Dunkirk

I don’t often have the time (or bank account) to see movies in the theater. But I was pretty excited to be able to see an early 70mm screening of Christopher Nolan’s latest film Dunkirk. I would definitely see it in 70mm or even IMAX if you can. It’s visually stunning. Even more so, I came away feeling that Dunkirk is deeply resonant and thoughtful in its portrayal of war.

Every film about armed conflict and historical battles is a little different. They allow the director or writer to show off skills of historical accuracy, or tell a story that highlights heroes and national symbolism, or pop the hood on human nature and examine why people engage in violence at all.

Previous war films that I’ve seen have often been characterized by unapologetic gore and death, or the worship of self-sacrifice and patriotism, or a chess-like fixation on tactics and strategy. With Dunkirk, Nolan has done something more minimalist, more existential, more literal. Dunkirk is an up-close, personal account of the emptiness of war and the struggle to simply survive for another day.

(Spoilers Ahead)

By following three sets of characters, in a non-chronological weaving of their respective timelines, Dunkirk creates a feeling of disorientation in the audience like that of a shell-shocked soldier. Through the film’s nonlinear telling, a sense of time and order fades. You rarely know when a bullet, bomb, or torpedo is coming until it’s right on you. And Dunkirk not only shows it–it makes you feel it. It’s a rollercoaster of increasing intensity that is only occasionally alleviated for a fleeting moment. A simple piece of bread and jam after being pulled out of the water represents a brief taste of home, safety, and comfort. Until new bombardments ratchet up the danger and intensity again.

The sounds of the film are turned up to 11 and put you in the heart of the action. Every fly-by makes you want to duck. Every gunshot feels like it’s whizzing past your ear. Every tilting camera angle of a sinking ship nudges you to look for a way to get out and stay afloat. These are not moments for heroics. They’re for instinctual perseverance and leaning on the people around you to overcome the blasts and drowning depths.

Dunkirk is filled out and made even more felt by an excellently experimental Hans Zimmer score. With music as texture and just a few overt themes, Zimmer turns the intensity up and down in sync with the rising danger and brief moments of relief. A nearly constant stopwatch-like ticking conveys that time is always running out, while other instrumentals mimic the noises of fighter planes, ships, and munitions. A foundation of strings, synthesizers, and longing horns churn in the background. The melody of hope that appears late in the story is an intrusion of almost otherworldly warmth that washes over you like rays of purifying sun.

Dunkirk tightly fits it all together to depict the terror and disorientation of war. The primal strive to survive against ocean and machine. And the slight but tangible hope for escape and future comfort.

War is hell, as many have said. But Dunkirk perhaps depicts more of a purgatory–somewhere in-between heaven and hell. The Dunkirk beach is a stand-in for all of us trying to survive on this pale blue dot in a vast, dark universe. The twin forces of humans who’ve lost their humanity (the Nazis are symbolically faceless throughout the film) and an indifferent, wild planet constantly threaten to extinguish life and cause a permanent descent into darkness and meaninglessness.

But there is also the small glimmer of hope of making it out–making it home–if you can persevere. In Nolan’s worldview, it’s the industrious humanity of other people who come to the rescue rather than divine intervention. If we can make it another day together, maybe we will all eventually see the end of our existential desperation, and rest in the comfort of a heavenly home.

La La Land and Possibility

My wife and I went to La La Land the other night, and man–what an artistic and emotional doozy. We love and watch musicals whenever we can. It’s such an interesting movie genre. Most films don’t have characters casually slide into song and dance. Musicals do.

But it’s not just that some singing and choreography break into the story once in a while. It’s that oftentimes when a musical’s characters do begin their song and dance, the line between imagination and reality is blurred. Things happen in many musical performances that are literally unreal. They go beyond the limits of space and time–like dancing in midair, or the characters being transported into a painting. Or, the performances portray things that we as the audience understand are only visions of certain characters because they haven’t actually happened. We’re peeking into someone’s imagination.

