Posted by: Kristen Hicks | June 13, 2013

Visiting Florence with (Slightly) New Eyes

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One of the most amazing years of my life to date was the year I spent abroad in Italy in college.

I ran out of money quickly due to the minimal savings I had at that point in my life, and the weakness of the dollar to the euro. Thus, I was cognizant of missing out when spring break rolled around and friends ventured off to see new spots in Europe, and I stayed in Florence to get ahead in my studies.

One day, I decided I needed to get out of the house and went walking. I had no destination in mind, and purposefully took turns in directions I wasn’t familiar with. If I couldn’t venture to a new city entirely, why not find something new to see in the city I’d been living in?

After a while of walking, starting to wonder if I should try to make my way back DSC01292and with no idea where I was in the city, I stumbled upon Piazza Michelangelo right at sunset.

The view from Piazza Michelangeo at sunset is famed and highly recommended to visitors to Florence. Even so, I hadn’t yet made it there at that particular time of day. In my attempt to venture out into a new Florence experience, I’d happened upon an iconic, memorable one through pure serendipity.

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That moment came back to me vividly as I re-visited the city for the first time in 6 years. Once again (after recovering from a long flight), I set out to walk the city–with no clear destination in mind–and ended up re-visiting a number of the spots that were regular features in my former year here.

Piazza Santa Croce, the landmark most seared into my memory due to its location within a block of the school (also notable for its dual life: a popular tourist destination by day, a spot where local kids come to drink and smoke by night). Piazza della Signorina, the piazza neighboring the Uffizi Gallery and filled with memorable statues (Perseo’s my favorite). The lovely Arno, still a pleasure to walk along. And, lastly, Piazza Michelangelo. It’s a hike to reach when taking the more conventional, familiar route than I did that day so many years ago, but worth it to look in on a city full of memories and beauty.

Posted by: Kristen Hicks | May 1, 2013

On Gates of Heaven

gates of heaven

“It’s amazing. There are just so many different aspects to this.”

That line, spoken by one of the interview subjects of the film Gates of Paradise could be applied as the thesis of the film. Extending out from the subject of pet cemeteries, Errol Morris talks to a number of people with some connection to the industry about subjects ranging from marketing, making music, personal motivation, falling in love, death, life, and of course, the special relationships that form between pet owners and their pets.

Without the context of the film, it can be hard to see just how some of those relate to the existence and business of pet cemeteries. Errol Morris demonstrated an important part of his signature style in the making of this, his first non-fiction, movie:  his appreciation for people and what they have to say. By just letting people talk, you can create a piece of art that touches on a range of human experience and addresses some of life’s key issues.

Although I’ve liked other examples of Morris’ work, I likely wouldn’t have been inclined to check this out without the special acclaim it received from Roger Ebert, who called it “one of the greatest films ever made.” Watching a film that ruminates on what death means to the living, and explores the varied things and beings people come to care about most in life, feels a fitting way to honor one of the most known and beloved film lovers in the days following his own death.

From one of his reviews of the film:

There’s your dog; your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something, didn’t it?”

These words, by a woman who has just buried her dog, are spoken in “Gates of Heaven.” They express the central mystery of life. No philosopher has stated it better. They form the truth at the center of Errol Morris’ 1978 documentary, which is surrounded by layer upon layer of comedy, pathos, irony, and human nature. I have seen this film perhaps 30 times, and am still not anywhere near the bottom of it: All I know is, it’s about a lot more than pet cemeteries.

From another of the reviews (some interesting backstory):

The film was made by a California filmmaker named Errol Morris, and it has been the subject of notoriety because Werner Herzog, the West German director, promised to eat his shoe if Morris ever finished it. Morris did finish it, and at the film’s premiere in Berkeley, Herzog indeed boiled and ate his shoe.

Ebert writes about the movie in a way that combines the lightness of some of it’s funnier moments (or those funnier moments surrounding the film, in the case of the above) and the depths it really delves into in the course of exploring its subject matter.

