Friday, January 25, 2013

Violence Begets Violence: A Theme Seen in The Untouchables and Zero Dark Thirty

The Untouchables (1987), starring Kevin Costner and directed by Brian de Palma, is an excellent portrait of an innocent man becoming cynical and cruel. Eliot Ness, as invented for the film, begins as an earnest law enforcer and ends as a man willing to bend the law not only to seek justice but also exact retribution.

In the film, both lawmen and criminals spill blood that spreads like an unholy halo about the head and torsos of the dead. One criminal is even killed twice, once in reality and once to demonstrate the lengths to which the Untouchables will go in order to learn the truth and put an end to Al Capone’s reign of terror. Capone himself is the architect of one of the more gruesome scenes. Cold, calculating Capone, played by Robert de Niro, walks behind his minions seated at a large, round dinner table armed with a baseball bat. Their diners' demeanors shift from companionable to terrified, and they should be. Blood spatter comingles with food and drink as Capone bashes in the head of one man who’s violated the Capone code.

This scene seems necessary as a counterweight to the increasingly violent, stealthy methods used by the Untouchables. In that scene, we see that Capone is worse, and because he is worse, we understand why Eliot Ness steps over the line separating the law-abiding from the law-breaking. By movie’s end, Ness will do whatever it takes to capture and crush Capone’s syndicate. In fact, Ness lets a man fall to his death instead of saving him for the courts, his first inclination, until the man reveals that he is the one who killed the old, honest beat cop, Ness’s mentor, father figure, and friend.

Capone’s violence begets Ness’s violence, at least in the world of film. Indeed, art, literature and film suggest that those to whom violence is done do violence in return. W. H. Auden asserted a similar claim in “September 1, 1939,” writing those to whom evil is done do evil in return.

Now Kathryn Bigelow’s latest war film, Zero Dark Thirty, has inspired another discussion about the role of violence in human affairs for she has woven a story about men and women mutating from earnest and capable to jaded and hard. In fact, the film begins in violence as a detainee is being tortured. The brutal blows upon his body and his spirit cause Maya, the film’s protagonist, to look away. Soon, however, familiarity with the methods habituate her to the cruelty thought to foster good intelligence. She no longer looks away, and we surmise, endorses torture because later in the film, a colleague warns her to watch her back because the political will and wind have shifted.

Nevertheless, after co-workers die in the pursuit of bin Laden, Maya vows to find him and kill him. She believes she was spared in order to finish what other operatives died doing. She may not carry the weapon that kills bin Laden, but she would if she could.

In other words, Bigelow’s film suggests, as de Palma’s did some twenty-five years ago, that those to whom evil is done do evil in return. What other works of art and literature offer the same statement about the human experience? Here’s a very partial list:

•    Golding’s Lord of the Flies
•    Shakespeare’s Hamlet
•    Shakespeare’s Othello
•    Brontë’s Wuthering Heights
•    Powers’s The Yellow Birds
•    O’Brien’s The Things They Carried

Reading Challenge:

Read the film, The Untouchables from 1987, Zero Dark Thirty from 2012, and W. H. Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939,” ( each referenced in this post.

Writing Challenge:

Select a story, poem, film, or novel. Identify and explain how it demonstrates the theme: those to whom evil is done do evil in return.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Stars and Traffic Lights

Outbound, on a new route, I drove under a flashing red warning light just beyond a sign advising me to yield to oncoming trucks at the intersection. As mine was the only vehicle on the road, I didn’t even slow down. In fact, I pressed the accelerator just a bit harder, mistress of my fate in that imprudent moment.

On my next trip outbound, before dawn, in a fog so thick that I feared for my life, I didn’t even see the red glow until I was already too close to yield to anything. I motored on and shivered, wondering how many times I might ignore that light without harm.

On the last return trip, begun sooner than planned in an attempt to beat a sleet storm, I drove faster than I should have, again alone, nothing ahead to slow me, no police presence to deter me. The roads were still dry, the light strong enough to trace the arcs and curves and anticipate hills and valleys. I let my foot off the accelerator as my van reached the peak and picked up speed on the downhill side. I imagined the wind upon my face, bracing, as my stomach turned as giddy as it might on the most frightening roller-coaster runs.

In good light, I followed the white outline that traced the asphalt.  Beyond it, little or no asphalt. Beyond that, nothing but soft dirt, some bright green moss, fallen leaves, and the hillside falling away. At the speeds I drove, I couldn’t let my eyes find the bottom; I couldn’t let my mind pursue the consequences of my actions. My senses were alive in survivor mode, alert to deer and side roads that might breach my momentum, transform my solid van into crumpled steel.

As I pulled against an outside arc calling the van hither like a siren’s song, I saw that warning light, this time dark. No red glow. No flash. It swung in 180-degree awkward arcs, side to side, caught in a crosswind pushing through the open space it occupied. I wondered if and upon whom the light might crash, but pushed under it faster than ever before, only to lose all the exhilaration of that wild ride in that last daring affront to fate and time and physics.

My spirit plummeted down those hills while my thoughts fell behind in that desolate intersection with its spunky red warning light, warning of trucks that never arrive, its fog-bound mornings signaling nothing for no one but the silent deer. Now that light is dead. It swings out of control, blasted by a cruel wind bringing in winter fierce. Steadfast no more, it swings, a heavy weight, strung up by some hand of industry long gone.

I slowed down to the posted speed, set the cruise control, and obeyed, alone on a back road through hills that harbor secrets best left uncovered.

