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Everything Has a Story

Posted by Keen Observer on March 8, 2012

When you can’t talk to the person you usually do about certain things, what do you do?  For me, I seem to be turning rather more to writing of one form or another (cold turkey is hard).  So, in that vein, I’d like to offer some thoughts on American Beauty, just to pander to a certain segment of my viewing audience.  As a warning for those who haven’t seen the film, there are spoilers.  [I also apologise in advance if it seems a little disjointed.  I haven’t the patience to edit it, and I wrote it over the course of four nights.  That’s bound to have an effect.]

It’s been a few days, now, since I watched the movie, so my thoughts have had time to simmer and collate into something approaching a reasonable whole.  The problem is that there’s so much going on in the movie, a single viewing is unlikely to reveal everything.  I’ll point out first, though, that this is not my normal viewing choice for vegging out in front of the TV.  I tend to prefer actioners of one sort or another and watch bad guys get the shit blown or kicked out of them, or satire/comedies.  But, I have enjoyed movies of this type from time to time.

There are several key premises in the movie, and I’ll attempt to deconstruct a few of them, in terms of how I saw and interpreted the events in the script.

The first main premise is the archetypal mid-life crisis that Lester (Kevin Spacey) experiences.  There isn’t really anything new here, I don’t think, but the events of the film revolve around this crisis, and so it becomes more than “just” a mid-life crisis film, because that would be boring.  In short, Lester hates his job, has fallen out of love with his wife, is estranged from his daughter, and generally unhappy with the state of his life.  And these relationships spider out into the world, causing cascading effects.  Each set of issues is different, but it is ultimately Lester’s changes that drive the film.

The second premise of the film that I’ll look at is authenticity, or its lack thereof.  There are several examples of a fake cover on a real person, that it’s sometimes hard to keep them all straight. And there are different flavours of it, as well, including the mantra, “To be successful, you must look successful.”

The third premise I’ll examine is feeding off of others.  There are a small number of ways in which this is implemented within the film, but the most dramatic belongs to the character of Angela (Mena Suvari), in both an incoming and outgoing direction.

The fourth key premise to the film I’ll look at is encapsulated in this post’s title.  This concept comes from the character of Ricky (Wes Bentley), who spends much of his free time making videos of almost anything, and it is he who makes the statement.  I personally think this was perhaps an attempt by the director or writer to perhaps be clever, but it’s certainly true.

The final premise I’ll examine is one of happiness–or at least contentment.  All of the key premises in the film, I think, have the presence, absence, or pursuit of happiness as a key component, and in some ways, it seems to me to be the central theme of the movie, but that may change as I think through things with my keyboard.

Mid-Life Crisis

Lester is an advertising copywriter married to a real-estate broker (Carolyn, played by Annette Bening).  Neither is happy.  Neither is the same as they were when they fell in love.  Neither has a clue about what their daughter (Jane, played by Thora Birch) is up to or in to.  And neither really knows how to fix it, even if they were inclined to do so.  There is so much routine in their lives that it’s stifling.  Lester’s crisis begins to manifest when he sees Angela for the first time–Angela, who is a friend of his daughter’s in high school.  He starts out infatuated and becomes obsessed.  So he is in a receptive frame of mind when he subsequently encounters Ricky, also in high school, but slightly older.  He shares with and then sells pot to Lester, but it is just quitting his catering job out of the blue that impresses Lester the most.  Ricky becomes his new “personal hero”, who inspires him to action.  With the impetuses given by Ricky and Angela, he quits his job in spectacular fashion, stands up to his wife for the first time in years, attempts to heal the breach with his daughter (but failing), begins working out, smokes pot, buys the car he always wanted, and gets a minimum-wage job with no responsibility.  Ultimately, he becomes a much happier person, letting go of a fairly sizable amount of of emotional baggage.

All of the actions that Lester takes have a fallout of sorts among the other characters.  Angela takes an interest in Lester, not-so-subtly encouraging him.  This seems like part a game to her, and part a genuine quest for love/affection/happiness, something that seems to be implied is absent in her personal life.  Through him, she begins to become more honest…less fake.  She seems more vulnerable.

Jane, seeing what is happening between Angela and her father, responds strongly to the interest that Ricky shows in her, even if it was initially “creepy”.  She finds someone interested in her real self–not, as with Angela, cast in the “groupie” role, so to speak–and begins to consider getting out of the emotional-basket-case environment that is her family life.

Carolyn has her sedate, regular, suburban lifestyle upset, which causes her to react in a much stronger way to her professional failures, including having an affair with a competitor and consider killing what she sees as the source of her problems and unhappiness–Lester.

Ricky, other than being the “outsider” acting to cause change, doesn’t really feed off of Lester, except in that it provides a scenario he can use to escape his abusive home life; interconnected with the events, however, it does cause him to call out Angela for her using/fake behaviour.  The source of that abuse is his father, the Colonel (played by Chris Cooper).

Lester’s mid-life crisis behaviour reaches out to touch even him, who directly interacted with Lester but twice.  This behaviour caused him to face his suppressed homosexuality in a test he failed in spectacular fashion; it also caused him to finally drive his son from is house, labouring under the mistaken belief (encouraged by Ricky as an exit strategy) that his son was earning money as a gay prostitute (rather than as the drug dealer he really was).

