Sunday, July 27, 2014

Why I Loved Lucy

Spiritual allegory or vendetta flick? 
 On Saturday night, I wanted to see Sex Tape. Jason lobbied for Lucy. 

We'd seen the trailers for both films  and I had to admit that Lucy looked intriguing. It's actually the latest in the growing genre of "philosophical action movies." (Think The Matrix, Looper and this summer's Tom Cruise confection, Edge of Tomorrow.) Lucy promised a mixture of ingredients to meet both Jason and my weekend entertainment requirements. On the surface, it had lots of shoot-em-up-action-and-adventure and high-speed-car-chase-scenes (that Jason loves,) wrapped around a thought-provoking pop-psychology, gooey center (that I crave.) It seemed the perfect Reese Peanut Butter Cup flick!

The premise of this Luc Beeson (The Fifth Element) thriller is that the heroine, Lucy, (played by Scarlett Johannson) unwittingly becomes a drug mule. When the synthetic uber drug implanted in her gut ruptures, she starts to experience an extreme and immediate expansion of her brain capacity. Her experience is portrayed as the worst-best drug trip ever. Thankfully, we get help from Morgan Freeman's geeky wise neuroscientist character to explain what's happening to her along the way. (It's a sci-fi scientific perspective, BTW).

But what the film actually portrays is ... enlightenment. Yup. I'm not sure of Beeson's religious or spiritual persuasion, but the concepts he portrays in the film are oh, so Buddhist. Perhaps he was influenced by his film The Lady, the 2012 bio-pic about Burmese  leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is Buddhist. Regardless, some of Lucy's allusions to Buddha's Four Noble Truths are hard to ignore.

At one pivotal point, Lucy tracks down the evil drug lord who cruelly implanted the deadly drug inside her stomach. As she tortures him (not so Buddhist) to extract the whereabouts of his other drug mules, she tells him that humans are blocked by their perception of experience. She says we are hindered from seeing the truth due our own struggles. "Like right now," she says flatly as she stabs him. "All you can think about is pain." True that.

No matter what you think of Beeson as a screenwriter or filmmaker, that is the first Noble Truth, which says, suffering exists.* Seriously, this is the first step to seeing the truth about life. The sooner I accept that there is suffering, the sooner I can find the source of the discomfort. Of course the Buddha wasn't talking about being tortured physically (although that certainly is painful.) The Buddha was talking about good ol' emotional suffering and dissatisfaction, which I experience just about everyday without benefit of anyone stabbing me with anything.

The second Noble Truth is that we become attached to our suffering. Put plainly, I don't see reality because I'm too caught up in the everyday drama of my life. In fact, I get so accustomed to numbing out reality with drama that I seek out drama when things get too boring. (And this may very well be why Hollywood and films like Lucy exist.)

When I finally perceive that I am the cause of my own suffering, and my attachment to wanting life to be the way I want it to be, then I can finally let go of my attachment—maybe. (That's Noble Truth number three.) Then, I can choose a healthier way to go about my life (Noble Truth 4.)

I'm not sure that Lucy really gets to experience the fourth Noble Truth. She does seem to be freed from suffering and the cycle of human existence that includes suffering. At one point in the film she says, "It's like all the things that make [me] a human are fading away." Before she gains full enlightenment; however, she totally kicks ass. She single-handledly takes out an entire Korean mafia and potentially alters Man's (or at least Morgan Freeman's) understanding of life.

Ultimately, Lucy experiences enlightenment—seeing the truth in everything, 24/7—and it's fascinating to watch what that might look and feel like. At least I think so.

Johannson portrays the newly awakened Lucy with a mixture of white-knuckled terror, feral-cat fearsomeness and wide-eyed wonder. If that is anything near what total enlightenment is like, I can understand why we humans want to stay stuck in our humanity. Having the ability to control matter, energy and time is exhausting—and very hard on the body, apparently.

Lucy wasn't a great movie, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. A lot of reviewers beg to differ and take issue with Beeson's creative license with known science, but for me it was a thought provoking film much in the vein of 2001:A Space Odyssey—with a lot more blood and gore and set on earth and not space, and ... well, it was very different, except for thought-provoking part. And for my money, that's always a thumbs up.

P.S. What's the Buddhist perspective on Sex Tape? I have a feeling it has a lot to do with karma. Stay tuned.