La La Land modernizes the musical form in very entertaining ways–like seeing a smartphone notification interrupt a dewy-eyed duet. But it also plays off of and twists your expectations of what a musical is–particularly how a musical ends. Some people think La La Land’s ending is brilliant, and some people hate it. I think it was super clever, though definitely heavy.

Without spoiling anything, what I loved about how the story played out–and the film as a whole–was how it used the characteristic blurring of imagination and reality of musicals to make a profound point about what it means to be human. Essentially, that we’re always moving between the world as it is and the world as it could be. Between reality and possibility.

We are so often driven and inspired by dreams of a brighter, more interesting, more successful life. To travel. To be an artist or an athlete. To find our soulmate. To find freedom. Only to be painfully reminded that there’s a draining day job to clock in for, bills past due, failed relationships, and a world around us ravaged by the darker forces of human nature. There is always messiness and tension. Our imagination, fantasies, dreams, and hopes–tangled with and torn down by harsh realities.

How do we make possibility–the world as it could be–become reality? What kinds of things can we change by our own choice, and what is out of our control? How do we process the very difficult human experience of things we cannot change but wish had gone differently?

Go see La La Land. Pay attention to what it’s saying about reality and possibility, and how it smartly exploits being a musical to do so. You don’t have to know or like Los Angeles. You don’t have to know or like jazz or acting. La La Land has very interesting and true things to say about something we all confront. Interesting and true things to say about being human.

This Week in Upgrades: December 26

Hello, hello. Did you have a good holiday weekend? How is the Monday after so far? I wish the United States had a Boxing Day equivalent. I’d imagine a lot of Americans would like to have December 25th and 26th off. Maybe someday?

Here are some of the interesting things that popped up on the Internet this week:

Is winter getting the best of you? Scandinavians are good at winter. Maybe try what they do?

Researchers may have figured out what makes a Stradivarius instrument sound so good.

It’s been out for a little while, but I just saw this bad lip reading song for Empire Strikes Back and couldn’t stop laughing.

Are you working for the weekend? Economics has shaped the way that we think about time.

Parents, kids, everyone else–we’re all still trying to figure out how much screen time is healthy.

Is Children of Men the piece of pop culture that helps us understand our moment in history?

I think I’ve recommended Adam Curtis’ documentary, Century of the Self, before. His newest, Hypernormalisationis also definitely worth watching.

Relatedly, the winners and losers of globalization help explain recent politics. There’s a reason I keep coming back to the common good.

Did some scientists just discover a fully effective ebola vaccine?

We’re aware that trees are important for the air we breathe, but the life of trees is a lot more complex than many of us know.

Stunning photos of an uncontacted Amazonian tribe. Our planet is still full of surprises.

Ever heard of anapestic tetrameter? I hadn’t. It’s one of the reasons Dr. Seuss books resonate with children so much.

Have a wonderful, safe New Year celebration!

 

 

Which Way Are Things Flowing?

“Energy always flows either toward hope, community, love, generosity, mutual recognition, and spiritual aliveness or it flows toward despair, cynicism, fear that there is not enough, paranoia about the intentions of others, and a desire to control.” —Michael Lerner

Which way is your energy flowing? What’s the energy like where you live and work today?

It’s pretty clear to me watching people at work, folks on the street, and the endless posts on social media that the energy is all over the place. A little bit of everything. Hope and community. Despair and paranoia. Some are paralyzed in between–the energy has left the building.

The finality of a presidential election is heavy. Even more so when the result is unexpected.

The reality, though, is that our energies are a little all over the place all of the time. Not just on Election Day or the day after. Not just when something monumental happens: a national tragedy or a historic sports championship.

We each have a choice. Everyday. Every interaction. What kind of energy will we create? What sort of energy will we be caught up in? What sort of energy will we project on the people around us?

