Thursday, September 21, 2017

“It Is the Little Things That Make Life Big” by Ariana Farajollah

Many films act as messages urging viewers to take action against the atrocities in humanity whereas others communicate that, at their core, humans are basically good. Beginning with Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, advancing onto Jamie Uys’ The Gods Must Be Crazy, and ultimately scrutinizing Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away, our class concluded our “Art of Interpretation” with Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. Set in Berlin, the film follows two angels as they comfort mortals. Although Damiel and Cassiel offer sympathy to humans, they lack true human emotion. Inspired by trapeze artist Marion and her beauty, Damiel’s desire is to transform into a human being. The initial three movies that depict the harm done by Western Civilization strategically serve as a set-up for this last film that displays the good that can be found in humanity.

Walkabout is a tale of two city-bred siblings who, following their father’s suicide, are forced to trudge along the scorching desert in search of home. Every detail in Roeg’s film is carefully considered and decided upon. More specifically, costume choices are deliberately made, as they tell a story in themselves. The director spends a generous amount of time focusing on those who are clothed versus those who are naked. Despite the soaring temperatures of the Australian Outback, the female protagonist refuses to remove a single article of clothing. She opts to restrict the heat from escaping her body in her classic schoolgirl plaid skirt and crisp white button down. However, once she finds a break in the auburn, ashy desert at a secluded flowing stream, the teenage girl strips off the oppressive clothing to bear only skin. She lets out a sigh of relief as her arms aid her in floating across a pond. Critic Patrick Gibbs recalls this scene as “memorable for its lyrical quality when the girl’s inhibitions seem finally to be dispersed by the force of nature and she swims nude” (par. 2) and alludes to her fear of judgment. Her discomfort with nudity plays to her apprehension of revealing her true self. The only place the girl finds serenity is when she has the freedom to be exposed in the comfort of privacy.  

The protagonist’s anxiety reflects society’s own, grander-scale angst. One frequently puts forward a mask to avoid judgment from his peers. Western civilization encourages this behavior by labeling certain identities as superior to others. For instance, one may lie about his or her sexual orientation or personal interests to conceal one’s true qualities and quirky characteristics. In the process, the colorful individuals that comprise our society lose just that: their individuality, their distinctiveness, and their rarity. Through the inclusion of scenes depicting the girl both clothed and nude, Roeg draws on our society’s need to eschew our fear of judgment, let down our façades, and express what makes us unique. Walkabout is suitable for interpreting our first film as it poses the dangers of judgment and the extremes that some must go to in order to feel truly and completely comfortable.

Similar to the close scrutiny of Nicolas Roeg’s work, many of us slid Jamie Uys’ The Gods Must Be Crazy under a microscope. The movie depicts Bushman Xi’s journey to the end of the Earth, clumsy scientist Andrew’s developing crush on Kate, a South African transplant, and belligerent guerillas causing mischief in the jungle. Although at first glance the film appears to be nothing short of a comedy, Uys embeds deeper messages about ownership for his audience to consider. When a Coke bottle is dropped into the Kalahari Desert and found by the Bushman’s hands, the indigenous people question the motives of the “gods” (Uys, 0:06:57). What was originally an object of many usages quickly has become a weapon to their society. Uys alternates scenes of children taking blows to the head, playing rough games of tug-of-war with the glass bottle, and even the adults getting in on some of the action (Uys, 0:10:16). Critic Vincent Canby comments on the situation, “…the bottle also introduces the Bushmen to feelings of envy and ideas of ownership, thus threatening their idyllic society that, until then, has existed without poverty, greed or crime” (par. 6). 

The homeostatic upset in the Bushmen’s community speaks to the danger of possession. Although the people had never owned anything before, as soon as the bottle entered the picture, the Bushmen became animal-like and unwilling to share. Similarly, those in Western society are so focused on gaining that lusted-after competitive edge that they often forget to help a neighbor out. They wildly climb the ladder to success at the expense of their equals until they are no longer equal. In reality, the results lack any hint of success, but, rather, the human condition suffers. The Gods Must Be Crazy is fitting for a second film as it introduces the barbarism that results from ownership.

