Monday, October 31, 2011

The Kite Runner and VALUES TABLES

Writers: DAVID BENIOFF (SP), and
Khaled Hosseini (N)

AMIR: Khalid Abdalla (adult), Zekeria Ebrahimi (young)
HASSAN: Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada
BABA: Homayoun Ershadi
SORAYA: Atossa Leoni
RAHIM KHAN: Shaun Toub
ASSEF: Abdul Salam Yusoufzai (adult), Elham Ehsas (young)
GENERAL TAHERI: Abdul Qadir Farookh
SOHRAB: Ali Danish Bakhtyari (Hassan's son)
ZAMAN: Mohamad Amin Rahimi (Orphanage Director)


(It was late when I posted this, so please advise of typos.)
Amir, Baba and winning kite.
It's 1978 in Kabul, Afghanistan. A crazy place with humans trying to find dignity in the midst of hell. A puppet Communist government thinks it's in power. But the Islamic Mullah's really control the the people through intimidation. At the same time the Afghan guerrilla Mujahideen movement is born. The Russians invade the next year. When the Afghans defeat Russia in 1989 killing 40,000-50,000 Soviets, with help from U.S. shoulder fired rockets,  there is more fighting.

In 1992 there are elections under a tenuous run Mujahideen Islamic State. More fighting. In 1994 the Taliban with their version of extreme Islamic fundamentalism (believe or die, or die because we don't like you -- tyranny) they make rubble out of Kabul. There is Pakistani and Iranian interference. More fighting. Mass killings by the Taliban, and the Hazaras sect is massacred.

God tries to slow the Taliban down by bringing Earthquakes to the country that kill tens of thousands. But the Taliban tries to out-do God. Osama bin Laden makes plans from within Afghanistan, attacks the U.S. (NY and Washington), setting up the U.S. attack in 2001. This is a very crazy place, and the reason many didn't want the U.S. to get involved, even to stop the Taliban --who  seem to have been infected with the same demons that possessed the Nazis.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Not Without My Daughter

Director: Brian Gilbert
Writers: Betty Mahmoody (book), William Hoffer (book), David W. Rintels

Sally Field as Betty Mahmoody
Alfred Molina as Moody
Sheila Rosenthal as Mahtob

(This summary includes political observations mostly from the book. The movie leaves out many dramatic beats that help to understand the story's meaning and moral premise.)

NOT WITHOUT MY DAUGHTER is the true story of Betty, an the American-Christian wife of the Americanized and trained Iranian doctor, Sayyed Bozorg Mahmoody, D.O. (Moody), who was born-in-and raised in a strict Islamic family in Iran.  Betty and Moody lived in Corpus Christi, TX and later Alpena, MI, where Moody was an anesthesiologist. They met when he treated her for back pain. When the American backed Shah of Iran (the last of 2,500  years of Persian monarchs) was deposed, allowing the Iranian Revolution on 11 February 1979 (and the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran), many Iranians longed to go back to Iran. The idea of a strict Islamic state (where men ruled with impunity -- a family level terrorism) is very attractive, in a demonic way, to the male ego.  Moody was one of them, and in the process of re-embracing his Islamic heritage, also embraced the Islamic revolution's anti-American ideology.

Virgins waiting in paradise for Islamic fundamentalist men.
[There is a fundamental anti-conscience aspect to radical Islam where rote ideology supports a culture where suppression of another person's conscience (the inner sense of what is right or wrong) is allowed and encouraged. This is done in order to bring about the outward observance of Islam, if not by free-will, by fear and oppression. It is a culture where the disposition of the heart is meaningless, i.e. the individual's right to determine moral right and wrong is suppressed.  It is a form of tyranny where a few control the lives of many through fear. In Nazi Germany the central figure was a man backed by a political machine. In radical Islam the central figure is a perversion of God's character and a religious machine.  Islam's version of paradise (for a man) promises the attention of virgins when he gets to heaven. This is hilariously parodied in the picture above.]

