge on the website. As of October 2013, 16,530 people had taken the pledge. That is, they had agreed to donate part of their income to an organisation committed to fighting extreme poverty. By pledging, Singer argues, you increase the chances that you will actually give the money, and you also encourage others to donate. According to Singer, research shows that people are more likely to help if they know that others are doing so.

The Life You Can Save also offers a list of trusted organizations to give to. The list is compiled by GiveWell, a group that reviews charities. Their top two recommendations are the Against Malaria Foundation and the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative.

Visit the website and take the pledge: www.thelifeyoucansave.org

The Little Prince

An enchanting story that can be read in an afternoon, The Little Prince is short but packed full of ideas that keep stretching out long after you’ve finished it.

The Little Prince was written by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a French author whose own life was almost as extraordinary as his fable (there are certainly elements of autobiography in The Little Prince). Saint-Exupery was born in France in 1900 and grew up to become a pilot and a writer. These two occupations are not particularly compatible, it seems – Saint-Exupery would often daydream at his controls, and he was involved in numerous near-fatal crashes. In 1935, for example, his plane went down in the Libyan desert. He survived, and wrote about his ordeal in Wind, Sand and Stars. During the Second World War Saint-Exupery was exiled to the U.S., where he wrote The Little Prince and Letter to a Hostage. However writing was not enough for him, and he somehow persuaded the Allies to let him fly again. He disappeared in July 1944, probably shot down by a German fighter plane.

The Little Prince is the most translated book in the French language, and it is easy to understand why. It is beautifully simple, and yet full of the kind of philosophy that can keep you thinking and comfort you for a lifetime. It is the sort of book that needs to be read again and again, at different ages and moments in life. The sort of book that should be kept and carried from home to home.

The Little Prince tells the story of an alien-boy (the prince) who journeys from his star to Earth where he meets a pilot (the story’s narrator) trying to fix his plane in an African desert. The Prince is sad to have left his planet. He misses his three volcanoes (which he swept out every day, even though one of them is extinct) and his beautiful but demanding flower. He is excited to experience new worlds, however, and before he reaches Earth the little prince travels to six other planets. He meets a king, a conceited man, a drunkard, a lamplighter, a businessman, and a geographer. When he finally arrives on Earth the little prince finds the pilot and slowly reveals his adventures.

There are so many lovely images and ideas in this book, accompanied by drawings by Saint-Exupery. Fat boab trees clinging to the sides of planets, the narrator’s drawing of an elephant being eaten by a boa constrictor, the selfish but beautiful flower that the little prince loves, the simple wisdom of children. My favourite moment in the story comes when the little prince meets a fox. The boy is agonising over the discovery that his flower is not unique, but is just like a whole garden of others. The fox tells the prince the following secret: “you can only see things clearly with your heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” This idea is also expressed, although in a different way, in Letter to a Hostage.

Letter to a Hostage

A very short book included in my edition of The Little Prince, Letter to a Hostage is an extended communication written by Saint-Exupery to a Jewish friend left behind in France during World War II. The letter doesn’t have the simplicity of The Little Prince – it is much more adult in terms of language, and more obviously political. However, many of the ideas are similar. For me, Letter to a Hostage seems to serve as a meditation on friendship and happiness. One of the moments that has stayed with me from this book is Saint-Exupery’s description of a perfect day at a restaurant with his friend. Saint-Exupery remembers that day as being full of the right light and smiles, but the “essential, as usual, is imponderable”. He is unable to put into words exactly what made this moment in this restaurant on this day so wonderful. It seems a product of a hundred different small things – the sun, the waitress smiling and so on. Reading this passage reminded me (again) of Virginia Woolf, and her idea that life is run through with something ineffable, something we can’t describe that gives us meaning.

The Little Prince and Letter to a Hostage are very different in form, but Saint-Exupery’s philosophy is evident in both. Two books that are short, thoughtful, charming, and certainly worth reading a second or third time.

This review contains spoilers.

I know it’s been said before, but I’m going to say it again – damn, Breaking Bad is good! I came to this series a little late and spent a good chunk of 2012 staying up into the wee hours catching up on previous seasons. Watching the final eight episodes of season five as they came out was excruciating – each instalment was gripping and ended with a cliff-hanger. But now, finally, Breaking Bad is over, and although I loved this show I do have some misgivings about the way it ended.