Swept Away acts as an additional interrogation of what it means to be civilized. Wertmüller’s film follows capitalistic yacht-cruiser Rafaella and communistic crewmember Gennarino as they seek to escape their isolation on a stranded island. In the process, these two characters undergo personality changes. The director uses the protagonists’ roles to explore the notion of gender and sexism. Gennarino, normally a passive young man, endures a complete one-eighty as he transforms into a disturbingly dominant version of himself. Rafaella, once a snooty, reliant woman becomes docile and obedient to Gennarino. Blogger Samantha Storms writes, “Wertmüller’s violent scenes of abuse and manipulation serve…as representations of the issues that the female gender must face in daily life…” (par. 6). As soon as the two protagonists undergo these extreme changes in personality, they slip into classic gender roles of dominant male and submissive female. This situation speaks to modern day sexist stereotype of men as physically and mentally superior to women. Ladies are often belittled for trying to independently secure a steady income, choosing to go through life without a husband, and engaging in traditional “male” pastimes, such as sports. Simply put, sexism is yet another symptom of a civilization out of balance. Swept Away powerfully addresses the misogynistic challenges within Western society.

Wenders’ Wings of Desire directly responds to the impact of judgment, ownership, and sexism in our contemporary lives. The film thrives off of uncertainty in order to delve deeper into what it means to be human and to provoke its audience to question its conventions. Wings of Desire assures viewers that the concerns raised by the former three films are minor compared to life’s inherent beauty. For instance, the commuters on the train are too jaded by the anxieties of daily life to see the angels around them paying witness to their woes. In contrast, the children, not yet corrupted by the limits of the rational mind, easily sense the comfort emitted by Damiel and Cassiel. Moreover, trapeze artist Marion, although an adult, is conscious of the angel’s presence because she has maintained passion in her art. The juxtaposition between characters who are aware of Damiel and Cassiel’s angelic presence and those who are not is analogous to the characters who can appreciate life’s beauty and those who cannot.

The all-too-human struggles in Roeg’s Walkabout, Uys’ The Gods Must Be Crazy, and Wertmüller’s Swept Away are but a prelude to the transformation into mortality celebrated in Wings of Desire. Wenders focuses on Damiel’s yearning to exchange his status as an angel for a chance at experiencing life as a human. He has quieted the violent thoughts of a Holocaust survivor, eavesdropped on the concerns of commuters, and solaced the escort struggling to meet ends. Reviewer Jessica Winter discusses his desire for mortality, “The angel wants to live ‘not forever but now,’ to trade the unbearable lightness of being for the heft and dirt of the mortal coil. He rhapsodizes about being able to feel his own bones, to let the newspaper blacken his fingers, to ‘feed the cat like Philip Marlowe’" (par. 4). Damiel has seen all the tragedies that life can unexpectedly throw at its members, yet still wants to experience what it means to be human. The angel appreciates the little things in life that Walkabout’s female character, the Bushmen, and Rafaella are too consumed by life’s evils to see. Damiel minimizes the concerns, looking beyond them to discover a world swelling with affection, beauty, and gratitude. Blogger Ariel Hannanian puts it best, “…his urge to live among these flawed individuals suggests there is an innate beauty in being human” (par. 1). Wings of Desire is an intriguing film to wrap up our investigations because it resolves any loose or alarming thoughts that the audience may have experienced concerning our lack of humanity to one another. It portrays civilization in an optimistic light and asks us to see that, although society is tainted with tragic moments, it has its good ones, too. 

Yes, no doubt our humanity is flawed, but only in so far as we choose to bury the flaw and not address it. Nicolas Roeg, Jamie Uys, and Lina Wertmüller communicate the brutalities of our judgments, the struggles we encounter with ownership, and the nagging stereotype of sexist behaviors. However, I suggest that the sequence of films is methodically ordered to conclude with a film that transcends those atrocities. Through Damiel’s journey into true human feeling, Wings of Desire explores the intrinsic good in our humanity. Wim Wenders calls on viewers to take action, improve humanity, and make Damiel’s perspective of the world a little less difficult to see. After all, it is the little things that make life big.