MOODY by Alfred  Molina
Thus, Moody manipulates Betty to take their daughter back for a 2-week visit to Iran to visit his family, but secretly he has no intention of leaving, or letting them leave the deeply misogynistic culture.  Betty realizes this, in part, because of Moody's involvement in pro-Iranian/anti-American student activism here in the U.S.. She knows Iran is not a pleasant place, especially if you are American and female. But she loves her husband and wants to please him. Upon arrival in Iran, it appears that her worst fears are realized: Moody declares that they will be living there from now on.

Why would Moody (an American trained doctor) stay in a culture that seems to have jumped backwards 1,000 years in terms of hygiene, medicine, science, human rights, freedoms, and basic knowledge about the human condition? Several reasons. (1) It's revealed that his political activities in the U.S. have resulted in his termination from two jobs, in two states, and two different hospital systems -- further resulting in the loss of his Green Card.

[Some may see this as racism here in the U.S. or cultural prejudice. But prejudice is an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand without knowledge, thought, or reason. And there is reason to not trust an overtly active, anti-American doctor, treating American patients, in the American Hospital system, like Moody.]

BETTY by Sally Fields
(2) The second reason Moody relapses to his upbringing is that (as Betty surmises in the book) there is an basic inability of the Islamic culture to think independently -- a trait ingrained by the educational system upon her daughter, where all learning is by rote repetition. There is no opportunity in the system for reasoning or independent thinking, or creativity. In other words the conscience is improperly formed. You are taught only to say and think what is spoon fed to you. This becomes evident in Moody's refusal to do anything his ego does not want him to do, and Moody's cousin who, when in America, refuses to take a entry level position in a bank as a teller. The only job the cousin is willing to consider is an offer to be president of a company. Being the CEO sounds like a creative, take-initiative position, until you realized that the cousin's demand is the product of a rote ideology ingrained culturally into the male ego. The culture, thus, only survives through severe autocracy of various kinds and at various levels.

Betty conscience tells her to return to America. When he finally allows her return he refuses to led their daughter, Mahtob, go back with Betty, insisting that Betty (under the pretense of attending her Father's funeral),  sell their extended American assets (homes and checking accounts) and send the money to Moody in Iran. Moody is desperate for money because his license to practice medicine in Iran has not been approved due to his American training. Nothing from America has any value to the government. And so, with some-half-efforts on the part of her female Iranian friends (who love intrigue, which is brought on by their suppression), Betty is determined to escape from Iran. But the obstacles to taking her daughter with her seem insurmountable.

MAHTOB by Sheila Rosenthal
I often think the book and movie are both good, although movie versions always show less. But in this case, the movie is sub-standard in terms of story telling and production value. Some of it is the director's decision (or budget requirement) to minimize the visuals-on-screen because the Iranian culture is visually minimal. (Shot in Israel.)  Everything is stark, gray, black, and sensual. In the book, even the food is bland and apparently unappetizing.  But the camera angles chosen, framing, lighting, and the "god-awful" music (more German classical than anything Persian or Iranian) was distracting and seemed like a cheap library afterthought. Indeed, some of  the scenes could have used music but were barren. "Barren" does depict the production values. But the acting was very good, especially little Rosenthal as Mahtob. How little kids get their timing and emotional arcs amazes me. Good direction, helps. The screenplays choiceof scenes seemed right, but left out major plot points that would have confused me had I not read the book. Being from Michigan, I was disappointing that Atlanta stood in for it.

Throughout the book, Betty reiterates that her father brought her up to believe: Where there's a will, there's a way. This engenders in Betty, a perseverance in the midst of persecution, that allows her achievement of the goal -- getting out of Iran with her daughter. And the odds and obstacles for the unlikely, common hero are immense -- natural structure for a successful movie.

