Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Act of Killing (documentary film review)

Documentary Film
"The Act of Killing" 
Rating: NR (adults only for graphic violence and mature themes)
Run time: 2 hours 3 minutes

The Act of Killing has a lesson for every earnest student of human nature.

I took a class in which we had to write a paper either supporting or refuting the validity of the death penalty. I argued against capital punishment. That was before I saw this documentary, which explores the systematic killing of the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, between 1965 and 1966.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer paints the portraits of three cogs in an Indonesian war machine as they are during peace time (2012). Today, these three individuals, who systematically tortured and murdered so many of their fellow human beings, have mostly tamed their swagger... trying and (mostly) succeeding to live ordinary lives. One of the three is a career military man who experiences no apparent emotional problems about his (rather direct) role in the killings of 500,000 people. Another is a laid-back gangster who has a very sanguine attitude about everything, including the brutal treatment of these 500,000. And another has managed to survive by avoiding thinking about how his actions have affected others.

The latter two cover up any chance of guilt or hesitation in their cruel, violent acts with drugs and alcohol. The first man is completely unwilling to be introspective about the war and the acts performed in a time of war. He considers it to have been his duty, and he takes quite a bit of joy in his affluent lifestyle today, which is funded in part by his job in the war.

I'm still... mostly against capital punishment. Why? Well, with devastating specificity, The Act of Killing shows us scenes which demonstrate how war-time insanity can happen to any human being on the planet.

Some would argue that it isn't "in" certain types of people to behave in violent extremes, but I very wholeheartedly disagree. Bullying is a social act which bonds people. It's in us. I think that any of the people in The Act of Killing could've been decent people in peaceful times if they hadn't been exposed to poverty, greed, crime, and violence. Unfortunately, they didn't happen to be as fortunate as most of us are.

There's a kind of redemption in saying the terrible things we've done out loud, with as much honesty as we can muster. The scale on which this principle of redemption acts is epic in The Act of Killing.

There's a deeply confusing respect you feel towards the elderly ex-gangster by the end of it all. This man broke the shield of narcissism that had enabled him and all the men like him to kill in the first place. It's horrifyingly painful. No doubt, that's why the career military man refuses to introspect too deeply about it.

The Act of Killing demonstrates how it's necessary to objectify people and view them as somehow different  from yourself in order for hostility and cruelty to break out. The huge nightmare of 1965-1966 sprang from tiny, day-to-day, sloppy habits of thinking badly about people... taking shortcuts through prejudices... small, negative experiences poking holes in logic about why another human being is the way they are.

This documentary is a must-see, especially while we as a society continue to treat verbal abuse as casually as we do. How we think about others is a clear factor in violence and war.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The results of my "100 Happy Days Challenge!" (social media review)

I started the #100happydays challenge on March 29, 2014, and I finished on schedule on July 6, 2014. Most of the postings were on my Facebook, a few were on Twitter, and even fewer were on Instagram. I only missed one day! (Don't tell anyone.)

Was it worth the effort? If you try it too, will you learn anything? I would say, "yes." I feel as though I've gotten into the habit of actively looking for things to be happy and excited about, each and every day. It's so, so incredibly easy to get sucked into a cranky mood and feel as though you've been irritable all day, and that there's no escaping from it. However, that isn't so! With the 100 Happy Days Challenge, you have concrete evidence that you were not in despair, anger or anxiety all day. It's a mood, it will pass.

The official site:

I read one critic of the challenge suggest that the very nature of the challenge typifies the problems of social media, encouraging banality and narcissism. I have to disagree. However narcissistic posting ordinary, bland things to an audience you may never interact with may appear at first, devaluing the ordinary, every day kinds of people and things, and feelings around you could also be considered very narcissistic! Pathological narcissism is so serious a threat to society and relationships, that I really wish people wouldn't throw the term around so casually.

Also, take into account how the challenge states in its charter that you've missed the point of the exercise if you're just looking for things to show off. The challenge encourages private posting or not posting at all. The need to feel special is possible (and not concrete) evidence of both normal and abnormal types and levels of narcissism. In my opinion, we only have malignant narcissism when there is a destructive bent involved (like a desperate need to level the playing field between the person and others, due to low self-esteem).

Pathological narcissism has a need for external validation, or mirroring. Posting alone and independently can be a great exercise in self-knowledge and mindfulness. This need for genuine self-knowledge is also antithetical to malignant narcissism. Now I'm not saying a negative narcissist couldn't latch onto this idea and be encouraged by it, but that would be an example of a disorganized mind misapplying a good thing.

