The Messiness Of Life

Just as I was about to begin this week’s meandering piece, I also happened to complete a remarkable piece of fiction that pointed me on a thoroughly different course. It’s funny how life works that way. We intend to go one way – and we take a completely different fork in the road. Fate jumps in and pushes us in one direction, while our brain is telling us to stay the course. We know what’s right – but then we do wrong. Or vice versa. Or upside down. Or inside out.

I’m not the quickest reader in the world and, especially if I’m involved in a well-written, thoughtful book, I tend to dawdle and re-read and linger much longer than I should. I found that particularly easy to do during the many weeks I spent with The Goldfinch, American author Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from last fall.

This is not a book for the faint of heart – and I would have a hard time recommending it to most people, not just for its doorstop-like 771 pages, but also for its sometimes sordid subject material, which involves some pretty horrid scenes of violence, illicit drug use, child endangerment, infidelity and more. That probably explains why a quick check of readers’ opinions on Amazon shows that a substantial percentage of consumer critics review the book very negatively.

On the flip side, for those with strong hearts, unsettled, questioning minds, fears about the future and puzzlement about the nature of love, this is a book that will likely stick in your brain for many, many years.

The main character in the novel, Theo Dekker, makes so many wrong-headed decisions in his life and is hit with so many cruel twists of fate, it’s hard to imagine he survives as long as he does. Constantly, he is met by brick walls where he is forced to make a choice between right and wrong – or, perhaps, the lesser of two evils – and it’s easy to cringe when we realize what direction he’s going to take when he’s forced to follow his misguided inclinations.

At one point he remarks, “We don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”

Theo continues: “When in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: ‘Be Yourself.’ ‘Follow your heart.’”

For Theo – and for many of us – that’s where the trouble starts: “What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, sell-immolation, disaster?”

In our long, messy complicated lives, we’re constantly placed in positions where we must make both ethical and practical decisions that will set us on certain paths and, in turn, force us into subsequent situations where new decisions must be made. And, at each crossroads, we can look backwards and forwards to help guide us but, ultimately, our hearts and minds will take us where they choose.

Of course, we can use the combined wisdom of our past to help us make those decisions. Our education. Our religious convictions. The knowledge imparted by our spouses and parents and teachers and mentors and countless others. They all play some part in what we choose.

But there’s no denying our own being. For Theo, that being is most often a dark one who suffers the crushing of the world around him almost every moment of his life.

“No one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here’s the truth: life is catastrophe. The basic fact of existence – of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do – is catastrophe,” he ruminates.

Surrounded by that bleakness, however, Theo still manages to make his way, pulling something good out of the worst circumstances and, somehow, carrying on.

Because carrying on is what we all do, however much pain and hardship is involved along the way. For Theo, weighed down by unrelenting depression, he finds his own way to survive in the jungle, asking himself, “Does it make any sense at all to know that it ends badly for all of us, even the happiest of us, and that we all lose everything that matters in the end – and yet to know as well, despite all this, as cruelly as the game is stacked, that it’s possible to play it with a kind of joy?”

We all find joy in our own unique ways. We can share it with others, but their reaction to or acceptance of that joy will not be the same as ours, because their joy is found in a totally different space. We search for happiness all our lives, tripping and falling and wondering and questioning, sorting our way through the catastrophes of life and discovering what’s important and wonderful and life-affirming along the way.

As Theo discovers, life is short. “Fate is cruel, but maybe not random,” he ruminates. “Even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open.”

Dive straight in. Get drenched. Because life is waiting for you.

Buffy The Cabin In The Woods Slayer

Joss Whedon is red hot.

Right now, his latest directorial effort, The Avengers, is smashing worldwide box office records – $650 million worldwide in just its first week of release – and making critics foam at the mouth, too.

While hardly in the same stratosphere, Whedon’s co-written April release, The Cabin In The Woods, also generated good box office returns (over $50 million worldwide) with absolutely no stars, but lots of good buzz.

Where did this sudden success come from? After all, this is a guy who’s barely been heard from in the past few years. Personally, I think his mojo’s back because he’s returned to what he did so well earlier in his career.

While watching The Cabin In The Woods, I was instantly transported back to the most creative period of Whedon’s career – the days and nights of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. When it first arrived, there was simply nothing like it – and the features that made Buffy the best thing on television are also what make TCITW so enjoyable.

Without spoiling anything about the movie, it brings together semi-misfit young people, fantastic otherworldly creatures, horror, action, and the perfect dosage of humour, while kicking a gigantic hole in all the tired clichés that have made most recent “horror” films so insipid. What’s not to love?

Although Whedon came up with some intriguing interludes like Firefly and Dollhouse in the last decade, they were definitely missing something, some little Whedon-osity that truly captured our imaginations and made us root for the scrappy underdogs.

With Cabin, he reached far back into his past and discovered those missing elements.

I haven’t seen The Avengers yet, but from everything I’ve read, it’s another labour of Whedon love, culling the best of his lifelong fascination with comic books and combining it with many of his other passions. The result? More Whedon magic.

So, what does it all mean? From my perspective, it indicates that Whedon’s at his best when he works from the heart. Or maybe it just indicates that the masses have finally caught up with his genius, a unique combination of fantasy, humour and humanity.

All that leads me to wonder how his next project will fare – a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. It sounds like a stretch for Whedon, doesn’t it? Come to think of it, though, Shakespeare was also a master of fantasy, humour and humanity.

So, what am I worrying about?

What’s your opinion on Joss Whedon’s “newfound” success? Does your appreciation go all the way back to Buffy days – or are you a newcomer to his unique style? Let me know – it’s always great to hear from you.

Fantasy For Unfantastic Times

With the recent release of the movie Mirror Mirror, the revival of the Snow White & the Seven Dwarves tale has shifted into high gear. In June, the second big-screen retelling of the story arrives with Snow White & The Huntsmen. This follows the appearance of Once Upon A Time, a small-screen adaptation, which has already built a rabid following, along with Grimm, a darker program offering weekly modern twists on classic fairy tales.

Many people have wondered about the curious timing of this Snowmania. Certainly, the tale has been retold many different ways over the past century, but this definitely seems like fairy tale overload. After watching Mirror Mirror with my wife recently and seeing the audience’s strong reaction to a fairly average and, frankly, poorly reviewed movie, I began wondering what the sudden attraction was.

I honestly believe it’s a reaction to the nasty economic times we’re living in. It’s not exactly an original thought. After all, everyone’s aware of the proliferation of musicals and comedies during the Great Depression and similar genre spikes during other ugly times in recent history. There definitely seems to be a strong parallel right now.

It’s not just Snow White who has been resurrected from her historic trance to help us escape the daily reports of collapsing economies, job layoffs, and real estate foreclosures. The total media takeover by zombies, vampires, wizards, and other fantasy creatures makes me scared to go out at night, let alone turn on the TV, go to my local megaplex, or wander a bookshelf aisle.

Frankly, I don’t think it’s some strange coincidence and I also don’t believe all these writers and producers are jumping onto some supernatural bandwagon. I just believe the timing provides the perfect opportunity for people to escape from this over-caffeinated, bad news world for a few hours to a place that offers an otherworldly alternative.

Is this a bad thing? Of course not.

Anything that helps people cope with all the snarkiness and smarminess and other evilosities of the world certainly can’t be a bad thing. On the other hand, when the movie ends or you finish the book, all that ugly reality is still going to be waiting to spoil the rest of your day.

In the meantime, though, you might as well enjoy your ride on the fantasy coaster as long as you can.

How do you take a break from reality? Don’t be embarrassed! We all have our own fantasy escape hatch. What’s yours?