HARROWING

Sad that Oliver Sacks has died. The Professor and his elements. He is now going back to being one with them. With some of them at least.

Would it be just to compare this sadness with the harrowing images of asylum seekers clashing with border patrols at the edges of Europe? We put up barbed-wire fences, meters high. We let them die in trucks on the highway, gulping for air. We send in the police, we deploy the army. What are we afraid of? Whom are we going to fight against? Hungry and thirsty people, with their malnourished kids up on their shoulders and (if lucky) a suitcase bursting with whatever little things they thought were valuable?
How will a fence manage to stop someone who had the courage and the will to leave their home, their language, their family and friends (if they still had any) and set on a journey hoping for a life worth living? This fence, all fences actually, all these awry looks and empty anxieties are only here to lure us into sadness. Yes, lure! It seems we are not capable of thinking straight about this issue. Are we really willing to go through with it? Standing high on the other side and, every now and then, throw a “Sorry! No can do!” at those struggling behind it? Are we ready to watch them shrivel away or wait until they will simply disappear, one day?
Perhaps, sadly, we are.
Or perhaps they will manage. After all, each fence is there to be bypassed. There will be a breach. If not here, then a hundred kilometers away. If not now, then in a few days or weeks. They have nothing to lose because they have lost everything already. And it’s not chaos they want to spread, it’s not terror they want to instill. Just life. They only want a life, their own, and nothing more.

Wouldn’t anyone want that too?

Isn’t that a right?

Perhaps this is meant as a crusade in reverse, where battles are fought by simply marching in, empty-handed, where even time is worthless because it too will get crushed by the will of the displaced, of the many, of those who only want to be human, to be an individual.

There is a story about The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks, in which we get acquainted with Dr.P., “a man of great cultivation and charm” who “visually, was lost in a world of lifeless abstractions”. He could not tell a rose from a “a convoluted red form with a linear green attachment”. He could not tell a glove from a “container with five outpouchings” that would most certainly “contain its contains”.
I hope there will be no story about The Europe Who Mistook The Asylum Seekers for the Enemy. I hope there will be a way to cure our own visual agnosia.
I hope we are not going to fall into futile Daedalian analyses but instead we will start saving these lives.
All of them.
I hope we stop wallow in sadness.

(cento.red)

Citizenfour / The Imitation Game

Two films I watched lately. I did not plan to see them one after the other and, at first, I did not see the connection between the two. Now… well… you know… like two peas in a pod…

The movie The Imitation Game draws its title from Turing’s homonymous paper. The idea behind the paper was to figure out if it were possible for a machine to imitate a human being well enough to pass as one. He suggests that instead of trying to find out an answer to the question of whether machines can think or not we should actually ask if we could imagine a digital computer that would do well enough at imitating a thinking being.

The idea was not new. Hundreds of years ago Descartes asked himself about the possibility of thinking automata. For him, animal bodies were simply machines, although machines too weak to respond appropriately (i.e., humanly) to human stimuli. What about the brain itself? Leibniz, in his Monadology, challenges us to imagine something like a brain but only much bigger, big enough for us to walk about inside it and see how the whole works, how connections are made, how one movement leads to another, etc. Differently put, let us think of a brain big enough to see its synapses firing, its connected neurons pulsing with small electrical charges. Are we also going to see a trace of consciousness somewhere there? How are we to tell? Leibniz thought it wouldn’t work, it couldn’t work. Hence, consciousness (and therefore thinking) is to be found in a simple, separate, immaterial substance.

But I should go back to the movie. I think there are two main arteries pumping life into this motion picture: first, there is the quest for finding the code and second, there is the drama, the personal touch. Neat idea, overwhelmingly common though. The trouble is, the drama is mostly sketched, lacking deep characters (who do not really attempt going over stereotypes). And the febrile search for the code is not exactly… precise. As it is usually the case, less would have been more. Concentrating on one thing and doing it well would have most certainly brought the rest along.

Turing’s life was more complicated than we are tempted to think watching the movie, an impression facilitated by the fast pace at which things seem to happen on the screen, as if explaining his sexuality, his way of thinking and being would somehow be engaged in a race with breaking into the Enigma machine. As if they kept thinking: “We have a couple of hours to get there and we have to explain everything. Oh, my furry ears and whiskers!” Or most of it, at any rate. What Turing’s team was building at Bletchley Park was a computing machine, a bombe, a precursor of the modern computer. Turing did not invent it, but he did bring the whole field a step closer to the modern digital machines. If interested, there are other ways to find out how a bombe works and what was their connection to the German Enigma device than watching this particular movie. One might use The Imitation Game as a stepping stone to wanting to learn more about the whole thing.