Reading Challenge:

Read John Keats’ sonnet, “Bright Star,” and Robert Frost’s response, “Choose Something Like a Star.” Each is about the effects of celestial lights upon the human psyche.

First, “Bright Star” by John Keats

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art--
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors--
No--yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever--or else swoon to death.

And now to Robert Frost’s “Choose Something Like a Star”

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud --
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says "I burn."
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats' Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

Writing Challenge:

Choose something like a star or a traffic signal. Link it to human emotions. Or, if that task fails to inspire you, reread the poems and write an explanation of the stars' effects upon humans.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Writing Is a Delightful Habit to Have

Now and then, I see a question posted in LinkedIn forums from someone wondering how often other writers write and how to make himself write. My first thought is how inexperienced the questioner must be. Writing is as fundamental as breathing for most writers, but do not infer that writing is as easy or natural as breathing.

Writing is labor, one that writers willingly, lovingly agree to perform. Our ideas demand form, and our minds require the written word to understand fully. Indeed, writing an idea often shows its angles, shadows, and shape to be quite different from the one we first glimpsed.

Some would say that writing is magical because of how we learn and perceive, because of how the words and characters take on a life of their own with the writer in the service of them. Others would say that writing is torture. We write, often in a vacuum, hungry to know if our ideas touch others, move them to act and feel and think. We struggle to find the right word, to make music in prose, to render the sounds of this world and all its residents so well that our readers hear what he's heard before. We want an entire novel to live in the immediate present, recreating an experience the reader never had or almost had or will have, with all senses engaged and open.

To accomplish these ends, writers must practice as runners must train, as speakers must stand before mirrors and rehearse, actors must do and do again what they will bring to life on stage, musicians must learn the scales and chords long before they make music, and doctors must complete residencies and internships. So my answer to anyone who wonders: writers must write every day, and they should set a word goal: 500 words, 1,000 or 1,500. Let the writing lead; in other words, worry less about what to write and simply write.

If you don't have an idea one day or two, go back and read the first year of this blog. It's full of writing challenges. In fact, I post a challenge every post. Use them. Use me.

Reading Challenge:

Listen to or read the Big Think Interview with Tim O'Brien, National Book Award winner and writing teacher. It's available at

Writing Challenge:

Write a 500-word answer to something offensive heard on TV. Or write a letter to POTUS, arguing for a change you believe must come to pass. Or write a letter to your beloved, telling him or her what inspires your love.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

Don't worry about GUM as you write. There's plenty of time for that later.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Return to the Labyrinths, Mazes, and Mature Subject Matter

In the eight and ninth grades, when algebra and algebra teachers tormented me, I taught myself to believe that math was a subject fit for other minds, certainly not mine. Many years later, when computers began to encroach upon older, time-consuming methods, I determined not to be left behind and enrolled in a programming course. The teacher advised that basic algebra wouldn’t hurt my chances for success so I enrolled in a community college algebra course for college freshmen.

The class was a joy, nothing like my public school experience. I earned A’s on quiz after quiz, test after test, and for the first course and another because I enjoyed working the problems and did more than required. I was on fire.

The difference? I was a confident, accomplished learner, already a college graduate with a master’s degree. More important though, I had mad study skills and enough self-discipline to use frustration as fuel.

Some works of literature, poetry in particular, were like algebra when I was young. T. S. Eliot baffled me most of the time. James Joyce’s tomes, especially Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, were abandoned in favor of less cerebral works with fewer allusions. Much later, with more life experience and increased confidence in my own abilities to think, interpret, and evaluate text, I explored Joyce’s labyrinth and returned to e. e. cummings, a poet whose work seemed unnecessarily odd and unrewarding. Now, these and more speak to me as if the poet himself whispered them in my ear. Here’s one from e. e. cummings:

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look will easily unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully, mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;
nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

Let us consider this poem about love and love’s effects upon us:

The speaker of this poem is lucky enough to have found one other in this world, one who touches him, one in whose presence he is vulnerable and emotional and alive. That other conveys truths in a look beyond language. Together, the lovers open unto each other as blooms open in the ripe conditions of warmth and water, but they also shield each other against the coming cold, closing and abiding until warmth comes once more. The other is powerful, able to play the lover easily like an instrument, making music, but always tenderly, gently.

As a teenager and young adult, I could not appreciate this poem. I had little knowledge or understanding of a love, selfless and infinite, one into which I might fall gratefully. Now that I am older, I can return to e. e. cummings and experience his poetry fully.

Never be afraid to return to reading that once puzzled you. Bring with you your confidence as a reader, a writer, and a person who has hurdled one more decade, gathering along the track wisdom and insight.

Reading Challenge:

Subscribe to an online daily poetry delivery. Move beyond your past, unpleasant experiences with poetry and enjoy.

Writing Challenge:

Reread a passage that puzzled you. Write a short summary of it.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

Readers remember that e. e. cummings did not use capital letters, and he certainly did not follow the rules for punctuation usage. Why didn’t he? Did he set out to confuse us?

Roi Tartakovsky explains in an article titled “E. E. Cummings’s Parentheses: Punctuation as Poetic Device, available for reading at view/18/15: “Theodore Spencer is accurate when he writes that through his typography Cummings ‘wants to control the reading of the poem as much as he can, so that to the reader, as to the poet, there will be the smallest possible gap between the experience and its expression.’”

Punctuation facilitates meaning, but for cummings, poetry lives in the present moment. Removing punctuation enhances the immediacy of the poetic experience.