We are never collectively all flowing in the same direction. Our shared life is not heaven on earth. Which means that we always have work to do when it comes to figuring out how to live better together.

For anything that’s flowing toward despair, cynicism, fear, paranoia, and obsessive control, how can we come together to guide it toward hope, community, love, generosity, dignity, and aliveness? If you want the world to be filled with that kind of energy, what are you doing to create more of it? It’s got to go beyond how you vote every two or four years. Thoughtfully engaging the person next to you–perhaps someone who is totally different from you–may be your next and best opportunity to make more things flow in the right direction.

I wrote a short time ago about the mess that we’re in. Faced with two historically unpopular and flawed candidates–in a time of great need for change–all sorts of frustrations, hopes, doubts, fears, and other forces rose to the surface. We were going to have work to do no matter who won. We already had work to do that wasn’t going to be miraculously fixed by casting a vote for just the right president or the lesser of two evils. It’s truly up to us—everyday, every moment.

So check your energy. Others can feel it. The world—at least your corner of it—will be shaped by it. How are things flowing? How do you want them to? Today’s a perfect day to start making the momentum of the world flow toward a more human way of living together.

This Week in Upgrades: August 1

Good day! Here we are in August already. Are you in disbelief? I am. Just weeks away now from fall and the holiday season. Though, given NOAA’s three-month forecast of above average temperatures for the entire United States, it may not feel like fall as we know it.

Did you watch the Democratic National Convention? What’d you think? Here’s a pretty great breakdown of the major speeches: Bernie Sanders, President Obama, and Hillary Clinton.

Some contrasted the DNC as being more “hopeful” than the Republican National Convention, which is certainly true rhetorically. But we should definitely talk about the fact that hope has been privatized. Where is the “we” in modern America–the actual “stronger together” beyond the campaign slogan? Our main virtue is competitiveness.

In another political link from this week, this interview with journalist Glenn Greenwald on Trump, Brexit, American journalism, and more is a must read. We need transparent, truth-telling journalism, and we’re definitely not getting it.

Is this election, or anything else, making you angry? Here’s a compelling read on what to do with your anger.

In other interesting things from this week:

The EPA finally acknowledged that jet exhaust endangers human health and the health of the planet. Will this start a push for greener air travel?

Maybe we should take stock of where we’re at with climate change. This is a pretty good summary.

Do you catch yourself saying “um” and “ah” a lot?

Where does it go? We need to rethink garbage.

Some of the most stunning space photography of 2016. Wow.

Have an excellent week!

This Week in Upgrades: July 11

Hello, friend. You hanging in there? If I’m honest, I’ve been too stunned and saddened by recent current events to write. Alton Sterling. Filando Castile. Dallas. Why does it seem like every day lately gives us new violence and injustice?

Our hope in such seeming hopelessness is action. What that action is will take time, reflection, and intentionality. When I can gather some of my own thoughts, I’ll write more about it to create a space for dialogue.

Some other things worthy of consideration from this week, and a few lighthearted ones to help with the emotional and empathy fatigue:

This June was the hottest June the US has ever had.

Here’s a great little video on how North America got its shape.

Google’s self-driving cars can now understand hand signals. Automated vehicles require a lot of nuance (because driving is nuanced, obviously).

Likewise, the Tesla autopilot accidents are a reminder that we’re too trusting, too soon. That is not a fully automated system. Don’t be dumb.

Faced with a choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, many Americans wish there was a third choice. We need more than two political parties in the United States, and this election has brought that to the fore.

This young man is bound for great musical things.

Another reminder about democracy and the middle class in an age of automation. If we don’t act now, it’s not going to turn out well.

Why are salt and pepper on every dinner table?

Have a great, safe week.

 

How to Adult: Dream in Years, Live in Days

As best as we can tell, the universe is almost fourteen billion years old. Earth, itself, is about four and a half billion years old. There is exposed rock in the Grand Canyon that is two billion years old. I can’t wait to see it myself later this year.