I can't decide if I should go for another 100 day round! Maybe I'll do my own version of 100 days of mindful focus! I don't see why you couldn't customize the 100 Happy Days Challenge for all different kinds of self-improvement or self-awareness: 100daysoflearning, 100daysofgoodchoices, etc.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

"Running Theatres: Best Practices for Leaders and Managers" by Duncan M. Webb (ebook review)

Title: "Running Theatres: Best Practices for Leaders and Managers" 
Author: Duncan M. Webb
Illustrator: N/A
Genre: Non-fiction

Length: 260 pages

I hesitate to buy independent non-fiction ebooks, because I'm always concerned that I'll be able to find the same information online, and for free if I take the time time to piece the websites together. I'm all for paying people for their work, of course, but I can do that at no cost to myself most of the time if I'm reading a page on the internet (ad revenue). However, this book is has a lot of well-investigated material that you won't be able to find in a nice, condensed package on someone's website. The source materials for this book are based mostly on transcribed interviews with people in the theatre management industry. It talks about modern marketing strategies like the importance of becoming a center for the entire community, branding, the pros and cons of having a restaurant in your theater, the pros and cons of buying or leasing space for your theater company, the need for theatres to be educational centers, the impact of parking on ticket sales, the pros and cons of volunteers, the crumbling traditional non-profit structure, the rise of interactive theatre, and the importance of creating an experience for your theater-going customers rather than merely creating a good show (which is hard enough in and of itself).

The advice is a little dated at a few times, especially how social media is not mentioned as a powerful (and free) tool, but this is forgivable since we really do want to hear the voice of experience. We want to hear from the people who've actually succeeded in the areas in which we aspire to, and unfortunately, the voice of experience is not necessarily be on the cutting edge. Here, the focus is on the grizzled theatre manager's brain as it looks on past experiences to make analyses, and then uses that information to look forward to and conjecture about the future. Much of the advice is timeless, and well... heck, maybe direct mail vs. social media is better at bringing in the money than I give it credit for.

If you're keeping a theater afloat or thinking about starting a brand new one, this book will be a big help. At $3.49 for the Kindle vs. print version, this book is well worth the investment for anyone interested in the subject.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Vsauce (YouTube Series)

Michael Stevens: loveable polymath who has read the entire encyclopedia and freely shares his joy of learning with the rest of us!

Michael Stevens. Creator of "Vsauce." I love this man. A lot of people do.

This Kansas-native has a theatre background and a dark past as a class clown. He even has his own Wikipedia entry already due to his work on his YouTube channel, "Vsauce":

It's pretty amazing how his popularity has skyrocketed when you consider that he has only been making these videos since 2010 according to his YouTube "about" page. As of today, he has six million, four hundred ninety-three thousand, six hundred and three subscribers and over five million views! This gives one a lot of hope for humanity. It shows  how hungry the general population is for reliable, relevant information, and that the internet is not necessarily doomed to pornography, spam, ads, flame wars and trolling.

Speaking of trolling! This video gives me hard core nightmares! Yikes! (But it's really good!)

Vsauce's channel consists of 10-minute videos which chain together incredibly well-researched facts into a condensed storyline. These are focused presentations that bounce from subject to subject or fact to fact at a rapid speed. The amount of new and novel (and entertaining) information packed into a single video is amazing!

Vsauce covers many subjects. In addition to science, he also likes to talk about language. This video is about one of my favorite things: swearing! 

Mister Stevens went to the University of Chicago and studied neuroscience and English literature. He dabbled in political comedy on social media before moving onward and upward to Next New Networks, which was acquired by Google. Vsauce was also acquired by Google, but he has researched, cut together and shot his own videos up until about a month ago. He now works as a programming strategist for YouTube. (All this biographical info is according to this interview.)

What makes Vsauce so loveable is how uplifting it is. Every single video gives you a sense of joy and discovery about the incredible way the world fits together. It gives you the sense that we study science and art because we love to learn and it makes us happy. Vsauce views math, physics, history, psychology and astronomy and knowledge of EVERYTHING as incredibly humanizing and positive. And you'll never watch a video and hear just a bunch of redundant facts that you knew already. He really digs for quality information.

Even the videos he clicks "like" on are mind-blowing!

It's all free and fast, so if you aren't already subscribed to Vsauce, here's the link:

His social media:

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"Little Saigon (A Play in Three Acts)" by P.V. LeForge

Title: "Little Saigon (A Play in Three Acts)" 
Author: P.V. LeForge
Genre: Drama
Length: 90 pages
Naja's MPAA rating: (PG-13) for for language and adult themes
Setting: 1975, An American, post-war refugee camp

I know very little about Vietnam, but I do know a little bit about plays (a smattering of college courses), and I think this is a well-written play that deserves attention.