On the other side, I think that squeezing a whole life into two hours of screen time is a very risky business. I might be wrong, but I would be happier if I were given the chance to think more about little than little about a lot. This seems to be an almost impossible enterprise today.

Or is it?

Well, let’s have a look at Citizenfour! This is a movie about a computer guy who finds out that something fishy happens at work, something which he could have let happen and moved on, hiding behind a “none of my business” kind of thing. He did not. He reacted, much like a human being would when he realized the seriousness of the breach in trust so many people put in their communication devices. He realized he had a conscience. And no, this is not a fictional movie: it’s a documentary. Snowden decided to leave his country, friends and family, language and his comfortable life just to share one secret with the whole world. In Citizenfour we see him in a hotel room talking with a couple of journalists about about one’s right to privacy being violated (at an unimaginable scale) and his intent on setting the record straight (as much as he can, from the very disquieted position he is in).

It is uncanny to see all the precautions he would take when only typing his password. Thoughts about people building up conspiracy theories out of everything might cross your mind as well. Thoughts about trusting someone like Snowden to tell the truth, would also come up. And how could it be possible that someone like him (a normal human being) could have access to so much information and that he would be willing to go public with it, knowing that his decisions could have devastating consequences (for him as well as for the whole world)?

Nevertheless…

What Turing wanted to achieve (i.e., a machine that can do lots and lots of calculations in a tiny amount of time in order to crack a code that could lead to saving thousands and thousands of lives every day) has already been built and we are now thinking about how likely it would be for a machine to indeed be so sophisticated that it could imitate a human being (think of projects like cleverbot or Experiments in Musical Intelligence and of ideas behind movies like Ex Machina). At the same time, since these machines have become in many ways the backbones of the society, they can also be easily used to spy on those employing them. It’s as if, ironically, we are playing the Enigma game again and we try to crack open the secrets that we are ourselves, each and every one of us. The machines are trying to imitate us. Again.

What am I to do now, Citizenfour? Is this our fuku or is it our zafa? Are we cursed for trusting our private lives to our gadgets and thus make ourselves more vulnerable than we ever thought possible? Or are we blessed to have someone looking over us, taking care of us and helping us when needed? Who are we to know if we live our lives under the sign of a spell or that of a curse? Where shall we look for that consciousness… thingy… substance… or whatever, Mr. Leibniz? DSC07660

Birdman

For this post, I would have liked Sanchez to follow me.

With sticks and toms and all that brass…

Just like Panza.

And his Don.

For what else is Birdman if not a Quixote of sorts? Who else could be more virtuous in exercising his ignorance than Don Quixote?

This movie took me by surprise. I heard people talking about it but I refrained from reading anything beforehand. Those long takes, the wide-angle close-up shots, the music… they all took me aback. Real and surreal at the same time. Here and there and now and then and loud and quiet and funny and dark…

Death, cultural legacy and cultural significance, a fear of having nothing to say to the world or of not being able to say anything, an all-encompassing anxiety each time one scrutinizes oneself are the sort of ideas often present and closely investigated by Inarritu’s movies. Birdman is not (why should it be?) any different. Riggan dwells in two worlds simultaneously: ours and a world of superheros, to which only he has access and which is, quite often, not a tranquil place. Except for the scene at the very beginning (where he seems to levitate) and for a “flying through NY in the good tradition of the Birdman” scene, there is mostly violence, broken furniture, a giant mechanical bird jumping on the roofs of buildings and squashing helicopters, a menacing baritonal voice pushing Riggan to choose. Yes, choose. He could have the whole world at his feet if he would go the Birdman way. Why does he need all the trouble he puts himself through with staging a play? He could have action, he could be a hero. Why not? What is there to lose?

Love, that’s what it is! The play talks about love. Riggan only wanted to be loved.

He was loved as Birdman, true. But was that all he could be? A character in a superhero franchise? That’s easy to love. Wasn’t he an actor too? And a writer? And a director? What about a father? Was he loved as a father? Did he find any love as a husband? Staging the play, he tried to be good, he tried to matter as a human being, not only as an image of a superhero.