* This is sometimes translated as "Life is suffering," or, as M. Scott Peck understated it in his book The Road Less Travelled, "Life is difficult."

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Some You Win ... And Some You Lose ... And Some You Get Rained Out

Long, long ago I lived in a quiet city called Atlanta. I moved there in 1990 after landing a job with Turner Broadcasting. I lived in a cute, historic, in-town neighborhood and drove my car to work everyday. If I ran into traffic, it took thirty minutes (tops) to get from my driveway to the Turner offices in Midtown. At the time, there were just under three million people living in the metro area (including suburbs.) Today, there are more than five million Atlantans. Suffice to say, a lot of things have changed.

Turner Field in all its glory.
Back in the 90s, when I worked for Turner, I spent many a happy summer evening cheering on the Braves through regular season and championship games. I even attended a few World Series games. At a particularly close and emotional World Series game in 1993, I fondly recall hugging complete strangers when the Braves won in overtime. At age 12, my son Jack had yet to experience the joy of a live Atlanta Braves game, so this summer, we made plans to rectify the situation. 

Finally, the big day arrived. I imagined arriving at the game, finding our seats and looking out over the beautiful emerald field. We would sit in the stands and cheer the Braves on to victory over the Philadelphia Phillies. I thought about how much fun it would be to watch Jack chant the "Tomahawk Chop" along with thousands of fans. Of course, to attend a Braves game, you have to get to Turner Field, but I didn't understand the reality of what that meant in 2014.

Since we were staying with friends in the suburbs, I thought it best to drive to a nearby MARTA station and take the train downtown where a shuttle would carry us on to Turner Field. We could avoid the stress of gridlock traffic and hassle of event parking. Before we left the house, I studied the rail line and discovered that, like most metro transit systems, Atlanta changed over from using tokens to a refillable credit card. No big deal. I'd used these cards in NYC and LA and they were simple enough to purchase. All good.

When we arrived at the MARTA station, we marveled at how quiet it was. On Saturday afternoon in the suburbs, we seemed to be the only passengers in the station. We were standing in front of the kiosk that dispenses transit cards, reading through the instructions when a man appeared nearby.

"You know what you're doing?" he asked. "You need some cards?"

I looked at the man. He was probably in his late 50s and from his clothing and general demeanor, he looked as though he might have had a hard life. He had one lazy eye, which gave him a benign appearance. He smiled and held up some transit cards.

"Here, you can use these," he said.

Before we knew it Lazy Eye was shepherding us to the turnstiles, insisting we use his cards. I actually thought he was being generous. In hindsight, I'm not sure why I had that thought, but I promise you I did. He didn't strike me as a panhandler. We were in the middle of a very affluent suburb. It just never occurred to me that we might encounter subway scammers here. Before we knew what happened, the three of us were inside the station and the man was standing on the other side of the turnstiles with his hand out. He wanted cash for the cards.

"I just need to get some food," he said.

Too late, the reality of the situation hit me.  I had one dollar in my purse, and we were already inside the terminal. The man expected to be compensated. It was an awkward situation. We could have just walked away from the guy, turning the tables on him. But we had taken his cards now and we owed him some money. I asked Jack if he had any money and he produced three more dollar bills.

"So we have a round trip on each and can use these on the shuttle to the game?" I asked.

"Oh yeah," the man said. Of course he would have told us that the cards would take us to London and back if he thought that we would pay him.

I was dubious by now, and offered him the four dollars. Lazy Eye made a sour face.

"Aw, man!" he said. "C'mon! I got you three cards!"

Jack had more cash in his wallet, which he reluctantly handed over to me. In the end, we shelled over $15, which is what we would have paid for the cards if we had purchased them from the kiosk. The man thanked us for the cash and hurried away.

"How do we know that guy was telling us the truth?" Jack asked as we proceeded downstairs to catch the next train.

"We don't," I said. "But it's okay. We're safe and we're on our way now!"

Jack had never experienced anything like this before. On our trip to NY a few years ago, he saw panhandlers in the subway, but we had never been approached. I'd forgotten what an unsettling feeling it is when you realize you've been ripped off.