So it’s fairly easy to see how one person’s mid-life crisis reaches out to touch all the other major players in his life, and beyond.  Ultimately, its unrestrained nature ends in his destruction, but that’s almost a side-effect.  I relate fairly well to four of the five themes in the film.  This one is perhaps the most logical, give my age matches Lester’s in the film, and I’m undergoing some significant mid-life changes myself.  So I have to try to keep in mind that my choices in this time can have effects beyond me.  I just have to make sure not to flirt unintentionally with any Marine colonels.

Authenticity

Another central theme to the film revolves around honesty…primarily to oneself, but also to others.  A great many of the characters’ problems visible in the film come from this lack of honesty.  The most catastrophic result of self-dishonesty resides in the actions of the Colonel, who, when his advances are rebuffed by Lester in a case of mistaken understanding, can’t abide someone living who knows his “dark secret” but doesn’t share it.  He kills Lester to protect his secret, possibly preventing Carolyn from doing the same thing out of a false sense of victimhood.  I find it slightly ironic that his name is Frank Fitts, since he is anything but frank, and certainly doesn’t fit properly.  Whether this is intentional, I don’t know.

Carolyn epitomises a conundrum.  She is an adherent to the belief that if she looks successful, she will be successful (and, by extension, happy).  However, despite all her attempts to appear successful, she is not–at least, not in any way she admits to herself.  She has completely bought into the concept that she sells an image, and she carries the fake image with her into her personal life.  There are a couple of set-pieces within the film to demonstrate how she is not a professional success, and the entire film is laced with her personal failures.  She convinces herself that none of it is her fault…she blames either Lester or Jane or Buddy Kane, “the King of Real Estate” (played by Peter Gallagher), and so she develops the belief that she is a victim.  This self-delusion leads her to have an affair with Buddy (under the initial guise of “picking his brain” to become more successful), and as a result of this affair, she becomes a handgun shooter, which provides her with a means of “empowerment”, which appears towards the end of the film to be leading to her killing Lester as a means of asserting that she “will not be a victim”.  Had the Colonel not beaten her to it, at any rate.  Her self-delusion led her away from what she refused to see, and it was only after Lester’s murder that she allowed herself to realise that she actually loved Lester and also to realise the many mistakes she had made, now that she no longer had the ability to correct them.

Jane had very little in the way of self-delusion.  Her problem seemed largely to be that she believed that her problems could be solved by a boob job–or perhaps by killing her father.  And perhaps that she pretended to be offended by Ricky’s interest in her earlier on in the film.  Or that she really did love her parents.  However, when she realised that Ricky didn’t care about such things (or believe that there was anything wrong with her), she was willing to forgo this desire and be more accepting of who she was.  At least, this is what I can get out of it, since she offered her boob-job money to Ricky to help them leave their respective situations, not knowing of his financial solvency.  She did, also, try to suggest to Angela that she tone down her “bragging”, but couldn’t quite come out and really call her out on it, perhaps out of fear of losing her friend.

Angela was possibly the other biggest faker in the film.  I haven’t quite decided.  My view is that nothing she did in the film was truly honest, with the possible exception of her interest in Lester, until the abortive seduction, when their dance around each other came to its climax.  During this sequence, she started to speak honestly, possibly for the first time.  When asked what she wanted, she said, “I don’t know.”  She volunteered that she was a virgin, despite us seeing repeated “brag” evidence to the contrary.  She said she felt stupid.  And in her dénouement in the kitchen with Lester, she finally seemed like a normal girl.

Ricky was never really dishonest in the film, except with his father.  He was honest almost to a fault otherwise, including letting Angela know in no uncertain terms what he thought of her, and taking every chance he got to indicate his preference for Jane over her.  He could sense that she was unauthentic in every way that mattered to him, and in making that value judgement, gave Jane more of a sense of self-worth than she had previously had.  I don’t think he ever harboured any self-delusion, though, and it enabled him to be more honest with others (except where it was required for self-preservation), and to see the truth through his camera.

Lester is the character in the film that runs counter to everyone else, really.  He starts out being perhaps the most self-delusional, but that’s arguable.  However, it is his trip to self-knowledge and self-honesty–despite his obsession with Angela–that affects everyone else.  It seems as the movie progresses, more of these delusions–built up over the length of his marriage–are peeled gradually away, and he reverts to how he was prior to marrying Carolyn, which is a more-authentic Lester.  And it is his ultimate honesty with the Colonel that dooms him, as he admits with no rancour that he no longer loves his wife, leading the Colonel to confirm his belief that Lester is gay, and the sequence of events that follows from that.

So, it’s easy to see, I think, that allowing yourself to be honest with yourself and with others is the best way to both external and internal happiness, especially as it seems that arguably the most honest–and happiest–character in the film is the one around which it revolved, even though it ultimately got him killed.  He was happy and at peace with himself and the world.  It also seemed as though other characters that grew did so by means of external honesty or self-honesty, whereas those who continued to suffer/deteriorate did so be continued falseness.  Ricky is an odd exception, wherein he gained freedom from his prison by being completely dishonest, an interesting paradox.

Feeding off Others (aka, Using People)

All of the major characters feed off of others in one way or another, and to varying degrees and purposes, and one of the key scenes in the film focuses on this concept.  But I’ll quickly run through what I see for each character.

