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Take Me to the Movies

For many years, we attended Doc Soup at the Bloor cinema and every year there was a variety of documentary films: few spectacular, but usually a few that stuck in our minds ( See Alive Inside from an earlier blog). It’s an evening for us, although 9:15 showings can be hard in keeping your eyes open after a full day at work. Part of the deal is that you get 10 Hot Doc tickets and almost always, these films bring information into your life that you may not have been aware of. I ‘ve seen Paul Giamatti in John Adams TV mini series (2008) that provided me with fresh insight into American politics. And Amistad, Stephen Spielberg’s commercial film also visually crystalized slavery situations in new and profoundly unique ways: clothing words in unforgettable visual ways that mere words alone could not express.

Unlike the big films produced at huge cost, the Doc Soup documentaries are smaller kicks at the can we call life, aimed at a different market at a lower cost. They often take issues that the public may or not know about and go behind the scenes: to expose through interview, photo montage, discarded footage, or resurrected bits of information with an intent to sift more closely and get at the true meaning of an event: a kind of deeper disclosure, for the interest is less in costume, froth and spectacle, but the quieter revelations that make us gasp and focus our intellect at the idea rather than the spectacle unfolding on the big screen ; and if well done, more intense.

Last night ( April 23, 2014 ), we watched one on Pamela Smart. You may recall, particularly if you are a boomer, that she was the young, attractive teacher who apparently persuaded her students to kill her husband. The filmmaker takes several turns at his topic, perhaps complicating and making less effective a film because he loses focus on the central purpose of his story: is it the art of distortion that includes the media into a trial and how that presence can effect the proceedings? Or is it the truth of Smart’s claim that she did not commit the crime? The film maker himself when asked the question at the end of the night revealed, he is not interested in the answer to the latter- of her innocence- but rather the grey areas. With this conjecture, I agree.

For me, although my friends attending felt the film wobbled after the first engaging hour, I was intrigued by the exploration of how technology distorts, and in the case of this trial, it was the very first to be televised, before reality tv grabbed us by the eyeballs.

I liked how the filmmaker took Heisenberg’s theory that we are changed by being watched. That even our molecules respond to voyeurism: a quasi- scientific approach that linked the brilliant astrophysicist’s insights to the events of every day, finding commonalities between the disparate: two very diverse ways of thinking about science in an everyday manner ( referred to in educational scholarly articles as “bridging”).

As well the power of first person narration where the presence of the author is recognized and accepted versus the so-called objective cool omniscient voice that pretends to be detached from its content recalled for me the discussion that was fought by journals. Most decried that first person narration openly demonstrated bias as opposed to the anonymous omniscient so-called scientific one, that only pretends it to be detached- which of course cannot be true.

That the camera makes us present ourselves differently, to pose, to do our hair, to speak in a more elevated or purposely conscious fashion is real. In the same way, every researcher knows that how one construes statistics, how trials are set up, what populations are included or rejected and a million other choices make a difference; these manipulations are all charged with prejudice, so insisting that a voice other than “I” is merely a joke belies that judgments have all ready been built in and therefore nothing is as it appears. Yet for years, and maybe even now, scholarly journals and articles would not accept the use of that particular persona.

Even in teaching essay writing for many years, we strove to make the subject appear fair, unconfused by the sentiments of the writer. We employed the 3rd person to portray the stance. I will always recall my doctoral defines when the examining team queried why I had used the particular pronoun “ she”, and a feminist professor intoned, “If she changes her pronoun from ‘she’ to ‘ he’, I am outta here.” That was 1996. For some reason, identifying myself as ‘she’, rather than ‘one’ or ‘he ’provided the male professors with a bad taste in their mouths, rendering perhaps my thesis less true?. I never even considered referring to myself as male, although we know the French when including males and females in the same phrase appropriate the male adjectives to identify the group.