Necessarily, considering the film’s premise, pets, and the strong connections people feel to their animals serve as a central subject in the film. But ultimately, the film is all about people. A connection to one of the two pet cemeteries featured is how the movie finds its cast, but each of them presents ideas, viewpoints and experiences based on their own world and character.

Floyd McClure dominates the first half of the film. He’s an animal lover first and foremost with a dream of creating a place for people to set their deceased animal friends to rest. Sadly, he lacks the business sense to follow through on his dream and the plan falls apart after around 450 pets have already been buried in his cemetery.

A messy lawsuit requires that the animals are dug up and moved up to Napa Valley, where the purveyors of a more successful pet cemetery have agreed to re-bury them. The family running the Bubbling Well pet cemetery, the Harberts, dominate the second portion of the film.

They give Morris some variety to work with. Cal Harberts, the patriarch, combines his respect for the grief of those who have lost an animal with an impressive business sense that keeps the cemetery running and quite profitable, by the looks of the settings they’re interviewed in. His wife talks a bit about religion and her feelings on the work they do, as well as giving some of the narrative to connect how the other two main characters of this section became involved: her sons.

The thoughts and experiences of Danny and Phillip add even more character to a film gates-of-heavenmusicalready packed full of it. Danny talks about his experience in business school, first working hard, and then partying; falling in love, and then having his heart broken. Now, he spends many of the hours he’s not helping his parents run the pet cemetery writing and playing music. Often, when the customers aren’t around, he’ll turn it up loud and play his songs so that they fill the valley and add a soundtrack to the resting place of hundreds of pets (many of whom may have been inclined to attack his speakers in life, if my dog’s behavior is any indication).

Phillip left a stressful life in the insurance business to embrace something less fast-paced in working with his family at the cemetery. He’s a clear former over-achiever, and he often drops mentions of his time in insurance in talking about other subjects. He seems to be still grappling with the decision to leave behind his former ideas of success and become comfortable in the world he lives in now. He dwells on ideas that sound right out of a self-help book.

Intercut with the interviews with these memorable and distinct characters, Morris will talk to customers about their feelings towards their pets and their thoughts on death. He takes a break from hearing from people to show the viewers some of the touching tombstones in the Bubbling Well Cemetery. Although not an especially long movie, it often feels like it moves slow to give the viewer time to get to know the people presented, consider their viewpoints and ponder the weighty themes addressed.

Posted by: Kristen Hicks | April 4, 2013

The Astounding Jim Beaver

I recently made a case to a friend that Jim Beaver had played some role in so many of the best tv shows in the last few years that Mad Men best find a place for him or risk becoming obsolete. Ok, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration and Mad Men’s probably gonna continue to be awesome even if they don’t find a way to fit Jim Beaver into those Sterling Draper Pryce offices (or just Sterling Draper now, is it?), but seriously wouldn’t this show, and most others, be improved by his presence?

I’m glad to see I’m not the only one to notice his ubiquitous ability to improve upon already entertaining tv shows. The AVClub wrote about how what defines a Jim Beaver role is the eagerness of writers to take a perhaps simplistic character and add considerable depth once they realize what they have in the actor playing him. They offer up the examples of Sheriff Parlow on Justified – who ends up becoming a much more fascinating character as this last season progresses (possibly too late SPOILER ALERT: avoid reading the AVClub article if you’re not caught up), Bobby Singer on Supernatural, and Ellsworth on Deadwood. Each of these characters was originally intended for a smaller or simpler role in the show, but ended up becoming someone special to the plot, the other characters, and the viewers as the shows progressed.

He’s also shown up in smaller roles on a few other shows with varying levels of critical acclaim: Breaking Bad, Dexter, and Big Love; all adding to an extensive imdb page full of impressive character roles played over the last few decades.

In addition, he’s built up a reputation for being one of the actors most inclined to interact directly with fans of the shows he’s on and engage with them in intellectual discussions, as well as provide stories from on set. In turns out that the man who repeatedly plays characters who viewers just wanna hug, off set inhabits the kind of real-life persona that, well, people just wanna hug.