Lester feeds off Angela, but in a fairly base way.  The unhappiness in his life let him attach his emotions and motivations to a teenaged girl in a way that pushed him to better himself (leaving the drugs aside as a question), and not solely to impress her, although that formed part of his motivation.  His was not, strictly speaking, a parasitic feeding, but it had symbiotic elements.

Carolyn fed off of both Jane and Buddy, and Lester to a lesser extent.  Her own unhappiness pushed her into a self-defeating spiral, where she had some vicarious living through her offspring (or belittling her), but most of her feeding was off of Buddy:  her competitive push, her desire to suck knowledge from him, and her strangely-awakened sexuality that she had been denying her husband.  I think she also fed from Lester in the sense that she needed him to be “normal” or to assert some control over her life by controlling him (and Jane) in their routines; as well, her treatment of Lester in general seems to have stemmed from some need to raise herself up at his expense (and yet, she “felt” a victim–an interesting pathology).

Jane fed possibly the least of all the characters, in that it was Ricky’s interest in her that helped her grow somewhat.  There was some minor feeding from Angela, but Ricky mostly displaced that.

The Colonel seemed to feed much darker sides of his personality.  Latently (and potentially psychotically) homosexual, he abused his family (the abuse of his wife is implied, not seen), and tried his best to control his son’s life and behaviour (delusionally thinking it was possible), all in the name of hiding and perhaps punishing his hidden secret.  He fed off the violence against his son, which can be seen by his desire for Ricky to fight back against his assaults.  He fed off his own self-disgust and fear of his son being just like him.  He feeds off his anger and disgust for the neighbourhood gay couple.  His authoritarian stances and regimented lifestyle were perhaps his guards against his inner nature coming to the surface.  It is almost as though the things he feeds off of helped him stay in control…until his nature actually surfaced.

Ricky fed off several, I think, but all in different ways.  His role is primarily as the agent of change, but he also feeds.  He feeds off is dad’s anger and rage, partly using it as a focus and partly to fight against it.  He feeds off of Lester, although it is primarily an economic relationship until the end, when he uses Lester as the means to break away from his father.  He feeds primarily off of Jane, both for personal and creative reasons.  I think that it is also in feeding from Jane that he is able to finally break the cycle of abuse in his family and walk away from it.

Angela really only feeds off of two people:  Lester and Jane, and in both cases the relationship is more symbiotic than parasitic.  Lester she feeds off of, because he shows sexual interest in her, but the feeding is strongly bi-directional.  I infer that she has portrayed herself publicly in such a harsh manner for so long, that only two people really seem to relate to her, and only one in a completely honest fashion, if circumspect (mostly).  It is in “using” Lester that she finally grows and admits to him and to herself things which she had previously denied.  Her use of Lester ultimately becomes a good.  Her use of Jane is more venal.  Her confrontational scene with Ricky near the film’s end encapsulates it pretty well, in which he accuses her of being so ordinary and ugly that she has to use Jane in order to feel better about herself.  Being so fake a person up to this point and finally getting called on it–and opening a rift with her only “friend”–shocks her to her core, stripping away the pretense that she had been hiding behind.  In my view this is the point at which she finally starts to shed her delusions and lies and become an “honest woman”, so to speak.

The amount of “feeding”, as I call it, that goes on is indicative to me that it’s not really possible not to do it.  There is, however, a fine line between just using someone (as Angela does) versus more positive aspects of it.  The optimal case is a couple in love (and possibly by extension family units), wherein two people feed off each other in symbiosis, but it’s not a selfish thing at all.  The energy (or love or inspiration or what have you) that one person might siphon from the other is generally given freely, if it’s even noticed, and it’s nearly always reciprocated.  Lester’s “relationship” with Angela approaches this sort of behaviour, even though it’s pretty one-sided.  Jane and Ricky share this sort of symbiosis.  But the dark, negative behaviours are also shown, and sliding into this sort of usage of others is very easy and can have catastrophic results.  Leaving aside the positive aspects of feeding off of others, this is the theme/premise I associate with the least out of the five.

Everything Has a Story

I actually find this to be the most intriguing theme within the movie, believe it or not, despite my earlier remarks about being in a bit of a mid-life crisis myself.  Maybe it comes from being a sort of storyteller, but there it is.  As I said earlier, I’m still undecided if this was the story-within-a-story, where the director/writer tries to be a little clever and make a grand pronouncement hidden in the movie.  There are enough layers, though, that I tend to doubt this, and it’s just a theme.

The most obvious example of this is through Ricky.  He is the one that espouses the premise as he shows Jane a video of a swirling plastic bag. “Everything” encapsulated in something so simple, plus the stories of the dead pigeon and dead homeless person.  Additionally, his shelving full of video tapes and equipment –but mostly the tapes–obviously cries out that these are his stories of everything.  But it goes far beyond that, and it’s a lesson that storytellers are advised to heed.

If you look at the Colonel’s collection of memorabilia, you can see another obvious example of how everything has a story.  The Colonel’s study holds two significant items:  the Reichschancellerei plate and the later murder weapon.  Each has a story unto itself, but the plate bears at least two:  the story of the Colonel’s past life and interests, plus the plate’s own history.  It also serves as an inciting incident for more abuse by the Colonel later in the film.  But the Colonel himself hints at stories, of his suppressed sexuality, of the likely course of events for his wife and son, and so on.