Works Cited

Canby, Vincent. "Is 'The Gods Must Be Crazy' Only a Comedy?" The New York Times,

27 Oct. 1984. Web. 29 Apr. 2017.

Gibbs, Patrick. "Walkabout, original 1971 review: 'beautiful'" The Telegraph, 08 Nov.

2014. Web. 29 Apr. 2017.

Hannanian, Ariel. "Awakenings into Adulthood via Wim Wenders." Taking Giant

Steps, 16 Apr. 2017. Web. 09 May 2017.

Storms, Samantha. "Passion’s Dark Side: Roeg’s Walkabout vs Wertmüller’s Swept

            Away by Samantha Storms." Taking Giant Steps, 08 Dec. 2016. Web. 29 Apr. 2017.

Winter, Jessica. "Revisiting Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire." Slate Magazine, 12 Jan.

2010. Web. 29 Apr. 2017.


Sunday, September 17, 2017

“Walt Whitman, Alan Watts, and We” by DaisyMae VanValkenburgh

The most fascinating thing about a young adult’s life is that it is always changing. There is so much room for improvement, for seeing things differently, and for trying to understand the inner self. American poet Walt Whitman and British philosopher Alan Watts demonstrate in their writing how the world around us is in constant flux, how we learn to absorb information and then decide how we will allow it to change us. When I began my first college writing class, I felt as if I was quite the cultured person, but I soon caught on that the people around me and the forum style of the class would allow me to grow a lot more than I imagined. Our many discussions of texts, especially in regard to our identity, gave me an opportunity to reach a higher level of understanding. The variety of my peers’ responses to both Asian and Western appreciations of the spiritual side of life has made me open my eyes to just how much I was unaware of. These glimpses into other lifestyles, priorities and “techniques of the sacred” have allowed me to see things much differently.

Walt Whitman in Section One of “Song of Myself” writes, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume” (Whitman 1.1.1-2).  By Whitman saying I, he speaks about his own person, but he also insinuates a cosmic (or Vedic) self that is not higher or lower than anyone else; rather he asks us to see the self as universal, something we are all a part of: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (Whitman 1.1.3). I view this as a brilliant escape from the demanding trap of the ego in which I must create, denounce, and defend a position or a personal identity in order to be comfortable or taken seriously. Whitman knows that we as individuals understand each other better when we are all involved, and that is a huge motivation for young, susceptible individuals trying to make sense of who they are. In Section 24 he calls himself “a kosmos” and adds this moral dimension, “Whoever degrades another, degrades me / And whatever is done or said returns at last to me” (Whitman 1.24. 1; 8-9).  

Indeed, the motive of “Song of Myself” strikes me as an appeal to the reader to think beyond the either/or of our perceptions. As fellow Taking Giant Steps blogger Emily Baksic astutely writes on Leaves of Grass and its relation to Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, “The yin and yang accept the flow between one’s life and the universe counteracting together. The yin and yang represent the integration of opposites not merely as polarities, but as complements” (Baksic, Par. 5). Though we may split the universe into good and bad, we need to see how opposites attract and create a larger whole in and of itself. Whitman caused me to recognize that we are all individual entities sharing space in the same universe. No one is anything more, and no one is anything less. To insist otherwise feels like an unnecessary defense against our own urge to grow our souls. When one works with another, dates another, or speaks to a stranger, one can gain so much by putting oneself on the same level as the other. It is not worth putting oneself above or below another, just because one is speaking to an individual of a certain status. One must find oneself in others to truly grasp all the dimensions of one’s identity. As Alan Watts would say, regarding our need to make all these distinctions in status, we are “putting legs on a snake” (Watts, 11). 

After reading Chapter One of his The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, I observed that Watts and Whitman are essentially singing the same song, each for their own generation. Watts’s reading of Vedanta, the end of the Vedas (knowledge), makes us as humans wonder if what we know is not what we actually need to know in order to be “in the know” (Watts, 9). Watts suggests that we must dig down deeper---beyond the masks of our personalities and the social conventions we obey without a second thought---into the taboo of the world, search a little in the unknown, and work on figuring out what the others refuse to tell us. Maybe there is “some inside information, some special taboo, some real lowdown on life and existence that most parents and teachers either don't know or won't tell” (Watts, 9).