As we rode downtown, I tried to convince myself that the man had done us a service. The kiosk was confusing and he'd helped us, right? We got the passes we needed. But I had an uncomfortable feeling in my gut and as we exited the station at Five Points to catch the Braves Shuttle, my fears were confirmed. We'd paid a roundtrip fare for one-way tickets.

I wanted to believe the man was doing us a kindness, but he had taken advantage of us. Of course, I did try to barter him down, but let's face it, I was a pushover. I just felt crappy anyway I sliced it. A wave of "I shoulda known better" caught up with the sick feeling and began to wrestle with it. There would be no winner. How stupid and naive could I be?! This was Atlanta, not Candyland. In a city of five million, some people are desperate and do desperate things. Lazy Eye was probably getting high right now with the $15 we gave him. Ugh.

We found another kiosk and began the process of reloading the cards so we'd have the proper fare to get onto the shuttle and return after the game. While we stood there, the man at the next kiosk began to instruct us on how to reload the card. At first we tried to ignore him, but he gently walked us through the process. When we were done, he asked us if we could spare some change so he could buy a fare. Without hesitation, Jason swiped his credit card one more time and loaded one ride on the man's card. We thanked the man for his help and proceeded onto the game. 

It was only later that I began to wonder if Lazy Eye had started out like Kiosk Man. Had he helped a confused out-of-town-family load up their MARTA cards and received a free fare for his trouble—when he really wanted cash? Had we just started the cycle of deception again?  My head started to spin when I considered all the karma we were generating on this innocent trip the ballgame. I allowed myself to believe that Kiosk just wanted to ride MARTA home and left it at that.

We made our way through the terminal and out to the street to meet the shuttle, and after a brief ride, finally, we arrived at Turner Field. The glowing stadium lights cheered me, but it wasn't until we arrived at our seats and saw the bright green field and flashing Jumbotron and heard the nostalgic strains from the old ball field pipe organ, that I could shake off the residue of yucky feelings. Jack, who was also disturbed by Lazy-eye's rip off, perked up too. Jason bought us peanuts and popcorn and Cracker Jacks, and soon we were all enjoying the game.

I hated that Jack had a negative experience before his first Braves game. But then again, what we experienced was rather benign in the scheme of things. The lazy-eyed scammer may actually become one of Jack's most valuable teachers. Through him, my son learned that not everyone is well-intentioned and honest. He may be more alert when traveling in the city. (I still can't believe how naive I was about this situation!) And—thanks to Kiosk Man—Jack also saw that strangers could go out of their way to be kind. And—thanks to Jason—Jack learned that regardless of what has happened in the past, you can respond with generosity.

Although it wasn't exactly what I envisioned, Jack certainly had a memorable first major league game. It wasn't what I had in mind, but maybe, just maybe, it was what Jack needed and what Jason and I needed, too—or maybe it was about what Lazy Eye or the Kind Kiosk Man needed. I rather like it think we all given what we need.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Perspective from the Dark Side

I love summer movies. There's nothing better than entering a cold, dark theatre on a hot summer day, settling in with a big tub of popcorn and a cold drink and being transported to another place or time. But last week, Jason and I went to see Maleficent, a movie that was less of an escape and more of a reality check. 

As a kid, I was given the Big Golden Book Sleeping Beauty, which featured illustrations from Disney's 1959 film by the same name. Malecifent is painted as nothing less than pure evil, so I was curious to see the sorceress' side.

Disney portrayed folklore's "bad fairy" as
a horned menace with too much
purple eye shadow.
Image from Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty
Of course, the tale of Sleeping Beauty is an ancient one. It existed in oral tradition long before the father of the fairy tale genre, Charles Perrault, published it in his Tales of Mother Goose in 1697. Perrault's telling was informed by Gambattista Basile's collection of fairy tales the Pentamerone published in 1634. There are distinctions to these old tales—which in Basile's telling includes the rape of Sleeping Beauty—but the premise of a princess being cursed to sleep remains a consistent thread.

