Sunday, June 28, 2015

Interstellar: Exploring the Wonder of Science

Interstellar,” touches on a dire concern of our time: the denial of science. As a result, the earth has become unable to sustain human life since all the crops (except for one variety of corn) have been wiped out by the blight. The last of our resources have been expended in growing corn. Our public school system has been reduced to crowd control and survival skills. Director Christopher Nolan and screenwriter Jonathan Nolan bring out the human side through the relationship between corn farmer/former astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy). It’s not enough that he’s dealing with the imminent demise of the world, Cooper is called into the principal's office. But this time it isn't about his son getting into a fight. His science geek daughter, Murph, is reprimanded for insisting that there was once a space program. History has been rewritten to exclude the moon landing because it is thought of as a waste of time, effort, and resources. NASA was dropped with the economic collapse. Cooper mourns the loss, “We used to look up at the sky and wonder about our place in the stars, now we just look down and wonder about our place in the earth.”

Fortunately, NASA went underground and may be humanity’s only hope. Cooper is forced to make a heart wrenching decision between staying to comfort his children during their last days, or heading to space on the slim chance that he can find another planet that is habitable.  Murph is left with only a broken watch to await his return. 

Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne
We watch breathlessly as the crew blasts off into space. It is almost as if time is nonlinear as we shoot through the wormhole to explore another galaxy with them. Nolan seems to challenge the recent political travesty that science is expendable by staying true to the physical laws. Theoretical Physicist Kip Thorne was more than just a consultant on the set. He was brought in from the inception to develop the treatment with producer Lynda Obst (of "Contact").

Thorne worked closely with the VFX to help them visualize black holes in space. Their simulations were based on the equations he provided.

“Interstellar,” is a testament to the importance of science and the space program. But it transcends physical dimensions with lofty ideas and wonder.

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal

Saturday, June 20, 2015

"Hector and the Search for Happiness"

My guys loved “Hector and the Search for Happiness.” My eldest son had urged me to write a review of it back when it first premiered, but I had some initial resistance since it seemed to be yet another movie coasting on the New Age trend and overused plot devices.  At his insistence, I gave it another look.

Light-hearted novelistic narration (similar to “Stranger than Fiction,”) sets the tone. “Once upon a time there was a young psychiatrist called Hector (Simon Pegg) who had a very satisfactory life. His world was tidy, uncomplicated and he liked it that way.”  My teenage sons laughed during the corresponding montage of Hector’s OCD home life contrasting with his work life as a disconnected, doodling psychiatrist with neurotic and manic patients.

By all rights, Hector should be happy. He has a lovely, charming girlfriend (Rosamund Pike) who loves her Hector for his peculiar quirks. Clara seems content in maintaining his orderly life, while advancing her career. At a work party in her honor, the cracks show through. Her boss jokes that what he likes most about Clara is that she never takes off for maternity leave. When she raises her glass in a toast, “to making a difference,” her boss yells over her, “to making money!”

Back at his office, a psychic patient of Hector’s announces that she can see through his “psychiatrist tricks” and knows that he is just going through the motions. His other patients’ constant whining about trivial concerns finally gets to Hector and he loses it. He realizes that he isn’t helping them get any happier, so he decides to set off on a journey to find the secret to happiness.

His ever-supportive girlfriend gives him permission to “make the most of it.” She sends him off with a notebook with an inscription, “Hector’s search for happiness – a journey. Fill these pages.” The sketches of his experiences and his list of lessons on happiness become the framework of the story.

On the second screening, I released my resistance and uncovered deeper meaning. Hector’s story demonstrated some of the same spiritual principles that I had experienced on my own journey. Once I expressed the intent to find out what I was put on this earth to do, the universe kicked in to teach me.  Likewise, once Hector expresses the intent to discover how to be happy, the universe reaches out to show him.

A world weary businessman offers to show Hector what real happiness is by sharing the pleasures that money can buy in Shanghai. Hector writes, “A lot of people think happiness means being richer and more important.” But it becomes clear that the businessman is only living for the next financial conquest. Constantly working towards a goal is a way of avoiding life - and happiness.