Posted by: Kristen Hicks | March 15, 2013

On Girls and Cassavetes

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When I reached the end of this AVClub piece about Girls, it dawned on me that the closest thing I’ve had to the experience of watching the show is that of watching several films directed by John Cassavetes in college. They both effectively portray fascinating moments that reveal something about human nature that cause discomfort in a way that feels a little too familiar.

It’s been a while since I saw Faces and Shadows, but I remember being struck by the many scenes where characters seemed to lose access to the version of themselves they choose to show the world, and slip into a version that’s normally contained. Usually with the help of plenty of alcohol and some sort of personal drama, the stories people create to communicate who they are to the world get drowned out by raw expressions of emotion.

This isn’t to say the person you are at a formal event is a distinct entity from the person you are when baring your emotions to close friends after one too many cocktails, but that there’s something that rings true to seeing these intimate, awkward moments portrayed by characters from a distance. I think one of the reasons people have some strong reactions to the show is just how effective so many scenes are at making us face that discomfort and any memories it may invoke.

I haven’t had many experiences all that similar to Hannah Horvath’s, but I have had experiences that inspired similar feelings to what I imagine her character going through.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about Girls when I first started watching it, it’s a show that can make you feel and think about such a wide range of things that it can be hard to pin down one opinion on it. I knew it had moments I found funny, some that felt true, others that made me feel uncomfortable to watch, and that it was doing something different than I’d seen done before. In spite of all the positive in that statement, I wasn’t sure yet though if I liked it. I don’t think it was until I watched the beginning of the 2nd season and realized I’d genuinely missed the show that I accepted that I not only like it, but it’s one of the shows I look forward to each new episode of the most.

Posted by: Kristen Hicks | December 26, 2012

On The Sandman

Martin Tenbones The Sandman Although he spends a fairly small amount of time in the Sandman series, Martin Tenbones steals my heart.  In a journey of just a few pages in The Game of You, he shows so much heroism, devotion and sweetness that when he dies within moments of reaching his goal — I bawl, every time.

And there will be many times, because The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman is one of the most re-readable pieces of literature I’ve yet to encounter in life. It’s hands down my favorite world to get lost in for a few hours. It’s as rich and layered a work of art as anything I’ve picked up by Dickens, Dostoevsky or Steinbeck, and could give book groups or lit classes at least months of idea rich discussion topics.

Alright, so you get that I like it a lot. The great challenge of writing about the Sandman is figuring out how best to narrow down the many amazing stories, brilliant ideas and endless internal discussions it addresses and inspires into a few key, meaningful paragraphs. Wish me luck.

Some notes on the world of the Sandman:

Largely inspired by the world Gaiman presents in the Sandman series, I made a decision some years ago to base my worldview on the power of stories. In many ways, reality and fact matter much less to me than the meaning and truth that can be gleaned from fiction and insofar as we all choose to see the world through a certain lens, I’ve chosen the religion of story. To say “the world of the Sandman” isn’t exactly accurate, but even to call it a “universe” feels too small, maybe “reality” works best?

The Endless: Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Despair, Desire, Delirium

From The Sandman: Endless Nights

The main characters of our stories, and the main constants in the reality of the tales, are the Endless. The siblings (in order of age): Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Despair, Desire and Delirium, have existed longer than anything else we can conceive of. They interact with humanity, gods and goddesses, angels and demons, fairies and all manner of creatures from the world that we the reader know, and those beyond.

In the universe reality of the Sandman, any fictional character or creature that people have thought of or believed in exists. Stories have a reality all their own. When belief begins to die and the stories stop being told, the reality of the stories gets weaker.

Some story highlights:

The Song of Orpheus/A Midsummer’s Night Dream

I’m lumping these two together because they’re both exceptional examples of something great art has been doing for as long as it’s been around: taking the thread of older stories and weaving it into something new and uniquely meaningful. The Sandman Orpheus

The Song of Orpheus takes the already familiar and heartbreaking story of Orpheus, and makes it all the more powerful by tying it into the larger mythology of the series through the addition of the Endless. They all come together to celebrate their nephew’s wedding – in Dream’s case, his son – and each play their role in his tragic fate.