Watts caused me to consider that life has more meaning than what we just see on the outer surface. We have to interrogate the taboos of our society and run with what the world does not want us to know. Watts states that we are “flesh or plastic, intelligence or mechanism, nerve or wire, biology or physics” (Watts, 39), a “human race leaving no more trace of itself in the universe than a system of electronic patterns” (Watts, 37). Watts asks us to look at each occurrence that happens in life differently. As he puts it, “Taboos lie within taboos” (Watts, 9), and that is where we need to search in order to find what we are missing. These hush-hush, inflammatory, unpopular, or alternative readings of the world are what students need to learn for themselves. I gratefully entertain the notion that I am not merely a separate self, alienated from others, alone and afraid, but part of the greater whole in which my individual soul (Atman) is none other than the universal soul (Brahman).

Fortunately, I first encountered these two iconoclastic writers in my middle school and high school years. Growing up a sheltered child with a mother who perennially fought health problems, I was not able to explore as much as the other children were, nor was I able to go spend time with friends as much at a young age, due to the fear of contracting an ordinary illness and getting my mother more ill. With chronic illnesses, even the simplest of colds can have severe effects on the immune system. If I did have playdates growing up, I do not remember them clearly. In second grade my thirst for knowledge wound up distancing me from my peers. However, this solitude gave me a kind of freedom. I picked up an encyclopedia in my house one day and began reading it, one book at a time. Reading led to writing, and I learned to analyze material to find deeper meanings, but also to find a larger understanding in every circumstance. I am thankful for the chance to grow my interpretive antennae at such an early age. Fellow blogger Kelsey Picciano was not so lucky: “I learned only that of the history the school chose for me to learn; I read only the literature of which the school wished for me to read; I knew only of the environment that the school wished for me to be in” (Picciano, Par. 3).

In middle school, my English teacher realized I had a knack for seeing things differently, so she introduced me to the 52 sections of “Song of Myself.” Whitman’s way of expressing how we as humans are comprised of experiences, ideas, and mental states, as well as a personal spiritual understanding, demonstrated so clearly that each person is part of one universal self in the world. From a young age this point of view is something that I have sought to celebrate. Likewise, in high school, my English teacher, seeing that I needed a challenge, invited me to spend my sophomore year reading Alan Watts. Once again, I found myself in the company of a real seeker willing to question everything around him to get to the bottom of things. With this inside knowledge, I realized that I was no longer going to let anyone dictate who I was becoming. I took the chances I wanted and have never looked back. Because of these self-discoveries in middle and high school, “I no longer find myself with a void sitting inside of me; I no longer solely feel my physical being; I feel my existence as my own unique individual” (Picciano, Par. 7). 

In my first semester of college, I have further realized that in order to continue my path towards a career in journalism, I need to allow my mind to wander into the unknowns of the world, as Watts teaches us, and that I must find myself within others, as Whitman illustrates. My past is no longer going to define my future; rather, my present self is going to be the guide to find out who I will become. As someone who considered herself well cultured, I found that Watts and Whitman truly challenged my homeostasis. Whitman showed me how we are all a part of the same whole, working to figure out what truly works for each of us. Watts opened my eyes to see that what we already know is not all that we need to know. We must be in constant search of what we do not know to acquire what we still need to. I realized that my best strategy as a learner, thinker and evolving writer is to break out of my comfort zone in order to challenge what it is I have yet to learn. 

Works Cited

Baksic, Emily. "Corresponding Ideas of Nature in Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass & Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching." Taking Giant Steps, 05 May 2016. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.

Picciano, Kelsey. "Forging a Whitmanic, Post-Traditional, Bisexual Identity." Taking Giant Steps. N.p., 28 Jan. 2016. Web. 07 Dec. 2016.

Watts, Alan. “Chapter 1,” The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. Share and Discover Knowledge on LinkedIn SlideShare. N.p., 25 Dec. 2015. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself” (1892 Version)| Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.