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Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Atheist in "Save Send Delete"

Ten years ago I saw an atheist on a PBS discussion about the existence of God. What I think of as my "little voice" prompted me to contact the atheist. I honestly had no idea why – still don't – but I trust intuition and follow the little voice.

I dashed off a hasty and rude email.

The atheist surprised me by writing back. He was charming and engaging.

We continued writing back and forth to each other for the next year. Then we stopped.

A year after we said goodbye, during moments when my mind wandered, for example while standing in the checkout line in supermarkets, my relationship with this atheist began to play itself out in my head in literary form.

I'm a writer, and I've always got some script or opera or short story or essay playing itself out in my head. If I didn't have to work for a living, I'd happily spend all my time putting as many of these productions on paper as I could.

Again, my "little voice" prompted me to put this particular production down on paper, and I did. The result is the book "Save Send Delete."

From the start I knew that I wanted SSD to contain only my emails to the atheist, whom I named "Rand," and not his back to me.


When I was a kid, I read an historical novel that was written that way. It consisted of the letters of an Ancient Roman to a woman he loved. I was fascinated by that format because, counterintuitively, it got me to know exactly who this woman was, though her words, or even any description of her, never appeared on the page.

I wanted to be able to work that same magic on my readers. I wanted them to know exactly who Rand was, even though he never appeared on the page.

I wanted to do this for a very specific reason. I was writing about God, a God many of us believe in, even though we never see him. We are convinced that we experience him. I wanted the reader to experience Rand, the absent Rand.

Franz Werfel does this in his masterpiece, "Song of Bernadette." Werfel, a Jew, describes Bernadette Soubirous' witnessing an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who tells her to drink and wash in muddy water that suddenly runs clear, and that eventually plays some role in miraculous healings. This is outlandish stuff. How does Werfel sell weird miracles in a mass-market book? Werfel does not even attempt to describe the apparitions at Lourdes in a believable way. Rather, he describes the reactions of observers in a way that I found completely believable. Average people, confronted with the numinous, would react exactly as the characters in Werfel's book.

In addition to writing about God, I was writing about love, the other great mystery that we cannot see, that many of us don't believe in, but that impresses us greatly.

I wanted to tell my story of how my correspondence with Rand affected me. I couldn't possibly tell Rand's story of how our correspondence affected him – I did not know.

And, again, I wanted to show how invisible entities – God, or in this case, love – can leave a big impact, whether they exist or not.

And I didn't want to get sued.

And I didn't want to violate Rand's privacy, or his marriage, or his reputation.

And I didn't want anyone to buy or read "Save Send Delete" on the basis of his fame.

These are all my reasons for including only my emails in "Save Send Delete."

About a year ago, a friend wrote to tell me that a famous atheist had been accused of rape.

Should I go public with Rand's identity?

These are my thoughts.

First, "Save Send Delete" has sold very few copies, and it appears that nothing is likely to change that. So, when I say "publicly identify Rand," I'm talking about identifying Rand to the three or four people who read my blog.

Second, Rand is no longer married to the woman he was married to when he and I corresponded, so my saying this publicly can't have any negative impact on that marriage.

His reputation is being hashed out by forces greater than I – his few accusers, and his many and influential fans and friends.

The famous atheist with whom I corresponded in the correspondence that inspired "Save Send Delete," is Michael Shermer.

Do I or does my book have anything to do with the rape accusation?


In our correspondence, Dr. Shermer was consistently polite to me. I often reflected that I wished I could meet a prominent Catholic who would treat me with equal respect, warmth, and encouragement. I enjoyed our correspondence. I have no hard feelings or regrets. The one thing that pisses me off is that he sells more books than I do; every writer knows exactly what I mean. We all share this Grinch deep down in our souls. I remind my Grinch that Edward Bulwer-Lytton sells more books than I do.

Did Dr. Shermer show any signs of being a rapist in his correspondence with me?


Does that prove anything?


There really are such things as not knowing, and I do not know, anything, at all, about these accusations. I wasn't there. I did not attend the events in question. I did not meet the accusers. I have no experience of this behavior.

No one would find any data of any kind in anything I've written that would support any side of this controversy.

Why go "public" – to my tiny handful of blog readers – about Rand's identity?

Again, because the negatives I listed above have been eliminated, and because I want the luxury of speaking freely in those very limited instances where mentioning the identity of the man who inspired Rand arises.