According to the Charles Perrault tale, the upon the birth of their longed for child, the King and Queen invite seven fairies to their daughter's christening party. They hope the magical creatures will bestow wondrous gifts upon their baby. The King and Queen spare no expense to please these special guests and commission custom-made golden place settings for the seven fairies. But when the big day arrives, they find they've made a royal faux pas. An old fairy shows up at the castle without an invite. According to Perrault, the oversight wasn't intentional, but due to the minor discrepancy that—because she hadn't been seen in a long time—everyone assumed she was "dead or enchanted." Seems like an understandable mistake. But the Royals are at a total loss of what to do. To their credit, they try to accommodate the senior citizen as best they can but she's pissed about the "sorry we thought you were dead" excuse. Maybe she's suffering from dementia or maybe she's just hurt over being left out. Regardless, she chooses to bestow her own gift on the baby—and it ain't a sterling silver binky. We don't know much more about the old fairy or why no one bothered to find out if she really was deceased. And, after her curse is bestowed, we don't hear from the old fairy again.

The Disney 1959 film version of Sleeping Beauty gives the old fairy a bad name—literally. Maleficent is the embodiment of malice, which according to Merriam Webster is the "desire to inflict injury, harm, or suffering on another, either because of a hostile impulse or out of deep-seated meanness."  Disney also gives the storybook villainess a facelift and the ability to transform into hideous creatures, like a dragon. Resplendent in horns and purple-black attire, Disney's arch-villaness, like her haggish precursor (pun intended,) Maleficent crashes the christening of the little Princess. Her appearance is much more overtly foreboding than that of an elderly woman (although let's face it, most of us are terrified of aging,) but her malicious baby gift is borrowed from Perrault, who apparently had a textile aversion. 

Enter the 2014 Hollywood version. The villainess (portrayed by Angelina Jolie) is front and center and provides us a new perspective on the making of the evil curse. And as it turns out, her story is far more lively than that of the dosing princess.

We meet Maleficent as an orphaned fairy child. She is the protector of her magical land. Grant you with long, pointy horns and dark wings, she isn't your classic good fairy type. Indeed she is a creature who is much more of the earth than are the trio of candy-colored sprites who end up as bumbling babysitters. As the tale unfolds from her perspective, we discover that Maleficent was betrayed. Suddenly we're rooting for her to take out King Stefan, the asshole who violated her trust and stole her wings. As the saying goes, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

The film also reveals the perspective of the innocent princess, Aurora, whom Maleficent has cursed to a fate worse than death (ie: waiting for eternity for unconditional love.) Aurora, being pure of heart, doesn't judge Maleficent as evil just because she has huge scary horns, impossibly sharp cheekbones and ultra-thin arched eyebrows. Because she's met with acceptance, the child's goodness and compassion warm the cold-hearted fairy. Transformation happens. True magic manifests. Hatred and resentment melt into—yes!—true love.

What happens to our long-loathed stereotypical villains when we begin to understand what turned them to the dark side? We start to understand that perhaps there is no abject evil in this world. We see that villains—like heroes—are made not born. 

Accepting that we are collectively the authors  of our world's unhealthiness and suffering is not always easy. I want someone to blame, someone to pin my hurt upon, because I think that it will make me feel better or relieve me of the responsibility for my own actions. When I can open my eyes and see that everyone responds to life based on their experiences and their perception of those experiences, I come closer to realizing the truth. So if someone is treating me badly, I can bet my silver binky that she has experienced the same treatment (or worse) from someone else. And I can generate compassion for that person rather than hatred and fear. This is so much easier said than done! But seeing a movie like Maleficent reminds me of to consider more than my own limited point of view. I'm still wrestling with this final piece, but I know in my heart that everyone—even villains—deserves to live happily ever after.

Of course, Maleficent is just the latest Hollywood offering that shifts the plot line to the villain's perspective. The Star Wars series was perhaps one the first and most lucrative of these explorations of the nature of "good and evil." The Harry Potter series is another great example. In recent years, Hansel and Gretel, Alice in Wonderland, Jack and the Beanstalk have all received a revisionist approach on the big screen. On TV, ABC's current series Once Upon A Time has created an ongoing drama that explores the stories behind beloved fairy tales. Revisionist fairytales obviously has financial appeal or Hollywood wouldn't keep turning them into movies, but I wonder if the outcome extends beyond entertainment value. 

Will these perspective-shifting tales blow the lid off the stereotype that bad guys are 100% pure evil? Will Jack and his generation begin to realize that evil is indeed made, not born? If so, our media-saavy kids just might be inspired to stem the tide of suffering. I doubt that's Hollywood's aim, but it might just be a very happy ending.