Monday, March 30, 2009

God, Freedom and China

I was thinking today about what a travesty it is that the people of China are forbidden by their government to practice religion. This, of course, has been true in every communist tyranny, but that it should be so in the Earth's most populous nation is a terrifying fact. Yet China is a country much admired in left-wing circles, and diligently courted by both the U.S. Government and American corporations. Leaving aside China's continuing rape of Tibet (the only example of absolute colonialism left in the world), of its history, its culture and its religion, that Hillary Clinton should have gone to Beijing hat in hand to beg the Chinese to bail out our economy is an act of unspeakable shame.

History would indicate that the worst dictators target religion first. That this should be so is no surprise. In order for people to become subjugated to an all-powerful state, they must first be stripped of private devotion to a deity that gives their lives transcendent meaning, and which represents an alternative to secular power. In short, the purveyors of tyranny fear God above all, because people worship God above all. Ironically, their position is that Thou shalt not have strange gods before us. It is the first commandment of communism.

And yet, our own nation is not immune from this tendency to strip the people of their ability to express religion. Increasingly in my lifetime, the secular left has systematically and aggressively targeted religion in its attempt to make America over in its own jaundiced image. In America now, just as in China, any expression of religious sentiment in a public place will be suppressed and punished. Students who attempt to pray in school or even to make use of a classroom for purposes of religious gatherings are made the victims of ACLU lawsuits. Teachers who support their right to do what the Founding Fathers urged - make religion the centerpiece of American democracy - are warned, or suspended or even fired. Try to put up a creche in a public square at Christmas, or a menorah at Hanukkah, and watch what happens. And try to suggest in a public school that there may be an alternative to evolution, even merely for the purpose of discussion, and you will be reviled and shouted down or worse.

This is how things are routinely done in China, and as they were in the old Soviet Union. But that they should be done in the United States is a fact of forbidding implications. The Founders were clear: The source of freedom and the legitimacy of government is God. They prayed, they urged their fellow citizens to pray, and Lincoln, the greatest of all American presidents, invoked God as both the source and the solution of the Civil War. Yet this is not good enough for the secular gadflies who wish to purge American public life of any form of religion. (Except those of which it approves, apparently. Students at the University of Michigan demanded without challenge that Muslim foot baths be installed on campus. But what would have happened had Catholic students demanded holy water fonts in the dorms, or Jewish students, that mezuzahs be placed in the classroom doorways? )

The Founding Fathers, fearful of government's ability to suppress even the eternal longings of the human spirit, guaranteed us freedom of religion - not freedom from religion. There is a critical difference inherent in those prepositions. I do not, myself, subscribe to any particular religious tradition (as those who read this site will know), but I should be free to express my religious beliefs, or keep silent about them, or have none at all, in the public sphere as well as the private. That is my birthright as an American, and it is slowly being eroded away by forces that have more in common with the communist bureaucrats in China than with the traditions of the American republic.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

On love, 2

These postings about love caused me to reflect today as I was driving home that part of the problem I experience in loving another adult is my early training as a Catholic.

As a child I was taught (indeed, terrorized) to love a God who was never present, never close, never responsive to my needs. I was told that I must give my whole body and mind and soul to a being that never spoke to me, never returned my love, was never available in my trials or desires. I could not see this beloved, could not hear or touch it, and every conversation I had with it in prayer - and we were compelled to pray all the time - was a one-way communication, "Like dead letters sent to Him alas away," As Hopkins wrote.

And so I was taught that the ultimate form of love, the consummate love, was for a creature that did not exist outside my desire and ability to love - outside my need. A creature that had no apparent effect on my life, that never spoke, never consoled me, but demanded my absolute affection and devotion despite those facts. And what a selfish, aloof and unattainable object of love that was. Yet such was the model for love that I was given by priests and nuns who never loved anything but themselves, and their exalted status as sanctimonious clerics, as far as I can tell.