I want to write a blog post, if I get around to it, on the double standard in reviews of Dr. Shermer's new book. It's a book about ethics, and reviews I've seen have not mentioned the accusations. That's a double standard. If a Catholic cleric accused of rape were promoting a book about ethics, you can bet your bottom dollar that atheist reviewers would mention such accusations in their lead sentences.

I didn't want to comment on this double standard from behind a curtain of pretense. I wanted to do the "full disclosure" announcement that's ethically required when you speak in public about a race in which you have some investment in one of the horses.

"Save Send Delete" contains no information that any side could use in the current controversy. A typical passage from "Save Send Delete," entitled "Marble in my Backpack," is linked below. "Marble in My Backpack" is all about me. The only thing it tells you about Michael Shermer is that interaction with him inspired me to write it. He listened to me. The book is a testimony to the power of one person listening to another. You can read "Marble in My Backpack" at this link here.

Yes. It does feel good to get this off my chest. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Shut up! You are not qualified to criticize Stephen Sondheim!

An Amazon customer named Thomas Lokensgard -- and isn't that a cool name? -- commented on my review of "Into the Woods." 

Lokensgard wrote, 

"Stephen Sondheim is the one of the most acclaimed and celebrated composers/lyricists in the entirety of musical theatre. He's written music and lyrics for several highly acclaimed shows, including Sweeney Todd, Company, A Little Night Music, Assassins, and Follies. His music is highly intricate and his lyrics are simply the best in the medium (he's published two volumes of his collected lyrics, and his insights into the process of writing lyrics are quite educational). 

He's won an Oscar, eight Tony Awards, eight Grammy Awards, a Laurence Olivier Award, and a Pulitzer Prize. His influence can be heard in many other composers and lyricists in musical theatre, including Jonathan Larson, Jason Robert Brown, and Maury Yeston.
I think it's safe to say that Sondheim probably knows more about writing songs than you do."

I wrote back, 

Thomas Lokensgard, a couple of things. 

First, Thomas, just curious, do you realize how huffy you sound? 

In any case. Everyone knows that Sondheim has received many awards and lotsa bucks. You aren't breaking news. 

Do you really believe that nothing can be gained intellectually or culturally by tweaking or questioning, even in something so humble as an Amazon review, Sondheim's plaster statue status? 


Thomas you DON'T believe in questioning authority? You DON'T believe in saying, "Okay, this person / institution / medicine / ritual has been very very powerful for a very very long time. Maybe right now is a good time to think about how and why it doesn't work for the people for whom it does not work"?

Thomas, with your attitude -- he's rich and he's gotten a lot of awards and I am nobody -- with that attitude, Thomas, no one would ever question The Vatican, or doctors not washing their hands before treating patients or laissez faire capitalism or war or Stalin or sacrificing the village's most beautiful child in order to placate the gods. 

All those rituals and institutions and persons have a much bigger legacy and a much larger cache of accolades than Stephen Sondheim.

Did the moment really never come when a nobody like me could question them? 

C'mon, Thomas. It's really this simple -- you love Sondheim and to me and to some of the folks who voted for my review, his work is without enduring value or attraction. 

The follow up question is, why? And the answer is not, "He's richer and more powerful than you so you should shut up and your thoughts should not be addressed." 
Whatever the answer to that question is, it will be found by people like me voicing our divergence from powerful, received opinion, and engaging in respectful dialogue with our own inner thoughts, and with others, and that end is one that my review serves and that your comment attempts to squelch.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Tarot of Delphi Review

"Tarot of Delphi" is a 79 card Tarot deck "created and curated" by Janet Denise Hildegard Hinkel. Hinkel illustrates her cards with paintings and watercolors by two dozen British artists from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, that is, from 1838 to 1913. The artworks that Hinkel has selected depict life in ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome. The cards are three inches by five, glossy, on sturdy stock. The artworks occupy the center of the card. They are surrounded by a narrow golden frame with ivy leaves accenting the corners. Surrounding that is a border pattern of pale beige and gray. The fully reversible backs of the cards are black, a muted shade of Persian orange, and gold. Bars at the top and bottom mimic Greek columnar elements; in the center of the card, vegetal elements meet in a cross pattern. The backs of the Tarot of Delphi are the most exquisite Tarot card backs I have ever seen.