Within Lester and Carolyn’s house and property, there are many stories.  The film opens with Lester commenting on Carolyn’s gardening accessorising.  A story is hinted at, but not immediately explained.  There is the over-arching symbolism of the American Beauty roses, which is apparently a pretty flower prone to rot at the roots.  Carolyn tries at one point to tell the story of a couch, while Lester tries to tell the story of their romance.  The couch wins.  Carolyn also creates stories with her open houses, but sometimes people don’t read the same story as she wrote.  Her self-help books and tapes tell their own stories, sometimes divorced from reality.  Carolyn creates the story of her life, entirely fictional.  Lester has the story of the 1970 Camaro.  He has the story of his boss’s peculation and how he negotiates a golden parachute of sorts out of his company.

Angela creates the story of her modelling career and active sex life.  She also creates the story of a sexual relationship with Lester, which he overhears and uses as his excuse for self-improvement.  Jane creates the story of breast augmentation as a means to a happy ending to what she sees as her problems.  She watches the story of her parents’ estrangement and bizarre behaviour.  She is an active observer of Angela’s stories.

But this all elides that there are simpler ways to look at all things having stories.  As a geologist, it’s easy to pick up a rock off the street–gravel from winter roads–and see a story within the rock that can only be touched upon, but never fully known.  Without seeing the rock, I can speak of it’s glacial past, but nothing before that without analysis.  A blade of grass can have a story, though one “simpler”.  The life of an immobile weed is that of seeing the world pass by it–and pass it by.  Perhaps it is a story of being repeatedly chopped up by a lawnmower blade or a pair of shears.   Perhaps the story is that of a dog pissing on it.  And consider a water glass:  What stories might it tell, of the fluids it has held, the hands that have held it, the lips it has touched?  And with a blade of grass or a rock or a water glass having stories of depth and time and interactions, how much simpler is it to conceive of the story of anything–or anyone–you see?

And that is where the resonance comes from as a storyteller, and why I chose this premise as the post title.  The stories are all there, and if you can’t see them, you can always make them up.

Happiness

The final element I will discuss is that of happiness.  I have perhaps a somewhat pessimistic view of the film in that regard, but yet there is a message of hope to it.  It’s easy to see that there really isn’t anyone in the film who is happy, depending on how you describe such a state.  The reasons are varied, and in large part already discussed above.  But everyone in some way or another is actively trying to pursue happiness.  Initially, I think Ricky was possibly the only person with some measure of happiness, in that as long as he was able to keep his father at bay, he was left to his own devices, which included taking films of anything that caught his fancy, plus smoking pot.

For Angela and Jane, neither was happy, but they had their friendship.  A potential irony is that they had the same personal issues, but each dealt with it differently:  Angela lashed out, and Jane sought physical improvement via surgery, but both were highly insecure.  Carolyn pretended to be happy, but was so unhappy; I believe that she hoped the power of suggestion and “looking” happy (i.e., successful) would make her that way.  The Colonel projected his discipline and control as happiness, but he was deeply unhappy, as he was at war with himself, but took it out on his family.  Lester was obviously unhappy and knew it, but occasionally faked happiness in the name of getting along.

However, for the most part, no one in the film achieved any sort of happiness, with the exception of Lester, and possibly Ricky/Jane.  Angela I think was on the way to being happy, or at least, not so intensely unhappy, more at peace with herself, more honest with herself.  Ricky/Jane were possibly on the course to being happy, but they were both running away from their problems.  With that in mind it is unlikely that they would find actual happiness, but it is possible once they removed themselves from their unhappy environments.  Carolyn, she threw away her happiness in pursuit of an ephemeral–and potentially unachievable–goal.  She remained unhappy, and was the only person to openly cry in the film (that I recall).  The Colonel was unhappy at revealing himself and unhappy at having to hide his secret again.  He killed to protect it (or out of rage for being “led on”?), but he will remain unhappy.

Lester, however, I think attained happiness.  One by one, he removed elements from his personal and professional lives that made him unhappy, and acquired things that were more of an expression of his true self, long suppressed.  He discovered what is being presented (I think) as the secret to finding happiness:  being yourself, and being content/at peace with yourself.  As he stripped away what was not himself, he was able to get closer to the goal of being happy–or, at least, more happy.  He prepared himself physically to make himself more attractive to Angela (it is telling, in fact, that he did not put the effort in for his wife, who would not have appreciated it).  He became a regular smoker of pot and a regular exerciser.  And at the end of the film, he was able to pull back from the precipice of sex with a willing Angela, and instead converted her to a sort of proxy for his indifferent/estranged daughter.  And he was, at the end of the film, happy, dwelling on the happy memory encapsulated in an old photograph.  Just before his brain splattered on the kitchen wall.  The rather surreal voice-over that follows his murder serves to echo that point, I think.  He’s in some sort of afterlife full of happiness and beauty where he cannot hold on to his anger over his murder.

I question that such a place could exist (see my earlier posts involving religion), but I also think that his physical death is a metaphor for a different type of personal death that someone might have to go through in order to shed negativity that prevents various types of emotional healing and progression.  It is the final severing that must happen (for example, through cognitive therapy or Kübler-Ross acceptance), when a person is working through emotional issues.  At some point, there is enough talk, and the client (or just a regular person figuring things out on his own) learns to let go of the painful past, but not in a suppressive way.  The Colonel is the antithesis of this, violently burying his past once more, but Lester moves past the anger and bitterness and is able to find a measure of happiness that eludes everyone else.  And the metaphor has him passing on to some sort of “higher plane”, where such pain is no longer in control of his life.