The saga of the now immortal Orpheus and his complicated relationship with his father becomes an important part of the series’ larger arc, but through this story we get a new telling of an old myth and a chance for richer characterizations of the powerful and often flawed siblings at the series center.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream envisions a special performance of the play of the same name, put on by Shakespeare and his players at the bequest of Dream. In an earlier story, we see Dream make a deal with a young playwright whose ambitions outweigh his talent, for greater skill in exchange for two plays devoted to the subject of dream.

For a performance for the first of these plays, he invites many of the same fairies who help make up its cast of characters. While Titania, Puck, Peaseblossom and the others watch people playing versions of themselves, slight glimpses of their own dramas and desires play out in the audience. Gaiman makes real Shakespeare’s characters and lets them comment on their depiction according to Shakespeare.

It’s a fun, artful representation of something I adore in art: the ongoing conversation between great minds. Like Dante’s incorporation of Virgil into his Divine Comedy, using his writing as an opportunity to have a conversation with his literary hero, Gaiman’s able to honor the influence of Shakespeare on his work while producing a result altogether his own.

Three Septembers and a January

In one of the most charming, moving stories in the series, we spend some time with the one and only Emperor of the United States, Joshua Norton. Pulling from a strange, enchanting story from our nation’s past, Three Septembers and a January starts with a figure belonging to Despair – a man who has lost his fortune and can find little left to live for. Despair summons Dream and offers a proposition: take this man into your realm, see if you can save him from his misery.

From this proposition, Joshua Norton becomes the Emperor of the United States. With a steadfast conviction in the reality of his position, and a sense of civic responsibility too often lacking in our country’s actual leaders, the Emperor charms San Francisco and its tourists. Local businesses begin taking the currency he creates, tourists purchase it from him as souvenirs and locals (including Mark Twain) treat him to meals as a form of paying their “taxes.”

He never regains the wealth he’d once had, but he finds happiness and honor instead. As Delirium proclaims, “His madness keeps him sane.” The story ends with a man whose dream has become so meaningful to so many people that over 30,000 people attend his funeral.

Ramadan

Ramadan is all about images. It’s most effective feature is the contrast between the image of the mythical ramadansandmanBaghdad as it was under Harun al-Raschid, and the war torn modern day Baghdad (torn from a different war at the time of the story’s publication – but feeling just as fresh as ever based on events of recent years). This time drawing both from a mix of history and the magical stories described in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, the tale takes the time to wander through the wondrous streets of a truly great city.

Full of color, great riches, magic and beauty, the Baghdad of this time is the travel destination of an intrepid voyager’s dreams. Harun al-Raschid recognizes that his city is exceptional, that it’s the best possible version of itself, and can’t maintain this special spark forever. Disheartened by thoughts of a grimmer future for the city he loves, he summons Dream and offers the city to him in exchange for its living forever as it is.

While the deal leaves reality with a Baghdad minus the magic and some of its charm, the story of Baghdad in its greatest era persists and serves to give its current residents something to dream about.

Some idea highlights:

1. The Dream Library

“October knew, of course, that the action of turning a page, of ending a chapter or shutting a book, did not end the tale. Having admitted that, he would also  avow that happy endings were never difficult to find: It is simply a matter of finding a sunny place in a garden, where the light is golden and the grass is soft; somewhere to rest, to stop reading, and to be content.”

The Man Who Was October, G.K. Chesterton (in the Dream Library)Dream Library: The Sandman

When I die, I’d like to go hang out in the Library of Dream, with Lucien. Made up of all the books people have dreamed, but never written (or finished), I could read all the great, lost works of the writers I already know I love and the many I’d be discovering for the first time.

The library is massive – its contents must come pretty close to the size of Borges’ Library of Babel, and yet they take up a space manageable by one hyper-competent librarian. This is possible, of course, because things like space and time work differently in the dream realm than in the one we humans inhabit during waking life.

For a semi-relevant tangent, check out this list of massive libraries in popular culture or this post about all those stories we’ll never hear beyond our own imaginations.