In any case, the Pam Smart film triggered other thoughts. It suggested that whoever tells their story best will be successful, particularly in court. That she was composed, well made up, unflinching- sounds like Camus’ The Stranger- and his cool demeanor and lack of emotional response to his mother’s death. And that Smart was good looking all impacted on her verdict: all those externals that fight with how we behave, how society has groomed us regarding grieving :in wearing torn clothes, eyes downcast, reddened from crying deemed “normal”. Ironically when immigrants arrived at Ellis Island, should they have cast their eyes downward, authorities identified them as mad and returned them to their homelands from which they fled, or sent them on to mental hospitals! It appears appropriate behavior is subject to protocols of the observer in society.

Plus that the Smart case had all ready been tried in the public domain with Bill Spencer intoning on television on her guilt, and the lack of de-questering jurors contrived to her verdict which I cannot determine was true . However, sentencing her to a life of imprisonment when the young students who actually fired the guns were now free or will be off in several years feels unjust.

“Do you think Carla Homolka should be free too?, “my husband shot back.
Of course not, I thought.

But I was also mindful of how students can create fantasies, especially about their pretty teachers and more likely if they have actually had an affair with them, as did Smart in revenge to her husband’s admittance that he too had strayed. I thought of David Mamet’s plays where professors’ reputations have been ruined, and I remembered the boys at juivy in BA Shapero’s The Art Forger who lied about their involvement in drugs , lambasting the kind teacher who came to give them art classes. And I also recall teaching in Jane Finch corridor and my naive relationship with a student many nights after class who reported that I had known about drug deals in the school: which of course I did not!

People, kids in binds and tough spots lie; actually most people twist the truth a bit or a lot.

The camera prevaricates, not overtly and we forget that what we watch has been edited, composed, cranked out to suit the purpose of the maker: to entertain, to provoke, to make a point-unlikely to tell the truth, if in deed, there is one truth. As in journal and essay writing and film making, there are diverse views that complicate. Ironically the more one begins to believe their own narratives, the more the connections, the synapses harden into new truths so we commence to believe “facts” that were created in our heads, not in the external realities that have been experienced.

Was Smart guilty? Maybe so and justifiably, justice was done. The film raises many questions on the stories we tell, the stories we tell when someone is watching, and our stories that are told by others.

Where stories take us

We begin to tell stories at an early age. At first they are a story
about self, the me, the ego of our lives as we fancy ourselves the center of the universe and so we are, the focus of our parents’ lives. We are dressed and fed and cared for and loved. So it makes much sense that our first tomes revolve around us. We are the subject of every plot whether in pursuit of crayons or finding the perfect marionette or chasing a ball into the corner and being trapped by a big dog or an insurmountable piece of furniture.

Gradually our world widens, and our stories allow in more people and maybe mom, dad, grandpa, or teasing brother is a figure in our narrative where adoring faces play a role. We think in stories as we explain and recant our lives to ourselves, speculating on where we fit, who fits with us and where our stories have occurred and grown.

Not surprisingly we are always egotistical, the first person narrator presiding as we move beyond our fingers and toes towards those at the footposts of our houses: the nannas and ooh-ooh bears who have cuddled us, but pushed us outwards exceeding the confines that have kept us safe. Bruno Bettleheim’s Uses of Enchantment explains why children are so fascinated by witches and dark deeds.

Further, in The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age, the author writes,

Humans, strange creatures that we are, make sense of our lives by telling stories. In the space between each day and the next, we refresh our minds by concocting the most fantastic and elaborate fictions. We spend roughly a third of our lives thus, re-arranging our scattered experiences into stories…That we do it at all is bizarre and inexplicable. But as long as we do it, we will crave stories – human stories, stories that speak to us – in our waking life. The Internet, powerful as it is, cannot change that …
(Peter Swirski in The Globe and Mail, December 21, 2013)

