Elevation and Contemplation

Cinema has had to fight for its place as an art form. Back in its Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès origins it was seen as a trickery, as an intriguing way to manipulate light. Little clips were shown at the theatre interspersed with song and dance. If you wanted to elevate the soul or reflect on man and nature you would head to the Louvre and Orsay on the banks of the Seine and not to these idiosyncratic inventors stitching together film. Cinema has evolved and accommodates a wide range of story and emotion that has the ability to profoundly touch what it means to be alive.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve seen La La Land, Manchester by the Sea and Silence. Each take you away to another world, unforgiving in its most troubling moments yet often uplifting.

[v minor spoilers below]

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Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as Seb and Mia

La La Land by Damien Chazelle is the easiest to recommend. It is full of joy while tackling questions about aspiration and love. 

- Is persistence despite continual failure wise? 

- Is being successful at a compromise better than failing at an ideal? 

- What if our dream is not what we thought it was? 

- What if love gets in the way of what we want to do?

There are no clear answers, it’s just a story of two people trying to figure it. Reminiscent of Les Demoiselles de Rochefort except with a deeper focus of character and purpose. It’s a truly special film and one that will stay with you for a while. It’s a musical and its songs have a simple elegance about them. The last musical to get Oscar attention, Les Miserables, has a notably booming soundtrack. I remember my inebriated student friends from first year passionately singing red and black, viewing it as the only fitting way to end a night out; La La Land is unlikely to get similar treatment but its soundtrack is just as worthy of attention. It beautifully catches the hope, sorrow and nostalgia of Seb and Mia and will likely continue live on in your Spotify playlist.

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Andrew Garfield (left) as Rodriguez

Silence by Martin Scorsese is a difficult film to watch. It is long, slow and is often distressing. It examines authenticity and challenges the relationship between faith and how we live our lives. I found it a rewarding experience, a film that asks questions we don’t want to face and shows the world in all its complexity.

Andrew Garfield is phenomenal, he prepared deeply for the role and developed an expression of faith that continues beyond his portrayal of Rodriguez. In Silence, Rodriguez’s beliefs of truth and beauty resulted in immense suffering for the people he encountered. Reconciling this perceived injustice with the purpose he came to Japan with stretches his identity to the limit. Persecution on this scale is thankfully rarer today yet beliefs on identity and what it means to be authentic are questions which still demand an answer. Silence is an important film and one in which there is much to take away.

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Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler

Manchester by the Sea by Kenneth Lonergan is a poignant reflection of a man reconciling his past with his new responsibilities. It’s a deeply affecting film and it took me a few hours to recover after leaving the cinema. Casey Affleck plays the isolated Lee Chandler who is suddenly thrust back into his 16 year old nephew Patrick’s life. We see flashbacks of a gregarious Lee which is juxtaposed by the present day Patrick who is juggling two girlfriends, hockey practice and his band. Present day Lee is withdrawn and is struggling to navigate a life in Manchester that he had deliberately removed himself from.

This is a powerful film that in different ways to La La Land and Silence challenges what it is to have an identity. Is it something that is fluid or is it permanently marked by the past? If challenges are presented by external circumstance in La La Land, by the deliberate will of others in Silence, then much of the condemnation in Manchester originates from within Lee himself. Manchester by the Sea is a film that recognises that life isn’t easy and sometimes there’s no following value statement on that, it’s just how things sometimes work out.

All three are still out in Cinema (Jan 2017) and I’d recommend catching them in their full big screen glory.

Stimulus and Response

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. 
- Viktor E. Frankl

It is an easy trap to lament circumstance: health difficulties, losing a job, relationship breakdown. Frankl’s key message is the Stoic one of knowing what we can truly control (our thoughts) and then using that as the foundation as to how we positively interact with the world.

We can’t fully control the ‘stimulus’. Yes, many of us are fortunate to be able to make decisions that influence where we are and who we meet but we can’t rely on it. Therefore, we should focus on what we can control — our thoughts, attitude, intentions.

Frankl’s ideas were formed during his time at Auschwitz. Stripped of everything that he could formerly control, how he responded to his environment was critical for his well-being during his time in the concentration camp and beyond.

We all have the power to respond well to circumstance and fundamentally, make good decisions. We should strive to remember that power when we encounter challenges and respond in a way that aligns with what we value.

Strong Opinions, Loosely Held

Convicted, Convicted, Convicted, New Facts, Change Mind — this is the explanation of Marc Andreessen to Tim Ferriss of how to best deal with an uncertain future yet still move forward.

Strong, cohesive views are best born out of challenging your perspective and exploring alternate ideas.

Wisdom isn’t reduced to simply being right, but rather it’s about being truth seeking, having good judgement and recognising the limits of what you know. Marc was explaining his view in the context of investing, but “Strong Opinions, Loosely Held” holds value in business and in our daily communication.