And so it is no wonder that as I grew up I sought such a love in the world, and especially among women, and never found it. Trained to love a God which did not exist in any proximate sense, I found it impossible to love any human being who did exist near to me, no matter how much she loved or cared for me. And I rejected the love I was offered, and I did great harm to those who offered it, precisely because that love did not measure up to the apotheosized and sterile love that was foisted on me in my childhood by men and women who themselves had fled earthly love in fear and loathing - not of love, but of themselves.

What a crime against childhood this was, what an abuse of the innocent. Yet it is entirely consistent with the systematic abuse of children which characterized the Roman Catholic Church of my youth, and which, I very much suspect, still characterizes it today. The longer I live, and the longer I deal with the consequences of my Catholic upbringing, the more strongly I feel that the Catholic Church is guilty of crimes against humanity - the humanity of its most innocent and vulnerable members: the children in its care.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Breaking Into the Biz

Someone was kind enough to post a comment concerning my essay on Hollywood. She asked how one breaks into the business, and I promised I would give it some thought.

My usual response to the best way to get into the film business is: Go to law school. This is not entirely glib. The business is studded like a biker's belt from one end to the other with lawyers, and could not exist without them. Entertainment lawyers have a kind of choke-hold on Hollywood, from making deals and negotiating contracts to arbitrating union settlements and litigating rights and credits disputes. So if you are inclined to go into the law and want to be involved in Hollywood, then your road ahead is paved smooth.

Beyond that, you have to have some talent of some kind. That is, if you want to be on the creative side of the industry. Probably the easiest way to jump start your Hollywood career is to make something the industry wants. Usually this is a script - a good script - in one of the genres. These days pretty much the only material the studios are buying are romantic comedy, action-adventure, comic book adaptations and 'tentpoles,' that is, franchise properties such as Batman, X-Men, Harry Potter or Indiana Jones. If you can write a script that works in any of these genres, it is a shortcut to success in the business.

Perhaps the next best way to get in is to go to film school - preferably USC or UCLA - and make a distinguished and original thesis film which wins awards and is seen by industry types who are actually looking for new talent. Though you made your attention-grabbing film by burning up the balance on your parents' credit cards, you may then be given a chance to get in completely over your head directing a fifteen- or thirty-million dollar movie that will either make or break your career forever.

On the cinematography side, it is almost imperative to go to film school, unless you are such a blazing talent that you can shoot a visually compelling film on your own. You then have a sample reel to pedal, unless, of course, your film is seen by industry types who are actually looking for new talent. But this is rare: filmmakers prefer to work with established cinematographers, especially ones with whom they have worked before. And so, having graduated from a creditable film school, you will have to work first as a loader (or the digital equivalent thereof), then as an assistant on a second unit, then a second unit cameraman, as an assistant to a DP, and finally, after years of labor and networking, you may be given a low-budget feature to shoot, which will either make or break your career forever.

Something similar is true in the so-called below-the-line craftsmen - the editors, sound recordists, effects people, makeup, wardrobe, casting and so on. (Below the line is a term of art, meaning simply that their salaries are listed in the budget below the line that separates them from the lead actors, writers and directors who consume most of the money. Nonetheless, I still find it a slight which these deeply talented professionals do not deserve.) All these jobs require a good deal of training, including long apprenticeships, much talent and the ability to meet people, to get them to like you, and to make yourself indispensable.

Acting is in an entirely different category. This is probably the hardest route into the business, unless you do a play or a showcase which industry types who are actually looking for new talent happen to see. But if you want to act in films, it does help to have serious training, either in a university program or a professional training program, or with a skillful coach, and, I personally think, some experience on the stage. Once again, you have to possess something to sell that the industry will buy. This is usually great beauty with some degree of talent, or great talent with some degree of beauty. (In either case, beauty and talent exist in inverse proportion to each other.) Of course it is possible to have great talent with no degree of beauty, but then you can expect to be given only supporting roles, at which you can nonetheless earn a perfectly decent living. You may also possess great beauty and no talent, in which case you may have a future in reality television. Another alternative is to come at an acting career from a related business, such as singing or stand-up comedy or sports or the Internet. But in any of those you must excel to the point where you can cross over successfully and with grace.