2. The Truth in Stories

As described in the notes on the world of the Sandman above, the Endless interact regularly with characters, concepts and religious icons that are all real – even though many would consider the possibility of their co-existence contradictory.

Best represented by the collection of gods, goddesses and incarnated ideas that show up at Dream’s door in Seasons of Mist. Dream has dinner with ancient Norse gods, Egyptian gods, a Shinto (Japanese) god, biblical angels and demons, order (who shows up in the form of a box and a representative of chaos (who shows up as a strange little blonde girl with a balloon), amongst a few others.

Sandman Gods and Ideas

It’s suggested that all these entities exist for as long as people believe in them (which reminds me of some characters I left off above: fairies). When belief in gods get weak, they must find a way to adapt. Ishtar, a goddess of love and sexuality (and former lover of Destruction of the Endless), becomes a stripper to find continued strength in the worship of men.

If we want to take this idea to its logical conclusion, it suggests that there’s a truth in powerful stories that goes beyond the all reigning, one and only truth that many of the religious seek and insist upon. It’s not uncommon to gain understanding and meaning from fiction that rings truer than knowledge insisting to be factual. Which brings us to…

3. Reason as a Flawed Tool

“They say miracles are past; and we have our philosophical persons to make modern and familiar things supernatural and causeless. Hence it is that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear”

–Shakespeare, All’s Well that Ends Well

“They are using reason as a tool. Reason. It is no more reliable a tool than instinct, myth or dream, but it has the potential to be far more dangerous” —Destruction
“Reason is a flawed tool at best, my brother” — 
Dream

Perhaps a slightly more controversial extension of the idea expressed above (although, I guess the level of controversy in each would depend on who you’re talking to), the Endless, who have lived longer and seen more than any other entity in this reality, consider reason to be a weak way to understand the world.

In a discussion between Dream and Destruction in the 19th century, they bemoan that reason is supplanting other forms of belief and thinking in the minds of humanity. Rather than supposing that reason is actually truer than, say, mythology; in the reality of the Sandman, it’s just one of many ways of understanding the world, and far from the best. But, in taking over how a majority of modern society understands reality, it edges out and weakens other, also true and valid, ways of thinking.

4. The fascinating multitudes inside all of us

“Everybody has a secret world inside of them. All of the people of the world, I mean everybody. No matter how dull or boring they are on the outside, inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds. Not just one world, hundreds of them, thousands maybe.”

This line is best expressed in my two favorite volumes: The Doll’s House and A Game of YouIn the former, Rose Walker falls asleep one night and discovers she has a power in her dreams she’d never imagined. The dreams of her sleeping neighbors all begin to converge and everyone gets a glimpse into the secret worlds inside their lovers’ and acquaintances’ minds.

Some of the dreams are beautiful – a woman dreams of falling in love with a sentence. Others are disturbing – a man who uncannily resembles a Ken doll fixates on images of money and power. All of them reveal greater depths to the characters than Rose’s earlier interactions with them show.

One of Rose’s neighbors, Barbie appears especially boring in her initial appearances in the story, alongside her equally dull fiancee Ken. Her dreams are a special surprise. She enters a rich fantasy world filled with endearing characters, expansive landscapes and the ongoing drama of an important quest. The aforementioned Martin Tenbones belongs to her dream world.

Barbie loses access to her dream world after the night that Rose causes the dreams of the building’s tenants to bleed together. She leaves her disturbing fiancee and starts a new life, less intent on normality. This is where we return to her in A Game of You, in which we learn her dream world has continued to exist in spite of her absence.

Her dreams very literally begin to interact with her waking life, starting with Martin Tenbones’ heartbreaking foray into New York and leading into an adventure that plays out partially in Barbie’s sleeping mind, and partially in the parallel adventure of her new neighbors that venture into the dream realm to help save her.

The story serves as a reminder of something that most of the human characters of the Sandman reality demonstrate at some point – there’s more to people than we see of them in our waking interactions. We all have stories beyond the main one we star in from day to day.

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