I’m not sure I can wrap this all up into a nice, neat, little package, so I’m not going to try.  I’ll have one read-through for obvious mistakes, but there’s rather a lot of stream-of-consciousness writing going on in this 4800-word piece, and that’s hard to fix after the fact.

So, there you have it.  My rough interpretation of what I saw in American Beauty.  Have fun with it, because now that it’s done, I’m going into honey-badger mode.

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The Arrogance of Knowledge

Posted by Keen Observer on February 10, 2012

So, on the suggestion of a friend, I watched Good Will Hunting, an “older” film that I had never before seen. It won a couple of deserved Academy Awards and launched (or dramatically improved) at least two careers, but until it was recommended, I hadn’t really had interest in it. When I asked my friend if she had any suggestions for another blog topic, she suggested that I review the film. I’m not really a film critic, but I do understand to some level critical analysis. However, after watching the film, I was struck by an idea based on the core scene of the film that seemed more of interest to me than a strict review.

The central scene of the film, on a park bench somewhere in Boston (ostensibly), involves the characters of Will Hunting (protagonist, played by Matt Damon) and Sean Maguire (antagonist, I think, played by Robin Williams). The discussion is essentially one-sided, where Maguire starts to break through the defensive shell erected by the prodigy genius Hunting to protect himself after a violent childhood in foster care. Hunting understands things around him without effort, reads everything and remembers what he reads, extrapolates, analyses. His problems lie primarily in anti-social behaviour and an unwillingness to risk personal loss outside his core group of friends.

In a series of previous encounters with psychologists, he disassembles—humbles—them, rather than allowing them be able to use their services on him to deal with the pain of his past. He had also done the same thing with Maguire, cutting almost to the core of Maguire’s sense of self and dissatisfaction following the death of his wife some years before. In his own way Maguire’s defences were as solid as Hunting’s. But in this scene, he explains that, despite all Hunting’s intelligence and his gifts and his attempted evisceration of Maguire’s character in their previous meeting, he’s “just a kid.”

The scene is pivotal—the film prior to this is really just preamble—and his words take down Hunting’s character a few pegs in a way he’d never been addressed before, with compassion and understanding and truth:

 Sean: So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you’d probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. And I’d ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, “once more unto the breach dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn’t know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes, that the terms “visiting hours” don’t apply to you. You don’t know about real loss, ’cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much. And look at you… I don’t see an intelligent, confident man… I see a cocky, scared shitless kid. But you’re a genius Will. No one denies that. No one could possibly understand the depths of you. But you presume to know everything about me because you saw a painting of mine, and you ripped my fucking life apart. You’re an orphan right?
[
Will nods]
Sean: You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? Personally… I don’t give a shit about all that, because you know what, I can’t learn anything from you, I can’t read in some fuckin’ book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I’m fascinated. I’m in. But you don’t want to do that do you sport? You’re terrified of what you might say. [copied and pasted from IMDB]

This scene represents in my view the turning point of the film, where Hunting begins to grow and change (and Maguire in parallel). But that’s not what I’m interested in talking about. It has been established by this point in the film that Hunting is a rare genius with eidetic memory. He can learn things quickly, but he also understands them: it’s not just rote memorisation. From what he reads and learns, he can extrapolate beyond to new understanding and knowledge. There is a later scene in which he describes his gift like that of Mozart or Beethoven, that they just know the piano, but couldn’t explain how.

He has this gift, and because of his violent childhood and adolescence, he doesn’t really know what to make of it. As part of his defence mechanism against his memories, he wields his gift like a weapon, through arrogance and being cock-sure, defensive, defiant. But in some ways he doesn’t really learn, because it’s all just theoretical knowledge, what some might call “book learning” or “book smarts”. Maguire’s litany hit Hunting hard, I think, because it’s truth he knows, but perhaps without acknowledgement until that point. He knows that he’s super-smart, but he also knows at some level that it isn’t enough, but he can’t figure out what or why.

True learning can’t happen in a vacuum. It doesn’t happen because of reading or instruction. These are just paths. It doesn’t happen just because of observation, either. Someone can observe a hand get burned in a fire, but there is no connection to the observer; absent the analysis and knowledge, the observer might not learn that fire burns without experimentation. Someone may have what are known as “street smarts”—a counterpoint to book smarts—and be very wise in the ways of the world, but have little skill in applying his knowledge in other settings. An example of this might be a natural gear-head, someone who can break down and build up a car’s engine, but with no idea of how internal combustion works, or how to do something similar to a small appliance. The simplest form of this might be Pavlovian conditioning: I know that if a bell rings, I will be fed, but I don’t know why or how.  And I likely don’t care, because I can’t conceive of anything beyond the bell and the food.

So, from my point of view—and I may be re-hashing years of educational research already published—there are these four primary facets of learning: knowledge (information, data, etc), observation, analysis, and empirical testing (or validation); this view is not different in any major way from the scientific method. True learning, to me, requires a balance among these methods, or perhaps a progression through, depending; any subset of these four will result in incomplete learning. For Hunting, he had immense knowledge, but little on the empirical side; what he did “know” empirically was largely false, the product of his dysfunctional childhood. He was so intensely out of balance that therapy and love were what it took to boost him out of his rut, a rut he couldn’t even see (or had long since ceased to acknowledge).