The colors that dominate on the cards themselves are muted Persian oranges, russets, golds, and flesh tones, with stunning reds providing contrast, for example in the robes of the otherwise shadowed High Priestess. Some cards feature emerald greens and sapphires, for example the ace of coins, which depicts an ivy nymph intertwined with foliage, and the enchantress of cups, which depicts Circe in a peacock gown pouring jade-colored poison into a turquoise sea. The three of swords features the midnight blue of Electra's robe as she mourns her doomed family; the five of wands shows an ancient Greek maiden in a mineral-green robe playing an early form of badminton.

The artwork Hinkel has chosen is almost photographic in its precise details. It is so crisply rendered that I'm sure an expert could identify the very quarry that provided the gold- and gray-veined marble for the fountain in the six of cups. The many nude females are anatomically accurate.

Dressed in togas, armor, and peplums, or simply nude, characters lounge royally on expansive verandahs, play lyres, herd goats, drink from pottery kylikes, perform Pagan rituals, interact with gods, raise children, dance, flirt, embrace, bathe, breach the defenses of besieged cities, and plot to conquer civilizations. The Tarot of Delphi is a very beautiful deck. 

There is an added attraction to its visual beauty. Janet Denise Hildegard Hinkle can write. The accompanying manual is small enough to fit in the palm of a closed hand. But this tiny volume is jam packed with well written prose that identifies each artwork, says who created it and when, and how the artwork in question relates to the card it illustrates. Hinkle educates her readers in the classics, and that is a very good thing. Readers will learn of the myths, like that of Orpheus, who entered the underworld to rescue his beloved Eurydice, and of history, including Rome's genocidal defeat of Carthage, and Queen Zenobia's resistance to Rome. Hinkle wastes not a single word in her stirring sermonizing on how the perennial lessons of the past can be applied today.

If I'm going to read with a deck, I want the pictures to be beautiful and deep, and these pictures are. I also want the pictures to be readily accessible to querents, and many of these are not. In a couple of cases, I wondered why Hinkel did not pick an illustration for another card. One of her two Empress cards (thus a 79 card deck) depicts Zenobia, alone, looking meditative, and in chains. A woman in chains would work better for the eight of swords than for the Empress. Narcissus illustrates the four of coins; Narcissus, as his name implies, exemplifies narcissism. Surely Midas would have been the better choice.

The five of swords, a card that depicts ruinous spite, is illustrated by a beautiful if remote woman holding back a curtain and leaning on a staff. This puzzled me. Upon examination, I realized that she was leaning, in fact, on an ax, discretely dripping blood. Aha! This was Clytemnestra, after her avenging the death of her daughter Iphigenia at the hands of her ambitious husband Agamemnon. It's the perfect backstory for the five of swords, but this illustration, as with many others, is not as readily accessible as I'd like.

I compare this deck to the sublime Victorian Romantic tarot of Baba Studios. That deck reveals a Victorian world populated by young people, old people, poverty, and ugliness, as well as shiny pretty people. The Ancients killed their own handicapped children, and many of their daughters, just for the crime of being born female. Roman soldiers, such as Hinkel's hero of swords, committed unspeakable horrors as a matter of course. The vast majority of the population in the Ancient World lived their lives under the heel of the shiny, pretty people in these cards. There was Aesop, Socrates Spartacus, and Thecla. Their struggles, whose tensions rent the Ancient World, are not in this deck, although, to her credit, Hinkel includes Diogenes, the wise beggar, as The Hermit. Thecla would have been perfect for Strength.

Too, I got tired of all the nude females, not because of their nudity, but because of their obvious status as underage eye candy. They all lack hair in their exposed privates, suggesting a youth that should be protected, not exposed. None of the nudes look like most of us look when naked. The Ancients valued physical perfection too much. Paganism in the real Ancient World was not always as harmonious as Hinkel depicts. Reservations aside, the Tarot of Delphi is a triumph, and Tarot collectors will want to add it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

"Into the Woods" Bring Tick Repellent

"Into the Woods" is one of the worst A-list-star, major-studio movies I have ever seen. It lacks magic. It's boring and it is so inept it's actually offensive. Performances by international stars like Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and Johnny Depp go kerplunk on the screen, without motivation or artistry. The cinematography is murky and flat, as if provided by Moe's Sporting Goods and Cinematography-To-Go.

