From Russia With Love

The name is Bond…James Bond. This is one of the most infamous phrases ever uttered in popular culture. When one thinks of Bond they think of a clever English man who is quick on his feet and miraculous in bed. Men want to be him and women want to be with him. It seems like there are a million Bond films that have gone through more lead characters than Dumbledores in Harry Potter. I remember watching old Bond films and marveling at all the exotic locations, expensive cars, and sexy women. Unfortunately, I am nothing like James Bond – I could be a spy as long as I got 9 hours of sleep and could swoon women while wearing my bedtime bite guard. Bond is synonymous with excitement and this is why I was pumped to read my fourth classic, From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming. From Russia With Love is the fifth book in the Bond series and it was written in 1957. In total, Fleming wrote 14 bond books starting in 1953; he wrote up until his death in 1964 and several authors have taken up the series since then. From Russia With Love is considered one of the Top 100 Classics and was immensely popular when it was originally published. The plot takes place in Istanbul and entails a beautiful Russian woman seducing Bond so he can be assassinated by an evil Cold-War spy. The book has a lot of twists and overall it is a pretty fun read – my take away from it may surprise you.

Reading this book allowed me to step back to a time that many people claim to be the golden age of “morals.” The 50’s are always remembered as the era of poodle skirts,  milkshakes, greasers, and drive-in movie theaters. It was a time when teenagers only held hands on dates, drugs were a rarity, and marriages lasted forever. I always hear this from baby boomers, “society has gone down the drain in the past 50 years…kids these days.” Of course, every generation says things like this but I think the 50’s stand out above all other decades as the benchmark of nostalgic-purity. The more I read though, the more I realize the actual 50’s was far different than what was portrayed on Leave it to BeaverFrom Russia With Love is a book that contains killing, adultery, rape, slavery, racism – making modern-day Bond films look like kid’s movies. Of course, this is spy novel – I didn’t expect some liberal-hippy fest – but I did think it would be sanitized due to its systemic popularity at the time. The thing is, the 1950’s was no more pure than today – sex and violence are universal pastimes. To make matters worse, women and all non-white races were living in a time that saw systemic segregation – literal and figurative . What one realizes is that today, more than ever, people of all backgrounds are treated with greater respect, kindness, and humanity – perhaps we should rethink our benchmark? Read the book – it may brighten your outlook on the world.

As for sex, well, I mean sex is a perfectly respectable subject as far as Shakespeare is concerned. I mean, all history is love and violence.

-Ian Fleming

Lucky Jim

Christina and I went to see the new Beauty and the Beast film a couple of days ago. I was not forced to see this movie and the sexy Emma Watson was not used as a bargaining chip. Disney movies bring me a lot of happiness and those catchy songs always bring a smile to my face. The only thing I didn’t like was the attractiveness of the “Beauty” and the “Beast.” Why did they cast such a good looking Bell? The whole point of this movie is not to judge people by their appearances. Even the Beast is attractive for a monster. I could think of a million things worse for Bell to fall in love with – Jabba the Hutt anyone? I like stories where two misfits fall in love – the nerds, the dweebs, the outcasts. I have always been between social groups my entire life. I get along with the jocks and the nerds: never overly obsessed about sports or comic books. I was a momma’s boy who primarily enjoyed the company of my parents – I could socialize but my special spot was always on the couch eating ice cream. All of these things were going through my head while reading my second classic, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. In this story, Jim is an awkward professor who doesn’t fit in with anyone – he goes about the story in a perpetual state of social discomfort. Jim has no passion except for hanging out at pubs and complaining about his job. This was a story with my kind of character.

Jim, throughout most of the book, has the worst luck at work and in his social life: his job is on the line, his foreplay gets squashed, his jokes fall flat, his research gets stolen, his cigarettes run out, his drunken tirades end badly, his coworkers tattle on him, etc. Jim seems like he deserves most of these problems but at the same time it is hard not feeling bad for the guy. In the end, he does end up with a lucky break that made me not only happy for him but happy for myself. So many times we are conditioned to think that the best things happen to the most popular-beautiful-smart-sporty-(fill in the blank with a stereotype) people. A great example of this is modern day comedies. Who usually plays the laughing-stock? Is it a smart-sexy man or woman? No it is usually a fat actor who is a royal screw up. Thankfully, real-life is not a TV show and we can be a successful human being without having the attributes of James Bond or a Victoria Secret Model. Appearances and personalities are what make us special. Our weirdness is not a handicap but rather our greatest asset. Was Jim lucky or did he actually deserve the good things at the end of the book? Are we conditioned to think that success is the result of skill for the popular while success is the result of luck for the unpopular? It reminds me of the eagle who was always told he was a chicken – never attempting to fly and always pecking at the ground. Embrace who you are, spread those chicken wings and don’t apologize for their stubbiness – they’ll get you farther than you think.

History Class Gave Hitler a Free Pass

Did Hitler come to power on a Monday and subsequently start slaughtering Jews on a Tuesday? The answer is obviously no but we are primarily taught in school about the events of WWII-not how we got to WWII. Usually our history class did a hop skip and jump to the juicy parts to keep our teenage selves from getting bored. Most people’s history knowledge is best described as someone who watched Titanic but only skipped to the sex scene in the car, the naked painting on the couch, the boat sinking, and Jack falling off the door in the water. I am in this same sinking boat with most people and that is why I wanted to read In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. Larson is an excellent writer because he makes nonfiction read like fiction. If you are not the type to read history then you should try Larson-I promise you will not be bored. In the Garden of the Beasts follows the American Ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd, and his family while they lived in Germany between 1933-1938. The book primarily details the rise of Hitler and the atmosphere of Nazi Germany through the diary of Dodd and Dodd’s daughter-Martha. This family was able to detail what life was like in Nazi Germany and how Hitler slowly morphed into the monster we know of today.