Those of us who are readers lust for new books that will entertain, intrigue, disturb and delight us, particularly with elements from worlds with which we are comfortable. In “What I Loved” by Siri Hustvedt (surprisingly married to Paul Aster!), she surrounds her characters who are artists or art historians in a world familiar to me. With every reference to Manet or Modilgilani I feel at home, intrigued and fascinated by the tale of two boys, the lifelong friendship of their fathers and ensuing destructive relationships. Art is integral to the story, a metaphor for real life distortions with its intricacies, shadows, personages behind and beyond the constricting frames of paintings described. Performance art in the story reminds me of Alan Kaprow and Christo’s mammoth installations such as wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin or the canopy of yellow umbrellas in California and blue umbrellas in Japan at the same time. Memories from my youth and older. So the story,for me, became a touchstone to connect with matters that matter to me.

My husband loves biographies of presidents and countries. He thinks in terms of politics, the rise, the fall, the conundrums of people who play powerful roles. For relief, he also reads fiction. He likes Wayne Johnston-unlike me, perhaps a mixture of both worlds. His interests more eclectic and wide sweeping than mine.

But art like literature if we allow it to, encourages us to transform what we know: to see things differently, from fresh eyes, as Picasso said, “To see with the eye of a child”, and perhaps, if we gaze longer, linger more thoughtfully, and dismiss what we have been told to think, we might deepen our comprehension of ourselves. AS my second grandson would chirp, ” I do it mine own self”. Baudelaire is reported to have also exclaimed, “A child sees everything in a state of newness.”

Years ago when I taught Magic Realism in my Post-colonial Literature course at Northern Secondary, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude did that for my students. They were encouraged to look once again as a child might, imagining beyond the literal.

For example, magical events in One Hundred Years continue to multiply with such events as people literally shrinking when they age so that their shoes and hats fall off doll-sized body parts; blood flows down streets where violence has occurred; young girls levitate themselves into the heavens: multiple points of inspiration where real documented actual events have occurred and impossible, fantastical happenings are intertwined. South America’s intrigues, assassinations, takeovers are represented along with the countries’ three civil wars and the infamous Banana Massacre(1929). I lingered on the steps of the actual ”United Fruit Company “ in South America, incredulous it still stood, but renamed. Marquez’s overriding theme in the book is that no imagined event can be as fantastical as those lived out in the atrocities of war and abrogation of individual rights.

In their class presentations, one student convincingly linked mathematical symbols to the structure of the novel, diagramming and explaining the metaphysical on two levels; another student concocted a series of pictures that reflected the disintegration of the Buendia(the family protagonists) house; another tied his hands together to become a visual metaphor for repression in the novel. Yet another to represent the fecundity of a couple that resulted in the proliferation of farm animals baked copious sugar cookies in the shape of pigs and horses.

Before teaching the novel I had read it and found it difficult to follow. Imagine one sentence that unwinds beyond a full page, and the density of ideas in the novel thickly translated from its original Spanish; however, working with my students back then and sharing their excitement at the miraculous wonderfully unbelievable fairytale quality of the story- based in political and social reality in South America- re-energized me to find delight and embrace the book myself. My understanding was further enhanced by the students’ work that emerged. In deed, my students taught me, often, I will admit, more than I originally knew. One of my cherished possessions remains a child’s book of pull-outs, flip-ups, colour changes and animation that four talented students gave me after their introduction in an incredible presentation.

For my students, taking their own initiatives to extend the meaning of the novel even propelled them outside of the classroom. Some contacted Amnesty International who came to our class with two representatives: one speaking quietly in Spanish explaining the perils of the para-military in Colombia, Gabriel Garcia’s birthplace. Others became involved with Street Kids International and went to Ottawa on behalf of the Colombia’s displaced and victimized youth. Thus, the book that confounds and blurs the verisimilitude of actual facts much like a fairytale had sparked a seed: a Jack and the Beanstock seed that sprouted in unlikely places breaching the confines of our classroom.