On the studio side, well, I shall try to contain my cynicism about what is required. To become a studio executive, or a production executive at a mini-major or independent, or to be what is euphemistically called a 'creative executive,' not very much is necessary. You start, generally, by getting an MBA from a creditable university, and then going to work for a studio or production company in some lowly capacity, either as an intern, or in the mail room, or as a messenger, a script-reader, or even as a security guard or gift shop clerk. You then call yourself to the attention of an executive who takes you under his/her wing, and grooms you to the point where you can threaten his/her job. At that point, you must begin fighting for your professional future, clawing you way up the corporate ladder as you would in pretty much any other industry. The difference, of course, is that the rungs on this ladder (some at least) are intensely creative people such as writers, directors and cinematographers, who do things you could not possibly do or even begin to understand. The goal is to work yourself into a position where you can tell such preternaturally gifted people exactly what they should be doing. Once you are comfortable with this travesty, you are well on your way to corporate Hollywood success. (I fear I may have fallen short in my pledge to contain my cynicism.)

In general, then, the way to break into Hollywood is to have something to sell that the industry wants to buy. Usually it is an idea, preferably in screenplay form, although it is not unknown for a treatment or even a simple idea to be bought (though this is becoming ever rarer). Your sale-able commodity could also be raw skill or talent, or a high degree of training in one of these, proven by produced work in some form that can serve as a sample.

Of course, if you have no such talent or skill and you still want to be in the business, then you can work your way up the production-side ladder, using all the ingratiating, sycophantic and ruthless qualities you can summon. If this is your intent, then I can do no better than to refer you to Shakespeare's Richard III.

Good luck.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

On Love

Love is the most complex of all human experiences. Nothing else in life is as fraught with joy and danger and as rife with trauma and bliss. I have felt love many times, and that, I suppose, suggests that I have never really known it. For it seems to me that love ought to be something like god - unique and eternal. Love that is confined to the physical and emotional and that succumbs to time is not love in any profound or meaningful sense. 'Love is not love that alters when it alteration finds,' Shakespeare said. Love in order to be true must have permanence, and that means it must be able to survive the ruthlessness of time and the shackles of space. Indeed, love should be a connection with, or an experience of, that which exists and lives and thrives outside time and space.

But it seems to me that love, as most people experience it, is rooted, not in the transcendent, but in the need to overcome loneliness. For most people, love is the desire to connect with another so as to enlarge one's sense of self, and to escape from the fear of isolation in the world. Now while it may be true that this does not preclude one transforming one's love to reach that other plane, I suspect that such a mean, selfish and fearful origin makes this unlikely. It may be that those who do not fear loneliness (and I have never met such a person) are the only ones capable of experiencing true love, but it may be equally true that such people have no need of it. If I am correct about the origins of love, then this latter point becomes a distinct possibility.

For we are isolated beings by our very nature as selves. This the Hindus understand, and the fact lies at the very heart of their religion. The self is an island in desperate search for connection to the main, or at least to some other island, so that one may flee, no matter how briefly in time and space, the confines of the isolation to which one is heir as a human being. And so we seek out love and romanticize it and even apotheosize it simply because we are afraid to live and to die alone. And in the process we make compromises and sacrifices that cannot be explained in any other way than by recourse to a profound and terrifying fear. The existentialists saw this and argued that even such a sentiment as love as a way of avoiding the humanizing and ennobling pain of existence was a form of cowardice. In view of all this, it may not be too much to say that love is cowardice - a tactic to distract ourselves from the fact that we are born and will die alone.