His wife seems to have a special place for him, even if that place is also charged with fear. His daughter, I would think, is his image more than one would suspect at first. Spending time on the roof of the theater, wanting to be not only a daughter or an assistant, twitting on his behalf (only once, for first and last time), screwing Mike just because.

And then her looking up in that last scene, even if one could take it as a message of hope, testifying to the real superhero powers of the Birdman, it might just as well be a sign that she received the baton and she has started her own quirky race. Perhaps she’ll be even more quixotic than her father. After all, she’s always asked for “dare” in the “truth or dare” game. Never truth. Truth is so pettily predictable, isn’t it?

Thus, you are left on your own in the end and you can choose whichever conclusion you wish. Magical realism? Perhaps. But don’t forget the failures! Hope? Perhaps, as there is also a crushing evidence to the contrary.

Truth or dare, Don Quixote?

Certainly not truth!

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P.S.

But then… what if… he is already dead? What if he shot himself and what we see as the closing scene are only his terminus thoughts, à la Tobias Wolff’s Bullet in the brain? What if the Birdman won in the end, but only by sacrificing Riggan, all for a flash life, a few nanoseconds long?

Greece… et ailleurs

This is the third week without running. I miss it. Whatever ruptured, inflamed, broke, fissured, fractured, disjointed, cracked… (whatever it was – I am not fond of seeing doctors) looks like it is about to get better. I took my running shoes with me to Greece for the weekend we spent there but never felt good enough to put them on and go exploring. I fantasized about coursing along the shore, taking in the salty smell of the air and the chilling wind. I thought about the flowering almond trees and about the waves of green grass – a view which I hardly ever experienced in this country. I confess, I have completely forgotten about the stray dogs fiercely defending their vagrancy, about the paths coming to an abrupt end in the middle of nowhere, and about the cars dashing on the small streets, fleetingly reminding those around how well Greek drivers can handle their vehicles.

Often I would try to imagine how would it be like to be in Greece in the winter, without the torpid heat. I can never get farther than a few black and white scenes from Zorba (how pathetically stereotypical, I know) or Eternity and a day – those mountain scenes, foggy and cold. I indulged in creating languorous images of warm indoors, a fire monologuing on the futility of life, cuddling up in a room overlooking the sea, bursting with inspiration, churning one page after another, squeezing in all the holiness the gods raffishly left behind.

Well, it’s damn cold in winter. Those houses are not meant to keep the heat inside. The rain pours down as mercilessly as it does here, the wind slashes your cheeks as thoroughly as back home. I concluded that I should do without. For Rachel Kushner it was a ferry ride (“My aspiration to spend time at sea as requisite literary training died long ago, as a teenager, on a white-knuckled ferry ride to Elba during a torrential rainstorm.”). As for myself… I gave up (too quickly, perhaps) that long weekend in February, walking barefoot on icy marble floors, shoving my hands in the jeans pockets when out for cold walks along the beach, trying not to step on dog shit and trying not to trip over protruding pieces of metal encased in masses of concrete.

*

Murakami had ran a marathon from Athens to, well… Marathon, following the ancient route in reverse. I drove a couple of times along that road and I think I would still not be able to do it. OK, he was escorted by a whole crew, he had a car driving by his side the whole time, protecting him from the maddening traffic and whatever dangerous animals, people or cars were lurking in the heat. It was not the happiest run in his life, it was definitely one of his hottest (he ran in a morning in July), and it was one where he counted the highest number of flattened, scorched remains of dogs, cats and other roadkill paving the street.

Greece! Why do I like spending my summers there? Why do I engage in endless discussions with our Greek friends about how to change this country, about how to make it prosper, about how to get its people to see it for what it is, to find its place in the world today and stop dwelling in a past that happened hundreds or thousands of years ago?

Greece is like the man on the wire now: holding its balance while walking between the two World Trade towers. Down on the street people stare in disbelief. Should they rush away in case the moving speck will come down with a silent thud? Should they stay and watch the show (after all, how often would you have the chance to see something like this)? While Pettit seems to be stepping on very thin air so high up, nobody knows how it will go on. Not even him. Talking about creative ambiguity!