The problem of "Into the Woods" can be summed up in one word: "meta." "Into the Woods" is an attempt to *tell* fairy tales while simultaneously making meta commentary *about* fairy tales. The film fails on both points.

Imagine someone telling you an anecdote about what happened with their day, and stopping after every line to say, "At this point, you should be feeling empathy because I have just told you a sad thing. At this point, you should be feeling exhilaration, because I have just told you a celebratory thing. At this point, you should be concluding that Obama's economic policies have failed, because I have just told you that I do not have enough money for lunch. At this point, you should be feeling frustrated, because I have just defied your expectations of how this story should end."

Think of how rapidly that storytelling style would grate on you.

"Into the Woods"'s plot is a regurgitated slop, with several fairy tales mined for their money shots and slapped together in order to make some arcane point about how fairy tales are really psychologically and socially complex documents, full of implications about sexuality, gender roles, parent-child relations, and economic inequity.

There's no narrative drive, no need to see what will happen next. The plot elements were just thrown in the air and allowed to fall to the ground in a random fashion. There is no main character to root for. There's no goal to be achieved and celebrate or mourn for. None of the actors can register a breath of conviction because there's nothing happening that anyone could care about. When the movie feels over, it suddenly lurches on for twenty more minutes.

The music and songs do not deserve to be called either "music" or "songs." Is Stephen Sondheim the first fully deaf man ever to make a career as a composer and lyricist? Does he compose his music and lyrics by throwing darts at a piano and a thesaurus? I saw Rodgers and Hammerstein's magical "Cinderella" when I was around five years old. I have not seen it since. I can still sing some of the songs, they touched me that deeply, especially "In my own little corner," which captures the heart and soul of every little girl who ever felt alone and escaped on dreams to a better world.

I couldn't begin to recapitulate a single one of the songs from "Into the Woods" and I saw it just a few days ago, except for the line "Children will listen." All I remember is: "Children will listen blah blah blah." Actually, since it's Stephen Sondheim, it's more like "Chil' dren will LISten blah blah BLIIIH." With the "BLIIIH" on a minor key.

There's a scene where two dueling handsome princes sing a competitive song: I'm more handsome than you; I am suffering more than you are suffering romantically. It's a great concept accompanied by a lousy song and even worse execution. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, both talented stars, are directed to move without grace or charm, and they do all this in leather clothing in a waterfall. The entire time you are thinking, "Wow, that water is really gonna ruin that leather."

Fairy tales are magic. Fairy tales do make important points about gender roles, socioeconomic inequities, and parent-child-relations. Fairy tales are deep. If you want to immerse yourself in those points, read scholars like Bruno Bettleheim, Alan Dundes and Bengt Holbek. Ripping the innards out of a fairy tale and tossing those innards about randomly kills the tale. All you get is inert fairy tale innards. "Into the Woods" isn't sophisticated or intelligent, as it desperately wants to be. It isn't saying big, thoughtful things about fairy tales. It's just a big, meandering, amateurish misfire created by people who really aren't as sophisticated as they think they are. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

"American Sniper" Virtuosic Filmmaking

War movies are not my genre of choice. I am a romantic comedy fan. "American Sniper" is such an excellently made film that it demanded my full attention and earned my esteem. This is a violent, bloody, war movie with a sad ending. The film is so expertly made I left the theater exhilarated. Such is the power of art.

It is astounding that this film was made by a director, Clint Eastwood, who is in his eighties. "American Sniper" is fast-paced, gripping, suspenseful, and the most truly contemporary film I've seen in a while. It addresses what we are all thinking about: the West's confrontation with violent Islamists. The film feels as if it was peeled out of our brains during our nightmares. There is no elegiac feeling here. No nostalgia, no backward glances. It is all now, now, now, now, with the forward motion of a locomotive at full tilt. With "American Sniper," Clint Eastwood has outdone himself and set the bar very high.

Bradley Cooper is flawless. His commitment is one hundred percent. This is a performance for the ages.

"American Sniper" tells the true story of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in US military history. The film depicts him as having been taught to hunt by his father. His father also taught him that there are three kinds of people in the world: wolves, sheep, and shepherds. It is the shepherd's job to defend the sheep from the wolves. Kyle became a rodeo bucking bronco rider.