At up to 80 or 100 years, a human life is just a small sliver of time in comparison to the age of the planet we live on and the rest of the universe we find ourselves in the midst of. The writer of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible describes human life as fleeting as the mist out of a spray bottle–there and then floating invisibly into the next phase.

With just a vapor of time to work with, we owe it to ourselves to think about the course we want our life to take–to figure out how to “suck the marrow out of life,” as Thoreau once said.

No one can have the whole thing planned out at the beginning, of course. Many of us grow up dreaming of becoming a fireman or the president or an astronaut–only to end up doing something much different. Even within a year’s time a lot can change.

But I would argue that there is a way to think about how to live a life that might help you get the most out of it, and it’s pretty simple. Dream in years. Live in days.

The bigger moves and chapters of your life take time. Anyone who decides to go to college rarely chooses to do so on a whim. And college itself takes a handful of years to complete–let alone graduate school if you keep going. Despite its prevalence in film and television, most people don’t decide to get married on a whim either. There’s a slow, sometimes agonizing unfolding of dating, rejection, doubt, dating again, engagement, wedding planning, and then eventually, marriage.

So dream in years. Where would you like to be a few years from now? Another country? Married? In a tiny house you built?

Who would you like to be a few years from now? More compassionate? Less stressed? An artist?

Use your imagination to set a horizon to journey toward.

And live in days. Imagining your future–dreaming in years–will set the path of where you’re trying to go. Living life out, day by day, is how you’ll actually get there. No day can be taken for granted. Life is fragile and unpredictable. “The best-laid plans often go awry.” You have to suck the marrow out of today, not just days in the future. So do the things now that will help you get closer to what you’ve imagined for the years to come, but let the day also feel full and complete on its own. Save up to move if you’re dreaming of moving. Start the degree if you need the education. Take a cooking lesson so you can make more of your own food. Get drinks with that person that you’ve been meaning to get to know better. And laugh, sweat, rest, dance, eat, love, breathe, watch, reflect. Some of the best days can feel like a whole lifetime.

You don’t need a doctorate in philosophy to resonate with Socrates’ lesson that the unexamined life is not worth living. By dreaming in years and living in days, I’m confident you’ll be off to a good start writing chapters of your life that you’ll be truly grateful for. You’ll leave layers of your time in the universe as remarkable as the rock of the Grand Canyon.

 

The Emperor of All Maladies

Emperor“Hope is a funny thing. You have to base hope on something.” “In medicine, you always want to believe.”

Sometimes the truth is difficult to confront. Who wouldn’t rather reside in a happy place in our minds that makes us feel like everything is going to turn out splendidly than engage uncomfortable or undesirable realities? If only merely putting on a pair of yoga pants suddenly made excess weight and cholesterol dissolve without the sweat, soreness, exhaustion, and discipline of real exercise and healthful diet. If only we could just wish that our lazy, credit-stealing boss was less of a tool and he would become better without having the awkward, status-quo-disrupting conversations to actually make it happen. If only all of our financial, relational, ecological, and other mistakes of human nature would sort themselves out well without any of the ugly, painful consequences. If only we were not mortal creatures and could live forever.

Science and technical innovation are perhaps the most optimistic and hopeful human endeavor of our lifetime, and nowhere has belief and reality collided more than in the area of cancer research and treatment. The quotes at the lead are two of many poignant ones from the excellently crafted recent PBS documentary series Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, based on the book of the same name by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Through the all-encompassing history therein, it is apparent that the crucial questions at the core of any discussion about cancer are: What do we really know? What can we now do to address it? We always want to believe that we have the right answers and that we know how things will turn out, but cancer has challenged our understanding of our bodies and our world in ways that few other things have. As Mukherjee states early on in the first part of the series, “to imagine that we will find a simple solution doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the problem.”