Now, consider "Where there's a will, there's a way" in light of the cultural artifacts that I've discussed above, namely the autocratic Islamic culture of rote learning and behavior, -- or the training that dislodges a properly formed conscience from what it means to be fully human. In this story, Betty retains or embodies the practice of listening to her (properly formed) conscience (or will) while her antagonists (the autocratic Islamic culture, represented by Moody) embody a rote-mentality (or suppression of the will) and a willingness to live under tyranny.

Thus, this becomes the story's moral-physical premise statement (where "conscience" is understood as the natural, organic, true-to-natural law sense of right and wrong):

Suppression of the conscience leads to tyranny; but
Preservation of the conscience leads to freedom. 

or stated with words from Betty's father:

Suppression of an individuals will leads to tyranny; but
Preservation of an individual's will leads to freedom.

The paradox of all this occurs when one individual's will has the goal of suppressing another person's individual will.

Book Jacket: Mahtob and Betty
Reading the book (and watching the movie) was at the same time a fearful and hopeful experience, that reminded me of my own failings as a man, and the promise of being fully human. It was revealing, satisfying, and even a sacred time of reflection on our world and much redemption is needed.

It reinforces what I write at the end of The Moral Premise: 

Vanquish Fear, Bestow Hope


Friday, October 7, 2011

The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth is a emotional book-movie combination of Metaphors and Premises. It is one of those rare marriages of novel and motion picture (i.e. TV mini series with big budgets) that define the concept of epic literature and the motion picture arts. I would classify this with the Lord of the Rings, but without the fantasy. While some historians of 12th Century Western Europe would no doubt whine about it's accuracy, my joy is seeing a story told well, in both mediums. It also reinforces my observation that the best stories are not short, nor limited to 120-page screenplays, or is it 90-110 pages, now?

Eight, 60-min episodes on STARZ or DVD
High production value, fabulous casting, directing and acting and seamless special effects.
Accuracy: Fictional based on real events, but structured for story with a true moral premise.

Directed by: Sergio Mimica-Gezzan
Written by: Ken Follett and John Pielmeier

Starring (L-R, above)
Ian McShane - Bishop Waleran
Rufus Swell – Tom Builder
Matthew Macfadyen – Monk Fr. Philip
Eddie Redmayne – Jack Jackson
Hayley Atwell – Aliena
Donald Sutherland - Bartholomew

It was a year or so ago Pam and I watched the Episodes 1-8 on our Apple Box and big screen display with our nearly voice-of-the-theater speakers. What a great experience. We tried to spread it out over 8 nights, but the production was so well done in every respect, we watched 2 or 3 episodes a night... and then were disappointed when it was over.

Episode Titles:
1. Anarchy
2. Master Builder
3. Redemption
4. Battlefield
5. Legacy
6. Witchcraft
7. New Beginnings
8. The Work of Angels

I'm reading the novel now. I bought a used Library binding, Morrow edition. (I still like paper books, that I can mark up and hold in my hand without running on reserve power half way through a transcontinental flight and then using even more energy off the power grid. Yes, I'm into killing trees...they're a renewable resource and have proven to benefit humankind over the millennium.) Nice smooth, off-white paper, clear serifed font.  I've estimated the word count, for what some say is Follett's most popular novel, at  405,000 words. Bring it on. I love epic stuff that takes a long time to read. Problem is I read before bed, in a nice leather chair in our bedroom. I keeps me up. But, Pam is always asleep across the room when I do this under LED glasses or a focused reading light. In spite of the drama in what I'm reading (last month is was the Padre Pio and Vatican corruption, now it's Medieval rivalries and hypocrisy) , my wife sleeps soundly, safety within eye-sight. I enjoy those times immensely. Deep joy. 