I have met a few intensely-smart people in my life. Not a one of them is smart in the same way as the others. Some of them are (or were) sort of “broken” in some way also, but not to the degree of Will Hunting. One or two of them had a lot of book learning to accompany amazing intellect. For them, though, the book learning wasn’t the type of handicap that it seemed at times to be for Hunting. What crippled him in part was his assertive arrogance that grew out of his childhood abuse as a means of self-protection. And arrogance is an impediment to true learning. Someone who is arrogant about their knowledge or intelligence generally cannot be taught, nor can he be “made” to learn, except with topics that interest him. And held “truths” cannot be challenged by mere words, and sometimes not even by self-evident facts.

I speak, here, from experience. I have been guilty of this attitude myself at periods in my life, especially in situations where I was convinced I was dealing with someone far less intelligent than I. One specific case I can recall without effort was the last time I sat a well as well-site geologist. The details shall remain obscure, but a rig hand told me something that I disregarded, as it conflicted with what I had been expecting. I continued on, and the net result was at least another day’s rig time and a useless core cut, extracted, and analysed. The total cost of my arrogance in this situation was in the tens of thousands of dollars to the operating company, and little to no return on their cost investment. And by self-selection partially as a result of this, I did not work again in the oil industry for five-plus years. The economic and personal costs resulting from this decision were significant to me, and in some ways are still felt. This is my personal example of the cost of arrogance, and I must be constantly on guard against recurrences in my daily life.

For Hunting, his personal costs were greater in some ways, but ultimately, with his arrogance broken—or at least bent—he was finally able to recognise that his prodigious knowledge and intellect were insufficient, and after struggling, he was able to begin to learn the lessons that people around him had been trying to teach him. These lessons had stacked up, and then they all fell rapidly into place, once his emotional and arrogance blocks were overcome. And once these blocks to learning—especially self-learning—began crumbling, the world opened up to him in a way he had never previously imagined.

Anyway, I thought this was interesting when it occurred to me. Your mileage may vary.

Posted in entertainment, opinion | Comments Off on The Arrogance of Knowledge

Olympics: Game Over

Posted by Keen Observer on August 15, 2009

I had the idea when starting this blog that I might spend a lot of time commenting on the stupidity inherent in modern politics, largely in the US and Canada.  I’ve since realised that there are far too many people out there doing largely the same thing.  And they probably do it better than I can, since I don’t really have the time to devote to it to do it properly.  And from what I see, it takes a lot of time to do it right.  With a fairly new job and other concerns to occupy my time, it just wouldn’t be right to do the job half-assed.

That said, there are many other subjects that could draw my attention, and I might still now and again make a political statement.  It’s been a long time since I wrote a post, because I’ve been busy, and other sites have been making my points at least as well as I could.  But this news item, courtesy of my default Firefox RSS News bookmarks two days ago, just made me sit up and go, “Wha?”  (Just in case it’s not obvious, the supposed need to add professional golfers to the rolls of Olympic athletes is what pushed me over the edge.)

Two things became instantly clear to me:

  1. The modern Olympics movement has outlived itself.
  2. Jacques Rogge must go, followed shortly thereafter by the rest of the IOC.  Possibly thereafter by the various international sport-regulatory bodies.

The original modern Olympics, as visualised by Coubertin, were to be a showcase and supporting mechanism for amateur, youth, sport.  And it mostly was.  I would say, though, that the last pure Olympics were in 1976, although even by then things were slipping.  Through a slow erosion subsequent to those Games (Winter and Summer), the movement and the Games have deteriorated into greed, corporatism, stupidity, and irrelevance.  I would blame this largely on two people, supported by a wide cast of characters:  Juan Antonio Samaranch and Jacques Rogge.

The slow death of the Games (and by extension, the movement) began with allowing professional athletes to compete for amateur awards.  It was accelerated by sponsorships and broadcasting-rights competitions.  In all of these the spirit of cooperative competition inherent to the Olympic movement of Coubertin vanished in a cloud of money.  It has changed the movement to such a point that the word “amateur” doesn’t even appear in the current Olympic Charter, and the charter itself states that there are no age restrictions for competition, beyond those imposed by the international sporting federations.  Most of the charter seems to be about rights and ownership, rather than promoting and supporting young athletes.  It has become a corporate, self-serving sinecure, aided and abetted by governments the world over.  Recent bribery scandals only enhance this perception, and certain judging scandals didn’t help either.

I grew up thinking the Olympics were a magical thing.  Olympic athletes were to be honoured and imitated.  I’m just old enough to remember Nadia Comaneci obliterating her competition.  I’m definitely old enough to remember the boycotting trend that started in 1980, and I remember being disgusted then that it had come to that.  I wasn’t quite old enough to understand the geo-political environment behind that, but that year didn’t feel quite the same without the Olympics.  Hearing the reports of the Games but knowing Canada’s athletes weren’t there to compete somehow cheapened the experience.  I remember feeling deeply offended that the US-led boycott had opened the field for the Eastern Bloc countries to run amok on the medal counts.  Surrendering the field like that left me feeling stung and betrayed.  The feeling was oddly reversed, as the Soviets returned the favour four years later.  How could Canada trumpet its successes (highest medal count ever), when it was competing against a crippled field?  Older as I was at the time, it still made no sense.  The one good thing for me about those 1984 Games was that the opening ceremonies introduced me to George & Ira Gershwin.  Rhapsody in Blue is an amazing piece of music, and being played by all those pianos in synch was impressive to watch.  That, Beijing, is how you impress people…not with CG and lip-synching trickery.  (Beijing could take a lesson from Barcelona, also:  I have yet to see something top that arrow lighting the main Olympic flame.)