After terrorist attacks, he decided to join the military to defend his country. He was sent to Iraq, where he did four tours of duty. He covered soldiers moving into urban combat zones in cities like Fallujah. He would lie on rooftops, survey surrounding areas, and shoot at suspicious characters, including women and children assigned to bomb troops. Interspersed with his tours in Iraq, Kyle married his wife and fathered two children. After his return to the US, Kyle aided returned veterans who suffered from PTSD.

"American Sniper" follows this story in a completely straightforward, unadorned fashion. You can't help but think of other war films when watching "American Sniper." The flamboyant operatics of "The Deer Hunter," the heavy-handed, manipulative, almost propagandistic politics of "Coming Home," the graphic combat of "Saving Private Ryan." "American Sniper"'s style is almost no style. The movie simply meticulously recreates what Kyle did and saw. There is a scene where American soldiers raid the headquarters of The Butcher of Fallujah. There are shelves on which human body parts, including at least one severed head, are stored. The camera does not linger on this hideous and telling sight. The moviegoer sees these body parts for only as long as the soldiers running through the headquarters sees them.

There are no White House scenes, no Pentagon scenes, almost no scenes of reporters commenting on the war. There are no lingering shots of gas stations hint hint – petroleum caused this war! One soldier does begin to question; he dies. Kyle attends his funeral. A mourner begins to read a document questioning the wisdom of the Iraq war; she cannot finish. The three-volley gun salute drowns her out.

The movie soundtrack begins with an ominous male voice intoning "Allahu akbar." Characters who are obviously Arab and Muslim are shown doing very bad things, including one very brief but disturbing scene of a man torturing a child to death in a hideously inventive way, in front of the child's father. American soldiers are shown being dedicated and trying to avoid civilian deaths.

Politically correct moviegoers will decide that what is missing from this movie is the heavy hand of an interpreter reaching in and telling you that the war was a mistake, that it was all about petroleum, that the American soldiers were all racists, that the Arabs were merely attempting to defend their homeland from invaders, that truly evil men like the Butcher of Fallujah were the products of failed US foreign policy.

I found "American Sniper"'s minimalism to be an incredibly courageous and innovative stylistic choice. Eastwood must know that every moviegoer enters the theater with his or her own opinion about the Iraq War, about the West v Islam, about terror. We know that Fallujah is now under ISIS control. We know that another war looms.

This isn't the viewer's movie. It isn't the politician's movie. It is Chris Kyle's movie. The movie veers wildly from scenes of incredible tension and horror in Iraq. Kyle goes on leave and is back in the US. Suddenly the biggest issue is getting a collie to behave at a family barbecue in Texas. Kyle sits in front of an empty TV screen, reliving Iraqi battles. The film delivers no lecture about PTSD. It just lives Kyle's PTSD with him.

"American Sniper" is a gripping, suspenseful, involving, virtuosic film. I am glad it is getting the Academy-Award nominations and record-setting box office and audience it deserves.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Gifted Painter Rusty Walker Reads Save Send Delete

Rusty Walker is an amazingly gifted painter and my Facebook friend. I'm so touched that he had himself photographed while reading Save Send Delete. On the stool in front of him, you can see the books he had to put on hold while reading SSD.

Here's Rusty's review of "Save Send Delete" 

Dr. Danusha V. Goska is a deeply insightful, extremely intelligent writer. Dr. Goska, through her upbringing, life-experiences, and travels is a proven survivor. She can be as complex, wild and adventurous as the folklore in which she earned a doctorate.

There is in Dr. Goska a no-BS-allowed interior and a gritty exterior (her travels include sleeping on ice cold gravel), and yet Danusha remains feminine and appreciative of real men in her life. Her debating Atheist, Rand, appears at times to fit this alpha male, and provides so formidable a challenge that he elevates her writing to a higher plane. She keeps her word in not disclosing who this real celebrity is, and we do not see or miss his responses. Her clever writing allows us complete understanding of what he wrote.

Books that change our life are often those books that move us by showing us a way to confront that which we most fear- dread of impending doom, death, danger, and devastating loss. This is the stuff of philosophers and pastors. Danusha, as "Mira," has given us a way of thinking about the unthinkable. This book is not simply written for the religious or non-religious. "Save, Send, Delete" is an exquisitely written treatise on confronting real life, by living it- through questions of faith and illuminating stories.