And yet there are those who argue that love is the nature and meaning of existence. Among these are some of the artists and thinkers whom I admire most. Whether it is love for another person or love for a transcendent divine, or love of an ideal or love of Truth, such people have concluded that life without love has no meaning at all. And so perhaps romantic love is a sort of shadow or proving ground for that love that does outlast time, and toward which the whole human race ought to be aspiring.

I do not know. I certainly feel and have felt the need and desire for love; I have known the terrors of loneliness and the scouring effects of isolation. I have seen these things destroy people and drive them to insanity and even death. And I have felt the deep existential tug of those forces myself. Perhaps love is the only thing that can save us from this fate - this downward drift into meaninglessness that is the birthright of our selfhood - and that is why love is so prized and lionized and striven for by everyone in every generation. Perhaps that is the true meaning of love: not that it departs from fear, but that it alone can enable us to rise above our fears and achieve the possibility of fruition as selves, and the realization of that destiny to which we are drawn as creatures of the spirit.

Heartaches 11

It has been six weeks since my heart surgery, and I suppose I should update you.

I have learned that there are two components to recovery: the physical and the non-physical. My physical recovery is nearing its end, I think. I am no longer in significant pain, and my chest seems to have healed for the most part. But the jury remains out on the non-physical aspect of the recovery.

I ought to have known that it is impossible to cut one's chest open, saw through the sternum, pull back the ribs, freeze the heart so as to stop it, hook one up to a heart-lung machine, cut open the heart, rebuild it, then put one back together, without there being what we might call metaphysical repercussions. These repercussions include the mental, the emotional, and the spiritual. Like Humpty Dumpty, they can break you, but they cannot necessarily put you back together again.

I had read that one result of open heart surgery is that one's mental acuity may be impaired for as long as nine months. In my case, this is certainly true. I would say that I have returned to about eighty percent of my former mental abilities, and for someone who earns his living with his brain, that is a troubling concern. I find that I cannot concentrate as deeply or as long as I was used to doing, and that my memory, especially in the short-term, is affected. I always prided myself on the quality of my memory, and it is certainly not now what it was before the surgery. Why this should be so I cannot say, but as I observed, you cannot dissect a living human being without consequences that go beyond the merely physical.

Emotionally the scars of the surgery are as distinct to me as the livid ones on my chest. I have mentioned before that I feel as though I had been raped by strangers, and this remains true. Yes, I understand that they were trying to help me, but many molesters, especially clerical ones, insist that what they are doing is for your own good. And though I know that there is nothing to connect molestation with my surgery, on a visceral level I feel that they are very much the same experience. I am prone now to sudden, unexpected and profound depressions. Today I took my little boy to a birthday party, and discovered to my surprise that I was beginning to cry. I have been shaken by this surgery experience in ways that I can scarcely understand. How long this aspect of the recovery will take I can only guess.

The spiritual aftereffects are the deepest and most elusive. Once you have surrendered yourself to the absolute control of others, the question of who you are becomes acute again. I thought I had dealt with this question of identity in my twenties, thirties and forties, and I think I am simply too old now to have to deal with it again. But to those who are contemplating heart surgery, I would say that you must ask yourself who you think you will be when you wake up from the anesthetic. If you are confident that the experience will not significantly alter your sense of self, then, by all means, plunge ahead. But if you have any doubts that the surgery may reconfigure more than the pump that is your heart, think again. At the very least, get professional counseling to prepare you for the surgery and help you to make the adjustments that will follow it. Do not try to manage all this yourself, or you will find that the physical recovery is immensely complicated by the metaphysical one, and the whole process will be slowed to a disabling crawl.

Indeed, I would urge all surgeons and their staffs to consider whether heart surgery patients ought not routinely be given counseling as part of the pre-operative preparation. For, as I have said, the heart is not just a pump, and the experience of having it exposed and handled by strangers and rebuilt is as least as traumatic as discovering that you were, in fact, adopted, or that your life's love has turned out to be a faithless stranger.