But it wasn't until this morning during prayers that I came across (by "accident") what I'm sure was the moral premise or thematic basis for the story. For the first time I happened to read the Canticle of Anna (1 Sam 2:1-10). There, toward the end are these words written thousands of years ago:
The pillars of the earth belong to the Lord; on them he has set the world. He guards the feet of his holy ones, but the wicked perish in the darkness; he grants the wish of him who asks and blesses the years of the just. For it is not by force that a man prevails: the Lord it is who shatters his enemies.
Reading that on my iPhone's iBreviary sent chills up my spine. I played back (in my head) the entire series, and re-read the first sentence of the novel:
The small boys came early to the hanging.
Classic first sentences, like the first image of a movie, can show us a lot. 

Here's stab at the moral premise statement for the story

Wickedness leads to years of darkness; but
Holiness leads to years of blessing
(after generations of hardship and testing, I might add)

The moral-physical premise statement of course, is embedded organically into the 1 Samuel 2 passage, and properly imbued into every one of many chapters of the book, and 8 television movie episodes.  When done right, you can read the statement, and connect it to all the events and actions, heroes and villains, settings, and (especially) motivations. Exciting, focusing stuff about what the story is REALLY about.


In all story telling metaphors (showing) always work better than didactic (plain telling). and when you do both, organically, all the better.  Follett's first sentence "The small boys came early to the hanging" paints a picture of evil in high places and its consequence. At first it seems that the evil is whatever the man being hung had done. But it doesn't take long to come to the telling moment in that Prologue -- and how the curse will be passed down to successive generations through the values of the "fathers." Follett doesn't use that word "fathers" but the implication and layered meaning of the term is there.  Here's the passage, faithful reproduced in the movie version. This happens at the base of the gallows as the man is being executed.
    There was a scream, and everyone looked at the girl...
    The girl turned her hypnotic golden eyes on the three strangers, the knight, the monk and the priest, and then she pronounced her curse, calling out the terrible words in ringing tones: "I curse you with sickness and sorry, with hunger and pain; your house shall be consumed by fire, and your children shall die on the gallows; your enemies shall prosper, and you shall grow old in sadness and regret, and die in foulness and agony. . . ." As she spoke the last words the girl reached into a sack on the ground beside her and pulled out alive cockerel. a knife appeared in her hand from nowhere, and with one slice she cut off the head of the cock.
    While the blood was still spurting form the severed neck  she threw the beheaded cock at the priest with the black hair. It fell short, but the blood sprayed over him, and over the monk and the knight on either  side of him.  The three men twisted away in loathing, but blood landed on each of them, spattering their faces and staining their garments.
Enough said. Do you see the showing, both in her telling curse, and the metaphor of her actions. She is not telling us her "feelings" but is painting a visual picture of them.

AND THE PILLARS? The title says a lot. Mankind (especially the male variety) think of themselves as the pillars upon which everything, of any "good," gets done. I know the feeling. I'm a man recovering from rotor cuff surgery in my right shoulder, and something similar but less sever to my right knee. Both sailing injuries. I want and think I should and can do it all. It's humbling when your wife has to dress you. Hopefully, I'll heal... physically, but in the meantime healing of the spiritual kind is working on me -- the consequence of suffering. And that is what The Pillars of the Earth is significantly about -- male, patriarchal egos. The image at the top of this blog (from STARZ TV) is constructed like six vertical pillars (these are the characters about which the story is about). Then there are the pillars of the cathedrals that Tom and others are building... not all successfully (when not properly designed, resulting in death). And then there are the Angels that build the Church. And to make sure you really, really get the connection between the moral decisions, the natural physical consequences of attention to natural law, and the story's metaphors, the final scene (in the movie at least) SHOWS us the corrupt, egomaniac bishop as he takes a suicidal plunge from the properly designed and built pillars of the cathedral.
The pillars of the earth belong to the Lord; on them he has set the world. He guards the feet of his holy ones, but the wicked perish in the darkness; he grants the wish of him who asks and blesses the years of the just. For it is not by force that a man prevails: the Lord it is who shatters his enemies.