Friday, September 9, 2011

Expendability -- Writer's Poke #314

I had a chance to watch Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables this weekend, and it may be one of the best movies ever made.

Think that’s a bit of an exaggeration? I thought so too, until I started thinking about how much it reminded me of a true American film classic, 12 Angry Men. Doing a quick Internet search, I find that I’m not the first reviewer to draw this connection, either.

So, other than the fact that both movies feature strong ensemble casts, what is it that makes them so much a like?

Both ultimately reject the idea that people are expendable. In 12 Angry Men, Henry Fonda’s character is the only one of twelve jurors who wants to give a young man accused of murdering his father a fair hearing. Over the course of the movie, Fonda is able to show the other eleven jurors that no one is disposable. Life has a value that must be respected.

In The Expendables, Stallone’s character is a mercenary. He seems like a nice guy on the outside, but he views himself as dead on the inside. What stands out most to me in this movie is Mickey Rouke’s monologue. Rouke’s character has killed a lot of people, but he had the chance to save one life, and he admits to Stallone that he didn’t seize the opportunity. While Rouke doesn’t seem to mind the many people he’s killed, he’s never been able to forgive himself for not saving an innocent life when he had the chance. Like Rouke, Stallone has a chance to "save the girl," and he doesn’t repeat Rouke’s mistake.

That part of the movie's plot may seem like a tired cliché, but it is rather significant that Stallone didn’t save the girl just so he could be with her. He saved her because she deserved a chance to live her own life.

Maybe even more significantly, Stallone is willing to redeem Dolph Lundgren’s character. Lundgren and Jet Li are part of Stallone's team, but Lundgren has a grudge for Li’s character, and he does his best to take out Li, as well as Stallone in the process. But by movie's end, even Lundgren is given a second chance, perhaps illustrating that Stallone has truly learned that no one is expendable.

Think about the last movie or TV show that you’ve watched. While its direct purpose may have been simply “to entertain,” consider the ways it worked “to instruct.” What lessons can you take from this viewing experience that teaches you something about life. About yourself? About making you a better person? About making the world a better place to live in?

“I tend to think of action movies as exuberant morality plays in which good triumphs over evil.” – Sylvester Stallone

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Jones Girls -- Writer's Poke #313

Jones Soda has a gimmick. Customers can submit pictures, and if Jones likes them, the company will use them on its bottles.

On facebook this summer, Jones has also been posting pictures from its “road trip” across the country. One picture that stood out to me is what I refer to as “The Jones Girls.”

These five young girls are situated in, on, and next to a British-style Royal phone booth. The girl inside the phone booth looks as if she ended up with the short end of the straw on this assignment. The two girls in front seem innocent enough. But it’s the two girls on top of the phone booth that make the picture feel slightly provocative.

At least that was my initial impression. So since my English students are working with visual responses this semester, I decided to show it to them for their reactions to see if they jived with my own. Most didn’t venture to offer a verbal response in front of their classmates, but it seemed clear that the picture did make a few of them feel uncomfortable, especially the female students. Others simply mentioned the pair of yellow shoes one girl is wearing, or the fact that climbing on old phone booths is a “natural desire.”

What is your initial response to this picture? Don’t focus on what you see. Instead, focus on what you “feel,” and try to explain what in the picture elicits this response.

“I think photographs should be provocative and not tell you what you already know. It takes no great powers or magic to reproduce somebody's face in a photograph. The magic is in seeing people in new ways.” – Duane Michals

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

I'm Not William Hung -- Writer's Poke #312

People like to compare themselves to others. That’s no big surprise, but are we more likely to make “upward” or “downward” comparisons? That is, are we more likely to compare ourselves to people that are more successful or less successful than ourselves, that are happier or sadder than ourselves, better or worse off than ourselves?

Perhaps it is not an “either/or” question at all, but if not, then it is worth pondering why we use “upward” comparisons in some cases and “downward” comparisons in others. What, in other words, are the functions each sort of comparison?

After all these years, I still enjoy watching the first few audition shows of American Idol. I’m not so much interested in who will receive golden tickets as I am in who is willing to humiliate themselves in front of millions of viewers. Even more impressive, for some reason, are the auditioners who don’t recognize just how bad they actually are. They genuinely believe they have talent, and nothing the judges say can convince them otherwise. Meanwhile, I’m sitting on my couch giggling at their expense. No harm done, really, as they can’t hear me. It’s not like I’m laughing right in front of their faces. The TV acts as a filter, and it allows me the opportunity to register a natural, non-politically-correct response in the privacy of my own home.

Upward comparisons refer to wish fulfillment. We see what others have, and we covet it. We desire it. We must have it. And if we can’t have it, it makes our own lives look bleak. In the realm of reality TV, I assume that some viewers must follow certain shows because they imagine characteristics in themselves that they see in their heroes. We support Carrie Underwood or Taylor Hicks because they represent the kind of person we would like to be.

And I know this for a fact: If I were on American Idol, I would certainly be Chris Daughtery, not William Hung.

Who do you compare yourself to, and why? What do such comparisons do for you? Motivate you? Depress you? Invigorate you? Infuriate you?

“No man is happy but by comparison.” – Thomas Shadwell

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Be a Weed -- Writer's Poke #311

It hadn’t rained in days, and the grass was dying. Some of our neighbors started to water their lawns, but the effort was futile.

Meanwhile, the weeds survived.

Weeds always survive. We stopped using the lawn service a couple of years ago, and the first year off the chemicals, the grass managed to look pretty good. The second year, however, the weeds took over.

This year it got so bad that I almost gave in. Instead of going back to the lawn service, though, I decided to spray the weeds myself. I sprayed them in May, and it looked like they died. By the end of July, they were back in full force. And they brought some of their friends.

Weeds always bring reinforcements.

And at that point, I decided that I don’t mind weeds. I would live with them in peace. Who decided that a lawn should be 100% uniform grass anyway?

For my daughter, weeds are treasures. She picks them and finds beauty in them. Each weed is an offering to mommy. Each weed, in her eyes, is a way to make mommy’s face light up.

In what ways would your life improve if you were more like a weed?

“Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.” -- A.A. Milne