Hector takes the prerequisite New Age trek to a Buddhist temple in the Himalayas.  Hector asks the famous monk how he is able to be happy when he has gone through so much. The monk answers that he is happy BECAUSE he has gone through so much. Hector scribbles, “Avoiding unhappiness is not the road to happiness.” The monk takes Hector to see colorful cloth strips flapping in the wind. As he and the other monks joyfully laugh and dance under the colorful strips, he calls out, “Hector! Look at all of them!”  

But it isn’t enough to jot down lessons in his journal, Hector must experience them himself. Next stop Africa, to help his doctor friend care for the villagers. His journal entry reads, “Happiness is answering your calling.” But Hector has more to learn. He has to go through some brutal experiences to finally feel alive.  

Hector’s search for happiness takes him across the world.  But he only experiences the brilliant colors inside of him when he decides to take down the walls he built and be present in his life and work. His true happiness lies in sharing that authentic, messy life with Clara.  

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal

Friday, June 12, 2015

Artists Light the Path

Since my post on, "5 Flights Up," I have been ruminating on whether artists really make a difference in our world today. 

In a addition to enriching and inspiring our lives, artists make a difference by casting light on humanity. In, “The Salt of the Earth,” Win Wenders trains his camera on the Brazilian social photographer Sabastiao Salgado and his art.  

“A photographer is literally someone drawing with light. A man (or woman) writing and rewriting the work with light and shadows.”

Wenders took up this project because he was profoundly moved by Sabastiao’s haunting photographs and how they capture the light and shadows of humanity.  Sabastiao Salgado felt called to shine a light on the human faces of some of the most extreme historical tragedies (famine, genocide, slavery) of the last 40 years. Supported by his wife Lélia, he dedicated his life to traveling the globe as a witness to the slave conditions in Brazil’s Serra Pelada gold mines, famine in Ethiopia, and genocide in Rwanda (among others.)  His harrowingly beautiful photographs called worldwide attention to some of the most horrific atrocities of mankind.

What makes this documentary even more poignant is that it was co-directed by Sabastiao Salgado’s son, Juliano Salgado.  While Sabastiao’s wife encouraged him to follow his path, his son was left without a father.  By working on this film, Juliano grew to understand the importance of his father’s work.

But witnessing all that suffering eventually took its toll on Sabastiao.  Deeply wounded by the degree of human cruelty and bloodshed in Rwanda, Sabastiao was forced to give up his mission. But instead of defeating this courageous man; it inspired a revolutionary new path.  Returning to his family farm, he found that drought had savaged the land. What had once been a lush rain-forest, had become a stark desert.

His wife Lélia suggested that they try to replant the paradise that he had known as a child.  They cultivated a new way to reinvigorate the barren land. They successfully planted 100,000 native trees and other vegetation and eventually brought back the rain-forest!

Sabastiao Salgado journeyed the world – just to find his mission in his own back yard.

 Lélia and Sabastiao Salgado's farm today.
Another social photographer, Lisa Kristine, has taken up the lantern and is casting light on the human face of slavery.  Working with Free the Slaves, Lisa braved hell on earth to witness and document the lives of modern day slaves. At TEDx Maui, she shared her devastating photos and stories.  I was shocked to find that there are currently over 27 million people enslaved – double the number of people taken from Africa during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Families have been enslaved for generations for debts as low as $18. Many have been enslaved so long that they don’t know they are slaves. It was all they have ever known.

In the brick kilns of India and Nepal, whole families work 16 hours in scorching heat without water or restroom breaks. They essentially live in ovens. While photographing the kilns, Lisa’s camera stopped working. To revive it, she had to give it air-conditioned breaks. She recognized the sad irony that her camera was treated better than these people. In another part of India, families are enslaved in the silk trade. It is their job to dip their hands into the toxic dye. One father said that they hoped to someday to have their own silk business, so they could get paid for “dyeing.” In the Himalayas, children carry huge slates of stone on their backs. On Lake Volta, children are forced to work all night untangling heavy fishing nets petrified that they will topple their little fishing boats and drown because they can’t swim.  In Ghana, mothers carry their babies as they pan for gold while wading in water poisoned with mercury.  In Kathmandu, women and children experience violent abuse as sex slaves. In our own backyard, as many as 300,000 American children have been sold into the sex industry.