Breaking Bad (created by Vince Gilligan, a former writer for The X-Files) first aired in 2008 on AMC. The show is set against the arid backdrop of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and begins when a mild-mannered chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal lung cancer starts cooking methamphetamines to raise money for his family.

The show won ten primetime Emmys during its run, and has been called the best TV series of all time. So what makes Breaking Bad so good? It is certainly a combination of factors – great writing, fantastic performances (particularly from Bryan Cranston as Walter White and Anna Gunn as his wife Skyler). But I think what really sets Breaking Bad apart is the success of Gilligan’s original intention – to take a protagonist and turn him into an antagonist.

Across five seasons Walter White slowly but surely goes from ‘goodie’ to ‘baddie’. The show had a clear destination right from the beginning, and skilfully narrowed in on its conclusion over sixty-two episodes. Breaking Bad was never in danger of making too many seasons (like The X-Files did) and slowly petering off into nothingness. Rather, this series uses the medium of television in the best possible way – to explore an epic story with complicated characters on a large canvas. And Breaking Bad really is epic – it has all the elements of a Shakespearean tragedy: a Macbeth-like hero, a large cast of characters including multiple antagonists and a clown (Saul Goodman, played by Bob Odenkirk), so much guilt, betrayal, clever plans and plot twists, violence. Not to mention the universal question that rests at the heart of the series – what makes someone bad? Is it their actions? Is it a conscious decision? And at what point does Walt actually step over into darkness?

Personally by the end of Breaking Bad I had lost all sympathy for Walt, and yet I can’t pinpoint exactly when I stopped rooting for him. Somewhere between season one and season five I stopped connecting with Walt. It was as if (if Breaking Bad were a novel) I had gone from reading a character in first person to reading them in third person. I saw what Walt was doing but I no longer felt a link to his mind. I was no longer able to predict or understand his behaviour. However, I never lost interest in Walt as a character – if anything, his transformation made him more interesting.

So how should Breaking Bad have ended? After the final episode my boyfriend and I had a long discussion about the ending. At first we both loved it, but as we started talking we realised something felt a little lacking. My boyfriend pointed out that Walt shouldn’t have ‘won’ at the end. He got his money and he didn’t have to kill himself. He defeated the ‘badder’ guys and saved Jessie. Should the show have ended with him ‘getting what he deserved’? Showing that crime pays? I argued that this would have been too predictable, too ‘morality play’. But then I started thinking about the show as a story, and wondered if there was enough of a climax. Season five ended with another Walter White act of manipulative genius, but it was no more impressive than the finales of previous seasons. Maybe there should have been a bigger change. Like my boyfriend said, maybe his plan should – for once – have failed.

Overall, however, Breaking Bad is a fantastic story about choices. About the consequences of our actions, and also why we choose the actions we do. At first Walt was making meth to help his family, but at some point his motivation changed. In the end he was doing it because he liked it, because he felt alive, and because he was good at it. And perhaps this was Walt’s real transformation: the realisation and acceptance of his true nature. Finally letting go of his moral discomfort with what he was doing, making peace with his feelings and admitting the truth.

Psychologically thrilling, dramatic, and at times very darkly funny, Breaking Bad is certainly one of the best television dramas yet. I may have to go back for a second watch.

This sci-fi miniseries from the UK should be much more widely talked about than it is. Black Mirror is the best thing I’ve seen on TV this year (Breaking Bad comes a close second). It is superbly crafted, intelligent, disturbing, and compelling. And it is not just entertaining TV; Black Mirror also serves as a timely warning about the dangerous possibilities of technology.

Created and written by Charlie Brooker, the first season of Black Mirror aired in 2011 and the second in early 2013. Each season is made up of three self-contained episodes. There are no recurring characters or continuing storylines, and episodes are linked only by theme. “[T]hey’re all about the way we live now” Brooker writes in an article for The Guardian, “–and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.” Each episode takes an element of modern society and/or technology – social networking, reality television, the proliferation of smartphones – and pushes it very gently in a dystopian direction. Surprisingly (and unsettlingly) most things don’t need much of a nudge before they become disturbing. In the second episode of season one (titled “15 Million Merits”), for example, we are presented with a futuristic community that is powered by workers on exercise bikes and entertained by first person shooter computer games, soft-core pornography, and reality shows like “Hot Shots” (read “American Idol”) and “Botherguts” (“The Biggest Loser”, perhaps?). Everyone has their own avatar, and ‘merits’ earned through cycling can be used to buy new accessories for your computer generated you. The only way out of the rat race is to impress the judges on “Hot Shots” and be given a spot on television. However, even this ‘escape’ is not the dream it promises to be.