This is a book for anyone who dares to look inside themselves and confront their own darkest thoughts, motives, morality and questions during our deepest despair and still find that "rock" on which to survive. Danusha, as "Mira" communicates through e-mails to a world-renowned Scientist/Atheist who makes a living not just debating the existence of God, but, "skewing people of faith."

That "Mira" has to navigate through thugs and perverts just to walk to her college where she teaches as an adjunct, we might find alarming, until we are acquainted with her Peace Corps work, having hitch-hiked and scaled mountain terrain from Africa to Nepal, and beyond.

Through her uncanny storytelling abilities of real events and scenic descriptions that place you there, we follow her world adventures from the blue stained glass windows of Chartres to the upper reaches of the world of Nepal; Should I mention the Monk that tried to rape her? She "basically beat him up!"

Here is Mira, teaching around untouchables, tribal children playing near plateaus, with mile deep drop-offs on three sides; the lush jungle, the torrential downpours and rush of river waterfalls, to baby-killing jackals; suddenly we are catapulted into the contrast of gloomy faces of the privileged fortunate of the city. Why? Her too-young-to-die brother had in fact died, bringing her back to civilization, and reconciling the absurdity of the two worlds, as would a young Camus. Then back in Nepal, a barefoot, environmentally endangered child smiles and gives her a marble, later to emerge as synchronistic affirmation.

The ever-present Atheist Rand we find reading at a moment of despair, passages from Jung, confronts what should be a game-changer through a synchronistic, outer-worldly occurrence that appears with the arrival of a precision coincidence: a 'Mira" e-mail that simply cannot be explained away by his dialectical materialism rhetoric. Even the scientist, Rand with his mathematical answers grapples with Mira's claims that even the greats in science arrive at conclusions when at the limit of calculation, are forced to rely on creativity: leaps of faith.

There is a chemistry that builds between the Atheist "Rand" and the college teacher, Catholic "Mira." The heat rises and so does the language. This is not an unexperienced women in life or love, lust, nor in handling the licentious Rand, who has a propensity to abruptly change the subject to sex if losing the argument. She can handle it, in Africa with the Peace Corps parasites come with the territory.

"Mira," is first and foremost, a world-class writer and thinker. To me, she has the mind of the Catholic intellectuals: the Jesuits. A purist, a Catholic, so powerful in her faith that can admit, "I'm not sure if I love God." Would the narrative, "Jesus come down here and I will crucify you again," make sense if you existed as she did for six (6) years, with so dreaded an unknown illness that you were rendered immobilized, as she was, in a fetal position, blinded, crippled and vomiting for days, weeks, sometimes months without warning, or available treatment?

Should I mention that during this time she was attempting to complete her doctoral studies!? Having been turned down by Social Security Disability to social services agencies, Governors to Senators, and outreach to rich celebrities from Oprah to Chopra, finally losing all her friends, nonetheless we find, her faith not shaken- it made her "kinder." How was she was healed? You will need to read the book to find out.

One of her answers to Rand, included that devastating time of illness, when, voices took "Mira" to a bookstore, where she blurred her eyes so as to open randomly to passages from an unfamiliar Bible; Psalms appeared that completely related to her condition so that she no longer felt alone! There is synchronicity in lives, hers appear saintly. It is possible, as you read her stories, to wonder if the hands on her shoulders were angels.

Twists and turns will captivate you towards the end. There is surprise, shock, and disbelief in the ending chapters. As Danusha accomplished in her other important book, "Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture," she once again shows us she is the consummate storyteller and thinker, ending "Save, Send, Delete" with a clear resolve- one that allows you to walk away uplifted, and say, "Wow, I needed to read this book."

Dr. Edward "Rusty" Walker- Collins College, Provost, retired.

Read Rusty's review on Amazon here 
You can see more of Rusty's artwork at his website, here.

Roses, Coffee, and Antique Books by Rusty Walker

Saturday, January 3, 2015

"Ida" 2013 Review. Beautiful but Underdeveloped

"Ida" 2013 directed by Paweł Pawlikowski, is a brief (80 minutes) black-and-white, two-character movie. It is very quiet; you barely need to read the subtitles to follow the slender plot. It is so slow-moving that three times while watching it I suspected that technical difficulties had stopped the film. No; the actor and scene were merely all but frozen. This almost anorexic film takes on huge, sweeping issues: Polish-Jewish relations, Christian-Jewish relations, identity, the Holocaust, guilt, karma, Communist oppression of Poles, and the Catholic vow of chastity for nuns. Reviewers have blessed "Ida" with glowing reviews, insisting that this minimalist film makes big points through allusion and suggestion.