Help, Tennyson! You’re my only hope!
“Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.”
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Being Mortal

That’s the title of Atul Gawande’s latest book. A best seller on more than one list. A couple of days ago, drawn by Kottke’s sobs on twitter, I watched the PBS documentary too. Gawande leaves the impression of a man who seems to know what he does even if, at times, he claims the opposite. He seems to be an Old Surehand of sorts. Which does not make the matter simpler, or easier to come to terms with (if at all) but helps, nevertheless. In the show, his story builds on the unfortunate fates of a handful of people (each nursing their own type of cancer). These people disappear like soap bubbles: now you see them, now you don’t. One day they declare they still have to take the kid to Disneyland and a couple of weeks later the only thing left of them is an image, a blurred face. You see them hoping, trying to stay positive, willing to have a fight and win it. And each time their enthusiasm invariably collapses. Hope is lost, being positive means opening your mouth to ask for water, having a fight is replaced by taking a couple of steps to the toilet and back. Some of them get thinner and need help getting into their slippers, others don’t even have the time to go through physical changes.

Mankind was and is being built on the ashes of scores of people who died anonymously. Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, uncle and aunts, friends and acquaintances – gone. Just gone. Never to return. Never to walk on the face of the earth again. But perhaps dying is not the worst there is. Perhaps forgetting is what makes their disappearance to be as cruel as it seems to be. How, though, could one remember all the people who need remembering, who need to be brought up in discussions and memories, in thoughts and stories in order to preserve their exquisite even if dismal status as human beings who used to walk among us? How could one be mortal and still be?

What does matter, in the end? Getting well again is not an option – there are no miracles. Nothing matters here. The path you find yourself to be on is leading you, unavoidably, towards the end. You did not choose it, and you are scared by its abruptness and loathsomeness. You cannot simply jump back a little and try again, you cannot fool anyone or anything. Bottom line – you are going to disappear. Your chair at the dinner table will remain forever empty. Your side of the bed will be left without a crease night after night. Nobody will have to wait for you to put your shoes on, or to walk a little bit faster, or to talk louder. Nobody will ask you for a story, for a comment, for an idea, for a kiss. Your children or grandchildren will keep thinking you are gone somewhere, perhaps on vacation, perhaps to the summer house by the sea, or to the bearded uncle who lives far, far away. They will ask about the time you will come back, get angry the moment they are told again that you will not return and then… slowly… they will begin to forget. Just a little bit at first. Perhaps only the birthmark on your left cheek, or those words you used to say at the end of a good movie. The kind of tea you used to drink or the way you made your sandwiches or answered your phone. Then, a little bit more. Your face, the color of your eyes, that gesture you used to make when you were startled, how you smelled, the touch of your hand, how smooth it was, how rough. The objects associated with your person would gradually slip away from the universe of those you loved and who loved you. Your books will get pushed more towards the back of the shelves, your clothes will be given away, your old wristwatch will be packed into a box and stored in the cellar, your pen – where is your pen? Nobody knows that anymore; nobody asks that anyway. Then, life tramples their lives around. If they’re lucky, they get out OK, if not… But you? You already ceased to be important. Just a whiff, a hint of fresh homemade bread one picks up walking through the city in the evening. A feeling… As if without direct association, summoning a botched reaction to a version of yourself so diluted, so fainted that it could have been anything: a tree, a laughter, a phrase in a book, a piece of music. But looking at it this way, you are actually back in the world. Forever, even if… incognito. They will all think they are their own masters and will never even suspect that you are in everything. From their blood and hair color to their tears and giggles.

They seem to have forgotten it, but they are you.

What matters then is this exchange, this barter – they take a bit of you, of your words or deeds, of your gaze and, in return, you give yourself back to the world, each atom, each shiver of energy. Yes, you are afraid to die but your heart jolts with silent joy when you see yourself in those around you. They don’t need to do anything special to show it to you: your grandchild only kisses you good night as he always does, the tree only shakes its leaves as it always does. They don’t expect anything but you are there already. Each day a little closer. Each day a little farther.

What they call dying with dignity is simply dying. The rest is just graceless, uncouth anguish.

*

Biutiful! Isn’t it!

To meet your grandfather and walk with him through a forest in the winter. To hear the snow being crushed under your feet. To talk about owls and share a cigarette with him, this handsome guy, younger than yourself, this… grandfather! Sobbingly biutiful! Could there be something more human, more intimate, more emotional?

I just remembered this movie now and that knot in my throat is making its presence felt again. Don’t know who wrote it but it’s true about this Inarritu/Bardem feature: it is one of the best films you never ever want to see again. Whatever you do, never ever see it again!

In the end, what matters is the proximity of the others.

Flower Man’ by Ken Hermann

(pic by ken hermann)