I think what kept me from turning against the Olympics this completely before now was probably some residual after-effects from the’84 Games in Los Angeles, at least in part.  I spent a long, hot summer as a young teenager watching most of those games, and it was very interesting to me then.  What really affected me–other than the pianos–was the conclusion to the women’s marathon.  Gabriela Andersen-Schiess (sorry…this was the best video of it I could find) became for me the embodiment of Olympic competitive spirit, despite not being by any stretch a youth.  I was deeply moved watching her hobble around the track for her final lap, almost totally seized up, looking crippled but determined to finish her race.  She knew the race was over–ultimately, she would place 37th(!) out of 44 finishers–but she would not let her Olympic experience end with a DQ by accepting medical help.  It still moves me today (surprised myself, I did) thinking of it, and it sure moved the X thousand spectators in the Rose Bowl watching her that day who stayed on their feet applauding more than for the American Benoit.  That was Olympic spirit, and it’s really hard to find anywhere else any more.

Two more recent incidents come to mind, and that’s about it:  in 2006 in Turin when a Norwegian skiing coach Bjørnar Håkensmoen handed Canadian Sara Renner a new ski pole after hers was broken by a competitor, so she could finish her cross-country ski race, an act which may have cost Norway a medal; the 1992 Barcelona Games saw Canadian rower Silken Laumann, a favourite for gold, injured severely two months or so before the Games, and rather than pull out of the Games, she underwent intensive repair and rehabilitation efforts and participated in the Games on schedule, winning a bronze medal.  I remember the Laumann story fairly well, as I was in a car accident about that time, so the events are sort of linked in my mind.  At any rate I’ve always seen Laumann’s efforts as another example of the competitive spirit engendered by the Olympics, a gold-medal performance despite receiving “only” the bronze, and the selfless behaviour of the Norwegian coach as a hallmark of the sportsmanship the Games are supposed to espouse.

I don’t really see examples of this with any sort of regularity any more.  Doping scandals abound; there are pushes for more sports that shouldn’t be included, and worthy ones are removed or ignored.  It’s a numbers game, and the IOC rules by fiat and caprice, answerable to none.  National Olympic committees and organising committees aren’t much better.  Just Google “VANOC news” to see where some britches are just too darn small for some people.

The simplest and correct solution to this morass of crap would be to shit-can the Games for at least a generation…maybe more.  By then maybe another Coubertin would raise again the torch of the true Olympic spirt.  I doubt that it would happen, as there’s too much money and phony “prestige” at stake.  But I henceforth boycott the Olympics.  I refuse to be drawn into the hype; I refuse to give my hard-earned money to support them in any way, shape, or form; I refuse to watch them.  I will mentally cheer on the athletes who work hard to get there (not the pros), and I’ll probably be happy when Canada wins medals, but that’s where my future support ends.  Inviting more pro athletes to participate was the last straw.  Since total cancellation is unlikely, I will maintain this position until something like what follows happens.

I’ll be honest, in that I don’t really have much of a problem with the age thing in the Games.  I do think, though, that the competitive age limit should be set at either 30 or 35 at the top end and 15 at the low end.  I’d honestly like to see the lower end raised a bit, simply because of the bodily damage that can be done to adolescents training to compete at that elite a level.  I don’t know where a fair boundary would be, though.  There could be a Senior Games, I suppose, for the older competitors, but I have a feeling that wouldn’t work out too well.

Doping is  a contentious issue, to say the least.  There needs to be some sanity dropped into this discourse.  One suggestion, following a fairly lame “Saturday Night Live” sketch some decades back, would be to have a Steroids Games, where doping restrictions are lifted.  As my Classics prof once told me, the original Olympic athletes would’ve been all over performance-enhancing drugs.  For them, it wasn’t about sportsmanship, but about winning and glory (and oiled, naked bodies prancing about and rubbing against each other).  I say that if such a thing were allowed, these kind of “cheaters” would stop sullying the “good” name of the Olympics, and honest competitors could face off against each other.  But for this, there is a lot of stupidity in the WADA protocols.  Pot is not performance enhancing, I would think; more performance-reducing.  It slows you down (from what I understand).  Cold and allergy medications are not performance enhancing.  For me, even the non-drowsy ones can make me logy all day and reduce my cognitive and physical abilities.  And why should athletes have to suffer through a cold for fear of testing positive?  And the surprise doping tests are a joke.  They seem to test people who have no record or history of doping or suspicion of doping, it seems.  Is this to prove the system works?  Puts me in mind of gun-registration stupidity.  And showing up at 3am is just rude and moronic, and then saying they failed the test b/c they didn’t have to pee just then is far more than one step beyond.  In any segment of the population other than elite athletes, this type of action likely would be challenged in courts of law.  There’s one quick way to solve doping at the Olympics, though:  ban the country.  If one competitor tests positive during the games, the whole country gets punted and forfeits all medals won.  You want to see countries self-police?  That’ll do it.  If the countries won’t, the athletes themselves will.  No one can afford to ignore the problem, then, to say, “This doesn’t affect me.”  But there has to be latitude for documented colds/medicines etc.  Focus on the hard-core shit, not the stuff that might help an athlete.