Paolo Freire a South American philosopher and educator was a leading advocate of critical pedagogy. He is best known for his influential work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He worked with the poor, talked about “ co-creating” so that workers might have a stake and take responsibility for changing their own lives rather than accepting the theories and narratives of others. Nonetheless, he encouraged the downtrodden to see from new perspectives, tell their owns stories, extend traditional boundaries and attempt new venues to promote change. To create their own NEW stories.

Just yesterday as I again struggled with the translation of Javier Marias’ The Infatuations, I was struck by the conversation of the observer-story teller, Maria and a friend. She reflects at length in her head about absolutely everything which is sometimes pretty tedious. Yet several ideas stick with me profoundly,

…once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with…( Vintage,2013,p.132).

From my very first year of teaching in the Jane-Finch corridor, in a Grade 12 class when we were studying Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty”, a young woman had offered,

“Maybe a weed isn’t a weed to nature, maybe it’s a flower”.

That is what a good story does, it sticks in your imagination and grows upwards, outwards, entangling and blooming unexpectedly, becoming part and parcel of your own trajectory, a thorn that pricks you, embeds in your head until, a fresh blossom erupts.

A simple story that begins and ends with you.

The Sesame Street Phenomenon

When I was still at OCT, I often had occasion to work at the Ministry of Education, attending briefings and conferences. One particular day, I sat beside an employee who was ragging on about her child’s teacher. The woman said, “My child is reading War and Peace and the damn teacher won’t let her read in class. She can do her work and read too.” I suppose I was expected to remark how brilliant her Grade 4 child was, and maybe she was. But although reading Leo Tolstoy is awesome, it is necessary to be appropriate in a variety of places and actually attend to each task we are presented.

Trying not to roll my eyes and be judgmental, I wanted to tell her and her progeny to slow down, and smell the proverbial roses. Or as Heraclitus is reported to have said, “No (person) ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river…” Maybe it’s just baby boomers and their parents, but life moves so much quicker today that often it feels as if we are enveloped in a merry-go-round of images and events.

Personally, I actually charge Sesame Street for the phenomenon of attention loss and the increased frenetic pace of life. When my kids were little and Sesame Street had just come into being, their goal apparently was to create a children’s television show that would “master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them.” Endowed by The Carnegie Corporation and Ford Foundation and two years of research, Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) developed a show that reached millions of children.

Unlike Mr. Greenjeans, Mr. Rogers, Captain Kangaroo, Pockaroo and others who maintained a human pace of interaction, Sesame Street was fast, funny and furious. In truth, the animation and colourful sets made the others look dowdy and slow-dare I say boring? Jim Henson’s puppets in particular were thrilling and hilarious: the dour reflective Kermit the Frog, the outrageous pink-boa wrapped and overbearing Miss Piggy, the humming Swedish chef all tossed into the Sesame Street mix that taught about relationships, alphabets, sensitivity and the minutiae of a pre-schooler’s everyday existence.

Even thirty years ago, I recall wondering how will an ordinary teacher, bespectacled, polite and ever smiling, ever compete with this phenomenon. In 30 seconds or usually less, the characters emblazoned in boldly textured costumes immediately grabbed their audiences and taught them something exciting : like the powers of the letter M. Bells, whistles, music, noise, over-sized eye catching decorations ensuring memories stuck because of the mass appeal to the senses.

This is not to say it was bad.

Kids’ attention quickly fades and they lose interest. Sesame established equity, especially for toddlers of poverty, providing ubiquitous television learning; however, there is little in real life that can match their pace.

Interestingly or perhaps prophetically, Sesame Street foreshadowed the fast pace of life that would soon emerge as more technology made information emerge more swiftly, thus avoiding waiting time. (That desire for expedience even effecting road rage as we sneer and yell at other drivers when construction on the road has us fuming. )

I think of the famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment in the late 1960s and early 1970s led by psychologist Walter Mischel. A child was offered something sweet and told that if s/he resisted the urge to gobble it down immediately, a second treat would appear. The wait was about 15 minute minutes. FIFTEEN MINUTES! In follow-up studies, the researchers noted the apparent benefits of delayed gratification were patience, impulse control, self-control and willpower, all of which are involved in self-regulation. I tried this with my grandson, he laughed and persisted a few minutes- which even I could not do. Maybe his tummy was all ready filled with tasty treats. ☺

Everything seems to have sped up.Now we have to be reminded to breathe- in exercise or Pilates classes, to find time in our day to relax. We catch ourselves giggling as the instructor implores us, “B-r-e-a-t-h-e”.