Every episode of Black Mirror ends in a way that is at once completely surprising and completely obvious. Each ending made me think: ‘Of course! Of course it would have to end that way’ but at the same time I didn’t see it coming. Each episode is beautifully and soul-shatteringly formed – a perfect little gem, a self-contained story that is enormous in scope and theme. Where Black Mirror really succeeds is in the way it is able to capture the world we live in today. We recognise ourselves and our society in each scene – in the “Hot Shots” TV talent competitions and the way we create ‘singers’ just to turn them into sluts (Miley Cyrus, anyone?), and in the never ending purchasing of virtual stuff (“[I]t’s confetti”, a character in “15 Million Merits” laments). As Charlie Brooker writes in The Guardian: “The “black mirror” of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.” Black Mirror is an often chilling reminder of where we could be heading, and it is incredibly crafted television. Suspenseful, eerie, sometimes slightly shocking, but a must-see. Watch Black Mirror, tell your friends about it, and watch it again. You won’t be disappointed.

At the International Emmys in 2012 Black Mirror won the award for Best TV movie/mini-series. Black Mirror airs on the BBC Channel 4. Watch clips from Black Mirror at the Channel 4 website, or read Charlie Brooker’s article in The Guardian here. There are rumours of a third season – fingers crossed!

I watched this BBC/HBO miniseries earlier in the year, but haven’t had time to write about it until now. Parade’s End was written by Tom Stoppard and adapted from the novel by Ford Maddox Ford. This five part period drama is a visual feast, and boasts stunning performances and excellent writing.

Parade’s End is set in Europe before, during, and just after World War I. The central character is Christopher Tietjens (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), an English civil servant and aristocrat. Tietjens’s wife Sylvia (Rebecca Hall) is repeatedly unfaithful to him, and there is even uncertainty about the paternity of their son. When Christopher meets a young suffragette named Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens) he can’t help but fall in love. Though his marriage is far from happy, Tietjens – out of a deep sense of duty – will not leave his wife. The series follows Tietjens to the war in France, where he fights on the frontline and struggles to decide which direction his life will take – and with which woman – if he makes it out alive.

Every performance in Parade’s End is of top quality, but the three stars of the series are really incredible. Cumberbatch – perhaps most well known for his recent portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the series Sherlock – is perfect as the principled and conservative Christopher Tietjens. Cumberbatch is able to convey Tietjens’s emotional turmoil while at the same time presenting a stoic and sometimes ‘wooden’ exterior. His performance is subtle and yet very moving. Cumberbatch has such a distinctive voice and face that at first I thought it would impossible to disassociate him from Sherlock (a role I also loved him in). However, by the end of the first episode I almost couldn’t believe that this was the same actor – Cumberbatch recreated himself as Tietjens so completely. Rebecca Hall is also mesmerising and infuriating as the beautiful and selfish Sylvia Tietjens. Much of what I loved about Parade’s End is the way it looks, and Sylvia is certainly a big part of that. Her numerous dresses are gorgeous, and it’s no wonder Parade’s End won a BAFTA for best costume design. Aesthetics aside, Hall is a very strong actress with a commanding presence, and her portrayal of Sylvia is captivating. And finally, Adelaide Clemens. There is something arresting about Clemens (an Australian actress raised in Brisbane, but with a father who is a British National) as Valentine Wannop: I find it difficult to describe exactly what it is. Clemens is young and pretty, but not particularly striking. And yet her performance as the headstrong and head-over-heels-in-love Wannop is extremely powerful. Perhaps it is her apparent innocence and simplicity combined with hints of something much deeper and more complicated.

Parts of Parade’s End are very ‘talky’, and felt as if they were made more for the theatre than for the screen. I watched the series with my Mum, and she was slightly unimpressed with the ending – I think she was hoping for more of a twist. For me, the ending seemed inevitable, and I suppose as a result somewhat predictable. But I still found it ultimately satisfying. Overall, Parade’s End is beautifully filmed and acted, and well worth watching.

Parade’s End first aired on BBC Two in August 2012 and on HBO in February 2013. It was directed by Susanna White, of Generation Kill fame. Find more information about Parade’s End at hbo.com.