Summary: A large, multi-generational family is determined not to be split apart when they arrive at a refugee camp in Florida. They struggle to adapt to the changing circumstances. Their skill sets and educations are no longer needed. Their clothing and language are taken away from them, and they have to accept charity with strings attached to it (i.e., a disgusted, condescending social worker forces them to chant children's Bible songs and allows misunderstanding and frustration to completely overturn the compassionate attitude that should be expected from a professional in that position).

I was really worried that this play would be cheesy or sentimental, but it's not. I worried that the character named "Tao" would be very wise, and that the character named "Bich" would be... well. But fortunately, the author is too skilled for that, although there is a little bit of... maybe overly-obvious symbolism with the "Tao" character.

My understanding of the word "tao" or "dao" is that it's the truth you sense from the core of yourself. Wikipedia also refers to it as "principle." The main character, "Tao," definitely senses the truth within herself and is stubbornly attached to her own principles. She's truthful about the truth within herself to the point that she tends to make herself very annoying and draining to everyone around her. Most of the others are trying to move forward. But despite how difficult she is, she and all the other characters are quite likable and well-rounded. There's very little mustache-twirling in this play. The characters are realistic people living under circumstances that really have happened.

The members of the refugee family are frightened, confused, and deal with their changes in fortune in their own unique ways in accordance with their individual personalities. Each character is distinct, and you learn an incredible amount about how war affects people. The war turns friends and neighbors and lovers against each other, it makes people perform desperate acts. It makes people behave irrationally as they begin to live in a world of abstraction and paranoia. Prejudice arises quickly. People make poor choices in the name of big concepts. They big make choices that only hurt themselves, when they should make small choices to take care of themselves and the people immediately around them. They lose their principles all together. And in the middle of it all, they want desperately to heal and continue to love.

For the main character, Tao, it's like she's lost in a fantasy of power and success for the mere ideas that she's come to associate her identity with. And the way it's presented in the play, you can see how natural and subtle this process is. We shouldn't blame her for letting her circumstances affect her personality the way they do. She's consistently presented as the smartest one of the group, and according to this book about the nature of genius, people who are more intelligent (or have very good working memory) are more prone than others to post-traumatic stress. You can see how this very smart, detail-oriented person is now struggling more than the others, and is more obsessed with the past than any of the others- even if it's self-destructive and pushes away the people who are trying to care for her.

The elderly have a very hard time adjusting. There's a clear division between the refugees and the people running the camp, and they don't trust each other. The refugees are understandably afraid to talk about their experiences with the people running the camp. They don't get along with the people who have already been assimilated into the new culture. The relatively wealthy charity workers seem continually frustrated that they aren't being worshipfully admired for their goodness as they insult the refugees who are struggling to get oriented, and they practically attempt to control the refugees' thoughts as though they have a right to them. It's all the more sad when you realize that these charity workers who smugly correct the refugees' English are probably much less educated than the refugees. One refugee is an x-ray technician, one is a lawyer, one is a doctor, etc.

Conversely (and the play does a really good job of balancing this out), some of the refugees don't really want to be there, and despite the fact, they are living off of others' charity while insulting the givers of that charity and assuming the worst about them. You can see how this type of attitude has a very negative impact on others, regardless of who has the attitude. I really felt that both Tao (who does most of the condescending) and the charity worker (who also does most of the condescending) were two sides of the same exact coin. Both were being terrible in the name of abstract ideas and being rather selfish under pressure.

A lot of the struggles the immigrants are going through are universal, but the author is specific about what's happening to these particular immigrants in this particular culture. (The announcements going over the loudspeaker are in French and Vietnamese for instance.)

The dialog is extremely natural. There are several paragraphs worth of authorial notes to start off with, and although these notes are a little bit in the way at first, once the actual play starts, the pace of the drama quickens fast, and a director might find these notes very useful upon doing an analysis of the play for staging. You do have to warm up to the play a little, but once it gets started, it doesn't stop! It only gets better and better after the middle of the first act!

The description of the book on Amazon doesn't do the play any justice at all. Other than that, I have very few negative things to say about this ebook. I think it's a masterpiece. It's very honest, very balanced, very understanding, and it holds your interest. It's also very professionally copy-edited. I only caught one definite typo in the entire thing. Amazing. I've caught more typos in published, physical copies of Harry Potter. So this sense that the author is new (to stageplays) doesn't interfere with the high-quality of the play. It would be great to see this performed live. I enjoyed this play a lot more than I've enjoyed many mainstream dramas, and the ending was as startling and sadly inevitable as, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."