I doubt this. I think most viewers who don't know a heck of a lot about Poland will be baffled and bored by this movie. I think sometimes less is not more but really is less. I think "Ida" would have been a better film with a more tightly focused and more developed screenplay. Words can lead to misunderstanding but words are what we've got to work with. "Too many notes!" a cinematic emperor criticized a Mozart work. "Ida" suffers from "too few words."

In spite of its heavy subject matter, what struck me most about "Ida," and what I will most remember, is its visual beauty. "Ida" is shot in black and white, and it takes place in undistinguished Polish settings in the depth of winter. You see snow-covered fields, corner bars, dingy buildings with cracked plaster. The careful composition of each shot, and the cinematographers' lovely handling of different gradations of light and shadow, transform otherwise dreary locales into works of art.

"Ida" is about a teenage girl in Poland in the 1960s. She has spent her entire life in convent, and she is about to take her final vows. Her mother superior orders her to meet, for the first time, with Wanda Gruz, her sole living relative. Ida does so, and Wanda informs Ida that she is Jewish. Wanda and Ida travel to the village where their Jewish family hid from the Nazis in a barn. Ida's parents and brother were murdered. Wanda and Ida travel to their grave. This new information causes Ida to reassess her commitment to becoming a nun.

Agata Trzebuchowska plays Ida. Press accounts claim she is not a professional actress. She is given very little to say or do. The camera spends much time gazing at her youth and beauty. A male director ogling a gorgeous young amateur – the director's "discovery" – whom he does not allow to speak, act or develop as something other than an artistic composition – distracted and offended me. Enough already with females as marionettes of male geniuses.

Agata Kulesza plays Wanda Gruz, Ida's aunt. Wanda was a judge under Communism. Wanda participated in the persecution of Polish anti-Nazi fighters in the post-war era. Wanda is based on the real life Helena Wolińska-Brus. Wolinska-Brus participated in the Stalinist persecution of genuine heroes who had fought the Nazis and aided Jews. She was a monster.

The Wanda Gruz of "Ida" is not a monster. She is the most fascinating and memorable character in the film. She is the one burning ember in an otherwise inert, black-and-white landscape of monosyllabic Polish peasants and the boring Miss Goody Twoshoes, Ida. Wanda is complex. She is a highly tormented character who drinks, smokes, is sexy and sexually promiscuous, and reveals her superior intelligence through her sarcasm. In the scene where Wanda and Ida are brought to their relatives' graves by a morally compromised Polish peasant, Wanda reveals deep grief. You cannot help but like Wanda.

In a movie that touches on WW II and the Holocaust, I was sickened by how sympathetic Wanda was. Would Pawlikowski have been able to get away with placing a likeable Nazi at the center of such a film? If not, then why did he place a sexy and lovable Stalinist murderess at the center of his film? Answer: Because Stalinist murder does not carry the same taint as Nazi murder. Problem: the millions tortured and murdered in the name of Communism are just as dead as the millions murdered in the name of Nazism.

There are volumes of history and hours of debate transcripts behind the issues that "Ida" touches on. Most filmgoers will have no idea of any of this and much of the film will pass right over their heads. Reviews on the International Movie Database reveal this. Sincere and intelligent filmgoers were unmoved and befuddled by "Ida." Key pieces of information are never articulated: Poland was occupied by Nazis. Nazis persecuted and murdered Polish Catholics as well as Jews. Some Poles betrayed Jews. Some Poles were heroic and saved Jews. Many Poles were neither heroic nor villainous. Everyone was afraid for his or her life. A thousand years of history preceded the Nazi era, and every word and gesture has history behind it. There are no easy answers.

"Ida" falls into predictable traps. Its Jewish character, Wanda, is fascinating and verbal, worldly and morally compromised. Its Catholic character is pure, but boring and simpleminded. These stereotypes are trite and unworthy of any serious film.

Towards the end of the film, one major character leaves the movie and the other character is left to pursue an underdeveloped and aborted subplot that serves no end except to add extra minutes to the runtime.