Does anyone remember Hans Selye and his warnings about the impact of stress or The Hurried Child by David Elkind in 1969. We presently believe that it is normal or just part of life to be stressed out as we multitask and, like that crazy juggler with the spinning plates that we once watched open-mouthed Sunday nights on Ed Sullivan, expect to keep it all together, not anticipating the crash. We are so similar to the Cirque de Soleil acrobats hanging upside down, turning ourselves inside out, twirling non-stop, forgetting to take a moment to inhale and exhale.

In a sense, we do feel more powerful, more alive when we think we are accomplishing a lot: we see ourselves as Superpeople, superheroes, able to control, manipulate and maneuver whatever befalls us or the boss throws our way. And in today’s world, we do encounter more frustrations, more bureaucratic curveballs, less means maybe for redress, more opportunities to stuff the issues away,put them on hold, grin and bear it, and get on with the job. And likely, more depression and cynicism, when we reluctantly accept there are many things we cannot control. ☹

Even at home when my computer could receive but not spew out emails, I of course contacted Rogers. Sweetly but disingenuously I was told that there was no problem with the server and to try another Roger’s venue. That I did calmly TWICE, and then again, and again, each time growing in frustration. And each time, serviced by Saleh and then Tyler through live chat- which means you don’t speak but chat with them on-line, each kindly provided me a “link”. The link would not work because my computer could not send emails to contact the link! Finally in desperation, I called Harold V., a friend, knowledgeable in the ways of computers.

Like the doctor who once made house calls in the middle of the night, Harold V. came, spent much time on cleaning up files, answering questions and eventually got around to addressing the problem at hand. I think this typical of people who problemsolve on computers as every aspect of that damn technology fascinates them so, and Harold V. can lovingly discourse on the reasons, possibilities and delights of the hunk of plastic. I try and remind him that users like me just want it fixed and a day of tutorials is meaningless. Once when I worked at OCT, the best instruction consisted of single operations that could be practiced, applied and absorbed so that dulled brains like mine could move on after learning one easy task.

In any case, Harold began to bore into the guts of the machine, who by the way, we take rather seriously, endowing them with personalities and emotions much like avenging angels sent onto this planet to try our patience, incur our swearing and drive us to the edge… Harold said the problem had occurred because my mail program was two years out of date( the machine being an Apple is only 2 years old!) And he would return to clean it up; however, because of the snowstorm that was heavily threatening, he would give it one more try. He suggested we call Rogers again.

We called, and with Harold on the phone, he asked the right questions and John responded appropriately and easily and quickly, remedied the issue. John from Rogers listened.

I reflected on how often we are pawned off or passed on to someone who refuses to hear what we are saying. Likely they are multitasking or cannot be bothered. Best yet, we are angry, filled with seething emotion, smack in the throes of a problem and being put on hold or disconnected doesn’t increase our ability to communicate effectively. However, is there nothing sweeter than a recorded mellifluent voice or musical pap that confronts you while you are pulsing in rage? Talk about stress. We’re like the roadrunners of cartoons in days past scurrying in circles in clouds of dust that gets thicker as we pound our feet in the same place.

Will that little Grade four year remember what is important in War in Peace? Can she possibly in Grade 4? What has the experience taught her about life, handling complex issues and attitudes towards the world? As my early days in the Jane-Finch corridor ( See previous blog “A pair of Ducks)instructed me: it’s all paradox. The more we have, the more confused and frustrated we become, unable to juggle without dropping something of value.

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