Finding areas out of the general consensus keeps the status quo accountable and in turn allows growth. Blockbuster’s ‘strong view, strongly held’ in regards to its existing business model in 2000 led to it spurning the opportunity to buy Netflix for $50 million; Netflix is now worth $32.9 billion and Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy in 2010. Blockbuster’s ‘strongly held’ view meant it failed to react to the ‘new facts’ of internet based systems. “Loosely held” means we are able to successfully adapt when the world changes.

Strong, cohesive views are best born out of challenging your perspective and exploring alternate ideas. If you confine yourself to one environment, one peer group and consistently read the same angled media then it is unlikely that you will have a world view that is different to the one given to you. It is a passive belief rather than active. The biggest danger with a passive, assumed belief is to then equate ‘normality’ with it being ‘correct’.

We should be encouraged to stick our heads above the parapet with reasoned, strong views. Then, as the world changes, we should be similarly encouraged to reassess and change our views as necessary.

TimPemberton.com

How should I understand Art?

There you are dutifully visiting the local art gallery, staring up at a slightly gloomy portrait from the 17th century and, while you’re partially satisfied that you’ve ticked the cultural box for the day, you’re left wondering if there is something that you are missing. What am I meant to feel? What is this meant to mean? Why does society consider art to be so valuable?

A childhood spent at National Trust properties meant that art has always been around me but for something that is so ubiquitous with a special place in society I struggled to correspond this lofty impression with what I perceived to be a lack of relevance particularly compared with emerging mediums in expressing ideas around life. A trip to the gallery was often accompanied with feelings of mild confusion and blankness; passing comments on particular historical importance or on the prevalent technical themes were not enough to elevate art to the platform that society had given it.

Two things changed this and helped me to understand art in a way that a powerful book or film can elevate our emotions, shift our perspectives and deepen our empathy. Firstly, Alain de Botton’s ‘Art as Therapy’ was instrumental in shaping a positive framework for Art’s role in the world. It’s role being a universal one that can help each of us navigate our understanding of the world. De Botton argues there are 7 key psychological functions of art:

  • Remembering
  • Hope
  • Sorrow
  • Rebalancing
  • Self-Understanding
  • Growth
  • Appreciation

Covered in more depth here: Brain Pickings: Art as Therapy.

Secondly, during my time living in Rome, I came across Chiostro del Bramante that was known to hold regular exhibitions throughout the year. A spectacular venue, it was a short work from my apartment nestled in the alleyways between Piazza Navona and Bar Del Fico. I saw two collections there: Escher and Chagall. For each they created a progressive journey of discovery for the artist and their work. The exhibition space is a series of rooms and passageways that guides you through a designated path of discovery of both the artist and the work. For Escher it brilliantly showed his work chronologically from his literal sketches from his travels in Italy to an ever developed interest in geometry, surrealism and finally abstraction. His remembrance and appreciation of his early travels in Italy was a continual factor in his work. He was asking questions of what is perception, does his impressions of the world truly reflect reality. He lived in Italy alongside the rise of fascism and with his work he was able to beautifully combine ideas of order and structure with those of chaos and futility. His work showed attempts to understand the reality of the world around him and further his place within this world.

Escher — Drawing Hands

Chagall, an early modernist, had an incredible, unique vision of how to bring his thoughts and emotions to manifest into his work. In one of the key rooms, the exhibition took a series of his sketches and brought them to life with music and visual projection. During this time I was studying History of Art at La Sapienza and appreciating Chagall’s synthesis between fauvism, cubism and into surrealism formed a part but not the full depth of my experience. Mindful of Botton’s functions, elements of hope, sorrow, remembrance were present throughout. The exhibition was fantastic in bringing out these elements, encouraging the viewer to participate, to empathise with Chagall’s pain and hope in his work and reflect on how this adapts our own perspective.

Chagall from the exhibition in Rome 2015

If you go to a gallery and come away with just one thing that has encouraged you to ponder and reflect on the way home then it has been a valuable experience. We need to simultaneously reduce the priggish perception of art in our society and broaden the perceived role that art can play for each of us. We should be encouraged to be more confident in our understanding of our emotions and democratise something that in the UK we are fortunate to have so publically available.

We're going to the North Coast

Thurso East

Fog, mist, blurred headlights, rain

We're going to the North Coast

Some things you can't escape

Beached; separate but stuck

Sleep

Early morning bolt to Thurso East

Together a spurious grasp on reality

Fumbling for direction and clarity

Filming from the van

Crash

Big waves, gliding on the water

Jousting one by one

Impossible to tame

Brief control, ever looming

Collapse

Stretching dark blue barrel

Slams down, white spray jumps

Mirtazapine, pressure, trapped

Fog, mist, blurred headlights, rain