It’s a truism that technology improves.  As technology improves, the lives and skills of people tend to improve also.  But as we have seen with the speed swimsuit issue, “technological doping” continues to be a focus of research and development money for elite athlete equipment providers (and nations).  FINA has finally decided to ban these suits, but not immediately, which would’ve been the right, logical thing to do.  Instead, they’re waiting a year or so.  If they wanted to send the right message, not only would they have banned them immediately, they would’ve invalidated any records set by swimmers wearing them.  The only equipment that should be allowed in any sport’s competitions are that which are necessary to either play the sport or to protect the participants.  A downhill skier needs to wear full-length clothing; a swimmer does not.  And all competitors in a sport should be equipped approximately equally.  Not too egalitarian otherwise, which means it should be the minimum equipment necessary.  In swimming, that means Speedo-sized trunks for men, and one-pieces for women (only because bikinis would result in wardrobe malfunctions and give an advantage to the smaller-chested among the competitors).  Then you have a contest between swimmers, not swimsuits.  There are other issues for equipment, but this one is the most visible just now.

Elimination of judged sports would go a long way to re-establishing credibility of the Games also.  Judging introduced a human element that can be influenced by outside sources.   Cases in point would be figure-skating judges and boxing judges (I’m looking at you, Seoul).  I tend to lean toward sports of this nature being removed from Olympic competition entirely (like figure skating and gymnastics, especially rhythmic gymnastics), since there’s so much room for error and controversy.  For things like boxing or other combat sports, judging would have to be limited to rule infractions (illegal hits, for example); the fights themselves should go until one fighter wins either by knock-out or best-of-X falls.  Wrestling would still have to be by pin.  And in situations like what arose in Seoul in 1988 at the boxing venue, well, that would have to result in the home team being disqualified (or pulled out willingly) to reward such egregiously-bad behaviour.  But it boils down to:  you remove judging, you remove controversy.  It can’t help but improve the Games, especially when the competitors know they only have to defeat their opponents.

Broadcasting rights.  There’s another contentions issue, along with corporate sponsorships.  If it weren’t an apparent huge kick-back operation, I’d be less troubled by it.  Amateur sport always needs funding.  What goes on with the Olympics is naught but crass commercialism.  Host broadcasters are one thing, as foreign broadcasters need to piggyback into existing infrastructure.  But that sort of thing is getting out of hand, and the IOC is encouraging it to fill their coffers.  If it’s about egalitarianism for sport and athletes, open up the broadcast rights and let whoever wants to pay a modest licensing fee.  Sponsorships are a different animal, but with the same coloration.  It shouldn’t be a bidding war; that’s stupid.  Why shouldn’t both Coke and Pepsi (to use an example) be able to sponsor the Games?  Why is Visa the only “official” card of the Games?  What happens if Mastercard is a sponsor of an athlete, and the sponsorship agreement requires their symbol to be present on the athlete during competition?  Does the IOC wish to put the athlete in breach of contract?  Stupidity, stupidity, and more stupidity.

Finally (finally), no professionals.  Period.  All that allowing professionals to compete has done is increase already-inflated wanker egos and the costs associated with the Games, whoever puts them on.  I suppose there might’ve been some increased visibility for the Games, but in this day and age, that isn’t necessary.  Once they were established, it never really was.  But the quicker we get high-paid egotists out of the Olympics (and stop inviting more in), the better the Games themselves will be.  As a side benefit, the commercialism of them will probably also diminish significantly.

What’s a professional, you ask?  A professional is an athlete whose primary source of income or means of support comes from their sporting activities.  This may include the so-called “shamateur” types, as may have been typical of the old Soviet Union.  The list below is probably not exhaustive, but you should get the idea:

  • NHL players, or comparative leagues elsewhere
  • major-junior hockey leagues
  • PGA golfers or their equivalents
  • NBA players or their equivalents
  • Premier League footballers, or their equivalents, including the next two steps down from there (FA?)
  • WTA/ATP tennis players
  • Rugby union professionals
  • MLB or AAA ball players (or equivalents…maybe also one further step below)
  • professional boxers/other fighters
  • I’m sure I’ve missed a bunch

Now the distinction:  I’m not talking about banning young people that need financial support to be able to train properly.  Obviously, their incomes are not coming from their activities.  It’s hard to earn a good living as a pole vaulter, last I checked.  There isn’t a professional pole-vaulters’ league.  Pierre Lueders isn’t raking in the dough pushing and steering a bobsleigh down the track.  Just so we’re clear.  Endorsements are fine, as long as the sporting associations return to that whole “in trust” thing that figure skaters used to be limited to to be considered amateurs.

And that’s the long of it.  And it annoys me that both Samaranch and Rogge have done nothing to stop the downward spiral of the Games, presiding over them as they crater into the ground.  In fact they seem to be cheering on the destruction, oblivious as they race to irrelevancy and open their wallets to corporate largesse.  I just can’t handle it any more.

And that’s why I call bullshit on this one.

And I still say Dick Pound sounds like a p0rn name.

Posted in general, sports, stupidity, World | Comments Off on Olympics: Game Over