Over the course of human history, medical experts of all kinds have run the gamut of nearly every possible explanation for cancer’s causes and viable cures. Is it punishment from the gods? Is it black bile run amok? Is it from a virus, genes, or chemicals? Is there something in the apothecary for it: boar’s tooth, fox’s lung, or crab’s leg? Can’t it just be cut out? Maybe an intravenous combination of some potent synthesized chemicals will wipe it all out? Can’t our immune system do this on its own?

It all is, or at least should be, rather humbling: humbling in both the sense of being humbled—lowered or destroyed—and to be humble—not arrogant, honestly assessing one’s power and understanding. Our bodies are humbled by this debilitating, complex disease that attacks from within: the very constituent parts of our bodies that keep us alive and healthy will under different circumstances kill us. And also, the mysteriousness of cancer and our feeble inability to fully perceive and treat it, despite many and varied efforts of trial and error, should remind us of the limitations of our understanding of the world and our capacity to control it in directions of our own will. Somehow there has been little humility of the latter sort despite the persistence and even increase in cancer’s ravaging humiliation of the former. We always want to believe. We want to believe there’s nothing we can’t understand and course correct it the way we want it to go.

With little or no truthful understanding of cancer’s genetic origins and unpredictable, metastatic spread, we spent decades administering more is better therapies. More cutting: notably the radical mastectomy—barbaric removal of not only a breast with malignancy, but the entire musculature and other tissue below it. More drugs: ever-increasing doses and combinations of chemotherapy—pushing patients closer to the brink of death from treatment than the cancer had itself. One of the most heart-wrenching personal stories shown in the documentary is a young boy who receives aggressive chemotherapy for his leukemia, only to develop a second cancer from the chemo and later die from graft-versus-host after a failed transplant to try to treat the second, medically caused cancer.

Is it better to do something than nothing? What lengths are we willing to go to before we have a better understanding of what’s going on?

Though we now have more accurate concepts like genes, mutations, and pathways rather than humors, we’re not necessarily this close to cancer being fully manageable—as much of the rhetoric of researchers, popular news sources, and some physicians would suggest. After things like smoking, obesity, radiation, viruses, and sunlight, the other 40% of the causes of cancer are not yet known. Prevention and early detection can go a long way, but we’re still seeing through a glass darkly about how the switch is flipped on for a huge set of cancers, and have not found low side-effect treatments that will cleanse and heal the body of the majority of cancers. A few bright spots like the drug Gleevec, a once-a-day pill especially for a form of leukemia, and some immunotherapies—different versions of empowering a body’s own immune system to fight the cancer itself—are exactly that—just a few bright spots in the strive for full cures for all cancers.

Importantly, the documentary spends a meaningful chunk of time near the end exploring the importance of palliative care. It’s difficult to watch as some patients are told there is nothing medical science can do to help them. They will have weeks or maybe months before cancer ends their life. The conversation shifts beyond even a glimmer of hope in this or that treatment to be tried to what is a good death? Eventually, mortality and bodily fragility catch up, and medicine—however advanced and powerful—reaches the limits of its ability to restore. There is no medical expert in eternal life. But doctors still have an important role to play in helping people live out the last days of their lives as well as possible.

As we continue the worthy fight of trying to subvert cancer’s enigmatic power, we need to perpetually ground ourselves in a posture of humility. Too often, medicine (like many other scientific disciplines) has told stories about what cancer is and how it can be defeated that amounted to false hope—acting in overconfidence, and worsening bodily health beyond the destruction of cancer alone. The fight requires ingenuity, patience, a willingness to be dead wrong, collaboration, an emphasis on sustaining the highest level of well-being of patients, honesty, and a tempered optimism, rather than buoyant expectation, that perhaps one day we just might get it all figured out. It’s not a given, though. It’s not inevitable, it won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be without setbacks. Hope has to be based on something. The way to that something—to truth—requires a humble approach. The limits of: what we know, what we don’t, and what we’re willing to subject people to. Our power to investigate, learn, and understand is as personal and finite as our vulnerable bodies.