In 1933 Hitler became chancellor of Germany. He did this through subjugating his competition and rallying his people behind the cause of German nationalism. Shortly after Hitler was elected he began to use the Gestapo to put fear into the hearts of Jews, Communists, and anyone who did not see exactly his way. People oftentimes were beaten in the streets or were reported missing for no apparent reason. Even Americans were beaten on many occasions for failing to give the Hail Hitler salute and observing the ceaseless military parades. Furthermore, the Nazis openly passed laws that disbanded Jews from marrying non-Jews, working in certain jobs, and using certain facilities in the city. All these things were well known around the world yet no government spoke up against Hitler’s practices? Why was this? In America it was because of greed and homegrown antisemitism. Firstly, America didn’t want to upset Hitler by condemning these early actions because Germany owed the US a lot of money. The debtors were focused on collecting their interest and Germany was having difficulty making their payments. Secondly, the US had specific immigration policies in place that prevented Jews from coming to the country because there was a clear dislike of Jews among many state officials. This atmosphere was similar in other Western countries and is one reason Hitler was allowed to continue these preliminary policies.

What about the German people? Why didn’t they stop Hitler? Some Germans did try to go against Hitler but most of them were killed or imprisoned for their treason. Most Germans in those early years thought Hitler was not going to last long in politics and would actually step down. Hitler slowly became more forceful in his control over the population and eventually everyone was afraid of espionage and being taken in by the Gestapo. Living in Germany during that time was stressful and scary no matter who you were-no one felt comfortable. It was this atmosphere that allowed Hitler to take full control when President Hindenburg finally passed away. At anytime during those early years Hitler could have been stopped. His policies were disliked by most people in and outside of Germany but nothing was done. Students are taught that the US came in triumphantly, stormed Normandy, defeated Hitler, and freed the Jews in the concentration camps. But when you really look into the details is the US not partially responsible for WWII? Hitler many times over broke the Treaty of Versailles but no Western country stepped in? The reasons for these are many: an isolationist attitude, fear of losing interest payments, the Great Depression, hypocritical racist policies in the South, etc. We can’t go back and change history but what we can do is learn from history. And how can we do this? We need to teach and learn about all the scenes that took place to understand how we got to that point. Without context, Rose getting painted butt naked by her lover, could be Rose getting painted butt naked by her kidnapper. Why is this important today? In America at least, there are still groups of people who are disenfranchised and political leaders who want further disenfranchisement. It seems we want to get right to the action and skip all the details-maybe that is why history repeats itself.

Animation Domination: The Creativity of Pixar

I remember watching classic Disney movies growing up like Aladdin and The Lion King. Disney in the 90’s was like Micheal Jordan in the 90’s-insanely awesome. What I really loved about the Disney movies growing up were the songs; I was a little weird fat kid who would sing these songs in my bedroom and pretend that I was in the school variety show. Anyways, as I got older, Disney started to move away from musicals and they really didn’t have any good animated films until just recently with The Princess and the Frog and Frozen. Thankfully, a movie company came about which filled this animation gap and provided us with a whole new set of characters to love. This company was Pixar Animation and to learn more about their unique history, I read Creativity, INC.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull.

Pixar began in 1979 as a special effects division of Lucasfilms after George Lucas’ huge success with Star Wars. Lucas wanted to push the field of special effects so he hired Ed Catmull, a PhD scientist, who was renowned for his advances in computer animation. Catmull was the president of Pixar from the beginning but Pixar was far different than the company we identify today. Back in the 80’s Pixar was best known for its computer hardware equipment and special effects. What would change Pixar’s history forever was George Lucas getting a divorce. Because of Lucas’ split, he had to sell off some of his subsidiary companies. Almost every industry kicked the tires of Pixar including General Motors who was very close to buying them. Enter Steve Jobs. Jobs would buy Pixar for 5 million dollars and he had the early vision of Pixar selling computer hardware across the country. After a dismal decade of sales and an infusion of over 50 million dollars by Jobs (to keep the company alive), Pixar gave up their hardware business. During the 80’s however, Pixar did side work providing special effects and animation for commercials and featured films. Pixar worked with Disney during this time and as a result Disney offered them a three featured-film contract. The business was so near to failure that Jobs was close to selling PIXAR to Microsoft in 1994-a year before the release of Toy Story. Well, Toy Story was a complete success and Pixar would go on to make 15 critically-acclaimed-feature films: Toy Story, A Bugs Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, Toy Story 3, Cars 2, Brave, Monsters University, and Inside Out. In 2006, Disney purchased Pixar for 7.4 billion dollars but it was maintained as a separate animation studio with Ed Catmull becoming president of both Pixar and Disney Animation Studios.

The story of Pixar is really amazing and Ed Catmull is extraordinary when it comes to fostering creativity. Catmull believes that the key to creativity is candor between all individuals involved in the film making process. Candor essentially means that people are not afraid to tell the truth and that they need to be open to constructive criticism. Pixar has regular meetings (called Braintrusts) where everyone is allowed to put in their opinion while knowing that no criticism is a personal attack but rather a means of making the project better. There is little emphasis on hierarchy at Pixar which allows for more open communication between animators, managers, directors, and producers. Catmull emphasizes throughout the book that failure is a necessity and a vital part of the creative process. When Pixar movies first start they simply suck and are nothing like the final product-however through multiple failures and criticisms the movie slowly gets better and better. This acceptance of failure and openness to input is something I believe all people struggle with. I want to continually better myself and to do this I must be willing to fail. It is the times that we fall and get back up that really define our own life story.

P.S.

My favorite Pixar movie is Inside Out and my favorite Pixar short is Lava (listen to the song below)