As a representative of Free the Slaves, Lisa descended a narrow mine shaft alongside men with tuberculosis and mercury poisoning forced to work 72 hours in the dark.  In addition to the torturous conditions, she found hope piercing the darkness like mine lanterns. Manuru, who had inherited his uncle’s debt, valiantly worked with tuberculosis and an infected leg. Free the Slaves has given him hope that one day he will be freed and receive an education.

Lisa felt humbled by these people’s quiet dignity and endurance.  “This sort of determination in the face of unimaginable odds fills me with complete awe. I want to shine a light on slavery.  I told the workers that I wanted to illuminate their stories and their plight. (That) we will be bearing witness to them. We will do whatever we can to make a difference in their lives. If we can see each other as fellow human beings, then it becomes very difficult to tolerate atrocities like slavery. I hope these images awaken a force in those who view them, people like you, and I hope that force will ignite a fire and that fire will shine a light on slavery. For without that light the beast of bondage will continue to live in the shadows.”

Dorothea Lange lit the way for these social photographers.

"Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange

From 1935-39, Dorothea Lange's photographs brought the plight of the poor and forgotten (sharecroppers, displaced farm families, and migrant workers) to public attention.

These courageous artists light a path through the darkness. Do they make a difference? That depends on whether we take up the lantern.

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal

Note: On the day after Thanksgiving in 1960, CBS News aired the Edward R. Morrow documentary, "Harvest of Shame" showing the deplorable conditions our migrant farm workers faced. Recently, I watched the documentary, "Food Chains" and was shocked to find that those desperate conditions still prevail today. But I was also inspired by the tomato pickers courageous fight for fair wages and treatment.

Friday, June 05, 2015

"The Hundred-Foot Journey" to Foody Paradise

From a young age, Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal) was schooled in the art of savoring traditional Indian cooking by his mother. She taught him that food has a soul that holds cherished memories. When his family loses their restaurant and his beloved teacher in a political riot, the Kadams flee India for France. Papa Kadam (Om Puri) sees it as a sign when their brakes give out outside of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. A kind stranger, Marguerite, (Charlotte Le Bon) tows them to the village and shares the bounties of her garden with the hungry migrants. They can taste the soul in the local produce. Ignoring the protests of his frustrated children, Papa Kadam immediately sets up an Indian restaurant featuring his talented son as head cook.

The Hundred-Foot Journey” across the street leads to Madame Mallory’s (Helen Mirren) acclaimed French restaurant (where Marguerite also works as a sous-chef). Their rivalry escalates to all-out war. Despite being on opposite sides of the warring factions, Hassan and Marguerite can’t deny their common passion for food. They put great care into their cooking. Food is more than nourishment, it is love: comforting, healing, and sensual. Sharing it bonds families and communities. It can even bridge cultures. But they get so caught up in the competition for fame and success, that they lose track of love.

This film is a foody’s feel good paradise. But it has more to say. It touches on our fear of outsiders and celebrates what immigrants bring to their host country. It shows how people from different cultures can find common ground.

curry omelette
In an interview about the film, executive producer Oprah Winfrey expanded, "Food blends cultures and allows us to have just a little peek into someone else's life... It is about a hundred foot divide between cultures." Winfrey chose the book on which the film is based as a "favorite summer read" in 2010. She said, "It’s about human beings coming to understand other human beings and more importantly, after you get to experience or step into somebody else’s shoes or see them for a real human being, how you understand that you’re really more alike than you are different.”

Partaking of this sweet confection, we get a chance to savor the pleasures we all enjoy: lush vibrant landscapes, delectable cuisine, funny family quirks, and the thrill of a first kiss. The very act of sharing cultural traditions removes the barriers that separate us.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal